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Autumn 2009 Issue

Autumn 2009

Welcome to the Autumn 2009 Issue of Mirror Dance!

In this issue…

• Fiction by Robert Keller, Sheena Williams, John Whitehouse, and Heather Kuehl,

• Poetry by Shelly Bryant, Sarah Wagner, and Jess C Scott

• An interview with D. Harlan Wilson

Feel free to leave comments on the individual pieces.

Mirror Dance welcomes letters to the editor! Questions, suggestions for the website, and comments on the stories and poems may be e-mailed to markenberg at

We are now open for submissions to our all-flash Winter 2009 issue and the Spring 2010 issue. Please see our Submission Guidelines for details.

The Weeping Well

The Weeping Well
by Robert E. Keller

The Weepign Well

Elleese touched the bruise on her cheek, which was still tender from last night’s beating, and gazed into the well, wondering if this was the day she’d throw herself in and end her life. It was a lonely old well, made of crumbling, vine-covered stone blocks, lost in a deep valley amid grassy hills miles from town. It was the perfect place for a quiet death.

“My weeping well,” Elleese said aloud. How many tears of hers had it tasted?

A blanket of gray hung in the sky, with darker, angry-looking clouds to the west, and a light rain that was more like a mist caressed her skin. How many days had she come here with bruises on her face and arms? Once, she’d even showed up with burn blisters on the backs of her hands from a hot poker. She still bore the scars.

How many times had she thought about leaping into the well and ending her misery? In this land, where women were all but slaves and the laws worked against them, there was no escape from her husband other than death. The laws of marriage were strict, and any woman who broke them was considered the scum of the earth and could be punished by torture or execution. She had nowhere to go and no one who would help her. Even her own relatives would have turned her away.

“I’ll leave all of them to wonder what became of me,” Elleese whispered, climbing up onto the rim of the well. The water below was lost in shadow. Her husband would never find her body here. He didn’t deserve to find her. Let him keep searching and searching, wasting his time and feeling miserable. Meanwhile, she’d be sleeping peacefully in the darkness below.

Yet according to the religion that was widely practiced throughout the land, she’d be suffering eternal torment at the hands of demons in some forgotten hell. It seemed unfair that a soul who was already suffering should then be punished by more suffering. But that’s what her people believed.

“I don’t believe it,” Elleese said. “It’s just a lie invented to scare people.”

Elleese prepared to let go and fall, but her body refused to cooperate. What if it was true? What if she would end up at the mercy of demons?

“I don’t believe it!” she cried. She was tired of living, deep down to her bones--tired of the constant fear and torture. She saw no future for her other than misery, and she wasn’t going to let religious fears stop her from ending her life.

She begged her god to have mercy on her soul, and she leaned farther out over the well, relaxing her grip. Still, she didn’t fall.

“I can’t do it,” she moaned. “Not yet.”

Elleese was about to climb down and return home, when the weeping well itself decided the issue for her. The stone block she was sitting on finally crumbled and gave way. With a cry, she toppled into the darkness.

Elleese tried to grab something but fell too quickly, splashing into the murky water and going under. She flailed around and swam to the surface, gasping for breath, her chest tight with panic. Even though she’d been contemplating suicide, it hadn’t been her decision to fall, and instinct and panic now commanded her to fight for her life.

She swam to the stone blocks and tried to climb up. It was a shallow well--only about thirty feet deep; but the bricks were covered in a thick coating of slime, and she could find no toe hold even after she kicked off her shoes.

“Help me, someone!” she screamed again and again. But she was miles from town or from any road, and she doubted anyone would hear her.

Now that death was staring her in the face, Elleese realized she wanted to live. She suddenly knew her destiny, as she gazed up through the tunnel of stone blocks at the gray sky above. She would champion the cause of justice for women and lead a revolution. Or she’d die trying. If she was strong enough and clever enough, she could do it. Many others felt the way she did, and they could meet in secret and plot change.

Why hadn’t she thought of this before? Why now, when she was trapped in the well? Regardless, Elleese had received her wake-up call, her true purpose in life, and she wanted desperately to live. Fate was mocking her, and it wasn’t fair. Her destiny had been revealed--but only when it was too late. Already she was growing tired of swimming, as she wasn’t particularly skilled at it and she was expending way too much energy flailing about. She began to sob in frustration, her tears dripping into the water.

Something slimy rubbed against her skin and she screamed. Something huge and alive was moving in the dark water--a serpent that rose from the depths and coiled around her. Its head was twice as big as that of a horse, and it was the ugliest thing she’d ever seen. It was a wart-covered mass of uneven, gray scales, with crooked fangs hanging from its jaws. Everything about the serpent was twisted, slimy, and ugly--except for its eyes. They were sapphire blue and sparkled hypnotically as they met her own.

Elleese screamed and fought to escape, but the serpent’s tree-trunk thick body was coiled tightly around her. “Let me go!” she pleaded. She wondered if she was already dead, if this was a demon come to torment her. It sure looked like a demon. Actually, it looked far more ugly and monstrous than any demon she’d ever imagined.

“But you wanted to die,” the serpent hissed. “I’ve been watching you for some time now. You wanted to drown yourself in these waters. Don’t deny it. I’ve tasted your tears, and I know the pain in your heart.”

“Yes, I wanted to die,” she sobbed. “But not now. I just want to live and be free! Let me go. I’ve suffered enough by my husband’s cruelty.”

The serpent’s jaws split in a grin. “Have you, now? I like pain and suffering--mental, physical, and the suffering of the soul. Despair and bitterness are treats for me to savor. I like cold-blooded murder.” He let out a hissing laugh. “I could murder you right here and now. I could eat your heart and absorb energy from it, to grow stronger.”

“Please, let me go!” Elleese cried.

“Why should I?” the serpent said in its low, rumbling hiss. “What will you do for me in return? Will you murder for me and bring me a fresh heart?”

Elleese shook her head. “I...I can’t.”

“What about that cruel husband you spoke of?” said the serpent. “Will you murder him, and bring me his heart? If you will, I’ll free you from this well and give you an instrument that will kill him quickly. You’d be free of this prison--and free from him.”

Elleese considered it. She’d thought about murdering her husband many times, but she’d always feared being found out and punished. And the punishment for a wife slaying her husband would be a long, slow death in a reeking dungeon. But could she really bring herself to kill him? She doubted it.

“I’ll do anything else,” she said. “But not that.”

The serpent bellowed an angry hiss. “You waste my time. I’ll take you down to my lair and devour you.” With that, the monster started to drag Elleese below the surface.

“Wait!” she screamed, and the serpent paused. “I’ll do it.”

“I figured you’d change your mind,” said the serpent. “I’ve lived in this well for more than a thousand years. Most of the time I lay sleeping, dreaming of suffering and death. I’m as old as the world itself--a creature beyond good and evil. The agony of humans pleases me, and their hearts contain a type of energy that makes my power grow. But I haven’t been able to feed since being imprisoned down here by a witch’s curse. I’ve grown weak, but so has the spell that binds me here. A single heart--especially one full of malice--can give me the strength to break the curse and enter the world again.”

“But you’ll hurt people,” Elleese said. “Demons like you always do. That’s probably why you were trapped down here in the first place.”

The serpent grinned. “Perhaps. But I don’t want to feed off humans anymore--except for the one heart I need to free me from this well. Once I’ve escaped, I’ll return to the mountains, to ancient caverns far beneath stone where I was born, and I’ll never be seen again. You have my word on that, and a snake’s word is golden!”

Elleese hesitated, and then nodded. She knew she was taking a huge gamble in bargaining with a devil, but her choices were severely limited. “What must I do?”

The serpent opened its jaws wider. “My back teeth are small and soft. Break one off and take it to your husband. Wait until he’s asleep, and prick his skin with it. He’ll be dead in moments. His eyes will turn blue like mine and he’ll move and groan as if he still lives--but rest assured, he will be dead. Cut out his heart and bring it back to me. He may cry out, but he won’t resist--because as I said, he’ll already be a corpse, relatively speaking. His body will then disintegrate into smoke, never to be found. And with no body, people will just assume he ran away for some unknown reason.”

Wanting only to escape the abomination that was coiled around her, Elleese reached into the serpent’s mouth with a trembling hand.

“Don’t prick your skin!” the serpent warned.

She carefully broke off a small tooth and held it up for him to see. “Now let me go.”

The serpent rose out of the water, and she realized it was much larger than she’d assumed. It shot up fifty feet, carrying her in its coils, and dumped her out of the well. She lay dripping in the grass, as the beast hovered above her.

“Do not fail me,” the serpent warned. “If you plan on simply going away and never coming back, that tooth will transform into a tiny, winged demon that will suck the blood from the living--starting with you and everyone you know. And don’t think you can discard it somewhere, either. You’ve touched it, and it knows your scent.”

“What if I can’t do what you ask of me?” Elleese said, knowing it was a real and likely possibility.

“Then you must return here for punishment,” said the serpent. “I may devour you, or I may spare your life--depending on my mood. But regardless, I want my tooth back, as it contains powerful magic.” With that, the monster sank back into the well.

* * *

Elleese halfway hoped her husband Huen would beat and humiliate her like usual to make the murder easier for her to commit. She almost prayed he’d pull her hair and shove her against the wall while telling her she was worthless--one of his favorite pastimes. But Huen didn’t assault her every night. Rather, it depended on his mood and whether he was drinking. Sometimes he could even be kind and gentle.

On this night, Huen was in a gentle mood. He apologized for hurting her the night before and told her he loved her. He was tired from work, and turned in early.

Elleese stood in their home, the serpent’s tooth pinched between her fingers, wondering what she should do. At last she walked upstairs and into their bedroom.

Huen lay sleeping peacefully on the bed. He looked so innocent, a tall, lanky man with dark hair and a thin, young face. It was all too easy to forget how that boyish face could become contorted with rage, how those big, calloused hands could squeeze her throat.

Tears rolled down Elleese’s cheeks. She couldn’t deny that she loved him. If only he could change and lose that terrible temper, they could have a happy life together. Sometimes he could treat her like a princess (usually when he was trying to win her affections back after knocking her senseless). She knew he was capable of being a sensitive, loving man.

“I can’t do this!” Elleese whispered.

Huen groaned and rolled onto his side. For an instant he scowled in his sleep, and the memories of years of cruelty flooded her mind. She raised the tooth, rage boiling inside her. One tiny poke from that tooth and he’d get what he deserved. And she’d be forever free of him.

Elleese moved to the bedside and positioned the tooth an inch above his cheek. She was seconds away from freeing herself from a monster’s grasp--or rather,two monsters’ grasps. But still she hesitated, unable to force her hand to move.

For several minutes, she fought an internal battle with herself. The tooth she held poised above his flesh was the key to her salvation. Or was it? She’d never hurt or killed anyone before, and she knew if she did so now, that would make her no better than her husband. He deserved to punished, but not like this--not as he lay sleeping.

Elleese knew she was doomed. She couldn’t sacrifice her honor and do what the serpent wished. But if the creature spoke true, she’d have to return its tooth or it would bring destruction to her and her family.

Regardless, she was no murderer. And even though she knew must return to the well and probably be devoured, she could take some solace knowing she was a better person than the sorry wretch whose life she’d just spared.

She turned away from her husband, believing she’d never have justice--that he’d never be punished for all the misery he’d inflicted on her.

Was she a complete fool? She leaned against the wall, clutching her hair. Was she giving up a great opportunity in favor of more suffering? She wished she’d simply drowned in that well--like she’d wanted to for weeks and weeks.

* * *

The next day, the rain had stopped but purple storm clouds hung in sky. The sun’s rays poked through, and a huge rainbow stretched over the land. The hills around Elleese were bathed in a golden glow. She stood before the well, gazing into its depths, wondering if the serpent would show itself.

At last she saw a pair of sapphire blue eyes peering up at her. “So, Elleese,” the serpent said. “Have you killed your husband and brought me his heart?”

“No,” Elleese said, hanging her head in defeat. “I’ve come to return your tooth.”

With a hiss of rage, the serpent rose from the well and glowered down at her, its jaws splitting open. “So you’ve failed me?”

She nodded. “I’m no murderer.”

“Then prepare yourself,” the serpent said. “You shall now see me as I truly am.”

The creature disappeared back down into the well.

Elleese waited, her body shaking. She could scarcely imagine what dastardly fate awaited her. Was her honor worth this? But that question had already been answered when she made the decision to spare her husband’s life.

Moments later, the serpent rose again, but it had changed. Instead of a warty gray covering, its scales were now like the finest silver and shimmered with a touch of crimson. Its head had become proud, stately, and dragon-like, with three magnificent gleaming horns jutting forth. The creature had transformed from the most ugly monster imaginable to a beast of breathtaking beauty. From its jaws, it dropped a golden chest into the grass.

“Look upon me as I truly am,” the serpent said. “I’ve removed the magic that concealed my true appearance. I was the defender of this land, and the woman who once rode on my back brought justice and peace to all. But she departed from this world, and since the day she left, I’ve waited centuries for a new master. I knew that one day a woman with a noble heart would come to me, led by the hand of fate. At last, it has happened.”

Elleese gazed up at the serpent in shock, unsure of what to do. Was this really happening? “But you wanted me to murder for you,” she said.

“No, I didn’t,” said the serpent. “It was a test. I wanted to see if you were truly worthy to command me. Had you murdered your husband, you would have come to this well and
found only the dark water below. I would never have appeared to you again.”

“Worthy to command you?” Elleese said, her disbelief growing.

“Look in that chest,” the serpent said.

With trembling hands, Elleese pressed a button and the chest popped open. Inside was a golden breastplate, a winged helm, and a silver bow and quiver of arrows. All were covered in runes and shone with a magical glow, beautiful beyond anything she’d ever seen.

“Put on your armor,” said the serpent. “It will fit.”

Elleese did, and it fit perfectly. She slung the quiver of arrows over her shoulder and grabbed her bow, a deep change settling over her. Her eyes became sapphire blue, her will strong with purpose. The woman she’d always been deep inside had sprung into bloom.

The serpent lowered its head. She caressed the serpent’s neck, feeling a deep bond with the creature. At last she climbed onto its back.

“Where shall we go first, my lady?” the serpent asked. “You are the Dealer of Justice, charged by an ancient goddess to purify the world in the way you see fit. By divine right, your arrows shall cleanse the land of evil. So again, where shall we start?”

Elleese smiled. “I have an idea or two.”

* * *

Robert Keller says: I've always loved fantasy fiction, and I grew up on traditional works like those of J.R.R Tolkien and Terry Brooks. I live in Northern Michigan surrounded by lots of forests, lakes, and rivers--all of which help inspire many of my story settings. I've been writing a lot lately, and I'm hoping 2009 will be a very productive year.

What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?

My advice for other fantasy writers is to never forget that "magic" is what makes fantasy great. Magic is what sets fantasy apart from other genres, and it's important to really try to bring that to life in a story, to inspire longing within the reader to live in the world you create.

Cave Drawings

Cave Drawings
by Shelly Bryant

Cave Drawings

simple lines and dots
washed out ancient colours
coded images
secret knowledge
openly concealed

* * *

Shelly Bryant spends half of each year in Singapore teaching English literature, and the other half in Shanghai studying Chinese language. She loves to read, write, cycle, and travel. Her poems have appeared in numerous small press publications, and there are plans in the works for her first collection of poetry to be released late in 2009. You can visit her website.

Where do you get the ideas for your poems?

I would like to have some fantastic explanation, like saying that aliens visit me once a quarter to give me ideas. But then, on top of being untrue, that would do an injustice to any intelligent life that exists out there. The fact is, I get my ideas the old fashioned way — lots of reading, some research, and listening to what is going on around me. Long walks or long cycling trips help flesh out the ideas.

The Dance

The Dance
by Sheena Williams


Music. It’s the only thing that makes this place bearable. I sit watching the drunken patrons in the tavern. Some are chasing girls, some drinking heavily. Hell, most are doing both. Not rich enough to live a life at court, we must make money the best way we can. Although perversely the very life we’re barred from is the very life that feeds us money. They use us and make us feel like trash. They don’t realize that if it wasn’t for us they would have to turn on their wives, who will not dance for them. But we will, we always dance.

Dancing is the only thing that keeps me sane as I glide through the tavern, fighting off advances and explaining gently that my soul isn’t for hire. Well, at least not at the price they’re offering. I love to dance. The way my skirt flows around my legs. The way my body moves in time with the music. Each sway and shimmy makes me feel so full of life. It makes my soul soar higher than the roof of this tavern. It’s what makes me get up every morning and put on this corset and skirt. Dancing is what keeps me alive.

* * *

I remember the first time I saw someone dance at a tavern. My mother had gone in to get my father out of the cups. I was supposed to stay outside, but it was cold. I didn’t think it would hurt if I went inside just for a few moments, just long enough to get warm. There were so many men drinking, spending money, and lots of music. Then I saw five girls dressed in bright bold colors on stage. As soon as they came onto the stage the whole room became quite, the lights dimmed, and for an eternity the light was on them. They swerved, and moved to each pulsing beat of the drums playing in the background. Their arms swirled above their heads gaily as they spun and skipped about. In my short life, it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.

Secretly I went back. I couldn’t tell my mama where I was going. I just wanted to feel what the dancers must have felt when they were on stage. I couldn’t wait to show my mama what I had learned. When I finished I looked up into her eyes, and all of my excitement drained away from me. My mother just stared at me. She didn’t move, and she didn’t say anything. I finally ventured one word; Mama. It was like I had opened a flood gate. Mama started beating me; she wouldn’t stop slapping me. She said I would be a whore like the girls my papa ran off to every fortnight. I couldn’t understand how something that gave me so much joy could cause so much pain for her. Thankfully my father walked in, and he stopped Mama from hitting me. He made her explain why she was beating me. He scolded her, and then she turned on him, saying that it was his fault that I would grow into a godless whore.

After that, things were strained between my parents. I did everything I could to make it up to Mama, but nothing I did would stop her from looking at me like I was something she scuffed off her shoe. One day Papa asked me to follow him to the market. I gratefully went; I loved Mama, but she made me feel so worthless it was a relief to get away for just a while. I remember walking aimlessly down the main road until we stopped inside of a large building. Papa smiled at me, and told me he had a surprise for me. My answering smile was shy. It was so unusual for him to pay any attention to me, let alone have surprises to show me.

We walked into the building and it was so dark. My father told me to keep quiet and listen. I did as I was ordered, then I began to hear it. Softly at first, but then it grew in volume. I could hear strings, and the barest hint of a flute playing from somewhere. The music played and a girl walked onto the stage. She stood there for just a moment, and I was treated to the second most breathtaking moment of my life. She started to dance. It wasn’t like the girls in the tavern; it looked more as if she was floating on her toes. Each spin and twirl seemed to levitate her into the air. Right then I knew that it was my destiny to be a dancer, and my father began to teach me how.

* * *

Papa died; he left just enough for Mama to be comfortable, but not for much else. So I came to the tavern as soon as I was old enough, not being able to take the cold stares Mama had been giving me. In the beginning I would dance every night. Pincher, the tavern’s owner, would come from his storeroom with some new girl hanging off of his arm. He would slowly look around the room at his patrons and call out to me: “Blaze, dance for me!” I would stop whatever I was doing and move to the stage. I loved every minute, for this was the only time I stood out. The only time I outshone the sun, and I planned on living every minute of it.

But after all these years I see the truth of what I was ignoring. The patrons didn’t watch me because they admired the way I moved. They just wanted me as some type of toy. Some living music box figure that would pirouette and move any way they pleased. I found that out the hard way. One nobleman had told Pincher that he wanted me to dance for him privately. Of course Pincher prettied it up with nice words, and being full of myself and proud, I believed every word he said about being admired, and the nobleman only wanting to watch me dance once more before he left the tavern the next day.

I had been so excited about my first private performance. I took extra care with my appearance. I walked up to the nobleman’s room daydreaming about how he would be so impressed that he would take me away from this dingy little tavern. I was so wrapped up in my daydreams, I failed to notice how strange it was that the noble man was dressed in his night shirt. I walked in, my dark red skirt and short black hair shining in the light from the oil lamps. I poured every ounce of my soul into my dance; my skin glistened in the light, my breathing was heavy, I thought my legs where going to give out on me. I curtsied after I finished, and waited on the praise I was sure was to be mine.

The nobleman was just sitting there very still. I looked up, and the smile I saw on his face didn’t make feel very confident. I stood, and began walking to the door, but the nobleman had the door locked from outside as soon as I had come in. He rose from his chair and came toward me. I backed away until there was nowhere else for me to go. He reached for me, and slowly my nightmares started. He wouldn’t let me go. I begged and pleaded. He started touching me, and that is when I started to scream. I wouldn’t stop. I screamed and shouted till someone finally opened the door. The nobleman started swearing, and Pincher came in with an angry look on his face. He pushed me out of the room, telling me that he would talk to me tomorrow.

I went home that night crying and unable to catch my breath. The next morning was even worse. When I came in Pincher started yelling and slapping me in front of the other girls. Some of them winced, while others were smiling. They always thought that I had been too full of myself and that I was only getting what I deserved. In a way, they had been right. I was stupid and so damned arrogant I didn’t read the signs. During the course of my stay, I didn’t remain innocent, but I did learn my lesson. I became a dancer exclusively; I wouldn’t sell myself, and I used the fact that another tavern had offered me a job to make Pincher relent. It was a small victory, but a victory all the same.

* * *

Tonight was one such evening of fighting off some rich man’s offers. I went home before Pincher could try to wear me down into submitting; I was tired, and in no mood to argue. I slipped out of my clothes and into my night shirts. Each movement was a silent agony as I curled into bed. I laid back onto my pillow and stared at the ceiling, my eyes filled with tears. I silently contemplated going to my mama and begging to come back. But I couldn’t. I knew that if I went back she’d make me give up dancing. I couldn’t do that. It would make the last five years of my life worth absolutely nothing. I turned onto my side and closed my eyes. If I didn’t sleep I’d look tired, and Pincher would make fun of me in front of the other girls. Slowly I drifted to sleep, the sound of cruel laughter echoing in my ears.

I woke up. Something in my room startled me, and I wasn’t sure what it was. I just felt like I was not alone. I sat up in my bed and reached for the small dagger that I kept under the pillow. At first I didn’t see anything, but as my eyes adjusted to light, I noticed a figure standing next to my window. I called for whoever it is to come out. The figure didn’t move or make a sound for an endless minute. Then I heard soft laughter. Not like the drunken laughter from the tavern, but soft and clear like water. The figure moved and my eyes widened at the sight before me.

There was a man standing next to my window, but he had wings. As he moved closer to me I could make out more details in the dim light. He was tall, and his hair was short and dark like his eyes. The elegant and graceful lines of his body made me think he was a dancer, too. He was thin but muscular; I could tell he never worked in any field. I was immediately frightened, but I couldn’t look away; all I could do was grip my dagger tighter as he moved towards me.

He got to the foot of my bed. He looked down at me with a soft smile, and I finally moved my eyes to his wings. They were black, shiny black like the jewels some of the noble wives wore in their ears. My eyes widened once again, and I tried to make myself small against the back of my bed. He reached out to me, and I just stared at his hand. All of the dark prophecies about the devil coming to get me were spinning in my head. My mama was right. He was here in front of me right now. All he did was look at me with his hand outstretched.

I continued looking at his hand and I stammered before I could check myself: “Your wings are black.” I winced, waiting for whatever punishment he intended to rain down upon me. I looked up once more and I saw that his hand had settled at his side, but the smile had not left his face.

“Are you frightened?” he asked gently.

I nodded, stuttering, “You aren’t an angel if your wings are black.”

He stretched and continued to smile at me, shaking out his long dark wings. I fleetingly wondered if the feathers would fall to the floor, but that thought vanished as he moves closer to my end of the bed. He made a gesture as if asking if he could sit down, and, not knowing what else to do, I nodded warily, my knife still clutched in my hand. Drawing my legs up to my chest so he couldn’t touch me, I continued to watch him. He was beautiful, but he was obviously no messenger from heaven.

He gave me that smile again as he watched me nervously fiddle with my fingers, his teeth flashing in the lamplight. I saw that his canines came to small points at the end. My hands started to shake, and I knew that the dagger was useless. He watched my fingers carefully for a moment before laying his hand upon them. Energy flowed through me like a jolt of fire up my arm. It was if I had been dancing in front of a whole theater of people and I couldn’t catch my breath. I looked up at him, and the grin became a small smirk. My face burned and I could only thank the heavens that it was too dark for him to see. I moved my hands and pulled away from him once more.

“What do you want?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper.

He chuckled and shook his head. He slid closer to me; his shoulders brushed mine as he made himself comfortable. “I don’t want anything. I’m here for what you want,” he said simply.

Millions of thoughts ran through my head, all of the things I wanted from the past week, the past two years, even some new thing I hadn’t ever wanted before. My face burned again, and this time I was sure he could see it. The small smirk had not left his lips as he searched my eyes. I had been biting my lip to see if I was dreaming, and his eyes followed the movement.

“Whatever it may be,” he added in a whisper.

I immediately stopped biting my lips, so as not to give him any ideas. I hadn’t spent all of my time fending off nobles just to give in to the first handsome man I saw in my bedroom.

“What do you mean?” I asked. Anything to fill the silence. “ I have no idea what I must do for this opportunity, but the price has to be high if it pays for anything I want.”

“Whatever you ask for, you will receive,” he said, moving nearer. “You will get one wish, one wish and one chance to have anything you desire.”

He was so close to me. I knew that he could feel my pulse through his hand. The sheer joy of having someone to be close to was not lost on me. I squirmed slightly as he wrapped his wings around me. I could feel his lips against my cheek and my eyes immediately closed.

He held me and described all of the things that I could have, all the things that I could do if I just made that one wish. He told me I could have anything I wanted, and I didn’t have to do a thing for it. I immediately pulled away from him and got out of bed. I was not the brightest star in the sky, but I wasn’t the dullest either. Nothing comes without a price. I’d learned that the hard way, and I wanted to know what his price was.

“Who are you?” I demanded. “What are you? How did you choose me?”

I waited for an answer, fleetingly remembering that I’d left the dagger on my bed. I cursed at myself silently. He looked surprised at my outburst but smiled. He stretched out on my bed, propping his hand under his head and letting his gaze travel over me. I had never felt so open to anyone; it was as if his eyes gazed into my soul and memorized all they saw so that he could use it against me later.

“I am not a devil or an angel, but I have enough power to make your dreams come true. I grant wishes to those who deserve it. I give those who need it a chance to make their dreams come true, and ask nothing in return.” He said all of this with a smile that was not a nice as it should have been, with a statement that selfless.

“So you are here to grant the wish of someone you don’t know? I don’t even know your name.” I was frightened, but I wanted to believe. He was cruel to offer this hope to me.

“My name is Souhait, and anything you ask for can be yours. Anything your heart desires is yours if you wish it.” He stepped forward, tipping my chin so that my eyes looked into his. “Don’t you deserve it?”

I stared at him for a minute and laughed. Even I surprised myself at how harsh it sounded. I thought of everything I’d done since moving away. I remembered how my mother wept as I bid her goodbye. I thought of all the things I’d done to survive, and I wondered how on earth I could be deserving of such a gift.

“Why are you giving me this?” I asked, with a not-so-nice smile of my own. “There are lots of girls who deserve it far more than I do.” I shook my head, trying to hold back the tears that threatened to pour down my cheeks. “I’m fine,” I said. “I’m fine on my own. I don’t need you.”

Slowly, Souhait let his eyes fall from mine and looked around my quarters in the most insulting way. He took in the torn curtains and the cracked ceiling. He let his eyes rove over my sparse and obviously worn bedding. Finally, his eyes traveled over me, and they showed sad amusement. I frowned at him; I had never felt so invaded in my life.

“It’s not as bad as it seems,” I snapped. “I have a lot to be thankful for. I’m just waiting until it’s my turn to dance on stage. I’ll find a true gentleman, who will ask me to dance for him, and then he’ll take me to the theater and I’ll become famous. I’ll tour the world, dancing for rich and poor alike. There’s nothing wrong with working at a tavern until my day comes.” I hugged myself as I listened to what I was saying. I had been telling myself those lies for the past two years. I wanted to be a dancer, but every day my dream seemed farther and farther away.

Souhait watched me through my tirade, the same mocking amusement shading his eyes as he moved from the bed to stand next to me. He lifted my chin to look into my eyes before slowly pulling me back into his arms.

“Why do you try to delude yourself like that?” he asked. “You know that no true gentleman is ever going to find you in that tavern.” His wings wrapped around me, and slowly he started rocking me back and forth. I relaxed into him, sharing his warmth. “Don’t let this chance pass you by,” he whispered. “With this one wish you can have, do anything you want. With my help you’ll dance for millions in places you’ve only dreamed of.”

After a few moments Souhait turned me around, looked into my eyes, and placed a soft kiss upon my lips. My legs felt as if I had been dancing for hours. I would have agreed to anything, sold my soul if only to be near him, to be cared for always. I would give anything just so he would keep holding me like this. Just like this.

“What do you want?” he asked me. “Tell me what you would wish for if you did take me up on my offer. If you share your dreams with me, I promise that I will make them come true. I only want to help you to become who you are truly meant to be.”

“I…I want to be a star dancer. I want to bring the dances of the tavern and the ballet of the stage together for everyone to see. I want to stop working at that tavern. I want to stop taking orders from people who don’t value me, and who don’t make me value myself.” I couldn’t stop myself. I poured out my soul to him. I screamed out every desire and craving I had ever held in my heart. I was breathing heavily and I couldn’t stop the flood of words rushing out of my lips. “I wish to make my mother proud of me. I want to honor the man who showed me what dancing was.”

“Is that all?” he asked, watching me with that small secretive smile as I listed all of the things I would do.

“I want to make my name fly higher then stars. I’ll open a dance school for girls who can’t afford it.” As I spoke, I became light-headed. I felt his arms become lighter. He no longer felt real to my touch.

“Wait… Where are you going? Please don’t go!” I called out to him, half begging, but he began to shift into a blinding light.

“Time is almost up, darling. If you want those things, take them. Say the words and they will be yours.” He sounded as sad I felt that he was leaving. I sobbed miserably as his body turned into a light I couldn’t hold.

I didn’t know what makes me do it, but I embraced that light. I lay my head on what was left of his chest, and I whispered what he needed to hear. I yearn. I desire. I wish. Je souhaite! After that darkness, I remembered nothing.

* * *

I woke up the next morning with a blinding headache. My limbs ached and my throat felt like it was made of sack cloth. I dragged myself out of bed slowly, looking around my room. Nothing had changed. I stretched and sighed sadly. It must have been a dream, something my mind invented to keep me warm. I held myself, trying to feel the warmth I felt last night. It was all just a dream after all, no warmth, no Souhait, and no wish. I sat back on my bed and pulled my knees up to my chin. I looked out of my small window at the sunlit sky. It was almost time for work. I ran my hands through my hair and began to prepare for work. The whole time, I tried to keep my heart from breaking. Tears fell down my face as I moved about my room. It had been such a wonderful dream.

* * *

The tavern was busy that evening. The lights shone brightly against the snow outside, and the music inside was deafening. I was so busy fetching drinks and slapping hands away from my thighs that I could barely think straight. I couldn’t believe how many noblemen were there tonight. I rushed around like the rest of the barmaids, making sure everyone was comfortable and well-fed. I just finished clearing a table when Pincher came out of his store room. His eyes fell on me. I watched him smile, and I knew what was coming. He gestured to the small stage at the head of the room, and said two words.

“Blaze, dance.”

The whole room went quite as I climbed onto the stage, and I looked to the minstrel. He smiled, and began playing a soft tune about memories that one can’t catch. At the first strains of music my hands slipped above my head, and my hips slowly began rotating. As the song continued, I tried a few spins, and tentatively lifted my leg in a sweeping motion above the stage. With each beat and pluck of the minstrel’s hands, I became more daring. I pirouetted, and leaped across the stage, blending the dances I did at work with the ballet I learned with my father. I knew without looking that everyone was watching me. They had forgotten their food, their drinks, and the women they had been so ardently chasing. Nothing else mattered to them or me but the way I moved across the stage. Towards the end, I wrapped my arms tightly around myself, remembering the demon who had visited my dreams. After all, I told myself, that’s what he was. The music swelled and I began to spin wildly. Each turn brought my hands higher along my body until they ended above my head. The song ended and my heart raced wildly.

I waited for it. Then it started. First a few, and then many join in. The roar of the applause became deafening. Even Pincher nodded approvingly, and went back into his store room. I left the stage, and the euphoria I felt there didn’t leave me for the rest of the night. I received lots of complements and praise. I tried not to let it affect me, but I couldn’t let it go. This was what it should always feel like to dance. I knew that this was what it should have always felt like.

* * *

My pockets practically jingled as I moved through the room. Thoughts of the new blanket I could buy tomorrow made me feel dreamy and content. I finished washing off the last of my tables, and I prepared to leave for the evening. Just as I pulled on my shawl, Pincher called me to his store room. I felt apprehensive, but went anyway. I could always say no to whatever it was he wanted. It was probably some persistent noble trying to secure my favors for the night.

I sighed heavily as I walked into the room. Sure enough, Pincher was not alone. A tall man with long white hair was sitting on the opposite side of the table. Pincher motioned for me to come and stand beside him so that the noble could see me better. I tried to hold back an irritated sigh, and turned around to leave. I’d had this conversation one time too many, and I refused to do anything that would get rid of the wonderful feeling I had.

“I’m sorry, but I do not do that sort of thing, and I’m sure one of the other dancers will gladly service you.” I didn’t even get to take my first step before I felt a hand clasping mine. I looked at the noble coldly. Didn’t he understand that I said no?

I tried to pull away again. The noble drew me back into the room. Pincher, smiling, got up from his chair and walked out of the door, giving me a cold smile before closing it. I glared at the door as I heard the soft click of the lock from outside, and I turned around to see the noble watching me steadily. I tensed, waiting for him to pounce, but the noble walked over to where Pincher had been sitting and motioned me to the chair opposite him.

“Please, sit down,” he said. He looked at me imploringly.“If you don’t like what I have to say, I will let you go. I have the key; I will not try to deter you from going, if that is what you wish once you hear me speak.”

I shrugged and sat down. If it would make that door open a little faster, I would play his games. I needed a good story to fall asleep to that night, anyway. I watched him watching me. I saw how young he was, and it took me by surprise; the way he carried himself made him seem older. He began by telling me how lovely my dance was. I placed my hands over my lips, trying to hide a sneer. That’s how they all started. “You danced so well. I had to be near you. Please teach me what you know. Let me twirl with you in my arms as you did on the floor. Let me hold you, and let the nightmares go away just a little while.” Nothing but empty promises and bigger lies, and I didn’t want to hear any of it.

“My father is the Maestro of the local theater, and I would like you to audition this full moon’s eve for the next concert. Your dancing was beautiful, and I have never seen anything like it before. I know that my father will love it as I do. My name is Espoir from the house of Desir. I would be honored if I could call at your home to escort you to the audition.” His words were rushed, but I heard no deceit.

I had dreamed of this so many nights. Yearned and begged with all of my heart for some noble to rescue me from this place. But when Espoir mentioned calling on me at my home, I shook my head vigorously. It would not do for him to see my home. He would take one look at that hovel, and run away laughing into the night.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know you very well, so I would rather meet you there.” I brazened out the half-lie. I would rather die than allow him to see my home.

“I understand that you want to be cautious, but it’s better if I pick you up at your home. I can make sure you get there safely in my carriage,” he said, the beginning of a frown on his lips.

“It’s truly not necessary, but if you want to make sure I get there safely, why don’t I just meet you here?” I suggested this as an alternative to mollify him. No sense in making him angry when he gave me my chance.

It was happening; it was what I’d always dreamed of! He unlocked the door, making me promise once more that I wouldn’t stand him up. I promised vehemently, and I walked out into the night. My whole soul was warm from this new surprise. I sigh ed happily as I thought of going to the market tomorrow. I would need something to audition in. I could only smile as I crawled into bed. Even if I didn’t make it, I could die knowing that I at least had the chance to become a star.

* * *

The next two days passed by in a blur as if I hadn’t been living them, but saw them in a dream. I danced all night at the tavern, half for money and half for practice. I made sure that not one of my steps was misplaced. I poured my heart into each performance, lapping up every ounce of applause and praise that I could get. I had to; it might be gone tomorrow, and I wanted these memories to last. The night of the audition was here and Espoir was waiting for me beside his coach.

It was so grand. Blue with gold trim, pulled by four black horses. I felt like a queen sitting on the cushioned seats, watching the world fly past as the horses galloped through the streets. I could only smile as Espoir made small talk. My mind was fixed on the audition and whether I would be able to compete with the other dancers. I felt Espoir’s eyes upon me as we made our way to the theater. I looked back at him steadily, and just let the first words that came to mind fall bluntly from my lips.

“I’m not going to sleep with you for this.”

I wanted to slap myself. I just knew the coach was going to stop and throw me out, but Espoir just laughed and ran his hands through his loose white hair.

“I don’t put much stock in my looks,” he said, “but I’m sure I don’t have to trick women into sleeping with me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, regretting my sharp words. Here he was only trying to help me and I was throwing his kindness back in his face. “Thank you for this chance. I hope I won’t embarrass you in front of your father.”

He just nodded with a smile, and continued making small talk as we made our way to the theater.

We reached the theater, and he led me to a room where all the other dancers were waiting their turn. As soon as I walked in, I felt like a wren among so many perfect swans. Their hair was tied in neat buns, and their dresses were so light and delicate. I moved to an open section of the bar and begin a short exercise that would warm me up. I was halfway through when I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I turned and looked at the girl with a smile.

“Who did you sleep with to get in here?” she asked, causing my smile to falter.

The whole room went quite, and I just gaped at her. I didn’t know what to say. I had been around girls who didn’t like me before, but she didn’t even know me. The other girls were waiting on my answer. They obviously thought the same thing she did.

“I didn’t sleep with anyone,” I said. “I’m just a dancer like you.”

She laughed. “You’re common,” she said. “There is no way you are anything like me.” The other girls tittered, and I could feel my face burn. I was sure that once I was around other dancers like myself, they would recognize me as one of their own.

“I didn’t sleep with anyone,” I repeated. “And I have just as much right to be here as you do.” I was so angry that tears started welling in my eyes, and I barely got control of myself when the director asked us to follow him to the stage. Everyone started moving to the door, some of the girls shouldering me out of the way. I couldn’t believe that they stole my happiness that fast. I sighed, taking slow calming breaths. I had to perform. It was just like the tavern; I had to block it out or I wouldn’t do my best; but heavens, it hurt!

Each girl got her chance on stage, the first girl being the one who had been rude to me. Her name was Despiar. In truth, she was a fine dancer, light and willowy like a feather. She glided across the stage to some obscure floating piano piece she said had been written for her. The other girls clapped as she walked off stage. I didn’t miss the cold smile she gave me as she went by, nor did I miss the cold looks coming from some of the other girls. I stiffened and ignored them. I couldn’t let them see how much each look was like a knife through my soul. I waited through each audition, noting who was fair, and who was excellent. I watched each dancer until it was my turn.

Every girl had been required to bring a sheet of music with her. I didn’t have much to choose from, only having the music my father made me learn before he died, so I had picked one of the faster-paced pieces. I gave the music to the conductor and curtsied to the Maestro, wincing when he exclaimed loudly about how his son should keep his harlots where they belonged. That brought a trill of laughter from the girls in back, but I ignored it, and looked up at Espoir. He stared back at me with eyes of the clearest green and nodded for me to start. I motioned for the conductor to begin and cleared my head; I couldn’t let the anger cloud my audition.

But I couldn’t stop it. The anger just welled up inside of me as the music began. I couldn’t help myself. As the first few beats of the music began, I looked up into the eyes of the Maestro. I let every inch of anger and hate I felt at being treated that way pour into my dance. Every whirl and eddy of my movement reflect how I felt about the people who laughed at me. As the music became faster, I let my hips rotate and swivel to each staccato note. I couldn’t hold myself back any longer. The music really began to take off. I glided and flitted through the air, each movement short and economical. I didn’t even feel tired as my hands touched the floor and I brought myself up once again. I didn’t hear the gasps and the surprise because I didn’t care. I didn’t want any of their praise. I just wanted them to see what I could do and how dangerous it was to cross me. I wanted them to feel the power that I felt as the song continued to play. Towards the end, I slowly stopped spinning and stretched onto the floor, laying there until I was ready to move again.

When I was done there was no clapping, and there was no applause. I didn’t expect any; I didn’t want any. I just wanted to leave that room before they all saw me cry. I ran from the hall, hearing Espoir’s voice faintly calling me back. I ran until I found a quite room and wept. It had been nothing like I thought it was going to be. It was just one more childish fantasy that shattered in my face. I cried until I could find no more tears. Then I decided to find Espoir. He had given me the chance I dreamed of and I must thank him. Even if it didn’t go as planned, I needed to thank him.

I left the room and started walking down the hall. I stopped when I heard a faint giggling. I watched as the door opened, and Despiar walked out, pulling up the sleeve of her dancing costume. She stopped when she saw me, going as still as a statue. She was about to come towards me when the Maestro walked out behind her, pulling his pants on. He stopped when he saw me. I just stood there, not knowing what to do. I felt a laugh bubbling up in my throat. Noble girls were the same as common girls; they just had more money to make them comfortable while they did what they had to do to survive. Using someone else’s money was far different from having your own.

“What was that you said about leaving your harlots at home, father?” Espoir asked his father with a smirk as he walked up behind me.

Despiar gasped angrily and turned on her heel and stalked off, her head high. I looked back into the Maestro’s clear blue eyes, and he looked into my dark ones, and I know he saw the amused anger in them.

“Son, would you follow me into the study?” The Maestro pulled himself together and turned to me. “Would be so kind as to go wait with the other girls?”

I walked back to the practice hall and saw Despiar sitting in the middle of a group of girls who tittered when I walked in, and wouldn’t meet my eyes. I knew that she had gotten what she wanted. I could only hope that it was worth it. The Maestro came into the hall. Despiar was given the lead, and I got a supporting role that made some of the girls gasp. Espoir shrugged apologetically and I gave him a small smile. It was not his fault, after all. The Maestro wouldn’t look at me as he laid out the rehearsal times and what we needed to bring to each practice. I didn’t know where I was going to get most of the supplies, but I knew I would work hard to get them.

Espoir took it upon himself to take me home. I told him that it was unnecessary and that he could just drop me off at the tavern. He sighed, and I could hear the sadness in it as he directed the coachmen to take me back to the tavern.

“Thank you,” I told him politely as I got out of the carriage, stopping once he took my hand. “I mean it; thank you for taking me to the audition. I will never forget your kindness.”

“If you tell me where you live I can pick you up for practice.” He smiled, and a small trill of fear raced up my back.

“No, really, it’s fine. I’ll be working anyway, so it’s easier just for you to meet me here,” I stammered, knowing I would do anything to keep him from seeing my home. He frowned, but did not argue further, for which I was thankful.

I watched as the coach carried Espoir away. Then I twirled and danced down the street to my home. I walked into my room and it felt like a palace. I looked towards my window, hoping to see the demon who made my wish come true. True, I hadn’t become a star, but I was on my way, and it felt so wonderful. I wanted to thank him, beg him to hold me once more.

I looked about, and waited. I wrapped my arms about myself in a hug, and my heart felt empty. I saw nothing, and I started to get ready for bed. I looked to the window once more and I resigned myself to the fact that he wasn’t coming back. I sat on my bed, looking at the full moon, and sent up a silent prayer to whoever would listen, thanking them for giving me my chance.
* * *

The coming weeks passed in a long haze. My schedule consisted of practice and work. I was tired, but I didn’t care. I practiced in the theater, then on the stage of the tavern, drawing customers with what Pincher called “a pinch of class.” Espoir picked me up from the tavern in the morning and dropped me off in the evening. Sometimes, he stayed and had dinner with me; other times he took me to breakfast before practice. It was like I had found the friend that I’d always been looking for. He watched me closely sometimes, but I didn’t mind it anymore. It was just his way.

The night of the performance arrived. I was so nervous. Pincher would be in the audience, and he made sure to brag about it to everyone who would listen; how he found me, and polished me up so that the world would see me shine. I ignored that. My thanks were only for two people; Souhait and Espoir.

Everyone danced marvelously. The show went smoothly and the applause was deafening. When the curtain call came, Despiar proudly accepted the roses that came from being the prima ballerina. Each part came out in level of importance. I was fourth in line, so when it came to be my turn, I just knew that the crowd would be clapped out. I was wrong. I couldn’t leave the stage for the applause that echoed through the hall. There were so many roses and cheers of bravo. I couldn’t stop myself from grinning at the joy all these people felt because of the show. It was what I wished all along. For people to feel the same thing watching me dance that I felt while dancing.

At the after-party, many congratulated the Maestro and Despiar. The champagne flowed, and there were so many wealthy nobles there. I felt as if I was a fish in the wrong pond. I tried to stay to the side as much as I could, but Espoir found me and dragged me to the center of the room.

“Where have you been hiding? Everyone wants to meet you,” he asked when we got there

“I was by the fireplace,” I stammered, and I could feel my face burning brightly. I didn’t want to explain that I wanted to stay as warm as I could before I went home. Tomorrow I would definitely buy that blanket.

Espoir introduced me to many of the nobles. Some I had met at the tavern, others I had never seen before. Their congratulations were genuine, if a bit stilted. What did you say to someone who had seen you at your worst, and whom you didn’t expect to see in your circles? Espoir reached the Maestro, who was standing next to Despiar. She didn’t look happy to see me.

“She’s angry that you upstaged her,” Espoir whispered to me.

I didn’t think that was true. Although I didn’t like her, I knew she danced wonderfully. But as I looked into her eyes, I saw that he was partially right. The look she gave me was so cold I wanted to be in my drafty little room again.

“Congratulations.” Despiar’s words were as frosty as her gaze.

“Same to you.” My reply was just as stilted. No need to pretend we were friends, after all.

“You were wonderful! The next time I have a composition I hope to you see you audition for it.” The maestro also praised me. Apparently money made him forget where I came from.

Despiar glared at me; I nodded and took a step back from her. I just looked at her, and I hoped that look conveyed the message that I wanted to scream: Look who you slept with to get your part.

Finally, the party came to an end. Being nice to so many people on such a large scale was tiring. I was half asleep when we arrived at the tavern. I stumbled down from the carriage, giving Espoir a friendly kiss on the cheek. I stood there as always, waving to the coach as it galloped down the street. When it was out of sight, I made my way home. I slipped out of my clothes and got into my bed, shivering but happy as I started to drift off to sleep.

I didn’t have my head on the pillow for a moment before my door opened. I gasped as I saw Espoir looking around my small room, taking in every detail of the shabby apartment. I looked down and would not meet his eyes, even when he called my name. He sat on my bed, which creaked under the unfamiliar weight.

“Blaze, why did you not tell me where you lived?” he asked. “It’s closer to the theater then the tavern is.”

“I didn’t want you to be ashamed of where I lived. I thought that if you knew exactly what I was you wouldn’t want to be my friend any longer,” I explained, looking away once more.

Espoir looked at me for a moment before he hugged me. I sat there in shock, not sure of what to say or to do. I couldn’t hide anymore, and I couldn’t pretend that this didn’t happen. Espoir leaned back to look at me, and his smile was small and shy.

“It doesn’t matter, Blaze. I’ve known where you lived all along.” My gaze lifted to meet his and he just smiled and shrugged. “It isn’t save for a lady to be walking the streets at night alone.”

I just sat there, fiddling with my fingers, not sure of what to say. He lifted my chin and placed a soft kiss on my lips. I pulled back and looked at him in wonder for a minute before leaning back to return the kiss—tentatively at first, but as the kiss he returned grew more demanding, so did mine.

* * *

The next morning, I woke up and I found that I was not cold at all. I was quite warm and very comfortable. I couldn’t figure it out until Espoir tightened his arms around my waist. My eyes grew wide, and I turned to look at Espoir, smiling sleepily.

“I should go,” he said with a smile as his finger drew across my lips. “Father wanted to discuss something with me this morning and I dare not be late.”

I nodded numbly. I couldn’t believe what I had done. I would never see him again and this was his brush off. I placed a soft kiss on his lips and nodded bravely once again. All good things came to an end; I guessed this was my ending.

Espoir watched me as I moved from the bed, raking my fingers through my short hair. I told him he could clean up near the stove. I looked outside, and saw that it was almost time for me to go to work. At least that was something I could do to keep my mind off of my stupidity. I silently berated myself as I pulled my clothes on. How could I be so dumb? I had my chance right in front of me, and I wasted it on one night of warmth. In the midst of my anger at myself, I felt warm arms wrap around my waist. I look up over my shoulder, and I saw Espoir smiling at me. He had gotten dressed as well, and was coming over to say goodbye.

“I honestly don’t know what to say.” Stammering, I smiled and shrugged helplessly.

“You didn’t enjoy yourself?” Espoir looked a bit worried. He sighed when I didn’t answer right away and began to speak angrily to himself. “I knew I should have been more careful. I didn’t want to do anything to hurt you, but I love you so much I wasn’t thinking. I’m so sorry, Blaze.”

I looked at him blankly for a moment, trying to figure out what I had missed. He cupped my cheek in his hands and tilted my face up to his. I searched his fac,e trying to find answers to my unasked questions before telling him the truth. “I love being with you, Espoir. I would never have wanted to be anywhere else.”

He gave me a bright smile and hugged me close. I could do nothing but return the hug and breathe in his sent. So comforting, like that blanket I had been dreaming about buying.

Espoir let me go. “I have to go. I want to see you again tonight, so that we can talk. I’ll meet you at work, don’t go anywhere without me.”

He left, but not before stealing a few more kisses and making me promise not to go anywhere until I saw him. I sat on my bed for a moment before jumping and hugging myself close. I couldn’t remember ever being so happy. I quickly finished getting dressed and headed to the market. I had to get that blanket before work.

I slipped through the market in a happy daze. I actually had money for once, so it made looking at all of the things I wanted even more special. I finally found the woman who sold the blankets. She was short and crafty-looking with shifty eyes. She watched me look through the blankets for a moment before motioning me over behind the counter. She pulled out a large blanket made of dark red satin. She took my hand and slipped it across the fabric.

“This one is special, my dear. It will keep you warm on long winter nights, and protect you from evil.” The old women smiled at me with her broken teeth, and I couldn’t help but notice how sharp they are. I bought the blanket from her, mainly because I wanted to get away. I hated the color; it looked like blood. I remembered the old women’s touch and I shuddered inwardly.

I didn’t think of it again until after work that night. It had been so busy. Nobles were coming from all over to watch me dance since they saw me in the ballet. They congratulated me, and offered me money for various favors, but I turned them down politely, thinking of my meeting with Espoir. I laughed and danced the whole night until I saw Espoir coming through the door. I watched him wade through the people towards me. He smiled at various friends, and shook his head at various advances. He finally reached me, and I wrapped my arms around him tightly.

He returned the hug and led me out into the cool night air. I told him to stop a moment, and I went and retrieved my blanket. I laughed and showed it to him, telling him about the women who sold it to me. He laughed tightly, and gave the blanket an uneasy look before continuing to lead me outside to his carriage. We both got in, and he sat on the opposite side of me. That was strange; he always sat next to me. I shrugged it off. The blanket was a bit large, and he probably thought it would be more comfortable to sit on the other side. It didn’t matter; I loved looking in to his eyes.

We made small talk until we reached his home. I stepped out of the carriage with the blanket wrapped around me, and Espoir walked me in. I wasn’t sure what was going on; he seemed distant. I chewed my lip quietly, hoping I hadn’t offended him in some way. We reached his room, and I closed the door behind me. I dropped the blanket onto the floor, and threw myself into his arms.

“I don’t know what I did to insult you, but I’m sorry,” I stammered and babbled apologies for what seemed like forever.

He just smiled at me and wrapped his arms around my waist, tightly placing soft kisses along my jaw line. I sighed and leaned into each kiss. It was so warm in his arms. I couldn’t stop him from slipping the straps of my dress to my shoulders; I didn’t even want to stop him. I just wanted to lose myself in this feeling. He quickly undressed me and for endless moments we made love.

I lost all sense of time, and I didn’t know what time it was when I slowly tiptoed off of the bed. There was a fireplace in his bedroom that looked so inviting. I picked up my blanket from the floor near the door and wrapped myself in it. I moved to an overstuffed white chair and snuggled into it. I drowsily stared into the fire, watching the flames dance and jump from the wood, like small dancers to their own tune. I was almost asleep when I heard something whisper:

Leave now! Get out of that room while you can!

I looked around, trying to figure out where the voices were coming from.

“Stop it,” I hissed to Espoir. “It’s not funny, and it’s scaring me.”

The whispers just became more insistent.

I grabbed my clothes from the floor and slipped them on. I wrapped the blanket around my shoulders tighter and quietly slipped out of the room, making my way down the stairs as the voices continued to urge me out of the house. I walked towards the door, and stopped. I berated myself for being silly, and began to head back the way I came. I looked into the living room with the large grand fireplace.

The flames in the fireplace began to take the shape of my angel. I stepped back, and my lips parted in a scream that never came. I tried to go back upstairs to warn Espoir, but a row of flames blocked my path. Souhait leapt from the fire and shook his head, angrily pointing to the door. I nodded slightly and ran from the house into the cold night.

* * *

I woke up the next morning to men lightly slapping my face trying to wake me. I looked towards the house and saw that it was a charred mess.

“Espoir! Where is he? Where is Espoir?” I screamed.

They shook their heads sadly and pointed to the wreckage of the house.

I screamed. I screamed, and I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop the ice sliding through my veins, and I couldn’t stop the way my body began shaking. Espoir’s father came over and held me.

“Leave her with me. Don’t worry, dear. I’m sure it was quick. You were lucky to get out. You were knocked out by a beam on your way to get help.” The workers left, and I cried in his arms until there was nothing left.

“That is a complete lie,” I sobbed. “There was a demon there. He burned the house down. I saw him!”

“You’re just in shock my dear. Come with me.” He chuckled sadly and ushered me away from the wreckage.

Desir took me back to his home and gave me warm tea. I cried into my blanket, not sure of what to say. I watched him run his hands through his gray hair and look over at me. Eventually he walked over to his desk, and pulled out a parchment sheet filled with music.

“Espoir wrote it for you.” He let me look it over for a few moments before asking, “Will you perform it in his honor?”

I nodded vigorously. I would do this. I would dance for him one last time. I couldn’t help but hear the old man’s quite sobs over his beloved son.

Each week of practice was long and hard. Espoir’s dance was quite demanding. I almost collapsed into exhaustion trying to complete the complicated steps. Each movement and step had to be right or I would not go on. I began to lose sleep, and I stopped eating. By the time the show was ready, I had at least five costume refittings. The seamstress told me that I was beautiful. I laugh harshly and shook my head. No, I was never beautiful. How could beauty come from such selfishness? I would make sure that the dance was perfect.

The seats were packed with nobles and their wives. Some even brought their mistresses to see Espoir’s first and last work. It was so sad watching Espoir’s father tell the audience about the piece; how he wrote it when he fell in love with me, and how he would always be remembered. I couldn’t stop myself from crying when he told the audience about Espoir’s life. Espoir’s father finished the speech and left the stage. He motioned for the Maestro to start playing and the curtains rise, revealing me and the rest of the cast.

The music began fast, making all of the dancers jump and flit about. Each drum beat made the floor jump and pulse with its rhythm as we raced across the stage. I slowly allowed myself to lose all my senses into the music, and my body took over. I danced and swerved, letting my hips rise and fall to each exotic beat. Espoir had combined the best of both worlds into one ballet: the hot steamy world of the bar, melding with the light open air of the ballet. He had done what I had been trying to do for years. I couldn’t help but cry as the performance continued. I never wanted it to end. Each step, each gesture brought Espoir back to me.

The dance ended and the roar was deafening. There was not one person sitting down. I took my bows with Espoir’s father. The clapping became louder as he placed a soft kiss on my hand.

I went home at the end of the show. I had been asked to stay, but I took my blanket and headed home. I didn’t even feeling the cold as I walked to my part of town.

I entered my apartments numbly. The applause still rang in my ears as I sat on my bed. I looked to the window, and as I expected, Souhait was standing there waiting for me. I watched him for a time, not sure of what to say. He watched me with his soft, slightly mocking smile.

“Why?” I whispered.

He laughed and moved closer to me with a wide grin. This time, I noticed how sharp his fangs were and I shuddered inwardly. “I did you a favor. Espoir was going to ask you to marry him, and that would have stopped your career as a dancer. I promised you that I would make you a star, and that means removing obstacles. After all, if you had been married, you would have been happy and content with that life and not have moved on.”

“Plus, I was a tad jealous.” He chuckled and I just watched him, still feeling the numbness from the last few days. I looked into his beautiful face, and I began to cry.

“Bring Espoir back. He didn’t deserve this! He was going to be someone. I cannot keep a gift that robs someone else of theirs,” I screamed and moved from the bed to beat my hands angrily across his chest.

He just grabbed my hands and smiled. He turned me around and pulled me roughly against his chest. He slowly rocked me and this time I found no comfort in it. I felt him grin against my neck, and I remembered how the old woman’s hands had felt that day I bought my blanket. I shuddered. He held me for what seemed like forever.

“What do you want?” I asked.

Souhait grinned again. This time I felt the pure evil in it as he looked me over. He let his hands slide over my cheeks and my shoulders. I cringed, which made his smile wider.

“I’ll let you have another wish, but this one comes with a price,” he said.

“What is the price?” I asked with resignation. I hated his smile.

“You just have to do whatever I want, for as long as I want.”

I just nodded numbly to his request. “You have to bring Espoir back alive and well. I want the chance to say goodbye when you do”.

“Whatever you wish.” Souhait smiled his infuriating smile and nodded. He turned me around slowly and pointed to the bed.

I looked to where his hands gestured, and there was Espoir sleeping peacefully on my bed. I ran to him I let my hands run over his face and arms, confirming that he was real. Espoir woke up and smiled into my eyes sleepily.

“What’s wrong, and why are you crying?” he asked, and I shook my head. We didn’t have time.

“I’m leaving, Espoir,” I told him quietly.

He sat up and shook his head angrily. “Don’t go, Blaze. I love you, and I want to marry you. I have a play that I wrote just for you.”

I laid my hands on his lips to stop the flow of words and tried to explain the best way I could. “I made a promise to an angel that if he brought you back I would go with him.”

Espoir shook his head and pulled me to him. I felt so warm, just like that first night, and I didn’t want to let go. I knew that I must, though, and I slowly rose from the bed. Souhait waited for me by the window, and Espoir got up from the bed. He stepped between me and the demon.

“Blaze, you don’t belong to anyone. You can’t leave me.”

I smiled sadly and moved in front of him. I wasn’t sure what Souhait would do if defied and I didn’t want to find out. I placed a soft kiss on Espoir’s lips “I love you so much, Espoir. I hope you are happy.”

Souhait waved his hands and the dark red blanket fly to him. It began to shine and shift form until it became a pair of soft dark red ballerina shoes. He handed them to me with a mocking grin, and I couldn’t help but hate him. I pulled away from Espoir and moved to a chair. I slipped the shoes on, and they began to glow and mold to my feet.

“Those shoes are your bonds. They will stay on your feet until I die or the bonds are somehow broken,” Souhait explained as I stood in them. “If you try to take them off, they will squeeze your feet until you learn to behave yourself.” I nodded and shuddered, that familiar cold feeling creeping in.

I looked lifelessly into Espoir’s eyes, and looked away. I couldn’t stand the look of helplessness that I saw there. I knew it had to be mirrored in my eyes. Souhait held his hand out to me and I took it reluctantly.

“Goodbye,” I whispered to Espoir once more.

Souhait moved behind me and took me to the window. One moment I was avoiding Espoir’s eyes and the next I saw stars as Souhait whisked me away into the night, leaving Espoir screaming after us.

“You will be my personal ballerina. Every night you will perform and I will be your personal audience. Don’t cry, my love. After tonight, they will speak of your story forever, and you’ll be famous.” I couldn’t keep the tears from flowing as Souhait’s last words drifted across my ears. “Just the way you wanted.”

* * *

Sheena Williams is the author of “The Dance.”

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

I'm a large fairy tale fan. I love the depth and psychology behind cautionary tales, and people given chances they would have not otherwise had if not for the help of another or through interaction that comes from just speaking with other people.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?

I have to get my ideas out of my head and onto something permanent. There are nights where my muse who does not allow me to sleep unless I get the idea down on paper or on the screen.

What do you think is the most important part of a fantasy story?

The lesson you learn at the end. Fantasy artists/writers like all people who work with the media have a responsibility to teach others through their eyes and words. It's the basic form and function of art to help others see the world and their problems in a new way.

What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?

The chance to experience a new place, sensation, or person from the safety and warmth of your home. You can visit distant lands, seduce a stranger, or walk down the street without out ever leaving your chair.

What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?

Make sure your responsibilities are in order. If you have all your ducks lined upon in a row then the time to write finds itself. It's hard to write with the distraction of everyday life not being taken
care of.


by Sarah Wagner


She dreams the lives of men
In splendor, in vibrant hues
The Creator of All Things
Honored in the songs of children
The whispered prayers of women
Watching their mates ride to war.

She weaves the heartstrings of mothers
Intricate knots and braids in pattern
The Designer of All Things
Binding generations together unseen
Umbilical life-thread bonds
Stretching across time and space.

She dances the joys of children
Movements instinctual and wild
The Mother of All Things
Guiding her people with a light touch
Fingers of fate felt only by the very young
Swirling ribbons of a thousand shades.

* * *

Sarah Wagner lives in West Virginia with her husband and two young sons. Her science fiction short story collection, Hardwired Humanity, is available now at Amazon or direct from the publisher. For more information, visit

What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?

The infinite possibilities. The rules are not as solid in fantasy - there is more room for play, more room for the imagination to run amok and create things that in the real world are only stuff of daydreams.

What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
Persistence is key. To everything. That and bacon.

A Matter of Honor

A Matter of Honor
by John Whitehouse


Tarmerius heard a rapping on the door, loud and insistent. The priest paused in the act of dipping his quill and looked up from some half-finished writing. The sound continued. With an irritated sigh, Tarmerius laid down his pen, rose from the table and moved across the room. In his early sixties, he was tall and slim with a bush of white hair. A small beard framed his mouth and came to a point, like a lance, beneath his chin.

He opened the door to find Jakon standing there. The boy, now in his thirteenth spring, was panting for breath. Anxiety pinched his features. “I was sent to fetch you,” he said. “Please, come quickly.”

Tarmerius opened his mouth to speak, but Jakon was already racing back to the village. The priest frowned, wondering what could be the matter. Was Karrin about to give birth? Had Alvaric succumbed to the fever? Tarmerius gave a shrug and stepped out into the fading light of the evening. His long white robe fluttered in the wind as he made his way along the dirt track.
As he came to the village he saw people hurrying to the beach, urged on by a couple of Jakons’ friends who were speaking anxiously and pointing out to sea. Other villagers were rousing their neighbors from their homes.

A sudden chill came over Tarmerius. Tharn was similar to other small settlements scattered along the southern coast of Garrahar, a huddle of thatched huts clustered about a small stone building which served as a shrine to Syvian, goddess of the sea. Such places lived in constant fear of attack from pirates and the like, and memories of the previous autumn, when the villagers had beaten off one such raid, were still fresh. Tarmerius recalled how he and Alain had personally accounted for a handful of buccaneers. Was the village again under threat?

The priest saw Jakon beckoning to him and followed the boy down to the shingle. Tarmerius had taken his first crunching steps upon it when he froze. A ship, similar in size to a man-of-war, was heading toward land, the wind swelling its golden sails. The vessel was literally flying though the air, a dozen feet or so above the waves, and was travelling at considerable speed.

“It’s witchcraft,” said Jakon. “But who could it be? And what do they want?”

Tarmerius made no reply. He continued to gaze at the ship as it grew larger, eyes widening as he noted the large crest emblazoned on the foremost sail: a scarlet hawk on a black field.

His bowels turned to ice. So Darakon had discovered his whereabouts, after all these years. Fear slithered like a serpent inside Tarmerius’ stomach. His first instinct was to flee to the hills but he knew Darakon would find him wherever he went. He thought of Alain and mouthed a silent prayer to the gods. Then he turned and walked back to his house, his expression grim and somber. Jakon called after him but the priest seemed not to hear.

By now the entire population of Tharn - some two hundred men, women and children - were gathered on the beach. Their anxious mutterings increased as the ship came ever nearer. As the vessel drew in to shore it slowed its speed and lowered itself to the water. The villagers drew back as it beached on the shingle. Rope ladders were slung over the sides and the people watched as the occupants began to clamber out.

Then the screaming began.

* * *

Alain had spent the day herding sheep in the hills overlooking Tharn and was returning home under a darkening sky. In his eighteenth year, he was broad-shouldered and handsome, with fair hair and blue eyes. He wore a fringed buckskin jerkin, dark leggings and calf-length boots, and carried a bow. He often took the weapon with him into the fields where he’d practice his aim on tree trunks, and on rabbits which he’d cook and eat. An arrow bag was slung over his shoulder.

He was cresting a rise when he heard shouts and screams coming from the direction of the village. Alain ran down the hill, through a field thick with cowslips and daisies, and came to a hazel copse from where a path sloped down to the settlement. He froze in horror. The scene before him was something beyond his wildest nightmares. The village was being raped and plundered, not by men, but by a swarm of hideous dwarf-like creatures. Around four feet in height, their heads were hairless domes, the skin yellow, not unlike the color of cheese. A pig-like snout sat between eyes like dark holes and a mouth lined with sharp teeth, while their hands and feet terminated in claw-like talons. They wore garments made from animal hides and their weapons varied, some of the creatures brandishing swords and spears, others axes and wooden clubs.

Alain gazed in disbelief at the carnage and mayhem. Bodies, mostly men of the village, littered the streets. Women wailed; dogs barked; children howled, the sounds mingling in a ghastly symphony. The flimsy wooden doors of the huts had been broken down and the interiors ransacked. Tharn was a poor sort of place and there wasn’t much in the way of riches, but there were plenty of other things, such as smoked hams, cheeses, butter churns, yards of cloth, as well as swords and daggers. They were humble enough in themselves, but the creatures obviously considered them valuable enough to take back home, and they were busy loading their spoils onto the ship.

And then, in the midst of it all, Alain’s gaze fell upon an imposing figure, a man dressed in black who was striding through the village. Aged around forty, he was tall and lean with dark hair and narrow features, a thin high-bridged nose giving him a hawk-like aspect. One of the creatures ran up and spoke to the man, and it was evident he was in command of them. The two figures made their way to the shrine, where they halted and gazed about.

It was then that a wave of black anger swept over Alain. Laying his arrow bag on the ground, he set about stringing the bow. The wind rasped through the trees and Alain realized that, although the evening was cool, his mouth was dry, his forehead wet. Taking a white-fledged arrow, he nocked it to the bow and drew back the cord until it was beside his right ear. The man was partially obscured by the shrine but the creature was standing to one side, his back to Alain, presenting a clear shot. Heart thudding, Alain took aim.

And then he loosed.

The arrow leaped from the string, sinking from the hill to strike its target hard and deep between the shoulders. The creature pitched forward and Alain whooped in triumph. As the man moved toward his fallen companion Alain loosed off another shaft, only to see it thud into the ground a couple of feet short. He was reaching for another arrow but the man was already running toward the beach.

Alain ran down the slope and raced through the village. At the edge of the shingle he halted, eyes wide in astonishment. The occupants of the ship were all aboard and the vessel was rising into the air. The man was standing in the prow, chanting strange, mystical words and waving his hands this way and that.

The ship moved out to sea where it picked up speed. Alain watched as it flew further and further away, shrinking until it was no more than a speck on the horizon. Then he made his way back through the stinking, bloody village. His pace quickened as he came to the dirt track and he ran along it to the large timber house he shared with his father.

Alain’s worst fears were confirmed as he stepped over the threshold. Tarmerius was slumped against a wall, eyes closed, face unnaturally pale. His sword lay close at hand. The bottom of his robe was stained red, and as Alain knelt beside him he saw blood seeping from a wound in his stomach.

Tarmerius opened his eyes. “Alain! You’re safe! Oh, may the gods be praised.” His voice was ragged and hoarse. “Don’t worry, I haven’t told him about you. But you must flee, in case he returns.”

“The man’s gone, Father, along with the creatures. Was that ... Darakon?”

Tarmerius nodded, then grimaced as a bolt of pain tore up from his belly. Fresh blood puddled in his lap. Alain felt tears pricking his eyes, a lump rising in his throat. He was glad his mother was no longer alive to witness this, the fever which had taken her the previous winter proving a blessing in disguise.

He noticed his father had stopped breathing. He shook him gently, but to no avail.

Rising to his feet, Alain went out of the house and made his way to the shrine. As he stepped inside he saw the place was in disarray. The wooden benches had been upended and the silver plates and candlesticks were missing from the altar. The statue of Syvian – a stone figure ten feet high - was unharmed, however. Alain knelt before it. “Oh, Syvian,” he began. “Please receive my father’s soul and grant him everlasting rest in Paradise. You know that the honor of my tribe, and of my family, demands that I do my utmost to slay the one who killed him, even at the cost of my own life. Please give me the strength and courage to do what I ... have ... to...”

Then the dam broke. Alain wept like a child and it was as if his very soul was being purged.

When he rose to his feet his knees were stiff and aching. The moon was up, stars pricking out, as he went back to the house. He needed help in seeking out Darakon and expected to find it in Pelador, his father’s land of origin. He bundled together a change of clothes, along with some bread and cheese, and removed a small bag of coins from its hiding place beneath the floor. Reaching into a cupboard, he took out his sword which he kept in a worn leather scabbard. Then he crossed the yard to the stable and saddled the horse.

Soon afterward Alain rode away from Tharn, heading for the port of Gethun. The following day he sold the horse and booked a passage to Pelador.

* * *

Born and raised in the land of Pelador, Tarmerius had been the family priest to the House of Asparac. Although he was a friend to the old Count – a man called Joreb - he never liked the son, Darakon. It transpired there was a talent for magic in the family which had lain hidden for generations. Somehow Darakon had discovered it and was taking an interest in dark magic, which alarmed Tarmerius. Joreb died while Darakon was still a young man and, being the only son, he inherited the title.

During one of his visits to the castle, Tarmerius was invited to dine with the young Count. Not wishing to cause offence, he agreed. During the course of the evening Darakon imbibed a large amount of wine and, his tongue loosened, told Tarmerius how he was gathering various disaffected nobles in a plot to seize the throne.

Tarmerius, being a decent, honorable man – as well as a loyal subject of King Antonius – was horrified. Seeking help, he went to a friend of his, a merchant named Toroc. The man’s wife -Elesa - was a sorceress who’d served several minor nobles. With the help of her magic, the three companions were able to warn Antonius of the threat to his kingdom. Gathering his forces, the King was able to crush the plot, although Darakon managed to escape, fleeing into exile.

Knowing Darakon would not rest until he’d exacted vengeance, Tarmerius fled Pelador, intending to go far away. Before his departure, Elesa gave him a ring which had the power to ward off scrying, to prevent Darakon tracking him down. Tarmerius had finally settled in the land of Garrahar where he’d met and married Alain’s mother. Alain himself had been raised speaking both their tongues.

Yet his fathers’ schemes had come to naught, Alain reflected sadly. Somehow Darakon had found him and exacted his revenge. Yet Alain’s soul also lusted for vengeance. That he might lose his life in the consummation of that vengeance made no difference. And he hoped Elesa, with her knowledge of magic, could help in his quest.

The voyage to Pelador took almost three months, and it was mid-afternoon when the ship docked at the coastal port of Sydri, the last known home of Toroc and his wife. A number of inns were scattered around the waterfront and Alain began calling at them, asking the owners if they knew the merchant. He struck lucky at one called the Jolly Fiddler, where the innkeeper had been a friend of Toroc’s. It transpired that both Toroc and Elesa had died from the blood plague which had struck the previous winter, although they were survived by their daughter, Janna.

“She’s a Baroness, you know,” the innkeeper told him. “Married some nobleman, only he was killed a couple of years back.” Since the death of her parents she’d divided her time between her husband’s estate and the house in Sydri, where she was presently staying. Deciding he had nothing to lose by going to see her, Alain asked the innkeeper for directions.

He found the Street of the Willows without difficulty. Located in the most prosperous area of Sydri, it was a wide thoroughfare lined with large stone houses surrounded by high walls. The house he sought stood at the end. A tall wooden gate was set into the wall and beside this a hand bell hung on a chain. Alain rang the bell and waited. Several moments passed. Then he heard footsteps, followed by the sound of a bolt being drawn back. With a creak, the gate opened inward.

Standing before him, wearing a long blue dress, was a woman of striking beauty.

“Are you the daughter of Toroc the merchant?” Alain asked. The woman nodded. She was tall and slender and looked to be in her late twenties. A flowing mane of black hair framed her finely-chiseled features. Alain introduced himself. “My father was a friend of your parents,” he began, but Janna broke in.

“I know. I’ve been expecting you”

Alain gaped at her in bewilderment. “Expecting me! But how?”

“Do not be alarmed,” said Janna. “I will explain everything.” She beckoned and stood aside as Alain stepped through the gate. Bolting it again, she led him across a courtyard to the house, where she opened a heavy wooden door and ushered him into a large kitchen. Seating herself at a table, she invited Alain to sit opposite and pushed across a bowl containing pieces of fruit. “Please, help yourself.”

Alain laid his bundle on the floor and sat down. He plucked an apple from the bowl and bit into it. “How did you know I was coming?” he asked.

Janna poured him a goblet of wine. “My mother told me.”

Alain nearly choked. “Your mother! But I was told both your parents were dead.”

“Her spirit appeared to me,” said Janna. “She told me about the raid on your village, how the purpose behind it was the slaying of your father.”

“Those creatures - what are they?”

“Scarags,” said Janna. “Their race dwells mostly to the north of Irdustan. These days the Count makes his living from piracy, aided by a band of the creatures. They are fascinated by his magic and obey him without question. He finds them more reliable than humans.” She paused. “My mother also told me you wish to slay him.”

Alain took a draught of wine and nodded.

Janna’s expression was grim. “Alain, this is madness. Even if you were to get close enough, the Count is an expert swordsman, not to mention a master of dark magic. You would never succeed.”

“Then I’ll die trying,” said Alain. “It’s a matter of honor.”

Janna gave a tight, bitter smile. “Ah, honor. I see. Forgive me, it’s just that I have seen too many duels fought in the name of honor. Roald, my husband, was killed in one. What price honor afterwards? Can it keep the widows warm at night? Is it a comfort to the children left without a father?”

Alain was at a loss for words. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m sorry about your husband,” he said at length. “But I have made a sacred vow. Nothing and no-one will detract me from it.”

He reached for some dried figs, drank more wine. “What puzzles me is how Darakon found out where my father was. The ring your mother gave him was supposed to prevent that happening.”

Janna nodded sadly. “Even though it took twenty years, the Count eventually found a way to break its power. He went to great lengths, delving into forbidden books and musty scrolls, even consorting with sorcerers from the Dark Kingdoms. He really hated your father.”

She fixed Alain with a hard, appraising stare. “You’re determined to go through with this, aren’t you?” Alain nodded. Janna gave a sigh. “Very well. Since I have inherited my mother’s talents, I will use my magic to aid you. By means of a scrying spell, I have discovered where Darakon is hiding out. It is a small island in the southern ocean, previously uninhabited.”

Rising to her feet, Janna faced the wall and muttered a spell. A cloud of dense white smoke appeared, and within the cloud an image formed. Alain saw it was the island Janna had spoken of. Steep cliffs fringed by dense jungle rose sheer from the water, flanking a small cove where Darakon’s ship lay at anchor. Janna waved her hands, muttering more words under her breath, and the image changed to that of a huge stone temple, roughly triangular in shape.

“Whatever race built the temple vanished long ago,” said Janna, “although the structure is remarkably intact. It makes an ideal base.”

Alain frowned. “But how do we get there? No merchant vessels sail to that region.”

“Don’t worry,” said Janna. “Using the correct spell, we can be there in moments.”

“Fine. When do we leave?”

“We’d best wait until tonight. With luck, most of the Scarags will be drunk or asleep. It should make it easier for you.” Janna pointed to the fruit bowl. “When you have finished eating, I will show you to a spare bedroom. You’d better get some rest. I’ve a feeling you’re going to need it.”

* * *

Darkness had fallen when Janna came to Alain’s room. She bolted the door to prevent any unwanted intrusion by the servants and gave Alain a gentle shake to rouse him from his slumber. As he buckled on his sword, she began muttering a complex incantation, moving her hands through the air. A glowing ring of light appeared. It was around seven feet in diameter, and within it the air shimmered as if distorted by waves of heat. Janna beckoned to Alain. Then she stepped into the ring and vanished.

Alain stood before the glowing circle, hesitating. His stomach tightened. With more than a little trepidation, he stepped into the ring also. A moment later he blinked in amazement. He and Janna were standing in a corridor lit by burning torches fastened to the stonework at intervals. At the end a wide staircase rose into shadowy gloom. Janna waved her hands, causing the circle of light to wink out of existence. She pointed to the steps. “Your destiny waits.”

“Thank you for your help,” said Alain. He drew his sword and set off along the passage. As he climbed the stair, however, doubts began to assail him. Here he was, about to throw his life away, and for what? Then, unbidden, memories of Tharn flooded his mind. He saw again the bodies littering the ground, heard the wailing for the dead, carried on the wind like a ghostly lament. And his misgivings dissipated before a tide of fury which boiled up within him like white hot lava.

At the head of the stair he emerged into another dimly-lit corridor. Somewhere ahead of him he heard a low hum of voices. Alain crept along the passage, halting before a narrow portal. Peering through, he saw a large chamber where the Count, along with a dozen or so Scarags, were gathered. They were drinking from jeweled goblets and eating from silver plates piled high with smoked fish and pieces of fruit. The Scarags lounged on silk cushions while the Count was seated on a carved wooden chair. He wore a cream tunic and dark pantaloons, both of the finest silk, and was exchanging comments with a Scarag next to him.

Alain hesitated. His heart pounded. Steeling himself, he charged into the room.

A hush descended, amazement holding the company frozen for a moment. Facing them like a lion at bay, Alain cried: “Darakon, Count of Asparac! You are responsible for the slaying of my father, a priest named Tarmerius. I come seeking vengeance.”

Darakon gaped at his visitor in astonishment. Then realization dawned. “You insolent young whelp!” he roared. “I’ll have you flayed alive for this. Seize him!”

Alain laughed unpleasantly. “Lo, the Count calls upon his minions to aid him!” His tone was mocking. “Is he a coward? Is he afraid to face me alone in combat, without the use of sorcery?”

All eyes turned toward Darakon, who knew he was honor bound to accept the challenge.

“Very well,” said the Count. “I shall enjoy feeding your body to the fishes. But, tell me, how did you learn of my whereabouts? Are there others with you?”

“I came alone,” Alain lied. “Although I had a little help, from a friend who knows magic.”

Darakon nodded. “I see. Well, then, shall we commence?”

The Count’s sword hissed from its scabbard and, with a pantherish leap, he sprang forward, hacking down with a stroke which Alain only just managed to parry. The Scarags gave back, leaving a clear space in the centre of the room.

The two men began hacking and slashing for all their worth, the clashing clangor of steel ringing throughout the chamber. The adversaries fought without pause for breath. Blades hissed and sang; caught and held; pulled apart; clashed and grated, the men weaving hot sparks around them like fireworks. As Janna had said, Darakon was an expert swordsman, possessing excellent speed and balance, and even though Alain was holding his own it was evident the Count’s superior skill would eventually triumph.

With a sudden movement, Alain flung himself backward. His sword slid from his grasp and clattered to the floor. Clutching his temples, he cried out and sank to his knees, face contorted as if in pain. Darakon stood over him, his expression one of gloating triumph.

What happened next took him completely unawares. In a sudden movement, Alain - now seemingly recovered - snatched up his sword and thrust upward, the blade plunging into Darakon’s chest. The Count stiffened, features frozen in uncomprehending shock. He gave a rasping gurgle, blood gushing from his thin lips. Alain released his grip on the sword and his foe slumped to the floor, a red stain flowering over his cream tunic.

Silence descended. The Scarags stared in shock at the body of the Count. Then their gaze shifted to Alain, dark eyes boring into him. He could feel the creatures’ hostility as if it were a living thing.

Alain placed one foot on Darakon’s body and tugged the sword free. Shaking the red drops from the blade, he backed toward the doorway, the creatures’ gaze following him. He stepped into the corridor. Then, with a swift turn, he tore along the passage as if the hosts of the Netherworld were at his heels.

He hurled himself down the steps and when he reached the bottom Janna was there to meet him. Behind him the Scarags were pouring down the stair, feet slapping on stone. Janna pointed to the bottom step and, murmuring some mystical words, she drew her finger horizontally through the air. A wall of fire sprang up, flames leaping ten and twelve feet high, obscuring the Scarags from view. A flurry of angry yells and curses erupted from the creatures.

“The fire’s an illusion,” said Janna. “But it might deter them long enough for us to get out of here.” Turning her back to the flames, she began incanting the spell which would cause the circle of light to appear.

Tense moments passed. Then one of the Scarags jumped through the wall of fire. Straight away, the flames vanished. Evidently, the creature’s action had broken the spell. Alain glanced over his shoulder and saw Janna vanish into the circle. As the Scarags swarmed toward him he hurled his sword at the nearest one, who was mere feet away. Then he jumped through the glowing ring of light.

* * *

Alain landed on soft springy grass. Behind him the circle of light vanished on Janna’s command. He gazed about. He and Janna were standing in the garden of Janna’s house, under the hard white light of a full moon. Somewhere a fountain tinkled and the air was heavy with the sweet, heady scents of exotic plants.

“Well done,” said Janna. “I gather you were successful in slaying the Count.”

Alain told her how his trickery had fooled Darakon.

“How does it feel?” she asked. “Now your honor has been satisfied.”

Alain frowned, unsure of what to say. There was no glorious feeling of exhilaration, no sense of triumph, or satisfaction. Instead there was only a hollow emptiness. Janna noted his expression and gave a wry smile. “Revenge not all it’s made out to be, eh? Poor Alain, you’ve much to learn.” She walked over to a stone bench and sat down. A rising wind tugged her black mane. “What will you do now?” she asked.

Alain shrugged. “I really don’t know.” Truth to tell, he didn’t want to think about the future. His quest had succeeded, he was alive and in one piece, and Tharn had been avenged. For now, that was enough.

* * *

John Whitehouse enjoys writing in various genres, including mystery and fantasy. To date several of his stories have appeared in small press and national publications, both in the UK and US, and on the internet.

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