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

Seven Rivers 1.5

Michael opened his eyes to utter blackness. At first he experienced fear and disorientation, and then his brain caught up with his environment. He was sleeping on a low cot in a room at Master Hohkan’s house above the shop where they had met that afternoon. As the darkness began to resolve itself into shadowy shapes, he wondered what had awakened him. Everything was silent, even the street outside. It must be very far into the night.
Gradually he relaxed, and just as gradually realized that the night was not as silent as he had thought. Someone was moving about downstairs. He could hear items moving around. At first he thought perhaps it was not late at night but early in the morning, and Hohkan or a servant was getting an early start on the day. He lay still and listened carefully, identifying through the wooden walls the sounds of people breathing evenly in deep sleep. He had fallen asleep to those sounds, noting how many there were. He had learned not to fall asleep until all of the others in his vicinity were there first. Habits gained from bitter experience would not leave him even when those around him seemed harmless.
He was able to account for everyone who was present when he fell asleep. The movements downstairs were those of an intruder.
He rose from his cot with the stealth of long practice. Having used his cloak as a blanket, he had no need to dress or assemble himself. His precious Claws never left him now, and were strapped to his thighs within easy reach of his hands. He seldom traveled with a large pack anymore, subsisting with a small pouch of essentials and living off the land as he found it. He was prepared to be ready at any moment, and so this time he was.
The wooden floor in the hallway creaked at the slightest movement, but Michael had become skilled at making his movements seem like the natural sounds of a building settling from temperature changes. With what speed such stealth allowed, he crept down the hallway past the room of his host and the jolly wife he’d been introduced to earlier. The next door was their black-haired daughter with the gray eyes who had flirted her lashes at him throughout dinner. Across from her was the small boy who had peppered their strange guest with questions, and then the servants at each side of the main stairs. He descended into the darkness.
As he approached the front room, where the Hohkan’s business took place, the sounds became more distinct. Someone was in there, moving things around. There was the distinct sound of something being packed into a bag, and set out near the exit. Someone was stealing from the shop!
Michael had not known Hohkan for a day yet, but he was a guest in this house and he felt certain obligations toward the man who had fed and sheltered him. A burning rage began to rise in him, despite his best efforts to stifle it. How dare someone take from an honest tradesman! Despite everything he had been through, despite every hardship and starving day, Michael had never once stolen from an honest man. He had never vowed not to; his conscience simply would not allow it.
He unhooked the Claws from their leather straps and gripped them firmly in his fists. He felt his intent flow into their long metal blades and knew that, though he could not see it, those blades had shifted color from dull steel to shimmering blue in his right hand and smoldering red in his left. The cloak that enveloped his body caught the cold on one side and the heat on the other, and he knew that whatever was on the other side of the curtain that separated him from the pilferer in his host’s shop, he was ready for it.
He made no more noise than a moth as he slipped past that portal and into the spicy space beyond. He could hear more clearly now the movements in the room. He paused to listen and wait for his eyes to adjust to the change in the texture of darkness here.
He knew from earlier in the day that the shop was filled with curiosities from the jungles of the southern continent, as well as practical items for journeys of a less exotic nature. Coils of rope and bolts of burlap rubbed cheeks with spotted and striped hides of every color, and jars of resin and fragrant oil. Containers of animal tusks and bones rested underneath dried spices and herbs. Silks of the finest weave nestled in boxes of saava – that wood which was now extinct and so much dearer to have at hand. There were riches in this room, indeed. Michael spared a passing thought for why Master Hohkan did not keep it better guarded.
At the very front of the shop, a patch of thicker darkness was moving. It was small and lithe and obviously experienced at its dishonest work. Michael crept forward, barely breathing as he watched the figure set an object on the counter, then turn and begin to cut into a coil of rope nearby. The creature was not only stealing, it was set to ruin goods that it was leaving behind! The rage bubbled farther up until he could feel it heating the pit of his stomach. His muscles tensed as he moved closer so he could have a better angle of attack.
The figure finished its task and bound up the cut ends of rope, then slung the shorter coil over its shoulder, swinging it towards the pack Michael could now see outlined in front of the open door. Enough starlight illuminated the objects there; all practical and none worth as much as the treasures he had passed on his way to accost the stranger. Perhaps the thief was preparing to escape with those riches last…
Michael’s fists tightened on the handles of the Claws as he prepared to end the burglar’s miserable life. His knees descended into a crouch to better match his opponent’s slight stature; a trick he had learned to catch a foe off guard – reveal one’s true size only when required. His muscles pulled together for the final surprising spring.
“You see what you wish to see, and not what is.”
The softness of the voice cut through the burning injustice he felt towards the figure, and he paused for the barest second, wondering if this was some trick. It was a feminine voice, no louder than a whisper, and yet filled with a kind of music.
“You have learned to leap first and ask no questions. This is not in your nature, Mal’i-ni’mal.”
Friend of my friend, she had said, in the language of his desert brethren. She set another object on the counter, which was already filled with such things, and turned to a string of dried meats, pulling it down. She selected another string of meat, and one of herbs, and wrapped them carefully before stowing them in the pack by the door. Michael stayed motionless, tensed at the edge of attack.
“I will answer the question you will not ask, and that is that I am no thief. I come with things Hohkan can sell, and I take what I need until the exchange is even. No more. No less.”
Michael gave no answer, but felt a doubt creep into his mind. His muscles loosened of their own accord. He couldn’t trust this person, but he also felt he shouldn’t mistrust them.
The two figures shared the darkness in silence while the one continued to fill her pack and place things from her pouches and pockets onto the wide counter, until it was full of oddities. Michael could see the sheen of gemstone carvings and the gleam of metals. There was a curve of oiled wood adorned with feathers, and near that an unmarked jar with a plain stopper. His hands were no longer gripping the Claws with white knuckles and his knees had straightened to a comfortable standing position. He watched her continue the bizarre exchange of goods, incurious and unspeaking. After a short time, she finished her work, tied up her pack and turned to him.
He couldn’t tell anything about her in the shadows, other than she was about a head shorter than he was. She wore a short cloak with a hood and long pants rather than a skirt. Her posture was loose and confident and her movements were graceful and efficient.
“You are a chick within the shell, too scared to peck and greet the light.”
Michael felt a flicker of interest at her words, despite the sting of the insult of cowardice she had directed at him. He felt that he should counter her in some way, but found that the words slipped away, and kept him silent.
When he did not answer after several moments, she turned and hefted the pack to her shoulder, gathering the coil of rope under her other arm. She turned to him, silhouetted against the outside. “I go South, if you were waiting.”
Michael suddenly understood. “You are Kailee the Mad!” His voice was like the rough caw of a bird softened with the stillness required by the dead of night.
She shrugged, “There are some who call me so. I am myself and no other; no other is I.” She stepped away from the shop door. “If you are staying, I need to lock up behind me. Hohkan keeps many treasures.”
The tall young man breathed out a sort of relieved decision and slid the Claws back into their leather sheathes, where they became dull metal once again. He took a step towards the door, and then turned back toward the counter. He lay a single gold coin upon the surface and turned again to go.
Kailee chuckled, “He will know that is not from me. I do not deal in coins.”
A sudden unfamiliar perverseness engulfed Michael and he moved back to place another coin beside the first before leaving.
As the woman locked the door behind them, the two coins gazed up at the ceiling like a pair of shining golden eyes in the darkness.

Seven Rivers 1

The pain was still so raw that he could barely talk. His wounds had long healed during his stay with the Rochat, but the pain remained. He had lost the other half of himself, and he would never recover from that. He croaked words out to the man behind the counter.
“I need a guide South.” The harshness of Michael’s own voice no longer bothered him, but the other man started back slightly.

“Nobody goes South, mister.”

“Somebody will,” Michael answered, and turned to go to the next caravan station, leaving the man behind him blinking in confusion at the abrupt exchange.

“Wait, mister! Not so fast, young’un, hold on, hold on!” Michael paused at the curtained doorway and half-turned back into the dim room. The searing desert sun behind him made the face within the hood of his cloak a mystery. He said nothing, waiting for the other man to continue.

“Now, young man, I can see you’re in a hurry but forgive an old caravan master his old bargaining habits. Sit, sit!” He waved a beringed finger at a low stool near a cozy table in the corner, which had been set with tea and biscuits. Michael remained standing, his hidden eyes assessing the robed figure before him.

“I do not have the time for bargaining.”

A wide, white smile greeted this assertion, and the smaller man bowed . “Then, good sir, you pick an awful time to visit G’Shak-a. The sun is highest and all shops will close now until dusk. There will not be a soul upon the streets except for takh’ti,” he used the Rochati word for those whose wits had left them. Michael had heard it aimed at himself recently and grimaced with cheerless humor inside the protective gloom of his hood. He took a slow deep breath, remembering the lessons he had learned on his journey, and forced himself to take a moment of rest. He glided like a shadow to the table and sat on the offered stool, making no more noise than a breeze in the night.

“I am Caravan Master Hohkan, sir, at your service. Please, accept my hospitality and we may speak of the Great South.” He began the elaborate preparation of tea while Michael reluctantly removed his dusty black gloves, laying them on the table next to the steaming cup which was placed in front of him. He tried not to look at the band of black which encircled the middle finger of his right hand. It was the physical manifestation of his loss, his failure.

“I am called Nainan Bakhmalshi,” Michael answered the man’s unspoken question with the Rochati name he had taken while wandering the desert. It meant ‘Sorrow’s Brother’. He then pushed the hood of his cloak away from his face. His skin had darkened with his months in the desert, but was still quite pale in the places the sun had not struck. His hair had grown long and hung like black snakes to his shoulders; one streak of white, he knew, rested in the center of his forehead and curled like a feather to disappear amidst the darkness. He kept his striking golden eyes fixed on the repast in front of them, though he knew it did not hide their uniqueness.

“That is a sad name, sir. Let us rest and speak.” The older man held a plate of savory biscuits towards his guest and Michael took one hesitantly. It was still hard for him to consent to be a guest anywhere outside his Rochat family, after having been through his ordeal in the far northern Varani lands. The very thought of that race of villains caused the pit of his stomach to go cold with fear and his head to grow hot with rage. He struggled to control what used to be so easy to keep in check; he had long been able to ignore the dark blood in his veins but they had awoken an inner nature he could no longer deny. He mentally wrestled and shoved the feelings back into their iron room deep within his psyche, slamming the huge bar across doors he had built as a last defense against the shadows. As the phantom clanging of metal echoed around his skull, he realized Hohkan had been speaking while he battled inner demons.

“… of course the exotics of the South intrigue and enthrall anyone who has seen them, smelled them, been privileged enough to hold them, but the journey is so dangerous now that nobody will send a caravan that way anymore. The trade is much in demand, but too many do not come back! Tell me, good sir, is it treasure you seek? There are easier prizes to be won, and if it is adventure, why I can send you with caravans full of …”

Michael cut him off. “Master Hohkan,” his rough voice rattled the delicate teacup in its saucer. “Pardon my interruption. I can assure you I have discovered treasure enough in my travels, and more adventure than anyone wants.” The weariness in his voice was palpable in the dim, sweet smelling room. “I will not be turned from my purpose, and that purpose is to go South. If no caravans go there, then I will go alone.” Somehow the solidity of his fatigue turned to emptiness on the last word, which floated across to his host like the vapor rising from their tea.

Hohkan was silent for a moment, gazing across at the man who looked younger than himself but spoke with so timeworn an air. Michael felt the gaze but did not raise his eyes to meet it, instead nibbling at the biscuit, which was rich with butter and herbs and went so well with the spicy, sweet tea that he lifted to his mouth.

“I see why they call you Sorrow.” The older man’s voice was quiet and full of something Michael didn’t care to interpret. “Please do not take offense; there are so many young men who come through because they hear of wonders and adventures beyond measure, and those who seek such things rarely find anything but death and disappointment. I think … if I may be so bold, that perhaps you have already found these things.”

Michael was silent. He had only just contained his torments and had no wish to awaken them again. Hohkan munched silently along with his companion for a while, then took a deep breath as if coming to a decision.

“Only Kailee the Mad is fool enough to explore the South Lands since the caravans stopped. We do not deal with her except to buy the oddities she brings back. She has been gone for two months now; it may be more than a week before she is here again.”

The inward groan that Michael stifled shook his entire body. Another delay! Goddess curse this blasted southland with its slow pace and weather too hot to walk in! Curse the endless exercises he had endured to get his mind back into some kind of order after the Varaine had twisted it up to the point of insanity. He had to hurry, felt compelled to get to his destination as fast as possible. The small black doubt that lived behind his brain whispered that it could already be far too late…

He realized that his breath had become swift and shallow, making a noise almost louder than the bits of biscuit that dropped from the hand that had crushed it into crumbs. He forced himself to breathe slower and more deeply, setting his jaw and concentrating on the physical feeling of the air going in and out of his body. He rolled the little crumbs around in his fingers for a moment, focusing on their rough-smooth feel against his dry skin. He gained control once more, and looked around for a way to clean up the mess he had made. His gaze met that of his host.

Hohkan’s eyes widened, and Michael knew that it was his own strange eyes – the bright color of a gold coin and with pupils almost like those of a cat – that caused a reaction in the other man. The caravan master raised his hand reassuringly and nodded his head.

“Young man, I will not pry into your past, nor delay your future. This Kailee has a reputation for turning up in the least likely of places at some of the most opportune of times. If your paths are to cross, I feel you will not have long to wait. Come, we will finish our meal and take our mid-day rest. You are welcome to a hammock in my back room, and if it is needful you will come to supper as well.”

The Brother of Sorrow nodded, dropped his remarkable eyes to the table, and took another biscuit.