Short Story Challenge 2018 Heat 6

Judging has finished and I can publish the below story! I’ll post how I placed after I receive feedback from the judges. ^_^

Jack Dancer

 

Hark ye well to the tale I tell of the night of St Valentine’s day

When the Fair Ones roam

For the love left alone

And they steal broken hearts well away!

 

‘Tis the story we tell all the young lovers this week ‘afore the day of St Valentine. If a sweetheart you have, be bold and be brave and make sure your affection is well known. For the Fair Ones be prowlin’ the night in search of the lonely, the forsaken loves. They spirit them away to the Unending Lands, never to be heard of again. So if ye be lovers, go out in the eve and roam far, and roam wide, and show them your bond may never be broken. And if ye be the lonely, venture not from your home, or ye will be taken.

‘Tis an old story, aye even I heard of it when I was a lad. That be not the story I tell ye this night. I tell ye the story of a lad who danced with the Fair Ones St Valentine’s Eve and came out of the Unending Lands more whole than he went in.

 

Young Jack was a bold one, full of life and of strength. He was fair of face and blessed in all that he did. He could hunt and could build, he could laugh and tell tales, and he could dance. The boy could dance the legs off any a troubadour came prancin’ through the village. It was said he could dance with the Fair Ones and charm his way away from them. He was the star of every festival and much desired by the young ladies of the town.

The one young lady who had his affection was Janise. She, too, could dance and charm, but unlike Jack, her kindness was miles long! For Jack was a vain one, and helped others mostly to show them how good he was, how blessed and stronger than others he could be. But Janise thought never of herself and only of the joy she could bring to the world and the joy others brought to her. She was a joy to the village, and Jack was joy to her.

Well, bold young Jack was out hunting that fall and happened upon a bit of ill luck. While chasin’ a buck down to get a clear shot, he stepped unknowing into an old forgotten trap, which closed upon his leg most tightly. It crunched and it ground through the bones until he fair screamed from the pain of it, and fell senseless.

‘Twas Janise who sent the men from town to search when he did not return. ‘Twas them as brought him back to her half-dead and broken sore. The doctor of the town could do naught but take the ruined foot from off his leg, and then a bit besides. ‘Twas a long time afore he was well enough to wake and longer still before his sense came back to him. But when his sense came back despair came to his heart, for gone was the foot that could dance so fair, and gone was the calf that so strong could stride. His vanity was pricked to lose so pretty a leg and his pride was vexed that a cripple he’d become. Ah! So broken was he from the loss that he could not eat, nor drink, but sank into a melancholy from which there was no escape.

He did not eat but what Janise did spoon him, and did not drink but what Janise did lift up to his lips. ‘Twas a long and weary winter she nursed him, and coaxed him to hobble about on a crutch which he despised, and brought him to be seen at festivals he now was loath to see. For he knew he was now not even half a man, for the loss of half a leg. Still Janise stood by his side and tried to bring him the joy he once brought to her, but his heart was dark and he drifted far from happiness and light.

Midwinter came and went and so approached a day which once they had shared in dancing and in song, in loving and in happiness. Jack Dancer barely noticed how the time had flown and had no energy for gathering the gifts which would ward the Fair Ones away from himself and his Janise. He barely had a thought towards those mysterious creatures and their wicked, playful ways. He barely had a thought for fair Janise!

And so the eve came upon them and she came to him wreathed in a thin joy, for her spirit had been worn by his disregard and her heart had been darkened by want of care. Yet she smiled upon him and brought him a gift which she had worked with her own hands – a pair of breeches well-embroidered with snowdrops and with lilies, and made to fit his long leg and his stump besides. And with this gift she brought a beautifully carven wooden leg, polished until it gleamed and of sturdy manufacture. She said to him, “Jack Dancer, it is the Eve of St Valentine, and we should dance together.”

At her words, a great anger came upon him and he hurled her gifts away, crying, “I am no dancer now!” He turned away her outreached hands and flung himself onto his bed, unheeding of her swift retreat and face of tears. For long a time his inner darkness raged until an outer darkness he did notice slowly creeping into the room. The fire she had laid was dead, and the dusk was seeping in the open door which she had left ajar. A shiver came upon himself as he recalled the night it was, and fear followed the shiver to leave him cold. Her words came back to him as he heard a faraway song, “It is the Eve of St Valentine…”

It was the night the Fair Ones come forth to find the lonely and the hearts which broken flee into the darkness or cower in their homes. His love had fled into the dark while he lay cowardly abed.

A shred of sorrow and resolve now drove some fear away, and up he swung from the bed where long he’d lain, and on put the breeches which her hand had sewn, and strapped onto his stump the sturdy leg which lately he had scorned. The crutch which he despised now helped him hobble to the door to fling it wider and let in the night beyond. To one side lay the village, bright and full of song and full of dance. To the other lay the forest, dark and brooding in the mist. A moment only stood he wavering, wishing that the dance was his and that Janise had fled her towards the light, but knew he in his heart that broken loves flee forest-ward into the arms of darkness.

The mist befuddled his senses and the snow-sogged leaves did slip beneath his single sole, and his mind recalled the trap which painfully had taken off his leg. His every step flashed in his mind the snap, the trap, the pain! But he pushed them all away.

A reedy flute and echoed laugh brought him from his inner struggle and a faded light bloomed far off to his right. He staggered thence and found a circle all of mushrooms, and knew he entered the field of Fair Ones’ dancing. A single doubt now drifted through his soul but knew he then that even were he half a man, his love he had to save, or be lost in the trying.

The first bold step which he had made since before the snows had drifted now was made ‘cross that forbidden circle.

And there he saw Janise was dancing in a sunlit field, the flowers all around her bobbing to a tune which only she could hear. The dance was fair, and she was fair, but her face was wet with sorrow. He started to approach her but was barred by figures too tall, too beautiful to see in full, who laughed at him and bade him go, for only those who dance may stay in the Unending Lands, and they had no use for him.

Shame bowed him down but briefly, then he straightened and replied, “You have my love and I shall win her from you, or you shall have my soul!” They laughed again and said they had no use for half a man, but if he wished to entertain, proceed.

Though music none there was he watched Janise and began to tap his wooden leg to the beat her feet did make. His shriveled muscles remembered their old reels and began to twitch to follow them. A step, then two, and energy began to flow into him. But his crutch did trip him up and fall onto the ground full length he did, to tinkling distant laughter. His face burned shame but the sight of her fair feet upon the grass spurred him up again, disdaining the crutch which so lately had been his demise. He tried again and failed, and yet again a third, before he fell panting to the grass. He could not dance as once he had.

“Give up, half-man, do leave and maybe we will let you,” whispered a scented breeze which passed his face. “Go crawl back to the mortal lands, little worm.”

Well, worm he was! he thought. A worm may dance, but not the dance of man. His failure from before was that he could not dance as if he were a man both young and whole; for neither did he feel himself to be. He had to learn to dance as now he was.

So he began to writhe upon the earth wormlike, and wriggle to the beat his love’s fair feet did pound upon the ground, and silent went the Fair Ones. He wiggled and then rose onto his knees, and danced his arms and head. Inspired he became and rose him up onto one shaky leg which turned into a shaking dance. He spun upon his wooden peg and so the dance did spin. He followed not the memory of dancing in the past but took a single moment and the moment next that happened, giving to them every grace his heart knew how to give. His eyes not once did leave his love, in perfect harmony they turned, though her wide eyes were blinded by the Fair Ones’ unheard song.

His dance was never similar to dances once he’d done. He spun and twisted, hopped and fell, to hop up once again and clown for all to see. It became a lovely play, a comic fray, a celebration stripped of all pretense and vanity, devoid of pride and glamour. He lost himself to the moment and felt again Jack Dancer.

His hand did slap into Janise’s hand and clasp it fast he did! A wail went up from those around, a fierce-cold wind did blow. It bit their flesh and woke Janise from out her dazzled trance. Their hands stayed fast, though the wind did blast and the screams of the Fair Ones rendered them deaf. Forever passed until at last Jack’s hand was numb quite through, but still he clasped, until it lapsed and silence down did come.

He woke upon a crust of ice which under winter trees had stayed. The dawn’s faint light his eyes did greet and the sight of his love cold beside him. His heart did quail before her eyes did flutter unshut, to look upon his face. In wonder up she stood, and him besides, and asked him what had passed that night.

He held her close and said to her, “My love, it is the morning of St Valentine, and I am whole again.”

They have lived in happiness from that day unto this, and hope to see a hundred more besides.

 

 

The End

 

#shortstorychallenge2018

Set out on a Journey …

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Lightbringer 1

Lyliliana watched the flock glide and dip and soar. It was her favorite thing to do when her chores were done. The birds were blue and red and white against the black and gray of winter. Not much snow had fallen this year, and they had stayed for the fallen fruit and hidden berries on and around the farm.

Another flock filled the sky at times, but this one was not as pretty to watch as the other. Great black ravens had chosen this forest to live in many years ago, before Lyliliana had been born. She was now approaching fourteen, and she had grown up on stories of them, and their leader the Golden Raven.

He was not really golden, just the same glossy black as the rest of the flock. Some stories told that he was a princely Aeld, trapped in a raven body by a cruel spell, and when his true love broke the spell he would burst forth from his feathery prison in a golden garment studded with costly jewels. The glint of his eyes was said to be the sheen of his crown.

It was also said that he commanded ice and fire, and that he was the forest’s protector. He was bigger and more clever than the other ravens, and not a single one had been trapped or killed since he had brought his flock here. Nor had the farmers in this area had to contend with missing small livestock to aerial predation. Her practical father grunted when such stories were mentioned, and just said the bird knew what was good for it. “Let us alone and we’ll let them alone. One of the clever buggers figured it out, is all.”

Lyliliana leaned against the fence and dreamed. Her mother always scolded her for daydreaming away her spare time, instead of learning a new skill or finding another chore to do. Her dreams were wild and magical, and in them she was a fierce warrior queen or a beautiful princess on a dangerous adventure. She always won, naturally, but sometimes only by the slimmest of margins. She leaped back from the precipice just before it collapsed, loosed her last arrow to kill the evil beast, and kissed the prince just before he was lost forever. Her dark eyes sparkled as her imagination took her far away from the colorless winter farmyard.

“Lylee!” came a strident voice from behind her, “Lylee! Get yer head outta the clouds and bring us back some kindlin’!”

“Aye, Mum!” she shouted back, then climbed through the fence and wandered towards the edge of the forest, idly kicking clods of earth as her pale hair whipped around her face. She tucked it back into her hood as best she could, but strands escaped regardless.

She hummed a nonsense tune while she walked, letting her eyes wander for sticks on the forest floor as she walked further in. It was late in the season so all the easy wood was already long used. Suddenly she grinned and ran forward.

“A raven feather!” she cried triumphantly as she held her prize aloft. It was as long as her forearm and jet black at the tip, fading to dark grey at the base. The delicate fluff before the sturdy bare shaft was a much lighter grey. It reminded her of her father’s thinning salt-and-pepper locks. She touched the sleek, glossy feather to her cheek, reveling in its graceful strength. She would cherish it forever.

A hoarse croak from above startled her and she gasped as the foliage parted and a huge black shape dominated her view. It shuffled along a branch towards her, bobbing its tail for balance as it fixed first one piercing yellow eye on her, then the other. She took a step back.

The bird stopped as she moved away, and tilted its head, with an almost gurgling sound. Lyliliana’s heart pounded in her chest. The creature stretched one wing out to settle the feathers on it, and she was sure if both were spread, the span would be as wide as she was tall. She swallowed nervously – this could only be the leader of the raven flock. The Golden Raven!

She had expected to be elated, but was terrified. Girlish dreams of freeing the mythical bird from its flesh prison and riding away into a blissful eternity as a hero and a princess faded away into nothingness before the frightening black reality that gazed at her. His beak was as long as her hand, and as sharp as an axe. The claws that gripped his perch could easily crush a small animal and would certainly pierce her flesh.

She suddenly felt very small, very vulnerable and very alone.

Girl and bird gazed at each other in silence for a few moments. Gradually Lyliliana realized that she had been hearing an odd cooing, almost like a mourning dove. The bird tilted its head at her again and fixed one large eye, the color of a coin she had seen once, on her right hand. The feather she had found was in that hand. She ventured to speak.

“Do … do you want this?” she asked timidly. The cooing changed to an almost musical gurgle and the bird stretched its beak towards the object. Her beating heart sank a little.

“Oh but it’s so pretty. Please may I keep it?” The gurgle became less musical, and the raven stretched a little further. The jet black beak snapped a little, like a cat snapping its jaw at the sight of a mouse. She shrank back a little. The beak retreated, and the bird was silent a moment, peering at her again. Finally, it gave a soft, almost polite croak, and waited.

It took the girl a few breaths before she blinked in sudden wonder. “I… I do believe you just … did you say ‘please’ in raven-talk?” There was another short span of silence, and the bird repeated the sound, then waited again.

The pause gave her the time to look more closely at this creature. It was huge, but it also somehow looked quite old. The tuft of feathers above its beak was nearly white; the beard of feathers on its neck was dusty looking, not grey but not quite black. The talons gripping the branch moved slowly and perhaps even stiffly. If this bird had been the leader of the flock for all of her life, then in bird years it must be ancient! And it wanted its feather back?

She had been taught to respect her elders, and she thought perhaps this should count even though the elder in this situation wasn’t even her species. She held out the feather.

“I’m sorry. You can have it back. It was just so lovely, I hoped I could keep it.” One bold step forward brought her close enough to the raven that its outstretched beak easily grasped the feather, and though that maw could have crushed her hand, it wielded the plume with surprising dexterity and gentleness. She watched as the bird preened the feather from tip to tip, setting every barb into perfect, shining order.

The girl sighed and smiled. He seemed so happy to get his feather back. She wanted it very much, but it was obvious she had done the right thing in letting it go. She backed a step away again, intending to continue looking for kindling, as she was supposed to do.

The bird stopped preening the feather at her motion, and hopped down onto the forest floor. He then walked towards her with some dignity – though all birds look odd walking on the ground – and held the feather out to her. She was taken aback.

“Do you… do you want me to have it again?”

The bird pulled his head back, tilted it, then thrust the feather at her again, abruptly and decisively. She reached for it and took it from his beak. He raised his head with a peculiar jerking motion and looked expectant. She grinned, suddenly knowing what he wanted.

“Thank you, Sir Raven, for the gift.” and she gave a curtsey, dropping one of her kindling sticks in the process. The raven hopped back and peered at the bundle in her other arm, then tilted his head again, looking around beneath the trees. He began to hop about picking up sticks and bringing them to her. She laughed a bit and added them to her collection. She had already tucked the feather safely into the seam of her cloak. The raven shifted his weight from claw to claw at the sound of her laugh, tilted his head, and made a noise to imitate her. It was a rough noise, very unlike any laugh she had ever heard or made, but she understood the intent.

When she had as much as she could carry, she thanked him again. He hopped close enough and she made bold to touch him, like she would pet a cat. He dodged her first attempt and snapped lightly at her hand, but she tried again and felt the warm feathers of his neck and back smooth beneath her hand. She thought she saw something flicker behind his near eye, but it was gone in an instant and he hopped away again.

With dignified bird steps, he escorted her to the edge of the forest, hopped out of range, and launched himself heavily into the air. She watched him until he disappeared behind the trees.

She arrived with her load out of breath and glowing with her news. Her mother waved aside all her stories but praised the amount of kindling she’d brought, saying if pretending she had help got her to work harder she should pretend more help next time. Her father patted her on the head and told her to keep the feather for luck, because you never know.

*****