First Came Trust (E4)

Story Content Notes: Story Content Notes: suicidal character, dubious consent (nonsexual situation)

Lilah swallowed and made emself meet the soldier’s eyes. “Ey… She said that her people would understand.”

” ‘She’!” Dalma erupted.

Lilah and the soldier both ignored em, ignored Sherzod’s attempt to step forward and push the soldier back.

Dalma grabbed Lilah’s hand, shaking eir. “Lilah! Who could you know here well enough to use personal pronouns? What is going on?”

Still, neither Lilah nor the soldier looked away from each other.

Finally, the soldier nodded, deeply enough it might have been another bow. “I do understand. Though I wonder if you do.”

Lilah, in truth, didn’t understand. But ey remembered what Lady Bethania had said about it not being done ‘properly,’ and something in the edge the soldier’s voice had taken made them wonder if that lack of ‘proper’ might be more than just not having the right necklace.

Sherzod grabbed Dalma’s arm and pulled eir back, not knowing or liking what this was, but recognizing they would learn more by listening than demanding.

Taking a deep breath, Lilah said carefully, “I understand that she took what I offered.” Eir hands clenched together in eir lap. “That she has told me the truth and given me hope when I saw none. The rest I am willing to wait to understand. When she gave me this,” ey loosed eir hands momentarily to tap the collar, “she said that we did not have time for her to explain, and I agree. What might have happened if she waited… scares me.”

Lilah was saying too much, especially with eir siblings there, Sherzod with eir too-sharp mind and Dalma with eir unending questions. But ey was too tired to truly control eir tongue, too full of relief and hope and lingering fear to be cautious.

And perhaps that was well, for if ey had said less, perhaps, the soldier would not have understood, accepted.

For another long moment, ey stared deep into Lilah’s eyes then stepped back with another nod.

Dalma and Sherzod immediately crowded close. “What are you talking about?”

The soldier murmured, “I can explain at least part if you wish.” Lilah swallowed, then nodded. “Please.”

The soldier, whose name was Abdal and had served the Noble Bethania for over a decade, stuck eir head out the pavilion and waved over another guard. Someone needed to actually be guarding.

Once one of Abdal’s squad was in place, Abdal seated emself on the floor, leaning against one of the pavilion supports. To eir relief, the two humans seated themselves as well. For a moment, ey wasn’t sure how to begin. Then decided that there was no point in anything but bluntness.

“Your sibling pledged their life to Noble Bethania of Aelland in the Royal Domain of Balule. The nobility accepted this pledge. Unfortunately, ey did not have a proper pledge necklace here, which I assume is why ey used the collar. I will not speak of personal matters, but I know that collar has… meaning for the nobility, separate from the purpose it was made for.”

“Pledged? Why does that sound like being married?”

Abdal nearly laughed. Lilah blushed. While ey hadn’t paid attention at the time, ey did remember the way Noble Bethania looked at them. And truth be told, Lilah did not find eir recollection of Bethania at all distasteful.

“No, though there are those who say that a pledge is closer than marriage. And not without reason. A pledge is a two-edged sword. The pledged one is the voice and arm of eir sovereign. In council, or the royal court, or ordering the household, your sibling’s voice will be that of the Noble Bethania, and ey will be obeyed as such.”

All three siblings stared at em — shock, surprise, confusion, excitement, concern mirrored in different ways in each face. Abdal drove on, knowing ey was overwhelming them but needing them to hear all.

“But your voice belongs to you, yes? You control your voice, your arms, your legs. In the same way, the pledge’s life belongs to their sovereign. The sovereign may command that the pledged sleep in the kennels or serve in the sovereign’s bed or work as a drudge, and none may gainsay them.

“That’s not how it’s supposed to be. And I can’t see Noble Bethania doing such. But it’s happened and will again.”

No one said anything for a long moment, the siblings struggling with this… drastic change of circumstances Lilah had created.

Then Sherzod, gently, “You wanted this?”

“Yes,” Lilah said, not daring to say more. Afraid to even hint at how little ey had truly understood of what ey had done. Of what ey had committed emself too.

“Why?” Dalma demanded, but Abdal cut em off.

“We do not question the pledged,” ey said, and Lilah shuddered with relief. Ey had dreaded Dalma’s questions, needed time to answer eir own before ey could answer any others.

“Their reasons for offering are their own,” Abdal continued, “and they have done a hard enough thing without being hounded by those who doubt. Questions, if you have them, you may ask of the nobility who accepted the pledge.” Something in eir tone said that Abdal also had questions ey would be asking of the nobility.

While the siblings had been speaking with Abdal, others had been preparing to get back on the road. Two came in to carry out the nobility’s special chest. Others began deconstructing the pavilion to pack away in the wagons. Then the two who took the chest returned and waited, somewhat patiently, to be able to pack up the blankets and cot.

Abdal looked to Lilah. “I do not know how you prefer to travel, but injured as you are, I believe a place in the wagons has been prepared.”

One of those waiting bowed. “Yes, Lieutenant. There is a canvas over the bed of the first wagon so the Pledged can stay out of the sun.”

Lilah looked to Dalma and Sherzod. “I need to do this. I know you don’t understand.”

Dalma looked away and sighed. “Fine. It’s not like you to rush into things, so if you are, there is a reason. And don’t think I’ve forgotten that you apologized for the guard trying to kill us.”

“But that can be discussed another day,” Sherzod put in. “I don’t think it would be safe for us to go home, and” ey grimaced, “my courtship of Phillipos was going nowhere.”

“Took you long enough to admit it,” Dalma muttered.

“So it’s not like anyone is waiting up for us,” Sherzod continued ignoring Dalma. Ey looked to the waiting servants, “Since the nobility had invited us to come, I assume there is room for Dalm and I somewhere as well?”

“Yes,” ey was assured, “it will be crowded, but there should be enough space in the wagon.”

What You Will (S1 E8): A Queer-er Shakespeare

Season notes: violence, sexism

Some miles south of that place, in another seacoast town, a man long ill from swallowing an excess of saltwater was finally recovered. He sat at a rough wooden table in the small rented room. The inn catered to sailors needing a place to stay between voyages and had not been a restful place to heal. But heal he had. This man was packing what little remained of his worldly goods in a battered leather bag. He packed slowly, reluctantly, but steadily. His name was Sebastian.

There was only one chair in the room, so its other occupant leaned nearby against the wall, a young sailor, Antonio. He looked older than his years from the rough treatment of wind and wave. It was Antonio who had plucked Sebastian from the sea and tended him these past days. He watched Sebastian now with anguished eyes. “Will you stay no longer? nor will you not that I go with you?”

Sebastian shook his head; he would not look at his savior, who had become much more. It was for that reason as much as any other that Sebastian had to leave. “By your patience, no. My stars shine darkly over me:” he had, in fact, begun to suspect that the stars hated him. Why else would they torture him so? “The vileness of my fate might perhaps taint yours; therefore I shall crave of you your leave that I may bear my evils alone:” Now he did look at Antonio, reached a hand out even to lay it on the man’s shoulder. “It were a bad recompense for your love, to lay any of this on you.”

Not one to be dissuaded, Antonio pleaded, “Let me yet know of you whither you are bound.”

“No, sooth, sir: my determinate voyage is mere extravagancy.” Antonio started to speak again but stopped himself, looking away. Sebastian saw the motion and squeezed the shoulder under his hand. “But I perceive in you so excellent a touch of modesty, that you will not extort from me what I am willing to keep in; therefore it charges me in manners the rather to express myself.”

Sebastian paused, looking out into the distance. “You must know of me then, Antonio, my name is Sebastian, though I have called myself Roderigo.” He glanced at Antonio, then looked away. Antonio gave no response, unsurprised that this friend had kept secrets from one he had, at first, no reason to trust. “My father was that Sebastian of Messaline, whom I know you have heard of.”

To this, Antonio reacted, for he had indeed heard of Sebastian of Messaline. That was a well-known name to those who sailed the seas — known for both well and ill before his death. Antonio well understood why Sebastian had said nothing of his connection when he first roused.

“He left behind him myself and a sister,” Sebastian continued, “both born in an hour: if the heavens had been pleased, would we had so ended!” He crossed himself but refused to let his tears fall. “but you, sir, altered that; for some hour before you took me from the breach of the sea was my sister drowned.”

He searched for her, clinging to his broken bit of wood until the salt spray blinded him.

“Alas the day!” Now Antonio moved away from the wall. He squatted down next to Sebastian and rested a hand upon his shoulder. He would have preferred to offer an embrace but recognized from the tension in his shoulders that his friend would not welcome it at that moment.

“A lady, sir, though” he chuckled, “it was said she much resembled me, she was yet accounted beautiful: but, though modestly prevents me from believing that, yet in this I will boldly publish her; she bore a mind that envy could not but call fair.” Now the tears fell, past his ability to call them back. Sebastian scrubbed at his face. “She is drowned already, sir, with saltwater, though I seem to drown her remembrance again with more.”

Antonio pulled Sebastian’s hands away and used a handkerchief to wipe his cheeks. “Pardon me, sir,” he said with a gentle smile, “your bad entertainment.”

“O good Antonio,” Sebastian chuckled and allowed his friend to tend him. “Forgive me your trouble.”

Antonio cupped Sebastian’s cheek with one hand. “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant.”

Sebastian returned the caress but shook his head. “If you will not undo what you have done, that is, kill him whom you have recovered, desire it not.” He hesitated a long moment, then leaned in and gave Antonio a gentle kiss. Before Antonio could deepen it, he pulled away and grabbed up his bag. “Fare ye well at once:” He stood and took two long strides toward the door. Antonio watched him go with full eyes. “my bosom is full of kindness, and I am yet so near the manners of my mother,” Sebastian’s voice hitched, but he forced it under control. “that upon the least occasion more mine eyes will tell tales of me.” A moment of hesitation, then bowing to the plea that Antonio did not voice, “I am bound to the Count Orsino’s court: farewell.”

Antonio watched as he walked out the door, then called, “The gentleness of all the gods go with thee!”

A few moments, he stayed silent, unmoving. “I have many enemies in Orsino’s court,” he murmured, “Else would I very shortly see thee there.

“But, come what may, I do adore thee so, That danger shall seem sport, and I will go.”

The room was paid through the end of the week, and his seabag was, as always, near at hand. It took Antonio only a short time to pack his own things, then he too walked out the door, not looking back.

First Came Trust (E3)

Story Content Notes: Story Content Notes: suicidal character, dubious consent (nonsexual situation)

While Lilah slept, pledged emself to Noble Bethania, and slept again, eir siblings rested in the shade of another pavilion. More of a tarp than a pavilion, in truth. An internal wall from Bethania’s pavilion, held up by four stout poles with blankets piled underneath.

Unlike Lilah, Dalma and Sherzod never truly fell unconscious and didn’t need to be carried off of the beach. They had not been fighting an internal battle for those long hours, and had mental, if not physical, reserves left to them.

At first, they accepted their separation from Lilah. They had seen Lilah carried from the beach and if the Balulian strangers were giving Lilah the extra care ey needed, they could only be grateful. For a time.

While Lilah battled the beast within em, eir siblings had time — far too much time — to think. Long before the Balulian’s arrived they had separately concluded that Lilah must know what they didn’t: why the guard had seized them and left them to die. There were many parts to that question, of course. The one that most concerned Sherzod was why the guard had left them to die.

That isn’t to say ey wasn’t bothered by the whole ‘seize them without reason’ or ‘execute them’ parts. Those flew in the face of everything about how their land was supposed to work. It was (in theory) a land committed to the rule of law. Harsh law, but harsh as much to its upholders as its subjects.

Still, while a violation of everything ey believed in, Sherzod knew a bit of history — not much, but a bit — and so knew that there had been times and places where such things did happen. It had taken hours, lying in the hot sun, for em to work past shock, and horror, and disbelief, to acceptance. But eventually, ey had.

What ey couldn’t work past was the foolishness, the incompetence. Why not just kill them? Why not at least leave a guard?

The Balulians, of course, brought with them other questions. Why had they rescued the siblings? Why did they ask no questions, seem to treat it as normal to find a family left to die for no reason.

Dalma was less inclined to quiet thought than Sherzod. A bare handful of minutes after they had been guided to the pavilion, ey began demanding answers.

Those demands were generally ignored, of course. No one knew if the siblings knew about Lilah’s other nature. And given local prejudices, no one wanted to tell them if they didn’t. If Lilah hadn’t trusted their siblings, it wasn’t for the Balulians to reveal eir secret.

So it was a tense time for the siblings and the Balulians who tended them. Most of the tension fell on the lieutenant tasked with guarding the siblings. It was the lieutenant who had to block their attempts to seek out Lilah, redirect or rebuff their questions, and keep alert for any warning from eir men watching the road for approaching trouble.

It was a great relief to em to be able to tell the siblings that Lilah was awake and able to speak with them. It was less of a relief to tell them that the caravan would be heading out within the hour. “Your sibling will be coming with us. You’ll need to decide for yourselves if you’ll come as well or stay.”

To say the siblings were displeased is a great understatement, but even Dalma put off arguing or asking questions in eir eagerness to see Lilah and be sure ey was safe.

Lilah was relieved to see eir siblings enter the pavilion, but also scared. Ey wasn’t ready to tell their siblings about the beast within em, that ey wasn’t human any longer.

“Dalma, Sherzod,” ey greeted, reaching out to pull eir siblings into a hug. It hurt, the pressure on the sunburn across eir chest and arms. But it was worth it. Dalma and Sherzod thought so too, crowding closer. “I’m so glad you are safe.”

And Lilah meant it in more ways than the siblings realized. In spite of eir fears, the beast remained quiet within em. Food and rest had restored eir energy and ey had expected the beast to begin fighting to escape again. Instead, it lay within em, radiating a mix of anger and resignation. Lilah got the sense that the beast knew the collar trapped it. How ey couldn’t begin to guess but at that moment did not care. Noble… Lady Bethania had been telling the truth of that, and the relief of it had brought tears to Lilah’s eyes.

“Same, brother,” Sherzod said, oblivious to Lilah’s thoughts. Ey squeezed Lilah tighter. “I think we all feared… Lilah, what happened? Why did the guard–”

The three released each other as ey spoke and Sherzod was cut off by Dalma’s sudden growl. “What is that?” ey demanded, pointing at the collar.

In their first joy at each other’s safety, Lilah had pushed eirself up from the cot without thought, and Dalma and Sherzod had rushed to eir without truly seeing.

But as the embrace ended, Dalma had examined Lilah, worried and needing to know eir sibling was well. And seen the collar.

Belatedly, Lilah pulled up a sheet from the cot, trying to cover it. “It’s nothing… just…”

Sherzod pulled the sheet from Lilah’s hands and put it aside. “This… this is not nothing, Lilah.” The Balulians must know, ey thought. Whatever turned the guard against us, they know it too, whatever secret it is Lilah keeps.

Dalma turned on the soldier who still accompanied them. “Is this why you have kept us away from Lilah? Because you have no–”

Lilah reached out and took eir siblings’ hands. “It’s not what you think, Dalma, Sher.”

“It better not be,” Dalma growled again.

Exhausted still, filled with fear of what ey had become, what ey must admit, Lilah had no patience for Dalma’s own fears and anger. “And if it was?” Lilah snapped out. “My life is not, has never been, yours to decide sister. And if slavery was the price of your lives I would pay it, and gladly.”

Any reply from Dalma or Sherzod was cut off by the lieutenant’s sharp whistle. “While I’m sure the nobility meant the local authorities when ey said I was to keep you safe, overexerting yourselves right now would also be dangerous.” Ey stepped forward, pushing back Dalma and Sherzod with their presence. Ey stopped in front of Lilah and examined the collar a moment, then ducked eir head in a brief bow that further confused the siblings.

“If I am correct, cub, while your life may not ever have been your siblings to decide, it is now no longer yours to decide either.”

Lilah swallowed and made emself meet the soldier’s eyes. “Ey… She said that her people would understand.”

What You Will (S1, E7): A Queer-er Shakespeare

Content notes: violence, sexism

Maria stood and crossed to the door. “Will you hoist sail, sir? here lies your way.”

“No.” Viola’s voice was weak, her boldness again wilting. She took hold of herself. As she had in many a past prank, she disguised herself behind her brother’s mien. “No, good swabber; I am to hull here a little longer.” She crooked an eyebrow at Olivia and, in her most sarcastic voice, continued, “Some mollification for your giant, sweet lady.”

Unsurprisingly, Olivia did nothing to ‘mollify’ Maria but also did not order Viola removed.

She and Viola stared at each other a moment, then Viola reached out a hand in offering and said quietly, “Tell me your mind: I am a messenger.”

“Sure, you have some hideous matter to deliver,” Olivia replied, “when the courtesy of it is so fearful. Speak your office.”

Viola stepped closer, dropping her voice to a murmur as her brother had done when flirting. “It alone concerns your ear. I bring no overture of war, no taxation of homage,” she lifted her outstretched hand. “I hold the olive in my hand;” Another step closer and her voice a touch softer, a touch deeper. “My words are as fun of peace as matter.”

Olivia was flustered now, looked away, fiddled with her fan. “Yet you began rudely,” she objected. Standing now, pacing the floor. “What are you? what would you?”

A half step back, giving space without retreating. The voice was softer yet, so now Olivia had to strain to hear, to stop pacing and step closer. Viola, within the well-learned mask of her brother’s ways, smiled. “The rudeness that hath appeared in me have I learned from my entertainment.

For the first time, the low voice took on the hint of a whisper: not just soft now but secret. “What I am, and what I would, are as secret as maidenhead; to your ears, divinity, to any other’s, profanation.”

Silence then. The lure was cast, and Viola knew — Sebastian knew, but for the moment, Viola was Sebastian — better than to speak further.

Olivia glanced at her (him — Cesario was who Olivia saw. Viola was perhaps too many people that morning.) Olivia glanced at him and away. The countess had been well sheltered before her father’s death, and this may have been the first time she had met the games of love. Certainly, the duke’s earlier messengers had little sense of how to woo her.

Finally, she decided. “Give us the place alone: we will hear this divinity.”

Olivia used Maria’s stiff exit to gather herself. She was flustered, yes; taken by surprise, but the daughter and granddaughter and sister of counts, a countess in her own right. She made herself don the mask of serenity she wore when she held court, to sit gracefully on her chair. When she spoke, it was in a steady voice and firm tone. “Now, sir, what is your text?”

Viola smiled and began, “Most sweet lady,–”

But this was more what Olivia had expected, and she was able to cut the speech short, “A comfortable doctrine, and much may be said of it.

“Where lies your text?”

Surprised but willing to play along, Viola replied, “In Orsino’s bosom.”

“In his bosom! In what chapter of his bosom?”

“To answer by the method, in the first of his heart.”

“O, I have read it: it is heresy. Have you no more to say?”

Viola stumbled, not ready to give up the task she had been set, but the game had ended too abruptly, and her memories of playing Sebastian were no help. But she was not Sebastian now; she was Cesario. And she knew what Cesario would say, the words bubbling up within her from her heart that was also his. “Good madam, let me see your face.”

“Have you any commission from your lord to negotiate with my face?” Olivia shook her head but continued. “You are now out of your text: but we will draw the curtain and show you the picture.” She pulled back her veil and gave Viola a moment to admire her face. “Look you, sir, such a one I was this present: is’t not well done?”

Vanity, oh vanity, all is vanity!

“Excellently done,” Cesario prodded, “if God did all.”

Stung Olivia jumped to defend her beauty. “‘Tis in grain, sir; ’twill endure wind and weather.”

Cesario smiled. “‘Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on. Lady,” the soft voice again, entreating, “you are the cruell’st she alive, If you will lead these graces to the grave And leave the world no copy.”

“O, sir,” Olivia flirted now, looking up at him from behind her lashes, “I will not be so hard-hearted; I will give out divers schedules of my beauty: it shall be inventoried, and every particle and utensil labeled to my will: as, item, two lips, indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth.” The flirtation dropped the countess spoke again, “Were you sent hither to praise me?”

“I see you what you are, you are too proud,” Cesario spoke with censure now, vanity exposed being the greatest of ugliness.

“But, if you were the devil, you are fair. My lord and master loves you:” and Cesario tried hard not to hear the whisper in his heart — loves you as he can never love me, mismatched monster that I am — “O, such love Could be but recompensed, though you were crown’d The nonpareil of beauty!”

“How does he love me?”

“With adorations, fertile tears, With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire.”

As he spoke, Olivia listened, leaning forward, taking in the passion and fire that peaked through, burning all the brighter for the love of his own Cesario did not dare — never dared — to show the world.

Shaking off the impact of those words, Olivia dismissed them. “Your lord does know my mind; I cannot love him: Yet I suppose him virtuous, know him noble, Of great estate, of fresh and stainless youth; In voices well divulged, free, learn’d and valiant; And in dimension and the shape of nature A gracious person: but yet I cannot love him; He might have took his answer long ago.”

“If I did love you in my master’s flame, With such a suffering, such a deadly life, In your denial I would find no sense; I would not understand it.” Did not understand it, that Olivia would so easily set aside what he — she. She was Viola; Cesario was only a mask! — would have given all the gold of the Indies for.

“Why, what would you?”

And Cesario — Viola — opened her heart for one time. What she would do if she could… “Make me a willow cabin at your gate, and call upon my soul within the house. Write loyal cantons of contemned love and sing them loud even in the dead of night. Halloo your name to the reverberate hills and make the babbling gossip of the air cry out…” she caught herself, replaced one name with another, and hid her stumble with a cry that reverberated through the house, if not the hills. “‘Olivia!’ O, You should not rest Between the elements of air and earth, But you should pity me!”

Olivia, of course, had no idea that this paean of love was not directed to her. It left her stunned and feeling much she did not recognize. “You might do much. What is your parentage?”

Surprised, Viola stared a moment before answering. “Above my fortunes, yet my state is well: I am a gentleman.”

Shaking her head, Olivia stood and made for the door, made to escape, “Get you to your lord; I cannot love him: let him send no more;” A pause, a thought, a fear and a hope… ” Unless, perchance, you come to me again, To tell me how he takes it. Fare you well: I thank you for your pains:” Eager to give him something though not understanding why she dug out a few coins from her purse. “spend this for me.”

“I am no fee’d post, lady,” Viola sneered at the coins, “keep your purse: My master, not myself, lacks recompense.

“Love make his heart of flint that you shall love; And let your fervor, like my master’s, be placed in contempt!” With a backward wave, and a heart both light and grieving, Viola strode out of the room and towards the main doors. “Farewell, fair cruelty.”

First Came Trust (E2)

Story Content Notes: suicidal character, dubious consent (nonsexual situation)

Bethania left the siblings for eir people to deal with. Once the pair recovered enough to travel, they would be no concern of Bethania’s. Though Bethania did plan to offer the siblings a place if they wished it. It wasn’t, ey thought, very likely that the siblings would want to stay here, after all.

But the noble left orders to be informed as soon as the cub was lucid. That was a problem ey had to address, and soon.

Eir people put together a rough trail meal for an early dinner, and just as Bethania finished eating, eir healer reported that the cub had awakened.

As Bethania walked up, the cub was sitting on a cot, shivering in the slight breeze. Eir eyes locked on Bethania with a familiar sharpness that warned something more than human lurked behind that gaze.

Bethania met the cub’s eyes until ey looked down, probably not even realizing why. Then ey took up a light blanket that had fallen off the cub and wrapped it around eir shoulders. The irony of sun poisoning was how easily one could take chill once cooled a bit.

“What is your name, stranger?” Bethania asked as the cub grabbed the corners of the blanket and pulled it tighter.

“Lilah, nobility.”

“Lilah. I am Bethânia of Aelland. I have been acting as the ambassador for Royal Jennie of Balule and was returning home when one of my people found you and your siblings. Your siblings are safe. They are free to do as they wish, including enter my service and return home with me.

“You are a more difficult matter.”

Now, Lilah was still confused and disoriented but thinking much more clearly. And this time ey caught the implication.

Ey closed eir eyes and whispered, “You know what I am…”

The quick wits, especially after such an ordeal, pleased Bethania. “Yes.” Bethania paused a moment to order eir thoughts, but before ey could Lilah slid off the cot and crouched down at the nobility’s feet.

“Kill me, nobility,” ey pleaded. “Before I hurt anyone else.”

Bethania was stunned, of course. Ey knew how much hate the Pack folk faced in this land, but it had never occurred to em that Lilah would rather die. Or… did the cub know anything about the Pack folk at all? Did ey believe the madness was inevitable?

Bethania should have refused the plea, should have explained. Ey knew that. But ey felt the pressure of time, the need to return home and to the full pack. Ey feared ey wouldn’t be able to convince Lilah that the cub would do emself harm. If Bethania refused the plea, would the cub even kill emself, believing ey had no other choice?

And, truth be told, Bethania was no mensch. Ey tried to be a good noble, a good person. But ey could be selfish, and ey could be manipulative. And Lilah was zaftig, with short feathery hair, and the line of eir bowed neck made Bethania want to lick eir way up. Then ey would nibble on the jawline until ey felt the tips of that hair tickling eir lips…

So instead of refusing and teaching, Bethania twisted the cub’s words to eir own purposes.

“Are you saying you give your life to me?”

“Yes, nobility. I should have killed myself, but I went to the guard, hoping they would be able to hunt down the monster that attacked me so it wouldn’t turn anyone else. But they left us…” ey waved eir hand out towards the beach. “I came so close to losing to the beast, to ripping free and then turning on my siblings. I beg you, take my life, nobility, so no one else is at risk.”

It was enough — not the traditional pledge but it satisfied the forms.

That the cub had already thought of taking eir own life silenced the last of Bethania’s doubts — or was it eir conscious that was silenced? Regardless, all hesitation ended.

Most of Bethania’s belongings had not been unpacked, of course. But a small chest had been set in the corner of the pavilion, one that was always to be available whenever ey might need it. Tucked into a corner of the chest was a leather slave collar like was used in that land. A momento, for such things were never used in Balule, of one Bethania couldn’t save. And perhaps that memory was one more spur to eir decision.

Lilah had kept eir head down and did not look up as Bethania approached em again. In truth, Lilah was battling the beast again. The beast had been quiet since ey woke in the pavilion and got quieter still when Bethania faced em down. But it did not want to die and knew Lilah meant to see them both dead.

“I accept your life and promise you will never be a danger to your siblings.” As ey spoke, Bethania wrapped the collar around Lilah’s neck, tightly enough there was barely room to slip a finger between leather and skin, and locked it in place.

Lilah looked up at Bethania, shock and fear written on eir face. Whether ey feared more that Bethania would not kill em or the slave collar, perhaps not even Lilah could say. “What–”

Bethania cut them off, tipping up Lilah’s chin so the cub looked them in the face again. “By your pledge, your life is mine to do with as I will. The collar will stand as temporary pledge necklace until we return home, and I present you a proper necklace. My people will understand the intent, and yours will assume you are my property and not interfere until we are out of this benighted land.

“As one pledged to me, you have the right to address me informally, by name and gender. I am referred to as ‘she’.”

Lilah was stunned. But in only a few moments, anger began to replace shock. “You–”

“I have done as you asked, cub. I have taken your life and ensured the safety of your siblings. It was not well done of me, but we do not have time to do things properly.” Bethania tapped a finger on the collar. “While you wear this, you cannot transform. That buys us time. Time to do all the things we cannot do now.

“I know you do not understand. And I know you have no reason to trust me. But I believe you do not want to die. And I know you do not need to die.”

Lilah stared into Bethania’s eyes. For the first time since ey felt the beast stirring within em, ey felt a spark of hope. That spark terrified em, as hope often does. Nothing is more frightening than hope when one has given in to despair. But with the nobility holding eir eyes again, the beast within Lilah quieted, and Lilah dared to hope, dared to trust. Ey tried to swallow, then rasped, “I will try, nobility.”

“Bethania, Lilah,” the noble said with a relieved grin. “Or if you must use a title, ‘lady’.”

Lilah would have shaken eir head in confusion, but a wave of exhaustion swept over em. Ey swayed for a moment, and Bethania reached out to help em back onto the cot.

“Now drink, eat something, and sleep. We will not stay here much longer, but we can wait long enough for that.”

“Yes… lady,” Lilah managed to say before a huge yawn overtook them.

Bethania sent one of eir people for food and water and stepped out of the pavilion. An hour, two at most. Then the siblings would need to decide, and the small caravan get back on the road.

What You Will (S1 E6): A Queer-er Shakespeare

Season notes: violence, sexism

As the fool left, Malvolio re-entered wearing a deep scowl. “Madam, yon young fellow swears he will speak with you. I told him you were sick; he takes on him to understand so much, and therefore comes to speak with you. I told him you were asleep; he seems to have a foreknowledge of that too, and therefore comes to speak with you.” He shook his head and growled. “What is to be said to him, lady? he’s fortified against any denial.”

“Tell him he shall not speak with me!” Now Olivia, too, was scowling, her peace and humor of the moment before quickly wiped away.

“Has been told so,” Malvolio grated out. “And he says, he’ll stand at your door like a sheriff’s post, and be the supporter to a bench, but he’ll speak with you.”

“What kind o’ man is he?”

Malvolio blinked, stammered out, “Wh- why, of mankind.”

Olivia had long suspected that Malvolio’s dislike of humor came from his literalness. The fool did not agree with her, for had known many others with like literalness who had learned to use it to make jokes, rather than squash them. Be that as it may, the Lady likely should have expected this response from him. Thus her rolled eyes were probably directed at herself. Though who can say for sure. “What manner of man?” she asked with studied patience.

“Of very ill manner; he’ll speak with you, will you or no.”

What was the lady thinking now? Who could say. Perhaps she had begun to grow tired of grief. Perhaps the return of her fool reminded her that there was life outside her manor. Or perhaps she was simply intrigued. For all she had long been subjected to the Duke’s advances, to come wooin with rudeness had the sole virtue or novelty.

So instead of dismissing the matter she asked further.

“Of what personage and years is he?

Malvolio’s scowl deepened. “Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy;” he paused seeking words to convey his sense of the messenger. “As a squash is before ’tis a peascod, or a cooling when ’tis almost an apple: ’tis with him in standing water, between boy and man.” Giving up the rambling attempt to say what was plain to anyone at his first words, he continued, “He is very well-favoured and he speaks very shrewishly; one would think his mother’s milk were scarce out of him.”

Truly intrigued now, Olivia murmured, “Let him approach,” then started, as if the words had surprised even her. In a firmer tone she ordered, “Call in my gentlewoman.”

After a stunned moment, Malvolio strode out of the hall, calling ahead of himself, “Gentlewoman, my lady calls.”

Maria, of course, came to the call and walked with her lady to Olivia’s prefered receiving room.

“Give me my veil:” Olivia said once she was settled. “Come,” when Maria did not move quickly enough, “throw it o’er my face.” Maria soon had the black lace veil settled across her lady’s countenance, hiding clear view of her. With a sigh, already regretting her impulse, Olivia leaned back into the cushions of her chair. “We’ll once more hear Orsino’s embassy.”

A few moments later, Malvolio bowed in Cesario — that is, Viola — and quickly left the room. The discourtesy of not announcing the Duke’s messenger was not lost on anyone. Viola stepped further into the room looking nervously between Olivia and Maria. Her boldness deserted her at the very moment it won her entrance.

Silence stretched a long moment and Viola nervously asked, “The honourable lady of the house, which is she?”

Olivia had been studying Viola, surprised in spite of Malvolio’s report at how young ‘he’ was. She was surprised again that the Duke’s messenger did not recognize her despite her veiling. New, she quickly realized, not only to the Duke’s service but to the realm. New and intriguing, with exotic accent and coloring. New to the Duke, and perhaps not firmly tied to him.

“Speak to me;” she said, “I shall answer for her.

“Your will?”

Viola bowed to her, took a breath and began, “Most radiant, exquisite and unmatchable beauty,–” the words had felt foolish enough when she practiced them on her way over. Addressing them to a veiled unknow who might or might not be the one she sought crossed over from foolish to madness and she could not continue. She was embarrassed, and becoming angry at the lady (and a small bit Orsino) for putting her in this position. With anger returned her former boldness and she turned to Maria. “I pray you, tell me if this be the lady of the house, for I never saw her.” A stage whisper, “I would be loath to cast away my speech, for besides that it is excellently well penned, I have taken great pains to con it.” In truth is had not been ‘penned’ at all, being the product of Viola’s thoughts on the way there. Though she had ‘conned’ — that is, memorized — it as best she could hoping to avoid making a fool out of herself. An effort now gone to waste.

When no response came, she let herself be drawn into pleading — she was not there of her own will and well they knew it. “Good beauties, let me sustain no scorn; I am very comptible, even to the least sinister usage.”

Take some small pity, Olivia asked, “Whence came you, sir?”

Not willing to get drawn into discussion, Viola replied, “I can say little more than I have studied, and that question’s out of my part. Good gentle one, give me modest assurance if you be the lady of the house, that I may proceed in my speech.”

“Are you a comedian?” Olivia asked.

Viola couldn’t help a small laugh at the idea. “No, my profound heart,” but some imp slipped between her lips and made her continue, “and yet, by the very fangs of malice I swear, I am not that I play.” That confounded the lady and Viola continued quickly before she could ask further: “Are you the lady of the house?”

Done with the game, Olivia replied, “If I do not usurp myself, I am.”

“Most certain,” Viola muttered with a snort, “if you are she, you do usurp yourself; for what is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve.” With a shake of her head she recalled herself to duty. “But this is from my commission: I will on with my speech in your praise, and then show you the heart of my message.”

“Come to what is important in’t: I forgive you the praise.”

” Alas, I took great pains to study it, and ’tis poetical.”

“It is the more like to be feigned,” Olivia snapped, “I pray you, keep it in.

“I heard you were saucy at my gates, and allowed your approach rather to wonder at you than to hear you. If you be not mad, be gone; if you have reason, be brief: ’tis not that time of moon with me to make one in so skipping a dialogue.”

Viola, who had her own suffering when the moon had it’s way with her, winced in sympathy”

Maria stood and crossed to the door. “Will you hoist sail, sir? here lies your way.”

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First Came Trust (E1)

First Came Trust is the, well, first, in a trilogy about three siblings surviving and rebuilding among strange people in a strange land.

Lilah knew ey was dead the moment ey met the creature in the woods. Ey never expected eir doom to overtake eir siblings as well. A stranger on the road may offer salvation, but is it worth the price?


Story Content Notes: Story Content Notes: suicidal character, dubious consent (nonsexual situation)

Lilah had expected the guards to come. Had been expecting them for over a day, in fact. But ey hadn’t expected how the guard had come. No quiet knock to escort em away. No apologies or sympathy for what must be.

The door burst open, broken down by a battering ram, though it had not been latched or locked. Guards poured into the small home Lilah shared with their siblings. They swarmed over Lilah, knocking em to the floor. Lilah didn’t resist, didn’t protest. Not until ey heard Sherzod and Dalma, saw eir siblings thrown down on the floor beside em. Then Lilah protested. But eir protests were short-lived. The beast within em, the beast that had been growing stronger ever since that night in the woods, nearly slipped eir control.

Almost, ey let it. Almost ey let the beast rip through em and seize control, tear through the guards who had betrayed em. Who ey had gone to for help.

But ey was afraid. Afraid that the beast would turn on Sherzod and Dalma. That the beast would kill and kill and not stop, as the stories all said. So ey didn’t fight back. Ey let the guards bind em, followed them silently, and turned all eir will to fighting the beast within em.

The guards loaded them in a cart and drove out of the village along the shore road. Dalma and Sherzod fought and cursed the guards, frantic not just with fear but with ignorance. They had no idea why the guards had broken down their doors and dragged them from bed. No more than they knew why their sibling had been so secretive, so anxious, the past few days.

It wasn’t until they had been in the cart several minutes that fear overwhelmed ignorant anger. That they noticed Lilah looked sick and road in silence, realized ey had not once fought back. Then Dalma and Sherzod moved as one, bracketing their sibling, standing between em and the guard, offering em what little protection they could.

A few miles down the coast road, the guards stopped and pulled them out of the cart. The sun was peeking over the horizon when the guards forced them down onto the stand and staked them out spread-eagle above the high tide line.

All the siblings knew what would come. Not because they had ever heard of the guard doing such a thing, but because they lived in a seaside town. Every few years, a boat’s mast broke or a child was lost, and, sooner or later, they died from the sun and sea. The salt spray would suck the water from their bodies, the sun heat them to delirium, and in a day or three, it would be over.

Sherzod and Dalma were surprised when the guards all left, not one on watch to be sure they did not find some way to escape. But Lilah understood, and ey started laughing. Laughing and laughing, hysterical now, tears seeping down eir face.

Ey could escape in an instant, release the beast, and it would snap the ropes that bound em. But only if ey was willing to kill eir siblings. The guards did not dare kill Lilah themselves, though ey had begged them to. Afraid of what ey could become, they had left em to die in a prison made of love.

Dalma yelled at Lilah, begging em to settle, to explain. Sherzod tried to soothe, to calm. Both fought the ropes, hoping for enough slack, enough leverage, to fight themselves free.

Lilah was snapped out of her hysteria not by eir siblings but by the beast within em, lunging for freedom. It knew it could snap these ropes in a moment. Snap them, and then…

No. They may be doomed, and Lilah may be damned, but Lilah would hold off the beast until eir last breath. While Dalma and Sherzod lived there was a chance they could survive this.

“I’m sorry,” was all Lilah could spare a breath to say. Ey threw emself into the most important battle of eir life.

By the time the sun started creeping west, Lilah and the beast had both given up the fight, too exhausted and worn out to continue. Lilah’s skin prickled and burned from the sun, and eir mouth was parched. Sometimes Dalma’s voice would float over them, or Sherzod’s. But the words had long ago stopped making sense.

A sudden coolness washed over em, and ey blinked, trying to make eir dry eyes focus. A dark shape stood over em, blocking the sun. Though Lilah did not yet know it, salvation had come in a most unlikely form.

Bethania, the noble of Aelland in the royalty of Balule, had been returning home from a trade mission. Eir travels were interrupted when an outrider had brought word of the three siblings trapped on the beach, one of them a new cub. Not being from this barbarous land, Bethania immediately ordered a halt to give aid to the trio. Ey thought wryly, that had ey been foolish enough to try to ride by, the half of eir guards and a handful of servants who were Pack would have rebelled the moment ey gave the order.

Now Bethania crouched over the barely conscious cub. “Why are you here?” Ey asked. Bethania thought ey knew — the locals’ hatred of Pack had been a thorn in their people’s side the entire time they’d been at court. But Bethania had to hear the cub’s answer for emself, to know if the stranger had given into the madness. Without the support of a pack, new cubs could lose themselves to their second nature and its fear.

The cub blinked at her a moment, then ey said, “My fault, nobility.” Ey coughed, and the two staked out next to them stirred, realizing they were no longer alone. Bethania waved eir people forward to help the two humans. “Save my siblings, please. They don’t… they don’t…”

Bethania sighed with relief. The cub was still emself — whoever that had been.

“Why didn’t you free yourself?”

If Lilah hadn’t been near delirious from sun poisoning and exhaustion, the question would likely have terrified em. But ey was too mind-fogged to recognize that Bethania knew of ‘the beast’ and simply answered with the truth. “Would have killed… them… please save them… from me.”

The effort to speak was too much. Lilah realized that eir siblings were already on their feet, freed by the strange noble’s people, then darkness closed in.

Bethania stepped back to allow eir people to work. They wet down the three sufferers with seawater to cool them. The siblings were able to walk with support and were led to sit in the shade of a wagon, brought honey water, and urged to drink slowly. The cub was carried to a quickly erected shelter, Bethania’s pavilion — it was larger than needed but easiest to get out of the wagons. A servant stayed with the now unconscious cub, dripping water into eir mouth.

Satisfied the strangers were getting the needed care, Bethania gave orders for a longer halt and increased security. Whoever had tortured and tried to kill the three might be near. They needed to stay at least a short time. Best be prepared.

Snippets: Hiatus Week 4

Reverse Stockholm

Content Notes: alien abduction ‘romance’, no adult content

She stood before him. A literal sacrifice to save her world. Though very far from virgin. Behind them, hundreds of news cameras watched, projecting her fate to the world in live HD.

“Kneel.”

She hesitated. The watching newsies gave her, for the last time, some external power. She could use that. Maybe.

“My name is Jessica.”

He loomed over her. “I don’t give a damn what your name is. Kneel.”

“You say that you aren’t barbarians. Just different. You say that you don’t wish to harm anyone, but you are desperate.” He raised his hand. She spoke faster. “You don’t want a scene here. All I want is for you to use my name.”

He snarled. She braced herself for the blow. “Very well. Kneel, Jessica.”

She slipped easily to her knees and smiled up at him. “Thank you.”

Inside she was cheering. She had made him bargain with her.

The shuttle lifted, whisking them into orbit. She felt his eyes on her. He had to know what she looked like. They had asked for her specifically. Breaking the silence would put her at a disadvantage. She leaned back in the seat and recalled the plot of her latest story. Her fingers twitched, needing to fidget. A strand of hair to twirl settled them, and she distracted herself figuring out why her heroine refused to cooperate with the storyline.

“Tell me a story.” The sudden demand jarred her out of her thoughts.

“Um… what kind of story?”

“Like the stories you write.”

“Oh.” She sighed. Of all the things he would ask. “I can’t. I wish I could.”

He snarled. “You will do what I tell you.”

“I can tell you a story, but I can’t tell those stories. I’ve tried storytelling, but it’s very different from writing. I can tell fairytales and myths and fables and personal experiences. But the stuff I write is too intricate. I’m not a good enough storyteller to spin that kind of yarn.

“What I could do… what is your name?”

He glared. She waited. “What could you do?”

Damn it. “What I could do, Man With No Name, is….

The shuttle docked, and she followed him out into the bay. “Strip.”

She’d been half-expecting it. But she hadn’t been able to come up with any way to turn it to her advantage.

She turned around and undid the fastenings on her suit. One by one, the pieces fell to the floor until she stood wearing nothing. Not even a hat to cover her hair.

He led her through the bay and into the ship. They passed many men but no women. Where were they? Did these people segregate by gender? If they did, she was screwed.

All the men they passed stopped and saluted. Many of them stared at her hungrily. She shivered and did her best to ignore them.

They finally entered a large room where another man waited.

“So this is our female,” he said.

“We are not barbarians. Her name is Jessica.”

Yes! It worked. She might be in their power, but she had established herself as an individual. Time to ride that wave.

She extended her hand and stepped toward the new man. “Hi. It’s nice to meet you…”

“Alec,” the leader said behind her. “His name is Alec.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Alec.”

Ridge

With a pensive sigh, she traced the ridge of his eyebrows. They stood out so sharply from an otherwise flat face. She had never seen anyone with such a face.

“Jetal, come on!”

She flushed and hurried away from the unconscious supplicant.

“Really, Jetal,” Senior Penitent Rasha said, “You need to stop mooning over the supplicants! It’s unseemly.”

Jetal kept her eyes down and murmured, “Yes, Senior Sister.”

She heard Rasha sigh. “Well, come on. We don’t want to keep Initiate Marga waiting.”

“No, Senior Sister.”

Jetal kept her expression calmly attentive through the ensuing history lesson. She had spent hours in the library, reading the history of the Temple and the Goddess’ Chosen. She never understood how Initiate Marga managed to make all those fascinating stories so BORING.

When the lecture was over, she tried to disappear out the door without being noticed.

“Junior Penitent Jetal!” The sharp voice froze her in the doorway. A living obstacle for her fellow Penitents to flow around.

She turned and re-entered the lecture hall. “Yes, Initiate Marga?”

“The Matriarchs have noted your interest in the Supplicants.”

Jetal winced, waiting for the reprimand.

“They have determined to assign you two hours a day aiding the Sisters in charge of the Supplicants. There is a shortage of hands in the Supplicant quarters, and perhaps exposure will wear away your fascination.”

Even the sting of the Initiates final words couldn’t keep a grin from spreading across Jetal’s face. She bowed, “Thank you, Initiate!”

Space Junk

The aging satellite had circled the small green and white planet for millennium. It observed the rise of a dominant species, evolving from primitive bands to stone cities. The domestication of animals, the beginning of organized war.

Its masters, presumably, received the reports it beamed back, but no response ever came. It circled on, becoming erratic and unreliable. Micro pitting damaged its processors, batteries ran down, and, as the solar cells lost alignment, did not recharge.

More years passed, the civilization below continued to evolve. Finally, the satellite stopped working entirely. It floated in space, an unusable collection of circuits and metal. Without rockets to stabilize its flight, its orbit degraded—a long, slow fall to the planet below.

Berchad was plowing his field, getting ready to plant the mage-touched rhubarb seeds. He ignored the flash of fire high above. The High Mage and Regus-the-Bastard had been fighting for a week already. He figured they’d still be going at it come harvest time.

If he’d looked up, he might have had some warning of the pile of molten metal which was about to crash into his just-planted turnips.

Werewolf foodbank

Frank looked over the long line of people stretching ahead of him. The foodbank doors hadn’t even opened yet, but already the line of people waiting stretched around the block. In the West, the sun sank steadily towards the horizon. He could feel the blood moon’s call itching between his shoulder blades.

Next to him, a young woman bulging with pregnancy explained to an older couple how the foodbank worked. In front of him, a man and woman chatted in sign language, the woman occasionally calling a greeting to people who passed. Ahead of them were boxes of books, dumped on the sidewalk after the church’s latest rummage sale. Several folks cautiously left their spot to dig through the boxes.

Frank’s cupboards at home weren’t empty. But he couldn’t afford to buy more food until the foodstamps came in next week. And the cubs needed meat to stay healthy. According to social services, he made enough money to supplement foodstamps with cash, but the money he sent to his ex as child support each month wasn’t counted in his “expenses.” That $300 bite out of his paycheck left things… tight.

It would be another two months before bow hunting season. And with the bloody supermoon tonight only an idiot would hunt on four legs.

He glanced at the clock on the church tower. Half an hour until the doors opened. An hour and a half until moonrise. Three hours until the eclipse started.

He couldn’t afford to be out tonight. The chance of being away from home—hell the chance of still being at the foodbank–when the moon rose was too great. But the cubs needed meat.


Ridge and Space Junk are two more from the Second Life writing group. Reverse Stolkholm and Werewolf foodback are my own brainstorms. With Reverse Stolkholm I was playing with the ‘alien abduction’ subgenre and how the captive in such a story might turn the tables on her captors, rather than submitting to them. Werewolf foodbank has a bit of a more prosaic background — some years ago there was a supermoon/blood moon on a night the local foodbank was open. How could I not?

Next Tuesday we’ll be starting a new story, First Came Trust, and Friday we’ll be resuming What You Will. Thanks for your patience during this hiatus.

First Came Trust is the, well, first, in a trilogy about three siblings surviving and rebuilding among strange people in a strange land.

Lilah knew ey was dead the moment ey met the creature in the woods. Ey never expected eir doom to overtake eir siblings as well. A stranger on the road may offer salvation, but is it worth the price?

Ulfsark: Hiatus Week 3

Content notes: abuse, untreated PTSD, violence, death threats

Salma pushed aside the curtain and stepped into the airway. As always, the space between the thick sod outer walls and the wooden inner walls of the long house was cool and damp. The shielded oil lamp she carried cast a dim glow across the nearest support beam and a few feet of dirt floor.

A strong tang filled the air. Someone had been to lazy to go to the outhouse. Salma’s nose wrinkled. She watched the ground as she moved through the airway, careful of where she put her feet.

The airway stretched the full length of the long house, providing insulation and protecting the wooden walls for damp and rot. More than half the distance from the curtain Salma entered, a dark shape stepped back, pressing itself against the wooden walls. In the darkness, the dim light of the lamp came steadily closer. The monster’s golden eyes tracked the light, and the sturdy hand that held it.

The filth saved Salma’s life. When the flickering light bounced off a stinking puddle, she stopped. The beast launched himself at her. With a clattered of chains, he jerked to a stop, his teeth inches from her throat.

A daughter of the north, Salma didn’t scream, but stepped back quickly and her free hand grabbed the hilt of her knife.

The beast stood revealed in the light of her lamp. A man’s body, but covered in a thick pelt of dark grey fur. The head a mix of man and beast, with golden eyes, and a muzzle filled with sharp teeth. His hands, held by thick chains bolted to the wall, had thick, dark claws in place of finger nails.

Salma gasped. She released her knife. Her wide eyes glittered with tears before she blinked them away. Coming out of her defensive crouch, she curtsied, her eyes fixed on a spot above the beast’s head. “Greetings, ulfsark.”

The beast growled again. They stood for a moment, unmoving. Then the beast relaxed. The arms stopped straining against the chains. The muzzle softened. The face shifted, the eyes taking on a human cast while keeping their bright gold color.

“It has been a long time since one of your kin feasted in my hall, warrior. I am sorry I cannot give you a proper welcome.”

“No one welcomes a monster.” The whisper was more growl than speech. He stepped back from her, turned to face the wall.

Salma stepped forward, coming within his reach. “I do not see a monster. How came you to my hall, ulfsark? Who did this?” Her finger brushed the chains that held him.

“The Bloodaxe brought me. If you do not heed him, he will loose me on your people.” He whirled, grabbing her arm, his claws digging into her skin. “Leave before I kill you. And listen to the Bloodaxe.”

She tilted her head. “I am a daughter of the northlands, ulfsark. I have faced death every winter of my life. I will fight you if I must. But I will not fear you.”

The claws retreated from her arm, though his hand never moved. The last of his muzzle disappeared into a human mouth. “How are you doing this?” fear flickered in his eyes.

“I told you, warrior. My hall has welcomed ulfsark and berserk many times. I am not a threat to you, nor do I fear you. What has the Bloodaxe done, to drive your wolf out of your control?”

He laughed. “Not the Bloodaxe. His father. Haraald Shockhair did what 15 years of battle could not.”

“And now he uses you as a tool of his conquest.”

“Yes.” He met her eyes, and his teeth hovered between fang and human. “Heed him, or more blood will soak my claws.”

She shook her head. “No.”

His hand tightened on her arm, claws once again dug into her flesh. “I could kill you now.”

“Or you could free me.”

He froze.

“Warrior. Help me escape the Bloodaxe, and I will help you. You can come with us, and you and your wolf will heal. You can own your life again.”

He stared at her. Tears shimmered in his eyes. Then he dropped her arm and turned away. “Go. When they do release me, I will try to make your death quick.”

Blood trickled down her arm. She reached toward him, then turned and walked away. Leaving the broken warrior standing in a pool of his own piss.


Some time ago I read an essay on evidence of PTSD in warrior myths. Among other things, the author explored evidence from Norse mythos that the berserk and ulfsark of legend might have been Norse warriors suffering from PTSD. Of course, the legends we have are incomplete and mostly recorded through later Christian writers. But he made a compelling case.

Of course, a few places in the myths say or imply that berserk and ulfsark were shapeshiters. I had to put the two together.

Harald Shockhair is the historical Norse lead/strongman/conquerer who united Norway into a single kingdom in the 10th century CE. He did so through a combination of threats, bribes, and outright conquest, driving many of the lesser kings and chieftains into exile in England or Iceland. Eric the Bloodaxe was his son.

Snippets: Hiatus Week 2

Expelled

“Out.” That was all they said, and suddenly Danne found himself ejected from the only home he had anymore. He had gone to the headmaster, hoping to plead for another chance. But the door refused to admit him.

He hadn’t meant to blow up the alchemy classroom. It just…happened. Just like he hadn’t meant to frighten all the pegasi when it was his turn to groom them. Or turn all the food rancid while helping make dinner. And he definitely hadn’t meant to put invisibility powder in the laundry instead of soap. Who leaves invisibility powder sitting around the academy laundry room anyway?

It didn’t make any difference. After three years and five mishaps, they were done with him.

With nothing else to do, Danne wandered down the dirt road that ran past the academy. Sooner or later, he’d come to a town—though he seemed to remember it had been a long way from the last town to the academy when he came here. NMIMY– No Mages In My Yard—was the popular sentiment in Carolia. And given his own mishaps, Danne couldn’t exactly blame them. But he’d need somewhere to sleep for the night…

“Are you done wallowing yet?” a voice squeaked in his ear.

“I’m not wallowing!” The little fire demon had started following him around his first week at the academy—and for some reason never left.

“Sure, sure. Cheer up. I didn’t think we’d make it out of there alive. It’s a good day.”

Danne flicked the creature off his shoulder. A moment later, the scent of scorched hair told him it had reappeared on his head.

“Yup, clear sailing from here. Gotta say: I’m impressed you stuck it out that long. Most cadets don’t last six months after management decides to get rid of them.”

Griffon

Content note: bigotry

Strong wings beat the skies, adding swirling gusts to the winds buffeting the Empire State Building. Zach kept a firm grip on his hat as he dropped down off the griffon’s back and dashed inside. Sara shook her head and followed him at a less hectic pace. Of course, she had been smart enough not to wear a hat. “Same time next week?” she called over her shoulder.

“Ssssssssss…. No, an hour after sun-high.”

Sara waved acknowledgment and slipped inside. Zach was gone, must have grabbed the first elevator.

Ten minutes later, the elevator dinged and the doors opened. Sara stepped out of the way as a half dozen suits hurried past. The griffon skybus wasn’t due for another hour, so they probably had a charter.

Sara hopped on the elevator and selected the first-level basement. With a bit of luck, Zach would have continued being an impatient git, and she’d be able to catch a scooter back to the office.

Of course, Zach was waiting for her in the company’s two-seater mini-auto. “What took you so long? I could have been back by now!” Sara rolled her eyes. Her long legs barely fit in the mini’s passenger seat.

“And once again, that was an utter waste of time. Why do we have to keep flying out there? Sending a telegram would do more good.”

“The dragons only deal in person.” The cool glass of the window felt good against her forehead.

Zach put the mini in gear and hit the gas. Sara closed her eyes after they zipped past a support column with inches to spare. “It’s stupid. All the protocol and dancing around. Why can’t they just make a deal, like normal people.”

On cue, a spike drove through Sara’s left temple. “Zach, you need to shut up. Now.”

“What? You know I’m right. If the dragons, and griffons, and all the others would just get with the modern world, we could have wrapped this up months ago!”

“Or maybe they have reasons for doing things their way. If we’d ‘wrapped this up months ago,’ we’d spend decades sorting out the problems caused by a rushed deal.” Stupid, stupid. Don’t engage. She should have learned that by now.

“I’m just saying, all the back and forth-ing and what not is completely unnecessary. Half a day gone, for what? A minor change in a single sub-clause? Who cares?”

That “minor change” would finally cement an alliance between two rival dragon clans that threatened the entire multi-species alliance. Sara ran a hand over her forehead. Ridges, damn it.

“If you have a problem with it, take it up with Craig. I don’t want to hear any more.” What had Craig been thinking assigning Zach to this job? She had been asking herself that three times a day for three weeks and never found an answer.

“What crawled up your butt all of a sudden? I’m just saying what we’re both think–”

Sara whirled towards him and grabbed his shirt, her claws ripping through the expensive cotton blend. He slammed on the brakes, and the car spun out, stopping just short of a parked van. Sara was passed caring. “What you have been saying, every week since you were assigned to this negotiation, is that you are a human-centric bigot who has no business on this team. Your refusal to even attempt to understand the cultures you are dealing with is noted. Your resignation is accepted. Tell Craig the next assistant he assigns me better not need air piped in through his belly button.”

She opened the door and climbed out of the mini. Checked herself in the van’s mirror. Crap. Full scales, yellow eyes, the works. “And tell him I’ll be out the next few days.” It would take that long to get her human face back on.

Highwayman

Content note: guns, threat of violence

John listened to the fool in the bus seat in front of him and grinned.

“It’s highway robbery, I tell ya! What they expect me to pay just for keeping the lights on. I mean what do they think we are? Made of money?”

The man’s $1000 Rolex glittered as he waved his hands in the air, emphasizing his outrage.

Out of the corner of his eye, John saw Ned, three rows forward, signal.

He reached into his jacket and checked the holster. Ned got up and walked forward to speak with the driver. John stood up, nodded to Lucy in the back of the bus. The drive was being smart, pulling over to the side of the highway.

John drew his gun. “Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm and no one will get hurt!”

Lucy started going up the aisle with a bag. “Just drop your valuables in the bag, and we’ll be out of your hair.”

John couldn’t help noticing the idiot with Rolex was clutching his watch. He leaned in and whispered to the man, “By the way, this is highway robbery. What your utility company is pulling is a monopoly. Which is way worse than what I’m doing to you now, you might want to write your congressman.”

Holy

Content note: religious content (Catholic)

“Holy, holy, holy.”

The ancient prayer rang out through the cathedral, nearly a thousand voices raised as one.

The sheer power of that much belief made the hair on Pal’s neck stand on end. He resisted the urge to shudder.

“Lord God almighty.”

All the sheep were focused on the alter and their Shepherd. They took no notice of him, standing by a chalk circle in an alcove that should have been filled with a saint’s statue and candles.

“Heaven and earth are filled with Your glory.”

With each verse, the power grew. Taking a deep breath, Pal scraped his foot across the drawn circle, breaking it. The tiny crystal talisman in the center reacted immediately. It drank down the power, gathering in all the belief, the faith, the power, the sheep had gathered to offer, in hopes the Shepherd would slaughter some other fools for Its meal.

No longer clear crystal, the talisman darkened. It gorged on power, and the power stained it a blue so dark it was black.

Pal ignored the rest of the prayer, absorbed in his casting. It finished as the last “Amen!” resounded through the ancient building.

Bending over, he scooped up the talisman. It was cool to the touch but heavy. Weighed down with the prayers and hopes and fears of all the people who had filled it.

Pocketing his trophy, Pal quietly slipped out of the cathedral. He knew a demon who would pay good money for a nice catch of faith.

Perplexed

Content note: Assault

Marie’s eyes narrowed as she saw Paul and a strange woman laughing and holding hands outside the movie theater. She stormed up to them and slapped him. Hard.

“What the hell!” Hand to his face, he growled at her, “Marie, what is your fucking problem.”

“Fuck you,” she said, “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on. My sister is marrying you next week, and you have the fucking balls to be out at the movies making kissy noises with someone else?”

The woman beside him suddenly started laughing. After a moment, Paul joined her.

“What’s so funny,” Marie demanded.

“Ah…” Paul’s laughing trailed off, “You know, I was sure this was gonna bite me in the ass, but I’m not allowed to tell you.” He shrugged a bit uncomfortably. “Call your sister, and she’ll explain.”

And they just started walking off. Marie stared after them in shock.

After a moment, she pulled out her cellphone, speed-dialed her sister, “Sis, I’m really, really sorry, but I gotta tell you. I think you need to call off the wedding. Paul is cheating on you… Yeah, yeah, I’m sure. I saw him coming out of the movie theater making kissy-face with some stranger… you mean you knew about her?… I… yeah, I guess we can talk later… I interrupted your DATE- but Paul was just… your boyfriend… BUT YOU’RE GETTING MARRIED!”


These pieces are mostly from a Second Life writing group I was in nearly 10 years ago. We got together once a day to write for fifteen minutes on a single word prompt. A good chunk of those prompts became scenes in The Bargain. But quite a few were just random brain firings that I’ve somehow managed to hold onto.