Seeking Spring

 

(Written for NYCM Short Story Comp: 8 days/2500 words/fantasy/neighbours/an outlaw.)

 

An ambitious king sends a ruthless hunter to capture a small girl in the winter winds of Midland. While two brave brothers seek to keep her safe, Lali knows of only one calling-to the game.

 

The king removes the bell shaped lid of a tiny glass terrarium. A single, frail teadaisy folds its petals against the sudden bite of winter air.
“This is the scent.”
At his feet languishes a massive Nightwolf; with oil black fur clumped in sharp scales. Eyes of glitter green. It pushes itself up, first onto all fours, then completely upright. Cricks it neck. The creature bends carefully to the flower and gently sniffs the aroma. The daisy dies when he exhales.
“Find her. Bring her to me.”
The wolf sneers down at the king, then like inksmoke bursts through the tower window and into the frozen night.
The king rushes to the window and bellows into the snow storm.
“ALIVE!”

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“Wake up, wake up!” the brothers pleaded.
On a ledge; a potted plant, little more than a stick sprouting smaller sticks, leant toward them in pathetic challenge.
“Go away. It is nowhere near time to start the seek,” groaned Lali from beneath the deep furs. “Quite un-neighborly,” she mumbled.
The skeleton of the plant formed a small mouth shape and snapped at Lom’s sleeve.
With a flash of Erv’s bladeglass, the angry stick was relieved of duty. Lali’s head rolled over, her flat grey eye fixed on the tall Midlander. The floorboards groaned beneath him, threatening to break their iron cleats.
“Very un-neighborly.” She rolled back to the wall. “Go…… away.”
The bedposts groaned as they bent to form a protective X over her.
Erv grabbed an exposed ankle and yanked. The small girl was pulled out from under the blankets, her nightdress of yellowed leaves dissolving to detritus and dust as she landed on the floor. She blinked, seamoon skinned and unbelieving at them. An unsteady, three feet three of confusion and angry brambled hair.
There was no precedent for this.
Lom averted his eyes as he held out a bundle of warm clothes.
“We are also your guardians during the long sleep,” reminded Erv briskly. “This is not play. Dress quickly little one. Danger comes on flying feet.”
“There is only play,” harrumphed the girl.
Grumbling, Lali pulled on the leggings and vest. The heavy jacket and scarf. She hated the boots, but shrugged her thin legs inside them. Lom helped her to feet unsteady from many months of inaction.
“The king has declared you an enemy of the crown. Fabricated charges. Ten thousand gems to bring you in alive. And that’s not the wors….”
“Is that lots?” asked Lali with a sudden grin. The boys did not grin back.
“We have a friend at the castle. She sent us a message by crowclaw,” explained Erv. “The king has a plan to capture you. To keep you.
“It’s not Lali he wants,” whispered Lom. “He knows who you really are……..and he’s sent the Varriken to hunt you.”
“The V….the Nightwolf? Ha! He’s just a story, boys,” Lali snickered as she started to unbutton her jacket. “And the villagers? Why they couldn’t….”
With a sigh Erv scooped her under his arm as Lom held open the door. Lali kicked her feet as they carted her out into snowfall. Erv hoisted her onto the wicker saddle of a golden herlion, where she pulled faces until, with horror; she saw the boys’ house aflame from flagstone to feeple. Erv ran to it, lighting a torch from the inferno and flinging it into Lali’s open doorway. He leapt onto the mount beside her.
Lali’s brow furrowed. The trees surrounding their homes leaned into the blaze, beating at the flames with their winter stripped branches.
“No Lali! Let it burn. Leave it nothing but ash to find.”
She looked, wide-eyed to Lom, who answered with a small nod of his cap.
“Apparently you’re not the only myth that’s not a myth.”
They pulled their herlions away as the small windows of her cottage began to glow like eyes of greenglitter.

 

“Why would the king want me?”
“He seeks to invade Northlands,” explained Lom. “If he controls you, he can give an advantage to his army. Control the harvest, the freeze and flow of the Norriver…”
Lali shook her head. Feeling had trickled back to her limbs. But for a moment, an unfamiliar stone sat cold in the bottom of her belly.
“We’re taking you to Friar’s Fortress,” announced Erv. “You’ll be safe there.”
He pushed them faster, but knowing that if all the myths about the Nightwolf were true, there may be no such thing as a safe place.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Varriken rose onto his hind legs, waiting for the taste in the swirl and sweep of the winter wind. There was nothing he couldn’t find if he had the taste.
He thought of the squirming flymonkey, bound in the palace. A dweller from the Grey Mountains, in trees so tall even a nightwolf could not reach them. The most succulent of treats.
“I have eight more,” the king had boasted. “If you help me.”
There it was. Faint on the tide of the shifting breeze. The scent of elmfire, fear… and her. Moments later he was flying south again, the ground a rushing sea of white beneath the blur of his claws.

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By midspell they reached the Hill of Stones, dusted in snowpowder. Erv eased the herlions to a walk, their broad footpads silent in the talc as they made the steady climb. Lom looked over at Lali, her face tight with displeasure.
“What did you mean by there’s only play?”
Lali glanced at him. Pitying him and his brother for having to worry about anything else; food, drink, disease and especially, death. They had been her long sleep guardians for more than twenty years, probably a significant time for them. But really only half the blink of an eye. Erv and Lom were much smaller once. Every year, she awoke on an icy morn and donned the warm garments they provided. They would bow, she would smile. Sometimes a few words, but not many, were exchanged before Lali strolled cheerfully out into the snow. They didn’t know what really happened between then and her return; dejected, in a tattered dress of leaves.
As long as she could remember, she’d wake two weeks past Midwinter and seek the Blue Queen. Through the whitewashed fields of Midland. The Grey Forrest. Sometimes as far as the steep slopes of the Dellens where the Norriver starts as a trickle. The longer the search, the longer the winter.
When found, Madame Winter would pass her crown to Lali, who would wear it until the Summer Lord came for it in turn. Some guy called Redleaf was the only other player in this eternal game of hide and seek.
“So the ice crown becomes flowers when I put it on,” she finished explaining patiently. “Then it is my time.”
“And if you could never find Madame Winter, it would stay forever cold?” asked Lom.
“Well, that is the game,” shrugged Lali. “I could bring the green anytime,” she mused, biting her lip. “But, upsetting the Blue Queen is not a great idea. Only the Summer Lord is grumpier. It’s absolutely fankwhistle when he finds me!”
They crested the Hill of Stones. An armoured paladin sat against a flat rock, an enormous glassblade beside him. He tilted back the visor of his helmet, revealing fierce honeygold eyes. Lali giggled. The man looked like a dregdillo in his greypewter suit. He greeted the trio with a raised gauntlet.
Erv tossed down a coin pouch without slowing his mount. “Thank you Jor,” he smiled grimly. “Do your best.”
“None will pass here Ervryn,” declared the knight. “Not even a fl…”
But the travellers were gone, continuing down the other side. Their herlions’ ragged breath, fading cottonwool clouds.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Varriken snorted, clearing soot from his nostrils. There were no bodies in the rubble, no tracks in the fresh fall of snow. The delay angered him. Kept him from a flymonkey feast. He circled, snarling, until he caught the scent again.
A windcrow, drawn to prey from the effects of the fire, swept low over the smoky ruins. Varriken leapt in a ripple of midnight, twisted with the evasive movement of the bird and plucked it from the sky. He crunched through its thin bones before spitting the long beak to the ground. The wolf took up a mouthful of snow. As it melted in his mouth, he tipped back his head to wash down the bitter taste of the stringy bird.
With a final crick of his long neck, he bolted away from the smouldering houses, inksmoke, towards the Hill of Stones.
Contemplating the taste of the teadaisy child.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

A lavender robed friar met them half a mile from the fortress. His raiment clunked with ornamental pendants. His girth suggested winter had not been a struggle so far. His eyes narrowed on the tiny frame of Lali.
“Praise the Long Gods,” he smiled.
Lali didn’t like the smile. She tensed, ready.
“Indeed,” replied Lom with little conviction.
Fankwhistle, thought Lali.
“You are the three that seek the protection of our deities?”
“We seek only the stone of your walls,” answered Erv, shifting restlessly in the saddle.
Lali sensed a new chill, beyond the blush of winter. She peered into the white mist from which they’d come. There was something, a growing speck of black coming impossibly fast across the valley floor.
“The king has issued a warrant for a childling. Tell the little one to unwrap the scarf.” The friar widened his stance, resting his chubby hand on a jewelled hilt tucked into his waistband.
Lali swung to face him, her irises, flattened grey discs. An applevine sprung from beneath the friar’s feet, swiftly encircling his legs and arms. Pushing an apple into his mouth. With a dull thud he fell face first into a snowdrift.
“No one plays if I can’t,” muttered Lali as they prodded the exhausted herlions into the faint shadow of the fortress.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Jor had battled many men, werehawks and even the monstrous macebears of Westland. But none like this. None that moved quicker than the wind could carry, seeming to dissolve and reappear as if by the cast of dark magic. The phantom beast raced up the slope, seeming to gain speed despite the gradient.
He raised his blade as the Nightwolf exploded past him. His swing carved through the air, cleaving nought but fading courage and false hope.
Jor felt a thin sting at his throat, despite the chainmail collar. His head slid down the angle of the clawcut and stained the snow to plumflower.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

The fortress guards shouted down to the gatekeepers as the three riders approached. The grating sounds of handlecrank echoed from the great doorway as the massive drawgate began to lift from the ground.
Erv’s herlion, burdened with the most weight and relentless pace, now lagged behind the other two. Erv’s neck hair prickled. A flash of night erupted from the whiteness, tearing down his struggling mount in a roiling storm of black, gold and growing crimson. Erv was thrown clear, landing just behind Lali.
His glassblade whistled as he tore it from the scabbard. He slapped the flat of it against the flank of the girl’s herlion. It leapt in response, crashing into the retreating edge of the drawgate and hurling her forward. Lom sprung from his saddle, catching the gate with his fingers and scrambling over. They tumbled down the sharpening slope and into the fortress as the huge slab slammed into place behind them.
Men came running past them to reinforce the gate. The guards at the top of the wall bellowed demands for weapons and boiling oil pots. Lom scooped up Lali and ran the other way; through a series of doors and steps to the centre of the fortress, a square courtyard surrounded by spear topped walls. He barred the door, wedging it with barrows and spades.
Lali looked around but saw nothing but greystone.
Lom struggled shakily with his pack, finally withdrawing a shortsword with an unmarked blade. His hands trembled as he stood ready.
Her small voice startled him. “Where’s Erv?”
“My brother is b-busy.”
“Hmm… Your blade looks very light. Why are you shaking?”
He didn’t turn.
“Lom?”
She’d never called them by name before.
“Lali, people….people who aren’t like you…sometimes get …scared.”
“Oh.”
A burst of sounds emanated from the outer gate. A screeching like blade on ice pierced the air. Crossbow strings thudded. Men screamed; at first, with defiance. One by one the voices were extinguished like bedtime candles.
Lom tightened his grip in the eerie silence. He could hear his heart thumping, the blood humming through his veins.
There was a gentle sound from the top of the wall, little more than a falling leaf on soft earth. A long dark shape hung from the spearshafts.
“Stay back Lali!”
The Nightwolf eased apart the spears. It perched atop the wall, its chase complete. Its mouth, a razor slash of red, pulled back slowly.
“La-li.”
The girl tilted her head, studying the creature curiously. It was old. Not Neverold, like her. But much older than the boys. Beneath the slick, blood drenched fur lay powerful cords of muscle capable of terrible destruction. Its claws and teeth, long and bladeglass sharp. The green glitter eyes, cunning and intelligent. Always hungry.
Lom stepped forward, sword raised. “I see my brother took your ear, puppy dog. Allow me to even that up for you.”
Lali whirled around. Lom wasn’t like Erv. How could he challenge and joke when obvious death awaited him? Confused, she pressed her hand to his stomach, feeling for the cold stone. She pulled away sharply, understanding it wasn’t himself he feared for.

Lali’s eyes plunged into seas of blackwater. “Please forgive me, Madame Winter.”
As the Varriken launched itself at Lom, a crack louder than thundershot rang from the coldstone.
The Nightwolf hung there a moment, inches from Lom’s blade tip. Then it rose, impaled on a tree summoned fresh from the earth. The trunk and limbs pushed on, bursting through the creature’s flesh and tearing it to ragribbon. Its foul head lolled on a low branch.
Open mouthed, Lom snicked off the wolf’s other ear.
A tomdrum rumble began beneath them. From around the tree, a carpet of grass rippled across the courtyard, spreading in all directions. Creepers scrambled over walls. Vines ravished flag poles. Bubbles of flower buds appeared and bloomed moments later. Spring unbound vaulted the fortress walls and maniacally danced its way across the Midlands.
Lali, moongreen naked, held out the pile of warm clothes. Lom quickly looked away as he took them back.
“Thank you Lom.”
She smiled and he didn’t smile back.

Lali pressed her back against the wall. Slumped down it. A wave of Spring rolled over her legs, wrapping her in a nightdress of fresh leaves. The green climbed her thin body, creeping finally to her exhausted face.

“The Summer Lord will never find me here,” she grinned.

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Truce

(Written for NYC flash fiction challenge. 48 hours, 1000 words. Prompts-fantasy, a mountain stream, milk.)…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Many years ago in the land of Ardanelle, Mikel and Melane, king and queen of the unicorns, set off to Silver Mountain, their horns encircled in vines of butter milk flowers…

“Unicorns!” laughed Jacob. “Hey, shouldn’t I be telling you a story?”

“Shush, father. You said you’d listen,” scolded Ceri.
The king nodded wistfully, stroking the raven waterfall of her hair. Outside her tower window, distant tallow smoke hung acrid on the night breeze. In the morning he would ride for the outlands. Amongst the burnt huts and bodies of subjects he could no longer protect, he must sue for peace with the mad prince at whatever the cost.
“Men never listen!”
The familiar tone jolted him back more than the poke in the stomach. So much like Kaetrina had been. As beautiful as the spring fields. Determined as the moon season rains. The dry crust of grief caught in his throat. Five bleak years had passed.
He kissed the top of Ceri’s head. Where a crown was predestined, but now never going to sit.
“I’m sorry sweet child. Please go on. Flowers? Why?”
“Butter milk flowers,” sighed Ceri. “As a sign of truce of course,” she added, dismayed that a king would not know this.

King Mikel and Queen Melane followed the narrow track ever upwards, between boulders growing ashen as they climbed. Every step sensing their enemies upon them.
Feeling their eyes and dreading their claws.
Trusting an ancient law and a circlet of pale blossoms to keep them safe.
At last they topped the plateau. Where the mountain stream began as a trickle from the snow capped boulders. Where their eternal enemies held court high above Ardanelle.
The eyrie of the griffin.

“Griffins!” remarked Jacob. “With the head of an eagle and the body of a lion?”
“Of course,” groaned Ceri, waiting for further interruption before continuing.

Lord Leonid and Lady Enora were paired for life, the only custom the unicorns agreed with.
Leonid’s honey flecked eyes met those of his counterpart. Mikel’s glared back, cold and blue as the stream beside him.
“This must end Leonid. Where is Mikaley? Where is our daughter?”
Enora hissed, ruffling her golden feathers angrily. “Mind your tongue horn horse!”
Melane stepped forward. “But for the snows we would have come earlier Enora.” Her sweet voice lowered. “We heard the beat of wings the night she was taken. Only a griffin…”
“Always the griffins,” snarled Leonid. “Why should we believe anything you say? Those who would trample the forests to starve of us prey? Drive the dograbbits and jackalope far from the flat lands? Use their cruel horns to gore our kin? Their hooves to crush our skulls?” He paused, the fire momentarily dulled. “What of our son. What of Levaris? “

“We know nothing of his fate,” snorted Mikel.
“Liar!” screeched Enora. “Trust nothing they say my husband.”
“And why should we trust those who would dam the river? Forcing us to drink at the valley pool, easy prey to vicious claws and razored talons? The corpses mount at the lake edge, bringing deathfly and disease.” Mikel raised his proud head. “The grasslands shrink without the river and creeks. By sun season’s end there will be no grazing lands left,” he added quietly.
“Then you too will know hunger,” growled Enora. She stepped forward, drawing close to the unicorn queen. Melane recoiled from the fetid stench of the carrion breath.
“Don’t worry,” sneered Enora, “That’s not her you can smell.”
Melane lowered her head, her horn at the throat of the Lady griffin.
“You would attack while wearing the garland of truce?”
“If you are to mock my grief for Mikaley,” growled the unicorn, “I will carry home your head.”
Enora’s fierce eyes narrowed. Her powerful hind tensed, prepared to strike.

They turned at the soft clop of hooves.
A unicorn stepped into the clearing, prodded forward by a male griffin.
The length of her body was almost hairless, a myriad of scars. Her abdomen was etched in dozens of thin stripes; fresh, cruel, weeping cuts. Her legs trembled to hold her thin body upright.
“Mikaley,” gasped her father
“You!” cried Melane, charging at the griffin. She drove her horn into his eye, puncturing through his brain and the top of his skull. With a violent twist of her neck she threw him to the water’s edge.
The garland of flowers slid from his eye socket and followed the reddening stream away on the current.
“Levaris!” howled Leonid in anguish.
Melane turned to her daughter, but Enora was already at her.
“No, wait” pleaded Mikaley as the talon opened her long throat. Enora’s screech of vengeance tore the clouds above them to shredded rags. Mikaley slumped to the ground, her face a visage of disbelief.

Jacob nodded, recognizing the madness of war in his daughter’s tale.

In the second of silence before the madness continued, came a rustling from beneath the great golden wings of Levaris.
Two small heads emerged. Eagle heads. Eyes closed, they sniffed the air excitedly. Dragging themselves from under their father’s wing they tottered towards the fallen unicorn. They pushed at her back leg with their beaks, seeking to feed at her soft underbelly.
Melane raised her hoof, blind with rage. Mikel stepped forward to halt her strike.
“Their legs my love. Their hind legs.”
Enora’s head fell in shame. Leonid wrapped her in his wings
The young ones had hooves.
The four of them watched as their grandchildren suckled.

Unicorn tears fell as diamonds. As only they do in times of peace.

Ceri gripped her father tight, her small fingers clutching the leather of his tunic. “Hippogriffs?” he whispered. She nodded, easing from the embrace.
“The union of Levaris and Mikaley gave both sides something in common. They ended the war with love.”
He bent down to kiss her cheek, but her head turned away, tucked behind her drawn up knees. She rocked gently upon them.

Jacob was nearly to the door.

“Did you really listen?”

“Ceri? Honey?””

Then he noticed.
And couldn’t help but hear.

The chair.
Her saddle on its high back. The neat pile upon it, wrapped in a pelt blanket. Beneath; her favorite boots, brightly polished.
His voice deserted him though his lips formed the words.
“Oh Ceri.”
On a wooden peg next to the chair hung her best white dress. Her long travel cloak.

And a circlet of buttermilk flowers.