Kratos sat before his hut, skinning a rabbit. He froze, knife poised, listening to the sound of boots pressing down grass. Something moved in the shadows under his olive trees. An armored man stepped into pale moonlight.
The man lifted an arm in greeting. “Pardon, grandfather. I intend no harm.” His accent was strange, his voice raspy. He bore no obvious weapons.
Kratos rose to his feet. “It is a fine night for a walk under the moon.” He introduced himself and gestured toward his hut. “Would you share my meal? I have bread, this fine rabbit, and a serviceable wine.”
“Well met, Kratos. Call me Hulin. I will sit by your fire. The food I must refuse.”
The man followed Kratos inside and settled down on the far side of a glowing brazier. He watched his host spear rabbit chunks and place the spit over the coals.
Kratos eyed the boxy helmet squatting on the man’s shoulders. It was of a strange design, much battered, with a round grid affixed to the front and a pair of crystalline eyepieces side-by-side above that.
“Your armor and helmet are unusual.”
Red light flickered in the crystals. “It is not a helmet.” One gauntlet touched the side of the box. “The armor is my body, not… I cannot take it off.”
The old man sat perfectly still for several heartbeats. “I have heard tales.”
“Yes. So have I.” Moving slowly, his guest opened a small door where a man would have a stomach and withdrew a short, thick rod. Kratos tensed. His legs knotted as he pushed back against the stone wall of his hut.
Hulin shoved the rod into the glowing coals. A black rope led back to the opening in his belly. Kratos tried to relax his aching legs. He lifted the wineskin to his mouth, dribbling only a little as he drank. “You… you are of the gods?”
A grating laugh filled the hut. “Nay. I am of Atua. A soldier of Atua.”
“Atua?” Kratos laid the wineskin aside and turned the spit. “It must be beyond the edge of the world. Never have I heard of such a place.”
Hulin shifted slightly. His fists closed — opened. “Atua lay far to the south, in the sea. It was destroyed long, long ago.”
“Atlantis!” cried Kratos. “I have read of Atlantis.” He studied Hulin. Dents and patches of rust marred the metal torso. Rot and age had gnawed his gauntlets and boots. “The years are written on your body. Where have you been?”
“Asleep, mostly, in a burial chamber above your little orchard. My maker had a tower built high up on the plateau. Slaves did the building and dug the burial chamber.”
“There are heaps of quarried stone atop the plateau. I have long thought they were from an ancient structure. The burial chamber was for your maker?”
“Aye. We were living in the tower when… when Atua was destroyed. Great waves smashed many cities along the Inner Sea. Ashes darkened the sky for months. Atua became nothing — nothing but ashes on the wind.”
Kratos turned the rabbit again. “When your maker died you went into the tomb with him? Why?”
“He called it the Waiting Room. His tomb was further inside — sealed off. I was told to await the reappearance of mechanos like myself.” Hulin tapped his chest. “Metal men with crystalline centers of thought and no souls.”
“Metal men with no souls? Perhaps.” Kratos thought of certain stories learned at his mother’s knee. “You have wandered among men at times?”
“Yes. To watch, to keep up with the language.” Hulin stared into the coals. “Ages I slept in silent stone, awakening only when earthquakes shook the mountain or when I dreamed of Atua’s death.”
Kratos shook his head. He lifted the spit from the fire and laid it aside to cool. “I eat food to live. Is the flame your food?”
Hulin’s head creaked as it rotated side-to-side. “Not directly. As fire heats the stones of your hearth it also provides a kind of heat — not unlike lightning — for my body.”
For a long time neither spoke. Kratos ate some of the rabbit, wiping the grease from his hands on the hem of his chiton. He swallowed a little wine and leaned back. “So here you are. What do you intend?”
The man of Atua stared at the coals. “I came out to say farewell.”
“Surely not to me?”
“No, but your presence is welcome. I wanted a last view of the night sky.”
“But… you speak as if you will die.”
“All things pass away. A hundred lifetimes is too long. I grow weary. My joints creak and rust invades the inner workings of this body. It is time to cease.”
Kratos sighed. “Of creaking joints I know much.” He set the wineskin aside and leaned forward. “You speak. Think. You seem to me like a man. A man has a soul.”
“My maker believed I could find one if I lived long enough.” Hulin restored the rod and rope to the space in his belly. “He was wrong. I am a made thing, cursed to remain so. I shall return to the mountain and collapse the access tunnel. Eventually, earthquakes will reduce the burial chamber and all in it to dust.”
Kratos followed Hulin outside. They stood in front of the hut for a long time watching the silent stars and waning moon.
“Celestial lamps light my way,” said Hulin. “A mountain will be my shroud.”
Kratos offered a small coin. “For the boatman.”
“He will deny me passage.”
“You have the fee. The boatman does not decide who is a man and who is not.”
Hulin clenched his fist, enclosing the coin. He stood in silence for a long time, then turned and vanished into the olive grove.
JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.
Captain Beardbeard raised his sabre and announced the charge.
“Onward, ye scurvy dogs!”
The pirates roared their battle cries and surged onto the beach in a flurry of striped trousers. Boarding and robbing other ships was their main source of income and the buccaneers looked on land excursions as cheerful holidays.
The captain had been assured that this island would offer a great reward to one brave enough to find it. Beardbeard had dedicated most of his spare time to tracking down maps and actually locating the island, and he had a good feeling about it.
Pirate curses filled the air as the brigands crashed through the trees toward the spot marked “X” on Beardbeard’s map. It was too quiet on the island, and Beardbeard’s good feeling was replaced with a slightly apprehensive feeling. They reached the beach with no resistance.
“Arr, Cap’n, I expected more landlubbers to be fightin’,” said Pegleg, echoing the captain’s thoughts.
Pegleg was the First Mate, but only because Beardbeard’s preferred First Mate had been grievously injured during a fight with a sea monster. Pegleg lacked the ambition that made a really good backstabbing pirate, and he was going to have to be replaced sooner than later.
“It don’t feel right without the killing and the looting,” Pegleg said. He lifted his eye patch and squinted hard against the sun. “Do ye think there be landlubbers past the forest?”
“Treasure first, me lad. Rashy Jack! Stop stuffing sand down yer drawers and start diggin’,” Beardbeard said.
Jack sighed and let go of his handful of the blissfully hot and scratchy sand. He picked up his shovel and set to work.
Beardbeard ordered a few of the men to stand guard, but he needn’t have bothered. The only threat to their operation was a skunk that shambled out of the trees, and he couldn’t make the crew smell any worse than they already did.
It wasn’t long before Pegleg waved Beardbeard back to the digging site.
“What be the problem, Pegleg?” Beardbeard asked.
“No problem, Cap’n. Rashy Jack hit treasure already!”
“Well blow me down!” Beardbeard exclaimed. He tried to whistle but most of his teeth were missing so it didn’t come out right. “What have ye, Rashy Jack?”
Jack signaled to a couple of his fellow pillagers to give him a hand. The trunk they hoisted out of the ground was a solid wooden one, carved with ancient letters outlined with a bit of gold. It landed with a satisfying thud in the sand.
Beardbeard rubbed his hands together gleefully. He selected his favourite lock-smashing club and clubbed the lock until it gave way.
“Avast, me hearties, feast yer eyes upon this bountiful booty!”
The trunk was not filled with gold. There was a strange object upon the felt-lined interior, covered with wires and all manner of beeping things.
Beardbeard scowled at it. What was he to do with such a thing? A blue button lit up and he jabbed it with his thumb.
“Shiver me timbers!” Big Britches screamed. He pointed out at the water with a shaking finger, his jaw hanging open in shock.
Beardbeard had heard a tidal wave or two in his day and he recognized the massive whoosh of the water as it rose. A ship rose from the depths of the sea, revealing full black sails and portholes made of gold on its metal hull. Beardbeard had never seen its like before. Ships were made of wood, not metal.
“Well, plug me bung hole,” Beardbeard said. Perhaps the take on this adventure would not be so disappointing after all.
“What is it, Cap’n?” asked Buxom Bess.
Beardbeard knew the answer in his heart of hearts and it made his lips part in his nearly toothless grin.
“It be our new ship, Bess.”
“Cap’n! She be a cursed vessel. She just rose from Davy Jones’ locker!” Pegleg said. “We can’t sail ‘er.”
“Arr, that’s enough of yer mutiny,” Beardbeard said. “Shut yer gob if ye don’t want to be keelhauled.”
Pegleg did not fancy being bound to the underside of the ship so as to die a horrible death. He shut his mouth.
“All aboard, me bilge-suckers!” Beardbeard shouted. “Get the booty from the old ship, then swab the poop deck and weigh anchor! We be sailing in style now, buckos!”
“ARR!” the pirates cried in unison.
Beardbeard climbed aboard and admired the deck as it gleamed in the sunlight. He patted the ship’s figurehead lovingly. It didn’t look like any person he’d ever met, landlubber or seadog alike, but he liked the elongated face and large almond-shaped eyes. It wasn’t nearly as buxom as Bess, though, and that was a real shame.
He looked down at the strange device he’d taken from the trunk. A different button had come to life with a red light, and he gave his parrot a pat.
“Do the honours, old girl,” he said. The parrot squawked and pecked the button with her beak.
The tidal wave began anew and the ship lifted up out of the water and into the air. It rose higher and higher into the sky and would soon touch the clouds themselves. Beardbeard clutched the railing and laughed with the sheer joy of it.
Some of the crew panicked and abandoned ship, but those with any brains in their thick skulls stayed behind. Not only would the jumpers miss out on excellent adventure, they were falling to a messy death.
Beardbeard pressed the green button next. Something screeched below them and soon the ship was encased in a clear bubble. The pirates looked out at the thinning clouds as they went higher still. Beardbeard put an arm around Pegleg and squeezed him.
“We’ll be lootin’ more than just the seven seas of our world,” Beardbeard said, flinging his arms wide. “There be at least seven more out there, somewhere.”
“Where are we going, Cap’n?” Pegleg asked.
“To the starrrs, me hearty. To the starrrs.”
Holly Geely has been under the influence of fantasy and science fiction since she was very young. She has been shortlisted twice on Mashstories.com. She is a fan of bad puns and bright colours. You can find her on Twitter @hollygeely.
“Close your eyes,” she said, brushing his eyelids closed with delicate fingers.
Smells from the palm of her hand, the smoke of their burning home, the thick mud of the embankment they had scrambled up in desperate flight.
“Can you remember?” she said. “Can you remember what it was like before the war?”
He tried to open his eyes, tried to see her face once more, but she kept her fingers poised, their touch barely felt. Could he remember a time before the war? Before son had rebelled against father and war had come to a city that had once held nations in thrall?
Her hand fell limp, but he held it there still, held it to his face and kissed her fingers. With an effort that tore at his being he opened his eyes to see her lying before him, her yellow hair thick with mud and clinging to her cheek. He smoothed her hair with a shaking hand and closed eyes that stared into a sky streaked with foul magic.
“I am the city,” she had once said. Only in the end had she agreed to flee with him, and then it was too late. The armies of the Wronged Son were at the walls and the city was aflame with shimmering fires and magics that burned.
“I am the city.” And he was her, for we are what we love, and what was there to love in a world where his wife and his son were no more?
He kissed her brow, his tears caught in the mud thick on his cheeks. He closed his eyes against the vile colours whispering across the night sky, closed his eyes against the sight of his silent wife.
“I remember,” he whispered, taking her hand once more. “I remember what it was like before the war.”
Remember. Remember for her. Even as baleful lights seared his eyelids and cannons blasted his ears. Remember.
She loved the city, he knew. She loved the city and she loved the people and she loved the red geronants that soared through the blue skies and the yellow antrophahs that shivered through the white-fringed lakes. She loved, and he had loved her for the love she shared. He had loved her even as he had begged her to leave when the Wronged Son had appeared on the blue mountains with his cannons of black and his rows of men with spike and spear and pennant.
He loved her and when she had wept as the guns began to fire and the walls had begun to fall, he had held her and wept with her.
He remembered begging her to flee the city with him once more.
“I am the city,” she had said, “and this city is me. I was born where the crooked spire twists into the clouds, and my father worked where the talking ships from the rainbow seas come to dock, and I met you where the deodaras turn the meadows yellow. And our child,” she had held his cheek, stopping him from turning away from her. “Our child was born in the house near the weeping willow. Those four walls, that tree, heard his first cries, heard his first laugh. He is here still, with us.”
She had wiped his tears away with a cool finger as the cannons roared and the magics blazed with deadly silence.
In the end she had agreed to flee with him, but it was too late. The Wronged Son had already marched from the mountains, and the walls were already beginning to fall. She had stumbled in his arms as the shrapnel pierced her side, but still she struggled to stay with him, her face pale. She bit her lip against the pain.
The river had been clogged with the dead and the dying, and they had scrambled through mud and blood. She had fallen to her knees, gasping. “It’s no use,” she had said. “I can’t.” She fell on her back, and his hands were bloodied as they tried to close the wound.
“I remember, too,” she had whispered. “I remember before the war. I remember our wedding day. You found a flower and placed it in my hair and told me you would love me always.”
He had wept then. Unashamed tears as he held her hand. “I should have made you flee,” he said.
She had smiled then, a sad smile. The Wronged Son and his magics and cannons had brought sadness to the world.
“How could I leave him?” Even now the tears stung her eyes. “Our son, he is still there, buried beneath the weeping willow. How could I leave our son? I would listen to him, sometimes.” Her voice was quiet, hesitant with pain. “When the wind would whisper through the branches, sometimes I would hear his voice. Who will listen to him now I am gone?”
She had closed her eyes then, and the screams of the dying filled the air all around them and the ground shook under the rage of the Wronged Son’s cannons.
“I remember,” he whispered, kissing her cheek. “I remember our son.” Ten years since the plague had taken Marcus, but still he could remember his voice, his laughter, his tears.
“I am the city,” she had once said. And he knew then what she had meant. We are what we love. He had seen her once, sitting beneath the weeping willow, her eyes closed as the breeze had rustled the leaves above. She had smiled then and his heart ached at the memory.
He kissed her and squeezed her hand, her fingers cool and loose in his own. He turned back and saw the city burning, the magics lighting the night into blazing day, the smoke coiling into the unnatural brightness.
He could be with his wife and his son again. All he had to do was to return to the city they had loved.
Return to Sharanih.
Mark Rookyard lives in Yorkshire, England. He likes running long distances and writing short stories.
As I hold her silk-skinned hand in mine her mouth twitches into a smile. Her eyes are closed, face turned towards the window and the sun setting across the mountains. I can hear the playgroup next door — the call and chatter of children at play.
A distant, whimsical expression settles onto her face as she lives in her past. It has been painful as this bright, witty woman has slipped away from me over the past year. She would be saddened to see this living decay.
“Mum?” I call, quiet as though approaching a startled bird.
I raise the straw of the orange juice carton to her lips — her favourite flavour, it always seems to draw her back to me from her world of far off memories.
It has been a wonderful day skiing. The sun is not yet set and the mountains are fringed in glowing, loving tones. John is sitting across from me, a sly quirky smile on his face, scarf unravelled as we cool off in the cafe. We get on so well, and after a year dating I think he is the one.
The distant squeals and laughter of families on the nursery slopes echo from the snow outside as he dips his head to sip from the large hand-warming mug of hot chocolate. Vapour from the chocolate fogs a lense on his glasses; I snigger. He snorts into the mug, woofing a cloud of steam over both lenses fogging him completely. He pulls a loony-tunes grin and I am lost to laughter.
When I recover my breath I see he has been watching me, his head on one side, the quirky smile gone — replaced with a tender expression, a mix of compassion and loss I cannot place exactly. I realise that I too am staring, gazing deep into his eyes. I pretend a cough and look away, briefly disconcerted, but find myself intent on his eyes again. They are a light brown, rilled with gold and amber. I have heard that you know love when you can see the eyes of your children in those of your lover. The shrieks and yells from the day’s-end skiers fades, and it is as though I can see my future sons and daughters. Not just their eyes; there are shadows of faces and muted far off echoes of their voices, all centred around his eyes. He is the one.
I lift my own mug and sip my chocolate. Sour, sharp bitter discordant tones in my mouth — I look down at my chocolate, the mug is gone, just blankness. My heart skips a beat — what is happening? The noise from outside has stopped, the people all gone, John is gone from before me. I stand, quickly — too quickly, the blood rushes from my head and I feel myself tumbling.
Mum turns to me; I knew the orange would revive her. A quizzical frown wrinkles her brow, I reach to soothe it away but she jerks her head back. Her stare is intense for a moment; as though she recognises me, but is not sure.
“You look like John, but he knows I don’t like orange.” An accusation and statement, with an undertow of questioning.
“It’s me, Kit, your son. You always say you don’t like orange, Mum, but it seems to revive you.” I offer it again, to be fended off by a gentle hand.
“I’d like that chocolate one.” She waves her hand at the tray by the bed with the chocolate milk.
I force a smile, knowing that she will lose herself and become the shell again. I don’t want to acquiesce, but also don’t want to unsettle her.
After a momentary pause I tug the straw off the packet. “Okay, but you just seem to drift off.” I poke the straw through the foil and offer the open end to her lips. She smiles and sips gently.
I know the children are still being noisy on the slopes outside, but my world has shrunk to this table, our hands across them, and the question he has just asked.
“Are you all right?” His smooth face has creased with concern. “You weren’t there for a moment.”
I lean forward and smile. “Yes, I will marry you.” I feel the tickle of a tear on my cheek, and grip his hand tightly.
“I love you, Jean,” he said, “and look forward to being with you forever.”
“You’ll think this funny, but when I look at you I can almost see what our children will be like. I know everything will turn out well. Do you think that silly?”
He remove his glasses with his free hand, and I can see his eyes smiling, unencumbered by lenses. “No, not silly, and I look forward to meeting our children.”
I can feel my cheeks aching from my smile. The world narrows further and I feel the café fold around me in a warm darkness.
Mum looks at me, her eyes as bright as I ever remember, more lucid than earlier. “I have had a wonderful life, you know… and soon I will be with your father.” I feel her thin grip squeeze my hand. “And I am happy here.”
Quite taken aback, I look at the Mum I used to know smiling up at me. Unbidden, tears choke me. “I miss you, Mum, it is heart-breaking seeing you like this.”
“You need to worry less — and get out more.” Mum is smiling, patting my hand. I know this is another goodbye.
Her eyes close. Her smile broadens as the sound of children outside swells to a crescendo carrying her to some golden moment.
She is not concerned about how she is now, she has settled with life. As I see her far-off smile return I know she is happy. My shoulders drop — I don’t need to be concerned, she is living in moments of her past life. Not in her present ending.
Mark English is an ex-rocket scientist with a doctorate in physics so he has an unwitting talent for taking the magic out of twinkling stars, sunsets, colourful flames dancing in a roaring fire, and rainbows. However with three children, he has been practicing story telling for many years, before he had the idea to write the stories down.
I told her not to marry him, but always the romantic, my baby sister didn’t listen. An elopement, and we all expected the worst, but they waited a respectable two years before producing one son, and then another year before the second. Still — that house they bought, out at the end of a dirt road, with those fields. For horses, Jewel had said, clasping her hands. I’ve always wanted horses. And Philip gave in to her, probably even encouraged her.
Well, now we saw where that got her. Massive cerebral hemorrhage leading to a heart attack, from being thrown from one of those damned animals. She fell onto a stone wall. Early morning, an accident no one saw. Across the aisle in this dreadful funeral chapel, Philip sat straight-backed between the boys, Robert and Randall, all of them looking like they hadn’t worn suits anytime in the past dozen years. Philip, blinking as though he might cry, as though Jewel’s death meant something to him. As though he wasn’t happy she’s dead. My youngest sister.
“Come sit with me and your aunts,” I had suggested before the service, putting a consoling hand on Robert’s — or Randall’s? I could never tell them apart — elbow. Just to guide him. Oh, I saw the wince, saw the way he looked to his sleeve wrinkling under my fingers, the glance he threw to his father. Sure, he was polite enough in his refusal — “Thanks, but I think Dad needs me” — at least Philip had schooled him that much. I could only fume as I slid into a chair next to Janet and Janelle.
But the casket. The open casket. The pancake makeup couldn’t disguise the swelling on the left side of Jewel’s face.
“Why?” I had hissed to my sisters.
My middle sister’s eyes were locked on her hands, folded in her lap. “He said the boys wanted it.”
“No sense of dignity.” I couldn’t keep my own eyes off Jewel’s distorted profile. Couldn’t look away when the older brother approached the casket to fasten a locket around my dead sister’s neck. I saw the dull glow of gold in his hands, the glint of some stone — probably a scrap of cut glass. When he returned, Philip reached for him with a shaking hand, put his arm around the boy as he sat. If I had been Philip, I certainly wouldn’t have flaunted Jewel’s injuries like that; if I had been Philip, I would have let as few people see them as possible. My face grew hot as I thought about this. My hands were shaking; Janelle put her own over them. “Stop, Jerri,” she said.
“I told her not to marry him, didn’t I?” I whispered. “All those years ago.”
“Not the time.”
The service progressed. Quickly, surprisingly so, as though everyone had somewhere else to be. The minister, though: a woman. Again I pressed my lips together tightly. He should have left the arrangements to us, because obviously Philip had no idea how we did things. I shot another glance across the aisle. He had an arm around each of those boys, his face a mask of grief. A mask.
“Amazing Grace” was printed on the back of the thin sheet of paper we’d been handed at the door. We sang to a recorded organ, and that was it. I looked around, and found the funeral director and his flunkies were directing the mourners up from the back, but then realized people were being sent to condole with Philip and the boys, and back down the center aisle. Shrugging aside Janelle’s restraint, I stood at the end of the row and held out a hand to some people I didn’t recognize — friends of Philip’s, no doubt. “Thank you for coming,” I said. “I’m Jewel’s sister. These are her other sisters, Janet and Janelle.” Several people looked back at Philip, but shook my hand and moved on.
The chapel empty, Philip looked over at me. “Will you ride to the cemetery with us in the limousine?” he asked. His voice sounded strangled, as though he couldn’t bear to speak to me.
“No,” I said.
“We’ll meet you there,” Janelle broke in quickly. I glared at her. “I’ll get the car.”
I watched Philip take the boys’ hands — holding their hands, and they twelve and eleven years old — and move down the aisle. He stumbled slightly, and one of the boys steadied him: I wondered if he’d been drinking. My two sisters fell in behind them, and I was left alone.
With my youngest sister, and her ruined profile. Slowly I approached the open coffin, and looked down at Jewel’s reconstructed face. My dead sister. You never should have married him. You’d still be alive. My hands gripped the wood. Against her dark blue dress, the boy’s locket was stark and dull, the tiny fake diamond glinting like a single eye. I reached out and prodded it with a finger. The cheap lock sprung open, and I saw the pictures, one on each side, of the boys. The children she’d had with Philip.
A quick look over my shoulder — I was still alone — and I bent down, undid the clasp, and pulled the cheap thing away from her neck. As I shoved it into my pocket, I saw the rings on the finger of her left hand. I had to work them a bit, but they came off, too, the gold band and the solitaire diamond. Just in time, for there was a noise from the hallway. I thrust the rings into my pocket as well and hurried toward the door, nodding once to the funeral director as he stood aside to let me pass.
Anne Britting Oleson has been published widely in North America, Europe and Asia. She earned her MFA at the Stonecoast program of USM. She has published two chapbooks, The Church of St. Materiana (2007) and The Beauty of It (2010).