Troll's Folly -- flash fiction
July 28, 2017
When Reverend Skúli began his ministry among the folk at Breiđabólstađur, everyone told him he must meet Old Gísli at Rauđisandur. "He knows all the old tales," they told him.
So one fine morning the minister paid the old man a visit. Skúli found Gísli on the dock below his cottage, mending fish nets. The minister settled on a lumpy, white bench and listened while the old man told of his forebears, all the way back to the first settlers of Iceland. He told of his years at sea, tales of icebergs and whales, sea serpents and mermaids.
"There was a giant troll woman in Norway," Gísli said, "who took it into her head to visit kin here in Iceland. She decided to wade across the sea."
"Wade across?" Skúli asked, arching his brows.
"She was a giant troll, as I said. An ogress, taller than any pine of Norway. Even so, the other trolls warned her about the ocean trenches along her path. 'Iceland's trenches may be deep,' says she, 'but it is possible to wade across them!'*"
The minister chuckled.
Gísli nodded. "The oldest troll warned her about the worst trench, narrow but twice as deep as the others. 'Hah!' says the ogress. 'So I might get the top of my head wet,* is that it?' She wouldn't listen to any advice, but set out across the sea. Up to her thighs the water came, up to her waist, to her shoulders.
"She crossed one trench then another with her long strides, wide as a mountain dale. At last she came to the deepest trench of all. She realized there was no wading it. She couldn't swim, for until now she'd never needed to learn such a skill. She stood there with only her head above water, fuming to have her plans thwarted, too stubborn to turn and go home again. Then she brightened, for along came a ship."
"So she clambered aboard," the minister said.
"No, not at all. Would have swamped the ship. No, she decided to grab hold and let it tow her across. But when she reached for the handy float, she missed. She lost her footing, plunged into the trench, and drowned."
Skúli chuckled again. "A fine, fanciful tale."
Gísli shook his head. "No fancy, Reverend. One horrendous storm that winter, and her body washed up here at Rauđisandur." The old man pointed down the beach. "A huge corpse lying on its back, knees bent. I rode up close, and even reaching up from horseback with my riding crop, I couldn't touch the underside of her knees arching overhead."
"What happened to the remains? Surely a corpse so large--"
"This happened many years ago. The storms since then have washed her away, piece by piece. All that's left is her kneecap."
Skúli looked down the beach.
Gísli smiled, a gap-toothed grin. "You're sitting on it."
* dialogue taken straight from the folktale
folktale from Breiđabólstađur, Iceland; Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend, page 313
Posted at: 01:29 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Irony -- flash fiction
July 14, 2017
Alfhild stormed out of the cottage. She stomped up the trail to the high pasture. Sky stretched wide overhead. Wind keened down from sprawling glaciers and whipped her golden hair. She closed her eyes, letting the cold air dampen the fire of her anger.
Sun shone warm on her shoulders. At last she turned, glancing with mingled wistfulness and irony at the old tumbledown barn.
How many years since her folk had trooped into that very barn? By magic they had turned it into a grand and glorious hall. Little did they know that Egil had slept overnight in the barn. Handsome Egil, a mortal human.
When he woke and saw the wedding party, his gaze had latched onto her and never let go. He leaped to his feet and threw his sheath knife in an arc whirring over her head. A knife of iron, the element that daunts all creatures of other worlds. Use of iron, the only magical knack granted to humans.
With that charm of iron, he broke Alfhild's link to the realm of elfs. The rest of her folk screamed at the agony and threat of iron, and fled into the hills, never more to greet Alfhild, fairest of the Folk Under-the-Mountain.
He had taken her to wife. She didn't mind. One husband is as good as another, she reflected, and the world of mankind fascinated her.
And Egil was handsome. Oh yes. Alfhild smiled into the wind.
Still as handsome as that momentous day when she left elf-kind and joined human-kind -- but his heart had turned shriveled and sour. He yelled. He blamed. He derided. And today he tried to hit her. That blow would have blackened her eye, perhaps broken her cheekbone, if she hadn't ducked swift as a dragonfly.
Alfhild frowned, and a cloud darkened the sun. How dare he try to smite her, after all she'd done for him? After all she'd given up to stay at his side?
One more chance she'd give him, and if he failed, he'd never see her more.
She turned and trod the path home again. She found Egil in the houseyard, trying to shoe the horse. He growled and spat and snarled.
"What is it, dearest?" Alfhild asked with honeyed voice.
"Are you blind, hag?" he barked. "Can't get the blasted shoe to fit. It's too tight."
"Can't you widen it?"*
"No, you idiot! Looks like I'll have to take the horse to the smith, curse the penny-pinching fellow."
"Let me have the horseshoe," she said.* With the strength of one born Under-the-Mountain, she pulled the ends of the horseshoe wide apart.
Egil's eyes widened in astonishment, then he scowled, snatched it, tried it against the horse's hoof. "Too wide now, you lackwit!"
Alfhild took the shoe, bent it to proper shape, handed it back. "If you are ever mean to me again," she said sweetly, "I'll do the same to you!"*
Egil drew breath to bellow, thought better of it, clapped his mouth shut.
Alfhild nodded. She knew how to soften a man's heart.
* dialogue taken straight from the folktale
folktale from Bjelland, Vest-Agder, Norway; Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend, page 219
Posted at: 01:26 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Vigil -- flash fiction
July 14, 2017
As they walked out to the fields, Nils and three other farmhands each balanced on his shoulder a steel bar as long as a man is tall. Their employer, Hjarne of Tornby, wanted a boulder removed from the middle of the furthest field.
"Odd-looking boulder," said Nils, the newest hire. "Thought we'd find a big lump to roll aside."
The farmhands stood looking at the huge flat rock, wide and long enough to serve as foundation for a storage shed. Karl circled the slab. "Four of us might be enough," he said, doubt coloring his voice.
The men searched the field's edge for large stones and hauled them to the slab. Nils slanted his iron bar from his stone to the bottom edge of the great flat rock, prying underneath for a hands-length or two. Karl and the others did the same, each on his own side.
"One, two, three!" Karl counted.
The farmhands worked their levers all at the same moment, but the slab did not rise.
"Too heavy," Nils said.
Karl nodded. "All together on this side."
They repositioned their stone fulcrums and iron bars. Once again they heaved in unison.
The slab shifted a few inches.
"All on one corner."
This time the slab lifted to knee-height. Nils dropped his lever, darted forward, shoved a stone into the gap. "It's going to take forever to--" He cut off, bending closer to look beneath the slab. "There's an empty hole underneath!"
The others joined him. The slab, they now saw, rested on stone walls sunk into the earth. "Not a hole," Karl said. "A chamber!"
"Nor is it empty," Nils whispered.
He saw a table in the room below. And sitting beside the table, an old man. His beard reached below his knees.
The old man looked up, hand stroking the long sword that rested across his lap. "Is it time now?" he asked, voice creaky as a barn door. "Give me your hand, my fellow countryman, so I can feel how strong you are."*
Karl extended his steel bar.
The old man gripped the bar, squeezed it, let go. "There is still strength in the arms of the Danes. It isn't time yet. Greet my brothers and tell them that I am Holger the Dane. I will come and help Denmark in her hour of need."*
Nils and Karl and the others backed off. The wedge stone shattered, and the slab slammed down again, sealing the old man inside.
Nils pointed at the end of Karl's steel bar. "His handprint. He flattened it!"
"Who is he?" a third man asked.
"Was he wearing a crown?" said the fourth. "I swear I saw a circlet in his hair!"
"King Holger?" Nils muttered. "Never heard of him!"
"I'm not touching this stone again," Karl said, shouldering his steel bar and heading for the farm buildings.
Nils and the others followed with many a glance back. The old man they left once more to keep vigil in the dark.
* * *
* dialogue taken straight from the folktale
folktale from Hjørring, Jylland (Denmark); from Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend, p.331
Posted at: 12:14 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Kiss the Sky -- flash fiction
July 7, 2017
Shada bailed water from the dugout's belly. She heard each hurried thrust of her father's paddle in the stern. By pale moonlight she saw the scowls of scorn on the faces of her two older brothers, seated amidships, also plying paddles but with less fervor.
Her mother sat in the bow, baby brother in her lap, young sister huddled at her knee-- a black silhouette against the low moon.
"Thunderbird came to me," her father had said when he shook them all awake. "Thunderbird said take everyone, flee far out to sea."
"In the deeps of night?" grumbled one brother.
"In the deeps of winter?" complained the other.
"What about Devourer-Whale?" their mother asked, her voice tight as she scurried about the hut, gathering food, waterskins, blankets.
Little sister piped up, "Devourer-Whale dwells in the sea."
"Because of Devourer-Whale," their father had said. "Thunderbird brings an end to his terror, but to find safety we must seek danger. We must speed toward the mouth of Devourer-Whale."
So they had run into the night, down the short stretch from village to shore. None of their neighbors would listen. All scoffed and went back to bed.
Shada bailed and bailed. The quarter moon soon rested on the horizon, signaling middle of night.
Stars winked overhead. Something spread vast wings across the heavens.
Shada stared upward as she bailed. Three paddles held still. Breaths held still. The moon held still on the world's watery edge.
The shadow plunged, growing larger and larger as if a winged mountain fell from the sky. It knifed into the sea far away.
The sea came to life. It rose to kiss the sky, and the dugout rose with it. Everyone shrieked and clung to the canoe edges.
The sea dropped like a stone off a cliff. The dugout spun and bobbed like a leaf in the pool below a waterfall, taking on water. Shada bailed and bailed while everyone else, moaning, fastened like limpets to the rim of the careening canoe.
The little vessel rode huge swells, sluiced down their flanks, wallowed in the troughs before rising again. The moon slipped below the horizon. The stars brightened their fires.
The sea settled at last. Shada's father looked east.
The wintertime come-home star beckoned. Father nodded. He turned the dugout and began paddling for home.
By dawn's first light he recognized the bones of the mountains on the horizon. He pointed out the landmarks to his sons, for soon they would be men. Men who go whaling must know their way back. They swerved their course toward the village.
There was no village. The undersea battle between Thunderbird and Devourer-Whale had scraped clean the beaches and foothills.
The canoe grounded on a new sandbar. They waded ashore. Shada followed her family up the beach.
"Everyone, gone," her brothers said, gazing around in horror.
"Not everyone." Father gathered his family and sang thanks to Thunderbird, who had rid the world of Devourer-Whale. And to Shada, who never stopped bailing.
* * *
My retelling of The Story of Thunderbird and Whale, a legend from the Tillamook, one of the Coast Salish tribes living on the Oregon coast.
This tale may have stemmed from the massive earthquake (Cascadia fault) that struck off the coast on January 26, 1700, sending a destructive tsunami across the Pacific to devastate coastal villages in Japan. On the Oregon coast, the wave could have risen as high as 100 feet.
Posted at: 04:25 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Colima -- flash NONfiction
June 30, 2017
Frederick leaned on the ship's rail, letting the sea breeze blow in his face. He hadn't been seasick since the voyage's second day.
His brother Clement joined him. "Two hundred fifty-four miles since noon yesterday," he reported.
Frederick took out his diary and noted the progress. "Amazing!"
"Twenty years ago the same voyage took us eleven weeks. Captain says at this rate we'll reach New Zealand after only two."
Frederick slapped the Colima's rail. "The miracles of modern science! Steam power. What a marvel!"
"It helps to take passage on a vessel barely two years old," Clement said with a wry twist to his mouth. "How old was the HMS Leaky?"
Frederick laughed. "I do not know. Don't remember it's proper name, either."
The Colima shuddered. Her momentum slackened abruptly. The brothers swayed at the rail, their gazes meeting, filled with alarm. They joined a throng of passengers seeking word on the problem.
It was November 26, 1875. The Colima's propeller crank had broken, leaving the steamship becalmed. The captain ordered sails deployed. The vessel limped along at a quarter its normal running speed.
Frederick and Clement had crossed the Pacific twenty years earlier, from Melbourne, Australia, to Honolulu in the Sandwich Islands where their leaky sailing ship was scrapped. Eventually they took passage to San Francisco, paying their way by working before the mast.
Now, eight days out from Honolulu on a return journey, they found their progress had regressed to the age-old tactic of running before the wind, by sails only.
Frederick made use of his time, sketching scenes from Utah canyons and the railroad route across the Sierra Nevada. He finished landscapes of San Francisco and Honolulu.
The Colima's engineers worked night and day installing a replacement crank. On November 29, Frederick wrote in his journal, "Got the steam up again at about 11:00 a.m. much to our joy, and the satisfaction of all on board."
Life aboardship returned to normal.
At 5:30 p.m. on December 2, while the passengers enjoyed their dinner in the mess hall below decks, the replacement crank broke.
Frederick's diary records, "There was such a terrific noise and commotion with the machinery as if the whole inside of the vessel was being wrenched and torn to pieces, and we were all to be instantly blown to destruction. There was an almost simultaneous rush made for the upper deck. By that time the noise had ceased, for thank God, the second engineer ran and turned off the steam, thereby stopping the machinery, barely in time to save the vessel and all our lives."
Frederick too leaped to his feet, but did not join the panic. He resumed his seat, went back to his mock turtle soup.
Later he learned, "If the piston had made one more revolution it would have torn a hole through the bottom of the steamer… One of the cylinders partly burst… so when we start again they can only run one cylinder and will not try to make more than four or five miles an hour."
As the Colima chugged into the harbor at Auckland, New Zealand, Clement shook his head. "That faulty crank and cylinder knocked our time up to three and a half weeks."
Frederick slapped his brother on the back. "Still a sight better than eleven!"
Posted at: 02:06 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Swoop -- flash fiction
June 16, 2017
The earth trembled beneath Peder's feet. He jerked to a halt, and so did his oxen.
"Go on!" called Sven from his position at the plow.
"Didn't you feel the ground shake?" Peder asked.
"I felt the plow lurch. Must have hit another stone, that's all. Keep going, boy."
The oxen wouldn't move, no matter how Peder urged.
"Whip them up!" the farmhand called.
"They're stamping. They roll their eyes. Something frightens them. What did the plow hit?" Peder dropped the lead rope and ran to Sven's side. Together they dug through freshly turned turf.
The servant boy sat back on his haunches, staring at the gouged, broken hafts of a shovel and a fire-rake. "Bronze, not iron," he whispered at sight of the spade's blade and rake's claws.
"Tools of the mound folk!" Sven crossed himself.
The farmhand and scrawny servant boy stood, backing off, glancing around at the hillock they'd nearly finished plowing. "No one told me Lysbakken was haunted by mound folk," Sven muttered. "We'll be cursed for what we've done!"
"Not if we make amends." Peder ran to the supply wagon, returned with their own hoes and shovels. Together they dislodged the iron tips, set them aside. Onto the new, polished yew-wood shafts they mounted the bronze heads of spade and fire-rake.
Sven placed the mended tools at the mound's crest while Peder coaxed the oxen into step. Farmhand, servant boy and oxen headed back to the farmstead, leaving their day's task unfinished.
Next morning they returned. The owner of Lysbakken insisted the hillock be plowed, harrowed and planted.
Sven led the way to the top of the mound, Peder close behind.
The shovel and fire-rake were gone. In their place sat two oatcakes.
Peder picked one up, gave it a sniff. "Honeycake!" he cried, and took a bite.
Sven backed off, shaking his head. "Not for me. You eat their food, they'll swoop you away to serve them under the mound!"
Peder closed his eyes in bliss at the taste of the honeycake. Another bite, another, the heavenly flavor thrilling tongue and palate, brimming his whole body with delight. He licked every crumb from his fingers as Sven grumbled, "You'll be sorry, boy!"
"If that is the fare they serve below," Peder said, "I'll gladly follow them into the depths. Thousand thanks, good folk of the hill!"
But the ground did not open beneath his feet. The mound did not swallow him. The invisible folk never came for him. Peder continued in service at Lysbakken.
Even so, Sven crossed himself whenever Peder came near, for the scrawny servant boy filled out practically overnight. By the time they harvested the first crop of barley grown on Lysbakken's mound, Peder had grown three inches taller. He needed new shirts to fit wider shoulders. His arms thickened with muscle to rival a blacksmith's. When the winter revels came, Peder won every single wrestling match, with rivals from across the whole parish.
And every night, he dreamed of honeycake.
* * *
Folktale from Vole, Jylland (Denmark). Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend, page 230
Posted at: 09:30 AM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Rage -- flash fiction
June 9, 2017
High above the glaciers she soared. Ice crystals spun on air so thin and cold it raked like talons down her throat, as frigid as the glare in her eyes, as chill as the frozen kernel of her heart.
No creature dared challenge the queen of the skies. Golden eagles quailed at sight of her, and spun away to seek hunting elsewhere. Rams among the flocks of alpine sheep, for all their granite-hard horned skulls, fled like lambs at the shadow of her wings. None but the king of the skies came near, and never very long at that.
Hunger clamored, fueled her rage, drove her to range further afield. She caught glimpse of moving shapes in lands near the world's curve, beyond the glaciers, below the treeline. Tiny flecks, creeping, resolving in her keen eyesight to cattle.
She called up a wind. Riding the tempest, beating wide-pinioned wings, she sped like a shooting star. Then wings folded, she plummeted.
The heifer died before it could bawl one note of fear. Other cattle scattered, tails high in alarm.
The sky queen reared, ready to plunge her beak and rend and tear and feast. But no, not yet. Return, return! shrieked a voice within.
She screamed triumph and rage, then sank talons into the yearling. Fore-talons. Rear-claws. She lashed her lion's tail and leaped again into the air.
A whirlwind answered her call and bore her aloft with her burden, still warm. She felt the heat of the beast, the witless lumbering thing that lived only to feed the hunters of the world. And feed, she would -- soon, very soon -- but first -- the urge still thrummed at her core. Return, return!
To the aerie, then.
On the southern flank of a peak higher than the rest, one sheer cliff face stood bare in the wintry light. She dismissed the torrent of wind and swooped with her burden to a gaping crevice. She landed with a thud and a crack of carcass bones.
She struck and gorged one bite, then caught a whiff, an odor that did not belong. She dropped the heifer, tucked wings, and stalked into the rear of the cave, her neck plumage ruffling in rage. What devious creature dared disturb her nest?
The shell lay broken in two.
Woe surged, then fury, then a dizzying swell of confusion. As she leaped to straddle the nest, her wings spread wide all of their own accord, shading, sheltering the tiny intruder that now wobbled among the shell shards.
The smell of it changed -- or perhaps the change came in the way the scent burrowed through nostrils, lungs and heart, twanging, turning, twisting, tugging her core.
This feeble little thing, beaked mouth gaping up at her, triggered such a sudden surge of warmth she had never felt since the day she first took wing. All her icy rage forgotten, melted away, the griffin crouched, wings still spread, eyes glowing with the unmatchable fierce heat of a mother guarding her young.
Posted at: 08:06 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Rivals -- flash fiction
June 2, 2017
"Come in, come in!" boomed the king of Utgard, realm of giants.
Thjalfi followed Thor and Loki into the enormous hall, gazing in awe at the pillars that soared overhead to a distant roof lost in smoke and shadow.
"Before we feast," boomed the giant king, "give us a show of your rumored skills, mighty Thor. We've heard such tales. Let us see your prowess. First, a footrace." The giant's mocking gaze fell on Thjalfi.
The youngest of the Æsir bowed. Never had he lost a race. He would do his companions proud.
A knock-kneed imp joined him. At the king's mark, the two of them set off running.
Thjalfi put on his greatest burst of speed, but the imp tagged the halfway point and returned before the young Æsir had taken a dozen strides. Thjalfi staggered back to his companions, shoulders slumped in shame.
Loki the voracious Trickster-god set to an eating contest, and lost just as quickly.
The king gave Thor three challenges. Empty a huge drinking horn, pick up a gray cat asleep by the hearth, and wrestle an old woman.
Thor, the mightiest of all the Æsir, failed miserably. Thjalfi didn't feel so distraught about the footrace as he watched the shrunken old hag force his friend to his knees.
The king and his fellows laughed like a thunderstorm, then beckoned their guests to table.
Loki ate not a thing, his belly still swollen from his failed attempt to out-eat his rival. Thor turned down the ale-horn offered by a lumbering giantess. His thick red beard still dripped with water from the drinking contest. Thjalfi picked at his food, miserable with failure.
The next morning, Utgard's king escorted his guests out of his hall and set them on their path back to Asgard. "Don't be so down-hearted, little Æsirlings," he boomed. "You may have lost every challenge, but you didn't see your rivals for what they were. Pardon my jesting, but it made such fun sport!"
"What do you mean?" Thor asked, crossing arms.
The king waved his meaty hand and laughed. "It's a subtle magic I weave. I blind your eyes to true nature. Young Fleetfoot here--" He patted Thjalfi on the back, which sent the young Æsir flying through the air. "--raced against Thought itself."
"That imp?" Thjalfi asked in astonishment as he picked himself up.
"Loki my friend, your rival in the eating contest? It was Fire -- which consumes all things as no living creature can."
Scowling, Thor put hand to hammer. "The drinking horn? The water level hardly changed after three huge swallows!"
"The little gray kitten?"
"The World Serpent."
"The stooped hag who sent me to my knees?"
The giant guffawed. "That, my hearty friend, was Old Age."
Thor's ruddy face turned redder than ever, and he whirled his mighty hammer, Mjölnir. "By Asgard's snow-tipped peaks, I'll smash your head in, you trickster!"
But the giant vanished, leaving nothing behind except the thundering echo of his laugh.
from the Prose Edda
Posted at: 03:01 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Eight Days -- flash fiction
May 27, 2017
Fu Shai and Lu Yundi argued all the way back to the coast. "Why did you have to insult our guide?" Shai asked when they found their path cut off by a steep ravine.
"Don't need a guide," Yundi said, backtracking. "Have a lodestone. North is all that matters."
"It's taking too long this way. The native would have taken us--"
"We'll get there eventually," Yundi interrupted.
"Eventually will do us no good if we arrive too late."
"I've kept track of the days. We have plenty of time."
"Kept track, have you? As accurate with the days as with that map you drew?"
"It was accurate until that over-sized grub ate a pathway through the paper. Hardly my fault."
"Admiral Zheng He will not be pleased. What good is a rich copper deposit if the Emperor's miners cannot find it?"
"It wasn't all that rich. The Emperor won't want to waste time on a middling mine so far from Mother China, wait and see."
"So what good our trek across the blazing hot savanna, tracking that ore? We could have stayed in comfort on the coast."
"The crocodile-infested coast? Not for me! No inland pests but cute little wallabies. I've slept easy this whole journey."
"Look, a seabird! We can't be far now." Yundi grinned. "By my reckoning we still have eight days until sailing."
The scouts picked up their pace, winding ever north between eucalyptus stands and vine-thickets. The land took a lazy time slumping down to sea level. The shore at last came into sight, an unfamiliar stretch of beach.
Shai pointed west. "Let's try that direction."
"No, I think we should go east."
They bickered until Shai spotted a dugout heading their way. He ran out into the surf, waving, calling to the wiry nut-brown man at the paddle. Pidgin trading language brought an answer. "Go west to big ship village."
The sun sailed low and bright ahead as they slogged along, but in the east rose banks of clouds as dark as mud.
"I hope the astronomers have finished their star-charts," Yundi said as they hurried. "It will not be a clear night."
"Star-charting, the least of our worries," Shai said, glancing over his shoulder. "Monsoon coming."
"Nonsense. Too early in the season."
"If you counted right."
When the harbor came into view, Shai stumbled to a halt. Sixty-two massive ocean-going junks in Admiral Zheng's fleet -- and not one at anchor. Not a single ship in sight.
"No, no, no!" Shai howled. He burst into a run, hurtled along the beach and up the shore to the colony huts.
Abandoned, all abandoned -- except for the shrine to Tianfei. One old monk sat there beside the statue of the Celestial Spouse, the guardian of mariners. The hermit cackled. "Company! Lucky me. Won't have to sit vigil all alone. It's two years until they return, you know."
In the east, like a great violet and indigo dragon, the monsoon crawled up the sky, spitting lightning, spreading wide its wings of unending rain.
In 1405 the Yongle Emperor sent Admiral Zheng He on a series of voyages to the Western Ocean (Indian Ocean) to visit countries near and far, flexing the muscles of the Chinese Empire, tamping down the plague of pirates. Accounts say that Zheng, with his huge fleet of massive, nine-masted, ocean-going junks, established colonies on the southern land of Chui Hiao (Australia) for mining gold, silver, copper and tin. Astronomers accompanied the Admiral and studied the southern skies.
Detailed records remain of Zheng's first five voyages, but the accounts and maps made during the sixth and seventh voyages were destroyed by the Ming dynasty. Old tales, though, say that in 1432 his fleet sailed all around the coast of Australia. Reasonably accurate maps of Australia, laid out in porcelain, date from 1477.
At one site on Australia's north coast, the "Top End," sand dunes swallowed a statue of the Taoist goddess Tianfei -- to emerge centuries later, a tantalizing enigma from the past.
In his homeland, Admiral Zheng He erected a tablet that told of his travels:
"We have traversed more than 100,000 li (50,000 kilometers) of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare…"
Posted at: 02:58 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Bangle -- flash fiction
May 19, 2017
This week's challenge: In 500 words, tell what happens when someone receives a bottle.
Samanya stared at the strangers trudging up the bank from the river. "Have you ever seen anyone with a face that pale?" she asked her big brother Bakari. The men wore headgear with brims like flattened baskets. Their clothes covered them from neck to toe. "Perhaps they dwell in caves and must hide from the sun when they crawl out."
Bakari laughed. "They rowed up the river under full sun, and there are no caves downstream."
One stranger called and waved, an unseemly gesture. "Barbarian," Bakari said with a sniff of disdain.
The other two travelers carried large packs on their backs and gazed at all the folk of Chidzurgwe who came out to see them. "Traders?" Samanya guessed. Bakari nodded.
Chidzurgwe's headman gave stiff greetings to the three men. He and the strangers threw words back and forth until they settled on a dialect partly understood by both sides. "Ah," Bakari said. "They know tribes closer to the coast. They must have come from the sea, from some far country."
The headman appointed a spokesman from among Chidzurgwe's traders, then went about his own business. So did Bakari. Samanya and other children followed as the spokesman led the strangers to the marketplace where mats and booths already hosted folk from near and far. What do ghost-white foreignors have to trade? Samanya wondered.
Ghost-white bowls and jars, painted with blue designs, glinting in the sun. Beads of every color and shape. Skinny jars clear as water but hard as copper. Samanya had seen ceramics and beads before, carried by traders with honest dark skin, but not the skinny jars.
Many citizens took interest in the goods, but the traders turned down the copper offered in exchange. "Smooth," they kept saying. "Give us smooth."
Samanya and her friends ran to find smooth pebbles, smooth twigs, smooth monkey pelts.
The strangers frowned. "Smooth!" they insisted. "Ororo! Ororo!"
When Samanya held out a piece of ivory, one trader grabbed her wrist. "Ororo!" he cried, grabbing at her copper wrist bangle. He yanked it free and pointed to the gold wire adornment. "Ouro, ouro!"
"Mine!" Samanya cried, reaching for her bangle.
The trader shoved one of the clear jars into her grasp instead. If anything was smooth, this glass thing was. She shook her head. Her grandmother had given her that bangle. She thrust the bottle back, other hand open, demanding. "Mine!"
The three barbarians grabbed at wrists of women and girls, trying to take any bracelet spangled with gold. Squeals and screams brought the men of town, Bakari among them.
"Ouro, ouro!" the strangers cried as they were wrestled to the ground. "Trade for ouro!"
"The fools seek gold?" Bakari scoffed as he helped tie the men. "Why don't they say so? Can't talk straight, and don't know which way to turn. Coming to copper-rich Chidzurgwe when everyone knows the gold mines are north at Masappa."
Samanya took back her gold-spangled copper bangle. "The word," she told the ruffians, pointing to the gold wire, "is dhahabu."
Set in 16th century Zimbabwe. Swahili and Portuguese words were mangled in the making of this story.
Posted at: 03:57 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Waterway -- short story
April 28, 2017
This week's challenge: In 500 words, tell what happens when an animal affects the outcome.
[I went way over the 500-word limit, reprinting a story I wrote years ago.]
Talks With Totems splashed through the shallows and up the bank to the longhouse. She knelt before the elders, gaze lowered.
"Did Raven speak?"
"Yes, Grandmother," the girl said.
"Did Raven accept our offering? Was it enough?"
"Yes, but--" She gulped. "He says he cannot do this alone. He says he must have the help of First Salmon, and she will ask a price of her own."
The elders fell silent.
Talks With Totems stared down, fingers clenched on knees. The village had given the bones of First Salmon to the waterway many days ago. By now the bones must have washed halfway to the sea.
The elders muttered among themselves. This matter could not wait another whole year for the next feast of First Salmon. "One must follow the waterway and call to First Salmon," one elder said at last. "As soon as the men return with the canoes."
"Can we wait even that long?" another asked. "Let us make a raft and send Talks With Totems while the sun is high."
"I will take her," came a voice.
Talks With Totems turned to stare at the young man with the twisted leg.
"You?" an elder asked.
Tries Hard stood tall. "A duck-hunting boat is better than a raft."
"It is finished?"
"Yes, Grandmother. Just this morning. The prow carved and painted to please the drakes and draw them near."
"Then let it ride the waterway like a drake and take you swiftly to find First Salmon."
Talks With Totems rose and followed Tries Hard's limping gait. As she helped drag the craft down to the water's edge, her fingers caressed the smooth-sanded carvings. She hoped First Salmon would find the fine work pleasing.
One of the elders tottered down to the riverside with a doeskin pouch, handing it to Talks With Totems. "Offer this to First Salmon, and sing her your sweetest praise."
"A boat?" a man's voice called.
Talks With Totems glanced over her shoulder. Here came that message runner from the Yakima tribe east of the mountains.
"You said you had no boats until your men returned!" he growled.
"No canoes worthy of carrying a warrior," an elder said. "This is just a duck-hunting boat."
"A boat is a boat. I need to take my message downriver to the Suquamish. Let me ride with these children."
Tries Hard's lips pressed thin as swallow's breath.
Talks With Totems turned to face the messenger. "You forget our tribe has not the tallness of the Yakima. We are not children."
He waved his hand in scorn. "You are young. Take me to the Suquamish."
Talks With Totems looked to the elders.
"They will take you to the river's mouth," an old woman said. "You must make your own way from there."
The Yakima climbed into the boat, clumsy as a dog. Talks With Totems helped Tries Hard shove the craft into the current. "This one knows not the way of water," she murmured to the youth before they climbed aboard. "I fear his dry heart will sour our quest."
Tries Hard clucked his tongue in agreement. He knelt in the rear of the boat, stroking the current with a leaf-shaped paddle, carved and painted like the body of a salmon.
"What is this line of sticks sprouting across the river?" the Yakima asked.
"A fish trap. See. The salmon still run."
The duck-boat slid through the narrow opening left between poles. At the next weir, boys perched on the platform running along the row of stakes, spearing the salmon that bunched up behind the barrier.
Around every turn of the waterway Talks With Totems sang a plea. "First Salmon, do you hear me? First Salmon, are you here?"
On every straight stretch, the Yakima pelted her with questions. "Why do you clasp that amulet when you sing?" he asked.
"That's how I talk with totems. They heed me when I touch the shining metal."
"Where did it come from?"
"I found it in the belly of a salmon when I was a child. The totems sent it."
His voice still rang dry and haughty. "Why is your village called River With Two Mouths? I see only one stream."
"When the snow melts and the spring rains fall, the river fills so full it flows both downstream and upstream to the lake."
On a cord tied between two trees, white garments flapped like trapped geese as they drifted past a settler's cabin.
"Why do you let the pale foreigners camp on your banks?" The words rang harsh.
Behind the Yakima's stiff shoulders, Tries Hard met Talks With Totem's gaze, sharing her distress. How could this war-loving man understand the ways of the Duwamish? The folk of the waterway walked a different path, a path of peace.
"That is why we seek First Salmon," she answered. "The settlers came first like raindrops but now like a flood. Raindrops we do not mind. But the flood will wash our people away, drown the memory of our tribe. Raven will stem the tide if First Salmon will lend him her strength."
She bit back the rest of the story. Why feed the fire of his anger? He already fumed against the foreigners for staking claims to land in the Yakima valley.
"First Salmon, do you hear me? First Salmon, are you here?"
The Duwamish had welcomed their new neighbors like kin, but what was their reward? The settlers talked of tearing out the fish traps, poling wide-bellied barges up the river for coal to haul to the sea, sending the river folk away.
"Who is this First Salmon?" the Yakima scoffed. "Why ask the totems to do what arrows and knives can do even better?"
Talks With Totems closed her eyes, drawing a long breath. Which was more important, politeness to distant kin or the salvation of her tribe? She turned one quick look to Tries Hard. "Put ashore," she said.
He ran the boat aground on a gravel bar littered with salmon bones.
"I see we go too slow for you." Talks With Totems pointed into the trees. "Up the bank you will find the old man of the river. Ask him for passage."
The Yakima glared, then heaved himself over the boat's side and stumbled on rocks slick with rotting salmon flesh. "Children," he spat and stomped up the trail.
Tries Hard sent the duck-boat swirling out into the current, mouth twitching against a grin. "Old man of the river," he laughed. So the Duwamish had named the cranky old bear that claimed this fishing spot.
On either side of the waterway, the banks grew lower, the ground marshy. Another river joined the first like strands knotting into a braid. Late in the summer there would be trails to run on foot, but now in the wet times only the waterway gave passage throughout the lowlands.
Alder and willow hung over the river. A blue heron leaped from the shallows and beat its way to the high branches of a cottonwood. An eagle circled far overhead, and peace flowed once more along the waterway.
"First Salmon, do you hear me?" Talks With Totems sang. "First Salmon, are you here?"
"I am here," came a voice, hoarse and throaty. A head bobbed in the green water of the deeper current, a skull, white, shimmering with flecks of salmon scales.
Tries Hard gasped, splashed the paddle, beat the water to hold their position.
Talks With Totems lowered her gaze. "First Salmon, I bring the praise of my people."
"Why do you follow me? What is this noise I hear on the river, this clamor of anger and malice, spilling out like blood on the stream? The taste is bitter, and you talk of praise. Hah!" The skull spat and sank lower in the water.
"Please, First Salmon, I sent the angry one to land. My people need you. Raven sent me to ask you for help."
The skull rose again, empty eye sockets glaring. "You disturb my sleep. You slow my drift to the sea. Why should I help?"
"I bring you this offering." Talks With Totems held out the doeskin bag. She shivered at the sight of a skeletal hand reaching to take it, finger-bones clacking, water dribbling along the twin arm-bones.
First Salmon snatched the bag and plunged underwater, the river gurgling in an eddy.
Talks With Totems glanced at Tries Hard who back-paddled, eyes wide, mouth tight.
"It's not enough." The skull had surfaced again. "Give me more."
"I have nothing more," the girl said.
"Your amulet. And the boat."
Talks With Totems sucked a sharp breath. Give up her amulet, the shining ring -- and never speak again with totems?
"The boat?" Tries Hard whispered.
Talks With Totems waved to a snag, the bleached wood lifting to the sky like the leg bone of a giant. "Do it," she said, her voice catching. She lifted the cord, slipped it over her head, clasped the dangling amulet one last time. "Do it for the sake of our people." They clambered out. She draped the amulet by its cord over the painted prow of the boat and together they pushed the craft back out into the stream. Together they clambered up onto the tangle of driftwood and watched the boat spin about, drifting on the river's back, wafting toward the sea not far downstream. The skull was nowhere in sight.
Talks With Totems and Tries Hard sat on the snag, glancing about at the marsh while the day dimmed. Neither spoke of trying to wade back upstream. They would wait for a passing canoe, and hope one came before many days passed. The elders were waiting for news of their quest.
And what news would it be? First Salmon had made no promises.
A heron flew past overhead, then another as shadows gathered under the woodland canopy. Somewhere beyond the clouds, Sister Sun was touching the rim of the world. Talks With Totems' hand raised to her collarbone, then slid back to her lap, empty. The amulet was gone. Her name no longer had meaning.
A breeze danced through her hair. She turned into the wind, tasted the whiff of the sea, the scent of brine and kelp.
A canoe appeared downstream, the person in it paddling with strong sure strokes, speeding the craft swift as a salmon. No, not a canoe. A duck-hunting boat.
And the person paddling wore a cloak of fish scales, glimmering even in the dusk.
First Salmon looked upon them, her bones now clothed in flesh, draped in silken hair glossy as Raven's wing. Her eyes, warm and soft as a doe's, glanced over the two young people perched on the snag. "Go tell your people they need not leave the river. Keep building your fish traps. The newcomers will take a different path to bring their firestones to the sea."
Talks With Totems sighed a glad long breath.
First Salmon lifted the paddle into her lap, smiled down at it, stroked the carving of eye and gill and fin. Her smile vanished, and she stood. The boat glided steady under her feet, remaining in place against the current. "But tell the people of the waterway to guard their ways. Even a gentle rain, if it lasts for years, can wash away as much good rich soil as one mighty flood."
The smooth curling eddies of the river shivered, dimpled, singing with a hiss as a drizzle swept in from the sea. Talks With Totems wiped rain from her eyes, then blinked and gazed around in the dusk. The boat bumped up against the snag, and Tries Hard grabbed for the prow rope. First Salmon was gone, and the paddle with her.
"I'll carve a new paddle," Tries Hard said, picking up a driftwood slab. "It won't take long."
"No," agreed Talks With Totems, picturing the river brown with silt stolen from land by the gentle rains. "It won't take long."
* * *
For 20 years I lived near the Cedar River, part of the Duwamish waterway. I loved watching the salmon runs, and the majestic flight of the Great Blue Heron. I saw bald eagles soaring high, or perching in the riverside cottonwoods upstream from town. Once I even spied a beaver meandering downstream -- where the river ran through downtown Renton, stores and department complexes on the banks.. Not the ideal surroundings for such a critter. I'm not sure where it was going!
In the early 1900's the waterways south of Lake Washington* changed course due to lake level dropping. (A canal with locks had been built near the north end of the lake.) Before that time, one section of river was known to run in reverse during flood season, flowing back into the lake instead of draining it, simply due to the raging flood level of the waterway. That is how it gained its Duwamish name, River With Two Mouths.
Earlier, in the mid 1800's, two factions of white settlers debated the best method of transporting coal from the hills east of Lake Washington to Puget Sound. One side wanted to send the Duwamish Indians to a reservation, destroy the fishing weirs, and ship by barge on the waterway.
The party that prevailed built a railway to the mines instead. For years the Duwamish lived peaceably with the whites near the river, but their tribal ways dwindled along with the salmon runs.
Now, when long-overdue restitution is being doled out to the Native Americans, priority goes to officially recognized tribes, and that recognition comes automatically for those tribes once forcibly shipped off to reservations. The Duwamish never suffered that cruel fate, but the ironic consequence is that their efforts to gain official status as a tribe have again been denied.
On July 3, 2015, this article appeared in the Seattle Times:
"The Duwamish Tribe’s decades-long quest to gain federal recognition hit a massive roadblock this week, as the U.S. Department of Interior issued its final decision denying such recognition to the tribe.
"In a letter to Cecile Hansen, tribal chairwoman, the department said it had determined the Duwamish 'is not entitled to be acknowledged as an Indian tribe within the meaning of federal law,' and emphasized that the decision was final for the department.
"Benefits of federal recognition include funding for housing, education and health care, and the possibility of land for a reservation and the ability to run a casino."
Posted at: 05:36 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Bittersweet -- flash fiction
April 21, 2017
This week's challenge: In 500 words, tell what happens when a deception takes place.
Citlali stepped down from the carriage. Not a drop spilled from the covered china cup she bore on a silver tray. She had mastered the balancing art swiftly, incurring a beating only three times, much fewer than any of the other Nahua maids.
Doña Maria Magdalena de Morales snapped her fan shut and gestured with it toward the bishop's mansion. "Go ahead. Say exactly what I told you."
"Si, Señora." Citlali dipped a curtsy. As she mounted the steps to the residence, she heard behind her in the coach the two women chirping gossip back and forth.
Citlali rapped on the grand mahogany door, then steadied her tray, biting her lip until at last a steward opened. He stared down his nose at her.
"Doña Maria Magdalena de Morales sends greetings," Citlali blurted, and pointed back at the carriage. "Greetings to His Excellency, the Most Reverend Bishop Bernardino de Salazar y Frias. Greetings and my lady's most humble apology for the strife and misunderstandings of the last month. Will His Excellency accept this token of my lady's sincere regret and her high regard for the most eminent personage of all Ciudad Real de Chiapas?"
"What is it?" the steward asked.
Citlali gulped. "Hot chocolate. Spiced. My lady's own special blend, served only to guests of the highest standing."
The steward's nostrils flared. "What insult! Is it not enough, the shame those haughty women bring to our fair cathedral! All because of their unquenchable thirst for chocolate. Disgusting!"
Citlali cast a despairing glance at the coach. Doña Magdalena had promised Citlali a thorough thrashing if she failed her task.
The steward followed Citlali's gaze, caught sight of the silken gowns and flounces and the feathered fan beating swift as an injured bird's wing. "Very well," he snapped, and took the silver tray. "Tell your mistress she’d better show evidence of a humble, repentant heart if she wishes to be allowed to attend Mass ever again." The door boomed shut.
Citlali darted down the steps, clambered into the carriage, hunkered down in her place. Breathless, she repeated for her mistress every word the steward had said.
All the way back to the mansion, Doña Maria Magdalena de Morales chattered with her dear friend Doña Maria Luisa Gutierrez de la Peña y Rodriguez about their little joke. "The most splendid touch it was, Magdalena, sending our dear husbands in to brandish swords in the aisles! Never before have I seen a bishop's face turn from white to red to purple!"
"What a tantrum he threw! Threatening to excommunicate us simply because we craved a little refreshment in the midst of his never-ending sermons. A most fitting retribution, don't you think?"
Luisa tittered again. "What a wicked woman you are, Magdalena!"
Their voices trilled as if in jest, but Citlali suspected the words held more than a grain of truth.
She was sure of it when the next day she heard word of the death of Bishop Bernardino de Salazar y Frias. Death by poisoning.
This event is supposed to have taken place in AD 1626 in the Spanish settlement called Ciudad Real de Chiapas, today known as San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.
My source material mentions Doña Magdalena de Morales and Bishop Bernardino de Salazar y Frias. The high-born women of Chiapas had indigenous servants supplying them with hot chocolate during Mass.
Ever after, Mexicans say a person got "su propio chocolate" (his own chocolate), meaning a taste of "his own medicine"!
Posted at: 04:28 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Cargo -- flash fiction
April 14, 2017
This week's challenge: In 500 words, tell what happens when a collision takes place.
Mazatl paddled madly for shore. The wind blowing astern toyed with him, for it gave greater aid to the vessel in pursuit-- a great shell skimming the waves with white wings outspread to catch the tiniest breeze.
He saw no break in the wall of jungle ahead, no river mouth to give shelter. He veered his dugout to seek haven northwards.
The wind-blown ship cut across his path.
His dugout collided with its massive flank. Mazatl huddled amidships, trying to tame his fearful heart.
Faces peered down at him from the rail above, faces pale as the wings that now folded beyond them. A vessel of ghosts!
Ropes came whipping out. Ghosts slid down to land with solid thumps in the dugout. One held a silvery blade to Mazatl's throat, though the paddler had no thought of fight. Every muscle clenched in terror.
The other figures-- not ghosts after all, not the way they made the dugout wallow with their weight-- they rummaged through Mazatl's belongings. Food for the journey, waterskins, a cloak. They found his cargo.
They chattered at him then, like monkeys with deep voices, holding out the bags, demanding.
Mazatl could do nothing but shake in fear.
They went back up the ropes like spiders, taking his cargo. The last one lashed a rope around Mazatl's chest, and the ones above hauled him aboard, banging against wooden planks all the way up.
No mistaking the chief of the ghosts, garbed in cloth of rich colors, glinting with silver, a sweeping headdress. Mazatl bowed before the white-skinned personage, addressed by the others as Koh-Lum-Boh. They showed no intent to devour him, as Mazatl had first feared. He dared to hope he might survive this encounter.
The chief ordered the cargo bags opened.
Mazatl's terror subsided. Merely thieves, these ghosts were! Somehow they had known the valuable cargo he carried and meant to--
No, they looked puzzled. The chief took a handful from the bag, rolled in his fingers, sniffed, eyed the dark brown nuggets closely, then turned his gaze on Mazatl. More chattering.
Mazatl shrugged his bafflement.
One cacao bean dropped to the deck and rolled aside.
On impulse Mazatl grabbed for the kernel, worth a tomato or tamale in the market at Yucatan.
The chief narrowed his eyes at Mazatl's clenched fist. He drizzled the remaining beans back into the bag and barked orders. His men hauled the bags away.
The chief regarded Mazatl a moment longer, then waved at the ship's rail. His men hoisted the native to his feet and dumped him overboard.
Mazatl surfaced, sputtering, and watched the vessel's wings spread once more. The great ship surged ahead and plowed through the waves, shrinking in his sight as he hauled himself aboard his dugout.
No use going to Yucatan. The cargo he had just lost would have bought him a flock of turkeys and set him on the path to wealth. He turned and headed home with his dugout and life intact, one cacao bean and a tale beyond belief.
Posted at: 12:45 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
The Stone Suit -- flash fiction
April 7, 2017
This week's challenge: In 500 words, describe what happens when the news is surprising
Gicha bent the shade tree's lower branches and lashed them together, shielding his newly planted cacao sapling from the blazing sun.
The living tapestry around him rippled in every shade of green. Sweet warm aromas wafted down from the sunlit canopy overhead. Musty odors arose from the disturbed duff of the jungle floor. Trailing vines shivered in the breeze. Monkeys chattered. Parrots squawked high in the branches.
Footsteps pattered, climbing uphill towards him. Little Pook battered his way through the ferns. His tear-streaked face crumpled. "Uncle Gicha! Come quick-- Mother, it took Mother!" The boy threw himself at Gicha, wrapping arms tight around his legs.
"Peace, little one," Gicha said, rubbing the boy's back.
"Hurry! Father says hurry fast as you can!"
Gicha followed Pook at a run along the narrow trail until at last they came out into the pineapple field near his brother's hut. "What is it?" Gicha called. "A jaguar?"
Aso huddled in the doorway, rocking back and forth, moaning. "Not a jaguar. A Tzitzimilt. She's lost! My sweet Yauwi--"
"A Tzitzimilt took your wife?" Gicha shuddered. "Which way did it go?"
Aso pointed across the field.
"Arm yourself! We'll give chase."
"I can't, not with this leg." A wild pig had gored Aso in the thigh five days ago.
"Pook, bring me your father's spear." Gicha set off running. He knew where the Tzitzimilt was going. Up the rocky peak, to the haunted cave they called the Stone Suit.
As Gicha darted through the cacao grove, he heard tiny voices squeaking, "Go not into the Suit!" "Wait wait wait!" "Wait till he comes out!" "Beware! One is not enough."
Gicha halted long enough to bow before the oracles hanging from a branch. They twitched their webbed wings, flicked their large ears.
Gicha raced uphill. In one damp spot in the path he saw the creature's footprint, twice as long as his own. He gulped, went on. The thought of poor Yauwi in the Tzitzimilt's grip struck a blow to his belly.
He faltered as he approached the dark mouth of the cave. He would take the bats' wise counsel. Instead of plunging in, he climbed to a ledge above the entrance. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he squealed like a stuck pig. A Tzitzimilt may hunger for human flesh, but not nearly as much as for pork.
When the great hairy beast poked its head out into the open air, Gicha leapt down and with the force of his fall struck home with the spear.
The Tzitzimilt twisted at the last moment. The strike merely wounded and enraged the monster. One is not enough. How true. Gicha was doomed.
A stone flew out of the depths of the cave, clipping the Tzitzimilt on the back of its human-like skull. It collapsed, dazed, and Gicha finished it off.
Yauwi climbed over the great hairy body, turned and kicked it in the ribs, and gave Gicha a wan smile. Together they headed down the path towards home.
a folktale from the Paya (Pech) people of Honduras in Central America
Posted at: 10:34 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Tatters -- flash fiction
March 31, 2017
This week's challenge: In 500 words, describe what happens when a childhood memory affects the outcome.
Gunnhild hurried to the turn in the trail. Her snowshoes knocked together with each step, disturbing the silence of the forest. She peered up the dim, shadowy tunnel between the trees. Her shoulders sagged.
"Have we come yet?" asked Astrid.
Gunnhild tightened her tattered cloak around her shoulders. "No, there's no sign."
"It's getting dark, and I'm cold and tired."
"Please Frigga, let it be not much further," Gunnhild muttered under her breath. When she heard Astrid's teeth chattering, she wrapped her own cloak of ragged squirrel skins over her little sister's shawl.
Winter air nipped and gnawed at Gunnhild's skin. If they didn't find shelter soon, they would perish of cold.
If they didn't perish of something worse. Gunnhild had not pointed out to her sister the tracks they had passed at the forest edge. Footprints twice as large as a bear's, with a stride longer than that of a moose. At the tip of each toeprint, a stab in the snow like a dagger thrust. The spoor of a mountain troll.
In the frozen stillness, one small sound echoed. The snapping of a bough.
Gunnhild halted her sister. The wintry air stabbed their nostrils with the empty metallic odor of deep winter. Their breaths puffed in clouds as they peered all about in the gloom.
Their mother had always warned them never to stray far from the fireside after dark. But now, orphaned, they had no hearth of their own.
What else had their mother said? Gunnhild pried through her memories. One sunny autumn day they had roamed the forest, hunting for hazelnuts. Their mother had pointed out a hollow oak which might be the dwelling place of a nisse, and an ash tree, sacred to the elvenfolk. She had picked sprigs of holly which could be used as a defense against otherworldly creatures. She had pointed out...
Gunnhild spun in place, her gaze darting from tree to tree. What chance was there to find such a refuge? "Frigga must be watching," she murmured, for there, a furlong away, stood a spruce with three trunks sprouting from the same root.
"That tree!" Gunnhild hissed. "Go on. I will be right behind you."
Their snowshoes whisked in the snow. Gunnhild heard the thump of snow hitting the ground, a bough-load giving way all at once. Then another thump, and another.
"Run!" she shrieked.
Now they could hear the monster's breath, panting and grunting like a charging bull.
Astrid leaped with a clatter of snowshoes into the gap between the spruce trunks and flattened herself to make room for Gunnhild, a step behind.
The half-light dimmed to full dark as something loomed just beyond the spruce's heavy boughs. Gunnhild’s eyes widened in terror at the sight of a huge horny hand swatting at the branches. The monster bent to peer after its prey.
Gunnhild gagged at the stench of its breath. She stared at the shadowy rough-skinned face, nose like a barrel, fangs glinting like swords.
The troll squinted, flared nostrils, bellowed disgust, turned to circle the three-trunked spruce. Its tail flashed past -- thicker than her arm, ending in a mangy, dung-streaked tuft.
Growling like boulders in a river flood, the monster battered at the boughs, ripping them clean away. "Hungry, hungry!" the ogre thundered. "Smell warm blood. But be it mankind -- or squirrelkind?"
Gunnhild's gaze flew to the tattered squirrel-skin cloak. She ripped it from Astrid's shoulders, wrapped it into a ball, hurled it into the open.
The troll pounced upon the furball and devoured it in one gulp. "Squirrel it was," the creature said, licking its fangs. "Stringy thing. Not much meat." The troll tromped away through the forest.
Gunnhild hugged Astrid until the woodland fell silent again. Full darkness settled. On the chill night wind came the smell of woodsmoke, and she saw a glimmer of firelight. "Look!" she cried, pointing. "We've found safety at last!"
(a greatly modified excerpt from a novel in the works)
Posted at: 05:09 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
MILIA XVI -- flash fiction
March 24, 2017
This week's challenge: In 500 words, write a story in which a milestone is reached
Keelin ran back to the hazel thicket where Maccus still crouched. She wriggled through the saplings, settled at his side.
"Don't take such risks," Maccus said. "If you're caught, there's nothing I can do to save you."
"I wasn't caught then, was I?" Keelin said with a toss of her hair. She tucked her drab hunting skirts out of the way and smoothed a patch of dirt between them. "Too many letters to remember them all, but Granny says the top part is all bragging anyway. The last ones are what count." She sketched in the dirt, "M-P-XVI."
Maccus snorted. "I don't read those Roman scratches. Means nothing to me."
"Granny showed me another milestone once. She said the humpback 'M' stands for 'miles.' I don't remember what the 'P' means, but the 'XVI' tells how many miles to Coria. We just have to add them together."
"Numbers and adding I can do," Maccus said. "X plus V plus I sums up to--"
"Hush!" Keelin hissed. She pointed west along the stone road.
The tramp of feet sounded. Soon there appeared a gold-trimmed, beribboned, red silk standard lurching up and down with the stride of the carrier who now came into sight. A Roman soldier. One of many.
Keelin and Maccus drew lots to see who would make first report. Maccus got the short stick. "Now you get to do the adding," he told her. "Don't lose count!"
"Who, me? I've kept track of the flocks since my seventh summer. Hurry now. I'll be right on your heels if you dawdle."
Maccus crept away from their vantage point, keeping low and silent in the wildwoods, carrying word to the leaders of the rebellion.
Keelin counted beneath her breath. "Yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp. Sethera, lethera, hovera, dovera, dick. Yan-a-dick, tyan-a-dick, tethera-dick, methera-dick, bumfit. Yan-a-bumfit, tyan-a-bumfit, tethera bumfit, methera bumfit, giggot." Each time she reached giggot, a score, she dropped a pebble to her lap and started over the count.
A commander and other officers rode past, mounted on stallions. More foot soldiers followed. Several wagons came along in the rear.
Keelin's eyes widened as the pile of pebbles grew. Soon she had more than a score cradled in her lap. That many soldiers, they must have emptied Vindolanda fort! When the last Roman had vanished into the east and the dust had settled, she poured the pebbles into her belt pouch, rose, and set off to carry her report.
In lands far to the south, power-hungry men strove for an emperor's throne. And now the governor of Britannia, Clodius Albinus, meant to join the fray-- backed by all the legions stationed here in the Empire’s far north. He thought it safe to leave the land of the Brits under a skeleton crew. He thought he had these barbarians cowed, subdued, thoroughly bound to the yoke of Rome.
How wrong he was. Here in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, the fire of freedom still burned hot in British hearts. Liberty!
------ background ---------------
Sixteen Roman miles west of Corbridge (Coria) and a mile south of Hadrian’s Wall, one last milestone still stands not far from the Vindolanda fortress. Its inscription has been worn off after centuries of cattle rubbing their itchy hides on the convenient stone pillar.
Did this milestone stand in 196AD when Governor Clodius Albinus, seeking emperor’s laurels, left the land undefended and the Brigante tribe rose in rebellion? Other still-legible milestones unearthed in the area date from the 3rd and 4th centuries.
M-P-XVI stands for Milia Passuum 10+5+1, a format of inscription common to other Roman milestones and likely enough to have once adorned the last stone standing.
Keelin used the shepherds’ tally common in Borrowdale, deep in the heart of the mountains of the Lake District -- a rugged district that for many ages harbored the fierce and independent Brigante tribe.
Posted at: 06:16 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Twitch -- flash fiction
March 17, 2017
The writing challenge this weekend: In 500 words, write a story where something is not as it seems.
Whiskers sat on the porch rail, still as stone. Nothing moved but the tip of her tail. Without a blink, she stared at the small statue in the neighbor's front yard. A new statue.
The evening breeze blew a leaf across the lawn. A butterfly jiggled through the air within reach. Mouse feet scrabbled beneath the porch, but Whiskers didn't stir.
A mutt trotted by, slowing its pace to sniff the air. With a whine it tucked its tail between its legs and slunk away.
Human folk strode past on the sidewalk, even blinder than the dog.
The sun sank at last to perch on the horizon. Whiskers gave one slow blink. It was time.
She leapt to the grass and stalked across the lawn. Parting her mouth, she sniffed the frozen, brightly-colored features of the gnome. No doubt about it.
As the sun settled to half a disk, Whiskers circled the gnome statue three times counterclockwise, faced the culprit, then yawned wide. Aiming straight at the gnome, she sneezed.
The gnome's grin melted into a fanged grimace. The chubby cheeks turned hollow. The snowy white beard twisted straggly and gray as lichen.
Whiskers stood on tip toe, arching her back, fur bristling to double her size. She hissed at the imp.
The creature shrieked. It bolted for the Rhododendron hedge and dove into a hole between two gnarly roots.
As twilight settled deeper, Whiskers sniffed at the opening. It smelled of lizards and snakes and slithery things with no name -- a curdled, rotten odor. She turned and scratched at the dirt, filling the hole, then tramped it down with velvety paws. Purring an enchantment, Whiskers sharpened her claws on the trunk and branches above the spot. Slivers and curls of bark sprinkled the fresh dirt, sealing the spell.
By morning, the leaves on this Rhododendron would begin to curl and turn brown, and the neighbor would curse that stupid, useless cat next door.
Whiskers would yawn -- a yawn of the everyday variety -- and in humor twitch the tip of her tail. What wizard expects respect or thanks from the silly creatures she guards?
Posted at: 04:33 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Malinger -- flash fiction
March 4, 2017
The writing challenge this weekend: In 500 words, write a story where somebody misses a deadline.
Turold saw his master rein in and wheel about in the road, beckoning. But the youth could go no faster. He'd already run a dozen miles, trying to keep up.
Sir Vital swung down from the saddle and untied his roll. As Turold came staggering up, the knight said, "I see the walls of Carlel ahead. Help me with my chain mail."
The sway-backed horse shuffled to the verge to graze while the Normans struggled with the unwieldy, linked-metal coat. Sir Vital girded his sword belt, then tackled the saddle. Turold boosted him astride the horse they'd acquired at midmorning. The knight shouldered his kite-shaped shield and settled his lance.
The heavy-boned gelding flicked his ears and snorted when goaded back to the road. He surged into a heavy trot at Vital's insistence.
Turold sighed, then pelted after them. He reached his master, stopped at Carlel's eastern gate, in time to hear the guard say, "They left at sunrise, like the summons ordered. Surely you weren't expecting Lord Ranulf to wait for malingerers!"
"I was not malingering!" Sir Vital protested. "Both my destriers went lame, one yesterday, the other this morn. As did my squire's mule. I've had the most rotten luck."
The guard looked over the knight's mount. "Where did you get that sorry nag? Cut him loose from his plough harness?"
Sir Vital sputtered, for indeed it was the truth. "That is none of your affair. Just set me on the path to take. I'll catch them up."
"Not on that sorry beast, you won't." The guard pointed out the road heading southwest.
Turold groaned and ran after his master. Inglewood Forest, overhanging both sides of the road, soon swallowed Sir Vital from sight. This ancient road curved its way to the south. To the foothills. To the shadow of the wild, haunted mountains where still hid an alliance of English and Norse rebels led by legendary Earl Buthar.
Ranulf le Meschin had hemmed in his foe in the heights. For thirty years Ranulf, companion to the Conqueror himself, had sallied against Earl Buthar, first from the south, then from the east, gaining little ground, suffering great losses. Now Ranulf had drafted soldiers from across the Channel, men who had not heard of those failures or the cursed barbarians. With this great host he could not lose.
Turold slowed to a trudge. He wasn't malingering. He was utterly spent.
Turold halted when he saw the plough-horse galloping back along the road. But it wasn't Sir Vital who thundered past. It was a Norman nobleman in gilded armor now dented, his face ashen, brow bloody, kite-shield missing.
Turold gaped after the man pelting back to Carlel, then set off at a run. Where was Sir Vital?
Standing by the side of the road, scratching his head and staring as two more sorry-looking noblemen galloped back to Carlel.
"I think," said Sir Vital, "we should thank all the hosts of heaven for our rotten luck this morning. Turn about, lad. It'll be a long walk home."
Posted at: 09:46 AM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Spiral -- flash fiction
February 24, 2017
The writing challenge this weekend: In 500 words, write a story where somebody discovers a new talent.
For the third day in a row, Joshua Newell did not touch his pencils. They lay ready and waiting in the tray. Wind whisked at the blank page of his sketchpad. He sat on his balcony, unmoving, gazing at the vista spread below.
There were plenty of subjects to sketch: bluff grasses, shell-spangled dunes, high-water wrack twining with tendrils of drying kelp, skittish cliques of sandpipers, lone seagulls, the surge of water etching patterns on the sand, waves, waves, more waves out to the horizon.
Plenty of subjects, but not the one his eye sought out, the one his hand itched to draw.
At noon, Joshua stood abruptly, left his supplies on the balcony, and stalked down to the beach. How Sasha had loved their yearly idyll here -- rustic resort right on the coast, salty sea breezes, all the sand you could wish for. She built sand palaces, sculpted mermaids, dug mazes populated by trolls and dragons.
He would sketch from the balcony, carry down a picnic lunch, take photos, haul buckets of sea water, laugh at her sand-polished knees by end of day.
How could she be gone? Snatched away by fate. Without her, the beach, the very world yawned empty and drab.
Joshua did not remember picking up the long slender piece of driftwood. He glanced down and found it there in his grip, then looked behind, surprised to see the line it had traced in the sand as he wandered in a great arc. Stepping lightly to keep his beach shoes from making pockmarks, he continued the curve, encircling the sand-canvas Sasha so loved.
Not a circle, not quite. Joshua veered inwards. A spiral, a vast spiral tightening toward the center. Perhaps when he got there, he would find Sasha, miraculously returned to him.
His steps slowed. He stopped at the innermost curl of the spiral. She wasn't there, of course. He thought his heart would break all over again.
He whirled and stomped away across the nested curves of the spiral. Beyond the last arc he stabbed his driftwood spear into the ground.
It quivered there, and into Joshua's mind flew the image of Sasha's finger shaking back and forth. A spatter of rain brushed his cheek, soft as her kiss. A seagull screeched, though somehow it sounded like laughter. Sasha's laughter.
Sheepish, he took up the driftwood stylus again. He spent another hour embroidering the spiral. Staccato lines of footprints radiating like beams of light from the center, cross-hatching shadows to make it look three-dimensional, scrolling leafwork springing from the outer edges.
The tide came to see, to taste, to lick at his work. Joshua trudged back up to his room. Out on the balcony he set his driftwood stylus beside his art kit, and gazed down once more at the beach. He clucked a tongue at the lop-sided pattern being swallowed by the waves.
Design elements already sprang to mind. Tomorrow he wouldn't doodle. Tomorrow, in Sasha's memory, he would create a masterpiece.
Posted at: 06:26 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Hollow -- flash fiction
February 17, 2017
The writing challenge this weekend: In 500 words, write about someone moving away.
Sass watched the little folk scurry around cheeping to each other. They wouldn't notice her, not as long as she held still in the shadows uphill.
What a fuss they were making! All upset that their sticks and rags had been moved again while they went off to hibernate.
Busy as beavers in a stream, the little folk uprooted the sticks and spent the rest of the day lining them up again. Oh yes, a nice straight line. They were good at "straight." They didn't appreciate the artful curves she had made, rearranging the sticks whenever they were gone.
They weren't the only ones upset. Sass knew what the widely-spaced parade of sticks meant. The little folk planned to make a hard-way along that route. A nice straight hard-way. How foolish! A curving hard-way would follow the rumples in the land. They wouldn't need to dig away a hillside here, and dump dirt piles there, to keep the hard-way level.
They liked level, oh yes. Level and straight.
But this particular way aimed right at the thicket of alders that crowded like sentinels around a great hollow cedar stump. Her cedar stump.
Five times in her life, Sass had needed to move away from a perfectly fine hollow stump when the little folk came bustling into her corner of the rain forest. They brought three-legged peeper stands and salmon-colored rags, cheeped back and forth, set out their lines of sticks. Next would come the tree-biters and rumble-tubs, tearing up the draperies and lacy nettings of greenery, toppling the tree-pillars, tearing down the living canopy overhead until the sun reached through to scorch the ravaged earth.
Most baffling to Sass about the little folk in all their scurrying and rumbling and ripping, they trampled the myriad bushes and sprigs and creepers that bore such a scrumptious bounty of purpleberries.
Her mouth watered at the thought. How she loved her purpleberries! Some purpleberries clustered smooth on stems amidst holly-like leaves. Others with pimpled surfaces sprouted in ones and twos along a ground-hugging bramble. Others dangled from twisty-stemmed bushes with oval leaves. Each purpleberry, such a delight to the tongue!
Sass blinked away her feast-dreaming and turned her gaze back to the little folk, their crusty foot-covers crushing the ferns.
She did not want to move away. So each night, she moved a way. Rearranged that parade of sticks to skirt far from the alder thicket.
She heaved a sigh and scratched her thick pelt. Her plan wasn't working. Sooner or later, the little folk would rumble-tub right through her thicket, smashing the cedar arch, breaking the portal between worlds.
The damp earth cool between her toes, Sass slipped through the mossy aisles between towering cedars, firs, and hemlocks, leaving an occasional print twice as long as any little folk's foot. If she couldn't find another large hollow stump to turn into a portal, she'd better just abandon this realm and return to the world of sasquatch.
How she would miss the purpleberries.
Posted at: 06:19 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
January 21, 2017
The writing challenge this weekend: In 500 words, write a story in which a horn goes off.
Joan woke to the sound of an electronic beeping from outdoors. She rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. In her experience, those alarms rarely meant a hoodlum was on the prowl, testing car doors. The beeping finally stopped, and she drowsed off.
For a short while only. The beeping started up again. Joan turned onto her back, sighed, counted the beeps. Someone down the block must have gotten a new car, and hadn't yet figured out the remote.
The beeping ended.
Joan dozed off.
The beeping started up again.
"That's it," Joan grumbled, swinging her legs out of bed. "They make those car remotes entirely too sensitive." She peered out the window, looking up and down the street for telltale flashing brake lights.
No lights in sight, but the beeping had stopped as soon as she pressed her nose to the window pane.
Thoroughly awake now, Joan turned on her bedside lamp, picked up the latest novel in a favorite series, and returned to the spot she'd bookmarked last thing before lights out. She read until she heard the car alarm again. She leaped to the window and stared out.
"That's odd," she muttered. "Beeping that loud, I should be able to see tail lights flashing."
It was a quiet dead-end street. No young single renters who liked to party until the wee hours. Empty nesters, retired folk, one family with children in middle grade who could be rambunctious enough during the daytime but never in the middle of the night like this.
Joan looked to the left. Only two houses stood between her place and the end of the street, the trailhead into the woods. Everybody that-away kept cars in garages.
She looked to the right, but her own garage blocked the view.
Joan threw on her robe, went to the kitchen for a drink of water and a small midnight snack, then waited by the front door.
"Aha!" Joan cried as she dashed outside to the street.
Not a single brake light flashed. Joan couldn't even put a fix on the direction of the beeping. The very last beep in this latest barrage inflected up in tone at the end, like a question.
"Defective electronics!" Joan grumbled as she went back inside and back to her book.
She wasn't the only one exasperated at that moment. In the woods, a tiny owl listened in vain for a response to his mating call. He blinked his yellow eyes, swiveled his white-plated face, and finally gave up his hopes for attracting a mate in this corner of the neighborhood. With one last woeful "beep!" he flew off looking for more promising prospects.
The Northern Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) is "highly nocturnal and seldom seen."
"Late at night in the breeding season, males give a rhythmic tooting song that may go on for hours with scarcely a break. The bird was named for this song, which reminded settlers of the sound of a whetstone sharpening a saw."
Posted at: 09:13 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Red and White -- flash fiction
December 31, 2016
The writing challenge this weekend: In 500 words, tell a story where something changes color.
Captain Hughes joined the cabin boy at the stern rail. "What do you think, lad?"
Davy swayed against the roll of the ship, keeping head and shoulders perfectly balanced as he peered through the old spyglass at a vessel in the distance. "They’re no danger, I’m guessing. They’re flying the colors. "
"Making good speed," Hughes said, rubbing his chin. "Running light on cargo."
"Do you want the spyglass, Uncle? I mean, Captain, sir?"
"No. I'll trust your young eyes. Tell me, what movement on deck? Lazing about or scrambling like roaches?"
The wind tugged at hair and sleeves, tangy with odors of salt and sea-wrack. Seagulls skated overhead.
"Do they wear uniforms?" Hughes asked.
"No, sir. All different colors of clothing."
Timbers groaned as the ship plowed through swells and troughs. Sails luffed as the wind shifted, hissing in the ears, whining through lines and rigging.
"Can you make out the figurehead?" Hughes asked as the vessel drew nearer. "Any name on the prow?"
"Can't make out the name. No figurehead."
"They're definitely chasing us down, and gaining," Hughes said with a frown. "Close enough to signal now. Are they running a distress flag?"
Hughes turned, and glanced up into the rigging where the Union Jack flung red and white at the blue sky. The barque was already at full sail. They couldn't outrun their pursuers.
Sun glinted off another spyglass high up the rigging. The lookout peered down, shook his head, cut a hand across his own throat.
Hughes set his jaw. He called out to the first mate. "Man the guns! To stations!"
The bosun's whistle shrilled.
Davy lowered the glass and stared at the captain. "You think they're pirates? But they're flying the Union Jack!"
"Every thief is a liar, lad. Remember that. They'll be changing their colors any moment now. So get to your station. That's an order."
Davy's ears turned red. "My first pirate attack, and I must hide away below deck, sitting on a stack of mahogany," he grumbled, but turned to do the captain's bidding.
"Your mother would flay me if I let harm come to you on your first voyage. Now go guard the cargo. And tell Smithers I say to issue you a cutlass. No sense posting an unarmed man."
Davy grinned. "Man!" he breathed. Color spotted his cheeks as he dashed off to the arms locker.
Hughes turned his gaze back to the pursuing schooner. The criss-crossed red, white and blue of the Union Jack lurched down from the mast. Upwards crawled a black banner, whipping and snapping on the following wind.
The captain sent a seaman to his cabin to fetch his brace of pistols, then took his post beside the helmsman. Gun crews readied the cannons, powder and balls. Other tars stood at the sheets ready to haul lines for maneuvers.
No sign of Davy on deck. The boy had spunk but knew to obey orders. He would go far.
Posted at: 01:01 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Safe Tonight -- flash fiction
December 25, 2016
The writing challenge this weekend:In 500 words, tell a story where unexpected wildlife appears.
Achim felt around in the darkness. He had dropped his waterskin at the first blaze of light in the heavens, and now, eyes blinded by the glory of it, he couldn't see a thing.
He heard the footsteps of his companions pattering away downhill. He heard scuffling hoofsteps from the sheep nearby. And he thought he still heard echoes of that incredible music that had washed over the slopes in interweaving peals of joy and beauty.
The air smelled of lightning after a storm, though nothing but breezes wafted across the land. Calm. Peaceful. Silent.
Achim's fingers scrabbled through scrub, pebbles and dust, at last finding the cool, pliable waterskin. He swept it up and turned after his fellows.
The landscape shimmered back to view under the touch of starlight as Achim's eyes adjusted. He saw his last companion vanish around a turn of the path far below.
And he saw a movement close at hand.
On a shelf of rock above the encampment, a tawny head turned from staring at the heavens to meet Achim's gaze. A lioness crouched there, regal as a sphinx. Her pupils, still widening from the slits that served in bright surroundings, took in his presence but she showed neither fear nor fury.
The tip of her tail twitched. She let out a breathy sigh. Still holding Achim's gaze, she gave a long slow blink that for some reason filled him with warmth.
The lioness glanced at the sheep still clustered and milling below the path. She sniffed, rose, turned away, vanished uphill like a shadow among the scrub.
Achim clutched his waterskin tight to his chest and let out a breathy sigh of his own. The flock would be safe without its guardians this wondrous silent night. He set out, like his companions, for Bethlehem.
author's artwork, (c) 2016 Joyce Holt
Posted at: 10:41 AM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Freckles and Bronze -- flash fiction
December 19, 2016
The writing challenge this weekend: In 500 words, tell a story in which a character hears the same message for a third time.
The sun blazed overhead, beating without mercy as Kynan toiled up the naked mountainside. Charcoal burners had hewn down acres of forest here. With each footstep, the odor of charred wood spiked the air. New growth, hip high, offered no shade. Sweat stung his eyes, soaked his linen undertunic.
Kynan didn't dare strip down in the open, though. The sun has no mercy for fair freckled skin.
As soon as he reached the forest verge, he slung his belongings to the ground, stripped his woolen tabard, and rolled up his linen sleeves.
With a last glance at the path behind, Kynan caught sight of a glint on the ground. He stooped to examine a small object in the dirt.
A ring. A fine golden ring.
Who in these wild parts could have dropped such a treasure?
Everyone knew about the Spanish princess being regaled at the king's estate on the coast. Had a royal hunting party come this way?
And here he was, a lowly kennelman, on a hunt of a different kind. Perhaps if he returned the trinket, he'd win a reward.
Kynan grinned, reached down, took the cool metal ring between thumb and forefinger.
"Higher!" piped a thin voice from the shadows.
"Higher!" trilled another from the depths of the woods.
"Higher?" Kynan gulped and looked up. Nothing to see but leaves.
Shrill laughter resounded from all directions. "Hire! We said hire! Thou hast taken the pay, now thou must earn thy hire. The queen of pixies has need of thy service. Come!"
Kynan stumbled along after half-seen figures flitting through the deep woods, afraid to back out of the deal he'd unwittingly entered. Better to serve quickly and be done than to offend any fey, however small.
"What service does her grace desire of me?" Kynan called.
"Save us from the ogre!"
Kynan faltered. "I am no warrior! I carry no arms but a poor bronze dagger and a broken flint knife!"
"Thou hast taken the queen's gold. Thou wilt earn thy hire."
Kynan thought to toss the ring and flee. And be pursued by a mob of furious pixies. Better to face the ogre.
His guides hovered at the entrance to a dim green grotto veiled by brush and thicket. "Thou must not bear arms," one cried from the grotto.
Kynan unbuckled his belt and let his dagger drop to the ground.
"Thou must not bear arms!" sang another from the right.
He tossed aside his flint knife.
From the left echoed, "Thou must not bear arms!"
Kynan planted hands on hips. "Then how am I to battle the ogre?"
Laughter pealed. "Thou must not bare arms! For nettles and thorns do beset our path!"
Red with embarrassment, Kynan rolled down his sleeves, retrieved his blades, and plunged into the grotto.
Thus did Kynan the kennelman not only save the pixies from a small, noisy, hairy, fearsome ogre but fulfill his own quest of returning to the princess her lost Cocker Spaniel.
Posted at: 04:00 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Absens -- flash fiction
December 5, 2016
The writing challenge this weekend: In 500 words, tell a story in which an alibi is scrutinized.
Two Roman soldiers dumped Gallus onto the floor before the centurion's desk.
"Sine licentia absens," said the taller of the two.
"Twenty lashes then the pit," Quintus said, voice as flat as his beer, and turned back to his stack of wax tablets and the never-ending paperwork.
Never-ending waxwork, strictly speaking.
"I wasn't absent without leave!" Gallus protested. "I was lost!"
Quintus raised one bristling brow and impaled the young man with a glance. "How convenient," he drawled. "The legion marches to confront the savage, howling Carpi just east of the mountains, and you manage to lose yourself."
The tall soldier yanked Gallus to his feet and a step away.
Quintus waved a hand. "Let him speak. I could use a short diversion. Two sentences, worm. If you make it good I might find the tenderness of heart to cut the sentence to ten lashes."
Gallus gulped. The centurion was not known for a tender heart. "A fortnight ago my sergeant sent a hunting party into the Hercynian Forest, and I got separated while taking a piss. Wandered through the trackless heights, fleeing from monstrous elk and bull and aurochs and, and--" He gulped again. "--and bos cervi figura."
The centurion's lip curled. "Ox in the shape of a stag? Thirty lashes, if you think me such a fool."
"Not a fable at all, sir! Unicornuus!" Gallus cried as the two soldiers hauled him toward the door. "If you don't believe me, look in my bedroll. I brought a horn as proof!" He shrugged the roll from his back, a difficult feat when both elbows are gripped by armed men.
One of the guards kicked the blankets apart, and out fell a reindeer antler.
Quintus cocked that brow again, then crooked a finger.
The other guard snatched up the antler and brought it to his superior.
Quintus turned the bony thing end over end.
"High in the Carpathians," Gallus said. "Troops of the creatures, galloping along in file as if racing to battle. Even the cows among them bore horns! Branched like tree limbs, as you can see."
"Unicorn?" the centurion asked, voice ripe with scorn.
"The first I saw had only one horn. That put the fear in me, I tell you. Perhaps others had two. I didn’t want a closer look!" He shuddered.
Quintus scowled at the disheveled young man. "You're not familiar with woods or wild, are you, worm?"
Gallus shook his head in jerks. "Just a farm boy, sir."
"Well yes, at night, under the towering trees as dense as any labyrinth and the wind screaming like tortured souls. I'm so glad to be back to civilization, sir, whatever punishment that entails!"
Quintus caught a guard's eye. "Five lashes and three days mucking stables."
Five. Only five. Gallus blew out a breath of relief-- a brief respite before renewed terror.
Quintus glared again. "Then, worm, you will lead me back to the Hercynian Forest where we will pursue the fabulous unicorn. Begone."
Posted at: 08:42 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Belly Up -- flash nonfiction
November 19, 2016
The writing challenge this weekend: In 500 words, tell a story in which something picks up great speed.
Sunday morning Frederick and his companions left notorious Robber's Roost. Twenty miles later as the sun neared setting, they trudged down one last slope to Ruby Valley, Nevada. Most of his 300-mile trek Frederick covered by foot, though one time he'd snagged a ride on the big freight wagon carrying their supplies. The six mules hauling in the traces would just have to haul a little harder. If they hadn't wandered away in the night, he wouldn't have been so footsore from chasing them. Seven miles hunting contrary creatures through a rainy, windy, cold April night… misery!
Frederick unloaded their supplies at the Ruby Valley stage coach station. His employer had bought rights to the place for his newfangled venture of modern communications. The Pony Express would connect the country with mail delivery at an unprecedented speed. Coast-to-coast in only ten days!
For eighteen months Frederick provided fresh horses and meals for Pony Express riders pelting the trail between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Carson City, Nevada. Then in October, 1861, the Pony Express suddenly went belly up. The newly-connected telegraph network took over as the wonder of the day.
When Oscar and Nida drove out a-courting, they went by horse and buggy. They'd met in 1917 at "normal" school in Nebraska where they studied to be schoolteachers. Oscar also pursued another trade: maintenance and operation of steam engines, the powerhouse of the early 1900's.
Before Oscar could establish himself in a career as steam tractor engineer, diesel engines revolutionized the farming industry. By 1922 the price of diesel tractors had dropped to an affordable $395. Out of work in his chosen field, Oscar turned back to teaching and farming.
The Great Depression struck. With his mechanical know-how, Oscar was able to keep his diesel truck and tractor working. He and his sons frequented the town dump to salvage cast-off parts. They cobbled together bizarre contraptions from their findings, like a lathe using salvaged bed springs.
In 1975 I discovered the fascinating world of computer programming. Like my ancestors Frederick and Oscar, I leaped into a promising field.
Like my grandfather and great-great-grandfather, my field turned belly up. I'd trained on the computer that filled a room. Key-punch cards for input, paper tape or core dump for output, disk stacks or huge reels of magnetic tape for storage. All gone obsolete during the few years I'd turned my back to raise a family.
I trained anew. I learned the two languages behind most computer programs of the late 1990's. I completed two freelance programming jobs.
Microsoft changed its platform, and I could not follow with my home equipment. I gave up on chasing this goose and turned back to writing historical fiction.
Now you hear of youngsters coding apps for smartphones. (They don't even call it "programming" anymore.) Perhaps I'll stick my nose in again, see what it takes to code an app-- before technology takes another huge leap out of reach.
Does it matter I don't own a smartphone?
Posted at: 01:50 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Scarlet -- flash fiction
November 12, 2016
The writing challenge this weekend:In 500 words, tell a story in which a busker's performance has an uncanny effect.
Tania checked in at one end of the promenade. "Okay if my son doodles off to the side?" she asked, shooting a smile at her tow-headed five-year-old.
"Sure," came the answer. "Keep his scribbling at least a foot away from your square. Here, a basket of chalk."
"I brought my own," Tania said. "Joey, let me have our treasure chest so I can show this nice lady." She took the ornate old box from her son and opened the gilded lid.
"I'm sorry, but festival rules specify you must use the chalk we provide. Some specialty chalks won't wash from the pavement. They leave stains that last for weeks."
Tania had already drawn out a stick as scarlet as blood. "Oh," she said with a rush of disappointment. "But this set was the very reason I decided to enter the festival. When I saw them in the antique store window, they practically cried out to me to put them into action again."
"I'm sorry," the woman began again, but her gaze caught on the scarlet chalk stick. She blinked. "What an amazing hue. May I?" She took the red stick, ran a streak across her thumb and rubbed it with her finger. She let out a long breath and in a dreamy voice said, "Well why not. I can feel how much it wants to draw."
Tania gave the woman a hesitant smile, then strode off to her assigned square in the Weekend Chalk Art Gallery. Ionic columns lofted an arching roof over the open-air pavement beside the bustling town square.
"Where can I draw, Mommy?" Joey asked. In each hand he gripped a chalk stick, that scarlet one and a viridian green.
Tania pointed to the side. "Go to it, buddy!"
Joey plunked down and started drawing green stick figures.
Tania knelt and drew her favorite fantastic creature, a dragon with scales in shades of rose-red and burgundy. And a touch of scarlet, borrowed briefly from Joey. His stick figures all had bright red mouths.
She drew dragon eyes of fiery orange-yellow with purple pupils, slitted like a cat's. Its fangs gleamed ivory. Its talons glinted like steel. She gave her creation wide-spread bat wings, filling her square.
Passersby lingered by Tania's square, complimenting and tossing coins. "Wish I could draw like that," someone called, snapping a photo as she finished with a long sinuous tail.
Joey broke into a delighted laugh.
Just then something tickled Tania's ankle. She glanced back-- and gasped. A small, wire-thin creature leaped over her leg. Green. With a scarlet mouth.
Her eyes widened. Another green stick figure joined the first. A third was hauling itself up from the pavement, pulling itself to life from Joey's doodles.
"Magic chalk, Mommy!" Joey giggled.
She looked at the blood-red chalk stick in her hand, then forced her gaze back to her own work.
That fiery eye blinked. The pupil dilated. A long, sinuous, scarlet tail unwrapped from the pavement to wind around the nearest pillar.
Posted at: 08:32 AM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Swirl -- flash fiction
November 5, 2016
The writing challenge this weekend: In 500 words, imagine what happens when somebody learns what the numbers mean.
Didymus broke from his foot companions and ran to catch up with the next camel in the caravan. "Khâzim!" he called to the Arab leading the beast. "Your pack is slipping!" he said in Greek, the lingua franca along the Silk Road.
The tall black-bearded Arab swung a look at his camel's burden--a moment too late. A knot had come undone and several parcels thudded to the sand. One box burst open and parchment sheets sailed away in the wind.
Didymus and two of his colleagues from Rome helped chase down the pages while Khâzim settled his camel to rest beside the trail. "My thanks," the Arab said when the Augustinian monks trudged back.
"What an odd-looking script you have," Didymus said as he handed over his sheaf. "Swirling and slanting as if this never-ending wind means to steal your words right off the page!"
"Our letters do indeed dance and flourish with the grace of Allah, but these are not letters," Khâzim said. "This page? An account of all my sales in Almatu. A goodly total."
"Summed already? But you rejoined the caravan straight from Almatu's marketplace! I did not know you had a clerk in your employ."
Khâzim shook his head. "I do not. I summed it myself while waiting for the crowd to clear at the town gates."
Didymus huffed. "You must have nimble fingers on the abacus to do it so swiftly."
"No abacus." The Arab tapped his temple. "Swift thoughts."
"Impossible!" the monk cried. "No one under heaven could juggle all those M's and D's and C's in his head, let alone the L's, X's, V's, and I's!"
Khâzim pointed out several figures on the top sheet of parchment. "Here you see nine, four, eight, and three."
Didymus stared. "You don't use clusters of letters?"
"What a ponderous system! Surely you don't have thousands of characters to represent thousands of numbers!"
Khâzim smiled. "No. Just ten characters."
"But then you wouldn't be able to indicate an amount greater than ten!"
Khazim traced three squiggles with his finger. "Here you see four hundred and fifteen, my sales of African verdigris."
Didymus frowned in concentration while Khâzim tried to explain the place-holding decimal system which allowed easy adding, subtracting, even multiplying without the use of an abacus.
It also included one very strange concept, marked with the simplest of ink splotches. Zero.
How could Nothing be such an important something as to merit its own symbol?
The caravan guard scolded the two laggards and helped secure the camel's pack. Khâzim took up the lead rope and nagged his camel to rise, then gave Didymus' shoulder an encouraging pat. "Think about it. Makes much more sense than Rome's old MCLIX and such." He strode off, camel snorting and snuffling along in his tracks.
The monk joined his brothers and paced along the Silk Road, mind a-whirl. These simple, stackable digits did indeed make sense.
All but that confounding zero.
Posted at: 09:42 AM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Icy Fingers -- flash fiction
October 29, 2016
The writing challenge this weekend: In 500 words, imagine what happens when science goes too far.
"Good new, bad news," Eta announced as she steered her mashcart through the north arch into the preserve.
Laic swung the gate shut behind her, jogged to catch up, and hopped aboard. "Good news, you say?" His young face brightened. "They've finally finished the analysis? Took 'em long enough! So the strategy is working, is it?"
Eta's mouth stretched thin. "Working, all right. Average global temp has dropped like they forecast a decade ago," she lectured as if in class instead of in the field. "Seeding the upper troposphere for nine years in a row has spawned extensive, thick cirrus cloud formations which have indeed increased Earth's albedo significantly."
"Increased?" Laic asked. "I thought it was supposed to reduce."
Eta shook her head. "You need to increase albedo in order to reduce temperature."
Eta rolled her eyes at her apprentice. "Albedo, the bright white reflectiveness of the atmosphere."
"Oh yeah. Reflect sunlight away instead of letting it absorb and convert to heat." He shot her a sideways glance, obviously looking to redeem himself.
Eta nodded, but kept frowning. "Problem is, it's denser than predicted. Not dissipating as it should. And that accelerated bloom of engineered pale algae spread faster than planned over the oceans' surface."
"More albedo, right? Then why're you looking so grim? Global temps coming down, right?"
"Coming down too far, too fast." Eta backed the cart toward the chutes, engaged, pulled a lever and dumped the load of pungent mash.
Laic jumped down and flushed both cart and chute. From the pens below arose such a bellowing that both keepers clapped hands over ears until the herd established feeding order at the troughs. "Still," the youth said, "better that temps come down too far than still climb so high as they were. Right?"
"Better for the herds anyway. Cooler weather may bring them back from the brink of extinction."
Down below a calf bawled.
"And if the oceans cool at the current rate," Eta murmured, "sea life will rebound, too. But what about us?"
"We can adapt," Laic said with boundless confidence. "Us humans, more adaptable than any of our hungry four-legged friends down there."
"Can we adapt quickly enough, though? Can we change our dietary preferences to match what can be grown in a changing world? Can we keep step with climate change? Or will starvation turn us into competitors with the sabertooths and direwolves?"
"Eat our own mastodons?" Laic looked appalled. "Never!"
As if joining in protest, a trumpeting echoed up the chute from the mastodon pens below.
"Never," Laic repeated.
"Someday, perhaps," Eta said as a chill of premonition slid icy fingers down her neck.
Posted at: 09:14 PM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink
Rehash -- flash fiction
October 22, 2016
The writing challenge this weekend: In 500 words, imagine what happens when someone demands a refund.
Captain Huze limped through the airlock and turned left, her mouth set in a grim line. The rest of Biosphere V's crew, newly released from debriefing and quarantine, tottered the opposite direction, drawn toward Lunar Medical's cafeteria like iron filings to a magnet. Her mouth, like theirs, watered for real food, anything besides the constant diet of those foul-tasting mushrooms that had kept them alive after other resources failed. The first phase of Biosphere V's deployment plan included self-sufficiency resources for merely two years.
But Huze wouldn't enjoy a feast of real food until she settled her grievances. She slid into a body-port and requested a bubble to Tarcomed Innovations, based on Earth Prime. "Vice President over Customer Satisfaction," she stated, and gave the access zap provided by her recently acquired lawyer. "Live person, full interface."
She tapped the port's shell with her stained, fungus-mottled fingernails, while her stomach rumbled hunger and her jaw gritted on the words that had stewed in aggravation over the last decade.
"I'm back," she told the long-faced person who appeared before her. "I'm surprised you're still in business. We heard all the brouhaha following our disappearance."
"You heard--?" His expression turned sheepish.
"Yes, we could still receive. The first solar flare destroyed our transmitters. The first one! But we had a backup reception antenna to deploy."
"Well, solar flares, you never can--"
"'Extensive testing,' you blazoned in all our negotiations. Extensive testing should have covered solar flares."
"Well, you might have a point--"
"And your 'innovative intelligence navigation system' failed in its first long burn. We can't made a fix on our location, can't plot a chart. Then surprise, surprise, it's blazed all over the news that the testing all took place in simulation only. Of course the disclosure came too late for us. We lost years to your lies and unbased, over-inflated egos. Years!"
The representative, pixelated from the waist down, showed teeth in an ingratiating smile. "But you made it back--" he began.
"No thanks to you. Took five years to rehash the calculus and make course adjustments. Seat of the pants navigation." Huze slapped a fully-spiked quasi note onto the interface where it appeared to stick to the vice president's nose. "Send," she ordered, and a replica burst into being behind the jerk. "According to our contract, as per point 3.1415, I demand you reimburse my investors for their failed investment. You'll find my claim for damages in the addendum."
Posted at: 07:40 AM | 0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink