#writephoto: What Lorcan said

A tale within a tale for Sue Vincent’s #writephoto writing prompt.

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“And the stone giant in a fury brought down his axe on the rascally Findbjörn, but he had slipped away and the axe only split the rock in two.”

The guide beamed at the group of school children, expecting to see similar expressions of delight on their faces. Instead they looked at one another and shuffled their feet. Gillie eventually spoke for them all.

“Then what? Stories don’t end like that. What happened to Findbjörn and the stone giant?”

“They went home for their tea,” Jason piped up from the back.

“Nah, they had football.” Ahmed cackled and there was more shuffling and a few guffaws.

Mrs Wilson looked at the guide with amusement, enjoying his confusion. He’d been a pain ever since he’d picked them up from the coach park. Dry as dust and boring as hell.

“G’wan then,” Lisa said. “Finish it.”

“There isn’t any more to the story,” the guide said sharply. “It’s just a legend, not history. It never happened.”

“I know the story.” It was the new boy, Lorcan who spoke. The other kids called him a Gypo, or Tinker if they were being friendly, but gave him grudging admiration because he was good at football and had lovely black curly hair.

“Tell us then,” Jason said, and all eyes fixed on Lorcan.

“Findbjörn stopped running when he got to the forest. Over there.” He pointed. “The giant pulled his axe out of the crack to swing for him again, but he’d split the rock right down to the centre of the earth where it’s molten rock, red and fiery. He’d disturbed the salamanders that live down there and they poured out, roaring like banshees, poured all over the stone giant and wrapped him up in their long tails and long necks until he glowed as red as they were. Then they dragged him down with them to the centre of the earth and the crack closed.”

Lorcan paused and the children looked at him expectantly.

“But it’s open now,” Lisa said. They all looked at the split rock and the shuffling began again. They hung on Lorcan’s words, spellbound.

“Because Findbjörn wouldn’t leave it alone. The salamanders grow jewels. They grow diamonds from raindrops and bits of stars, emeralds from new green leaves, and sapphires from bits of the sky. Where they live at the centre of the earth it’s full of ’em. They eat ’em and spit out the pips. That’s what miners dig out.”

“Pips?”

Lorcan nodded. “Jewel pips. But Findbjörn wanted some real gems, the big fat brilliant ones that the salamanders grow in the fire at the centre of the earth. So he got a pickaxe and he tried to open up the crack again.” He paused again. They were all listening, waiting for the dreadful end they could half-imagine. Even the guide. “The salamanders heard and at first they were angry. Then one of the salamanders looked around the fire orchards and noticed that they were low on rubies. So they raced up to the surface of the earth, quick as greyhounds, and they opened up the crack again, and grabbed Findbjörn.”

“To grow rubies?” Ahmed asked uneasily.

“They wrapped their long tails and long necks around Findbjörn and dragged him down back down with them and they didn’t let go until he glowed red as the inside of a fire, and until each drop of his blood had grown into a ruby.”

Gilly asked the question that was bothering all of them now. “So why’s the crack open again?”

Lorcan shrugged and looked at the guide. “It’s just a legend,” he said. “It’s not true. But they say that the crack opens when the salamanders need a bit of sky to grow sapphires, or because they’ve run out of emeralds or diamonds.”

“Or rubies,” Ahmed said and shuffled a few steps backwards.

There was a silence, the wind scattered dead leaves about and they watched as some of them blew over the lip of the cleft and disappeared inside. Mrs Wilson shivered and wrapped her arms about herself. She looked at the sky, then at her watch. “I think it’s time to be getting back to the coach.”

It wasn’t and they all knew, but nobody felt like hanging about any longer. Nobody except the guide. Perhaps because he didn’t believe in fairy stories, or because he had heard, as the children had done, the distant sound of salamanders singing, he went back to the Giant’s Axe-Blow, much later when the centre was closed. Just to have a closer look, he told himself. And if he did, that would explain why he was never seen again.

Flash Fiction: Pebbles

This is my response to this lovely but strange Pre-Raphaelite painting. Bear with me; it’s a long one.

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Long ago and far away, a rich young man bought a ship to go on an adventure. He hired a captain who hired a helmsman who spread the word and got together a crew of oarsmen. The rich young man invited his friends with stories of the sights they would see, the fights they would fight, the prizes they would win. On the other side of the sea, he told them, was a sorceress who turned men into pigs, a golden fleece guarded by a dragon, there was a labyrinth inside a mountain where a bull-headed man devoured young men and women, there was a serpent-haired monster whose gaze turned to stone, there were monstrous raptors with the faces of women. There were wild women who sang and danced and tore men apart with their bare hands, there were beautiful young women strapped to rocks in the sea for monsters to devour, there were ugly old women with only one eye between them. There were lots of women, in fact, to be killed or to be carried off as prizes.

The young men’s betrothed begged them not to risk their lives on such a reckless and unnecessary quest. They had no need of riches, they could fight battles with their neighbours if they wished, and they each had a young woman willing to marry them. Why risk their lives so foolishly? But the young men were adamant. They would have a whale of a time and their names and their exploits would go down in history. The girls sighed and waved them off, and prepared to mope along the shoreline for years and never marry at all.

The young men found all the adventure they could handle, rescuing girls from the jaws of sea monsters, from labyrinths, and from being handed over as tribute to monsters and tyrants. The girls thanked them and asked to be allowed to go home, but the young men just laughed and stowed them away in the ship’s hold as booty. The young men found all the battles they could wish for, killing blind old women, sick women cast out by townsfolk to die, deformed and miserable women. Before they turned for home, they vowed they would track down the mad young women who ripped apart the handsomest young men of the region. They would avenge the murders with the usual rape and enslavement. They followed the wild singing and dancing along the seashore until they came to a cave.

“Within, you will find your greatest adventure,” the leader of the wild women shouted as she leapt the rocks above the cave. You will find a monstrous woman whose death will bring you the gratitude of all the kings of the region, and they will pay you tribute of gold and slaves every year for as long as you live.”

The rich young man who was the leader looked at his friends and declared, “I will go into the cave and kill this woman, and then we will take her head to the nearest palace and claim our reward.”

His friends sat down on the shore and waited. They heard the sound of cursing as he blundered about in the dark, and the swish as his sword sliced through the air before him. It was not long before they heard his victorious cry and the sound of him slipping and sliding his way back to the daylight.

“I have it! The monster’s head,” he shouted and held up the head with its writhing coils of serpents for his friends to see. Naturally, they were all turned to stone. The young man was struck with horror and did not see the birds with women’s faces that swooped from the rocks above and snatched the head from his grasp. He reached after them in anger, and the birds hovered, turning the serpent-framed face to gaze down at him with dead eyes. In an instant, he was just another pebble among the pebbles of his friends. The sailors who had seen the tragedy from the ship immediately shipped oars and made their way home.

When the news of the terrible fate that had befallen their sons reached them, their fathers sent for the young women, their sons’ betrothed.

“By your fault our sons have been turned to stone. If you had been more beautiful, more accomplished, more placid and docile they would never have gone looking for their pleasure abroad. You will scour the sea shore until you find our sons and bring them back to us.”

So, at every new tide, the girls searched among the pebbles left by the waves for a sign that one of them was her betrothed. They searched, though the young girls became mature women, then bent and stooped with age, but they never found a single stone that was any brighter and more intelligent than the rest.

 

Microfiction: Dancing girls

Another long one. It’s a fairy story, so I have an excuse.

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Joris led Snowstorm through the pale light that preceded the dawn back to the cottage on the edge of the forest. The seven dancers were mortally weary; their shoes, the soles worn right through were left behind, and all they wanted was sleep. The youngest was already half-asleep in his arms before the old horse reached the door and stopped with a quiet snort. The six girls slid from his back, and without a word slipped inside and into their beds. Joris followed, laid the sleeping Septa in her little cot and closed the door.

When Snowstorm was settled back in the barn, Joris sat on the kitchen garden wall to watch the last of the stars go out. He wondered how long he would be called upon to ferry the seven sisters back and forth to every ball held by the young king in his castle by the river. He wondered how long he would be able to carry Una the eldest, his secret beloved, to the castle full of glittering nobles and the roving eye of the young king who had yet to find a wife. Not that the king would ever marry Una. But he was young and lusty and he kept in practice for the wife he had yet to find with a bevy of concubines.

Joris frowned and sighed. The woodcutter’s daughters and their passion for dancing would be the death of him. Not that it was their fault. A curse tossed on the golden head of each newborn baby was responsible. They would dance and dance every night the dance called them, until their shoes wore out and their dresses of gossamer and gold thread were in tatters. Every morning, a new pair of shoes and a new dress lay at the bottom of each bed and every night, the dancing would begin again.

Una had begged him to bring them safe home, and he had not been able to refuse. But now he wondered, thinking of how pale and tired she looked, how diaphanous was her skin, thin her limbs, whether she and her sisters were not dancing themselves into the otherworld. It was time to make an end, before they faded away from this world altogether, or before some noble captured each one and put her in a golden cage. Joris would break the spell in the only way he could think of.

Instead of going to his own bed above the barn, he let himself back into the house and hid underneath a pile of sacking in the corner by the door. As the last star winked out and the first ray of sun peeped over the horizon, a wisp of smoke crept beneath the door, swelled and took the form of a woman. Over her arm she carried a pile of delicate dresses and in her hand she held seven pairs of dancing shoes by their golden laces. Before she could leave them by the beds of the sleeping girls, Joris leapt out from his hiding place, his knife in his hand, grabbed the woman by the hair and pulled back her head. Her eyes were wide with surprise and he recognized Sarassine, the sister of the girls’ dead mother. Barren and childless, she had never looked on her nieces since their birth in her jealousy. Steeling himself for what he had to do, he raised the knife to her throat.

“Spare me,” she screamed.

The girls leapt from their beds.

“What are you doing?” Una asked in horror.

“Freeing you from your curse,” Joris replied, through gritted teeth.

“Not like this,” Una said and gently, took the knife from his hand.

Sarassine covered her face and wept. The woodcutter stumbled out of his alcove next to the hearth and his face blanched.

“Maissa,” he whispered.

Sarassine shook her head. “If only I were my sister. Even in her grave she is more fortunate than I am.”

“You look so like her,” the woodcutter murmured.

“If you would let me,” she began in a hesitant voice, “I would stay and take her place.”

The woodcutter took her hands and looked into her eyes and saw the misery that had pushed her to curse the children she wished had been hers. He smiled and said, “I would let you, with all my heart.”

Una whooped with joy and took Joris in her arms. “And I would stay with you, if you will have me.”

“With all my heart,” he replied and kissed her long and deep.

Secunda, Terza, Quadra, Quinta, Sixta and Septa clapped and pushed back the table to dance, but the dancing shoes and the gossamer flocks had blown away like golden mist. With great peals of laughter, they danced in their bare feet until the woodcutter called for his breakfast, the cows bellowed to be milked, and the pigs squealed to be let out, and they never went near the young king’s castle again.

Microfiction: Far far away

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“No land, no house, for second sons,” Sholto’s older brother said when their father died. “And if you want a wife you look for one in the golden city where they say the girls bring a dowry of their weight in gold.”

His brother laughed when Sholto picked up his few possessions and turned his face to the east, and his back to his old home. After many days of walking, he reached the edge of the moors and gazed across the mist-filled gulf to the purple mountains. There, in the distance, the golden city flashed and glittered. Only then did his resolve falter. It looked so far away. He sat down wearily and took out his last piece of bread.

“When this is gone, I will surely starve,” he said aloud.

“Share your bread with me and I will show you where to get more,” said a soft voice behind him.

“Who are you?” he asked the girl with golden hair and bare feet.

“Hungry,” she said and grinned.

Sholto grinned back and broke the bread in half.

When they had finished he asked the girl how she proposed finding their next meal.

“Like this,” she said, and dropped a round stone into her bag. “Look.” She put in her hand and pulled out a fresh round loaf.

Sholto’s eyes opened wide in astonishment. As they ate the fresh loaf of bread, he told the girl how his brother had sent him to the golden city to look for a wife. The girl held out her hand.

“Will you have me?”

“Gladly,” he said, “But my brother won’t let me back home except as his servant, and I have no money.”

“Never mind,” the girl said with a laugh. “In the golden city we will never want as long as I have this magic bag, and there is work and happiness in plenty for men and women with willing hands and loving hearts.

So Sholto took the girl’s hand, and together they walked across the valley of mists and climbed the purple mountain to the city that glittered golden in the sun.

Microfiction: The spring dance part III

Painting ©Bjørn Krogstad

Blomster_i_skogen_(Katyn)

 

Beyond the hazel thicket ran a stream full of bright pebbles and silent brown trout. The fox bounded across, where large flat stones lay just beneath the silvery surface. The girl splashed after him, and the trout slid away. Overhead, the branches hung low and heavy; the light dimmed. Blue black fox slid into the shadows, and the little girl hurried after him.

Follow, said the wolf.

Keep up, murmured the rose.

The girl pushed through a veil of wild clematis, the fluffy seeds tickling her nose, and she caught her breath. The fox was lying, belly to the ground, in a brown glade where no grass grew, only a clump of pale, mushroom-coloured flowers, leafless and pallid. His luxuriant brush stretched out behind him and his ears pricked forward as if he were listening.

The girl crept closer, her feet making no sound on the damp earth. She felt the sadness in the air, the sorrow that fell from the pale blooms, and she thought of the rose.

Why are they so sad? she asked. Where is their scent and their brightness?

The fox’s tail twitched.

Gone, ­he said. Drained through their roots, leached into the sterile soil beneath.

The little girl shuffled her feet and looked down at the brown earth. In the distance a wolf howled, a vixen barked, and a jay flew shrieking beneath the low branches.

Heal it, the fox said.

Find a way, the wolf said.

Make them see, said the rose.

The little girl nodded solemnly. I will. If it takes my whole life.