Perael’s Wife

Amanda McCormick with another prompt for her ongoing blog challenge. The prompt was this:

Make a list of five things you’re afraid of happening to you. Then write a story in which one of them happens to your character.

Here is my list:

  1. My husband leaving me.
  2. My children dying or getting sick.
  3. Being forgotten.
  4. Failing in school.
  5. Not having a legacy to leave behind.

Content warning: this story features two male characters from my upcoming fantasy novel and deals with heavy themes, including the death of a child (only the cause of death is mentioned, and the child does not die “on-screen”).

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To His Grace Duke Perael sil Aldrich,

Word has reached my ears of the tragic death of your beloved son Marcus. While I know there are no words that could bring you or your wife any comfort, please understand that sil Varstra stands with you. While my husband Duke Prego sil Varstra has a living heir in my daughter Ardia, who I had thought to marry to your son, we have also experienced loss. We’ve buried two boys in the fourteen years we’ve been married, one to crib death and the other to an allergic reaction to goat’s milk. I tell you this because I feel that it is important in this time for you to understand that the cycles of life spare no one, and it is your duty to move on. Murietta’s heart breaks now, I am sure of it, but once you’ve given her sufficient time to grieve, you must get her with child again. Take whatever wisdom the gods have graced you with and secure your bloodline. There will be more children yet.

Your father died when you were still a teenager, and you inherited a small but mighty duchy when you lacked any experience to see to it. Yet in the four years since you came into your own as Duke, your duchy has thrived, challenging sil Varstra for the crown’s ear on trade and exports

 

Regards,

Her Grace Duchess Olivia sil Varstra

 

He received the letter yesterday. According to his majordomo, word of his son’s drowning had reached sil Varstra twenty-three days ago. A week later, they’d dispatched their sympathies, and told the messenger to ride hard.

Perael didn’t know whether to be comforted or annoyed by the Duchess’s letter. He still hadn’t come to terms with his son’s death, and he was not ready to ask his wife to move on. He couldn’t. Not when every time he went to bed, he saw her tear-stained face. She was always silent now, the tears falling in quiet streams. Sometimes Perael could tell she stopped crying hours ago, but she hadn’t cleaned her face.

And she’d always been so devoted to her appearance.

Murietta was a quiet woman who loved to paint. Unlike Perael, a Tavarian patriot, Murietta von Dekis had been born in Amerilis. Their customs were similar to Tavaria’s, but she had always seemed an odd duck to Perael. Warmth in her eyes, but ice in her words.

Perael was only barely twenty-one. He’d never known how to deal with people. At university he’d been generally reviled. His nine-year-old brother, Tahm, was more vivacious and liked than Perael had ever been.

It was too bad Tahm wasn’t the heir, but what would a nine-year-old do with an estate like sil Aldrich? He had no concept of trade and national security. The port city in sil Aldrich alone was a nightmare to maintain and protect, to say nothing of the wine and mage powder exports.

Perael crumbled up the letter and tossed it in a wooden basket near his desk. Sil Aldrich could keep their sympathies. He had no use for them. He had far too many things to do.

“Carlotta!” he called. After a moment, his elderly housekeeper arrived. She’d been with the family since his grandfather’s time, when sil Aldrich barely scraped by thanks to its port city.  “Is Her Grace ready for supper?”

Carlotta shook her head, leaning on her cane. “She sent us out of her drawing room an hour ago. She stated she wished to be left alone and she would dress herself for dinner. I’m afraid I don’t know if she was able to do so.”

Able to do so. She’d not dressed for meals in the month and a half since Marcus’s death, save for when he’d insisted she let her handmaidens do it for her.

“I’ll go see her,” he said. He rose from his chair and crossed the room, leaving Carlotta to waddle after him at her snail’s pace.

He climbed the stairs, but as he did so, he experienced a strange wave of foreboding. He shook his head. Almost two months is more than enough time to grieve, he thought. I suppose I’ll take sil Varstra’s advice.

He swept into Murietta’s drawing room and found her at her easel. Before her was a canvas with swathes of deep gloomy blue painted on it, but nothing else. That was a good sign, wasn’t it? That she’s painting again?

He took a closer look as he approached. Murietta blinked at the easel, ignoring him, a paintbrush in her hand with black paint dripping from the bristles onto her dress. It’s a good thing that dress is black. That would never come out, Perael thought.

“Dearest, are you ready for supper?” he asked gently, placing a hand on his wife’s shoulder. She started abruptly, startled from some melancholy reverie.

“I tried to capture…everything, on the canvas,” she said softly, “but I couldn’t imagine anything beyond the blue. I thought it would help, but all I see is blue.” Tears welled up at the corners of her eyes.

“You can try again tomorrow. You’re off to a great start,” he said. “You’ll see more tomorrow.”

She shook her head almost imperceptibly, but put the paintbrush down on the tray near her chair and allowed Perael to pull her to her feet. She stood apart from him with naught but her hand on his arm as they walked down to the dining room together.

Dinner was a quiet affair with only the sound of the forks clinking against the plates. He tried to engage her in conversation, but she merely pursed her lips together and nodded or shook her head in confirmation or otherwise.

“Would you like to fill in the pond?” he finally asked, ignoring the niggling in his stomach urging him not to broach the subject. Murietta dropped her fork onto her plate, then jumped at the loud clatter it caused. She peered at him from across the table, her blue eyes wide, made all the brighter by the golden halo of unbrushed hair framing her face.

She said nothing, only peered at him.

“If it would make you feel better to fill it in before we have children again, I’ll gladly fill it for you. We can turn the location into a new stable. Tahm seems to like horses and if he keeps asking for new horses, we’ll have nowhere to put them all,” Perael explained. He met her eyes. Surely a practical solution and the promise of more children to love and horses to ride would cheer her up.

Murietta’s flesh was pale, the blood completely drained away from her face and collarbone. She looked like a ghost, wild and reckless with all the despair of the undead.

“Again?” she whispered. “Children again?”

Perael put his fork down and splayed his hands in front of him in a placating gesture. “I’m not saying we need to, you know, make another one tonight, or even this week. Not even this month. But in time, I do need an heir and I think you won’t truly be whole until you have another child to love.”

“Another child,” Murietta whispered. She blinked slowly three times, before silently pushing her chair back and walking out of the room.

Perael watched her go and said nothing. She just needed time.

He went to his office and read a few more letters and drafted several responses, but he couldn’t get Murietta off his mind. He was worried about her, but she was painting again. That seemed more promising than anything else in the past month.

It was late when he went to bed. Murietta was already asleep. Good, he thought to himself. She needs her rest. It’s been awhile since she’s received any.

Confident that his beautiful wife would feel better in the morning with his promises of future children and a safer home, he fell asleep quickly.

When he awoke, he realized it was quite late. Usually he woke no more than an hour after dawn, when Murietta rose to spend time in the nursery, as she always did since she’d fallen pregnant five years ago. Based on the light, it was clearly at least four hours after dawn.

It was at that moment that Perael realized Murietta was still in bed. She lay in the same position she’d fallen asleep with her arm over her eyes, shielding them from any light. He considered that that may be why she was still asleep. The morning light hadn’t woken her yet.

He leaned over her to kiss her forehead. As he did so, his blood chilled.

She was cold. No warmth of blood flowing beneath her skin.

Perael put his head against her chest and heard nothing. He knew, but he kept trying. He shook her, gently at first, then violently. Her limp body gave no response.

He sat back on his heels on the bed and drank in the sight.

His wife was dead in her own bed at the age of twenty. Only twenty.

He called out for Carlotta, his deep voice steady but hoarse. When the old woman entered the room and saw him still on the bed and the haphazard way Murietta’s body lay, she didn’t speak a word. She made it to Perael’s side as quickly as she could and gently pulled him off the bed. He stumbled but kept his eyes on his wife.

Not his wife. His wife wasn’t there anymore.

He didn’t hear Carlotta call for the majordomo. He didn’t hear her call for footmen. He stood in his underthings in the corner of the room and watched wordlessly as she dealt with it. As she dealt with his problem, his own problem, because he couldn’t.

It was his fault. He’d pressured her too early. She hadn’t been ready to hear about children. If he’d given her more time.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a small figure enter the room. With golden hair so like his dead wife’s, Tahm looked like he could have been her son.

Perael decided right then that he would not remarry. His carelessness had lost him too greatly. His heir would be Tahm. Tahm would marry. Tahm would carry the bloodline.

But for now, Tahm was crying. The boy was only nine years old, for pity’s sake.

Perael took his brother into his arms and allowed himself finally to weep.

 

 

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Dark

We’re not afraid of the dark. We’re afraid of whatever it is that is lurking, able to see us, but we can’t see it. How can you fight something you don’t see coming? How can you flee if you don’t know what chases you? Or if it’s chasing you?

A fear of the dark is a fear of the unknown.

 

 

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For the most part, she liked living alone.

Top floor, three padlocks on the door. She put wooden dowels in every window. No one would be opening them. Not even her; she kept forgetting about the dowels whenever she tried to air out a room after deep-cleaning.

But she worked swing shift, stepping off the bus at eleven and walking through her door at eleven thirty. She always asked the doorman if everything was fine, and he never reported any problems.

Still.

Every creak, every noisy neighbor, every shattered bottle in the alley made her skin crawl.

Haunted by shadows.

©2018 Heather Stephens

The Duke and the Thief

I’m doing a blog challenge put on by Amanda McCormick. She gave this prompt: a stolen ring, fear of spiders, and a sinister stranger. I’m writing a fantasy novel, and I thought this blog challenge was the perfect opportunity for me to write a short story from the universe in which my upcoming novel takes place. I offer it to you here, for free. Sort of to give a taste of the kind of writer I am when I’m not cramming ideas into a hundred words.

Enjoy!

 

Molly

 

All she could determine about the shrouded figure in the corner was that he was a man. She considered her options. The ring she’d pilfered from her lady’s coffer was in a pouch tied to her garter—the garter she’d taken off so she could sleep comfortably.

Stupid. On the run from the duke’s guards and she thought of comfort? She shouldn’t have dreamed of being comfortable until she was over the border into Amerilis. What kind of thief was she anyway, to have fled only two town over before stopping to rest?

A piss-poor excuse of a thief, even if she’d only even taken the job out of desperation.

The ring, rumored to be magic and protective against liches, was the only target of her caper. First, she’d been instructed to take a job working for Duke sil Varstra’s daughter, his heir. The sil Varstra child had the ring, although to Molly’s reckoning she’d had no idea of its power. She’d be off to university soon, and Molly hadn’t had time to grow attached.

She was an odd child anyway. Fourteen and colder than ice, and she always peered at you so strangely, glancing above your head before she’d answer any questions.  It gave Molly chills just thinking about it.

So she’d taken the ring. She made it two villages over, with barely ten miles to the border of Amerilis, and she’d stopped. She’d stopped! What kind of fool was she to think she could steal from sil Varstra and get away with it? An uneducated girl like Molly could have married a farmer boy and lived life in blissful peace, but no.

No, for the sake of her piece of shit brother, she’d taken this gamble. Her once-in-a-lifetime gamble to square all his misbegotten bets. And based on the way the stranger in the corner was watching her as she pretended to be asleep, she’d lost.

The man wanted the ring. Molly was sure of it. If it came down to it, if she could just get to the window across from the ring, she could throw herself out of it. She’d break a bone or two on the way down, but she’d come away with her life. More than she could say if the man had his way.

Dressed in only a pale pink shift, Molly quietly took a deep breath and rolled out of bed, landing on her feet in a crouch on the left side of the poorly stuffed mattress. She lunged headfirst toward the window open to the summer night.

The wind was knocked out of her as someone grabbed her shift from behind, pulling the collar tight against her throat. She reached for the window in desperation, her eyes watering.

Now she’d face her doom.

Instead of a knife to the throat, the hooded stranger tossed her back onto the bed. “Where is it?” a smooth, deep voice asked.

This wasn’t Molly’s fight. She knew not why the yellow priest from Amerilis wanted the ring, and she wasn’t about to die for his chance to have it. She gestured to the foot of the bed. “On the floor there. In a pouch. You can’t miss it.”

The man moved so smoothly he seemed to shimmer as he took two long steps to the foot of the bed and bent down. He held up her garter with one black-gloved finger. She blushed. “Just take it,” she said urgently. “I’d rather not die for it. I won’t say anything, I swear.”

The man deftly untied the pouch from the garter and pulled out the ring. Content that it was the same ring as the one she’d stolen, he looked back at her. He watched her for a long moment, as if he were deciding whether or not to kill her.

“Please,” Molly begged. Her fists tightened, clenching the threadbare quilt covering the mattress.

The man reached one hand up and pulled his hood off his head, exposing a familiar face above a glowing pendant shaped like a tarantula.

Molly’s jaw dropped and she frantically scooted back on the bed against the headboard.

“Why did you take it?” Duke sil Varstra asked. His salt-and-pepper hair gleamed in the moonlight.

“Someone paid me to do it. They said they’d get my brother out of jail and pay his debts. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, and I don’t want to die. I just wanted to give my brother a chance to see his family again, though I curse him for his sins,” Molly said, tears streaming down her cheeks.

The duke would kill her now that she’d seen him. There was no doubt about it.

“Is your brother so good to you, that you would risk your life for his?” the duke asked, having dropped the garter and was tying the pouch to his own belt.

“It doesn’t matter. His family needs to eat and without him, they’ll starve,” Molly weeped. “Please, I can find another way, but they’ll die if I can’t find a way to feed them, either by getting him out or by sending them my wages.”

“You’ll never get any wages from my House,” sil Varstra said plainly. Molly’s face fell. A thousand crowns for two months work—gone.

The duke turned squarely to face her, taking one step toward the bed. Molly flinched.

“Who was it who hired you?” he asked. Molly couldn’t find a reason to lie.

“Some priest in yellow and blue robes. He was Amerilian. He didn’t offer his name,” she spat desperately.

Duke sil Varstra nodded and untied a pouch from the other side of his belt, opposite to where he’d tied the ring. He tossed it onto the bed, where it clinked. It was practically overflowing with crowns. “Feed your brother’s family. Find work. Don’t step foot in my duchy again,” he said, his baritone voice dripping with disdain.

With that, he left.

Molly let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding and began to weep anew. She’d escaped with her life, but at what cost? She didn’t know, but she wasn’t about to find out. She dressed quickly, tying the new pouch to her garter.

She had a second chance. She wouldn’t waste it.

 

©2018 Heather Stephens

Rain

The prompt was rain, and it made me miss Washington yet again. I miss it so much. While it’s nice to be able to have access to a sandy beach with actually warm ocean water, I’d much rather reserve California as a place to visit. Not a place to live. Not for someone like me, with a soul like mine, that craves the rain. That craves the shadows under dark clouds.

Someone who hides from the sun.

It overwhelms me. I despise it here. And I just don’t understand how I could ever be happy here.

I’m dying a little with every sunny day.

 

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My mother told me it would be cloudy today. It is. The sky is dark, and it rumbles deeply, shaking my bones.

It’s a comfort.

The clouds opened up five minutes ago, and already the parched earth is coming back to life.

So am I.

I’ve always had an affinity for water, and when it falls from the sky, it cleanses my soul as much as it does the air and the earth.

This time, the rumbling makes the whiskey in my glass shiver like Jurassic Park.

The storm grows closer. I grow more comfortable.

Evolving with the ever-changing storm.

©2018 Heather Stephens

I am a Writer.

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I think it always sounds so pretentious when people call themselves a writer. I don’t know why, but whenever I do it, I feel like a fraud. Yes, I write 100-word stories semi-regularly. Yes, for several years I made my living content writing on a freelance basis. But I know in my heart that what I really mean by “I am a writer” is I am a novelist.

I have not yet completed a novel, so I don’t think I really am one.

But I want to be one, and They™ always say “Fake it ’til you make it.”

So that’s what I do. I write because life is too hard for me, and I want to create worlds in which good wins. I write because I have regrets and I want to create characters that find redemption, even when I, myself, don’t know if I’ll ever find my own. I write to be heard. Doesn’t everybody just want to be heard?

I’m taking part of a blog challenge run by Amanda McCormick. I have trouble keeping up with this blog (in so small part because I want to update it and expand it but I can’t afford someone to design a good website for me. Even if I purchase a premium theme I’d need help actually using it and I can’t afford to pay someone to do it) and I think it would help me connect more with readers and, honestly, myself if I updated my blog more often.

Don’t worry. Everything I post here will be relevant to writing or reading or me. It won’t be a spam dump just to attract views. I promise. PINKY promise.

Stay tuned!

 

Bubble

This one is autobiographical.

I despise where I live. I want to move back to Washington, where communities have grown more organically, not as much of a bubble as where I live now.

I don’t belong here.

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Traffic at one o’clock?

Undoubtedly. The schools get out at 12:58 PM on Wednesdays. Everyone is picking up their children.

There are three elementary schools within a mile of my house.

I gave directions to the sweet lady at the grocery store. Which way to the Marriott? Oh, just take Street 1 to Street 4 and turn right. The road will bend, and you’ll see it on the right.

Yes, ma’am. Very efficient.

Yes, ma’am. My husband’s commute is only fifteen minutes. Everybody in this town also works here. No reason to look elsewhere.

Master-planned lives in a master-planned community.

©2018 Heather Stephens

Bath

The prompt was bath.

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Candlelight glimmering. She closes her eyes and tilts her head back to rest against the back of the copper tub.

He lifts the heavy bowl of warm water and tips it over her head, careful to make sure the water flows over her long, lustrous hair instead of over her face.

He runs his hands through each lock, squeezing the lavender-smelling suds out of it. The water gleams with soothing, scented oils.

She opens her brown eyes, meeting his black ones. He doesn’t smile; neither does she. There is no need for it.

They know to whom they each belong.

 

©2018 Heather Stephens

Library

I don’t want anything on an enormous scale (except time). I don’t want an enormous amount of money. I don’t want an enormous amount of fame. I just want to be heard. I want people to see my books at Barnes and Noble, even if they don’t choose to buy it. I want to be heard.

Most of all, I want my books to be available at libraries, free to access for anyone. I want people to find a friend in me, solace in me, even if they never talk to me personally. I want to help.

Maybe someday.

This week’s prompt from Thin Spiral Notebook is Library.

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Rustling papers. A whisper. The pitter-patter of a toddler’s feet as they try to find the book about giving a mouse a cookie.

There. Spreadsheet done. Now she can work on her passion project—her first book.

Maybe someday it will be available here, in these sacred halls, accessible by anyone in her community. Maybe someday a teenage girl will stumble across it and it will change her life.
Maybe someday a shy college boy will read it and realize he could be a better man.

Just a dream, for now. Attainable, but not yet.

Eventually, someday will be today.

©2018 Heather Stephens

Respect

The prompt was respect. As a parent, I feel it is important to teach your kids, especially your sons, not only what respect is, but what it looks like. Your kids (whether you have them now or will later, or you just know some kids that aren’t yours) watch more closely than you think and they absorb everything. Model good interpersonal relationships for them so they can make healthy social decisions later.

 

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She wasn’t having it tonight. Doing the dishes should not be requested more than once.

It isn’t like she didn’t give him time to relax first. She gave him a full hour after he’d gotten home from work. She’d asked him first on her way out the door to go to yoga. Again when she got home.  Again after her post-workout shower. Again when she bathed the kids.

Their son watched them both as she asked for a fifth and final time. Her husband smiled, apologized, and rose to finish the dishes while she tucked the children into their beds.

 

© 2018 Heather Stephens

Windows Update lost my files.

 

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Over the years I’ve heard all sides of the Mac vs. PC debate. I’ve never been a fan of Macs, being raised on PC at both home and school. I’m 30 years old, and I’ve been loyal to PC the entire time. Microsoft has never screwed me over, to be honest, and in fact, I’m even a fan of Windows 10.

Until.

A recent Windows update over the past week gave me a fright when I couldn’t find my folder of documents for my collection of flash fiction that I’ve been working on for a year. I know, I know. I can hear you screaming at me to back up my work. I will from now on.

The update made it harder for me to find documents saved solely on my PC, only giving me quick access to my OneDrive documents.

“But Heather,” you ask, “If you can save to OneDrive, why wasn’t that folder saved there too?”

Good question.

And the only answer I have to that is I suffer from extreme laziness. A byproduct of disability. When you spend so long not even being able to do anything, you grow accustomed to it. So while I am physically incapable of doing things like workout for an hour or go to work consistently, I also have developed a preference for the quick-and-easy solutions to all of my problems. It’s a learned mindset, and one I do not want to teach my children.

But the good news is I found the folder and I’m back at work on my Little Book of Flash, as well as my horror short stories. While I intend to finish the two novels that I’ve started, I think at this point of time in my life, big projects that are easily broken up into smaller pieces are the way to go. Each 100-word story I finish will boost my motivation to write more, which will lead to the bigger victory of finishing the book. Every horror short story I post and narrate will do the same.

I feel good about this. My body may not want to cooperate most of the time, and my mind is even less generous, but at least I have goals.

Maybe someday I’ll reach them.