Miraeth

Long time no see, everyone. I’m really sorry about that. After I post this story, I will make a blog post about why I haven’t posted in a while.

But here is a 2300-word short story about a boy in a cave.

Please let me know what you think of it.

cave

 

“I find it hard to believe this cave hasn’t been discovered already,” Miraeth said, tossing her golden hair over her shoulder. “It’s probably full of bandits.”

She didn’t sound scared. She just didn’t want to go with me.

“You don’t have to come, coward,” I retorted, shouldering my bag. “Bastion can come with me. I don’t need you.” I patted my dog on the head, and he whined, leaning into the palm of my hand.

She had the nerve to look offended. Her peridot eyes widened, eyes that could be soft and inviting if not for the nerve of the woman who possessed them, a simpering rage infiltrating her aloofness and turning it into an insult. An insult I fully intended, as much as I have loved her since I wore nappies.

“You’ll probably die in there, ” she said, and as her words tumbled out of her mouth, they dripped caustic venom on the forest floor. I smiled when I practically smelled the burning of leaves.

“Perhaps I will. Or perhaps I’ll discover hidden treasure and become the wealthiest man in town. And then I’ll make sure to forget all about you, Miraeth Samperson.” My tone is deceptively casual as I say it. I don’t mean it. I couldn’t mean it.

Sometimes before we went in at night after our work was done, she’d kiss me. “Never tell anyone,” she’d say before pressing her lips to me, her hands roving over my body. A small body for an eighteen-year-old boy. Noah Relard was a bigger man, and he’d had an eye on Miraeth almost as long as I had.

But for some reason, she chose to kiss me. To touch me. But she never let it go to my head, treating me so poorly whenever she wasn’t pressing her lips to mine.

Poison lips. So sweet.

Rewarding my boyish insolence would not do, so she gave me a rude gesture with the fingers of one hand and then stormed off. I tried calling after her. After all, I’d much prefer it if she came with me into the cave than storming through the woods alone.

Ah well. It was only noon anyway. There would be as little danger at this hour than there would ever be.

“Come on Bash,” I said, adjusting the weight of the strap of my bag on my shoulder yet again. It was a nervous tick I had.

The cave was dark almost immediately upon entering. Dark, damp. Typical of caves, really. I rolled my eyes at myself as I fumbled in the light from outside for a match to light the lantern I brought with me, the lantern that was clipped to my belt. Should have done this outside before entering the cave, you vacuous moron, I told myself.

But the lantern was lit, and the golden light that illuminated the black stone walls around me revealed no enemies.

Black stone.

The walls were made of black stone, some sort of obsidian.

Hidden treasure indeed. If the stone was soft enough, I could mine it and sell it. The gleaming ebony rock would make me rich enough to move out of my small town.

Even as I reached for the stone to test its hardness, I hesitated. Moving out of the small town would mean leaving Miraeth. Sassy, sweet, venomous Miraeth.

Unless she agreed to come with me.

I don’t know why she would, but I couldn’t think why she wouldn’t either. She kissed me; she must love me too. Yes, I thought to myself, she would come with me.

Joy resonated through my blood, making it heat and simmer within my veins as I felt the rock. I dug in with my nails, yes, yes, it was soft enough to easily mine.

I was as rich man. And I knew, deep down, that my mum’s troubles were over. No longer would she have to sell the most sacred parts of her to men who mistreated her. She could choose her clients more particularly now.

Other healers used their magic to heal the body. Mum used her body to heal the mind.

But it would take time to hire people to work the mine and to get the equipment sorted. I needed something to bring home to assert my claim on the mine, to validate my authority.

So deeper into the cave, I went. Along the way, I’d pick up small pieces of the black rock and shove them into my bag, still unsure what kind of stone it was. Bastion, loyal Bastion, followed me faithfully, braver even than I.

Deeper and deeper I went, enveloped in the cold embrace of the earth. The blackness was like a living entity of its own, pulsing. Breathing. Breathing like a living god, mightier than the mountain which made up its home, more than a sum of its parts.

It weighed upon me. Heavier than anything I’d ever known. But my life was on the line, and I had much to lose, but more to gain, so in I pressed. Even as my steps became strenuous, even as my shoulders slumped, I pressed in.

Never before had I been so determined to see a task done. Even if I had to crawl, I would reach the back of the cave.

I never noticed it when it began, but after three hours in the cave, the noise in my head was a cacophony of swarming bees. Buzzing and furious. Somehow I had the presence of mind to wonder about Miraeth. Surely she’d be home by now.

I could not worry about her for long. The weight was so heavy upon my shoulders, I fell to my knees, and I would swear the stone floor faltered under the combined weight of my small frame and the entity perched upon my shoulders. Sweat poured over my face, despite the cold dampness. I wondered where the water was that was causing such a dank environment. I had not come across any.

But that was my last thought before preternatural sleepiness overcame me and I almost succumbed to the sweetest slumber I would have ever known.

The buzzing of the bees inside my head quieted just a little, and in that blissful relief, my eyes snapped open.

And then I began to crawl. If I’d had any sense, I’d have crawled out, away from the inky darkness, back to the light of early spring that waited for me outside of the cave. Bastion’s whines begged me to do just that, urgent and high, overcoming even the chaos of the bees.

But I had never been an overly intelligent boy, even less so as a man, so I plunged deeper.

My knees ached with a dozen bruises as I crawled, but I was motivated by an urging so primal and necessary that I did not heed them. My hands were scuffed and raw.

With the abruptness of a falling star illuminating the skies to the delight of the mortal children on the surface of the earth, between one painful shuffle and the next, the buzzing in my head ceased, cut off like the head of a criminal on judgment day.

The loss of it made me retch. I missed its clamor like I missed Miraeth’s venom. Contrary to my own well-being. But I did not vomit. I would never violate the black stone of the ground with my own filth.

Another shuffle forward and the weight was lifted. Every movement forward was rewarded by a lessening of my burden, more and more until once again I was able to stand like a man and face what lied ahead.

There was a light ahead. I could see it, filtering from around a corner. An orange light, like the light of sunset.

A heaving ecstasy filled my heart. I had made it through the womb of the earth. I knew not where I would emerge back into the world of light and air, but to know that I would emerge at all was freedom of its own. With every joy in the world making my steps lighter, I surged forward toward that orange light.

The world I found beyond that corner was not the world into which I’d been born, and lived, and loved.

Did I die in the cave? Was I crushed under the enormous weight of that interminable darkness?

It could not be so. The valley before me was small in size but vast in the sheer amount of life that resides within it. No people, no, and no animals either. Naught but birds. But so many of them.

And there, in the center of the valley, I could see from even at a significant distance, a white bird so colossal in size, it could have been a dragon if dragons were feathered and possessed a beak. That bird was the size of the hill on which I made my home with my mum.

Even from where I stood, at least two miles away, I could feel it watching me as if it were expecting me.

Retreat, my mind urged me, some sort of self-preservation freezing my blood. What lies within the cave would be more merciful that.

But my feet were already moving forward. Only forward. Only. Forward.

Bastion was not with me, but I could not look back to see where he had decided to stay. I would not look back.

Only forward.

The way to the dragon-bird was clear, made only of glimmering peridot-colored grass that looked more like an emerald in the dying light. My steps sounded hollow on the earth as I ruffled through the grass.

The closer I drew to the dragon-bird, the more I noticed about it. It was not seated on a nest or burrow of any sort. No, it was standing, its attention indeed focused on me. It was not white as I had thought, but instead a thousand shades of gray, each individual feather a different hue. Its hooded eyes were blue like the ice that covered the river in the winter.

Its beak. As if pulled from my own nightmares, the pale yellow beak was larger than the head of the dragon-bird, blunt but massive. It could eat my entire town in two bites.

It watched me approach but did not move. Retreat, my mind urged again, but again I took a step forward. Only forward.

And I met the bird’s fearsome gaze and felt the foundations of my character crumble away underneath me.

A thousand lifetimes I lived in that time I stared at it, even as the sun set and darkness overcame the valley. I could not tear away my gaze from that of the dragon-bird, but I did not want to do so anyway. The secrets of the universe were unveiled to me, revealed to me as if I were watching the origins of the universe unfold as if I were a part of its making. As if I could be a part of its unmaking.

No words were spoken, but the offer was blatantly presented. See and learn the patterns of creation, therein would I forge my destiny.

Only forward. I accepted the offer.

There are no words to describe in my mother tongue what I learned that night.

In the end, the bird blinked once, and I was dismissed. Silently I turned around and made my way back the way I came, my lantern long since gone out. But I did not need it. Back over the emerald grass and back into the darkness of the cave, where Bastion waited for me.

The way back after a long journey always seems shorter than one remembers it, and that was true for that night. Effortlessly I navigated the halls of the cave, the black walls, once so rich with possibility, not forgotten, but dismissed.

Back into the world I knew as my own.

I wanted to see Miraeth. I wanted to see Miraeth and offer her a place by my side. I was not burdened by my great destiny; I was gifted with it. I knew the way to her house like I knew the way to my own. Home is where I decided it would be.

I threw a stone at her window, unwilling to spend the time to explain to her parents why I was their house so late. The little pebble bounced off the glass. She did not come.

I threw another one.

She did not come.

The burden of knowing filled me. I knew, but I wanted to see. To allow this to be a lesson to learn to trust in the gift that had been bestowed upon me. If I did not allow myself this pain, the lesson wouldn’t take.

“Go home, Bash,” I directed my faithful friend. He gave me one peculiar look before running in the direction of my small cottage.

I moved to the Samperson barn.

I heard them before I slipped inside to see. Heard the slapping of bodies coming together and the whimpering Miraeth always made when she got what she wanted.

But still, I pushed inside.

The tangling of their limbs made me queasy, even as Miraeth’s startled shame gave her cheeks a rosy glow. “I thought you were dead,” she said to me.

“No, you didn’t,” I replied.

Noah Relard cursed at me. “Leave before I tear your weak arms off,” he threatened. I looked upon him with benign pity.

I turned to the love of my life one final time. “I found my treasure. I would not have forgotten Miraeth Samperson.”

By the time I made it home, the vestiges of a smile had graced my face. The twinges of young heartbreak still echoed within my chest like a bruise being pressed on by the memory of her lips on my skin, but I knew it would pass.

Soon this little town would be left behind as my mum and I made for greener pastures and richer pockets.

The world was mine for the taking.

©2019 Heather Stephens

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Short Story – A Mother’s Love

For this blog challenge post (thanks Amanda McCormick!) we were asked to pick a few elements from a dream we had and then incorporate them into a short story. All writing prompts I’ve received lately, I’ve turned into short stories that take place in the same universe as my upcoming fantasy romance novel.

My dream was about my mother. I won’t go into it, but I have a painful relationship with my mother.

It was the perfect inspiration for this story.

Please enjoy.pexels-photo-458766

 

“Ardia takes after you because she has no gift for music,” Olivia sil Varstra complains to her husband, Prego. He peers up at her from the book he’s reading, a grimace on his face.

“What does she need music for? She’s my heir. She will inherit the preeminent estate in the kingdom. She doesn’t need to focus on music. If she wants frivolity, she can hire someone. There’s a reason we support artists in this kingdom.” He’s said his piece, engrossing himself back into his letter. After a moment he puts it aside and picks up a different document.

“She needs to be well-rounded, or she will not interest Tahm sil Aldrich.” Olivia sits down on a chaise in the center of the room. “We have a chance to merge the economic empires of the two most important estates in the kingdom. Together we’d cover two-hundred square miles of the kingdom.” She shakes her head. “No. I must insist that you write to the University and enroll her in music classes.”

Prego tosses the document he’s trying to read on the desk. “That’s enough. Her lessons in economics, statecraft, and history are well enough. The contract has been signed less than a week, and you’re already getting skittish.”

Olivia’s face sours. “You supported marrying her to sil Aldrich as much as I did. Do. I still think it is for the best. Tahm is a strapping young man. He can protect her from whatever comes.” She looks at her hands; she is not yet old enough for them to show her age, although she knows the day is coming. Still, at not yet forty, she is young enough to still appear pleasing. She decides to try a different tactic. “He won’t want to protect her if she’s boring,” she says, pouting her lips and batting her eyelashes.

Prego sighs deeply and looks at the ceiling, pleading with the Lord and Lady for the strength to persevere. “Olivia, don’t do that. As much as I value your input, I said no. She has only a year left at University, and if she wants to receive the marks that will earn the respect of her peers, she must focus.”

He pinches the bridge of his nose. “And do not tell me that I supported it. My decision to join with sil Aldrich was born of two desires: to keep her safe and to keep Tavaria safe from whatever darkness rises across the border in Amerilis. If there had been any other way, any at all, I would have preferred it. She is too young.”

Olivia scoffs, abandoning with frustration her pretense of coy persuasion. “I was fifteen when you married me. You did not think I was too young.” Her voice quivers, as if she is hurt by his double standard, but is too proud to address it outright.

Prego groans, tossing his hands in the air, reaching for some sort of divine aid that will not come. “You were not, are not an heir. Heirs typically marry at age twenty-three, as I was when I married you. You know this. You know this. And yet you harry me with your incessant nagging!”

He rises to his feet and leaves his office, ignoring Olivia’s demand that he stay and discuss their daughter’s future. She stands too but does not leave. Instead, she paces for a time, stopping every once in a while to stare out the window into the front garden, watching the grand reflecting pool ripple with the falling rain. The roses will bloom beautifully this year, she thinks to herself.

Decision made, she makes her way to the desk from which her husband departed. She finds a blank parchment and dips a quill into a bottle of ink.

Lord sil Aldrich,

What’s done is done, and I do not regret my decision to join our two great estates for the benefit of both us and all of Tavaria. With your armies and my husband’s resources, we will defend this great land from the threat in the east.

However, I must ask once again for you to alter the contract. While your brother is a fine young man, I worry that he is not the right fit for my daughter. He is a rumored playboy and a sportsman, and I worry that his attention will wander in the time after she is busy running sil Varstra and before he inherits sil Aldrich. If you will not take her hand in marriage, as I would prefer you to do, will you not at least abdicate your position so that Tahm is already made Duke before he weds Ardia? By doing so, you ensure their matrimonial bliss as they will both be far too busy to pay any attention to their significant differences.

You are a man made wise by loss and experience. I am confident you will see the wisdom in my request.

Warmest regards,

Her Grace Duchess Olivia sil Varstra

 

She sends the letter that day, sending her least favorite servant into the storm to find a courier in the nearest village, Losenta.

After that, Olivia is perfectly placid. She smiles at the servants, initiates lovemaking with her husband, and mostly keeps to herself. She possesses the utmost confidence that Perael sil Aldrich will acquiesce. She has never been more confident. Of course, he will agree to my terms, she thinks. I approached him with logic. Men cannot abide illogical arguments, but mine made perfect sense. He really has no choice.

The rest of the spring season passes with no response, but Olivia does not give up hope. But the smile on her face is tighter. Her lovemaking overtures become desperate. The manner in which she communicates with her servants is strained. She loses patience.

The first day of summer, three days before her daughter is to return home from University, she finally receives a response.

Olivia,

While I appreciate your concern for the happiness of my brother and your daughter, I must again tell you that I have no intention of marrying again. I made my decision long ago, and as long as Tahm is alive, I have no reason to reconsider it.

As for your other suggestion, I must firmly remind you, with all due respect, that sil Aldrich is my estate. It is not yours to command at will. I assumed the mantle of Duke sil Aldrich seventeen years ago, and I am most capable of deciding what is best for my estate, and what is not. Your suggestion that I abdicate in favor of my brother is, at this time, not what is best for my estate.

Again, I thank you for your concern, but it is misplaced. The marriage will take place, as planned. The moment your daughter leaves for Cantrop, I will dispatch my men to assist you in the defense of Tavaria, as agreed.

Respectfully,

His Grace Duke Perael sil Aldrich

Without a word, Olivia tears the letter into shreds, letting them fall to the ground of her bedroom. Tears well up in her eyes as white-hot rage courses through her very bones. Blinking back the tears, she bites through the tip of her tongue as she fights the urge to scream. She grits her teeth, feeling as if her bone marrow has been replaced with acid.

When the heat of her anger passes, reduced to a persistent simmer, she sits on her bed.

Olivia is forced to consider that she is not in control. Not of sil Aldrich, whom she thought she had successfully manipulated. Not even of her husband, who more and more refuses her requests.

But she will not cry. She will never cry.

Ardia and Sophie

A new blog prompt from Amanda McCormick. This is NSFW, so be warned.

This is a story that takes place the evening before the events in the first chapter of my upcoming book. I have no way of knowing when the book will be released, but hopefully I’ll release it within a year or two.  But enjoy this story, as it can stand alone.

ArdiandSophie

 

“I don’t like it when you look at me,” Ardia said, combing her long black hair. “It makes me feel like I did something wrong.”

Ardia’s handmaiden, Sophie, pouted and leaned back on the bed, watching Ardia in the mirror. “Is that because you feel guilty about something?”

Ardia rolled her eyes and tossed the fine hairbrush onto the vanity, the inlaid pearls on the back clattering against the wood. “I have nothing to feel guilty about,” she said, staring into the mirror at her handmaiden’s reflection. She watched as Sophie stood and prowled to her side like a ginger tomcat.

Her handmaiden bent down wrapping her arms around Ardia’s shoulders, whispering into her ear, “You’re abandoning me.” A playful accusation that Ardia knew belied Sophie’s true feelings. A glance at Sophie’s aura told her she was correct. Blue sorrow bloomed within the cloud above her head.

“You’ll be there with me,” the heiress tried to reply, but her servant stepped away. Ardia rose to follow her, grabbing her wrist. Sophie struggled against her, but could not get away. Ardia knew she wasn’t really trying because her servant had at least four inches of height on her as well as the muscle tone from a lifetime of service. If she’d wanted to get away, she would have.

Ardia murmured, “Please don’t hate me,” before pressing her lips against her servant’s. Sophie whimpered into the kiss, taking a step to the side, making them both fall onto the bed. She fumbled with the strings on Ardia’s nightgown, desperate to pull it apart and reveal the heiress’s curves.

Sophie was but a servant, but she knew Ardia better than anyone, and she doubted the heiress’s future husband would be as intimate with her. Men do not understand the concept of intimacy, only rutting like beasts.

In a way, Ardia would always belong to Sophie. She was her first kiss, her first exploration into the magic that was a woman’s sexuality. No matter how high Ardia’s star rose in the sky, she’d always remember Sophie.

No highborn husband with no doubt bland tastes like hunting would replace her.

Tahm sil Aldrich. Lottie remembered when he and his brother Perael came to sil Varstra while Ardia was still away at University. She’d listened in on their discussion as best she could, but all she gathered was that Olivia sil Aldrich was eager to marry Ardia off. First she’d requested Perael take Ardia’s hand, but he’d refused. Olivia had taken it as an outrage—it would be decades before Tahm inherited sil Aldrich, so why should a direct heiress of the most advantageous estate marry him?—but Perael had murmured something so quietly, Sophie hadn’t heard. But Olivia had given in.

Sophie knew this marriage was coming long before Ardia did.

So why did it hurt so much?

She wondered that as she tugged at the threads of Ardia’s nightgown, as she placed her lips on Ardia’s skin, as she used her nails to tug at Ardia’s hair. She needed Ardia to know, telling her with her urgency, that she only did not want to be forgotten.

Ardia was not in love with her, Sophie knew that. Ardia was too pragmatic to open herself up to love with someone so far below her station. Still, Sophie cherished every little secret they shared, and the time they spent together intertwined in the candlelight.

She moved down between Ardia’s legs, tasting her. Before rewarding the heiress’s bad behavior in refusing to acknowledge Sophie’s pain, she bit down on the inside of her lover’s thigh. Ardia gasped, clenching the blanket her hands. The bite turned an angry shade of red. Satisfied, Sophie gave in and gave Ardia a climax she’d remember all the way until she reached Cantrop.

She climbed up on the bed, pulling Ardia’s languid body with her until they were both nestled on the pillows. Ardia’s forehead was beaded with the sweat of intimacy. Sleepily, the future Duchess muttered, “I’m only doing as I’m told,” begging again for absolution.

Sophie did not grant it. Instead, she whispered, “I know. One day you won’t be beholden to anyone.”

“As long as you’re with me,” Ardia whispered back.

©2018 Heather Stephens

Pytir and Trelen

Please enjoy this brief 600-word story, inspired by a prompt from my writing Discord.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Pytir knew it was a dream. Only in a dream would he face down his brother, his heir, the only light in the darkness that was his life. Only in a dream would he strike him down in a gilded morgue, as though it was a suitable place to die.

Waking from his nightmare offered no relief.

He’d tried for so many years not to see what was happening before his eyes. He turned his face away every time, turned his back on the helpless women who’d fallen under his brother’s spell.

Trelen wasn’t violent, never that. His was a silent wrath, deft hands making quick work of a mewling girl, manipulating her until she was as malleable as soft clay in his grasp. Then he’d throw the girls away, smiling as their tears glistened on their faces, dismissing them from service and sending them to another village out of his sight.

Pytir thought Trelen was addicted to the game of it. His brother was more than capable of spending his life in service to his estate, helping Pytir complete the tasks that were his to finish. But instead, Trelen spent his days either with his girls or out hunting. Everything was a game for him.

“I’m not old yet,” Pytir would try to tell himself. “I have time to change his ways. I’ll request his aid next month. Let him be young a while longer,” he’d say.

But next month never came. Instead it would pass, the months turning into years and while Pytir did not age as normal men aged, the waste of it all got to him. Seventeen years of games and women and hundreds of dead animals brought for opulent feasts for no discernible occasion, and Pytir had nothing to show for any of it.

Nothing, save the corpses of animals and barrels of tears.

Tonight he’d try again. Trelen had dismissed another girl last night, a raven-haired seamstress apprenticed to his tailor, who wasn’t pleased with the whole thing. Trelen had crossed a line, an invisible boundary. But was it really his fault? Pytir had never expressly forbidden his dalliances, nor had he specified with whom they could occur. He couldn’t punish his brother, but perhaps it was time to abdicate a little responsibility into Trelen’s hands.

Pytir’s brown eyes glanced up at his fair-haired brother over the roasted carcass of a wild hog. He’d lost his taste for game long ago, but he thought he’d try to savor it tonight in an effort to butter up his wild brother.

“The stewards of the north and west vineyards say it’s time to take account of the barrels before we bottle the wine,” Pytir said.

“Sounds like you’ll have a full day tomorrow,” Trelen replied.

Pytir pursed his lips and took another bite. It tasted like ash. “I think you should do it. You’re younger than I am, and I’m sure it would take you no time at all.”

The heir to the estate pouted. “Counting barrels is so boring. Renaldo and Brewa have been with us for decades. We can trust their numbers.”

“That isn’t the way we do things—” Pytir began, but Trelen was already wiping his mouth with a napkin and rising to his feet.

“I’ll do it next year, brother,” he said dismissively, sweeping out of the room like a fleeing dove.

Pytir sat for a moment in silence before throwing his fork against the far wall. The clatter echoed but was unheard by either of the two brothers as he left through the other door.

Another year of this. Another year, wasted like so much tasteless pork.

Villein

The prompt for this week from Thin Spiral Notebook was villein, which means “a feudal servant entirely subject to a lord.”

This story is open for your interpretation. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the subtext, who these characters are, what they want.

 

 

dude

 

She blinked up at him demurely, batted her eyelashes.

The blond man smiled at her. What a pretty thing, he thought. What a pretty, little, stupid thing.

He pulled her closer, sliding his hand from the small of her back to rest on her behind. She tittered sweetly.

“My lord, we mustn’t. I heard your brother, he said you’re not allowed—”

He captured her mouth with his, silencing her.

She melted into his arms, like he knew she would.

He could always tell when a woman needed his help. A night with the heir grants commoners a little status.

©2018 Heather Stephens

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”).

burial-cemetery-cross-592667

 

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.

 

 

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