A writing challenge, an effort to expand my writer’s brain beyond screenwriting, and an exercise in writing short stories (under 200 words, if possible), something I’ve never done. These are free writes, done in half an hour or less with little editing.
The cool air was a welcome respite from the warmth of the ensuing party indoors. The scent on the air indicated the flowers were in full bloom. The muffled sighs and hushed whispers revealed she was not alone. Neither her soft-soled shoes nor the faint dragging of her gown made enough sound to give away her presence as she made her way along the crooked path. Her hands gently trailed the rounded edges of the bushes that lined the path, their prickly edges tickling her skin. There was a nervous energy about her. As she moved further inward, the darkness grew until she almost disappeared. A puff of white smoke. The smell of (*chicory). She hastened her pace. Only a few steps more, and she would be in his arms.
It felt like he had been locked in that dungeon for a century. When he was first interned he had tried his best to keep track of the days, looking for the wisp of light that tried its best to break through the smallest cracks, but as the days turned to weeks turned to months, torture, hunger, and fatigue had made it difficult to care. After so much time, death seemed the most promising prospect. Justice was not to be served here. Innocence was irrelevant. Rumors circled amongst the guards, and it was only then that hope returned. A crafty effort he had been planning for some time finally panned out and he found himself free. Desperation and sense of urgency propelled him forward until he took his first breath of fresh air. It had never tasted so sweet. His eyes, already used to the dark, made out shapes on the horizon. He knew the land well, and took shelter under a distant bridge. His prison had been just that, but at least it had been dry. He shivered throughout the night as a light rain turned menacing. By morning, half frozen and starved he got a glimpse of one of the most beautiful sights he had ever beheld…home.
The Archway was considered a legend. The Elders had maintained that The Archway had been destroyed during the first Great War that had torn the land apart, but there were some, who quietly believed it still existed. After the clans disbanded and moved away, there were a great many things that had fallen into the domain of myth. Generations later, when my clan crossed through the Old Lands once again, the legend of The Archway was resurrected. The Archway’s true purpose had been lost over the years; some believed it was a gateway to the afterlife, while others believed it could transport the traveler anywhere they wished as soon as they crossed the threshold, or possibly into the Other Realm. Whatever its purpose, the idea that it was within reach was too great an enticement. After six days in the wild, a mist gathered about my feet and guided me towards a natural formation of steps in the hillside. With the sun rising before me, I had to hold my hand up to shield my eyes, and it was then I saw a glint of light bounce off an invisible structure. I approached with trepidation, but with each step The Archway appeared more distinctly and I became more certain. I had been chosen. I would discover the secrets of our ancestors. But just to be on the safe side, I drew my sword.
It was bitterly cold. The air was heavy and dimmed the street lamps that lined the park. He could barely see the bench less than ten meters away. The spot was well chosen for a clandestine encounter. Anders pulled his coat up around his neck and ears, his breath a thick cloud. A shape seated on the bench became visible. She was early. He strained his eyes and ears in vain. There was nothing but silence. The figure on the bench did not move, and as he drew closer was able to see that it was slumped over. He made one final full turn to take in the scene before kneeling before her. Her breathing was shallow, and her hands were interlaced with blood from the wound in her stomach, but she still smiled weakly when she saw him. Anders ran his hands over her face, his heart racing. “I’m sorry, “ her voice was just above a whisper. She pulled her coat aside to reveal that she had been wired, and the time was almost up. She pushed him with what little strength she had left and said with all the emotion she could muster, “Run.”
Sabine was growing accustomed to life in her new home; the estate was beautiful, the people were kind, and she had duties enough to distract her, and yet her loneliness would not subside. He had been gone longer than expected, and no word had been sent. In order to maintain the household she would have to keep up appearances and only voice her concerns to the wind. Every day she would walk up to the tower where the view was incomparable; she could not only see the bay where the ships would dock, but also the vast ocean beyond. She could spend hours there, admiring the view, watching the interactions of the villagers below, and keeping an eye out for the one ship she longed to see again. It was here she would make a wish, one she dared not speak aloud, and one she had not ever thought to make.
She had been riding her horse past the house for months, and had never seen anyone come or go. She found it odd considering the state of the manor, it was well maintained. Her father said the house had been abandoned years before. In the winter months, as the night came earlier each day, lights within created a warm glow. She found herself lingering longer each time she passed in the hopes of seeing someone, but she never saw anything, not even a shadow pass the window. As spring arrived and the weather turned suitable to ride again, she decided she would have a look inside the manor and discover what mysteries might lie within. It was on that day as she drew near, a cold breeze blew in bringing dark, looming clouds. As she led her horse closer, she caught a glimpse of a face in the window. It smiled then disappeared. A moment later, the door opened.
The Dark Queen looked out upon her subjects and felt nothing. She had lost everything that had ever mattered to her, and she now ruled with an empty heart. Tragedy had not diminished her beauty, and she felt this might be seen as malicious, so she pulled her hair back, dressed in dark clothing, and removed all traces of adornment, except for her crown. She was, after all, the queen. The herald called her subjects to attention, and she came forward, somber, as she had done everyday for the past year. She was at a loss of how to proceed. What could she do to move forward, beyond the pain of loss?
Each time they met endangered them further, and yet neither could stay away. The secret tunnel system within the castle allowed them glimpses of moments, but it would never be enough. Each encounter lasted longer and longer until it was unbearable to part. If only they were free to choose their own destiny. If only Fate were that kind. He was being sent abroad. War was at hand. They met for what they believed to be the last time and he held her close. Her emotions were on the brink of shattering her, and she clung to the wall for support. How ever would she bear it?
I’d been traveling what was left of the upper world so long; I knew it like the back of my hand. The dark days were all any of my people knew, except for the elders, who spoke of a different time, the time of the light. It was a time when the buildings had reached for the heavens, as had we. Now it was covered in ash, torn down, brick by brick. What remained were the ghosts of the past. What now inhabited those remains were unlike anything anyone had ever seen, except for me, and the few members of my team. Each time we surfaced we risked not only exposure, but also discovery. There was life here; tiny green tentacles of life making their presence known. There were stories of such things, but it was best to keep it to ourselves, at least for the time being, because the rest of the upper world held no place for us. Maybe it was as the elders said, our time had passed.
The view from the window gave the impression of peace and solitude, but in fact, it had become the view of her torment. Perhaps if she leapt out the window she would survive the fall, but then what? She was under constant surveillance, and had yet to find a lapse in security that she could use to her advantage. She would spend hours staring out to the water that had once enticed her, but now taunted her. It was paradise, and yet…She had never expected to be seduced, to be swayed, to be taken. Rumors could never have prepared her for such a fate. Her fingernails dug into the cracked and molded windowsill as she decided what course of action might be necessary.
She had to be dreaming. Nothing of such vibrancy could ever exist in her land. The image swirled before her eyes, teasing her, tempting her to cross over. Her body swayed ever so slightly forward, her eyes closed longer than they should have as she took a deep breath to smell the fresh air. Her body ached with longing to move forward, to taste, to feel firsthand. She shook her head hard, hoping to clear the fog overcoming her. She would not submit. Pleasure was not to be so easily attained. But her foot took the first step, without her acknowledgment, and it found a solid foundation. Without further persuasion, she was off, running as is she were being chased, and maybe she was, but they would never catch her.
They had met under the lights, and it was in the crimson glow that he had known he would spend the rest of his life trying to make her smile as she had that first night. They were so carefree then, a symbol of their youth. Each year, hand in hand, they would walk under the lanterns, sit on the same bench, and enjoy one another in silence. It was their moment to reflect on their time together, at how under the rosy glow, a young couple so different from one another had found happiness. As he sat on the bench alone for the first time in many years, he smiled the sweet smile that only a life well lived can offer, and he thought of her. For a brief moment, he saw the girl in the yellow dress dancing in the glow of the red lanterns. When she turned smiling at him, giggling breathlessly, he gasped. She ran up to him then, taking him by the hands to lead him down the crimson path.
War was imminent. The lifestyle she had become accustomed to would soon cease to exist. That didn’t frighten her as much as losing the man that sat across from her now. As she took in the appearance of her English lover, her eyes softened, and she became lost in thought. She wondered what would become of them as the orangey glow of her cigarette continued to burn and draw closer to her fingers. She felt the warmth grow, but she ignored it as she reached out her other hand to rest it upon his. It was a small gesture, but one that seemed to reassure them both.
Wei was a natural at deception. She had born to a hard life, but she could easily fall into the role of a proper lady or a courtesan depending on what the mission called for. A nice dress and a little makeup were all the disguise she required to obtain whatever she needed, be it access or information. She wasn’t one to ever be considered a threat, and she used that to her advantage. Her current target was completely taken with her, and as she sat there demurely, steeling herself against his longing gaze, she wondered how much longer she would have bear the leers and wandering hands of those in her agency’s sights. She held her right hand up, letting the lit cigarette burn as the signal to her fellow operatives that the target was ready for removal. She kept her eyes level and smiled to herself that he would never know what hit him.
The Greenlee family had been the guardians of the final trial for five generations. It was very much a part of who they were. They tended to the stalk, cared for it, and aided the warriors who came from great distances to tackle it as part of their final test. It was dangerous, it took preparation, and those lucky enough to survive could count themselves amongst the most honored. When the eldest Greenlee daughter saw the knight and his horse coming over the horizon, her heart fluttered and sank. It was his time to take on the trials, and if they were both very lucky, their lives would never be the same.
He felt he had been riding for hours. His legs burned and the poor animal beneath him had finally slowed its pace as it drew nearer to the familiar landscape of his home. Taking a deep breath he dismounted and walked the horse at a leisurely pace towards the stone bridge he had always found solace upon. His father had stood there with him in his youth, regaling him with stories of their family and their duty. He now stood upon it alone, and he needed his father’s counsel more than ever. It was hard for him to admit that he knew he was unworthy of her love; he had done nothing to encourage her affection, but he had been foolhardy enough to believe his title and income would be enough to entreat her to consider his proposal. Her affection would grow over time. Wasn’t that the way it happened? He knew there was something different about her; it was what had drawn his attention in the first place, and he had surprised even himself with the depth of his regard for her, but now he had to consider the possibility of a life without her, and that was something he hadn’t been prepared for.
They had immediately been drawn to one another, despite their circumstances. The flirtation had started innocently enough, but with each subsequent encounter their passion grew. There were too many opportunities to be thrown together, and it wasn’t long before the lingering glances across the crowded ballroom, the brushes of hands in passing, and even the stolen kisses in dark corners became insufficient to satiate the consuming hunger. It was then that war came, and their separation became inevitable. The pang that ripped at their heart strings was enough to compel them to enjoy whatever moments they could together in the hopes it would bond them eternally and bring them back together at some point in the future, of this life or the next.
They met in secret in an unused room, away from prying eyes, surprised at the ease of their deception. She arrived first, her breathing staggered in anticipation. When the door slowly opened and he appeared, they were in each other’s arms in an instant, his hand lingering on the lock as he enveloped her in passionate embrace.
Despite the lingering fog, the night was warm. The river’s silent invitation persuaded her to peel off her hose and take off her shoes to dangle her toes in the cool water while she waited. She sat there in the eerie silence watching as the fog continued to roll in and eat the end of the bridge until it disappeared into nothing. A wasteland could lie beyond, and it did, but on a night like tonight it was impossible to know.
She recounted every time they had met here while a faint smile full of fond memories tugged at the corners of her mouth. It wasn’t supposed to have been like this. She would probably be branded a traitor, but war was a funny thing to those on the ground. His large frame cracked the veil, the golden glow from the lights enveloping him as he moved forward. She should leave, but found herself rooted to the spot, the fog moving in closer even now – perhaps it was an omen. The thought caused a lump to form and she swallowed hard.
The cavern smelled of death and rot, of days long since passed. Her nose twitched and she winced in response. A cool breeze wafted through swirling her hair about her and with it came expectation. The months of visions had all led her to this moment, and she could feel the vindication welling in her chest. There was light illuminating the cave before her, and she stood up at the bow of the small rowboat eager to see what would reveal itself beyond. She knew it was there.
The few sailors she had aligned herself with rowed a bit faster and she held the lantern up a bit higher. The edge of the cave was like an open mouth; jagged rocks reached upward and hung menacingly from above. She held her breath as her eyes adjusted to the light and then she gasped. There she was. The prized Jewel. She had long been lost, but no longer.
I couldn’t remember how we had arrived in this place. I was upon my back, everything ached, and as I looked around I found my companions in similar positions upon the ground. Nothing was as it should be; the sky was yellow, the trees beheld faces, and the air smelled of ash. I winced with each movement as I rose to my feet. That was when I was able to take in our surroundings more fully.
There was a tower of sorts that held a world within it; starry sky, a sea of clouds, and a beautiful sunrise in the distance. It clearly held a more sinister purpose as I noticed the trail of blood leading inward from the stairs. The tower was taller than any structure I had ever encountered before, and it appeared as if there were people on the ramparts above. I had the distinct uneasy feeling that they were watching us. Along with the doorway cut into the sky itself on one side and a castle alight with an inferno on the other, my mind reeled. I drew my sword and took an unsteady step forward.