Ariana by the Sea

Ariana felt the hot sand sliding between her toes, heard the distant crash of the water smashing on promontory rocks. Not for her the water’s edge. The vastness of the ocean was a strange and fearful thing, and creatures lurked beneath it; she’d heard the sailors’ tales when she worked the tavern houses and inns, and did not wish to find herself bewitched beneath the waves.

And yet, her eyes kept straying there. So beautiful and savage was the sea. Swirling and surging now with a contained rage, blue and green and gray by turns, and powerful, flecked with the gold of a high morning sun, the wind like a child’s fingers on her cheeks and in her hair.

The wind hugged her like a lover; her dress clung to her, and a brief and rueful smile touched her lips, for she felt the curves of her body beneath, her childhood faded like a receding wave, once and done, never to be again, which carried a fear of its own.

Do you want to sail, Ariana?

Her heart beat faster with the thought.

Is there someone across the sea who’s named you for his own?

Her body tingled as an image formed in her mind, faceless, strong, with the hands of a sculptor, the hands of a man who could wring emotions from clay and metal and stone.

But what will he do with your heart, Ariana? What will he do with your heart? Will it still be loving when he’s done? Tender, or will he harden it in the kiln of his own soul?

She couldn’t answer, but did she dare find out?

A prod into the sole of her foot made her wince, and she hopped in the sand. It startled more than hurt.

An empty shell, curved and pink and white, gleamed from its sandy sepulcher.

She lifted its wavy, opalescent edge; it was warm to the touch, though there was no life in it.

She’d heard the stupid stories of how the ocean’s crash could be heard; she knew it was something else, but the notion was appealing, and no one was watching.

Plucking it out, emptying the sand, she walked with it awhile, admiring the useless beauty of it; its owner, no longer needing its protection, either abandoned it or was pulled out by a crafty predator.

Looking up, she saw a lone gull pass overhead; it called to her in solitary greeting, and seeing the shell was empty and the girl alive, he flew on.

Sitting on a dune where the sand grasses tickled her legs, she looked out at the mating blue of sky and water on the horizon, and put the shell to her ear.

And listened to the sea song, her heart beating in harmony, and from her thoughts it brought the face of her shadowy lover, and made the vision clear.

And he would sculpt her heart, and she would sing his hands, and when their work was done….

It would be as timeless as warm sand, enduring as stone and metal, beautiful as a seashell, curled and delicate, with thunder in its midst, tempestuous as a wind tossed wave, and fear of the edge and hiding in shadows would be no more.

You would venture beyond the edge, where you are afraid, Ariana?

The shell slipped from her fingers, its silenced song soaked into her soul.

Yes… yes

She would go.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

November 22nd 2014

They Have to be Invited In

They have to be invited in

After they ring the bell

I did, but didn’t know she’d make

my life a living hell

And ever when they lie with you

They lie to you as well

I thought the difference would be plain

But no, I couldn’t tell.

She left a desiccated heart

Inside a broken shell

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

2014

They Have to be Invited In

All rights reserved

Slaying Songs: A Reaver’s Hymn

In the winter cold I rise

Look the killer in the eyes

Spilling blood I claim my prize

Singing slaying songs.

In the woodlands dark and sere

Where the creatures creep in fear

I will light a fire here

Singing slaying songs.

In an empty castle’s shell

Haunted by the fiends of hell

Axes toll a killing knell

Singing slaying songs

On the ocean’s tide they come

Chests of gold and casks of rum

Think I’ll go and get me some

Singing slaying songs.

Through the city streets I walk

See the demon-shadow stalk

Now his outline’s drawn in chalk

Singing slaying songs

On the land or on the sea

Doesn’t matter much to me

Last thing that you  hear will be

My savage slaying song.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
2014
Slaying Songs: A Reaver’s Hymn
All rights reserved

Sharing Homework with Cheerleaders: A Cautionary Tale

Nothing made my day brighter in high school than when there was a game pending, and the cheerleaders would walk around the school in their outfits, pleasant distractions from the daily drudge of learning. They carried themselves like queens, however, and we males would smile and nod and greet, trying not to ogle, and then wipe the sweat and drool from our faces when they passed. One of them happened to be in my homeroom, and in she walked, strong, shapely legs in a short skirt,  and all the bells and whistles in my heart rang with adoration, and not a little lust, but I was tongue-tied around pretty girls, like most nerds.

She was a nerd too,  with aspirations of being a writer, so the yearbook said when we graduated, but she was also a cheerleader: popular, pretty, capable of breaking hearts with a dismissive swish of the hand, and I was a tragic figure, secretly in love (and not a little lust)  hiding my feelings.

Then, one bright magic morning, in her cheerleader outfit, she approached me, and I felt the stupid grin spreading, willing it to go away, and making it worse. And then she smiled at me! I was, for whatever reason, deemed worthy of her smile.

And then it got better: she spoke to me. If it had been manly to swoon, I would have done so on the spot.

“Alfred, did you do the homework for English class?”

In the midst of controlling my swoon, I thought: Who doesn’t do homework for English class? But I replied that I had.

“Can you let me borrow it; I didn’t get the chance to do it.”

Chivalry, thy name is Alfred. I produced it, and handed it to her, thinking again: We’re both in the honors class; surely she knows how to paraphrase and make it her own.

At lunchtime she gave me back my homework, and later that afternoon, I submitted it to Mr. D. He was my favorite English teacher, a large man with a droll and deadly wit. He wore Van Dyke whiskers, and had the memory of a herd of elephants. I took several elements of style from him in my own career later on, though I never got to tell him.

The following day, he distributed the homework back, and on mine was a bright red ‘D’ with the comment: “Who copied from whom?”  He looked at me askance, and said nothing, and I took the paper in a silence of my own, thinking “How did she screw this up?”

Class was taught, and then over, but since he was my favorite teacher and LOVED my writing, encouraging me often to pursue it, even up to the time I graduated, I felt I owed him an apology. Here’s what came out:

“Mr. D, I deserve this grade for what happened, but really? You should know who copied from whom.”

His laughter boomed as he nodded, and said “Okay. That’s what I thought.”

I walked away, restored to myself, the spell of the cheerleader broken forever. Until she signed my yearbook.

Wearing her cheerleader outfit.

Dammit….

Quest

A knight set out upon a Quest

The Lion blazon on his chest

To rescue him a maiden fair

From wizard’s cold and darkened lair

“Fair maiden,” cried he, “I have come

to take thee back to thy kingdom.

“We must make haste! ‘Tis dusk I see

and we have many miles to flee!”

The great oak door that barred his way

Did not yield to the axe’s sway

“Fair maiden, do not take a fright.

I think the moon shall rise tonight.”

He swung until his arm was sore

And in due time broke down the door

He burst inside and flushed deep red

For there he saw upon the bed

The maiden and the wizard locked

And both of them complete defrocked

And breathing hard and laughing soft

within the wicked wizard’s loft

She started up. “Get out!” she cried,

“And tell not what you here espied!”

“But maiden…” cried he, sore and vexed

Not seeing she was oversexed

“Get out, you empty armored head

or ‘pon the road they’ll find ye dead.”

And this was what the wizard said

And so the brave knight turned and fled

The knight, his courage gone astray

Vowed he would Quest no more that day

that month, that year, that century!

He still lives with the memory

Of lovely woman’s treachery.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

Quest / Day of the Dark Full Moon (compilation)

December 10th, 1983

All rights reserved

Halloween Huntress: Chapters 5 and 6: Sometimes you just need help

Chapter 5:

“We’ve got t’leave,” said Orliss.

He spent the rest of the day packing what he needed for the road. Being a hermit, of sorts, there was always a travel bag at the ready.

He opened Meralys’ closet to Jaika; nothing was an exact fit, so she took what felt snug, and left the rest. There were also riding clothes, an unexpected and welcome bonus, so she took those as well.

“We was farmers once, and Meralys loved ‘er horses,” Orliss explained.

“You must tell me more of your life once we’re on the road.”

“I daresay we’ll not have th’ time, missy.”

He still called her ‘missy.’ She’d given up trying to change it. Besides, it could also be her name; no one need know her real name here. As of now, only two men who’d she’d had no intention of meeting, and had stumbled into quite by accident, knew it.

And then she received another startling revelation, from none other than Orliss himself.

“But you must tell me how it came to be that a young woman came to be traveling alone.”

She looked up, surprised, a smile of shocked amusement on her face.

“Your accent’s a ruse,” she said.

He smiled, “You’re quick. A good one, isn’t it?”

“Very much so, but why?”

“Helps me fit in, gain information. When I’m drunk though, it doesn’t seem to be a character. But it was ever my intention to fight back. With you here, that will make it easier.”

“He said we were to be wed. He knew my name, and when he left…I felt…”

“We’ll have to look into all that. Now’s not the time. We need to be gone by nightfall. I’ve a feeling he’ll be back, and he won’t be alone, and he won’t have those dogs.”

She nodded, and couldn’t repress a shudder, which he saw.

“Jaika.”

She sighed, and composed herself.

He placed a meaty hand on her shoulder. “I know. You’ve been swept up in a series of events that make absolutely no sense to you. I can’t explain how they do. I don’t know why you’re here, or why Dominick is after you, or me, for that matter. He won the war when he killed Meralys, and I was too devastated for thoughts of revenge.

“But I let him take the woman I love from me, and did nothing about it.

“I can’t allow that to happen again, but I can’t promise you it won’t.

“The truth is, the years of dissipation were real, and have taken their toll, but now there’s what’s left, and I have to use it to rid the world of him, and not just for you.

I don’t know the part you play; I’ve read no great books, and there’s no ancient prophecy.

“In fact, we had a somewhat shaky beginning.”

“Yes,” she reddened at the memory. “We did.”

“This is a strange and dark place; you’ve doubtless felt its power. That’s where I’ll need your wood lore; you’re under no obligation to stay, and I can see you to a ship this very afternoon that will give you safe passage, but I’m asking: will you help me?”

“I will help you, Orliss. If it wasn’t for you, I likely would not have survived. He’s attacked me twice, and there’s no denying there’s a bond. I felt it. I have to break it, but I don’t know how, and that’s where I’ll need you.

“So, partners then?”

His hand was still resting on her shoulder, and she put her own hand over it.

“Partners.”

******************

They left the cottage empty and set out for the town to buy horses.

Jaika had to admit that in her travels, she’d never met anyone like Orliss. There was more to him than met the eye. He’d been stinking and drunk, and she’d been violent and desperate and frightened out of her wits, and in a few days, they’d become totally different people, though she was still frightened out of her wits.

Her travels up until now had been solitary; she slept when she needed to, ate when she was hungry, and traveled often to the point of exhaustion, wandering, seemingly aimless, but now knowing it wasn’t.

None of what happened to her now seemed coincidental, but she hoped she wasn’t some sort of celestial pawn, even though the darkly divine nature of her encounter was already a factor.

Gods of the forest, is that why you removed your protection? If so, you’ll not find me a willing puppet to your unknown plans.

Chapter 6:

 

   The bargain for horses struck, they rode back on the dirt trail that led to the temple.

“I’ve not seen it in many years. I went as far as the tavern, and it seems the devils were content to leave me be, after they destroyed me.

“Now, that’s not the case.”

They arrived on the temple grounds. It sat in the middle, a circle of smooth walls like an aged, empty turtle shell.

The ivy leaves were beginning to turn with the season, as were the trees, edged with the slightest of red and orange and gold.

We must kill him before winter.

   She stayed at the top of the trail, holding the reins of their horses as they grazed, and Orliss investigated.

There was no way she could bear to go near it right now; it was enough she might have to later.

He peered through the cracks, same as she did, but he didn’t stay long to observe anything, or so Jaika thought, as he walked around it rather quickly for his size.

She wanted to call out, to ask him if he saw anything, but the demon priest might not necessarily be nocturnal.

Orliss stopped, seemed to be thinking of something, then walked toward the back of the temple, but instead of going around again, he walked through the high wild grass.

Jaika only saw trees and weeds. It seemed to her there was nothing to mark it as a path.

Curious, she dismounted, tied off the horses, and went to follow him.

**********************

He was standing at the edge of a cemetery, the stones faded, fallen, and the gates broken. There was a low-lying fog covering the grassy ground, burning off slowly in the mid-morning sun.

She came and stood next to him.

“Who’s here?”

“Most of the people I’ve known.”

“Meralys?”

“No.”

She pressed no further, and let him have his moment, and started to walk back toward the horses.

“Don’t go, Jaika.”

She’d learned that when he called her name, things were different, so she stayed, standing beside him, scanning the mossy, discolored markers.

After a moment, she said “We should be going, Orliss.”

He sighed, and nodded. “There’s just one more thing left to do. Something I should have done years ago.”

“What’s that?”

“We’re going to burn the temple down.”

“Orliss, it’s stone, and there’s nothing in it. You’re not thinking clearly.”

“Oh, stone burns, Jaika. There’re different kinds of fire.”

“You’re talking in riddles.”

“I’m going to bind the spirits in this place.”

She went quiet at that, put some stray strands of hair behind her ear, losing the set of her shoulders, sighing.

“Is this something I should be a part of?”

He turned to face her. His eyes held a tenderness, but also a glimmer of fire.

“You already are.”

“But you’ve burned your books.”

“I’ve help.”

Jaika didn’t want to know, so she asked no more questions.

*********************

He sat on the stained marble bench, and closed his eyes.

Jaika took the quiet time to look around.

The gravestones, faded with age and stained with elements, listed precariously in their slots, all but toppled, the names and dates long obliterated.

The high grass extended all across the plot land, and the mausoleum sat squat and dark, a diseased mushroom full of decay and vermin, a black blot on the green field.

She shuddered. There was something tainted and palpable in the air, like demon breath.

Orliss, some memory tapped, began to chant in a soft voice that pushed against the silence, chipping away at it.

Jaika didn’t know if he was praying, or casting a spell, but either way it looked like he would be a while. She went to check on the horses, and stayed with them to reassure them that their riders were still close by.

She ate a small snack while she waited.

The fog had burned off, and the mild warmth and clear skies of the early afternoon belied the peril they faced, and as the morning lazed into the afternoon, Jaika saw spread through the fading mist where Orliss sat.

The nervous horses whickered and stamped, and Jaika moved out of the range of their hooves. Fighting panic, her hand trembling, she drew her short sword, and went to investigate.

Orliss was where she’d left him, but what was in the light got her attention.

There were people, hundreds, of all ages, standing by their markers, but something about them was very strange.

Jaika realized that their features were just the veneer over their bones, and the wounds and diseases that ravaged them were visible: there were murder victims , their ghastly wounds almost translucent in the afternoon sun.

And of those who were mutilated: she could see their severed limbs flickering where they’d been hacked, the bloody stumps of meat and gore still dripping spectral blood.

Those who’d died of diseases, in childbirth, in accidents, all bore the marks of their passing, she saw the skeletons just underneath the veneer of flesh. The people were buried dressed in their finest formal wear, which was now little more than scraps, hanging like dead creepers from their limbs.

Sunken eyes, missing teeth, swollen tongues, open sores, torn female clothing, bruised faces, tilted heads with rope burns on their necks, and heads of glorious female hair ridden with lice, and small children with smiling mouths full of worms and centipedes pushed back against Orliss’ magic with a palpable malevolence.

He might have been marble himself, though his whiskers flew about him like a halo of tumbleweed, and sweat stains ruined his clean clothes.

Vermin began to appear and tentatively sniff at him, and began to snap at his flesh.

They went right through Jaika, as if she wasn’t there at all.

He flinched, and winced, and gasped, but picked right back up and didn’t stop chanting until, finally, he did.  As he stood, he brushed the vermin from his body with a fell sweep of his arm, and  Jaika gasped as they vanished. It had all been illusion to get him to stop.

A spirit-man came forward, his transparent flesh desiccated, and pointing what was left of his finger at Orliss, he spoke telepathically.

Jaika heard his voice in her head; it sounded like wet, shifting gravel, grating and unpleasant. She bore it for Orliss’ sake.

You should be here among us, priest.

“I know, and I’m sorry, but I’m not.”

We could make it so you are.

   “Or you could tell me where Thonian ran off to fight.”

You name him! Oh, your boldness

  “I’ve no time to sit here preening with you; do you know where he is, or don’t you?”

If we did, we would not tell you, for your magic is weak, and cannot compel us. But it is as you say: we know not where he has gone.

    Why do you disturb us, Orliss?  A woman’s voice was speaking now, as she made her own way to face him. Have any of among us haunted you?

  “No.”

Then why do you seek us?

   “This is my friend Jaika.” He extended his arm in her direction, and their broken eyes followed it to land on her. Jaika tried not to tremble.

” Thonian has marked her for his bride. I cannot allow it, and in the process of stopping him I might…I might be able to…free your souls.

The outburst was immediate, with some opting to pass through him and kill him, and still others to finish hearing what he had to say.

The latter won.

This is a bold claim, from a man whose magic has passed into legend.

“And yet I say it.”

Making no promises!

“But telling the TRUTH! DAMN your obstinate, bitter, foolish minds!”

Along with our souls, you mean? The woman spoke to them both, not unkindly.

Orliss seemed to deflate. “I meant…will you help me find him?”

The staring seemed an eternity.

A breeze stirred, and Jaika gagged on the stench from the risen dead, and held her breath; if either of them said anything now, they would lose their cause.

The two spirits that spoke to Orliss conferred, then walked among the others.

The early afternoon went into the late afternoon by the time the two of them returned.

Yes, Orliss. For the sake of our souls, we’ll be glad to help, but if you fall into the river of doubt, the stream of surrender, your souls are forfeit to us.

   Are we agreed?

   Orliss looked at Jaika, and after considering, she gave him a nod.

“We are,” Orliss said.

Then we take our leave, until tonight.

They slipped back into the ground in clusters, angry at their awakening, but excited to be involved in what could be the ancient land’s new beginning.

© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.

2014

All rights reserved.