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July 25, 2011 — 1,304 words

Down in Death Valley

By Nora Weston

Down in Death Valley

“Let it go… now,” said Aja.

“Seriously? Are you for real?” asked Tyul, yanking on the human’s arm so hard muscle tore away from the earthling’s shoulder.

“Reject! Now look what you’ve done,” yelled Aja, “you’re ruining its flesh.”

Smiling like the devil he was, Tyul took one step closer to Aja, daring him to interfere. “He won’t need his flesh much longer, so back off.” Growling with ferocious intent, Tyul pounced upon Drake Mirren to bite the left side of his neck. Warm blood, tainted with human sins as vile as any Tyul had ever known, dripped off his grotesque chin leaving him slightly intoxicated. “Immorality…um,” he stuttered while his long, jagged tongue licked up more. “It’s delightfully depraved juice.”

“So we’ll do this the hard way, huh?” asked Aja aware Tyul’s brains had been fried thousands of years ago.

Blazing red corneas blackened as Tyul leaped up, violating Aja’s space. “Come on, want a slurp or two? Deviate for once, and feel a rush. Savor pure insanity… Let this pathetic insect burn.”

Not at all intimidated by this beast’s arrogance, a half-smile appeared on Aja’s beautifully carved, pale face as he shoved Tyul.

Tyul’s eyes widened as he stumbled while skidding backwards about twenty feet. “Damn angel! You’ll pay for this,” he said tripping over a boulder to then meet Mother Earth.

“Drake cannot perish. You know that!” said Aja, standing his ground, aware he must succeed. Enraged, his wings spread wide. Dust flew into the air surrounding Aja, further adding to the angel’s mystical presence.

“Oh, cry me a river of pestilence,” said Tyul standing to confront this formidable warrior.

“My kind will not kneel upon hallowed ground, nor shall we acknowledge what’s been declared, written, or whatever. Mirren has tasted, no—he’s indulged in darkness, swallowed salvation too many times. He’s due to be bathed in blood, barbecued in the pits, you know… hell-bound.”

Equally determined, Aja and Tyul rushed to claim the human. Supernatural whispers, some divinely melodic, and others dipped in decadence, bit them like a whirlwind along Badwater Basin, a geological masterpiece in Death Valley, CA. For miles, all creatures great and small became frenzied, attacking each other; a dark storm consumed the golden horizon.

Lucky for Drake, Aja reached him first. Effortlessly slinging the carcass over his right shoulder, he laughed with superiority, since the devil was sluggish compared to him. Drake’s blood, utterly corrupt and toxic, trickled down Aja’s back. The blood burned the angel’s skin; yet Aja held on to his prize.

The smell of human demise, wicked wine of the human kind, lingered in the air, driving Tyul nuts. Like a crazed hyena, Tyul attacked Aja, causing them all to smash onto the ground. Tyul’s claws pierced angelic skin, while his fangs devoured human meat.

Aja was incensed; feeling the weight of Tyul’s foul smelling and muscular, dragon-like body. “Enough, beast!” Clutching onto Drake’s gnashed torso, Aja stood, causing Tyul to drop into a salt pool. A split-second later, Aja’s mighty fist pounded Tyul’s hideous face.

Devil’s blood, black and rancid, splattered Aja’s face, blinding him for a few seconds. “Son of Satan!” he exclaimed, backing away from Tyul.

Taking advantage of the situation, Tyul snickered while grasping onto Drake. Stealing him away from Aja, Tyul spread his dark wings to fly north toward Hell’s Gate. While soaring toward the portal, Tyul whispered an archaic chant summoning the ancient gatekeepers.

Clearing the devil’s blood from his eyes, Aja stomped the ground so hard the hexagonal, honeycomb salt shapes shattered. “Filthy, stinking fiend; he must be stopped,” said Aja now heading toward the magnificent, but menacing serpent-twisted gates.

However, Tyul’s magical chant had already worked, cutting through the earth’s crust to open the blood-drenched caverns leading into Hell’s Gate. He landed safe and sound with Drake and quickly hurried into the caverns. “Almost there… yes.” Tyul’s soulless eyes rolled to the back of his ugly head as the smell of scorched souls lit a fire in his belly.

That split-second of indulgence was all the time Aja had needed. Within the blink of an angel’s eye, Aja hovered above Tyul. His almighty hands wrapped around that devil’s head and tore it off. This time, though, he escaped the poisonous, black blood. Reclaiming the human, Aja took flight with him.

Miraculously, Drake awakened in High Desert State Prison’s medical ward. Sitting up, he moved his straggly, brown bangs from his eyes, and then ripped out the IV.

“Where am I?”

Looking around, he felt the bandages around his neck and abdomen.

“Oh, no... it can’t be. I didn’t make it,” Drake said rubbing his shoulder. Closing his eyes, he relived the disastrous escape attempt that included a Houdini stint into Death Valley for over ten hours. I was shot, and my flesh torn off. I saw my eternal destination, but I deserve even worse and know it.

Opening his dark blue eyes, Drake swallowed hard and got out of bed to then hobble over by the barred window. Gazing up, feeling a profound sense of remorse, sunlight blinded him as he whispered, “But I didn’t stay dead, did I...Aja?”

Drake’s mistrial soon followed, ticking off everyone who’d heard about it. However, no one was more peeved than Jeremy Macomb, the stoic prosecuting attorney who never believed in second chances, let alone divine intervention. Somehow, his team of so-called experts lost all credible evidence against Drake Mirren.

After Drake was released, attempts were made on his life, and twice his apartment became a victim of arson, but he avoided injury every time. Funny, though, shortly after diseased demons unleashed horrific plagues that annihilated millions of people, it was Drake Mirren or Saint Drake as he became known who was called to duty.

A powerful weapon... This saint held nothing back as he slaughtered evil.

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Nora Weston’s fiction and poetry slips in-between and all around science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Her publishing credits include the anthologies: Mind Mutations, Cyber Pulp’s Halloween 3.0, and Dark Pleasures.

Melange Books has published her science fiction adventure, Guardian 2632, and The Twelfth Paladin was released in June 2011. Other venues in print and online include: Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine, The Hacker’s Source, The Harrow, The Dream People, Hoboeye, Abandoned Towers, Lost in the Dark, among many others.

Nora Weston's work can be found at http://www.2noraweston.com

July 21, 2011 — 3,165 words

Georgio

By M Jones

He downed another large gulp of motor oil, its slick, black promise sliding through his host's innards, globules slipping through the injured arteries of the heart. His hands were shaking as he held the tin can, furtive glances stolen over his shoulder to ensure there were no witnesses to his gorging. He placed it back on the shelf where he'd found it, bending low to peep through the knot in the wood walls of the shack. Clara was on the front porch of George and Stella's house, her smile sickly sweet, her hands outstretched in flirting glee at her sides. She giggled at something George said, and then clasped her hands together as though excited over a happy prospect. George touched her hair and she shook her head, but still remained close, teasing him with the blatant hint that she was open to his suggestions, no matter how lewd they may be.

He hated the way she pretended to be happy. He knew the danger of this kind of mirth.

George and Stella's house was as ramshackle as the storage shed he hid in, a portion of the roof caved in, with a dilapidated porch rotting away at Clara's feet. As he wiped the last remnants of motor oil from his cheek, he stepped back from his vantage point, unwilling to see the carnage he knew Clara was about to inflict. She'd been searching for release since the fire, the switchblade heavy and willing in her tiny beaded purse, her fingers dancing along the blade as it sliced through the air, through unwilling, stiff flesh. Her victims had little time to scream, let alone protest their own murder. With stunned expressions they fell quickly, blood seeping out of them in a steady stream, a low, sickening gurgling signifying the last breath of life. That's how it had been in Chicago, and one didn't mess with a system that worked.

He pushed the shed door open with a low creak, and peeked out across the expanse of dried grass and sandy mud, not a drop of moisture anywhere to quench the thirsty earth. He heard Clara giggle, and to his surprise there was a low, answering chuckle.

George was still alive.

"I got that diner for a song, I did. I won't sell it for one, Stella's right as rain about that."

"I can't argue with a sound minded woman like her."

"No, you're right on that. You can't."

Their conversation drifted over him as he approached, Clara's innocent facade slipping just a little as he sidled up close to her, his palms smoothing down the wrinkles in his suit jacket. "I see you've made a friend," he said.

"This here's George," Clara began.

"I gathered."

Clara gave George a shy smile and another one of her trademark falsly innocent giggles. "Don't mind my brother, Frankie, here. He's always looking out for me, even when there ain't no worry at all."

George smiled back at him. He was a fairly stocky man, though well proportioned, his head slightly balding and his nose too wide to be properly called handsome. He had fingers that were fat sausages, and they wiped the few beads of sweat from his brow, smearing the dust that had settled on his skin into a smooth grey paste. He held his sweaty palm out in greeting and flashed a grin comprised of wide, yellow stained, even teeth. "Mighty fine to meet your acquaintance."

His grip felt hot and clammy, and he flinched instinctively at George's ugly touch.

"Frankie, hunh?" George said. "I knew a guy named Frankie from out Chicago way. I know a lot of those boys. Clara and I here, we were just catching up on some of the old gang. She was saying Mikey ain't been seen around." He cocked his head to one side. "You know anything about that?"

His host's heart didn't beat. It only filtered the motor oil as it slid into his system, muddying up his sense of time and thought processes. George seemed shrink and grown in his vision, a watery man whose rivulets ran long into Chicago, deep into damp basements and silenced speakeasies. He closed his eyes, feeling dizzy, and when he opened them again it was as if they had never left Chicago, that Clara was still dancing her fox-trot with her man Mikey. His body was intact, and from the look of him he had never been a priest. Just another shady employee on Georgio's payroll.

Georgio.

George.

He coughed into his fist, an ugly ball of black staining his hand and spilling over it in a thick black fossil stream. Chicago played through his mind in a series of flickers and shadows against the dark.

Fox-trot. Mikey. Priests. Murder. Georgey-porgy, Georgian, Georgio.

The dance sped up as Langley trumpet screamed out its epithet, his lamentations frantic as they poured out of his soul, black as the oil that lay thick at his feet, dribbling in thick consciousness from his chin. Fires burned and Sheriff Borden grinned, and before he could utter one word of protest, he was out of Kansas and was trapped in Foss, on a worn out porch, with a murdering moll.

"I'd have thought you would have lived in a nicer house," he said to George, genuinely puzzled. "There's certainly enough money coming in. Your basements are always full."

But the rum runner known as Georgio in their usual circles stared at him, aghast. He imagined this was a difficult expression for a seasoned criminal like Georgio, who was so used to keeping everything hidden. If he had doubts about Clara's truthfulness in how humanity worked, it was cured in this instance. Life really was this expendable. George, who himself had ordered the end of many a handsome, ambitious upstart, was not immune.

"You are Frankie... I had my doubts at first, but..." he began. Then, angry, "I told you never to show your face to me, you bastard, never to come near..." George shook his head, staring at him. He backed away, as though terrified. "Jesus, what's going on with you? You got to be some kind of sick. That black shit. My God, Frankie... What's wrong with you?"

He was puzzled by this recognition, his liquid heart beating slightly faster as he grasped the fact that this human, this George also known as Georgio, also known as the vicious rum runner familiar with the carrion field in Kansas--he knew this face he was wearing, and he had given it a disturbing, familiar name.

"How do you know me?" he had to ask. George frowned, not understanding. "I've never met you before."

"The hell, Frankie... I thought you were in California. I don't get it, you said you were on a job, that it was tricky business. All that dough at stake... Jesus, why are you here?"

The black oil oozed out of his stomach, seeping out of the corners of his mouth. He dabbed at a damp spot leaking from his nose. A slimy, partially solid chunk of black oil dribbled out. He smeared it across his cheek with the back of his hand. "Frankie," he repeated, ignoring the look of stark horror planted firm on George's face. This mystery had to be solved. He didn't like these puzzles, these little snippets of information this world liked to throw at him, pushing his mission off balance. If he had been home, it would have been another possibility, another seeping wave of the future that would pass over him, unnoticed.

"Who do you think I am?"

He didn't get a chance to find out. She had a cat's stealth.

Clara was expert, her blade quick. George clutched at this throat, the wound gushing clots of blood that were not dissimilar to his own black oiled leavings. George gurgled for a few moments as he slumped to the ground, his eyes wide with a mixture of shock and terror. These were intense emotions for a simple, business minded man like George. Mortality crept into his pockets, his profits overshadowed by the blatant confusion felt by the powerful as death strips their importance away. He would be nothing soon, a lump of rotting meat that time would discard. George's wide eyes rolled back in his head while his life blood spilled out of the massive gash she'd cut through his neck. He made a small squealing sound, one common on a farmstead like this.

She watched, impassive, as George morphed from a grimacing, vibrant being into an inanimate object.

When George stopped twitching, he turned on her, annoyed. "That was not necessary."

"Like hell it wasn't." She spat on the ground, and used George's stained sleeve to wipe her knife clean before putting it away neatly in her beaded purse. She twirled a tendril of her hair, and let out a long, deliberate sigh. "I'm going in. I don't know about you, but I could use a good shower. Hot water and rose scented soap. A girl has to have some luxuries. I'm getting real tired of all this dust and dirt."

George still lay on his front porch, a gory mess visible to anyone who passed by on the main road. "I'm not sure about that being a good idea. There could have been witnesses." He glanced over his shoulder, every breeze tugging a branch into creaking motion making his liquid heart pump. "We can't just leave him here, like this. What about his wife, Stella?"

Clara was already deep inside the house. Her steps bounded up the stairs, heading for the relief of a warm shower that would cleanse her of all her sins. It was always that easy for her. Terrible acts were only surface deep, easy to scour off with a thin layer of rose scented soap and a rough drying with a clean towel.

On the porch, the remains of George glistened in the early afternoon sun, his eyes clouded over into the cataract opacity of the dead. The open gash on his neck was a feast for flies. They crawled along its thick periphery, inside of his opened throat and out of it, a warm nursery for their white, wiggling infants. He scanned the horizon, searching for another soul who would shout in righteous indignation at what had happened here. There was a sturdy tree near the roadside, two of its lower branches thick enough to hold two swaying slabs of strange fruit. He would wither out here, in the heat, the liquid essence that was his form drying up under the scorching judgement. He would never find another host in time. His mission would be a failure.

He could hear the water running through the ancient pipes in the house, and he pushed the creaking screen door in as he went inside. Unlike the outward appearance, George and Stella's home was decked out in expensive furniture, every surface cluttered with pricey finery and rare bric-a-brac. There was not an antique to be seen in this modern home, with works of deco art displayed prominently above the fireplace, the wooden drawers and cupboards plainly designed with stark geometric shapes. It was impossible to know who had the keener eye for art, Stella or George, but what was evident was the lurking sense that these were people used to getting things and keeping them. No surface dared to remain bare, not when a teacup or an ornate hairbrush or a delicate piece of carved ivory could cover it.

The sitting room was an overbearing space crammed so full of functional design the pieces no longer had any purpose. There was nowhere to sit, not with the piles of magazines laying on embroidered chairs and stacks of framed artwork blocking access into the open room. There were no old remnants of a past life here, only the constant, obsessive deluge of a new one that had taken over their house in a relentless flood of things. A warehouse jammed full of empty accomplishment.

Clara sang as she took her shower, and he carefully made his way up the stairs, every step a hazard as he avoided bits of pottery, mink stoles, purses, suits, shoes, typewriters, stacks of paper. By the time he'd reached the upper floor, he had to squeeze against the wall to gain access to the bathing room, where Clara was busy washing off the last of George. "I don't understand this," he shouted to her through the closed door. "How can they live like this? It's like being crammed into a tightly bound maze."

The water stopped, and Clara continued to hum. "I had to shove a bunch of stuff out the door, but it's all top drawer quality, every last bit of it. I guess Georgie was doing well this year. I know those dresses of Stella's are all the newest fashions, not a thing older than two seasons." She opened the bathing room door, her hair hidden beneath a tightly wound towel turban, her body immodestly poured into a short, silken dressing gown sporting large orange poppies. "She's got good taste, though, I'll give her that. Plus, she's almost my size. I can take a few of these and they'll fit me just fine."

"So now you are a thief as well as a murderer."

"Can't see how that matters, considering the kind of person George was. You think every little thing here doesn't have a big glob of blood all over it? I know you aren't that stupid." She darted back into the bathing room, and fussed over her hair, fingers deftly puffing up several stray tresses and putting them carefully into place. "I'm going to have to do something about this mop before we get to California. Maybe I should ask Stella if there's a good place to go here in town." She glanced over her shoulder at him. "You could use a trim up yourself. Maybe they could do something about that ginger hair you're sporting. It's so wrong for your skin, you look all kinds of sick, even with a healthier fit, like you said."

A pile of expensive junk had been shoved into the corner of the bathing room, near the washing up sink she was now draped over. She balanced herself on its edge with her hip, her knee bending to give her leverage as she reapplied her lipstick and viciously smeared her lips together. "I think I'm getting a tan," she complained. She picked up Stella's stick of kohl and began applying it expertly to her large, selfish gaze. "Remind me to rummage around for a big brimmed hat. I can't be showing up in Hollywood looking like I'm some know-nothing farm girl. They want a bit more sophistication than that."

He backed away from the bathing room, the hallway window catching his eye. "You think so, do you? If actresses are as loose with the knife as you are, I doubt very much that it matters if you are from the city or the country. Unless you are referring to your murdering experience, which has rendered you an expert at this point." He inched his way down the hall, back pressed against the wainscoting as glanced out the cluttered window, the shutters broken with a tattered lace curtain littering the windowsill. He watched as a truck trundled past on the road, a pair of squealing pigs pacing in its open trunk.

"This is a lovely dress, I have to say. My, my, Stella, you know how to pick the threads."

"We need to leave," he said to her, a feeling a panic welling inside of him. "A truck just went by, the driver--he could have seen something."

She paused, the silken pink flowered summer dress held up to her shoulders as she tested its length, her chin holding it in place. She draped the skirt across her thigh, approximating its fit. "Perfect, really. Won't even need a hem." She caught his eye and groaned at his continued worry, the dress draped across her arm. Orange poppies clashed with cheerful pink. "He didn't stop, so he saw nothing. If people aren't looking for carnage, they don't find it easily." She held the dress back up to her chin. "I'm not so sure about that lacy bit at the cleavage, though. A bit of old Victoria, I think."

He glared at her, a familiar feeling of anger replacing his original panic. Outside, the branches creaked angrily against the hot, violent breeze. A storm was brewing, a pushing, stabbing finger that would rip across this farm and most of the houses in Foss, flattening them. He'd heard of such things, the newspapers in this region were full of them. Pictures of whirling fingers of storms that plucked life from the earth in godlike fury. Even the very atmosphere of this planet was prone to murder. Still, he couldn't feel too much sympathy for people standing in the way of carnage. Foss had already suffered a flood that had destroyed it. He couldn't understand why they would have bothered to rebuild.

He stared out the window, reflective. On the porch, dried tumbleweeds rolled over George's corpse. Seeds planted themselves in the crowded avenue of his gashed neck. A carrion crow let out a victorious cry as it circled and dived onto the deck. A black beak pecked deep inside of George's shocked, open mouth.

"He called me Frankie."

The bathing room door gently closed behind her. There was the sound of rustling silk as she pieced herself together in a stolen dress, the dressing gown bunched tight into a ball to bring with her.

"Did you hear me? He called me Frankie. He knew me. He looked at me like he recognized me."

The bathing room door opened, and Clara walked out into the cluttered hallway, a woman transformed. The pink dress played upon the now chestnut hue of her skin, making her appear healthy and innocent, a ruse if ever he had seen one. She was still affixing a pearl earring as she approached him, no doubt one of Stella's, along with the matching set of pearls that hung in various lengths from her neck. "Don't you just love them?" she said, holding up a strand and giggling. "Look at that pretty pink hue. Have you ever seen such a thing?"

"You didn't answer my question."

A familiar wave of ice washed over her at his insistence, and she turned away, the pearls dropping to the hollow at the base of her neck. "You look like a lot of people. It's nothing."

"But he called me by name."

"It doesn't matter."

"I think it does."

She glanced out the window he had been looking out of earlier, her head raised high to get a good vantage point. "We need to leave." She fixed her gaze from the window and onto him, her icy demeanour giving him shivers. "You're right. That road is too close."

July 20, 2011 — 1,390 words

A Behind the Scenes Look into The Antithesis: From Web Serial to Print Book

By Terra Whiteman

A majority of you have never heard of The Antithesis until I became the E-zine manager, and that means a majority of you don't really know the history behind it. Today, I'm going to use the 'progression' of my story as an example of the pros and cons of print book vs. website fiction.

Before I begin on that, though, let's point out the obvious differences between web fiction and print books (and in this case e-books as well):

  • Standard print books and e-books use only a textual medium. There may be a cover image, but that is (usually) all you are really given in terms of visual, pictographic media. However, this can change when you place a story online, on a site that can be navigated.
  • Reading print books and e-books is very personal. There is no way of really interacting with the author or with any other readers. Granted, this is only taking into account reader-book interactions; this does not include book-reading community sites such as Goodreads. However, a typical web fiction site allows readers to comment on individual chapters and converse with each other about the story. They can also speak to the author via email or through comments.

Those are the two major differences. There are a few more, but for this article the others are arbitrary.

The Antithesis began in February of 2010 as a serialized web-fiction with only three chapters. Now a year and a half later, there are currently two books, and the story has on average about 700 readers.

The story's appeal comes from two separate entities: the media in which I try to get my story across, and the story itself.

I'm a very visual person. I enjoy seeing art and things that go along with stories that help me visualize how the author is intending to relay the story. This is also how I created my site.

The actual story is relayed in a textual medium, typical to that of a book. However, the site is lavish with images and things that are visually stimulating; far more stimulating than block text. I can say with a fair amount of certainty that a significant chunk of my readers would have never read the story had they not come across the other forms of media accompanying it. I can also say with a fair amount of certainty that most web fiction authors understand this concept, and that is why they strive to have an 'attractive' site.

So, exactly what kinds of media does The Antithesis have aside from textual?

  • Artwork - From the moment I began publishing The Antithesis online, I knew I needed to eventually have artwork accompanying it. However, there was a problem to this notion: I couldn't draw. For the next year I began teaching myself how to draw, and also how to use photoshop to color my art. The beginning art was laughable; I took most of them down just because I'm horribly embarrassed by them now. Back then I thought they were amazing.  Artwork is something that many other webfiction authors provide their readers as well.

Here is just a sample of some of the artwork for The Antithesis:

 

Now, what else do I use?

  • Music - This is more the reader community's thing than mine. It started out as mine, though. Since two of my main characters play string instruments (violin and cello), the story itself has a musical basis. There is a musical concept to it that fortifies their relationship. I'd added a meager 'unofficial' soundtrack of songs that I found inspiring for the story, but as the reader community grew, they began recommending songs that made them think of TA as well. Pretty soon, I developed my own youtube channel that dedicated itself to reader-song recommendations, and now there is a new song up every week per reader request. This falls in line with the interactive difference between books and websites. Music can be shared by readers, and can also set the mood for certain scenes in the story.

Here are two of the more latest reader song recommendations, accompanied by artwork from The Antithesis:

I can honestly say that I am very grateful I was published by 1889 Labs. The Antithesis website was what generated my fan-base, and although readers are buying the print books, they appreciate being able to continue discussing and communicating with one another, and I am granted the freedom to continue with my site.

I faced a certain dilemma when thinking about those who may come across The Antithesis through e-book and print books alone, as they may miss out on the art and the extras I include on my site. I've devised a method to where my books actually advertise my website, and I've included the URL to the website in the book itself. After all, the web fiction is what brought in readers to begin with. It's probably my biggest promotional piece that I have going for me right now.

Other bonuses that are offered on the site that, albeit are not in any different forms of media that I've already mentioned, help boost prospective reader interest. There is a glossary of terms, a Planetarium (which outlines the major universes visited in The Antithesis, along with their respective worlds), and also articles that look more closely at certain 'species' characteristics (there are four major races that are focused upon throughout the series: the Archaeans (angels), the Fallen (demons), the Nehel, and the Vel'Haru).

However, there is an upside to purchasing the books vs. reading the story free on the site. For buying incentives, the story has been revised and the plot tightened (certain character dialogue is different, with an extra chapter and a lengthy afterward by me that goes in-depth on some of more mysterious concepts in TA). However, there are many readers who read through the entire story on the site, and like it so much that they buy the books.

The Antithesis is just one of the many examples of how webfiction and print books differ, though it is very, very possible for them to be combined and utilized successfully, both for promotional purposes and reader expansion.

Until next time.

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"Death is, for many of us, the gates of Hell; but we are inside on the way out, not outside on the way in."

- George Bernard Shaw

July 20, 2011 — 2,244 words

Crimes

By Letitia Coyne

Paske was weakened, there was no escaping it. It was going to slow them down. If she kept him with her.

He’d lost a lot of blood, far more than she had realized, and it meant he was weak, dehydrated and cold. All potentially fatal under the circumstances. But she'd freed his hands. She'd let him sleep. She'd let him drink. She'd let him wrap both capes around his nakedness.

The sun was high, but she’d tucked him back into shadows while she watched the road far below. If riders were coming as he said, they would be this far along the road soon. Above her was a bare expanse of mountainside, windblown grass, and frost bitten rocks for as far as the eye could see. The only shelter on the climb was the scrubby gully where they rested.

So his needs had not come at a cost. She was safest sitting still until the riders had passed, or until nightfall covered their progress. She chewed at salt beef and watched him sleeping.

Men always shed their masks when they slept; it was something that had fascinated her for many years. The vilest face softened and the child a mother had once loved was revealed when thick lashes pressed dark against a cheek. It made her no more inclined to credit them with virtue, but it interested her none the less.

She’d stitched his wounds with horsehair. It meant peeling the theyn away from his thigh and taking down the suede breeches that had clotted inside and out with shed blood. And she’d unbuckled the armor he wore like it mattered. It did nothing more than announce to the world that he was higher in the kicking order than she was, as did his theyn and segmented leather kilt, and she tossed them over the scuffing rocks. And the scale-armored hauberk, with ring-tasseled shoulder caps. And even the soft linen tunic he wore under the rub of steel mesh. There was a helplessness in nakedness that answered for some of his sins.

His body had surprised her, as much for its hard lines and well-proportioned form as for the smooth perfection of skin that had never been defiled by warfare. He was fit; much fitter than she would have thought. And he was higher born than a position as administrative officer of the military allowed; it was written everywhere in the vanity of the man, and she wondered again how far he had fallen and what had been his sin. At some time he had been cast out by his own, thrown down among the lesser mortals for some unknown crime.

Being born into nobility was crime enough.

Freya had been born in an alleyway in Koldem City: lying in their filth, feeding off their waste, covered by their muck, and squelching their shit between her fingers and her toes. They were the first enemy she had needed to survive, hating them as she crawled across their lavatory floors to collect their piss pots for the fullers, or scraped the shit from their pampered pets into bowls to sell to the tannery, or ducked a blow, or fled a sheriff, or hid while her family and friends were hunted and killed.

They weren’t alone, of course. They were simply the worst, the top of a top heavy system of brutality that taught its least to fight and kill from the day they first drew breath.

Below them were the merchants who would pay in copper for stolen treasure, then call for a sheriff as she fled into the shadows, or the tradesmen who would pay in coppers for her hand or her mouth or her ass, or pay with a smack across the head and a kick to the stomach. She hated them all, and she had hated needing them even more.

At least as she grew she had learned to fight. She had been twelve the first time she was caught in a raid by young noblemen on horseback who carried off women as a prize to share, and she had killed the man who caught her. She had held a rock, too small to be much of a weapon, but she had hit him square in the Adam’s apple and run away.

And she’d kept running until she’d escaped. Here, the things she knew had value and her strength earned respect and her skill had earned her fame. In the army she had found a home at last.

In her tin mug she had soaked two bits of dry bread, and she moved to where he lay and nudged him awake. His jaw was swollen, and now his right eye was blackening and his smooth cheeks were abraded, but he’d be able to chew some soft bread. “Wake up. You need to eat.” Freya was pleased with the overall effect of his injuries. She liked the edge they took off his arrogance. And she liked the fact that she had given him every single mark.

“Why aren’t you moving while there’s light?” he mumbled. “Leave me here; you can make better time over the mountain without me.”

Freya laughed. “Yes, but I don’t want to leave you here alive. You want me to end it for you? No, you don’t. Times are changing. Big changes. And you want a chance to tell all my brothers-in-arms about it. Remember? So you eat your bread and be ready to ride come nightfall.”

* * * * *

It was not hard to follow the riders; they were moving fast and the horses had dug their toes deep into the dust clawing their way like coursing hounds. Dragan followed. His horse was tired. He’d jogged from the farm and now he was running, but for generations his sires had been chosen for endurance. His legs were as thick as a man’s arms, his fetlocks as heavy as clubs, and he pulled his box-head in against his chest filling his great lungs with heaving air, and he ran.

Foam was running up the reins, and sweat was freezing on Dragan’s lip by the time he gained the rise above the mere. His mount blew like a bellows, and he stepped down watching men moving below. They had found a camp and were scouring the area around it making too much noise and tramping any useful information beneath their inexperienced feet. They were clearly only part of the original team of riders. There were only four of them.

Dragan checked the sky. He had maybe two or three hours of good light left. To pass the searchers he would need to go further into the treeline and ride wide around the bottom edge of the mere. It made for a long ride, but on the high side of the road, there was almost nothing: occasional scrub, some rocky outcrops, but nothing substantial enough to depend on for cover.

From where he sat, it seemed the only choice. Above him the mountains pushed into the clouds, steep and almost bare. Nature had long since stripped them of any verdure and even the rocks were chipped and blown. There was no alternative hope there. Entering the trees, he moved on foot hoping to get close enough to the searchers to hear something, anything of use.

When he rounded the last curve in the road to where the meadow opened before him, he froze. The men had gone from the opposite side of the water. He watched and waited. Nothing. As he straightened, about to shift his position to try for a better view of the road, a shout went up.

They were on the opposite side of the road at the base of the high slope and he shuffled to the edge of the shade, watching them, trying to judge the cause of their excitement. They had found spoor. Every move and yelp of celebration painted them more clearly as dogs on a scent. They were circling now, excited and slobbering, readying themselves for the chase.

He felt for the hilt at his hip. One small hunting knife, it was the only weapon he carried. When he’d left the farm he had no cause to arm himself and now he swore at the lack. They were armed, all of them. Three of the four had drawn their swords and were waving them dangerously; young men not yet comfortable with the instruments of war.

He stood back from the light and walked a short circle looking for a club, anything solid with enough length and weight would do. His targets had remounted and were driving their horses upward over slippery scree and around the stones of a crowded gully. He could see no benefit in riding. It was only the churn of his gut and the rising hair at his nape that said they meant Freya harm. But that was enough. Slapping the horse affectionately on the neck, he turned him off onto the grass and jogged to the road and across in pursuit.

When he reached the place they had circled, his heartbeat charged into a gallop. There was blood. Not just a trace, a speckle or two spattered over the stone, but enough to have pooled and run over the pebbles. It was dark and dry, but it had fallen from a wound deep enough to matter. He dropped to the stones touching the darkness. If Freya was hurt, she would have turned back along the road she had followed; she was nearer the Orlik citadel than the far distant fortress of Aporta. Unless she feared pursuit. She would never try to outrun followers over three days going onward, so she had to have gone up, just as the track suggested.

To his eye there was no reasonable route upward. Any way she went, she would run out of cover before she could get out of sight. That meant she would have to go to ground, and if she was already hurt....

Using his makeshift club as a staff, he started to run.

The way was difficult but passable, steep and unstable, but he made as good time on foot as those he followed made on horses that skidded and shied. The muscles in his thighs were burning, and he pulled his shoulders back, deliberately making himself breathe more deeply. Already, he was in constant sight of the rearmost rider, making tiny gains with every step. Frustration burned all the more acutely for the sense that the path stretched endlessly before them.

If he had not slewed to the side, he might have toppled as the horse ahead backed onto its haunches and its rider dropped from the saddle, awkward but gaining his feet. The pursuers he followed had stopped, abandoning their wheeling horses as they grouped in the narrow gully in defensive positions. But they defended to the front, and he rose from behind.

The men were crowded onto a small plateau, their quarry backed in against a rock wall and he swung, not for the head, but for the base of the skull where it met the spine. The first soldier dropped before his comrades had noticed their danger. The second turned, yelping with surprise but biting onto his shock enough to rally with a well-aimed swing of his broad-bladed sword. Steel bit into Dragan’s only weapon, catching deep in the wood and twisting it roughly in his grip.

In the half-seconds of battle, the instants that dragged apart into slow-motion clarity, Dragan spied the sword of the fallen soldier, released his club with a violent thrust to the side, and ducked to grasp the discarded weapon for himself. The weight of the wooden club caught the young soldier in an unwieldy turn, dragging the arc of his sword off to the side and sharply down. Dragan stood into the wake of the swing, directly in front of his adversary, with nothing between them but air and a sudden look of horror. The young soldier glared at him, his scarred face testament to a life of violence and his eyes bright with recognition. He died as his mouth snarled around a war cry, and his shoulders bunched to draw the overbalanced sword back up into play.

The third was not a raw recruit. Dragan knew his face and his reputation. He was one of the training officers, Jan, and his reputation glowed. Beside him, taking the small advantage of hard rock and slight elevation, Freya ducked a wild swing from her immediate opponent.

If he had stood still one moment more watching her, he would have fallen. Jan launched into the fight with a vicious backhand that knocked Dragan back two steps followed by a heavy downward blow that he could do naught but block and try to hunker down and under. He vaulted upward throwing all of his strength against the blade and, twisting as he did, drove his enemy’s sword up and away. Freya turned, plunging her red-stained steel into Jan’s unguarded side, and as quickly as it had started, the battle was over.

Editing, with thanks to Essie Holton.
Come and chat about Touchstone and the ideas behind it here.

July 19, 2011 — 3,088 words

Diner

By M Jones

She was hungry, and the diner they'd found in Foss was more than eager to snap up some ravenous customers. Flapjacks and fried potatoes with chopped onions lay thick on their plates, with a set of runny sunny side up eggs staring cheerfully back up at them. The coffee was opaque, and not unlike his usual tippling of motor oil. In front of him, Clara picked at her meal with her fork, small dents poked in the side of the flapjacks.

"You're supposed to add syrup."

"I hate sweet things."

The diner was spotlessly clean and efficient, nothing at all like the usual hovels they frequented. The windows held a dusty sheen on the outside thanks to the blowing sands that crept over the small town, blanketing it in an overcoat of beige. The tables were chrome and embossed ceramic surfaces, with leather seated chairs holding them both in place. The counter was not unlike the speakeasy bar back in Chicago, only this time there were no old soaks holding it up, no cheeks plastered in booze and drool to its cracked, filthy surface. Here, the dining was family friendly, an ice cream sundae topped with cherries, a good hearty sandwich to get one's day going. Hot coffee and tea for those less addicted to the warm hug of spirits. He tucked into his flapjack and experimented a taste of it.

He raised a brow in surprise. "This is astoundingly good. Why have we never eaten like this before?"

She sipped her coffee carefully, her flapjacks untouched. "Because grease isn't my idea of a proper meal." She made a face and set the cup down. She picked up a piece of bland toast and begrudgingly nibbled on it. "I've taken you to some wonderful places, I don't know what you're on about. Wining and dining with me is no cheap affair, and with my connections you got the best chefs in all of Chicago cooking your meals. This lumpy, greasy bit of crap, right here? It's not worth wiping a floor with."

She was overly loud, and the waitress behind the main counter eyed them both in suspicion, her gum clacking against her back molars as she chewed. Flies travelled in through the open diner door and settled on the otherwise spotless arrangement of cakes, cookies, sandwiches and metal urns full of freshly percolated coffee. Clara swatted one away with the back of her hand, her expression of disgust never changing. "I show you real food, and real culture and you're just like all the rest. Give you a greasy spoon and a fork and you're set for life."

"It's not like that," he tried to explain. "The food here is just so much more... rustic."

"Rusty, you mean." She watched him critically as he drowned his home fries in catchup. "How can you even eat that?"

"I told you, it's quite good."

"That's not what I mean. The body you’re using isn't alive, how can it even digest that stuff? How can you even taste it?"

He paused over his plate, pensive. Runny eggs slipped against the edges of the golden brown flapjacks, a dot of butter slowly melting on its velvety surface. "I'm not sure," he admitted. "Perhaps because this body was so fresh and there was such little internal damage. The other one had all kinds of issues. Broken spine, leaking spleen. This one is fully intact." He took another forkful. "You haven't touched a thing."

"I'm not hungry."

"Impossible. If you can go this long without sustenance, you are more alien than I."

She sighed, her fork poised over her plate in grave reluctance. "I got to keep an eye on my figure. They say the harsh truth of the camera puts on a few pounds, and there's no way I'm going to lose a role just because I have a bit of flesh on me."

"I thought it was about talent." He speared some home fries and swirled them in the thick remnants of syrup, picking up bits of the runny egg on its edges. "If you can lie well, which frankly, you are an expert at, I should think you would have no problem finding a role no matter whether you eat a meal once in a while or not."

Her fork poked at the egg and broke it open. She took a slimy globule of it and swallowed it down with effort. "Better?"

"Your body will thank me."

"It's cursing a storm, actually. Ugh, this coffee is vile."

They were nearly alone in the diner, with only a couple of regular patrons dotting the diner's horizon. Clara pointed to a balding man sitting directly across from them, the bald patch on his scalp shining like a polished penny. He was an older gentleman, dressed highly formal and eating nothing more than a coffee and a muffin. "That's the mayor of this dinky set to die town. I can spot those poseurs a mile away."

He wolfed down another flapjack, his brow raised in question at Clara's judgement. "He doesn't look to me to be acting some performance, if what you mean by poseur is correct. He's having a simple coffee in a diner in his community. There is nothing disingenuous about that."

"That's where you're wrong." She gulped another grimacing mouthful of coffee and tore into her toast. A predator forced to make do. "He's mayor and that means he's got a perfectly nice house somewhere in this hick town, and he's got a nice paycheck that he can round out his other money with. He's got a maid, who makes a far better breakfast than this one for him every morning, so why is he here? It's not because he's hungry, it's because he needs to be seen." The waitress journeyed out from where she had been hidden behind the kitchen door, a fresh pot of coffee in her hand. "You just watch. There's charm getting turned on."

The waitress was a woman in her fifties, her grey hair tied tightly in a bun. Her movements were busy and precise, her smile strained as she poured a fresh cup of coffee for the balding man at her counter. "Morning, Charlie," she cheerfully said. "Lovely day."

Charlie's slumped posture instantly changed, his shoulders pushed back, his head level and straight. A wide grin spread across his face, lots of healthy looking teeth and a squinting wink. "Fine day it is, yes a very fine day. You're looking lovely today, Stella. You've done something different with your hair."

Stella smiled and blushed. "Oh, no, it's the same as always."

"No, it's different somehow. Maybe I'm just seeing some of that inner radiance of yours. It's shining right through."

"Now, Charlie, you don't have to be flattering me."

"I'm not flattering, just stating a fact." He paused over his coffee cup. "So, any word yet from George over what's going on with future developments?"

Stella instantly stiffened at this. "I don't know what he does. You know better than I."

"Maybe. Maybe." He finished his coffee and left her a healthy tip. "You tell him to swing by my office sometime today. I'd like to have a chat with him."

The mayor Charlie left and Stella the waitress watched him leave, her brow creased in profound worry. Clara tapped at her ivory teeth with a well manicured nail, her usual pearls tucked away neatly in a small, jewellery suitcase she'd bought when they first arrived in Foss. "There's something here," she said, honing in on the discomfort with all the skill of a hawk finding a wounded rabbit. "Unrest in paradise."

"This is hardly a paradise, it's just a small town, like any other, from what I've witnessed so far." He tested the coffee, and had to agree with Clara. It was awful. "How long before we're back on the road?"

"In about an hour," she said, distracted as she watched the miserable slouch of Stella as she escaped back into the diner's kitchen, her eyes glassy with tears. "Or longer."

She tapped her front tooth with her nail, her coffee held aloft as if in competition with her habit. He knew, buried beneath her compact and the paint she used on her lips, the switchblade lay heavy, its red encrusted handle itching for use. After their experience at the roadblock, she had shed the demure sweater and the bland appearance of normalcy, and now she sported ruby red lips, heavily kohl rimmed eyes and brows pencilled on in long, even lines. She set her coffee mug down, the thick muck within it unpalatable. "The people here are useless," she said, making a sweeping motion with her pale, white hand. "I could cut every single one of them down and it wouldn't mean nothing."

The flapjacks sat ill in his gut at this. At the bottom of her jewelled purse, the switchblade longed to slice through the air, to connect with others in criss-crosses and circles. "You shouldn't be so judgemental," he warned her.

"I can judge as much as I like." She pressed her lips together, smearing the rusty red across the upper half of her teeth. She pointed at the lone elderly gentleman sitting in the corner of the diner, his hat pulled low over his face, obscuring it from view. "See that one? He doesn't even want us to know he's here, he's so ashamed of this place."

"Shame has nothing to do with wanting to be alone." He turned around in his seat, a feeling of unexpected bravado filling him as he set to prove her wrong. "Hello! You there... Come and join us." He held his horrible cup of coffee aloft. "We'll get you a cup."

The elderly man shifted where he sat and raised his head slightly, showing only the lower half of his face. His mouth was pale, his jaw covered in a thin sheen of grey fuzz beneath the myriad wrinkles that comprised his face. "Ain't no use giving a man coffee that tastes like shit. Ain't manners, kind sir. Ain't manners at all."

Still, this didn't stop him from rising from his seat like a slow moving eel and walking over to them, his head kept bent, the hat stubbornly hiding what had to be centurion eyes beneath its white brim. He scraped the chair along the wooden planks of the floor as he settled in, his elbows neatly tucked onto the side of their table. "It's a mighty fine, kind thing for a stranger to invite another stranger to his place of repast. And here you are, nearly finished your breakfast and all, and yet you want to keep the company of a man like me."

"And what kind of man would that be?" Clara astutely observed.

The old man chuckled. "A hungry one," he said. He glanced behind him, ensuring they were alone before he said more, the bent figure of Stella still thankfully in the kitchen. He leaned low to both of them, his teeth rotted stumps behind his shrivelled lips. "She's real stingy these days, that Stella. Always saying I has to pay up front and I don't get a lick of nothing, not one crumb, no sir. The cook, old Gacy, now he's a gent that knows how to be generous, but not Stella. She'd stiff her own mother a last life saving drink she would if her mammy couldn't afford the nickel." He pulled Clara's untouched plate towards him and began nibbling off of it. "Shame to put this to waste."

He watched as the elderly stranger became bolder with Clara's unspoken offering, his jaw working hard over the stale toast. "What's going on with the mayor?" Clara asked, her expression bored. "He seems real interested in George, whoever he is."

The old man grunted an affirmative. "Charlie a right crook, through and through. You know how it is... Here's Stella, working her guts out in this place, while her husband spends his days at home taking in the profits. He don't lay a finger on this diner he doesn't, but then, Stella does have her mean streak, as I've told you. She don't give anyone a free lunch and she likes to keep a tight reign on George's business."

He dabbed at the corner of his mouth with a napkin, crumbs raining down on Clara's plate. "Back in '02, this place was situated a few miles left of here, and then the flash flood came, wiped the place out. They rebuilt in this location, but it were never the same. We're smack in the middle of Clinton and Elk City, and both those towns keep taking in our trade. Nobody sticks around in Foss if they can help it, we're barely a speck on the map as it is. Word has it when they build the highway proper they'll bypass this town altogether, and that's when it's going to the graveyard, and there'll be nothing but ghosts left here." He dared to take a sip of Clara's coffee and he put it back down, an equal grimace to match their own.

"George pays Charlie to keep this place open. Word has it Charlie wants to sell the land and get some coin while the real estate is still worth a bit of something. George leases the land, and Charlie figures he's the primary owner." The old man shrugged and flicked a dirty nail over the pieces of syrupy flapjacks. "He should just haul out and take the money he's offered, our old George should. But Stella, she's too stubborn, too much full of herself. Don't let that hangdog face fool you, she's the reason our George can't make a go of things and find himself some peace. She's clawing onto this place with all her worth, and she's never going to let go."

Clara yawned. "So she's a bitch. Big deal. He can just leave her."

Stella re-emerged from the back kitchen, her bent posture now replaced with stoic determination. Clara eyed her carefully, not one hard, stiff movement missed from her intense scrutiny. The elderly man sighed, and slid his chair away from their table noisily. "Guess I'd better be going before her majesty tells me to stop harassing the customers. That's what she calls simple conversation, our Stella."

He hobbled out of his chair, his back bent at a twisted angle that was painful to look upon. Clara watched as he left, her red fingernail tapping her lipstick stained red tooth, her mood pensive. The entrance to the diner chimed as he slammed the door behind him, his crooked form walking an equally crooked path home.

"This place sucks," Clara said. "See, what did I tell you? I'm right."

It took every effort to hold onto his patience. "You can't just kill people when you've already got law enforcement looking for you. I know murder and death is a commonplace thing among you people, but I have a goal to reach and I can't obtain it if I'm forced to hang from a tree."

"They don't use trees, they use scaffolds." She frowned over this, thinking. "Of course, that's assuming you're in a place that's big enough to bother building one. Maybe they do still use trees around here." She narrowed her eyes as she watched the ever busy, miserable Stella wipe down a table, the scent of lemons wafting over them vengeful cleanliness. "I wonder what tree they use. It would have to be a big one, with long, sturdy branches, or at least one thick enough and tall enough to withstand the weight of a big man. They bop up and down when they hang, you know. Like puppets on loose bits of string, bounce, bounce, and then just like that... Nothing."

The flapjacks were definitely sitting ill in him now. Perhaps she was right about not eating them, especially since he hadn't touched food when he was wearing that other host. Then again, it could have been his own gut screaming out for a good dose of motor oil to calm his nerves, to make this transition from town to another and Clara's murderous intentions all that easier to swallow. He clutched at his stomach, unsure of how best it was to proceed. He could escape now, tell her that he was going outside for some fresh air, and with a long stride he'd be in the Chevrolet, tearing down the long street without her, heading in a beeline to California and the hope of finding his target. But instinctively he knew that this was the wrong tactic, that regardless of his own misgivings he had to follow the path she had laid out for him. His superiors had put her in his way for a reason, and he had to trust that they were right in their judgement, for they knew all, and saw all, the history of the past and the future laid out in clear, parallel lines towards every possibility.

He was not an expert in these things. He was no navigator, that took hundreds of years of study and skill and he had neither. His job was simple, in many ways the same as the various men who wandered through Clara's life, taking out problems for their narrow minded bosses, be they people who didn't pay what was owed, or fellow gangsters who had outlasted their usefulness. They had rules they followed, even if Clara didn't agree that this was so. There was a definite pecking order, a line of command where one listened to another and all events transpired downward, ending in bloodshed and death. He followed this himself, his orders to take out that one specific problem and to return home, though how he was to do any of this was forever muted. Perhaps it was the same for these men Clara danced with, her switchblade teasing through the edge of her purse as she swung her hips in an energetic fox-trot. They had orders. They fulfilled them.

Clara listened to no one. She had only her own twisted heart to guide her, and it was as wrong and painful as the winding spine of the elderly stranger's back, her life as sour as Stella's outward appearance.

Clara watched Stella as she wiped down another table, one that was already clean. She had obsessions herself, it seemed.

"She's like me," Clara observed. She tapped her incisor with her pinkie nail. "I think I like her."

July 18, 2011 — 2,275 words

North

By Letitia Coyne

It had taken Freya no more than moments to finish clearing the camp. The scrolls which she had been planning to burn were back in their cylinder at her side. The path she chose toward the heights was rough and moving backwards, but above them the peaks were covered by snow and cloud. The pass to the south looked best from the ground, and there would be time enough to reconsider once daylight cleared her view. A moment more brushing their tracks from the dust of the road and she was bent over her horse's neck and leading up into higher ground.

Paske followed and the tension in him amused her every time she turned to check his progress. She led his horse while his hands were still tied at his back; if he had no natural balance he would fall until he learned to keep his seat.

Ahead there would be worse. While darkness obscured the detail, she chose to move with caution. Once daylight came, she could make better time, but it would also leave them exposed on open foothills that had leapt up so suddenly they seemed to have left the trees behind them. In the darkness, she chose to follow the gullies and waterways and where animals had made paths through low scrub and over shale.

Something that almost felt like happiness had stirred in her stomach, making it light and fluttery. The chill of the air brushed over her skin and raised a sudden rash of gooseflesh as if she had been numb and unaware until that moment. Every now and then a laugh tried to bubble up through her chest even though she had no idea what was funny. For the first time since Dragan had left her at the fortress, she had begun to feel alive. And for the first time, she let herself think about him without restraint.

He wasn't here.

She was moving toward the front line, following her blood as it rushed toward a warzone, and he should have been beside her. He had always been beside her when life mattered.

She looked back over her shoulder, down the slope, and across the dark forests to the west. Somewhere out there he was sitting by his fireplace sipping cider, or, with the sky showing hints of dawn light, he would be rising from a warm bed and doing things every farmer did. She could not picture what those things might be, but they would be earthy things, honest things that needed a steady hand and muscle. By the gods he had those things; she smiled. He was like the earth, like stone. Solid.

And he would be happy there. Happier than he would be if he was beside her now, and he had earned his right to happiness. Still, her joy would have been complete if tonight had been like all the other nights before, when they were together, firing up a fight like sparks from a forge and indestructible.

They had only ridden together once. So many years ago now, she could not have said with certainty how long they had been paired up, but it could not have been very long. Three seasons? Four? She could picture him still; hair dragged back from his temples in twisted shanks that fell into a mass of silk over his shoulders; bare chest, crossed by a studded leather baldric from wide shoulders to narrow hips, and tight leather breeches; thick muscle on a lunging warhorse, both glossed with sweat.

The memory brought a stab of pleasure to her groin and tightened in her breasts. He was beautiful that day, elemental, a force moving through the chaos, and she had wanted him so bad she'd ached with the low groaning heat of it.

It was a tough fight, too. No one had known what they were doing; a mass of men thrown in a headlong run into a line of enemy defenders. She and Dragan had been given horses and sent out on the wing because she had once been cavalry. She laughed, aloud, surprising herself with the sound. Incompetence! How had anyone survived?

They'd made it, though. They'd cut through men and boys and broken the defenses all the way from Mount Cesalpia to the cliffs of Elborg. They'd slogged it out in fast-moving forays, and then driven the lines back in wave after wave; regroup and attack, regroup and attack. By dusk, they had joined the ranks in hand to hand combat on the ground, and the last of their foe had succumbed.

That night they had celebrated with the thick smell of blood still on their skin and the roar of fires and victorious revelry all around. They had fucked harder than any flesh should stand, driven to supreme heights of passion by the cold clutches of death and the glory of their own escape. They should have torn, muscle and bone should have ripped to shreds and ignited. But they'd survived that to.

Freya sighed and returned from her memories, shaking. They'd always survived, and it wouldn't feel right while he was not here beside her. She looked back to check that her companion was still hanging on.

Paske did not look good as dawn began to show his form more clearly. He was loose, his head slumping forward and snapping back, overcompensating in an exhausted attempt to hold his balance. Down his left thigh, the shadows were lifting, showing the sticky black stain of lost blood. The wound was worse than she'd allowed.

"Hey!" The yell startled him briefly, and he made an effort to raise his face. It was far too pale, his lips were dry. If he held on until the morning light was brighter, she'd have to stitch him up. "Don't fall, you bastard, we've got a long way to go yet."

She waited, hauling the lead rein so his mount drew up level. "Water," he slurred. "I need a drink."

"I'll just bet you do. You look a bit pasty. But you can't expect to leave the field with that little scratch, sir." She smiled for her own amusement and held the flask of water to his lips.

He leaned, slurping at the cool liquid and dropped from the saddle like a rock, rolling from his shoulder onto his back between the horses. Unable to break his own fall with his bound hands, he hit the pebbles with his face, grazing a temple and splitting his cheek.

Freya looked down without compassion. "If you weren't so vile, you'd be a joke, you know. I wish Dragan was here. He'd laugh." He wouldn't though. Nothing about this officer was funny. Dragan would have killed him. Months ago. If he'd been here.

* * * * *

The citadel was three easy days ride and Dragan had done it in less than two. That had required no great effort, except he had detoured north a short way to the small market village of Bralz, built where the open farmlands bordered the forests.

His mother's views were not entirely new to him and her judgments not unconsidered. The people he had grown up among lived a different life to any Freya had ever known. In the midst of wide pasturelands and fields of crops, a code of tradition had held its sway for generations. Since ancient times, the men and women of the land had known their rights and their responsibilities. They knew what was decent and what was not, they knew how to judge and who to ostracize, even where the classes rarely clashed.

Freya would be met with discrimination where ever she went, except in the safety of his home. There, he would make sure she had a safe and peaceful haven; somewhere to let all the wounds of her past heal. He would insist upon it.

But some chafing could be minimized. A little compromise here and there would make their dealings with neighbors a little less strained. Just the simple act of wearing skirts would help her blend more peacefully into the community. He had never seen her in full skirts and a bodice, a shawl and apron, or a scarf. He smiled at the thought.

But he had paid the seamstress in Bralz to have her make the most beautiful garments he could afford. It would be his gift to her when they returned this way in a little over a month.

The massive stone walls of Orlik were at once as familiar as home and as despised as a prison. He had hoped to make this journey when the day of her release came, so he would not have to be inside its walls any longer than necessary. But if Freya could work her way through ninety long days here, he could stand a month for her sake. If boredom became too much, he could always take on a troop of recruits and train them with sword or in archery.

As he approached the gate house, there was nothing familiar about the scene he glimpsed inside, and he slipped down from his saddle.

A caravan of spectacular wealth sparkled in the midday sun as it was prepared to move out along the road. Officers and recruits alike were massing in the open parade ground, or hurrying along the terraces.

He was stopped at the gates; not halted briefly with half-assed questions as he would have expected, but halted, at spear point. A young man, unshaven fluff all tufting on his chin and cheeks, held the spear at Dragan's chest, shaking like he would run it through out of sheer terror. "What is your business here?" he asked, his voice trembling as much as his hands.

Dragan ignored him, searching the guardbooth and peering around the gateposts for a familiar face. When he found one, he called, "Arnas, why am I being held?"

The summoned guard limped closer, taking Dragan's hand in his and meeting chest to chest with their forearms linked between them. "Can't you see? If you'd come in yesterday or tomorrow, you could have flown in on a swan and no one would have noticed. Today, we have the Grevinde of Ludz-Obila gracing us with her exit. She came to witness the new intake."

"Strange times," Dragan laughed. "Have we become a circus now, to entertain them as well?"

"Anything's better than nothing, my friend. Why have you come back?" Arnas faltered, stepping back. His face, one moment grinning widely, went to sudden calm, as if he couldn't risk an expression.

"What?"

"You heard? About Freya? You shouldn't have come in here. What if they hold you?"

Dragan stepped back, too, concerned by the rapid change and moving away from the implied threat of the fortress walls. "Heard what?"

"I didn't even know she was still here. No one seems to have known. And I don't know what she did, except what they said about the gala. I wasn't there."

"What do you think I've heard?" he asked, dragging Arnas by the tunic back toward the shadows outside the gatehouse. "What do you know that I don’t?."

"Not a lot. There aren't many vets left here, and the new kids don't talk to us. She was at the Grevinde's gala and something was said. She upset the Commandant; I don't know really, Dragan. I just heard she got mouthy."

"And?"

"And then she was sent out on some sort of errand yesterday. That's when I saw her. Only when she went out the gates, or I wouldn't even have known she was here. Like I said." Arnas moved in closer, covering his words with care, turning his back on his young and nervy associate. "Paske went out a couple of hours later, riding hard. Then, when he wasn't back come this morning, all hell broke loose." He shrugged, raising his hands in consternation. "A squad was sent out after her. Hard men, too; training officers and rough kids from the new lot."

"That's it?"

"That's it. But if you turn up today, just when they've sent men out after her for whatever reason, it's going to look the same to them as it looks to me. Like you came back for her. To help her, or at least like you know where she is."

"How would I know where she is?" Dragan hissed. "How would I even have heard what she's done?" Hot and cold were warring in his stomach, and the steam they made was rising under his skin. Fear and anger, fury and frustration all bloomed at once across his thoughts. "Which way was she moving?"

"North. Straight up the road north. First light yesterday."

He had no more than light provisions for an easy ride, but there was no time to fuss over small comforts like food. He'd been cold and hungry before and for less reason. Swearing roundly he dragged his horse around and stepped up onto his back. "You didn't see me. Is he okay?"

Arnas shrugged, "I didn't see you. Him? Who knows? Good luck."

Glad of the confusion churning through the ranks, he jogged back along the access formwork and onto the road. North it was, then. There was nothing on the road north for three or four days' ride. It took you to the fortress at Aporta. And nowhere or anywhere in between.

 

Editing, with thanks to Essie Holton.
Come and chat about Touchstone and the ideas behind it here.

July 16, 2011 — 163 words

Webfiction World!

By Terra Whiteman

Some of you may have already heard, but 1889's Anna Harte and MCM have started up a website featuring podcast episodes that focus on the world of webfiction. Each episode is roughly an hour long and showcases the works of many talented webfiction writers, and also offers good tips and advice for those thinking about starting their own web serial stories.

And, since the hosts are MCM and Anna, each episode is quite entertaining, to say the very least.

Since almost all of the 1889 Labs authors have roots in webfiction, the founder of this company once being a webfiction writer himself, it's wonderful to finally have an internet 'show' that gets the word out on this relatively unexposed (yet not particularly new) alley of alternative online publication.

As of right now, three episodes are up, with more to come. All of them can be found on Web Fiction World!

July 14, 2011 — 3,057 words

Sheriff

By M Jones

His name was Sheriff Rudolph Borgen, and he was a very busy man. He could tell this from the way he twitched as he spoke, his shoulders shifting as though he had a million burdens he desperately needed to shake off. The wide brim of his hat hung low over his eyes, which darted over every detail of the Chevrolet, inside and out. He chewed on a piece of black tobacco and spit it out at the rear of the vehicle, hands on hips, his shifty shoulders working out the kinks in his thick bulldog neck. "You folks from the city? Up north, I figure."

"Chicago," Clara cheerfully said. She batted her eyes and gave him her sweetest smile, all teeth and pink, innocent lips. "We got folks in Texas we're set to visit." Her innocence faltered slightly as she watched him inspecting her switchblade, an inner darkness welling within her at this mishandling of her most sacred object. "You gonna need that much longer? It's my good luck charm, like I said. My brother, Frankie, he gave it to me when I was just little. He said it would help me cut through the bad times, that's what you said, wasn't it Frankie?"

He sat up blearily in his seat, his eyes heavy, his body sleepy. The tiredness was unexpected, and he had to wonder if this new body he'd acquired had some illness he wasn't aware of. "Sure."

"My, my, falling asleep that easy, you can see now why I don't let him at the wheel. Got a real case of the dropsy, my brother does. Don't mind him, he's just a lunkhead. " She turned her head and glared out the windshield, hiding her brewing inner darkness from both of them. "That switchblade was real special when he gave it to me, at least to a little girl looking up to her big brother. I guess everyone seems real wise when you're only five."

Sheriff Borden smiled back, and tipped his hat to her. "Seems we got things in common, Ma'am. Lunkhead brothers have been my speciality." He leaned his elbow on the roof of the Chevrolet, his lips upturned as though he were a dog scouting out a scent. He tapped the edge of the switchblade in a gentle rhythm on the roof. "Not much family resemblance, though. Not one hair of symmetry, no sir."

She continued on with her sweet smiling, though to the trained eye the strain of it was cracking her. "That happens sometimes."

Sheriff Borden scratched his arm, lips still upturned in that sniffing pose. "Guess you might be right. I don't have much to compare to, myself, seeing as how my brother is a twin and all. Must be a bit of prejudiced thinking on my part, believing family is all offshoots of the same person. Least that's how I figure it. When you look in a mirror all your life, you keep expecting to find similarities where there ain't supposed to be none." He frowned as he glanced into the backseat. "I got to say, though, you do look might familiar. You must come through these parts often."

"Not really," he began, and Clara shot him a silencing glare. He shrank back beneath it, and did his best to give the Sheriff as warm a smile back as he could muster. "Not this time of year."

"I see." Sheriff Borden turned his attention back on Clara, who was smouldering in the driver's seat. He twirled the switchblade in his grip, bits of red grit flaking off of it and onto his palm. "Now myself, I like to travel in the spring, when it's not too hot. Summer heat beating down like this, especially in Texas, it's enough to fry a person's soul to a crisp."

Clara batted her eyelashes and demurely unbuttoned and re-buttoned the top of her sweater. "Yes, well, it is difficult at times, but the car gives us a good breeze when we're on the open road. Frankie and I take turns driving, because it is ever such a long way from Chicago, but our Gran, she don't wait on no one." She bit her bottom lip, her eyes flickering to her companion in the back seat. "I am a bit curious, though. Just why are you stopping motor cars like this? You worried someone's going to have engine trouble?"

Sheriff Borden chuckled at this. He straightened up, the switchblade still in his grip as he adjusted the waistband of his beige uniform trousers. "Well, Ma'am, it's like this... There was a terrible fire happened a ways back, and we're checking on folks, seeing if they witnessed anything out of the ordinary on their travels. Was a real blazer, that one, took out a farmhouse and a motor car, too."

"That's terrible!" Clara gasped. She held her hand at her open, shocked mouth. "Don't tell me someone was hurt...."

"None got out alive, which is a shame," Borden said, sadly. "Three people, all told. A real tragedy."

"Gosh," Clara breathed. She kept her hand at her mouth, as though holding her horror at the very notion in. "Did you hear that, Frankie? Three people. What a terrible, terrible shame."

"'Course, it weren't the fire that did them in," Sheriff Borden added, stopping Clara's heart cold. He leaned his hip against the side of the Chevrolet, the switchblade swung between his fingers in an endless, circular loop. "There's been this problem that's been happening on that farm as of late. We been suspecting the old folks were in with some of the gangs in Chicago, and we'd been keeping an eye on them now and then, just to check out the rumour mill. Trouble was, couldn't get a proper warrant, not with the judge in this town being so keen on his off license wine and all." He hid his eyes beneath the brim of his hat. "Now, you didn't hear that tidbit from me."

"I'm deaf in this ear," Clara assured him.

"Word on the Chicago streets has it that the farmlands were used as a bit of a cemetery for a goodfella or two. Got some suspicions myself that there's some truth to that."

She giggled at this. "Oh, you're a kidder!" she tittered. "Chicago mob men working out of this little hole in the world, I mean, truly you can see how ridiculous that is...."

"Them corpses, and we will find them, make no mistake, they got something special about them that's been bugging a few of my pals up north for a while now." He traced the outline of her car window with the edge of the rusted, stained switchblade. "Seems every victim's got a strange calling card carved into their face. Mostly on the eyes. One 'x' and one 'o'. When I see that scraped into the bones, I know it's got Chicago written all over it." His bulldog pout twisted into a wide, sharklike smile. "But now, what am I doing, worrying a pretty little thing like you?" He handed her the switchblade, which she took with a slightly trembling hand. "You would have told me by now if you'd seen anything. Guess you must have just missed the show, and a good thing, too." He tipped his wide brimmed hat at her, and gave her a toothy grin. He had a gold incisor that glinted in the morning sun. "Have a good trip. You watch yourselves, now."

"I always do," she said as she turned on the ignition, the motor clattering into life.

Sheriff Borden stepped aside as the Chevrolet found the road again, its wheels kicking up dust and debris, the ensuing cloud a thick, opaque shield against further scrutiny. The Sheriff was a thin, willowy line within the cloud of dirt, long arms extended, his hands on hips, the profile of his hat facing them. Even his formless shadow studied them in question.

"We almost didn't make it," he observed.

"You shut your mouth." Clara gripped the steering wheel, her knuckles white, her teeth gnashing in a silent scream. "You shut it good and tight."

* * * * *

The silence in the motor car was vicious, tainted as it was with Clara's ever brooding anxiety over the police barricade. He couldn't understand why she would feel this way when it was clear that they weren't suspects, for Sheriff Borden never would have given her back her switchblade, nor would he have wished them well on their continued journey. It wasn't as if he could traverse state lines and follow them, and thus, Clara's fear was unreasonable. Besides, she was grossly exaggerating the crime's importance, for hadn't she made it clear, time and again, that human life was worthless, outright expendable? Sure, she may get caught and the state would murder her in turn. Fearing what was expected seemed a foolish waste of energy. He sighed and rested his head on the knit pillow, its musty contents made all the more pungent by the acrid summer afternoon heat.

"We'll be arriving in Foss soon," Clara said. Her head was rigid as she drove, her hands cemented to the steering wheel in the manner of a department store mannequin. "I need to blow off some steam. There had better be somewhere for a girl to water her whistle."

Blowing off steam. He knew well this coded language that hid its acts of violence beneath harmless words. Never did a night end with only her drunken steps to lead him off of his prescribed path, if she got her way they would be harbouring yet another corpse passenger before the night was through. Another stinking, human mess he would be forced to deal with. He thought on the liquified remains of the man she had falsely named Frankie and a thick well of oil slid upwards in his host's throat. He gagged, and swallowed the slimy lump back with effort, its slick bitterness burning the oesophagus. "We should wait," he said, choosing his words especially carefully. "That discussion you had with that law officer, it's clearly upset you. If you're worried your acts have been detected, there's no point in going into another situation where you can ensure they make the proper connections."

A farmhouse windmill creaked in the distance, its gothic, circular reach looming ever closer as they trundled down the long stretch of road, not another motor car in sight. The heat was baking him from the inside out, and he fanned himself with the map she'd purchased back in Chicago, its paper accordion folds doing nothing more than slightly dissipating the humid air around him.

"You shouldn't have killed that man." He folded up the map and tucked it into the side pocket of his jacket. The knitted pillow lay discarded on the floor of the motor car, its pungent aroma wafting up in miserable drafts. This evil old Gran had thought of a stranger's comfort, once, he thought. She'd knitted this ugly pillow will care and had the foresight to know that eventually a tired soul would be riding in the back of that Chevrolet, and it would be her creation that would provide them with comfort. Not so, now, with the leftover stale scent of decay lingering over it, the very same rot that had captured Gran's body and made it one with the mouldy knitted remnant of her life.

Clara had said they were bad people. But her Gran had thought of someone else when she made that ugly green and brown knit pillow, a balm to some unknown soul she had yet to meet. Perhaps that was why the hobo had found their farmhouse, that pillow had been meant for him, to rest his tired head on instead of the filth of the earth. Bad people, from what he understood, didn't care about the comfort of others. They were headstrong and careless, too full of themselves to think of any person existing beyond their fiercely narrow scope.

By this definition, Clara herself was a bad person.

She also told lies.

"I'm not sure why it was so necessary to kill him," he reiterated. "He was just a drifter. He probably never even saw us."

"He saw us, I'm sure of it, and what's done is done. It's not like I can raise the dead, I can't slip into their skin and remold them into whatever shape I want them to be." She bit her bottom lip, her eyes narrowed in furious tension. "It don't matter, anyhow. The coppers figure it's just another mob hit, and you heard him back there, it wasn't like they were anyone's favourite neighbours. I told you, they got money for turning their farm into a rum-runner's graveyard."

"They were dead for two years." He kept his voice even, his eyes following the perfectly even stitching of the knitted pillow at his feet. "You forget that I've seen your work. You're rather prolific."

"Think what nonsense you like," she curtly replied. "It's not me that copper was looking at."

He was confused by this, and he sat up in the back seat, his posture stiffened, shoulders rigid and back awkwardly straight. The strong muscles in this host sometimes went against him, squeezing him to the left of a healthy pink lung. "He never spoke more than two words to me."

"Fat chance them thinking I'm some killer," she giggled. "They aren't looking for some innocent little thing like me, not this sweater wearing, no lipstick, buttoned up like Victoria spinster sweetheart like me. I can hear what's going on in their minds, as clear as a radio broadcast. 'This one couldn't hurt a fly. My, but she's so sweet, so innocent. Kind of vulnerable, too. Poor girl, she needs protecting from brutes like him'. " She glanced back at him, narrowed eyes brimming with black and green malice. "That's what they think you are. The brute. Come to corrupt sweet innocent little me. They'll be looking for you, all right, this man who wasn't a priest, even though he was, who has no history of speak of, who doesn't even have a real name."

"You're wrong." He rolled down his window, the acrid summer air sucking all oxygen out of his host's healthy, pink lungs. "They are your relatives. You are the strongest connection."

"You're just a nasty man who led me astray," she snapped back. "Don't question my intelligence. Why do you think I even brought you along on this ride? Because when something bad happens around me, it bounces off and right away it sticks to you. You make a good cover, friend."

The windmill creaked beneath the scant breeze that captured it, rocking it back and forth on its circumference, never quite making a full rotation. The massive gears groaned beneath the lumbering greeting the structure gave them, its stretched shadow long and cloying as it travelled along the length of the car, obscuring them in its shadow.

"You are reckless and unfocused, Clara." The detail nagged the back of his mind, that she was using him a tool of deflection. Then where was her promise of his target, his own work that needed to find completion? "You've lied to me too many times. There is no trust between us." He kicked the knitted pillow under her seat. "When the police come for you, I won't stop them."

He felt no regrets. It was what had to be done. She was a serious liability, regardless of her self assured confidence. She had already admitted how easy it would be for her to pin all the blame onto him, to make him suffer for her own horrible crimes. Death and murder were common for her, and she would never understand that these things were so alien to his understanding that he had to twist his mind into odd, uncomfortable angles in order to comprehend them. "I'm here for one specific reason," he reminded her yet again. "I can't journey with you if you're going to keep on killing random strangers. There is no purpose to this, no reason. You claim to be the same as me, but it's all lies. Clara, if the police hang me or you, it doesn't matter. I will survive that end. I don't believe it will be the same for you."

She turned her head away from the road, her dark eyes flashing at him as they pierced into him. The motor car swerved back and forth on the road, her hands carelessly holding onto the steering wheel. "So what are you saying?"

He cleared his throat. Motor oil bubbled up and then settled. "I'm saying our relationship is not a good one."

"This has to be the stupidest break-up I've ever had to endure." She continued glaring at him, the motor car swerving at dangerous angles all over the road, its back wheels tempting the ditch to claim them. "Look, friend, what happens in this world happens and there's no going back and rewriting what parts you didn't like." She picked up speed. A pebble broke free from beneath a back wheel and made a crack in the back windshield. "No matter what crap you think, you're stuck on this road with me. I'll get you where you need to be, because I'm that kind of person. Then I'm dumping you, and you're on your own. I'm that kind of person, too."

She slowly turned back to the steering wheel, her hands getting a steadier grip, the motor car brought back out of its frenzied zig-zag scampering. It was tamed now, the wheels in alignment, the road straight ahead of them, her attention riveted to the long, long road that would take them to where they both needed to be.

"It's not so bad," she said, softly. "We'll have some good times along the way and how can anything go wrong when we have California to look forward to. You ought to get your job done, which will make you happy, and I'll get my spot in moving pictures. We all get something in the end, that's how it's supposed to be. Just stick with me. You'll be fine. I promise."

He wasn't so sure.

"You can't see the future," he reminded her.

"You can't neither," she said. "Not anymore."

July 13, 2011 — 2,513 words

Lies

By Letitia Coyne

The night was still full-dark and close to moonless, and Freya needed light to read his lies. Striding away from him into the forest, she paced out a circle, her fingers tapping a stiff tattoo on the handle of her small flint knife. She had stifled her first impulse: to call him a liar and cut his throat. Now she curbed the anger that carried her off on useless tangents and returned to her pile of firewood. She was careless in her selection, throwing an armload of smaller branches and twigs into the fire pit and crouching to stir them into a blaze. When it brightened even the branches high above, she moved back to where he knelt.

"Liar," she said, forcing more confidence into her tone than she felt. What does any condemned man do when he sees the gallows-fall? He lies. He lets the words rush over his tongue in any order they please. Any desperate fool will do the same.

His grin was full of contemptuous conceit, and she wanted to wipe it from his face. "This is no made up war. I have seen it, day in, day out. I've lived it. I know the blood and the cold and the hard rocky strain of it. No one has made up any part of it. It is real, as real as you and I."

"Don't mistake hand to hand combat for war. Sending men to kill and die is not a war. It is...." He paused, looking to the gods above for inspiration or confirmation, "-- maintaining the natural order." The laugh he tried caught in the rawness of his throat and he coughed. "I can read; I have access to a hundred years of history. How far do you think the front has moved in all those years?"

It was not far, Freya knew that. Everyone who moved on the frontlines season after season knew their battlefields intimately. Year after year they were the same. She speculated, as Dragan often had in years gone by, maybe ten leagues, give or take, all along the flanks and peaks of the dividing mountain range. And what of it? That was the border of the empire. That was where the great and evenly matched armies met.

"What about the forces?" His voice was growing rougher and he tried repeatedly to clear the acid-scarred thickness from his throat, but he would not stop. "I know how the numbers have declined, but even you must see it. Fifteen years. Fifteen seasons of counting the dead and seeing each new rank of recruits falling. You must have seen how our strategies have changed. They've had to. We don't have the men to spend as freely as we once did. We've done our job too well."

She stepped back, mentally and physically making room for herself to judge. The implications of his words might have been slower dawning if Dragan had not raised these same questions right before he had taken away the only certainties she'd ever known. But both men had a motive in their arguments, both had needed to shock. Dragan wanted her to leave her life and her notoriety, so he'd tried to make her question their need to go on. Now this man wanted to take away the pride, the status she'd earned for herself, so he made everything she'd worked for a lie.

"I won't believe that," she said, reassuring herself as she spoke. "The empire must be defended. Without us the Verdan would rush over our fertile land and our rich cities. We know it. Every child knows it."

She knew it still, but she recalled her early seasons, riding in the cavalry with the sisterhood of warriors.

Most had come, as she had, from the city streets or shanty towns that pressed against the city walls. Among other castes, it was rare for women to enlist. Noble women never did. Nor did the feted Artisans. Women who did not create beauty for the beautiful tended to withdraw behind jeweled curtains and become the adored courtesans so desired by noble men. The daughters of merchants, tradesmen, and husbandmen carried on in the relative wealth of their father's professions, or slaved on the land, working to produce the empire's food and wine.

But for Freya and her fellow recruits, life had gone from hunger and hardship, where women cowered or fought for their lives against young noblemen who raped for sport, to warm and fed, armed and on horseback, where men stood aside out of respect and women learned the pleasure that came with that power.

She had ridden with a unit of thirty-five, and co-operatively the cavalry must have numbered a thousand or more. Young and fit, with only a light rein on the massive warhorses, a high pommelled saddle and long skirts of mail; even the memory stole her breath and brought a smile to her face. But what was there now of the cavalry?

She had not been alone in choosing to leave. When she had teamed with Dragan as a dyad, they had learned the skills of guerilla fighters, moving in small groups, in raiding parties, and mobile defensive units. That was the skills-set in demand. And in the years since, the stable complexes had been reassigned or stood empty, the horses now used by messengers and officers alone.

And the gala for the latest intake? One parade ground full, not six or seven regiments waiting their turns in the wings. No more than a handful where once there would have been thousands. Once, all the rooms of the citadel would have been filled. How many were there, now?

"It's how we keep the numbers down, how we keep the vermin from overrunning the empire. Did you never guess that?" Fire reflected from his eyes as if they were no more than crystals of ice, and in their depths there was no hint of caution or uncertainty. If he was lying, these were lies he loved, lies he treasured.

He was telling her a story he savored for all its bigotry and perversion, and it was a story she could not allow herself to believe. Not with what she had seen; the images that stayed with her, year after year; the men she'd known, and the horrors she had suffered in the name of this empire. Those things could not be made a lie. No one could call that sacrifice worthless.

"You've said enough." Turning from his smug superiority she moved to her horse. A small pack, no more than a personal grooming kit, hung from her saddle and she slipped it open along its cord. Within it was the confidence she had to match him. Two small, razor sharp blades that never failed in their intent.

She knelt in front of him. Crawling heat rose over her skin, crackling in her blood, tightening her chest and burning in her fingertips. The light-headed nausea that drove her to sublime heights when life and death were hers to share flashed across her nerves. He would die for his lies, and his blood would wash the memory of them from her mind.

She leaned in close, the blades crossed just above his Adam's Apple. It would be a job well done. She whispered, "For every tear I ever shed."

"Wait," he wheezed, and it might have been real fear she saw. "You know it's true, even if you don't want to believe it. Killing me now won't make it a lie. Kill me now and you'll never know the whole truth."

* * * * *

For only the second time in his life, Tobias Paske felt the kind of fear that burned through his gut like quicksilver and turned his bowels to scalding water. Only clenching his ass with all the strength of his held breath saved him from a great indignity as he searched her face for signs of hesitation. "There's more. You'll never have another chance to hear the truth."

She was unpredictable, but whether it was superior intelligence or gross stupidity that drove her impulses, he could not yet tell. It made her more dangerous than he'd thought and the miscalculation might have been fatal. But as his throat worked feverishly against the blades, she paused, and he waited.

"How far off is the dawn?" He changed tack, desperate for any chance of reprieve. "If I am not back inside the fortress walls by morning, men will come, and they will come at a gallop. Do you understand, Freya. If men come looking for me, they will come fast and they will be hunting you."

She grinned, her nostrils flaring over hot breath and her eyes wide and dark with pleasure. But she saw no need to answer. She wasn't threatened by the possibility.

"I'm worth at least that, alive, when they come. And I'll go with you to the citadel at Aporta and show you the proof of everything I say. It might make you angry now, but think about it. Think about it carefully. How much is it worth to you to know the whole truth? Changes are coming. Huge changes. The old ways are failing. Do you want to stay ignorant?"

The smile did not waver as she answered, "I would ride into Aporta and hang for it. I told you once before, I'm not stupid."

Praise the demons who spawned her and all her filth, she had reconsidered. "Then come back to Orlik with me tonight. We'll go back, I'll sign your discharge and you can hold it. You can hold the key to the door and I can show you on the maps, I can read to you from the journals, I can even tell you what will happen as the system starts to fail."

"You're a lying maggot." She lifted the knives away from his throat and walked slowly to her flask and drank keeping her back to him. Beyond his power to control, rigor spread through him as relief surged in his blood, his joints shook, and his teeth chattered. His head dropped forward and another sharp pain stabbed into his eardrum from his damaged jaw. He whimpered and she turned.

"A man who I've never once had cause to doubt told me something similar." She came close and bent forward, her hands on her knees, her face near his, "You're so full of shit I can smell it on your breath, but he never lied to me. He had no business telling me my life and all I'd done was a lie, but he did because he didn't see any reason to die for this empire.

"You, you don't have any business saying it either, except you want to hurt me the only way you know how. But now you have to see things my way, don't you? I can't go on to Aporta. I have no dispatch to deliver, no reason to be there. I can't go back to the Orlik citadel because your rotting corpse will damn me to hang there, too.

"I can't just desert; I am not a coward. If I could have done that, you and I would never have met." She raised her hands wide in a question, still grinning. "Where does that leave me? What should I do, then? I could kill you. In fact I should. I would like to. But you know, you're right. You are worth at least a little to me alive.

"I can only go over the mountains to the life I know. It is the only thing I can do, the only thing I want to do. I can go to the men I know, who know me, and I can tell them what you've had to say. The trouble is they won't believe me. They won't want to hear it any more than I do, and they won't want to believe it's true. But you can convince them. Maybe. You can tell everyone who fights out there that their lives are worthless."

Thought became a dark rushing void. Relief that had shuddered through his flesh and melted his bones now cleared away and left only black thoughtless horror. She would do it, too. She would take him over the mountain passes to the front and bring him face to face with the worst of the worst. Not as it should be, in the safety of his citadel, but out among them in the wilds.

If she made it that far, they would kill him. There could be no doubt on that score. He had to think, had to try to force some clarity in the maelstrom of his worst fears. Hell and fire, the implications. The implications! The implications of revealing the truth to the filthy masses, armed and pissed off, with no way to vent their fury.

Freya moved around behind him slowly, obviously relishing her complete mastery of the situation. She slipped her razor blade into the thonging that held his hands to his ankles. Grimacing as she grabbed the shoulder strap of his cuirass, she hauled him to his feet. Ducking again first to release his feet, she sauntered back to face him.

"Now you say men are coming? Well then, that settles it for us. We have to leave here tonight. How is your horsemanship, desk jockey? How will you go on the mountain tracks, in the dark and the cold?"

If they made it as far as the front, he was dead.

He couldn't allow her to make it that far. It could be no more than a two days ride, unless the trails were monstrous. And he had given her two months to pour over maps of these passes, every day gaining more oversight and perspective. Damn it. He had to think.

It was two days on difficult terrain, maybe more and so at least two nights at camp. There would be a time, there had to be a time that her guard was lowered.

She shoved from behind and he stumbled into step, not seeing where he put his feet. The gash on his thigh pulled and opened with every stride, and he limped like an afterthought, barely conscious of the pain.

"Climb up there and step over," she ordered, moving his horse in to stand beside a cluster of boulders. "I hope your balance is good."

He wanted to believe he was equal to this. That he had days to find an answer and dream of driving pain and shame into her flesh. But his body was weak; losing blood and racked by the shock of the nights events, without food or water since... he couldn't be sure. He was numb. All that burned in his belly was a deep dark fear.

Editing, with thanks to Essie Holton.
Come and chat about Touchstone and the ideas behind it here

July 12, 2011 — 1,265 words

Gadfly, The Poet

By Terra Whiteman

Gabriel Gadfly's book, Bone Fragments, is a compilation of poems encapsulating wars spanning over a century. In light of its fast-approaching release (July 26th, 2011), I invited Gabriel out for a beer (or five), where we discussed his life, inspirations, and whether or not the String Theory has any scientific validation. Well, the latter actually didn't happen. But it should have.

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How did you begin writing poetry? What made you want to write it?

Oh, well, there was a pretty girl involved, of course. We shared a class as freshmen in high school, and I wrote my first poem professing some sort of over-the-top undying love for her. I don't remember the exact words. The young lady in question, thankfully, laughed in my face, and that was that.

I continued to write poetry throughout high school. I can thank a pair of very encouraging English teachers for that, and Lily, the magnificent proprietor of a local coffee shop called Rewired. Rewired held a weekly open mic night, and it was there that I first started sharing my poetry with people -- a terrifying, but thrilling experience, and Lily's encouragement helped chase away the nerves.

Around the same time, I discovered the work of Khalil Gibran, a Lebanese-American poet of the 1920s who I'm sure I'll mention frequently -- Gibran was the first poet whose words really snatched me up and wouldn't let go, although it wasn't until a few years later that I developed to confidence to think I could write things that could affect people in the same way.

Who are some of your favorite poets? Do they inspire you?

Aside from Gibran, I'm a big fan of Pablo Neruda, e.e. cummings, and a Syrian poet named Nizar Qabbani. On a more contemporary note, I adore the work of Yusef Komunyakaa (his Pleasure Domes is one of my favorite books to turn to in a creative slump). Anis Mojgani and Rives are both brilliant performance poets. I recently discovered the work of Earle Birney, a Canadian poet who passed away in the mid-90s, and he's quickly become a favorite as well. All of my favorite poets inspire me, in one way or another.

Do you have any other forms of inspiration aside from poets?

Certainly. In fact, I'd say poets rank rather low on the list of things that inspire me. I read other poets because I love poetry, and because I enjoy seeing what other artists have done with it, and that in itself is often inspiring (creation begets creation), but more frequently, I'm inspired simply by life itself. There's so much going on in our very vast universe that can be written about: weather and animals and music and people and conflicts and accountants and science and children and grass and nebulae. All of it.

I refuse to let anyone tell me "You can't write a poem about that." I've joked that I'd like to write a poem for everything -- I think it lends a great variety to my work, and I've lost track of the times readers have told me "Something happened today and it made me think of that poem you wrote!"

Other than poetry, what else do you occupy your time with?

I work part-time at a small university library, and if it weren't predictable enough, I really love reading. I also enjoy web design, although I think I'd consider myself more of a skillful amateur than a professional: I designed my own site from the ground up, but it's mostly tacked together in a very mad scientist sort of way.

I've heard through the grapevine that you have also been writing poetry for a charitable cause. Tell us about that.

A few months ago, yes. In late April, a pack of very deadly tornadoes tore through central and north Alabama, causing quite a lot of damage. Clean-up is still going on in the aftermath of those storms. I decided that I wanted to see if there was a way that I could leverage my following as a poet to help with the recovery efforts, so I offered to write poems by request to individuals who donated -- any amount -- to the Red Cross. There weren't a lot of responses -- 13 or so, but nearly all of them came from out-of-state. It was really challenging as a poet, too, because I tried to fulfill the requests within 24 hours or so. I'm not really sure how much it raised, since I didn't sent a minimum donation, but I like to think it was enough to help a few people.

Describe to us your philosophy behind the concept of poetry as a whole.

Oh, that's the tricky one. Just as I was trying to come up with an answer to this question, a reader sent me a message that said, "Your poems make me feel something I can't quite pin down." That made me think of another instance a year or two ago, when a friend of mine told me that a particular poem of mine said the thing she'd been trying to find the words to express for years. That seems to fall in line with my own experiences as a reader, as well -- I've never really been able to articulate why I love a certain poem, but it's a feeling of sudden wholeness, as if the puzzle piece you thought was missing has just been uncovered at the edge of the table and you can now fit it where it needs to go.

I think that says something about the poet's role, of course. We are tasked with articulating that which others have found themselves unable to articulate. (All art does this -- not just poetry.) It requires a great deal of empathy, and that's why I take issue with the popular idea of poetry as an intensely personal and private affair. Writing about your own feelings and experiences is all well and good, and many poets have done quite well writing only about the personal events of their own lives, but I think every poem I write belongs to someone, and I'd get very tired writing poems that only belong to myself.

And finally, what is the most powerful, moving, or insightful verse you've ever heard or read from a poem?

The one that has always stuck with me comes from Khalil Gibran's book "The Prophet."

"Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain."

It's such a beautiful, uplifting passage to me: it acknowledges that the world may hurt, that this is okay, and that there is something to be learned in every ache.

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For more information on Bone Fragments, click here.

And of course, more excellent poetry can be found on Gabriel's website, http://gabrielgadfly.com

 

Headline image by Steven W.