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GLASS HOUSES • by TW Williams

The tall woman bent down, sunlight and shadow dappling her short brown hair, her simple robe. The slanting afternoon sunshine caused the topaz at her neck to glow.

“Let me help you with that,” she said, her nimble fingers sorting through the snarl of brambles, leather and linen that had trapped the panicked girl deep in the forest with afternoon fading into dangerous evening. “It’s simple, really, if you take it a step at a time and don’t fight it.”

Her smile was warm enough to chase the tears that brimmed the child’s eyes and threatened to paint new streaks on her grubby, tear-stained face.

“I’m called Elske,” the woman said. “And you must be Carega. Your parents are very worried.”

“H-how did you find me?” the girl said, her voice raspy from weeping. “I thought I was lost forever!”

“I saw that you needed help,” Elske said simply, “and I came.”


Metal shrieked against hard glass, causing Carega to grit her teeth until her jaws throbbed with pain.

“Enough!” she screamed, her voice shrill with pain, with frustration.

Hupsu, armored in overlapping plates of gleaming steel that accentuated rather than disguised his mighty frame, ignored her. He drew back his battle-axe and smote the door of Castle Vitre again, with the same result: His blade glanced off the massive topaz-colored decoration that was the door’s only adornment. Vibrations shivered the air, assaulting her ears, though she stood well clear of the knight.

She could only imagine what the reverberations were like inside Hupsu’s helmet. And in his nearly empty skull as well, she thought. This is what it comes down to: One knight — not the best, but the best who was left — beating on Vitre’s door.

Carega shook her head, trying to chase the sound from her skull and wondered again about her motive. The lines between justice and vengeance blurred at such moments, but pain was still red, screaming pain. Still, she knew she was in the right. Gwydra was murderer and thief and usurper.

Through a crimson haze, she heard the laughter, as screeching and painful as the futile blows, as Gwydra taunted the knight, appearing beside him, then fading away before a blow could be turned toward her. Eventually, Carega knew, she would tire of cat-and-mouse and kill him, then retreat, safe within the castle’s Octagon Room of Thenglass and Whenglass.

Elske’s room, Carega thought. Poor, dead, simple Elske, creator and custodian of the Octagon Room, who was the most powerful being in the world and didn’t realize it. And Carega had loved her for that.

“I like to think of the room as a series of shops,” Elske had told her. “You see somewhere, somewhen in the window” — she pointed to the broad crystal panes of Thenglass — “and you step through the door. Simple as that.” Suiting action to words, she walked through the gold-and-cyan Whenglass — the portals that allowed users to travel into those different time periods.

Carega, newly appointed chatelaine of Castle Vitre, had watched her through the Thenglass. “Gives me shivers every time,” she whispered to Gwydra, the replacement she had hired for her former assistant’s job. The woman didn’t answer, watching avidly as Elske untangled a scared ten-year-old and guided her home in the gloaming.

“Why don’t you seek treasures, stop wars, become queen of the world?” Carega had asked Elske as the weeks lengthened into months and she witnessed small miracles, too many to count, through the Thenglass.

“All that striving and that power is too complicated,” was the simple reply. “Each action is valuable in its own right, I think, and small ways add up to big things in the end. Should I turn this castle into a fortress and thus become a prisoner to power? And what if I left out one detail in my quest for godhood? Who knows what pebble would crumble the walls and bury us all? Best to keep things simple.”

Carega’s bittersweet memories were interrupted as Gwydra appeared beside the knight and thrust a dagger behind his gorget. Hupsu sunk to the ground with a groan and a gout of blood and died.

Gwydra turned a scornful gaze toward Carega, brayed a sneering laugh, then fingered the topaz at her throat and vanished back into the castle.

And Carega, giving into the frustration-laced guilt building over five long years, collapsed to the ground and sobbed, utterly defeated, a lost girl once again.

The sky was teal and tangerine in the west when she roused herself, and began trudging toward the sinking sun and her parents’ cottage. As she walked away from Gwyrda’s stronghold, a breeze sprung up as if the world had been holding its breath all day. On that hint of air, Elske’s voice seemed to whisper “… one step at a time… keep it simple.”

And Carega thought about how a simple dagger thrust at the right moment could turn a mountain of steel-encased muscle into clattering ruin.

Turning back, her shadow stretching before, she picked up a stone, a jagged-edged, ugly thing, and hefted it thoughtfully. What pebble had Gwydra overlooked?

Taking aim at the glowing amber center of the door, she drew back her arm and let fly.

TW Williams is a Chicago-area writer and magazine editor, who has magazine and anthology credits in fantasy and science fiction genres.

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Posted on April 10, 2009 in Fantasy, Stories
  • Paul Freeman

    ‘Glass Houses’ seems to be part of a more extensive writing project – all of which made this excerpt a bit confusing in places, what with the number of names and concepts the reader had to absorb.

    To me this piece had elements of both Arthurian-type legends and ‘Dune’, which actually worked well for it.

    I felt elements of dodgy punctuation detracted from a smooth reading and the dialogue needed to be a bit snappier.

  • http://rumjhumkbiswas.wordpress.com rumjhum

    This also seemed like an excerpt to me; I enjoyed this piece though.

  • Ali

    Indeed, it seems to be part of something bigger. I’d love to read more!

  • http://teenangel.netfirms.com Jim Hartley

    Confusing, didn’t seem to go anywhere. And if it is, as others suggest, a part of something larger, I’m not sure I want to read the rest of it, either. Just didn’t get it!

  • http://jfjuzwik.blogspot.com Joyce

    I don’t understand each character’s role. What are their purposes? Who actually did what and why? This is very confusing.

  • Alan W. Davidson

    I get the feeling that some of the apparent confusion with the story is that it is restricted to the 1000 word limit and needs more space for the telling. However, I thought that the opening segment was well written and some of your sentences were very colourful.

  • keralen

    Lovely, TW. Very concise – it rewards rereading. Nifty conclusion.

  • Bob

    Weird names confuse me, but once I got the cast of characters straight the structure was easy enough to follow. As short as the piece is, you packed a lot of story and exposition into it without sinking beneath the weight of too many words; well done.

    Still, Flash is probably not the right format for as ambitious a piece as this. You need more room to develop this many characters (and this much time).

    A four for chutzhpah (in a good way).

  • http://blogtiderising.wordpress.com Deven

    Genre stories that need to define setting as well as character are difficult in flash. This was well done, TW. I liked it alot.

  • http://nowplayinginseattle.blogspot.com/ K.C. Ball

    I loved the resolution on this one, T.W.

  • http://www.erinmkinch.com Erin

    Interesting story. It took me a while to get into this one, but once I did, I was hooked. I almost expected Elske from the past to show up just in time to save the day again. By the end, I would have liked to know more. You picked a good stopping point for the flash, but I’m curious as to how the war turns out in the end!

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    Tightening this story to one event for the flash piece would strengthen it. Perhaps there is too much reliance on exotic mysteries and gaudy decorations in an attempt to keep the readers’ interest. If it was pared down there might be more absorbing descriptions of the actions on more levels, not merely an external scaffolding of movements.

  • Jen

    Glad to know I wasn’t the only one confused. I really wanted to get this, but just didn’t.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/twfiction/ TW

    Thanks for the comments, folks.

    Since many of the comments so far address length and “feel”, this explainer: I sat down and wrote this in one sitting and stopped. So, while it might feel like it wants to be longer — and perhaps has the seeds to grow — it’s not part of something bigger (unless you count my imagination).

    That the “off-stage” elements and scantily referenced back story prompted such a wide range of reactions, from distaste to confusion to praise, is instructive. Thank you all.

  • http://shamelesscreations.blogspot.com/ Kevin Shamel

    I like this one a lot.

  • Bob

    RSG, kudos on a focused, cogent critique of this piece. I’ve been a critic of your critiques in the past, so I thought it appropriate to compliment you on this one.

  • James Lecky

    It’s a wonderful comment on how absolute power corrupts absolutely and how a single chink in a person’s armour can lead to their downfall (all for the want of a horseshoe nail, and so forth)
    The final image of Carega, starting her assault on Gwydra and looking for the tiny vulerable place that will bring her down, is a moving and powerful one.
    Excellent work, Tom.

  • Sharon

    I still don’t get the title, and I still don’t get the story. The person who said this isn’t really a flash piece got it right, I think; I kept feeling I was reading a page torn from a book.

  • http://canyonsofgray.blogspot.com dj barber

    Not a bad stab at an epic-style fantasy. I liked that Carega turned around and returned to fight and didn’t flee.


  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    Sharon – Re: “title”: We all live in glass houses; Not all of us throw stones. An honest opinion is not a stone. Keep on.

  • jennifer walmsley

    Enjoyed this fantasy tale, but felt it needed more length. It cut out short for me. I want to read on.

  • Juan

    It just got too tangled up for me. It may have been on purpose, but I got lost in the time references – before Elske is dead, after — and I kept wondering how she died and how Gwyndra took power, but not in a good way, more of a distraction than anything else. Also, it’s said Elske “was the most powerful being in the world and didn’t realize it” but then Carega is asking her why she hasn’t taken over the world yet, so she must have some clue about her power, right? Or am I missing something? I did find some compelling descriptions, the opening paragraph for example, Hupsu’s armor, and the sky as dusk approaches. I also enjoyed the fantasy elements of the thenglass and whenglass, but in the end I felt lost and deprived of information.

  • http://www.stevegoblefiction.wordpress.com Steve Goble

    Perhaps a familiarity with fantasy and how it often requires more participation from the reader aided me, but I got this on the first read, and although the juxtapositions of time did toss me for a moment, I caught on quickly and I think the disconcerting nature of the time shifts actually helped create that “otherworldly” feeling.

    It takes talent to pack that much story into a flash piece, and I like it a lot — in particular the open-ended nature of the ending.

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