Short Story Feature: Confessions

I’m a tad short on time this week, thanks to a Day Job promotion that really should have been called “Now you get to do two positions for the price of one” and various other mountains of to-do list items avalanching (yep, I made up a verb! Go me) everywhere. But I still wanted to give you something fresh, rather than dredging something up from the archives. What is this fresh something? Well, remember how I said a couple weeks ago that I wanted to start featuring some of my shorter fiction? No? Here’s the reminder, then.

This week, I’m showcasing my third published short story — Confessions. Set in a fictitious (so don’t get your britches in a bunch people, it’s not meant to be thinly veiled social commentary) world, it’s a story about losing faith. The thing I’m most proud of, though, is the non-traditional format. For this particular story, I chose a circular narrative, attempting to mimic aspects of cinematography. Did it work? Well, I’ll let you be the judge. 😉

**Note: This is another one that’s on my list to revise and re-publish, so keep that in mind as you read. It was polished enough to be snatched up by a magazine, but I’m well aware of the flaws it contains. That said, feedback is always welcome, so feel free to comment!**

 

Confessions

by Kisa Whipkey

She was trapped; pinned between justice and an impossible fall. The sky was red as the blood she’d left pooling on the tiles of the cathedral floor, silhouetting her as she stood with her back to us, contemplating her choice. Tall stucco buildings glared from hollow eyes, disapproving of our pursuit. I agreed with them as I pushed my way to the front of the guards, closer to her.

I know what I had witnessed, but even so, no one deserved this. Either way, she would die. And I wasn’t entirely convinced she was wrong, that we weren’t the ones inflicting a corrupt sense of justice. I wasn’t sure why I had followed her, or what I hoped to accomplish, but some small voice urged me to try and talk her away from her fate — to try and save her.

As if hearing my doubts, she turned to face the guards splayed out in cautious defense. She smiled at the spears trained on her, the look a cobra gets before it strikes. Her dark eyes locked on mine.  In that instant I could see she wasn’t repentant. She believed in her mission; she knew she was right. Her certainty made mine waver even more, but before I could step forward to intervene, she spoke.

“Forgive me my sins,” she said calmly, as if she and I were the only two people on the low rooftop. I froze, knowing in my soul what she was about to do. I could have stopped her. But instead, I watched as her smile widened and she stepped backward off the roof, falling gracefully with arms outstretched, welcoming oblivion.

***

“Stop, wait . . . go back. Let me start over, this time at the beginning.”

The bored Inquisitor across from me merely nodded assent, his eyes glazed as he idly carved a repetition of swirls into the wooden desk. He didn’t care what I had to say, none of them did. They knew the fate of the criminal. I was simply a formality. One of the wronged, but only marginally since I had survived. I knew if I wore anything other than a priest’s robe, they wouldn’t have bothered to hear my tale. It didn’t matter though. My mission was to impart the truth, even if they didn’t want to listen.

Taking a deep breath, I started over, determined to make him understand, or at least to question.

***

She was a soldier, a warrior of the gods; chosen to help eradicate the blemish of the Saharians. Her sacred duty was to rid the earth of those who refused the teachings of Helerian; who persisted in spreading heresy and corruption into the civilized world. With their strange eight-legged deity, the Saharians were surely the spawn of the underworld. And she had no qualms sending them back where they belonged.

Her horse danced under her, its gray coat shimmering in silver ripples of anticipation. She held the high-strung Arabian in place with impatient hands, waiting for the order to descend on this village of the enemy.  With one hand, she adjusted the fabric that wrapped around her head and face. The robes of a crusader were a beautiful thing. Comfortable without being constraining, the sand colored fabric allowed her to blend with her surroundings and fulfill her divine destiny.

Finally, Devriath raised his sword, glinting light to the waiting soldiers in a signal that would end the lives of many. She ground her knees into her horse’s sides and the animal bolted forward. The dull thud of hooves against the sand was the only warning the condemned villagers would have before the crusaders fell on them like a dust storm.

Screams rose into the heat of the desert as the first Saharians fell. She drew her weapon in anticipation, a smaller, curved blade that mimicked the wicked smile of a young moon. Without slowing, she galloped through the streets of the village, slashing her way through anything or anyone in her path.

Suddenly her horse stopped short, rearing with a shrill cry of fear as one of the villagers waved a torch in front of its face, the orange flames licking hungrily toward the velvety muzzle. She tried to keep the panicked animal from losing its senses, but instinct won over loyalty. She jumped from the saddle as the Arabian spun and bolted, its raised tail flowing behind it like a flag of surrender.

Rolling to her feet, she advanced on the man with the torch. She could see his fear in the quiver of the flame, but she didn’t care. He was one of them. He had to die. Calmly, she brought the steel of her blade slashing across the man’s chest in an elegant spin any Scarf Dancer would envy.

“Murderer!” a child’s voice screamed behind her. She stopped, stiffening. She’d been called many things in her career of death, but there was something different about this taunt.

“Makaris, no!”

Turning, she saw a woman run forward, clutching the small boy to her and trying valiantly to pull him out of danger.

“Why? What did he do to you?” he cried, his blue eyes accusing through the welling tears as he rigidly ignored his mother’s efforts.

His voice pierced her emotional armor as surely as an arrow does skin. He spoke with the same cadences she did, not the foreign accent she had been expecting. Horror filled her, truth dawning like a sunrise, as she stared into those small, fierce eyes. They were blue . .. blue! Not the sand color of the Saharians. This boy was Theinan — one of her own people!

Stricken, she looked at the mother and was met with a pair of fearful green eyes; Theinan eyes. Gasping as the air suddenly grew thin, she swept her gaze over the chaos, and for the first time in a long time, really saw what was happening. None of the villagers trying desperately to defend themselves were Saharian. The crusaders were slaughtering their own kind!

She staggered back against the nearest wall, bracing herself against its solidarity. This was wrong! Why were they attacking their own? Crumbling as surely as her conviction, she folded in on herself, covering her face with her hands. The scimitar thumped against the ground, forgotten. This couldn’t be happening. She must be mistaken! There was no way the church would condone this — killing was strictly prohibited in the great Book of Truth, especially the butchering of decent, devout people!

But when she forced her eyes open again, the scene was the same. Unsuspecting Theinan citizens were falling like fragile saplings against a strong wind, their lives taken for an unknown reason. This went against everything she believed in, and she knew the gods would be displeased.

She watched the melee for what felt like eons, the slaughter unfolding before her in slow motion. She didn’t know what she was supposed to do. This couldn’t continue, but how could she possibly stop something as inexorable as an avalanche? Shaking off her lethargy, she let instinct guide her.

Picking up her discarded weapon, she threw herself toward the nearest crusader, stepping between his falling blade and the intended victim. Metal sparked as it clashed with squealing protest. The hazel eyes of her fellow soldier widened in shock and confusion, but she moved before she had a chance to change her mind. Her blade bit into his sand colored robes, staining them a dark red as his life ran from his body.

“Helerian, forgive me,” she murmured, turning away. The man he had been attacking shuddered before her. A flicker of hesitation dawned as what he had witnessed sank in, and she saw gratitude and uncertainty flood across his features. Quickly, he scrambled away, retreating into the recesses of one of the huts. She wasn’t sure if he would find safety there for long, but he wasn’t her concern anymore. She needed to find Devriath and get him to sound the order to fall back before every one of them was condemned to the underworld.

Her glance flickered to the body of the soldier and she felt the pang of remorse. She wouldn’t have time to reason with every one of her comrades, and most were so stubbornly ingrained with doctrine that few would even pause to listen. She would be deemed a traitor in a matter of seconds — one of the Lost, condemned to instant death without hope of salvation. It was either her, or them. Her one chance to escape with her robes intact was to find Devriath. And find him fast.

She prayed that she would be able to convince him as she ran toward the focal point of the battle, the screams and clash of weaponry rising to a near deafening pitch as she drew closer. Devriath would be in the middle of the chaos. He always was. Like the core of a fire, he never failed to be at the heart of the most intense battles.

She scanned the crowd, searching for the shining double blades of their leader. As she had expected, she glimpsed him at the dead center of the throng, his swords glimmering like deadly liquid.  Taking a deep breath, she threw herself into the fray, hoping vaguely that she could reach Devriath without having to murder too many more of the crusaders.

She darted beneath the blades of friend and foe alike; an avenging angel moving toward the heart of the conflict. She had already butchered three more of her fellow soldiers, saving two families and one lone woman, when she was suddenly tackled to the ground. Snarling, she rolled with her attacker into the shadowed recesses of an alley, away from the heat of battle.

Her breath slammed out of her as she was roughly pinned to the ground beneath her assailant. She tried to bring her blade up and felt it deftly stripped from her by a booted foot. Her hands were forced into the sand near her head with such strength she felt the tiny granules embed themselves in her knuckles.

“Enough!” he growled. “Constia, what are you doing?”

The familiar tones brought her gaze to meet the silver stare of the man above her. She didn’t need to see the rest of his face to know him, or to tell that he was furious. Shock, confusion and rage warred within his eyes and silently demanded an explanation.

“Let me up!” she spat, struggling against the weight of battle-toned muscle.

“Not until you explain what’s going on,” he answered, silver eyes glinting dangerously. “Have you completely lost your mind?”

“How can you sit here calmly, when innocent people are being murdered?” she challenged.

“I’m not! You’re not out there anymore, are you?”

“No, not the crusaders, the villagers!” She felt a satisfied flush as his eyes clouded with confusion. “Or didn’t you realize that?”

“What, in Helerian’s name, are you talking about?” He sat back on his haunches, letting go of her arms, but still holding her pinned with his legs.

“Look behind you Bannar, none of those people are Saharian. We’re killing our own!”  When he shifted to look over his shoulder at the fighting, she tried to regain her scimitar, her fingers creeping stealthily toward the vicious blade. Without looking, his hand shot out, covering the blade and holding it pinned as surely as his body did hers. Frustrated, Constia slammed her fist into the sand and settled for glaring up at the man who had once been her friend and lover.

“I don’t understand, Constia,” he said, turning back to her, “One minute you’re with us, and the next thing I know, you’re attacking another crusader. One of your friends! Why would you do that?”

“How can you not see what’s happening? These villagers have done nothing wrong; they’re Theinan for Helerian’s sake!” Now it was her turn to feel confused. Why wasn’t he understanding? While they were arguing, more Theinan citizens were being murdered!

“I know,” he murmured, a pained look bringing his brows together and his shoulders slumping. Constia felt shock crush her and she stared in horror at the stranger above her.

“You know? Why aren’t you trying to stop it then?” Her mind whirled as she tried to make sense of what was happening. A cold pit of foreboding settled in her stomach like a bad meal and she knew she wasn’t going to like what she was about to hear.

He looked at her with pitying gray eyes. “I’m doing what I was ordered to. This isn’t the first time we’ve done this, Constia. Surely you realized that?”

“No! What are you talking about? Those others were Saharian; I would never have killed our own people willingly!” She shook her head vehemently, denying his words with every shred of her being.

“There are no Saharians, Constia, not anymore. They were a race that died out long before we got here. The Church uses them as an excuse; a way to condemn those that aren’t loyal enough, a way to instill fear in the rest of us,” he explained softly, his voice gentle and filled with pain.

“But, that’s political,” she said, looking up at him with questioning eyes. He simply nodded and she felt tears begin to swell as betrayal set in. She had been used; her faith had been corrupted. Her chest felt like it had been cleaved with a sword, all her nerves raw and her spirit shriveling in despair. How could she have been so blind? So stupid?

She closed her eyes and turned her head into the sand, feeling anguish wash over her like a scalding bath. Bannar released her then, kicking the fallen scimitar well out of easy reach as he moved a few feet away, watching intently. But she had lost her desire to move, her limbs numb and cold with defeat. What was she supposed to do now? Everything she had believed, everything she had done, was all a lie!

“Constia?” The soft query barely managed to break through her haze of self-pity. “I’m sorry, Constia. I thought you knew. We all did.”

That last sentence dispelled her anguish like a fog in a swift wind and she felt rage raise its hackles, its teeth bared to kill. Her eyes snapped open, their chocolate depths flashing with hate. Bannar tensed, his hand straying to the dagger at his side.

“You all knew? Every last one of you?” she asked coldly. He nodded. “Then you’re no better than them. You all deserve to die! You’ve condemned us to the underworld, and you don’t even care!” She rose and brushed the sand from her clothes with tense motions that spoke volumes to her agitation.

“ If none of you will set things right, then I will,” she declared, “Just answer one more thing, if there are no Saharians, then how do you explain the people we’ve fought? The ones with a different language and different coloring?” She glared at him, waiting to hear what twisted version of the truth he was about to expel.

“They are of Saharian blood, but they are also Theinan. Ages ago, the two races merged. The people in this southern region have kept more of their original language, and the genes are stronger here than they are in the north. But there are people of Saharian descent everywhere,” he explained, his eyes narrowing before he added, “The color of your eyes hints that even you possess some.”

“Lies!” she screeched, lunging at him in blind fury. She had no weapon, but she would make him pay for even suggesting that she was Saharian. He evaded her attack easily, capturing her flailing arms behind her back, his knife blade resting lightly against her throat. Refusing to accept defeat, she struggled, trying to kick him. They danced awkwardly, her kicking like a donkey while he easily avoided the expected blows. He had always been able to read her too easily, always besting her in sparring matches. Finally, he brought the knife more firmly against her skin, the sharp edge lacerating her neck just enough to subdue her.

“That’s better,” he mumbled behind her. Her chest heaved with anger and adrenaline, but she stayed still.

“Well, what am I going to do with you? Obviously, you are Graell-bent on killing everyone around you, so letting you go isn’t an option…” he trailed off, and she waited, eyes narrowing. All she needed was an opportunity. The history between them no longer mattered. He was corrupt and she would kill him as surely as she would have a Saharian.

Without warning, she felt him grab the bottom of the fabric that covered her face. He wouldn’t, she thought. With a dancer’s grace, he twirled her away from him, the fabric that had protected her identity unraveling and leaving her exposed. She screamed in outrage, turning to face him, her dark hair swirling around her in exuberant freedom.

He stood there, holding the strip of fabric in one hand, the dagger in the other. For a moment, she saw the old look of desire infused affection light his eyes, replaced quickly by a sadness she didn’t understand.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Constia,” he said, advancing slowly toward her, “But I can’t let you go either. So here’s what we’re going to do; I’m going to use this to bind you. I’ll leave you here in the safety of the shadows and go get Devriath for you. If you believe you can convince him of the error of his ways, then be my guest. But I can’t let you murder any more of our friends. Fair?” He waited, holding the fabric ready, his eyes searching hers for the resistance she knew he expected.

Instead, she aqueisced, nodding once and holding her wrists out to be tied. Warily, he began to bind her, his hands hesitantly winding the fabric around her. She remained compliant and in a matter of seconds he had securely bound her to the lintel of the door behind her. Apparently satisfied that there was no possible way she could cause damage to herself or anyone else, Bannar turned to leave.

“I’ll be back as soon as possible,” he said before disappearing into the melee. Constia sat, her limbs constrained by the very fabric she had once found so freeing. Wearily, she let her head droop and her mind wrestle with the overwhelming truth that had finally been revealed to her.

***

Hours later, the battle was mostly over; the villagers were either dead or had been rounded up to be taken back to Mercuriar for trial. The church enjoyed publicly displaying the price of heresy so they had standing orders to bring back at least a few of the Lost from every raid. Buildings were being systematically searched, anything of value was taken and the rest destroyed in the cleansing flames writhing over the thatched roofs. Any rebels left were soon hunted out like rabbits and killed.

With the aftermath of battle well underway, it was time to deal with Constia. Bannar informed Devriath of the earlier confrontation as the two men made their way to where she was bound. Neither spoke as they drew closer, each lost in thoughts of how best to deal with the situation.

Both men stopped short as they turned into the alley, staring at the lintel where Constia had been tied. There was nothing there; she was gone. The fabric Bannar had secured her with lay like a shed snake’s skin in the sand, barely discernable against the element it so resembled.

Bannar felt a smile of admiration tug at his mouth. He wasn’t sure how she had managed to escape, but it didn’t really surprise him that she had. He had never met a woman he respected more; or feared for that matter.

Devriath’s expression wasn’t so kind. His brows were knitted and his blue eyes slitted in apprehension. He had no doubt that Constia was dangerous. He only wondered where she would surface, and whether he was her next target.

***

Finally the last sinner left. Sighing, I turned and placed my hands on the altar, letting my weariness be bolstered against its solid weight. I hung my head and simply stood, letting the day’s events cloak me like an ill-fitting garment. It was my job to listen to the wrongs of humanity and offer Helerian’s forgiveness, absolving them of their disgraces and fears. But some days were harder than others; days like today when the blackness of the human soul threatened to pull me under its turbulent waters.

“Do you have time for one more confession, Father?” a voice asked softly behind me. I shook my head without turning. It was nearly time for the Ritual of the Stars, the evening ceremony that welcomed the night and warded against the evil spirits that lurked in the dark, preying on the unfaithful.

“I’m sorry, my child, I do not. You will have to return tomorrow. I can promise that Helerian’s judgement will wait until then.” I wondered if I could indeed promise something like that? What if this poor person died in the night? Their sins would be unforgiven and they would face Helerian in all their shame. Would he have mercy because I had promised he would?

The hiss of a blade being unsheathed cut through my speculations and I tensed, my weariness instantly gone. Slowly, I turned to face the intruder, this desperate soul who would attack a priest rather than wait for forgiveness. The woman stood a few feet from me, her sword trained on my chest with obvious intent, its polished steel winking in the flickering candlelight. I couldn’t see her face, but her dark eyes were clear, harsh. She wore the robes of a crusader, the sand-colored fabric obscuring her identity and only hinting at her gender.

“I insist, Father,” she said, motioning with the tip of her sword to the curtained partition that was the confessional. I nodded slightly and slowly made my way back to the side that was mine. Her dark gaze followed me, the blade moving as slowly as I did so that it remained pointing at me with deadly interest. I lifted the dark burgundy curtain and stepped inside, letting it fall into place behind me. The inside of the small alcove was shadowed, the sparse furnishings discernible only as blocky shapes in the semi-gloom. I moved with certainty until I found the oversized pillow beside the low wall that separated my side from that of the confessor’s.

As I waited, it occurred to me that the crusaders weren’t home yet; they’d been sent far abroad to eradicate several pockets of the more troublesome heretics. What was this one doing in Mercuriar, and what could she possibly need to confess so badly that she would risk further condemnation by drawing a blade on a priest?

I heard the rustle of fabric as the crusader settled on the other side of the wall. I smiled in the darkness, certain that the slight noise had been for my benefit. The crusaders were highly trained in stealth, and she could have been right beside me without my ever knowing it if she’d wanted.

“What is your plight, my child?” I asked softly. The sooner we got this over with, the sooner I could get on with my evening.  An ironic huff of a laugh floated over the low wall, piquing my interest even more and setting uneasiness slithering through my limbs.

“My plight’s a little complicated, Father,” she answered dryly, “You see, it isn’t really mine in the first place. It’s yours. You and the other leaders I so foolishly trusted my faith to.”

“I don’t understand,” I murmured. There was a dangerous undertone to her voice that I didn’t like; bitterness?

“Of course you don’t. If you’re lucky, you won’t have known anything more than I. But I need answers, Father; answers only you can provide. If you give me what I need, then you will be the salvation of all your brethren. If you don’t, you will join them in the underworld.”

I stared at the void above the low wall, suddenly wishing that it was made of something more substantial than simple air. There was nothing separating me from this dangerous creature and this was clearly not a normal confession. My only choice was to try and reason with her. Maybe I could get her to calm down enough to escape and summon the guards.

“Who has wronged you, my child?” I asked, dreading the answer.

“The church.”

I choked, my throat strangling around the air I had been trying to breathe. She was definitely not the average sinner seeking forgiveness.  “Please, explain.”

“I have always been a devout woman, Father — a woman who has given her life to following the ways of Helerian, and who has devoted herself to helping in the fight against those who renounce him. And I have been used by the very ones I trusted; the priests and leaders of our mission, who told us that the Saharians were evil, that they must die because they spread poison against Helerian, spread corruption among the faithful . . .” she trailed off and I waited tensely, unsure where this was heading.

“The Saharians are evil. What you do in the name of Helerian is honorable and beyond judgment,” I ventured into the silence, hoping that maybe all she wanted was reassurance, knowing it would take much more than that.

“Lies!” she hissed angrily, the sound slithering over the wall to settle around my throat like the snake it resembled.  “Do all your kind lie, Father? Do you think that we are too stupid to realize the truth? That we can’t see that you manipulate us through faith, turning belief into a weapon of politics?”

“I don’t follow you, my child. What I have said is the truth.” I was confused. Nothing she had said sounded like a direct accusation, none of it seemed to equal the level of anger and betrayal lacing her voice. There was only one thing I could think of that might set off a reaction like this, but I sincerely hoped I was wrong.

“There are no Saharians!” she screamed, confirming my fears on the source of her anger. “Did you know that? The crusaders are slaughtering our own people! Killing Theinan citizens with fanatic zeal because the church — because you  told us to! Did you know about that too, Father? Did you?”

I flinched away from the storm of her words and for the first time felt true fear grip my heart in its cold embrace. I did know what she was talking about; I abhorred it actually. But I was a lowly priest, a servant of the people, and had no say in the decisions of the higher clergy. The ones claiming to know the will of Helerian better than the rest of us; they were the ones she wanted, not me. How was I going to make her see that?

“You are right,” I said softly, cringing. This could backfire immensely. Either she would be surprised by the admittance or would take the affirmation as fuel for her vengeance. I held my breath, waiting.

“Did you hear me? I said, you are right…You’re right! What the crusaders are doing is wrong. The high priests have corrupted the mission of this church, of our faith, and are using devout people — people such as yourself — for their own goals.

“But what you are planning is not right either. I can feel your anger; feel your intentions, child, but they will not ease the pain you feel. Only Helerian can do that. And we must trust that he has a plan bigger than we can ever know, that there is a reason why he is letting such horrible things happen to his children,” I stopped abruptly, realizing that I was preaching, the words pouring from me in a rush of vehement conviction. I sucked in a breath, waiting to see what my hasty words had caused.

“So you knew.” Her voice was cold, dead of inflection, and all the more scary in its flatness.  I didn’t answer her; I had already admitted more than I should have. I felt like I was holding a firework, watching the fuse burn closer and closer to the inevitable explosion.

“Didn’t you?” she asked again, more forceful this time.

I closed my eyes in resignation and answered, “Yes.” It was a breath only, a sigh of defeat and shame. “Yes, I knew. But I promise you, there was nothing I could do. If I had been able to stop the high priests, I would have. You must believe that I am as appalled as you,” I whispered, hoping the sincerity of my tone would diffuse what was coming.

“Thank you, Father.”

The fabric rustled softly, noiselessly, more a shimmer of air than of sound as she left. I waited, curling in on myself, knowing I had failed.

***

Constia moved swiftly. She had learned what she came for; learned that the church was every bit as corrupt as she had feared. Well, there was only one way to deal with the corrupt—the church itself had taught her that lesson.

She didn’t pause as she left the confessional, the heavy fabric falling back into place with barely a rustle. She was sure now; her mission clear. Her blade was held ready as she headed into the main hall of the cathedral, where the rest of the priests would be gathered for the Ritual of the Stars. She had timed her arrival well, there would be no others present, just the religious workers — just those who needed to die.  They thought they could play with people’s lives, jeopardize their immortal souls without their knowledge and there would be no consequences. They were wrong.

She burst into the great hall like a clap of thunder. The startled priests turned to face her, shocked into immobility, their hands frozen in the midst of whatever part of the ceremony they had been performing. She shrieked her war-cry and fell on the nearest robed traitor, her curved sword slashing through numerous layers of fabric. The man screamed in pain and crumpled, but she was already moving on, dancing through the stunned religious leaders with the grace of a practice form, as if there were no opponents, just her and the blade, a beautiful melding of feminine fluidity and deadly technique.

All around her, men were falling, clutching at various pieces of anatomy as their blood flowed, mingling in a communal pool of betrayal on the tiled floor. None resisted, none knew how. In a matter of seconds, the entire cathedral of priests lay dead or dying at the feet of the retribution they never saw coming.

Constia stood at the center of the massacre, her blade held in ready stance above her head, blood dripping from its sharp edge to fall past her shoulder. It would only be a matter of minutes before the guards were alerted.

A strangled gasp brought her whirling around to face the side door she had entered from. The priest who had confessed the church’s betrayal stood there, horror and grief twisting his features. Slowly, he sank to the ground, like his knees had simply stopped supporting him.

Constia gazed at him, trying to decide if he should join his brethren. He had openly admitted what so many had tried to hide; had professed the same level of horror and helplessness as she. Did he deserve the same fate as his lying brothers? His eyes rose to meet hers, and widened in fear. Their gazes locked, each searching the other for understanding, for that flicker of empathy that was the definition of being human. Slowly, Constia lowered her sword and walked toward him. He remained on the floor, cowering slightly. She stopped before him and very slowly reached up to undo the fabric wrapped around her face and head, the second head piece she had renounced in as many days.

His hazel eyes watched her intently as she revealed herself to him, stripping away the differences between them until they were simply two people staring at each other. She dropped the garment on the floor. He looked at it in confusion, his eyes flickering between it and her face.

“I am no longer a crusader for this church. I am a crusader for truth and for justice. No longer will I wear the mask that ‘faith’ has bound me with. I will avenge those who have been wronged, and I want my identity known.” She sneered down at the fabric she had once found comforting, the fabric that had trapped her in lies.

“You were kind to me, Father. And honest. I appreciate that. So I will spare you, but with one request. In exchange for your life, I ask that you tell everyone — whether they want to listen or not — what the crusaders are doing. Spread the truth, Father. Will you give me your word?” she asked. He looked up at her, the fear draining from his eyes as a grudging respect took its place. She raised an eyebrow as the silence dragged on, her grip tightening on the sword at her side.

“Yes. Yes, I give you my word,” he said finally, lowering his gaze.

Shouts from the street outside echoed down the vaulted ceiling of the great hall. The guards had been alerted to her presence. Without another word, she bolted, disappearing through the side door just as the main entrance to the cathedral flew open and uniformed guards rushed through. She didn’t wait to see if the priest would betray her; she knew he would.

She ran, streaking out the servants’ door to the street beyond, pausing for a split second to sheath her sword. Turning, she sprinted down the street, shouts and the thrum of footsteps telling her pursuit was near. The city was a maze, but staying on street-level wasn’t an option; sooner or later she would run into the reinforcements she was sure were being sent. Taking a deep breath, she leaped at the nearest wall, grabbing the awning over the door and swinging to the roof in an acrobatic move the peasants below envied. She could hear their awed murmurs fade as her feet pounded up the slanted roof to the strange path at the peak. She had never understood the purpose of this trail; this flat pathway that ran smoothly over a string of roofs, like a pedestrian road from one side of the city to the other. Whatever its true purpose, it worked to her advantage now.

She paused to get her bearings, searching over the many forks of the rooftop trail for the most likely route of escape. Below, she heard shouts of frustration as the guards reached her point of ascent. She had only moments before they would be on the roof. Finally, she found her target — the path that led to the river-front homes and a sheer drop into the water below. It was a long shot, but it was her only option.

The service door to her right flew open and for a second she locked eyes with the priest she had spared. Shock flooded her features. Why was he pursuing her? Why wasn’t he leaving it to the guards? She sprinted away, ignoring the cry of the priest behind her. Did he think she was stupid enough to let them catch her?

She ran headlong down the path, vaulting over slight obstacles and staying low to the rooftop. She could hear the priest calling to her, begging her to stop, but she ignored him.  She should’ve sent him to the underworld when she had the chance.

She skidded to a stop when she reached the end of the path. Breathing hard, she gazed down at the impossible fall awaiting her. The river below winked in the dying light of the sunset; liquid metal all too happy to consume her. Her hands balled into fists as she considered her options. She could turn and fight, but she couldn’t fight the entire army of Mercuriar alone. She didn’t want to kill more innocent men; the guards were simply doing their job. In their eyes, she was a criminal, a murderer.

Her only other option was to jump. A fall of at least a thousand feet left slim chance of survival. The river was deep, but would it be deep enough?

She squared her shoulders, her decision made and was about to turn when a flicker of something caught her gaze. She narrowed her eyes, trying to focus on the spot that had caught her attention. There it was again! A shimmer of light against the rock wall, almost as if something was reflecting the last rays of the sun’s light directly to her.

It couldn’t be, she thought, peering intently into the shadows of the cliff face. Vaguely, she could make out the shape of a familiar figure as it once again signaled her with the tilt of a blade into the light. Bannar!

He was waiting half-way down the cliff on a slight ledge. As she watched, he pointed his sword at her then swung it in a slow arc toward the river. He then leaned away from the rock, tugging on a slim line of rope that held him suspended. She wasn’t sure what he was saying, but she trusted he had a plan. With a flash of light against steel, he signaled her again. It was now or never.

She smiled as she turned to face the men splayed out before her. The guards had their spears nervously trained on her. The priest stood in the forefront, watching her with pain in his eyes. His hands were raised in a placating gesture and he watched her cautiously, knowledge blooming in his gaze like a rare flower. He knew what she was going to do.

“Forgive me my sins,” she said softly, finishing the confession she had started in the cathedral. She saw his eyes widen as she stepped backward off the roof, her arms outstretched.

She felt like a stone, plummeting through the sky. She turned her body as she fell, arcing into a swan dive. She closed her eyes and waited for the impact.

Abruptly something slammed into her, knocking the breath from her lungs as it tangled around her in a confusion of limbs and sharp elbows. Her momentum shifted, swinging out to the side. Carefully, she opened her eyes and looked into a grinning face with silver eyes. Bannar had caught her mid-fall, plucking her from the sky like he would’ve caught a sporting ball, leaping from the small ledge to meet her descent. The rope tied to his waist and gripped tightly in one hand was responsible for the change in flight pattern, swinging them safely to the ground. When they landed, he let her go, swiftly untying himself from the rope that had saved them. A strong tug loosened the skillfully tied knot from its moorings, bringing the rope puddling at his feet. He gathered it quickly, erasing any evidence that would suggest she’d survived.

“Bannar, what? I don’t understand . . . what are you doing here?” Shock was causing her words to rush together, tumbling over each other in their effort to demand an answer. He just grinned at her, his features bare of the head wrap of the crusader.

“Shhh . . . you were right, Constia. I’m joining you. But we can talk about that later. Come on!” he said, grabbing her hand and pulling her into the depths of a small cave and away from inevitable discovery by the guards already making their way down to the river bank.

***

The Inquisitor turned mildly interested eyes on me, but I could tell that everything I had told him had fallen on deaf ears. He hadn’t even registered that I suggested the criminal had lived. That was my proof that he really wasn’t listening to me.  I would have omitted the part about her escape if I thought he had been. Because I was sure she had escaped.

The search of the riverbank had produced nothing to verify my theory — rather it had seemed to discredit it. The guards had recovered a scrap of sand colored fabric from the water. It had lodged against a protruding root, floating there like the cleverly placed decoy I knew it was. The fabric was a head covering, but I knew that she had left hers in the cathedral, discarded at my feet when she declared her mission.

I could’ve spoken up then, could’ve informed the guards that she was alive, that she had escaped.

But I didn’t.

Instead, I smiled to myself and turned away, returning with them to this little room, relating what I knew to an Inquisitor that didn’t care. At least I had kept my promise; I had confessed the truth.

The End

Copyright © 2009 by Kisa Whipkey. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Understanding Point-of-View

POV. Love it or hate it, this is one of the most crucial decisions a writer makes. And yet, it often seems like writers overlook that fact, defaulting into whatever format they tend to read most. True, there’s something familiar and comfortable about mimicking a style you spend a large portion of your reading time in. But we’re not parrots, and choosing the right POV can make or break a story. It’s like the cinematography of literature, unseen and yet so incredibly crucial to the way you convey your tale. An invisible camera, it translates your ideas into images your viewers (readers in this case) can imagine. Whether it’s a sweeping panorama of landscape, or a close-up of your character’s soul, each style is specifically built to capture the mind’s eye in a variety of ways.

Why wouldn’t you want to put thought into how to wield a tool that powerful?

So let’s take a quick look at the various options, as well as their strengths and weaknesses, that way you can make educated choices about your next WIP: (Note, these will not talk about tense choice, as that opens a whole other can of worms. This is just the basic format for whose eyes we see through.)

First Person

May as well kick it off with the one that currently dominates a lot of genres. This one should be familiar to all of you — it’s the self-centered diva of the ball. In cinematography, this would be the camera that’s tethered to your character, perched on their shoulder like some kind of weird growth. It faithfully follows their every move and puts readers firmly in their heads. We experience what they do — their thoughts, their physical sensations, their fears and emotions, all of it.

The downside to using this format? Well, you’re stuck with that one character. Literally. The point of this POV is to let readers live vicariously as someone else. When you do your job well, they figuratively step into your character’s skin. Which means that they can only know what your character does. Want to show us what their potential lover is thinking when they stare at your MC? Too bad, you can’t. Want to clue us in to the nefarious plotting of your villain that’s taking place halfway across Fictitious-land from your leading man? Sorry. No can do.

Don’t get me wrong, First Person is a very powerful POV, but it’s limited. When deciding whether or not to use this one, look at the way your story is structured. Is it most effectively told from inside your character? Or do you want to be able to pull the camera back a little bit and show us more than just that character’s inner emotions?

Second Person

This is actually a fairly unusual POV, but you will occasionally stumble across it, more frequently in short stories than novels, though there are a few of those out there too. The cinematic version most akin to this would be a GoPro camera attached to your character’s head, where you’re literally shown the story through the character’s eyes. But not like the version seen in First Person. No, here, you never see the character’s face, because you are the character. This is my least favorite style of fiction because it always comes across as bossy. If First Person is the self-centered sibling, this is the bossy older sister who never lets you get away with crap.

Populated by an abundance of “you did this, you did that,” Second Person strives to get you to experience the story as if it were truly happening to you. The problem I have with it is a) I don’t like being told what to do, and b) it’s heavy-handed use of breaking the fourth wall (talking directly to the reader) actually makes immersion into the story that much more difficult. At least for me. I have seen it done well, but trust me, if you’re going to try this one, you better be a master storyteller. Not only is it extremely limited, but it takes a brilliantly light touch to achieve the escapism people are looking for when they read.

Third Person Limited

Another common one, this is the popular, people-pleasing twin to First Person, most frequently abused by those just starting out and often unappreciated for its generous gifts. The camera equivalent is the film style most often seen in video games. It follows a select character around, but at a slightly more respectable distance than that seen in First Person. Where First Person is all up in your character’s business, Third Person Limited is the quietly observing stalker in the bushes. You’re allowed to showcase more of the world outside of the character’s head, but also still allowed to show us their thoughts. But only their thoughts.

The key here is that “limited” tacked on to the end. Often, writers confuse the fact that they get to say things like “he did this” and “she said that” for the ability to jump between characters. But that’s incorrect, and is the biggest danger in using this style — head-hopping. Though you are most definitely outside of your character, you’re still tied to their movements. It’s a tight close-up or medium shot, not a free-roaming scenario that can pan across whatever part of the story you feel like. For that, you need . . .

Third Person Omniscient

Poor Third Person Omniscient is the wicked step-child. Once the favored style of fantasy and sci-fi authors everywhere, it now frequently falls beneath the mislabeled sword of head-hopping and is swiftly nixed from every manuscript. Except for a few stalwart authors in the know. Why the confusion? Because of the definition of that lovely “O” word in the title. “Omniscient” means that the narrator knows everything. This is the free-floating camera, disconnected from any one character and free to weave in and out of everyone’s thoughts at whim. This is actually the most versatile of the POVs, which also makes it the hardest to do effectively.

The trick to using this one is understanding the fine line between head-hopping and omniscient narrative (if you’d like me to go into further detail about this specifically, let me know in the comments, and I’ll do a separate post about it). Namely, you need to have a firm grasp on your characters and how to move the camera around effectively. The most visual example I can think of is where you watch a conversation between two or more characters in a movie and the camera switches back and forth between close-ups of each speaker.

Objective

Who here has never heard of this one at all? It’s okay. It’s not often talked about for some reason. To keep with our family analogy, Objective POV is the distant fourth cousin three times removed that you never knew you had. And there’s a reason — it’s hard. In Objective POV, you’re only allowed to impart the facts. That means no access to any of your characters’ heads. At all. No telling, no inner monologues, only observable details.

Have a bad habit of telling instead of showing? Try writing in this for awhile — it’ll break that habit real fast, because all you can do is show. Facial expressions, body language, physical details in the environment and characters’ appearances, these are the only tools you have to convey what your characters are thinking and feeling. In short, this is the literary equivalent of film. That same distance you feel between yourself and a movie? Yep, you’ll run into that here too, which is its biggest downfall — a lack of intimacy. But, when done well, this can be one of the more powerful writing tools.

So, there you have it, the five main POV choices. I’m sure some of you are wondering, if there’s an Objective POV, shouldn’t there be a Subjective one? You’re right, there is. It’s called the other four I listed. They’re considered subjective because all four allow you inside at least one character’s head. Satisfied?

This is by no means a detailed tutorial on how to wield each style effectively, but it does give you the basics of what each is good for, as well as what pitfalls you should be aware of. A good writer will experiment with all the tools at their disposal. Not every story will be best told in First Person, and not every character will shine in Third. So spend some time exploring the different techniques; the only thing it will do is increase your skill set. Make POV a conscious decision and gain one more level of control in your work. Understand how the camera moves, and you’ll gain a firmer grasp of storytelling in general. Humans are visual creatures, so use POV to help us see your story the way you do.

Any questions?

 

Viewer’s Choice Poll

When considering what I should post this week, it occurred to me that I’ve offered quite a variety of topics. And, like clockwork sometimes, I’ve seemed to gain followers from every type. Which means that ultimately, I’m not sure what all you lovely people are looking for when you open that weekly announcement telling you I’ve managed to post something. So, in the spirit of all the award shows that most of us probably don’t even watch, I’d like to give you a chance to choose: what should next week’s post be about?

Simply choose the category of post you’d like to see in the menu below (RSS users, you’ll likely have to click through to the actual site to participate), and the winning category is what I’ll feature next Friday. Plus, it will help me tailor the overall content of this blog to you, my all important readers. Win-win, no?

 

 

Short Story Feature: Spinning

Today is a holiday here in the states (Happy 4th of July everyone! Hope it’s fantastic and safe!), so I wanted to do something different from the norm to celebrate; something that is both unprecedented here on Nightwolf’s Corner and potentially a new post series, depending on how you guys like it. It’s an idea I’ve been toying with for a while, but that I haven’t had time to implement. And, unfortunately, that’s likely to remain the case for some time. However, nothing starts without taking that first step, right?

I’ve featured a lot of advice/opinion-based posts over the years (and that will continue), as well as a spattering of artwork and, more recently, book reviews. But I’ve never featured writing, in the sense that I post an entire piece of work for your perusal. That’s something I’d like to change, though. In the coming months (okay, more like years), I’d like to start featuring some shorter works of mine, scattered periodically among all the other goodies I bring you. And today seems like the perfect day to kick that off with a bang (pun intended).

For this inaugural post, I’ve chosen to feature Spinning, my personal favorite of the three stories I previously published. Keep in mind that this is still in the (non-professionally edited)condition it was originally published in, and is currently on my list of stories to revise & re-release, so I’m perfectly aware of the typos and stuff. It’s not necessary to point them out (Grammar Nazis, I’m talking to you here). But I do hope that you still enjoy it. After all, it was polished enough to make it into a magazine once upon a time. It’s just maybe not polished enough to pass my Super-Editor standards anymore. 😉

Be warned, though, it is fairly long, so I won’t blame you if you don’t read it all in one sitting. But, should you read it and feel the need to comment, please do. Feedback is always welcome. 🙂
 

Spinning

by Kisa Whipkey

 
“Don’t go,” she whispered, her eyes pleading. I sighed and pulled myself away from the comfort of her arms.

“I have to, Rose. It’s my job. When they summon, I go.” Secretly I agreed with her; I would much rather stay in bed than report to the castle. I heard her disgruntled snort behind me as I pulled on my clothes. When I turned, a pout puckered her full lips but her green eyes were mischievous. She knew how hard it was for me to deny that face.

“Please don’t make this harder than it already is,” I told her. As I expected, her pretend pout became more sincere as she realized she wasn’t going to get her way.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” I promised, leaning in to kiss her goodbye and brushing tangled curls away from her face.

“You better,” she returned, her tone snide, her eyes sparkling.

As she burrowed back under the covers, I left the cottage, grabbing my violin from its place near the door on my way out. The morning was brisk and I paused to wrap my cloak tightly around my shoulders. Slinging the violin to its customary place against my back, I headed for the castle.

A bard by trade, music was more than just my livelihood; it was my gift, my calling. Even so, I loathed having to entertain the King’s court. No audience was as difficult to please as a royal one. Though, somehow, I had managed to endear myself to the listeners at Briara Castle. They continued to summon me almost daily and I continued to go. If I didn’t, I would be executed for disobeying a royal order. Not exactly the life I had promised my beautiful new bride. The thought of my Rose waiting impatiently for me to return sped my steps. The sooner I finished my obligations, the sooner I could return to newly-wedded bliss.

The guards at the castle gates barely acknowledged my presence. I had come and gone so many times in the past weeks that I was sure I was now as familiar to them as the rest of the castle staff—maybe even more so, since most of the castle help lived on the premises, while I still had to walk back and forth from the village. It didn’t matter though. Experience had shown me that very few challenged the comings and goings of a Bard. For all they knew, I could be an assassin, and yet they granted me unlimited access to the innermost chambers with barely a cursory glance. Oddly, this gave me a sense of power that I reveled in — especially when faced with an unappreciative audience.

As I reached my usual station at the back of the grand ballroom, I surveyed the room. The King and his attendants were clustered on the other end; a mass of elegantly garbed women hovered between us. No one seemed to notice as I set-up, taking my seat and tuning the violin quietly. It was already in tune of course, but this was part of the performance. If anyone bothered to watch, that is.

Only three more hours, I told myself. I can get through this.

Taking a deep breath of resignation, I brought the cool varnish of the violin to rest under my chin, my fingers finding their familiar homes on the delicate strings. I closed my eyes and began to play. It was a soft melody, haunting; and probably completely unnoticed by the crowd. I was paid for adding to the ambiance, not because anyone really cared about song choice. I knew that when I took the job, but it still irritated me.

Playing from the back of the room for the stiff upper class was not the image I had envisioned when I began my training. I was talented, and I knew it. Music came to me effortlessly. I wanted the adoring fans, the taverns filled with people completely enthralled by my gift. But while those smaller gatherings were more satisfying to my ego, they didn’t satisfy the wallet. I could have been happy trading my services for the simple necessities of food and lodging, but there was no way I could — would — ever ask Rose to live that way.

As I finished the melody, I opened my eyes. One of the women was staring at me intently. It unnerved me to have one of them finally look at me. And not just look in feigned appreciation at the end of the song; she was really seeing me.

I waited the obligatory few minutes between songs, allowing the crowd to drift into new conversations and different locations. The dark-haired woman glided my way. She moved so subtly at first that I wasn’t sure what she was doing; she paused to speak with several other women before her intentions were finally clear. Could she really have liked the previous song that much? She hadn’t looked particularly moved by the melancholy notes. And why was she so intent that no one saw she wanted to speak to me?

Her blue eyes narrowed as she approached. I gazed up at her warily, sure I was either going to get a nasty critique or a vague request for some song she’d heard once that resembled what I’d just played.

“What’s your name?” she demanded. Her voice was low, musical and authoritative.

“Taylor,” I answered, waiting for the berating to begin.

“Hmmm. You’re very talented, Taylor. More so than you realize I think.” One delicate eyebrow arched appraisingly as her gaze traveled over my frame. I squirmed uncomfortably and internally laughed at myself. Since when did the appreciative gaze of a beautiful woman make me uncomfortable?

“I’m sorry, milady, I don’t understand what you mean by that.”

She smiled, her lips curving in an expression devoid of humor but full of knowledge. “You will soon,” she replied and turned away. “Play something fast for me, will you Taylor?” she called over her shoulder as she floated back to the other women, leaving me staring like a smitten fool.

Thoroughly confused and more than a little unnerved, I tried to focus my thoughts. Play something fast, eh? That was an easy request to fill, albeit not one I had been expecting. But then, nothing about that exchange had been what I expected. I looked up to find the strange woman among the others and met her icy blue gaze. I offered a weak smile and lifted the violin in her direction, the age-old acknowledgement of a request or dedication. Then, swallowing nervously, I brought the instrument to rest on my shoulder again.

I didn’t close my eyes as I began to play an up-tempo jig I hoped she would like.

Suddenly, everything changed. I nearly fell off the stool, the strings squealing in protest at the sudden jerk of my hand. The room was spinning, and not the way it does after over-indulgence in spirits. This was a strange blurring of the action around me. The farthest walls seemed to become a circle of colored stripes colliding, like someone had trapped a rainbow in a bucket and stirred furiously.

I could still clearly see the people around me, but they were moving at speeds that shouldn’t have been possible. No one was dancing, no one was running, they were simply continuing their day–accelerated. I sat frozen, watching the jerky blur of people meandering throughout the room, talking for the blink of an eye and moving on to the next conversation.

And then, abruptly, it was over. Everything returned to normal. Almost.

Everyone was staring at me. Finally it dawned on me that they were waiting for me to leave. Somehow, my time here was done after only two songs. I rose stiffly and bowed while applause filled the air. As I bent to put away the violin, I scanned the crowd for the blue-eyed woman. I needed to get her alone and ask her what the hell just happened. But she was nowhere to be seen. My one possible link to answers, and she had vanished.

Hurriedly, I left the ballroom, searching for some sign of the mystery woman. But she was gone, and I would probably never know the answer to her cryptic warning. I shook my head, trying to dispel it of the panic I felt digging its claws into my mind. How could three hours be condensed into a matter of seconds? Was I losing my mind? Had I contracted some rare disease from the chalk on the violin bow? I grasped at that last thought like a drowning man to a piece of driftwood. That had to be it — the delusion had been caused by inhaling too much chalk.

I sucked in deep gulps of air, trying to clear my head and lungs of the poisonous dust. What was I going to tell Rose? How was I going to explain being home so early? Because that was the only explanation — that I had been dismissed early. I was only imagining that time had somehow sped up.

As I walked, I continued trying to convince myself. Before long, I was within view of the cottage, and had almost managed to dispel the fear. I smiled as Rose came into view. Her slim figure was wrapped in a simple dress, an apron cinched around her tiny waist. Her blond hair was piled in an unruly mess on top of her head. She beamed as she saw me and came running out, bouncing like a little girl. She threw herself into my arms, kissing me with fervor. I lost myself in that kiss, letting it chase the last shadows of panic from my mind. I shifted until she was cradled in my arms and carried her into the house, grateful that she hadn’t seemed to notice I was home early.

***

By the next morning, I had almost convinced myself that the episode in the ballroom had been nothing more than wishful thinking. I had wanted so badly to be anywhere else that I pretended time accelerated. I thought my attempt at rationalization was pretty good, but there was still a nagging voice in my head that disagreed; that parroted back the words of the strange woman, growing louder and more insistent with every passing hour.

I wasn’t requested at the castle, so after a rousing morning with Rose, I took my violin and headed into the forest outside our cottage. There was only one way to quell the last suspicions, to prove to myself that the incident had been nothing but a daydream.

The ground crunched beneath my boots as I trudged deep into the forest. When I was sufficiently away from the civilized world, I found a clearing conveniently littered with stumps and fallen trees. I didn’t waste time pretending to tune the instrument. It was played often enough that it rarely lost its perfect pitch. Instead, I brought the violin to my shoulder and began the same jig as before.

Nothing happened.

The sound filled the clearing with a happy bubbling, but all the trees stayed stationary as ever. Relief flooded through me, pushing the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding into existence. So it had been the dust, nothing more.

I settled onto a nearby stump and began a different song. This time I chose a smooth waltz, something with intricate, eerie harmonies and a soothing undertone. Again, the world stayed as it should. Reassured, I closed my eyes and lost myself in the music.

I don’t know how long I played, the composition swelling around me like a sea, but finally the song was over. Satisfied, I opened my eyes.

The forest whirled around me. I fell from the stump, the violin flying out of my hand. The greens and blues of nature spun into one indistinguishable mass above me. Oddly, the ground seemed as stable as always.

I stayed where I was for several minutes, but the spinning didn’t stop. I tried closing my eyes and reopening them, but nothing worked. Why wasn’t it stopping? What had I unleashed? Fear and uncertainty choked my breath into ragged, shallow gasps. I knew I couldn’t lie on the ground forever, but I was scared to move.

Finally, I tried to rise. The spinning continued, but I had no trouble gaining my feet. I had expected some sort of vertigo, the rush of wind, the pull of gravity, something. But everything felt normal–it just didn’t look that way.

I ran, forgetting the violin, bolting for the comforts of home; the comforts of Rose. I didn’t understand how I wasn’t falling; the greenery was a blur, but somehow, I could see clearly within a small radius, enough that I could find my way through the trees.

It wasn’t as long as it should’ve been before the cottage came into view. I stopped at the edge of the forest, watching as the sun trekked its way across the sky in a matter of moments. This wasn’t possible! Why was this happening?

I shook my head, trying to dispel the vision, but it didn’t help. The world continued to move faster than it should.

“Taylor!”

The shrill cry caught my attention. I looked up to see Rose. She separated from the blur of the background, moving as if she were searching for someone, her actions jerky, like a bird hopping after worms. She called my name several more times, sounding more and more worried. Yet she was staring directly at me.

“It’s ok, Rose. I’m right here,” I answered, confused. But it was as if I didn’t exist. Her frenzied green eyes looked through me, and my voice landed on deafened ears. It had only been a few moments, but already the sun was setting, the sky darkening at a rapid pace. And still, my world refused to slow. How long could this possibly last? The song I’d played hadn’t been that long.

Rose started to cry, and each tear seared through me. I tried to reach her, but nothing was working. No matter how loud I screamed, she didn’t hear me. Every time I tried to grab her, to wrap her in my arms, I couldn’t catch her. She flitted away like a hummingbird.

Finally, she stopped and sank to the grassy floor. It was fully dark now, the stars watching our painful dance with flickering eyes. Seeing my beautiful Rose crumpled and sobbing was unbearable. I had to reach her. To let her know I was all right.

I moved toward her. The world shivered around me, but Rose stayed within my bubble of clarity. In fact, the harder I concentrated, the slower her actions seemed to become. Her sobs changed from the rapid pace of a newborn’s heart to the regular shudders of someone in agony. Feeling the first flicker of hope, I advanced cautiously.

Her voice had dropped from the high-pitched sounds of a squirrel to her normal range, but as I got closer it began to lower, her sobs turning to a frightening wheeze. She was moving in slow motion now. She’d gone from one extreme to the other. Why was I the only thing that moved at a normal pace?

I stood over her, confused, watching her pain in heightened detail, trying to decide how to reach her. I couldn’t let her continue on broken like this — I was okay, and she needed to know that. I bent down, reaching out slowly, afraid she’d jerk away again before I could wrap her in my arms.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

I froze with my hand outstretched and turned to find the voice. Standing on the edge of the forest was the blue-eyed woman. She stood calmly, her dark hair fluttering in the light breeze, her sinuous frame relaxed in hunting garb, her piercing eyes serious.

“You!” I cried, staring in shock. What was she doing here?

“Step away from the girl, Taylor.”

“Why? I have to comfort her, tell her I’m all right!” My gaze fluctuated between Rose and the strange woman. Uncertain, I lowered my hand, but remained crouched, waiting.

“When you touch her, her life will be forced outside of time and she’ll become part of the blur around you. Except that when you stop Spinning, she won’t. She’ll be trapped in the Spin. Forever,” the woman explained, looking at me gravely. Completely lost, I shook my head.

“What? I don’t understand.” I felt thick-headed, but the woman’s vague words made absolutely no sense and didn’t explain why I couldn’t comfort my wife.

“If you touch her, she dies. Simple enough for you?” she said condescendingly, her blue eyes flashing with annoyance.

I stared at her while her words sank in. Looking at Rose in horror, I scrambled quickly away. I still didn’t understand, but I didn’t want to risk that what Blue-eyes said was true. No one spoke for what seemed an eternity. I watched Rose’s shoulders rise and fall in painful heaves and felt powerless. Helplessness was a new sensation, and I didn’t like it.

“If you know so much, then you fix this. Make it stop so I can comfort my wife!” I yelled at Blue-eyes, frustration boiling over into anger.

“Come on, you have a lot of training to do,” Blue-eyes answered, turning away and moving into the shadows of the forest.

“No . . . wait! What do you mean? I’m not going with you. I can’t leave Rose like this!” I couldn’t believe she had completely ignored me. I stood, my hands clenched into fists. My rage needed an outlet, and the only thing I was certain of was that this was somehow her fault. I advanced on her, planning to intimidate her into doing what I wanted. But she just gazed at me, unconcerned, her hands on her hips. The lack of response doused my fury, withering it like a fire sputtering without oxygen.

“Please, I don’t understand what’s happening. Can’t you give me something? Some sort of explanation? Can you stop this?” I begged, the embers of my anger cooling into despair.

“I’m sorry for your confusion Taylor, but I can’t give you any information,” she said, her voice softening, “You need to come with me; I’ll take you to the one with answers. And no, I can’t stop another’s Spin. Only you can make it stop, but without training, it will have to play itself out. Now, shall we?” She offered her hand, her body angling away toward the forest.

“But Rose,” I said, looking back at the crumpled figure in the grass. I didn’t want to leave her this way — couldn’t leave her this way! She was everything to me, and I’d promised her. I wanted so badly to go to her, but the woman’s warning held me back. I felt a black hole forming in my chest; subconsciously, I was accepting the inevitable.

Blue-eyes was beside me then, her hand on my shoulder. “There’s nothing more you can do for her. You have to let her go.” I stared into those blue eyes, feeling their ice seep to my core. I nodded silently, giving up.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she murmured sympathetically before moving away to the edge of the forest. “It’s time Taylor, we must go.”

“I love you Rose,” I whispered, refusing to concede defeat by saying goodbye. This wasn’t the end — couldn’t be the end. I would find my way back.

I turned and followed the blue-eyed woman into the darkness of the trees. Each step was more painful than the last, and though Rose’s sobbing was fading as the distance between us grew, I knew I would always hear it.

***

From that day on, I was a man imprisoned, serving a sentence for what? Having been too happy? I wasn’t sure. The only thing I was sure of was that I wasn’t the same. I was still alive, but only just.

The blue-eyed woman, Amelia, introduced me to my new family, the Spinners; all of us were bards and all of us possessed the curse of being able to manipulate time. Ironically, we were generally hired as assassins, a fact which caused me to laugh hysterically for hours when our leader, Brenton, told me.

The following months were spent in training. I learned to control my power, to start and stop the Spin at will. I learned how to kill with a single touch. The warning Amelia had given me that day had saved Rose’s life. I was thankful that I’d chosen to believe her. It still unsettled me how close I came to inflicting the worst pain I could on myself. I may not have been able to be with Rose, but at least there was comfort in knowing she was alive. As long as she was safe, there was still hope that I would find my way back to her.

They explained to me that once in a Spin, we were outside of time, existing in a limbo world where time became a tangible object, like smoke. We were invisible in this state to the normal world, and though we did age, we did it differently. Time no longer constrained us, and because of that, we were nearly immortal, living for hundreds of years before gaining our first wrinkle. Brenton was going on a thousand years, and as far as anyone knew, he was the first Spinner.

The one thing no one seemed able to explain is where the curse came from. Why were we capable of warping time while others weren’t? And why were we all musically inclined? They did explain how Amelia had known I was one of them — she was a Recruiter, gifted with the rare talent of feeling another’s Spin before it began. There was much about the Spinners that I questioned, but since none of my peers seemed to have the answers, I resigned myself to their life. Secretly, I vowed to discover the source of this curse, to find a way to reverse it if I could.

 

Throughout my training, I never stopped thinking about Rose. I was certain I never would. But my new life was not one she could be a part of. We were sworn to secrecy, kept mostly to ourselves and never stayed in one place too long. People became suspicious when you didn’t age. Still, I needed to see her. I knew I couldn’t talk to her, but I needed her. To hear her laugh, see her smile. I was an addicted man, and it had been far too long since my last dose.

Finally, my training complete, I was given my first assignment. I was being sent to the very court where I’d once played. The Spinners had provided a replacement during my absence and secured the invitation for my return. This time as I passed beneath the gates, unnoticed by the guards, I smiled to myself. What could they do anyway? We weren’t carrying any physical weapon, and no one would see the assassination. There would be no way for them to identify me.

After I successfully finished my mission, I could detour past my former home. That thought was more thrilling than anything else and I hurried to my place at the back of the ballroom. I scanned the crowd as I set-up, catching the eye of Amelia. She was clothed in a flattering cobalt-hued dress that hugged her assets to perfection. She blinked, the only acknowledgement she could give me without risking her cover and turned away, mingling effortlessly with the other women. It was comforting to know she was there. I knew I was ready, that I could do this, but having back-up in case I failed was reassuring. While one Spinner had no control over the Spin of another, we could operate within it. So if for some reason I froze, she would be able to finish the job.

I looked over the mass of female heads to focus on the King reclining on the other side of the room. In all the time I’d spent performing here, I’d never bothered to really examine the man paying my fee. A man who enslaved his people, I had since learned, gleaning more than necessary from the hard working peasants and doing nothing to improve the life of anyone but himself. This selfishness was what had made him a target for the Spinners. When he was gone, his eldest son would ascend the throne — a man more dedicated to growth and the success of the kingdom as a whole.

Even though I knew the old man seated across the room from me was corrupt, I was still having a hard time reconciling murdering him. It wasn’t right; there should have been other ways. But until I found the cure for my ailment, I was forced to live by the rules of the Spinners. And that meant killing those I was sent to kill. There was some consolation in the knowledge that his death would be painless; that he wouldn’t even see it coming. But I still didn’t relish the thought of being the one to end his life.

I took a deep breath to quell my reservations as I brought the violin to my shoulder. I locked gazes with Amelia and nodded ever so slightly. Then, closing my eyes, I began to play, calling forth the Spin with the first sweet notes.

I was no longer unsettled by the blur around me. Instead, I rose swiftly, setting the violin down behind me. The Spin would continue until I ended it, the people in the room oblivious to anything but the music that still filled the air around them. I moved calmly through the sea of women, stopping when I reached the King. He sat frozen before me, his eyes locked on the crowd and his lips curved in a smile I was certain he faked. I stared at this man who was old enough to be my grandfather, searching his wizened face for signs of the evil I’d been told he embodied. But I couldn’t see it. To me, he was just another old man.

A flicker of normal motion alerted me that Amelia had entered the Spin with me. She was waiting off to my left, watching intently. I wasn’t sure how long she was going to wait before stepping in. If I failed, if Amelia had to finish the assignment, I would have to return to my training, losing my chance to see Rose. That was something I couldn’t allow, not again.

“I’m sorry,” I breathed. Reluctantly, I placed my hand against his chest. Immediately, I felt the ribbon of his life flicker against my palm like a flag in the wind. When I withdrew my hand, that ribbon would follow, leaving his body and joining the whirl of time around me. Frowning, I closed my eyes and pulled my hand away. I couldn’t watch life leave his eyes; couldn’t gaze into those deadened orbs and know it was my doing that made them that way. I flicked my wrist to rid my hand of the Life Ribbon attached to it, and felt the old man’s spirit disappear into the Spin.

It was over. I’d done it. The old King was dead.

Feeling sickened, I walked back to my place, barely noticing the jerky activity around me. I didn’t even try to find Amelia, though I knew she would be waiting nearby to congratulate my success. Dully, I picked up the violin and sat. Bringing it to my chin, I closed my eyes and played, feeling the Spin dissipate like smoke cleared by a wind. I didn’t stop playing or open my eyes until the scream sounded.

I looked up to see the attendants clustering around the lifeless body of their ruler. Sobs and hysterical voices filled the hall, calling futilely for a doctor. In the confusion, I calmly put away my violin and left the room. No one would even notice I was gone. Amelia met me in the foyer and we walked silently into the fresh air of the courtyard. Once beyond the castle gates, she turned to me and smiled.

“Good job, Taylor. I wasn’t sure you could do it, but you pulled through. Welcome to the Order.” She held out her hand and I shook it without returning her enthusiastic smile. I hoped she would attribute my silence to shock, but her shrewd blue-eyes implied otherwise. Without another word, she turned away and melted into the shadows, finally giving me what I needed—solitude. I was alone for the first time in months, and I knew exactly what I was going to do with my freedom.

I sprinted down the familiar road to my old cottage, praying to a god I didn’t believe in that Rose would still be there. I stopped at the crest that afforded the first view of the house and nearly sobbed with relief. It was clearly still inhabited, laundry was swaying gently in the breeze, and the garden was a profusion of colorful roses, obviously tended by their namesake. No one else would have that many in one place. As I stood there, her laugh chimed through the open window. It was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. I smiled for the first time in months and let its joyful notes wash over me.

Suddenly, another laugh filled the air; this one the rich baritone of a male voice. Rose wasn’t alone? I’d had no plan to begin with, but somehow none of my possible scenarios had prepared me for this. Without thinking, I called up the Spin. I had to get closer, to see who was in there with my wife.

Once I was safely invisible, I crept up to the open window of the cottage. Rose was languishing in bed, the covers barely concealing her ivory skin and tousled hair. I knew the glow that suffused her cheeks and instantly felt ice burn through my veins. As I watched, a half-clothed man returned from the kitchen, carrying a glass of water. The sheen of sweat on his torso and the way he grinned at her said it all.

Shattered, I sank down against the wall under the window. I don’t know what I’d expected, but not this. Never this! Rose, my Rose, had moved on; had forgotten me in a few short months! I felt like my lungs would never expand again. I heard their laughter inside, and each note pierced like a dagger until finally I couldn’t take it anymore. The only thing that had gotten me through the previous months had been the thought of seeing Rose again, and now . . .

Fury surged through me. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to play out. She was mine! Forever! Those were the promises we’d made each other. The words she’d said and then tossed aside like so much garbage. It wasn’t right! And I wasn’t going to let them get away with it.

With a primal growl that surprised even me, I rose and stormed through the door. Neither saw me of course, their motions slowing to a complete halt as I came to stand before them. I glared at the dark-haired man in bed with my wife and felt rationality shrink away like a frightened mouse before the owl. He had to die. He had taken everything from me, and now I would return the favor.

I lunged and was knocked off my feet. I slammed into the floor, wrestling with the weight on top of me and snarling like a caged wildcat. At first, I thought that Rose’s Adonis had somehow come to life, attacking me before I got to him, but I soon realized that the person straddling me was too lithe to be male. As soon as that realization sank in, I forced myself to focus on the features above me.

“Amelia?” I asked, surprised that she was strong enough to pin me. Her blue eyes were glaring down at me, and her mouth was set in a firmly disapproving scowl.

“Are you in control of yourself yet?” she snapped, slamming my hand against the floor as I tried weakly to knock her off me. She cocked an eyebrow and I mumbled my assent. Reluctantly, she released me, standing and readjusting her clothes. When I didn’t rise immediately, she offered her hand and pulled me to my feet.

“What are you doing here?” I asked mildly. All the fury of seconds ago had disappeared — knocked out of me along with my breath in that first impact. It occurred to me that Amelia often had this soothing affect on me, and I vaguely wondered if she possessed other talents than Recruiting.

“I could ask you the same thing,” she answered, the scowl still distorting her delicate features. We glared at each other in silence for a moment, neither wanting to explain ourselves. Finally, she sighed. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist the lure, so I followed you when you left the castle. I was afraid you might do something stupid, something you’d regret.”

“I knew what I was doing,” I snapped, anger starting to flare again. Who was she to tell me what I’d regret?

“Do you Taylor? Look at her,” she commanded and when I refused to look toward the bed, she grabbed my face and forced me. “See how happy she is? Would you take that away from her?”

I stared at Rose smiling lovingly at her new partner and felt tears pool in my vision. She had smiled at me that way. Amelia was right. Rose was happy. Killing her lover would have made me feel better–but only momentarily. Stripping Rose of her happiness—again—would have haunted me longer than the satisfaction of revenge would have lasted.

Amelia must have felt my revelation, as she let go of me and her features softened. “I know it’s hard,” she said softly. “You say you love her. If that’s true, you have to let her go. Let her move on. You can never have the life you thought you would, and revenge will only make you feel worse. Trust me.” A shadow of something — pain maybe? — flickered in Amelia’s eyes, but she blinked quickly and turned away. I wondered what she was hiding.

“I don’t know how to do that, Amelia. How do I just walk away and never look back?”

“I didn’t say you couldn’t look back, but you have to give up the idea that you and she will ever be together again. We can do a lot of things with time, but going backward isn’t one of them.” Amelia offered me a sad smile before turning away. “I’ll leave you to say your goodbyes.”

“Wait,” I said. Amelia paused in the doorway, her expression questioning. “Thank you.” I was embarrassed by the hitch in my voice as emotion threatened to overwhelm me, but she just smiled and nodded in acknowledgement.

“Do the right thing, Taylor,” she said quietly and then disappeared. I sighed and turned back to Rose and her lover. Jealousy flared, but this time I didn’t let it take control. I knew what I had to do. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I leaned over Rose, lightly kissing her forehead. Her life ribbon flickered against my lips like a feather. I concentrated, using an ability none of the other Spinners knew I had learned. I sifted through the threads of her life, grabbing anything that pertained to me. When I broke the kiss, I would take only what I chose; I would take away her memories of us. It was the last gift I could give her.

“Be happy, my Rose,” I whispered. Then, before I could change my mind, I left the cottage, letting the Spin stop once I was out of eyesight. I walked away from the cottage, from my past and what I had thought would be my future without looking back.

***

I stand silently, holding the purple rose gently. I look down at the grave stone and feel the familiar remorse flood through me. If only. Two words I’ve said often, but that never change reality.

It’s been years since I was first cursed with what I now view as a gift. I have been responsible for the deaths of many, but also the improvement of much. I watched from the sidelines as Rose remarried, created a family and grew older. All the while, I remained the same. Mere months for me equaled decades for her. Her children grew and had children of their own. And none of them ever knew I existed.

Over time, the pain of her loss dulled to a bittersweet memory and sense of regret. If only I had never become a Spinner, our lives would’ve been much different. If only I could’ve found the cure in time. But, as Amelia had pointed out all those years ago, we can do a lot to time, except change the past. And while Rose moved on, I never did. I loved her from afar; I love her from afar still.

I kneel before the grave and place the rose on the slightly raised soil. The purple ones had been her favorite. I look at the beautifully engraved head stone, my eyes lovingly tracing the letters of her name. I kiss my hand and place it against the cool stone, closing my eyes for a moment before turning away.

More missions await and there are still answers I need to find. I promised Rose that I would make things right, though she never knew it. I will be the first Spinner to go backwards through time. If it kills me, then so be it. But I am determined to change the past. Only then can Rose and I be together the way we were supposed to be.

I pause when I reach Amelia at the entrance to the graveyard. “Ready?” I ask.

“Are you?” she returns, eyeing me intently. I look back at the grave, sigh and nod.

“Let’s go,” I tell her. Together, we disappear into the forest.

The End

Copyright © 2009 by Kisa Whipkey. All Rights Reserved.