We Come in Pieces

Bliss ran from hilltop to valley, and through fields and woods.  When she finally lingered near a stream to catch her breath and sip a drink, she cursed the Martians.

Well, the aliens weren’t really from Mars, but many people called them that.

The name game started when some busybodies suggested that calling them aliens was, well, alienating.  But after the attacks began, they got referred to in lots of other epithets.  Folks less inclined to swearing than Bliss was usually refrained from such monikers, but while she kneeled near the stream, she pretty much labeled them everything but Martians.

Wishing she had a light jacket to throw over her tee shirt, she surveyed the currently quiet forest around her.  Patches of smaller brush, guilty of lashing her bare arms and slapping against her jeans, were scattered throughout taller trees still sporting yellow and crimson leaves.

A sneeze from only thirty yards away prompted her to snatch the .45 pistol tucked into her belt at the small of her back.

Bliss swore under her breath as she aimed at the area the sound must have come from.  She had only five shots left, and these *#@%ing Martians were capable of splintering into eight components….

“Don’t shoot!”  The man who walked out from behind a tree swollen enough to conceal him held his hands up in the air.

Bliss lowered the pistol enough to keep him out of direct aim.  “Keep your distance!”

“I have been this whole time.”  His button-down shirt and khaki slacks looked as smudged as her own clothing, and he appeared to be wearing a daypack.

“You mean you’ve been following me?”

“Well, yes, there’s safety in numbers, you know.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”  At least imitating humans was not a feature of these fiends, but she couldn’t assume his motives were entirely altruistic.  “The Martians seem to like swooping in on groups to maximize their harvest.”

“Just two people don’t make a group.  My name’s Brandon, by the way.”

Bliss wasn’t in the mood to introduce herself.  “Unless you’re loaded for bear, I don’t need your help.”

“I was thinking more along the lines we could combine our resources.”  He began to slowly lower his hands.  “For one thing, I’ve got a little food.”

That was one of the oldest tricks in the book.  “I doubt you have enough for both of us.”

“It’s no banquet, but it could stretch berries and roots.”  He reached for his back pocket, so she raised the pistol.  “Easy there, I just need to wipe my nose before it drips.  Bad first impression.”

He pulled a white handkerchief from behind his hip.  It made her think of a surrender flag, and wasn’t sure if that should make her feel relieved or worried.

She waited for him to finish blowing his nose.  “How did you wind up bringing food?”

“I was in a pharmacy hoping to find some marbles that were out of stock in the other store when the Martians attacked the town.  Grabbed some bean dip and granola bars before making my break.”

She lowered the pistol again.  “Why were you following me?”

“I saw you take off after you gunned down an arm and a leg.  I know shooting them only slows them down, but creating an alliance with somebody who’s armed seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Why did you wait until now to make your presence known?”

A small smirk twisted his lips.  “I had trouble keeping up with you.  Did you run track in high school?”

Bliss shrugged as she returned the pistol to her belt, but still berated herself for never checking her rear flank.  “At least it seems we outran them.  Too bad you didn’t grab any ammo while you were at it.”

Brandon sneezed again, and wiped his nose with the hanky before replying.  “Ammo is probably even harder to find than marbles these days.”

“You sick?”

“Just allergies.  They’re always worse in the fall.  So, shall we form our own militia?”

“I suppose.”  She shrugged again while nodding for him to step closer.  “I just wish the scatter-brained politicians hadn’t pulled our troops out prematurely.  They could’ve at least slowed down a lot more Martians.”

“Well, if you like conspiracy theories, I heard a story they escaped from a lab.”  He strolled toward her.  “Being visited by aliens was supposed to distract us from the supply chain disruption, inflation, and spending bills.”

“Or it’s another crisis to take advantage of.”

Brandon tilted his head as he halted a few feet from her.  “Hey, you got a point there–”

A snap came from behind the tree.

Bleep, he didn’t check his rear flank, either.  Too drained to sprint away at the pace she’d held earlier, Bliss yanked the pistol back out.

The Martian darted into view, and for a second it was reminiscent of a child’s incorrect drawing of a spider.  It had a head and a torso and two legs, but sported four arms.  And then it did that creepy thing.

The body parts disjointed, and a head, a torso, two legs and four arms dispersed into a jagged line and scrambled toward them.

Bliss hesitated, wanting to be sure she got off an accurate shot.  Her new comrade grabbed a nearby limb and gripped it near his head.

“I shoot a part, and then we run for it!” she hissed.

“Oh no, I think this branch triggered my allergies–”

The head was at the front of the charge, and closer to Brandon.  Afraid she might hit him, she didn’t fire as it launched into the air and toward his face.

He should have been able to bat it away like a baseball, but instead, he sneezed.  His swing completely missed the head.

It bounced off his chest and rolled back on the ground.  And then Bliss couldn’t believe what she saw next.

As the head moaned in a high pitch, it and all the other parts ceased their advance and started writhing.  In the next few seconds the color of its skin darkened from a pale pink to a septic green.  The eyes of the head rolled back, the cheeks sunk in, and then everything became still.

They stared at the remains for a few seconds before he murmured, “What happened?”

Laughter rippled in her chest but didn’t break to the surface.  “Wow!  That was like War of the Worlds on steroids!”

His brow furrowed.  “Maybe I’m asymptomatic.”

“I don’t care.”  Bliss grabbed his hand.  “Let’s go Brandon!  We’ve got to let everybody know we might have a way to make these aliens something to sneeze at!”

###

So here is my contribution to #BlogBattle this month, and the word this time is Scattered.  As you can see, I decided to just have some fun with it….

Have some fun checking out all the other submissions!

Turnabout is Fowl Play

Back in the spring I pointed out how chickens are not on the bottom of the food chain even though everything likes the taste of chicken.  An incident from the other day reminded me what opportunists they really are.

In that previous post, we observed our hens running around with a fairly large snake they’d dispatched.  What I didn’t mention was that I did wonder how much revenge had come into play for that event.

 

You see, occasionally we’ll have a batch of chicks that are true morons.  They resist hopping up on the roost, even though nobody else claims the bottom rung.  One year I had an exceptionally large number of morons … until the blacksnake showed up and starting picking them off one by one.

These chicks were too large for the blacksnake to eat, but it was also a moron and never learned that lesson.  I would occasionally find a dead chick that had been slimed from head to shoulders.  When it became apparent the culprit was going to keep returning, I went snake hunting and banished the rattlebrained reptile.

When those hens caught the largest snake I’d ever seen them eat, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of them were from that batch of morons and remembered the terror that blacksnake had visited upon them.  If so, I could well imagine they relished eating that snake in more ways than one.

But that incident from the other day truly takes the cake.  One afternoon Hubby yelled up the stairs for me to look out the window toward the lilac bush.  When I did, I spied a mob of chickens picking on what seemed to another relatively large snake….

And then I realized there was a gray, furry lump attached to the other end of that snake.

 

If you’re ever driving down the road one night and see another car swerve to hit a possum, odds are the driver of that vehicle raises chickens.  We’ve been in the poultry business long enough to square off with almost every predator out there, but ninety percent of the time the hooligan we have to deal with is a possum.

Although it would warm my heart to believe the hens got organized and clobbered the malevolent marsupial, what probably happened is our dog (who’s done this before, although I wish he were more consistent) stumbled upon it the night before and demoted it to a chew toy.  This event must have happened under cover, because we never stumbled upon a dead possum throughout the day.

But some hen must have discovered the carcass that afternoon, and it was too big to hide from the other chickens.  They chase after whoever has the prized morsel, so in the ensuing ruckus they managed to drag the evidence into our side yard.  I don’t believe everything likes the taste of possum, but every hen in that mob sure wanted her share.

Yes, they may be chicken, but deep in their hearts they really want to be velociraptors….

Neither Moth nor Rust

This had to be the shiniest battle cruiser Abbot Bydar had ever seen.  It was true he’d never seen a battle cruiser before, but an air transport this gleaming, with no dents or stains marring any portion of its exterior, could only be brand new.  This must be the first time it was deployed.

The Voratene colonel that held a blaster pointed at him was a different story, however.

The crusty commander was two-thirds the abbot’s height, which was typical in regard to Voratenes and humans.  His width was nearly half his height, which was also a characteristic of the race.  The brown uniform and armor that covered him were dull and scuffed.  And the warty protuberances that covered his broad face were testament to years of maturity.

Humans tended to compare the Voratene appearance to toads, which Bydar always thought was a bit unfair.  He liked toads.  They were placid, and beneficial in the garden, although you did have to be careful when picking them up or they might pee all over you.

“Search him.”  The colonel’s command was stated in his native language, but the translator Bydar wore on his wrist allowed them to communicate.

“Really, now.”  The abbot raised his arms so they pointed out straight from his sides.  Two of the thirty Voratene soldiers behind the colonel stepped forward to frisk him, their calloused hands rough through the ecru shirt and gray slacks that he wore.

“We are a religious community,” he continued as they patted him down.  “That means nobody here will strike the first blow.”

He spoke of a form of belief that was, well, alien to the Voratene.  But hopefully the commander understood the insinuation that if his troops assaulted anybody, the residents here would defend all that was precious.

“You cannot guarantee that.”  The colonel’s eyes narrowed.  Other races in the system had noted that when it came to attitude, Voratene and humanity could be rather similar.  And unfortunately that comparison did seem fair.

“The inhabitants under my administration are obedient to the rule.”  Bydar knew to keep his verbiage as material as possible for the colonel to best understand him.  “And the visitors are only here to conduct commerce.”

There was no mistaking the commander’s toothy sneer.  “So you admit to sheltering fugitives.”

His heart skipped a beat.  Earlier today they learned the Voratene committed an act of genocide that staggered the imagination.  When their interstellar ships abruptly entered other planetary systems and immediately dispatched cruisers into the atmosphere, terror struck many inhabitants.  The peace they’d known ever since the confederation was founded had apparently died with the Bavphet.

And the Voratene must be looking for any Bavphet that happened to be on another planet during the annihilation.

“No weapons,” one of the friskers announced as they retreated to their colonel.  Bydar had made it a point to not only meet them alone, which stole any excuse for them to neutralize any perceived threat, but also eschew carrying so much as a medallion on his person.

“Relinquish the fugitives, and we will refrain from demolishing this place.”  The commander locked his gaze on Bydar.

His heart hammered now, but he managed to keep a calm tone.  “There are only humans and Juriki on our grounds.”

“Juriki?  Why would Juriki enter a human lair?”

“This is their planet.”  Obvious answers caused his stomach to flutter….

“So I see.”  That toothy sneer reestablished itself.  “They allowed vermin like you to settle here in order to cloak their own conspiracies.  We always knew the systems that agreed to harbor humanity were plotting conquests of their own.”

“That’s not true.”  Another obvious response, but he couldn’t alter the trajectory of this conversation in an instant.  The Voratene had made up their mind on what they would find here.  And they made that determination because they’d devised conspiracies of conquest while building shiny, new battle cruisers under cover of their own cloaks.

“Hold him,” the colonel murmured, and the two friskers strode back to Bydar to clasp his arms and twist them behind his back.

He gulped a deep breath as the soldiers looped a universal cuff that adapted to different races around his wrists.  “No one here has committed any crime.”

“You have not relinquished fugitives.”  The commander glanced back at his troops.  “Search the premises!”

They surged into the open gate of the rock wall that surrounded the abbey grounds.  Except for the colorful, tropical native foliage that grew around them, the structures looked much like their predecessors in ancient photographs from Earth.  And the Voratene squadron did remind him of historical footage of attacking hordes bursting into a village.

“Please, there are families in the community.  Babies.  Elderly.  Everybody will cooperate if you only ask.  We have nothing to hide.  We will take you anywhere, show you anything—”

Shouting started with the Voratene, and then human and Juriki responded.

The colonel smirked.  “If you are as ill prepared as you appear, you deserve to be wiped out.  It’s no wonder all these other races are so inferior.  They have a foolish regard for the insufficient.”

A couple of blaster reports echoed from behind the wall.  Bydar gritted his teeth as a swift but fervent prayer flashed through his mind.

He had been such a fool.  He had been arrogant enough to believe that if he behaved correctly with the Voratene, if he said the right things, they would pass through here without incident.  Instead, he had been too careless about trying to pick up this vile toad … and there was no telling how many others would pay for his mistake.

More blaster firing mixed in with the shouts.  Bydar tried to step closer to the gate, but barely got any forward momentum before he was hurtled backwards by the two soldiers.  Not quite as spry in his middle forties, he slammed to the ground on his right buttock and completed the crash on his shoulder.

Much of his right side throbbed as he tried to scramble to his feet.  One of the guards struck him in the other shoulder just before he succeeded.  Bydar tumbled again, but this time managed to land in a kneeling position.

“It seems to me nobody is as cooperative as you claimed.”  The colonel leered.

“These people are no threat to you!  Please—”

The receiver attached to the commander’s helmet crackled on.  “The humans are retreating.  Shall we pursue?”

He seemed to ponder the inquiry for a couple of seconds before responding.  “No.  We have more important targets.”

The relief that washed through Bydar almost soothed his aching joints.  Good, the residents remembered that if the community was ever attacked, the first thing they should do is run.  If they were captured or killed immediately, they would never be able to fight….

The blaster fire slowed.  Some soldiers began trickling out, and Bydar’s heart thumped again as five Juriki were dragged out one by one.  Even though they were nearly twice as tall as the Voratene, with slender limbs sporting various shades of green, they were also cuffed and shoved around by the stout soldiers.

At least they were alive, and the blast fire ceased….

Two more Juriki were carried out and dumped on the ground in front of their comrades.  His relief evaporated.

No!”  Bydar began scrambling to his feet again.

The first frisker lunged forward and thrust the butt of his blaster into the abbot’s right cheek.  The blow sent him tumbling back to the hard ground.

He wasn’t sure if the light that flashed over his sight was from impact with the blaster or the ground, but as he tried to catch his breath and regain his bearings, he managed to notice somebody stepped to his side.

The colonel leaned into his vision as it returned.  “Who are those Juriki to you?”

“They are – were – living beings.”  He rolled to his side, but didn’t yet feel capable of lifting himself from the ground.

“Juriki scum were the first to align with the Bavphet when they began their invasion of other systems.  They share more with the intruders than with you.”

Determined not to face this commander while lying on the ground, Bydar forced himself back into a kneeling position.  The Bavphet never invaded anybody.  All the systems had joined the confederation by choice – even the Voratene, although it was apparent now they had ulterior motives.

“All life is precious.”  Perhaps it was because his head was swimming that his voice cracked.

“Spoken like a true coward.”  The colonel pointed his blaster only decimeters from Bydar’s forehead.  “So let us hear you beg for your life.”

Indignant heat surged through him as he locked his gaze on the Voratene’s face.  This being had swooped in, proclaiming terror and death, and reviled all that was truth.  There was no way Bydar was going to give this fiend the satisfaction of seeing him so much as flinch.

But wait….

This was not the way he wanted to go, and it wasn’t just by murder.  If he truly valued all life, then he should pity this wayward being that believed wealth and power were the values to strive for.  This was the Voratene way of attempting to fill a hole they’d created.  Bydar focused his gaze on the colonel’s eyes, and tried, tried not to hate him.

The peace that descended upon him was as startling in its swiftness as it was in its thoroughness.  Although it seemed selfish in a way, he was grateful for it.  This was the way he would prefer to go.

The commander must have been waiting for him to break.  What was surely only seconds seemed to stretch into minutes.  It made sense that at the very end of his life he would have a taste of eternity….

A frown furrowed those warty brows.  With a shrug that Bydar wasn’t certain he’d seen, the colonel lowered his blaster and turned toward a soldier that had approached.

“We’ve searched the premises, Sir.  None of the quarry is present.  Do you want to pursue the humans now?”

He glanced back toward Bydar.  “The humans are a waste of resources.  Advance to the next target.”

What just happened?  The abbot stared at the reassembling troops as his two guards removed the cuffs from him.  Even the surviving Juriki were released, and then ignored as much as he was as the Voratene marched back to their battle cruiser.

Three of the Juriki gave attention to their fallen comrades, but two approached Bydar with long strides.

“Can you get up?” one asked.

He didn’t need the translator anymore.  His whole life had been on this planet, so he spoke several of the local dialects.

His whole life … had been spared.

But why?

“I think so.”  They helped steady him as he shuffled to his feet.  “Thank you.”

The rumble of engines preceded the cruiser moving away, gliding through the air to inflict terror and death somewhere else.  Their corner of the universe had been plunged into darkness, and this was how their lives would be lived for the unforeseeable future.

The colonel must have wanted to see him cringe … or maybe blast the rage right off his face.  It was possible that having been denied that satisfaction, the commander decided to find it elsewhere….

Or he could return and try again….

Bydar watched the cruiser fly away.  It probably wouldn’t take long for its coat to dull and its surface become soiled.  Such was the way of material treasures.

A certainty settled upon him.  Even if it wasn’t until long after that brand new battle cruiser rotted away, the Voratene rule could not endure forever.  The spirit of freedom was as ancient as life itself, a gift from eternity, despite those who wanted to seize it from others.  Eventually it triumphed … every time.

Bydar kneeled again.

###

This is my contribution this month to #BlogBattle, and this time the prompt word is Precious.  Yes, I mean Precious is the word, not that the word itself is precious….

And with a word that precious, be sure to check out the other entries!

Battle of Wills

“You could do something about this.”  Cadwalader’s eyes flashed as they shot to Malach.

The boy’s dissentient nature had surfaced over the last few months, a trait Malach noticed was common among seven year olds.  They stood together at the far edge of a wheat field bordering a village of rock huts and swarming with agitated people.

“You know I cannot reveal my true identity.”

Malach remained still, which allowed him to hide in plain sight.  Any who glanced in his direction perceived the illusion of a boulder or sheared tree trunk.  But the villagers before him weren’t curious about a lad lingering beside a landmark that didn’t exist earlier.  And the Roman soldiers were only interested in their booty.

Earlier today he’d brought Cadwalader here to investigate what other trades the boy might decide to learn beyond the art of war.  The village, although poor, abounded with talented craftsmen.  But shortly after their arrival, where they were viewed as an old man and grandson travelling together, he learned why they were impoverished.

Today was tribute day, when the local centurion arrived with troops to pillage their goods in exchange for protection … more so from the soldiers themselves than roving bandits.  Not content enough with larder and weapons and tools, the commander also claimed a young woman, barely more than a girl, to haul away with them.

“You said evil wins when good does nothing.”  Cadwalader thrust a hand toward the debacle.  “It is winning now.”

The boy had already grumbled about the pilfering of materials.  But the sight of the lass, weeping and pleading, being dragged away from parents who were beaten back by sword-wielding soldiers, made his protestations more insistent.

 “I never claimed to be good.”

“Nor are you evil.”  The boy’s gaze locked on his face even though it was partially concealed by the shadow of the hood over Malach’s head.  “At least I didn’t think so.”

The lad knew him better than any other mere human on this earth, and yet still knew so little.

“If I engage those troops, my identity will be exposed.  That will place both of us in grave danger.”

“Are you a coward?”

That question was a challenge, but Malach was too many centuries old to be ruffled by it, even though he had spent only the last couple of decades trying to lead a different life.

“Unless you can provide an alternative, we must allow these events to unfold.”

Cadwalader stared at him for a few seconds.  Then he turned on his heel and darted into the wheat field.

Well … Malach didn’t expect that.  Adults usually proved to be predictable, fitting within dozens of personality traits that could be exploited.  But children with psyches still developing could sometimes be confounding …  at least, this one did.

Before he took on the responsibility of rearing the lad over four years ago, decisions had been easy.  But then events unfolded that sent him into unfamiliar territory, literally and figuratively.  Cadwalader added another layer of complications.  The boy’s flight was to something, not away from it, and Malach might have to intervene … if he chose to do so.

The child understood he was too small to take on a troop of soldiers, but just what did he believe he was capable of accomplishing?  Malach had taught him to be self-sufficient – sometimes inadvertently – but the boy’s judgment was still questionable.

More than the parents tried to step in for the girl, some even peacefully, but all were struck and kicked and berated.  She was slapped around for resisting the centurion binding her wrists together with the end of a rope.

Movement around the Romans’ steeds drew his gaze from the center of attention.  There was no mistaking Cadwalader’s lithe form as he ducked from horse to horse, hesitating at each just long enough to slip something beneath the blankets, directly below the saddles.

Ah … the lad might actually be up to something clever.

He’d started at the rear of the ranks, where a soldier standing guard beside the commander’s charger didn’t notice him.  But the boy drew closer to the horses up front as the commotion began to settle.  He was in the midst of pushing something beneath the blanket when the guard glanced back in his direction – and sprang toward him.

“Hold it!” The invader barked in Latin, probably figuring his tone could be understood in any language.

He might as well have hollered Run for it in Cymraeg.  Cadwalader darted away like a hare flushed from its briar, the guard lunging after him with the enthusiasm of any baying hound.  A couple of the mounts spooked as the boy dashed beneath their bellies to evade him, but the Roman cut him off before he reached the adjoining edge of the wheat field.

He grabbed Cadwalader’s wrist and jerked the boy to one side.  Malach twitched as the lad bit back a bleat of pain.

The Roman smacked the child’s right cheek with the back of his hand.

Malach’s hand slid to the grip of the sword concealed beneath his cloak.

Cadwalader crooked his arm to the side and twisted it free, an escape maneuver Malach taught soon after he took in the child.  The Roman managed to cuff him as he darted for the wheat again, but this time allowed his escape because the centurion ordered it.  They were ready to leave.

The guard returned to the horse where he’d spotted the boy, and investigated the fittings of the saddle as his comrades returned with their booty.  He must not have seen where Cadwalader’s hand had actually been, and returned to his own mount at the front.

During that time the commander fastened the other end of the rope to one of the front pommels on the saddle.  The girl, still weeping, pulled against it.  Her parents, and other youngsters who must be siblings, held out their hands and wailed back to her.  The centurion yanked on the rope, throwing her off balance, and then barked to the soldiers to mount.

Although nothing more than bandits in metal and leather, this troop of Roman soldiers swung up on their steeds in unison.  After all, it would show off how superior they were.

The chargers’ reactions were not so synchronous, but each horse’s revolt erupted like bubbles breaking the water’s surface as it began to boil.  The more seasoned mounts crab-stepped and reared, but the greener horses bucked and more than a few squealed.  In a matter of seconds most of the troop was in disarray, and soldiers either dismounted or were thrown as the centurion hollered at them.

In those few seconds, Cadwalader darted from the wheat and through flailing hooves.  With the centurion distracted by the fiasco, the boy pulled a knife from his belt and slashed the rope near the girl’s hands.  He grabbed one of her arms and they scrambled back into the wheat.

The corners of Malach’s mouth twitched.  The lad was proving to be quite resourceful even if he was still foolhardy.  Humanity had been promised that thistles would grow among their crops….

He removed his hand from the sword and shifted in his stance.

That was enough movement to break the illusion, and the centurion must have glanced toward his direction at that instant.

“You there!” he barked in Latin, and spurred his horse toward Malach.

In no mood to be either trampled or beheaded, Malach released a long exhale as he drew his sword.  Despite his appearance as an old man to these people, they would still believe he maintained proficiency with a blade.  He wouldn’t have to cut down the commander—

The Roman turned his steed to the side mere paces from Malach.  As it halted, his gaze locked on Malach’s face, or at least what he’d be able to see of it….

There was no mistaking the recognition that rippled through the man’s expression.

A chill coursed through Malach.  How?  There could be only one way the Roman would know what he was.

Hoping he was wrong, Malach pushed his consciousness into the mind of the commander.  He entered easily, and that fact confirmed his suspicion.

Only those who consorted with beings like him, who in their lust for power allowed such creatures to break into their innermost faculties, were forever consigned to have their thoughts invaded by pure will.

And in those few seconds of access to the centurion’s mind, Malach learned the name of the other being this Roman was in league with.

The name meant nothing to him.  Like him, this other he had been aware of was also wandering these lands, and could also be going by a more native moniker.  Unlike him, this one was sticking to their original purpose.  This one wandered among humanity and encouraged them to destroy each other … until there would be nothing left of the race.

Thus far Malach had maintained his secrecy, and this other knew nothing of his presence.  But this commander would most likely tell that being how another like him roved in these mountains.

There was no immediate danger … but if this other realized that Malach had strayed from the original purpose – the proof lay in the fact he had taken on the care of an orphan – then he might decide Malach … and Cadwalader … needed to be destroyed.

So much for keeping his true identity concealed.

The centurion grumbled something that Malach didn’t catch, and urged his steed to gallop back to the soldiers.  Killing the Roman wouldn’t solve his dilemma.  He’d have to slaughter all the troops … and the villagers … to keep rumor from spreading about a pwca, as the local tribes would call him, who travelled with a boy.

The thorny thistles discovered beneath the blankets were promptly discarded, although the soldiers seemed disappointed their commander ordered them to ride out instead of wreaking further havoc on the village.  The Roman knew they stood little chance against Malach….

No sooner were the troops gone from sight than the girl, her hands unbound, sprinted from the wheat and to her family.  With shouts of praise to their gods, they embraced her tightly and kissed her about the head.

And then Cadwalader stepped out from where he’d ducked into the field originally.

“Reckless idea.”  Malach turned to face him, and the red mark on the boy’s right cheek annoyed him more than he would have anticipated.  “But also effective.”

“She is back with her family.  That is what matters.”  Count on an orphan to make such an observation.  “I was surprised they did not come looking for us, however.”

There was no need to tell the lad about his discovery, at least not yet.

“They decided she was not worth the effort.”

“We should help them learn to fight.  We should help them end this tribute.”

Such lofty aspirations for a boy so young … what awaited him when he would actually be capable of trying to attain such goals?

Malach placed a hand on Cadwalader’s shoulder.  “First, you need to learn a craft.”

###

So that was this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and this time the prompt word was Tribute.  Be sure you don’t miss out on the other stories that get submitted!

Writing by Numbers

Symbolism has been used in writing pretty much from the beginning.  It adds an additional layer of depth and tweaks the subconscious with possibilities.  And while a story doesn’t have to have symbols scattered throughout, writers have a variety of ways to express them.

Numbers have long held symbolic value.

That doesn’t mean every number in a story has to mean something, but sometimes deciding upon which number to use could be influenced by a subtle point the writer would like to get across.  Different cultures can have different associations, so that could add some color as well.

One could even dabble in a form of numerology to add value to numbers, a form of mathematics with an ulterior motive (hmm, that sounded suspiciously like statistics).  It has the earmarks of superstition or a kid’s dumb game, but you add numbers together until you condense them to a single digit.  That sum, or even all the numbers in conjunction, is your symbol.

For instance, in my book Darkness upon the Land, the time was 7:18 when the electrical grid crashed where the protagonists were located.  7+1+8=16, and 1+6=7.  What’s the insinuation?  Look at the symbolism (in western culture) attached to numbers, and see what you come up with:

One:  Divinity and unity.  Not only can it represent a single something, it can also refer to a group or collection of something.

Two: Division and duality.  It’s the smallest number that be divided, and yet the two can still unite as one.

Three:  Completion and also divinity.  Utilizing triads underscores thoroughness.  Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Jokes, which are flash humorous fiction, have three components (A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walked into a bar….).

Four:  Representative of the material world.  We divide direction into north, south, east and west when we contemplate traveling the globe.

Five:  Humanity has five fingers on the hand, five toes on the foot, and five senses.  A very human number, and therefore an illusion to weakness.  Just think of all the ways we screw up when we get full of ourselves.

Six:  One short of seven (see below), so it falls short of perfection.  Ergo, humanity.  Yet despite all our flaws, we are the pinnacle of creation.

Seven:  Divinity and perfection.  The seventh day perfects the week, when all of creation was present.

Eight:  New beginning.  The first day of the next week is in a sense the eighth day.

Nine:  This one is a little tricky.  In pagan circles it represents rebirth and reformation.  There’s not much Judeo-Christian reference to it, which gives an allusion to insufficiency.  Mix those two viewpoints together, you wind up with a concept of valuing a gift more than the giver.  Chew on that for a while….

Other numbers can also have symbolic value, but for the sake of brevity we’ll stop here.

Oh, and the time of 7:18 … as far as the characters were concerned, their world ended (figuratively) at that time.  Later in the story, one of them mentions how God is most hidden during a crisis.  So those numbers about divinity and a new beginning (after everything comes crashing down around their ears, of course) was just hiding God inside a crisis.

You might never look at numbers the same way again….

Who Is the Audience?

One time I was somewhere when someone asked me a question about something (can’t recall those details), and I promptly gave a correct response.

“Wow,” she commented.  “It’s impressive you remembered that.”

(Yes, I sense the irony to the above content.)

My reply:  “I just used a mnemonic device.”

She gave me one of those quizzical looks.  “I’ve never even heard of that word before.”

Not everybody takes psychology in high school, which is where I first learned of the mnemonic device and how to use it.  The term stuck with me because I do rely on it quite a bit to retain information.  Yes, if I’m unable to write down a grocery list for milk, bread, mustard, and hot dogs, I envision a hot dog squatting next to a loaf of bread and milking out mustard.

(Trust me, the more bizarre the imagery, the easier it is to remember.)

The point is I used a word I took for granted, and presented someone with a new experience.  It’s not uncommon for writers to have a broad vocabulary, and those within certain genres will be familiar with which terms their readers will recognize that others might not understand.

In sci-fi, you could logically expect the audience can process verbiage like warp, terraforming, and cryogenics.  Horror readers are unlikely to recoil when they stumble upon sanguine, apparition, and charnel.  And mystery lovers will have the deduced the meanings of alibi, forensics, and modus operandi.

Overall, knowing your audience can help hone writing in more ways than what vocabulary to use.  What readers expect can guide writers with polishing that protagonist, reaching a brilliant dénouement, or shining light upon that motif.

Hmm, maybe it would be a good idea to explain those writing terms in a future post.  But how to go about remembering to do that?  Perhaps I could envision some dude looking at a calendar when a light bulb pops on overhead, and then he can squirt mustard out of it … wait, that’s not right….

 

Resolution

War reeked.  As Malach surveyed the broken bodies, the scattered implements, and the ruined huts still smoldering from the attack waged earlier that day, the stench of their remains assaulted his nostrils.

It was an odor that once stirred his blood, but now only gave him pause for contemplation.  There was no mistaking the earmarks of abject evil.  Whatever transgression this village had committed, it was unlikely there had been any real need to slaughter men, women, and children alike, leaving no one to tend to the dead.

And then he heard a moan on the wind.

A mere human ear could have missed it.  But his acute senses caught the small, still voice that trembled from an unknown depth.  The enemy had overlooked one of their quarry.  Malach tilted his head, straining the catch the whimper again and track where it seeped from.

Only the odious breeze remained.  As he listened, he debated why he should even bother seeking the survivor.  He was only travelling through this region and encountered this soiled battlefield by chance.  The injured person was probably reaching the throes of death anyway.  And since death awaited everybody, why should he attempt to delay its claim on another possession?

No, that was his old way of thinking….

He tilted his head in the other direction and concentrated on his memory of the whine.  It must have come from upwind.  Keeping the breeze in his face, he stepped, slowly and quietly, deeper into the morass of destruction.

He hesitated at the edge of one of the smoldering huts and listened more keenly.  Yes, there it was, something other than the feeble hiss of steam that resulted from heat overcoming moisture.  In a corner of the collapsed, blackened debris, a couple of charred poles crossed over a rumpled hump. Toward one end, a broken spear jutted out at a steep angle.

Malach hesitated.  The leather gloves he wore offered protection from the charred ruins, and he’d sworn to refrain from resorting to his craft as a convenience.  But making contact with the corruption before him proved loathsome.

This wasn’t just convenience, it was an act of kindness … wasn’t it?

He concentrated on the heap of debris, squinting even though he didn’t need to.  The poles shifted away from the lump and toward him.  He sensed fragmented coverings, perhaps blankets, over the heap.  With a thought, he ripped the pieces to one side.

The corpse was no surprise, although it was badly burned, and the spear in its lower midriff demanded a dram more resolution to roll it to its side.  Only then could he identify it as a woman.

Two small bodies, one larger than the other, dribbled out from underneath her chest.

Both were filthy, but the larger child, maybe three years old, gasped and coughed and twitched.  The other, an infant, made no more movement whatsoever.

Malach stared at the toddler.  Now what?  He’d rescued it from being smothered like its sibling, although it seemed miraculous the smoke hadn’t snuffed its life.

Miraculous….

He was rarely involved in miracles.  Over the centuries he’d been their detractor, using his power to overturn them in his defiance of providence.  And what sense was there to them, anyway?  Why should this one small waif be the only survivor in a demolished village?  What made this child’s life more precious than anybody else’s?

Why was he the one to discover it…?

The urchin released a raspy squeal when it finally noticed him.  It appeared to be a boy, and scrambled toward the mother’s remains, clasping the limp infant on the way.  With eyes wide and glazed and mouth agape, he squatted near the parental shell and awkwardly clutched the sibling.

Malach studied him for a few seconds.  There was no denying the child’s terror, and yet … there was something defiant in his attitude, in the way he grasped the lost baby as though he could still save it….

This boy possessed a different kind of fight.

Malach kneeled to make himself less imposing.  He pulled back the hood of his cloak so the toddler could see his face.  It was his experience children could be less intimidated than adults upon discovering a creature of myth like him.  Sometimes they were even entranced by his slit pupils and how his brown irises appeared to swirl.

“Do not fear.”  Malach spoke in Cymraeg, the prevailing language of this land.  “I have not come to harm you.”

The boy’s gaze remained locked on his face, and an odd squeak lurched from him.

Malach reached beneath his cloak and grasped a bota of water, shrugging off its strap from his shoulders.  He leaned forward as he stretched his arm over the charred debris to offer the water skin.

“Have a drink.”

The boy’s gaze darted back and forth between his face and the bota.  The care he took letting go of the infant contrasted with the clumsy way he clutched it earlier.  But then he snatched the water skin with near ferocity.  In like fashion he unplugged it and chugged the contents, causing the leather sides to cave in.

 What might he be getting himself into?  Until relatively recently in his long past, Malach wouldn’t have found himself pondering what to do about this urchin.  He would have left it to its ultimate fate, or perhaps torment it briefly as a means of amusement.

The boy gagged and choked, spilling a trickle of water as he raised the bota.  After a short fit of coughing, he latched back on the skin, but this time wasn’t so frantic in drinking.

Malach scanned the devastation again.  He knew that others like him had already journeyed to this land.  And men were eagerly corrupted.  A mere nudge encouraged them to embrace their darkest fantasies.

One of his own kith had encouraged some men to desolate this village.

The plan had once seemed flawless to him:  Get humanity to destroy itself.  Yet over the millennia, despite hordes reveling in abusing their own, individuals joined together to thwart the destruction his kind sought.  It was as though there was a plan greater than what creatures like him could concoct….

Accepting that truth set him on unfamiliar ground in more ways than one.

Malach’s attention returned to the mother, to the woman who died with the hope her children would live.  Unlike all the other mothers who perished with that same hope, one of her offspring did survive….

….the son who, like her, tried to protect when all seemed lost.

Maybe this boy’s life was more precious.  Maybe he was part of a greater plan.

But why should this child wind up stuck with the likes of Malach?  Perhaps he should try to locate someone more qualified to teach this boy how to capitalize on that trait.

The toddler lowered the bota, coughing and sputtering a bit as he did.  His gaze, this time with slightly squinted eyes, locked on Malach’s face again.

“Who you?”  His voice creaked like a limb on a massive tree standing against a gale.

Malach decided to use the name he assumed upon entering these lands, a native nomenclature that would help him blend in.  “I am Myrddin.  And what is your name?”

The child stared for several seconds before finally squeaking out, “Cadwalader.”

Malach nodded.  “We should leave this place, Cadwalader.”

The boy’s eyes widened again.  Clutching the bota near his chest, he studied the body of his sibling lying beside him.  He glanced back at his mother.  When his attention returned to Malach, his lips trembled and his voice cracked.

“Why?”

Malach had no answer for all the dimensions that question could address, at least not here and not now.  If time allowed, the boy could explore them more fully when he was older.  He had survived fire, he had survived water … odds were he could survive everything in between.

Malach reached out again and clasped both the bota and Cadwalader’s hand.  The child cringed, but made no effort to pull away.  He gave the only answer he could offer for the present.

“We have a journey to undertake.”

###

So here is my contribution for this month’s #BlogBattle, and the prompt word this round was Myth.  Don’t miss out on how the other stories tackle a rich word like that!

The Marmots and the Green Valley: A Modern Fable

Marmots

A colony of marmots lived on a mountain range, and every day had to climb steep inclines and slippery stones in order to find enough to eat.  One day a few of them looked over the edge of a cliff and saw that the valley was full of green things to dine upon.  They told the other marmots about their discovery.

“All we have to do is leap down a short distance,” they said, “and we’ll have plenty to eat for the rest of our lives.”

Most of the marmots were skeptical.  “You do remember that we have bad depth perception because our eyes are on either side of our head, right?”

“Oh, that’s just an outdated belief,” the proponent marmots replied.  “We know better than that, now.”

A couple of marmots did believe them, however, so the proponents decided they needed to convince the rest of the group.  Their arguments convinced a few others to join them, and when that no longer worked, they resorted to calling the contrarians names.  Over time more marmots joined their cause.  Some truly believed there was more food at the bottom of the cliff, but others just wanted to be left alone.

Eventually most of the marmots agreed the best thing to do was leap off the cliff, but a few hard-headed individuals still claimed that wasn’t a good idea.  Now that the proponents outnumbered them, they ganged up on the contrarians and twisted their tails and bit them and shoved their faces into mud puddles.

A couple more marmots from the contrarians joined the proponents to end the abuse, but the rest finally escaped and retreated up the steep incline to straighten their tails and lick their wounds and dig the mud out of their noses and ears.

With cheers of victory, the proponent marmots leaped off the cliff.  Screams of agony replaced the cheers as their bodies were broken and ripped on the jagged rocks far below that were covered with a thin film of moss – which was what appeared like lush greenery from the distant edge above.

One marmot had been busy digging the mud from her ears and missed the order to leap.  Horrified by the wails and moans she then heard (her bad depth perception kept her from really seeing what happened), she climbed up the steep incline to the remaining survivors.  After reporting what happened and apologizing for the bad treatment, she rejoined the colony, and they proceeded to rebuild and repopulate.

Future generations sometimes peered over the cliff’s edge and debated if those white things scattered around really were bones….

Moral:  It’s better to dig mud out of your ears than have your bones scattered over sharp rocks.

copyright 2021 A. E. Branson

Stolen Moments

pixabay.com

He didn’t want to be conspicuous, but Kelwin still glanced back at his wife as he strolled closer to the administration building.  His grip on their son’s hand tightened as he spied her perusing the variety of meats offered at one of the market stands.

As he expected, Norah betrayed nothing about fulfilling the role of lookout.

The underground systems of Eda were surprisingly comfortable for not only the indigenous Martimu, but Humans as well.  Artificial lighting reflected off the ivory-colored walls of the predominant stone, casting a glittering luminescence throughout the broad, chiseled caverns.  It was quite probable that being forced to live underground, due to the inhospitable surface, had contributed to their proclivity for designing and building interstellar ships.

And that was why he’d dared to come here.

Their son, seven years old by Earth standards, pulled on his hand and spoke in Olde English because it was indecipherable to any translator.

“Can we go to the Grendelette Pools after this?”

Kelwin drew a deep breath, wishing yet again he could say yes, even in an archaic language.  “You know that all depends.”

Colmac’s lips pursed.  As a youth so accustomed to disappointment, he’d developed a stoic cynicism already.  Kelwin had given up on cursing the prophecy that had abstracted his son’s childhood.  That achieved nothing.  Their focus was better served at ensuring the Voratene never succeeded in … executing … him.

So Kelwin spent much time teaching his son how to survive.

A new ship had started appearing in the ports.  Before the Voratene threatened his family, Kelwin serviced and repaired all kinds of craft.  Their years of living as fugitives dictated consistent travel across space, and his familiarity with the vessels proved useful.

But he wasn’t going to set foot on one of those new contraptions until he knew how it was constructed.  He needed to know all the ways of escape, first.  And quite possibly the Voratene forced the Martimu to design snares within it.

There was only one way to view the abstract.

Although no flashing light or electronic beep betrayed they were being scanned, he knew their entrance into the administration building was recorded.  Norah had programmed false identities for all three of them even though there was no plan for her to enter the facility.  But plans had a way of getting changed in an instant….

This invasive monitoring didn’t exist until the Voratene established their domain and decided all their subjects needed to be supervised.  Luckily, keeping track of races on eleven different planets scattered many light years apart made their surveillance system sluggish.

“Why aren’t there any drafts on the syncosphere?”  Colmac pulled his hand free as they entered the library room.  Several dozen stations, in an assortment of sizes to accommodate various races, created a bit of a maze.  Each was outfitted with a screen and buttons, knobs, and levers to manipulate the devices.

“Because our toads control what’s on it.”  Since there was no Olde English word for Voratene, they employed some code to further stymie any eavesdropping translators.  “They keep off anything that’s genuinely useful.”

There were only a few other patrons, mostly quadrupedal Martimu, in the library.  He had no difficulty locating a station they could access, and showed his son how to go about bringing up the information they sought.

Kelwin’s heart fell as he studied the schematics.  His wife’s suspicion had been right, and he offered thanks for her suggestion they should investigate how these new ships were constructed.

“Look.”  He tapped a finger on different parts of the screen.  “What do you see?”

“Air-locks?”  Colmac frowned.  “Those are standard.”

“Compare them.  Do you notice a difference?”

His son leaned forward, chewed on his lower lip for a few seconds, and then looked up at his face.  “Some are missing escape hatches?”

Kelwin nodded.  “So that means?”

“Trap.”  There was no mistaking the disappointment in his voice as his gaze returned the screen.

As he watched the child stare at the diagram, Kelwin wrestled with his own competing emotions.  That Colmac was a swift learner stirred a bit of pride … but like how the Martimu were brilliant engineers because of the bright and barren surface, he had to be.

He had to adapt and think and confront all sorts of situations a youngster shouldn’t have to face.  Declared guilty of a crime he’d never committed, he was hunted to guarantee that he never would.  Even by staying alive, he had to sacrifice his childhood.

Life wasn’t fair, but more so for his son….

Colmac looked up again.  “What about the Grendelette Pools?”

He started to calculate how long they’d been here, what the odds were that sentries would try to track them down because their fake identities might be discovered by now.  At least Norah hadn’t alerted them of any troops approaching their location.

The sensation that pulsed through him brought those calculations to a halt.

Of course his son wanted to visit the pools.  The grendelettes, fish-type creatures, were so domestic they would frolic with any swimmers who entered those waters.  The youth of all the races who visited there found them quite enchanting.

By God, he wasn’t going to allow the Voratene to dash his son’s hopes yet again.

Kelwin smirked as he switched the station off.  “We’re going.  But before we do, we do need a plan of escape in case any sentries track us there.”

Colmac nodded, his beaming smile making worthwhile any complications they might run across.  And then his words prompted that mixture of emotions again.

“I have an idea.”

###

So here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the word this round is Abstract.  It took me a while to get around to drafting this one, so I decided to milk it.  And don’t miss checking out the other submissions!

Father’s Day is nearly here in my part of the world, which might have had some influence on the theme in this story.  So happy Father’s Day to all you dads!

Greatest of These

Hin

“Of course you can decline at any time … even now.”

Rejali stared at the prioress for a few seconds before she strolled to the nearby window.  Her motion seemed automatic, as though she were sleepwalking.  Indeed, the proposal Mother Juthfride just informed her about seemed like an event in a dream, something preposterous.

She placed a hand on the smooth wood of the sill and gazed at the rugged mountains standing sentry over the valley her community thrived in.  Directly outside the window a few members labored in the garden, cultivating a mixture of crops from both Earth and the native soil of Hin.  The sight of the garden struck a chord of longing in her heart….

She didn’t want to leave.

“Why me?”  Even as she spoke to the window pane, Rejali already surmised what the answer would be.

“Besides the obvious fact you’re a young woman, your standing as a Disciple is exemplary.  You possess both the physical skill and spiritual girding someone in that position would need.”  Juthfride’s tone was both calm and conciliatory.

“Why not assign somebody to just be a bodyguard?”

“That option is still on the table.  In fact, if this supplicant had been a woman, you would be their choice.”

Rejali frowned at the pale reflection of herself in the pane.  Ever since she undertook training in the Discipline, she’d wanted to serve in the fullness of her capacity.  But what the curia asked of her now seemed a call beyond that of duty.

“And this … deliverer … is sanguine with this arrangement?”

“He is open to it.  I wasn’t informed of any of the particulars in that regard.”  Juthfride’s lips hinted at a curt smile as she folded her arms.  “And of course if he decides he doesn’t like you, he is also free to decline.”

The deliverer … was for real.  For as long as she could remember, even if only once in long while, Rejali heard whispers of this individual.  His existence was something of a worst-kept secret, a rumor, a possible lie that humanity harbored someone who would break the absolutism of the Voratene empire.

And now she was being asked to consider the possibility of becoming his wife?

“There is one detail that makes me poorly qualified for this assignment.”

“None of us are perfect.”  Her mouth retained its shape.  “I presume you’re alluding to the fact you’ve engaged little in space travel?”

“I … was never very interested in that.”  Frankly, the thought was a bit terrifying, but she hadn’t spoken of it since childhood.  Her family figured she’d outgrown it.

“If you agree to this arrangement, you will grow accustomed to it.  He is, obviously, very experienced in that regard.”  Juthfride unfolded her arms.  “It is true that by Earth calculation he’s around a year younger than you, but flight has been his entire life.”

“He’s … younger?”  She’d always thought he’d be a little older, but considering how relative age was among the various alien races, it was understandable such a detail would be blurred.  “So, why did he come to us now for protection?”

“I don’t have all the details, but several years ago, when his father was killed, his mother made the request that if she also died, we would provide a companion to help him evade the troops.”

“When was she … killed?”

“Nearly a year ago.  He managed on his own for much of that time, but in the last month a … heated … encounter crossed his path with a Disciple who offered help.  When this deliverer discovered he was a family man, he tried to slip away.  But the Disciple convinced him to give the curia a chance to assign him a more suitable advocate.”

“And I was their first choice … but because of the obvious, I can only carry out this duty if we’re married.”

“Don’t make it sound like they’ve dismissed matrimony as a convenience.  It is precisely because of its sanctity that the two of you have complete control over what you decide to do with the situation.”

Naturally.  If this supplicant had been a woman, Rejali would have simply received her marching orders and taken on the task despite any trepidation about space travel.  But this matter was more delicate.  She had the option to decline.

And she could decline right now.  She could say no and be done with it and keep working in the gardens and refine her training with the Discipline.  She wouldn’t have to worry about being exposed to space … at least not for a while … depending on what assignment might come up later….

The curia must have decided their top-rated Disciple, despite her youth, was necessary for the charity of defending a fugitive who’d demolished nothing and yet was still on the Voratene’s most-wanted list.  But there were plenty of other adherents they could choose from.  Her refusal wouldn’t leave them in a void….

No … she hadn’t become a Disciple to avoid her fears.  God had given her a gift, not only of life but also of miraculous healing.  When Rejali chose to join the Discipline as a mere child, it was because it was the most significant way to show her gratitude.  She wanted to serve in the fullness of her capacity … she’d just hoped to do so on Hin, or at least get to reside on another planet.

She thought of the quip attributed to Saint Teresa of Calcutta, how God would never give one any challenge that couldn’t be handled – she just wished He didn’t know she could handle so much.

Every cell in her body seemed to shudder before the words that emerged from her mouth.  “Since this agreement must be mutual, I suppose there is no harm in taking that first step.  When do I meet him?”

“Your transport can be arranged anytime, so you might as well take a day to spend with your family and get yourself packed.”

Her heart fluttered.  “No chance of his coming here?”

Juthfride shrugged.  “He claims that wherever he goes, devastation often follows in his wake.  It is for the safety of this community you must meet at his current location.”

Rejali drew a deep breath and managed to nod.  “Then I’ll get ready to leave.”

She strolled out the door and into the hallway, her heart pounding against her chest.  The light breeze that bushed her face upon stepping outside the chancery was also welcomed for another deep breath, and her attention drew again to the garden.

When she wasn’t training, there was little more soothing to her than working in the soil, of tending to the crops that the ground provided.  It was such a basic and primal activity, harkening back to the origin of humanity.  These days could soon become only memory, and she wondered if she’d ever return to the garden.  And then a realization dawned on her.

Was she really more afraid of traveling in space than deciding if a complete stranger would make a suitable husband?

###

So here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the word this time was Proposal.  There are a couple of ways to define that one, so I just thought I’d try to work both of them in.  And don’t miss checking out the other entries this month!