ISSUE 25, August 2018
2nd Anniversary Edition

Cover Art by Tracy Whiteside

*Please enjoy our monthly issue for free. Be aware however, that this free version contains some formatting issues such as the abscence of italics. To experience the stories in their properly formatted versions, you can purchase a copy on Kindle or a print edition through Amazon.

Long Live the Queen
By Janel Brubaker

    The King and Queen of the northern kingdom of Hevean had been dead for seven years. They were survived by two daughters, Vianca, the heir to the throne, and Sadie, second in line. The circumstances surrounding the death of the beloved monarch and his wife were mysterious and kept hidden from the kingdom. The official report stated that both parents had simultaneously taken ill and, after weeks of intense medical care, succumbed to their illnesses. Only a select few knew what had really happened. Even the youngest princess was never told what had really taken place.
    Princess Vianca stared across the expanse of forest beyond the castle walls. Evergreens stood tall among the deciduous trees covered in fiery reds, purples, oranges, and yellows. The early morning sun, orange against the thin clouds scattered across the sky, illuminated the colors of the leaves against the grey twilight. She remembered the hours surrounding the discovery of the bodies of her parents; the panic, the chaos, the confusion. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end to recall the details. Then, Vianca thought her life couldn’t possibly get any worse. It was almost laughable considering all that had happened since. With each year that passed, Vianca had postponed her coronation, refusing to become queen until she could ensure the safety of her people. And, with each year, her fears intensified until she had begun to believe she would never be queen.
She craned her neck left then right, allowing the muscles to stretch and the joints to pop. It had been another sleepless night. She was stiff and sore everywhere. Standing on the battlements of the castle, she breathed in the crisp autumn air. It was ironic; autumn was her favorite season. However, it had been years since she’d enjoyed the beauty of the leaves or the freshness of the biting air. Her eyes were heavy and swollen. How many days had it been since she’d passed one night of restful sleep? How long since her muscles hadn’t ached from want of rest? You could sleep now. You are a princess, after all. No one can give you orders.
She shook her head to clear her mind. Such thoughts were dangerous. She couldn’t risk the perils of sleep. It was bad enough that autumn was well underway; in only a week or so, winter would begin to set in. This time last year, snow had already covered the forest in white and stole away the leaves with harsh winds. Vianca shuddered to remember the last morning of autumn of the prior year; how she had cast an anti-sleeping spell on herself to ward off the evils of slumber; how she had barricaded herself in the highest tower of the castle and given strict instructions not to be let out until spring. It was the only way she could protect her subjects and members of the court. But the spell hadn’t worked; it was too easy to undo, and the less she slept, the weaker she became. Her mind was more susceptible.  
Now, a full year later, she was in the same predicament; the same curse kept her eyes open and wouldn’t allow her to sleep, no matter how exhausted she was. And she was always exhausted. Winter was fast approaching and if she didn’t find a solution soon, she would again be forced to take drastic measures against herself. It was her only recourse. Tears filled Vianca’s lavender eyes. She couldn’t bear to think of spending another winter away from her sister, another winter out of touch with her people, her friends. What few she had left.
She slammed an open palm against the stone of the palace walls. Why hadn’t any of the other spells worked? How many dozens had there been over the years? It seemed inconceivable that none of them should grant the peace she sought so desperately. She breathed in deep, allowing only a few tears to stain her pale cheeks. She couldn’t afford a complete emotional breakdown. She’d learned the hard way a long time ago how unwise that was. Besides, she couldn’t allow herself to feel weak, not even in the solace of the early morning where no eyes could witness her growing fears. She had to appear strong and in control. Not only was it necessary for her own assurance, but it strengthened what little faith her people still had in her. There are more spells, she told herself. There are more magicians, more scholars who might be able to help. In the distance she heard a bit of laughter; a mocking giggle. You’re wasting your time, dearest.
Vianca shut her eyes tight and let out a fierce breath. She hated that voice, that haunting laugh she couldn’t seem to silence. She told herself she still had time, wiped away her tears, cleared her throat, turned and walked back into the palace. She had not been idle over the last nine months. Since spring had returned, bringing with it all the different colors of thriving nature and dispelling the white snow, she had searched for a more permanent solution. She had written to every monarch in nearby lands, every scholar and studier of legends, every person rumored to have even so much as dabbled in magic, asking for their input. She had tried every natural remedy offered to her; alas, they were all in vain. She was now convinced that only magic, deep, powerful magic, could grant her heart’s desire.
For months letters poured in and ravens arrived carrying messages of advice. And for months Vianca had searched for the medicine men, sorceresses and members of the Court of Faeries recommended to her. Some of them she found. For several, this was her second or third or even fourth letter asking for their assistance. None had been helpful so far. She would not give up, she told herself. She couldn’t. And, as she said before and would continue to say until it no longer mattered, there were still several individuals she had yet to find. She only wished she had more time to find them. But you don’t have much time, do you dearest?
The halls of the palace were empty. Vianca had closed the doors where her mother and father used to entertain royal and noble guests year round, hosting parties, balls and banquets for any number of occasions. She had shut out the world. The enormous staff had been reduced to only a necessary handful. The Royal Guard was kept as strong as ever as a precaution. Every day Vianca lived in fear that they might retaliate, and it was in great part because of that fear that she searched as thoroughly as she had for a solution. It was her father’s doing more than a decade ago; a failsafe that he thought was kept secret. She had uncovered the truth by accident as a teenager. In summer, rifling through her father’s desk for a bag of chocolates she’d seen him eat, she came upon the scroll: a royal order given to each of his generals. Should she ever become so unruly, so untrustworthy that she no longer deserved to sit upon the throne, the army was to depose her. She couldn’t blame him for the decree. She didn’t blame him. If it were only herself she was dealing with, the thought would have offered comfort. It meant Hevean wouldn’t suffer under her perpetual torment.
But then, if it were only herself, the decree wouldn’t be necessary in the first place.
The morning sun filled the hall with golden light. It was magnificent. It reminded her of how the halls glowed with firelight from lit torches back in the days of balls and banquets. How she missed those nights! The dancing, the laughing, the eyes of so many on her as she grew into a natural beauty. She’d give anything to return to such carefree times.
    As she walked down the hall of the castle, a guard approached and bowed.
“Your majesty, the princess is asking to see you,” he said, his hand on the hilt of his sword. It was what every guard did when speaking to her. She wondered if they knew she noticed it? Of course they do, dearest. They don’t trust you. They will never trust you, no matter what happens.
Vianca’s heart skipped. “Why? What does she want?”
He shook his head. “She did not say. She simply asked if you would come to her chamber.”
Vianca hesitated. She chewed on the inside of her lower lip and turned to look out at the late autumn morning. She usually avoided being around Sadie so close to the onset of winter. She didn’t trust herself with the heir to the throne, a woman younger than herself and, if gossip was to be believed, more beautiful. Vianca didn’t know why she should be so jealous. She loved Sadie. No you don’t! The sky was mostly clear of clouds, except a few thin wisps of grey. The air, while crisp and cold, was not freezing yet. Snow was still a few days off. She was not in immediate danger. Most likely.
“Your Majesty,” the guard said, his gaze cast to the floor, “it has been nearly six weeks since the princess has seen or spoken to you. I think she is nearing desperation.” He didn’t dare lift his gaze, and she knew why. He was scared of what he might see. He was afraid he might have to use his sword.
Vianca knew he was right. She was so worried for her sister’s safety, she avoided her more than was necessary. Sadie hated the isolation; she was much more social than Vianca had ever been. And it didn’t help that there was a particular knight who served in the Royal Guard of whom Sadie was especially fond. It must have been ages, perhaps even a year or more, since they’d seen each other. But the isolation was necessary, she told herself. It was the only thing she could think of that would ensure her sister’s safety. Still, six weeks was a long time. Vianca nodded to the guard and moved toward the staircase to her left. A brief visit, she thought. Then she’ll be locked away again.
The stone walls of the staircase were lined with mirrors; dozens of mirrors. It didn’t matter how often Vianca took them down, every spring she’d find them hung up again. And every year there were more of them. She is getting worse, she thought, sighing deeply. Vianca hated mirrors; each one she passed magnified her weaknesses, her fears. She couldn’t look at herself. It was why she removed every mirror from her own chamber and gave specific instructions for them to be kept out. She would have smashed every mirror in the kingdom if she could. Vianca hated how distorted, how split, her reflection seemed. But it was no use. The mirrors, like the laugh, haunted her, too. She couldn’t fight every battle she was faced with. She had to prioritize. Getting through this horrible nightmare was of the utmost importance, and mirrors played no real role in that whatsoever.
As she walked, the same distant laughter faded into her hearing. She kept her head up and tried to ignore it, but it grew, and with it a ditty she hated and heard so often in her nightmares. Mirror, mirror, on the wall who is the fairest of them all? Over and over it repeated as she walked up and round the staircase. Each mirror she passed made the ditty louder, the voice stronger, the laughter more irritating.   
As she walked by one of the larger mirrors, a flash of red caught her eye. She froze, unable to lift her foot to the next step, unable to ignore the image she saw in her periphery. She told herself to keep walking, to just push off with her feet and move, but instead she turned her head and stared into the mirror. In it she saw a field of white with pools of scarlet everywhere. Seven bodies of men who had spent their life mining for jewels and precious metals lay lifeless against the white of snow. They were dwarves, the royal miners and jewelry makers. They had served both her father and her grandfather, every one of them. Deep gashes cut into their abdomens, their backs, their necks. Blood stained the white ground. A winter moon shone in the clear midnight sky and deep laughter echoed across the silence of the field.
Vianca blinked and the image disappeared. Now, she looked at her own bloodshot eyes and untamed, matted black curls. You know it will happen again. She turned her face away and let out a horrified sigh. It wouldn’t happen again. She wouldn’t let it. Too many had died already. With a slow breath, she forced herself to move up the stairs. She couldn’t lose hope. No one else could fight the darkness she faced. No one else knew the reality of the horrors she lived with; the guilt and shame and perpetual dread that came with each sunset and each subsequent dawn. Only she alone understood that burden. That was why she was determined to emerge victorious. She was stronger than she appeared, she told herself. She was stronger than even she knew.
Vianca came to a large wooden door and knocked. A moment later it opened. A woman near her own age stood before her. “Vianca,” she said with tears in her eyes. She wrapped her arms around Vianca’s neck and held her tight. “I’ve missed you.” Vianca returned the embrace, her heart pounding. She was unaccustomed to physical touch. She made a point to avoid it at all costs, but Sadie was the exception. She was too affectionate to think twice about embracing her own sister, no matter the dangers. It made Vianca feel disjointed, and that feeling fed her nightmares.
“Sadie,” Vianca said, her voice hollow even to her own ears, “I was told you wished to see me.”
Sadie pulled away and nodded, allowing Vianca to enter her chamber. “I’ve been mad with worry,” Sadie said, staying much too close for Vianca’s comfort. “I haven’t heard from you in three weeks and I haven’t seen you in six. I didn’t know if something had happened or if you were alright.”
How lovely she looks! Sadie wore a gown of red and gold, the bodice drawn tight across her waist and chest. She was taller than Vianca with finer, more elegant features. Her hair was a beautiful shade of gold and hung in loose curls over her shoulders. Her skin was pale and smooth with a rosy complexion that made her almost glow in the daylight. Vianca’s hair, by contrast, was dark; a deep black that seemed almost blue in certain light; her skin was pale, even sallow. Vianca had been considered attractive by northern standards, but Sadie was the truly conventional beauty. Vianca’s only truly stunning features were her large, dark eyes and her plump, kissable lips. Positively radiant; the fairest of them all.
“We’ve been over this,” Vianca said, refusing to meet her sister’s gaze, “It isn’t safe for you here. You have insisted on not being sent away which means that while you are here, you are confined to your chambers under strict supervision. That makes it harder for you to be reached.”
Sadie sighed. “Vianca, please. I’m her sister as well as yours. She won’t harm me.”
“You don’t know that,” Vianca snapped. “She’s hurt many people we didn’t think were in danger.” She shook her head. “I can’t risk it, Sadie. You are the one thing that keeps me tethered; you are the reason I can still fight her. If something happened to you…” Vianca’s voice trailed off.
Sadie didn’t respond for a long minute. “I miss you,” she said, her voice soft and sad. “I miss Richard. I miss the gardens and the trees. I hate this room.” She was desperate. It was enough to reduce Vianca to tears, but she held them back. She had to censor her emotions. She couldn’t let her guard down. Not for a moment. To do so would mean utter destruction.
“If there’s anything specific you want or need, let the guards know so they can get it for you,” Vianca said, turning away from Sadie. “I will be gone for a day or so. I have heard of a man who might have a solution. I’m not confident, but it’s one more thing I can try. You’re welcome to walk the grounds until I return, but then you must come back to your chamber.”
“Take me with you,” Sadie said, reaching for Vianca’s hands.
Vianca pulled away, unable to bear the feeling of her sister’s soft skin against hers. She turned and made for the door, needing to be back in the hall. Sadie was a weakness, one of her greatest. Sadie was the daughter meant for the throne, a natural leader, a brave and courageous and self-sacrificing woman. She understood what others needed and wanted and she knew how to give it to them without being manipulative or self-serving. She had an easiness about her that Viana never had. Sadie was the manifestation of everything Vianca should have been.
“Vianca,” Sadie called after her.
Vianca told herself not to turn around; she told herself to keep walking, to shut the door, to let the guards lock her out, but the sadness in her sister’s voice compelled her to turn. Sadie’s blue eyes met hers. Vianca had always loved Sadie’s blue eyes. Clear and bright and large, they never failed to express precisely what Sadie felt. Now, they reflected sadness. But behind the sadness was resilience. Determination. She would have fought right at Vianca’s side if she had been allowed to.
“I love you,” Sadie said.
Vianca travelled alone, always. She walked through the forest on the Queen’s Road dressed in a plain cotton outfit, carrying no weapons and little money. Nothing of value was on her person except whatever she thought she might need to pay for potions or magic spells or other remedies. It was the only reassurance she had that she was as safe as she could make herself and others.
The road was empty of travellers. It was unsurprising. Most of the courtiers she knew had either fled the country or disappeared into hiding with as many of the lower classes as they could manage. She had sent a royal decree that they were to do so. Some, mostly the poor and the feeble, had been unable to leave. They were the few who still occupied the smaller villages and farms, although she didn’t know how it was they survived. With the able bodied men hidden away, who farmed the lands and sold the crops?
Vianca prayed that someone would shoot her from the safety of the trees and end her suffering. Every time she travelled alone she held out hope that either she would find a cure for her ailment, or she would die trying, releasing the kingdom from the curse that was herself. It never happened. And for the sake of her sister she wouldn’t do it by her own hand. But she couldn’t help wishing that someone would do it for her.
    A piercing laugh broke the silence and made Vianca gasp. No one is going to kill you, came the voice Vianca knew all too well. The voice she hated. It sounded so much like her own, it made her resent the necessity of speech. Her heart raced in her chest. Her hands began to shake. There’s no use working yourself into a panic, the voice said, you know I could never harm you, dearest. I need you to become Queen.
    The rapid beat of her heart made her chest tighten. Panic was setting in. Vianca bit the inside of her lip and told herself to breathe. She stared intently at a leaf in front of her, focusing on its color and shape, on the grooves in its skin. She couldn’t close her eyes, not with the voice so close by. She didn’t trust her mind to ward off the evil. Darkness was one of the weapons consistently used against her. Instead, Vianca chose various aspects of the world around her and concentrated on them until the voice dissipated. It was one of the easier methods she used to cope. It helped anchor her to the here and now.
    Focusing on a leaf won’t work. You can feel the air around you getting colder. The closer winter comes, the stronger I am. Think of the fun we’ll have once the snow sets in!
    Vianca let out a scream and fell to her knees. She forced herself to keep her eyes open and stared at the dirt, only the dirt. It was cold but moist. Still malleable. She dug her hands deep into it, desperate to feel the heartbeat of the earth. Down she dug, further and deeper, dirt covering her hands and sticking under her fingernails. The smell of earth mixed with something else, something sickening; she didn’t know what it was, but she didn’t care. It was working. With each shovel of dirt, each slash of her hand in the soil, the voice faded. She shoved her hands down again and again, clawing violently. Worms, spiders, and other creatures met her, brushed against her skin, and still she dug.
Finally, the laughter faded. The voice faded. Vianca slowed her breathing and sat back. The silence of the forest greeted her once more. It wrapped around her like an embrace. Nature was the one place in which she found peace. She looked up at the canopy; branches of evergreens mingled with the bright flaming shades that clothed pine and birch and maple. Such beautiful colors. She had often spent time staring up at the canopy like this. For hours. In the rain, in the sun. It was on a day like this that the Archduke had proposed to her, her hands in his, the most glorious of rubies on her finger. Vianca rubbed her hands together. They were slick and sticky.
    She looked down; they were covered in blood.
    She screamed and stood. “Vianca,” a voice said, carried to her on the wind. She looked up - it was the Archduke. His skin was pale, blue and bloated. Thirty stab wounds had opened so much of his chest that several organs were visible. “Why?”
“Peter?” she choked.
She blinked and he was gone. The blood on her hands had turned to dirt once more. She looked around her, but only saw the forest. The hole she’d dug was at her feet. She told herself it had been a trick of the mind. Only a trick of the mind. Are you certain? Vianca was running out of time.
Vianca stopped after another hour of walking and glanced around. This was where she was to meet the magical mystery man. She had been instructed to walk for at least three hours into the heart of the forest, away from all roads and villages, and she had done so. The only other instruction was to speak the name of the man out loud. It felt ridiculous, but she did it anyway. “Rumplestiltskin.” Only the rustle of wind replied. She shook her head. “Rumplestiltskin,” she repeated. Still nothing. Why were all magicians so infuriatingly difficult to find? “Rumplestiltskin!”
    “There’s no need to shout, missy.”
Vianca turned toward the voice. A woman was walking toward her. Or, at least, she had the appearance of a woman. She was unusually tall and dressed in the oddest looking robes Vianca had ever seen. However, the most unusual thing about her was her voice. It was both deep and high; both raspy and smooth. “Are you Rumplestiltskin?”
“Indeed I am.”
“I was expecting a man,” Vianca added.
“I appear in the form which best suits the one summoning me,” Rumplestiltskin replied. “I gather you’re here for a potion?”
“I am here for whatever advice or solution you can offer me that might assist-”
Rumplestiltskin waved her hands. “Yes, yes. You can dispense with the formalities, highness. You reek of desperation and might as well get to the point. Winter is not far off, dearest.”
Vianca stiffened. “Don’t call me that.”
Rumplestiltskin grinned. Her teeth were yellow against the greyish blue of her skin. Vianca had only met a few elves in her life, but based on appearance alone, she guessed that Rumpelstiltskin was part elf. It made her uneasy; elves were not known for their trustworthiness. But then, she wasn’t one to talk. “Nevertheless, you are running out of time,” Rumplestiltskin said.
“You seem well acquainted with my predicament.”
Rumplestiltskin smiled. “If you think you are the only unfortunate soul to suffer from this... ailment, then you are very much mistaken. I have met no less than ten individuals with issues similar to, and worse than, yours.”
“I take it they sought your insight?”
Rumplestiltskin nodded.
“Were they satisfied?”
She nodded again.
Vianca surged with hope. “Then you have a remedy?”
“I do.”
“Please, tell me what it is and I will give you anything you ask for.”
Rumplestiltskin smiled. “I am sure you will. But first,” she began to walk in a circle around Vianca, “you must convince me to give you the remedy.”
Vianca frowned. “Convince you? I don’t understand. I’ve said I will pay whatever you ask for.”
Rumplestiltskin shrugged, the same knowing grin forever on her face. “It’s quite simple, dearest: the potion you seek is one of my own creation. If you should take it and use it ill, I would be held responsible for any and all destruction you cause. If I am to risk that, I need to first be convinced of its necessity.”
Viana shuddered. “I told you not to call me that,” she said through grit teeth. “And if you know so much about why I’ve come here, then you should also know that I mean to use the potion to suppress the violence and hate that plagues me.”
“Yes, yes, that well may be, but let’s not pretend that yours is the only say that matters in this debacle. What of the other one?”
“I have her under control for the time being,” Vianca said.
Rumplestiltskin laughed out loud. “If that were true, you wouldn’t need me.”
“I said it was for the time being. I need the potion to maintain control, obviously.”
“Which means you are, in fact, out of control, so how could I possibly trust you with my potion?”
“Because the potion is how I will maintain that control, but I first have to take the potion to be trustworthy with it.”
Rumplestiltskin shook her head. “I think not.”
Vianca let out an exasperated sigh. “You may have created the potion, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that you are responsible for how the potion is used once out of your hands. Therefore you can give it to me without worry.”
“I’m elven,” Rumplestiltskin said, crossing her arms over her chest, “and in elven culture, we are not so free to do as we wish without risking recourse from the earth. Magic extracts its price. The violence that plagues your kingdom is well known; I cannot give to you what may so easily be used against the few who remain under your rule.”
Vianca’s heart thundered so loudly that she could hear and feel it in her ears. It was almost deafening. “There must be something I can say, something I can offer you, that will satisfy?”
Rumplestiltskin’s green eyes narrowed. “If you promise to deliver to me your firstborn child, I will give you the potion.”
Vianca’s mouth went dry. She frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“You said you were willing to pay anything I asked. That is my price. Swear that you will bring me your firstborn on or before the celebration of his or her first year of life.”
She didn’t understand the price she was being asked to pay, but nor did she have any other options. Winter was closing in. “I swear.” Vianca’s voice felt like ash on her lips.
Rumplestiltskin reached into her robes and pulled out a small piece of parchment rolled into a scroll. Vianca reached for it. Rumplestiltskin pulled it back. “Ah ah. Not quite so fast. There are rules with magic, missy. You must be careful. A spell such as this cannot be easily reversed. Enact it and you may find yourself regretting the course you have chosen.”
Vianca felt herself close to tears. A potential solution was within her grasp and this thing had the audacity to lecture her? “Spare me the lesson in caution,” Vianca spat, “Until you have lived with this infliction, you would do better to hold your tongue. I have promised to pay your price; give me the potion.”
Rumplestiltskin grinned and handed her the parchment. “I will need three drops of your blood to seal the exchange.”
She held out her hand and Rumplestiltskin pricked her finger with a needle. The elf held a small vial beneath Vianca’s finger, caught three drops of blood, and sealed it. “Take the ingredients on the parchment and combine them in a cauldron over a roaring fire. Let them simmer for three hours. When the liquid thickens and turns blue, it will be ready. Dip an apple into the liquid until it is fully covered, then pull it out. You will not see the liquid on its skin. Take one bite and your ailment will be resolved.”
Vianca said nothing to the woman. She simply turned and made her way back toward the castle. As she stepped away from the witch she heard Rumplestiltskin mutter, “Long live the queen.” Vianca looked over her shoulder, but the witch was gone.    
Vianca didn’t know why winter was the key that unlocked the monster within; she had never understood the appeal of the white snow that brought out such arrogance, such cruelty, such malice. She thought of Sadie and how much she loved the snow as a child. How often had the two of them ran in the white powder? Played and laughed as their parents watched from the battlements? Even then, Vianca had despised the cold. She’d only played and laughed because Sadie’s pleasure was so infectious. They were such beautiful memories, why did they now have to be tainted with death? She didn’t have to understand it to defeat it, to change the course that had been her life for so many years.
    Where would she be now if none of this had ever happened, she wondered. She thought of Peter; they’d have been married and likely would have children. Only a year and a half prior had been the scheduled date for their wedding. It had come and gone in silence. Vianca had worn black and issued a full week if court mourning. Just thinking of him filled her with regret and shame. She remembered the morning she had awakened next to his dead body. It was the morning that changed her life forever.
Her parents, too, would probably still be alive if none of this had happened. They had been her strongest allies in those early years. It was they who covered up the truth regarding Peter’s death. His family, his country, never knew how he really died. The surgeon said, based on the number of wounds on his body and the depth to which they’d penetrated his skin, he had likely suffered for hours. Vianca was thankful she didn’t remember what had happened. She didn’t think she could live with herself if she did. So many good people had died helping her, serving her. She hoped she was nearing the end of it all.  
    As she approached the palace with the dawn of the next morning, Vianca felt her heart race. She knew better than to deceive herself. The spell she carried might work, but then it might not. She had used so many other spells and enchantments, none of which had sufficiently subdued the evil inside of her. She had very little reason to believe that this spell would be any different. She knew she had to prepare herself for another failure. She had to be ready to take drastic measures. Still, she allowed herself a sliver of hope. What else was there but hope?
She came in sight of the palace and slowed to a stop. The drawbridge was down. Hadn’t she given orders for the drawbridge to be kept up until her return? International relations were not great; with each passing year, they made new enemies. Only a few of their many former allies were still loyal and understanding. This meant that fear of invasion was quite significant. The only reason they hadn’t been invaded yet was their location in the range of mountains that made up the northern half of their country; for them to be invaded meant passing over the harshest of mountain passes known to civilization. A ruler would have to be well assured of her surrender to risk that kind of travel. Still, there had been so many threats of invasion sent to her that she couldn’t risk losing the castle to a more subtle attack. So why was it down now?
Vianca hurried across the bridge and entered the palace courtyard. She was met by her captain of the guard. “Mortimer, I thought I gave strict instructions that the drawbridge was to be kept up at all times?”
Mortimer bowed as she approached and looked at her with wide eyes. “N-No, your Majesty. Before you left you said specifically to leave it down as you would be returning in only an hour or so.”
Vianca shook her head. “That’s absurd. I knew very well I’d be gone for at least a day. I know I ordered you to keep the bridge up. Those have always been the instructions.” She sighed, reminding herself that she held hope in her hand. “At least I was only gone for a day, and it’s clear no damage has been done.”
Mortimer shook his head slowly. “Forgive me majesty, but... you have been gone for three days.”
Vianca’s heart stalled. “What?”
“You left abruptly three days ago after you met with Princess Sadie and gave orders that the bridge be kept down. You said you wouldn’t be gone long at all, and you have only just now returned.”
You lost a whole three days. Vianca walked away, her mind reeling. How had she lost so much time and not noticed? She didn’t remember anything after meeting with Sadie except for leaving the palace, the half-day journey into the woods, the meeting with Rumplestiltskin, and the journey back. How, in that time, could she have lost whole days? She had reached the end of the short amount of time she thought she had left. She needed to make the potion and she no longer trusted herself to do it. Vianca hastened into the castle and up the staircase to Sadie’s chamber. Sadie would take the spell and follow the instructions, thereby assuring that it was done right. Vianca knocked once and entered the room.
“Sadie, I need your help…”
Her breath caught in her throat. The room was a disaster. Clothes were everywhere, torn apart. Jewelry littered the floor, broken and missing many of the precious stones they once held. But worse, there was blood. Dark, dried, blood everywhere. That was when the smell wafted over her. The smell of dead flesh. Tears filled her eyes. She shook her head. “No,” she muttered under her breath. “No, no, no, no…” She walked from the foyer to the sitting room to the sleeping apartment. There was hardly a single thing that hadn’t been broken or torn apart.
She found the body in the bedroom. On the bed surrounded by sheets soaked with blood. She was naked. She had been slashed open so many times, her body was hardly recognizable. Vianca screamed and laughter echoed in her head. Tears streamed down her cheeks as the laughter enveloped her. She turned and saw her reflection from a distance. She ran to the mirror, the one thing which hadn’t been destroyed. The reflection cackled, as if it had all been one enormous joke.
Vianca screamed into the mirror, but didn’t hear or understand what was said. The reflection’s lips were moving, but Vianca didn’t hear that either. Her chest hurt, feeling like she would burst. Then she felt she would be sick, and she was - over and over.
She had murdered her sister. Her last remaining family member. Likely, her only ally. Vianca turned away from the mirror and sobbed. Her head was filled with the sound of her heartbeat and a sharp, piercing laugh that seemed to reverberate through her entire body. Mirror, mirror, on the wall who is the fairest of them all?
“Leave me alone,” Vianca croaked, grabbing handfuls of her hair and falling to her knees.
She was the fairest one, it’s true, but now the fairest one is you.
“I said leave me alone!” Vianca screamed, her throat sore and parched. She grabbed a candlestick nearby, got to her feet, and slammed it into the glass. Shards scattered across the floor, all of them reflecting the cackling, mocking face. Princess, Princess, fair and lean, it’s time for you to become Queen.
Vianca turned from the room, ran into the hall and down the stairs. She couldn’t let another moment pass like this. Not another moment. She had the potion and intended to use it. As she descended the staircase, each mirror on the wall reflected laughter. Maniacal. Cackling. She slid her arms along the stone, sending the mirrors to the floor. Glass shattered. Dozens of reflections turned to hundreds. She fled to her own chamber, shouting for Mortimer as she went.
Finally, he caught up to her.
“Bring me these items and lock me in my room,” she said, handing him the parchment. “Don’t let me out under any circumstances until spring. Do you understand?”
He took the parchment and nodded. “Yes, majesty.”
“I mean it, Mortimer. Not under any circumstances.”
“I understand, majesty.”
It took him close to an hour to return with the items for the spell. She opened her door long enough to take the items and to warn him; she asked him if he remembered the decree her father had written all those years ago. Mortimer nodded, clearly confused and shocked as to how she knew of it. Vianca told him he needed to prepare to enact it. Then she shut her door and heard him lock it from the outside.
There were only five ingredients; she did as was instructed, placing all five items in a cauldron over a fire. They melted and the liquid boiled. Once it turned blue, she grabbed an apple and dipped it into the potion. Then, without thinking, without hesitating, she lifted the apple to her lips and bit down. She chewed and swallowed. Then, she waited.
How would she know if the potion worked? Would she feel different? The answer arrived almost as quickly as the question. At first it was a sense of foreboding, a feeling that something was wrong. She told herself it was just fear. Then she realized it was, in fact, a sense of dread stemming from a sudden loss of control over her mind. It was like a flailing, a removal of one substance while simultaneously substituting another. She tried to hold onto herself, tried to resist the sensation, the dizziness, taking over her head, but the damage was done. It had only taken one bite, just as Rumplestiltskin had said.
Vianca’s last thought before darkness overtook her was how had it happened like this.
Laughter filled the chamber. Morissa grinned as firelight danced on the floor and walls, casting shadows everywhere. She had, of course, made sure that Vianca didn’t hear all of Rumplestiltskin’s instructions. That was why the journey had taken so long. She needed Vianca to fall asleep so that she, Morissa, could control the unraveling of the meeting in Vianca’s mind. Rumplestiltskin was no fool; she knew what was going on and to whom she had been speaking. Morissa couldn’t let that stand.
So, while Vianca slept, Morissa copied the instructions to another sheet of parchment, altering them slightly, and then discarded the original spell. Vianca wouldn’t remember, so long as the murder of Sadie didn’t slip into her dreams, which it almost had. Luckily, Morissa was able to mask it with Vianca digging into the dirt, conjuring an image of Peter instead. Then, all she had to do was let Vianca return to the palace, find Sadie dead, and the rest was simple.
Morissa took a deep breath. How glorious would it be to live and breath and walk around for more than one puny season? True, winter was her favorite, but still. She could wreck so much more havoc on the world in four seasons than in one. She walked to her wardrobe and pulled out her favorite gown; thin white satin embroidered with silver and gold flowers. She dressed herself and combed out her dark hair. She placed a crown atop her head. She opened the top drawer of her desk and pulled out a slim, silver key. She laughed. Vianca hadn’t even bothered to check her desk drawer for it. “As if I would allow myself to be locked away again,” Morissa cackled.
The key worked perfectly. The door opened. Morissa walked toward the main hall where she knew her guards would be. They were plotting regicide. It was something she knew that Vianca hadn’t. Unfortunately for them, she was much more powerful than Vianca. The princess may have had compassion and kindness, but Morissa, the queen, was a sorceress in her own right. Something else she had managed to hide from Vianca. That was why none of Vianca’s other spells or potions worked; the spells themselves had been more than sufficient to control Morissa, but Vianca was too naive to recognize that Morissa was using her to sabotage them. How fun it was to chip away at her confidence, her hope.
She entered the main hall, noisily shoving the doors open. They all turned and, recognizing the queen’s chosen gown, bowed nervously.
“Your princesses are dead, once and for all. I am now your queen. You serve me.” She smiled. “Long live the queen!”  
“Long live the queen!” they exclaimed, the words echoing on the stone walls and out into the courtyard.

Janel Brubaker

Janel Brubaker recently graduated from Clackamas Community College with her associates in English and Creative Writing. She worked as a student assistant editor for the Clackamas Literary Review for the 2015 and 2016 editions. She is currently the Managing Editor of the M Review. She has been published in Sick Lit Magazine, The Bella Online Literary Review, Heartbeat Literary Journal, Crab Fat Magazine, Dark Fire Fiction, Linden Avenue Literary Journal,Slink Chunk Press and (boink) zine,Corner Bar Magazine, Anomaly Literary Journal, and Sheepshead Review. Janel is currently pursuing a B.A. in Creative Writing from Marylhurst University.

?Who Am I
By Aditya Deshmukh

A bead of sweat trickled down his forehead, mingling with a tear caressing his cheek before falling onto the handcuffs. He slowly raised his head. When our eyes met, a chill went down my spine.
He looked just like me.
I woke up with a jolt, drenched in cold sweat. Heart pounding and head spinning, I rushed to the toilet and retched.
"What happened, honey?" Rubbing her eyes, my wife appeared through the door. "Is it the company? Don't worry, Siddharth. We will find a way-"
"It's nothing," I snapped. "I need fresh air," I said as I grabbed my shirt and slammed the door shut.
Soon I was jogging in the middle of the night on a deserted street. Earlier, I had watched the news of a murderer on the loose. It didn't bother me; I lived in a rather quiet neighbourhood. All I could think of was the prisoner I saw in my dream and why we looked so similar.
With my thoughts running faster than me, I was soon exhausted. Yet, I ran and ran from the unknown fear festering in my mind until I tripped on a gnarled root. I sat up on the roots, slightly dazed from the fall and rested my back against the tree. Ignoring the dirt on my trousers and mud in my hair, I closed my eyes and gave in to the pleasant rustling of leaves dancing at the dictation of the soothing winds, all the while thinking about the dream.
I wasn't a superstitious person. I didn't believe in premonitions, but having the same dream for the third time that month, I realized my beliefs weren't as firm as I thought they were.
My phone rang. I fished it out of my pocket and sighed, seeing the seventh missed call. I texted my wife that I was on my way back.
I plugged in my ear phones and was about to start jogging when a shadow ran past me. I paused the song and turned on my flashlight. "Who's there?" I asked, pretending not to be afraid. The news of the murderer flashed across my mind.
I stood still for a minute and frantically looked around like frightened prey. Nothing stirred in my surroundings. Even the wind died, making the leaves cease their dance. Must've been a trick of the woods. I laughed. I could almost see my dead father shaking his head in disappointment. The rhythmic echo of footsteps fell on my ears as soon as I resumed jogging. But the sound wasn’t mine.
Mustering courage, I quickly turned just in time to see a figure vanishing in the woods. I fished for my phone and dialed my wife, frantically looking around. "Meera," I whispered.
"Siddharth! Oh my God, Where are you? Please don't tell me you're in the woods."
"Why?" I held my breath.
"As soon as you left, I switched on the TV and they are saying that the killer is hiding in the woods."
"The killer is here?"
"Yes." It wasn't Meera who spoke. The icy voice of the killer sent a chill down my spine. The phone slipped out of my hand, silencing Meera's worried questions.
"I do not have any money." A layer of sweat formed on my forehead. "But I can-"
"I'm not here for money," said the killer and I noticed the similarity in our voices. No, not similar, identical! I swallowed.
Slowly, I turned to see my mirror image smiling at me. I stared at him, agape. I would've sworn I had just stumbled upon a new optical illusion if it weren't for his eyes, his deep, dark, soulless eyes.
“What do you want?” The words barely escaped my mouth.
"I've not come for stealing," said my doppelganger, "On the contrary, I've come to give. Say yes and I promise you everything you can dream of."
I stepped back. "Wh-what are you talking about? Who are you?"
"I'm your prisoner. Free me and I will help you rebuild your crumbling business."
I wanted to run, but strangely I held my ground. What sort of trick was this? This was another hallucination, wasn't it? I pinched myself but the reality remained unaltered. Did that mean all those ‘dreams’ I had were as real as this?
"What's there to think about? Say yes and you will no longer be financially crippled. You'll have success, fame, and whatever else you desire. Just say yes."
I dropped to my knees. My head began to ache. Who was this person? Had I gone insane? Yet, the pressure of my sinking business was so great that I felt my lips utter yes.
Suddenly everything changed.
I was in a prison, handcuffed. Heavy iron chains ran the length of my body, keeping me bound. My face was wet with tears, sweat, and grease, the air reeking of piss and shit. "What's this? What have you done?" I shouted.
I heard laughter. Pure laughter that angered me even more. Out of the darkness stepped a man with soulless eyes gleaming with sinister joy.
"In that prison once rot the darkness which you've set free. And in its stead you shall rot forever."
The dream dissolved and when I woke up, I was a different man.
Today, my company is successful. I'm rich and famous, but I'm also divorced. Meera saw in me a hostility and heartlessness I had never known, and she knows my success carries the stench of blood.
Perhaps, that was what was stolen from me. In pursuit of making my identity in the big wide world, I lost my morals, I lost myself. Every time I look in the mirror, I see darkness staring back at me and I question myself: Who am I? And I scream wondering if the nightmare never ended.

Aditya Deshmukh

Aditya Deshmukh is a mechanical engineering student who likes exploring the mechanics of writing as much as he likes tinkering with machines. He writes dark fiction and poetry. He likes chatting with others who share similar interests, so please do check him out on Instagram -

By Vonnie Winslow Crist

    Driving home from our niece’s confirmation in Staunton, my husband and I decide to visit New Market Battlefield. We tour the visitor's center, try the interactive Civil War computer programs, and watch the re-enactment movie. I dab my eyes with a tissue after viewing the part of the film about a Jewish boy who searched for his Christian friend, carried him to safety, then stayed with him until he died. It is just one of many tales of heroism and sacrifice.
    When I blow my nose, Chuck shakes his head, drapes his arm across the back of my seat, and squeezes my right shoulder. Chuck clears his throat, stands, then stretches as the lights turn back on. Before we leave the visitor’s center, I pick up a battlefield map from the smiling information desk worker.
    “Have a nice day,” she chirps as we walk outside and past a drooping American flag.
    We cannot take our RV up the lane to the edge of the actual battlefield—the vehicle is too large and unwieldy, so we pull on our jackets and climb the hill on foot. While we walk, I read from the map a description of the fighting that took place at New Market.
    As I unfold the map to read the information on the back, I stumble on some loose gravel.
Chuck grabs my elbow. “Careful,” he says.
    “Always,” I answer, but know it to be a lie. Chuck holds onto my elbow for a few more seconds, then lets go. Though my palm aches for his, we do not hold hands.
    I stand on the ridge above the Shenandoah, study the glossy strand of river that winds its way like a ribbon through the Virginia farmland. Chuck’s arms are crossed. He is scowling. I am not sure if it is the battlefield or this morning’s argument about taking his mother with us to the theater that brings his eyebrows together. I sigh. The way the corners of his mouth curve down reminds me of Freda.
    Freda is what I call Chuck’s mother. She would prefer I address her as Mother, but I already have one of those. At our first meeting thirty-five years ago, Freda had looked me up and down, waited until Chuck turned away, and said, “Well, his last girlfriend was prettier.”
    I could not think of a response then, and she had caught me off-guard again this week.
    “I can’t wait to see Cabaret,” Freda had said.
    “Oh, are you going with friends?” I had been surprised since I didn’t think she had any friends who liked musical theater.
    “Not with friends. I’m going with you and Chuck. He knows how much I enjoy music, so he invited me to go, too.”
    I had felt like screaming, “Leave us alone.” Instead, I said, “Really?”
    Freda’s lips had smiled, but her eyes had narrowed as she added, “Chuck always thinks of his mother.”
    I reach the top of the battlefield incline and glance behind me. Unruly dandelions struggle up the hill proud and true as the schoolboys from the Virginia Military Academy, who when called upon to assist their Rebel brothers, parade-marched through deep mud into Union cannon fire. None of the Cadets were over nineteen. None of them had been shot at before. None of them had seen a comrade fall. I think of my nephews. Five of them are between fourteen and eighteen—the right age for the battle at New Market.
    Chuck is silent—so I listen to the whir of insects giddy with spring and the background rumble of eighteen wheelers on the highway. A red-tailed hawk swoops down, grabs a rabbit from some tall grasses near the split-rail fence. The raptor, talons clutching a limp gray body, lifts into the window of sky.
I'd like to blame it on the angle of the sunlight, but I know the ghostly young men in uniform I see leaning on the fence railings are real.
    “Ready to go,” I say, and hurry down the slope. A cool breeze ruffles my hair, flaps it against my face like dark wings. Just before reaching the bottom of the hill, I spot a hawk’s feather caught in some bindweed. I pluck the feather from the tangled vegetation, twirl it between my thumb and forefinger, thinking of the souls of soldiers rising to meet the wind. And of the ghosts by the fence.
    Chuck follows. He starts our RV and pulls back onto the interstate. “We’ll stay at the campground in Harpers Ferry tonight. Then, visit Antietam tomorrow.”
    I nod. We have always by-passed Antietam. There are plenty of signs calling in brown and gold for us to visit the battlefield and see Bloody Lane. We have just never chosen to take that exit before.
    “Is the visitor's center like the one at Gettysburg?” I ask as I slide the hawk’s feather between the pages of a book I have been reading.
    I have been to Gettysburg five times. Every time I go, I envision young men full of faith and bravado marching, banners aflutter, into the Wheatfield and through the Peach Orchard. When I tour Little Roundtop, scan the miles of Pennsylvania countryside, the tar-and-chip walkways and man-made railings added to accommodate the modern visitor seem intrusive. I always place my hand on a boulder and close my eyes. The emptiness of the landscape, creaks of swaying trees, roughness of stone, and laments of the crows tell the tale. I always spot soldiers, translucent and slightly blurred, when I look close enough.
    It was thundering the last time I visited Gettysburg and stood where Abraham Lincoln read his most famous address. Our children were with Chuck and me, so we made sure to see the Maryland Monument. The sculpted soldiers and horses looked melancholy in the storm twilight—but not as melancholy as the wounded and dead sprawled at the base of the monument. I, of course, said nothing about the apparitions. It was several years ago, but I still recall the pungent smell of wet leaves, soaked earth, and death.
    “No,” Chuck answers. “There is not much there except a movie, I think.”
    I know he went to Antietam years ago with his parents. Chuck’s father is dead, his mother still angry decades later. I think that is why she dislikes me—I still have a husband and hers abandoned her, though I’m sure he would have preferred to live long enough to meet all of his grandchildren. Before he met Freda, Chuck’s father had served in the US Army as a medic, but he wouldn’t talk about the things he saw and did when he was over in Korea. “Some things aren’t worth remembering,” he had said.
    I study Chuck as he continues to stare straight ahead. He resembles his father, especially around the eyes. “She can come with us to Cabaret,” I say.
    “No, I will tell her she can’t come.”
    “What about the extra ticket? Can we get our money back?”
    “Nope, that’s a hundred bucks wasted.” Chuck puts on his mother’s frown. I bite my fingernails and think about wasting one hundred dollars because I want to spend my anniversary alone with my husband.
    When we get to the RV Park, we ride the bus down to Harpers Ferry. Before Chuck and I find a restaurant for dinner, we trek up the path to Jefferson’s Rock, past an old church, and to a cemetery. The view of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah from the graveyard is spectacular. And the translucent residents wandering between tombstones don't seem to mind our presence.
    “Now, there’s a river.” Chuck admires the Potomac—wide, powerful, surging past Washington DC to the Atlantic.
    “I love the Shenandoah,” I respond.
    We used to stop by Harpers Ferry every August with our children on the way to a family vacation in Mathias, West Virginia. Observed by the drowned perched on rocks in the middle of the Shenandoah, we would picnic below Bull Falls and watch wood ducks paddle in the shallows, crayfish scuttle from under limestone, and minnows swim in shadowed pools. Our children would try to scoop up the river-dwellers in paper cups. Most summers, they caught a few minnows, a crayfish or two, and dozens of water spiders. We would release them. “See you next year,” we’d call as we pulled away in our minivan. The dead would nod and wave farewell.
    Today, like so many days before, the sun strikes the Shenandoah and explodes into a million shards. I watch as my river merges with the Potomac and together they travel to the sea. Chuck and I hike down the hill to a small Italian café crowded with tables and glowing with candlelight.
    I prop my chin on my hands and watch Chuck rearrange his place setting making sure the knife and spoon handles are parallel. He studies his salad fork, then polishes it with a napkin. Disliking straws, he wipes the rim of his water glass before taking a drink. When he looks at me, I grin.
    “Want to check my silverware?” I ask after sipping my ice water through a straw.
    “If you need me to.”
    Chuck manages a brief smile, then examines the menu and orders sweet sausage in marinara sauce. I have the vegetarian special. Our dinner is quiet.
    Chuck goes to bed early. I stay up and read a book about lost country life. Hours later, I slip beneath the covers and lean against Chuck’s back. I fall asleep to typical campground noises: the murmurs of muffled voices, the twang of a guitar, and the occasional bark of a dog.
    The sound of someone screaming wakes me. I sit up in bed, allow my eyes to adjust to the moonless night. The scream comes again from a tree limb beside the RV.
    “What is that?” asks Chuck.
    “A screech owl.”
    “Thank God that’s all it is. I thought I was going to have to run outside and play hero.”
    “In your flannel pajamas?” We both laugh as I lay back down. The owl screams again. “What time is it?”
    Chuck flicks on a flashlight, looks at a watch that is dangling from a hook on the wall beside the bed. “Four-thirty.”
    I groan. The owl screams one last time then abandons the branch outside our window.
    We fall back to sleep, and I dream of the flocks of pigeons, jackdaws, collared doves, sparrows, and rooks that line the window ledges, rooftops, and arches of Tintern Abbey, Caerphilly Castle, Raglan Castle, St. Andrew’s Cathedral Inverness, the High Kirk of St. Giles, and the ruined church in Coventry, whose name I have forgotten, that fell victim to German bombs in World War II. There is a tale of sacrifice attached to the village of Coventry. The tour guide tells me again that the townsfolk allowed themselves to be bombed by the Germans rather than tip off the enemy that the English had broken their communication codes.
    In the dream, Chuck and I stand with the other chaperons in cathedral after castle after courtyard listening to an A Capella Choir. I see the angels in the architecture and the carved gargoyles peering down at us with their toadish smiles as the young choristers sing A Song of Peace.  While the harmonious voices float above the rooftops, I notice the skies over Coventry are the same brilliant blue as the skies over Culloden, Antietam, Gettysburg, and New Market, Virginia.
    Then, I am holding Chuck’s hand and we are soaring with the terns and gulls and gannets through the sky and over the sea to Skye to have sheep-cheese sandwiches with cups of Darjeeling tea in a tiny shop with two crossed swords on the north wall.
    Though I never mention it to anyone, in Skye and all of the other towns, villages, and battlefields we visit, I see the departed. And they see me.
    I wish that part was only a dream.
    On Tuesday morning, the skies are not blue. As we turn onto the Antietam exit, oppressively low clouds move in from the west. We rattle down the Sharpsburg roads until we reach the visitors’ center, park the RV, and hurry out of the cold into the low brick building. Chuck and I study the displayed artifacts, wander the gift shop, and after watching a well-done re-enactment film, listen to a ranger tell us about the battle.
    A group of soldiers is part of the audience. They are wearing camouflage pants, jackets, and caps. The park ranger sets the stage for the battle then directs everyone outside. As he continues his lecture about the pivotal Civil War battle, I study the servicemen. Most are young with soft skin. Some have acne. I shiver as it begins to sprinkle. Though the air is biting, I refuse to press against my husband and share his warmth. He pretends not to notice my discomfort like he pretends not to notice his mother’s sly comments.
    The soldiers are about the same age as Chuck was when we first met. I note a clearness in their eyes as they survey the terrain. The ranger babbles on. The soldiers nod at the generals’ strategies, listen intently to the available armaments, shake their heads at the bad communications that caused the battle’s outcome.
    To my left, an American flag snaps in the wind. I wonder if a park ranger will remove it if the rain continues or worsens. The soldier nearest to me looks at the flag, too. My throat tightens as he gives a quick salute.
    Chuck’s number never came up in the Vietnam draft. We had discussed the possibility—I wanted to go to Canada, he was non-committal. I think he didn’t want to leave his mother.
    The presentation ends. Chuck and I eat lunch in the RV as the rain drums a tattoo on the roof of the motor home. We watch the other tourists scamper from cars to the visitor's center then back to their cars. After eating some chocolate chip cookies, we begin the driving tour.
    The bus with the servicemen is ahead of us. They stop and study each marker, each noteworthy site. We pass them and go to Bloody Lane. I read the appropriate excerpt from the driving tour brochure.
    “Rain’s stopped, want to walk it?” Chuck asks.
    Chuck pulls our vehicle into a parking space. He enjoys history when it is factual and well-documented. I love the personal tales, quirky details, and mythy half-truths. I climb out of the RV and lock my door. Chuck is waiting for me in front of the motor home.
    Walking along the sunken roadway that the history books claim ran red with Confederate blood, Chuck and I find nothing to say. Sure I will see blood gushing across the ground if I glance about, I keep my eyes focused on the path ahead of us.
    We climb the memorial tower that howls like the dead as the May blusters intensify. From the tower’s height, we view acres and acres of rolling battlefield. I see the soldiers’ bus approaching and hurry down the tower’s steps. I don’t want to look into their eyes.
    Next, Chuck and I drive to the rocky hillside that rises above Antietam Creek. We climb to an overlook. Burnside’s Bridge still spans the Creek that turned scarlet with Union blood late in the battle. A group of Boy Scouts, costumed and carrying mock weapons, performs a play on the bridge. Their boy-man voices drift like a hymn to my ears as I peer down from the embankment where a small group of Georgian sharpshooters held on for hours against overwhelming odds. A nearby Confederate sharpshooter nods his misty head at me.
    The soldiers arrive. It is time for us to leave. I rest my hand on a rock before heading back down the trail. The finality of death hangs like the scent of sweet violets in the air, and I avert my eyes from the dead which surround us. Chuck walks in front of me and I observe the slight stoop of his shoulders. We have both changed—thirty years of marriage does that to you.
    As I near the parking lot, a serviceman passes me, taps his hat with his forefinger. “Ma’am,” he says and looks at me with brave, brown eyes.
    I can almost see through him, though I know he is still alive. This has happened before, and will happen again. The serviceman will not live to see his next birthday. It is unwanted knowledge, but I am certain of its validity. I have yet to have a false vision.
    Once in our motor home, I think of our children, genetic continuations of the bloodlines that settled this country and fought in her wars. Though the draft is gone, my children are proud and strong. My youngest son volunteered to serve, and he now sleeps in a shipping container in Iraq.
    I think of my father—drafted in 1944, he fought under Patton and eventually helped to liberate several concentration camps. He fills my children’s heads with the glory of fighting for the right cause and he still has a military rifle stored in the attic, “Just in case.”
    I close my eyes, picture my father pressing the butt of that rifle against his shoulder, hear the metallic scraping as he moves the gun’s bolt, and flinch when Chuck asks if I’d like to stop by the Antietam Cemetery. “Brochure says the Union dead are there.”
    As he speaks, I wonder where the Confederate boys are buried. I tell him, “No.”
    “Are you sure, Laurel?” He glances at me with eyebrows raised. He knows my fondness for graveyards and strange epitaphs.
    I shake my head. “I think I have seen enough for one day.”
    The rain starts falling in torrents. When we cross Antietam Creek, I study the water. It bubbles dark with mud, and I consider how easily it could be bloody run-off from the battlefield if the date were different. Then, I look again, and see it is bloody run-off.
 Chuck does not look at the water; his eyes are focused on the road. It takes us longer than usual to drive home. The headlights, water, and dark day erase the center line. The windshield wipers flip back and forth, squealing in protest, as the miles and minutes add up. I am glad Chuck is driving and not me.
    We pick up our foxhound, retriever, and orange cat from the kennel and hurry to our house. Chuck unloads the food from the RV’s refrigerator, while I make supper. A few minutes later, we sit at the table and have tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
    The phone rings. It is Freda. She does not say hello to me. Instead, she says, “I need to talk to my son.” I hand Chuck the phone.
    Chuck’s mother chatters at him for about ten minutes. I can hear him answer, “Yes. Okay. That so? No. Sorry.” He sighs often. Finally, he says, “Good-bye,” and hangs up the phone.
    I pretend I wasn’t listening. “Anything important?”
    Chuck goes back to the bedroom to put on his pajamas. He is an early riser and I am a night person. He likes to arrive at family occasions ten minutes early, and I figure I will get there when I get there. He uses spreadsheets, diagrams, and charts, and never loses receipts. Sure to misplace it, I never take the checkbook with me. I am always estimating the amount I wrote a check for and consider myself lucky if I remember to whom the check was written. Chuck is not big on pets. We have two dogs and a cat. They are strays that I adopted, because I cannot live without animals. We are not really compatible. Some mornings when I wake before Chuck, I examine his face and wonder how we ended up together. I imagine he does the same thing.
    But I believe in destiny, and know we were meant to find each other.
    Chuck wanders back to the kitchen as I finish emptying the dishwasher. “Goodnight, Laurel.” He leans in for a kiss. I kiss him like I’d kiss a cousin or a good friend. “I said I was sorry. What more can I do?” His voice is tired.
    I shrug my shoulders. “I don’t know why you invited her to go with us to see Cabaret in the first place. You know she hates me.”
    “I should have asked you, but she seemed so interested in the show when I mentioned we were going to get tickets. And she doesn’t hate you.”
    “Tickets for our anniversary, and she certainly does not like me.”
    “I am just trying to consider both points-of-view. I want to make everyone happy.” Chuck’s voice has a pleading quality to it.
    “You cannot please everyone. Once in a while, you have got to choose.”
    “I chose you when we got married,” Chuck says.
I roll my eyes. “Then, act like it,” I demand, knowing that this is a no-win skirmish. I feel myself sinking in mud, losing my footing like the Cadets at New Market. His mother is the baggage Chuck came with. Sometimes, I just wish he had left his baggage on the train when he got off at my station.
    Chuck shakes his head, turns to go down the hall.  “Goodnight,” I say.
    He glances at me, mumbles, “Goodnight.”
    “Wait!” I go to him, and really kiss him. “Let's call a truce.”
    He nods agreement and smiles.
    What I don't say, though the image is as clear as the waters of the Shenandoah in my mind, is that the last time I saw Freda, I could almost see through her.
    Though no one else knows, I am certain I will win this battle. Freda won't see her next birthday. Then, Chuck won't have to choose sides.

Vonnie Winslow Crist

Vonnie Winslow Crist is author of "The Enchanted Dagger" (Compton Crook Award Finalist, Maryland Writers Association Book Award Winner), "Owl Light," "The Greener Forest" (eFestival of Words Short Story Collection Award Winner), and other books. Her speculative writing has been published in "Faerie Magazine," "Weirdbook," "Cast of Wonders," "Great Tome of Fantastic and Wondrous Places," "Fantasia Divinity Magazine," and elsewhere. A cloverhand who has found so many four-leafed clovers she keeps them in jars, Vonnie strive to celebrate the power of myth in her writing.

The Binding of Loki
By Samantha E. Payne

    Asgard was in disarray. Idun, Goddess of Youth, guardian of the epli tree—and the immortality of the gods—was missing, and like always, Loki, God of Mischief, was to blame. Under the orders of Odin, gods scoured Asgard, looking for Loki. Loki was a nominal member of the Aesir tribe in Asgard, having been born of giants. He was the sworn blood-brother of Odin but ultimately maintained a solitary position amongst the gods. Others only sought him when trouble was present. Everyone but Týr, God of War and Skies, who unlike the others, found a friend in Loki.
    Loki enjoyed shallow pleasures and was both irreverent and nihilistic toward his position and others in Asgard, but Týr saw things differently. While Loki often irritated him with his games and carelessness, Týr understood what it was like to live as an honorary Aesir, having been born of giants like Loki, they would always be outsiders. Loki did as he pleased with no regard for the hierarchy and Týr respected Loki’s desire to live freely and without shame. When Loki was in trouble, Týr was there to get him out of it and when Týr raised his voice in protest, Loki did the same. They protected each other and for this reason, Týr, knowing Loki, was the first to find him.
    Loki sat amongst the branches of Idun’s epli tree, eating of its fruit. Loki was a slender man with nimble limbs, making it difficult to discern his figure amongst the leaves from a distance. He heard Týr’s heavy footsteps and shouts and looked down to his young son, Fenrir, who sat at the base of the tree. “Does your uncle look as angry as he sounds?”
    Fenrir was small with long, dark hair pulled back into a wild ponytail and his eyes, though a fearful red, were round and innocent. He looked out at Týr’s approached. Týr’s blue eyes were narrowed in a cold stare. Fenrir looked up into the tree. “Yes, he looks very unhappy.”
    Loki sighed and leaned back against the tree, stretching his legs out onto the branch. He waited for Týr to chastise him as he often did.
    “Loki, what have you done?” Týr stepped up to the tree and stood next to Fenrir.
    Loki shrugged. “Why, Týr, what could you possibly mean?”
    “Where is Idun?”
    “Not doing her job, obviously.” He took a bite of fruit.
    Týr took a breath and swallowed his frustration before looking down at Fenrir. “Fen, what has your idiot of a father done this time?”
    “He gave Idun to Thjazi.”
    Loki looked down at Fenrir with an upturned brow. “Tattletale.”
    Fenrir ignored him and continued to explain his father’s misdeed to Týr. “Father was captured by Thjazi while traveling through the mountains and he swore to bring him Idun and her fruit if he let him go.”
    “You gave her to a giant? Are you insane? Without Idun the tree won’t bear fruit and without it we will grow old and die!” Týr ran his fingers through his hair and did his best to cool his temper. “How am I supposed to defend you this time, Loki?”
    “It was merely a jest.” Loki jumped down from the tree and landed in front of Týr. Loki’s chestnut hair swept to the side and covered his right eye, but the malachite iris of his left eye smiled in Týr’s direction. “I will retrieve Idun. If for no other reason than to avoid the unsightly vision of you as an elder.” Loki patted Týr on the arm. “Thjazi is a gentle giant when a woman is involved, Idun is safe, if not pampered. I was doing her a favor. This way, she finally has some time off from her trying work here in Asgard. A kind gesture if you think about it.”
    Týr’s eyebrow twitched. “Enough messing around. Get Idun back here!”
    “You know, I think I liked you better when you had a girlfriend. You were much less moody.”
    Loki rolled his eyes. “Fine, fine.” He knelt down to bring himself to eye level with Fenrir. “Uncle Týr will care for you while I’m gone.” He patted Fenrir’s head and stood. “You will look after him, won’t you?”
    “Yes, because unlike his father, he knows how to behave.” Týr smacked the backside of Loki’s skull.
    “Ow!” Loki rubbed the back of his head. “So rough, and in front of our child!”
    Týr rolled his eyes and turned away from Loki. “He’d be better off if he was my child.” He grabbed Fenrir by the hand. “Let’s go, Fen.”
    Fenrir nodded and walked away with Týr.
    “You’re a cruel friend and a cruel child!” Loki called after them, but they didn’t acknowledge him. He crossed his arms over his chest before branching them back out. As he extended his arms out away from his body, they morphed into wings. His body shortened upward, and a beak sprouted from his thin face. In almost an instant Loki’s body had completely transformed and took flight. Thjazi had captured him in a similar form so in return, Loki would use the very same body to take back Idun. Whether he was a man or eagle, Loki was still Loki and he would have his way.
    Loki had been gone for days and the panic amongst the gods only increased as the fruit of the epli tree grew scarce. Týr did his best to defend Loki, as he always had, but some misdeeds were difficult to forgive. For the first time, even Týr was unsure of Loki.
    Týr sat with Fenrir near the epli tree, having volunteered to guard it until Idun’s return. Between them was a small wooden, lattice game-board with tiny black and white pegs sticking out from various spaces.
    Fenrir moved one of the black pegs near the King at the center of the board before looking up at Týr. Týr’s eyes were focused elsewhere, lost in thought. “It’s your turn.”
    Týr, startled, turned his attention back to Fenrir. “Sorry.” He eyed the pieces and set one of his white pegs in front of Fenrir’s black one, opening a path for his King. “Raichi.”
    Fenrir shifted one of his pegs into the path Týr just opened. “Uncle?”
    “Yes, Fen?”
    “Do you think my father will return?” Fenrir was unfazed by the thought. He spent more time with Týr than Loki. If he worried that anyone would leave him, it was Týr, not his father.
    Týr looked up from the board to Fenrir. “This time, Fen, I don’t know.” Týr recognized that Fenrir was a child, but he was Loki’s child and circumstances of his upbringing had thickened his skin at a very early age. Fenrir was a pragmatic thinker, smart like his father, but loyal and kind once he felt he could trust someone. The only person he truly trusted was Týr and it was the reason Týr maintained his honesty with him, even if the truth was a difficult thing to bear. “If he can retrieve Idun, then he will. There’s no gain if Idun is lost, so I imagine he intended to get her back from the start. That said, Loki has played a dangerous game in giving her to Thjazi. There will no doubt be consequences.”
    Fenrir moved one of his pegs in on Týr’s King. “Either way,” Fenrir looked up at Týr and revealed his sharp canines in a wide, playful smile, “I win.”
    Týr had a feeling Fenrir wasn’t just talking about the game. He ruffled the young boy’s hair. “That you do.” Just as Týr was about to reset the board a voice called to him in the distance. It was Baldŕ. His golden hair glowed in the sun like a halo of light and he wore a smile so wide it pulled at the corners of his eyes.
Baldŕ jumped onto Týr’s back and wrapped his arm around his shoulder, pulling him close. “Afternoon! How are things?”
Týr slipped out of Baldŕ’s hold and grimaced. “How many times must we go over this, Baldŕ, no touching.” Týr stood and dusted himself off while Fenrir reset the board. “Are you here to collect today’s fruit?”
Baldŕ shook his head and took a seat beside Fenrir. “No, father asked me to call on you.”
“What for?”
Baldŕ shrugged. “Don’t know. I imagine it has to do with—” Baldŕ paused and glanced at Fenrir.
“It’s alright, Lord Baldŕ.” Fenrir’s eyes remained fixated on the board as he shifted pieces into place. “I know my father is a louse.”
Baldŕ patted Fenrir on the back with a laugh. “Nonsense, your father’s humor is just misunderstood.” Baldŕ’s eyes lifted upward toward Týr and the sky. “Which is why Týr is around to explain it.”
Týr folded his arms over his chest. “Like I don’t have better things to do.”
“You go do your adult stuff and I’ll play Hnefatafl with Fenrir while you’re gone.”
Týr sighed. “Fine. Have fun losing.”
    Odin’s throne room rested in a citadel at the highest point of Asgard. The halls leading to it were adorned with weapons and armor that he had collected as trophies in his many years of battle. Odin seldom left his throne to maintain a watchful eye on all nine realms.
    Odin’s years were more apparent than most of the Aesir. His hair was peppered gray but still lush and full. He wore a crown atop his head that matched the gold of his armor. “Týr, welcome.”
Týr took a knee and lowered his head. “Baldŕ said you wished to see me.”
    Odin uncrossed his legs and sighed as he leaned back in his seat. “The Norns have brought troubling news, I’m afraid.” It was rare for the Norns, the sisters of fate, to leave the Well of Urd at the base of Yggdrasil, the world tree. They only came to Odin with their council when their visions were dire. It was the Norns who had predicted Ragnarök, the world’s end, and it was the Norns who had separated Týr from Lif, the woman he loved, because her destiny did not align with his. Odin, who followed no one, followed the Norns and so all those who followed Odin fell in line with the sisters of fate.
Týr remained in his kneeling position but raised his head to meet Odin’s eye. He didn’t like the Norns. He didn’t like that Odin so easily gave into their prescribed ideas of fate and he would no doubt dislike whatever news they’d given to Odin now. “What have they seen this time?”
“Baldŕ’s death at Loki’s hand.” Odin set his fingers against his temple with concern clouding his eye. “My son and heir, your brother and friend, the Norns have foreseen his murder as the prelude to Ragnarök. Knowing what I do now, well, certain precautions must be put into place.” Odin returned his arm to rest on the side of his throne and gripped the gold frame firmly. “Loki will return with Idun and when he does, he and his son Fenrir are to be locked away.”
Týr rose to his feet in anger and disbelief. “What? But they’ve done nothing! Surely Loki has done some foolish things, but he’s never harmed anyone. And Fenrir’s only a child! What could someone with his frame possibly do to take down the Aesir. He still has his whole life ahead of him; it isn’t fair!”
Odin stood to meet Týr at the steps leading to his throne. “If Loki is allowed to go free there’s no telling when his games will turn to malice, and when they do, Baldŕ will be the one who suffers for it… and he is only the beginning.” Odin set his hand on Týr’s shoulder. “Týr, my son, know that I could have gone to anyone with this news and they would have gladly taken Loki’s head. Despite this, I have chosen to spare his life. I took him in as my brother. I love Loki as you do, and it pains me to do this, but I have no choice. He and his children will rise up one day to destroy us…Týr, if we can prevent Ragnarök, then Líf’s destiny will change and the two of you—”
Týr smacked Odin’s hand from him. “Don’t you dare.” Týr’s anger manifested into his piercing glare and shaking fists. “Don’t even say her name. If you wish to lock Loki away, then do it yourself.” Týr turned his back to Odin and headed for the door. Loki hadn’t forced Týr from the woman he loved, Odin had, and he had no right to speak of her. Loki had protested. He’d fought for Týr’s right to live freely when Týr no longer found the will to do so. Týr had surrendered. He’d given up his choice in the matter and left it to fate…to Odin and the Norns. He wouldn’t take that same freedom from Loki.
“Týr!” Odin’s voice struck through the tension like lightning and halted Týr’s steps. “If you walk away from this then another will take on the task and I cannot promise that Loki or his son will walk away from it.”
Týr turned his head back slowly. The muscles in his shoulders tensed. It took everything in him to keep from swinging his fist in Odin’s direction. He focused his anger into his stare. His voice was passive and stonewalled. “Is that a threat?”
“It’s the truth.”
Týr wanted to hit him. He wanted to scream and charge Odin with the violence he so feared from others. He wanted him to see what there was to truly be afraid of. Not Loki. Not a child like Fenrir…him. He turned away from Odin and looked back at the towering doors before him. The sight of Odin made him sick and striking him wouldn’t spare Loki or Fenrir. He needed to cool his temper and think beyond his violent impulses. Týr slammed his fist against the wall near the door, breaking the stone beneath his knuckles. “Fine.” He didn’t look back.
When Týr returned to Fenrir and Baldŕ he said nothing and took Fenrir by the hand. He forced him to his feet and hurried away from Baldŕ and the epli tree.
Baldŕ called after them. “Týr? What’s wrong? What did father say?” Odin hadn’t told Baldŕ of the Norns’s vision. Baldŕ had been haunted by visions of his own death as a child, something that scarred him deeply. If Odin could prevent it, then there was no need to say anything.
“It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.” Týr continued to march forward, with Fenrir struggling to keep up with his pace, leaving Baldŕ and the epli tree behind.
Fenrir could sense Týr’s frustration. He felt it in the firmness of Týr’s grasp on his hand and the way he pulled him along instead of allowing him to walk at his side. “What’s wrong? Has something happened? Is it father?”
Týr kept his focus forward. “Fen, when we get home I want you to gather your things. As soon as Loki gets back, you’ll be leaving.”
“Leaving? To where?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere far from Asgard.”
“Will it just be father and me? Will you be coming too?”
Týr was quiet. If he was going to turn his back on the Aesir and help Fenrir and Loki escape, it made sense to flee with them, but they wouldn’t get far that way. He had to stay behind, give the others false leads and suffer whatever punishment came from that. He couldn’t go with them. “No, Fen, I won’t.”
Fenrir yanked his arm free of Týr’s grip.
Týr faced him and reached for his wrist but Fenrir continued to pull away. “Fenrir, now is not the time for a tantrum!”
“I don’t want to leave.” Fenrir’s eyes brimmed with tears. “Not without you.” His lips quivered, and he covered his eyes with his forearm and sobbed into the sleeve of his robe. “Why do I have to go? Because of something father did?”
Týr was taken aback. He’d seen Fenrir cry as a baby, but even when Loki scolded him or when he scraped his knees playing he sported a brave face. The mask Fenrir always wore was cracking. He truly was a child, no matter how hard he tried, his heart was innocent and weak. He needed Týr. Fenrir was lonely and desperate for love and as he wailed, unable to control his sorrow, Týr’s own heart broke. Týr knelt to meet him and removed Fenrir’s arm from his face. Týr’s smile was somber. “Listen, Fen, it’s not like I want you to go. If I could have things my way, you’d stay here, and we could play tafl like we always do, but sometimes—in order to protect the people we love—we have to sacrifice our own selfish desires. Don’t think that I don’t want you, but Loki is your father. I know he’s an idiot and can be a lousy parent, but he loves you. He’ll take care of you.”
Fenrir shook his head. “No, he won’t! Why can’t I stay with you?” Fenrir wiped his eyes repeatedly, trying desperately to stop his tears. “Why couldn’t I have been born your son? Please, please, please don’t make me go. I’ll be good, I promise.”
Týr set his hand on Fenrir’s cheek. “You may not have been born my son, Fen, but I’ve never thought of you any differently. You’ve always been my kid.” He smiled and wrapped his arms around Fenrir, squeezing him tightly and pinning Fenrir’s arms to his side so he couldn’t fight back his tears. “And for that reason, I will do anything to keep you safe. The Norns have made claims against you and your father to Odin, Fen. He wants to lock you away. I can’t let that happen. I know your heart is far too kind to sit in chains for the rest of eternity.” Týr eased his hold and looked at Fenrir. “Understand?”
Fenrir nodded. “Then lock me away.” Fenrir held out his wrists. “At least this way, you won’t get in trouble.”
Týr’s eyes widened and he shook his head. “No, Fen. Absolutely not.”
“You said it yourself, that sometimes we must make a sacrifice to protect the ones we love.” Fenrir smiled through his remaining tears. “If I run away then you’ll be a traitor and I’ll never see you again. I don’t mind being locked away. Perhaps the Allfather will even allow you to visit me. I will prove myself to him, to Odin. I will show him what you see. I’ll show him I am not the son of the mischief god, Loki, but of the warrior, Týr. Then…maybe, someday, I can stand at your side again.”
Týr covered his eyes with his hand and forced a smile. He wished Fenrir were a more selfish child. He wished he’d raised him to want more for himself, the way his true father did. “Alright, Fen. You win. We’ll all go together.” Týr’s throat was tight from swallowing back tears. Fenrir would never leave on his own. Týr could only trick him into doing so. It was the first and only lie he’d ever tell him, but he knew his betrayal would crush Fenrir’s kind heart. He could only hope that someday, he’d forgive him.
Fenrir grabbed Týr by the hand. “Then we should go.”
Týr wiped his eyes quickly and looked down at Fenrir’s small hand in his. One more thing he’d be forced to let go of because of fate.
Loki didn’t return that night. It wasn’t until the following day that he reappeared with Idun cradled in his arms, asleep. He snuck Idun back to her post beneath the epli tree once night fell and crept back to his home under the cover of darkness. He knew the Aesir were still angered by his actions and he was far too tired from dealing with Thjazi to try and charm his way back into their good graces. He headed to his bedroom, ready to rest, and found Týr and Fenrir already asleep on the fur that lined the wool stuffed with down and straw. Loki’s box-bed was large enough that the two of them hardly took up any room. Loki kicked off his boots and slipped into bed beside Týr. He draped his arm over Týr’s chest and rested his head beside him.
Týr’s eyes opened slowly and without looking he knew. “You’re too close, Loki.” He shoved Loki to the edge of the bed and used his foot to nudge him one last time to the floor.
“Oh sure, you let the boy cuddle up next to you.” Loki sat up from his fallen position on the ground.
“Must you make everything twisted.” Týr glared at Loki momentarily before turning to Fenrir who was still sound asleep.
“He’ll sleep through anything.” Loki stood and dusted himself off.
Týr slid out from beneath Fenrir slowly so not to wake him. “Yes, well, he’s had a rough couple of days so I’m sure he’s exhausted.”
Týr stopped in front of Loki on his way toward the door. “We need to talk.”
Loki shrugged and followed Týr outside. “Well, what’s so important that you’re sneaking me out of my own home to keep from waking my son? Are you finally ready to confess your love to me?” Loki put his hands on his hips and leaned toward Týr with a smile. “Ready to take me right here and now, are you?”
Týr hit the side of his hand against the top of Loki’s head. “Now is not the time for your stupid jokes.” Týr straightened his own posture and looked at Loki, not sternly the way he often did, but with unsure eyes and the corners of his mouth turned down. “It’s serious this time, Loki.”
Loki leaned against the brick that constructed his home. He folded his arms over his chest and sighed before looking at Týr. His eyes were set and the general mischief that glimmered there was gone. “Alright, I’m listening.”
Týr told him of the Norns, of Odin’s plan to prevent both Ragnarök and Baldŕ’s death by detaining Loki and Fenrir, and how he was the one Odin had sent for them.
Loki shook his head. “That doesn’t make any sense. What reason would I have for killing Baldŕ? I think it’s pretty apparent I’m not well liked, and besides yourself, Baldŕ is the only other member of the Aesir to have shown me kindness. I bare him no ill will.”
“I know that, but you know how Odin is when the Norns are involved. What is seen is what shall be unless there is intervention. Which is why you and Fenrir must run.”
“As if Fenrir would ever leave you behind.”
“This isn’t up for discussion, Loki. If you don’t leave Asgard soon then Odin will know I’ve turned against him and there will be no saving you.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Loki sighed and snapped his fingers.
At the clicking sound of Loki’s thumb and middle finger, a green light surfaced from the dirt below and wrapped itself around Týr’s body. Týr attempted to move but his legs were bound by the light and he fell to the ground. He fought against the light but as he struggled the grip on him only grew tighter. “Loki, what is this? Don’t be stupid!”
Loki kneeled before him and smiled. “Try not to move too much…and while you’re at it, perhaps keep it down. You’ll wake the boy.” He ruffled Týr’s hair.
“This isn’t a game, Loki.”
“Of course not.” Loki stood and stepped over Týr.
Týr rolled over onto his other side to face Loki’s back. “Where are you going?”
“To talk to Odin.” Loki looked up at the sky. “I will try and reason with him. It’s all I can do at this point.” Loki tilted his head back and glanced at Týr, there was a darkness shading his eyes. “But should he refuse to listen, then I shall give him the villain he desires.”
    “Loki, don’t do this. Think about Fenrir. Think about your son.”
    “I do this for him, Týr.” Loki turned away. “No man who runs is ever free. No matter where we are. No matter what we do…we will constantly watch over our backs, waiting in fear for the day when running isn’t enough. That isn’t freedom. And what point is there in living without that. I know I’m no good as a father, but that’s no life for me and it’s not the life I want for Fenrir.” Loki gave Týr a backwards wave. “The binds I’ve set you in will release once I’m far enough away. I’d say, by the time I reach Odin’s citadel. Good night, Týr. Rest easy.”
    Before Loki entered Odin’s throne room, he grabbed one of the swords hanging from the wall outside the entrance. It was an eastern style blade, from a god Odin had conquered in Midgard. It was lightweight, slim and suited Loki’s slender frame. He had no desire to use it, but if anyone was more calculating than him, it was Odin. He had to be prepared.
Inside the hall, Odin was nowhere to be seen, but Loki was not alone. Before the steps leading to Odin’s throne stood a man whose facial features and stature greatly resembled Baldŕ’s. His skin was a pale, ghostly color and his hair, silver like the armored pieces he wore over his light blue garb. His eyes were a deep violet color and they focused, in a cold stillness, on Loki as he entered the room.
Loki sighed and shook his head. “What I wouldn’t give to be wrong, just once.” His grip on the sheathed sword in his hands tightened. “However, I will give Odin this: I expected a trap, but I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be you, Höðr.”
“Your existence is a threat to my brother. You can’t be allowed to go free.” While Höðr bore similarities to Baldŕ, they were not the same and the Aesir recognized that. Next to Baldŕ, Höðr was a cloud of gray. He was a lingering shadow cast in the light that was his brother. Baldŕ was a god of peace, but Höðr was a god of winter and with his touch came despair. He would rain that despair down on Loki for his brother’s sake. “You had your chance to go peacefully, Loki.” There was an iciness to his voice that cracked the air surrounding his breath. His hand rest on the hilt of the sword at his hip and he took a step toward Loki, the floor freezing and popping like ice beneath his feet.
Loki unsheathed the sword in his hands. “So, Baldŕ’s shadow wants to step out into the light.” Loki shifted his gait and prepared to be on the defensive. “How bold of you, Höðr. In taking my head, you will finally be recognized by Asgard. That’s what you’re after, isn’t it?”
Höðr dashed toward Loki and struck. “Silence!”
The two of them clashed, each guarding the other’s sword with the sheath in their opposing hands. Höðr’s expression was one of anger but Loki’s demeanor remained calm as it always did. “You should know, Höðr, that I like your brother. I consider him a friend. Whatever prophecies Odin has filled your head with are simply conjecture. I’ve committed no atrocities.” Loki jumped back, distancing himself from Höðr’s blade. “I didn’t come here to fight. I only wish to speak with Odin. Shouldn’t I at least have the chance to defend myself? Do as Baldŕ would, and listen to me, Höðr, please.”
    “I grant no man, no god, no son of giants such kindness. I am not Baldŕ. Every chance you should speak is another moment for you to fill the world with lies and every moment you draw breath means one less breath for my brother.” Höðr went to strike, his sword lifted level with his eyes and driving toward Loki.
    Loki attempted to catch Höðr’s blade with his, hoping to knock it from his hands. However, in a split second—one in which neither could discern the coming movements from the other—Höðr lowered his blade to pierce Loki’s shoulder, eliminating the only obstacle between Loki’s sword and Höðr’s face.
Loki’s strike was already in full motion, and by the time he realized Höðr was feigning his true striking position, it was too late. He hadn’t meant to. He hadn’t expected Höðr to divert from his original target and he doubted Höðr had expected him to swing so wildly, otherwise he never would have lowered his weapon. But he had, and though Loki tried to pull back, the tip of his steel still reached Höðr, slashing across his wide-open irises and sending him to his knees.
The sword Loki held clattered to the floor and he stood in disbelief. For him, the room went silent, even as Höðr kneeled, clutching his face and screaming, Loki could not hear it. There was only a buzzing in his ear and a panic in his heart. It was like he wasn’t standing in the same room. He didn’t recognize anything anymore.
The doors behind him swung open and Týr rushed inside. He gasped for breath but when he saw Höðr, blood dripping between his fingers as they covered his eyes, the need for air escaped him. He looked to Loki, calling his name but he didn’t respond. Týr grabbed him by the shoulder and forced Loki to face him. He shook him. “Loki, what have you done?”
Loki’s eyes came back into focus, the fog that had encompassed him faded. He shook his head and pleaded with Týr. He spoke the truth, desperate to ensure his only friend still believed he was good. “I was defending myself. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to, Týr. You believe me, don’t you? I was just trying to disarm him. I didn’t know he’d move his blade. I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I didn’t—” Loki’s words turned into a rasping, wet sound. Blood seeped from his lips and he looked down to his stomach. Höðr’s sword pierced through him. His eyes drifted from the tip of the sword protruding from his abdomen to Týr’s face.
Týr’s eyes were wide and shaken. His lips parted as if to speak but he said nothing.
Höðr pulled the sword from Loki’s back. His eyes were shut, blood streaming down his face like tears. Loki had taken his sight, but even without his vision he could discern Loki’s position once he began to speak. He aimed low, so not to pierce his chest. He wasn’t supposed to kill him, only slow him down.
Loki’s knees crashed against the ground and he grasped at Týr’s legs, trying to hold himself up. He looked up at him waiting for Týr’s eyes to meet his before he tried to form words through the copper crimson on his tongue and in his throat. “You have to go back to Fenrir.” He tightened his grip on the fabric of Týr’s pants. “Before it’s too late. You see it, don’t you. The trap Odin set for me. He sits on his throne, watching, calculating his moves and setting his pawns into place, so that he can hide behind them until he’s ensured his victory. Please, Týr…go to him.” The strength in Loki’s hands gave out and he collapsed to the floor on his side. “Save my son.” Týr knelt beside Loki and tried to attend to his wound but Loki pushed his hands away. “There’s no time, Týr. It’s alright, go. I won’t die here. If Odin had wanted me dead Höðr never would have lowered his sword. He would’ve drove it through my skull the way he wanted to. Isn’t that right?” Loki tilted his head toward Höðr who no longer held his sword. He’d seated himself flat onto the floor and tore at his sleeve, so he could bandage his eyes.
Höðr didn’t owe him an answer but until the others could arrive to bind Loki, he needed rid of Týr, so he aided in convincing him to run. “He’s right, Týr.”
Týr shook his head. “I can’t leave you here, Loki.”
    “As a friend, Týr…I’m asking you to. The longer you sit here arguing with me the more danger Fenrir is in. Now, please, just go.” The darkness that had shaded Loki’s eyes earlier that night had returned, and he smiled at Týr, something almost sinister and unlike him.  He gestured for Týr to lean in closer and whispered, “let them take me. If Odin wants to make an example of me, then so be it. When the time comes, I will come for him. I will not run, Týr. I will conquer.”
Týr leaned back and searched Loki’s eyes for the glimmer of jest usually held there, but there was nothing. His eyes were unfeeling. He feared for him. Týr wanted to lift his fallen friend onto his shoulders. He wanted to save Loki and Fenrir both, but Loki was right. He wouldn’t make it in time if he tried. It was asking too much. He’d lose Fenrir to whoever Odin sent for him and Loki would never forgive him. He’d lose them both. Loki was trying to make Týr’s choice easy, but even as Týr turned from his wounded friend and ran to Fenrir’s aid, he felt like he’d betrayed him.
Týr found Fenrir still asleep and shook him awake. “Fen, we have to go.”
Fenrir rubbed his eyes of sleep and yawned. “Go? Go where? Has father returned?”
“I’ll explain everything later, for now, you just need to trust me.” Týr held his hand out to Fenrir and waited for him to take it.
Fenrir nodded and placed his hand in Týr’s. His eyes were wide and awake and his stomach turned with anxiety. Something was wrong, but all he could do was trust Týr as he always did.
With Fenrir’s hand in his, Týr made for the door, but three of Odin’s personal guard were waiting for them. Týr was prepared to fight them but before he could strategize their means of escape, he felt something heavy smash against the back of his skull. His hand slipped from Fenrir’s and he fell to the ground. He tried to stand, tried to look back to see who had attacked him, but a boot pressed against his temple and held his face to the dirt. “Get off me!” Týr squirmed and glanced up trying to discern the face of the one who stopped him.
It was Odin. He’d forced the pommel of his broad sword against Týr’s head. “I’m afraid you’ve left me with no other choice, Týr.” Odin looked to his soldiers. “Get the boy.”
Fenrir dropped down beside Týr and grabbed his hand. He tugged, trying to free Týr from beneath Odin’s boot.
Týr glanced up at Fenrir. “Fen, let go and run. You have to run!”
Fenrir didn’t move. He kept holding onto Týr’s hand. It was all he had. The only place he felt safe. He couldn’t leave him. Fenrir stared up at Odin, trapped in his shadow. Afraid of being crushed beneath his power like Týr. His eyes watered and his hands trembled but he didn’t let go. “Lord Odin, please. You’re hurting him.” His voice was feeble.
Odin ignored him and kept Týr in place as his men encircled Fenrir and tore away.
Fenrir kicked and screamed. He reached his hand out to Týr, his small fingers desperately stretching as far as they could to reach him.
Týr struggled beneath Odin’s weight to reach out to Fenrir, but he was too far away. He could reach and reach but he’d never connect. “Let him go!”
Fenrir bit one of the two men who held him, trying to break free, but they didn’t release him. They held him as Odin’s third soldier took Fenrir’s hands and placed his small wrists in lofty chains. They were going to take Fenrir away.
Týr fought desperately to get out from under Odin’s boot, his head throbbing with pain. “Don’t you realize what you’re doing, Odin? You’ve betrayed your brother and you’re imprisoning his son! You’ve given Loki a reason to hate us, don’t you see that?” He tried again to lift himself up, but Odin struck his spine with the hilt of his blade, sending him back to the ground. “Fenrir!” He was getting further away, soon he wouldn’t be able to see him. “Please, Odin! Let him go!” Fenrir disappeared into the shadows, fighting and screaming Týr’s name as they dragged him away. Týr turned his stare to Odin. “How could you?”
Odin waited until the others were far enough away to lift his boot from Týr’s face. “I’ve done what’s best for Asgard. I don’t expect you to understand.” Odin headed back in the direction of his citadel.
Týr rose to his feet. Dizzy and sore from the effects of Odin’s earlier strikes, he struggled to step forward. “Where are they taking him?” He attempted to follow Odin and stumbled onto his hands and knees. “Damn it, Odin! Don’t walk away from me!”
Odin stopped. He kept his back to Týr as he spoke, “know your place, Týr. Remain in line and I will see to it that both Loki and Fenrir live. But should you cross me, know that they won’t.”
Týr was helpless. He was an outsider. No one questioned Odin, no one questioned the Norns…no one besides him…besides Loki. He couldn’t take on Asgard alone, even if he was willing to try, the consequences of failing were too great. He could say no more. He could only watch as Odin walked away, victorious. Týr dug his hand into the dirt and pressed his head to the ground. He suppressed his urge to scream, to wake the rest of Asgard with his loss. He couldn’t shake the image of Loki, pleading with him to save Fenrir or the image of Fenrir’s hands trembling in chains. Týr raised his head and as he let the dirt in his hand fall from his palm, Loki’s final words to him echoed in his head. I will conquer. The Loki that Týr knew had changed. Loki’s jests had transformed into malice and with Fenrir captured as well, there was no telling what he’d become. God or prisoner, Loki was Loki and he would have his way. Ragnarök was in motion.

Samantha E. Payne

Samantha Payne holds an MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Fiction from Northern Arizona University where she teaches composition. She is the author of the new-adult-romance novel Maleficium and her writing has been featured in Alt Hist, Flash Fiction Magazine, Gravel, and Entropy. She was the fiction and visual arts editor for Thin Air Magazine and is an active publishing assistant for the speculative fiction magazine, Bards and Sages Quarterly. When she isn’t teaching or writing, Samantha draws manga and practices coloring inside the lines.

By J.S Cline

Jude stood in his doorway in disbelief, staring down at the rectangular piece of glass in his hands. For the third time, he read through the sapphire lettering displayed on the screen.

“Dear Citizen,

We were recently alerted that your bank account balance dipped into single digit Credits. Due to your unfortunate financial standing, we would like to cordially invite you to participate in the #1 Intergalactic Game Show, “Would You Rather.” As you must know, our show challenges  contestants with difficult scenarios, and based on the outcome, rewards them handsomely. We must inform you that agreeing to participate in our show could cause serious harm to your physical or mental health. However, failing to die will result in a lifetime of wealth. If you agree to these terms, please select the YES option at the bottom of the screen and your transportation to Zagdan IV will be immediately arranged. If you select NO, best of luck. You have 12 minutes remaining to decide.

In ZA,
The Sogard Incorporation”

Sweat formed on Jude’s palms, the tablet slipped slightly in his hands. He tightened his  grip on both the device and his sanity. The words weakened his knees, creating an unstable sway in his stance. A free falling sensation overtook his body. Jude filled his lungs slowly. With a gentle release of breath, he tried to quell his mounting anxiety. His mouth came together in a smile so small that any casual observer would have missed it. He had made his choice. He selected YES.
The decision was made, no turning back. Tears welled up in Jude’s eyes. Years of mistakes, hardships and bad luck led him to this moment. He knew he was low on currency, but he thought he could survive another few weeks. Years ago he held a similar tablet, standing in the doorway of his parent’s house. That tablet, too, carried a promise of a better life, a message containing his acceptance to the “Earth Institute of Higher Learning.” He selected “yes” that day, with the same stubborn smile. How did I end up here? Nothing to lose and everything to gain. If I could go back and shake the arrogant twerp I was, I could tell him how things would really end up…
No sense in thinking about that now. The small egg shaped ship had arrived, invading his front yard with a forceful thud. The ship sat there silently, almost mocking Jude for a moment, before the door slowly extended to the ground, releasing an audible buzz and a haze of smoke. Out walked a tall, thin alien with green skin and the grin of salesman.
“Hello, dear sir. We are so pleased that you decided to accept our invitation. Please board our shuttle and we will take you to our set.”
“I have little choice in the matter, Alien. Becoming one of your contestants is my only option.”
“Ah, in life, dear sir, you always have a choice. Though, your circumstance certainly seems to have one more desirable choice than the others. I suppose that is why we chose you.”
On the surface, the alien was polite and approachable. His speech was forthcoming, but Jude found great difficulty taking his first steps towards the ship. Remembering the reward, his face shifted into the stubborn smile that came so easily to him these days, and he took a step. Jude boarded the shuttle and entered into a white space, perfectly clean, perfectly empty. Hardly a second after the door closed, a complete replica of his living room flashed into existence, transforming the interior of the ship. Jude approached his favorite reclining chair, pressed his palm into its armrest firmly, looked back at the alien, and took a seat. The newfound familiarity with his environment, and his heavily cushioned chair, helped to subdue Jude’s mistrust of the alien. A lurching motion indicated take-off, and after several long minutes of silent travel, a careless collision with the ground indicated their hasty landing. Lines of tensions loosened slightly from the alien’s tight face at the impact.
“Hello? Hellooooooo?” Judy was confused. There has been a loud clang on the door, but when she stumbled quickly across her messy house to answer, no one stood on the other side. Judy realized that she was standing in full public view, wearing nothing but her pajamas and draped in her favorite robe. It was comfy, pink, she didn’t care. After several moments, Judy began to close the door. On the steps of her front stoop a seductive shimmer of light caught her eye. What’s this? Oh, a tablet! But who would send me a message in the middle of the day?

“EEEEEEEEEE!!!” Judy shrieked, practically before she even finished reading through the message. She had never been selected for anything, she had never really won anything! But now! Now she would be on TV! She would become a star. All she had to do was partake in some silly little challenge, and she could be famous. I wonder what it will be? Maybe I will direct a train into some people to save some other people!? Hmmm, but that would be a hard decision. Oh well, future me will figure out how to save everyone. Judy selected YES.
Judy jumped up and down in a circle, clutching the tablet tightly to her chest. Tears formed in her eyes. Judy didn’t need to think it over or ask for advice. She made up her mind in about 27 seconds. This was a decision so easy that it hardly felt like a decision at all. Her friends would be so jealous! Just last night they were teasing her for getting laid off again. They wouldn’t be laughing as 90 billion life forms watched her on TV. Maybe I could be in commercials! Oh, I could have my own show! My life is so interesting, people would love to watch me learn how to juggle or play with my robo dogs. Everytime Judy lost her job, something better always seemed to come her way.
A loud noise interrupted her dancing and daydreaming as a weird hunk of metal slammed down on her lawn. The curved flap extended outwards, opening like a mouth. The shuttle seemed to burp up smoke as the door hissed like an angry snake. Judy’s eyes were stretched wide open, like a child looking upon a new toy. Out walked a new friend.
“Hi, oh, hi there! I’m Judy, it's nice to meet you. Welcome to my, uh, front lawn!”
“Yes, dear madam, I know who you are. You have accepted our invitation and I am here to bring you to our set.”
“You’re from the show!? You got here so quick. Wait, if you're from a TV show, then how come you wear silly brown robes that are way too big, and have those funny little shoes?”
“Dear madam, there will be time a plenty for questions on our trip. Please board the shuttle.”
Without hesitating, Judy skipped through the door. She was taken aback when she found nothing inside of the ship. Where is all the stuff? I thought there would… Judy flinched in disbelief as her living room appeared right before her eyes.
“Did you do that? Did you make my stuff appear like that?”
“Yes, dear madam, we want you to be comfortable and relaxed before the show.”
“So, could you make it something else? Like a garden? Or a beach? Can you make it a beach?” Immediately she felt the warm hug of sand beneath her feet and the welcome tickle of sunshine on her nose. Now that's more like it. Laying on a towel next to her companion, Judy asked rapid fire questions. The alien gave short and vague answers, fueling her curiosity. She had known the curt alien in the silly brown robes for only a short time, but she could tell they would be friends forever. Judy was disappointed when she felt the ship descend and suddenly come to a halt.
Again, the door buzzed as it lowered. A tidal wave of bright light rushed into the shuttle, blurring his vision, matched by the deafening cheer of the crowd. Jude emerged from the ship, feeling for each step as he progressed. Finally finding the dusty ground, his vision returned. Jude stood in what appeared to be an old Roman Colosseum. This is a place of gladiators, an arena of death. The alien has brought me here to fight. I will die or find glory as a plaything to the savages in the audience. Jude thought back to second grade. The sandbox in the school yard.  It was a sandbox, like this massive old sandbox, only smaller, where he had his first fight. His life became a sandbox full of fights after that day. Even now, as an adult, Jude would stumble home late at night, after provoking a beating. He was strong, resilient and a natural fighter, but at some point in each drunken bout at the bar, he would stop punching and accept the punishment he felt he deserved. Those fights were for him, they were what kept him sane, but this fight would feel different. The urge to throw up came upon Jude quickly, but the knowledge that he was on Intergalactic Television kept him upright.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, meet your first contestant, Jude from Earth!” The alien spoke naturally with no amplifying device, but his voice boomed across the stadium. The crowd was silent with anticipation. Jude stood as an animal in a cage, strangely feeling compelled to impress his new masters.
“Jude, I must now ask you a question that will determine your scenario, and your fate. WOULD YOU RATHERRRRR…” The alien loved the crowd, and they loved him. They screamed the words in perfect unison. “Jude, would you rather, fight one horse sized duck, OR, one hundred duck sized horses? Do not be hasty in your response, for the people value a good show, but you value your life.”
He’s right, I shouldn’t be hasty. What should I do… One hundred of anything is enough to tire you out or distract you. Maybe if I could focus on one opponent I’ll have a chance. Who am I kidding, I could never fight that. I’m a…
“Jude, we need your answer.”
“The duck. I choose to fight the duck.” His voice filled the arena, breaking the void of silence. Hearing himself speak at such a grand volume brought him a hint of confidence to his choice. That confidence immediately wavered, his smile flattened, then his bottom lip fell, when the gate to his left lazily creaked open.
    “Jude, enjoy your scenario and may ZA bless you with favor.” As the shuttle ascended, and the alien escaped the arena, Jude noticed a number of weapons piled where the ship had just stood. They were now his only exit. Quickly scanning the armory, he retrieved a long wooden spear with a curved metal end. What do I know of ducks? They haven’t existed for hundreds of years on my planet. This must be some sort of simulation. I recall ducks having wings in place of arms. Can a duck fly?
A deep long “quuuuuuaaaack” broke his line of thought. He could feel the noise vibrate through his body. Turning back towards the open gate, he got his first look at his opponent. A ten foot tall yellow bird emerged from the shadows at an alarming pace.
Run you fool. There was no time, before Jude could move, the duck was on him. It swiped forcefully with its beak and Jude fell instinctively to the ground, avoiding the strike. The beast stood over him with demonic eyes and unnaturally ruffled feathers. The bird lifted its massive orange leg and a whooshing noise whipped through the air as its webbed foot trapped Jude against the sandy floor.
The bird looked up at the stands, its eyes trying to find the alien, waiting for some indication to finish what it had already accomplished. In that moment of hesitation, Jude wiggled an arm free, grabbed the spear and drove it up into the duck’s plumage. Another loud “quack”  released into the stadium accompanied by the communal gasp of the crowd. The duck stumbled back, using its beak to remove the spear from its chest.
Jude slowly rose, standing face to face with the giant. Behind him the pile of weapons waited anxiously. Jude spun towards a heavy looking sword laying on the ground, the hilt just out of reach. As he stepped and extended towards the blade, the duck pinched Jude in his beak, lifting him high off the ground. Holding Jude’s leg in its mouth, the duck shook forcefully. When Jude finally hit the ground, he was completely disoriented. In his peripheral he saw a glimmer of light that brought the fight back into focus. The sword.
Rolling over to grab the sword, Jude unintentionally dodged a power jab from the duck’s beak. The duck’s beak wedged tightly in the sand, and as it pulled, a cloud of dust covered the scene.
Sword in hand, Jude rolled back towards his foe and struck the duck’s defenseless neck. One final “quack” was released, this one more gentle than the first two. The crowd exploded with cheers. Jude could clearly hear his name echoing from the crowd. He took a moment to appreciate the admiration, rotating and taking in each face as roses rained down from the sky. Jude had forgotten the horror he had just faced to earn their approval. Now adorned with a smile, he approached the downed bird, raised his sword, and looked up at the stands. He needed no instructions on what to do next, but soaked in the crowds directive all the same. As the steel fell in one last fatal blow, Jude felt an intense pain in his back. In a final desperate act, the bird had kicked. Jude went flying through the air at the webbed foot’s impact. He landed on the ground, eyes pleading to the crowd, vision fading, breath escaping, never to smile again.
The door lowered again making the same strange hiss like an angry cat. Judy was greeted by a super bright light, and some very loud people. Wait, they're cheering. They must be cheering for me. My fans! Judy came bursting out of the ship smiling from ear to ear. She waved vigorously, trying to let each and every viewer know how much she loved them.
This place is strange. Judy recalled a coloring book she had as a kid. This was an exact image from that book. I think this is a zoo, in the coloring book I remember this place having animals. Kicking up a storm of dust as she twirled, Judy noticed a team of people dragging a large yellow object through a distant gate. Is that a giant bath toy? That looks like my rubber ducky. They must have designed this place after my childhood like they did in the ship. Judy started wandering towards the feathered toy, too distracted to notice the hush of the crowd.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this has proven to be a memorable episode indeed. Meet your second contestant, Judy from...”
“Hey, how can you talk so loud without yelling?” Her voice filled the stadium and her eyes widening once more. “Wow, do you hear how loud I can talk!?”
“Judy, I must now ask you a question that will determine your scenario, and your fate. WOULD YOU RATHERRRRR…”
How did they know he would say that?
“Judy, would you rather fight one horse sized duck, OR, one hundred duck sized horses? Choose wisely.”
    “ONE HUNDRED HORSES!?” She wasn’t exactly listening to the alien, but couldn’t help but blurt out at the mention of the horses.
“Good luck, dear madam. Enjoy your scenario, and may ZA bless you.” The alien spoke in a calm voice as he boarded the shuttle.
The ship jumped into the air revealing a pile of objects in the dirt. Judy studied the objects, deciding that they were weapons. She now stood firmly planted to the ground in anticipation. She hadn’t a clue of what would happen next. She was clad in the armour of a fuzzy pink robe and wore purpley-grey cat shaped slippers. A gate to Judy’s right rose with a long and terrible clanging sound. The noise like a thunderstorm grew louder and louder by the second. Through the shadowy gate an army of tiny horses charged menacingly into battle. At that moment, Judy was overwhelmed. She was frozen, eyes wide, as paralysis took over her body, watching the parade of adorable shin high steads tear across the dirt towards her. She confronted her challenge in a way that no one but Judy ever could. Turning her attention past the various weapons laying on the ground, still not quite sure why they were there, she again looked to the crowd. They were on the edge of their seats, waiting for her performance, waiting for the show.
The wait was over, Judy charged the tiny beasts. She flung her arms open in a hug. With the animalistic instinct of any cuddly creature, the herd circled their target and were disarmed by Judy’s compliments, spoken in baby talk. One by one, they rolled over to have their bellies scratched, and neighed affectionately at their enemy.
“I LOVE THEM! I LOVE THEM ALL!” Judy said, winning over the horses, the crowd, and all of the prize money.
The alien watched in disbelief, he couldn’t understand what he had witnessed. The crowd’s cheering was seismic. It was all wrong. Jude had played his part perfectly, slaying the duck while also succeeding at death. The alien had watched Jude’s scenario in wonder of his own ingenuity. And then there was Judy. Perhaps there was more depth to her than they had discovered in their extensive screening. Perhaps she was deceptive and clever. Perhaps…
“Hey, so now what?” Judy’s voice sounded over the crowd. “Do I get to keep them? I already have names for some of my favorites. The brown one that looks like my cousin is Jim, and there's Ty, and that one with the funny pink spot on his nose is Spot, or Pinky. No, that one is Pinky.” She went on, reciting or creating names for all one hundred horses.
The alien had to do something. He ran into the programmer’s room. They were all watching the scenario on their projector, smiling at the delightful scene, laughing at their own failure.
“What happened? Why did the horses just stop and roll over!?” the alien demanded.
“Uh, well sir, we programed the miniature horses to anticipate the use of any of the provided weapons, really they would be capable of disarming and conquering the most deadly warrior,” the lead programmer offered timidly. “I suppose their small little electronic brains, fueled by 1s and 0s mind you, couldn’t comprehend, or combat, her love. Seems like we forgot to calculate the chance of someone like Judy using hugs instead of swords,” the programmer finished, a bit tongue in cheek.
“Well, DO SOMETHING!” the alien screamed.
Heads snapped in his direction.
“What would you have us do?” asked one of the programmers.
“What would I have you do? Oh, dear sir, I would have you DO YOUR JOB!” With that, the alien stormed out. He went back to his viewing platform and waited, although he didn’t have to wait long.
Judy sat cross legged on the ground, surrounded by the one hundred miniature horses. The alien would never admit to it, but it truly was a delightful moment. But, it was just a moment and it would pass.
Suddenly, all one hundred horses stiffened. Their posture no longer showed affection and comfort, rather vengeance. Horses who were, moments ago, lolling around on their backs or rolling around enjoying belly scratches, now stood erect. In unison, they trotted back towards the gate with great purpose and fell into a formation like a wild swarm of bees. They once again became menacing and stampeded towards Judy. Judy remained seated, she opened her arms, as if to welcome the embrace of a loved one. A whole herd of loved ones.
The horses charged, picking up speed. They were feet from Judy. Her eyes opened fully with anticipation, she was ready for them. And yet, she wasn’t. The horses didn’t break stride, they collided and ran right over her, pressing her into the ground four hundred times. Trampled, flattened, defeated. The beasts had no remorse, no understanding of sadness. Briefly they had learned to be loved, but the programmers had fixed that bug. The alien watched and cheered while the audience cried out. Judy lay still. Very still. From the audience, it was impossible to miss one fact: through the trauma, now crushed on the ground, Judy’s eyes remained open, stretched wide open, like a child in disbelief.

J.S Cline

J.S Cline is a Silicon Valley based author, who often confuses the real world for Science Fiction. A fan of all things fantasy, he has spent his life trying to capture his imagination. Early 2018 he tried writing a short story and fell in love with the form. This is his debut publication.

In Yarak
By David W. Landrum

“I came here when I was your age,” Jing Lin told Soong, “and for the same reason.”
Their horses ambled up a rough, rocky pathway. Soong’s body ached. She had not ridden horses much, and her muscles had not adjusted to the stress riding created. Finally, after another twenty minutes or so, the path leveled out. She found it easier to move across level ground.
They continued on, the air clear and cool and the sunlight bright. Wide meadows gleaming with flowers stretched around them. In the distance, she saw cattle grazing. Hardly flapping their wings, hawks flew, riding currents of wind in the blue sky. Soon, she would be learning to hunt with a hawk.
“Beautiful creatures, aren’t they?” Jing Lin commented.
“They are, my Lady.”
“They are even more beautiful up close; but  also more frightening. You’ll learn a great deal here, Soong, just as I did.”
Soong did not reply. Jing Lin had trained her for the past two years. For the first time, she would be alone without the princess to assist her, and doing something completely new and foreign. It made her uneasy that the princess kept assuring her that she would learn a lot.
They rode another mile or so and a cluster of houses appeared. She saw a larger group of dwellings—perhaps a small village—beyond the ones they were approaching. Up ahead, people had come to greet them and Soong rejoiced at the thought of dismounting.
As they got closer, Soong saw the woman she assumed must be Nazanin.
She had never seen Persians. As they drew near, she noted their different appearance and dress. Nazanin stood tall—tall as a man—and looked strong and muscular, particularly her arms. Soong noted her dark brown skin, dark eyes, and long, lustrous black hair. She wore a red tunic over a pair of baggy pantaloons with boots. She guessed the woman’s age at forty or so; she looked younger than Soong had imagined.
Jing dismounted gracefully, Soong less so. Her rump, back, and shoulders ached. As the servants took the horses, the woman approached them, knelt, and prostrated herself.
Soong knew the princess did not like such shows of abjection and often told courtiers and other visitors who came to her with petitions to “get up and stop groveling.” She said nothing like this to the woman.
“Arise, my friend,” Jing said. The woman stood and Jing put out her arms. They embraced and kissed.
“Joy and prosperity be upon you, my Lady,” she said.
“And to you, my friend. Be pleased to greet the woman you are to teach, Soong Yuan.”
The woman bowed to Soong, who returned the gesture. Never certain about protocols, she imitated Jing Lin and hoped for the best. The Persian woman seemed pleased at what she had done.
“Soong Yuan, I am Nazanin.”
“I am honored to meet you, Mistress. Princess Jing Lin speaks highly of you.”
Soong was relieved when the formalities ended. Their entourage headed for Nazanin’s house. Servants scurried about them, ready to do the bidding of their mistress. It felt good to walk; the pain in her body ebbed. Soong reviewed the information Jing Lin had given her. Nazanin came as a refugee to Xingnoa years ago. Her family had been involved in a plot to overthrow the King of Persia. Nazanin had not participated in the plot, but the rulers of the land had determined to exterminate her entire clan. Most of her relatives had been killed. She, two cousins and a few servants, escaped to Afghanistan and when the Persian rulers tracked them there, travelled to China. However, the Chinese government would not receive them because they wanted to continue their trade on the Silk Road and not antagonize their chief partners in that endeavor, the Persians; but officials suggested she petition to settle in Xingnoa. Jing’s father received her into the kingdom. She bought land, married a Xingnoan noble, and settled in a remote corner of Jing’s realm, near the Russian border. Her husband had died two years ago, Jing had said, and has four grown children.
Once inside the house, the servants led them to bath chambers. The hot water felt luxurious to Soong.
During the noon meal, Soong and Jing met Nazanin’s youngest child, the only one who lived with her at home. She introduced him as Yi Min, though she called him Kasara (Soong assumed this was his Persian name) when she spoke to him. Tall, slender, but giving the appearance of strength and agility, he bowed to Jing. Soong noted how handsome he was. Chinese blood had overcome Persian in this young man. He looked Chinese, his eyes folded, skin gold and not brown, the shape of his face and his features suggesting he was native to the Divine Land. Yet there was something very un-Chinese in the way he moved and spoke. She marveled at his grace and energy.
“So you will be our guest,” he said to her after they were introduced.
“Yes, sir, I believe I will.”
“Enough of ‘sir.’ Yi Min is fine, though I mostly go by my Persian name, Kasara. It’s a good conversation starter, anyway.”
Soong did not know what to say.
“I like the sound of your name,” Jing said. “Congratulations on your success against the Luopa bandits who were causing trouble.”
“It was a tough campaign. I thought we would either kill all of them or they would kill all of us. Then they negotiated a treaty. So far, they’ve kept their part of the bargain. They even pay us a little tribute—which is technically yours, Your Highness. Later, I will give you what they have paid so far.”
“Nonsense, Keep it. I like having them on the border and at least showing minimal loyalty to us. They can spot and report any sneaking around by the Chinese government.”
The food they had eaten made Soong sleepy. Jing noticed and excused her so she could go to bed.
When she woke in the morning, she felt refreshed, her aches from riding gone, her energy and clear-headedness renewed. The mountain air, she thought, must be doing her some good.
She went outside and stretched to loosen up and to bring her to full awareness. She stopped when she saw Jing Lin. The princess was barefoot and wore her plain black smock and pants with her hair braided. The two of them did Tai Chi for an hour before they went to breakfast.
As they went inside the house, Jing said, “You need to be careful of Kasara. He’s a bit of a rake.”
Soong looked at her. She did not understand the term the princess had used.
“‘Rake’ means womanizer—seducer. He is handsome, young, and intelligent. He uses his … resources, shall we say, to charm women.”
“I have no desire to be charmed, my Lady.”
“Just a warning. I think his mother will rein him in.”
Soong nodded.
After breakfast, they received a lesson in falconry.
They went to a shelter where six birds sat on perches, tethered to a rope tied to each one’s leg.
Soong hoped no one noticed her alarm; she had never seen predatory birds up close. To her, as to most people, they were small black shapes flying high in the sky. They were a menace at her family’s farm when she was growing up. Now and then, one would swoop down and seize a chicken from the barnyard, but even then they moved with too much speed to be seen in detail. Before her, they presented a large, formidable body, a beak that looked as if it could easily sever one’s fingers, and dangerously sharp talons. Their black and yellow eyes leered at her and their easy motions frightened her. What if one flew at her and clawed her eyes or face? Soong summoned her courage.
“Ah,” Jing said. “Moonlight—my baby.”
The bird she stood in front of raised it wings just slightly, stirred, and ruffled its feathers.
“Let me get you a glove. Nazanin said. After a moment, she returned with a tough leather glove—a gauntlet that covered her hand and wrist. By now, the huge bird showed considerable agitation. Soong wondered if it would attack, but after Jing put the glove on and Nazanin undid the tether, she flew upward and settled on Jing’s gloved hand. The princess bent down and kissed the hawk’s head, which looked to Soong like a snake.
“Moonlight—my sweetie, my little girl,” Jing cooed, “I’ve missed you so much!”
The bird chirped happily. Soong thought the low purring sound that came from her throat was frightening.
The princess continued her ecstatic praise of the creature, as if it were a cat or a puppy.
“Shall we fly her?” Nazanin asked. “She’s done with her molting and I can tell she’s happy to see you. I think it’s time.”
They went outside. The hawk spread its wings, which made it look huge. Soong later learned it was a goshawk, the most unruly, unpredictable, and difficult to train of all the species. She would have to train a goshawk in her time at Nazanin’s home.
Out in a wide meadow, Jing removed the rope on the great bird’s foot, lifted her arm, and whistled. In an explosion of strength, the bird flew off, gliding a few feet above the grass and flowers, circling. She watched its graceful movement.
“She’s in yarak,” Nazanin said.
Jing caught Soong’s puzzlement at the word before Soong noticed Kasara had joined them. “Yarak is a Persian word,” she said. “It means, ‘strength,’ but as it is used in falconry, it’s a bit hard to define. It means the creature is the right weight and in good condition to hunt. It also refers to the moment when the instinct to kill possesses the bird. Soon, she will spot an animal. Watch as she goes fully into yarak.”
Soong followed Moonlight’s flight. It glided about and then seemed—though Soong would have thought this impossible—to hang motionless for just a moment in the air. Then, with a suddenness that startled Soong, it shot like an arrow in a straight trajectory, down into a shaggy tuft of grass.
Jing, Nazanin, and Kasara cheered wildly and leaped up and down in excitement. They ran to where the hawk had landed, Soong following. When they stopped, the bird stood over the body of a large hare it had killed.
Jing reached into a pouch she had slung over her shoulder when they left the aviary and took out a piece of raw flesh. She held it in her gloved hand. After a moment of what seemed like indecision, the hawk flew from the hare it had killed to Jing’s fist and began to devour the chine the princess held. One of the servants who always shadowed Nazanin and her son ran over and placed the hare in a cloth bag. Jing Lin spoke softly to the hawk as it ate. Nazanin and Kasara seemed intensely pleased at what had happened.
Their party spent the next two hours in the field. The hawk killed another hare and a pheasant.
“We’ll feast on these tonight,” Nazanin said. She turned to Soong. “You will be training a hawk to do this,” she said.
Soong hesitated but then said, “I don’t see how I could ever learn to do this, my Lady.”
Nazanin laughed. “Neither did your Sovereign over there, but she has become a first-rate falconer. You will learn as well.”
Soong slept much of the afternoon. She woke, blinking in the sunlight, feeling alarm, wondering if her nap might constitute an affront to her hostess. But when she saw the princess, Jingsmiled, kissed her, and asked if she felt refreshed after sleeping. Soong said she did.
“I know it was a hard ride for you,” the princess said, “but I wanted to arrive here in enough time to fly Moonlight.”
Soong nodded. The princess seemed to love the bird a great deal.
“It seems impossible to train a wild bird to do the things you have trained her.”
“It is an ancient sport. You’ll be engaging in a discipline that goes back thousands of years.”
They spent the rest of the day exercising. As she expected, Jing gave her a wooden staff and sent an invitation out to all challengers, male and female, who lived in the surrounding area. The men of the estate, and a few women, took up the challenge. Their techniques were different—at least the Persians were—but Soong made short work of them all (to the delight of the women, who didn’t mind being knocked down if they were able to see the local men receive a drubbing from a female pugilist).
“This is the woman who knocked me on my ass the first time we crossed staffs,” Jing said approvingly.
Kasara eventually stepped up, took hold of a staff, and faced off with Soong. His technique surprised her, but she had seen his feet and legs flex and knew what he planned to do. In second, he sprawled on the ground, half-dazed from the clout she had given him.
The women cheered and applauded.
He got to a sitting position, rubbing his head. Soong had hit him on the shoulder, but the blow had addled him.
“I didn’t see that one coming,” he said.
“That’s the idea, Kasara,” his mother replied. “Pay more attention the next time—and don’t think because you’re fighting a woman she will not be skillful.”
He laughed, got up, bowed to Soong, and walked (a bit unsteadily) over to the crowd of people watching. Jing applauded Soong. She bowed and gave her wooden stave to a servant.
For supper they ate the hare and pheasant Jing’s bird had killed. Soong listened to the conversation that went around the table, much of it centering on falconry. They spoke of austringers, crence, hack, imping, jesses, mews, varvel and used other terms taken from Persian, French, and English, that sounded odd in Chinese, and were difficult to pronounce; they debated the worth of certain types of bewit and the proper variety of bechin. Soong realized that she would have to learn all the terminology. The task before her seemed more and more impossible. She wondered if the princess would discontinue her training as a warrior if she failed to learn falconry.
Soong drank too much wine and ate too much. Soon she felt sluggish and sleepy. Excusing herself, she went outside. Nazanin said she would send a servant to escort her to her quarters.
Soong looked at the moon hovering over the mountains. It looked large. She could see Yue Lao, the Old Man Under the Moon, the god of marriage and love. Though the sight warmed her heart, it also brought up the bitterness in her soul. She did not believe in the gods or the God of whom the Christian missionaries spoke. She did not follow the Tao or the teachings of the Buddha. Soong could not understand how a deity of any kind could allow what had happened to her; and if the Buddha or Lao Tzu offered a path to enlightened behavior, why did no one seem to follow it?
She would never marry. When, as a poor girl, she had gone to work as a servant at the estate of a wealthy landowner, she had often been called upon to service the men, and some women, who came to his house as guests. She made extra money for her work as a house prostitute, money she was able to send back to her family. Jing had taken her away from all of that. Soong reflected that she might have taken her own life if the princess from the land of Xingnoa had not selected her to train as a warrior. Still, her experience at the estate had pushed her soul into a region of darkness. No moon or stars shone there, and no promise of dawn gave her hope.
As she contemplated this, she heard someone walking toward her; Kasara. She felt defensive, but then remembered the principle Jing had taught her. Never let fear take you. Always be detached, formless, and ready to act.
“A beautiful night,” he said.
“It is.”
“I often wonder if Yue Lao is plotting to fix me up with an ugly bride.”
She did not intend to answer, but the words emerged from her mouth before she could think to stop them.
“That isn’t likely. You’re a handsome man.”
“Well, thank you. That is a significant compliment from one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen.”
“So, we have established that we are both attractive.”
“It seems we have.”
She continued to gaze at the moon, Kasara watching with her. A long time passed in silence.
“Congratulations on your decisive victory over me today. I’m still aching from it.”
“I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“I deserved to be hurt. I wasn’t taking you seriously as an opponent. Mother was right about that— as she usually is.”
“Your mother is beautiful.”
“It was said she was the most beautiful woman in Persia.”
“I haven’t seen any other women of Persia, but they would have to be very attractive to outshine your mother.”
Soong could not understand why she was conversing so openly with him. She had determined to be quiet and not encourage conversations with Kasara. They stood together, silent before the beauty that they saw.
“Can I escort you back to the house?”
“Nazanin said she would send a servant to escort me.”
“I’ll go check on her, then. By your leave.”
Soong nodded and Kasara left. She relaxed, glad he had gone; yet, she had enjoyed speaking with him. Jing had correctly described him as a rake. He knew how to talk and how to charm. She resolved to be more careful and never to be alone with him again.
Then her ears picked up sounds foreign to the environment she had been in all day. Soong sharpened her senses, drawing her focus to a point. She heard the tread of men (Jing had taught her how to distinguish the sound of men walking) and the clink of armor. Before she could turn, they rushed at her.
They would cut her down if she fled. Shouting out an alarm would waste energy and dissolve her focus. She listened to the onrush of foes and prepared to do the unexpected. She charged at them.
They slowed, surprised she had attacked them rather than fleeing. In the bright light of the full moon, she saw five of them in Persian dress. They carried knives, which meant they were assassins. Soong knew the entire fight would hinge on what she did in that moment. She selected the smallest of them, who occupied the periphery of their formation, dove, rolled under him, knocking him off his feet before righting herself. She jumped, kicking so that her foot landed with the full velocity of her body on his throat.
The kick broke his neck. Before his hand dropped to the ground, she had snatched the weapon from his grip.
Soong rejoiced. He had been armed with a shamshir, a Syrian weapon popular with Persians. Though not a full-sized sword, it was longer than the knives the other assailants wielded.
Soong sprang to her feet and took a defensive posture. Soong still could not cry out. She had to keep her focus and not waste energy, but she also needed to make noise.
The man in the lead smirked, seeing they were up against a woman. He threw a knife at her.
He was good; Soong could see the trajectory of the weapon heading straight for her throat. Rather than ducking, she used the shamshir to knock the knife to the ground, picked it up, and threw it back at him, striking him in the center of his forehead.
He screamed. As he fell, she struck several blows against the scale armor he wore.
The other three hesitated, just as she had hoped. She ran at them as they came together in a defensive formation. Soong screamed and attacked, raining blows on their helmets and shoulders.
She swung her sword furiously, but with purpose, surprising them with her strength, agility, and speed. They could barely defend themselves. Soong assaulted them, making as much noise as she could. Her stratagem proved effective. Soon, she heard the noise of people running toward her. The light of torches profaned the white light of the moon. A group of armed servants—and Jing—charged to rescue her.
They encircled the assassins, who could see they had no chance and surrendered. Jing came over and took Soong’s hands.
“Are you hurt, child?”
“No, my Lady.”
She was trembling and felt faint and Jing put her arms around her. Soong gazed at the scene and saw the two men she had killed.
“You defended Nazanin admirably.”
Soong did not reply, weariness overwhelming her. Her body drooped as she tried to stop shaking.
“Let’s get you to the house,” Jing said.
By now villagers, armed with sword and clubs had joined Nazanin’s contingent. The three men they had captured looked at them apprehensively. Trained soldiers or even armed guards displayed steadiness, but the locals, who felt outrage at those who had invaded their land, could be volatile. Nazanin took charge as Jing led Soong back to the main house on the compound. Soong heard Nazanin giving orders for securing the intruders and soothing the anger of the villagers.
Jing had Soong drink, briefly examined her, and, assured that she had not been hurt, told her she needed to bathe.
“It will relax you.”
Soong undressed as Jing and two serving women prepared her bath. Working as if she were a servant, the princess poured hot water in the tub, put in aromatic powder, and told Soong to climb in.
She sank into the warm, scented bath. Growing up, she washed as best she could every morning and night, but her family had to be frugal with the water they had, so bathing was not something she had known as a child. When she went to work for Du Fu, she had bathed for the first time, after servicing one of his guests.
Jing began to run a soapy cloth over her shoulders.
“You fought well,” she said.
“Thank you, Princess.”
“I’m proud of you. And you saved Nazanin’s life. She has enemies. We were surprised they came this far, but your vigilance stopped them.”
Soong did not answer.“Princess, you should not be washing me,” she said after a while.
“Nonsense. You are my sister in battle. We care for each other. The rank we observe in the palace does not apply in the field.”
Soong let Jing wash her back, hair, and shoulders. She handed Soong a cloth so she could wash the front part of her body. The washing soothed her and Jing’s presence made her feel safe.
“Nazanin will give you a gift. You must accept it or it will be an affront to her.”
“I will accept it.”
“I am pleased with you. You’ve worked hard these last two years. Your hard work has brought you skill and mastery and you have used it for good.”
Soong did not reply. She felt immensely weary.
Nazanin appeared. Soong, who had grown up not in poverty, but in a family with little money, always felt a twinge of shame about her body. Jing told her she was delicate and beautiful. Soong thought her slender build, small breasts, and long legs might be the result of not eating well as a child and a young girl. Men seemed to think her attractive. They certainly had at Du Fu’s. And in her travels and training time with the princess, she had noticed what seemed to be admiration of her looks and physique from those who met her. This made her remember what the princess had told her about Kasara.
Jing and the two servant girls dried her. Jing told her Nazanin would drink wine with them.
“I want to step onto the balcony and let the wind cool me, so I don’t sweat after bathing,” Soong said.
She stepped out on to the low platform that gave a view of the mountains. Jing and Nazanin left and the servant girls stopped at the door. Soong told them to go and get her clothing ready. They bowed and left.
By now, clouds had risen and the moon turned them silver. She opened the robe she had put on, letting the wind blow on her naked flesh, and sighed with pleasure as it cooled her.
She detected something—not a noise, but heat or the air moving from the motion of someone walking. She opened her eyes and saw Kasara.
Instinct made her hands search for the sides of the robe to pull them together, but she stopped. He smiled. She stood a moment, knowing he could see her. She determined not to cover herself.
“I’m sorry, Soong. But I could not help looking. You are exquisitely lovely.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Those men intended to murder Mother and me. We owe you the greatest debt of gratitude one can owe.”
“To defend you was the proper action to take.”
“Yes.” He seemed abashed and behaved as if he did not know what to say. “Will you join us for wine?” he finally asked.
“After I dress.”
He opened his mouth, perhaps to make a remark, seemed to think better of it, bowed, and left.
The two servants helped her dress, tied up her hair, and escorted her to a small room where Nazanin, Jing, and Kasara awaited her. When Soong came through the door, they rose. Soong bowed. Nazanin approached her, took Soong’s hands and kissed her.
“We owe you our lives, Soong Yuan. You will live forever in our hearts and are forever my child and sister.”
“I consider this an honor, my Lady.”
“It is my honor. Please sit.”
Soong took her place at the table, next to Jing, across from Kasara. They drank in silencee.
“Do you know who those men were?” Jing asked after a while.
“They realized telling the truth is to their advantage. They’re Persians who traveled to Afghanistan with a group of merchants. From there, they found their way here.” She paused and added, “I am never out of danger.”
The princess, Soong noticed, had dressed up in a bright blue qipao decorated with golden eagles. The bright clothing made her look even more beautiful than she usually did.
The attempted assassination put a damper on their conversation. After a life-and-death situation, one could not easily exchange pleasantries. There was much grave talk about the politics of the event.
“I’ll send a letter to the Shah,” Jing said. “He wants Xingnoa as an ally against the Chinese. I’ll tell him in no uncertain terms that incidents like this one will erase the possibility of a treaty between our nations.”
“He will say they were rogue mercenaries, not agents of the Persian government.”
“He may say that, but he will know I don’t take kindly to such interference.”
The talk continued, subdued, but regular after a while. When the moon stood at midnight, everyone at the table retired.
“I think you need to sleep with me tonight, Soong,” Jing said. “Come to my bedchamber.”
Soong obeyed. She had not wanted to be alone tonight, and the princess had sensed as much. Nazanin had provided a large, plush bed for Jing—a bed such as Soong had never imagined could exist. They settled down. She and Jing often slept together for warmth when they went on campaigns however, Soong had never slept with the princess when they visited someone’s home or the palace. But tonight, she felt fear. She needed someone near her. She needed warmth and the assurance that someone who loved her and protect her was near.
Soong had never slept alone before she left the farm. She always slept with her younger sister, and together they kept the bed warm. At Du Fu’s she had slept with another servant girl when she was not in bed with one of Du’s guests. Only when she began training with the princess had she begun to sleep alone.
As she settled down, Jing already asleep, she thought of Kasara. She had been warned about him. Of course, Soong thought, as her mind drifted toward oblivion, she noted that if Kasara played the role of seducer she should not have stood in front of him half-naked.
Sleep took her and when she awoke, Jing had already gone.
After breakfast, Soong, Jing and Nazanin’s entourage went to the aviary. Nazanin told Soong she could select her hawk. Inside the building she found several birds, tethered, on perches. They were all goshawks.
“Mistress, I don’t know how to choose,” Soong said. “Can you give me any guidance?”
“I will give you this advice and none other,” Nazanin replied, smiling. “Training is a relationship. The princess told me you have trained with her for the past two years. You learn things—techniques, methodologies, skills— but it is also a relationship. It is mentoring,  sharing your life with your teacher. So it is with the hawk. My advice—and this is not a jest—is to find a bird you can love and who you think might come to love you.”
Soong was glad Nazanin had qualified her statement. She would have indeed thought the statement a jest if Nazanin had not given a disclaimer with it.
How could she know if a hawk would love her?
She walked up and down the row of large, scary creatures. Their yellow eyes scanned her appraisingly. She thought she detected hostility in some of their gazes—but Soong could not be certain if she saw it or if she merely projected her own feelings on to the fowl. One of them seemed less aggressive and another looked ready to fly at her. She pondered, almost choosing the one she thought most passive, but then selected the one that looked ready to hook its talons into her throat.
“A good choice,” Nazanin said. “He’s a strong bird, and spirited.”
“Then he has all the more capacity to love,” Soong answered.
Nazanin seemed to like Soong’s reply. They would begin training the next day.
That night, Kasara came up to her as she returned from the huge garden the estate maintained.
“I see you were meditating. Are you planning to be a nun?” he asked.
“I am not. Anyway, I couldn’t even if wanted to. I’m not qualified.”
“From the time you were employed as a servant girl?”
“Yes. To be a nun, you must be a virgin.” She paused and added, “I don’t think much of religion and I rather despise meditation. The princess says it is good for a warrior. It develops one’s level of concentration. It appears she is right.”
“Jing Lin can sharpen her mind to the point that things around her move at a snail’s pace. She can catch arrows and see a lightning-fast stroke of a sword as if it were moving like the hand of a mechanical clock. She doesn’t use the skill a great deal because she says to do so would eventually damage her mind and result in either madness or lethargy.”
“So she had told me,” Soong replied.
“She is a remarkable woman. So are you.”
“Have you decided that since you saw my intimate parts?”
He was taken aback but recovered quickly.
“I was thinking more when you landed me on my rear; and of your amazing valor just before I had the joy of seeing you in all your glory.”
“You are an interesting man.”
“Thank you, Soong. May I call you that?”
“Of course you may. I have no title, so what else would you call me?”
“I could call you ‘young woman.’ I suppose there are other modes of address.”
“‘Soong’ is fine.”
He stopped. She did as well.
“Can we talk again, Soong? I find you fascinating—and beautiful.”
“I would sometimes hear Du Fu’s guests tell him how much fun it was to fuck that ‘skinny little peasant girl.’”
“You are slender and strong. I’m sorry anyone would say such things of you—let alone exploit you.”
“Don’t you want the same?”
“The same thing, perhaps; but also not the same thing. So I don’t seem like I’m airing a Zen paradox, I mean the thing itself is the same—the same act; but not in the same spirit; not as exploitation; not against your will.”
“That would be novel.”
He came close to her and gently put his hands on her shoulders. “All the more reason to consider it.” When she did not rebuff him for touching her, he leaned in and kissed her. When he drew away, she did not speak.
“That is the sort of kiss a woman like you should be given.”
She said, after she had contemplated a long moment, “The men who had me never bothered to kiss me.”
The two of them went back to the main house. Soong joined Jing and the two of them retired for the night. The next day, Nazanin sent Kasara away. Soong would not see him for another two months.
She spent an excruciatingly boring week teaching the hawk to trust her—“manning” the hawk, as Nazanin called it.
“It’s the most tedious matter,” she said. “First, you simply will sit with him so he knows you. You are a huge, strange creature. He has to get used to being around you.”
The first two days, Soong sat with the hawk. Soon, however, she could not endure the boredom and began to do her training exercises with the hawk nearby. Her sudden movements and the shouting she, as a martial artist, used to focus her concentration frightened the bird. But it also seemed to understand Soong’s intensity and purpose. She remembered the term yarak—a hawk’s focus when it killed. When Soong went through a kata or a sequence of movements, the bird watched with fascination. After a week, Nazanin marveled at how “manned” the bird seemed to be and said Soong could move on to the next phase of training, which was feeding the bird.
“Have you named him?” Nazanin asked.
“No, my Lady.”
“Then you need to. It’s only a superstition, but most falconers give their birds nice, sweet, gentle names. So don’t called him ‘Killer’ or ‘Ares.’ Find something pleasant.”
Soong’s goshawk became “Emerald.” His feathers had an odd greenish tint at the ends, visible only when one was close to him. The name suggested intimacy to Soong.
Emerald began to eat from his mistress’s leather glove in only three days, which Nazanin said was remarkable. Soong began to train the bird with a lure and learned the skills of hooding, putting jesses on the hawk’s talons, and tying the falconer’s knot.
“I said you should find a bird that could love you. Apparently, you chose one who did. His progress is remarkable. He trusts you. Soon you will be flying him.”
“I’ll look forward to that. Where is Kasara?”
“He’s away on a diplomatic mission—not far, and not in a foreign land, just working with some tribal peoples in the area. He’ll be back at the end of July.”
Soong continued to train Emerald. He made progress at a rapid rate. And—a thing she had dismissed as absurd when she heard Jing say this before she left—she began to love the creature. Another thing that surprised her was how she missed having Kasara around.
The sexual exploitation Soong had experienced as a servant made her resolve to live the rest of her life in celibacy. She would be as one of the legendary warrior maidens of ancient days:  Xun Guan and Hua Mulan. Of course, she was not a virgin, but she could live a life apart from men, devoting herself to arms, and doing good for the downtrodden—and serving the princess, who had taken her from Du Fu’s house, showed her kindness, and trained her as a fighter.
Now, she thought, I’ve let myself fall for a young man who has the reputation of a seducer. You can take the girl out of the whorehouse, but you can’t take the whorehouse out of the girl.
She chided herself for thinking such thoughts. Jing had spent hours trying to develop her attitude toward the past.
“You were exploited, Soong,” she would say. “You had no way to resist the brutality those men subjected you to. Don’t blame yourself for the crimes they committed.”
She acknowledged the truth of Jing’s advice. At a young age, she had hired herself out as a servant. Naïve, she thought, recalling her belief that she would spend the two years of her indenture there washing dishes, cooking, and cleaning. The chief serving woman told her she would have other “duties.”
Soong wanted to go home, but remembered hearing her father tell her mother one night when they did not know she was listening that if things did not improve, they might have to send her two sisters to one of the local brothels to work as prostitutes. She realized what she would have to do. She was the oldest daughter. Since such a thing had befallen her family, it would be she who would become a prostitute. She told the chief serving woman she would be happy to serve in this way. Her willingness resulted in a fairly generous stipend on top of her pay as a servant. She sent all of her money home so that her sisters were spared the humiliation of the brothel.
She told herself she had done the right thing and had rescued her sisters; that, as Jing tried to convince her, she had been victimized. Yet, in her heart, she called herself a slut, whore, and harlot. The truth of logic could not overcome the rapaciousness of emotion.
Having Emerald soothed her loneliness. She could not quite comprehend why. She took the bird outside and taught him to strike at snares—dummy animals the hawk would attack. Then she would feed him raw flesh. Soon she would let him fly free and hope the creature had bonded enough with her that he would return and not fly away to the wild.
When she was not working with the hawk, she trained, meditated, sparred with women in the nearby village who could fight with staves. She practiced archery and throwing darts and other projectiles. She meditated and did her katas, but often Soong was bored. She asked Nazanin if she could do some work around the estate.
“You are my guest. I can’t have you working as a servant.”
“I’m used to working. Isn’t there something I might do?”
Nazanin pondered. “I have a herd of ponies grazing in the meadows to the north,” she said. “I need someone to bring them down before winter settles in. If you go, you should be armed. Wild beasts abound in the area, and occasionally, one may encounter brigands. I’ll send a servant and some guards along with you.”
“If it’s a dangerous area, I should go alone, mistress. That would be safest. If a wild beast attacks, it will only attack me. If there are bandits, they won’t be able to take whoever is with me as a hostage.”
“I see. As you wish, Soong Yuan.” She smiled. “Pity the bandit who tries to rob you.”
Soong selected a sword, took along throwing stars, darts, and a backpack containing food and two blankets. She set out on her journey.
Not far from the estate, the land climbed steeply. She followed the path Nazanin had described. The sun rose higher as she made her way and the air cooled. Soong reveled in the beauty all about her. Mountains, purple and shimmering in the mist, rose up, one range after another, and stretched out toward the horizon. A few clouds hovered in the hard blue sky. Flocks of white and scarlet birds formed murmurations above her. She saw wild sheep, deer and, once, off in the distance, a leopard. Hawks—many of them goshawks—circled silently above her, riding the air currents. She thought of Emerald and realized she wished the bird was with her on her journey.
She found the herd of ponies at dusk. Nazanin had said it would be a two-day journey, but probably had not realized how fit and determined Soong would be. The animals—she counted twenty-three of them—stood together in a broad, grassy area surrounded by tall rocks and scraggly trees. They looked at her dubiously when she walked into their enclosure, a few of them stirring uneasily, one or two whinnying softly.
Jing had taught her how to approach wild animals. On their journeys they had encountered tigers, panthers, bears, and buffalo (the latter, Jing had told her, was the most dangerous of animals).
“Animals react to the energy they sense in you. If you are calm, they will be quiet.”
Soong received this skeptically—until Jing walked up to a white tiger that had jumped from a rock outcropping and growled at them. The princess had approach it slowly and put her hand on the creature’s face. After a long moment, the animal turned and sauntered off into the wilderness. Soong fancied it had purred. Now she would have an opportunity to test her skill—albeit, on much less dangerous animals.
She calmed herself, suppressing the troublesome memories she had of riding (she was not good with horses). Then she remembered how Jing had said not to suppress bad memories and fear but to “speak with them”—to bring them to the front of one’s mind and ponder the anxieties rather than trying to suppress them.
The ponies gave her dubious looks but did not bolt. She walked to one that seemed the strongest in the herd. It gazed at her with the large, sad eyes that even the fiercest horse looked out with. The animal stood still, and she caressed its neck. Sensing its pleasure at her touch, she scratched its face, which seemed to give the creature considerable joy.
By now, the sun was sinking low. Soong went off a ways from the herd because the smell of dried meat would alarm them if she ate too close to where they lay. She eat jerky, bread, drank wine, and once more, carefully approached the mass of ponies. A couple of them raised heads and made noises, but none of them fled. She found a grassy patch between two of them and slipped into it. She made to roll up in her blanket but then realized the warmth of the animals would be all she needed to survive the cold, so she used her blanket only as a mat.
The warmth and the earthy smell of the animals soothed her; reminded her of growing up on a hardscrabble farm where sometimes animals slept in the house at night. Nothing romantic about those days, she thought. Nothing at all. Still, despite borderline poverty, she had been happy as a child. It was only later that things turned grim.
Soong drifted off to sleep, ears filled with the sound of horses breathing quietly.
She stirred when she smelled wood smoke. Once she was fully awake, Soong calmed her mind, both so she would not startle the horses and so she could calmly assess the situation. She managed to extract herself from the mass of sleeping animals without waking any of them and make her way into the meadow, toward the craggy entrance so she could see who had lit a campfire.
Dawn had not broken and the air was foggy and cold. She opened her pack and took out her sword and four throwing stars. There was no need to assume whoever had lit the fire would be hostile. Still, she had to be careful. Soong crept past the entrance, climbed one of the rocks, and peered through the mist. She could see the outline of tents, the orange glow of fires, and the shadowy shapes of guards at the camp’s perimeter. Horses and four or five yaks were sleeping or beginning to stir just past the fires.
She could see enough of the guards to tell by their dress that they were Chinese or Xingnoan. The thought came to her mind that it might be Kasara’s party. Nazanin had said he would return soon.
Soong relaxed. She saw his horse—he rode a white horse—among the roans, bays, and blackies. After a moment, she saw Kasara.
He visited the latrine they had dug and covered with a tarpaulin. Once out, he stopped to talk with various members of his company, from soldiers to muleteers. Soong noticed a group of four women approach him. Nuns, she thought. She could tell that they were Nestorians, probably Xingnoans from one of the convents in the mountains. He bowed to them and wished them well, they went off to an area sheltered by rock, most likely to pray.
Soong clambered down the rock, sheathed her sword, and hurried to the enclave. Kasara and the men with whom he had spoken noticed her. They were startled—especially because Soong was armed—but Kasara recognized her and told them to be still. He walked to her, a wide smile on his face.
“I can’t think of a more pleasant surprise than to see you here, Soong. Did Mother send you to bring the horses down?”
“She did.”
“I thought I would come by and check on them.”
“Good. I wasn’t certain how I would get them to follow me back. I’m not good with horses.”
“That won’t be a problem. But I’m being rude by making you stand there. Breakfast will be served soon. The nuns we brought are from Saint Theosebia’s convent. They’ve come to start a school in our region. They’re bathing at the hot spring over there. I’m sure they won’t mind if you join them.”
It would feel good to bathe, Soong thought. She remembered the incident with the assassins and how the princes had washed her afterwards. A bath would soothe her.
She went with a female servant who called out that the sisters would have a visitor. Soong entered the hidden spring. Through the steam rising into the cold air, she saw the nuns, pretty in their virgin nakedness, and bowed to them. They invited her into the water. She stripped and joined them.
The women marveled at her strong, toned body, though they did not say anything about it. The pleasure of bathing had put them in a merry mood. They gave Soong soap berries and a cloth. She washed, reveling in the warmth and the intimacy of doing so with other women.
They told her about their mission to start a school. Soong told them about her older Sister, Ming Mei, who had converted to Christianity and become a nun at the Nestorian convent of Saint Agnes. They were impressed that she had been admitted to such a venerable cloister.
They finished bathing, dried off, and dressed. By the time she and the sisters came back to the camp, breakfast was ready. Kasara invited her to eat with him in his tent, but she said she preferred to eat outside. The sun had peaked over the mountains by now. The mist had lifted and it felt warmer.
“A beautiful dawn,” he said.
“Every dawn is beautiful,” Soong replied. So her answer did not seem like a rebuff, she added, “I’ve never seen a dawn I did not consider a glimpse of paradise. In the mountains, the sun is wonderful to see.”
“Did you sleep with the horses last night?”
“I did. They kept me warm.”
“You slept among them.”
“Is that unusual?”
“Most unusual. They guard their sleeping places as much as we do.”
“The princess taught me to quiet my spirit. The beasts were nervous at first, but they did not seem to see me as a threat.”
“She taught you a useful skill. Your calm is the reason your goshawk, Emerald, trained so quickly. He sensed no reason to fear you.”
“He responded quickly?”
“It can take longer than a year to train a hawk. Emerald hunted and returned to you after a few months.”
“You say the horses trust you, Kasara?”
“I spent quite a bit of time caring for them.”
“Will you help me lead them back? Your mother wanted me to bring them to the estate in anticipation of winter.”
He said he would.
Soong looked in the sky and saw a hawk. She thought a minute and said, “Can we go see how they react? Just the two of us. I’m not certain they would let you lead them if I’m there.”
She met his eyes. He nodded, told his second-in-command that he and Soong planned to assess the herd, and the two of them walked out of the camp, across an expanse of meadow, and past the craggy rocks that formed the “gate” of the enclosure. Once they were inside and out of sight, Kasara kissed her.
Soong’s passion broke out like a flood. She kissed him wildly. When he put his hands under her shirt, she reached back and untied the band of cloth she wore underneath so he could touch her breasts. She felt his hands on her, squeezing, fingers rubbing circles on her nipples, running down her sides, under her waistband, bottom, and her intimate parts. She gasped and touched him. She felt out of control—yet, at the same time, Soong knew she had determined what she wanted. She was forcing her will upon Kasara, not he upon her.
He picked her up and carried her twenty feet or so to a small cave she had not noticed. They flung off their clothes and made a pallet of them on the sandy floor.
In her two years as a servant/house prostitute, she had seen the bodies of many men. Kasara had a pleasing body (unlike most of the men who had bedded her in those days). He took her in his arms, and she felt the rapture of his love; the violence of it was sweet to her this time. The dry cave with its sandy floor and stone walls created a blessed sense of safety and intimacy.
She got her joy twice—a thing that had never happened before. A blinding wave of pleasure rolled over her once and again. Right after the second time, he emptied his seed into her.
For years to come, Soong would remember the moments afterward. He had rolled off her, put his arms around her, and the two of them lay on their sides. They did not speak. The utterance of a word would seem like blasphemy. Both knew that they could not linger long. Everyone will know what we did, Soong thought, and the longer we stay here, the more it will confirm that we went away to share an intimate embrace. But who cared? Their embrace had been healing. She would tell that to anyone who smirked at her or joked about it or censured her—even the nuns. It had been a holy act.
After some moments, he spoke. “We ought to get back. Will you be all right, Soong?”
She puzzled a moment then realized what he was asking.
“This is a safe time,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”
During her years at Du Fu’s, the other women there had taught her how to keep from getting pregnant. In the winter months, they often ran out of contraceptive herbs and had to be aware of their natural cycles. Her period had just ended. She would not be in any danger of getting pregnant.
“Let’s go,” she said.
They dressed and went to the horses, formed them into a line, and led them out of the enclosure. Once they arrived at the camp, muleteers took charge of the herd.
On the journey back, Soong stayed with the nuns. All were Chinese but one, who looked Russian. She spoke Chinese fluently and with no accent, so she assumed the girl had grown up in China. They talked about their homes and their callings to be nuns. They asked Soong about her religious beliefs and looked shocked when she said she had none.
“My family worshipped the deities of our village. I never paid much attention to it, though I suppose I try to follow the Tao and do good. But I don’t involve myself in worship of any sort.”
“Anytime you wish to worship with us, you are welcome,” one of them, who, though young, seemed the leader of the group, told her.
“Thank you. Perhaps I will.”
They said no more. The journey would be a long one and talking seemed to tire people. And nuns were taught to be silent and speak only when necessary. Soong remembered Ming Mei telling her this. She would join them in their prayers, she resolved. They had been friendly and gracious and she needed to respect this.
They walked until the sun was at its high point, found a shady grove, and sat down to eat. She ate with the Christian sisters. After a while, Kasara waved at her and she went over to where he stood.
“You seem to be avoiding me,” he said, flashing a smile.
“I’m not avoiding you. There’s no reason for me to do that.”
“You like the company of nuns better?”
“For now I do. They’re very pleasant company.”
“I’m not?”
She shot him a look.
“Kasara, you laid me. It was pleasurable, but my world  does not revolve around you because of that.”
He had not expected a rebuke, mild though it was. “Oh, I see,” he said. Then, not knowing what to say next, he bowed and went away.
She watched him walk off and went back to where the nuns sat. They finished their meal, said after-grace, and got ready for the last part of the journey.
The sun beat down on them as they trudged along, stopping once to rest in a shady grove before continuing until the estate came into view. Nazanin sent a rider out who brought them water. They made the last mile of the journey and were received into the cool and comfort of the manor house.
Nazanin was pleased Soong had brought the horses back.
“Your son helped.”
“Still, you found them. They accepted you. You have a gentle spirit, but also passionate and commanding.”
Soong ate, rested, and said she wanted to see Emerald.
Nazanin accompanied her to the aviary. She wondered if Emerald would respond or even recognize her. But the hawk spread his wings. He made a sound—not exactly chirping, more like a hum, making Soong smile.
“You’ve missed me.” She put on a glove and untethered the hawk. She would take him hunting.
Soong removed the tether and Emerald flew to her fist. She caressed his head and neck, a thing she knew the bird liked. It hummed more and they went outside.
She raised her arm, the signal for Emerald to fly. The creature rose into the air. Soong had declined to put a bell on her leg. She remembered being summoned by a bell when she served in Du Fu’s house. She watched her hawk soar high in the air, make a wide gyre, reveling, no doubt, in the freedom he enjoyed. But the circles he made grew smaller, closer to the earth, and eventually landed on Soong’s gloved fist.
A breeze blew up as she fed Emerald some raw flesh, amazed to watch him devour the red chunks of meat. It was amazing, she thought, that some birds ate seed, some insects, and some the flesh of other creatures. Every animal—even animals within a species—followed the dictates of their own nature.
After the hawk finished eating, he flew into the air again. Soong knew from holding him that his weight was right, his feathers full, and that he would hunt. The hawk was in yarak. He was ready and fit to kill. He could give expression to his nature. Even though he had been taken from the wild and subjected to something different from life in the forest; there was something foreign to the patterns of behavior a hawk would normally experience. He still knew his nature and acted accordingly. Some might think it cruel to remove a creature from its habitat and subject it to training such as Emerald had undergone. Perhaps it was. Still, the practice had existed thousands of years. It did not break the nature of a hawk. A captive bird could still live free. It could be in yarak.
Emerald did not want to hunt. He was not hungry because Soong had given him food. She would take him out near dusk. He would want to hunt by then.
She would ask Kasara if he wanted to go along with them.

David W. Landrum

David W. Landrum teaches Literature at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. His speculative fiction has appeared widely, his revised fairy tales in Modernday Fairy Tales, The Fairy Tale Whisperer, Father Grim's Book of Stories, Non-Binary Review, and many other journals and anthologies.

About the Editor:
Madeline L. Stout

Madeline L. Stout started writing when she was a little girl and completed her first full-length novel at the age of 15. Mostly, she loves creating fantasy worlds filled with beautiful creatures and strong heroines. When her husband insists she takes a break from writing, she enjoys reading and gaming. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of  Fantasia Divinity, which she started to give back to the writing community and to help spread great stories. She is the author of The Moon Princess the children’s fantasy series, Once Upon a Unicorn.