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 2

“I am too broken to love again.” Michael’s voice was matter-of-fact. He wanted this conversation over with. His golden eyes gazed fixedly into the fire, but reflected none of its warmth.

“I am not asking to be loved. I am hoping to be a companion to you.” Kailee’s voice was softer, but just as pointed as his own.

“You hope for less than you deserve.”

She laughed lightly, “Oh, I know that. But so much of life is accepting defeat that hoping for anything at all is a triumph!”

He sighed and looked away from the fire, allowing himself to lose his gaze in the ghosts of flames that danced before his dazzled sight. He heard movement beside him, and felt a small warm hand rest itself on his own. He almost pulled away, but willed himself to remain still.

“Michael. I know that you seek the mate of your soul. You are a broken heart but know that we all are broken hearts. If you hide and protect the break and do not use your heart, like a bone which is not set well and is not used, it will warp and heal wrong.” She took a breath and when he glanced up at her, she was looking into the far distance and he could tell she was listening to an inner voice, “You cannot let the dark ones win your heart. They have stolen parts of you which will not be returned. Live, and remember, and fight them.” He watched her come back to herself and when she turned toward him, their faces were inches apart. She waited, her deep green eyes calmly gazing into his own golden ones.

He felt his heart beating fiercely, as if he had been running from something for far too long. He could feel the back of his mind roiling but couldn’t interpret it. His throat tightened as she leaned toward him and their lips met.

At first, all he felt was the physical touch of them. Her lips were soft and warm, and the light down of her cheek brushed against the tip of his nose. It was less frightening than he had thought it would be. He closed his eyes and pressed in a bit.

Suddenly it felt as if a knife had been thrust deep into his chest, and he reeled back in shock. His eyes flew open and he gazed incredulously down, but there was nothing there. Kailee smiled gently at him and tilted her head.

“What is wrong?” he gasped out, pressing his hand to his sternum. He could still feel her lips on his, somehow more vividly than the phantom pain.

“My love, you begin to feel again.”

“I … I don’t think I want to…”

She leaned in to him again, and just before their lips again met, she whispered, “But you must…”

This time he felt the kiss throughout his whole body, as if it were a sledgehammer knocking down the sturdy walls he had built around the core of his being. He felt the blood rushing to every long-forgotten corner of himself, flooding every painful place he hadn’t dared to touch. He began to sob, even as Kailee continued to kiss and hold him. His body wracked with the violence of his reaction to her gentle embrace. He gripped her too hard, feeling like she was a rock in a bitter sea and if his fingers were not strong enough, he would be lost forever. He buried his face in her soft shoulder and let the storm break over him.

 

When morning came he awoke on his side, facing a rebuilt fire. He was still fully clothed and his eyes ached as if he hadn’t slept at all. But when he searched inside himself he found only an endlessly flat, calm sea. His whole body was in a state between numb and awakened; his every sense seemed alive. His first deep breath was full of the sharp homey smell of wood smoke and he realized it had been a long time since he had taken pleasure in such a simple thing. As he sat up, Kailee came back from the stream with a damp cloth in her hand. She squatted beside him, smiling slightly.

“Today is new, and so we must wash away the night every morning.” Without seeking permission, she began to gently wipe his face with the cool rag. He was too calm within to jerk back from her touch as he normally would have, and the way she was touching him felt… nice. Nothing had felt nice in what seemed like forever. Not since he and Murud had….

He found himself remembering their last encounter without pain. The morning sun had streamed into their room at the Varaine palace. A servant bustled in the background, ignored. They had kissed and made love in a casual way, reveling in their newfound freedom. The knowledge that it had ended so soon after that didn’t taint the memory as it had only yesterday.

Kailee finished, and her cool hand rested on his hot one, bringing him back to the moment to gaze into her tranquil smiling face.

“I have never seen you smile before.” she said, and he discovered that his cheeks were raised in an unfamiliar expression.

“Thank you.” He couldn’t express the depth of his gratitude with mere words, so he took her face in his hand and kissed her, feeling for a moment the familiar stab of sorrow but allowing it to fade into the background of what came next.

Rhiadi 4

Rhiadi sat at her rough wooden bench some weeks later, stunned at what had happened. Looking around, she might still be in her tower room; too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, but overlooking the Eastern Sea with birdsong in the eaves. The stairs had been rickety and full of bent nails, and sometimes the whole building seemed to sway with the wind. She had felt like a bird in a high nest away from everything, safe because of the dangerous inaccessibility of her home.

Now she walked up smooth granite steps to her solid tower, but somehow the magic of the royal court had transported every other article of her life to the round room at the very top of the Eastern Tower of the palace. Here it was hard to tell that there was a busy castle below her. Her spacious windows faced the sea and the wild cliffs that stretched northward from Ameer City.

A breathless gasp sounded behind her and she smiled fondly at the sound.

“Oh… oh my dear Rhia, must you live up so many stairs? I wear corsets, you know! One can’t breathe!” She pressed her hand to her side dramatically as she panted from her climb.

“Surely, my Anna, you must be fit from chasing the merry Queen at all hours? Some stairs should not wind you.” She turned her body on the bench and leaned on one bare arm, admiring the aesthetic of her dear friend. Anna was always dressed in the latest fashion with colors to compliment her cinnamon hair and milk-white skin. Rhiadi loved to look at her, and to feel her soft warmth.

“Now, Rhia, it’s certainly not that hard of a job to do, you know. She does love being that lioness! One can’t dress and wait on a big cat!” The petite woman dropped herself on a stool just by the doorway and looked around. “Goodness, Rhia, I didn’t even look around to sit! It is exactly where it’s always been, right here by the door! However did they manage?”

“You know the ways of court magic better than I,” Rhiadi turned back to her workbench and sat still, her hands motionless in her lap.

She heard Anna rise and the rustle of her skirts as she came up to rest a small hand on her friend’s shoulder.

“Rhia, whatever is the matter?”

Rhiadi shook her head. “Everything is exactly where I left it last, and yet my mind is far away. I cannot create today.”

Anna gave her shoulder a squeeze, “Well nobody said you couldn’t have a settling-in period! Goodness, I forgot what I came to tell you! It’s so exciting I’m not sure how it slipped my mind. Do guess what news I brought you!”

Rhiadi closed her eyes and smiled down at her lap. “Anna, you know I never guess.”

There was a giggle, “No, but you did smile, Rhia darling. I’ll tell you. There is to be an official messenger arriving tonight!”

The soft brown curls which cascaded past her friend’s pale hand shook with the negating motion of her head. “What is exciting about a messenger? I am sure many come to and from the palace.”

Another giggle issued forth, and Anna leaned in to whisper, “It is a Hivvin, darling!”

Rhiadi sat up straight, and turned to look in Anna’s green eyes, “A Hivvin?” She found she could hardly breathe. She, who was so fascinated with all things feathered, would be able to see a Hivvin? Even as far back from the dais as she would be, she would still be able to see one. It was the chance of a lifetime for someone of Rhiadi’s background.

Anna’s other hand reached to cup Rhiadi’s slender face gently. “Oh yes, Rhiadi. You will see it. I will make sure that you meet it.”

Rhiadi 3

Clothed now, Rhiadi nervously waited for her turn before the King. The box under her arm had grown heavy with the time she had stood in the anteroom, but she refused to let anyone else handle it. Her other hand picked nervously at miniscule pieces of lint embedded in the skirt of her dress. It was her best one, reserved for special occasions. Anna would have let her borrow one of her gowns, but the two women were so different in height it would have looked ridiculous. Rhiadi smiled at the thought of her dear friend’s generosity. They were an unusual pair in many respects.

Her sensuous turn of thought was arrested by the opening of the massive door before her, and a kid-gloved hand waving her in. She straightened her back, trying to feel at ease in both the airy palace and her restrictive – but required – clothing.

The high-class voice announced her efficiently, “Mistress Rhiadi Feysguir, Craftswoman!” As her name rang through the domed hall, Rhiadi strode forward, head high and hands tight on her precious cargo. She stopped at the bottom step and gave a deep curtsey, careful to keep the box at her side level. She straightened herself and waited, staring with determination at the king’s velveted knee.

“Mistress Rhiadi Feysguir, we have been told that you are a craftswoman who excels all others.” The King’s voice was not unkind, and Rhiadi ventured to raise her eyes to his face, which matched his voice perfectly. His skin was golden, as was the hair that flowed around his face, around the long pointed ears they all had, and down to his shoulders in lustrous waves like a lion’s mane. His broad chest was swathed in deep red velvet embroidered with gold and copper vines, and his eyes sparkled darkly. She was immediately attracted to his outward beauty and his inner confidence, and blushed at the thought.

Clearing her throat, she answered, “Your Majesty, I am but a maker of small things, an artist of form. I bring you a sample of my work as a gift,” here she held the cloth-wrapped box slightly toward him, but looked around uncertainly.

The king waved a page over, but Rhiadi recoiled slightly from him as he reached for her treasure.

“Are you having second thoughts, my dear?” The low-pitched feminine tone brought Rhiadi’s attention to the occupied throne beside the king. The woman there was just as stunning as her husband, with sleek golden waves longer and more tame than the man’s mane, lighter skin, and bright blue eyes which twinkled despite their intensely focused gaze. Rhiadi felt an attraction to her, as well. She loved all things which were beautiful enough to strike the heart with longing.

“No, your Majesty, I apologize. My work is delicate and I … I … ” She stammered to a stop.

“You do not trust our page.” The king grinned as she ducked her head, embarrassed to hear it put so bluntly. “Very well. You may approach, but unveil the thing first that we may know it is as you say it is.”

Rhiadi quirked one side of her mouth wryly; he had insinuated that if she didn’t trust his page, he had the right not to trust her. That was fair. She unwrapped the cloth and handed that to the patiently waiting boy, then ascended the stairs of the dais, glass side facing their Majesties. At the top, she sank to one knee, resting the diorama on her other one, head bent.

While her eyes roamed the smooth whorls of wood grain before her, she heard a slow intake of breath.

“Why, Liauron, this is incredible! Look, every hair on my body is correct, and you can see where I have stepped upon the grass, where it is springing up again!”

“Dain, that is my Dain! Down to the chestnut on his hind hoof!” She felt his movement and looked up to find the king’s face a mere foot from her own, examining closely the scene in the box she held. She could feel his breath on her hands, and her own came faster. “How did you do it? Magic?”

She shook her head emphatically, “No, sire! I use no magic in the making of the models. They are by my own hands.”

The king turned to his wife, “Illia, this woman’s talent is extraordinary! We simply must keep her in the palace.”

Rhiadi gasped, and the two rulers glanced at her, identical expressions of bland curiosity on their faces. “Oh, your Majesties, I couldn’t! I mean, I do appreciate the offer, really, but my workshop is my home. It is where I am … most comfortable. Where I can create! It is … quiet there.” She desperately didn’t want to offend her king and queen, because the thought of royal commissions was too good to want to jeopardize, but she was horrified to think of being kept in the palace, away from the natural world that inspired her, and provided many of her materials.

The queen waved the page over again, and the kind smile she gave Rhiadi assured her that her work would be in safe hands. The craftswoman relinquished her hold and watched a piece of her heart walk away, to be placed on a marble table draped with gold-embroidered lace.

Rhiadi 2 (adult theme)

“Oh, Rhia, it’s exquisite! His Majesty will be so pleased!” The lovely cinnamon-haired woman clapped her delicate hands together with delight, her dark eyes shining. Silver bangles which hung from the points of her long ears tinkled merrily with the movement as she bent toward the box her friend had showed her.

Behind a glass pane set in a light colored hardwood frame was a marvelous hunting scene. The miniature figures were carved from various shades of animal horn and bone, and perfectly mimicked the skin tones of the people they portrayed. The king was casting the eagle to the sky, and the green of his gauntlet was marred by tiny talon marks. His horse was tossing its head away from the motion, slivers of white showing around his eyes. The queen crouched, ready to run after the prey the eagle was sent to harry. The fur on her bunched haunches bristled golden, and her red-headed maid stood back holding another horse and the queen’s cloak and crown. Other figures were visible through the trees, each as exquisite as the last.

“Why, Rhia, there’s even a bit of mud on my little skirt! How clever of you. You know that’s why I hate to go on the hunting parties.” Her little pink lips pouted prettily.

Rhiadi smiled at her petite friend and covered her finished work with a dark blue cloth. “Anna, you are a wonder. In all my years of making these, this is the first time I will have made one for royalty. I owe you a debt. This will be my chance to be noticed.”

“Oh, Rhia, dear friend, it was the least I could do! And anyway, I don’t understand why you haven’t approached the court before. Your talent is prodigious! You could command any price.” Her embroidered surcotte brushed the floor and her friend’s bare feet as her hand rested on Rhiadi’s bare arm. The work apron the artist wore in her studio had been discarded, and her naked height dwarfed the clothed maidservant so close beside her.

Rhiadi’s slender fingers caressed Anna’s cheek tenderly. “You know I could not approach the court a commoner as I am. Your influence there has been able to grant me a patron which otherwise I could not have had. You have given me so much, and I have no way to repay it.”

Anna’s eyelashes fluttered delicately above her suddenly flushed cheeks. “Rhia,” she whispered, “You repay me in other ways.”

Their lips met gently as Rhiadi bent herself forward, her soft breasts hanging heavy against the rich fabric that kept Anna’s contained.

Rhiadi 1

Rhiadi looked up from her work for a moment and gazed out at the azure sky. Her fingers stilled on the clean-papered surface beneath them as her mind wandered. Bits of feather scattered around her dreaming hands as they curled around the tiny figure she had been working on a moment before.

The eagle crouched in the middle of takeoff, muscles tensed, eyes intensely forward, concentrating on the feeling of leaping from its perch. The detail was exquisite, perfect even through the magnifying glass she used when creating her miniatures. Even the golden eyes – beads of perfect pale amber – seemed to hold an intelligence despite the cold, unliving material they were made from.

The woman’s own eyes were pale green; in the light from the window they took on a silvery cast. Her face was highlighted with milk and shadowed with cream. The tips of her long pointed ears were translucent, and delicately pierced with golden baubles. A wisp of pale brown hair had escaped the carefully pinned up style that she used while working, and lay indolently beside her high cheekbone. It drifted away as she tilted her head, musing.

She had always been fascinated with birds. They, and the Hivvin who resembled them, were the only creatures who truly flew in the skies above their world. It had always occurred to her as strange that her kind, the tall and slender Aelden, could shift their forms into any number of animals who could walk or crawl upon the ground, climb trees or leap long distances, but not a single one could become a bird who could take to wing and soar among the clouds. That talent was either lost to them, or had never been available.

She let her breath escape in a slow, controlled sigh. It would not do to scatter her materials at this late stage, where only a few fragments of feather remained to glue onto the bird’s form. She turned again to the model, one graceful three-fingered hand absently pushing the errant lock of hair behind her ear as the other picked up a tiny barb with her silver tweezers and resumed the meticulous process of gluing together the eagle’s joyously erect crest.

A shaft of sunlight illuminated the dust drifting lazily behind the curve of her naked back, which was crossed by the ties of the fine apron she wore as her only attire. Around her in the relative gloom, scenes of fancy in various stages of completion rested in anticipation of her delicate touch.