The Great Challenge Week 4

This is the story I submitted for Week 4 of The Great Challenge. A 52 week challenge put on by Dean Wesley Smith at WMG Publishing in which I must submit a short story of 2,000 to 15,000 words every week. I will leave this story up until about Friday next week, then likely take it down and make it available as an eBook on Amazon.

Last week’s story will soon be available as an eBook on Amazon, follow my Amazon Author Page to be notified as soon as it is:

Stories from Week 1 & 2 are also available purchase on Amazon:

The Fragrance of Sedition

I heard it told once that there is a change that occurs in Vellum when it is prepared for use in incantation writing. This change causes a new substance to develop that lets off a beautiful fragrance. Then, when a good Incant Scripter adds their designs to the paper, or the papyrus or the parchment, whichever it maybe, it adds another intricacy to the fragrance.

It is a believable thing to me; I thought as I walked through the aromatic aisles in the Vellum Emporium. My fingers trailed over each shelf, following their rows through the store, the ridges in the woodgrain rippling under my skin. Intermittently my fingers would snag on the corner of an errant Vellum sticking out further than it should.

            Searching the shelf with careful pats I straightened the paper until the entire self was a row of perfect piles. Like the square-hewn rocks in my grandmother’s garden. I continued past the shelf, it didn’t have what I wanted.

            A bell rang and I knew another shopper had joined me in the Emporium. She engaged in conversation with the Velleur (a craftsman of parchment, papyrus and paper), he was eager to seat her in luxury and bring trays to her, presenting them with poetic descriptions of their merits.

            It interested me, how each Incant Scripter had his or her own methods and I assumed style. I couldn’t say for sure if we had differing styles, never having seen the works of another. Scripters only scripted, they were not to read or use anyone else’s scripts.

            Enactors could read any script they got their hands on, some were costly though and held close by their enclaves. When a good Enactor read out a script and applied their power to it, the script came to life, some beautiful, some only practical. The knowledge Enactors used in their works was as foreign to me as the works of other Scripters.

            I stopped at the next shelf and breathed in, I sighed out the scents that swirled and caressed my cheeks and nose. This wasn’t the shelf either.

            The melodious tones of my fellow Scripter floated through the shop, bouncing off walls and stroking the pages stacked on each shelf. I scowled, my eyebrows furrowing and the pointed tips of my ears pressing towards my skull. She would do well to speak in hushed tones, otherwise she would spoil the fresh canvas that each page in the Emporium offered to Scripters.

            I lifted one page that her voice had touched and pressed it to my cheek. I brushed it against my skin and closed my eyes. It was unspoiled, unmarred. She was not very powerful than. There were some Scripters sensitive enough they made their own pages for their scripts.

            While I was sensitive, I had been able to get away with shopping in respectable Emporiums and always taking the bottom page, or pages that had been sealed due to their impressionable natures. However, I always spoke sparingly in the Emporiums, out of respect for the Velleurs that ran them.

            A sunbeam broke through a window and touched the crown of my head. I closed my eyes and felt the warmth, like the hand of my grandmother resting on me. Memories of my grandmother and sunshine belonged together. Her and grandfather had been skilled Fleurers, their hands always in the soil, always breathing in the scents of their garden.

            My childhood had been spent in their garden.

            “Omia,” I’d whine the Fae word for grandmother, “my sisters are teasing me again.”

            “What now Rosebud?” she would ask, using her pet-name for me.

            “They pull my braids and tell me I am a shame. I can offer nothing to my family because I cannot read and my thumbs are brown.” My family heritage was all Fleurers and Enactors.

            “Did you speak to your mother?”

            The question brought a feeling a desperation. Was Omia going to agree with Mother and tell me to obey her?

            “She said I was to be the mature one, ignore what they say and stay out of their way.”

            “Well, that’s ridiculous. You’re their younger sister, they should be told to act their age.” I cried with relief. The sound of Omia’s shears snipping at her rosebushes stilled, I felt her arms wrap around me like a summer breeze, “I am sorry such weight was placed on your shoulders, Rosebud. Come, I will wash up and take you somewhere special today. A secret outing for the two of us.”

            Omia took me to a Vellum Emporium. The Velleur had been very old, a friend of hers perhaps. I could smell the years in his long hair and he allowed me to run my fingers around the tips of his wizened ears and across his wrinkled brow. Then, he took one of my hands, folded my pinky, ring finger, and middle finger down, and pressed my index finger to my lips.

            I nodded, slowly, even at that young age understanding the solemnity he begged of me. He took me down each row, my favourite shelf being the one that was broken by a velvet cushion. My hand slid across the cushion’s slick surface one direction, and snagged on its fibers the other direction. It felt much like the tongue of the cat who curled up there and slept. The spot carefully chosen for the sunbeams cascading from a high window and landing there all hours of the day.

            My feet moved over the creaking hardwood floors of his Emporium. He guided me with gentle touches on the shoulder or elbow. I found myself in a corner, where the lower shelves, the ones at my height, were full of leatherbound books.

            Unable to stop myself, because the notebooks called to me, their siren song drowning out the purring of the cat on the velvet cushion. When my hands paused on one notebook the man smiled. I could tell because there was a huff of air, a foreshadow of laughter but the laughter never came, because he didn’t dare taint his wares with a sound.

            His old hands moved mine aside so he could lift the notebook. I wanted to cry when it was gone from my palms. But when he opened it and fanned the pages beneath my nose I did cry, because the scents that exploded out from each page sang an incredible song.

            A song of liberty. A song of strength and freedom. A wild song that could not be tamed by fear or tempered by good sense. Hope. Purpose. A calling.

            I took the notebook from him and ran my hand down the first page. It was blank, not like the reference books in my father’s library. The only books I was allowed to touch. Those pages had scratches and grooves in them.

            This page, it was sacrosanct. Untouched. Whole and holy. I gasped when I felt a tear fall from my face and it marred the page. In a moment of reflex I lifted a shoulder and turned from the man and Omia, who had followed our journey through the Emporium noiselessly.

            Her reassuring hand on my shoulder told me it was alright. Then I felt a nod quiver down her arm and into the fingers that rested on my collarbone. The man huffed his smile again and pushed the notebook deeper into my hands. I closed it, locking my tear of joy between its covers for the rest of time.

            Wrapping my arms around it I held it against my chest like a dear friend in a long-missed hug. My grandmother led me out of the shop and as we left, the doorbell ringing behind us, I cracked the notebook open.

            On instinct alone I pushed my nose into the pages and I whispered, “You are mine. You have the fragrance of destiny. Of a GOOD life, a life well lived, and I claim you for myself.”

            I never had issues with my sisters again. Every morning I took my cane and made my way down the road to Omia’s house. There I spent my days in her garden or in the attic at the top of her narrow house. It had a little balcony that hung over her garden. There I sat with my notebooks, filling them with Incant Scripts.

            Omia had a tutor come once a week to explain the laws of Scripting to me. Plus the small rules of etiquette, such as silence in a Vellum Emporium, and never touching the Vellum of another Incant Scripter. The most important thing I had to remember was this: Scripters were to create Incant Scripts that upheld the core values of our society.

            To glorify HE who Created us.

            To Uphold the TRUTH

To SERVE those less fortunate.

            To SHARE Prosperity with ALL.

            Secondary to that was this: As a Scripter I must ONLY Script. I was to never Enact the Scripts I wrote. This was implemented to act as a check on my influence and power. It kept corrupt Scripters from creating dark Scripts and then Enacting them.

            It was also why Enactors and Scripters were kept so isolated from each other. I’m not sure when my isolation from my Enactor sisters began, it was a gradual progression that seemed to begin in childhood every time my mother told me to bear their taunts in silence.

            When grandfather passed away I moved in with Omia to keep her company. When she passed I hired a Fae couple from one of the lesser houses. She was inclined as a Keeper, and he was inclined as a Fleurer. So he cared for my grandparent’s garden and she cared for their home. And I spent my days touring the Vellum Emporiums for the perfect Vellum for my Scripts, or tucked away in my study pouring my heart and soul onto the pages I brought home.

            I jumped when a small animal bumped against my ankles. Its plush fur clung to my skirts. Any other day I would have knelt to sink my hands into its luxurious coat and revel in its purring song. Today though, I had found the perfect Vellum for an incredible Script.

            Audrei, the Keeper of my house, had been struggling with depression. There was pain in her past that weighed her down and kept her from feeling joy and freedom. She’d lost a baby a year earlier and the depression deepened. I mourned for her because there was little I could do to free her.

            I intended to write a script for her, one that would free her from the dark cloud of despair that shadowed her heart. For it, I needed a script with the fragrance of liberty. An aroma that made your mind soar with possibilities. It was so suiting that I found it on this window-facing shelf in the warm hope of a sunbeam.  

            My hands floated above the shelf, I let them tickle each Vellum on it. When I felt the one that tickled back, I lowered my hands and picked up the top piece. Raising it to my nose I breathed in deeply.

            The possibilities in this sheet of Vellum were so vast I could almost see it. Except my mind had no concept of what sight was, so instead it was a feeling, with the weight of a hug, leaving you comforted but alone again, and the glory of a belly laugh, leaving you exhausted but delighted. This could be the cure for depression, I couldn’t see how it wasn’t.

            There was one last test. It needed to taste sweet, not like victory, but like a lick of ice cream on a hot day. Only the very tip of my tongue brushed against the edge of the Vellum. I jerked back, it was sharp and it had stung. The flavour was, bitter. Like consequences after doing the right thing. They weigh heavy because you had no other moral choice. The only thing more bitter than the consequences was the guilt if you hadn’t done it.

            The tips of my ears dug into my skull. If I didn’t have years of practice in my discipline I would have cursed the Vellum and let it fall to the floor. I smacked my lips and scraped my tongue over my teeth to try and rid myself of the taste. It stuck with me though.

            I had to accept this Vellum. Like my first notebook so many years earlier this Vellum was placing a demand on me. It was placing a call on me. I heard an old Velleur say once that the demand for different types of Vellum was cyclical.

            Was I seeing the turnaround of a cycle in my lifetime? I placed the Vellum back on its sister sheets. Scripters could take as many sheets as they thought they may need for a Script. I trailed my fingers down the side of the stack. A pit formed in my stomach, this was a large stack. The urgency hummed through the Vellum, up from the bottom of the stack, and into my hands. Already I could feel my throat warming to the task of speaking my Scripts onto the pages.

            This Vellum was not suitable for an anti-depressant script though. This Vellum was meant for something much bigger. Something world-shaking. I didn’t know that for sure, because I have never Scripted something that big, but I had Scripted some larger things before and this was so much bigger than any of them that I could only imagine.

            My lungs felt ready to burst, they also were preparing for the task ahead of me. I closed my eyes and pulled the stack of Vellum to my chest. Every last page called to me, begging for their story to be written, for their truth to be brought to the surface. I walked to the counter, memory guiding every step without once brushing against any of the shelves or table between where I found the Vellum and the waiting Velleur.

            He took the Vellum from me and placed it on the scale. He scratched something into his records. Packing paper rattled as he folded it around the stack of Vellum, and the large metal spool of cotton twine sounded like a coffee grinder as it turned.

            The Velleur pressed the package into my hands. I cocked one ear and he whispered with mirth in his voice, “She went out while you were studying this stack. Thank goodness, she sure was chatty for a Scripter.”

            I rolled my eyes at him and grinned with half my mouth. He huffed again and with a cordial hand on my elbow helped me to the door. For the dozens of times I’d visited his Emporium through the years I still didn’t know his name, that was how little we conversed, but our silence was companionable.

            My mind was focused on the package, now tucked under my arm while I prepared to use my cane to navigate the walk home. So, when he spoke again it was jarring.

            “You’ve been coming to this shop for years Caecilya, always very intent, and I’ve been trying to work up the courage to ask if I might call on you.”

            I froze. Was he? I turned so my elbow shifted from his grip. The heat from his body radiated towards me. The years had prepared him for my silent questions. I didn’t dare speak in his Emporium.

            “Yes, I wish to call on you, our family houses would greatly benefit from an alliance.” It didn’t sound romantic, while the prestige of our people and the vast time we spent on artistic pursuits suggested a romantic people, we weren’t. Most powerful houses were concerned with one thing: vying for more power and closer proximity to the Eight Emissaries.

            Due to the nature of our contrasting callings, my sisters and parents as Enactors and myself as a Scripter, I lived in isolation compared to most houses. I was a house unto myself. Why, then, would another house wish to unite with me?

            It meant one of a few possibilities. My Scripts were of higher quality than I realized, they had always afforded me a comfortable lifestyle, and my Reckoner (the Fae that cared for my finances and legalities) told me I could afford more if I wish. I didn’t wish, I was comfortable where I was, I wanted to be left in peace to Script.

            Or this man had the freedom to marry for romance, for unpractical reasons, and if that was the case it was quite touching. Flattering even. A sweet thought, that perhaps somebody desired to woo me.

            Or he wanted a chance to get me alone.

            The skin on the back of my neck rippled with bumps, like a winter wind had kissed my nape. I leaned away from the heat of the Velleur. For the sensitive Fae male, interested in a Fae female, my body language would be answer enough.

            I left the Emporium, still shaking. This would be the second Emporium I had to avoid. By habit my cane tapped along the cobbles. I lifted my feet higher than the average person; I could tell by the sound of my footfalls compared to theirs and the numerous times my sisters mocked me for how I walked. It was the best way to make sure I didn’t trip on uneven ground.

            My cane ‘thumped’ when it hit dirt. Road dust from an alleyway that intersected my path swirled around my ankles and coated my wooden clogs. I turned, as if to adjust the package under my arm, but I took the opportunity to tilt my head and listen for anyone on the sidewalk behind me. To make sure nobody was following me.

            There was only silence down the street. It was a quiet day with not a lot of shoppers out and about. I chided myself, it was ridiculous to think that just because a man showed a little interest he would follow me when I spurned him.

            It was because of my paranoia, however, that I paused there long enough to hear her crying. I leaned towards the sound, forgetting my self-concern and worried that perhaps someone was injured and needing help.

            I knew instantly she was human. Their bodies secreted different scents than Fae adults. Her sobs were muffled, like she was trying to hide.

            “Hello?” I called down the alleyway, the sobs paused, but then a pained moan and a gasp gave her away. I tested the space with my cane. Stepping down off the cobbles into the dust I took a few tentative steps into the alleyway. It felt cool on my skin, like the sun was blocked from peering into this narrow space.

            I moved slowly down the alley, they were often a place that objects were abandoned or stored, so I didn’t want to bump into or trip on anything.

            “You sound like you’re in pain.” I spoke again.

            A hiccup and gasp answered.

            I stopped when the sound was at its loudest, and her human scent wafted up towards me from the ground. I turned slightly, doing my best to point my face in her direction. I knew it was a woman, there was a distinct scent that women of any species have.

            Subtly, so she wouldn’t feel subconscious, I sucked in a breath through my nose. Perhaps the scents around her could give me a clue to what was wrong. I regretted the action. A vile, familiar scent punched me in the gut. Standing like a statue I focused on making myself breathe again, but each time I took a breath it punched me again.

            Then it was grabbing my wrists and pinching the skin on my arms. I bit my lip to resist the sobs and screams that answered the memory. My eyes slammed shut, and I raised a shoulder to protect myself from him, the phantom that made me turn to listen to the streets behind me. The phantom that haunted me any time Audrei and her husband left for a few days to visit family.

            “I smell blood,” I said. It wasn’t a strong scent, but mixed with the other scents it was repulsive. “Are you bleeding badly?”

            There was a long pause. She was still trying to measure how much she could trust me. Gauge why a Fae would be concerned for the wellbeing of a human. It wasn’t a secret that humans got looked over in our society. They often avoided the Fae cities because there was no opportunity for them there. The Fae of lesser morals were even rumored to take advantage of the weaker species.

            “It’s not serious, just a split lip and some scrapes.”

            I thought back. To his demanding body, taking what it wanted in the darkness of my blindness and the isolation of my life after Omia passed away. How I pleaded and how he only growled in my ear. The slightly longer canines of a mature Fae male had pressed against my ear. They pressed against other parts of my body too, hard enough they drew blood, and I could still feel the pucker of scar tissue a decade later.

            Taking a breath, I pushed back the panic that threatened to take control. “You’re likely sore though. And still scared. Why don’t you come back to my house with me. I’ll get you something to eat and drink. A warm bath perhaps.”

            Again, a long pause. Her breathing was ragged and shallow. Would she pass out from shock? “Why do you care?”

            “Because it is up to us to help each other where we can.”

            “But I’m a human.”

            I wanted to laugh, but now was hardly the time. “Child, I know, I could smell it from the end of the alleyway. But you have a soul and a spirit, a brain between your ears and a heart pumping blood through your veins. Just like I do. I know there may be some of my kind that don’t agree with me, but I am no better than you and if I can’t serve a stranger in need what business do I have breathing up precious air?”

            “I, I can’t pay you back.”

            “Nor would I ask you to. Come, in the very least hide within the safety of my home long enough to get your wits about you.”

            Then I turned and started walking away. Because I knew that if I hadn’t said enough already to convince her of my good will, there was nothing I could say. I stopped before re-entering the street proper, “come now, you will feel a world better after a hot bath.”

            I knew because I had spent the last decade trying to scrub the feeling of what just happened to her, off my skin. I also knew that if she didn’t leave this alleyway now, her mind would be stuck in its gloom the rest of her life. Like I had been stuck in Omia’s house since the night he followed me home and pushed through the front door.

            Instead of waiting for her to come, feeling pressured by me, I stepped up onto the cobblestones and resumed my walk home. This time when I turned to listen it wasn’t strange men following me I worried about, but rather if she chose to accept my hospitality.

            She did, I could hear her small feet shuffling in the dirty street, next to the cobblestone sidewalk but not on it. My shoulder’s pulled down, ashamed by the ridiculous laws The Eight Emissaries passed about acceptable human behaviour in Fae cities. They weren’t allowed on Fae sidewalks, or in Fae bathing houses. They were not to be served with the same cutlery or dishes as Fae.

            It was a miracle she responded to my questions at all. I’d heard there were Fae that hired humans as cheap labor on their estates or in their businesses. I was ashamed to hear the rumors of how those servants were treated.

            The perfume of Omia’s roses greeted me the moment I turned down my street. I pushed open the wrought iron gate, holding it open for my guest until I felt her hand take the weight of it. Then I walked up the stone pathway, enjoying the smell of lush grass and cypress bushes that stood sentry for my front door. Turning the large brass knob, its surface like cool silk in my hand, warming at my touch, I stepped into the house.

            Tapping with my cane I found the hall tree and umbrella stand. Dropping my cane into the umbrella stand I removed my cape and hung it on the tree. Footsteps on the stair told me Audrei was coming down to greet me. Her pause and gasp told me my guest had followed me as far as my door.

            “Lady Caecilya, you have company?”

            “Yes Audrei, could you help her get cleaned up?”

            “Of course my lady.”

            I turned to direct my speech to the doorway, unsure where she stood. “What state are your clothes in? Are they torn?”

            “Y-yes my lady. But not badly.”

            “Audrei, would you find her something comfortable to wear as well? I think some of my older dresses that are in storage may fit.” I meant the dresses from my childhood, Fae stand quite a bit taller than humans, but Audrei would know what I meant and she would find something. She knew every item that was in my house and where it belonged. She should, it was a special skill of any with Keeper inclinations.

            “Yes my lady. Shall I get her something to eat and drink as well?”

            “Yes. And we will all eat together in the dining room tonight.”

            “Very well my lady.”

            I turned again to my guest, “Perhaps you would like somewhere to lay down until then?”

            “I really don’t need to be a bother. A glass of water and an old coat and I can be on my way.”

            “Nonsense, if you had anywhere worth going to you’d be there already instead of here. Accept our gift of hospitality.”

            She responded with silence. I heard every rattled breath and nervous fidget though. My body hummed with tension, I felt like a harp string, tuned too high and ready to snap.

            “Audrei I will be in my study until dinner.”

            “Very good my lady.”

            I left, walking with assurance across the foyer and up the stairs. In my own house outsiders would likely not notice I couldn’t see, I was so sure of where everything was and adept at moving through the familiar surroundings.

            My package was still under my arm, and when I entered my study I dropped it on the desk and collapsed into my chair. The old chair, it belonged to my grandfather, held me like an awkward hug. Like the hugs he gave that were all angles and good intentions, but no knowledge of how one comforted a young girl.

            I reached out and fiddled with the twine on the package. I wouldn’t open it just yet. Because I knew, though I bought it without knowing what it was for, I knew now it was for this girl. The girl I found in the alleyway in a moment of my own paranoia.

            A girl suffering from a recent trauma, while I walked through my days like a ghost, a ghost of the woman I was becoming before he took a piece of my identity from me. Did he know he carried it still? Unlikely.

            I didn’t stay in my study long. I needed to know more. For years I lived in blissful ignorance of humans. The reports of humans living under abusive task masters, or their exclusion from the general wealth and peace of the Fae provinces, so they had to fight over the sparse fertile land left in the other areas of the world, these things never concerned me before, because I would never do such things. But I’d done nothing to improve their lot had I?

            I’d done nothing to serve them and bring prosperity to them. My Scripts had always been made with myself or other Fae in mind. The package of brand new Vellum on my desk was not for the Fae. I knew that for sure. But I had to know more about her before I committed to who it was for.

            The hall to the guestroom required me to move slower, I didn’t visit this part of the house as often, it housed Audrei and her husband and I liked to give them privacy. I hesitated, what if Audrei had placed her in a different room and I was about to knock on the wrong door? It would be a humiliation to do such a thing in my own home.

            I knocked anyways, softly. The response was slow, but my ears picked up the rustle of blankets. I hope I hadn’t woken her. If she was anything like me, sleep would be hard to come by over the next few months.

            “Yes, my lady?” she asked.

            “I hope you don’t mind, but I have some questions for you.”

            “Of course, anything to repay your generosity.”

            I paused. I didn’t want her to feel that she owed me. Everything today was a gift. I was giving all of this to her and didn’t expect anything in return. In a way I was giving this gift to my past self because nobody had been there to give it to me.

            “Please, would you start by telling me your name?”


            The name sounded breathless, even when she seemed calm for the first time since I found her. It was a charming name for a quiet slip of a thing like her. She moved with her feet making barely a sound on my hardwood floors.

            “Please, my lady, won’t you come in?”

            “Is there a chair I might sit in?”

            “Yes, there’s one here to the right of the door. A tall wing-backed chair.”

            I felt my way through the threshold and along the wall to the chair. Once settled I listened to her move. When she had settled too, I did my best to turn my face to her.

            “What are you doing in our city, Wihenna?” I winced because it sounded like an accusation hidden in a question. The last thing I wanted to do was put her on the defensive. She breathed a sigh of relief when I corrected myself, “What I mean to ask is, what brought you here? Is there an employer you’d like me to send word to?”

            “No. I’m not employed exactly.”

            “Then you are looking for work?”

            “Not exactly. I was brought here by someone.”

            “Brought here for what?”

            “Well, some men came to our village, in the mountains. The winter was so harsh that we were all quite hungry. An old woman suggested us younger girls entertain the Fae visitors with hopes that they would show us favor.”

            My stomach churned. Prostitution was prohibited in Fae society.

            “One man took a liking to me, because I’m taller than the other girls, and good deal prettier.”

            I nodded, encouraging her to go on.

            “So… I came to the city, he told me he could find me a job in a really nice house, as a maid or something.”

            “But he didn’t.”

            “No. All I wanted was something to eat, my lady, honest.”

            “I believe you child. Some men don’t ask, and some men tell lies.”

            She was sobbing now, in gentle little huffs that denoted deep grief but she was too exhausted to express it any other way. If it wouldn’t have been clumsy I might have comforted her. Instead I sat in the wing-backed chair with my hands in my lap.

            “Have you heard of other men doing this to human girls like yourself?”

            “Yes.” She said.

            “Do you know his name?”    

            “Yes.” She said.

            “And where he lives?” I asked, but she didn’t answer freely like the other questions, “you don’t want to tell me?”

            “He’s a great Fae male, he’d find a way to punish me.”

            I sighed. She wasn’t afraid for nothing, Fae males were intimidating even to Fae females. They were notoriously sensitive to disrespect and were incredibly territorial. Some of them were ambitious on top of all that and if their positions were compromised there was very little they’d stop at to protect them.

            “I don’t blame you child. We will do nothing, but I will keep you safe from him.”

            She sobbed again. “Thank you my lady.”

            “You are welcome to stay here as long as you want. You are also free to leave whenever you want. If you are afraid to leave the house or city, I will have Audrei’s husband escort you. He is a quiet and gentle man that I trust, and you can trust him too.”

            “Thank you, but I can’t stay here for nothing, surely.”

            “If you wish to help around the house you may, but its not a requirement of our hospitality. I only ask that you go to Audrei for assignment, she is a Keeper and they have a certain way of doing things.”

            “May I ask you a question my lady?”

            “Of course.”

            “Why are you helping me?”

            “Because my kind owe your kind a great debt.”       

            “How do you figure that?”

            “We may not subject you to slavery, or exile you completely, but we haven’t done much to care for you and serve you have we?”


            “Tell me, girl, do humans believe in a god?”


            “Tell me about him, does he have rules?”

            “Yes he does.”

            “What are they? Or are they too complicated to share in one conversation?”

            “No they are pretty simple. Acknowledge him and no other gods, cling to his Word and live it every day, serve each other with the love he has for us, and share his good news with all.”

            “What is his good news?” I asked. I had never heard of another god, beside the god Fae believed in. But then, I had never thought to ask either. When I started Scripting my other studies were dropped. Nobody asked anything of me as long as my nose was in a notebook or pile of Vellum. It wasn’t lost on me how this human god’s rules were quite similar to the spirit of our own Fae guidelines.

            “One day he will return and when he does he will bring justice and liberty and abundance to share with all that love him.”

            “That is good news indeed.”

            “Yes, my lady.”

            “You have given me a lot to think about, Wihenna. I am going back to my study, please tell Audrei I won’t be at dinner tonight.”

            “Yes, my lady.”

            My grandfather’s cherry trees were in full blossom and the warm evening breeze carried the sweetness into my study. I sat back from the stack of Vellum and sighed. It was the hardest Script I’d ever written.

            There were days when I came to it with apathy, tired and too overwhelmed with the idea that the pages resisted the Script I spoke over them. At other times my hands, pressed to the Vellum as I spoke in excited rushes and breathless pauses, would get hot with the magic pouring from my soul onto each page.

            Whether the days were fruitful or not, the work still took a long nine months. Tonight I had reached the last page and poured my last line of Script onto its surface. It always amazed me when the Script ended and I had purchased the exact amount of Vellum needed for it. I think it was because I had always allowed the Vellum to choose me, instead of me choosing it.

            I pressed my fingers to the back of neck. Into the nape where all my tension sat. My hair fell in silk strands around my fingers, and I dug past them to knead out the knots in the muscle. My sensitive finger pads skipped over dimples in my skin and my heart skipped a beat. It was the same reaction every time I stumbled over one of the scars he left.

            If he hadn’t left those scars—if he hadn’t happened to me at all, would I have allowed my compassion to move me to help Wihenna?

            A baby cried and startled me. I sat up straight in my chair and listened. I heard Audrei’s laughter float up the stairwell and under the crack in my door. There were excited shouts from her husband. Then Wihenna’s laughter joined in, but much more subdued, it sounded tired. I was shocked she could find joy in this birth at all.

            The baby that grew inside of her for the last nine months hadn’t been her choice. Yet she’d still glowed with the secret of motherhood growing in her womb. She’d happily sat and stitched baby clothes and whispered with Audrei, like two young girls, over baby names and guesses at whether it was a girl or boy.

            “Well, whatever baby is, I hope it has my eyes.” She had said within my hearing at one point. It was the first time in a long time I had stopped and wondered what eyes looked like, and for the first time I wondered what Wihenna looked like.

            I hoped the baby had her same peacefulness. Despite what happened to her she found a place with us and seemed content with it.

            I wasn’t content and this was my house. Or was it? Perhaps this was a house lent to me by my grandparents so I could leave it for the rightful owners. My fingers shifted and traced the lock on my desk drawer. Everything was in there, I’d spent the last month working on it with the Reckoner.

            I wasn’t able to leave anything to Wihenna, there were no allowances in Fae law for human heirs, but I had been able to name Audrei and her husband as my heirs. Everything would go to them in the case that something happened to me. Audrei confided in me that Wihenna asked her to be the baby’s mother, on the chance that it looked more Fae than human, so that it could have a good life.

            Reaching over I picked up a pencil and I pulled a scrap of paper out of its protective box, a box designed to protect its contents from the effects of my Scripting. I wrote as carefully as I could on the paper, Audrei would find it and be able to read it. I often left her notes and she was used to interpreting the crooked and sometimes overlapping letters.

            She said she collected them, kept them as little bits of art that nobody would understand but her. She cherished them because they were symbols for her of the life I’d chosen to share with her and her husband.

            All I wrote on the note was for Wihenna. I set the note on top of the stack of Vellum I just finished Scripting. Then I stood up, picked it all up, and started the walk down the stairs and to the garden at the back of the house.

            “My lady,” said Audrei, her voice bubbling with joy.

            “Yes Audrei?” I paused in my walk.

            “Wihenna’s baby is born, it’s a boy.”

            “What a blessing.” I said, and meant it, “did she choose a name already?” It would be nice to know his name before I was gone.

            “Yes, she named him Eoghann.”

            “What a perfect name for a perfect little lamb.”

            “You must come and hold him.”

            “I must go out to the garden first, to finish this Script.”

            “Yes my lady, but then come and see Wihenna, she was asking after you.”

            “If I can tonight I will.”

            It wasn’t a lie, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to. I turned and continued my walk to the back door. Letting myself out I felt my way down the back steps carefully and followed the paving stones through the yard to a spot under the cherry tree. My grandfather had covered the ground under his prized cherry trees with fine pea gravel.

            I knelt on the gravel, it bit into my knees and shins and ankles.

            I set the stack of Vellum on the ground in front of me.

Then I took the note I had written and anchored it with a small handful of gravel.

I chewed on my lip, had I left enough of a note? Or should I have told Audrei more? So she would know how dear of a friend she’d become? She would know though, wouldn’t she?

            It did seem poetic though, the noted suggested that what became of me tonight was for Wihenna, and what became of this last Script too. I turned so I could ear the sound of the baby crying again, it carried through the garden. Not loud wails but definitely the protests of a creature new to this world. Tonight was for him too.

            You see, what I haven’t disclosed yet is this: Fae Scripters are not held accountable to the rules of their craft only by other Fae. We are held to those rules by our god himself. It is written in our souls. So, if we do not follow them, we might succeed in disobeying, but we will not survive it.

             I knew no Enactor, however, that would bring to life the Script I’d written. There was no way I could take it to a Reckoner for auction, because the first set of eyes that saw it would report me for treason. For inciting a revolution.

            Settling deeper into my kneeling position I lean forward and press my hands against the Script.

            Scents of open fields and fertile orchards. Perfumes of hope and opportunity and good will. A bouquet of dreams that could finally be dreamt without crushing disappointment. All those things and more were in this Script. Once Enacted it would put humans on a level playing field with Fae. It would gift them with the chance to Script their own stories and Enact their own Scripts.

            I didn’t need to see the Script to Enact it. It was still fresh in my mind. This was the only time I would have the chance to do this. Once Scripts had left my hands after completing the last page, I forgot them and lost the feel for them. It was now or never.

            With a deep breath I turned my focus inward to find the part of my soul that held the Enactor inclinations left by the influence of my parents and siblings. I pressed my lips together and hummed, I wasn’t sure why but recalled hearing my sisters do the same thing when they practiced their Enactments.

            Then I weaved the thread of Enactment through the feel of the Script under my hands. Every intricacy was still in my mind. Every word I spoke, every breath I took, every page I turned, every inflection and tone my voice committed.

            I felt the pages under my hands get hot. Then I felt them start to change in texture and shape. The Vellum curled in on itself, folding inward, inward, inward. It got so hot my hum morphed into an expression of pain.

            Finally, when I thought I could bear it no more the Vellum stopped folding in, but then it began shrinking, getting harder and harder and more compact. Until it was a dense and heavy object in my hands. I could hold it in one hand, though it was almost twice as long as the width of my palm.

            It was hard, and cool, and narrow. A cylindrical shape. I felt along its length with my fingers and found one end was tapered, and sharp. It felt like it had two teeth and I gasped, because there was liquid and I thought the object bit me until I bled. But it hadn’t, there was no cut on my fingers, but rather the object leaked fluid when I pressed the tip to anything.

            I knew not what it was, only that it would change the world.

            During the Enactment the Vellum had gotten so hot it was burning my hands, and I had prayed in the back of my mind for relief. The completing of the Enactment didn’t bring relief though. Instead, the heat remained, just under my skin.

            The skin on my cheeks grew tight and I felt layers peeling away. I knew what this was. This was my judgment. This was the retribution for stepping outside my calling and taking on the calling of another.

            But this was my sacrifice. Not only for the humans, that Fae might share prosperity with them, because they should be included in the ALL. But this was also for Fae, that they might hear and know the good news shared freely by the humans.

            I clenched my teeth together, but they crumbled in my mouth. I would have choked on them, but I had stopped breathing. My lungs turned to molten retribution within me. Heat gathered at my eyes and for the first time in my life there was something other than black, there was a glow, dark and pulsing, then it lightened until it was a blazing inferno.

            I felt the crumbling of my body into ash start at my fingers and toes and travel up my arms and legs. It was why I chose to do this out here, in the garden, on the gravel. To save the clean up required by Audrei. I hadn’t known exactly how it would happen, only that it would.

            Now, as I felt myself disintegrating, I smelt it. I thought the scent would bring to mind regret, but it didn’t. I thought it would because of the bitterness I tasted those long months before when I touched the Vellum to my tongue.

            There was no regret though. Only hope. Only stern resolve for their sakes. They knew not what was missing, they were too blind to see it. There was a freedom and a prosperity beyond their comprehension though, I had to believe that. Or this was all for nothing.

            I inhaled one last time, I didn’t know how as my body burned up from within, but the last breath dissolved me completely and I was no more than a puff of ash in the evening breeze. The last thing I tasted was bitter, like you expected death and ashes to be—but the last thing I smelt was the fragrance of sedition.

            And oh, it was sweet.


Pilgrim: Cover REveal!!

Pilgrim: Book 1 of the Lodestone Chronicles has been a long time coming. In fact, I was starting to think it would never come together. Oh, me of little faith…

This month Pilgrim will be published and available for purchase! What should you be looking for? Below is the beautiful cover.

The original artwork was completed by Lisa Larose (view her website at

Design and formatting was completed by

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Soon to follow will be Paperback and Audio versions through the Amazon and Audible stores.

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The Toad Queen

This story is inspired by the following beautiful artwork created by:

“Toad Queen” @LisaLaroseArt

A nobody. That is what I was when I first met the Master.

I believed I was a nobody because they told me that. I was not a stealthy cobra, or a regal bird of prey. I was a toad. Warts and all.

Because I believed them, I didn’t even try to appear before the Master when he was selecting a ruler for his Animal Kingdoms. I was sure that the one appointed to oversee the land would be someone much more elegant than I.

The memory made my silk white collar feel too tight. I ran my webbed hand down the red velvet skirts of my favorite dress. I frowned so my eye ridges wrinkled together and one of my warts bumped my golden crown askew.

The Master, he was the first to mention I was a somebody. I found him, tossing stones into the brown waters of my favorite watering hole. I watched him for a while, and I decided he looked quite perplexed.

“Your Excellency seems troubled.” I tried to say as clearly and proper as I could. It came out as a croak, to my dismay.

“I am.” He replied. Not even phased that a lowly Toad had just initiated a conversation with him.

“What troubles you?” his arm paused mid-throw, he looked at me and dropped the stone. I gulped when he crossed the distance between us and seated himself on the log beside me.

He looked down at me with thoughtful brown eyes. “I have spent the last three days watching the best and the brightest of the animal Kingdoms parade themselves before me.”

I croaked in acknowledgement, and then I snatched a mosquito that was looking for a tasty bite of the Master.

“They do love to preen and strut, don’t they?”

He laughed. The Master laughed at a joke I made.

“They do not seem to understand the purpose of a ruler for the Animal Kingdoms.”

“They did not meet your expectations then?”

“Is there not one who would care for their neighbors? Who would seek to maintain order among my creation?”

“How about the owl, he is very wise.”

“Scholars often lack the ability to relate.”

“The deer, she us very sensitive.”

“But easily manipulated.”

“The badger, quite strict, but not a micromanager.”

I snagged a few more flies from around my Master’s head, and I stopped when I saw his intense stare.

“What about you?” He asked.

“What about me?”

“You would make a fine Queen.”

I croaked again, “but I am a nobody.”

“You are not a nobody. You are Emeraldine Quicktongue.”

“You know my name?”

“Of course, you are after all one of my creation.”

“What could I do for you?”

At that point he only winked and jumped from the log. He gestured for me to follow. So I leapt after him.

“You asked me what troubled me. I am troubled that not one has the perspective needed to rule. Not one understands my creation with the clarity you just demonstrated.”

Now I stood on a pedestal in the Hall of the Animal Kingdoms. Before me was a small boy with bloodshot eyes and a snotty nose. His brown hair fell in thick strands across his eyes, with a red cap with a bill like a duck on it sticking out from his brow. He was small, but the same shape as my Master.

On his little legs were trousers of blue cloth that had holes in the knees, with frayed tendrils hanging down. He sniffed and wiped the snot from his nose on his shirt sleeve.

“Who is he?” I asked. Pitying the poor boy that had been herded into the throne room by a crowd of badgers and minks.

“Who?” asked the badger, “don’t you mean what?”

“He looks like a monkey, but he doesn’t smell like any monkey I’ve ever sniffed.” Commented the mink.

“He is a nobody.” Hissed the snake. “be rid of him.”

I narrowed my eyes at the garter snake. He was harmless compared to his cousins but I don’t trust anything that slithers.

“He is a something and he is a somebody.” I stated.

I squinted at him again, and the poor boy seemed to shrink under my gaze. It was laughable, I am but a hands breadth high, and he shrunk beneath my gaze.

“Send him to the owl.” I said. The owl would have an inclination as to who the boy was and where he may have come from.

The boy turned as the badgers snarled and poked at him. He looked so much like the Master, but that was preposterous. The Master was the only one of his kind. I wished I could ask, but the Master was away from his Kingdom and had left me in charge.

What would the Master do in this situation? I’m sure he would agree,  this untidy character before me was a somebody. He would say his name, he always knew everyone’s name.

I croaked, I have been practicing my Master’s language but it still felt awkward. Still in croaks and squeaks I got the question out.

“What are you?”

The young creature turned and looked at her with wide eyes. His small mouth opened and one word came out, “Sonny.”

The mink lost patience and pressed against Sonny’s leg with his paws. When he was gone I turned and looked through the window behind my throne. The sun was setting behind the estate of my master. What was a Sonny? Who was a Sonny?

I knew his name now, but still I didn’t know who he was. I curled my webbed hands into fists and anchored them on my hips. I would have find a way to learn who, or what, a Sonny was.

© 2021 All Rights Reserved J. B. Wagner

Accepted Standards

“What are the planetary radiation levels?”

“20% of the acceptable level Captain. Increasing by 1% every 30 minutes sir.”

That gave me 40 hours to decide a course of action, organize my ship and crew, and execute the plan.

“How far away is our nearest allied ship?”

“25 parsecs sir. Moving at full speed, they would get here in 45 hours.”

Too long. They wouldn’t make it in time to help us before radiation on the planet’s surface reached critical.

After receiving the distress signal, we had made contact to let them know we were on route and they should organize themselves for evacuation.

“Are the colonists ready for evacuation?”

“They estimate they will be in ten hours sir.”

“What is the population?”

“3,000 sir.”

I didn’t need them to do the math. Instantaneous Long-Distance Transport, or ILDT, had been my focus of study at the academy. To use the technology for that many people would take at least 38 hours, that wouldn’t cut it.

Casualties are a part of every rescue mission, that was rule number one of leadership training at the academy. It fell under the heading, “Accepted Standards” in our Rescue Mission Handbook.

So, it was no surprise the shock my crew displayed when I made it clear that any solutions that relied on that ratio were unacceptable.

It was a day when I placed the trust of my crew on the line. I placed my career on the line. All because of something my youngest daughter said to me the prior evening.

An acceptable casualty ratio quoted from our Rescue Mission Handbook is 5% of ship capacity.

I currently had before me a crew of 200, and a colony of 3,000 in need of planetary evacuation. At my disposal was a ship with a capacity of 2,000.

By the book, my acceptable total casualties for this mission were 160 people. 160 living, breathing, hopeful souls. That was well over 75% of my crew.

That didn’t include the ones that I couldn’t fit on the ship. Which would bring my casualties up to 1,200.

I handpicked this crew, many of them students I had tracked from their application to the academy and recruited as soon as they were approved for practical internships.

Some of their parents were my friends, some of them had grown up with my own children. Heck, one of them was my own child. I couldn’t ask them to give up their place on the ship, to save a stranger, could I?

Some of them might not survive our mission as it was, but at this point they believed they had a fighting chance.

My fists tightened on the rail dividing the bridge. It separated my personal workstation, from the bridge crew.

“Who taught you to hold such a high standard?” I remembered the conversation with Telia from the night before.

“You did, dad. You taught us kids that when the Designer entered the void to seal it and save our universe, he did it out of love for us.

“If he loves us that much, who are we to give anything less than our best?”

Our fight about her failed thesis paper was electric. She had challenged the Casualty Ratios dictated by the Medical Officer Handbook they supplied to doctoral students at the academy.

My neck was flushed red. What would my colleagues think of this? What kind of Space Colonization Captain has a daughter that flunked out of the academy?

Why had she chosen such a controversial topic for her thesis? Why had she refused to change it even as her professors argued with her?

Why did she have to be right?

Her simple, albeit naive, worldview was not wrong. The truth remained.

As humans our number one priority should be aligned with that of the Designer.

Our number one priority should always be caring for our neighbours.

That was the truth I wrestled with as my crew communicated the ratios and offered potential solutions.

All of them failed to think outside the box, because the Handbook had provided them an out. It was time for me to correct that error.

“Enough, I don’t want to hear any more solutions that allow less than 100% evacuation and safety for crew and colonists.”

There was silence on the bridge. Fourteen pairs of eyes stared at me, as if I were an alien with three heads.

“But captain. The capacity of our ship is only 2,000.” My first officer argued.

“I understand that Commander. But there are children, and parents, and friends and spouses down there that expect us to not leave their loved ones behind.”

They all turned sidelong glances at their crew mates. Had their captain lost it? Had I, after decades of space travel succumbed to mania?

“What is it that limits our ship to holding only 2,000 people?” I prompted them.

“Food and water supplies.” Someone replied.

“Do we have enough to last us until more ships come to our aid?”

“Yes sir.”

“The Atmospheric Control System, we are only compliant under 2 people per 100 square feet captain.” Somebody else offered.

“That’s system compliance, how many people is it actually capable of keeping alive for the hours it may take additional help to reach us?”

“The system is capable of providing enough oxygen for 2000 average humans for a week. At our present reserves.”

“So, what does that mean if we add an additional 1200 people?”

“We could survive a few days in space.”

“Excellent. ” I said.

“Excuse me captain, but if we have to land to evacuate all those people, our engines can’t break atmosphere with the additional weight.”

“What’s your solution Commander?” I asked.

He looked stunned. Then he recovered.

“We will have to find ways to decrease our weight?”

“Yes. Starting with what contributes the most weight without furthering our objective.”

One of the youngest bridge members, a quiet lad that often hesitated to speak was chewing on his lip.

“Do you have an idea you would like to share ensign?”

“Yes sir.” He said, “if we stripped the ship of anything purely aesthetic, we would increase capacity by 10%.”

“Great, begin a list of parts and components that can be removed.”

My first officer choked. “But Captain, the ship isn’t herself without her appearance.”

I looked him in the eye. “Wrong, Commander, the ship isn’t herself without her crew and her mission.”

“Captain, if I may?” The bridge engineering liaison interjected; his hand raised.

“Yes lieutenant?”

“If we only need to last in orbit until help comes, we do not need our energy cells, and after the engine core they are the heaviest components on the ship.”

I pinched my chin and narrowed my eyes. “Lieutenant, how many energy cells would it take to maintain essential life support in space?”

“25% sir, for 3200 passengers. But we would have to get rid of 90% of them to break atmosphere, sir.”

My eyebrows snapped together. “What else could help us break atmosphere?”

The bridge was silent. Two pilots were arguing in whispers. “Ladies.” I barked to break up the heated discussion. The women were inseparable, pilot and co-pilot since the beginning of their academy flight training.

“We apologize sir.”

“Did you want to share.”

Waters glared at Gilmore. “Sir, Gilmore has suggested that when we reach the upper stratosphere, we jettison the engine core and use the propulsion to clear us from the planet’s orbit.”

I turned to Gilmore, “Is it doable?”

“Yes sir, I am no engineer but by flight theory it would work. It was the way original space explorers launched their ships.”

“Work with engineering to make a plan.”

“Yes sir.”

Again, my first officer was ready to combust. “Sir, we would be a floating derelict.”

“But everyone would be alive Commander.”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “What if the first ship to reach us is hostile instead, sir?”

I gritted my teeth because he was right. There was no point in saving the colonists from the planet just to have them captured by slavers or killed by Guerilla ships once in space.

Commander Grennwich looked like he had the mind to stand insist I was wrong, instead I saw the idea spark on his face. He turned to the Engineering Liaison. “Lieutenant, once the engine is gone, can we keep a few extra energy cells?”

“Probably sir.”

“Enough to power the shields at full strength and operate the dorsal cannon?”

“Yes sir, I believe so.”

“We will work on it together,” he said.

I was still holding my breath, but there was a chance we would make it out of this. I stood back and watched my crew at work. Waters guided the ship down to the planet’s surface while Gilmore consulted with engineering for the launch plan.

Grennwich worked on calculations with the ensigns and Liaison officers. They could have mutinied. They could have considered my new standards unreasonable and refused to comply. Instead, they had risen to the challenge.

“I couldn’t believe it, Telia, they embraced the mission, no matter how unreasonable it seemed compared to the accepted standards.”

“If the mission is worthy, they will every time dad.”

Tears welled in my eyes. “It wasn’t a perfect rescue though. One of the Elders from the colony had a heart attack during take-off.”

Telia’s eyes shone with compassion.

“His daughter told me his last words were, ‘thank the Captain for caring enough to risk it all’.”

“Dad, if you hadn’t cared, if you hadn’t taken that risk, his daughter may not have been able to relay that message to you. There were 1,000 people that would have been left on the planet.”

“I can’t say I completed my mission perfectly though.”

“No, but you can say you cared. And you can say you did your best. That’s all that counts.”

I laughed as tears splashed onto my desk. “When did you get so wise?”

She answered, “After a patient died in my care dad, and I was told I had done everything by the book. But I knew, I was distracted by my own selfish ambitions and I hadn’t been focused on caring for the person in front of me.”

I sobbed. Sobbed that my daughter had learned such a difficult lesson. I smiled through the tears because she dealt with it better than most would. She had chosen to grow, to take responsibility, to focus on the next patient with a new determination.

My crew never looked at me the same after that day. One of my bridge crew submitted his request for transfer, citing that I had acted recklessly. The rest of them, however, looked at me with new respect.

And I saw them with new trust because I knew, they understood the mission, and they embraced it.

This one is for my dad. He gave me my first laptop, on which I wrote my first novel-length story. He always reads my emails and my stories (despite his disinterest in reading) and he always texts me to say he loved it and is proud of me. After my email about connection, he texted me and said his story was about this: “I want to make other people’s stories mine…”

You guys, it is by making other people’s stories our own that we learn to connect.

Comment below and share your story with me. Or email me:

© J. B. Wagner 2021. All Rights Reserved.

A Dragon, a Baby, and a Wizard

Living thousands of miles away from any human being, except an old curmudgeon of a wizard, was not by accident.

So, when the squawks of a human infant reached my ears, I thought I was having a nightmare. They echoed through my cave like a bad melody.

I thought perhaps the wizard was to blame, but his tower remained a silent sentry over the land.

What I found confused me. A female baby, only a pink rosebud in the damp deadfall of the forest, waved her fists at the sky and screamed until she was red in the face.

I tested the air with my flame. I could not sense any strangers, and the wizard would not do this to a helpless. He was endlessly bringing in the hurting. Had he not heard her cries?

Perhaps she was cold. I piled ferns gently around her.

She continued to scream.

She rejected the ferns with a few swift kicks of her tiny feet.

I breathed some warm air at her, careful to be gentle with my molten heat. She screamed harder.

My ears rung with the failure.

Did the light hurt her eyes? Instinct told me an infant dragon would despise the light, perhaps a human would too.

I used the tip of my tail to pick her up. I took her to my cave.

The dark of my cave didn’t help.

She cried more.

Humans needed water to survive, didn’t they? Perhaps she needed water.

 I leapt from my echoing cave and down to a nearby lake. I scooped some water into the hollow of my front paw. When I returned to the cave, I was sure the child’s voice sounded raspy. She needed water.

I poured the water over her face and reveled in three seconds of blissful silence. She screwed up her mouth, eyes, and nose.

When the water ran out, she opened her eyes. A deep sapphire gaze sparkled at me.

Then she glared at me and resumed screaming.

My talons gouged the cave floor. Tracing the line of my jaw with a now jagged talon, I considered what else she might need. I snapped my fingers.

Hunger, she was probably hungry.

I darted from the cave and cast about for something a human might find palatable. I had seen villagers a few mountains away that enjoyed mutton.

Seeing that they ate the beasts anyway years before, I thought they wouldn’t mind if I tested one or two dozen. Turns out humans are possessive of their food sources.

Instead of making the flight to the domestic sheep herds, I scoured the mountainside for a bighorn. When I found one I grabbed it, and shook it until it died, to put it out of its suffering you see.

When I returned to the cave, the child had quieted to whimpers. It was not a relief. Her screaming told me she had life in her, but now I worried she was weakening.

I plopped the sheep carcass beside her. The stench of the unkempt animal must have been offensive to her small nose because it crinkled, and she gagged.

How foolish of me. Humans always cooked their sheep before they ate them. I grabbed the sheep and turned my back on the child. It took only a small spit of fire to singe the hair and cook the muscle. I cracked open the charred hide to expose the delicious meal to the baby.

The gagging sound came back, then the tendons in her neck clenched and her back arched as she screamed again.

I bit back a tear. My scales shifted from their usual tawny bronze to blue and then red. The desperate need to appease this child was infuriating.

As I wracked my brain for a solution, the child quieted. She was shivering; the water clinging to her raven curls.

She was naked, without scales or fur.

Didn’t humans wear synthetic hides?

I delved into the shadows of my cave where I kept my horde.

My talons landed on a beautiful forest-green velvet. The edges singed, reducing it to char cloth in places. A remnant from my first meeting with the wizard. We had both been a lot younger than. I’d tried to introduce myself and got my wings tangled in his drapes.

Wait, would he know how to help a baby? I would have to be careful approaching his tower. He didn’t welcome company, especially not mine.

I wrapped the child in the velvet and left my cliff-side cave.

A dragon was not qualified to care for a human infant.

Copernicus was not a curmudgeon, despite what anyone might say of him. He was, however, tired of people. Such a thing happened when one is a wizard who has seen generations of humans born, grown, and killed by mortality. He had tired of the cycle and chosen solitude and privacy long ago.

Sipping on his pipe, he fixed his gaze on the looming mountain range. Bronze flashed in the sky and he slammed his pipe into its cradle. Wisteria had left him alone since their last chat, but that had been a century ago. He did not need her landing on his tower and shaking dust into everything again.

He climbed stone steps to the top of his tower and grumbled at the cold mountain breeze. The warmth that wafted from Wisteria’s russet wings made him grumble even more.

She was carrying a bundle of familiar green velvet. The tender way she set it down caught him off guard. Even stranger was how she retreated and disappeared into the sky without a word.

The pink fist that poked out turned his grumbling into a groan.

No, not a baby. He was not qualified to take care of a baby.

Yet, despite the pounding of his heart…

Despite the twisting knots in his stomach…

Despite the memories of laughing children that became leaning crosses in a forgotten cemetery…

He bent and picked up the velvet-swaddled infant.

She was weak with hunger and dehydration. Dried tears matted her crow-black curls in a crust against her scalp.

He wiped away an errant tear. Her wobbling lower lip sucked in a gasp. Her small fingers caught his in a decisive grip.

“Let’s get you some goat milk. Nice and warm, right from the udder. What more could a baby and an old wizard ask for?”

I’d never seen the curmudgeon smile before. Caused by an instinctual connection between himself and another of his own kind, perhaps?

I thought of her cries. They were his problem now.

I thought of her sapphire eyes sparkling at me. He could keep them.

I thought of how she caught his finger in her tiny grip. They belonged together.

As they should. What was it to me? I wanted solitude. I’d gone to great lengths to get it.

Really, what more could I ask for?

I was a dragon, after all.

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© J. B. Wagner 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Escape Attempt

            Anticipation tingled across her skin. Her eyes darted across the courtyard and through the shadows. Seeing no one, she slinked down the steps and edged her way around the perimeter, keeping to the shadows. She was nearing what she thought was a gate when a guard stepped out of an alcove and surprised her. Reflexes took over and her staff whacked the man on his crown. He slumped to the ground without a sound and air rushed out of her lungs in a sigh of relief.

            She rushed through the remaining shadows and reached for the handle of the gate she’d found. The lodestone started to beat, as if it had its own heart, and when she looked down it was shining with clear blue light. The subtle scent of wind and frankincense tickled her nose. She twirled, baring her sword and striking out with her staff. She was shocked when the dark figure that had walked up behind her grabbed the staff midway through the strike and wrenched it out of her hand. Her eyes widened, and she moved the saber in between her and the man as her last line of defense.

            “I don’t want to hurt you, just let me go and nobody else has to get hurt.”

            “I can’t let you leave.”

            She recognized the deep timber of his voice. The man moved and she swung her saber. She was shocked when he parried the blow with her staff. She swung again, and once more he deflected the attack with her staff. Growling, she lunged forward again, raining a blur of sword blows upon him. The man was silent as he dodged or parried each attack with ease. Sweat gathered on her brow and she could feel the tug of freedom behind her, on the other side of the door. The man rained a barrage of blows down on her, and she had to rush to deflect each swing of the staff.

            A sob hiccupped in her throat as she realized she couldn’t win. This was no bandit or shepherd boy trying to steal her herd. She was fighting a seasoned warrior who had no intentions of letting her escape. Reality sunk in and she flung herself at the man in one last desperate attempt. He surprised her by taking a step forward, bypassing her sabre and grabbing her by the arm.

            His hand wrapped around her upper arm like a vice. Tears sprung unbidden to her eyes and sobs wracked her body.

            “Please, just let me go, I can’t live here anymore. I can’t breathe inside these walls.”

            “Come with me.”

            “No. You can’t make me.” She struggled against the man, trying to wrench her arm from his grasp. His grip tightened and the pain was great enough to make her drop her saber. He pulled her across the courtyard but she dug her heels in and threw her weight back. The man grunted, picked up her saber and staff in one hand, then threw her over his shoulder with his other hand.

            She lost her breath when her stomach landed on his shoulder. He wrapped an arm around the back of her knees and she could feel the blood rush to her head as her hair swung in time with his steps. Once she had her breath back she renewed her fight. She balled her hands into fists and started pounding on the man’s back.

            “I can’t live in here. I’m dying. They’re suffocating me.” Her words came out in wails. To her surprise the man set her down heavily and grabbed her by the shoulders. He gave her a shake and his grey eyes flashed at her in the dark.

            “Look, I am trying to help you, but you just need to be patient.”

            “Help me? Nobody wants to help me. They have all convinced themselves that I am out to ruin them. I just want to go home.”

© 2019 J.B. Wagner. All Rights Reserved.