This review choked me up, I have to admit. It is such a wonderful feeling when somebody reads a story you’ve written and gets out of it exactly what you put in. I loved these two characters, Antu and Joshua, and their refusal to let themselves be snuffed out just when they were waking up to what life should have meant to them. Thank you Tricia for liking them too.
The weather was strangely warm for the end of October. Blustery winds shook showers of golden leaves from the trees that were only just beginning to turn. Songbirds still sang their summer songs but the wind snatched the tunes and scattered them among the branches. The sky, paler than summer blue was flocked with untidy cloud, strips and blotches of fuzzy white. Across the open spaces, purple buddleia spires nodded gently beneath the fluttering of butterfly wings.
The impetuous wind from the sea brought the smell of salt and ruffled the water on the river that the strong autumn tide swirled in an unappetising murk. Jim sat on a plastic mac spread on the damp grass and stared—at nothing anyone else could see. Before his face, willows and alders bent over the riverbank, but he saw nothing of their graceful tracery. The evening was bright, the fitful sun dappling the grass and sparkling on the wavetips, but he saw only darkness. And a pale face.
He had moved a long way from the place of his birth where his own dead walked. Back home, his mother would put a candle in the window after the vigil to light the lonely path from the road to her door. The trees around the farmhouse would be bare now, their leaves a damp puree, and the wind would have the cold bite of winter. She was welcome to her ghosts. This was not his country; here, the door to the otherworld opened to foreign dead. His dead were not beneath this soil.
He had come back reluctantly to this spot, on this day, just to be sure nothing had changed. The river ran over her face now, her body weighted down with heavy stones. She would lie on the river bed until there was nothing left of her, her bones picked clean by catfish. She had no grave, had nothing to rise from. No door would open to let her through. No one remembered her, no candle would shine to light her way home. He shivered and the pale face in his head opened wide eyes full of sorrow and puzzlement.
He gritted his teeth, refusing to let remorse take root. She had been a mistake. Unwanted. Lacking the sense to see that everything she did annoyed them. They had been perfect as a couple, needing nothing more, a circle; complete and sufficient. Then some foolish friends of Mary’s and her interfering old mother had persuaded her that her life was lacking in purpose. So the child had been born, and the mistake could not be indone.
Yet it was undone. They had undone it. Nothing was left now, no trace, no memories. Too young to have started school, the child was on nobody’s radar. Everything was as it had been before.
The light dimmed; the wind rose. Cloud thickened and covered the last brightness in the sky. He shivered again and prepared to go home, to Mary and the house that contained his world. He picked up the mac and shook the dampness from it, then folded it and pushed it into his backpack. The plastic crackled with the sound of breaking twigs. He listened. The river murmured and slapped against the bank. The wind hissed through the leaves with unsettling persistence. He listened harder and stiffened.
Mishka. Mishka. Mishka.
The wind whispered, the leaves fluttered and repeated the name.
The plastic mac crackled again, or else it was twigs shifting beneath a stealthy tread. He spun around. At his back now the river ran, a ribbon of darkness. Before him the trees of the river bank huddled thickly, swaying in the rising wind, their voices louder and more insistent.
He peered through the shifting darkness looking for the path, but the trees seemed to have moved and thick bushes grew where he was sure there had been nothing but scrubby grass.
He shouldn’t be outside at this hour. The coming storm had chased away the light and darkness had fallen too quickly, catching him unawares. He pushed into the bushes, his clothes snagging on brambles, tangling around his legs. He swore violently, as he tore his hands on the sharp spines. Wind bent the supple birch trees, lashing his face with spindly branches. And the voice of the wind was a low growl.
The wind had risen to a fury and he brought up his arms to shield his head from flying debris and plunged forward blindly. He could see no path away from the river; darkness was total. Total except for the glitter of eyes caught in a stray moonbeam. He froze as terror crept up his spine.
He put his hands over his ears but the wind, the leaves, the air hissed the name, over and over. He had buried the dog in the garden. Mishka had been attached to the child, had attacked him like a fury when…it was done. The dog had seen and would not forgive, so he had killed him and buried him in the garden. Mishka.
On this night graves opened and let the dead pass to this world. She had no grave, lying on the river bed.
Below the tumult of the wild wind he heard a snarl. She was nothing, just a heap of whitening bones washed by the ceaseless power of the river; she had no grave.
But Mishka did.
I published a story, well two stories, on ReadWave. It suggests I embed the link on my blog. Here it is, but WordPress bloggers don’t get more that the actual link, so here’s the picture that goes with Night Visitors.
Darksilvertree sent this link to Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge, to write a fantasy piece under 1000 words on one of five themes. The theme I chose was: a charming watchman is engineering the downfall of the Empire. Here it is.
Sigurd pulled himself lazily to attention. Dusk was falling; the long autumn night was beginning. Wulfgar Blood Hands tramped through the gates of his little kingdom, his huscarls in tow. As he passed, Sigurd presented him with one of his beaming smiles.
“All quiet out there, Wulfgar? No sign of the terror from the sea?”
Wulfgar glared through his thick brows. “Just keep your eyes peeled and your mouth shut, Sigurd.”
“I will watch the river like a hawk, silent as a dead dog.”
Wulfgar glared again, unsure if he was being mocked. Two of the huscarls pushed the gates closed and barred them with a heavy oak beam. Sigurd climbed up to the parapet that ran along the inside of the palisade, and took up his post.
The evening was calm, but cloud had bubbled up along the western horizon, where the river ran into the sea. Soon it would be dark, the lights in the night sky hidden behind raincloud. The wind would blow the narrow boats landward and hide the sound of the landing party. Sigurd chuckled to himself and looked down across the little burg with its untidy thatched houses, and the pigs rootling between them. Wulfgar had come to this place as a conqueror. He had driven away the tribe settled along the river and built his burg, thinking he had done a fine thing.
Sigurd found Wulfgar too funny to despise him, too stupid to defy. Wulfgar had never understood that the barbarians who lived along the river knew more than he ever would, should he live to be a hundred. The huts Wulfgar destroyed were flimsy, makeshift affairs without complicated defences, because the barbarians never intended to defend them. There had been no treasures kept in the huts by the river, no rich halls or temples. Those were in their settlement on a hill, much further inland, behind a high palisade of pointed stakes, behind a wide ditch filled with more pointed stakes. Long before Wulfgar, the raiders from across the sea had found the river, and no one left anything of value within the dragon ships’ reach.
Children ran here and there with sticks, driving the pigs into their pens for the night. An older girl tried to round up the children. Cattle lowed in the byres, and a group of drunken men called after the girl, making her duck and weave to avoid their wandering hands. Sigurd sat up, the grin wiped from his face. Elsa. His eyes followed the girl as she grabbed a small boy by the back of his shirt, calling out at two older ones to finish with the pigs and get themselves inside. The boy struggled. Elsa slapped him hard and he yelped. Sigurd nodded approvingly. Elsa had spirit. She would make a good wife.
He watched as she herded her brothers home. She stopped before the house door, and turned to scan the palisade. Her eyes lingered on the lone sentinel, and Sigurd could almost see the blush spread across her cheeks, feel her racing heart. He raised a hand in salute. Shyly, she waved back and disappeared through the door beneath the thatched eaves of the house. Sigurd would visit Heremod’s house later, when it was time.
Until then he watched the river, still gleaming faintly with the last of the daylight, and the sombre woods beyond. Beyond the bend in the river lay the sea, and on the sea were the narrow ships. A sharp smell made his nostrils twitch. He turned back to the huddle of wooden houses, his gaze instinctively resting on the hut on the edge of the burg, the völva’s hut. Smoke rose from the chimney hole, pale green and pungent. The freshening wind caught it and flattened it across the thatch, then snatched it away into the darkness. But Sigurd saw, and he knew what the old witch was up to.
* * *
Urdar threw another handful of dust, dried and ground nameless things, onto the fire. Her old eyes watered but she saw what she wanted to see. Narrow ships on the black sea: a red-haired chieftain in the prow of the largest. Clouds and rain, and Wulfgar’s hall with bloodied walls. Wulfgar with his huscarls about him, sleeping their last sleep. She saw other things in the smoke too. She saw her sister’s man stabbed while he slept. She saw her sister taken by Wulfgar’s men time and time again, until they slit her throat and ended it. She saw the baby stabbed in his cradle and the maid child stabbed as she ran screaming from the house. All that Urdar saw, without the help of magic.
* * *
The green smoke died, and Sigurd saw the wiry silhouette slip out of the door. He leapt down from the parapet and unbarred the gates. Urdar pulled up the cowl of her cloak as the first heavy drops fell, and looked at Sigurd from the depths.
“They are coming,” was all she said, and disappeared into the night.
Sigurd watched her leave, watched the silent river, and the trees beyond that sighed in the wind, listened to the rain clattering on the leaves. Only he heard the narrow ships riding up the strand, and boots crunching through the pebbles. Only he had been shown the vision in the flames, of the red-haired chieftain and his bloody sword. It was time to get Elsa.