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Author Topic: Story Contest Final Four  (Read 3115 times)
Celtee
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The lone wolf waits...

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« Topic Start: October 04, 2007, 10:21:18 pm »

Hey guys, here's the final four (we couldn't get it narrowed to just three  Grin). There will be a separate poll thread for ya'll to vote. (It's here: Story Contest Poll -- RSS) Thanks so much for your patience with us.

Without further ado, the stories, in no particular order.

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

A Harvest Home

By Aisling

   Elizabeth Stephens gazed across the newly reaped fields and silently observed the comings and goings of Liberty’s annual harvest festival.  Even at a distance, she could still pick out individual community members as they gathered in celebration.  Sally’s long red hair glowed like burnished copper and fire and Andrew’s six foot five inch frame towered over everyone else.  Susanna, her stepdaughter, moved slowly and deliberately, the final weeks of pregnancy taking their toll on her delicate frame. Soon enough the new resident would join Liberty’s small population, giving cause for more celebrations.

   Turning away from the festivities, Elizabeth let her gaze wander over the small, tidy cemetery.  She gathered tufts of bearded grass as she slowly circled its perimeter, deftly weaving them together as she went.  Satisfied with her handiwork, she laid the finished wreath on a small, unremarkable headstone engraved simply “Michael James Stephens, 1831-1872.”  She picked up a wooly worm that was making its way across the grey stone and deposited it on a nearby oak tree, biding it luck in the coming winter.

   “Hello Michael,” she sighed, returning to the gravestone.  She passed a gentle kiss to her fingertips and touched the carved name, which remained cold and unresponsive under the warmth of her hand.
   “I’ve come to say goodbye one last time, my dearest.  Liberty was your home, not mine. Now that you’re gone, there’s no reason for me to remain.  It’s time for me to move on now.”

   Her own words startled her.  It was the first time she’d given voice to those thoughts.  She’d often considered leaving since that awful spring day when Michael had collapsed in the middle of sowing the fields.  There had been no warning signs that anything might be amiss.  Elizabeth had spent far too many hours mentally reliving those last weeks together, looking for some indication that all had not been well.  Her knowledge of medicine and illness was better than many country doctors thanks to a lifetime working at the side of her father, a physician, and a few too brief years learning herbal remedies from her mother.  Still there was nothing to be found, no warning signs that she’d find herself a widow.  Even if you’d known, could you change it, Eliza, she thought to herself.  This is why you need to move away from this place. You need to get away from those memories. 

   “Where will you go?” a voice carried on the wind so softly she’d scarcely heard it.  “Would you return to your own family?”
   Elizabeth laughed bitterly at the idea.  The terrible war that had brought Michael into her life had ripped apart her own family and rendered it unrecognizable.  The loving, peaceful home that her father had strove so hard to create no longer existed.  He lay buried behind the family home, a victim of the stress and emotional toll of wartime life.   Denied a place beside their parents, her younger brother Andrew rested only a few feet from Michael.  He’d chosen to ally himself with a Union company from Kentucky when the war started and even in death, remained unwelcome on his family’s lands in the mountains of western North Carolina.  The house they’d grown up in now fell under the control of their older brother, John, a stubborn, domineering Confederate officer who had managed to keep the family’s property intact through various political maneuvers.  The loving, peaceful home of their childhood had been replaced by the ironclad authority of an embittered man intent on destroying all those opposed to him, including his own flesh and blood. 

   It wasn’t just my family that was torn apart, she reminded herself as her emotions wavered dangerously close to self-pity. She recalled the first time she’d seen Michael as he emerged from the woods behind her family’s home, clad in a bloodied Union officer’s uniform and carrying the limp body of a young, rag-clad Confederate soldier.  Michael had risked his own freedom and life to see the boy safely to the field hospital that was the downstairs of Elizabeth’s family home. Only later did Elizabeth wrangle a confession from Michael that the boy was his own younger brother.  That moment epitomized the war for her more than any other had. Conflicting political and social views waged their own battles against family ties and loyalty in countless households throughout the country.  In her mind, too much had been lost for either side to claim a true victory.

   Elizabeth’s own tenacity and stubbornness had convinced Michael to remain at their home while he recovered from his own wounds.  As her father removed lead shot from Michael’s shoulder, he explained that they’d quietly helped many Union soldiers, secreting them throughout hiding places in the house, just as they’d hidden runaway slaves for so many years.  When her father remarked that he hoped his own sons would be shown the same kindness if they found themselves victims of the conflict, Elizabeth fought back tears. Even as he fought against his own pain and cares, Michael had managed a smile of sympathy and gazed at her compassionately. In spite of the surreal and bloody circumstances of a field surgery in the fading twilight of a hidden attic space, Elizabeth felt some small sense of normalcy and humanity for the first time since the war had begun.  She’d never found the words to thank Michael for that.

   She found other words in the following weeks as Michael recovered first from his wounds and then a subsequent infection that left him bedridden.  As the fighting moved away from the area and the wounded Confederate soldiers began to take their leave, she found herself with more time to spend tending to him.  Countless hours passed as they shared stories of their childhoods and their shared concerns for the future of their families and country.  Elizabeth explained away their time together as merely an act of kindness, but when Michael had recovered sufficiently to leave, she found herself tearfully pleading with him to remain.
   “Hush,” he’d whispered as they stood at the edge of the woods, hidden in the deepening shadows of twilight. He brushed away her tears and pressed his lips to her forehead.  “I won’t forget the seeds of friendship sown here.  I promise to return, but there are other things I must tend to first.”

Michael had been true to his word, returning a few weeks after the surrender had been signed at Appomattox Court House.  To Elizabeth’s delight, Andrew accompanied him, untouched by the war.  She closed her eyes tightly, trying to drive out the memories.  A day that had been filled with relief and joy had so quickly turned horrific and haunting.  Only moments after the two men arrived, John stormed outside to where they stood, bellowing hatefully that he would not abide having any Union sympathizer in his home.  Unable to contain his fury at his sibling’s alleged betrayals, John had turned on them with loaded pistols, killing Andrew on the front steps of their childhood home.  Unable “to shoot a woman, even a stupid, disloyal one” as he described her, John had thrown Elizabeth bodily from the porch, cursing her in every manner he could muster and turning her out of the only home she’d ever known.

Unable to act and numb from shock, Elizabeth silently submitted to Michael’s insistence that she accompany him to his home in Ohio.  While she had been rendered helpless for the first time in her life, he arranged the transport of Andrew’s body to Liberty and saw to a proper funeral for the young man.  He’d taken her into his life and home without hesitation, just as Elizabeth’s family had taken him into their own. 
   “This is your home,” the breeze whispered, tugging at strands of her dark hair. “Tend to the seeds you’ve planted here.”
   “I have,” she replied aloud, tears threatening to spill from her eyes.  “Michael and I… I’ve reaped my harvest, winter approaches.”

   The saying had been a favorite of Michael’s, muttered whenever something had been finished.  She had reaped the seeds they’d planted, living for seven years as his wife and raising his daughter as her own.  They’d never managed children of their own, but Susanna was enough for Elizabeth, an endearing child who grown up in front her eyes.  Perhaps the common bond of losing a mother at too young an age had brought them close initially, but over the years, they’d grown to be a family.  Now that Susanna was grown and Michael gone, there was nothing left to hold her to Liberty.

   She looked across the fields as strains of music carried on the wind intermingled with the dry rustling of leaves.  In the winter after she’d arrived in Liberty, she’d taught Michael’s nephew to play fiddle and it was his music that now drifted toward the hushed cemetery.  A new father himself, he’d asked her to teach his children when they were old enough.  Someone else will have to do it, she thought firmly. They don’t need me for something as trivial as music lessons.   
   “Who will help take care of the Widow Adams if you go?  Who will bring her meals when her rheumatism leaves her unable to walk?” the wind whispered insistently at her. “Who will teach Michael’s grandchildren poetry and art? Who will tell them about the kind and gentle soul he was?  Who will tend to this grave and to the roses his own mother held so dear?  Who else here can prepare herbal remedies?  Who will take care of the sick? Who will be the community’s midwife?  Who pray to the gods every day for the safety and happiness of this little community?  Who else will treat every citizen here with kindness and as an equal and friend?  Who else could face life with your courage, Eliza?  Who else could tend to all the seeds you’ve planted? What home is there for you, if not this one?”

   The questions tugged at her heartstrings and left a lump in her throat.  Without intending to do so, she’d sown countless seeds since her arrival here.  Every gesture and action that she’d taken had meaning to someone else here.  Simple kindnesses had become deep and lasting friendships. Michael had not been the only one here to show her love and she felt a sense of blessing as she thought of all the people who had welcomed her into the community. Michael’s time had come and gone, but hers still remained.  Fresh tears fell as she thought of the way they’d rallied around her when Michael died.  Even months later, she wanted for nothing, as there was always someone there to lend a hand or support.
   “Would you abandon all that you know and all those you love just to avoid the pain of his memory?” the wind wailed as it scattered leaves around her feet.  “Would you leave this community to mourn not only Michael but your own departure as well?”

   No, no I won’t, Elizabeth said firmly to herself as she pulled two apples from her apron.  She placed one gently on Michael’s headstone and took a bite out of the other.  Savoring the lemony tart flavor, she set out across the fields towards the harvest celebration, leaving the dead to their peace.  She began to hum softly in time to the music, thinking of the impending birth of Michael’s first grandchild.  So much still remained to do in preparation, but it would wait until tomorrow. Today was reserved for thanksgiving and celebration for all the gifts that had been bestowed upon her and the community.  There were many blessings to be counted even in this year of sorrows and Elizabeth counted the sense of Michael’s presence beside her as the first.
“My harvest is not yet reaped and winter is still far away.  Until then, my home is here,” she proclaimed to the wind which sighed contentedly in answer.
   

« Last Edit: October 04, 2007, 10:58:02 pm by RandallS, Reason: Link to Poll Added » Logged

"It's only forever
Not long at all"
~~Jareth

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But I can't trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can't trace time"
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Celtee
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« Reply #1: October 04, 2007, 10:22:15 pm »

Best In Show

By Sefiru

~~~
     “Whose idea was this?”
     “What, moving the whole café to the fair grounds? That would be you, Pai.” The taller of the two human women thunked the dough she was kneading on the counter. In the few months the sisters had been on this planet, they’d put together a small business – as much as this place had businesses, anyway – and it was time to think about attracting customers. Taking the place to the fair was one good way to do that.

    “I meant the idea of having a harvest festival in the first place,” Pai answered. She was arranging Ibizian fungoids on a griddle with a set of tongs. “It’s not like anyone harvests anything in this day and age.”
     “They do too. I harvested some tomatoes from the garden just last night. And I’m starting to think you were harvested from the funny farm.”

     “Ha, ha.” As she grilled the fungoids, Pai accessed her admin program. She had forty-three messages waiting; most of them were from friends planning to attend the fair, and she absorbed them quickly. Then the shipping reports, to see who would actually make it. The Flaremander was on final approach, which meant the rest of their little family would be there. She saw that the Coriolanus Gate had gone offline during the night, so she could probably expect him to drop by as well. And the café was still on course. She’d programmed it to follow the creek to the fairground; since a festival tent was about the size of their shop anyway, installing floaters in the foundation had seemed like common sense.

     “Besides,” her sister went on in the background, “Grandisle already has a summer festival, Jailhouse Rock has winter and the Castle of the Cats has spring. We get to do Fall.”
     “Well, when you put it that way, Sanri …” She shouldn’t be surprised, really; with place names like those, what planet could take itself seriously? Their own hometown had to take the cake, though.
     A clattering on the loft stairs announced Sanri’s son Oak. “I’m ready! Are we there yet?”
     “Nearly. While we’re waiting, can you get the milk out of the incubator?”
     “Sure, Aunt Pai.” He went to the back wall and started lifting out the milk jars. “Yeesh, this stuff smells. Can’t you replicate it like normal people?”

     “I’ll have you know that that is a pedigreed strain of lactobacillus which I inherited from your great-grandmother.” Pai shifted the fungoids to a chopping board and picked up a knife to mince them. The Ibizian fungoid-yogurt buns couldn’t be made in advance like most of their stock, but luckily they were quick to prepare. The menu planning had been a nightmare, of course: the Ibizian couldn’t eat chocolate, poor things; raw pineapple and mango were deadly to the Vinya, and pistachios made them dizzy; and humans couldn’t handle kurruk or silver-vine. Terran milk was off the safe list, but the Ibizian analog was fine … as long as it was fermented with Terran bacteria. And that didn’t even get into the AI menus. Somehow, though, they’d cobbled up a horrendous but universally edible mishmash of dishes.

      As the café reached its destination, a festival manager flagged them down and Sanri went to the window to talk to him. She guided the building to its landing place while Pai and Oak put the buns together. “Do you think half and half for the tables?” she called.
     “Make it two thirds, it’s supposed to get pretty busy.”

     Sanri nodded and entered the command in the admin program; chairs and tables skittered out the door to their places, and the picket fence extended to enclose them. Cottage Café was not the first venue to set up, either – they were bracketed by a beer tent on one side and a petting zoo of native animals on the other. Across from them a jam maker was setting up a booth with samples and racks of replicator cards. Streams of people were already wandering between the blocks. Oak ran off to find his school friends, and soon after the buns were done their first customers appeared.

     “Hello, anyone home?”
     Pai grinned at the draconian head craning around the doorframe. “Coriolanus! I’ve been expecting you.”
     “I tremble with fear.” Coriolanus brought the rest of his social avatar inside; he was followed by another AI, this one a black canine model about waist-high to a human. “This is Shadow, off the Miss Demeanor, he’s a kitsune-class.”
     “Nice to meet you, Mr. Shadow. Can I get you something? Sanri, Coriolanus is here!”
     Sanri popped out of the pantry, shaking her head. “Thus answering the age-old question, what does a wormhole do on his day off? I suppose you want one of your dang cesium milkshakes, too.”

     “Of course. The alpha particles add a certain piquancy.”
     “Piquancy my tail,” his friend answered. “Cesium is the Habanero pepper of spectra. Actually, no; I’d rather load a taste emulator and actually eat a plate of Habaneros.”
     “Wuss.”
     “Shut up, Cory. Argon, straight up, please.”
     “Coming right up.” Sanri went back into the pantry to collect the two tankard-shaped radiators. The AIs chose a table and sat, enjoying their lights – and alpha particles, in Coriolanus’s case – while the sisters went on with their work.

     The next person to walk into the café, however, was not a customer. The sisters and Oak had gone through immigrant orientation with this woman, and had mostly tried to ignore her existence since then. Pai sighed. “Good morning, Hyacinthe.”
     “Hello, Pai.” She looked around the shop. “How quaint. I hope you’re ready for the contest.”
     “What contest?”
     Hyacinthe smirked. “Haven’t you learned anything? They make a contest out of everything here, and I intend to win. My pavilion is bigger than yours, too.” As if that mattered in a place where replicators were freely available. They didn’t even use money on this planet! Pai liked that; she could spend less time bookkeeping and more time baking.
     “I’m here to run a restaurant, not enter contests. Good luck to you though.”
     Hyacinthe sniffed. “You made a mistake on the menu: you listed the mushroom buns under sweets.”

     “You mean the fungoid buns? They’re right where they should be. Care to try one?”
     “No, thank you.” The woman flounced out; Pai covertly flipped her the bird. As if she had time to educate someone who didn’t know basic interspecies cookery.
     The festival was now in full swing; throngs of people in strange costumes flowed by, carrying paper cups or ice cream cones or other portable fare. Someone was handing out helium balloons, and someone else was lending bicycles. Later in the morning she saw Shadow race by on one, his ears folded back against the wind; he must not be pure quadruped in design, if he could do that. But that was nothing compared to the Ibizian who pedaled by on an archaic pennyfarthing, complete with historically appropriate top hat, tailcoat and spats. The hat brim had two slots in it to accommodate her long ears. Pai and most of the café patrons just stopped and stared at the apparition.

     The Cottage Café was full to bursting, since word had gotten around that their food was cross-species safe. Pai handed out olive-filo pastries to the long-limbed Ibizian, raspberry tarts to the insectoid Vinya, atnat and mahyinee to humans, and spectrum lamps to the AIs, until she was quite confused. From what she overheard, the seating was a big draw too; what was a barstool with footrest to humans, was a regular-height chair for Ibizian, and the padded backs were a convenient perch for Vinya. One quartet, with one of each species, practically begged her for a copy of the pattern until she explained that they were the work of Sanri’s husband.

     Just after noon the man himself turned up, fresh off his ship, rendering Sanri useless for the next several hours. “Cy!” she yelled, pouncing on him with all the ferocity of a maned tigerrat. Pai sighed and messaged Oak asking him to come and help her. He rocketed in the door a few minutes later carrying some kind of plastic figure. “Dad! Check this out, it’s got hinges!” He held up the brightly-colored doll. “I got it at the Pick-a-Winner booth.”
     Sanri and Cy looked at each other. “Pick-a-Winner?”
     “I was saving up!” Oak rubbed his nose.

     “I don’t want to know.” The two lovebirds sauntered off after promising to come back later and give Pai a chance to see the fair too. It was, of course, right after they left that the Café burst into chaos.
     Pai had just put a four-planet pie into the oven – raspberry, fungoid, Vinyar nectar and local hensteeth – and was serving an aluminum radiator to an AI. Shouts erupted as an Ibizian and a human got tangled up and crashed to the floor; then a chair fell over and the Evinée perched on it shot towards the ceiling, chittering angrily. Pai went around the counter to try and spot the culprit, but it was much too fast to see more than a black streak. And then it started bouncing.

     The first thing Pai did was slap a forcefield between the object and the Vinya hovering in the rafters; anything with that much momentum could seriously injure an Evinée if it struck. Then she pinged it for its network address, which flagged it as a nonsentient bot. Well, that made things easier. < System override: my home is my castle, > she sent; the bot responded with a command query. She told it, < All stop, > and it thumped to the floor, a furry black ball with a tail. Pai picked it up with her thumb and forefinger. “Sorry about the disturbance, and if I ever find out who’s responsible for this I will paste them in the face with a pie.” She shut the bot in a drawer, let the Vinya down from the ceiling and then, since local custom demanded that threats be followed through, pulled out the ingredients for a banana cream pie.

     Sanri and Cy returned a few hours later; they seemed disappointed to have missed the excitement. Well, let them; they hadn’t had to deal with it. Pai wrapped the cream pie in a force field, stuck it to the inside of her jacket, and went out to walk the fair. She discovered that Oak’s history class had set up a lemonade stand; she got a glass, carefully avoided the Pick-a-Winner booth (it was surrounded by young boys) and took a turn at the Ibizian-style ring toss. She missed. To her surprise, Hyacinthe had set up a café of her own, named “Patisserie St Jacques.” It was done up in white stucco and topiary, and in Pai’s opinion looked rather antiseptic. The menu included such classics as Black Forest Cake and Apple Torte a la Crème.

     Further on an Evinée was running a game that Pai could only describe as “bobbing for beetles.” The Vinya seemed to be enjoying it, but Pai was not inclined to try. There was other entertainment: an Ibizian conjurer who pulled bunches of flowers from his red paper parasol, a lion-tamer with an adorably lifelike bot lion, a tent of curiosities including “the world’s largest pumpkin,” which was the size of a small car; Pai suspected some replicator trickery.
     Around sunset all the booths started to shut down and people wandered to the lower end of the field to see the promised Chemical Fireworks From Before The Dawn Of Holographics!! Pai hadn’t even known there was such a thing. She met her family beside one of the stone columns littering the field. “Hey, I didn’t think you’d beat me here.”

     “We had to close up early because we ran out of stock,” Sanri explained. “The only thing left is the spectrum radiators, and a bunch of them need maintenance.”
     “Huh. Did we get our math wrong?” Pai had been sure they’d planned enough food to last the whole day. She shrugged and looked up at the main stage. A human in archaic costume stepped up to the podium and rapped on it for attention. “Thank you all for coming to Up The Creek’s annual harvest festival! As always, we’ve had a spectacular assembly of food, drink and entertainment from across time and space. Let’s have a big hand for all our presenters!” A wave of cheers rolled across the field like thunder. “In a moment we’ll start our fireworks display, but first we have some prizes to hand out! Festival judges, would you please come up here?”
      A dozen assorted beings climbed up on the stage; Pai was surprised that Coriolanus’s friend Shadow was among them. A judge? What was he judging? The master of ceremonies waved, and a holographic billboard popped up, listing the categories. Best costume; best music; best game; best food or drink venue – oh. She saw Hyacinthe standing at the front near the stage, looking very smug.

     The costume prize went to a human woman in a beaked mask and intricate feather-bedecked cloak; she looked like a classical phoenix. The music prize went to a trio of Vinyar, and best game to the Ibizian ring toss Pai had tried. Then it was time for the food prize. The MC began his spiel, “And now for the most important part of any festival – the food! Our judges have carefully examined each venue for quality, variety, atmosphere – ”
     “ – How well they respond to minor crises,” one judge said, holding up a black furball. Pai made a note of his image, and fingered the pie in her jacket.
     The MC continued, “Third place goes to Eret Anekjak’s barbecue grill.” The dun-furred Ibizian stepped onto the stage to gravely accept his red ribbon. “Second place goes to Windgold’s Interplanetary Sushi.” This was an avian AI with bronze and copper casing. “And the first prize for Best Food or Drink Venue goes to …”

     Held breaths.
     “ … the Cottage Café by Pai and Sanri.”
     “Wahuh?” While Pai was still gaping, Coriolanus picked up both her and her sister and flew them over to the stage. Sanri, slightly more collected, accepted their blue ribbon, and then Pai turned to the furball-wielding judge. “Are you responsible for that thing that got loose in my café?”
      “Yep, that’s me.”
      “Good.” She whipped out the cream pie and hurled it at his face. At the last moment he produced a miniature umbrella, no more than ten centimeters wide, and cowered behind it; it didn’t help. The crowd exploded into cheers at this bit of drama.

      There were a few more prizes to be awarded, but Pai wasn’t paying much attention. She, Sanri and Coriolanus descended to the front of the stage with the other winners, where Hyacinthe pushed through the crowd to meet them. “How?!” She demanded. “How did you beat me?”
      “Don’t ask me, I just handed out cakes all day.”
      “And how could you throw a pie at a judge?”
      “I think he’d be disappointed if I didn’t; he had that little umbrella ready and everything.”
      “Very true,” Coriolanus put in. “It’s a compliment that you cared about his prank enough to retaliate. Miss Hyacinthe, do you actually enjoy running a restaurant?”

      “Well, not really, but it seemed like the easiest way to get a win.”
      “Really, Miss Hyacinthe, a bit of colored ribbon is not worth that much effort.” Coriolanus took the sisters by the elbows and led them away from their sometime rival. “Some people just don’t know what they want. Actually, I hear your four-world pie got rave reviews. I found a taste emulator I can use, do you think I could try some?”
      “I don’t think there’s any left. Tell you what, stay over tonight and I’ll make you another one.”
      “Deal.” With a tremendous crack, the first glowing flowers spread out above them.
~~~
Logged

"It's only forever
Not long at all"
~~Jareth

"Time may change me
But I can't trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can't trace time"
Changes
~~ David Bowie

"Why do you have to be a nonconformist like everybody else?"
~~James Thurber
Celtee
Staff
High Adept Member
***
Last Login:May 02, 2013, 06:50:08 pm
United States United States

Religion: Wandering Seeker with Celtic and Hedgewitch leanings
TCN ID: SilverWolf
Posts: 4773


The lone wolf waits...

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« Reply #2: October 04, 2007, 10:23:04 pm »

Life’s Struggles

By EverFool

Francis Gild wanted to go on holiday in a place where no one would know him, or that he was supposed to be a respectable man.  Francis Gild considered himself an upstanding member of the community.  A great number of others also considered him to be a fine man.  His wife thought that he was a wonderful and caring man, although this belief was largely founded in blissful ignorance.  Francis was an attentive father, in the few hours a week that he spent with his children, and spent the majority of his time in London, at Parliament.  He spent a great deal of time sitting in committees, working for the benefit of his constituencies, and finding time to eat expensive dinners with important men from large companies.  Francis was well liked by many, and he had a lot of friends.  That all his friends had a great deal of money was not seen as a bad thing by most.  That his secretary was much younger than his wife, and very attractive, was not seen as a coincidence by anyone.

Feedale was a small island off the Southwest coast of Britain that had the singular distinction of appearing on not a single official map.  There were variant theories on why this had transpired.  There was a folk legend that a witch had once made the island her haven, and that she had wreathed it in magical fog.  The more popular theory was that the island was slightly less valuable as property than the Anthrax Island.  However, the sole village did manage to maintain an internet presence.  It, not entirely convincingly, claimed to be a beautiful land of rich folk history and culture.

In Francis Gild’s opinion, the world would be no better or worse off if the whole place sank into the sea of a sudden.  However, he felt pretty certain that he could disappear there for a week, and it would be approximately as if he had left the Earth.  No reporters, no business calls, and also no wife.  So it came to be that a Member of Parliament arranged a ‘fact finding trip’ with his secretary for the last week of July.  He told his wife that he was going to a discreet meeting in Leeds to discuss a ‘change of leadership’ in the party.  He told the bed and breakfast that he was a used car salesman, and that he and his wife would be staying for a week.

His secretary, a woman of 23, was named Alice.  She was quiet, something that Francis found very endearing.  She had graduated from UCL with a first in Political Science.  When she did speak, Francis listened.  He had no idea why she consented to work under him for less than £15,000 a year, but Alice said that the job market was very bad these days.  Francis worried that Alice might try to blackmail him someday, but that was in the future.  She might be bought off with support for her start in politics.

“I like it,” Alice said simply, when she saw the bed and breakfast.  It was a small building.  Had it been located away from the village, Francis would not have hesitated to call it a cottage.  It had two floors, and presumably at least one spare room.  Fleetingly the image of sleeping in a barn or stable came to Francis’ mind, which lead quickly onto envisioning the Nativity.  The idea of Alice experiencing a virgin birth made Francis snort with amusement.  Misreading the expression on his face, Alice scowled.

“What’s wrong with it?” she asked indignantly.
“Oh, it’s wonderful,” Francis said hurriedly, in the voice he reserved for opening new hospital wings.  After all the trouble he’d gone to for this holiday, he didn’t want to have to go without sex.  Otherwise he may as well have stayed at home with the wife.
Francis knocked on the door, and discovered that the door was unlocked, and slightly ajar.  He felt a faint wash of nostalgia.  He had been a young boy when he last knew anyone to leave doors unlocked and open as a matter of course.

Inside the door was a set of stairs heading straight up to the next floor, and to one side there was a living room.  Francis led Alice into that, to find a middle-aged woman sitting on a blue sofa, drinking tea.

“Hello dearies!” the woman called out.  “I’m Mary.  This is my humble abode.  Come, sit down!  Do either of you drink tea?"
Francis and Alice accepted the offered tea, Francis attempting to do so with a straight face.  He’d never heard the phrase ‘humble abode’ used to describe someone’s home outside of bad fiction or equally dire television shows.
“So, have you been married long?” Mary asked once they had finished drinking.  Francis wondered what he and Alice must look like to Mary.  No worse than what we really are, he thought.
“A few years,” Francis said.  Mary remained silent for a moment.

“Well, you’ll have keys to your room.  I lock the door at midnight, and that’s early for a bed and breakfast mind you.  I’ll ask you to be back before then, I don’t like being woken up to let people back in.  You should have everything you need in your room.”
“Thank you,” said Francis.  “If you don’t mind, I think we’ll drop our stuff in the room, and take a constitutional.”
“Go ahead, dear,” replied Mary, smiling warmly.
As the lovers climbed the stairs to their room, Mary’s smile dropped, leaving a nasty expression in its place.

***

The sky was grey like a tombstone that afternoon.  It promised rain, and threatened thunder.  The sea looked equally angry.  Along the beach the waves were sullen, lapping at the sand.  At the cliff, rocks clinging to its base, the waves dashed themselves angrily, as a man might, seeking self-destruction.

“Lovely,” said Francis blandly.
“You wanted a walk,” Alice pointed out.  “It’ll be nicer when the weather turns.”
“I should phone my wife, tell her I’m in Leeds,” Francis mused.
“You do that,” Alice said coldly.  She went to sit on the cold sand, and stared out to the horizon.  Where the grey clouds met the dark sea.
Francis sighed.  He was beginning to think he’d have to break it off with Alice.  She seemed a lot less fun these days.  This troubled him.  He thought of himself as a good man.  Was it so selfish to cling on to the last dreams of youth?  Alice had her whole life ahead of her, and could no doubt take rejection in stride.  All Francis had to look forward to, he knew, were decades of enduring consequences.  The decisions had largely already been made, the potential transmuted into inertia.

Francis phoned his wife, while Alice thought about her own regrets.

***

The village pub was crowded that night.  Francis supposed that it would be crowded that night – it was the only one on the island.  Probably here they would leave their children at home, satisfied with their safety.  Or maybe they’d bring their children with them to the pub sometimes?  It wasn't like there were any police to enforce drinking laws.

Tonight there were no children.  Francis met perhaps fifty men and women, and forgot each name in turn as he was introduced to a new figure.  Each had a story to tell.  After Francis’ third pint of real ale, the stories became a lot funnier.  Francis was reluctant to talk about his personal life, or Alice’s, and the locals seemed happy with that.  They were just happy to have an audience, Francis thought.  If he seemed so much older than Alice, no-one batted an eyelid.  They were particularly warm with Alice, although this died off somewhat when Mary arrived to get her drink.  Probably the old bat had gossiped about Alice and him, and they didn’t want to risk her ire.

Closed communities like this, you had to get on with your neighbours.

***

Francis’ wife phoned just before nine in the morning to make sure that everything was okay.  She did this sometimes.  Francis couldn’t tell if she was suspicious, because Isabel had done this for years before he embarked on his affair with Alice.  Francis spoke to his children as well, and told them about the interesting sights he had seen in Leeds.  Lying to them felt worse, but then again Francis and Isabel had only recently dropped the pretence of Santa Claus.

Listening to the conversation apparently upset Alice.  She dressed hurriedly and ran downstairs.  Francis thought he heard her argue with Mary, but it was hard to tell.  This holiday was turning into a nightmare.  By the time he had hung up his mobile phone, he had resolved to break it off with Alice.  But that could wait until the end of the holiday.  There was no sense in making things any worse than they were already.

Francis sighed, and dressed.  The weather was ever so slightly brighter that day, and there was little chance he’d meet Alice whilst walking.  Not on this desolate island.  He quickly locked the room, and waved goodbye to Mary, who was sitting in the living room, drinking tea again.  She barely raised a hand to wave back, and her face was cloudy.  A storm was coming there, perhaps.

Francis walked in the opposite direction to the beach.  Alice had seemed to enjoy looking out at the sea, and suddenly that was the last thing Francis wanted to see.  Trying not to think about his life, Francis walked away from the village.  After an hour he began to see farmland.  There were occasionally some cows or sheep, but mostly crops.  They weren’t doing very well this year it seemed.  The land looked dead.  The promised rain of the day before had never come.  Had there been a drought?  Francis found that hard to believe, as the sky found its anger again, slowly turning black.

Enlightenment came after another hour.  Francis encountered a man not much older than himself – in his early fifties – along the road.  The man introduced himself as Peter.

“Oh, a terrible year it’s been,” Peter said, when Francis commented on the crops.  “I blame global warming.”
“It looks like you’ve hardly got anything to sell, apart from the animals.”
“The last few years we’ve been selling less.  We’d like to be self-sufficient, but I’m not sure we’ll be able to manage even that.”  Peter sighed.
“You’re not far from the mainland.  You don’t have to be self-sufficient,” Francis said.
“We want to be,” said Peter.  “In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need the rest of the world.”
“That’s a bit strong isn’t it?  Speaking as part of the outside world.”
Peter smiled sadly.  “I suppose visitors aren’t so bad.  Mostly we don’t want to come under anyone’s thumb, and that’s hard to avoid.  Have you studied history much?”
“A little.”

“During the Second World War there were some parts of the British Isles that came under Nazi influence.  Jersey and Guernsey.  Both deported a number of Jews to Auschwitz.  Some of those Jews were from other countries, some had lived on the islands for years.  But they sent them off, and they died.  How do you like that?”
“I don’t see how being independent would have made their actions any better.”
“Probably they wouldn’t have.  But they didn’t look after the people who came to make their home there.  Here on Feedale we look after anyone who calls this place home.  I’m just saying, the world’s an ugly place.  We don’t trust it an awful lot.”
“That’s a somewhat bleak view,” Francis replied, his good mood evaporating.
Peter looked up at the black clouds, as they finally began to throw down rain.
“Don’t you think this is a rather bleak world?” Peter asked.

***

Francis, now drenched, took shelter in the village pub.  He asked for a cup of coffee.  When the owner brought the drink to him, he mentioned Peter’s outlook on life.
The owner, Blake, mused for a moment.

“It’s the supermarkets, you see,” Blake offered.
“How so?”
“You know how much you buy milk for down at the shops?  How much meat costs you?  Well, you can afford all that lovely stuff because the supermarkets pay farmers a pittance.  The farmers may need the buyers, but they don’t like them too much.”
“Oh.  I’m sorry.”
Blake waved it off.  “It’s the rich taking advantage of the poor, and that’s not a new story.  Of course, the politicians could make them pay more, but of course they won’t.”
Francis didn’t look Blake in the eye.
“Would you like a drink on the house?” Blake asked.
“Thanks.”
“One of the benefits of owning your own pub,” Blake remarked, “is that you can decide when to be generous.”

Francis sipped his beer, and looked out through a window.  Out in the rain, he saw a drenched Alice return to the bed and breakfast.  Before entering, she had a brief discussion with Peter.

Good, thought Francis.  They’re both about as cheerful as each other.

Six hours later the rest of the village began to enter the pub again.  Francis had been trying to monitor his alcohol intake, but was still a little light headed.  It didn’t help that a lot of the villagers were offering to buy him a drink.  He refused many offers, and apologised profusely.  The villagers found this funny, and one large man slapped Francis on the back so hard that he nearly slipped off his stool.  The good mood building in Francis was assaulted frequently, when someone would ask Francis where his lovely ‘wife’ was.  Alice came in after nine o’clock, looking unhappy.

Francis would be glad when this holiday was over, he reflected.  He wished he could leave Alice behind on this island.  Or perhaps he could find a new island, completely uninhabited by women?

Mary entered soon after, a sour expression on her face.  Fuelled by alcohol, Francis was about to confront Mary and Alice, when a heavy blow connected with his head.  Everything became dark.

***

Francis woke with an almighty headache.  His head hurt plenty, and the storm didn’t help.
The night sky was black, and the stars were hiding their faces.  Francis felt mud and dead plant life beneath him.  He sat up slowly, and looked around.  He was far from the village, in the middle of a field.

Given that Peter was standing close by, watching Francis, it was probably Peter’s field.  Alice stood at Peter’s side, looking as though she was trying to put on a brave face.  Francis wondered what the hell she was playing at, anger rising within.  He imagined that he would find out soon.

Francis growled, but it was drowned out by the storm.
“Is this about Alice and I?” he bellowed at Peter.

Peter looked confused.  “I beg your pardon?”
“This is some sort of moral vigilante rubbish isn’t it?  Mary told you Alice isn’t my wife?  Fine, she’s right!  How’s that your business?”  Francis yelled.

Peter smiled sadly.  “Well, other than that Alice is my protégé, none at all.”
Francis lost his alcohol buzz suddenly, but felt sick to his stomach.
“What?” he croaked.  Peter couldn’t have heard him.
“Alice grew up here!” Peter shouted over the rain.  “She’s Mary’s daughter!”
Francis felt an urge to vomit.
“What are you doing this for?” he asked, feeling afraid.

Alice looked away.  Francis noticed that Peter was now holding a curved knife.  He didn’t know how long Peter had been holding it.

“For survival.  The crops are dying, and we will die without food.  It is the age-old dilemma of survival.  Survival has always come before morality!  Our children leave the island to learn about the outside world.  They always come back.  Outsiders join the community sometimes, seeking to flee the world.  Alice was different.  She has had to take on a burden for us.  She knew that one day she might have to bring back a sacrifice.”

“What?” yelped Francis.

“The world might one day be made uninhabitable by the actions of man.  And of course there is always war, and the threat of the police state.  To fight for our survival against chances of nature, and the evil of mankind, we have had to take up new tools!” Peter continued.

Alice looked at Francis finally.  Was she crying, or was that just the rain?
“And if I was going to bring someone to die, it could at least be scum like you!” she screamed, her face contorting in rage.

“Alice!” pleaded Francis.  “How can you let him do this?  My wife…my children?  Don’t you love me?”

Alice stepped forward quickly and kicked Francis in the chest.  She was wearing boots, and Francis felt it.  He fell over, backwards.

“You never loved me!  Did you even love your wife?  You lied to your family fine didn’t you?  They don’t even know where you are!” Alice raged.

“It sounds rather like they’ll be better off without you,” Peter said nastily.

Francis began to crawl backwards.  Peter and Alice fell into step, walking forward as one.

“How is killing me going to help?” shrieked Francis.
“Life for life.  I’m going to put yours into the land, and the crops will grow,” Peter said calmly.  The storm was subsiding now.  The sky was waiting.
“This is insanity!  You can’t bring back the crops by killing a man!”
“He can, actually,” Alice said.  “I saw him do it when I was twelve.”
“He’s tricked you, Alice,” Francis cried out.  “He-”

“This isn’t a trick!” Peter snarled.  His hand darted forward, opening.  It didn’t make contact with Francis, but Francis suddenly curled up, coughing.  Francis felt as though he had been slammed in the stomach with a sledgehammer.

Peter closed in as Francis lay there coughing.  “Magic is there for the taking, for anyone willing to pay the price.  We hardly ever have more than one magician on the island.  They want the crops to succeed, and they want freedom.  But it’s me and Alice that have to pay the price.  We have to make the sacrifices.”

Alice grabbed Francis by his hair, and jerked his head back.  His limbs felt weighted down, unable to move.

“The police…” Francis said, begging.

“They won’t find us,” Alice whispered in his ear.  “You paid the whole way with cash, so your wife wouldn’t get suspicious.  The people who took us here on the boat are villagers too.  No-one else will remember us passing through.  I don’t need to leave.  I’ve come home, to learn from my master.”

Peter touched the wicked knife to Francis’ neck.

“If you want to make a last prayer, I suggest you do so now,” Peter said calmly.  It was the voice of a kindly priest addressing his congregation.

Francis thought of his family.  Then he shook his head.  He was going to die here, and now all he could offer was the hope that they’d carry on without him.

Peter smiled sympathetically, and then slit Francis’ throat.  Alice let go of Francis’ hair, and let him fall.  Francis hardly felt the impact at all.  He lay there on the ground, watching his blood soak into the soil.  Everything was becoming darker, and he thought he could hear a ringing sound.  He was going to lose consciousness soon.

Before the world faded out, Francis thought he could see green shoots beginning to emerge from the soil.  His life coming forth from the ground.

His last bizarre thought was that he was going to live after all.
Logged

"It's only forever
Not long at all"
~~Jareth

"Time may change me
But I can't trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can't trace time"
Changes
~~ David Bowie

"Why do you have to be a nonconformist like everybody else?"
~~James Thurber
Celtee
Staff
High Adept Member
***
Last Login:May 02, 2013, 06:50:08 pm
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Religion: Wandering Seeker with Celtic and Hedgewitch leanings
TCN ID: SilverWolf
Posts: 4773


The lone wolf waits...

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« Reply #3: October 04, 2007, 10:23:42 pm »

After the Feast

By Finn

   As he drifted out of his body, his spirit looked down and saw that his wife had been right after all: he really had gained a lot of weight.
   “Good grief,” he said. “What a tragedy.”
   “What is?” said the figure beside him. It looked upon the man with some pity, though it was difficult to tell through the hood covering his head.
The scythe hung loosely in its arm.

The recently dead man looked at the form, and shook his head.
   “Not dying really. It was time.”
   “Yes, it was,” said the figure.
   “But look at that belly below me.” The man shook his head again.
   “Was the tenth helping of cranberry sauce really worth it?” The hooded visitor looked down at the scene below them. A cluster of courtiers was circling the body, sticky and sweet from their own consumption.

   “It was poisoned. It made me choke. But man oh man…” The old
king rubbed his silvery belly. “It was worth it.”
   “I wouldn’t know,” said the hooded figure amiably.
   “Pity,” said the man. “I suppose there are no harvest feasts in the afterlife, eh?”
   “I wouldn’t know,” said the figure again, shrugging his shoulders. “I just… harvest. As it were.”
   “Ah.” The man looked down at the scene below him: the queen was gently wiping a trail of sauce from his chin, weeping silently. “She’ll be all right, will she?”
   “Your Majesty—“
   “Yes, I know, you wouldn’t know.” The king sighed. “There’s no one I could reincarnate as? You know, a cousin or a half-brother or something?”

   “Um,” said the figure, pulling out a scroll and unfurling it. The long paper trailed off through the figures below him. They didn’t seem to notice either the king or the figure above consulting the paper.
“Nothing’s in the books as of yet. Unless she’s pregnant?”
   “Doubt it,” said the king grimly. “Unless Henry’s been…”
   “He hasn’t.”
   “Oh really? And how do you know?” The king put his hands on his hips.
   “You executed him last week.”
   “Oh.”

        “I’ve got the receipt right here, if you want a look.”
        “No.”
        The king stroked his beard and put a hand in his pocket.
       “So there’s no way I could take a doggie bag with me?”
        The figure, though his features were hidden, gave the king such a long look that the king knew he was raising his eyebrows.
       “No, I thought not. Still… dying will probably work better than anything she made me do.” The king chortled. The figure gave the smallest of sighs, unheard by the king.
       “Yes, dying is probably quite a good way to lose weight.”

       The king grinned.
       “In fact,” he said. “You might say that dying is the best diet I’ve ever gone on.”

       “Yes, Majesty.” The figure looked at his wristwatch and beckoned to the king. “Take my hand now.”
       “Lead on, laddie.”
       As the pair walked into a tunnel with a blazing light at the end, the king said, “Not even a dinner roll, then?”

       Death sighed, and let go of the king’s hand.


Logged

"It's only forever
Not long at all"
~~Jareth

"Time may change me
But I can't trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can't trace time"
Changes
~~ David Bowie

"Why do you have to be a nonconformist like everybody else?"
~~James Thurber

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