Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Hobbit Birthday Party!

September 22nd is not only marked the day after my birthday and the first day of autumn, but the birthdays of our dog Comanche, Frodo and Bilbo Baggins! As such, I hosted a hobbit party for about 50 of my friends and family, and it was amazing. I can’t thank everyone enough for turning out, and in such Middle-earth spirit! It truly was a night to remember and one that I will always cherish. Here are some of the highlights! Photos by my talented sister, Alexandra Rice!

Image

The cake Alex made and decorated all by herself!

ImageMy first home brew — Green Dragon Ale!ImageThe good stuff!ImageI baked 4 loaves yet they were gone in a flash! Such hungry hobbits!ImageCheers!ImageAs true hobbit host, I provided gifts for my guests, including acorn sugar cookies I made and decorated and…Image…Carrot seedlings for planting!ImageImageOur birthday boy (Chee Chee is 12!) meets baby Finch for the first time!ImageMy incredible friends. Many hobbit parties were occurring around the world on 9/22, but I guarantee you that ours was the only one with a body-builder Gollum!ImageYoung Legolas is so good that he doesn’t even need to look!ImageIs it uncle Kipp, or uncle Bilbo?ImageYum!ImageThe most amazing belly in history on baby Kaden!ImageSilly Elf and hobbit!ImageA Gondorian peasant and a hobbit from the north!ImageHobbitses wants the cake, Preciouss!ImageLittle warriors!Image

We put a warning sign on the Sauron Cider, but it looks like some chose to ignore it!

ImageThis wee hobbit wants some cake!ImageMaking a wish…ImageMany thanks to Tony, who taught me to brew, and who has been family since we met when we were two!ImageDancing!ImageFairy lights in the Party Tree! ImageThe growing crowdImage

This last photo is one of my favorites, for it sums up the night for me!

My entire family had so much fun that we want to make this an annual event!

Advertisements

Awakening

I am deeply inspired by the Romantics, especially the Shelleys and John Keats. This is a short story I wrote in a Keatsian voice in 2009, listening to this score on repeat (by Mark Bradshaw from one of my favorite films, Bright Star). The piece at 2:15 is particularly suiting.

I am dedicating this to a dearly kindred friend whose bright spirit continues to show me that even in grief, there is resilient beauty.

Awakening

By K.M. Rice

~*~

     I knew not what I would find when I set foot in a winter’s woods that foggy morn. My mind was elsewhere as I ambled through bramble and thorn, treading a well-worn path imprinted with the arrows of cloven tracks, urging me onwards.

I had been roused from my sleep before the dawn by restless dreams of menial tasks that felt like weights to my limbs – a phantasmagoria of landladies and debts, stale bread and humid rooms haunting my every movement of thought. In an attempt to rid myself of the stench of mediocrity that emanated from my room after my fitful night, I sat to do a bit of writing, hopeful of finishing my oft fretted “Ode to a Handkerchief.” But my brain would not untangle and the light was poor, so I turned to Augustine in the hopes of being inspired to write something remarkable (as is many a man’s lofty goal!). I came across a passage in Confessions that struck an unlikely chord in my eremitic mind, and thus it was this line that I pondered on my walk that morning.

Nondum amabam, et amare amabam, quaerebam quid amarem, amans amare.”

Of what nature is Love? Of what make and complexion? Surely it had never looked my way before for I am certain I would have recognized its fair form. No, I knew nothing of Love save that which I had for my parents (may they rest in peace) and dearest friends. The cut turf of my parents’ graves may well have been carved from my heart. They were lost to the scarlet-stained pillows and the glassy eyes of Consumption, and ever since I have been alone, wandering from home to home, renting what space I could afford on my meager inheritance. Most of my friends had marriage prospects by their twenty-fifth year, yet I could find no temptation to surrender my solitude. I had met many a pretty lady with her hair done up just so, a pearl on each ear, and collar tilted right. But they cared for gossip and trivialities, parties and tea cakes. Had their toes ever pressed against the moist, cool earth?

I was thus so involved with the turning and mulching of the phrase and the meaning thereof that it was some time before I noticed the quietness that had befallen the grouses and larks on the moor that stretched before me beyond the forest. I paused, still within the shelter of the trees, and gazed out across the brush and brown heather. For several moments my breath clouded before me and I could not be certain of what I saw there in the rising mist, then the forest behind me let out a quiet exhale and sent the tendrils of fog swirling and gyring, parting around a figure. It was a great white mare standing among the stubby, dew bejeweled ferns, her muscles sculpted as if by Michelangelo’s hand, her legs long and sound beneath her broad chest.

I was conscious of the bloodnoise in my ears that hissed like the reaching of a wave, for a more beautiful animal I had never seen. Cautiously, I set one foot in front of the other and crept towards the horse, keeping my hands at my side so as not to startle the pretty thing. Her large eyes watched me, black as coal, doelike in their shape and shadowed by an uncommon fan of long lashes. I saw no brand, nor mark of any kind, but her mane was well-kempt, wavy, the color of beech bark against her hoary coat.

She started as I neared and when I foolishly raised up my hands, as I would to a man or woman to show I meant no harm, her hooves let out deep thumps as they pounded into the spongy ground. A half-whinny escaped her great lungs as she attempted to rear, and it was then I noticed why she had stood so still before – her front right foot was tangled in a mess of bramble, its thorns puncturing a scarlet garland just above the hoof. So unnatural was the scene that I knew some coveting farmer must have knotted the vine to stay the creature until his return with bridle and whip. How abominable are the lusting minds of men!

I stilled my step and waited till she had sufficiently calmed before attempting another approach. She looked upon me with those black, wild eyes and I dared not look away they pierced me so. The mare lowered her head and snorted twin tendrils of steam before gently lifting her hoof, as if in offering. I knelt as the knights of old did before the Ladies of the Court, and ever so gently unwound the bruising, offending thorn. The vine pricked my palm and fingers, my blood blending with hers as I unfettered her from the wants of men. No sooner was her foot free than the white mare reared so suddenly that I fell upon the seat of my trousers and watched with beguiled wonderment as she galloped away, across the moor, and pranced among the heather.

So splendid was the sight in the morning light that my previous nerves were soothed. Dusting off my greatcoat, I rose with a laugh and was lost to the lustrous wave and bounce of her mane as she shook her head. A thrush began to sing, and a nightingale, too, and at that moment the form of the mare fell away like a departing mist and in the horse’s place stood a beautiful creature: a woman with skin pale as frost and hair, long and dark, falling in tresses about her broad shoulders, hiding her breasts from view.

What trickery was this? What nymph or dryad disguised? Could so lovely a lady be of a darkling nature? Many will answer yes – that women are full of deceit, especially the beautiful, and are wily enchantresses to avoid. But avoid I could not, for the maiden smiled at me, her lips the pink of rose petals, her eyes still black, yet plaintive as she held out her hand for mine. I reminded myself that there were no onlookers; no one to spy or wake me from a dream, if indeed this pleasant spectre be only of my mind. I walked towards her, holding out my hand in the swirling mist as the robin joined the forest choir around us. Sweet songs, dear melodies. Would that I could fly.

My fingertips brushed against hers then slid down the thin appendages to her palm which was cold and smooth like a riverstone. Her right wrist bore the red stains of the bramble and the hairs of her arm were raised so I hastily shrugged off my greatcoat and rested it upon her shoulders. “What are you?” I whispered in her ear.

“Come with me,” she said, and her deep voice resounded in my mind as if it called across a still lake. And with that she released my hand and ran across the flat country with me in pursuit. Her legs were long and she moved with such a stride that I could not catch up, no matter how I tried to reach that bounding nymph. At length she slowed and slipped into a grove of birch and rowan, shrugging off my greatcoat and weaving through the trees. As I followed, I thought I glimpsed her flickering form through the trunks as a maiden one moment and a pale mare the next, moving with such easeful poesy that I knew I was not wholly in myself, or else do such fey creatures commonly walk amongst us, slowly tamed by the narrowing of their woods and the tilling of their soil? Could it be that even some of the most cultivated maids have wild, rosewood hearts, brimming with memories of faerie dances and solstice dreams?

The lady splashed into a creek and paused there, wading until the water was caressing her waist, her dark hair being tugged and pulled by the slow-churning current. Her breasts were now bare and stiff against the cold, cold air, and though I knew it improper, I could not find shame in her nakedness. A purer vessel I had never seen and my form felt so dull and weak in comparison – so lamentably human – for I had yet to catch my breath while she showed no sign of distress. “What are you, my beloved creature?”

She once again held her out hand for mine but I resisted, knowing what chill the frigid waters would bring. Upon seeing my hesitance, the lady shook her head and let her hand fall to her side, dipping into the water. “What ails you?”

“I would catch a chill,” I said. “I am but mortal. I cannot follow you any longer.”

“What is mortal?” she asked, and her voice was low and deep and echoed as if coming from the very earth and trees, her eyes coy.

I stepped closer until my feet were at the muddied edge of the bank and I could see the rippling of goosebumps upon her flesh. “To be mortal is to die,” I said. “To leave this world behind.”

“Behind?”

“It is to cease to be – to breathe no more. To be buried in the cold, unforgiving ground. To have tree roots dig into your gaping maw, making you frown. To die is forever. Death is a frigid nectar, a draught we all must one day drink to freeze our veins and decay our hearts. It comes on a woeful day.”

“The hour for you is not yet,” she whispered, and she held out her hand, water sliding down her pale arm in crystalline rivulets as her fingers unfurled and beckoned me hence.

“I cannot,” I said again. “I should catch a cold from which I may not recover.”

“You already have.”

Clever nymph! How she managed to perplex me so. Yet still flushed as I was from traversing the heath, I couldn’t help but laugh at the claim. “Dear girl, you are too simple for such things.”

Her eyes darkened then – darker than dark – and there was a great thunderous noise before a wave came surging down the waterway. Her figure remained steadfast amongst the toil as it crashed around her, and in that white, foaming splash, I glimpsed the manes, legs, hooves, and heads of conjured spirits surging forth and past. Then the river slowed and returned to its normal shape, and the maiden’s lashes were now bedewed with droplets as she held out her hand again.

Fearing what would happen were I to refuse, I stepped into the icy rush of winter and waded towards her. Alas, how cold the water was, like needles and knives piercing the stiffening flesh, numbing the skin with pain. I could scarce keep my footing in the current that on the surface appeared so smooth, but I reached her hand at last and held it in my trembling grasp. She pulled me close and brushed the hair off my brow, and I deeply inspired her sweet incense: wind and grass, poppies and soil.

“Why do you dally so?” she whisper-asked.

“For you, fey one.”

She smiled, her bewitching eyes both tame and wild. “What would you be doing were you not here with me?”

I was too far in the cold, hugging myself for warmth, and yet I didn’t make for shore. I was fully forced to reside in my mortality, to feel its weak form. “I would be writing,” I said. “Lying in bed where it’s warm, scribbling out a few lines for the wastebasket. Searching for a melody, a Beauty, a Truth to share.”

“Why share?”

“So that I will not be forgotten.”

“Because of Death?”

“Yes, lovely lady. Because of Death.”

She caressed my cheek with her frigid fingers then brushed her knuckles along my chin before leaning in. As her lips neared mine, I thought to back away for propriety’s sake, but instead met hers with welcome embrace, for their touch was soft and berry bright, full of warmth and sights I had yet to see. I grew drowsy in her arms, intoxicated by the spell of her touch and nearness, and my heart felt so far aloft in my breast – as if it were weightless and above all other menial organs in my body.

Oh, what a pleasant trill, what a divine coo tickling the senses from that soft touch that I long to again feel. A patch of sunlight broke through the clouds and shone upon us as we parted – an anthem of Light upon my shivering form. My skin was teased by a dozen sensations of the ravaging river, the balm of sunlight, the tremble of deathcold in my bones. And yet there I was, breathing despite the promised chains of Nothingness, my chest full of Beauty – Beauty which is boundless and immortal, upon which Death has no claim – and my arms light and airy like birds’ wings. I was a coward until that moment when I felt the nearness of the grave and strolled past with a smile.

Hand in hand, we stepped out of the river and I felt more strongly that benevolent light from our nearest star warming over me, ever sweeter for its long absence. We made our path through the beech and yew, and as we strolled that dappled way I felt each glorious pool of light among the palsy trees. The birds sang more clearly, too, and I no longer took for granted the song of the ululating thrush and nightingale – what dear, cherished kindred are our feathered troubadours, always offering a full-throated choir if we are only to listen.

We found my greatcoat which she had previously disrobed, and knowing full well that she was not bothered by the cold I wrapped myself snugly within. We returned to the moor where sunlight adorned the downy tufts of grass gently ruffled by the breeze. Buds, I noticed, were many on the leafless trees, awaiting their hour of birth. Spring, it seemed, was not so far away that winter’s day, and I felt how very near the Precipice of Life was as I shivered across the heath. How long had I cloistered myself in search of radiant lines but forgot the sun? How long had I denied my senses the emboldening pleasures of the wind, the flowers of midsummer – the soul’s true investment in the seasons? It is one thing to feel the rain, but another to embrace each pattering drop.

We paused by the bramble that had ensnared my fair dryad, and upon sight of it, she released my hand and stepped away. The steam from the transpiring trees seemed to coalesce in an evanescent shape around her form, slithering over hip and wrist.

“Fair lady, mightn’t I at least know your name?”

She smiled softly as the mist slipped across her face, clouding her features as if through a veil of luminous dust. “Rhiannon.” And in a surge of cloudlike nebulae, she expanded into the great white horse I had first encountered. With a toss of her head and a flick of her gray tail her eyes once more became unbridled and she bolted off, like a storm, into the wild – moss and grass tossed behind her hooves as she passed.

I hurried homewards, my head busy with thoughts like a hive in a cloverfield, and once inside the safe confines of my room I rid myself of my soiled clothes and donned new garments. How rapturous is the warmth of a fire, how pleasant the strain of the lungs after a brisk romp! The memory of the divine mare danced around the edges of all I saw. The chill of the river had imbibed my spirit with a delightful vitality I was determined to foster.

Upon my desk sat my volumes of Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton, Spencer and Chaucer, all worn to death by my constant reading, my ceaseless studying of craft and form. Beside them sat my inkpot and pen, and fresh paper, inviting in its whiteness. I sat down and wrote, not my “Ode to a Handkerchief,” but a new sort, short and formless about the necessity of Wonder and the Beauty of a falling leaf.

Oh tantalizing trivialities, may you never again cloud the senses, for what is a body if not used? What is the rain if not felt? There are a thousand, nay, a hundred-thousand pleasures the flesh is heir to if we are only to Love the experience of being.

I had allowed my heart to wither, but now I felt it swelling with sighs of content over all within my sight, drinking in every aspect of affection. My fear of Death had starved my soul, and now I saw that immortality through ink and paper was but a chance, while the Beauty created in Love would never slacken and never fade.

I fell asleep upon my desk and awoke towards evening when there was a rapping at my window. Bess, the landlady’s daughter, stood outside, and gave a little wave to ask if I were all right. I waved back nervously for I was sure that I had ink on my cheek from my unexpected sleep. Bess smiled and continued on her way, arranging a small bouquet of ferns and grasses from the heath, stepping lightly on her two bare feet. I confess I watched her form until she was out of sight – an ode to the simplest of delights!

But how long had I slept? Surely the white mare was not a dream. The clothing I had draped on bedpost and chairback to dry was now nowhere in sight – had it ever been there at all? The wastebasket was empty so perhaps the maid had come by while I slept and taken my soiled clothes to launder. Or mayhaps Rhiannon was indeed a vision. Yet whether real or fancy it matters little, for the effect was profound and from that hour forward, when in want of Inspiration, I more often set aside my books and stepped out the door, eager for the ways the wind opened my heart again and again, reminding me that I was part of the dance.

The memory of how I started out that day, walking the paths of my own tangled brain, brought to mind Augustine’s lines – “I was not yet in love, and I loved to be in love, I sought what I might love, in love with loving.” Love – a hopeful radiance ever writ in starlight, forever shining upon us all. What benevolent Beauty in Nature, in a smile. May I not forget you again.

That night as I lay down to rest, I did not try write the story of the mare divine and her ablution of my mind, but, rather, knew the proper telling would take distance and time. Instead, as I lulled in the hum of my pulse soothing me to sleep, I thought over the white lady and her fairest form. What rapture there was in her lips, as if kissed by the very essence of the Wilds. To find that joyful state of Living with another is to be in synch with the spinning of the spheres and the turning of the heavens.

The sudden yearning for the simple Beauty of flawed flesh filled me, and I imagined a future evening where I would want nothing more than to be with my Love in a state of half undress so that breast may press against warm breast. Oh! That we may ever feel the sweet caress, the echo of our hearts in the sublime surrounding of rock and stone, bird, leaf, and nest. What bountiful spirits have we!

I must close this now for Bess is at the door. I have had a thousand of her kisses yet still I want a thousand more! The birch and yew have whispers in their green, lofty crowns. It is a fine day for a walk and I have only to take off my shoes. And so I end this little tale, and bid my fair reader adieu.

~*~

Come, Goddess

This short story won an award in 2009. Warning: This story contains semi-graphic violence and disturbing themes.

Come, Goddess

By K.M. Rice

     I slept in darkness.

“Run, Makemba!” She pried her daughter’s hands off of her skirts. “To the forest.”

The distant, rapid gunfire and screams made her heart, strong from eight years of pumping, falter. Shouts of men wafted into the shanty home.

“Go!” Her mother shoved her to the other side of the tarp wall. “Don’t let the men find you, and don’t come back until it is quiet.”

Makemba nodded then jumped at the splitting shrieks of a nearby pig. Her mother looked over her shoulder. Trucks of men sped through the village and people dropped and fell and stumbled as they were stung by bullets. She swatted her daughter’s behind and shoved her, watching her leave until her small form disappeared behind the other settlements.

Makemba ran and the din of the blood rushing past her ears silenced many of the screams from the camp. One foot slipped in the mud at the edge of a puddle and her knee yanked with a twang but she didn’t stop. There was a boy running a few feet away and another girl beyond that. The wind of a bullet clipped past her ear with the spurt of hammering from a rifle and first the boy fell, then the other girl. Relief surged through her veins, tethered to adrenaline. She was not dead. She was not dead.

She reached the forest, the humid air constricting her lungs, the large fronds smacking her bare arms and legs. There were snapping sounds, breaking sounds, thumping sounds. She caught a peripheral glimpse of red and orange through the green. Another runner. It was not a race but she ran faster. She didn’t stop until she heard a startled snort of air. She turned to look and tripped, her side slamming into a tree root sticking out of the ground like a spider’s leg.

A pair of almond-shaped brown eyes studied her in surprise. Makemba rose, her chest burning, sweat stinging, and eyed the long black hair, tipped with dew, and large flared nostrils of a female mountain gorilla. Her heart hammered in her throat. She had come into this forest with her mother to collect wood many times, trespassing on the soil of the people of the mountain, but she had never seen one. “They are guardians,” her mother had said; though what they guarded she did not know. The gorilla stood stock still on all fours, matching her timidity.

There was the sound of wood sundering and another gorilla pushed out of the brush, coming to stand beside his sibling, eyeing the naked ape. In a heartbeat he was joined by a massive silverback. Makemba pressed her lips together, straightening her shoulders, her nostrils flaring as her blood continued to surge.

A woman screamed nearby, making both Makemba and the gorillas break out of their curious trance. The silverback sniffed the air then postured, flexing the knotted muscles of his shoulder blades and rising high enough to hammer out a message on his chest. The gorillas then quietly pulled away, retreating into the wide leaves, inching further up the slope of the volcano. Makemba took a step towards them, wanting to follow, but halted when the young female paused to look at her over her shoulder.

Another scream, much closer this time, and the gorilla slipped into the fronds. A soldier suddenly shoved into the small clearing, an AK braced in one hand, yanking along a bruised and bloodied woman with the other. He paused when he noticed Makemba then struck the young woman with the butt of his rifle, running at the little girl, the metal of his unfastened belt buckle clinking as the other woman landed on the ground.

Makemba shouted and kicked and bit at his fingers as they dug into her, yanking at her skirts. She twisted to reach the soil, clawing at the black earth, grasping at tree roots, crying out for help as the soldier yanked down his pants. She screamed as her blood trickled onto the ground, seeping into the soil.

The gorillas of Virunga know what happened next, but they no longer speak to Men.

Your blood woke me, daughter.

The same images played on every news station. “At least a hundred dead with more bodies being uncovered every few minutes,” the thin-nosed news anchor paused as the aerial footage zoomed in on UN officials in hazmat suits, carrying black corpses. “So far the bodies have all been male and the group has been identified as Sudanese militia. Though the camp is on the border of Darfur, there are no signs of violence or trauma to any of the bodies.” Rows of booted feet stuck out from under blue tarps that fluttered in the breeze, revealing glassy eyes crawling with flies before the clip hastily cut away to the English news anchor as he continued. “UN spokesperson Nadia Amir has said that cult activities are not suspected and that officials are treating these mystery deaths as an outbreak of an as yet unidentified disease. Reports of more deaths in several other African nations have also come to our attention. Stay with us for more.”

Where am I? This is not the world I remember.

His shoes echoed down the corridor and his radio chirped to life then hissed in static before losing the wayward signal. Dustin sighed through his nose, readying his ID card then sliding the plastic through the panel by the door. He stepped into the room, cells flanking him on either side as he strolled through, ignoring the sleeping prisoners. His stomach twisted in hunger. “One more hour,” he muttered to himself. “One more hour…”

“Hey, warden!”

Dustin paused, looking to the cell behind him before strolling over. “There a problem?”

“He just fell over.” The pockmarked prisoner pointed to his cellmate on the floor.

A line formed between Dustin’s brows. “What do you mean ‘he just fell over?’ Is he breathing?”

The prisoner shook his head, taking a step back. “He’s dead.”

“Dead?” Dustin unclipped the radio from his breast.

“He said ‘oh Jesus’ and he dead.”

“This is Higginson,” Dustin said as he held down the button on the side of his radio. “I’m gonna need a – ”

“Holy shit!”

The shout came from behind him and Dustin pivoted. The prisoner in the cell opposite him had leapt away as his obese cellmate groaned and rolled out of the top bunk, hitting the cement with a slap. Dustin moved his lips but another yelp stole his breath. Then another. And another.

The prisoners grabbed at the bars, screaming that they were being poisoned, that they had rights as men, that this was some fucked up shit going on.

Look around you. What have you done to me?

The mayo was turning but other than that, the hoagie was pretty good. Miguel sucked at a tendril of turkey muscle caught in-between his teeth, picking at it with his thumb when it didn’t dislodge right away. The plinking and buzzing and hammering continued across the street as the other construction crew kept working. Miguel watched them work while he ate, his buddies retrieving their lunches and unpacking them on their tailgates, laughing above the din of the intermittent spurts of a jack hammer. He’d only been out of prison for six months, but he was already beginning to feel like he’d been working on this building for years.

Miguel hunched to grab his thermos, taking a swig of coffee. He straightened, pulling back more of the paper around his sandwich, and leaned in for another bite then paused. A little girl was standing across the street, her white summer dress enhancing the earth tones of her skin. Her dark hair lifted in the breeze as she smiled at him, her brown eyes alight as if he were a friendly face.

A bus roared past and he squinted in the glare the sunlight cast upon its windows. The child was now strolling down the length of the chain link fence, trailing her fingers over rattling metal, sloppy inconsistencies brushing against her skin.

She looked to him. He set his sandwich aside. She smiled timidly over her shoulder.

“Are you lost?” he called to her as he rose. Her expression didn’t change. “Estás perdido, niña?”

She continued to wander the length of the fence and several cars sped past. One honked, warning her of her nearness to the road. Miguel cursed under his breath then jogged over to her.

Hablas inglés? It’s very dangerous over here,” he said as he held out his hand to her.

She studied his calluses then looked up to meet his gaze, narrowing her eyes a little as the sunlight shrank her pupils.

Miguel smiled a little, resting his hand on her shoulder. Her skin was smooth, her lips were full, and there were endless empty rooms in the apartment building behind him. He glanced around to see if anyone else was paying attention. “Where’s your mommy?”

The little girl’s eyes relaxed, welcoming the burn of the sun. She took a step back.

Miguel shook his head and pulled out his cell phone, briefly showing it to her. “Let’s cross the street then give your mommy or daddy a call from inside where it’s quieter, all right?”

The child took a step towards him and Miguel smiled, tucking the phone back into his Carharts. He furrowed his brow as he noticed the pigment of her irises begin to shimmer and waver like liquid.

She darted into the street. His smile hadn’t yet slipped when the cement truck swerved to avoid her. He felt the tips of his ribs rend his lungs as he soared, wondering if he’d ever come down. He never knew if he did.

I walk amongst you with a smile. Who am I?

“Kiet!”

The earth continued to shake and Kiet stepped away as a pot fell and shattered beside him.

“Kiet!”

He ran towards his father’s voice, meeting him at the entrance to their home as his father returned, pausing long enough to grab him then run. Before Kiet could ask why they were leaving instead of staying inside as they were told, he saw the reason over his father’s shoulder. The sea had become a river and was surging into the town, wave after wave increasing the speed. The water was colored like milky tea, foaming and crumbling houses like soggy biscuits.

His father’s fingers pressed hard against his spine as he ran, his sandals slapping against the packed earth. Another man began to scream in warning but Kiet and his father were knocked forward and hit the ground, shoved against the slicing sand before he could finish. Kiet’s heartbeat surged and he strengthened his grip on his father’s sodden shirt as the two were twisted about in the torrent, his eyes squeezed shut. The man beside them was wrenched to the side and his head smacked against a car with a muffled plink, the water about him moving too quickly to be colored by the blood of his death wound.

Suddenly Kiet felt that they were moving upwards as his father’s feet brushed the ground and he shoved. They breached the surface like a whale and its calf, coughing and gasping. His father swam with the current, heading towards what looked to be the strongest nearby building where a Thai flag still flapped.

There was another surge of sea and the two were shoved underwater again, once more tossed about in the surf, their scratches and slices stinging in the salt. When they broke to the surface again, Kiet’s father latched onto a tree trunk, looking around. They’d been swept far past the government building.

There was a gurgling – the chthonic rumbling then trumpeting of an elephant as it dashed away from the water. Kiet wanted to go to it, to pretend to be its mahout, to ride it to safety, but his father was trying to pull him away from his chest. Kiet cried and held tighter to the fabric.

“To my back,” his father said and Kiet slowly obliged, keeping his legs tight around his father’s torso. The man then began to climb up the tree, and Kiet clung, pinching his flesh, holding his breath as his father kicked off his sandals for a better grip. The child could feel the muscles in his father’s back and shoulders shaking but he kept climbing as the tree rattled and shook from another wave. He paused when he reached a thick branch high up, shifting to straddle it. He pulled Kiet to his front once more before hugging the trunk.

They studied the disaster below as more waves pounded their home. The bodies of several suited businessmen lolled in the water and Kiet looked away, gazing out to the east and the ancient stone temple of Siddhārtha Gautama, mumbling a prayer to the Buddha to protect him and his father, his tears melting into his father’s soggy shirt.

The tree shook many times and even tilted some, but the roar of the water began to quiet, replaced by the wailing of survivors.

I am she who is. And I have come for they who have defaced me.

Cassidy looked at the front page of her university’s newspaper. There was a colored picture from the most recent football game at the top and below it the picture of a man clinging to a statue of the Virgin Mary as water surged past him, the accompanying article tallying a tsunami death toll.

“Damn, we lost again.”

She looked over at Chantal then folded up the paper. “Who cares? What time is it?”

Chantal glanced at her cell phone. “8:45. We’ve got fifteen minutes. I’m getting coffee.”

Cassidy fell into step beside her, sniffing as her nose began to run in the cold air.

“You getting one?”

“Shit, that’s Rob.” Cassidy hastily turned away, tucking her hair behind her ear.

“Where? Which one?”

“Coming out of the parking garage,” she mumbled, beginning to walk in the opposite direction.

Chantal eyed the young man then caught up with Cassidy. “You know how much I wanna beat his ass?”

Cassidy kept walking.

“Cass, you could put him in prison for what he –” She was jostled by someone passing by and frowned, looking over her shoulder at the woman who strode down the cement pathway, her long hair and her white, calf-length sundress lifting in the wind of her passing. Chantal stopped when she noticed that the young woman was barefoot.

Cassidy paused to glance to the woman as well. Her breath clouded before her.

Chantal shook her head. “She just totally smacked into us.”

Cassidy rested a hand on the back of Chantal’s shoulder, taking a step away when Chantal suddenly snorted in laughter, biting her lip to keep quiet. Cassidy followed her gaze and noticed that Rob had tripped and now lay on the ground while his two friends laughed. He didn’t rise. More people were looking now and the woman with the long hair was gazing at the three. Rob’s friend laughed nervously, lightly kicking his bicep. “C’mon, man.”

The woman looked away and Rob’s friend gasped, his backpack slipping off his shoulder as his knees buckled and he fell to the cement.

“Oh my God,” Chantal breathed.

“He’s dead!” the third friend shouted after feeling Rob’s pulse. The small crowd of wandering students paused and milled about, some dialing emergency numbers on their phones, one jogging over to help.

Cassidy turned to watch the young woman as she continued down the walkway, moving slowly, as if she trod on shifting sand rather than concrete. She stepped into a noisy group of students outside of the student union. Cassidy and Chantal looked on, standing perfectly still, as male heads intermittently disappeared from the crowd and cries of alarm were sounded.

You forgot I would see. You forgot me.

Sirens in cities wailed. Morgues overflowed.

The ocean claimed its bounty. Sharks feasted on bloated bodies.

Pavement stained red faded to dark grey. Tires ground spills away.

Cells were half-empty. Beds were burned.

Carrion reined.

I come from the mountain.

I come from the sea.

You know my voice.

You know I see.

Sing my song, daughters.

I set you free.

Makemba pressed her palms into the soil, shakily pushing herself up. Her breathing hitched in her chest, stuttering from tears. The fronds around her reflected the silver of the moonlight on their waxy tops and a chill in the air numbed her skin. She squeaked and held a hand to her loins when she was gutted by a sharp phantom pain, memory of being split. The earth clung to her bloodied legs and groin and after several breaths the pain faded to a throbbing ache and she stood, holding onto a tree for support.

She was alone now. The man had left after she had stopped moving and he had taken the beaten woman with him. Insects hummed and chirped so deep into the forest that she felt their sounds must be as the water in a lake. Warmth slid down her leg as she bled from her movement but she didn’t dare bend to brush it away. A breeze rattled through the leaves, coming down from the mountain. Makemba stopped breathing when she realized that some of the leaves made too much noise to be from the moving air.

The hair on the back of her neck rose with a flush of goosebumps, as if the wind had kissed her nape. She turned to look behind her and saw an old woman, her face sagging with lines etched by the sun and the spinning of the earth.

Makemba’s lips parted and she blinked.

The old woman inclined her gray head, her bones and beads clanking.

Makemba hugged the tree, pressing her cheek against it, and the old woman laughed, a squeaking chuckle, showing her missing teeth. She then turned, hobbling up the slope. Makemba watched her for several heartbeats then turned as well, hobbling just as slowly down the mountainside.

There was another gust of wind and Makemba glanced over her shoulder to where the old woman had been and instead glimpsed a little girl her age, running into the forest, the leaves swaying in her passing, laughing for her as she returned to the earth. Makemba’s lips twitched on their own, curving in a smile before the memory of her mother’s harried eyes once more bade her to turn around, slowly making her way down the slope and into the village where the women had piled and burned the bodies of the soldiers.

The mist from the trees on the slopes of the volcano shrouded and shifted in a whispered hum. The female gorilla watched Makemba step back into the camp far below. She saw the child’s mother limp to her, picking her up in an embrace, resting a hand on the back of her head. The women were wounded, but they would heal. She then looked away, following her family deeper into the mountain, her knuckles pressing against the soft earth that harbored ancient veins and quiet tremors and nebulae of memory.

I will return.

Comic-Con 2012

I owe a massive thank you to TheOneRing.net for taking my sister and I on as volunteers and bringing us to our very first convention ever: Comic-Con! Our experiences were both humbling and thrilling. Not only did we get to geek out over the massive Grimm set-up and visit Aunt Marie’s trailer, but we bumped into Elijah Wood, met Andy Serkis, and more importantly, befriended many of the kind gentlemen of New Zealand’s Weta Workshop. We even got to help take down the Weta booth and help pack it up!

With all our hearts, to the TORn staff: hannon le!

Image

With Andy Serkis who plays Gollum and is the second unit director on The Hobbit

This one is from 2008, my first semester as an MFA and was heavily influenced by my study of the Old English language and culture.

The Walkers in Darkness

By K. M. Rice

     The charred remains of the cabin stuck out of the snow like the bloodied ribs of a wolf kill. Derek exhaled a stream of white as he studied the shadowy remnants of his past, now hemmed in with pines. Snowflakes speckled the air, wafting down and about as the wind sighed around him. One landed on his eyelashes and he blinked it away.

“It’s been a year, brother.” The voice behind him cut through the solitude of the snow like an echo in a granite canyon. Derek dragged his pale eyes away from the ruins and to his sibling. Gregers was only two years older yet carried his shoulders with the weight of an ancient warrior. His tawny hair fell in his face in oily clumps, curtaining his angular cheekbones and ice-like eyes. He sniffed then ran his teeth along the inside of his lower lip, the skin of his chin rippling his facial hair like a hawk rustling its feathers.  The wolf furs clinging to his shoulders gathered flecks of white that melted, darkening the fur into stained points.

“I know,” was Derek’s somber reply as he looked away from his brother and down to the seal skin of his boots.

Snow sucked and crunched beneath Gregers’ step as he approached his sibling, his eyes cast to the abandoned timber. “You still don’t speak of it.”

“There’s nothing to speak of,” Derek grumbled as he turned his back on his former home, adjusting his belt around his furs.

Gregers’ bark-like laugh startled Derek and he glanced over his shoulder as the older Dane spoke. “Nothing to speak of? Little brother,” Gregers said the last words almost pityingly as he rested a chapped hand on his shoulder. “I return from my years away to discover that your heart’s blood was spilled in this place. Have you no fire for vengeance?”

“It will not bring back Hilde or Wulfric.”

Gregers raised his chin, looking down at his brother through slit eyes. “And you feel no anger? No lust to shed the blood of those who slew your wife and son?”

Derek swallowed, the muscles of his throat taught. His voice was hoarse. “No.”

Gregers’ upper lip twitched in a sneer. “Then I will for you.”

Derek held his gaze for a breath then shouldered past him, trudging back to the snow they had trodden in a path to this place. The skin below his nose chilled with the wind as the wet in his breath cooled on the moustache of his bearded face. He heard Gregers’ sigh as he fell into step behind him.

“Who were they? What were their looks? You have held your tongue, and your sword, for too long. No wonder folk think you a coward.”

“It will do no good.”

Gregers quickened his step until he was abreast of his companion. The light of his pale blue eyes cut through his hair like the brightness of a lake behind a grove of pines. “Were they a band of Celts?”

“No.”

Gregers furrowed his brow. “They did not cross the whale-road?”

“No.” Derek glanced to his brother then focused on the mountainside descent ahead of him.

“Then from whence did they come? I wish to pay the blood debt for you but you must give me some-”

“They were not men!” Derek snapped as he pivoted to face his sibling.

Gregers stood, his lips parting in silent question as he searched his brother’s face. Derek’s auburn hair blew over his shoulder as he stood his ground. For a moment the two were as stags with locked antlers.

Gregers licked his lips and his voice was a whisper. “Of what do you speak?”

Derek shook his head, unblinking. “They came with screeching and howling and talons.”

“Talons?”

The younger man’s broad chest was heaving. “They were not of our kind.”

“…Derek… what you say cannot be-”

“I know what I saw! I nearly died that night or must I once more show you the scars?”

Gregers held up a hand as Derek began to loosen his belt around his sagging middle. “No, you don’t.”

Derek’s shoulders slowly sagged as the wind cut across the open expanse below the mountainside, whipping through the trees, making the giants groan as a few disgorged the snow from their limbs. He looked away from the face of his brother and out to the bright pale of the snow-covered plains hugging the bank of the fjord. The undulating water below shimmered and rose and fell like the glistening scales of a hoary serpent. He emptied his lungs of air, his vision fogging with the rush of mist before he took another breath, the cold coating his throat as a quiver ran through the muscles. “They were not the sons of men.”

Gregers studied his brother’s profile as he let the words entangle his mind ere he looked over his shoulder towards the gutted homestead. The trees creaked anew from another gust and the snapping of a branch from the weight of the snow cracked in the distance. Gregers stilled his breathing to better listen, the swaying of the boughs suddenly seeming as arms swinging at an unreachable opponent. He took a backwards step towards his fellow Dane, his eyes still trained on the forest behind him. “…If they were not of our kind then what were they?”

Smoke was rising from the hearths in the village further south and inland from the fjord, disappearing into the overcast sky. Derek studied the dark undersides of the clouds on the horizon for several heartbeats before he answered. “Walkers in darkness.”

~~~*~~~

     The hall of Aegward suffered no icy chill to seep through its planks, despite the raging of the wind outside its walls. Laughter bounced off of the high rafters and off of the gold-wound pillars embedded beside the throne of the ring-giver, Théoden Hréthel. The monolith of a man had his spine slumped against the back of his throne, watching the dancing eyes of his hall-companions through his good eye. The weight of scar tissue made his right eye half-lidded, giving the grizzled reds of his bearded countenance the shape of a sigh. He shifted his weight to drink from the mead goblet his wife handed to him before she continued down the line of the mead benches, offering the sanctified cup to each man in turn.

Hréthel glanced down at the panting wolfhound at his side. The dog’s curled and wiry fur caught the torch and firelight like dingy copper. He perked his ears as the musician in the corner absently plinked a string of his lyre, his eyes distant as he sifted through songs in his mind, deciding which story to share next. Seated beside the song-shaper were the brothers Derek and Gregers, both seemingly wrapped in the darkness of the night sky outside and unaware of the hearth fires burning within the hall. Gregers emptied his third goblet with a flourish while Derek cupped his own, brooding over the amber of what was once the treasure of bees.

Pressing against the armrests of his carved throne, Hréthel rose and strode over to the siblings and dug his fingers into Derek’s shoulder in a firm grasp. Both brothers looked up to him as he released the younger of the two.  Hréthel’s voice rattled, echoing from the chamber of his chest. “It has been a year, Derek son of Ecglaf who was my shoulder-companion as a young man. It is time for you to shed your grief.”

Derek looked away from the larger man and took a swig of his mead. “It is not so easy with me, my lord.”

“I know,” said Gregers as he looked up at Hréthel through the matted mess of his clumped bangs, “that you all think my brother a coward for not seeking vengeance but there is no weregyld to be had, my lord; no cattle to be paid to replace the lives stolen from his house. He lives with nothing where once was his heart.”

Hréthel grunted. “Pain ebbs with time. Take another wife. Make another child. And if no woman here will have you, perhaps it is time leave our land. You’ll find all wounds heal given enough winters.”

Gregers’ gaze traced his brother’s countenance, measuring his response, waiting for Derek to speak of the dark ill that lay at the heart of his ravaging, but the younger man seemed content to continue to stare at his drink. Gregers spoke through grit teeth. “My lord, there is no payment to be had for it was not men who did this.”

Hréthel leaned over to brace a palm against the boards of the table, causing the musician to lean to the side to avoid being pressed against the man’s girth. Hréthel raised his brows at the unresponsive Derek. “It was women? Then your shame must be great.”

The song-shaper beside them laughed as Derek meekly met his king’s gaze. “No, my lord. They were… beasts.”

Hréthel’s pock-marked face, like the mottled iron of an old sword, twisted at the words. “Beasts?”

Gregers looked over the head of his brother to the king. “They walked on two legs and had bodies covered in thick fur,” he paused as he pointed to the wolfhound still lying at the feet of Hréthel’s throne, “like a hound’s. They were big.” He glanced around the hall at the retainers, ignoring the handful of eager eavesdropping faces that were now turned to him. “Larger than any man in this room.”

One of the listeners, Bearn, a fair-haired youth who was just old enough to take a woman to bed, shifted his gaze from his fellows to Gregers as he loudly called for silence. Most ceased their talk to look for the source of the callow voice and one further down the table, Harold, bristled at the demand of the youth. “You whelp – what is it that-”

Hréthel straightened and lifted a hand and the warriors fell silent. The thump of goblets being set upon the table and the hiss and snap of the fire filled the void of speech. Gregers surveyed his hall-companions before looking to the king as he rose. Hréthel nodded curtly and Gregers flicked some of the hair out of his eyes before sniffing loudly. His voice slid across the table like spilled water. “A year ago my brother and his family were attacked by a foe not of our make. They came under the cloak of darkness, hurling stones at his home; stomping and howling and splintering boards.”

“They were covered in dark hair,” Derek added as he rose as well, finally looking about at his comrades with fleeting glances. “And were even less kempt than my brother.”

Gregers smirked as several chuckled.

“They had an ill-favored look, as if they dwelled in watery lands. Their hair was clumped and hung like moss from the boughs of their arms and the barrels of their chests. They smelled of,” he hesitated as he clenched his fist before him, searching his word-hoard for the means to convey the hackle-raising scent, “skunkweed and urine, rotting flesh and the sour of swine dung.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t my wife and mother-in-law?” dark-haired Harold shouted, stirring a guffaw from those surrounding him.

Gregers pointed at him with a lopsided grin. “I’m telling her you said that, Harold.”

Harold laughed as he drew his sword, letting it dangle from his floppy wrist as his rosy cheeks shone in their tautness. “Then your flesh shall kiss my edge.”

“So long as that’s all I’m kissing,” Gregers murmured to further laughter before the blonde Bearn waved a hand at the others in annoyance.

“But what of these beasts?” the youth asked. “We had thought your son to have been killed out of payment for a debt to the thane across the water who-”

“No,” Gregers firmly answered for his portly sibling. “My brother owes no one anything except death to those who have wronged him.”

“Oh please,” Harold drawled as he sheathed his sword. “You honestly believe his words? He speaks lies to hide his cowardice-”

“We have all heard the tale of Beowulf and Grendel,” interrupted the gravelly voice of Hréthel and all fell silent once more, gazing at their chieftain who had stepped back to lean against the wall of the hall.

“Aye,” said Harold. “But that is a story, my king. Made up by some shaper such as this.” He gestured to the thin musician who shot him a darting glance then studied his lyre. “There is no more truth to it than there is to the tales of Beowulf and the dragon.”

“That is not true,” Gregers snapped, his drink-loosed tongue lending more fire to his voice than was needed. “I have heard of king Beowulf and his successor Wyglaf. Though he now resides in the Halls of Valhalla he is still spoken of in the land of the Geats. There is a high tower built along the shore in memory of him. He was a great man.”

Harold pressed his lips together as he felt the weight of the eyes of his hall-companions settling upon him. He swallowed his alcohol-tinged spit. “Then I apologize, Gregers son of Ecglaf. Not all of us have traveled as widely as you. We can’t all be swords for hire.”

Gregers nodded his acceptance of the apology as Bearn spoke again. “…Then the Grendel… he was flesh and sinew? He walked the land of the Geats as he may now walk ours?”

“Two of them,” Derek grimly concurred. “One had breasts like a woman. It was a female.”

“By the gods…” the lad breathed. “What did they do to you?”

Derek’s lips parted as bile began to tickle his throat. His mouth moved yet formed no words.

“They sundered his home,” Gregers spoke for him once more. “The falling thatch caught in the flames of the hearth and when he and Hilde and Wulfric tried to flee they were attacked by those man-scathers.”

Derek studied his brother through the unshed tears that stung his eyes.

Harold cocked his head at Derek. “And why have you not spoken of this until now?”

“I… I feared the mockery,” Derek responded, his gaze shying away.

“I don’t understand,” the youth spoke again. “Why would they attack you?”

Derek shook his head, his eyes cast to the knots in the planks of the table. “I do not know. I had never laid eyes on them before.”

Harold sighed as he exchanged a look with the man seated beside him and Gregers rested a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

Hréthel began to thump his way back to his throne. “Shaper!” he growled at the musician who looked to him. “You travel from village to village. What say you of these dark tidings?”

The minstrel stiffened, curling his harp towards his torso. “There are tales of many monsters in this middle-earth,” he slowly offered. “Tales of gore and tales of war.” The queen, sitting with her attendants in the corner behind the throne, ceased plaiting another’s hair to look at him. “Yet these beasts you speak of… I have heard tell from a woman in a village south of here. She was staying in the crowded home of her mother and her youngest child would not release her skirts. She had fled their home in the forest, she said, because her husband was away and they were visited by a bear-man. He strode into their clearing and began rummaging through whatever they kept outside. He broke the fence of their pen and stole a sheep. She had too much fear in her to try to chase him away. He disappeared into the trees after he had his prize but she gathered her children and fled the mountain, returning to the village.”

Gregers let out a deep breath. “…There is a whole tribe of them.”

Bearn licked his lips, hunching his shoulders. “Yet it sounds as if they dare not venture into halls – not like Grendel did. They’ve only been seen in the forest.”

Hréthel shrugged, now seated on his throne. “From what little we know of them.”

The youth swallowed and looked down to his drink before taking a large gulp.

Harold’s dark eyes were void of mirth as he looked to his thane. “What do we do, my king?”

“There’s only one thing to do, my lord,” barked Gregers as he stepped towards the chieftain, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. Derek watched him with the eyes of an owl.

“You would hunt down these beasts?” Hréthel asked.

“Instead of lying in wait for the next unkind visit, yes, my lord Hréthel. It is not their place to claim all of the wood and slaughter or chase out any man, woman or child who dares dwell there.”

Hréthel’s eyebrow lowered over his good eye yet remained forever arched above his scarred eye. “And you would act alone?”

“Nay,” Gregers responded, gesturing behind him to his younger brother who had sat back down. “My brother would help me.” Derek looked away and hunched over his mead.

“Will he now?” Hréthel chuckled as he leaned back in his throne. Gregers exhaled through his nostrils and looked over his shoulder at the lump of his sibling. There was a steely glint in his eyes when he locked gazes with the king once more. “Yes, my lord Hréthel, shoulder-companion of my father. Derek and Gregers, the sons of Ecglaf, shall rid these woods of this foe.”

Harold laughed and murmured, “I’d rather have a cow as my companion than a Derek.” Several chuckled yet Gregers didn’t flinch.

The king held Gregers’ gaze. “And what if your actions, whatever they may be, provoke war with these beasts?”

“The theft of sheep and the frightening of women and children are hardly causes for war,” Harold chuckled. “Just leave them be, son of Ecglaf. If they exist they sound more like thieves than warriors.”

“They slew his family!” Bearn snapped, narrowing his eyes at Harold. “That is no token of peace. And if they are of the same lot as Grendel -”

“They will be slain ere they have the chance of staining these walls with blood,” Gregers finished for him.

Hréthel let out a wheezing sigh then nodded. “Very well then, eldest son of Ecglaf. If you do this, you shall have my gratitude and will be generously rewarded.”

A corner of Gregers’ mouth twitched in a small smile before he bowed, his shaggy hair, clumped with braids, falling over his shoulders. “Then it shall be done, my lord.” He pivoted and strode towards Derek. When the younger man made no move other than to continue to stare at his drink, Gregers grabbed him by the scruff of his linen and hauled him to his feet, dragging him to the hinged doors that led out of the hall.

~~~*~~~

     “This is foolish,” Derek griped as he stepped into the cabin, dumping an armload of firewood beside the hearth then dusting the snow off of his shoulders.
Gregers glanced up from his whittling. “Actually, gathering fuel for our heat is rather useful.”

Derek narrowed his eyes at his brother then latched the door shut, muttering, “Always so clever…”

Gregers chuckled. They had spent the last few weeks repairing what they could of Derek’s old home. Felled trees replaced the charred stumps of posts and sod and logs rose where brittle charred walls once stood. The brothers had made as much of a din as they could while repairing the house, hoping to attract the beasts, but to no avail. The roof was thatched once more yet still leaked, the rain and melted snow pooling in muddy puddles on the dirt floor. Though most of the skeleton of the old home had been removed and burned in the hearth, the stinging stench of fire lingered. The two Danes were used to the scent by now as it had infested their hair and furs, marking them with a reminder of their quest. Though the interior of the dwelling now looked different than it had when Hilde and Wulfric’s laughter and song had danced within its walls, Derek felt branded by the memories he once made in this self same place.

He sighed as he sat down on the stump that served as his chair, tucking his stiff hands beneath his armpits, feeling their joints begin to loosen with warmth. He studied the pale shape his brother was carving. “What is that one?” He narrowed his eyes at the whittled lump. “Yet another wolf?”

A corner of Gregers’ mouth lifted in response as he nodded, glancing to the dozen or so wolf carvings that stood on the shelf above his bed.

Derek watched the calm of his brother’s half-hidden gaze as he gracefully flicked his wrist,

peeling off curlings of pine as he worked. His movements were so smooth and calculated, so self-assured despite the drudgery of their task that Derek felt something in his chest bristle with quills. “This is all a game to you, isn’t it?”

Gregers looked up at him, flicking some of the hair out of his eyes. “What?”

“Being here. Helping me. Fighting a beast we have yet to see neither hide nor hair of. It’s all just a way for you to pass the time.” Gregers didn’t respond but held his brother’s gaze with the same irritating composure, so the younger man continued. “You have no home, no family – no wife and children. You cannot honestly even fathom my loss. You kill for a price, caring naught for the families destroyed in your wake. You’re happy to while your time away; using it however best suits your whimsy for the moment,” Derek halted, taking a breath.

Gregers continued to study him for the span of a few breaths before sighing deeply through his nose, sniffing then swallowing. “We all sleep in wait of death, little brother. The fault is not only with me.”

“No,” Derek responded as he shook his head. “I am not like you. I’ve never been like you. You may be able to survive on the meat you’ve been hunting for us but I need some bread in my belly.”

Gregers glanced down to the younger man’s belt which only just made it around his girth. “I can see that.”

Derek’s face flushed. “Leave!”

“To what end?” he snarled and Derek leaned back as Gregers snapped out of his composure, spitting as he spoke. “To leave my derelict brother here to die? You are the last of our line, Derek – I will not live to have sons, this I have always known. But you – you have a chance, little brother. You enjoy the peace of a settled life while I can barely sleep in one place for more than a fortnight lest an avenging son hunts me down to seek vengeance for a faceless father I slew many winters ago. I know you still grieve, but you are free, Derek.”

Derek looked away from the heaving chest of his brother. The fire in the hearth crackled then popped as a sizzling store of sap was dug into by the flames. Derek’s voice was barely louder than the hissing heat. “…And of what use is freedom when I am a coward?”

“Therein lies the answer to your question.”

The younger of the two hesitatingly looked back to his sibling.

Gregers bared his canines in a twitching grin. “You asked why I’m here. I’m here to help my brother regain his honor.” He cocked his head when Derek looked down to his folded hands. “Don’t force yourself into exile like I did.”

Derek sighed, stretching his lower jaw before looking up to meet his sibling’s gaze once more. “I shall try not to.”

“Good.” Gregers looked back down to his carving as he resumed digging the small blade into the wood and Derek caught the ghost of a smile on his face. “Now, go make yourself useful and skin that brace of conies.”

Derek pressed his palms against his thighs as he rose, walking over to the dead rabbits hanging from the wall, wondering at his brother’s ability to seemingly lure them out of their burrows and onto the shafts of his arrows. “Gregers,” he sighed his brother’s name as he looked at the dead rabbits. “You really need a wife.”

His brother’s barking laugh was halted when the two heard a thump against the side of the cabin. Their eyes locked onto each other’s as they listened. For several long minutes, the rush of their own heartbeats filled their ears, nearly louder than the occasional hiss of the wind through a crack in the wall or the hole in the roof sucking out the smoke. Gregers parted his lips to suggest that the thump had merely been a cone falling from a tree when there was another on the opposite side of the house.

Gregers dropped his half-shaped wolf and grabbed their swords from their bedsides, handing Derek his own as something landed on the roof with a muffled thump. He kept his voice low and angled at his sibling’s ear. “Is this how it began before?”

Derek hastily nodded, flexing and stretching his fingers around the hilt of his weapon, his wide eyes trained on the latched door. Gregers crept over to the opposite wall and leaned an ear towards the logs, staring ahead as he listened intently. Another rock hit a crack, crumbling some of the mud caulking. Gregers inched to the hole and Derek started when what sounded like a large branch was torn off of a nearby tree. The mercenary crouched to cautiously peer through the hole. The snow was still bright despite the fading light of dusk. In the distance he could see the trunks of pines and their litter but couldn’t spy the source of the crunching snow off to the side as something circled the dwelling.

Derek backed over to his brother. “What do we do?”

Gregers hastily motioned for him to be silent as he continued to listen. Derek’s breathing was getting heavier and Gregers shot him an annoyed glance then suddenly leapt at him, shoving him backwards as a large rock struck the brim of the smoke hole in the roof, crashing through the thatching to land with a thump on the trodden loam beside the fire as mildewing wheat stalk, reeds and pine boughs showered down. Gregers released his brother to furiously stomp out the thatching that had fallen into the fire and had begun to smolder and flame. He hissed as the bottom and sides of his sealskin boots were singed.

Derek watched with his sword gripped in both hands. Gregers jerked his head, flopping his clumped hair to the side as he blew some of his bangs out of the way, looking to his brother with a deep line between his eyebrows. Derek squeezed his handle tighter in an attempt to hide the shaking of his arms. He licked his lips, whispering, “Are you alright?”

Gregers snarled and stomped over to him. “We must face them together. They’re trying to chase us out so-”

He was interrupted by a loud, guttural howl like the screeching of a horse being disemboweled. The two brothers cringed as a creature on the opposite side of the cabin returned the bellow before launching another boulder at the side of the house, splintering some of the wood and making the frame groan under the altered weight of the roof.

Gregers’ head whipped from the weakened wall to the door. “At my signal we charge and attack the nearest of the beasts. As one.”

Derek’s chest was shaking now as his arms quivered.

Gregers padded over to the door and undid the latch, motioning for his brother to approach. When Derek was at his side, he eased open the door a crack and peered out. One of the creatures was striding forward from the line of trees, its dark shape barely discernable amidst the contrast of the hoary snow. Its limbs were long and sinewy, moving with the gait of a loping bear. The shoulders appeared hunched for the neck was shorter than a man’s and the legs bent at the knee with the torso leaning forward, as if the creature were constantly peering at something on the forest floor. It stopped once it circled around to the side of the dwelling, seemingly unnoticing the two men observing it. Obsidian skinned fingers curled around a large rock with snow and moss still clinging to its side. The whole of the animal was covered in long, dark shaggy fur save the face, out of which stuck a large nose like a man’s. Gregers furrowed his brow as the beast looked to what the warrior discerned by the crunching snow to be one of its fellows.

Gregers leaned back and eased the door shut, looking to his brother. “There are two on that side. What say you?”

Derek shook his head with a line between his brows. “Brother…”

Gregers lunged his face forward so that their noses nearly touched. “This is no time for weakness, Derek. We’ll bring back the heads of these beasts and you’ll be hailed a hero. Prove your quality!”

Derek grabbed Gregers by the arm when his brother reached to open the door again, hissing his name. “Gregers!”

“What?” he snapped.

Derek’s lower jaw stuck out as he took several shuddering breaths. “These beasts did not kill my family.”

Gregers pulled his head back and stiffened, blinking at his brother.

“Hilde and Wulfric,” Derek continued in a quaking voice, “were burned in the fire. She ran outside with him as her skirts smoldered and threw herself upon the snow.”

Gregers shook his head. “Why would you-”

“I could not move. Hilde was screaming and I could not move to help her. I was so afraid, Gregers. I’m a coward. After the beasts left I searched for her and Wulfric… I crawled to their sides… they were dead. Their burns had gravely wounded them and the cold…”

Gregers looked away and closed his eyes as another rock smacked against the side of the cabin. “You should have spoken of this sooner.”

“…Forgive me.”

Gregers’ ice-blue eyes looked up to his brother’s through his bangs before he slapped a hand to his shoulder, squeezing it tightly. “It is done.” He sighed and raked back his hair, looking about the weakening cabin as he sniffed.  “It was still these beasts who were the cause of your undoing.” He shook out his shoulders and readied his sword, looking to Derek with a lopsided grin. “Let them taste the fury of the line of Ecglaf.” He flung open the door and a battle cry ripped from his chest as he charged across the snow at the nearest of the beasts. Derek raised his sword and hurried out after him, his eyes failing in the near-darkness of the sky as he followed the shape of his screaming brother.

The animal he was charging straightened to its full height and swung out at Gregers with a bare arm, embedding its flesh into the blade of his parrying steel. The beast whined in a pained roar and withdrew its bleeding limb yet before it could strike against Gregers once more the Dane had pulled his sword back and, with both hands on the hilt, forced it in-between the creature’s ribs, plunging his way into the coffer of its chest. Derek caught up to his brother as the other yanked the sword out with a grunt then readied to strike again. Two other beasts were hurrying forward with guttural chortles and the injured creature backed away from Gregers’ blade, clinging to its wounded side before stumbling onto one leg.

It looked up at Gregers with eyes of dark brown, its wide lips parted in a pant and the warrior stiffened, cocking his head as his gaze met the creature’s, an icy tendril slithering down his spine. The other two beasts were nearly upon them as Derek twisted his back to press against his brother’s, bracing his sword to impale the first of the two. “Gregers!” he shouted in warning. Gregers looked away from the man-like eyes of the dying creature in time to raise his sword to hack at the charging menace in unison with his brother. The stench of swine dung and rancid milk stung their noses from the nearness of the beasts.

The second animal grunted as the blades dug into its flesh. Gregers grit his teeth and his thigh muscles burned as he leaned his weight into his blade, forcing it deeper into the animal’s abdomen as Derek withdrew his sword to parry the raised arm of the third beast, dully registering the lumps on its chest. She wrenched her shoulder and her arm came down with such force that his sword arm was knocked groundwards and he gasped as her fist snapped his collarbone. He crumpled onto the ground and curled in on himself as he heard the thumps of large feet stomping around his head. Gregers howled then fell silent.

At his brother’s scream, Derek forced himself to unfurl and hacked at the nearest hairy leg with his uninjured right arm before scrambling backwards, plowing up snow around him. His blade had only dealt the leg a glancing blow and as he looked up, he saw that he’d struck the female who was now striding away from him, gnashing her teeth and heading for a dark lump a few yards distant at the base of a tree. The still-moaning bodies of the other two beasts lay writhing in the stained snow. One let out a low groan as it grabbed onto the trunk of a tree, attempting to hoist itself up yet thumping back into the crunching cold as the bark tore under its grasp.

The dark shape in the snow was flailing, trying to rise as the female approached. “Gregers!” Derek bellowed as he struggled to his feet, his left arm limply at his side. He stumbled through the drift towards his disarmed brother who was now attempting to limp away from the approaching female. Derek scanned the snow surrounding the two, looking for his brother’s blade, noticing that the drift was not trodden save for the dents being made by the creature. The awareness that she’d thrown his brother several yards lent fire to his step.

“Derek!” Gregers yelped as he continued to stumble away from the beast.

The fear in his older brother’s voice flooded Derek’s veins with fury and he screamed as he charged, bracing his sword in his right arm, impaling the female in the back. She arched in a silent howl and stumbled as he withdrew his sword then backed up, panting, readying to strike again yet hesitating when she coughed, swaying. She turned her face to him with a snarl on her lips, her teeth bared ere she clumsily lunged at him. He had only to back up out of her reach and she fell onto her knees, panting and wheezing. Derek glanced to the other two bodies, now still, and began to back up towards his brother. The female stumbled to her feet and started to trudge away from him and over to her companions, lowly moaning with each step.

Derek turned his back on her and hastily closed the handful of strides between him and his brother. Gregers was standing, watching Derek with a lopsided smile before wilting onto his side. Derek fell to his knees beside him, wincing as he jarred his injured shoulder, his chest heaving. “Gregers?”

The older man was coughing up blood that slicked his lips, wheezing, until his coughing morphed into laughter. Derek dropped his sword and reached for the belt holding his brother’s furs around his torso but the chill of Gregers’ weak hand upon his stayed him. “Don’t trouble yourself,” he chuckled, still coughing out spurts of blood with spittle. “I feel the ice inside.”

Derek gently pushed his hand away with a shake of his head, reaching to move the clothing to attempt to examine his wounds in the wan light of the crescent moon, but Gregers’ loud wheeze stopped him. “She would have…” he paused for another raspy breath, “torn my head from my body… but you stopped her.” He let out another gurgling laugh. “I would have been… killed by a woman!” His laughter grew until it subsided into a fit of coughing.

Derek brushed some of the hair off of Gregers’ forehead, able to meet his brother’s un-shrouded eyes for the first time. His chest and breathing ways felt as if they were being constricted by the sinews of some unseen coil. “Your ribs are broken – a healer may be able to-”

“Nay,” Gregers wheezed. “My bone-locks are burst. I shall be in the halls of our fathers before the dawn.”

A gust of wind chilled the skin of Derek’s cheek beneath a tear. “Brother…”

Gregers smiled weakly, his face seemingly as deathly pale as the snow in the hoary light. “I’m proud of you, little brother.” He gasped for air, his breathing a low whine.

Derek bit his lip as another tear chilled his cheek, grabbing his brother’s hand and squeezing it tightly. “The sons of my great-grandchildren shall speak your praise.”

Gregers’ chest shuddered as he struggled for another breath through the pressure around his lungs. “…Just so long as you lie… and tell them I was a handsome… man.”

Derek laughed as a tear fell, denting the snow. “Whatever you wish, Gregers.”

A corner of Gregers’ lips twitched in a smile before he shuddered as he wheezed for another breath. He looked up at Derek through the dimming light of his half-lidded eyes. “Thank you… for giving me a good death.”

Derek’s lips pressed together as he squeezed his brother’s cold hand with both of his. “You die with honor.”

Gregers’ breathing came in halting bursts as he inclined his head the slightest bit in acknowledgement. For several more moments his chest heaved as he floundered for breath. Derek tightly held his hand, weeping as he watched his brother’s death throes. When Gregers’ body shuddered and his eyes filmed over, stilling, Derek gasped out a sob. He gently shut his brother’s eyelids then brushed more of the hair from his forehead before pressing his lips to the chilled skin.

The snow had soaked his trousers and numbed his hands and face but he cared not as he rose and found Gregers’ sword near the bodies of the two dead creatures. The footprints of the female, dotted by blood, led off into the forest. Derek studied the dark shapes of the trees for several heartbeats before approaching one of the still beasts. With only one arm, beheading the animal made him sweat but he hacked through the sinews and bones until it was free from its perch.

He left the sundered face beside the door as he hooked his good arm beneath Gregers’ shoulders and dragged his body back into the house. Panting, he returned outside and cleaned his brother’s sword off in the snow before resting it on Gregers’ chest and arranging his arms and hands to hold the hilt; returning the biting edge to its master’s grasp before the stiffness of death settled into his empty frame. “May you swiftly find your way to the halls of our fathers and wait for me there, Gregers, firstborn of Ecglaf.”

Derek let his eyes linger on the red-stained lips and peaceful face of his brother in the light of fire’s embers ere he staggered to his feet and left the dwelling, securing the door shut behind him. He grabbed the head of the beast and began the trudge towards the trail that would lead down to the coastal plain and the village. Once his hearth-companions heard of the battle and the noble end of one who was born among them they would hasten to assist in bearing the body to rest.

The night was clear and Derek looked up at the stars as he numbly left the cabin behind, trudging forth. He adjusted his sweaty grip on the stenching hair of the fen-dweller, trying to hold it a ways from him so that it didn’t bump his thigh with its staining gore.

The remaining son of Ecglaf began his descent down the mountainside as a lone wolf’s cry wafted in the distance, haunting the high reaches of the swaying pines that hissed and sighed in the night wind.

~~~*~~~

TORN Tuesdays

Last Tuesday, I stopped by Meltdown Comics to guest on TheOneRing.Net’s weekly podcast, TORN Tuesday! We had a total of 20,000 viewers, which was amazing. If you didn’t get to watch it live, here it is on YouTube!

Watch Kellie on TORN Tuesday!

Image

Juncos

One winter’s afternoon when the sun was pale and light, I set a camera on the slumbering hillside to catch birds in flight. The footage is a stunning display of feathers all arrayed and chirping so sweet and high, but never would these birds have thought they’d be seen by you and I.