Beauty Within the Briars - Rie Sheridan
Home By Sunset - Rie Sheridan
The Face ? Jeanine Berry
The Price of the Song - Lazette Gifford
The Ancient One ? Sheri McGathy
The Druid Alicianara - K. Allen Cross
Home By Sunset
By Rie Sheridan
The church bell tolled solemnly, warning the citizenry to hurry behind stout doors and barred windows. A sense of urgency permeated the air as flying hooves beat a tattoo on the hard-packed surface of the lonely road leading into the secluded hamlet.
Home by sunset?must be home by sunset.
"Come on. Come on!" urged the rider, leaning low in the saddle and willing the stallion to go faster. Steel shoes struck sparks from flakes of flint scattered in the roadbed. The sun sank inexorably toward the horizon and the road seemed to stretch on forever.
Home by sunset?.
The door of the barn gaped open invitingly as the rider turned into the final length of the journey. "Thatís it, Firemane. We?re almost home. Just a little farther." Glancing over one hunched shoulder, the rider saw the disk of the sun was three-quarters below the horizon. "Come on!"
The stallion skittered to a stop inside the safety of the barn, hooves dancing as it came to a halt just as the rim of the sun disk slipped from sight. Sliding from the stallionís back, the slim rider dashed to bolt the heavy door, and leaned against its shield with a gusty sigh of relief. The rider reached for the bill of a dust-covered cap.
"Katherine!" snapped a voice from the holdís inner doorway.
The rider whirled, hair fanning out in an ebony cloud as it came free of its confinement. Her breath froze in her throat, choking on her prepared excuse at the sight of her fatherís angry face.
"Do you realize how close that was, Kate? What would you have done if you had been caught out after sunset? I couldn?t have kept the door open?not even for you."
Katherine hung her head. "I know, Father. I?m sorry. I didn?t think?"
"Of course, you didn?t. You never do."
Katherine loosened the girth of Firemaneís saddle. "I knew we would make it," she muttered sullenly, flipping the saddle off the stallionís back and carrying it to its post.
"You were within a nailís breadth of being locked outdoors for the night, my girl. Even if you had managed to find a way to evade the Wraiths yourself?what about Firemane?"
"No one will ever take Firemane from me. Will they, boy?" She stroked the smooth black muzzle and tugged the glowing forelock of the stallionís red-gold fiber optic mane before opening the neck panel and affixing the power cord to the horseís recharger.
"And what if they did, Katherine? Do you realize how valuable that animal is? That technology is irreplaceable out here in the colonies. I knew it was a mistake to let you accept him in the first place. I don?t know what your Name Father was thinking to give him to you."
"He didn?t know about the Power Wraiths. No one knew." She ran a comb through the stallionís mane and tail then checked each steel hoof for embedded rocks or scratches.
Her father caught her shoulder and spun her to face him. "But now we do, Katherine. That robotic is a danger to the entire village."
"No heís not!" Katherine pointed to the stout wooden door, with its inner shield of refraction alloy. "Thereís no power signature leak through the door. I?ve checked. You know the Wraiths never appear in the sunlight, so as long as we make it home before sunset, he is perfectly safe."
By Jeanine Berry
Merik Jorsson stood at the main view port of the space station Epsilon Gamma and stared at the colossal carving of an alien face that dominated the surface of the moon far below. Two stony eyes returned his stare. In the countless eons since they were first carved into the rock, those eyes had never wavered or blinked.
The age of the alien artifact was almost inconceivable in human terms. The face had gazed upward at the jeweled heart of the galaxy unseeing, while dinosaurs fought for domination of the earth. But its ancient calm had been shattered six cycles ago when the first ship from the Terran Confederation broke through the nexus point and emerged a mere 30,000 kilometers away.
"We were meant to find it, you know," Merik said. He turned and poked a thin finger into Norcan Bermerís arm to emphasize his point. The station commander stood at his side, dressed in the sky blue uniform of the Star Force, his immaculate attire in sharp contrast to Merikís rumpled blouse, and the denim shorts that exposed his long bony legs. The scientist took full advantage of the freedom allowed on the station, far from the disciplined demands of Earth, while Norcan seemed to cling to that same discipline as a reminder of home.
Their differing styles often led to arguments, but today, they were united by a shared impatience as they waited for the arrival of the shuttle ship from the moon.
Merik pushed back his forelock of unruly dark hair and fell by habit into the lecture he had given a hundred times to visiting dignitaries. "Whoever carved this face knew that any race intelligent enough to venture out to the stars would eventually discover interdimensional travel and begin to map the nexus points. And so, inevitably, they would come to this point, high above this moon, and see this face staring back at them."
"A greeting card thatís several million cycles old. But no message?at least not one that we could find." Norcan chuckled without humor, his face set in a stiff military expression. He was an older man?close to 60 cycles, Merik guessed?and nearing the end of his career. As the commander of Space Station Epsilon Gamma, he was the military head of the expedition. His career hinged on uncovering the secrets of the mysterious face carved into the single moon that circled the planet Regabus. A stunning discovery seemed almost certain, and would be his crowning achievement. But for six long and frustrating cycles there had been little to uncover. A thin layer of some unknown and nearly indestructible material covered the rock face, making it impenetrable to all their instruments. The aggravation had turned his expression grim, his posture stiff.
The Price of the Song
By Lazette Gifford
Once I sang for kings, and now only for thieves. No matter. The thieves listened better, I told myself, and bowed over the lyre, my fingers feeling out the strings, tuning it a little better. They probably didn't appreciate that part, but I didn't care. I would not abandon my art, even for dogs like these.
"Get on with it boy," someone said, and kicked my leg.
I winced at the pain, and reached for the chain that wrapped too tightly around my ankle, but a hand slapped it away. I couldn't see them -- they'd blinded me the first day. My breath caught as I remembered that pain...
"Play, damn you."
"Bad place," someone else mumbled. "We should never come this far into the forest."
"Shut up, you old fool. Play the lyre, boy!"
The little area stank of badly cooked venison, weak ale, and unwashed men. I would never get used to the stink of them. They liked the music, though. I reminded myself of that -- half crazed with fever and weakness -- as I balanced the lyre in my lap. I played for a while, tunes without words. I couldn't sing for them. They didn't realize it, had never asked for words.
But they listened to the melodies.
And while I played I let my mind wander to other places and better times. I had sat at the King's feet, and played at his daughter's wedding, watching Fair Alisia wed to a man twice her age, and a bothersome bore as well. She had always been kind to me, in her own distant way. She had even written and asked her father to send me to play at her birthday in that far north castle. Oh, and he gladly booted me on the way, with a few meager coin, so that I had to walk...
I'd never reach Alisia's castle. I had lost all sense of the passing of days, or the direction we'd traveled after they captured me. I wasn't certain why they even kept me alive, except that they liked the music. Better, I suppose, than sitting and arguing with each other over the spoils.
I played until my fingers bled, and I could finally hear them all asleep, their snores louder than the music I wove for them. I put my hands over the lyre and leaned back against the warm bark of tree where they'd chained me for the night, accepting this moment of peace for whatever it might be worth.
The Ancient One
By Sheri L. McGathy
Talwyn knew no other time before the mist. She knew no other shelter. Born within the mist's cool nothingness, she could recall nothing else but its soothing embrace. The mist had always been there and she within it.
But the changing was drawing near. Her kind, the Golden, whispered of its coming, reveled in its nearness, and welcomed its arrival. She could sense the excitement ripple within the oneness they shared, yet she was not sure she was as eager to see her existence change.
Time passed slowly within the mist, yet with each turn of the wheel her world altered. The oneness began to fade, the sameness became less pronounced. Talwyn's body betrayed her as it ached for another existence, while her mind was clouded with strange urges she could neither banish nor control. The intensity of the thoughts frightened her.
The mist grew thin, its once thick, fluffy whiteness revealing brief glimpses of worlds beyond its hazy veil. Worlds that Talwyn had not known existed and wished would fade from her view.
Even as her mind filled with dread, eagerness filtered through the thoughts of the Golden, the one thought linked and shared amongst them was now a jumbled array of many individual thoughts and emotions.
"... The departure comes. It draws near..."
"... Time has begun anew. The wheel has turned full circle. The season of change is upon us..."
"... Soon we shall recall the feel of Mother Sun's caress upon our skin..."
"... Aye, and the touch of land beneath our feet..."
The Druid Alicianara
(A noble womanís nightmare)
By K. Allen Cross
Ashton opened the door to his parentís finely appointed bedroom, intending to ask his dad if they could spend the day on the river as he had been promising for the last two weeks. The first thing that caught his attention was the fact that his parents were engrossed in enjoying each otherís intimate company. Not wanting to bother them, he shut the door quietly, then took a seat facing the fireplace as they continued their lovemaking across the room.
It wasn?t that he wanted to be rude, but it seemed like early morning was the only time he could catch his father before he went on his ?royal? business. Alice had his fatherís daily schedule constantly filled with nonsense. Things ran just fine before his real mom died. There were things to be done, sure, but they?d done it as a family. Since his dad married Alice, the poor man failed to see anything else besides her. Alice was real pretty, sure. She had light blonde hair and almond shaped blue eyes like his dad, and she was even an elf like he was. Ashton was glad about this too, for she had a better chance of not dying on him as his mom did. For the first couple months, he was glad his father had picked a new bride.
It didn?t take long for Alice to start twisting the household to the way she wanted it. He could no longer run about in whatever felt comfortable. On a war summer day, just a loincloth was best, but with Alice here, he was stuck wearing a full set of sweaty clothes whenever he was near the palace. Dad didn?t complain, it seemed to Ashton like he had forgotten his druidic heritage. Mom never made him stand in the summer sun with a heavy jacket on (even if it was made of gold and silk), just to talk to the local mayors or his own soldiers.
Idly picking at his fingernail as the sounds behind him told him they?d be done soon, he pondered whether dad even remembered what the river or the forest looked like. Alice would never consider swimming with them (a proper lady always stayed covered in the presence of men), and by no means did she have any skills as far as nature went. Alice was a proper lady of good breeding, the type of woman his mother hated.
A knock sounded at the door. "Your highness, Sir Reginald from Capetown is here."
That was another thing Alice didn?t like, being interrupted. He decided to answer for them. "They aren?t done yet!" he said quite loudly.
The bedcovers erupted with a screech of horror as Alicianara sat up, holding the blanket to her chin.
"Ashton, how dare you!" she screamed.
"Come on." he groaned as he got up. "Itís not like I don?t know what sex is." Pointing to himself, he asked, "Am I the one who bothered you?"
Duke Orenthal slammed his fist on the bed, glaring at his son. "Ashton! We have had this talk before. You know what is expected of you!"
"Yeah." he agreed, scrubbing the back of his head. He thought about adding that he also expected a few things, but decided to stay quiet. Walking towards the wardrobe, he asked, "So, do you want your yellow dress, Alice?"
Her face burned with embarrassment and rage, but her voice was ice. "Just leave."
Coughing to hide his smirk, he looked at his fatherís livid face. "I take it we?re not going to make it to the river today?"
"We will discuss this right after I meet with Sir Reginald." he stated heavily.
Aston wondered whatever happened to ?now? and ?yell?. Alice had even made their bedroom a formal place of state. "OK, dad. I?ll be down in the kitchen taking to Betty."