Category: Fiction

The Gift of the Elven-King

Many ages ago, a great realm lay between the mountains and the sea, once ruling much of the world but now mostly forgotten. During the years leading to its decline, a curious affliction spread to many of its people. Fine, filthy fumes drifted across much of the land, becoming a slow poison in men’s eyes and throats. This was the doing of some wizards in the moors; they were releasing the foulness, most out of careless folly more than wickedness, from the furnaces and cauldrons where they performed their secret labors. But the people were to blame as well, for they made no effort to protect themselves. Instead, they simply coughed and blinked and went on as before.

In time, they became so accustomed to these fumes that they no longer knew anything different. They thought nothing of the bitterness they breathed, or the dull, ugly sights coming through their marred eyes. Many forgot that air could be sweeter, light stronger, colors brighter. Some, noticing the change, fled to remote regions where the air was less sullied, but they were few.

On the land’s western border, in the mountain forests, the Elves observed this evil from their own realm. No corruption could come near their dwelling places, but they saw and grieved over the sufferings of the foolish men. Thus it came, one day, that the Elven-king called his messengers to him.

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The Sun-Woman

Kymrei had never heard of anyone descending below the canopy, that shadowy underworld of mysterious dangers. Much less had she ever expected to do so herself.

It all began on that year’s Day of Flight, the day she had been eagerly anticipating for most of her life. So much had been leading up to this point—the early rides behind her father or mother on the avyars’ backs, her first lessons in how to sit the saddle and work the harness with her feet, her solitary flights for the last couple of years among the branches of the Western Arbor. In the few months before this day, she had practiced with particular industry, flying in all the permitted areas and reviewing every tactic and trick she knew. Then, in the last couple of weeks, she had made her own riding garb, light and comfortable but strong, in the deep blue and white that marked her family. For her emblem, she had chosen a sunburst surrounded with stars, the only image that seemed to convey properly the excitement that she felt.

Now, at last, the day had come. Summer had arrived, and for Kymrei and all the Western Arbor’s youth in their fifteenth summer, it was their Day of Flight. After today, she would be a woman, free to do all the things grown men and women did. Her avyar, Aino, she would no longer have to borrow from the Keeper and ride only in a few places—he would be hers, and she could fly on him wherever she pleased. After this morning . . . they had only to follow the Keeper of the avyars all around the island, showing that they had mastered the art of flying the creatures and could overcome the tricks of land and sky.

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The House of Vision

Stars glistened in the darkness above the house. Konom stared up at their tiny lights, floating about the scarcely visible outlines of the high roof and the surrounding trees. For all these decades, this place—the weathered stone walls swathed in ivy, the cluttered kitchen, the quiet tower room, and oh, the East Wing—had been his home and his life. What was to happen now?

Abruptly he shook himself and strode back toward the front door. Having taken his time as usual, he had about made up his mind concerning the next order of business. He only had to go back and review the day’s records.

Once in the vestibule, he took the flickering lamp hanging just above him, as the house was mostly dark now. He turned left, as almost always. Right was the East Wing, and while he brought guests there every day, he hardly ever had occasion to go there himself. After all, his life was so simple . . . usually.

Konom made his way through the hall and across the kitchen, still lit and still strewn about with herbs, leaves, vegetables, grimy pots, and other things. Yes, it wanted tidying; he would see to that later. Coming to the stairs, he began ascending—carefully, as he grimly recalled the proofs in recent days that his body required more caution now. The winding stone steps spiraled upward for two flights. He paused at the top of the first flight, not because he meant to enter the library, but because he was tired—well, it had been a long day!—and in order to give an affectionate, half-sad glance at the intricately carved doors that guarded the books. Yes, it was a fine collection in there, as no one—or almost no one—knew better than he. He would ensure that they continued to be appreciated.

Breaking again out of reverie, he turned back to the stairs and climbed up to the top. Here was the tower room, not really mounted on much of a tower, but high enough to be fairly secluded. For Konom, it was a sort of study, containing a battered, stained desk, a few books for his own personal purposes, a pad of blank pages and some loose papers, some dried leaves of various kinds, and, of course, the Record Book. Were there any more of its kind left in this part of the world? Not likely. Standing upright against the back wall, a little taller than Konom himself, it collected within its fine brown-green leather covers all that transpired in the house each day.

With a short sigh, Konom set the lamp down on the desk and approached the book. Its back was facing toward him, of course, so that the most recent records would be on top; but the two covers were identical, both bearing the Chari-King’s seal and the house’s name, Domus Horoma. The House of Vision—a lonely but steady beacon, Konom thought, more needed than ever in this fogged world, when men had forgotten the higher powers and wonders of the world, once their source of guidance and security. Folk always needed guidance—they were foolish at the best of times—but now they really had grown blind, living in empty places inside their own minds, blind to a better existence that could be theirs. At least there were still places like this to which they could come.

Lifting the back cover, Konom briefly glanced across the nearest page, where the shimmering images, pale but quite lifelike, depicted all that had gone on that day. It had been a busy day, with several calls, but the important part had not come until the evening. Locating its beginning near the bottom of the page, without further ado, he stepped in.

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Leaves of Silver

Once again, my father’s persistence had overcome my mother’s anxieties, as well as my own ten-year-old objections. I had objected primarily because I did not want to be moved; as even slight movements pained my leg’s infected wound, I did not relish the prospect of a bumping wagon trip of at least a day and a half each way. My mother, too, was concerned about my condition; she also feared that the reputed healer of Lake Iumena, where Father wanted to take me, would prove an ignorant quack, and the trip only do me harm. “Miracle cures are always some sort of trick!” she had maintained. “Especially when one person claims to possess some unique power. Why won’t you just take him to a house of healing in the city, where he can get real treatment?”

But Father had been adamant. “You know what Tamona”—our village’s healer-woman—“told us about that. Their skill can do no more for this wound than hers could. If we take him to a house of healing, they’ll only cut off his leg, and he will spend the rest of his life with only one leg. Think about what that will mean for him.” Then he described at length all the sufferings of a one-legged man’s life, until I was so wracked with anxiety that I wanted to yell. I was relieved when he reached his conclusion: “Taking Anthan to Lake Iumena at least offers him a chance of recovery. Isn’t it worth a bit more effort, even risk, for the life and wholeness of our son?”

At this, I knew instinctively that he had won. Mother would not be proof against this appeal to her feelings. Her sigh and reluctant, “Well . . .” only confirmed my intuition.

By the next afternoon, all necessary arrangements were made. Leaving the household in the care of my oldest sister, my parents gathered such things as would be necessary for three days of traveling and set out with me in the wagon. That was how it came about that we went to Lake Iumena, where I found so much more than a cure that I have since come to consider it worth the wounded leg to have been there.

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Displaced and Wandering

For once, Alyne’s mission to close the gate brought something different.

She expected no such thing on her way there, going to do the chore she had done a thousand times. In fact, she couldn’t help being a bit disappointed that nothing had changed today. Today was her birthday—her thirteenth birthday—a day when something, somehow, ought to be different.

I’m not grumbling, she thought insistently. I know it was a happy day, and I’m glad. Everyone had made her day special. Her brothers had all rushed to her, jumping and shouting, as soon as they saw she was awake. The whole family had sung her favorite songs for her. Her Mum had made honey cakes; her sister, Klea, had gathered a jumbled bouquet as big as her tiny fists could hold; Pa had even given Alyne a pretty new jacket, which meant that he must have gone to town—something he hardly ever did. Still, something about having to do this pointless chore yet again, leaving her siblings’ evening game to close a gate no one else ever used or saw, made Alyne feel as if nothing had really changed today.

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A Door in the Gloom

The door swung open, releasing a wave of noise and strong odors. At this time of evening, the workingmen of the little town gathered in the tavern to relax and ease away the day’s toil. The air inside, warmed by the many bodies in it, was thick with the smells of sweat, smoke, and liquors, and the atmosphere vibrated with loud voices, laughter, gushing of drinks and clanking of glass. The young man who had just entered, though, contrasted significantly with the surrounding scene. His clothing, mostly covered with a brown cloak, was simple and poor but not dirty. His face, its expression alert but serene, glanced intently around the crowded space, searching. Suddenly his gaze halted, fixed on something across the smoky air, and his face lit up with interest. He began to make his way toward what he had seen.

As he strode between the tables, attentive observers might have noticed the rowdy congregation of workingmen taking heed of his passing. He did not look at them, but where he came near, men lowered their shouting voices, wiped the dribbling ale from their beards, and generally attempted to look somewhat civilized. One, less subdued than the others, waved his handful of cards and called with a grin, “Ho, have a game with us?”

“Not now, Marek,” the other replied, his tone friendly but sober. A moment later, this quiet visitor had passed all the tables and reached the great room’s far corner, dusty, dim and furnished only with a few sacks. On these lay a long, narrow lump, covered in a threadbare gray cloak—a lump in which the young man had recognized a human shape.

He knelt beside the lump and said, softly but clearly, “This is no place for you.”

The lump stirred slightly, then grunted, “Who says?”

A smile of deep relief broke over the man’s face. “Dominika, why don’t you come with me?”

At this name the lump jerked upright. From beneath the cloak, a lean hand and arm peeled away the hood, and out peered the pinched, dirty face of a young girl, not more than seventeen. As she saw her visitor, her face broke into surprise and a wonder that was almost joy. Her mouth fumbled for a moment, then managed to form a cry, “Matus!” as she flung her bony arms around him.

“Finally,” he murmured, tenderly embracing her back. “I looked all over.”

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Eyes of the Night Sky

A besieging force of darkness crouched silently around the town, held at bay by the hot, quavering glare of street-lamps and lights in windows. Madyl felt the contrast vividly as she walked out onto the next street, for this one marked the edge of Byrnera’s stronghold of firelight, the street beside the docks and the sea. She paused a moment, staring out into the unbroken blackness of the sea and overcast night sky, listening to the tireless rush and crash of the unseen waves. The endless abyss of shadow made her a little nervous, but also heightened her sense of adventure, out on the road alone. Then she turned resolutely away and resumed walking, scanning the buildings along the road, reviewing the directions her fellow workers had given her.

“The fisherman Tacas keeps a window open till late in the night,” the eldest of the women had explained. “His wife makes the most wonderful fish soup, to sell to busy folk like us who need a quick supper.” Now, indeed, as Madyl spotted the house that accorded with her directions—“seventh from the corner after you come to the sea”—she saw a large window spilling cheery golden light out onto the road.

Madyl smiled, feeling very accomplished to have made her way here on her own, and in a strange town at that. This would impress the older women, who had been afraid to let a child of eleven go out alone for their supper. She approached the window and peered inside at a plain but clean kitchen, lit by a lamp on the ceiling. A round wooden table and some chairs took up the greater part of the space. Was anyone in here? Then, in a corner, she noticed someone scrubbing a pot—but it wasn’t the fisherman’s or anyone’s wife. It was a boy, perhaps a few years older than she.

“Hello?” Madyl called. “Can I buy fish soup here?”

The boy’s head jerked up as he dropped the pot with a crash. “Oh! Yes, certainly. Wasn’t expecting any more customers by this hour.” Taking a thoughtful look at Madyl, he added, “Wow, what are you doing out so late?”

“I’m a laborer for Madam Loruis, the dyer,” Madyl explained. “Some of us had to work late tonight.” She laid some coins on the windowsill and held up the steel canister that was to carry back the soup.

The boy nodded, took the money and the canister, and went over to the stove, where a large black pot still sat. “So, you haven’t been in Byrnera long, have you?” he queried, as he ladled steaming soup from the pot into the canister. “Just guessing from your accent—you’re from Sylhoa, or somewhere in the hill country, right?”

Madyl nodded. “My family are farmers. Times aren’t easy. They sent me to work here to make some more money for us.”

“Working and on your own in town. And at your age, too.” The boy sounded impressed. Then he looked intently at her and frowned concernedly. “You’re not happy, are you?”

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Warning from Death

A story by Sarah E. T. Greydanus

 

Hey, Danny—yes, it’s me. Finally. I did get your very nice letter—it’s sitting now somewhere in the crazy mess on my desk. I’m sorry I didn’t answer it before now. I guess I forgot, what with everything that’s been happening. I guess I’ve been forgetting a lot of things lately, actually. Now I’m ashamed of that, and it isn’t the only thing. Since you went to the trouble to write out all that for me, I should probably be writing back a physical letter to you; but I’m kind of in a hurry to tell you what’s happened to me, so—at the risk of Gmail somehow eavesdropping—I’m writing you the fast way and hoping you have time and patience for all this.

I don’t guess you need me to get into the troubles I’ve been having. They seem to be all over Facebook at this point anyway, and from your letter you pretty well understand. What you prolly didn’t know—what nobody knows, except apparently one person and now you, and hopefully it’ll stay that way—is I almost, almost killed myself over them. As in, literally, I was about to do it, the knife was in my hand. But I didn’t, and I don’t want to do any such thing any more. I’m writing to tell you why, and please listen to me, Danny, because that’s really what I need right now.

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Joy of a Sketch

The little boy scampered along the edge of the blank space, his pen, as always, clutched tightly in his hand. He squatted down, frowning, not in displeasure—no one ever saw him exhibit that—but in intense concentration. Carefully he drew a thick, bold line, almost as high as his head, curving slightly at the top and the bottom. He scrambled around it and drew another line beside it, similar but curving the other way, so that the curves faced away from each other. More quickly, he scribbled some smaller lines between the two; then, satisfied with his trunk, traced atop it the jagged outline of a small cloud of leaves. In the middle of this, he drew a small half-circle, added some little sticks protruding from it, then eagerly inserted the crowning glory: three small birds peering out from the little nest. He then stepped back to watch. The birds blinked, twitched, and rose fluttering out of the nest, warbling gaily. The boy beamed and jumped in delight, watched another few moments, then scurried on to draw something else.

Thus he ever was, never anxious but never still, well known as the merriest inhabitant of that Space. Whether other, equally contented souls lived in other Spaces in the Sketch, no one could say. The Sketch was a canvas so great and wide that none of its residents could say much about it beyond their own corner or area. No one could be sure what it was a picture “of” in its entirety, only what they saw drawn around them. Seldom did any travel from one Space to another, for the Spaces were bordered by wide swaths of blank Space. Most avoided these altogether, as empty waste; but now and then, some adventurous soul would venture across from one filled Space to another, tracing a line beside him to keep from getting lost. Others, reasoning that more than mere lines could be drawn in the blank Space, decorated bits of that Space with figures and drawings of their own. These never quite matched the original Sketchings, but some bore a considerable resemblance.

In the creation of these drawings, the little boy spent his days—in the proverbial sense; for, when reminded, he did also enjoy playing with other children and with animals, and sometimes stopped to help someone carry wood or collect their turnips. If no one had ever called his attention, however, he could have devoted every waking minute to his art. This art was, after his cheerfulness, the chief reason for his reputation. Not that he could otherwise have passed quite unnoticed, for the Space where he lived was not a densely peopled one; it mostly included woods and mountains, with some little houses gathered between them. But, of all the people and animals dwelling there, few had much interest in art, and fewer still could imagine devoting so much time to it as did this child. “He was drawn with a pen in his hand,” someone would occasionally remark, by way of explanation, almost invariably to hear, “Sure he was—same as everyone! But when did you last so much as pick up yours?”

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