Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Steps of Hope

     Artis was fair, even among the fay. Beneath a crown braided with ribbons the colour of a summer sky, her curls were as pale and golden as the sun and drifted like silk on the breeze. The skin they caressed was as pure as milk, the cheeks they framed were as pink as a rose, and the eyes they shaded were as rich as forget-me-nots.
    But for all the shepherdess's beauty, she was not as vibrant as once she'd been.
    Across those rolling hills, silver streams and sparse, sun-bathed trees, her eyes stared numb for miles, and she stood atop that old, drystone wall like a figure of forgotten porcelain. She barely moved but for the breeze tugging at her skirts, and her attention remained fixed to the horizon, searching, as it always was, for sight of her lost lover.
    It had been years - not too many, by the mind of the sun, but more enough to change her - since she'd seen Arlen chase off after the stray lamb. She'd given it little thought at the time; sheep wandered, sometimes too far, and their enchanted fleeces would be a dangerous prize among mortals. Strays were worth chasing down.
    But he hadn't come back.
    She couldn't remember when concern had set in, nor when concern had changed to panic, and panic into a lifeless patience. But loss had never gripped her, not truly. Every day, she stared and wandered, peering into the distance for sight of his return.
    That summer's day was no different.
    Artis stepped off of the wall, startling her adoring sheep, and drifted out into the endless hills, wandering blindly while her flock trotted and bounced along beside her. There was little hidden from the sun between her and the horizon, just scattered fluffs of snow-white sheep speckling the hills, while the rich scent of grazing, rustle of leaves and lazy trill of songbirds tinted the air a dozen different colours.
    But she didn't notice them. Nor the faintest music on the breeze, nor the grass beneath her feet, nor the weight of another shepherd's eyes watching her from a rock on the streamside.
    But Silvius often watched her; the shepherd's stare was nothing new. It was so mundane, in fact, that she'd never noticed it at all. All Artis knew of Silvius was his magnificent skill with his pipes. He played for the fay, leading their céilí by melody while she led them by step. But that was all she noticed of him.
    Though she never heard it, he would sigh wistfully into the breeze whenever she passed by, and the tunes he played upon his pipe fell deeper into melancholy. And in those melodies, drifting on the air, she heard only the sounds of her heartbreak until her feet carried her out of its reach.

    For all her wandering, there was only one place Artis would stop while her flock spread out to graze, and it was in the shade of that hilltop rowan that her arms lifted and wrapped about herself in comfort. But her eyes never stopped searching. From here, the last place she'd seen her beloved, she continued to watch the horizon.
    Hours would pass before she moved again - but this time a curious bleat drew her from her cloud of thought, and she watched as one lamb wandered away from the rest, enraptured by something in the distance.
    Her heart shuddered as her eyes followed it, and her stare sharpened to that of a hawk's. But whatever had captured the lamb's attention remained silent and unseen. It was a mystery.
    And so the flicker of hope that she'd nursed and encased inside her heart exploded immediately into a searing fire.
    She ran the moment the lamb did, her bare feet glancing over grass while the creature's little hooves thudded their way ahead, moving faster than any lamb should - so fast, it fell out of sight in moments.
    But Artis ran on and on, the raging of her heart and the hope firing her muscles carrying her even past the point of exhaustion, and like a wind she covered several hills with Arlen growing clearer and clearer in her mind. Her eyes were wider than they'd ever been, and they saw the least they had in years. A smile even graced her lips.
    She had no idea how far she'd run, but she would run as far as she had to, as far as her feet could carry her, and then she'd run farther still.
    The same curious bleat rose suddenly from up ahead, clearer and louder this time, and she threw herself after it, tripping over herself while her smile grew wider and tears prickled her eyes, until she reached the top of the hill. There, the wind whipped past her ears, tangling her hair and pulling at the ribbons in her braids while her breath burned in her chest, but her eyes didn't stop scouring the area.
    Buttercups and grazing sheep dotted the slope that rolled away below, and her gaze tumbled after it to the stream winding around its base, and, finally, the figure sitting upon a rock at its side.
    The water glittered brighter through her tears.
    Until the wind died away, and the sound of pipes drifted towards her in the lull.
    Silvius's sorrowful melodies, steeped in shades of grey and lilac, smothered her flame back into a meek and sputtering flicker, and renewed in a moment the power of her heartbreak. The forlorn melodies, anguish and hope intertwined...his music brought to mind Arlen, only Arlen, and the vaguest wisp of a direction, like the dust drifting from an old and overgrown trail.
    Dust that settled every time she tried to take just one step out towards it, concealing the path once more.
    Then, as the last grain settled, a sudden certainty came crashing in: she would never find him. It was a certainty she turned away from, numb, any time it caught her eye. Because to give up hope was to give up on him. And to give up on him... Her heart wouldn't let her.
    Her eyes, filled with the tears of a loss she refused to acknowledge, turned up towards the beaming sun, and she embraced the ache of the music. In spite of that certainty, she began to dance.
    Her attention fell to the soles of her feet, to the feel of the grass, the small stones, and the roots beneath them, and she threw herself into it while other shepherds and shepherdesses arrived over the hills from all directions, called by the sun, drawn by the pipes, and moved by her steps.
    For all the love Silvius poured into his music while he watched her dance, the melodies only scorched her heart.
    And she would keep waiting in spite of it.

This story was written for Istaaire, who owns all the characters and their histories.
This story is not to be copied without both my permission, and Istaaire's.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Little Dragon

   Through the glittering surface of the dark, azure water, down past the constant tug of the current, beneath the reach of shimmering shafts of light, where the pebbles twitched and the green fronds swayed. The roar from the mountains penetrated even here.
   The tiny wyrm froze in fright at the vibration, before a gentle hum softened the water around it.
   "Do not panic, my little dragon. It is not a sound you will hear often."
   The wyrm turned back towards its mother as she coiled her long, serpentine body tighter into her rocky nook, and lay her great head down beside him among the waving stems of reeds. The same current that tried to pull him away merely tugged at the fronds on her chin. The duckweed didn't stir far above them.
   "Their story is your story. It is time I tell you, and you shall heed it well. For the good of all of us."
   The wyrm settled and watched as the light played over her scales.
   "Eons ago, dragons were abundant. We ranged through swamps, caves, deserts, seas, forests, jungles and ice. There was nowhere we could not live and adapt to, and the world was our kingdom for millennia. We saw the rise and fall of many creatures, and few of those who survive today are anything like they used to be. But we dragons have not changed so much. We have always been the kings and queens. We fit the world perfectly. It was made for us.
   "But in time, deep time, another creature - a wingless, puny creature - arrived and took offence. A creature that cannot adapt, and instead changes the world to adapt to them. In their eyes, our perfection made us a threat, and they began to hunt us. First, because they feared us. Then because they wanted our scales to wear, as if they could become like us, and be perfect like us. Then, for nothing but sport. Hundreds upon thousands of us have fallen for the sake of their glory."
   The wyrm jolted at a splash from the bank. The serpent lifted her heavy head and watched the beaver swim past. She didn't bother even to snap at it, and lay her chin back down.
   "And they learned. They hunted us in mating season, the most dangerous time they could - that was the thrill. The excuse. But we were then also our most vulnerable. We dragons are tied to our nests." Another hum rumbled through the water, and she twitched her fronds in amusement. "But this is how we river wyrms survived where others fell.
   "Dragons are ancient, as I have said, and we have never had reason to hide. Many make spectacles of themselves in the skies for mates and territory. Water dragons, however, do not. Nor do we breathe fire or fumes. And so few have thought to look for dragons by the water, and we in turn keep away from where along the rivers the creatures make their homes.
   "But one of our kind could see what the rest could not. She knew the creatures would expand their territory, just as we did, and we would either be seen, or cut off from one another, unable to breed. Our species would die out either way. And we could not fly away to safer waters like others could to mountains, nor survive on so little in the drowned caverns.
   "Suryū knew all of this, and when they were seen along the banks of her river, she acted.
   "But she did not kill them like others did. She stalked, and she learned. And when breeding season came with the rains, she made her nest among the reeds, and she laid - sooner than anyone else."
   A glint of silver caught the serpent's eye. Stretching her small, paddle-shaped wings, she adjusted the current passing over her, raised her head, bowed her neck, snapped, and struck. The fish was gone in an instant.
   The little wyrm snatched at one far smaller. She rumbled in pride again.
   "Suryū's eggs were small, and the water she breathed over them, warmed in her belly, was a puff rather than a jet. She knew they might well not survive with such treatment. But it was a calculated risk, and, ten days later, those small eggs, tangled in algae, did indeed hatch. The small, stiff little things were nothing like dragons, and jerked about in the water, tiny and helpless. They did not survive. They could not. They were nothing familiar, and were eaten by other clutches.
   "Suryū tried again the following season, and though these grew bigger, they did not survive, either. Many were caught in fishing nets instead. But she did not tire." She turned her head, and peered at him a little closer with one great turquoise eye. "You, little dragon, are a product of much toil.
   "It was in the seventh season that Suryū perfected her clutch, with hatchlings familiar enough to go uneaten, big enough to defend themselves, small enough to slip through nets, and fast enough to catch their own prey. This seventh clutch survived, and she passed her success on to the rest of us to follow her lead for the good of our kind. Many did not, believing we should not sully our lineage, that our 'kind' would not be our kind anymore. But there is a good reason that there are so many more of you today than there are of them.
   "But the deception alone was still not enough. The waters were still not safe. River wyrms had been discovered, and our numbers shrank rapidly. This clutch still looked nothing like their mother, but how long would it be before the deception was discovered, and the puny, offended creatures imagined a new threat?
   "So Suryū taught her hatchlings to weave wings of water and spider silk where their paddles should have been. She taught them to break through the water and move across its surface on six tiny legs. She taught them to fly, thrown up by small jets of water until those delicate wings took over. Then, one day, when they had learned all she could teach them, they perched on grass and reed and looked down at her through the water, and with a final bow of her great head, she sent them flying off downstream."
   She chuckled once more. "You might well wonder. Why fly when it was the downfall of the other dragons? Because they, like you, were small enough to slip through nets. No arrow could hit them, and they cast no shadows when they flew. If eyes were looking in the water, far better to be above it.
   "You will be too, one day. And when you do, my little dragonfly, make for the vast ocean. Lay and breed your young in the streams and rivers along the way, and tell them this story. And when you, or they, or their young, reach at last the endless sea, land yourself amid the rising coils of steam and bubbles." She closed her eyes and nudged him softly with her snout, humming softly into the current. "Our cousins await your return."

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Book Birthdays! [free books and short stories]

Today marks the birthday of The Zi'veyn and The Sah'niir! And, because I like to take book birthdays a little too seriously, I've gotten organised for the first time since Corona struck!

     The Zi'veyn is available for free on Kindle until August 5th!
Search 'The Zi'veyn' on your preferred Kindle store
or hit one of the links below for the most common stores:
UK    US    Can    Aus    NL

Otherwise, here's my schedule for the month, including both Patreon and public posts:

1st: 'One Öre' (short story) released on Patreon Archivist tier
1st-5th: The Zi'veyn free on Kindle
4th: New and quite different illustration
8th: 'It's Just Business' (short story) released on Patreon Archivist tier
13th: Artwork compilation on Patreon, all tiers
15th: 'One Öre' made available to everyone else
15th-19th: The Sah'niir free on Kindle
20th: Artwork compilation available to everyone else
22nd: Sneak-peek of Veysuul's cover for Patreon only, all tiers
22nd: 'It's Just Business' made available to everyone else
27th-31st: Hlífrún free on Kindle