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Spring 2009 Issue


Welcome to the Spring 2009 Issue of Mirror Dance!

In this issue…

• Fiction by Molly Schwanz, Robert E. Keller, John Whitehouse, and Henry F. Tonn

• Poetry by Sarah Wagner, Aurelio Rico Lopez III, and Jess C Scott

• Nonfiction by Jay Mijares

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 Summer and Autumn 2009 issues. Please see our Submission Guidelines for details.

Out of Love and Obligation

Out of Love and Obligation
by Molly Schwanz

Love and Obligation 1

Gabriel felt the small, ice cold hand slip into his own. “They’re talking about you again,” Sasha whispered.

“I know,” he muttered, trying not to move his lips. The last thing Gabriel needed was to be thought crazy for being seen talking to someone who wasn’t there.

“Oh, surely you’ve heard,” the first woman said. “It’s absolutely tragic.”

“No.” The second woman, in Gabriel’s opinion, sounded far too interested. ”Who is he?”

Gabriel sighed, wondering which version of the tale would be told this time.

The first woman shot a glance over her shoulder at the black-haired young man sitting against the tree, half his face obscured from view by a black silk blindfold. She took her companion’s arm and led her down the path, out of the gentleman’s range of hearing. Gabriel smiled to himself as their voices faded. A polite noblewoman. Now, there was an interesting turn of events.

“He’s Gabriel Vercingeto, the Duke of Tyree,” the polite woman answered, grinning at the second one's reaction.

The second woman gasped. “No!”

The polite one nodded.

“Are you sure? Gabriel Vercingeto, reduced to that!”

“He was blinded when he was caught spying in Verine.”

The second nodded this time. “You’re right. Most tragic.”

“It was tragic when I died, too,” Sasha whined. “You’re not even dead, Gabriel. Why do you get all the glory?”

Gabriel chuckled. “Because no one but me remembers you, imp.”

* * *

Isobel looked up as the cold raindrops pattered on her shoulders. The two twittering courtiers had vanished, leaving her alone with the young duke who appeared oblivious to the breaking storm. She suspected she’d best tell him to get out of the weather.

“Your Grace,” Isobel said, reaching out to touch the back of Gabriel’s hand. He jumped, and she wondered if he had been asleep. It was rather hard to tell. He turned to face her, following the sound of her voice. “Your Grace, it's raining.”

Gabriel shivered against a cold gust of wind, though the storm was not unseasonable for late autumn. “So it is.” Rising, he placed one hand against the bark of the tree, feeling the now familiar fear rising in his throat. If he let go of the tree, he would have no landmark. He had been waiting on the return of his page... But the boy was unreliable, and had undoubtedly wandered off to pursuits more interesting than playing nursemaid to a disfigured duke.

Gabriel sighed and held out his free hand to Isobel. “Miss, I fear I must beg a favor. I don’t believe I can find my way by myself, but if you could guide me, I would be most grateful.” Although he couldn’t see her smile, Gabriel felt Isobel lightly grasp his hand. Her fingers were chill, though not deathly so, like his sister’s. Gathering his courage, Gabriel let go of the tree to follow her inside.

The warm blast of air informed Gabriel when they had reached shelter.

“Where may I lead you, Your Grace?” asked his guide.

Gabriel considered. “The great hall, I suppose. They’ll be serving dinner shortly.”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

The chatter of the court grew loud long before they reached the hall. “Your destination, Your Grace,” Isobel announced.

Gabriel gripped the doorframe, and the girl slipped her hand from his. He heard the click of her heels as she turned to go.

“Wait!” There was a swish of fabric as she turned.

“Yes, Your Grace?”

“May I ask your name?”

The girl laughed lightly. “Isobel.”

“Isobel.” Gabriel nodded. “Thank you.”

“Not at all, Your Grace.”

* * *

Varian watched from his seat at the table as Gabriel spoke with the young servant girl. He found Gabriel fascinating. Poor little duke, he thought, as Gabriel carefully made his way to his seat. Varian shot a glance at Mikhail Pryderi, Gabriel’s former lover, and leaned across the table to address him.

“So, My Lord, why aren’t you sitting with your Gabriel?”

Mikhail too had been watching Gabriel, and Varian thought guilt flitted across Mikhail’s face before Mikhail molded it into his usual sneer, transforming him from a man into the Baron Cohmra.

“Mind how you speak to your betters, artist.” He slung an arm around the shoulder of his dinner partner, a pretty blonde girl who gazed at him adoringly.

“This is what happens when you allow commoners in the court,” she said, reaching over and tucking Mikhail’s own blond curls behind his ear. “Besides, you couldn’t be seen with Gabriel now. He’s so ugly!”

Varian laughed silently, biting his tongue on a cruel retort. Then why, madam, can he be seen with you? He knew the girl was only a replacement for Gabriel, to hide the fact that Mikhail had left Gabriel for the very reason she had stated.

There was dancing after dinner. Varian watched over Madelina’s shoulder as Gabriel stood next to the wall, speaking with those who offered him their sympathy. The dance ended, and Varian escorted Madelina off the dance floor, in search of something to drink. As he handed her a glass, she grabbed his wrist. Taking the glass, she turned his hand over, shaking her head.

“Varian, you must learn to get the paint out from under your fingernails.”

Varian laughed, raising an eyebrow. “Why should I bother? It won’t make the nobles look down on me any less.”

“True,” Del said, fingering a spot of blue in Varian’s brown curls. “But washing the paint out of your hair might.”

Varian shrugged. “Maybe.” He smiled. “I prefer the company of a musician such as you to theirs anyway.”

Del continued to shake her head, but she was laughing.

* * *

The next afternoon, a frustrated Varian had been pacing long enough to wear a path in the wooden floor boards of his studio. He cursed and hurled his paintbrush away, splattering the wall with green. The canvas mocked him. Varian was charged with creating a painting for the new ballroom, to be finished by mid-winter, in time for the annual festivities. He mustn’t fail. He would starve to death if he failed. Varian sighed, and decided a walk was in order to clear his head.

* * *

A light breeze blew through the library's open windows. As he trailed his fingers over the embossed spines, Gabriel could almost make out the volumes' titles. He had, after all, read most of them. Quite suddenly, someone reached around him and took the book from under his fingers. Gabriel clenched his teeth, trying to force down the panic he felt at having someone standing so close behind him.

“Ah, the poetry of Alexias St. Michael, one of my favorites.”

Gabriel turned to face the man behind him, keeping one hand on the bookshelf. “I fear I don’t remember much of it,” Gabriel said. “Also, I haven’t the slightest idea who you are.”

Varian laughed. “Varian, the current resident artist,” he replied. He audibly tapped the cover of the book he still held. “I could read this to you, if you like.”

Gabriel stammered. Such generosity from a stranger was quite unexpected. “I... I would love that. Thank you.”

“Come here, then.” Varian placed a hand on the small of Gabriel’s back, and guided him to a bench set into the library’s bay windows.

As Varian read, Gabriel listened with a spy’s trained ear. Varian’s accent marked him as city born, though Gabriel did not find it unpleasant to listen to.

Varian watched, gratified, as the small smile appeared on Gabriel’s face.

* * *

“So?” Sasha asked when Gabriel returned to his room. “Do you like him?”

Gabriel sighed, irritated with her for a reason he couldn’t identify. “Don’t meddle in my love life, Sasha.”

The eight-year-old girl swung her legs, whacking the heels of her shoes against the chair legs. “I'm not meddling. I'm protecting.”

“How is this protecting?”

“I don’t want you to get hurt again, like Mikhail hurt you.”

“There isn't much you can do, Sasha. I’m all right. Really. You can move on to your afterlife now. It’s been, what, nineteen years since you fell in that lake?”

Sasha wasn’t offended by the mention of her death. “Look what happened in Verine. You still need me to look after you.”

Gabriel snorted. He was twenty-three and the specter of his older sister thought he needed protection. Terrific.

* * *

The half-finished canvas still glared back at him. Varian thought about getting rid of it and beginning again. His tools lay idle, paint drying in the brushes and coating Varian's hands as he raked them through his hair. He was furious that he couldn’t figure out what his painting lacked, though the landscape outside his window shifted from its autumn gold into early winter grays.

Varian paused to scrub the paint from his hands before meeting Gabriel in the library. Gabriel was sitting by the window waiting for him, practically basking in the rare sunlight.

Gabriel smiled, turning towards the sound of familiar footsteps. “Good morning.”

Varian took Gabriel’s hand and tugged him to his feet. Gabriel leaned against him, his cane hooked over his free arm.

“It’s such a nice day,” Varian began. “I thought we ought to go outside.”


Varian grinned. “Picnic.”

Gabriel laughed and nodded his assent.

* * *

They picnicked in the center of an untrimmed hedge maze in the south gardens, preferring peace and quiet to the fountains and exotic plants of the more fashionable locales. Gabriel dozed comfortably beneath a giant oak as Varian sat leaning against the trunk, sketching the roofs of the palace above the hedges. He hummed to himself, an old song from his childhood in the city, the only other sound the scratch of his pencil.

The peace of the afternoon was rent by a sudden harsh cry. Varian jumped, startled. Gabriel was sitting up, head in his hands, his breath coming in sobs. Varian cast his papers aside. When he wrapped his arms around Gabriel’s shoulders, Varian could feel him shaking.

“Gabriel? What’s wrong?” he whispered.

Gabriel swallowed hard. “It’s nothing. Just a nightmare.”

Varian frowned at him in concern. “About your time in Verine?” he asked.

Gabriel nodded, and Varian pulled him closer. Gabriel rested his head on Varian’s shoulder.

“Would it help... Do you want to tell me about it? You haven’t told anyone what happened, really.”

“No,” Gabriel said. “I told you, it’s just a nightmare. It’s nothing.”

Nonetheless, Varian held Gabriel until he stopped shaking.

* * *

Varian frowned at Gabriel’s closed door, the gears in his head whirring fruitlessly. It had taken Gabriel a long time to calm down and his voice had sounded dead when he bid Varian farewell. Well, Varian thought, I can’t stand outside his door forever. He could, however, interrogate Gabriel’s page.

Dominic, dismissed by Gabriel but under strict orders from Prince Constantine to keep a close eye on His Grace, sat against the wall, a book of military history nicked from Gabriel’s private collection propped open on his knee.

Varian nudged him with one booted foot. Dominic jumped to his feet, the book disappearing behind his back.

“Yes, sir?”

“Has Gabriel ever said anything about his time in Verine?”

“To me, sir? He wouldn't. I'm just a servant.”

Varian sighed. “Of course. Thank you.”


Varian paused. “Yes?”

“If I may say so, it’s not Verine that makes His Grace so upset.”

Varian blinked. Shock struck him dumb for a moment before he managed, “What is it, then?”

Dominic chewed on a fingernail for a moment. “It’s Lord Mikhail. His Lordship’s a sorcerer, you know. His Grace expected Lord Mikhail to come break him out of prison. Or at the very least to be here for him when His Grace returned.”

“A sorcerer?”


Varian approximated a smile. “Thank you, Dominic, this has been most enlightening.”

“Glad to be of service, sir.”

* * *

Lord Mikhail’s office was deep in the old, subterranean part of the palace. Arches of stone held the weight of the building above as Varian carried a lantern through the gloomy winding hallways.

Mikhail’s name was attached to the door on a brass plate. Varian knocked.

“It’s open!” Mikhail called from the other side. Varian entered. And stared. Here, the columns of the arches had been painted: red, blue, and gold. And between them...

“Stained glass windows.”

Mikhail removed his glasses, refraining from rubbing his forehead with ink-stained fingers. “It’s an illusion. What do you need?”

“I want to talk about Gabriel.”

“What about him?” Mikhail’s voice was hard as slate.

“You’re a sorcerer. You can make all this.” Varian gestured to the opulence of the room. “Then why did you leave Gabriel in a dungeon to rot?”

Mikhail groaned, hiding his face in his hands. “Do you think you’re the first one to ask that? No one knew anything was wrong until we received the note from Prince Vlad, asking that we pick Gabriel up at the border!”

One of the few things that Varian, or anyone for that matter, had managed to pry out of Gabriel was that his escape had been facilitated by the queen’s rebellious son, to whom Gabriel had promised Onienis’ assistance in his uprising.

“You didn’t know?”

“Telepathy,” Mikhail said dispassionately, “is not one of my gifts.”

“Oh.” Varian hesitated. “Do you think you could heal his eyes, at least?”

Mikhail glared. The illusory stained glass crackled. “Some things simply cannot be fixed by sorcery. Besides, do I look like a healer to you?”

Varian backed towards the door. “No?”

Mikhail nodded curtly. “Good. Now get out. I don’t have to answer to the likes of you.”

Varian fled.

* * *

His work couldn’t stop simply because Mikhail had nearly frightened him to death. Varian trudged up from the city, the first snowfall crunching under his boots, a package of paint pigments tucked under his arm. He ducked his head against the wind and shivered. This weather is going to get worse before I get back to the palace. Preoccupied with his own misery, he didn’t hear the footsteps until it was too late.

“Varian d’Ghyaci!”

Varian’s head snapped up. The man who stood before him was considerably taller than Varian, and he was grinning. When Varian tried to flee, he found himself surrounded. The leader spoke.

“It seems we’ve found ourselves a spy, gentlemen. And you all know the bounty His Highness is paying for spies, especially those from Verine.”

Knowing he could not run, Varian prepared himself to fight, although he knew it was hopeless. The last thing he felt was the heavy blow connecting with the back of his head.

* * *

Gabriel sighed when he heard the clock chime a quarter past six in the evening. He paced, idly running his bow over the strings of his violin. A melancholy melody sounded from the instrument. The cold wind whistled against the windows, a counterpoint to his playing.

Sasha sat in front of the fireplace, knees drawn up to her chest, though the flames could not warm her. She hated winter. She turned when Gabriel’s playing stopped. He laid the instrument in its case.

“Varian should have been here hours ago.”

“Mhm,” she agreed. “You're worried?”

“Of course I’m worried. We’re in the middle of a snowstorm.”

“Don’t remind me,” Sasha answered grumpily. She sighed. Guilt gnawed at her because she hadn't been able to protect Gabriel in Verine, hadn't been able to travel that far from the place where she'd died. But here was something she could help with. “Do you want me to see if I can find him?” she offered.

“Could you?”

She grinned. “Of course. Anything for my little brother.” And so saying, she vanished.

* * *

Varian awoke to a splitting pain in his head. When he tried to lift his hands to examine the damage, he was hindered by the manacles on his wrists. His prison was so dark that he was unable to make out even the other walls of his cell through the blackness. With a shudder, Varian realized that this was the sort of blackness Gabriel faced daily. Thinking of self-defence, and of pride, he forced himself to stand when he heard footsteps in the hall. The door opened and a several guards dragged him from the room.

* * *

Sasha walked straight through the closed door and into the guards’ mess hall. She’d spend hours pacing through the city, unable to find a single trace of her brother’s lover until, returning to the palace, she’d seen several soldiers counting out the gold coins the prince had paid them as a bounty. On a hunch, she went to the guardhouse to investigate.

“A Verine spy, in the palace for months. Can you believe it?”

Another chimed in. “And staying in the Duke of Tyree’s bed, no less!”

“Ah, yes, well, can we blame him? Perhaps if Duke Gabriel had been a better spy, he wouldn’t be blind.”

Sasha had heard enough. She went to check on Varian before returning to her brother’s side.

* * *

Gabriel’s heart flooded with relief when he heard the knock at his door. He fumbled with the lock in his haste.

But the low voice that asked, “Gabriel?” didn’t belong to Varian, though Gabriel did recognize it. It was Mikhail’s.

“What do you want?” Gabriel demanded, face twisting into a snarl.

“May I come in?” Gabriel knew Mikhail well enough to know he wouldn’t go away until he had gotten what he wanted. He stepped away from the door to allow Mikhail to enter.

Mikhail sighed. “Gabriel, I know you hate me, but I came into possession of some information I thought you might value.”

“And that is?”

“Your Varian has been arrested as a spy.”

Gabriel felt the words like a blow. “What?”

“Varian,” Mikhail repeated slowly, “has been arrested as Verine spy.”

“That’s not possible.” Gabriel’s voice was little more than a growl. Mikhail shrugged, forgetting Gabriel couldn’t see the gesture.

“I just thought you’d like to know.”

“Get out,” Gabriel snarled. Mikhail bolted, and Gabriel slammed the door behind him.

* * *

They shoved him back into his cell, and Varian lost his balance, falling face first to the flagstones. He hurt all over. No matter how he had protested, his captors hadn’t believed that he wasn’t a spy. Finally alone, he allowed himself to cry. He wouldn’t see Gabriel again. He knew it. He would die here.

“There, there, now. Don’t cry.”

Varian drew a sharp breath. “Who’s there?”

It took a great deal of energy for Sasha to make herself visible to most people, energy she hated to expend. But Varian was important to her brother, and her brother was important to her, so it was worth it.

Varian watched in amazement as a luminescent fog appeared in a few feet in front of him. The glow resolved itself into a small girl. Her features were startlingly familiar, but Varian’s head ached, and he couldn’t place them.

Glowing, Sasha thought. Is there anything more melodramatic a ghost can do? But it was necessary. Would it have killed them to put in a window?

“Hello.” She announced herself, smiling reassuringly. “I’m Sasha.”

Varian continued to stare, mouth ajar.

“Sasha? Sasha Vercingeto?” She sighed. “I see that my brother hasn’t mentioned me.”

Well, Varian thought. That explains why Gabriel is always talking to himself.

“Are you, um, dead?” he asked.

“Yes. I thought I’d check on you. It's the least I can do for him, seeing as you mean the world to my little brother.”

“I do?”

“Of course. Now, don’t fret. I’m sure Gabriel will have you out of here in a few days at most. You’re not mortally wounded or anything else requiring immediate intervention, are you?”

Varian shook his head.

Sasha nodded. “Good. Then I’ll go tell Gabriel where you are. Try not to die or anything.”

Without so much as a good-bye, she vanished through the cell door. Varian let his head rest against the stone wall. The old noble families certainly had some interesting quirks.

* * *

Gabriel had not stopped pacing. Sasha watched as he tripped over a footstool. He stopped halfway through his stream of vicious curses when he heard Sasha’s giggle.

“Well,” he joked, “at least I don’t go through the furniture.”

“True,” Sasha agreed. “I found Varian for you.”

“He’s been arrested.”

Sasha pouted. “How did you know that?”

“Mikhail came and told me. The question now is what I do about it.”

At first, Gabriel had his doubts as to whether Mikhail was telling him the truth. But there was no doubt that Constantine’s intelligence organization was holding Varian, now that Sasha had confirmed it.

Sasha broke in on his thoughts. “If I may make an observation?”

Gabriel righted the footstool and sat on it, bruised legs stretched out in front of him. “By all means.”

“Prince Constantine did promise you the position as his master-of-spies when you returned from Verine. There weren’t any conditions upon the manner of your return. So, technically...”

“Technically, I can go and demand to see Varian, and they can’t deny me.”


Gabriel grabbed his coat and headed out the door. “Thank you, Sasha.”

“I’m only here to help, after all.”

* * *

This time when Varian heard the key turn in the lock, he didn’t bother standing. It hurt too much. The door opened and an elegant man stood in the frame, back lit by the ruddy torchlight in the hallway, another figure standing behind him and to the side.

“Leave the light.”

The guard bowed, handing him the lantern. “Yes, Your Grace.”

The door clicked closed. The man sighed, placing the lantern on the floor against the wall, where he wouldn't accidentally kick it over.

“Gabriel?” Varian whispered, pushing himself painfully upright.

Gabriel stood against the closed door, his arms crossed. “Well?”

“Gabriel, what... I never... I haven't done anything, I swear!”

Gabriel followed the sound of Varian's voice, and Varian found himself pinned to the wall, with Gabriel's hand at his throat.

“Who are you, really?” Gabriel asked coldly. “And don't you dare lie to me.” As much as Gabriel hated to treat Varian this way, if Constantine's intelligencers had arrested him, Gabriel had to believe it was for a reason.

Varian panicked, his chained hands tugging at Gabriel's. He had forgotten that Gabriel had once been a warrior. It was quite easy to forget; Gabriel was quite good at hiding his temper.

“Gabe... I can't breathe...” Varian managed to gasp. Gabriel released him, stepping back as Varian collapsed.

“I trusted you, Varian. I want the truth from you.” Varian closed his eyes; hating the pain in Gabriel's voice.

“I know what they're telling you, Gabriel, but I'm not a spy.”

“Really,” Gabriel said. Varian knew Gabriel didn't believe him.

“No, I wouldn't. Yes, I'm from Verine, but I came to Onienis when I was very young. My mother was a noblewoman who had fallen in love with an Onienien soldier, but he was killed in battle. After that, well,” Varian shrugged. “My grandfather wrote, saying he would allow my mother to return home, so long as she didn't bring me with her.” He sighed. “She was young, I guess. She left me at the Queen's Orphanage in the city.”

Gabriel slid down the wall to sit next to Varian. “So, what is your full name, then?”

“Varian d'Ghyaci. I never use the surname as it tends to lead to questions about my heritage.” Varian dried his tears on the back of his hand, chains clanking.

Gabriel frowned. “I'll have to look into this.”

Varian's heart sank. “You don't believe me.”

“Oh, I believe you, but I need to be sure. I can't go around ordering prisoners to be released simply because I happen to be in love with them. Besides,” Gabriel said, smiling in an attempt at levity, “that city accent of yours would be quite hard to fake, were you lying about your upbringing.” Gabriel clambered to his feet. “Don't worry, Vari. I'll come back, whether or not I can find proof of your story.

* * *

Gabriel went himself to the ramshackle buildings of the Queen's Orphanage.

The coach rolled to a stop, and Gabriel descended to a warm welcome from the orphanage's headmistress.

He was escorted down a short hallway to an office. The room was cold, and Gabriel did not hear the crackle of a fire. He suspected they couldn't afford the wood.

“Tea, Your Grace?” the headmistress asked from somewhere near his elbow. He nodded, and she pressed a warm cup into his hands. He gratefully wrapped his palms around it.

“To what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?”

Gabriel sighed. “I was wondering if you could find something in your records for me. I need to know if a lad named Varian lived here. He would have left, oh, eight years ago.”

Drawers squeaked and papers rustled while she searched. Gabriel waited impatiently, fiddling with the handle on his teacup.

“Here it is. Varian d'Ghyaci, records begin in 1439 at age five, and continue through 1450. Was there anything in particular you were looking for?”

Gabriel sighed in relief, feeling as though he hadn't taken a breath since he heard of Varian's arrest. He smiled. “No, thank you. That's all I needed.”

* * *

Sasha was waiting for him in the carriage.

“So, what did she say?” Sasha asked, as Gabriel sat huddled under his coat, Varian's file on his knee.

“He's innocent.”

“And you like him?”

Gabriel frowned. “Why do you care so much, Sasha?”

She shrugged. “Because I want you to be happy?”

He sighed. “I wish you hadn't died.”

Sasha smiled. Gabriel grew candid when he was tired. “Me too.”

* * *

The fever claimed Varian's senses. He knew not how much time had passed since Gabriel had promised to return. One thought kept him from despair. He promised to come back. He won't leave me here, he promised...

* * *

When the guard opened Varian's cell door, Gabriel had expected a greeting other than the tomb-still silence he was met with.


No response, not the slightest rattle of chains. “Guard!” Gabriel snapped. The soldier knelt, freeing Varian's wrists from their manacles.

“He's ill, Your Grace.”

Gabriel swore. “Have someone take him to my rooms. And fetch a healer.”

* * *

Varian's cheek rested on something scratchy. And glittery, he realized, prying his eyes open. Something that rose and fell with the sleeper's steady breaths. He smiled for a moment, smoothing into place a thread on Gabriel's embroidered coat. Gabriel had fallen asleep atop the coverlet, boots still on.

Varian carefully extracted himself from the duke's arms. Gabriel's hair was strewn across the pillows like raven feathers. Dawn light streamed through the windows, painting the scene with such colors! He lay his head back down, with at least one burden off his mind. He knew what to paint now.

“Vari? Are you awake?”


Varian was silent for a moment. “How long have I been here?”

Gabriel stood, dislodging Varian. “About two days.” He straightened his coat. “I've delivered proof of your innocence. You can expect an official apology.”

“Thank you, Gabriel.”

Gabriel smiled. “My pleasure.” Dominic knocked and pushed the door open.

“Dinner, Your Grace?” Varian's stomach growled. Gabriel laughed.

“By all means.”

* * *

Over stew and fresh bread, Varian asked, “Are you going to take up your position as spymaster officially, then?”

“Well,” Gabriel said, “It's time I did more than sit around and listen to you read poetry all day, as much as I enjoy it.”

* * *

The next few weeks passed swiftly as Gabriel took up his new position, and Varian once again took up his paintbrushes.

Five days before Prince Constantine's midwinter masque, Varian hesitated outside Mikhail's door. He really didn't want to do this, but Mikhail was the best person to ask. Gritting his teeth, he knocked.

“Come in!” Mikhail called. The office was the same. It was as though Mikhail hadn't moved since their last explosive interview.

Mikhail looked up. “Oh. You are the last person I was expecting.”

Varian tried to rub a drop of paint from his hand. “I had a question, and I thought you might be the best person to ask.”

“Oh?” Mikhail leaned back in his chair. “What is it?”

“Well...” Varian hesitated. “Before his trip to Verine, what color were Gabriel's eyes?”

Mikhail hadn't been expecting such an easy question. “They were blue. Deep blue.”

“Thank you, My Lord.” Varian bowed and closed the door softly behind him.

* * *

“So, Vari, I take it you finished your painting?” Gabriel asked as they prepared for the masque. Gabriel was pleased; his blindfold dispelled the need for a mask.


“May I ask what you painted at last?”


“The star god. An interesting choice.”

“Well,” Varian answered, “I thought it appropriate for the darkest time of year.”

* * *

“They're staring at us,” Varian whispered as they entered the ballroom.

Gabriel laughed. “They're courtiers. Staring and gossiping are their favorite forms of entertainment. Don't let them bother you.”

They lost themselves amongst the crowd, but Madelina found them. She dragged Gabriel onto the dance floor. Varian, uncomfortable surrounded by so many nobles, hovered along the party's edges. He jumped, almost spilling his wine, when Prince Constantine snuck up behind him.

“Very good, Mr. d'Ghyaci. I didn't think you'd finish in time.”

A painting of the dark-haired star god dominated the ballroom, done so skilfully that the dancers imagined it actually emitted starlight. But most startling of all were the god's lively blue eyes.

Varian blushed. The painting had only been finished the evening before, which he suspected Constantine knew.

“Your subject looks familiar,” the prince mused. “Do we know the model?”

Varian smiled, gazing out across the dance floor as Madelina led Gabriel in a waltz. “It's possible, Your Highness.”

Love and Obligation 2

Gabriel had retired from the ball early, completely exhausted. His nightmares, however, didn’t care how badly he needed the sleep. Gabriel leaned out the open window, chasing away his nightmare with the cold winter air. He was grateful, at least, that he hadn't woken Varian.

A small hand tugged at his sleeve.


“Who else?” She answered. “I wanted to say good bye.”

“Good-bye? What do you mean 'good-bye?’” Gabriel had always thought of Sasha as one of the few constants in his life.

“You don't need me to take care of you anymore. You have Varian for that now.” He could hear the smile in her voice. “My work here is complete.”

Gabriel chuckled softly. “So you deem him acceptable, do you?”

“I do,” she said firmly. “Good-bye, Gabriel. I love you.”

“Good-bye, Sasha.”

The room warmed a few degrees before he even closed the window, and he knew she was gone.

“Who are you talking to?” Varian asked.

Gabriel smiled. “Just my sister. But don't worry, she's gone home now.”

Varian snorted. “It's about time.”

* * *

Molly Schwanz comes from a family of historians and therefore is an undergraduate student of Medieval and Renaissance History. This is her first published story

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

I get the ideas from historical figures, from folklore, and from long, enforced periods of doing such as a bus ride in which the bits of information in my brain can mix themselves together in interesting ways.


by Sarah Wagner


She once ruled her world from a filigree throne
In a time when Believers stood tall and proud
Thunderous warriors fought for her favor
The sharp crash of swords echoed
Through the hills, carried in tales of valor
When megaliths were lifted in honor of her
And everything was sacred.

Then the Other came, riding the backs
Of tin men, driving their stake of righteousness
Through the heart of her people,
Determined to cast her out,
Banish her to mere folklore
Strip her power, murder her heathen children.

Time slowed, dragged its feet on the journey
Towards her inevitable rebirth
In times of change, legend lends comfort
Becomes the truth it had been
Is worn in the culture like a badge
Bearing the Believers home
Pulls her into the world, reborn.

* * *

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

Where do you get the ideas for your stories/poems?

It depends on the piece I'm working on. Some come from dreams, some from news stories, some from watching the world around me, and others from deeply personal experiences.

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

Barrel Rider

Barrel Rider

by Robert E. Keller

Barrel Rider

Farmer Sneedon stood on the river bank and eyed the barrel with great interest, wondering if this was his lucky day. It looked stout--made of some type of white wood bound in iron, with strange markings burned into it. His fishing pole lay wiggling at his feet, its line in the river. But Farmer Sneedon couldn’t have cared less if a fish had taken the bait or not. All he could see was the unusual barrel that had just drifted down the river and washed up on the sandy shore.

“Can’t understand how it opens,” he muttered to himself, running his hands over the smooth wood and metal. At last he seized a rock and began smashing it down on the barrel, his eyes smoldering with determination. But he couldn’t seem to even scratch it.

He was startled by a sudden noise like grinding metal, and the barrel’s side split open to reveal a small, bearded man amid gears and levers. Farmer Sneedon leapt back, his eyes wide, the rock slipping from his fingers.

“Well, hello there!” he said in shock.

The little man stepped out of the barrel, grinning. He was an ugly midget. His bearded face was lined and wrinkled, his hook nose excessively long. His eyes were dark, like pools that revealed nothing except a mischievous glint, and his teeth were large and yellow. His red hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and like his beard, it was a series of tiny braids. He wore a plain brown tunic and brown trousers, and a leather belt with an oversized silver buckle encircled his waist. His black leather boots split in two at the ends like cloven hoofs. A broad, sheathed dagger with a rune-covered, silver hilt hung from his belt.

He bowed. “I am Gatheon Mudoolis, traveler from distant lands. And you are...?” His breath smelled of whiskey.

Farmer Sneedon blinked, still overcome with surprise. “I’m a farmer. Um . . . Sneedon, that is. Nate Sneedon. Nice to meet you.” Clumsily, he extended his hand.

The midget shook it. “They call me a barrel rider, Mr. Sneedon. And can you guess why that might be?” He chuckled, then cleared his throat. “Anyway, I’m from inside the Gold Dust Belt, where people are smaller. I’m seeking to make my fame and fortune among the large folk.”

Farmer Sneedon shook his head. “It’s not possible. No travels through the Gold Dust Belt. It’s poisonous to breathe.” The Gold Dust Belt was a ring of vapor hundreds of miles long and at least three miles thick at any point. It was said to be of magical origin and of unknown purpose, created when the world was very young.

Gatheon pointed at his barrel, his chin held high with pride. “She’s airtight when I want her to be, Mr. Sneedon. Only a barrel rider like myself can travel through the Gold Dust Belt and live. Got just enough air in there to make it through–maybe even a little to spare. And we small folk can hold our breaths for a long time.” His eyes gleamed with delight. “My barrel can even travel upriver, against the strongest current.”

Farmer Sneedon was impressed, but still baffled and taken aback. “I’ve never heard of any little folk,” he said. He pondered for a moment. “Well, there are legends of gnomes living inside the Belt. But those are just children’s stories.”

“Indeed,” said Gatheon, waving his chubby hand dismissively. “You large people have such silly legends. I’m a man like you, Mr. Sneedon. Just smaller. Nothing magical about me–except for maybe my charm.” He laughed. “Anyway, I didn’t mean to startle you. If you don’t mind, I’m kind of hungry and I’d like some dinner. I’m a hard worker.” He eyed the farmer’s basket of fish and licked his lips.

“Huh?” said Farmer Sneedon, still trying to sort out the situation in his mind. He wiped sweat from his thin, weathered face. It wasn’t every day that strange little men popped out of barrels. “Sure, you can help with a few chores after dinner, and sleep in the guest room. Won’t be a problem. I often let travelers stay at the farm in exchange for work. And I need some help catching up on things today.”

Gatheon smiled warmly and extended his hand. Farmer Sneedon noticed it was just as calloused as his own, which meant the little man was probably indeed a hard worker. He shook it, thinking the midget wasn’t such a bad fellow. He had a lot of questions he wanted to ask, but he decided to wait until later, lest he scare the traveler away.

“Thank you so much, my good, good man!” said Gatheon. “I’ll do all I can to make it worth your while. First, I must hide my barrel in the woods. Please wait here for me, as no one can know its location.”

“You can bring it to the farm,” said Sneedon. “It should be safe enough there.”

Gatheon shook his head several times. “No, no, no. That wouldn’t do at all. We little folk always hide our barrels, preferably near rivers. Plain and simple. No one must find it! It’s nothing against you personally. It’s just our way of doing things.”

“All right,” said Farmer Sneedon, with a shrug. The little fellow was odd, but pleasant enough. He had a certain charm about him that made him very likable. Farmer Sneedon felt this traveler would prove to be excellent company.

After Gatheon had carried his barrel off into the woods and then returned empty handed, Sneedon gathered his fishing gear and the two set off for the farm. As they walked, they spoke little, but questions kept building in Sneedon’s mind. If the midget did indeed come from inside the Gold Dust Belt--a land that no human could visit--the farmer wanted to know all about it. Yet he held his tongue, determined to wait on his inquires until the little man smelled some cooking food and was less likely to get offended.

The farm was small, containing a horse, a few cows, about two dozen chickens, a goat, a barn, and a two-story house. They followed the road out of the woods, through a corn field, and into a muddy yard. Farmer’s Sneedon’s wife, Tamella, stood on the front porch, an uncertain smile on her lips as they approached.

Farmer Sneedon started to introduce his new companion, when Gatheon brushed past him, raced over, and planted a kiss on Tamella’s hand. “My beautiful lady,” Gatheon said. “I am more than pleased to be at your beck and call.”

Tamella smiled in surprise and delight. She had been very pretty once, but like her husband, she was in her late forties, and farm life had taken its toll on her. She retained most of the blond color in her lush, curly hair, though.“Well aren’t you a charming little fellow! And where did you find such a gentleman, my husband?”

Farmer Sneedon explained what had happened.

Tamella’s eyes were wide. “What an unusual story. But you’re certainly not from around here. Your fine manners alone are enough to tell me that.”

They went inside. While Tamella fried up the fish, Farmer Sneedon tried to strike up a conversation with Gatheon, seeking to learn about his homeland and people. But the little man seemed suddenly distracted, and gave vague answers that the farmer didn’t find satisfying in the least. Finally, the farmer fell silent, deciding Gatheon was probably just hungry and would loosen his tongue after he’d had some fried fish--or else Gatheon really wasn’t from inside the Gold Dust Belt, which was the most likely scenario.

Gatheon kept his gaze fixed on Tamella, acting as if Farmer Sneedon wasn’t there. The farmer started to comment on the weather, but Gatheon interrupted him. “Beautiful lady,” he said softly, “the smell of your cooking is intoxicating.”

Farmer Sneedon nodded. “Yes, my wife is indeed a good--”

“And you have a lovely home, Mrs. Sneedon,” Gatheon continued.

The farmer cleared his throat. “So how long will you be--”

“Do you have any children, Mrs. Sneedon?”

“A grown son and daughter,” said Tamella. “Both are married with children of their own. What about you, Mr. Mudoolis? Do you have any children?”

“Gobbled up,” Gatheon said.

Tamella wheeled about from the stove, her face pale. “Excuse me?”

“That fish will soon be gobbled up. I’m so hungry you just wouldn’t believe it.”

Tamella laughed nervously. “Well, hang in there. It won’t be long.”

Gatheon produced a big flask from his tunic and sipped it heartily. He smacked his lips. “Stout stuff. Been sipping it for the past three hours off and on. Takes the edge off my hunger.” He took another hearty swig.

“So you ride the rivers in a...barrel?” Tamella said. “Where is it?”

Gatheon’s eyes narrowed. “In a safe place. In the woods.” A sly look crossed his face. “No one will ever find it beneath the bird’s watchful eye.” He hiccuped. “Anyway, I’m talking too much. Happens when I sip whiskey.”

As the three sat down for dinner, Farmer Sneedon started to say a prayer. But before he finished speaking, Gatheon had bitten a fish completely in two and was chewing fiercely to get it down. He grunted as he chewed, and sweat dripped from his forehead. Crumbs from the breading hung in his beard. At one point, he made a gagging noise as if choking on a bone. Alarmed, Tamella quickly poured him some water, but he refused it with a frown and a wave of his hand. He made the gagging noise again and then swallowed.

“Are you okay?” Farmer Sneedon asked.

Gatheon ignored him. “The fish is delicious, my lady. Splendid! We little people can handle fish bones. We’ve got a worm in our bellies that grinds them up. Even the scales are no problem for us.”

Farmer Sneedon felt queasy. “A worm, you say?”

“Not like an earthworm,” said Gatheon, his eyes still fixed on Tamella. “Just a slimy little device that looks like a worm. It’s a handy little organ, because we eat our fish raw--scales, head, guts, and all.” He chuckled and patted his belly. “I like them when they’re still twitching.”

Farmer Sneedon shook his head in disgust and amazement. Tamella suddenly didn’t seem interested in her dinner.

After Gatheon had eaten his fill, he watched Tamella with a burning gaze as she wiped down the stove, put away leftovers, and collected the dishes. When she reached for his plate, he seized her arm and caressed it. “Lovely,” Gatheon whispered. He touched her hair. “And those golden locks are delightful.”

Her face reddened, and she pulled away.

His own face flushing with anger, Farmer Sneedon stood up quickly. “All right now, Mr. Mudoolis. They’ll be no more touching my wife, or you’ll have to move on. Is that understood? I think perhaps you’ve had a bit too much of that whiskey!”

“My apologies,” Gatheon said, still focused on Tamella. “Your beauty is just so inspiring, my lady. Why, I could tackle you right now and smother you in tender kisses.”

Farmer Sneedon’s mouth dropped open. “Now that’s enough of that talk! I think you’ll have to find lodging somewhere else tonight.”

“Nonsense,” Tamella said. “He’s just being polite, my husband.”

“I wouldn’t call that polite,” Farmer Sneedon growled. “I don’t know how your people talk to men’s wives, Mr. Mudoolis, but in this land we’re taught to show respect.”

“I can teach you respect, farmer,” Gatheon said sullenly, his eyes narrowing. The smell of whiskey was strong on his breath.

“What did you say?” Farmer Sneedon asked, leaning over the table with a menacing look on his face. He was nearing his breaking point, and was considering grabbing the little man by his collar and marching him off down the road. But then he noticed that Gatheon’s hand was resting on the hilt of his broad dagger and he thought better of it.

“I said I know about respect,” said Gatheon. “At least, what my people taught me. And we’re taught that women are wonderful creatures, to be cherished--and loved...right and proper.”

“Right and proper?” said Farmer Sneedon. “Is that so?”

Gatheon nodded. “As it should be.”

“Get on down the road!” Farmer Sneedon shouted, slamming his fist on the table. “I’ve had about enough of your--”

“Husband!” Tamella snapped. “That’s enough. He’s from a different culture. And I insist that we allow him to stay for the night.”

“I’ll sleep in the barn,” Gatheon said. “I won’t bother anyone.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” said Tamella. “You can sleep in the guest room, and not in any barn like an animal.”

“Thank you so much. You are truly kind hearted.”

“That’s not going to happen,” said Farmer Sneedon. “I should boot you off my farm, but I see my wife is determined to undermine my authority. So be it. You can sleep in the barn, and then leave in the morning. It’s that or nothing.”

“I’ll take it,” Gatheon said, jumping up from his chair. And with that, he wished them well, bowed, and left the house.

Farmer Sneedon glared at his wife. “Now look what you’ve done. Clearly, that little man is a lowlife wretch. He’s probably a liar, too. That was probably nothing more than a fancy ale barrel he was riding in. He undoubtedly stole it from somewhere.”

Tamella nodded. “I agree. But let’s use some common sense. Do we really want to anger him? You saw that huge knife he was carrying.”

Grudgingly, Farmer Sneedon nodded. “Yes, I saw it. Hopefully he’ll get so drunk off his booze that he’ll pass out in the barn and sleep until morning. Maybe then he’ll move on. If he knows what’s good for him, he will!”

“I’m going out for a walk,” said Tamella. “I feel a little wound up right now. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”

“All right,” Farmer Sneedon said. “I’ve got to do some chores, and I intend to keep a close eye on our little guest.”

* * *

The evening passed uneventfully, and Gatheon Mudoolis stayed put in the barn. He didn’t help with any chores, but Farmer Sneedon didn’t care as long as the midget stayed out of sight. It seemed no further trouble would result from the little man’s presence.

But sometime during the night, with a bright moon shining down, Farmer Sneedon awoke to the frantic whinnying of his horse. Clearly, the animal was in great distress. His cows and goat also seemed agitated--but the horse was absolutely panicked. He hurriedly put on his clothes and boots, while Tamella watched him with a tense expression.

The whinnying stopped abruptly, as if choked off. The cows continued mooing.

“Wait here,” he told her. “I’ll see what that little wretch is up to.”

“Be careful!” she said.

Farmer Sneedon raced downstairs, his heart pounding hard. He grabbed a lantern and a hatchet from by the stove and headed out to the barn. When he got inside, he let out a gasp. Gatheon had cleared a small patch of earth and lit a fire. Lying next to the fire was the bloody carcass of Sneedon’s horse. Its head was missing, and some of its meat was roasting over the flames. Gatheon was nowhere to be seen.

For an instant, Farmer Sneedon couldn’t bring himself to move, so great was his fear. Obviously, the little man was a lunatic, and he could be hiding anywhere in the shadows. The farmer glanced about, his knuckles white as he gripped the hatchet. The cows and goat were okay, but still shifting about in their stalls and making distressed sounds.

“Come...come out, Mr. Mudoolis,” he said. “You’ve killed my beloved horse, and I can’t let you get away with it.” No sound greeted Sneedon’s ears.

Rage overcoming his terror. Farmer Sneedon searched the barn. There were a lot of potential hiding places, and his search took him several minutes. As he shined his lantern behind some hay bales, he let out a whimper. The horse’s head lay on the ground, surrounded by three lit candles. A strange symbol had been painted in blood on its forehead, and an unrolled scroll with more symbols lay nearby along with a pile of reddish ash.

Farmer Sneedon could make no sense of what he saw--other than to guess that Gatheon had been trying to work some kind of magic spell. Since the farmer didn’t believe in such things, he was more concerned about Gatheon being utterly insane.

Farmer Sneedon heard a hiss, and glancing up, he saw a pair of crimson eyes glaring at him from the shadows. He raised his hatchet as a warning. “I have you now, Mr. Mudoolis!” he cried. “Give yourself up, or face this hatchet!” A voice in the back of Farmer Sneedon’s mind warned him that Gatheon’s eyes should not be glowing like coals--that something monstrous was watching from the darkness.

The watcher leapt down from a stack of crates and into the lantern light, revealing a short, fat, impish creature that looked almost like a naked doll made of reddish wood. It had an oversized, blocky head with round crimson eyes; a wide, drooling, toothless mouth; two tiny bat wings that grew out of its shoulders and appeared useless as far as flight was concerned, and long fingers that tapered into fine, sharp points. It looked like someone’s detailed carving of a cherub from hell. The mere sight of it caused Farmer Sneedon’s stomach to boil with horror and disgust, and he was frozen in place.

Snarling, the creature leapt at Farmer Sneedon, swiping at him with its fingers. With a cry, he brought up his arms defensively to protect his face. The slashing, pointy fingers shredded his tunic sleeves and tore open the flesh underneath. Desperately, he shoved the creature away from him. It rolled head over heels, making creaking noises, before landing upright with a jerky, puppet-like motion.

As the enraged imp threw itself forward to attack again, Farmer Sneedon swung the hatchet. Somehow, he landed a perfectly timed, very lucky blow on the creature’s forehead, splitting it open like a block of oak. Screeching in agony, the imp flopped around and then disintegrated into a pile of crimson ash.

“Tamella!” Farmer Sneedon cried, and he raced for the house. As he ran through the yard, he could hear his wife screaming upstairs. In his haste, he tripped over a stray piece of firewood and landed hard on his belly, skinning his knee. Utterly winded, he lay gasping for breath. His desperation had surged into pure panic.

At last he managed to get up, and he flung himself through the front door and dashed upstairs--to find the bedroom door locked from within.

“Help me!” Tamella screamed. “He’s in here with me!”

Farmer Sneedon slammed his hatchet against the door, chopping through the lock and then smashing it open with his shoulder. He charged into the room, his face twisted in a killing rage. But Gatheon had already fled through the upstairs window.

Tamella sat on the edge of the bed, looking more calm now than she should have been. “He’s gone,” she said. “I’m okay. He cut away a lock of my hair.”

“He killed Mallie,” said Farmer Sneedon, referring to their horse. He clutched his forehead and shuddered. “And...and he summoned some kind of horrible monster in the barn. I think it’s dead now.”

“You’re bleeding,” Tamella said.

“It’s nothing too serious. But...” Sneedon shook his head. “How can this be? The thing in the barn was pure evil! It must have been a demon of some sort. I have to go find him, before he does more damage. But I fear leaving you alone again.”

“He has left the farm,” Tamella said. “He told me he’s a gnome out searching for a wife. They come from within the Gold Dust Belt in search of women. They take great pride in capturing human females for their brides. He said that he would take my lock of hair back to his people to show their village wizard, and in six days a winged shadow would come for me and carry me off--and that no one could stop it.”

Farmer Sneedon trembled. “If that’s true, then I have to go catch him and kill him before he escapes in that barrel!”

Tamella shook her head. “Do not fear, my husband. He won’t escape. When I took my walk earlier, I moved his barrel to another hiding place, and I assure you he won’t be able to find it.”

“But how did you know where it was?” the farmer asked.

“It was easy,” she said. “He spoke of having hidden it beneath the bird’s watchful eye. That was a big mistake. The drunken fool! I remembered a stone statue of an owl in the woods, which I used to lay beneath when I was a child. Sure enough, I found his barrel at the foot of that statue, surrounded by boulders and oaks.”

“But he commands magic,” said Farmer Sneedon, trembling. “He must have summoned that imp in the barn to kill me. When he finds out what you’ve done, he’ll return with rage in his heart. He’ll kill both of us!”

“No, he won’t,” Tamella said calmly. “He won’t dare. He stands to lose the most precious thing in the world to him--something he cannot return home without. He’ll give back that lock of hair before all is said and done.”

Not long after that, Gatheon did return, charging up the stairs with his dagger drawn. “I’ll cut you both into pieces,” he snarled, storming into their bedroom. His dagger glowed with a crimson hue, radiating from a substance like fiery blood that ran through dark veins that webbed its surface. The veins seemed to pulse with life. It was an ugly weapon that spoke of smoldering caverns and ancient sorcery.

The farmer and his wife sat on the edge of the bed. Tamella looked relaxed, but Farmer Sneedom was beside himself. He leapt off the bed, taking position to defend his wife.

“I’d like that lock of hair returned to me,” said Tamella.

“And I’d like my barrel returned to me,” said Gatheon. “Do you know how old I am? I’ve lived for over three-hundred years and never had a human as a bride. You’re going to return what is rightfully mine, and you will be my wife!”

Farmer Sneedon raised his hatchet. “You killed my horse. And that monster of yours nearly killed me. You won’t get away with it!”

With a sneer, Gatheon pointed the glowing dagger at Farmer Sneedon. “I could cut through you like parchment, human swine. My dagger will burn your flesh like flame from a forge and suck away your life force. Now where is my barrel?”

Tamella held out her hand. “My lock of hair, gnome.”

The dark pools that were Gatheon’s eyes glinted with pure malice. “You humans are weak, and the men of your kind are worthless. Yet you, my lady...” He licked his lips. “You are so beautiful. Why do you resist? Wouldn’t you like to come to my land, to see wonders beyond your imagination and live for ages and ages? Come, leave this miserable farmer and be my bride. Or stay here in a pale land, grow old, and die.”

Tamella’s jaw was set firm. “As I said, I want that lock of hair.”

“And you’ll never get it,” Gatheon vowed. “We gnomes are stubborn. We cannot be fooled, or intimidated. I will have what I’ve come for.”

“You’ll never have my wife!” Farmer Sneedon howled.

“This is your last chance, Mr. Mudoolis,” Tamella said coldly. “You will either return that lock of hair now and get out, or I swear unto my grave that you will never, ever, find out where I’ve hidden your precious barrel. Is that clear?”

Gatheon opened his mouth to protest, then grudgingly nodded. He muttered something under his breath, then flung the lock of hair at her.

“I want all of it,” she said, her eyes icy. “Your last chance.”

Hurriedly, Gatheon reached into his pocket and pulled out more hair. He threw it at her. “Take it all, then! But tell me where you’ve hidden it.”

“You must swear never to return here,” Tamella said. “That you will leave us in peace.”

Gatheon hesitated, gritting his teeth.

“Swear it right and proper!” she commanded. “And I know how a gnome is supposed to give his word. I also know a gnome’s word is unbreakable. I read it in a book once, while lying beneath a certain stone owl in the woods--the same owl that betrayed you.”

“I swear it on my father’s forge to leave you in peace,” Gatheon said sullenly, bowing his head in defeat. “Now where is it?”

"I dragged it back here," she said. "It’s behind the chicken coup, covered in a pile of straw, mud, and chicken droppings. I’m sure it smells wonderful."

Without a word, Gatheon Mudoolis sheathed his dagger and left.

Farmer Sneedon gazed at his wife in amazement. “You knew he was going to give in to your demands. But how?”

“It is simple, my husband,” Tamella said, smiling. “I had him over a barrel.”

* * *

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.


by Aurelio Rico Lopez III


martians pose for shot
aspiring photographer
catches big break

* * *

Aurelio Rico Lopez III is a self-diagnosed scribble junkie from Iloilo City, Philippines. His poems have appeared in various venues such as Mythic Delirium, Star*Line, Sybil’s Garage, Down in the Cellar, Steel Moon Publishing, Tales From the Moonlit Path, Kaleidotrope, Electric Velocipede, Beyond Centauri, and The Shantytown Anomaly. He is also the author of the chapbooks JOLTS and SHOCKS (Sam’s Dot Publishing). You can reach him at

What inspires you to write and keep writing?

I write because I HAVE to. I have no say on the matter. Writing is in my blood.

The Daughter of Pernius

The Daughter of Pernius
by John Whitehouse

Daughter of Pernius

The plan was simple enough. Yet the feeling that something would go wrong continued to steal over me, as I practiced my knife-throwing against the trunk of a nearby tree. I was standing on the bank of a river which meandered through a wooded valley, broad and shallow. On the far slopes, the walls of Naashem – the city state where I had lived for most of my fifteen summers – could be seen.

I wondered how the people were faring under Saddara's rule. Niece to King Pernius, who she had driven from the throne several months earlier, she was reputed to be a mistress of dark sorcery. Aided by a bandit leader named Roganar, she had gathered an army of mercenaries, many of whom were cut-throats and outlaws. On the night Naashem had fallen, traitors inside the city had slain the guards and opened the gates, allowing Saddara's forces to swarm through. The King’s soldiers had fought with desperate courage but, outnumbered and caught off-guard, their resistance was futile.

In the chaos and confusion, Pernius had succeeded in escaping, along with his son, Prince Tormas - to whom I was page – and two loyal servants, myself and Gromek, blacksmith to the Palace stables. The King’s daughter - Princess Lyssia - had been captured, however.

Together, the four of us had journeyed south to the land of Turshia, settling in the capital, Kodan.

Then, one day, a wandering merchant caravan had brought a letter, written by Lyssia, in which she pleaded to be rescued. She told how, following her capture, she had been thrown into one of the Palace dungeons, where she had languished for more than a month. Then, in a surprising act of kindness, Saddara had ordered that she be moved to more comfortable surroundings. She was now confined in a villa, situated in a quiet suburb, guarded by two men. She added that she’d written at the urging of a servant girl, who’d offered to smuggle out the letter inside her garments.

The news that the Princess was so lightly guarded had raised our spirits, and together, Pernius and Tormas had devised a plan to steal her away.

On the eve of our departure from Kodan, the Prince had summoned me to his rooms. In his twenty-fifth year, he was of medium height and strong build. A small dark beard adorned his handsome features.

“Gromek and I intend to enter the city disguised as peasants on our way to market,” he told me. “My father regrets he cannot travel with us, but in his current state of health he needs plenty of rest. We’ll wait until nightfall, then overpower the guards. With luck, they’ll be drunk or dozing. With my sister disguised also, we’ll make our way to the Great Temple. From there, a secret tunnel leads out of the city. That’s our means of escape.

“You will accompany us as far as the city, Lokan. It will be your job to guard the animals until our return.”

At first light the following day we set off on the long journey, the spare horses and pack mules loaded with blankets and provisions. Our garments were simple and practical. For my part, I wore a pair of calf-length leather boots which had belonged to my late uncle Siberius; heavy woolen trousers; a leather jerkin over a horsehair tunic; and a cape of heavy dark wool. We had travelled for almost two months, and had entered the valley earlier that day. We had made camp in a cave close to the water’s edge, and the Prince and Gromek had set out to hunt for food.

Sheathing my dagger, I set about the task the Prince had set me, that of gathering firewood. The trees dripped golden leaves onto the woodland floor as I picked up large twigs and broke off low branches. When I had as much as I could carry, I went back to the cave and built a fire, which I lit using flint and steel. There was a chill in the air now evening was drawing on, and I savored the warmth of the flames, which threw a dancing yellow light onto the rough walls.

I heard the Prince yelling my name and, ducking out of the cave, I saw he and Gromek had returned. The blacksmith, a giant of a man whose strength was awesome, was carrying the carcass of a young deer on his massive shoulders. Both men were staring into the darkening sky, their faces grim. Following their gaze, I froze in astonishment. Heading toward us, from the direction of the city, was a large cloud of dense bluish-grey mist. It was travelling at considerable speed and, within the cloud, smoky tendrils swirled and writhed, like serpents participating in a mad frenetic dance.

“It’s Saddara’s doing, I’ll be bound,” said the Prince. “We’d better get out of here.” He told me to retrieve the saddlebags stored in the rear of the cave, while he and Gromek set about saddling the horses, which grazed nearby, along with the mules.

Hurriedly, I scrambled into the cave. When I emerged, I saw the cloud was now directly above us. Coming to a halt, it hovered for a moment. Then, like a bird swooping on prey, it descended, enveloping my companions and I, along with the animals.

I found myself in a blue-grey cocoon. The mist was so thick and heavy that I could barely see an arm’s length in front of me, and there was a thin acrid smell to it. Around me, the smoky tendrils whirled like living things. As I groped forward, stumbling over the uneven ground, my vision began to shift in and out of focus. Dizziness flooded over me, and I felt weak and nauseous. With the strength draining from me, I dropped the bags I was carrying and fell heavily to my knees.

Then my world dissolved into blackness.

* * *

I swam into consciousness to find I was lying on damp straw inside a gloomy interior. Sitting up, I peered around. I was inside a prison cell, two sides of which were solid rock. To my left were two further cells, the three separated from each other by bars running from floor to ceiling. Gromek was in the cell adjacent to mine, while the Prince occupied the other. Before me was the cell door, similarly constructed of full-length bars. In front of the cells ran a narrow passage lit by burning torches, whose sullen glow provided the sole alleviation to the darkness.

“Where are we?” I asked.

It was the Prince who answered. “Inside the Temple. I recognize this as one of the dungeons.”

We heard the sound of approaching footsteps, and a man and woman appeared in the entrance to the passage. The woman - who looked to be in her mid-thirties - was of medium height and slender, with finely sculpted features framed by a mass of dark curls, which foamed down her back. She wore a long gown of turquoise silk, gathered at the waist by a fine golden chain, and a tasteful adornment of jewels. There was no denying she was beautiful. Yet it was a cold, hard sort of beauty, like a summer flower clothed with autumn frost, or the crisp elegance of a fresh snowfall, and her dark eyes, though full of pride and intelligence, gleamed with hidden menace.

The Prince sprang to his feet. “Saddara! I suppose you’ve come to gloat. But how did you know we were coming?”

“You forget my skills in the magic arts, cousin.” She spoke from a wide sensuous mouth, and her voice was sickly sweet, like poisoned honey. “I have placed warding spells around the city. When you came to the river you disturbed one, and I was alerted.”

She gestured toward her companion. Around the same age, he was tall and muscular, with rugged features topped by a square-cut mane of fair hair. His garments were made of leather and a sword hung at his waist.

“Let me introduce you. You’ve heard of the famous Roganar, although I don’t believe you’ve actually met. Well, this is he. Thanks to him, I now have what is rightfully mine.”

The Prince gave a sigh. “Oh, Saddara. The people didn’t want you as Queen, but you could never accept it. My father’s rule has been wise and tolerant. Naashem has grown and prospered.”

Saddara moved to stand in front of the Prince’s cell, facing him. “The throne was bought with the blood of my own father.” Her voice trembled with an anger she could barely contain. “I know what happened during the battle with the Zoramian forces, how Pernius hired an assassin to slay his elder brother, making it appear he’d been killed by the enemy. It was Jamilla who told me. Using ancient arts, she discovered the truth of the matter.”

“And you believe that old crone? She’s lying to you, Saddara. She’s using you for her own ends.”

Saddara ignored him. “My spies in Kodan tell me Pernius has been busy these past months, forming alliances, trying to raise an army against me. A pity that all his schemes will avail him naught. As he will discover tonight.”

The Prince’s face darkened. ”What do you mean?”

Saddara gave him a look which could almost have been pity. “Oh, my dear cousin, don’t you see? The whole thing was a trap. The servant girl, the one who smuggled out the letter – she was in my employ. I knew you’d try to rescue your sister sooner or later, it was simply a matter of waiting.

“The assassin is in place, cousin. When I inform him of your capture, he will move against Pernius. When you and your sister are also taken care of, there will be no-one left to challenge me. I failed before because I was young and foolish. I will not make the same mistakes again.”

The Prince stared at her with incredulity. Then he uttered an inhuman cry. “You filthy treacherous witch!” he screamed. “May you burn in a thousand hells for this.” He gripped the bars of the cell door and shook them with uncontrollable fury. He howled like an animal.

Gromek spoke. “What are you going to do with us?” he asked.

“I intend to sacrifice you all to Mytak,” came the reply. “In return for his continued blessings on the city. Along with the Princess Lyssia, of course, who is being prepared for the ritual as we speak. Meanwhile, I will see that you are fed and watered. After all, I’m not a barbarian.”

She beckoned to Roganar, and together they strode from the dungeon.

An icy wave of dread surged over me, but I forced myself to remain calm. If a way out of this existed, I had to find it. And soon.

* * *

As I pondered our predicament, I thought about my uncle Siberius. He had been involved with the criminal underworld and, on one occasion, had succeeded in escaping from prison. He had recounted the tale to me on more than one occasion, and as I recalled it, an idea formed in my mind. Thanking the gods he’d bequeathed me his boots, I tugged at the heel of the right one, the bottom coming away to reveal a small hidden compartment. From this I extracted a metal disc, the width of a medium-sized coin, whose edges had been sharpened. Fitting the heel back together, I glanced at my companions. They were each lost in their own thoughts, the Prince’s expression one of haunted despair. Stepping up to the bars, I called to Gromek in a low voice, and beckoned him over. In the same hushed tones, I told him of my plan, and he nodded in understanding. Then I sat down and waited.

Presently, I heard the clump of booted feet, and a man – one of the Temple guards – came into the dungeon. Strips of gold-plated metal adorned his garments, which were of dyed-black leather, and a long curved sword hung at his waist. He carried a silver tray laden with wooden bowls, containing stale-looking bread and water.

My stomach tightened with apprehension as I rose to my feet. I pointed to the contents of the tray. “I don’t want any of that,” I said to the man. “What about some fruit? And some wine to wash it down?”

The guard threw me a contemptuous sneer.

“I can pay for it. With gold.” I pointed to my tunic. “In here. There’s a bag of coins.”

The man scrutinized me for a moment, trying to decide if this was some sort of trick. Then he gave a shrug. “Alright. Stand back from the door.”

Putting down the tray, he drew his sword and there was a dull clunk as he unlocked the cell. I stood facing the adjacent cell as the guard swung open the door and stepped through. He held out his free hand. “Come on, then. Hand it over.”

With a sudden movement, I flung the metal disc at his face, the sharpened edge slicing open his cheek. Startled, the man staggered backward, and in that moment I sprang at him, dashing the sword from his grasp. The force of my lunge was sufficient to send him crashing against the bars, and as we grappled, Gromek sprang to his feet. Reaching through the bars, he grabbed the guard’s head, twisting it until a crack was heard. As the man slumped to the floor, I snatched the keys and began to free my companions.

“Well done,” said the Prince, as he stepped out of the cell. He grabbed the sword belonging to the guard. “We must try to save my sister,” and he hurried from the dungeon.

Gromek and I followed him up a narrow winding stair, at the head of which stood a heavy wooden door. Pulling it open a fraction, the Prince peered through. Then he beckoned, and we stepped out into a deserted corridor. Warily, we proceeded along the dimly-lit passage, and were almost at the end when we heard footsteps approaching. A moment later, a guard emerged from around a corner, coming face to face with us. As the man froze in astonishment, Gromek charged forward like a maddened bull, driving him against a wall. Seizing the guard’s head, he smashed it savagely against the stonework, and the man went limp. Gromek seized his sword.

“Pray we’re not too late,” said the Prince, and he led the way deeper into the Temple.

We halted before an arched portal. Peering cautiously through, we saw a large circular chamber illumined by a smoky glow. On the far side stood a ten foot high statue of the god Mytak, a vulture-headed figure with a lizard-like body and multiple wings and arms. Beside this stood an altar, draped with a white cloth, on which the ceremonial dagger lay. Saddara and Roganar were there, along with two acolytes, shaven-headed young men wearing long scarlet robes. The latter flanked Princess Lyssia, who’d been dressed in a long pale garment for the occasion. Her flowing red hair was confined by a narrow golden band around her temples, and her pretty features were contorted with weeping.

Facing the wall, Saddara muttered a spell. A section of the stonework began to glow, and the image of a man appeared. The hood of a black cloak partially obscured his sharp angular features. Saddara spoke to him. “The Prince is safely under lock and key. Is everything ready?”

The man nodded. “Tonight, when Pernius retires to his rooms, I will strike. Without his son to guard him, my task will be much easier.”

“Excellent. Do not fail me.”

The Prince snarled. Glancing at him, I saw the skin of his face was stretched taut with hate. His teeth were bared and his eyes blazed with vengeful fire. Telling me to keep lookout, he beckoned to Gromek and the two men strode into the chamber.

As the occupants froze in astonishment, the blacksmith sprang toward the acolytes. Yelling with fear, they ran for the doorway on the far side of the chamber, as Roganar's sword hissed from its scabbard. With a roar, Gromek leaped to meet him, and the clashing clangor of steel rang out as the adversaries engaged in mortal combat.

Meanwhile, the Prince was advancing toward Saddara, his sword raised. Backing against the wall, she pointed to him and began to bark out a spell. Racing forward, I grabbed the ceremonial dagger and hurled it at her, the blade thudding into her chest. Saddara stiffened, features frozen in uncomprehending horror. Then she crumpled to the floor.

As Gromek and Roganar continued hacking and slashing for all their worth, Lyssia took a burning torch from the wall and circled around the two men. With a sudden movement, she thrust the firebrand into Roganar’s face. Screaming in agony, he dropped his sword, the weapon clattering to the floor. A moment later, Gromek's blade plunged into his heart.

The Prince stood over Saddara’s body, staring at the hilt of the dagger, around which a red stain was blossoming. “Thank you, Lokan,” he said, as Gromek and Lyssia joined us. “I was so blind with rage I forgot she would seek to use her magic on me.”

The sound of approaching voices made us start.

“The entrance to the tunnel is close by,” said the Prince, and he sprinted for the far doorway, the rest of us close on his heels. He led us along a corridor lined with recessed alcoves, which served as shrines to minor deities. At the end of the passage, he stepped into one of the alcoves and, moving behind the altar, stood facing the rear wall. He began pressing his hands against the stones. “One of them is loose,” he told us. “If I can just locate it ...”

Stepping up to the wall, Lyssia began to help.

Then Gromek gave a cry. Running toward us along the corridor, brandishing their swords, were a half dozen temple guards. Bounding forward, the blacksmith grabbed a four foot high statue from one of the shrines and, with a roar, he hurled it at the guards. The stone figure crashed into the two leading men, dashing them to the ground. Grabbing another statue, he held it above his head, menacingly. The guards drew back, reluctant to advance.

The Prince called to us. “I’ve found it! Come on.”

With a grinding sound, the wall swung inward, and Lyssia and I hurried into the gaping blackness. Glancing back, I saw Gromek fling the statue at the guards before running to join us.
Taking a torch from its bracket, the Prince stepped into the tunnel and threw a lever set into the wall. A flurry of yells and curses erupted from the guards as the stonework swung back into place. Then my companions and I were alone in silent darkness.

As we set off along the tunnel, I spoke to the Prince. “What do you think will happen, Sire, now that Saddara and Roganar are both dead?”

The Prince gave a shrug. “Roganar’s men will choose a new leader, who will sit on the throne which is rightfully mine.” His jaw clenched in anger. “When we return to Kodan, I’ll continue my father’s work. I’ll raise an army and win back the kingdom. And woe betide any who stand in my way.”

* * *

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.

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


by Jess C Scott


Avalon, land of
Magic and Enchantment.
All sorts of wizardry dominate this

Avalon, land of
Stories and Legends
Where the greatest King of Britain

Avalon, land of
Secrecy and Mystery
Where the souls of the Great

Avalon, land of
Peace and Justice
Where only the pure mortal can hope to

* * *

Jess C Scott is currently working on a short story collection. She runs a website collective, which can be found Work has appeared (or is shortly to appear) in Yareah, an English-Spanish literary and arts magazine, 55 Words, Clean Sheets, FlashShot, Blink Fiction, Bare Back Magazine, AlienSkin Magazine, Word Riot, Every Day Poets, and UnMasked Online.

Where do you get the ideas for your poems?

Out of the air. Everywhere.

Child of the Desert

Child of the Desert
by Henry F. Tonn

Child of the Desert

The Moors of the Aftout-es-Saheli region of northwest Africa tell the following story:

A young child was lost by a nomadic tribe during one of its annual treks across the great salt flats of North Africa. Night was beginning to fall when the child tumbled with a soft thud from his perch upon a camel, knocking him temporarily unconscious. The caravan moved on. Later the child awoke to the chill of the evening and stared in silent wonderment at the star-speckled sky. He awaited the return of his mother.

As time passed, the moon rose higher above and bathed the terrain in an eerie, silvery glow. He became uneasy. He emitted a whimper, followed by a loud wail. The sound was quickly whisked away by the wind. He pulled himself up and wandered a short distance on tottering legs and looked around. There was nothing. Eventually he drifted into an uneasy sleep, huddled tightly against the cold of the night.

The following morning he awoke to a bare and threatening world, accompanied by the rumblings of hunger in his tiny belly. The cold of night was rapidly being replaced by the heat of day: an intense, relentless heat that would be uncompromising. He sat helplessly, unable to comprehend what was happening.

Time passed.

Finally he decided to crawl up a small knoll nearby, one crowned by a number of dry, prickly bushes. Upon reaching the top he peered in every direction, but saw nothing except waves of heat and barren sand. He flopped back down heavily. His throat was becoming parched now and his already-dark skin was tanning into a deeper bronze. He no longer made any sounds, seeming intuitively to understand that conservation of resources was now of paramount importance. Besides, there was no one to hear him.

He drifted into a twilight zone of semi-wakefulness, flowing into the timeless sense of the desert.

Suddenly he was jolted back by a series of black dots moving across the terrain in his direction. The dots resembled microscopic ants creeping across a bright shimmering floor. He watched as they moved along slowly and leisurely, wandering left and right, crisscrossing, stopping. But their progress was inexorable and after an hour he could make out their forms: gazelles. He had never seen such animals before.

Out of nowhere a small dust storm kicked up and he was forced to close his eyes against the swirling sand. It lasted ten minutes or so and when he opened his eyes again he found several members of the band grazing not fifty yards from his perch. They would have passed him altogether had not a breeze pushed his scent in their direction. The entire herd came to a pause.

The child watched in mute fascination.

Sensing something different about the owner of this scent, the gazelles approached his knoll tentatively, black noses busily testing the air, ready to bolt at the slightest threat of danger. Twenty yards away they drew to a halt, the dominant male in the lead, peering cautiously ahead. The child remained frozen to his spot. Seconds ticked away. Finally, a little fawn ambled past the leader and approached to within a few feet of the child, twitching its ears but betraying more curiosity than fear. It stretched out its neck and sniffed the child’s toe, then licked it. The child giggled loudly, causing the fawn temporarily to beat a hasty retreat. But other members of the herd moved in. An adolescent approached from behind and touched the child’s neck, another sniffed his knee. Their noses were wet and cool. More gazelles pushed forward and began licking his face, arms and body. He laughed delightedly and rubbed their fur with his tiny hands. The entire herd soon surrounded him.

For ten minutes this familiarizing ritual continued. Then a beautiful young female shouldered her way into the gathering and took a position directly above the child. Only recently she had lost her infant to a predatory jackal and her udders were swollen with milk. The child instantly began to nurse, suckling with such urgency that milk dribbled down his chin and over his stomach. The other gazelles watched with interest, forming a loose-knit circle around the two. Even the dominant male wandered in to observe the spectacle, noting that the mother was now licking the child’s neck and shoulders with affection.

The new arrival was accepted as one of the herd.

He became a gazelle-boy, adopting the habits and routines of his new family. His diet was herbivorous, and like the gazelles he subsisted mainly on desert grass, roots, seeds and fruit. A red sandstone cave provided shelter, kept scrupulously clean by the herd. It was brightly decorated by the primitive drawings of cave dwellers who had occupied the space long ago. As time passed the child learned the network of signals used by his family for communication: the contorted turns of the neck, the staccato stamps of feet, the loud snorts, the rapid scalp movements. Soon he was able to respond in kind. His body became black from the sun, his skin hard and dry against the wind, and his feet calloused to withstand sharp stones and scorching hot sand. The dark hair of his birth grew long and hung down over his shoulders. By age six his legs had become wiry and powerful and he was capable of keeping up with the herd during one of its mad flights across the desert plains. His eyes were superb, capable of picking out objects clearly at great distances, and his nostrils became sensitive to the myriad of odors brought to him by a constantly shifting wind.

His mother always watched over him.

Every morning the herd would emerge as dawn broke over the flat plains and the cirrus clouds floating overhead greeted them with a brilliant violet and purple hue. The members would lick the glistening dew drops which had collected on the prickly leaves at night, then, with a gripping chill still in the air, would set off across the salt flats for the day’s grazing. Besides grass and roots, the day’s fare might consist of seeds, berries, dates, flowers and—in a pinch—the prickly thorns of the thorn bush. Occasionally, selected members of the herd would undertake a wide sweeping movement around the area in search of fresh grass which might have sprouted during the night. This information was then communicated to the herd which would descend upon location eagerly. Once a day they visited the region’s waterhole, always being on guard for predators. The jackals were the most troublesome, and the hyenas, and, of course, there was always man. In the evening as the sky turned blazing red from the setting sun and the great sandstone towers which had stood since antiquity turned a brilliant gold, the troupe began its sojourn home. They would arrive at the last rays of light, and before the moon had risen high in the sky, sleep would descend over the den.

The gazelle-boy was happy.

One day a chance circumstance brought him into contact with his first human. He had often seen them at a distance but on this day he had scaled the sheer face of a cliff (an innovation on his part since such maneuvers were beyond the capabilities of his adopted family) in search of rock plants when he came face to face with an adolescent boy hunting. He scampered away quickly but was left with a feeling of curiosity. He could not ignore the fact that this strange creature resembled himself in many ways. Several months later the entire herd was surprised at the water hole by two hunters springing from behind a rock. They beat a hasty retreat, and later the boy’s mother signaled to him that being around humans was dangerous. He understood, and became more wary of their presence.

One day when the herd was making its daily pilgrimage to the oasis, a number of hunters appeared from nowhere. Taken by surprise, the herd immediately wheeled and bolted toward the openness of the desert. But all escape routes were quickly barred and the gazelles were forced backwards once again towards the water. They milled about in agitation while the hunters relentlessly tightened the knot. Then, without warning, an opening in the line appeared and the gazelles and other beasts shot through the breach with blinding speed, scattering across the desert. But the gazelle-boy was skillfully separated from the herd, and it quickly became evident that he was the sole object of this maneuver. He tore around the water hole, frantically darting in and out of date trees and attempting to climb the embankment which bordered the water. But the hunters had planned for everything and he was constantly forced back towards the water. Eventually he was seized by the hair, wrestled to the ground, and captured. They bound him and carried him away.

He was taken to a nomadic encampment and there tied to a pole outside of a large tent. Several women fed him each day while a number of dark haired men talked to him. It was the beginning of his “re-education”. Eventually he was made to wear Moorish clothing and learn the dialect of the tribe. He adjusted because he had no choice, and soon was interacting with the other children in the compound. He watched in fascination as they played their favorite game with the venomous horned viper: laying it on its back so as to hypnotize and make it immobile, then bringing it back with a sharp rap of the stick causing it to leap high in the air. Everyone would laugh. In the evening he listened to the women in their, long, dark blue veils singing with high-pitched voices to the accompaniment the twelve-stringed lute. It was a languorous existence, and with each passing day his previous life faded from memory……

Two years passed. He grew and matured. The keen eyes and sharp nose he had developed as a gazelle-boy remained, and he moved with an animal-like stealth. He became the best marksman with bow and arrow in the tribe, and eventually the elders decided he should become a hunter. This was a high distinction in the tribe.

He hunted alone.

He would leave the compound every morning after breakfast and wander into the desert. Each evening he returned before dusk carrying meat for the tribe over his shoulder. Sometimes it was a gazelle.

One day while on the prowl he spied several gazelles grazing among a small crop of flower beds which had sprouted unexpectedly during the night. With bow and arrow in hand, he circled quietly downwind until he located a position a short distance from his prey. He carefully placed a sharp-tipped arrow into the bow and settled down patiently, hoping that their foraging would eventually bring one of the members within shooting distance. Fifteen minutes passed.

The wind shifted.

Now he was no longer downwind and he knew his position would be compromised. But, surprisingly, at that moment one gazelle detached itself from the group and, while busily testing the air, began walking in his direction. He pressed himself closer to the ground and waited. When the gazelle was just fifteen yards away he rose and fired. The arrow struck its prey, causing it to spin around and collapse to the ground. Without hesitation he leaped from his hiding place, brandishing his knife, and was upon the animal in an instant. He grabbed it by the ears and wrenched back the head to slash its throat……. and froze.

It was his mother.

A shock wave passed through his body and he was instantly overcome by horror. But when he gazed into the eyes of his mother he found no reproach. She was old and infirm and her time had come. She understood this and accepted it. It was the law of the desert, a law which had brought him to her so many years ago and now would take him away. Better to leave at the hands of her own son than between the jaws of the predatory jackal. As the Moors say, “It is written.”

She died in his arms.

* * *

First appeared in the inaugural issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal in 2007.

* * *

Henry F. Tonn is a semi-retired psychologist whose work has appeared in such publications as the Gettysburg Review, Foliate Oak, Quay, and Bartleby-Snopes. He is presently engaged in writing a memoir of his forty years in the mental health field. This story previously appeared in the print journal, Fifth Wednesday Journal, in 2007.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

Cursed with little imagination, and being left-brained analytical, most of my ideas come from my own life. Even my fiction is highly autobiographical. The present story came from reading a book on feral children, and wondering if I could write something as good as a short story Honore de Balzac once wrote concerning a man and a panther in the desert.