The Court of Thorns

He looked up at the sunless sky and the decision made itself. If he must join the court, Lara could not.

In the ashy gloom of morning, people shifted, slowly removing themselves from the arms of the night’s diversions. Most would retreat to private places amidst the dark boughs in search of true sleep. Head resting against a stocky shoulder, he did not rise, even when the borrowed man moved and deprived him a pillow. Instead, he remained staring into the perpetual gloam while his thoughts wore away at his satisfaction.

He found thorns beneath his plain solution, and he turned it about searching for more. If Lara was not to come to court with him, where should she go? Lara was his changeling, gifted to him as a child, raised as servant and sister. Reprisal came to those who threw away gifts. Still, the courts were treacherous by nature, as were his kind. The intrigues grew twisted like the spines of its namesake. He belonged there, perhaps the captive mortals less so?

It was an odd thought. It arrived as the silent companion from last night found his clothes and shuffled back to whomever the young man was sworn. He breathed out and resumed the glazed staring match with the sky. This was different.

Opinionated and aspiring, Lara might have made a good courtier if she’d been his true kin. Instead, he’d found himself with a terrible changeling. The courts would amuse themselves, Lara would fume and suffer until her disobedience ceased entertaining. Then—he frowned, yes there was that decision again.

He sighed and stretched to his feet, arching his back. The sky grew slowly into a twilight hue as he walked home.

A thief, a scoundrel, a rogue, and it is not just my character. This week’s first line was stolen from More than 1/2 Mad for the Legal Theft Project.

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Under the Perpetual Sun

They’d not slept for days. The near-perpetual sun made it difficult. Even the nights were bright, stars filled the dark sky so thoroughly barely any midnight showed between them. Moreover, the empty spots left around their cooking fire did not help their sleep-deprived nerves.

Hector had fallen on their third day through the borderlands, the transition from the green earth into the fey wilds had been hard for all, but Hector’s eyes had rolled in terror when he’d passed beneath the eldritch pines and they’d heard soft singing on the wind. Hector walked with his hands pressed to his ears. On the third morning, the expedition awoke to the sound of a gunshot. Hector’s gun smoked in his limp hand.

They buried him as best they could, though the creeping vines and roots did not like the imposition of iron shovels and quickly reclaimed ceded territory.

Paul vanished on the fourth night, he turned to his bedroll early in search of sleep only to be gone from it when the rest checked not even an hour later. There was no body to bury, the only thing left of him was a small iris bloom made of bright sapphire. Despite its lovely shape, no one touched it. They left the thing tucked in his bedroll and continued on.

John died shortly after of some creeping moss got into a cut on his hand as they’d buried Hector. His passing was an ugly thing. No one would touch the furry green mound he’d become, so they left him to the forest.

Two weeks into the expedition, with no ken of progress beyond the passage of the endless trees, the deep baying of hounds overtook the silent company. The men left quavered at the sound, and cried out in fear when the hunt broke from the trees.

Their horses’ coats shown red and gold and their riders’ teeth flashed in the noon sun. At the hunts head, a woman who was not a woman grinned down at the foolish company.  Her skin was burnt ochre, her hair the molten yellow of an evening sun. She reigned no hounds and faced the cowering men on foot. In her hands she held a thorned chain, wickedly comprised of verdant vine and gleaming metal. She unwound the weapon, swinging a deadly arc, and her onyx hued eyes gleamed.

Death by sparkling pointy flora was not exactly the way things were expected to go. But here it was, come for them under the perpetual sun. The expedition to the summer court officially failed that day, exterminated on the border between the fey wilds and the summer cliffs, and it would be many years before anyone was foolish enough to replicate the disaster.

Had a bad day, so I wrote something murderous. Thank you to CC for the challenge. Technically this is part of the Legal Theft Project. 

Blight and Bloom

We cut the trees and bled the rivers for our mills. We burnt the green away and harrowed the soil. We built our houses, fields, and lives nestled in the forest’s wound. It is human nature to build.

And build we did. Our settlement became the seed of a great city, though its fulfillment was lifetimes away. First, they came.

From the groves and glens we spared, they slipped from shadow and sunbeam to walk among us. Many things. Dark things, with skin the color the frozen earth. Light things, whose hair fell down their backs like noon sun. Beautiful things, deadly things.

With them the blight and the bloom descended.  Crops died, withering in field, cellar, and kitchen. Others grew. They budded and swelled. Tomatoes grew fat overnight until they broke their stems and burst overripe on the dirt. Wheat rotted in the fields days after planting.

Our bodies, foreign to the wilds and its ravages, perished. Young and old, godly and sinful. Their touch was as capricious as spring rain. As some of us shrank down to bone and skin, other’s grew large with growths and weeping sores.

They played and punished like gods.  And for a time we prayed and repented as if they were. But they were cold and grinning things, and we and the beginnings of our great city had trespassed.

The forest reclaimed our fields and began its work on our homes, retaking its flesh as vines pulled apart window slates and floor boards we’d cut from the trees. Our home was almost unmade.

Still, some hoped. We’d planted seeds of steel, sweat, and stone in the old forest, and those are not easily dislodged. With this spirit, the eldest children of four families remained whole. They would not see their dreams of spires and great walls denied. Three sons, Ward, Wolfe, and Wilde,  and one daughter, Wren,  sought out the beautiful deadly things at the tree’s edge.

Nothing said on that day is known. But a bargain was struck, for Ward, Wolfe, Wilde, and Wren walked past the tree line and were not seen again for some time. With them, the deadly things departed.

Blight and Bloom faded from our lives. We nursed the living back to life and buried the dead beneath our fields. Our harvest was a good one that year, though not overly abundant, which many were softly thankful for.

The years passed and we remade our town. It was odd at first, building the tailor’s shop over the cobbler’s,  stacking house over house and winding stairs about it all. But so we grew, up and never out, lest we disturb the treeline and the things that waited there.

Ward, Wolfe, Wilde, and Wren returned to the town when it was an ugly tottering thing, too afraid to of its borders to grow properly. They were children no more, but decades into life and smiling like the blight and bloom had never come.

There were those in the town who thought to turn them away.  On their left hands, they wore shining rings,  and with their right, they led children to our gates. The toddlers and babes were beautiful people with hair like summer and skin like frozen earth.

The wise did not against the four and their children. We flung the gates open and sung songs for their return. They’d saved us so many years ago, they’d saved a city that would eventually be.

Not sure if I did this right, but I attempted the “Stories By 5” prompt which can be found here. 

Flash Fiction: Winter Winds and Summer Songs

The nocturne whistled through the little village, thready and almost lost on those long in their beds. Its notes pricked the ears of prowling cats and curled hounds’ tails. Like an icy brook’s pervasive gurgle in an otherwise quiet wood, the song seeped its way through the streets and scratched at skulls. Soon, all the village tangled their blankets in agitated sleep.

Behind the little fenced yards and down the long dirt paths, the tall moor grass rustled their own melody. Koli, perched atop an old stone, leaned back and harmonized. He pressed the bow harder to the fiddle’s upper bout, making the strings buzz against his fingers. With the wind in accompaniment, Koli closed his eyes and set his bow to string, sending new notes to echo into the restless village.

The night air spiraled about him, momentarily deafening his song. Like him, it was a cold mischievous thing setting teeth on edge and creeping fingers up unwary spines. The zephyr’s caress tousled his hair, it played its fingers across his shoulders, whispering a warning that pulled his skin tight with fear. Summer is here.

A soft crackle of brush erupted into a storm of percussive hoof beats. Wild roars, the sonorous cry of horns, and vicious baying all rolled over the rough hills and down the dirt paths. The village roused, for all the good it would do them, at the summer hunt’s song.

Koli slipped from his perch and the winter winds closed fog over his path. The summer court had no place for his creeping mischief and subtle melodies.

This piece is in response to Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie‘s most recent special Wordle prompt.

Legal Theft: The Iron Hounds

The hounds would not abide her. They’d been with the Lord since his youth. The two great brown dogs had grown from the meat passed to them from his hand. Through every hunt and feast they guarded him, one at each of his sides, until the night when curled at the foot of his bed. The Lord and his two hounds were a common sight on the town streets, and everyone happily spared a pat or a scrap for the beloved animals.

Now though, another walked at his side and they would not make peace. On the summer solstice the Lord returned from a trip, leading his horse beside him. In the saddle a red haired woman rode with his cloak wrapped about her shoulders. His eyes were fever bright whenever she caught them with her own. The Lord explained very little to those that came to greet him at the town gates, only that the lady had come from some distant kingdom far beyond the forest and she was to be his wife.

Those of the town crowded about the courtyard in the hopes to see this beautiful stranger who would be their Lady. She smiled at them all, and then at his grand house and servants as she was brought to them. It is said, that in the gold of the sun her hair shone like molten iron.

The Lord offered a hand to help her from the horse, but she dismounted herself, her feet alighting like settling doves. Those around the yard held their breath, as if she was a deer and likely to flee if disturbed. She gazed back at them, fearless while a small smile played about her lips.

Only the excited barking of the hounds broke the stillness as the loyal beasts rushed to greet their master. The Lord bent, taking their great heads into each of his arms. It was a joyful reunion, until the stunning lady bent to offer them the smell of her hand.

Two growls escaped deep from their maws at the woman’s scent. She made to take her hand back, but not before one of the hounds snapped its teeth over her fingers. There was a great uproar, the lady screamed, the dogs snarled, and those about the yard cried out. The Lord threw his hands on the dogs, hauling them away from the lady and into the reach of his servants.

The Lord went to the lady and her bloody hand while his beloved hounds whimpered and growled, their dark eyes fixed on the new woman by their Lord’s side. Always obedient before, they would not leave the courtyard and had to be muscled away to the unused kennels.

The two  brown dogs escaped from the kennels the first night, breaking the simple latch over their cage. The two were found scratching and baying at the door to their master’s room where the Lord and lady laid within. A thick iron chain replaced the latch and the dogs were locked away.

The Lord, for his love of them, would hear no talk of sending his old companions away, for all his new wife spoke of it. Their baying awoke her too early, she could not wander near the kennel without snarls erupting, and the great beasts were oafish and unclean. She hated them, and did not understand why her husband abided the great beasts.

Though the Lord nodded and promised to keep them from her, safe away inside cages of thick iron, he would not harm them. It was the one request he seemed able to deny her. Instead the Lord set a common boy to watch and care for the two hounds. The youth fed them meat from his hand and took them hunting so the wild parts of them would not miss the forest.

The boy, who came to love the loyal beasts and having no family himself, spent his days with the dogs and kept his cot in the kennels through the nights. One of these nights, as the boy slept, the dogs were roused by footsteps at the kennel door. The whisper of a night gown’s hem perked their ears and set a growl deep in their throats.

The beautiful lady, her red hair loose down her back and a long silver knife in her hand, stepped silently into the kennels and approached the dog’s cage. The youth, his cot tucked against the wall awoke at the hound’s alarm. He did not move, and quieted his breathing so the lady would not take note of him.

Her beautiful face twisted at the sight of the growling animals. The boy almost rose then, her knuckles were white around the hilt of the knife and there was hatred in her narrowed eyes. The woman reached to remove the chain, but when her long fingers touched the dull metal she cried out and drew them back. She hissed and tried again, her pale skin smoked against the iron and she could not bear the pain.

The lady fell back clutching the hand to her chest. Deterred, her eyes alighted on the boy. She ordered him awake, and to take the chain from door. The boy shook his head, he would not open the cage for her. The lady demanded he obey her, and though her voice was sweet and her face achingly lovely, he could see the oozing burns across her hand. The boy would not move to help her.

Blade in hand, she advanced towards the boy, furious that one such as him would stand against her. The silver knife flashed like starlight, and the boy fell. The hounds began to bay and howl with a fearful noise. Their mournful cry rose against the night, shaking the sleep from all.

The Lord arrived to find his wife standing with blood down her sleeves and her flesh burned, the boy lifeless at her feet. The hounds were half mad with grief, staring snarling fury at the boy’s killer. The Lord shook the bloodied knife from her hand while his guard removed the great iron chain. The dogs fell upon her, tearing into the creature that had brought death to their master’s house.

The boy was buried with grief from the entire town, his body laid in the tomb of the Lord’s family for his service. The two hounds held vigil while the Lord himself wept.

The creature’s remains were burned out beyond the fields. The Lord oversaw it, his face like stone. Never again did he travel alone through the woods, his hounds now forever at his side.

Thievery isn’t all sunshine and puppies, sometimes it is two dogs and some dark fiction. You have Apprentice, Never Master to thank for the ‘two dogs’, which I stole for the Legal Theft Project

Legal Theft: But Mostly, They Danced.

Every woman in Evanston over the age of twelve owned a red dress. Every man who’d seen twelve harvests a red kerchief or neck tie. And on the new moon, under the wane light of stars, there was the dance. 

The mayor with crimson lace spilling from his throat, offered his arm to his wife in her satin skirts. Their scullery maid, a round-eyed girl of fourteen, swished her newly hemmed scarlet cotton at the poor cobbler’s apprentice, who’d simply tied a rag about his throat. And they all walked down the street main, past the commons and the fountain, across the pitted dirt road behind the butchers, into the dark swaying fields.

Music from the shepherds flutes and the blacksmith’s drum marched the night along, the thrum fading the sky to the deepest violet. And at the woods edge the town danced. The young bounced on eager feet and twirled each other, forearms clasped and hands brushing waists. Their parents drew each other round in graceful oft practiced steps. Even the old clapped and nodded, murmuring forgotten words to the melody.

It was never noted, when the Others’ came. They slipped among the townsfolk, drawing the young into new dances until they were breathless and grinning. They bowed to the parents, and whispered old words to the elders. But mostly, they danced.

Sweet smelling drink was passed around, and small berries covered set with golden veins were offered. Even the youngest maid demurred, earning a small nervous nod from her mother.  The Others took no offense, such was the way of the strange townsfolk, who set a lovely dance but would never slake the thirst brought from the steps.

No boy loosed his kerchief at a sly smile, and no girl let clever fingers undo the red buttons down her back. They danced, and smiled, and accepted no drink. And their elders watched until pastels began to creep in the eastern sky.

I am a thief! I’ve stolen a first line from Kathryn and used it to write the story above. Make sure to check out her blog and the others who participate in the weekly Legal Theft Project.

  

Legal Theft: Summer Bloom

The darkness spread from the palace like a living thing, and even the most careless of the fae paused to take note and hide. As the shadows darkened around her the Arch Duchess of the Grey Grove, Grand Marquess of the Hinterlands, High Countess of the Dusk Forest, the Sister of the Dark King pursed her lips. Already nervous servants cringed, quickly hanging their heads and wringing twig-like fingers.

First her brother declined a gracious invitation to hunt. That was an annoyance in of itself. By her measure, it’d been decades since they’d saddled their narrow hoofed steeds to stalk the wilds and run down panicked mortals and monsters. And now, as the fury rolled from the blackhewn spires, he scared her quarry away.

Sharply cut skirts swirled around her bare feet as she left her expedition and wolfhounds. Rarely was the King’s ire felt so tangibly that it hung in the air. The last time she’d felt this rolling darkness they’d overtaken the Broken City before the next moonrise, conquering those who’d dared defy her brother.

The courtyard was empty, but glittering eyes in hidden corners noted her movements and averted themselves. Disgust turned her mouth, her brother employed more fear than fealty. Personally, she could never stomach such cowardice in subjects, but such contentions between the siblings were common.

The King was not in the training yards or his empty hall lit with shining balls of shadow. No one walked in the gardens or surveyed the forest from the walls. Only one place remained.

Unlike the mice who cowered in the cracks of the palace, she didn’t fear her brother’s storms. Neither of them cringed from strife. It was in their make.  Even so, she paused before the arch of the war room. Her brother’s temper may not worry her, but his weakness for impulse and obsession did.

The bent boughs shifted at her whim, allowing her entrance into the chamber. It too was empty, but freshly. Maps and documents were half unrolled across the massive table. A shattered wine goblet and its contents spread over the floor.  She stepped close to examine the maps. She frowned, recognizing the summer lands that held their bright inane cousins.

With deceptively delicate fingers she plucked a piece of parchment at random, glancing over the lineage of the seelie royalty. She froze. A hidden petal, now revealed beneath the page, showed up bright against aged maps and histories.

The velvet thing was unbruised and vibrant as the noonday sun. She dropped the page and picked up the petal. The rose it’d come from could never have grown in their lands, nor in the dull mortal worlds. Such things did not find their way into the dark lands unaided. The petal was a summer bloom.

The sight of it wormed its way through her calm. The color was truly beautiful, the specific crimson of first blood. She let it weigh heavily in her mind and eye for a moment before palming the soft thing away and leaving the chamber.

My roguish nature compelled me. I stole this first line from the reemerged The Gate in the Wood. See her blog and the rest of the thieves at the Legal Theft Project.