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August 15, 2011 — 274 words

The Antithesis: Book 2 Alpha is now available on Kindle and Smashwords!

By Terra Whiteman

The second entry in The Antithesis series is now up for purchase for $2.99 in the Kindle Store and Smashwords, with print soon to come.

This is a story about God and the Devil, but not how you were taught to believe.

This is also a story about love and hate, and the suffering both can bring.

This is about rights and wrongs, and all of the spaces in between.

This is about revenge, courage, death, passion; with no villains, no heroes... only those left scorned.

This is a story about Heaven, Hell, and the Jury that holds them together.

This is The Antithesis.

Qaira Eltruan is the Commandant of the Enforcers, Sanctum's Special Military Sect of angel exterminators. The war against the Archaeans has been nothing but a seventy-year stalemate, yet everything is set to change with the arrival of a mysterious Scholar who can serve to sway the battle in their favor. But this Scholar has secrets of her own...

Secrets that may kill them all.

August 15, 2011 — 1,860 words

Burdens

By Letitia Coyne

Freya had found her fears deepening as the night came on. Rationalizations that spun in ever decreasing circles kept her vacillating between a state of near panic and a numb despondency bought on by exhaustion. In her mind the journey's end had not been a cause for sighing relief, but the approach of a monumental dread. There was, waiting there, the certainty that she would be forever trapped in a silent world of utter boredom and renunciation.

Still, in all she'd imagined when she'd followed her partner, the vision of a young woman, hysterical and clinging to his leg as he wrestled with their packs, was not one she had ever considered. The more he swore and tried to free himself, the more determined this girl became to keep her not inconsiderable weight against him. And the old woman matched him, curse for curse.

Just when her own situation seemed to have reached the point of unbearable frustration, here was a sideshow to rival the best and Freya found herself beginning to laugh, despite herself.

Dragan was not so amused and his temper was clearly rising, which only made it all seem funnier. By the time he had thrown the packs to the ground and used both hands to pry the woman loose, Freya had stepped back from the weak light and was watching it all, delighted.

"Don't you laugh." From nowhere the old woman's anger sought Freya out. "You've no business here; this is all your fault."

It was hard to take the small, bent figure seriously in the circumstances, but Dragan clearly did. He had succeeded in driving the young woman off and she'd fled inside as he carried the argument up into the matron's face. "I warned you, Mother."

"Warned me what? What will you do? Send an old woman out into the pastures to freeze?" She, too, turned back into the house with her son at her heels, and Freya stepped up to the packs, shaking her head in amazement as she carried them to the door. She was reluctant to step through when she was clearly unwelcome, but she peered in to watch.

"Lenka, go back to your father's house. My mother doesn't need you here and I don't want you. Get ready; I'll saddle you a horse." His tone was even, but Freya could hear the fury in his tightly clipped syllables.

"I told you, Son, she's staying here with me. When you come to your senses, she'll be staying here with you and that one out there will go back to where she came from." No one spared a look at her, but Freya let the amusement slip from her mouth as she began to realize just how much animosity she had inherited with her ring.

"You can't send me away. Don't, please Dragan. Let me stay with your mother to help her. I won't get under your feet." Lenka's lips were pale and her eyes were reddened by her earlier performance, but there was some defiance in the lines of her face even as she begged. "You can't put me out in the night, not with wolves loose and no moon to ride by."

Freya could see the determination in her to stay where she was, and she wondered just what he would do if both women refused to obey him.

"He'll not put you out, girl. You steady yourself and get that fire burning. He'll want a meal now and some ale. You go off and fetch him his due." His mother comforted her companion and then turned back to jab a finger toward Freya. "What do you want that for? What can she give you half as good as you have here? Send her back to her own kind, and stop acting the fool."

Her own kind? Even here, she was not free. Paradise, Dragan had promised. Peace. But here, too, there was hatred and bigotry. There in the shadows, the howl of her inner scream began to rise as humiliation and anger burned into white hot shame.

"This," Dragan seized her hand and dragged her into the room, exposing her to the light, "-- is my wife." He held her hand up, dragging her along behind him like she was a streamer trailing from the prize of his wedding gift. He turned with it, flashing the silver ring into Lenka's face.

The girl covered her mouth with both her hands, beginning to sob again as she recognized what he held. "No," she sobbed. "No. You can't have wed her. Not her."

"I have. As I said I would."

Freya tried to pull her hand back, to wrest some small dignity from the appalling situation, but his grip was tight and his determination to make a point too strong.

Lenka ran to stand with his mother, still weeping loudly into her hands as if the old woman could somehow recant any vows he had made. And Freya felt inclined to give her consent. She watched him, furious and arguing with his mother over choices he had made, choices which had become her life, and he spoke as if she was not even in the room.

"I'm bound to him already," Lenka cried over their bickering, raising her tear streaked face to Freya and holding her hands cupped around her ample belly. "I bedded with him. Even now I might have his baby here."

Her earnest confession shocked a laugh. "Good!" Freya pulled her hand back hard and succeeded in ripping it out of his grasp. "That'll save me the inconvenience of having to bear him any."

The furor stopped. In an instant every word was stilled and the vast emptiness of the outside world rushed in on the silence. All eyes were on her. All the cold anger Dragan had directed at his mother and their hysterical guest was turned toward her. Slowly, she watched his emotion reform itself and the light in his eyes turn to hurt and confusion.

She took a perverse pleasure in seeing her own pain reflected. He had brought her to this. None of it had been hers to choose, but she had trusted him.

All Lenka's noise was still, but tears ran down her face as she turned to look at Dragan, waiting to hear his reaction to this outrage. His mother was quicker. "There. There you have it. As I told you. They're not natural, her kind. She's not for you, Son." She spoke so solemnly, it seemed she was sealing a vow more binding than those Freya had never made.

And Dragan answered in a voice not much louder, but as sharp as her two best blades. "She's my wife." With his fists caught in silent strain, he walked past Freya to the door. Over his shoulder as he stepped out, he said, "I'll saddle the horse for you, Lenka. You're leaving."

Lenka's weeping began again, and she stood briefly glaring her terrible grief at Freya, then she turned and ran out the door after him, calling and begging as she ran.

"Well then. That's my only comfort gone, thanks to you." Dragan's mother leaned across the table to ensure her words and meanings could not be lost. "You're nothing good, nothing. And nothing good will come of you being here. Are you pleased with yourself? That poor child is out there now, alone in the night."

Freya leaned on the same surface, her face close to the old woman's. "Yes, she's gone. That's one down, one to go."

"You're fooling yourself, you stupid girl. You don't belong here, and you won't ever belong." She laughed, "You don't even want to be here, do you?

"You won't see me out of my home. Not now, not ever. And my son will realize his mistake, soon enough. He'll never prosper, not while you're here. Every neighbor in the district will know of you. We don't need more women here now, and never your sort.

"As long as he has you beside him, he'll get nothing from them but contempt. And this life is too hard to survive alone."

There was an awful power in her certainty. Freya would have chosen to laugh in her face, but she could find no humor in the words. If she'd stood across from a man, she might have taken the chance to free some of her pent up rage in blows. She might even have drawn a weapon. But as it was, she wished only for the cover of deep darkness so she could weep for sorrows too profound to be brought into the light.

She might have run out into the darkness of the night, but Dragan was out there with his hysterical lover and his anger. Away from him there was nothingness for twenty leagues in every direction. The closest thing to familiarity was the city of Talsiga to the south, with its wealth and its guilds and its cruelty.

Her elderly adversary struggled to the door instead. "Don't you worry yourself my darling," she called out as she leaned on the jamb. "You have a home here, tell your father that. As soon as we can we'll have you back under our roof. Don't you fret." Carefully, she stepped out into the night, still calling encouragement to Lenka as she went.

The costs of Dragan's choices weren't all hers to carry, then. He had accepted his share of the burden without ever making her aware of it, just as he always had. The heat from some of the shames she knew crossed into her cheeks. She needed to apologize to him for her words. But there was no way to take them back, no matter how much she wished she could. Nor how much she wished they were untrue.

But there was one thing she could do. She could try hard to be happy here, for his sake if nothing else.

Her dress had twisted, the basque turning easily on her each time the shoulder slipped, and she straightened it self-consciously. She hated it. She hated the coarse cloth and the heavy skirts. She had worn her suede breeches for as many years of her life as she had worn dresses, and she felt she would drown or choke on the masses of ill-fitting fabric.

But she could wear them without complaint if she had to.

Walking quietly to the door, she collected their few possessions and brought them in and laid them in the light. There was nowhere to put riches if they'd had any, so they would not be missed. There was, against the near wall, a bed with clean linen and thick blankets and furs. There was also, by the table and stools, a small open hearth that smoked up to the roof vent. Past that was another smaller bed, a single high-backed chair, and a chest. On the chest was Dragan's box and she walked to it and flipped it open.

All the small mementos were there just as they had been, and she slid the feather across her lips trying to remember better times. For both of their sakes.

August 13, 2011 — 886 words

Meet Letitia Coyne – Author of Touchstone!

By Letitia Coyne

What is ‘Touchstone’ all about and why should you read it?

‘Touchstone’ is a medieval tragedy. Some perfectly nice, somewhat flawed people are doing their best to find their way to a happy ending. In fantasy just as in reality, most of us have personality traits that will make the journey toward contentment more challenging, but we do keep trying to get there, don’t we?

Also, it’s short. You can get through it in an afternoon if you have a hanky.

What kind of webfiction do I write?

Fantasy, as always. Human relationships under pressure; broken people who try to keep moving when any sane soul would throw in the towel; anachronisms and anti-heroes; mud, muscle, swords and occasionally sorcery; romance; melodrama: Purple pulp prose with hyperbole, alliteration, repetition and a superabundance of semi-colons. That about covers it.

What audience do I write for?

Hot folks, I think. The hot tropics seem to be the single biggest commonality in my demographic: South East Asia, the Mid East, North Africa and the warm bits of South and Central America. And there are also some highlight spots scattered randomly across the globe. Much love to all of them.
I make no pretense toward literary fiction; I write stories. I like to spend my time with complex people in the real world and I like it even better when I can take complicated fictional characters into situations that test them.

I’m also big on melodrama, which has become a dirty word in today’s fiction. But opera and classical music are examples of melodrama made to last. Soaps and serials are bigger earners than most movies. The big bulge in the middle likes high stakes and high emotion, even if it is not quite kosher to say so. And I like them.

Why am I writing webfiction?

Digital delivery is moving ahead at a pace, so with five years or more of writing, publishing and marketing from day one until a new print title hits the shelves, the bottom may have fallen out of the print market by the time any work begun today gets to an audience.

I am not seeing the traditional publishing industry making huge intuitive leaps in pursuit of ways to make publishing viable in the digital age. Already somewhere between 20% and 50% of print titles are being returned unsold. Author contracts are reflecting the publishing industry’s concern over that ‘shrinkage’. Advances are smaller and at times even take account of the risk factor on behalf of the publisher.

The world of webfiction is already examining the best ways to capitalize on their product in the changing marketplace, and the past, present, and future dedication of the masses to serialization seems to me to be one ideal way forward.

That’s why. Oh, and also because Anna was kind enough to allow me this chance to try serialization with 1889 Labs.

Old and new projects?

The four historical novels online and available for download at obooko and bibliotastic are beginning a new life with conversion into other formats. ‘Petra’ zoomed off with its introduction in epub and prc, and I’m hoping the same for the others.

New projects include an idea that I’ve tossed about for a while concerning ‘The Crucible’ and the timeliness of a re examination of the witch trials and hysteria, and adding maybe some real live supernaturality, why not.

Also a grand plan that has fomented for more than ten years concerning the indigenous songlines of Australia. That’s a big one.

And that’s it. Thank you all for reading.

August 11, 2011 — 2,105 words

Feather Boa

By M Jones

She was breathless in the morning when she arrived at his door, a large ostrich feather boa draped around her shoulders. "What's all this? New digs already?"

She peered over his shoulder into his room and tsked over the acid burn stain visible in the carpet beside the bed. "You'll have to move that over to cover it. Jeez, what was the problem this time, that last one looked healthy enough. Not a blemish on him and you go wasting it. I thought he fit properly and you were happy with it. Guess you're more into the fashion angle than I thought." She cocked her head to one side as she studied him. "Yeah, this one does have a slightly stronger jaw. I can see why you like it."

He didn't want to talk to her. He had spent the majority of the evening staring at the acid blotch the disintegration of his last host had burned into the carpet, the wide brimmed hat of policeman Borgen turned in half circles by the workings of his fingertips. It was early, he'd had no rest, and her painful cheerfulness grated on his host's nerves, causing his own inner jelly body to ache.

"We need to leave," he said.

She rolled her eyes and tossed her feather boa over her shoulder and sauntered ahead of him, her fancy, beaded handbag clutched firm in her grip. This morning she was an actress in high form. She was wearing new shoes, he noted, and a new, silky, silver-coloured dress that draped over her with the careful pleats of a gown befitting a Roman empress.

"I haven't even had the complimentary breakfast," she pouted. She gave her own chin a playful pinch and giggled as she made her way down the long, dimly lit hallway, her fingers playing in the stringy down of the ostrich feathers, pulling them off one by one. A trail of soft lines lay behind her on the dark red carpet.

A feather floated past him, then settled on the heel of his shoe. To his dismay it held a bright red dot upon its pristine white surface. A calling card for murder.

"I thought Reggie was your friend," he said. He bent over to pick up the feather, the blood smearing onto his fingertips as he touched it. "I'm guessing this is a recent argument."

"Uh-uh, I asked a question first, and you still didn't answer me. Why did you need a new host?"

He bristled at the playful intensity of her accusation, the irony of it painful. "We need to leave. Now."

He grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to the elevator, her feather boa trailing behind her, tiny droplets of red visible at intervals as it rolled along the carpet. She swore and tried to tear herself from him, but he ignored her protests and shoved her into the opening elevator, its elderly operator mute as they argued within the tiny tin confines.

"You're a miserable brute!"

"Just settle down. We'll head straight to the car, we'll be out of here while the morning's young."

"I'm not going anywhere with you! I want my continental breakfast!" She punched him with her stony fists, her excellent aim giving the elevator operator pause as he raised his brow. Two solid punches, right to the jaw. He felt the wallop rock his head back, and he shook his shoulders to bring his broken neck back into alignment.

"That was uncalled for."

"I ought to play it, you know, I ought to force a few x's and o's onto you for good measure. You deserve it, you brute. You coward. You miserable, boring bastard!"

The elevator landed on the ground floor and he tossed her out of it, her heels catching on her long strand of pearls, the force of it alternatively choking and toppling her. She shot a look of killer proportions back at him before righting herself, her heavily painted lips a twisted grimace. The pearls rolled in a scattered circle around her, threatening every misstep.

Her careful guise was easily ruined. With her hair askew, and the skirt of her dress hiked past her knees, she was every inch the vicious whore she was accused of being.

"I hate you."

The blonde clerk watched on bemused, a nail file put to use as she feigned disinterest. She was no actress. She gave him a knowing wink as he marched past, the corner of her lips upturned in carnal understanding.

"Don't worry, these lover's spats don't last long, especially not with a girl like her."

"I'm afraid they can last for an eternity," he informed her.

He would look back to see the confused expression on her face, the one that would be the beginning of a morning of horror, when she finally found the bleeding body of Reggie, her boss, his eyes a game of tic-tac-toe. In his mind, he could already hear her bloodcurdling scream.

He slammed the front door to the hotel behind him, eager to get back into the motor car and onto the road. He'd leave her behind if he had to, there was no reason to drag her along. He'd find his target without her. He would have to.

But he could see her from where he was standing on the top step, and she was already fitted into the driver's seat, her white gloves angrily gripping the steering wheel as she waited for him. She hated him, but she still needed him. This was how her version of care worked.

He passed two shady characters on the stairs, possibly the same men from the night before, though it was difficult to tell. They all had the habit of anonymity, the brims of their hats creating an everyman gangster that couldn't be properly identified in a police station.

"Be seeing you around, Frankie," one of them said, and took a long drag of his cigarette.

He paused and turned back to them. He wanted to ask them, once and for all, why everyone he met thought he was this Frankie person, and just what was so significant about him. But Clara honked her horn and he didn't want to raise any more questions than he had already left behind. The discovery of murder wasn't going to be long from this moment.

He ignored the two men whose gaze intently followed him as he made his way to the car, skipping two steps at a time to gain speed. Clara was already pulling out of the parking garage, and he latched onto the passenger side door, opening it while she slowly turned the car around. He slammed the door shut as she put the car into a higher gear and careened back onto route 66.

"We'll drive all night," she said. Her voice was curt, still angry. "We'll get to California in twenty-four hours if we keep following this road. No looking behind, no looking to the side, got it?" She let out a deep sigh as she peeled off her ridiculous feather boa and shoved it at him. "Put that under the seat, mind you don't ruin it. It's expensive. Those feathers don't come cheap, you know. And here..." She tossed him her handbag, its weight landing in his lap with a cruel snap. "Get me a cigarette, why don't you. A girl could shrivel into ashes waiting for a smoke from the likes of you."

He slowly took her cigarette case out of her handbag, but not before he fished out the familiar switchblade. It was encased in two layers of handkerchiefs, and even this didn't stop the seepage of a line of blood from leaking out of its handle.

Behind them, the Reynolds Hotel was already a small square on the horizon, the horror it held secreted away in stains on the carpet and mysterious disappearances. He patted the inside pocket of his jacket in a nervous twitch, one that mimicked Clara's need to clack pearls at her teeth. This is what murder does, he thought. It gives you strange habits.

The weight of the gun he had taken from the body of Sheriff Borgen's brother made him feel off balance, even when seated. The handle dug into his host's ribs, a steady reminder of an unfortunate end.

The open road lay before them, a pristine vista of opportunity, sanitizing the ugly actions of the past. They were now exactly past the halfway point to California. Through New Mexico and then Arizona, a straight line that cut through the desert, a preserved road, locked into an eternity that was as stoic as the vast plains of rock surrounding them.

"Have you ever regretted killing someone?" he asked her.

She flicked her fingers over the radio dial, bringing a scratchy ragtime piano tune into clarity. She bopped happily in her seat, her hands keeping time with its positive rhythm. "Some people deserve what they get, I told you that before." Her cigarette stumbled at her lips. It fell into her lap and she quickly retrieved it, uttering a harsh curse. The motor car veered slightly to the left and she steered it back onto the road, which was thankfully empty of oncoming traffic. They avoided another head on crash. Too much of her existence depended on that nebulous concept known to her kind as Fate. She tempted it at every turn, even when it had been against her. A veering, near crash sometimes saved at the last second, sometimes not.

"Once they're gone, there's no point in worrying about it. Done is done." She flashed him a wide, disingenuous smile. A predator's grin. "This ride is wonderful, ain't it? And to think it has a radio! I never been in a motor car that had a radio before, it's real treat, ain't it, being able to listen in on the world like this. We didn't have no radio in my house growing up. No music, no dancing, no card playing, no books. Real upright and uptight. Was immoral, that's what they said, all the uptight adults in my life." She sucked a long drag of her cigarette and then tossed its remains onto the dusty road beside her. "Sure taught me, all those rules of what you can and can't do. There's power in going against what folks think is proper. I'm living proof of that."

It wasn't a power he was envious of, but he kept his opinion to himself. The closer they came to his target, the more he felt an inward unease, a rising sense of guilt that started somewhere in Chicago, poked holes in his ideology in Foss, and now, with the blood and skin of Sheriff Borgen's brother sliding over his jellied essence, he felt fully engulfed by Preacher Joe's descriptive Hell. She was better suited to his job, he knew. There were no moral questions burning in her black heart, no ambiguities of purpose. Her world wasn't full of good people versus bad. The quiet influence of caring meant nothing to her.

She put her foot on the gas and spun headlong into the abyss. It was his own failing if he couldn't do the same.

"There was this dog, once," she said. She shifted in her seat, uncomfortable. "I was only a kid and it was only a little thing. Some tiny dog, all yippy and miserable, just like the old lady that owned it. All it ever did when I walked by her fence was bark at me like it hated the sight of me. Couldn't stand that thing."

He put the switchblade and its handkerchief cover back into her handbag. She took it from him and tossed it into her lap, space competing on her spindly legs with the cigarette case. "That was the first time I ever used it."

"Your switchblade?"

"That's the one."

She patted her purse absently, as though it were a dog itself in need of petting. "It's helped me when nothing else would. That little dog hated my guts. Told me so with every little yip it shot at me through her iron fence. And one day, I find this switchblade just laying on the ground and I think to myself 'I'm going to teach that little yipper a lesson'. All it took was one swipe. Not even a yelp to say good-bye."

The landscape sped past them as she pushed further on the gas.

"Pulled its little body through the iron bars of her fence and tossed it onto the road. She thought it got hit by a taxi. Stupid old broad."

August 10, 2011 — 1,732 words

Home

By Letitia Coyne

She slept as she always did, whether on a mountainside or in a bed: arms crossed, hands pushed tight into her shoulders, and knees pulled up hard. And as he'd done at every opportunity, Dragan tucked the cloak closer in around her shoulders, then he slipped off the filthy mattress and crouched to dress.

There were things he needed to do in the village and she could rest. The door was only woven oak and willow. He would have preferred something more substantial, but there was no way to lock her in or strangers out. The day was dawning again on a ropey ball of tension that he couldn't shake, and the desire to keep her safe, to protect her, was just one more knot.

Looking down at where she slept, he shook his head slightly. The smoky stench of the room had worsened overnight but he left the shutter closed against the chill of morning air. She'd returned to the room without complaint and slept soundly in the squalor she'd hated the night before. He looked around himself; he could see nothing in here that had made her so fearful. Sometimes she was a mystery.

* * * * *

The seamstress had quickly recognized both his urgency and her advantage. The clothes he had managed to buy were not the soft, expensive garments he had hoped for. They were coarse woolen skirts and a plain bodice, with none of the fine embroidery or colored laces other women seemed to like. They were made for another customer and had cost the same as the finer garments he'd ordered. Compensation for the inconvenience. The underslip was fine soft linen, but it had been made for someone fuller-figured than Freya. He hoped it would do.

When he returned to the room, she was waiting impatiently.

"The horses are ready," he said as he entered.

She stood at the tiny window, staring out across the green. "Good. The sooner we leave here, the happier I'll be."

He tossed the roll of clothing down onto the mattress and waited for her to turn. "Maybe."

"Why?" She eyed the bundle suspiciously. "What is it?"

"Your concession. These people don't find change easy." He watched her kneel on the mattress and pull at the clothes with a look of disappointment or distaste on her face. "They're suspicious of a woman in uniform."

"Bollocks. They want their women in uniform. This uniform." She held the underslip up and pressed her face into it, peering at him through the near-translucent cloth. When she dropped it she picked up the heavy overskirt. "These are harder to run in."

There were ghosts in her eyes, old fears that still haunted her, but this was a small compromise and one that would be worth the effort in the long term. "There's nothing to run away from out here."

She didn't answer, but her eyes said there were things that would keep her running for as long as she lived. Things, he guessed, he would never understand, but they turned his thoughts to the men Paske had ordered in pursuit.

If they had returned to the lakeside camp, they were unlikely to track her as far as Bralz. Even if by some miracle they had been able to follow through the forest, once they hit the hard surface the direction she'd taken was open to the winds. Paske alone knew Dragan was with her, and he would not be sharing his thoughts with anyone else.

There was not a great possibility that they would try to follow anywhere. With their comrades dead and the officer who ordered the chase lying frozen on the mountainside, they would most likely return to Orlik. An assumption could easily be made that Freya had continued on eastward and disappeared into the ranks of the dispensable.

It could do no harm to keep his thoughts on pursuit to himself. All they needed was to gain the safety of his farm. If she moved all the faster for the thought of being pursued, it would be for the best in the end.

She turned into a corner in a bashful attempt at privacy as she changed. He had known her body's blinding naked passions for a decade, yet in cold daylight she always turned away into shadows. There was food to pack and miles to ride, and he left her to her deal with her dress dissatisfaction alone.

*****

At their second meal stop, late in the afternoon, her expression was still reproachful. The skirts were harder to ride in and the shoulder straps of the bodice slipped down her arms repeatedly, but they had passed close by to a number of dwellings, all with watchful eyes, so the choice had been justified despite her complaints.

"Do you think they're still following?" She picked at the bread she held, rolling the heavy crumb into balls and placing them in her mouth one by one.

He leaned in to the fire, stirring cold mutton and morels gathered from the forest floor into a coarse gruel of barley and lentils. When the thickening mix bubbled, he sat back to look at her. The plain answer was no, but he didn't want to say it. Instead, he answered, "They can't track us on the roads. Even if they followed us as far as Bralz, they have no way to know which way we moved. If they are still coming, they're running blind on the chance they chose the right direction. We will be at home by sundown and no one will find you there."

"No." The answer didn't cheer her, and she flicked flakes of crust at the flames. Her thoughts were running in anxious circles, visible in the ticks and frowns that formed and fled as she stared at the fire. But he couldn't read their content.

There was nothing to fuel her rising agitation. He stirred the porridge and readied her mug to take a portion. "There are sixteen lambs this year," he said calmly, as he ladled and then held the mug toward her. "Two sets of twins."

She looked up sharply, ignoring the food. "I don't know anything about lambs."

"Not yet, but you will. It's spring. There are babies everywhere." He lifted the mug higher, forcing her to acknowledge it.

"I don't know anything about babies, either." She stood to snatch the offered food, and pulled the loose bodice down into place once again. "I don't know anything about this home of yours. Or spring. Or lambs. These are things I've never had to think about."

Dragan frowned as he watched her. Her free hand raked through her hair repeatedly, tugging down through the length of it until her fingers pulled free with wisps of hair caught around them. The terror that shone from her eyes was that of an animal cornered and it made no sense.

She was safe; he'd made sure of it. "You'll get used to it."

Freya froze, glaring at him as if he had accused her, or ridiculed her, or at very least ignored her opinion. If her anger had a point, it was not one he could see.

"What are you worried about?" he asked, but the question had rhetorical undertones and he stirred his own meal, easing some of the heat before he selected a lump of mutton and ate. Her answer was silence and she stalked off toward the nearby riverbank, tripping and catching at her skirts as she went.

Sighing at the inevitability of her moodiness, he searched through his food for the dark shreds of mushroom. There would be time for her to come to terms with all that was changed in her life.

* * * * *

The farmhouse stood in a sheltered hollow, with its louvered ridge-cap smoking gently and soft lamp light spilling through the open doorway. As they approached, Dragan was pleased with the scene it presented. The home he had always known was solid and well built. Its heavy thatch was clean and dark in the evening shadows. The smokehouse and the bier stood near, higher on the slope, so the cottage itself seemed to nestle comfortably amongst the budding fruit trees.

It looked as much like a home as any he'd seen, and he was proud of what he had made of it.

There was not enough light to gauge Freya's reactions, but he pulled his horse to a walk and waited for her to ride abreast. "That's it," he said plainly. "Home."

She pulled her horse to a stop and sat looking at the scene below. When her silence had grown cold, he reached to rest a hand on her shoulder.

"Tell me again it will be all right," she whispered. "Tell me this is my best choice. My only choice."

"It will be better than all right. You'll see. I asked you to trust me; I won't let you down."

"You never have."

"So let's go down there and get out of these saddles. I've ridden enough in the last few days to last a lifetime."

"Funny," she said. "I was just getting used to it again."

He led down the slope slowly, watching ahead and keeping a wary eye on the lit doorway. He was home a good month before they would expect him, and even if Lenka had obeyed his command, which was unlikely enough, she would have stayed on with his mother while she thought he was gone.

They dismounted at the bier, turning the horses into the safety of the house-yard, and she followed as he walked the narrow path with their packs over his shoulder. When they reached the door a cry went up and Lenka burst from within. "It's him, Mother. Dragan's come home."

She dropped to her knees in the weak light, sobbing on the path before him. "You've come home," she repeated, sobbing and gripping the roughness of his breeches.

"Get up." He had no patience for this kind of foolishness. Not now. Not tonight. Ahead, as he grabbed Lenka's arm and tried to pull her to her feet, his mother's face appeared around the jamb.

"Get up, girl," she echoed her son, strength enough in her voice for a woman too frail to manage her life. "Get up now, I tell you. He's not alone."

August 9, 2011 — 3,256 words

Reynolds Hotel

By M Jones

The Reynolds Hotel was a fairly grand affair at first glance, especially considering its location. Though it was built for comfort, it had an imposing aura, not unlike the outside walls of a prison, the simple windows begging to be lined with bars, with lonely, angry men staring out of them. The latter was prevalent, since this was the usual stop for travelling salesmen, and they stared out of their small windows to the street below, sallow faces devoid of family and friends, carefully monitoring the world's progress.

Most of the cars on the lot were black coaches, with layers of desert dust and mud caked on them. The salesmen themselves looked worn, their suitcases and small packages of wares dragged behind them, all of them seeking a good stiff drink and some decent rest. It wasn't an easy job travelling across the country over and over again, trying to make a buck. Reynolds Hotel was the one place a hard-working peddler could drop his professional ruse, undo his tie and grab a solid bottle of whiskey to drink alone and in peace.

The lull of motor oil tickled the back of his throat, but he ignored it. Clara was all smiles as she parked their ridiculously extravagant motor car in between two basic black coaches, the gleaming white and cream mocking their simplicity. "Can you believe we're here?" she giggled. Her eyes danced as she took in the clientele trudging their way through the entrance. "I came here plenty, once with Ricky Blue Eyes, and once with Jimmy the Shank. I can't really say who else, they're all the same face after a while. But this is as far as I got no matter how hard I tried to get to California. Someone always dragged me back to Chicago, kicking and screaming."

"I imagine."

She pursed her lips and checked her lipstick in her small hand mirror, her pale white skin glowing eerily in the dusk. "I know the concierge here. I did a bit of fancy work for him a while back, and he owes me one. So put away your wallet, this one's on me."

He didn't need her favours, and he peeled off a few bills anyway, shoving them into her palm. "That's the last of the cut you stole from Georgio. Unlike your friend, I don't believe in owing you anything."

She cast him a cold glare at this, her exit from the motor car swift and graceful while his own was clumsy. He fumbled with the door, and she left him behind as he struggled to open it, the long body of his host unfolding from the car like a complex origami puzzle. He smoothed out the wrinkles of his suit and adjusted his vest, the gold chain of his watch dangling at just the right angle, his pork-pie hat affixed in as jaunty and cheery a way as the drummers who populated this place. He felt constrained and over eager. He fit in perfectly.

Though the Reynolds Hotel sat in the middle of what was that most southern of places, that being Texas, there was a distinctive northern feel to it that couldn't be shaken. He passed a couple of snaky-looking characters who mumbled to one another as he followed Clara inside, their hats obscuring their faces, cigarettes lit and held aloft in question after them. The foyer of the hotel was far from its grand exterior, its furnishings simple, the atmosphere oppressive and dark. A long oak counter separated them from the residents of the hotel, an impressive array of cubbyholes filled with various envelopes and packages cluttering the space behind the clerks. A young woman with bleached blonde hair plastered in severe waves against her scalp gave them both a warm smile, one that didn't reach the hollow judgement in her blue eyes.

"Mr and Mrs...?" she asked.

"We aren't together," Clara assured her. She pursed her lips and shrugged her shoulder at him, dismissive. "He's my assistant. We have two rooms booked, one for Clara...."

"Clara!"

A short, thin man with a weasel complexion and sharply parted, slicked back black hair marched up to them, his arms outstretched in greeting. He kissed her on both cheeks, his hands pressing a firm grip on her arms. "Clara, my Clara, how good it is to see you again!"

"Now, Reggie, you don't have to be so gregarious, not when we're old friends like we are." She gave him a coquettish wink and flicked the tip of her finger across his nose in flirting familiarity. "I'm not some special guest, you don't have to give me the royal treatment. Just simple and plain, that'll do. Only... A wine list might be nice. So send that on up later."

"Nothing but the best for you my dear Clara!" he exclaimed. His grin faltered slightly when he realized she was not alone. "And you are?"

"This is Frankie," she said, too quickly, and Reggie gave her a puzzled look.

"Frankie," he said, obviously trying to paste the face he saw now to the one he already knew. He shook his head. "I'm sorry, I didn't quite recognize you. But then, it has been over a year. Things change so quickly in this business, isn't that the truth of it? People in, people out, business in, business out. A real valley and peak of success and failure that never wants to end." His former exuberant appearance tripped over his inner disappointments, leaving him confused in their presence. "Clara..." he said, as though not sure she was really there, and was more illusion than fact.

She slid her arm in the crook of Reggie's and pulled him along towards the elevators, which were richly decorated in hammered tin, the surface gleaming with complex flowers in raised relief. "We'll have a drink, Reggie," she said to him, her voice full of sing-song pleasantry. "We'll go to the same room, just like the last time."

She gave her companion a glance over her shoulder. "Finish up, will you, Frankie? Reggie and I have some talking to do."

As quickly as they had arrived, she disappeared into the elevator with her old friend, his arm shaking as he held it across her shoulders and guided her further in. The elevator operator gave them both a respectful nod before shutting the gates and pulling the tin doors closed with his expert touch on the lever.

"Everyone knows she's just a whore."

He rubbed his jaw with the palm of his host's hand and turned to the bleached blonde woman at the hotel desk. She was leaning over a ledger file in what a Hollywood director would call a 'provocative pose'. She tapped a pencil at her bottom lip, her blue eyes sizing him up. "She's bad news, but I get that you've figured that out already."

"What I don't understand," he said, "Is how I can be in Texas and no one here possesses one fifth of that famous Southern hospitality. Or accent."

She gave him a slow, lazy smile and rested her elbows on the large, oak desk. "Nobody who comes here wants to be here. It's just a rest stop to somewhere else." She nodded at the elevator where Clara and Reggie had taken off to catch up on old times, a meeting he hoped didn't end in a game of x's and o's. "Your girl has a long history with this place. She tends to come here, draped on some backwater gangster's arm, thinking she's all special for it. But she's no different from any of the other molls and mistresses who come here, keeping them travelling salesmen company. She's just a shot of whiskey. Feels good at the time, but too much just plain ruins your life."

He leaned against the oak desk, interested in pursuing more of this conversation. He rapped at the thick wood with his knuckles, feeling the strength of its solidity. "We're going to Hollywood," he confessed. "She thinks she's going to be a star."

"Her and a million more girls just like her." The blonde rolled her eyes and leaned back from the counter, her chin jutted out in haughty judgement. "I'll give her this, though. She's got a real killer attitude when she wants to."

His own blood pulsed cold alongside his host's veins. "Yes. You are absolutely right."

She gave him a small smile at this and then slid over to the wall and its rows of keys. She picked room 313 and handed the key to him, pressing its cold metal shape into his palm and covering it up with a near embrace from her hand. "It's a nice room," she promised him, her voice a near whisper. "You're a nice guy, from what I've met of you. You don't want to be hanging with a girl like that. She'll destroy you, in ways you don't even know yet."

He clenched his fist lightly around the key and gently pulled away from the tenderness of her embrace. "I'm afraid I know all too well," he told her. Then, because he felt she understood some of his secrets, that she had knowledge that was deferential to his cause, he looked her in the eyes and said, without hesitation: "May I have a can of motor oil sent up to my room? And if you could supply a shot glass as well. That would be most beneficial."

* * * * *

No one actually from The South stayed at the Reynolds Hotel. Not even the bellhop possessed a proper Southern accent, and instead had little understanding of English and babbled incessantly in his native French. "J'ouvres la porte, est voila! C'est magnifique!"

"Thank you."

His bags were rushed into the room ahead of him, small as they were. There was a hasty brush of a hand on the hotel bed and a slight tutting sound emitted over the occurrence of a wrinkle in the top blanket, but once these problems were dealt with, the bellhop had little to say, other than 'Merci, monsieur' and a heel to toe rolling balancing act that suggested he was expecting something.

"Is it money you are looking for?"

"Merci, Monsieur."

He sighed and reached into his side pocket, pulling out the very last of Georgio's remaining wealth. "I'd disinfect this first, if I were you. I hear a dead man's money tends to hold curses."

"Merci, Monsieur."

The bellhop was unconcerned as he pocketed the cash and whistled his way out of the hotel room. He sat in a chair near the door, contemplating the simplicity of his surroundings. The bed was simple, the linens crisp and clean. In a small room to the right was a bathing room the size of a closet, with an upright shower for the convenience of its customers. An unusually extravagant addition, he thought, since most hotels of this ilk had a communal bathing room at the end of the hall, where one had to be given an allotted time slot for cleanliness. There was an unwrapped mint on his pillow, which he picked up and discarded into the nearby trashcan near the window. Outside the small window, the world drifted past in sandstorm dunes, a Mars landscape of molten heat and dry desolation.

He turned away from the window, reluctant to be yet another drummer prisoner, eking out the sparsity of his free time by staring down the jailing of his freedom. He hung up his suit jacket and placed his host's hands in the deep pockets of his trousers, the black bands on the arms of his white shirt chafing the starched fabric against the skin. Despite the art deco wallpaper and a few flowery touches, this room wasn't much different from the one he had occupied in Chicago. All that was missing was the outlined shadow of a cross.

He opened the drawer of side table next to the bed. No omission, then. A Gideon had placed a portable copy of the New Testament within it. He closed the drawer, the unpleasant feeling of running in place to a point past exhaustion overwhelming him.

There was a knock at the door and he opened it eagerly, hoping it was his order of motor oil that had finally arrived. He was looking forward to the slick, black ooze that made life on this linear dust bowl easier to bear, the liquid outline of its influence muting his increasing sense of unease. So it was with grave disappointment that he saw a man in a police officer's uniform standing before him instead, his badge held out in proud view.

"Don't mean to be causing you no inconvenience," he said in what was a strangely refreshing Texas drawl. "But seeing as how the folks using this place has been on the road and all, I was just wonderin' if I could ask you a few questions."

There was an eerie familiarity about the policeman, as though they had met before. He nearly asked him, but stopped himself just in time, wisely not willing to reveal too much about his acquaintances, especially with Clara as his road raging companion.

"There was an accident, just up a ways between Foss and Texola. Pretty nasty smash up, don't know how anyone could have walked away from it." He looked his target up and down, searching out invisible injuries. "I reckon you don't know much about it, seeing as how not a hair on you is has so much as a bend to it. Mighty strange business all around, I must say. Leaving a scene like that and not telling no one. Killed a farmer outright. Truck on fire, burnt him to crispy bacon."

He smiled wanly, and the familiarity grew into an understanding. He had shades of Sheriff Borgen to him, enough to be his brother. Perhaps this was the lunkhead he had spoke of, the one he had trouble keeping in line. There was no one to do so now, not with Preacher Joe sporting that gold tooth.

"A nasty accident ain't something I properly set to mind," he replied, his hat tipped again in polite deference. "But seeing as how my brother ain't answering his calls these days, and not a one has seen him for the past couple of weeks or so, I'm getting a little on the worried side. Can't blame a man for asking questions when someone he knows well has gone and vanished and there's a car wreck on the horizon with more than half its passengers missing. Makes a guy ask lots of questions, that it does." He smiled, but there was little mirth in his voice. "A brother don't just up and disappear like that, no sir. Especially not when he's a Sheriff and all." He narrowed his eyes on his prey. "You seem a mighty quiet sort of fellow. Like you're thinking hard on something. You got some information I might be requiring?"

"No. I don't think so."

"Well, that's a strange way to answer, if you don't mind my saying so. Either you know so, or you don't, it's just a car crash is all, you either saw it or didn't. Not thinking so doesn't go into it, if you ask me. What is it you don't think happened?"

Sheriff Borgen was wrong. His brother was no lunkhead. When brains had been handed down the Borden clan, it was this brother who had gained all the intuitive cells, his understanding thrusting through the miasma of unspoken lies and hidden meanings to get deep into the truth. He frowned slightly and shoved his way into the hotel room, his hat taken off in that usual Southern politeness, the rim turned around in half circles by the busy workings of his slightly tremulous fingertips.

"It's a might strange thing to lose a brother," he said, his voice losing all sense of levity and descending further into a strained treble of desperation. "Him and I, we shared a womb together once. Him being my twin and all. Oh sure, we don't look alike none, but when you bunk with someone that closely at the beginning of life, you get a connection you don't have with anyone else." He brushed a hand over the suit jacket draped on the coat rack, the tip of his thumb brushing against the tiny drop of dried blood at the centre of its collar. "You get certain ideas about things that might have happened to your bunk-mate, like a phone line that ain't made by people, but that lives between you. Something umbilical. Like how I know when he's in trouble." He let out a low sigh, his gaze riveted to the paisley carpet at his feet. "And how I knows when that line is dead."

"I don't know anything about your brother."

Borgen's twin kicked at the carpet, his heel dredging up fibres on an ugly red paisley flower. "You say that so quick, like you're right sure. Like you met him once and you got to convince yourself you don't remember him." He tapped the side of his head and offered another wan smile. "Got all the intuition, but my brother, he got all the brawn. A bit of a handicap. You can't go lying to a guy like me, I can suss one of them fibs out with the best of them. Trouble is, I got to figure on how much of a lie are you telling, and the only way I'm going to get that answer is if I drag you off to my station and give you a proper talking to."

He grinned, his teeth stained by nicotine, their alignment perfect. "But I don't want to do that. I can see by looking at you that you're a man that thinks all the world is full of nothing but evil and sorrow. That there ain't no good in any of it, and all we're made for is to kill or be killed. It ain't all like that, no matter what it is that's making you believe it to be so. There's real good in this world, good people too, like my brother. Like me. Don't go giving us good folks a short shrift just because the bad is loud and noisy. Folks like to help out more than just run each other down, that's a real rule those bad folks don't tell you about. There's more of us than them. They don't want that getting out, neither, and maybe it's the same for good folks like me, like my brother. Like you. We're just real quiet about it, is all."

And he was quiet. A long, tortuous moment that stretched past infinity, defying the linear time that ticked each second off in measured amounts. Between them an eternity of information erupted, a long, never-ending confession that ended with a cough directed nervously into his fist.

"I'm sorry," he said to Borgen's brother, who merely nodded in sad understanding and reached for the set of cuffs at his side.

His liquid, jelly body pulsed within his host's arms, tensing the hands. He'd never done anything this tactile before, but he knew the strength he could muster was considerable. Coordinated speed was never his strong suit, but he managed to subdue the officer long enough to get a good grip on his neck. With one twist he gave it a radial snap. The body collapsed at his feet.

"I'm so sorry," he repeated.

August 8, 2011 — 2,481 words

Ring

By Letitia Coyne

Freya watched them watching her as they walked from the room, and savored the bitter taste of her past. She filled her mouth with thick brew and swirled it around, sucking it back through her teeth as she swallowed. "You didn't have any trouble here, before?"

Dragan didn't look up from his meal. "Eat," he repeated as if food would fill any holes she might have torn. "I want to talk to you. There are things we should settle."

Lumps of grey gristle skidded away from the tip of her spoon, and grey-green turnip hid in grey-green gravy. There was no appetite that this food was likely to satisfy. Under the vague awareness of hunger, her stomach churned. It was empty, and it seemed a good deal easier to pour herself another mug of ale, and let the bitter tonic fill her slowly to the brim.

It was easier, too, to look away from things that hurt too much for words. Until now, some of the issues that arose from her choices had been sketchy. Until now, there remained in her the hope that everything might somehow return to the way it should have been. Until now.

In a market town where old husbandmen gathered to drink and moan, atop the stairs in a dirty inn, a room was waiting. On top of the mountain there had been too much of nothing and nowhere to go, but now she found she had followed at breakneck speed, to find a tiny room where four walls might cut off all her air.

She caught a turnip lump with her spoon and squashed it flat. "If push came to shove, how many of them do you think we could take? I think all, but it looks like most of them would rather spit at me and leave, than stand to argue their point."

"Eat."

"I don't want to eat. Drink. Here, let me pour you some more of this fine bitter ale." She poured until his mug slopped over, and he moved it from her reach. "Don't waste it," she said. "Drink it."

When he looked up, pushing his empty bowl away and bringing the overfull mug to his lips, there were shadows in his eyes that made her churning stomach flip. "If you don't want to eat, we should go upstairs."

"I want to drink. And maybe make some new friends, here. What do you think are my chances?" She tried a smile, and hoped it was brighter than it felt. Her cheeks had gone cold, and a numbing fear was spreading up her spine. The hand that held the jug of beer shook.

"It's your clothes. That's all. If you wear skirts, this won't happen."

"That simple, huh? Well, let's drink to that." She tried to refill his mug but he covered it with his hand, and looked directly into her eyes. She set the jug down, reaching instead for her own mug but he caught her fingers. His free hand reached to his throat, to a trifle tied inside his tunic and he pulled, snapping the cord that held it.

"This is for you." He slapped his hand down onto the table and when he moved it away, he'd left a silver ring. The leather cord still wound through his fingers, and he lifted slowly, letting the ring slide off to roll and settle between them. It was a simple band, a twist of wires beaten flat, but it terrified her.

"I haven't had a contract drawn, I thought I had time, but it's easy enough." He smiled at her, and a buzzing started in her ears that made his voice seem very far away. He held onto her fingers, tight, they were beginning to throb with the pressure of his grip. "Everything I own is yours to share."

Suddenly she wished she'd eaten. The ale was bubbling up toward her brain, making her uneasy stomach lurch and spasm, and there didn't seem to be enough air in the room. She kept trying to breathe, but her chest was refusing to fill. "And me?" she whispered, her mouth dry and hestitant. "What do I give to you?"

"You. Just you."

"Me. I give you me?" That was a high price to pay for a bit of land somewhere with sheep. It was a high price indeed.

There was an earnestness in his face that terrified her even more than the small piece of silver that still sat among the splinters and spilled beer. Should she take it? Should she put it on her finger?

If four small walls had seemed constricting, now she had the circumference of a tiny silver band to fit every part of her life into. "This is what I've chosen, isn't it?" Until he answered, she could not have been certain whether she spoke the words aloud.

"Yes."

"What you've chosen." It was his choice, his arguments, his dream. Her frozen body was trying to move backward, wanting to pull away from the table and all it held, but she was unable to do more than brace her feet against the filthy floor. Only her insides moved and writhed. Fears as vast as Hades opened in her belly and everything that made her solid fell into the pit.

"Yes." He looked down, moving the ring with his finger, rolling it slowly back and forth like a silent debate, but when he looked up at her again she saw fear in him for the first time. It mattered what she said, here and now. With the urge to cry, to beg and plead for another answer, burning behind her heart, and the sure and certain knowledge there was no other path she could take choking her on resentment, it mattered how she answered.

She'd done her begging and there was no more to gain from whining. The future had made itself. His choice or hers, it hardly mattered. It was the only choice she had. Trying to hold it steady, she reached her hand toward him and let him slip the ring onto her finger.

It wasn't too tight. If it had been it might have sent her running for the door and out into the night, alone and ready to slash and punish anything that stood in her way. It was loose, spinning easily below her knuckle and she pulled it off and moved it to her index finger. There it was a snug fit, and she looked at its shine against skin that was still chapped and dry from her weeks of scrubbing. It was her hand, but she held it at a distance, trying to find words for any thought that didn't concern ownership.

"So, that's it?" It was all she could manage.

"That's it. Unless you want witnesses. Who's left behind me? Anyone you think looks like a wedding guest?"

"No. No one special."

"It's not what you imagined."

"I never imagined."

"Let's drink, then." It was the kindest thing he'd said all day. They could drink to the joy of a newly bound couple, to a future not imagined. She could drink.

"Our health," she said. She forced a smile. It didn't come easily, but it mattered; she knew it mattered to Dragan.

"A clean start," he said.

And the tears she'd denied burned hot as she wondered when he'd thought she was dirty.

The room was small. The wooden floor was carelessly laid and smoke from the fire below filtered up on drafts. A grey pall clung against the low ceiling. A dirty lamp added greasy smut to the mix without offering any useful light. That might have been for the best. What she could see did not impress her.

Dragan couldn't stand. He ducked the door frame and remained hunched over until he chose to sit on the wad of dirty straw that masqueraded as a mattress. Even rocks and tufts of grass were clean. Freya preferred a military cot; at least the frame and woven straps were usually free of vermin. The mattress here looked and smelled as if it had housed many and varied generations. Some were plainly still in residence.

"Nice," she declared half-heartedly, and he laughed. With their saddle bags laid against the wall, the room was full and yet there was nothing in it to discuss. The window was a narrow loophole, used as a roost by rock doves at some time in the past. They had left their opinion of the amenities streaked down the wall, and when she walked to the opening to pull the shutter closed, she brushed away a layer of dust and feathers. "The stables were cleaner. He wasn't being an ass, he was offering advice."

"It's warmer in here."

A remark about hot blood rushed up to her mouth, the sort of thing she would quip without thought on any other night, but here she bit it off, afraid of the implications it might hold. She didn't want to turn back to face him, but standing with her fingers on the dirty sill and looking at a closed shutter was too obviously an evasion.

She wanted to scream.

It was a scream that had burned in her bleak centre for as long as she could remember. And the mechanisms, whatever they were, that had always stilled its hysteria, pushed it down so far into the darkness inside she could only hear its echoes. Except when she felt cornered and powerless.

Tonight she could hear it, ringing in her ears, and she could feel its icy burn.

She made herself turn; made herself smile. This room was too small and she did not want to give herself to anyone. Not even Dragan. Not even him. The rush of noise inside her head was making her breath short and her palms clammy, and there was nowhere for her to run.

She couldn't fight. She had no reason to smash him in the face but her hand trembled with the urge to do violence as she rubbed it up and down the roughness of her hip. And none of it was his fault. The shaking in her hands was getting worse, and she spun back to the window and pushed the shutter wide. There was no more air to breathe there, only dust and dander.

"Freya?"

"Huh?" She snapped the shutter closed again, turned and used the momentum to keep herself moving. It was only two steps, three. She couldn't make any more intelligible sounds, but she'd moved close enough for him to reach for her. To touch her hand. To hold it.

She wanted to pull it away, but mastery was rising over fear. Her throat was working hard to swallow something she could not make into words, and she made herself look at him.

"What's wrong?"

A short sharp laugh shocked from her mouth, and she wiped a hand across her chin. "This room stinks. We should go outside." Inspiration clutched at straws. "We should go out onto the green. There's no moon. Come on, we could give them all something to gossip about." She pulled at his hand, but he didn't move.

"They'd kill you. They've killed others for less."

"They could try." Desperation was pushing a potent cocktail into her system and she laughed again. "They're a bunch of old farmers."

"No, they'd be a mob. Different animal altogether and not one you want to try to face down." Shaking his head slowly, Dragan used his grip on her hand to help pull himself into a crouching stand. Carefully he shuffled past her to the window and pushed the shutter open wide again. He grunted, nodding slightly as he reached back for their cloaks, took her hand and said, "Come on."

Passing down the stairs, he handed Freya her cloak, and mumbled about the cold. Grins and giggles of relief were starting in her chest, and she forced her face to model serious intent as she followed through the nearly empty front room and out into the night air.

He walked as if he had been called on an urgent errand, and she jogged every second step to keep up. Where ever they were going, they were going to get there soon, and the churn of emotion that fired in her blood was boiling itself into aphrodisia. They crossed the muddy green and into the shadows of an open bier. It was little more than a thatched hayrick; feed stored for the stock brought to market.

With her back to the fragrant straw, he stopped suddenly and pulled her against himself. "Close enough?" he whispered.

"Close enough."

His mouth was hot, and the night air bit her skin, raising gooseflesh sensitive to every brush of flesh or breath. All around her the silent night had eyes. The village shadows were full of threats, vague and invisible but she could feel every one.

Her hands were eager, skilled and unerring as she unbuckled the wide leather belts from their hips, and drew the laces of his trousers. His tunic was stiff, woven from coarse-spun wool and she dragged it roughly up his back, struggling with the bulky weight of it. Liaisons had been so much more easily accomplished in the days when they'd dared to wear less. But experience counted for something, as he reached over his own shoulders, gathered the garment up his back and tugged it off over his head.

Even as she slipped the ties of her breeches and wriggled them down over her hips, her eyes traced the shadowed contours of his chest. She knew the scent of his skin, the shape and form and feel of his shoulders, stomach and arms. She knew every ripple, mound and dip where muscle met bone, and she didn't need moonlight to see him. Her fingertips remembered every curve. Her tongue knew the sweet taste of him.

And his hands knew her.

They lifted her higher against the haystack, rucking her tunic up her sides and opening the softness of her belly and breasts to the cold air and the heat of his mouth. Her skin puckered and drew up tight in response, and a sob of pleasure broke the cold silence.

Her breeches were still laced into her boots, and they tangled at her ankles, frustrating her attempts to raise her feet. Straw was scratching against her back with every thrust and her tunic was bunching up under her arms and around her throat, but the small constrictions made no difference in the end. Even when the ring she wore caught in his hair, she redoubled her grip, weaving her fingers tighter against his nape, and released herself into the wash of pleasure he brought her in return.

If she had to submit herself to any man in this world, there were worse choices than this.

August 7, 2011 — 700 words

Strength vs. Intellect:
A Philosophical Approach to Fictional Characters

By Guest Author

by Bonnie Sparks

I believe that entertainment, including what we read, watch, listen to, and play, is a very powerful tool.

Entertainment and media have the power to influence, dissuade, persuade, create an outcry, and bring people together. While I notice quite a few characters in books that favour brawn or brains more than the other, it is rare I find a protagonist who is exclusively with one. I know part of this is due to me not having any interest in following the story of a pure jock-like character, but I believe it’s also due to jock-like people not often being writers, and the type of character that would use only brawn is rare to find.

To me V for Vendetta by Alan Moore is a great example of a character using both aspects. Here is a character that knows how to fight, how to unleash his physical might, but he only does so with discipline and planning. His greatest weapon is his intellect, but he is not weak and while he is not someone to mess with, V is shown as still being human and not invincible.

Recently I read the tween novel You Will Call Me Drog by Sue Cowing and there are instances where both strength and intellect are used. In most cases when strength is used though, it has come about via anger and confusion. Perhaps this is an obvious cliché when a protagonist is using strength, but in this story it shows there is no intelligence behind it and there is a negative connotation derived from its use.

These days, there is a trend in society where we try to teach children that violence and brute force is not the answer, an intelligent solution is, but at the same time these children (and adults) are being bombarded with conflicting ideals. We see people with lots of muscle in advertisements and on music videos, sport is popular worldwide and athletes are considered to be part of the brawn element, whereas intellectuals who are portrayed are considered to be geeky and that denotes a negative and weak persona. How often do you see a stereotypically geeky person kicking arse in an action movie or dancing with all the ladies in a music video? I embrace geek power myself, but you can’t deny what society conveys to us every day.

My inclusion of a jock-like character in the beginning is a great example of how easily people are influenced and how ingrained this idea of a rift is between strength and intellect. Where does this idea of two distinct elements and their deeper meaning, that of brawn equalling stupidity and brains equalling weakness, come from? Is this something that is still born from generations ago when our ancestors had to use force to bring home food and perhaps only their strength was celebrated? Surely it would have taken intellect and strength to kill a mammoth?

Yes, I’m going back a very long time, but society can take an exponential amount of time to shift in perspectives and opinions, especially when something has been ingrained in us for so long and became part of our culture and way of thinking.

Over the last few years the books I’ve read, not including classic literature, the characters have for the most part been a dual aspect of both brains and brawn. Call me idealistic if you will, but if writing reflects what is happening in society then surely this shows that the rift is either slowly closing or the idea of strength equalling stupidity and intellect equalling weakness is gradually disappearing.

 About Bonnie Sparks

Bonnie Sparks is the admin, editor, and a reviewer at Bookish Ardour in between being a struggling writer working on her first novel. You can find Bonnie on Twitter (@Bonnie_Sparks), her personal/writing blog, GoodReads, and Facebook.

August 4, 2011 — 3,234 words

Monsters

By M Jones

It wasn't long before they found Preacher Joe's motor car, a slim, convertible affair that had Clara salivating. "It's impractical, like that first one," he tried to warn her, but she was keen to slide her arm along its streamlined sides, her hip bumping against the polished, painted steel in a sultry caress. She sighed and dug into her handbag, pulling out her tin cigarette case.

"It's a beauty," she said, fishing out a match and lighting up. Within the darkness, she was a solitary red ember. There was a deep swell of breath held, then slowly released as her smoke gathered in the thick air around her. "Built for two. A cozy ride, all the way to Hollywood."

He had more important things on his mind than the road that never ended. Clara reached into the motor car, her fingers gently smoothing out a greasy fingerprint that lay in wait on the clutch. "We can't steal his car, it's inappropriate."

"How so?"

"He's no doubt on a mission. One similar to my own."

She scoffed at this, and braced her hands on the side door, her heel delicately kicked up at the romance the motor car was working on her. "He doesn't deserve a beauty like this, an unethical man like that."

It was his turn to be snide. "Ethics. That's a strange word on your tongue. Mind it doesn't burn your lips." He leaned against the trunk of the motor car, his black oiled wounds seeping onto its pristine white surface. Clara shooed him away, and tutted over the mark he'd smeared onto it. "He's the focal point of a group of human beings, their philosophy one I haven't yet been able to fathom. That has to count for some philanthropy, as you call it. I only impersonated a priest, he truly is a religious leader."

"Lunkhead, that's you." She took a handkerchief out of her small handbag, the one that she had wrapped her switchblade in. He knew it from the pale bloodstains still evident on the kerchief's surface. "He's no leader, he's a confidence man, as snaky as they come. Didn't you see the expensive cut of that suit he's wearing or that gold tooth? It glinted good and shiny, and that tells me that repair is new, even if his flesh and blood isn't. He's the worst kind of con, taking money from poor folks who can barely rub two crumbs together." Her eyes were bright and earnest as she met his gaze, not a shimmer of hesitation within their glass surface. "Remember how I told you some people deserve their fates? This is one hell of a good example."

"You can't kill him," he reminded her. He shrugged in impatience as she slid into the driver's seat, her hands testing the steering wheel in giddy glee. "He'll just slither off into the water and find another host."

"He'll be stuck in a coyote, then," she assured him.

"So be it, until he tears out the throat of another human being, creating a door to slip in. Coyotes are plentiful around here, and from what I've heard such attacks do happen on occasion."

She cast a glance at him over her shoulder, her skin opalescent in the moonlight. She looked made of stone and with just as much heart. She remained in the front driver's seat like a carefully polished, sanded work of marble, destined to remain in that haughty pose forever.

"I'm not giving this up," she promised.

"When I tell you that it's impossible to kill him, I hope you are not looking to me for a solution." He was feeling weak from the loss of tissue and sinew muscle in his host, and he collapsed next to the back wheel, his good arm draped over his stump, fruitlessly trying to stop the constant shifting of parts of himself into its gaping hole. "We don't just randomly murder our own kind, we're not like you."

"There is nothing random about what I do," she coldly informed him. She took a final drag of her cigarette and tossed the tiny lit stub that was left into the deeps of the thicket. A warm breeze pulled the branches towards them before tugging them back, a swaying gossip session in arbour. "I'm not like you. I have my reasons, and they aren't just blind orders."

"I follow what I am sent to do, and it is for serious reasons."

"You don't know what your target looks like. You don't know where he, or she, is. You don't know how long he's been here, or even if you should be trusting me to know where he is." Her marble pose remained stock still while the shadows of leaves passed over her in the near darkness. A flickering statue of marble. An image, set on glass, real enough to believe solid, but impossible to touch. He was wrong, she wasn't chiseled out of rock as he had first thought. She was a wispy trick of darkness seeping through light. "At least I have a word or two with the people I take out. You've never told me your target's crime."

He shrugged. "That detail isn't necessary."

"There's the difference between you and me. I'm a detail girl. I like knowing why people have to die and I have all kinds of good reasons." Her eyes narrowed as she peered into a deep, black part in the thicket, a rustling making her pause before continuing. "All you do is whine about it. 'My target, my target, my left watery nut for my target'. If you ask me, the reason you haven't found this person yet is because you don't really want to kill him. It's not a big moral dilemma to me. If you don't feel like killing your friend, then don't do it."

He was angered by this. "My feelings have nothing to do with the matter."

"My target, my target," she whined, mocking him. "Feelings are everything. It's why you keep going on about it. If you ask me, this constant whining of yours says you don't give a devil's damn about what your friend supposedly did that was so bad because you know in your oily, slimy heart that the crime doesn't fit the punishment."

"What of your punishments?" he snapped back. "What did Stella do that was so evil you had to play a game of x's and o's on her?"

Clara was quiet a long moment, her attention still riveted on the dark hollow in the thicket. Leaves whispered harsh inside of it. "I never killed her."

"I don't believe you."

She was quiet a long moment, lost inside of her own reflection. Mention of Stella had created an inward question that he was surprised existed. When she turned her attention back on him, her face was as grey and polished as sanded stone, and the illusion of her solidity was set again. "Moral platitudes only work when you're on the other side of the universe. This is my dimension, and you have to trust me to know what's what. Don't judge me again. You won't like the outcome."

He wanted to shout at her, to tell her how wrong she was in her assumption that he trusted her. Clara, like the preacher, was so covered in lies they slid off of her marble surface to evaporate in the air around her in a thick, impenetrable mist. Nothing she said was true. Not one observation, not one philosophical reasoning that slid from her ruby red lips had merit. She had only one concern: herself. The person to whom she lied to most of all.

He couldn't quite understand the reason why he followed her, other than that there was nothing to lose in talking to a person who cares nothing for you.

"I'm forgetting who I am," he said.

He was embedded in the crook of the injured arm, holding on with what he had left of himself.

"Aren't you the lucky one," Clara bitterly replied.

There was a pronounced rustling in the thicket, a sound that made them both tense. Coyotes. He had read about these scavenging creatures, four-legged beasts that tore into human flesh. Or so the legends had it, for lies were common enough to be half-truths and exaggerations and who was he to deny a meal to a hungry animal? To be free of this current decrepit human shack would be a comfort. The coyote in its benevolence would latch onto his throat and rip him apart and devour him, the animal not realizing it was giving him a new home.

He closed his eyes, and waited for the teeth to sink in. He wondered what it would be like, walking on four legs instead of two. At least he wouldn't have to follow Clara any longer, he could forge his own path. A coyote's sense of smell was strong, and he could suss out his target with that sensitive organ alone.

Disappointment came in the human shape that emerged from the thicket, the clean cut vision of Preacher Joe who walked towards them out of the darkness, his arms outstretched in greeting. "I never hoped to find another one of us again, not on this terrible, lonely place full to bursting with suffering." He smiled sweetly at Clara, his hip against the hood of his motor car. "How charming that he has found you as a companion. I've never much liked your kind, myself."

* * * * *

"That's right, my brother, just a few feet more."

"I can feel it, Preacher Joe! I can feel your healing power coming over my soul!"

"I'm sure you do." The bullet went clean through the side of the parishioner's skull, where it ricocheted inside the silky grey matter, killing him instantly. He collapsed to the ground, at the feet of the trembling figure that lay forcibly animated at the wheel of the motor car. With a relieved sigh he slid out of the gaping wound in the missing arm and slipped into the new offering, a bubbling acid bath laying thick on the sand behind him. He coughed out a chunk of skull from the back of his throat and shakily stood up, his jelly body molding to his new house. He turned to Preacher Joe, unsure of whether he was supposed to be grateful or horrified.

"It's comfortable," was all he could say.

"It's quite a treat, Frankie, you stumbling to see me like this."

Frankie. That name again.

He frowned, not sure how to respond. "That's not who I am."

"Of course it is," his alien friend replied. "I'd know you anywhere. There's a certain shadow to your features no matter what cloak you're wearing, and you are Frankie, through and through."

"I wouldn't worry about it," Clara warned him, her words averted from Preacher Joe who was sitting across from them on a log, a long stick playing in the sand. X's and o's. Preacher Joe drew a line down the middle and giggled over its secret significance.

"He's obviously mad," Clara harshly whispered.

"And here I thought you were in California," he said, shaking his head. "Making your dream come true, whatever silly reality it was you wanted to create. I'm content to be here, pretending on paradise, but not you. You're more ambitious than I am, I suppose." He gave them both a toothy grin, his gold tooth glinting in the moonlight. "I wish I could be like you, Frankie. Just giving up those pieces of myself I didn't want to deal with. How much easier that would be, to just discard part of myself."

"I don't understand. Why are you here?"

Preacher Joe spread his arms wide, encompassing them both in his spiritual embrace. "Why not be here as anywhere? What other heaven can there be than this linear world, where the present is obvious and the past can't crawl back up on you, and the future is always open, like a vast horizon waiting for you to head towards it. I preach Hell and Damnation to these small-minded souls because they can't appreciate the beauty of what they already have. A moment to moment life. Every second an exclamation of something new. Small-minded and trapped in here, that's what these people are." He tapped the side of his head, the slight indentation revealing the bullet that had ended his host's life.

Preacher Joe had a great fondness for his pistol.

"They sent me here for exploration, and got bored when I turned native. Haven't had orders in decades. Every now and then I get myself a clean house of skin and move on to another part of the country. A flock might go hungry, but a preacher never does."

He leaned back, resting his head on the tree behind him, a long stick drawing lines through his solitary game of x's and o's. His suit was freshly pressed, not a wrinkle from his earlier dervish visible. The pistol he sported was well hidden beneath his vest, with only the shadow of its handle visible in the moonlight. There was something eerily familiar about him, the imprint of a person they had met once before creeping along his features. He smiled and the mirage immediately faded, leaving nothing but an alien blur behind.

He narrowed his gaze at Clara, who stubbornly remained in the driver's seat of his car. "You, now, you're a puzzle. Why would you hang around Frankie, knowing what he is and how he has to survive? There's not a human I've met yet who wouldn't find the whole taking over a stranger's corpse thing a little unsettling. You didn't so much as blink an eye when Frankie slid into our Billy Jameson's flesh." Preacher Joe let out a low whistle at her apathy. "Billy was a mighty good carver, too. Shame we won't be getting that service anymore."

"He keeps calling me Frankie," he said to her, and she waved his concern away, agitated by Preacher Joe's judgement of her.

"We got more similarities of purpose than even he realizes," she explained. "We're going to California. I'm going to meet up with a contact there, a fella who's going to get me into the moving pictures. There's talk he's worked with Lillian Gish, and anyone worth their salt knows that kind of prestige isn't something you can ignore." She checked her nails, and clucked over their dirt. "I got talent in spades," she bragged as she rummaged in her handbag and took out a nail file. "I once won a beautiful baby contest, not a month after I was born. 'Chicago's Bonniest Baby', that was me. I was born to be in the moving pictures, I was. Front page and all."

"Frankie," Preacher Joe said to him, his voice in earnest. "Tell me you won't go back to California. You should stay here, with me, we can travel the rest of the country together, bringing our dance on the road, our Dervish Obscuria." He was intent as he leaned closer, the stick he had used to draw in the sand piercing the earth's flesh. "We can get into the souls of these stupid people. We'll take their money and go to Europe. Or not, Germany can be a superstitious place these days. It might be better to go somewhere farther, like India, where there are constant riots and thus plenty of new hosts to go around."

He bristled at the very idea, Preacher Joe's gold tooth sitting ill in his gut. "I'm going to California to take out a target that has been assigned me by my superiors," he insisted. He drew his heel across the game of x's and o's Preacher Joe had drawn in the dirt, obscuring its entirety. "I'm not here to play games with human beliefs in order to run from my responsibilities."

"A shame. You really are a fool." Preacher Joe dusted off his trousers and stood up, his hand held out in cheery friendships. "We can shake on it. That's how they seal the truth on this planet. By shaking."

He clasped his cold hand in his own and was roughly pulled to standing, his nose nearly touching Preacher Joe's. Joe's eyes were black with motor oil, his breath metallic as his slimy words slid out. "You think you're the moral high ground, but you're not. Responsibilities. Targets. They don't exist. But then, how can I expect you to know that? You're only a fragment of yourself, Frankie. The only thing you are is a forgotten task that was meant to be completed."

He released him, pushing him against the passenger door of the motor car. Preacher Joe cast a long, dark glare at Clara before shoving his hands in his pockets and shrugging inward. He rolled back and forth on his heels before turning his back on both of them.

"Take the motor car. I've no use for it anymore."

He descended into the thicket, its darkness obscuring him until he was completely absorbed by it. They listened, himself and Clara, for the breaking branches and footsteps to fade into an untraceable distance. On its periphery, hands were clapping in joy, humans dancing over the promises of death.

He turned to Clara, who remained staring at the black hollow of the thicket. "We should go."

"You two... you're just...." She bit her bottom lip, the pearls at her throat rolled between forefinger and thumb. "I'm always stuck with the monsters. Rotten luck, I guess."

He stepped gingerly over the steaming remains of his former injured host, his hands braced on the passenger door. "Like attracts like," he explained.

"Like hell it does." She narrowed her eyes at the thicket, her lips pursed in thought. "What if I did it? What if I just left you here to spend the rest of your days with him, to be some leftover monster spreading poison all over the world?"

"You won't."

She turned on the ignition, the engine coming to life with the smoothest hum they had ever heard. He remained balanced against the passenger door, his hands clutching its side, waiting with perverse expectation for her to make good on her word and escape from him. Perhaps she would drive forward a few feet and then careen back, eager to run him down. Perhaps she would turn the engine off, and get out and walk.

Every one of those scenarios filled him with a strange joy.

She reached over and opened the passenger door, and beckoned him to get in. His liquid heart fell into the bottom of his foot, settling deep in the heel. He slid into the passenger seat and its luxurious comfort with ill ease, the road a long, tortuous stretch before them. It was rife with dangers now. Hurdles that could rip them both apart.

She reached under the driver's seat and pulled out a shining piece of metal. As she turned onto the road and began following it to their destination, she tossed it into his lap.

"I'm guessing that's a souvenir that Preacher Joe decided to keep. He'll be sorry he lost it."

He turned it over and over in his palm, the implications curious.

A sheriff's badge. Sheriff Borden's.

Preacher Joe's gold tooth was as sound a confession a lawman could get.

August 3, 2011 — 2,254 words

Numb

By Letitia Coyne

Freya heard him and the cold morning air filled her up from her toes to her ears and iced over like a hex. With all the words that wanted to be spoken, not one could make itself heard. The expressions that went with them skittered and flicked across her face, just as erratic and without order. She shook her head, her shoulders twitched toward a shrug that questioned or denied or asked what was next. None of those thoughts took form.

Dragan pulled away the support his focus had given her. He looked away. He looked ashamed.

He turned his horse back onto the narrow path along the ridge, moving slowly southward. Looking into the distance she could see his reasoning. Had to keep moving. Had to keep moving. There was a fold in the skirts of the mountain up ahead; there was some low scrubby vegetation clinging into the sheltered rucheing; there was likely a path of sorts in the shadows. Likely enough, and he had to keep moving.

She sat there, surprised by the fact that she was not breathing. She pulled her shoulders back a bit and coughed. That made it easier.

To the east the rising sun was lifting a thin fog from the shallow gully beside her. Past the silvered grasses and over the rise lay the pass between peaks. The freed horses had cut dotted lines through the frost, marking the way to the easier paths of the eastern flank of the ranges. Odd the way they rose so stiffly on the west, but fell in gentle layers on the eastern side.

Her chest had set hard again without her notice and she drew in a deep breath and held it, stretching.

Dragan was a way ahead now. She turned her horse and looked back at the campsite they had left. He'd made no real attempt to clear it. Discarded bags lay by the firepit. Saddles. A mess. Once he'd have taken care to clean the site. Spread the waste. Make their footprint harder to see.

Below her the mountainside seemed to bow outward. The road was down there, but the slope contrived to hide it from her view, and if the riders they should flee were climbing now, there was no way to see them. There was no smoke column from a camp anywhere on the air. Maybe there was no pursuit. It looked from her vantage point as if the forest spread below unmarked. Darkest green spread as far as she could see. Except for the mere.

All of the empire spread out before her, past the darkened trees, further than her eyes could see and all of it lay down there at her feet. All she'd ever known of that world was a city far to the west. They were still out there, too, the cities of the empire. She'd seen them all on the arras, spreading around the coast, clinging to the edges, leaving the hardships of the farmland, the forests, and the mountains to the less deserving.

Yet again she found she'd stopped breathing while she looked at the world around her. It was empty. She was empty too, and she let her chest fill again. It seemed a bit pointless, breathing, if she thought about it. She rubbed the back of one cold hand with the other. Her fingers were icy.

It was funny, but she couldn't smile. Here she was on top of the world, with open air and freedom stretching away on all sides with nothing but the vagaries of the landscape to dictate where she could go, and nothing gave her any direction. She was sitting in the middle of one of her maps, looking at the swirling greens and beiges. And there seemed no point at all in moving.

On the front lines... she cut off the thought. There was nowhere to go, that way. To the north, if she followed the crest of the mountains maybe she would find herself at the walls of Aporta. No. Nothing there.

South, Orlik. She coughed again, but a lump had formed in her throat and the sound strangled. Home. Her home. Icy fingers rose to scratch a tickle from her cheek. Everything she was. Nothing south. Not now, not anymore.

A small whine rose in the back of her throat and escaped through her nose.

Her life and all she wanted was below her to the east, and she couldn't go there. She couldn't even think about it. She didn't want to move, except maybe to lie down on the rocky ground, roll in a ball and sink into the mountain. The peaks swallowed men, that was a certainty she could always count on. The rough ground ate the flesh and drank the blood. Wolves took what they wanted and left the rest to bleach into dust.

If she had died on the field last season, she'd be bleached bones by now, or ash, burned up in glory and blown on the wind. That was gone, that possibility. She couldn't even hold it as a dream.

She tugged at her reins again, pulling the horse's head back to the south. Dragan had stopped, frozen on the path ahead, slouched over and not looking back at her. Last time she'd let his reasons take the place of her dreams, she'd been jammed into rocky shadows and she'd hated him for it.

There was nothing she could do, nowhere to go, and there was not enough heat in her blood to call anger. Nothing at all. She had slipped back from the brink of perfect happiness into an abyss of limitless freedom. A prison of circumstance, without walls, or paths, or purpose. Or anything solid to rail against.

Just like the small child who had hidden under market barrows and in sewers, she had nowhere to belong. Nothing to hold. Nothing to do.

Really, she couldn't lie down on the rocks. And she couldn't sit on this horse on the crest of a mountain until she fell to dust. She had to move, had to keep moving. She drew in another deep breath, stretching all the stiffness out of her chest and blew it out in a long hard gust.

Touching her heels to the side of her horse, she pushed him into a jog and followed the tracks Dragan had left over grass and stones.

* * * * *

By moving directly west, keeping the sun always ahead, Dragan pushed through the pine forests without the benefit of roads. The tall straight trunks presented little difficulty for the horses, and the stretches of dense-leafed darkness were mercifully short. He dealt with the silence of the ride by pressing as much speed out of it as possible.

Freya rode without comment or complaint, and he convinced himself again and again that as never before, the end of this journey would justify any means. A small lie, and so much in return.

He made no move to stop through the day; he had no interest in food. Ahead, no more than twenty leagues, was the future he had made. The sooner they were safely home the better. Then they would have time to mend; time to settle and to find a life together. The faster they moved the better. And if he pushed them hard enough all day, he could clear the forests and follow the road north to Bralz. It was too soon for his gift to be ready, but he'd find some way to give her the best of this life.

He would find ways to make the lie worth its cost.

"Dragan, that's enough." Her voice made him startle as if he'd been caught or compromised, and he pulled the horse up hard. "I need to stop, this is ridiculous."

"Of course," he answered, regretting the need to stop just as much as the need to keep pushing ahead. She was out of breath, and she lifted her water flask and drank deeply. "We can make it through the forest and out onto the road by nightfall if we keep moving, that's all. But we can stop."

"Of course we can damn well stop. You weren't afraid of those riders on the mountain; I can't see why you're so desperate to outrun them down here."

Her logic stopped him for a moment, and he laughed. "I'd forgotten them." It was true, he'd given no thought to the men sent after Freya from the moment she had decided to follow him down the rough slope and on into the forest. None of his thoughts had travelled backwards. All of his concentration was on the journey ahead.

"Yeah, right." She swung down from the saddle and arched her back. "We aren't running away from the mess I made, are we? We're running toward... No, it escapes me." Tugging loose the straps of her saddlebag, she stretched an awkward smile over her mouth. There was no way she could pretend it was real humor, or that their situation was amusing, but it was an attempt at making everything okay, and normal, and he smiled back.

"Paradise," he finished for her. "You'll have to take my word for it, but it's there."

"Good." The smile had gone, and she searched through her open bag for bread. She tore off a lump and threw it up to him, reminding him he could climb down out of his own saddle. There was a bag of dried apples, and she sniffed at them, grimaced and threw them too, to where he stood. "They didn't plan on being away for long, did they? Look at this muck."

"No." He hadn't given it any thought. "I suppose they figured on catching up with you yesterday, and then back in barracks by nightfall."

"Eight of them." There was a little more joy in the grin she threw at him, a little bit of pride, even if it twitched and faded into a silent nod. "Not bad for one defector."

"Not bad."

They ate, and Freya walked some of the kinks out of her back. She didn't speak about the fact that all she had ever wanted from life had gone in a moment. He didn't question her silence. Before he could be forced to acknowledge his avoidance, he called her back to the journey. In the half-light of the woods, it was more gut than science that told him the hours left of daylight were few, and he assured himself as they moved off again, that they had to make it home soon. As soon as they were home safe, everything would be okay. The sooner, the better.

Darkness had fallen hard by the time they broke free of the trees, but the road was clear and wide, cobbled from pale stone and easy to follow. Bralz was within spit, with the promise of hot food and comfortable rooms.

Bralz had other ideas.

With the hours of riding cramping in his back and thighs, Dragan allowed himself the small relief of slouching, letting go of the rigid determination that held his back straight. He even smiled, nodding a brief hello at the first two villagers who watched their progress toward the market square. The inn, or what passed for an inn, was away from the town centre, dumped between the village green and the market stockyards.

The front room smelled stale, with ale and piss rising over the hot stench of slow rotting straw. A stew pot stood on an open fire, and a barkeep sat among the dozen clientele, apparently uninterested in the arrival of his guests. He was alone in his disinterest. Every other face in the room watched openly as they entered, or covertly from under their brows and behind their mugs.

"You've come through here before?"

Dragan nodded to the speaker, a small man with nothing to mark him as any more than a customer. "And I'll take a room again. Two meals, two ales."

"You could take a stable." A second local chipped in, less inclined to stand free of deeper shadows at the back. Dragan took a single step forward, not toward any one person, but deliberately away from the door.

Beside him Freya straightened, and he could feel old angers rising to heat her skin. Her eyes moved quickly over the assembly, narrowing as she made an assessment, and he was thankful her sword was strapped to her pack. At least it was not in her hand.

The proprietor, a man who valued peace or recognized an uneven contest for what it was, stood. "There's a table," he mumbled. "Got stew. And ale. Room's at the top of the stairs." He moved his own jug of ale and some mugs to a nearby table, then shuffled slowly toward the stew pot, and one by one the watcher's eyes settled back onto their own affairs, or onto hands more used to plows than swords.

Dragan motioned to the free table and she took a seat, facing out so he sat with his back to the room.

"They're old," she said quietly, sipping ale and calmly evaluating every other man in the room.

"They are." He nodded. She was gripping the handle of her mug tight, and lines of strain had formed around her mouth and eyes. The innkeeper dropped two bowls onto the table in front of them, and as he did several patrons stood to leave. "And they're nothing to us. Eat."