A Story as a Word Search

UPDATE 2: On a whim, I had sent this story off to Strange Horizons and on June 26 received a rejection letter. The editor commended the effort that went into the story but did not find it compelling. I guess that is a successful proof of concept (even if rejection letters are the worst).

UPDATE: Here’s a new link, with a correctly formatted version.

https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B_CRdSzvlmQjdklkOERTdkVCcEk/edit?usp=sharing

The following is a link to an experimental piece I wrote. It is both a story and a “word search” — the intent being that the words and/or phrases one finds in the search enhance the overall story. It’s crude yet, but it is a proof of concept rather than a finalized thing.

https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B_CRdSzvlmQjel9kZU1TMFBkRHM/edit?usp=sharing

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The Song of Summer

This is one of my favorite stories. It saddens me that I have never been able to sell it. It is quite likely, of course, that it is just not very good and I prefer it out of nostalgia. In any case, this is one of my few forays into fantasy as a writer (which seems odd, given that in gaming fantasy is my preferred genre) and I hope you enjoy it.

——————————————–

“This is the girl?”

 

Summer shifted uncomfortable as she stood before the knight. He was tall, taller than any man in Woodbridge, looming over her. His bright blue eyes stared down his hawkish nose at her, examining her. She tried not to look at him, but found herself glancing up, despite her head being bent respectfully at her bare feet. His jaw was strong, and his chest and shoulders broad. Long bronze hair framed his handsome face. Even without his armor, he would have been a sight enough to stir her heart. With it, he twisted her stomach into a knot. His plat was highly shined steel, etched from helm to heel with intertwining knot work. Beneath, he wore black mail, speckled with silver, like a starry night. His helm, which he held under his left arm, was embellished with more knot work, but it was made of silver cord forged onto the steel. The hilt of his long sword matched the helm, and its scabbard was the same red as his long cloak.

 

“It is,” said Madra Nocht, her wizened, rail thin body grotesque beside the knight. “Summer here can hear the Song.”

 

The giddiness that the knight created within her turned over to anger, resentment, and feelings of betrayal. Summer had told no one, neither her mother nor her father, the friar nor the nun, of her curse. She had kept it secret, for as long as a girl could keep such a thing secret. She uttered not a word of what she heard in the night, of how, when others heard frogs and crickets singing, she heard something else. She did not mention to friends or kin the Song she felt in the summer evenings, the melody that pulled her across the bridge and into the woods. At first, she had kept it secret because it was her secret, the only one she had. She listened to the Song and smiled and was happy. But she had grown older, by two years since she had first heard it, and she kept it secret for an altogether different reason: only crones like Madra Nocht could hear the Song, or witches and worse things. After she had reached her twelfth birthday, Summer had begun to feel a different pull, not of the Song to the forest, but of young men to their smiles. No one would love a crone. Madra Nocht had never been married as far as Summer knew, and it was obvious as to why: Nocht was bent and ugly, always speaking in riddles or whispering uncertain tidings. She knew more about herblore and birthing than anyone, in Woodbridge or a dozen villages like it, so she was tolerated. But she was not loved, and Summer wanted to be loved.

 

How Madra Nocht has learned of Summer’s curse, as the girl had come to think of it, Summer did not know. Perhaps the old woman had spied upon her, or perhaps rumors whispered about Madra Nocht were true and the crone had asked the crows. However she had known, Madra Nocht had let Summer knew that she knew, but, too, kept it secret. She would give Summer a knowing wink with a cloudy eye, or whisper something to her at dusk, just as the Song began for the night. Yet she had never spoken a word of it to any other soul, until now, until the knight, the one who truly ought not to know, the one who Summer most wanted to love her and not think of her as a crone or witch or worse, came to Woodbridge to kill the black lion of the wood.

 

“She can lead me to the beast?” He asked sharply, his eyes measuring Summer. She was small for her age, and thin, with wispy brown hair and eyes too large for her nose.

 

“She can, sir,” answered Madra Nocht. “The beast is of the forest, and the Song is of the forest, so the beast is of the Song.”

 

Sir Bishop looked at Summer incredulously for a moment long, then nodded. “She must do, then. We will leave at first light.” He turned from Nocht, who was smiling and stroking Summer’s hair with her gnarled fingers, to address the other villagers. A number of men had come to greet the knight, and thus had heard Summer’s secret spilt by the old woman. Their eyes were on her, some fearful, some curious, and some angry. Sir Bishop distracted them with a full smile, his hard voice turning friendly. “But enough of bewitched girls and bedeviled beasts for now. Is there not a place we might fill a tankard?”

 

The men of Woodbridge forgot about Summer and Madra Nocht suddenly, all at once telling the knight that the best beer was brewed in Woodbridge, asking about news from the Court, and mentioning that they had daughters. The throng seemed to sweep Sir Bishop away, down the dusty street toward the village’s sole tavern. Summer’s eyes followed him as he went, the knot in her stomach loosening so that she could finally let out the wistful sigh that had been locked within her.

 

“He’s a handsome one, and surely brave too,” said Madra Nocht, a queer lilt in her voice that might have been sarcasm.

 

Summer spun suddenly to face the crone. “How could you?” she demanded.

 

“How could I what, child?”

 

Summer was infuriated. “How could you tell them about me, about my…” She trailed off, unsure of the word.

 

“You gift? I did not tell them. I told your Sir Bishop. That the others heard has less to do with me and more to do with their ears.” She smiled at Summer, a sad, almost pitiful smile. “Did you not want me to tell Sir Bishop?”

 

“He thinks I’m bewitched.”

 

“Ah, perhaps he does. Or, perhaps he only said so because it was expected of him. In either case, you are going with him on the morrow, to lead him to a great challenge of his valor and his honor.”

 

Summer tried to remain angry, but images danced in her mind of Sir Bishop fighting the great black lion, which neither she nor anyone else in the village had every actually seen, with sword and shield. In her minds eye, she was behind him, sitting ladylike atop his warhorse. When the creature was vanquished, they would be alone in the forest, her and her champion.

 

“Would that he had a minstrel to take with him, to write the song,” said Madra Nocht, no longer hiding her scorn.

 

The daydream vanished. Summer folded her arms over her waist and looked at the ground. “I am going to go. I need to be up early.”

 

“Yes,” agreed Madra Nocht. “Hurry home to bed,” she added and she herself turned to walk away. She motioned at the sun as she did so, still an hour from setting.

 

“I’m not afraid,” Summer said, to herself, long after Madra Nocht has left. The girl looked to the horizon and knew that the day was nearly over. She held her breath, listening for it. Not yet. It had not started yet. She bolted then, running up the road toward home, hoping to reach her bed, and sleep, before the Song began.

* * *

The Song was different that night. Among the harmonies created by chirping crickets and peeping frogs, there was a low drone, not unlike the sound of a dragonfly’s wings. The one, innocuous sound seemed to subsume the Song as a whole. It was not about love and birth anymore, but about waiting, expecting, preparing. As she listened to the song, huddled beneath a wool blanket upon a bed of straw, wishing she could force the sound out of her head, wishing she could sleep and dream of Sir Bishop, Summer felt an uncomfortable expectation, like hoping against hope. It was not her own expectation, she knew. She was feeling it through the Song, from someone or something else. Was it Madra Nocht, waiting to see what became of her? Was it Sir Bishop, unable to sleep himself and thinking of the journey and battle to come? Was it the black lion? Did it know they were coming?

 

 

Summer leapt out of her bed, and nearly out of her skin, at the thunderous crashing sound. She rubbed her eyes, trying to adjust to the gray predawn light. When she could focus, she found herself staring into the muzzle of a massive chestnut horse. It was Sir Bishop’s animal, which he had ridden up to her small hovel and battered in her shutters.

 

“Awake, little witch, awake!” he called at her, even though he could plainly see her standing there. “You have shoes?” he demanded.

 

“Yes, sir,” she said.

 

“Then put them on. Grab a cloak, too. I have all else we will need.” Sir Bishop, looking resplendent in his armor and atop the warhorse, jerked the reigns and moved away from the window.

 

Summer quickly put her shoes on her feet. They were uncomfortable, made of wood and hard leather, but they would protect her feet. She had no cloak, so gathered up the wool blanket in which she had slept and draped it over her shoulders. Summer was still new, so the morning was brisk yet. When she had gathered these things, she bolted out of the hovel, too nervous and excited to say a goodbye to her mother and father who stood at the door staring with disbelief at the knight who was taking their daughter.

 

She rounded the house and saw Sir Bishop there on his mount, glorious in the predawn light and mist. She started toward him, reaching a hand out so that he might pull her up to sit with him, when she saw the small pony he held by a tether. She knew the animal. It was Madra Nocht’s stone gray, ill tempered animal, used mostly for carrying firewood. It wore no saddle and its bridle was cobbled together from lengths of twine. It snorted at her as she walked unhappily up to it.

 

“Hurry up, little witch,” said Sir Bishop with an unfriendly smile. He tossed the tether to her and started to walk his horse way.

 

Getting on the pony’s back was a struggle. By the time the beast let her mount, Sir Bishop was almost out of sight down the old road that led to the bridge, forcing Summer to trot after him. The pony, which did not have a name as far as she knew, was old and thin and its spin dug uncomfortably into her buttocks. Nor did it care much for being ridden, occasionally tossing its head and stepping sideways, almost forcing her off more than once.

 

Sir Bishop has stopped before the old bridge. It was made of timbers and covered, stretching twenty feet across the small river. It was used rarely, because people were afraid to travel through the forest that waited on the other side, and had fallen into disrepair. Its roof sagged and cobwebs filled the top of its portals. Sparrows lived within, leaving their droppings everywhere and sometimes swooping down at those who passed through. Sir Bishop did not dismount as he entered the bridge and it’s creaked dangerously at the weight of him and his mount. Summer’s pony was not so obliging as Sir Bishop’s trained war horse. It almost threw her as she tried to urge it onto the bridge. Finally she was forced to dismount and nearly drag the animal through. Sir Bishop watched her the whole time, his expression alternating between amusement and impatience.

 

The forest came up close to the other side of the bridge. Within a few dozen yards there were tall, but young still, maples and oaks. The dirt track that had once been a true road was mostly overgrown with weeds and ferns. The sun had risen by the time they crossed the bridge, but mist still hung in the forest and the thick canopy kept out most of the meager light of the new day. While Summer mounted her pony, which had grown even more ill tempered than before, she listened. The only sound she could discern was the bubbling of the small river and the chittering of sparrows in the eaves of the bridge. No Song played in those sounds.

 

“Where to, little witch?” asked Sir Bishop once she had mounted the pony.

 

“I am not a witch,” she said, her mood as bad as her pony’s, then remembered, “sir. And I do not know, sir. Into the forest I suppose.”

 

Sir Bishop looked disgusted. “If you don’t know, then why did I bring you along?”

 

“The Song comes at night, sir.”

 

He frowned. “And what, then, did it sing of last night?”

 

Summer remembered the feeling of expectation and apprehension of the night before. The memory of it made her stomach tighten. “I don’t know, sir, except that I think that it, the black lion I mean, is waiting. For us, sir.”

 

“Then it should not be difficult to find,” he said in the proud voice with which he had addressed the villagers the night before. He spurred his horse and urged it down the road.

 

Summer felt suddenly reassured by his courage and forced the pony to follow, listening intently for any hint of the Song. There was none.

* * *

They had stopped for a brief lunch beside one of the many small streams that fed into the river. Soon after, Sir Bishop led them off the main road, which had grown so thick with ferns as to be nearly invisible, and down a game trail. “A lion needs to eat,” he had said. As the day grew long, the thick canopy of the forest created a false dusk, stirring the frogs and night peepers to song early. Summer felt the same knot in her stomach she felt every night when it began, until Sir Bishop looked at her expectantly. He needed her, she realized. The knot loosened, replaced by the warmth of private pleasure, and she pulled up on her reigns.

 

She dismounted her pony and handed the reigns to Sir Bishop, who eyed her curiously. She stepped deeper into the woods, a dozen yards from the game trail. The underbrush tickled her naked calves. It was soft, not thick with brambles. She kicked her shoes from her feet. The ground was strangely warm and her toes sunk easily into the rich earth. She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing, listening intently. For the first time, she welcomed the Song, almost aching to hear it.

 

It was just a whisper at first, a soft hum no louder than the rustling of leaves. It sounded like waking, slow and even a little confused. As more of the night creatures began to add their voices, however, the Song focused. It was a busy rhythm, made up of chips and pops and whistles. It was morning music, even though the sky was darkening and night was coming. She listened for a long time, entranced by it, swaying softly to its harmony.

 

“Come, little witch, what news!” hollered Sir Bishop. His horse snorted and clomped its heavy feet in the dirt. The pony made a grumbling sound as it chewed on ferns. His armor and sword clanked as he shifted impatiently.

 

“Quiet!” she snapped reflexively as the Song was nearly drowned out by the noise of man and horse. “Sir,” she added, not meaning it.

 

When she was able to forget them again and hear the Song, it was different, different than it had been a moment before and different than it had been the previous night. Just as the melody of breaking fast was gone, so was the thrumming of expectation and apprehension. There was a new sound, now. It was dangerous and dark, like the songs they sang at the Autumn Moon, like a drummer setting pace for marching soldiers. She thought she should be afraid but she was not. The pure force of the Song seemed to drive the fear from her, or at least it seemed to drown it out.

 

“It’s coming,” she said, as unintentionally as when she had barked the order at him.

 

Sir Bishop’s horse snorted again. This time, the sound was not one of irritation but of fear. The pony paused briefly in its chewing, then set back to it. Sir Bishop’s armor clanked more loudly and the drawing of his sword was like the crashing of symbols. “Back to me, little witch,” he ordered.

 

Summer was loathe to leave her place off the trail, knowing that the closer she was to the knight the harder it would be to hear the Song. One more call from Sir Bishop, however, this one a true command, caused her to slip her feet back into her shoes and walk to him.

 

It was truly dusk now. She must have been standing and listening for over an hour. Sir Bishop was peering into the haze, sword held in his hand, fighting his war horse with the reigns. “Start a fire,” he ordered.

 

Summer watched him for a moment, searching his visage for some hint of what she had imagined a knight to be, what she had seen when she first lifted her eyes to see him. She saw only a man in armor holding a sword. Somehow saddened, she turned away from him and started into the woods in search of branches, and stopped.

 

Its golden eyes peered at her from the shadows between the trees. Her own eyes met them and were locked. She hardly registered the rest of the creature, long and sleek and powerful and black as night. The Song, which had been drowned out by Sir Bishop’s clanking, suddenly rang out in her mind. Its melody was energetic yet serious, like a victory hymn.

 

The lion took a step forward. Its eyes never left hers, but its ears turned and twisted and its nostrils flared as it took in its surroundings. As it came into the dying light, Summer saw a collar around its neck, nearly obscured by its thick mane. The collar was made of fine chain, like a knight’s mail.

 

Her body shivered slightly as it took another tentative step toward her. She wrestled with her quaking hands, pressing them against her thighs. The Song had softened and slowed to a waltz. For the first time since it appeared, the lion took its gaze from her own, lowering its eyes to the forest floor. A rush of relief and something like pleasure flowed through Summer and she herself took a step forward.

 

“For valor!” came Sir Bishop’s cry, like thunder striking in a clear afternoon.

 

Summer barely registered the beating of hooves against the forest floor, the warhorses shrieking call, or Sir Bishop’s oaths. She turned, feeling half in a dream. She saw the lion bare its teeth and lay its ears flat against its head in one corner of her vision and Sir Bishop bearing down in the other. The Song was the blaring of the trumpet, the blasting of a war horn, the crashing of cymbals. Then, in an instant, the world went dark and the Song silenced. Her small body felt very heavy, yet the ground felt vary far away. It was like swimming with heavy clothes on. For a brief moment, she was shaken back to her senses as her body slammed against a stout oak. She realized she had been flung aside by the knight’s horse as he had ridden over her to reach his quarry. Then, as she watched Sir Bishop stroke at the lion with his blade, and saw the lion lash at both man and horse with claws and teeth, the world faded away and again she felt very heavy. This time she could not but let it take her.

* * *

Summer did not open her eyes. She could hear the crackling of a fire and feel its heat. She could smell burnt meat and taste blood in her mouth. She could sense Sir Bishop crouched next to her and knew he was out of his armor. It was an hour or so before dawn. She knew because there was a blanket of quiet in the forest. No frogs chirped and no birds sang. There was no Song to be heard at this hour. She tried to sit up and pain lanced through her body, starting in her hips and ending at the top of her head. Her legs tingled, like they had fallen asleep and were just waking, but did not hurt. When she ventured to open her eyes, the light of the campfire was like the blazing noonday sun. She quickly shut them again.

 

“Awake at last, little witch?” asked Sir Bishop, chewing on some food, with more humor than she thought he ought to have.

 

She did not answer, but let out an inadvertent groan. Sir Bishop chuckled lightly. “Best learn to stay out of the way of galloping horses,” he said. His voice darkened, however, as he added, “Not that it will be a concern for the time being.”

 

Summer, a sort of morbid curiosity piqued in her by the knight’s grim tone, opened her eyes again. Around the campfire the air was hot and bright. Beyond, there was only darkness. In that darkness she saw a large, fallen mass. For a moment, her heart sunk into her belly. She realized, however, that the thing was not the lion, slain by Sir Bishop, but Sir Bishop’s war horse.

 

“Tore the animal’s throat right out,” said Sir Bishop. “Nearly broke my neck falling, as well.” He chuckled again, but his mood was still dark. “Then that monster would have eaten us all.”

 

Summer though differently but said nothing. She forced herself to a full sitting position. She was hungry, she realized, and glanced around. There were the remains of a small rabbit or large squirrel littered about Sir Bishop, but he had saved her none. Beside him there was a half loaf of hard bread wrapped in a cloth.

 

“I’m hungry, sir,” she said meekly.

 

“Then eat,” he said, picking up the bread and handing it to her, only to snatch it away. “But first, let’s have a look at you. See what sort of damage your foolishness did.”

 

Before she could protest, Sir Bishop was grasping and prodding at her, moving her head this way and that, feeling her arms and legs, as if her were buying her in the market. He made her stand, and she nearly fainted but managed to hold herself. When the dizziness had passed, she found she hurt less on her feet and tried to stretch a little. Sir Bishop grabbed he plain brown dress and started to pull it up. She yelped, as surely as if he had struck her, and batted his hand away.

 

Sir Bishop raised his hand at the affront, his face boiling with rage. It disappeared quickly, his snarl twisting into a mocking grin. “What now, little witch? You’re honor’s in no danger. I need to see that you’ve broken no ribs.” He again moved to lift her dress. This time she relented, staring at the ground ashamedly. She bit her lip as he prodded and squeezed her naked torso, his hands rough and clinical. Tears welled in her eyes and she blinked them back.

 

Finally, he told her to put her dress back on and said, “See, little witch, no danger at all. I’ve seen boys with more womanly bodies.” He laughed again and gave her the bread. “Eat, and then rest some more. Tonight, you will lead me to the lion, and I will finish what started here.”

 

He wandered to gather a few more branches to keep the fire going and Summer let herself cry, though silently. More than the horse throwing her, more than the shame of exposing herself to him, it was his last comment that she could not bear.

* * *

The next day was overcast, for which Summer was thankful. The air was cool and the light, sparing her aching head. They walked for the better part of the morning in chase of the lion. Though the creature left no discernable tracks, Sir Bishop had wounded it and its blood was obvious. After a few miles, however, a patch of flattened underbrush hinted that the lion had stopped to rest and heal, for the knight could not find the trail again. He prodded her and the pony on for a while after, going in the direction he thought most likely, but soon admitted it a fruitless search. They may as well have been wandering in circles. So they stopped and ate and he ordered her to rest. Come nightfall, he said, when the Song was full, she would lead them to the beast, and he would kill it.

 

Summer lay down reluctantly. She did not want to help Sir Bishop find and kill the lion. She had looked in its eyes, felt its presence. Though she did not know what it was, she knew that it was something more than just a beast. She knew, too, that it was not the demon that Sir Bishop named it, and was certain that he knew that, too. But the knight had Valor in his heart, and thoughts of a black pelt about his shoulder in his head. She dared not lead him astray, either. The way his eyes locked on to her when she spoke out of turn, the way his hand shot to a striking pose when she defied him, she was afraid. It was a shameful fear, but very real nonetheless.

 

Lying there on the forest floor, Summer did not sleep. She closed her eyes and breathed evenly and even stirred now and then, as dreamers often do, but she did not sleep. She did not fear that Sir Bishop might harm her while she slept: she was beneath his effort, it seemed. Nor did she imagine the lion might some for them: she knew, somehow, that it, like the Song, was something of the night, not the day. What she feared instead was sleeping too heavily or too long, of missing the Song as it began at the very edges of dusk. It changed every night, depending on the heat of the day, the thickness of the wood, and the direction of the wind. She knew that to miss its first notes was to misunderstand the melody as a whole.

 

For a long time the only sounds were the rustling of leaves in the wind, the chomping of the pony, and creak and clank of Sir Bishop’s armor as he shifted impatiently. Occasionally, she would hear the skittering of a squirrel against the bark of a tree, the sound of a small branch or acorn landing on the forest floor, or the buzzing of an insects wings as it swoop in close to her face. Sir Bishop’s creaking and clanking turned to breathing and snoring for a time, and the pony slowed its ceaseless chewing. As the day waned, these sounds seemed to disappear. She knew they were still there, but they were regular and familiar, seemingly dismissed by her ears. She heard other sounds: the marching on tiny feet as the ants sought out food, the yawning of the trees as they stretched out their long limbs, and the whispering of secrets between the flowers and the bees.

 

Perhaps she was dreaming, having fallen asleep after all. The little sounds of the forest became distinct even as the big sounds faded away. Creaks and pops, clicks and peeps, scratches and knocks all clamored in the forest, like voices in a crowd. She would catch one in her mind turn it over and examine it and almost have it decoded when it would slip away. She tried to push everything else away and just listen. They were not just sounds, but voices. She suddenly realized and sat bolt upright, new understanding washing over her like bathwater. The Song was of the night, but the Singers were there always.

 

“What?” demanded Sir Bishop as he roused himself. She was sitting in front of him, eyes wide and a queer look on her face. “What is it, little witch?” he said again, his voice more uncertain.

 

“I know where the lion lairs,” she said, almost sadly, almost singing.

 

“Take me!” Sir Bishop pushed himself to his feet, pushing and pulling on his armor to put it right after having slept in it. “What?” he said, seeing that she had not moved. “You will take me, little witch!” he threatened.

 

Summer looked at him, the sadness in her eyes deepening. “Yes. Of course, sir,” she sang.

* * *

 

It was Summer who led the hunt now. She walked swiftly through the forest, her feet stepping over every stone and he head ducking every branch. Or did they move for her? In either case, Sir Bishop was not so lucky. He tripped over stone and low vines, was battered in the face by branches. He refused to order her to slow down, even though his breath was coming in quick gasps and his armor felt too heavy and too hot. He traveled with his sword out, as if expecting the lion, or worse, to appear at any moment.

 

Their only conversation was Sir Bishop asking, “How far now,” and Summer replying, “Not far, sir,” over and over until her answer became, “We are here, sir knight.”

 

It was late into the night yet moon and star light made it almost day bright. They came to a halt in a clearing aside a slow, wide brook. A small hill of cracked ledge dominated the clearing, one large fissure facing away from the brook. Summer stopped at the edge of the clearing and inhaled deeply. The Song was so powerful here that it was a scent, a taste in her mouth like wild berries. It nearly overwhelmed her and for a moment she forgot about the knight and his quest.

 

“Where is the beast?” he asked, peering into the night with his sword raised. Perhaps for him, Summer thought, the night was not so bright.

 

“There,” she answered, pointing at the ledge hill and the wide crack in its side that could certainly conceal the black lion in its shadows.

 

Sir Bishop nodded sharply and took a tentative step toward the hill, as if mustering the valor for which he had come so far. His sword hovered in front of him, bobbing slightly as he inched forward. She could hear his breath, low and ragged and stopping suddenly at any sound that broke the quiet of the night. “Come on,” he hissed under his breath when he was a few yards from the beast’s lair, then louder, “Come on!”

 

The black lion, a deep shadow in the moonlight, flew at him, not from the fissure in the stone but from the wood’s edge on the opposite side of the clearing. It closed the distance between them faster than imaginable and Sir Bishop barely had time to turn before it was on him. Summer backed away rapidly, nearly stumbling over her own feet. She was frightened, though she could not say for whom.

 

The Song was a cacophony that threatened to deafen Summer. All the creatures of the forest, and the bubbling water of the brook, and the leaves rusting in the wind, and even the still rocks and earth, bellowed. Their voices ignited the very air and Summer’s head swam and her body ached.

 

Sir Bishop let out a grunt that turned to a howl as the lion slammed into him and sunk its teeth into his shoulder. The metal plates of his armor were like cloth, offering no protection. Blood poured forth from the wound and Sir Bishop dropped to one knee. The lion raised its head, its white teeth stained red, and poised to bite again, this time meaning to crush the knight’s skull in its jaws. Sir Bishop’s howl jumped in pitch, from pain to fear. The lion, however, did not finish the blow.

 

Summer was on her knees, crushed under the weight of the Song, when it suddenly relented. She raised her head to see the black lion go limp atop the knight and then slid to the ground. She saw Sir Bishop’s blade dripping with the creature’s blood and he held it weakly in one hand. The creature had impaled itself on the sword as it had attacked. Sir Bishop seemed to realize only after what seemed a long time staring at the blade and the fallen lion. He did not cheer or smile or wave his weapon triumphantly. He merely let the sword clatter to the ground and grasped his bleeding shoulder. His face was ashen with pain, fear and, now, shame. He looked at her, the little witch who was pulling herself to her feet, and let himself slump to the ground. He sat there, holding his wound and crying.

 

Summer looked between the two, the black lion with its mail collar and the knight who seemed small inside his armor. She started toward him, her fear of him and anger toward him gone with his Valor and Honor and black pelt cloak. She was stopped short, however, by the Song.

 

It did not rise from the forest this time. All was quiet in the wood, as if the Singers had made themselves hoarse during the brief battle. This time, the Song emanated from the hill of broken stone and was accompanied by light. A white glow, like moonlight but bright as day, poured from the fissure and bathed them in pale brightness. Summer thought she saw movement in the fissure and tried to peer within but it was too bright. The Song was soothing and the light oddly warming and Summer did not feel afraid or cold or alone.

 

“Come child,” sang Madra Nocht’s voice from within. It was the old midwife’s voice, but less broken, softer than Summer ever remembered hearing it. “Come, now. You have heard the Song and it has brought you here. There is much to do, and much for you to learn.”

 

Summer did not move. “But what of my parents, of Woodbridge and-“

 

Madra Nocht’s voice interrupted with a light chuckle. “You’ll see them soon enough, my dear. But first you must learn, and I will teach you. Come, now.”

 

The Song echoed Madra Nocht’s words, a slow and pleasing melody that tasted like fresh spring water on a midsummer day. Truth, Summer thought, it was the sound and taste of truth. Reflexively, she straightened her coarse brown dress, and then walked unafraid toward the light. Only a few steps from entering, she turned back to Sir Bishop. Before she could ask of his fate, Madra Nocht’s voice rose again, this time the firm but loving tone of a disappointed mother.

 

“You come as well, sir knight. You, too, have much to learn.”

 

Sir Bishop raised his head and shielded his eyes from the light with his unwounded arm. He seemed for a moment as if he might never move, or at best crawl away as fast as he could. Finally, just as Summer felt Madra Nocht’s patience seep out of the Song, he pushed himself to his feet and stumbled toward Summer. As he did, Summer’s eyes widened in wonder.

 

The knight’s armor melted away, followed by the wool clothes beneath. His flesh was naked for a moment, though he did not seem to notice. Then, thick black fur grew from his skin and he seemed to fall, doubling over. Before he hit ground, however, he limbs had twisted and turned. By the time he reached Summer’s side, he wore the form of a block lion, only a strip of mail for a collar remaining of what he had been. Where his sword lay in the blood and dirt, the other lion’s body had stretched into that of a man, old beyond counting and a look of peace across his face.

 

Summer took one last moment, drinking in the Song and all the things that made it whole, before following Madra Nocht’s prompting into the light.

Mourning “After”

Here’s another old story, based on a writing prompt (as you can guess by the title). While I think this story is well written, and I like the way I sketched out the characters, the fact is that it is boring and more than a little cliched.
——–
Ben thought of Ali and the sad comfort of longing took hold of him.

“Earth to Clark. Come in Mister Clark,” said Professor Hart from behind him.

Startled by the man’s deep baritone and embarrassed by the sudden, inexplicable and apparently obvious spell of love sickness that had overcome him, Ben pulled himself upright in his chair and focused blindly on the monitors in front of him. A white Styrofoam cup filled with steaming coffee entered his peripheral vision and he took it gratefully.

Professor Hart leaned against the desk, carefully sipping from his own cup. “First time up here?” asked the Professor.

Ben nodded. “First year,” he said a little sheepishly.

Professor Hart’s smile was broad and genuine. “You’ll get used to it. God knows you’ll have all the time in the universe to do so,” he added with a chuckle. “You’ll get used to missing people, too,” he added more soberly.

“Was it that obvious?” Ben blushed a little.

“Don’t worry about it!” Professor Hart waved his hand, swatting away Ben’s chagrin. “When I was a grad student I had a girl friend, too.”

“Boyfriend.”

“Whatever. The point is, I missed her and I worried about what she was doing and I didn’t know if I could be away so much. You know what happened?”

Ben guessed but politely shook his head.

“She pulled a train with the rugby team and maxed out my credit cards. By the time I got home my car was wrecked and she was living in Pasadena with a biker gang.”

Ben stared, stupefied.

“I’m kidding. I married her. We’re still married. She’s in Chile right now, prepping for the new array.”

“She’s a very lucky woman,” Ben said flatly.

Professor Hart guffawed and slapped Ben hard on the shoulder. “You’re alright, Clark. Thank God! The last one was a preacher’s kid out of BYU and I swear I can’t imagine longer nights than the ones I spent with her.”

Ben nodded, took a sip from his coffee and turned back to the monitors while Professor Hart looked on. There were nine monitors in all, arranged in a grid. Each of the four corner monitors showed a video feed with very little happening: a dark tunnel, a complicated mass of wires and metallic plates, and a very precise clock measuring to the millisecond. Each of the monitors adjacent to these was a constant scroll of numbers and letters in, to a layman at least, what was a incomprehensible wall of data. The center monitor was a brightly colored three dimensional graphic, currently all jagged lines of different colors that formed something like a very hairy star.

“How’s it going?” asked Professor Hart, leaning in close to examine the middle monitor.

Ben’s gaze darted between the data streams, soaking it in one inexplicable line of information at a time. This was why he, even as a first year grad, had gotten the opportunity to come to EQuAL, the Experimental Quantum Activities Laboratory. He was a talented physicist and a dedicated student and worker, but it was his uncanny ability to read, comprehend and mentally collate large amounts of data that pushed him to the head of the line for lab time at the new, unprecedented facility.

“Weird,” said Ben after a minute.

“Weird?” asked Professor Hart, himself now looking between the data streams but unable to make any immediate sense of it.

“The energy pulses going to the receivers seem to be operating correctly,” Ben explained, “but there’s something wrong with the clocks. The timing is all off.”

Professor Hart grumbled. His jovial demeanor darkened suddenly as memories of faulty equipment and hasty, overzealous press releases rose to the surface of his mind. “God dammit. How long? Is the whole night shot? Are we going to have to repeat it?”

“ I don’t think so.” Ben tapped the keyboard in front of him and scrolled back through the data. “There,” he sad, mostly to himself. “A few minutes ago. I must have missed it when I was–”

“–pining,” grumbled Professor Hart. “Fine. Prepare for shut down. Let’s see if there is anything we can salvage from this clusteruck.”

Professor Hart paced while Ben started the shutdown process on the reactor. It was one of the most energetic devices ever built by human hands and it was buried a mile beneath the small bungalow where Ben and the professor lived and worked. The hairy star in the central monitor was the reactor core and the constantly shifting streams of high energy, until-very-recently quite theoretical particles it emitted.

Professor Hart suddenly stopped pacing and moved over to the table. He took the keyboard from Ben and pushed keys and palmed the ball-mouse rapidly. “What about the receivers themselves? Are you sure they are okay?”

“I think so,” said Ben. He watched the big man paw at the keyboard and swear under his breath for a few moments before gently retrieving it from him and bringing up the data Professor Hart was looking for in the central monitor, displacing the hairy star image.

“See there?” said Ben. “That shows that the receivers are getting the particle streams just fine, but the timing is all off from the emission chronometer.”

He stared and he squinted but Professor Hart could not make sense of the numbers. With a grunt of frustration, he asked, “Can you show me the graphic?”

Ben sighed. He knew Professor Hart was brilliant, one of the most highly regarded physicists in the world, but that the man could not read the data or comprehend it without a picture struck a nerve with Ben. That was the way it always was with Ben: he was ever playing paint-by-numbers to get others to see what he could see in the numbers themselves.

Ben reopened the graphic of the core and accessed its settings. He spent a few minutes manipulating the way the data was presented in real time, doing his best to get it to match reality in a way Professor Hart could easily grasp. As he did so, it began to take shape for him as well. Ben was so used to “seeing” the numbers, he sometimes overlooked the value of a simple sketch and when he brought up the revised core graphic, he gasped and Professor Hart swore under his breath.

Gone was the hairy star with its random threads winding wildly through space to meet the receivers stationed at the virtual compass points. Instead, there was a solid sphere representing the rector core and an infinite number of loops stretching out from it, not merely to the receiver icons, but back again. It was an image like a bulbous four leaf clove, a misshapen bubble in four dimensions.

They both realized what it meant, though neither was certain exactly how it was possible.

Both passion and humor were drained from Professor Hart and in a very workmanlike fashion he told Ben to check the video feed. Ben understood what he wanted and took them one at a time. He expanded the video to fill all nine monitors and panned around slowly, zooming in as far as he could and still maintain a useful resolution. In each, the results were the same – subtle and extremely hard to detect, but consistent.

Each of the receivers was located in deep tunnels beneath the surface of the earth, protected and undisturbed. The tunnels had originally been used to detect natural sources of high energy particles and to measure the slightest variations in the Earth’s gravitational and magnetic fields. This experiment had made use of the tunnels because it, in part, attempted to tie all those forces together. Ironically, the evidence to support the hypothesis that both Ben and Professor Hart had formed was much simpler and could be collected with a simple high resolution video camera.

Ben zoomed in and the two men watched the tiny motes of dust in the air. The dust floating in front of the receivers was moving naturally, gently falling in predictable motion as affected by gravity. Beyond the receiver, outside the odd shaped bubble they had seen in the central monitor just moments ago, the motes hung motionless, unaffected not by gravity, but by time.

“Holy shit,” said Professor Hart after he had let it sink in.

“Yeah,” said Ben.

***

It took them individually about ten minutes to work it out, at least well enough to reach the right conclusion. They spent another ten minutes comparing what they thought, all the while drinking their lukewarm coffee and shifting their gazes from the floor to the clover-bubble Ben had brought back up on screen. In the end, they agreed on the most fundamental truths of their situation, even if they differed on some of the details.

The experiment, which had been intended to use high energy particles, including tachyons, to collect evidence to unify the fundamental forces of the universe into a single force, had created a closed time bubble. For all intents and purposes, a 30 mile diameter region centered on the reactor core and bounded by the receivers had become a separate universe, a distinct region of space-time set off from the rest of “regular” space time. The fact implied a great number of things about the universe as a whole and its creation and fundamental structure in particular, but neither of them would have the opportunity to explore those theories.

The data indicated that the bubble was not only closed, but recursive. Once the flow of particles stopped – that is, the reactor core was shut down – the little universe inside would “reboot” and start over from its point of creation – that is, when the reactor was turned on. That event was coming sooner than either of them hoped; the reactor core was only designed to work for an hour or so at a time, given the extreme amounts of energy it produced. Even if they did not shut it down themselves, it would soon shut down automatically as a safety protocol. Overriding the automatic shutdown was not even possible, as far as either of them knew.

“Look at the bright side,” said Ben as he stared at the grounds floating in the last half-swallow of black water at the bottom of his cup. “We’ll never die.”

Technically, it was a true statement. They were alive when the experiment started and they would, presumably, be alive when it ended. “Thank God for small favors,” said Professor Hart.

Ben started to cry. It was just tears at first, born of frustration rather than fear or sadness. But then he sobbed. It was a n unbidden bark of a sob from deep in his gut and once it came out he couldn’t stop sobbing for a long time. Professor Hart sat there silently, holding back his own tears and regrets, neither comforting the young man nor judging him.

When he was spent, Ben wiped his eyes and looked at the older man sadly. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to do so much more. After, I mean.”

“I know,” said Professor Hart. “I did too. This was just the beginning for you, but for me this was the end, the cap, the last hurrah. I would have retired happy. I would have joined Maria in Chile and laid out in the hammock drinking mimosas until I was old and gray.” he dabbed his eyes with his sleeve. “She would never retire. She’ll drop dead at that telescope.”

Ben felt suddenly ashamed of his outburst and turned in the chair to face the screens in order to hide his face from the professor. He could see that the automatic shutdown warning had come up on thew central monitor. It was close now.

“After this, I was going to get my doctorate. After that, I was going to get a job with once of the Big E firms, make free energy for everyone. After that, I was going to marry Ali and we were going to adopt a couple of kids. After they were grown up, we were going to move to Maui and lay in hammocks all day and drink mimosas until we were old and gray.”

They smiled at each other while the reactor shut down countdown dwindled. Professor Hart stood up, clapped Ben warmly on the shoulder and walked out of the room. He was going to his office to look one last time at the pictures of his wife he had displayed.

Ben thought of Ali and the sad comfort of longing took hold of him.

The Falls

I wrote the following story for a flash fiction contest for the online magazine 10Flash, which has since folded. It did not get chosen for publication, but I still like it.

———————————————-

 

When Zinda asked, “Where does the rain come from?” my first thought was to show her the water cycle.

 

I conjured an endless ocean first, then the shining summer sun above so that its rays glistened on the gently rolling surface of the water. Into the middle of the blue-green expanse I summoned an island. It was covered in emerald rain forest save for the narrow, pearl white strip of beach at its edges, the towering spire of snow capped mountain at its center, and the ribbon of rushing white water that connected the two. In the sky I made clouds — big, white cumulonimbus clouds that drank the moisture as it rose from the sea.

 

Zinda observed what I had created with polite attention. I prepared to give my explanation of evaporation, condensation and precipitation, but stopped. I felt her interest evaporate as surely as the sea water below. So, ,instead, I lifted the world until we stood on the beach. White sand filtered between our toes, blue ocean stretched forever out before us and the mountain loomed above, its peak lost in the clouds. I allowed the rain to fall lightly on us and asked Zinda, “Where do you think it comes from?”

 

Zinda pointed up at the shrouded peak and said, “There!”

 

“Well, then,” I said, “let’s go see, shall we?”

 

Zinda’s delight was like an explosion of light and song and we were suddenly racing into the forest. It would have been easier, of course, to simply be at the peak of the mountain, but Zinda found delight in the going. I too, I must admit, was refreshed by the terrestrial sensations of earth and branches and breath and sweat. I opened up my creation as we ran, sharing it with Zinda.

 

At first, we raced along a barely perceptible game trail. Reeds and branches slapped and stung us as we went. The sound of the river grew ever louder until we came to a wider, well trod path. It wound ever upward, with the river on its right. I marvelled at the frothing water as it leaped up and over the rocks, ever climbing toward the peak even as we did the same. That is when I gave Zinda all control over the microcosm: to be surprised for once was so exhilarating, I dared not ruin it with my own editing.

 

We climbed the steep trail for what seemed like hours. We had stopped for breath and a refreshing drink from the river when a great, snarling beast burst from the forest. I barely had time to grab a fallen branch to use as a spear as it pounced on me. Its many jaws snapped inches from my face and its fins and claws and wings beat at me. Zinda cried out, not in terror but in excitement, as I battled the creature. Finally, I thrust my makeshift weapon into its thorax and then hefted it, sending the beast tumbling over a precipice and down to the forest far below. We laughed as I panted for breath, and then we were off again.

 

Further still up the trail the clouds that hugged the mountain became a thick mist around us. We came to fork in the trail, where the one-eyed ape riddled us. “What always runs but never walks, often murmurs, never talks, has a bed but never sleeps, has a mouth but never eats?”

 

We scratched our heads and gnashed out teeth, certain we would fail the test, until the answer came upon me like dawn upon the shore. “A river!,” I said. That King Seer bowed to us and bid us take the right path. He did not deceive us: this was the true way, but was itself not without peril. We fought the armies of the Golden Horde and found ourselves wrapped in the soul-webs of the Spider Queen.  Over these obstacles, and many others, we prevailed until finally we arrived at our destination.

 

We emerged from the wall of white mist into the brilliant light of the sun. The summer wind blew warm, driving the cold damp of the clouds as we climbed the last stone steps. The river rushed and splashed up the mountain beside us but calmed as it neared the top. The peak of the mountain was a reaching arm, nearly flat and extending for at least a hundred paces. The river was a lazy brook there, and we followed it across the mountaintop. Zinda picked pretty golden flowers as we went and I basked in the light of the sun above, for all the clouds were beneath us.

 

We walked to the edge. The lazy river grew faster as it neared, becoming a torrent again just as it spilled over the side. Zinda said, “Come, look. See. This is why it rains.”

 

I edged gingerly to the precipice, my knees shaking. I was so given over to Zinda’s creation, I had forgotten my own invulnerability. At first I saw only white below, but then the wind blew and the clouds parted. Through the break I saw the great gleaming expanse of the sea and the emerald mosaic of the forest. The falls were as beautiful as the world onto which they rained.

 

“And that is why it rains?” I asked Zinda.

 

There was a pause, a moment of utter sincerity, then: “Of course not!” sang Zinda. “That’s just a story I made up!”

 

We laughed, and as I took control back from Zinda,  the mountaintop fell away. Once again, the ocean, the island and the clouds, all gilded by the high summer sun, were laid out far below us.

 

“Do you see that?” I asked Zinda. “That is a cumulonimbus cloud.”