The Player King

The Maze at ChatsworthSwift footsteps crunching on gravel, she arrived at yet another four-way intersection between tall privet hedges. The corners had been shaved to resemble medieval towers, crenelations and all.

“Damn neo-Rens!”

She barely paused before diving into the left passage, snagging the cap sleeve of her dress on the foliage when she cut the corner too fine, feeling the scratch of the twigs across her collar bone.

There was no time for this, no time for being lost in a lantern-illuminated, neo-Renaissance maze at night, no time before – before what?

The memory was false. Sam was sure of it, damn all! Somebody’d hacked her chip to plant it. She’d never entered that dark-paneled room with its somber oil portraits. But it existed. She was sure of that too.

The maze hedges turned sharp right, then left, and opened onto a small garden. Three children, tricked out in fancy neo-Ren dress, clustered around a jester. He juggled a trio of glass spheres, lit from within, tossing them high into the air and then apparently pulling one out of the littlest girl’s ear. She giggled.

Garden Maze

Sam checked her headlong rush. The scent of roses lay heavy here, so pungent she could taste their sweetness. Too strong, the same perfume choking that damnable room she’d never seen and now saw so vividly. Where young Nick stood flanked by a player king and his advisor, terrified white face staring up through lying memory and begging for rescue.

“The key to the maze, tell me it!” Sam demanded of the jester.

He gazed at her a moment, permitted one corner of his mouth to turn upward, then gracefully caught all three of his glass orbs. “Your invitation will instruct you, milady.” He bowed, an eyebrow lifted. Did she really look so disheveled? She’d doffed her costume to resume her modern shift the instant that constructed memory rose in her mind’s eye and sent her haring from the party-congested mansion to the maze.

“The key, you!”

“A transponder in the wax seal may be set to guide you to the exit, the entrance, or any of sixteen pleasure destinations between.” Behind the jester’s formality, he mocked her.

Sam tore open her clutch purse.

Maze Garden

For more story openings, see:
Fate’s Door
Tally the Betrayals
Popcorn Kittens

 

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The Theft of Odin’s Horse

Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckinghamshire, England

This story opening was inspired by two photos I took last year. Both appeared on my blog: the tangled garden here, and the soaring tree here.

* * *

All-father above! Why was Yggdrasil, the Tree of the World, growing in Loki’s court?

Cissa had walked out to Ithunna’s garden to loll on mounds of feathery periwinkle and savor the light breeze winging up the hillside. Why not? Vanna was busy in the kitchen; they’d gabbed late into the night. Some morning solitude would suit them both.

But lolling and savoring weren’t what she was doing.

She’d strolled through the wild tangle of green, noting sprays of fern, tendrils of ivy, and seated herself against the trunk of a gnarly maple. Its rough bark grated on her skin, left bare by her halter top. Long weedy things tickled the bend of one elbow.

She’d found the perfect vantage: tree at her back, loveliness sloping away before her, cool dappled shade all around. Ah! She inhaled – the start of that savoring – and chuckled. The sweet syrupy aroma of honey melting into butter accorded not at all with her bowery surroundings. Vanna was making granola, and her open kitchen window meant spicy cinnamon and nutmeg overwhelmed the cleaner scents of rain-washed leaves and loamy earth. A clatter of baking sheets interrupted fluting birdcalls and the distant sound of falling water.

It felt comforting, this blend of her kinfolk: Vanna’s domesticity in the home, Ithunna’s love of green and growing things in the outdoors.

I’m lucky in my sisters, my nieces, she mused. Less lucky in . . . but that was a thought for another time. Or was it? Before her and behind her, all was well. But there to her left, where Ithunna’s orchards lapped the stone walls of their nephew’s castle? Was something amiss there?

She’d straightened, not sure why she was worried, then climbed to her feet and let the sensory world fall away. In the space between will and action, the gap between dream and reality, in the magic underlying rock and bone and breath – something was far more than amiss.

Eyes closed, she saw vast limbs stretching beyond the sky, cradling the heaven of Asgard; sensed deep roots burrowing below even the earth’s foundations to sip the springs of fate and wisdom; felt the massive trunk supporting the clement harbors of life where mortal men and women dwelt.

An American Beauty, 1906 postcardBut Yggdrasil grows from the Wells of Urth, not in the trickster’s back bailey!

What had Loki done?

* * *

She’d rushed back to the house to confront Vanna with the dreadful news.

And been inveigled into another of her sister-in-law’s food projects before she found the words – and the opening – to speak of Loki’s perfidy. When she did the modest dining room – sunlit white walls, two windows, oak table and chairs, and nothing else – grew very quiet. Her chair creaked under her as Cissa leaned forward.

“You knew? You knew! That Yggdrasil now grows in Loki’s court?”

Vanna was looking at the capped jar of raw milk resting on the oaken boards of the dining room floor. It had been curdling for five days now, separating out into creamy curds floating on thin cloudy-white whey.

“Loki told me.” Vanna’s answer sounded distant.

Loki told you?” Cissa felt breathless. “Loki!”

Vanna bent, lifted the two-quart jar, and placed it on the table. They’d covered the surface with a red oilskin to protect the wood from moisture. Making whey for pickles could get messy.

“He always trusted me more, you know.”

Odin’s beard! Was everything Cissa thought she knew about Vanna wrong?

“But you told someone? You warned someone?”

Vanna arched an eyebrow, easing the cap off the milk jar. The sour smell of the whey rose from the vessel’s mouth. Sunlight sifted through the tree leaves outside the west window, dappling the square glass panes, dappling Vanna herself. Her golden blond hair – twisted up on her head and pinned – glowed. She looked very much herself: goddess of fertility and wife of Uller.

“Did you never think that perhaps the reason Loki is untrustworthy is because no one trusts him?”

Cissa rose abruptly to her feet. “No!”

She turned to pace. The room wasn’t big enough for it. She knocked against the next chair over, caught her elbow on the white cloth blind let down over the south window, and then bumped her hip against the table. The screws holding the legs on squeaked. The whey in the jar sloshed, but the thick curds atop kept it from spilling.

“Loki the abducter! Loki the thief! Or are you going to tell me he never absconded with Daphne to Alfheim? Or clipped Sybil’s tresses?”

The hint of a smile crossed Vanna’s face. She arranged a square of linen in a sieve in a crockery bowl.

“There was rather more to it than that. Both times.”

In one smooth motion, she tipped the jar upside down over the sieve. The curds stuck for a moment in the neck of the jar, then slithered out with a sucking noise. The whey poured after, splashing.

“I think it’s worth giving him a chance.”

Cissa’s breath huffed out. She plopped into the chair beside her, at the table end near the parlor. A cushion tied to the rungs of its back made the seat softer than her earlier perch, plain oak.

“And if you’re wrong? If there are no extenuating circumstances this time?”

Her arms rose almost involuntarily, and her fingers clutched the curls atop her head. It pulled a bit.

“This is Yggdrasil. The world tree. Which has grown in Odin’s court since first its seed sprouted. Its branches are our foundation. Vanna, think!”

“I did think. I have thought. And –”

While she hesitated, Vanna knotted the two opposite corners of the linen cloth, then the other two, and thrust a wooden spoon through the double loop.

You think. If we raise an alarm, a big stink, what will Loki do?”

Cissa grabbed the glass pitcher from her end of the table and pushed it along the oilskin, closer to the bowl.

“The absolute worst he can think of,” she answered slowly.

“And if we give him breathing room?”

Vanna lifted the bundled curds by the spoon. The whey, almost translucent, ran off the bottom of the rounded linen, passing through the sieve and hitting the bowl with a soft drumming rhythm. Its sour smell, a bit like yogurt, but sharper, grew stronger.

Cissa felt her lips straightening. “Perhaps no harm will be done. Perhaps we’ll find out why – oh!” She jerked and bumped the table yet again, with her belly this time, and softer. The table jiggled and squeaked. “Do you suppose Yggdrasil was in danger? Loki is protecting it?”

Vanna lowered the bundle of curds into the pitcher, letting the spoon rest across its wide opening. For the first time in this conversation, her eyes met Vanna’s. They looked sad.

“Now you are more generous than I, little sister.”

Cissa blushed. “But –”

“Loki will make mischief whenever it does not compromise his advantage. And even then, sometimes.”

Vanna carried the pitcher away into the kitchen.

Cissa heard the ice-box door open and close. She reached for the bowl full of whey on the table, lifted the empty sieve out of the liquid, let it drip a bit, and set it down. Wet. That’s why the oilskin. She put the waiting funnel into a clean jar with a narrower mouth and poured. Would it all fit? No, she’d need a second container.

Bunging the cork in to seal this first one, she came to a decision.

Her hands weren’t quite steady.

“I’m not willing to just take Loki on faith. I won’t raise the alarm. But I’m going to ask some questions.”

Vanna reappeared in the kitchen doorway.

Cissa stood, wiped the damp whey bottle with a dish towel, and handed it to her.

Vanna smiled. “Good,” she answered.

* * *

For more story openings, see:
Witch’s Sweet
Fate’s Door
The Green Knight

For the list of stories that began all these story opening posts, see:
Popcorn Kittens

 

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Last Tide

This feels like a good week for a story opening. It follows!

Kelp Forrest at Anacapa Island

One minute it was hot terror and noise – the creature’s roaring – and the sick sweet smell of blood.

The next, James thrust her through the portal into water and the strange rippling quiet of water-plugged ears. She’d swallowed the small of mouthful of bitter brine forced through her lips in the abrupt transition and kicked out, grateful for the lungful of air she’d brought with her.

Sunlight filtered down through cool turquoise liquid and fronds waving from the vast columns of a kelp forest. The slippery brush of fish tickled her shoulders as she stroked forward through a school of goatfins.

She was counting: two massive pillars of leafy green on the right, bend around one on the left, then another straight ahead. Her lungs were starting to ache. I can do this, she reminded herself. I’ve done it before.

One breath was enough.

Enough for her, that is. Sam could swim; liked to swim. But there was a reason beyond the inconvenience of getting wet on their way to the dig that her cohort of XT archaeologists took the longer route through three portals to get to Eridani Four.

She kicked around the last column of kelp and angled downward, down along a coral bluff toward the cave that . . . wasn’t there. Shit!

She drifted one heartbeat in stunned amazement, then curled to let her feet swing around and push off the rough cliff face, propelling her back the way she’d come.

Jesu-Yosef-Marie! How could it be gone?

And how could she be swimming back toward the cavern she’d just left? The others would be gone. James too. Before her head followed the rest of her through the water portal, she’d seen him scramble under the creature’s rusty fangs, snatching Nonsin from the rocky floor as he dove for the other portal.

But she needed air. Even she couldn’t go for much more than half a minute.

She stroked steadily, ignoring the growing ache in her lungs, counting again. One straight ahead, one on her right, two on her left. Shit!

Shit, shit, shit!

The bluff on this side of the underwater ravine . . . wasn’t. No bluff, no hollow in the coral, no portal. The ache in her lungs shaded into pain. Cristos! In another heartbeat she’d gulp water, convinced it was air, anything to feed her screaming need to breathe.

She kicked again. I won’t breathe. I’ll swim. And swim and swim. Her eyes began to burn from the salt. Or was she crying? How could you tell underwater?

Pull, kick, glide. She could hear her old swim teacher in her head. “Glide, Samantha, glide!”

A shadow darkened the water around her.

What?

She looked up. Blessed Marie, yes! An outcropping of coral loomed over her with a dimple on its belly and a swirl of rainbow dust in the dimple: a portal. An unmapped one.

She kicked upward frantically, fighting her body’s imperative to inhale.

Just. One. More. Kick.

And she was through. But where? And into what?

* * *

For more science fiction samples, see:
Dragon’s Tooth
Dream Trap

For a fantasy sample, see:
The Green Knight

 

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The Green Knight

This tale of a reluctant nymph and her unlikely helper tickles me, but it feels like a full novel. It will be some time in the writing, when I tackle it. I will tackle it. Too much fun to allow it to linger unwritten!

Neptune drawn by hippocampi

Glauce pummeled the massive green shoulder under her hands. Slick as an eel and slimy to boot. Great gods and little fishes, how she hated it!

She looked around her a little wildly. Echoing grotto with the generous rocky shelf where she knelt. Check. Rushing waves plowing in through the opening to the sea. Check. Posing, preening nymphs awaiting their master’s whim. Check. But no way out for Glauce.

Salt sweat dripped down her nose, fell through the briny air, sparkling, and plopped onto a colossal bicep.

“Lick it off!” roared Neptune.

Glauce winced. Ugh! And bent her face down toward the smelly green flesh of her liege. She hesitated.

“Now!” he growled.

She licked. It was fishy. It was salty. It was yuck. She exchanged glances with Xantho beside her, working rather lower down. Xantho’s duties were more intimate than Glauce’s. How could she stand it, letting this vengeful despot between her legs? But Xantho looked amused, not disgusted.

Glauce moved to the other shoulder.

“Not there, nymph! Lower!” insisted her lord and master.

She sighed and joined Xantho on his gluteus maximus. Thank Zeus he was lying on his belly, nasty immortal! Her hands dug into the mass of muscle, taking more and more of her weight in order to generate the pressure Neptune preferred.

“Harder!”

Clouds above and waves below! She was practically in a crane pose. What more did he want?

She allowed her legs to rise from the god’s couch – balanced a half heartbeat on her palms – then skidded down the slope of Neptune’s hip, pinching his left love handle as she went.

“Aaaugh! Out!” yelled Neptune.

Well, Glauce was fine with that. She went, pondering ways and means while pattering down the tunnel that led from the god’s cavernous hall to the chambers of his harem. “I’ve been planning escape too long,” she muttered. “It’s time to stop planning, time to start doing, blast it!”

Head down, she rounded the curve by the marina and ploughed smack into Psamathe, the demi-goddess who managed Neptune’s sea palace.

“Oofa!”

“Sorry!” murmured Glauce. Could she get away with the apology and then scurry on down the passage?

No. Psamathe’s hand secured her elbow; another tipped Glauce’s chin. The sea nymph looked up, perforce, trying to hunch back down.

* * *

For more fantasy samples, see:
Fate’s Door
Hunting Wild

For a science fiction sample, see:
Last Tide

 

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Tally the Betrayals

This tale calls me. Plus I think it’s a short story. (No, I never know for sure, until I write it.) But if it’s short, I could complete it in a few weeks! Tempting!

ETA March 2016: I’m now writing Tally, and it is not a short story. It’s a novel, and probably a doorstopper novel! Stayed tuned. I’ll blog about my progress from time to time. 😀

photo of Sint Baafskathedraal in Ghent

I bear the mark of Gaelan on my face, as do my brethren. But I alone, amongst all in the battalions under my lord Karbreys, bear that name. It is fitting, for I betrayed them all to their deaths. I am Gael. I am kin-slayer.

There in the bowels of the mad tower I crouched, listening to the scratching of my own quill pen. I tallied ingots of copper, ingots of tin – tin so rare. Who would believe the record keeper could be more lethal than the warrior.

The stone foundations around me echoed the metallic beating of swords, of shields, of helmets. My lord Karbreys was winning this war. His trolls mined copper ore from veins beneath the tower and smelted it with foreign tin arriving from afar, borne on galleys rowed by slaves. Every ingot in received its mark in my ledger. Every ingot out – tin and copper married to make bronze – I tallied likewise.

Who was to know that the bronze was weak? Not the four parts tin to ninety of copper demanded by the smith’s recipe, but three tin for seven and ninety copper. The blades hammered from these ingots would bend, and how would the warrior who bore one fare then?

Channeled by the tower’s tunnels, the roar of the blast furnace deafened my thoughts. Who would I betray? My kin who brought Lord Karbreys victory? The peculator stealing the tin?

Oh? Did you think it was I? Secreting nuggets away in some fastness?

No, ’twas another. Should I betray him?

Or must I betray our enemies, crushed beneath Karbreys’ might? Our enemies, those with pure faces, the ones from whom we come, trailing glory, before Gaelan marks us as his own.

* * *

For more fantasy samples, see:
Fate’s Door
Blood Falchion

For a science fiction sample, see:
Dream Trap

 

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Dream Trap

Fourth in my series of story openings. Inspired by a nightmare. Beware!

Hot! by Martin Cathrae

Something was wrong. Very wrong.

She shivered even though she wasn’t cold, feeling a frisson of horror move though her.

The street lights glowed dimly, obscured by a faint mist in the growing dusk. She looked right, looked left. No traffic, even here at a corner. Just the same patched asphalt lined by low anonymous brick buildings and deserted.

She shivered again and stepped from the curb. Why didn’t her footsteps sound as they should, hurried slaps of shoe leather on paving? The world seemed strangely muted.

She reached the opposite curb, stepped up on the buckled surface of a sidewalk in poor repair. Should she turn? Try another route? These soulless streets chilled her.

A drift of muffled laughter snatched her attention. There! Up ahead.

She broke into a run, leaving the humped sidewalk for the more level roadway. A warmer glow of light flickered in an abandoned lot. Firelight? Here?

And where was here? She didn’t know. Only that it was unfriendly, empty, and nowhere known to her. I’m lost.

Five men huddled around the rusted steel barrel, ragged coats unbuttoned, mugs of – coffee? yes, coffee – wrapped in their knobby hands. She couldn’t smell the rich aroma of the brew. Wished she could taste it, real and hot. How did she know it wasn’t liquor? It should be liquor. These were homeless men, warming themselves around trash burning in a barrel.

She approached them, tripping over a half-buried fragment of tire tread, feeling the scritch of brittle grass against her ankles. Why did her body feel so lethargic? Why was she cool, as though blown by the breeze of a ceiling fan, but not cold? It was winter.

She tried to speak, “Please. Please help me,” but nothing came out. The men didn’t see her. They gestured to one another, laughing again at a joke, their pinched faces illuminated by humor and snapping flames.

Please. See me. Let me in.

She was running again, unnoticed by the men, running from their unconscious rebuff.

* * *

For more science fiction samples, see:
Dragon’s Tooth
Fox in the Hen Coop

For a fantasy sample, see:
Witch’s Sweet

 

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Witch’s Sweet

Third in my series of story openings. Is your mouth watering yet? 😉

photo of cake with flowers and butterfliesWhen Esther cursed me, it ruined the demon summoning, it ruined the party, it ruined everything!

The first I knew of it was when the cake – all twelve fabulous layers of luscious cinnamon-spiked lavishness – came out of the oven smelling like roses and rain water and rich garden loam.

Hello? A rain-scented garden is all very well in its place, but! Not as the centerpiece for a midnight ritual tea!

My nose twitched and I sneezed.

It was supposed to smell of vanilla and nutmeg and sweet. That bitch of a witch of a sister of mine! She’d cursed me! All because I’d snitched great-gran’s earrings from her stash – my sister’s, that is, not my gran’s; great-gran’s dead! – to wear to the coven’s festival of the harvest moon, blast her. She’d no right. Those earrings are mine as much as hers.

Or maybe it was the perfume bottle I spilled on her bedroom drugget? Her fave perfume, she’d said – all lilac and violet and lavender and bowery. And her favorite rug as well. (Sad moue.)

Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was because I’d told Benvolio – gorgeous Benvolio – about the time she’d mistaken a vial of dog poo for cleansing mud and massaged the goop into her hair and scalp. Pew! She’d stunk for three days before the funk wore off. But whatever it was – I could think of at least five more reasons – she’d cursed me! The rat!

I’m Callie, by the way, and I’m good at charms and talismans and rabbit’s feet and any kind of good luck conjure you care to name. Which made it all the more galling that a curse got through. Sisters are special that way.

It took me forever to re-do the cake. When it finally emerged – a second time – fragrant and chocolatey and lovely – yes, I switched recipes – the way a dessert of special awesomeness baked by moi is supposed to be – hah! – I thought that was the end of it. Hah, again! Of course you know it was the beginning. But I didn’t. Not then.

* * *

For more fantasy samples, see:
The Green Knight
The Thricely Odd Troll

For a science fiction sample, see:
Last Tide

 

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Dragon’s Tooth

This is the second post in a series of story openings. I’m hoping to get my readers’ views on what they’d like to see me write next!

photo of night sky

Her hand hurt. And her wrist. In fact, her whole right arm and shoulder hurt, stretched out to the side like that and angled up. Pulled by some steady and unyielding force. She struggled to raise her gluey eyelids, but couldn’t quite manage it. She was floating, towed by her arm.

The hush of air moving in close confines sounded in her ears. The slight funk of unbathed human made her wrinkle her nose. She swallowed, wishing for water to wash away the sour taste in her mouth.

Where am I?

She tugged against the pull on her arm. It was so uncomfortable, her hand turned like that with its back leading, and something rigid guiding her fingers into an awkward array, digging into the flesh.

What is this?

This time her eyes made it open.

Oh!

The begemmed scarf of a thousand stars spread across the dark of deep space, gleaming in soft reflections on the ceram-glass of her faceplate.

“This is why I . . .”

Why I what? She couldn’t remember.

She looked back past her trailing hand. Darker there, fewer stars. No shuttle. No station. No . . . planet.

Over that shoulder and to her back? Endless space.

Somehow she didn’t want to look ahead. Didn’t want to see what drew her on so inexorably. She struggled again against her trapped arm.

And looked.

Oh, gods! What was that?

A whirl of faintly sparkling dust? A current of shadows? The maw of a star dragon? She hardly knew, but it was power. And danger. And death.

She began to fight in earnest, throwing herself against the alien brace that wrapped her gloved right hand, working to slip her fingers and palm out of the metal’s embrace.

* * *

For more science fiction samples, see:
Fox in the Hen Coop
Last Tide

For a fantasy sample, see:
Legend of the Beggar’s Son

 

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Fate’s Door

I’ve got so many stories I’m longing to write, and I can’t decide which one to chose next. So I decided to ask my readers! This is the first post in a series of story openings. Take a read and … vote! 😀

ETA: I wrote Fate’s Door in 2015 and published it the November of that year. It’s a doorstopper, which many readers assure me is their preferred length. 😀 Fate’s Door is currently available as an ebook on Amazon. The paperback edition is coming soon.

Breaking Wave, Asilomar State Park

A long green comber rolled the man’s body, flaccid and pale in the water.

Nerine could almost smell the tang of the ocean, hear the roar of surf on an unseen, but nearby shore, taste the salt air on her lips. Or was it merely the salt tears running down her cheeks?

She’d stepped up behind her mistress. Well, Nerine answered to all three, but Tynghed was kindest.

She’d noted the rooks cawing in the Tree. Did they see visions in the well of destiny? Sense the dooms meted out there?

The shrouded norns had first watered the Tree, dipping from the spring’s chill outflow. Now they posed beside its deeps, meditating on the images they saw reflected. What did they see? Did they see Altairos, the sea-king of Zakynthos? Did they see what Nerine saw?

She steadied her quivering lip and felt Tynghed’s hand, stealing from within the fate’s cloak, slipping behind her to clasp Nerine’s hand.

Oh, god, oh, god, it could not be! Altairos drowned in the waves of his beloved ocean? And yet she knew it was. The breath of life would pass from him this day, and she would lay out the blue and green silks with which the norns would weave his fate. “I won’t. I won’t do it,” she breathed. But she would. The Spinner, the Weaver, and the Cutter commanded her obedience. How could a stranded sea nymph defy them?

“I must!”

* * *

For more fantasy samples, see:
Tally the Betrayals
Ravessa’s Ride

For a science fiction sample, see:
Dragon’s Tooth

 

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