Night Roads (con’t 4)

4)

 

Amia was in the garden when I walked up.

“What are you doing back here, Haskell?” She hadn’t turned around.

“Using your witchy skills, huh?”

She turned to face me then, smiling a little.

“Never you mind.”

“We need to talk. I need you to change my face, and I need to hire Alazne.”

“Yes to the first, no to the second.”

Amia stood, smoothed the dirt off her apron. She’d tied her hair back, and looked like a perfect housewife. The last thing I’d expect her to do was blow me apart with a bolt of light from her hands, but she could.

I would’ve smiled in amusement if she couldn’t.

“Alazne? She’s vulnerable, and that makes her volatile. I’m just getting her to where I can trust her. Leaving her alone in my house was the turning point. I half expected to return to find her gone and my place looted, if not a pile of ashes.”

“Maybe she is, but she has advanced stalking skills for her age, and she looks like a beggar child. I could use both to help me further your efforts in stopping the council.”

She paused to consider it.

“Come on, then. Tell me what you’re thinking, while I work on making your face be what I’ve always wanted.”

I felt my face do something between blush and blanch, which set her chiming laughter pealing.

 

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

“How would you like to look?”

I told her.

“Close your eyes,” she said.    I did.

The blackness that my lids created began to lighten to a deep blue, the color of the sky when a full moon shines, and I felt the light scrape of her nails and the pads of her fingertips begin to caress my face.

My skin tightened, and there was some pain, but it was bearable; caught off guard by its suddenness though, I gasped.

“It’s all right,” she whispered, sending a relaxing wave across my body. “Trust me, Haskell.”

“I do.”

The light began to darken, and I was once more in natural darkness, but then I felt a slight change taking place through my body as well. I had what I would call an average build, but it seemed to be getting thicker.

She was making me more muscular, a bit wider, but not preposterously so.

“Is this all right with you?”

My laugh was sardonic.

“Did you leave me a choice?”

“No.” I could hear the smile in her voice.

Oh, Amia. What might have been…

A few moments of silence passed, and then:

“I’m done. Rest a moment. I’ll find a glass for you to see.”

I took a few deep breaths, feeling the increase of the expanse of my chest; it felt good, solid.

She’d gotten a lot stronger; her powers had increased. I should’ve been concerned then, but I wasn’t.

“You can get up now.”

I took my time, getting used to maneuvering with the larger frame.

She left me nude, and the glass showed everything.

“Madam, please,” I said with false modesty, covering myself with my hands.

She laughed again.

“What do you think?”

I took my hands away.

“This isn’t what I told you, but I’m not sure.” I looked like a pirate: curly black ringlets of hair down to my neck, swarthier than I was, and for added effect, a pale scar along the right cheek.

“How am I supposed to fit in with a face like this?”

“You don’t like it?”

“I said I wasn’t sure…”

“Close your eyes, and picture the face you want.”

“What? Amia…” my voice took a warning note, but she just gave me her ‘innocent’ look.

I closed my eyes, pictured the face I wanted, and felt the slight pull on my skin and the elongation and shortening of bones. It was a creepy feeling.

The sensations stopped, and I opened my eyes again.

More average features looked back at me, with no scar. I could be a servant or a merchant.

Just for kicks, I closed my eyes again, pictured the face of a nobleman I met once, and once again the magic crackled across my face.

Bearded, regal, with piercing eyes that struck fear in the hearts of men and made women weak in the knees, or so I hoped.

I looked back at Amia and smiled.    She returned it, pleased.

“I didn’t know you could do that, Amia. You’ve gotten stronger.”

“A woman shouldn’t be defenseless, Haskell. You know that as well as anyone.”

I did, and I was glad she was among those who could do it.

She came up behind me, and put her hands where I had mine moments ago, and put her lips by my ear.

“Let’s try this new body out, and see how it works for you.”

“Shall I keep this face?”

“No, Haskell. I like you for you.”

Changing my face back, I turned toward her, kissed her long and deep, my own hands busy before I picked her up and carried her to her bed, the place she’d denied me the night before, a deed which I promised her she was going to pay for, and she rose to the challenge..

As it turned out, the new body worked just fine.

 

5)

 

It was evening when we were done with each other.

“Where’s Alazne?”

“Out, hunting dinner.”

“She’s a scary girl.”

“I agree. One step up from feral, really. Even I haven’t gotten all of her story from her yet.”

“Do you want it?”

She laughed. “Not sure.”

We finished dressing in silence, and Amia poured some of that wine from Inkara.

The clothes were a bit tighter, but would cover me enough for now.

“I need her, Amia.”

“Why? After the power I gave you, you can fit in anywhere.”

“I need a scout though, a spy, if you will. She’d be able to get into places unnoticed.”

“I don’t know, Haskell. Ragamuffins aren’t welcome in most places; they’re the kids who get watched in the marketplaces, the ones cast out into the street. People do see them.”

“They do,” I agreed, “but only when they get careless. Alazne doesn’t strike me as careless, and she’s got a whole host of skills we don’t know.”

“How do you know?”

“She gave me the lantern, and found her way back to you in a dark forest.”

“By now she’s familiar with the path, the direction; it’s no great feat, Haskell.”

“I’m telling you, even with all that, for one of her age to go skulking about as she does, it is. I need her eyes, and I need her to gain access to places where I won’t fit in.”

“I’ll do it,” said a voice from the doorway.

“How long have you been standing there?” said Amia.

“For most of it.”

I turned to Amia, grinning, and just managed to dodge the empty wine cup she threw at my head.

 

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

As I told Alazne of my plan, and she cooked a late night rabbit, we spent another couple of hours ironing out the details.

She helped with the logistics of where she’d be able to go, and we both agreed that Jonas provided the only real threat.

“Kill him first, or last?” I asked her.

“Let me think about it.”

“All right.”

“Haskell?”

I turned to see Amia in the doorway of her room.

“Are you spending the night?”

Alazne rolled her eyes.

“Actually, no. I need to get back to the inn, make sure everything’s intact, and where I left it.”

The door slammed so fast and hard that Alazne and I both jumped.

Alazne looked up at me.

“You’re a stupid man, aren’t you Haskell?”

I sighed, looking at the door where just seconds ago, I’d seen a vision of erotic loveliness.

“Yes, Alazne. Yes I am.”

Night Roads (con’t 3)

3)

 

Alazne led me back to the road where she met me, again in the lead, using that unerring, unnerving, confident stride she used at the start of the night, as if the sun was shining and she could see every tangled root underfoot.

 

“The inn’s about a mile that way; you’re going to need this.”

She handed me the lantern.

“And you won’t?”

She just smiled, and slipped back into the forest, the dark swallowing her up.

 

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

The windows of the inn were dark, but the moon was beginning to set; I was loathe to knock, but I was tired, cold, and hungry, and thanks to Amia’s generosity, I would be able to afford to alleviate all three.

My knock was answered by a grizzled old man made of whipcord muscles and whiskers.

His eyes were small and mean, and he only opened the door a crack.

“I’m of a mind to leave you outside, ‘cept the missus would have m’ hide. Yer not runnin’ from the law, are ya?”

I tried a smile. “Not at the moment.”

He didn’t see the humor, and reluctantly let me inside.

“We keep a room prepared for such emergencies. Ain’t much to look at, but it will serve for the rest of the night.”

He took my lantern and led the way.

The room was as he said it would be, functional with not much in the way of luxury.

“I’ll take yer coin now, in case yer of a mind to leave earlier than we get up.”

I felt bad for his wife; left to his own devices, there’d be no inn.

His unnecessary surliness was also starting to annoy me; while it was true I woke him up, I was no beggar looking for scraps.

I paid him, and he left without another word.

Stripping down to what I would be comfortable leaving on in case of running outside in an emergency, I gave myself over to the exhaustion that had already seeped into my bones.

 

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

In the morning, bathed, shaved, fed, and feeling relatively like a part of the human race again, I was back out on the road.

Finding a shady spot by mid-morning, I stopped and took a look at the list of council members.

Turns out I knew the first name: Jonas Noll.

He’d been a hunter of some renown in this area for quite some time; it was safe to assume that the game he once hunted was now faster and smarter, and he decided to stop before the law of averages worked against him.

Smart hunter, but dumb if he thought Amia was going to let him run roughshod over her opportunity to advance. He’d had some experiences with her as well, and probably decided there’d be safety in numbers.

He was wrong, and I would be the one to tell him so by ending his life, or die trying: older hunters grew craftier with the years. I would really have to plan where to move, and it had to be out of his sphere of influence, with no witnesses.

I scanned through the rest; some I knew casually, others were strangers. Out of all of them, Jonas probably posed the biggest threat.

It would best to work through the strangers first; there were five of them. Two lived some distance away, and while I didn’t really see why they’d get caught up in local politics in this place, it was a safe bet money was involved, probably in matters of voting or breaking bones, or both.

This would have to be a one day event; to spread it out would mean mounting suspicion, and while I was careful, if the right person was in the right place at the wrong time, it could mean the difference between life and death.

To hit them at a meeting would be the most practical; there’d be anonymity in the crowd, but it wouldn’t be a real test of my skills.

What Amia said about my taunting came back to mind; it was a cautionary tease: don’t mess this up.

I sighed, wanting to draw it out against my better judgment and Amia’s wishes.

All right. A one shot deal. I could use Alazne’s stalking skills to good advantage.

I put the parchment back in the back; the gold was secure under a floorboard in the room, and I got up slower than I remembered getting up before, to go get the layout of the town, a bit of trepidation in my step, because this place attracted a lot of travelers

Hopefully, no one would recognize me from a past adventure in a distant land; if they did, the assignment would stop before it began.

I decided I couldn’t take the chance.

Amia was going to have to help me. My face needed to change, but not drastically. It was the small changes in details that threw off eyewitnesses: a moustache where there wasn’t one, a scar, an eye patch, or just growing longer hair, could make all the difference in escaping bounty hunters leafing a town with Wanted posters.

Unfortunately, I’d learned through experience.

With everything in me thrumming with resistance, I began walking the path back up to her place. She wouldn’t be happy to see me, but she might help me, and I really did need to speak with her about utilizing her mysterious protégé.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr

The Mark of Cane

The children were crying, wrapped in chains and manacles, covered in scars from when they’d first resisted.

They didn’t resist now. They couldn’t if they wanted to; they were hungry and tired from their long journey.

The slavers let them sleep, but didn’t feed them for a few nights, though they kept them in drugged water. In days they were gaunt, bedraggled, and dejected.

After five days, they gave them scraps, and watched them pummel, kick, and bite each other for an extra piece, laughing and betting.

After ten days, when they began nearing the city, they fattened the kids who survived the fighting up with full meals to make a decent presentation at auction, and peace reigned in the camp once more, for a time.

A day’s ride out from the city gates, the slavers woke to find their sentries dead, and the children gone. A dark figure in a broad brimmed hat stood among them as they approached him in a circle, their leader stepping forward, his own knife drawn, to confront the silent intruder, who had his head down inside the hood that hid his face.

“You have until a minute ago to bring those brats back, or tell me where they are.”

The figure, his eyes hidden by the brim, gave an enigmatic smile, and then he lifted his eyes, and looked at the slaver.

The slaver’s skin sloughed off his body in a red, wet heap, and his flesh and bones sagged like sludge, collapsing in red, gory mound, spreading out in a pool of meat and guts and bone.

He heard the sound of men crying out, vomiting, shouting, cursing, praying, and finally, running.

In less than a minute the camp stood abandoned.

The figure turned to go, when the curtain on the leader’s tent parted, and a dark-haired young girl of some twelve or fourteen summers emerged. She looked at the pile of flesh that had only last night claimed her maidenhead, and left her crying and bruised, then she looked at the figure.

“Who are you, mister?”

“My name,” he said, as he removed his hat and bowed to her, “is Cane. Come with me, and I’ll take you to the others.”

Having nowhere to go now, she put out the last of the campfire, and walked toward him, stopping to spit on the red, stinking rubble of her rapist, gave her hand to Cane, and the two of them left the camp without looking back.

 

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

Soyala and the Traveler

I am new here.

Looking about, exploring, the trace of a finger on a blossom,

the parting of the river current with a dipped finger, the dappled sunlight of high summer in a shady grove, I called out to answer a whispering voice.

A rustle of branches, so slight I thought it a woodland creature, and she emerged into the clearing, saw me seated on the rock, my knife at work on an apple, and without fear she approached.

“Why are you here?”

I looked up, bemused more than startled. “Why do you ask?”

“For the sake of knowing.”

“I was…called…here…” I gestured with my knife to take in the grove in general.

“Who called you?”
I smiled. “Was it not you?”

She did not smile. “If it were me, I would not have asked.”

“I don’t know, then. Am I not welcome?”

She came further toward me, stood before me, examining, her eyes large and luminous, deep, just shy of hypnotic, but with power nonetheless, her robe was the green of a springtime lake, trimmed with gold, with symmetrical swatches of many- hued blues.

“All are welcome here.” Her eyes sparkled with many things, magic, mischief, mystery…

“Ah, good.” I sliced the apple and offered it to her on the tip of the knife. She took it with her fingers, munched awhile, looked about the grove.

“You live here?”

She seemed to give it thought before she answered.

“It is more like we live in each other.”

I began to think she might be mad, so I grew cautious.

“May I ask your name?”

She sighed.

“I have many, and they are all equally unimportant, but if you would name me, I am Soyala.”

I offered her another piece, which she also took.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Soyala.”

“And I you, Traveler.”

“How did you know I was here.”

“I heard your call. There was something in it worth seeing.”

Again, the hint of madness. “How can you see inside a call?”

She looked at me as if I were the dumbest of beasts, then smiled indulgently, and placed her slender hand on my chest.

“The heart, Traveler. The heart speaks for the soul; there is music in the call, and yours was sad. It ached with loneliness, and so I came to keep you company for awhile. ”

I looked at her in amazement, surprised to find a tear rolling down my cheek.

With profound tenderness she took the hem of her green robe, and daubed it off my cheek.

There was a stain of blue there, swirling with various shades of it, before finally deepening, and staying dark.

She looked into my eyes. “You have been alone a very long time. It is love you seek, but I cannot offer it to you, Traveler, or I would give it freely, and you could stay here forever.”

“No one lives forever.”

“But love does, Traveler.”

She pulled back, straightened, smoothed her robes, looked off into the distance, and said it again, softer.

“Love does.”

She took my hand, and led me from the rock.

“Come, I will walk with you to the edge of the grove, back to the road, and our time here together will end.”

“But you said I was welcome.”

She smiled. “I said all are welcome, and they are. But none may stay.”

We walked in silence, the only sound the random trill of birds, and the rustling of her robes, and the crunch of my boots.

Finally we emerged into the light of a westering sun, deepening in shades of amber and tangerine and persimmon, lighting the stitching of cirrus clouds afire from below.

“Will I see you again?” I asked.

She took my face in her hands, and searched my eyes for the depth of the question.

“When you love again, Traveler.”

She released me, took the rest of my apple, and walked away; I heard the rustling of her robes as she left me, and watched her disappear into the trees.

I started down the road and looked up.

The last of the sun was almost gone, and the darkening sky was blue and green, trimmed with a vestige of gold.

And the evening star slipped across the sky, a silver tear from the moon’s saffron cheek, and guided me home.

Knight’s Watch

Markis was in bed with his headphones on, looking out the window on the wet streets of the Lower East Side.
He lived on the third floor, and his bed was by the window, which was dangerous because bullets were known to fly suddenly and randomly, one could have his name on it.
But tonight, he needed to see outside, and the rain normally kept men who could bench press four hundred pounds or more inside, so there was little chance of anything happening tonight.
It was nine thirty on a Friday. He’d gone to school that day, and there were parties going on, but Markis was tired, and as much as he liked to dance and the attention of girls, his body said no, so no it was.

There was a soft knock on the door.
“Markis?”
“Come in, Dad.”
His father left the door open behind him.
“Are you all right?”
Markis smiled. “Yeah, Dad, just tired.”
He sat up and took off his headphones.
His father sat in the chair at Markis’ desk.
“Not like you to stay in.”
“But you don’t mind,” Markis grinned.
His father chuckled. “Not gonna lie, I breathe easier. I’d breathe easier still if you moved that bed from the window.:
“I will; just needed to look out for a bit.”
“Anything interesting?”
“Just rain, and watching the traffic lights change.”
“Good.”
They both laughed, then his father grew serious.
“I know it’s been hard without your mom, hard for both of us, but you’re all I have left, Markis, and I want you to listen to me: there’s nothing you can’t tell me, y’hear?
“We can talk about anything, for as long as you need to, and I’ll listen.”
He said it again, “Y’hear?”
Markis looked at his dad in the striated street light: tee shirt, slacks, black socks with no shoes, one foot on the toes, digging into the cheap, clean carpet; he was still strong, but a little more stooped these days, more rounded in the shoulders.
The death of his bride had deeply shaken him, taken something out that was vital to his very being. It was almost an aura, vibrating on the verge of a breakdown, but his dad was a fighter.

Markis almost wished he wasn’t, but he knew his dad wanted to be strong for both of them.

He understood his father needed him now as much as he needed his father.
Maybe he cried where Markis couldn’t see him.
“I know, Dad. And I promise to come to you.”
His father was visibly relieved, and trusted Markis to keep his word.
They talked about school for a bit; it was a universal truth that parents liked to hear about school. Markis and his friends could never figure out why, but he appreciated that his Dad asked in spite of how mundane school always seemed to be.
His dad finally yawned, sat on the edge of the bed, gave Markis a hug and a dry kiss on the ear.
“I love you, son.”
“Love you too, Dad.”
His dad left, closing the door behind him, to go to his own bed, now emptier by one.

*******************
Markis was about to put his earbuds back in, when a movement across the street grabbed his attention.
Part of his view included a bar that his parents used to frequent when they wanted to go out, and didn’t want to go far.

It was a neighborhood fixture, and his dad would take him there when he was younger to watch games on the large screen, and the men would give Markis team hats, buy him sodas or juices, and mock argue with him about the players and teams he liked. 
Markis would laugh and his dad would put his arm around his shoulders and say, “Ya’ll better leave my son alone, ‘fore I hurt you.”
Markis loved those days, but as the neighborhood got older, it slipped away, and the men left in various ways: some through crime, some through disease, some through violence, and some through alcohol.

The bar had fallen into disuse, and got boarded up. In a month it was open with a banner that said “Under New Management,” but he and his Dad never went back.

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

A man came out of the bar, not too steady on his feet, but not stumbling.
He lit a cigarette, giving himself time to get adjusted to the cool autumn air, clear his head, get his bearings before heading home, when a woman in a short black skirt and leather jacket walked up to him.
The man smiled, looked her up and down, interested in what she had to say. Then his face changed, and he began to back up, when a hand came around and covered his mouth, and a knife slit his throat.
The streetlamp that lit the front of the bar flickered and went out, and when it came back on, the man and whoever cut his throat were gone; there was no blood in the street, no body, no weapon, and only the first woman remained, checking up and down the street.
Oh hell! Now I’m a witness, he thought.
The woman was crossing the street, coming toward his building.
He was on the third floor, but he was getting ambient light, and he pushed himself into a shadowed corner.
The woman stopped just before his window, and looked up, right into it, as if he were completely exposed. Her eyes flashed a serpentine yellow for an instant, her full lipped smile was feral.
Are you, Markis? her voice was low and purring, as if she was sitting by his side. Are you sure you want to be a… witness?
She lifted her hand, waggled her fingers at him in a girlish greeting.
You should’ve gone out tonight, baby.

She vanished, leaving a trace of black vapor slowly dissipating in the cool night air.

In the Temple of Her Heart (Chapter 2)

Heat suffused his face at her words, her boldness. She laughed, playful, delighted at his discomfort, and charmed by it too, and left him with the tingling warmth of her hand under his chin, as if he were the dog that rescued her, and she’d scratched his fleas there in gratitude.

And there it was, the opportunity of a lifetime, all because of a rabid dog.

In and of herself, Nahaia was pleasing to the eye, and Arlun counted himself fortunate; marriages were often arranged, and he’d seen some of the mates of his friends, both male and female, and his heart went out to them.

He knew, at least in theory, that in matters of the heart such things were ultimately superficial, since some of those marriages flourished in spite of the physical shortcomings; it wasn’t often, but it did happen. Shaking his head again as he packed, he put it from his mind.

It was not an issue for him.

Strange land, strange customs, strange people, foods, gods, and so forth were going to occupy his days so much that he didn’t need to worry about anything else.

The sun climbed, wearing down the day hour by hour, until finally, shortly after noon, he was ready to depart.

After tearful goodbyes and long hugs that showed fear and reluctance of accepting their new positions, they realized that in their eagerness to please, they’d opened themselves up to public examination, and courtly interference; there was nothing to be done for it now.

Arlun set out on a good, sturdy horse his father procured from the local horse trader; the man’s eyes positively glittered with greed at the thought of having a palace connection, and he was all too happy to accept a small deposit for a lucrative profit when the horse arrived safely; Arlun’s father’s word had proven consistently good throughout the years, and he was respected and trusted as a man of integrity, even among those who snickered at his poverty behind his back.

The animal was fine and even-tempered, and Arlun found himself relaxing as the road unfolded in its own lazy, meandering way toward the land of his bride-to-be. The afternoon sun was not overbearing, and the road was empty of everything except the creatures of habit that needed to cross it.

Seeing no real need to rush, his hands easy on the reins, he let the horse set it’s pace, and allowed his mind to wander…

She was resplendent in a gown of dark blue trimmed with gold, bedecked with a necklace, rings, ankle bracelet, and armbands set with sapphires and lapis lazuli, her raven hair unbound, but styled to frame her delicate face, and draped just so over her slim shoulders, her deep brown eyes rimmed with kohl and shadow, and when she smiled at him, his heart was bewitched beyond recall.

He heard no music, tasted no food, saw no other rival for her in his eyes, and blinded his heart to the possibility. 

Her father saw the stars in his daughter’s eyes, and the smitten smirk on the young man’s lips, and approved, for the youth, as far as he was concerned, had already proven his valor. His queen spoke to Arlun’s mother of plans, and he spoke to Arlun’s father of coin, and before the night was over, an agreement was reached.

  Arlun knew none of it, and would not have cared if told.

  As they danced, he breathed in the honeysuckle fragrance on Nahaia’s cinnamon skin, longed to taste the berry stained gloss of her lips, wet and gleaming in the festive light; he longed to hold the slender, graceful sway of her body and make it sway in other ways, and could tell by her shy smile that these were mysteries she would keep for him alone until he pledged for her.

  “Ah, Nahaia, my princess, my bride, my wife…” he rolled the words from his tongue, thoughts in the distance, and at first did not hear the rider fast approaching behind him.

When he did, it was too late.

Morning Vespers

I wipe the webs of sleep away with a washcloth and water

The coffee can yawns as I pop the lid

The scoop hisses and burrows under the ground

coffee beans

and whispers in sibilant protest as I dig it out

The brown beaten seeds spread their grains across the brown filter

and the river of tap water runs through the percolator pipes

The seeds are leeched of their chemicals, reluctantly released

This is the second death

And through the darkened carafe glass is my temporary salvation

And in the wraiths of steam that rise from the cup

in the light of the rising sun

are the

Morning Vespers

My answered prayers

I live to see the caffeinated

New Day

again

War Cries (first draft).

Hey readers! Just trying this out. Let me know your thoughts…

1:

A single torch lit the entrance to the private chamber, and as the widows approached, the light revealed their many hues of skin and dress, their jewels sparkled like crystal, rippled like dark red wine, shimmered with the green of a tranquil ocean.

Their collective expressions were somber, sad.

He would be leaving them once again; they never knew for how long, only that they must wake him to go. In their hearts, they grieved, for he would add to their number when he returned.

One of the widows stepped forward, her lithe form whispering against the fabric of her gown; she took the torch in a slender hand, and went into the chamber.

The light almost made it to the high ceiling, and fought bravely against the shadows, but was really little match for the formidable darkness.

“Duilius?” her dulcet voice called, a slight echo bouncing back to her ears.

She waited, knowing he’d heard; as she did, she looked about at the armory surrounding her, weapons he’d inspired in the minds of men. When the carnage was over, he brought them home to show, then to cast aside, as he had all of them, the widows of men.

She smiled at the thought: We, too, are now unused weapons.

She listened as the armored steps reverberated, a measured tread, slow, steady, and ominous. The sound of metal on metal rang out into the chamber, and he emerged from the semi-darkness into the semi-light, his visage scarred and terrible.

The scents of blood and smoke, waste and corrupted death surrounded him in a nimbus of pungent, horrific odors. It took everything for her not to retch.

Rounding the corner, he looked at her. His red eyes, flaring in the torch light, held her in a freezing grip of fear. He gazed at her a time, lust in his eyes; she saw him wrestling with his desire, and prayed that he would not take her.

Turning aside, he came to himself, and she breathed a sigh of relief.

“Vinya,” he greeted her, the rumble of his voice felt in the tips of her toes. “Where are the others?”

“Outside the chamber.” She managed to keep her voice steady.

“And why are you here?”

“Why do we ever come here, lord?”

He moved closer to her, and she stepped back, but held his gaze, moved the torch a little closer to his face.

His red eyes smoldered like embers, and he smiled; it was lascivious and cruel, mirthless and merciless, but she lifted her chin in defiance.

He reached out to take it between his fingers, his touch burning her cheeks like a high summer sun.

Her lips pulled back in a silent snarl, and her own eyes flared with their own heat.

“Ah, Vinya. You are fiery still. I thought once to break it out of you. I don’t know that I want to, but you should know that I can.”

Against the pressure of his fingers, she formed her words carefully, her hatred for him a rising tide that would one day sweep him away without a single regret.

“I am aware of your powers, Duilius. They frightened me once. Your devil eyes frighten me still, but you’ve done your worst, and yet I’m here. You should know, we are not done, not by any stretch of the imagination.”

He released her face, and she wiped away the crimson ashes his touch always left behind with the back of her free hand. He was blood and fire, indeed, but so was she, in her own way.

He nodded once in acquiescence to her standing up to him, but his patience was thinning; she would persist in her insolence, and he would ruin her beauty for it.

With a pompous air, he seated himself on a stout, high-backed chair, his attention no longer directly on her as a servant scurried to prostrate himself, and Duilius put his feet on a human ottoman, the full weight of his boot heels resting on the servant’s spine.

“Tell me, then. Where am I needed?”

She told him.

The torch sizzled and spit in the ensuing silence.

“Shall I help you prepare?” Vinya asked.

He looked up again, as if she’d just arrived and found him already seated.

There was something on his mind when he was hesitant, but she held her peace.

With a wave of his hand, he dismissed her.

“No. I will leave on the morrow.”

He rose, spared her yet another glance, and she hurled him another haughty look, and turned her back on him, leaving him alone in the darkness, with only his terrible eyes to light his way.

She felt those eyes as if they were hands.The heat from the torch was not enough to keep her from shivering under the weight of his stare between her shoulders, sliding down to her backside.

2:

 Back in his own tower, he took off the armor he’d made and tested in the underworld.

It bore the brunt of bites and claws well enough, and his newly sharpened blades had proven true, but he was running out of test subjects.

His dungeons were almost empty; he would need to remedy that soon.

The silent servants drew his bath, left his supplies and food, and lots of plum wine, and he was soon done with all of it, his eyes heavy, despite his desire not to sleep. It was happening more and more lately, as he got called more infrequently; peace was never kind to a soldier, whom having violently established it, now had to live in it with no further thought to what he’d done.

The thoughts of those men who killed flitted through his mind, as did the thoughts of those killed. The voices never stopped, and they weren’t always men. The higher voices of women and children carried over the lower frequencies of men, their screams of rage, their shocked questions of why, their desperate appeals for mercy, and then their snapping bones, their final moments before the arrows, the swords, the knives, the bolos, the spears, the stones, the molten metal…

He pushed it all back, and lay down, letting the candles gutter.

His sleep, though sound, was never silent, never fully dark. The deepness of it waxed and waned on the grand scales of wheeling stars, changing seasons, shifting tides, the tilt of planetary axis, and on the minutiae of an impulse of animal rage, the calculated, surreptitious slithering of snakes, the vicious, irreversible clamp of creatures with large fangs and evil intentions, the small dramas of life and death between predator and prey always played out before him.

Before he slipped into whatever level of unconsciousness he’d be able to achieve before his journey, the most unlikely thought flashed through his mind:

I no longer wish to be the god of war.

 

(To be continued)

 

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

December 16th, 2014

War Cries

All rights reserved

My Abandoned Blog

“Wait here,” Alfred said. “I have something to do way over there. I’ll be back for you.”

Do you promise?

“Yes, of course. I started out with you, so why would I leave you?”

It happens.

He laughed, took its hand, and kissed it lightly on the tip of its nose.

“Yes, it does, to other blogs. It won’t happen to you.

Very well, Alfred. I’ll wait here for you.

And Alfred left it, looking plaintively but hopefully at him as he turned to wave goodbye; it gave him a brave, if tremulous smile, and waved half-heartedly, wanting to believe…

And way led on to way, as the poem says.

The blog tried on its own to be good, to be relevant, to be vital and important, to be witty and charming, but without a fresh infusion, its health waned, and the visitors who came to see it didn’t stay long, and soon grew infrequent, and one day, stopped altogether.

The blog tried to be brave, but then a cold fog rolled in; still the blog waited, gathering its thin shawl about its shoulders, and folding its arms for warmth. It worked for awhile, but didn’t last.

By  now it was shivering, cold, and hungry for text, but there was no one around.

Alfred was hard at work, loading Christmas packages into trucks, first for fourteen hours, then twelve, and the blog was a vague thought, fast on its way to becoming a distant memory.

Weeks went by, and the blog finally sat down, and began to cry out its heart…

It’s almost Christmas, and he broke his promise. I’m sorry, Alfred, I couldn’t hold them…they left, and now, I’m leaving too…

The blog searched for a way to self-delete, when a voice called from the distance….

And now, before I end it all, the madness comes. I thought I heard his voice.

Again, the voice sounded, echoed, seemed to be closer.

No, thought the blog, no, I dare not hope…

The voice called it by its pet name. “BP!”  (an unfortunate choice, given recent events, but there it was…)

“BP!”

Footsteps, running hard, pit-patted on the road as Alfred came into view, anxiously looked for a sign that his blog was still there.

He didn’t see anything. He ran faster, hoping he was not too late.

The blog, rising on thin, shaky legs, used the last of its strength to stand.

It’s voice, cracked and raspy from disuse, was faint, but not gone. Alfred…

Just as Alfred reached it, it sagged into his arms, and he sat down, and laid it gently on his lap. His tears fell copiously onto the page of his abandoned blog, now dirty, dusty, and bleeding from the harm it was about to cause itself. He’d returned just in time.

“BP…” he sobbed.

And the blog reached up a trembling hand, and touched his bearded cheek.

You came back…

“I told you I would.”

But you forgot about me.

The words hurt, all the more so because they were true…

“I did,” Alfred whispered. Shame and sorrow heated his face. “I’m so sorry, BP. We’ve lost so much time. I don’t know if I can ever make it up to you…”

Time lost is…irretrievable, Alfred, but…we can go on….from here. Can you….?

“Yes, yes of course,” Alfred said.

Hands trembling with emotions, he spread his fingers over the warm, familiar QWERTY keys; the relief of finding his blog alive,  its forgiveness of his negligence, its still-abiding love for him, shamed him, humbled him, and gladdened him all at once.

And as he typed, the blog sighed in relief, and eagerly drank the text it craved; color returned to its cheeks, and its breathing evened. It was going to take more time, but at least now, there was a beginning.

“I’ll never leave you again, BP” Alfred said.

BP gave him a sad, amused smile, and kissed him lightly on the cheek, beard and all.

At least while you’re alive. Never say never, Alfred.

Alfred smiled back.

Beyond Panic was going to be all right.

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