Free-Range Fiction: Flash Fiction Challenge Part 4, The TimeKeeper

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Readers, here is the fourth installment of the The Short Story in Four Parts exercise that Chuck Wendig set forth for all his blog readers. Being the PenMonkey that I am, I couldn’t let it go to not finish a story. I chose to complete The Time Keeper originally penned by Mark Gardner, then followed up by Mozette, and then continued by Angela Cavanaugh. I’ve included all parts of the story, with notations of the authors. The last part in bold is my completion, which comes in at 999 words. Ouch! So hard. I had to kill about 150 extra words that lent to the scenery and personality of the protagonist and other characters. But Herr Wendig said 1,000 words. Good practice for us word smiths. Regardless, as I commented to my fellow authors, this story has potential to be a serial. Can you say TV show? Anyways, please enjoy the story. Comments are always welcomed. 

The Time Keeper

(Originally by Mark Gardner)

I sat in the booth pouring sugar into my coffee cup. The pawnshop across the street should’ve opened twenty minutes ago, but the open sign hung in the window dark. I reached into my pocket and felt it, knowing today could be the last time it touch the antique. I hated to part with such a treasure, but these were hard times.

A figure staggered down the sidewalk barely awake. The figure, not the sidewalk. A tendril of light smoke wafted from the cigarette pinched between his lips. Even from across the street, I could see the red cherry get brighter as he breathed. Orange-red brilliance, followed by a compounding of the tendril; twin exhausts rushed from his nostrils before lazily dying in the still morning. He staggered up to the door of the pawnshop, inserted a key and walked inside, the door hanging open at an unwelcome angle.

Although the neon sign welcoming patrons remained off, I signaled to my waiter, knowing what must be done.

“Anything else, miss?”

I cleared my throat, fearing he would charge me extra, but I suspect this part of my plan was integral. “Can I get a cup to go?” I asked sheepishly.

He smiled. “Sure thing,” he smiled, “let me get you one.” He paced the bill facedown on the table and walked away.

I placed the crumbled bank notes on the bill along with the rest of the change from my pocket. I knew the sad pile of currency covered my coffee and the hour I sat across the street from the pawnshop. I knew the tip wasn’t spectacular, but I now had no money to my name. This plan better work, I thought as I stood and met the cheery waiter with my steaming cup. I remember thinking how cheerful he was – I don’t trust people who’re that happy.

I murmured thanks for the cup and walked out the door. Perhaps if I’d known the magnitude of the events to follow, I’d’ve savored the moment. Perhaps said a few words to the universe to honor the occasion. I don’t know. Adventures such as this are rarely what they seem in the beginning.

* * *

(This section, Part Two, by Mozette)

“We’re not open yet.”

I removed my hand from the reinforced steel door. The bell that signaled my closing the door seemed comical – such a small sound, barely echoing in a cavernous room filled with trinkets and electronics.

I raised the still-steaming cup as a peace offering. “I’m in no hurry, but it looks as if you could use this.”

The aged man smiled and motioned me towards the counter with an excited wave. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he replied in a gravely voice. No doubt due to the cigarette habit.

I placed the cup on the glass counter as my brain processed what he said. “Waiting for me?” I stammered, fear rising.

He smiled, lines forming on his sun-damaged face. The greying whiskers seemed like a field of tree stumps after a recent logging expedition. “Not you, dear,” he said with desire, “but the coffee you bear.”

He seized the cup and drank greedily. Perhaps, I thought, perhaps his gravely voice isn’t from cigarettes. After a moment, his eyes rolled back into his head. I detected a slight shudder and the skin of of tree stumps transformed to a shade of red – making the grey contrast all the more against his skin. “That’s terrible,” he exhaled. “But, oh so welcome.” He set the cup on the counter. “What can I do for you this fine morning?”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my last remaining possession. I laid the hunk of silver on the counter, next to the coffee cup. The man nodded, and the silver was lost in his large hand. He ran his thumb along the edge of the watch. “Timekeeper one-seven-two,” he whispered.

I knew I had him where I wanted him. At the time I was only interested in a handful of banknotes to get me through the week. In retrospect, it was he who had me… but, I’m getting ahead of myself.

He placed the silver down with a tenderness I mistook for a love of antiques. “I want to show you something,” he declared, and reached into his own pocket. He pulled out his own silver, dangling from a silver chain. He placed it next to mine and my eyes grew wide.

There sat an identical watch. His was shiny and well cared for. Mine was dented and tarnished. I could see his watch shiver slightly with the tick of the second hand, as mine lie there silent and sad. I began to think I had overvalued my piece, and my confidence wilt, but then my eyes were drawn to the final difference between our timekeepers: the number etched into the side.

“Ah,” he breathed coffee breath across the counter, “you see it.”

Where mine features a fading one-seven-two, his shiny etching proclaimed his to be more than a hundred newer. I reached out to feel the etching of his watch against my fingers, but a static discharge repelled my reach.

“Be careful there,” he whispered, “time is a fickle thing.”

I felt compelled to respond. The words didn’t seem to be my own. When I tried to hold them back, my head began to ache. “But,” I blurted, “it forever heeds its will to the timekeeper.”

The man nodded and withdrew a steel box. He unlocked it with a key and withdrew several banknotes. He laid five of them on the counter. “You have a decision to make,” he declared.

I reached towards the counter, confident of the payday the currency represented, but my hand seemed drawn towards my timekeeper of its own volition.

“Be certain,” he said, “adventure awaits with either decision.”

I closed my eyes and made my decision. A decision I know now was predestined. A decision at sometimes I regret, but mostly, I cherish. A decision that resulted in sudden life.


(Part Three by Angela Cavanaugh)

Before I opened my eyes, I caught a whiff of flowers, of the sharp sea air… of… home.  They snapped open and I found myself standing outside my father’s bakery in the seaside town I had been born in.

Exactly how did I come to be here?

The place looked as though it had come from a dream I had just after my father died.  It had that hazy appearance of ghosts gone in another life, in another time where I couldn’t possible have … then I saw him, my father, serving Mrs. Wilson from down the road.  She was a lovely old dear who died just weeks before my father did.  So, this must have been a dream!

The wind died down for a moment and I could hear a ticking sound.  It was gentle and I almost missed it, until I looked down and found that my left hand was closed over something and I was holding it against my stomach.  On opening it, I found the time piece all fixed up, prettily ticking away and looking as though it was brand new.  I gawped at it for a good minute as the second hand went around and made the hour hand moved very slowly towards the twelve.

It was almost 4pm.

I smiled.  Then, I refocused my eyes on the tiny face of the time piece and realised I may have moved back in time, but physically, I had stayed exactly the same.

Looking up, I stared back at the bakery again.  If I were to go inside there, I’d be a stranger to the man serving at the counter.  Just as I was beginning to wonder what I was doing here in the time of my teenaged years, my stomached grumbled loudly that it was time for food.  Looking both ways, I crossed the empty street, ducking under the awning just as the first drops of rain began to fall and thunder drummed around the surrounding mountains.

Pushing the door open of the store, I heard the bell ring to announce me.  The man looked up and smiled as I approached the counter.  I never saw this side of my father – ever. This was the side everyone else saw.  I saw the strict, disciplinarian who would make me eat all my vegetables, forced me to study over my weekends while it was sunny outside and kept me from the best parties over the bay in Bestian’s Bay County.  Kids at my high school thought I was either stupid or very boring; but it was my father who kept me from having a cool social life.  I wondered just how he kept these two personalities in check the whole time… I mean, was this man really my father?  Or was all the controlling just for show?

Then, a woman walked in from out the back with a long apron on, a woman I knew well.  She worked here and I knew she did wonders for this bakery because she had come from France.  It was Celine… a brilliant pastry chef who could turn any bag of flour into the most delicious-tasting bread, lightest sponge cakes, sweetest cookies… yes, it was her.  She had her dark curls up in a hair net, but it was her.  She walked in humming a tune as she carried a tray of freshly baked, sliced and wrapped bread out and shimmied them into the trays behind the counter.

My father walked up to her grinning, “How many more to go?”

“This is it for today, then, I have the cake for Mr. Jones to finish icing.” She replied, sounding like a backwards playing record to my ears, but perfectly fine to him.

“Good, good.” He patted her well-curved behind, kissed her on the back of the neck, and moved past her a little too close to get to the counter I was standing in front of.  It took all of my strength not to say anything to him as he turned and smiled, “Yes?  How can I help you today?”

“Um… do you have more pies left please?” I looked over at the warmer and found it was half-full.

“We have chicken, steak and kidney, steak and mushroom and vegetarian.” He said, “The last are new for the weird people who don’t like meat.” Yep, it was my father alright.

Walking to the warmer, I looked in on the pies.  They were fresh, delicious and wonderful, and I knew it, “The steak and mushroom, please.”

“Want peas with that?” he asked grabbing a plate off the shelf, “And you better eat here, just look at that rain out there.”

I turned and looked as the rain overflowed the gutters and swelled in the streets, “Wow… it’s really coming down.”

“Here ya go.” He smiled, “That’ll be $3.50.”

I pulled out my purse and pulled out a $5.00 and handed it over, got my change and walked to a nearby table.  As I sat down, with my meal, I noticed he went out the back of the bakery, where the sounds of work suddenly turned very quiet.   I tried to ignore the fact I was the only person sitting in the place eating and watched the time tick slowly by, wishing I knew what was going on, but the more I wanted to spy on the two out the back, less I wanted to know… was he kissing her?  Was he having sex with her?  Was he…? I dug my fork into the steaming hot pie.

It wasn’t my business.

The door opened quickly and a woman walked in, slamming it against the wind.  Shaking her umbrella, she dumped it in the holder, didn’t remove her jacket and let herself behind the counter.  Allowing herself out the back, I then heard what I suspected:

“How dare you!  With that French slut!  How could you?” she raced back out again.

I tried to look anywhere but where the noise came from, but failed.  Instead, I stood, leaving my meal behind and went outside and wished I had never come here.  The dampness of the wind refreshed me and chilled me at the same time as I pulled the pocket watch out of my pocket, held it close and closed my eyes, wishing I was anywhere else but here…

I ran out into the rain, desperately trying to escape to the image of my father’s affair, and the hurt in my mother’s voice as she found them.

I’d rather be anywhere but here! I screamed inside my head.  I squeezed my eyes tight.

The sound of the rain stopped.  I opened my eyes and found that I was back in the pawn shop.  The lights were off, and the place appeared closed.

I heard the door jingle as a key slid into the lock.  Confused by all that had happened, I decided it was best to hid.  I ducked behind a shelf of old books.

The shop owner staggered in with his cigarette on his lips.  He shuffled to the glass counter in the center. I was about to leap at him, yell, and ask what had just happened to me and why. But the echoing sound of the bell at the door stopped me. I could just see the counter from the space between the books.

My heart nearly stopped as I saw myself standing at the counter, offering the owner coffee. I could barely hear their words, but then, I didn’t need to. I had just had this conversation. I, she, pulled out her watch and showed it to him. He pulled out his own. The strange words were spoken. She was standing there, faced with the choice of money or adventure. I wanted to shove over the bookshelf and tell her to take the money and leave that cursed watch behind. But I couldn’t. I opened my mouth to yell, but no sound came out. She reached for the watch, and disappeared.

The shop owner laughed and put the money back into the register.

“It’s always strange the first time,” he said out loud.

I stayed put, unsure of who he was talking to.

“It’s alright,” he said. “I know you’re there. You can move now one-seven-two.”

He was right. I found that my body was no longer stuck in place. I marched over to the counter. He hardly paid me attention and continued his morning prep to open the store.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I should think it have been quiet obvious. You traveled through time.”

“Yeah, I get that. But why did I travel through time? And why did I have to go there?”

He stopped messing with his register and looked at me.

“The first journey is a very personal, and typically, very powerful one. I’m not sure where the watch took you. But whatever it showed you was something that you needed to see.”

“Why would I have needed to discover that my dead father was cheating on my mother?”

“That answer lies in you. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say it’s because the watch likes to remind us that all people are people. No matter how infallible or one-dimensional they seem to us. They have lives outside of our perception. It’s important to keep that in mind when taking an assignment.”

“Assignment? If you think I’m going to-” he cut me off.

“I know that you are going to. Soon you will understand that time is not linear. You have no idea how many times we’ve met. We may even be friends.”

Somehow, I doubted that.

“Also,” he continued, “I happen to know that you’re strapped for cash. It’s why you came in here to sell the watch in the first place. Am I right?”

I looked down, confirming with my silence.

“I thought so,” he said. “Having a destiny can actually be quite



“Of course. How do you think you came to possess that watch? Where do you think those numbers inscribed on it came from? How did you know what to speak in response to me?”

I didn’t know the answers to any of it. I thought that I had happened upon the watch. But the memory was fuzzy. In retrospect, it seemed like something that had always been with me. I had never thought to question its origins.

“So you’re telling me that someone is going to pay me, to what, time travel?”

“It’s more that they provide for you. And while time traveling will be involved, there is far more to it than just that. On this first trip, you were merely meant to observe. But what happened when you came back?”

I recalled the motionless sensation of seeing myself.

“I could move or talk.”

“Paradoxes have their place. But you can break through that. You can alter things. And believe me, there are many things that need to be altered. Another challenge you’ll face is keeping your grip on reality. You see, a traveler’s mind is uniquely gifted. You will recall the way things were, and the way they are now. Both sets of memories will exist in your mind and seem equally valid. At first, it isn’t difficult. But in time, there are a lot of realities to shift through.”

I didn’t like the sound of that.

“But,” he said, “it isn’t all bad. You’ll go places you never dreamed. See things that you’ve never imagined. And best of all, you’ll save lives. You will have purpose. No more pawning your possessions just to get through another week.

Lately my life had been lacking in purpose. Since I lost my mother, my last bit of family, I’d lost my place in the world. I’d been drifting from temp job to temp job, about to lose the apartment I hated. Worse, I had begun to hate myself. Maybe I needed a little adventure.

“And you’re going to train me?” I asked.

“I will offer you some techniques. But most of the training is done on the job. What do you say? Are you ready for your first assignment?”

I swallowed hard, summoned my courage, and nodded.

“Take out your watch,” he said.

I dug in my pocket and removed the silver time peace. The hands began to spin, and suddenly, I wasn’t in the shop any longer.


(Part Four, by yours truly)

I looked around. People milled around sitting on benches and strolling along a worn gravel path. It was spring wherever I was. This was clearly a park.  I heard a cough and turned around, there was a man, he wore a black leather newsboy cap and wool overcoat. He was smoking a cigarette and holding a pocket watch. He crooked an eyebrow at me. I began to walk over to him and heard the click of high heels. What? I rarely wore high heels. As I approached closer, he pulled out a piece of paper out of his overcoat.

“One Seven Two?”

I nodded.

He handed me the paper. I unfolded it.

Eiffel Tower, 6 p.m. was scrawled on it. I looked up. The man was gone.

I spun slowly in a circle really taking in the lay of the land. To my right I could just make out the tip of the Eiffel Tower. I was in France. I’d never been to Paris, let alone out of the United States. I walked in the direction of this famous landmark and then realized I had no idea what time it was. I instinctually looked down at my wrist. A stylish watch adorned my left arm. It was nearly 4 p.m.

I was sensing a theme here. I saw signs that directed me out of the Jardin du Ranelagh and towards the Métro. Once at the La Muette station, my lack of French was a handicap. The colored lines and landmarks on the map gave me an idea of what I should do, but then there was the fare. My feet were killing me and walking the rest of the way to the Tower was not my idea of fun. I saw a restroom sign and headed into it. I looked in the mirror. I was stylishly dressed in a black and white dress that looked like it jumped from the pages of 1970s Vogue. I held a patent leather clutch purse. I opened it. Brush, wallet, lipstick. The wallet held French francs. Enough, likely to get me through the mission, I surmised. Like the $5 for my meatpie in my own past. My head was swimming in wooziness and nausea. Perhaps time-travel messed with you on a molecular level and I was having some kind of allergic reaction. This trip felt less dreamlike, more space-age. Like I lost gravity and my coffee and steak and mushroom pie from earlier was going to come right up. Maybe that was it, maybe I was just hungry.

“Mademoiselle, êtes-vous d’accord?” a very young, dark-haired woman gently touched my shoulder.

“I’m sorry?” I whimpered, my hand around my queasy stomach.

“Are you alright?” the woman said. “Are you American?”

I nodded and then had to turn to the toilet and the pie and coffee were rocketed out of me.

“Oh, you poor thing,” her voice, her accent was so familiar.

“I’m fine; I’ll be fine.”

“Well, even if you don’t feel well, your dress is magnifique!”

I wiped my mouth with toilet paper and flushed the time-travel evidence.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Well, I better be off; the train waits for no one.”

“Oh, right! Say, hey, can you help me? I need to get to the Eiffel Tower before 6 p.m.”

“Oui! I’m headed there now; I have to sell pastries to tourists this evening; I can take you there.”

“Oh, Thank you. I mean, Merci,” I tried to sound as French as possible.

“I’m Celine,” she said and held out her hand.

“Jane,” I lied.

Celine. It hit me. It was the Celine. The wonder baker, pastry chef, French Slut.

It didn’t take long for us to emerge onto the street from the Bir-Hakeim station near the Eiffel Tower.

“It’s just a short walk,” Celine said. “You are so brave to wear those shoes.”

“More like stupid,” I snorted, envying her sensible black flats with tiny bow.  

“Is your stomach feeling better?” she asked.

I nodded, wondering if meeting her was a fluke or part of the mission. Had I been vexed with the pukes just to run into Celine? If so, how did this woman fit in with the timekeeper’s missions?

Under the Eiffel Tower, which I failed to appreciate, because I was so focused on what I was supposed to be doing there, whatever that was, Celine took me to where several little kiosks were set up to sell food, drink, and trinkets to the tourists.

“I’ll have to let you taste one of my pastries,” she smiled. “That should make you feel better.” She donned an apron and switched places with a young boy who had been manning the booth. He winked at me, and then disappeared into the crowd.

This was all so surreal.

Celine handed me a donut looking thing, “Palmier,” she said. “Mange.”

I took a bite. It was light and fluffy with just the right amount of butter and cinnamon. I nodded and smiled and greedily took two more bites in rapid succession.

Just then a couple walked up to Celine’s kiosk. I concentrated on my Palmier. They ordered a couple of different treats and Celine boxed them up in a tiny pink

“Oh, these will be a lovely treat in our hotel, honey,” the woman said.

“My friend, Jane is American, too,” Celine pointed at me.

I looked up and looked at the couple. I dropped my Palmier and a cold sweat hit me hard. This was father and mother. I remembered they had said they had met Celine while traveling in Paris. My father, always so affable with strangers held out his hand to greet me as Americans do. Instead of accepting the handshake, I puked on his shoes, which drew a scream from the young version of my mother. Celine moved to help the young couple clean up the mess on their shoes.

With the now familiar whoosh of reality buckling I was back in the Pawn Shop.

Free-Range Fiction: Flash-Fiction Challenge (Pt. 3): ‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening’

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This is part three of the four-part story flash fiction challenge Herr Wendig over at Terribleminds put fourth nearly three weeks ago now. This story was started by Peter MacDonald and continued by Richard (aka PoorDick) from just over the bridge here in Seattle. You’ll note that each part of the story references a Robert Frost Poem, first Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, and then, The Road Not Taken. For my part in this collaborative effort, I chose Frost’s Storm Fear. Those verses are in italics in the text. I believe the use of all of these falls under fair use. If you feel their use is inappropriate, please contact me and let me know. In the interim, please read, comment. Thanks to Peter and Richard for the fun. I hope you like my additions.


The snow was up to Jake’s knees and still wasn’t quite done falling. While most of the snowfall had passed, there were still a handful of wayward flakes drifting down from the heavens, belatedly joining their brothers and sisters on the ground. It was the first real snowfall of the year, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last; before the month was out, the passes leading into the mountains he called home would be completely blocked up, and he would be alone until the spring thaw.

He bent down to check the last trap on this run. It was, unsurprisingly, empty. Game had been scarce for the past week, which boded poorly. If this kept up, he would have to dig into his stores, which might mean a lean winter. With a dejected sigh, he stood up, brushed the snow off of his knees, and started down the mountain towards his home. As he walked, he began to sing out loud a poem his father had taught him:

 Whose woods these are I think I know.

 His house is in the village though;

 He will not see me stopping here

 To watch his woods fill up with snow.

He took a deep breath between stanzas, and the crisp winter air chilled his lungs. The warmth of his breath had fogged up his glasses, and he took them off for a moment, cleaning them with his shirtfront. He’d been wearing the same pair for three years now, and they were starting to wear thin; one of the legs had been clumsily repaired with bailing wire two weeks ago, after he’d taken a nasty fall on some frozen ground. Hopefully, a trader would come through with a new set before the pass closed.

If any more traders came through at all. It had been more than a month since he’d seen one.

My little horse must think it queer

to stop without a farmhouse near

 Between the woods and frozen lake

 the darkest evening of the year.

As he finished the second stanza, a distant rumbling made him look up, and see the black storm clouds moving in from the distance, the setting sun resting behind them. It seemed he’d misjudged the snowfall; it was letting up now, but it was only a brief reprieve before a true winter storm came down upon him.

I should cut through the woods, he thought. He normally avoided the deep woods whenever possible; he’d lived around them his whole life, but he still got turned around in them sometimes. Plus, the woods were full of unfriendly animals. The last thing he wanted was to accidentally stumble into a bear’s den, or get surrounded by a pack of wolves. But he wanted to get caught by that storm even less, and taking the direct route through the woods would get him home a lot quicker than walking long way around.

The woods were dark and twisted, and as he peered through his broken spectacles to keep track of the path, he sang the next stanza to keep his spirits up:

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

of easy wind and downy flake.

As he spoke the final words, he stepped into a clearing and stopped short at the sight in front of him. The snow – including, he slowly realized, the very snow he was standing on – was stained red, and covered in the bodies of…creatures. There was no better way to describe them, but they were unlike anything Jake had ever seen in the twenty-three years he’d lived on the mountain. They were messes of tooth and claw, amorphous masses of limbs and mouths and eyes and tendrils. There were more than a dozen of them, but no two of them were alike, except for the one thing they had in common: they were all dead, rent apart by deep gashes and still slowly oozing blood.

The smell came upon him suddenly, and he doubled over with a sudden rush of nausea. His mouth filled with the taste of iron, and he nearly threw up onto the snow. He stepped forward in a daze, compelled to investigate. The creatures’ forms sickened him, but they fascinated him as well. He had to know more. Had to see more.

There were only a few of the creatures at the clearing’s edge, but the center was a solid mass, bodies piled together and on top of each other until you could barely tell where one ended and the next began, all of them coloring the snow with their ichor. Jake approached slowly, suddenly acutely aware of the sound of his boots crunching against the snow, of the fogging of his breath, of that terrible, terrible smell. He extended a hand to touch one of them. It was still warm. It had not been dead long. Its skin was thick and rubbery.

Jake jumped backwards as he heard a groaning sound. Panic made him clumsy, and he tripped over his own feet, falling down to the bloody snow. A moment later, another, louder groan could be heard. Jake lay very still for a moment, and then slowly rose to his feet as he realized that none of the creatures were moving. They were not the source of the noise. He stepped forward again and peered over the very top of the pile.

At the center of the clearing, at the very center of the mound of flesh, lay a woman, no older than he was. Her hair, blonde, her body, slim. Her cloak was stained with blood, and he could see that her clothing had been torn by tooth and claw. Her shoulder was a horrific mess, covered in what looked like teeth marks. But she was breathing. She was alive.

“Holy shit,” he gasped, clambering over the dead to get to her. “Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.” His mind seemed to be stuck, unable to process any more than that. He knelt over her, quickly stripping off his gloves and then doing the same for her furs, wincing at what he found beneath them. Whoever this woman was, she was badly hurt.

His eyes fell on something bright: a pendant, hanging around her neck, which seemed to glimmer in the non-existent moonlight. For a moment, her injuries were forgotten. He reached out carefully to touch it, then lifted it up to inspect it. It was made of wrought silver, and shaped into a complex spiral of loops and whorls. He lifted it higher still, captivated by its light.

A sickening noise lifted up from the other side of the clearing, shocking him out of his stupor. He dropped the pendant and sat up, looking fearfully in its direction. One of the things – almost in the shape of a wolf, but with too many arms, too many jaws, and a body of roiling tendrils – was moving. It let out another sound, a rumble which got right into his gut and churned it, and then to his horror it sloughed up off of the ground and started coming towards him. Its legs were broken, its body covered in cuts, more than one of its limbs ended in stumps – but it was coming, leaving a blood red trail on the ground as it dragged itself towards him. It made it two, maybe three paces, and then with a keening moan it slumped over and died.

Jake crouched fearfully for a moment, waiting to see if it would start moving again.

snowy_pawprintsPART II:

That moment stretched out for what felt like an eternity. He stooped there, frozen. Adrenaline surged through his body while it prepared to possibly fight or fly. He could feel his blood thundering through his veins and hear his heart thumping in his ears. He could see every breath he took as it condensed in the bitter winter air.

As the moment started to slip away and the tension started to leave his muscles, his eyes glanced over to the prone young woman and he whispered

The woods are lovely, dark and deep 

But I have promises to keep 

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

The eldritch chimera Jake had been watching roared to life. Its chittering howl resounded throughout the clearing as it erupted forth in a splattering of fresh gore. Deep in the most ancient parts of the young man’s brain; a simple command was issued:


Scooping the distressed damsel up in his arms, he pivoted away from the many mawed beast that lunged at him and immediately felt his world give way underneath him. His feet had not been able to find their footing under the combination of half melted snow, oily ichor, and rubbery flesh.

Tumbling down the mound of bodies, he felt the pile shift. The malformed mutant struggled its way to the place where Jake had just been, and he heard the snap-crack-crack-snap-snap of its many jaws. Holding the woman close to him as he fell, he did his best to protect her already wounded body from any further harm.

While the nameless terror glibbed and roared from atop the mound, Jake felt himself slide into the fresh, soft snow at its base. He wasted no time gathering himself to his feet and scanning tree line. Without even thinking, he began to susurrate another poem his father had taught him.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Jake didn’t notice the silver pendant around the woman’s neck start to shimmer again. He didn’t notice the thousands of brilliant sparkles that formed in its endless, Escher-esque loops and whirls with each of his words. His eyes were fixed the edge of the forest – at the path in the snow he had made to reach the clearing.

There’s no way he could make it back to the other side of the glade. Not with that thing chasing him. Looking down, he saw a small trail of fox prints leading off into a thicket; only a few feet from where he stood. If he was lucky, the underbrush would be thick enough to slow or stop the nightmare behind him.

Then took the other, just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

Congealing blood, melting snow, and liquids perhaps better left unknown had seeped into his boots; mixing into a sickening, thick slurry that now encased his feet. The biting cold of winter had seeped in too, and the chill worked its way up his legs and into his bones. The riotous chattering of teeth rang in his ears. He covered his mouth with his hand to muffle the sound, but the chattering continued.

A shower of severed limbs and bodily fluids exploded over his head and were accompanied by an explosive whickateracking. Not sparing even a second to look behind him, Jake forced himself forward; ducking down under the low hanging branches. Hunched and cradling the unconscious woman, he trudged with as much speed as he could muster through the knee deep snow.

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

Above him, the empty boughs had grown to form an impenetrable canopy, yet the knee deep snow still seemed to be piled just as high as it had under open sky. Behind him, he heard a great cacophony of crashing, snarling, galumphing, and tchixicoring, but he dared not look back, even as the sounds grew more and more faint.

He pressed on into the dark, thick underbrush for what felt like hours. His thighs and calves burned from being forced to hobble swiftly though the thick snow, his back groaned and ached from being hunched over, and his arms felt so weak under their load; but that the least of Jack’s concerns. He couldn’t feel his fingers or toes anymore. It wasn’t that they were cold. He couldn’t feel them at all.

He knew this wasn’t good. He needed to get home to his cabin, and fast; but he didn’t even know where he was at this point. He didn’t want to look down; to see the state of his unprotected fingers in the cold. Yet, he glanced down anyway, and saw the woman’s silver pendant twinkle.

There was no way any light could be shining down from above. No illumination could make it through the thick, interwoven branches above them. Endless, inky black yawned out before them. Just as he was opening his mouth to speak, his eyes caught glimpse of a yellow-orange flicker in the distance. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, maybe only twenty yards way. In the distance, unearthly gnashing and wailing still echoed.

Digging deep inside himself, Jack drew up all the strength he had left and made his way down the last leg of the trail. When he reached the mouth of the path, he peered out from the sheltered darkness. Reaching up, he crudely adjusted his broken glasses with his numb fingers. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

38086463289bfe9c910ad52be394aa52Part III

First it was the malformed mutants, now this. Jake’s mouth gaped open. Even though he didn’t go through the woods normally or often, he had been through this place before. This, however, this place, had not been here. He was certain. Jake stared, his eyes moving rapidly over this near wall in front of him. It was a forest inside a forest. Vines everywhere, but within the vines Jake could faintly make out openings, like windows. He blinked, not trusting his broken glasses. From the windows a warm glow of light blasted out onto the path. He strained his neck upwards, and could make out the outline of what looked like a castle turret. Yes, the trees around, the vines, the growth, it all silhouetted a castle turret. He shuffled the unconscious woman in his arms and then moved forward. With ever step he felt a heat, but it wasn’t coming from the …what would he call it? A cave? a castle?

WHEN the wind works against us in the dark,          

And pelts with snow   

The lowest chamber window on the east,       

And whispers with a sort of stifled bark,

“Sanctuary,” a whisper came from the bloodied waif he carried. Although she was slight, after the chase from the unnatural creatures, she didn’t feel insubstantial anymore. He was aching with the weight of her, his feet and hands still numb from the gore and cold. He needed a sanctuary for sure.

“Hey, you’re going to be okay,” Jake said. “Stay with me.” As he surveyed her condition the pendant on her necklace glowed and was emanating the heat he had been feeling. Inhaling in disbelief, he suddenly felt a wave of strength and trudged in packed-down snow, which made approaching the entrance effortless. He was a mere feet from the lowest level of vines when the sound of stone on stone echoed, followed closely by another unearthly echo of snarling.

The beast,                  

‘Come out! Come out!’—          

It costs no inward struggle not to go,

Ah, no!

A bright light poured out from in front of Jake, enveloping him and the barely conscious woman. The light moved around them, as if in corporeal form. Arms of warmth twisted and turned around Jake’s near-frozen feet and hands. As the golden brightness swirled around him, he began to feel sensation in his fingers first, allowing him to get a better grip on the woman. Then before he could actually wiggle his toes, the light shoved him forward and the echo of stone on stone punctuated his rapid movement. The sounds of the monsters behind him were gone. In front of him was a great hall with a ceiling that rose near the whole height of what Jake thought was the entirety of this jungled turret. Shadows of the vines from the windows were peppered throughout the hall. At the end of the hall sat a woman, much like the woman he still carried, slight, blonde, pale. She raised her hand and motioned toward him. Jake wondered in a whisper if he must be passed out in the snow, the storm already crushing him.

“This can’t be real,” he finally said clearly and loud enough to any and all in the room.

As he got closer to the woman seated on an unremarkable chair, he saw she wore a necklace much like that the injured soul. At that moment, both of their pendants shone and vibrated, and Jake watched in complete awe as the woman was elevated out of his arms and floated to a table to the right of the seated woman. More waves of light swirled and flittered about her. Jake watched as the bloodied cloak became an illuminated ecru, all evidence of the blood, tears, and bite marks erased.

I count our strength,       

Two and a child,           

Those of us not asleep subdued to mark         

How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length,—        

“Wait,” Jake stuttered. “How?” He gasped as the woman sat upright and smiled at him. Both the creatures before him were ethereally beautiful and he took his now warm fingers and pinched his arm. He was awake. He was living this moment.

The waves of light moved away from the woman he’d found near that pile of blobby-toothed creatures and towards him again. It cleaned the fifth and entrails off of him and warmed him more. He felt completely rejuvenated, as if he could run a marathon without getting winded.

“Where? I mean, Who?” Jake tried to get the questions out, but the woman on the chair shook her head. He watched as the woman in the chair dematerialized and turned into a swirl of light, mimicking the pendant of her necklace and then bursting away.

How drifts are piled,  

Dooryard and road ungraded,           

Till even the comforting barn grows far away                   

And my heart owns a doubt   

The woman on the table now moved to the chair. Jake watched as she pressed her hand on the armrest and a panel opened and a box of gears rose from within the armrest. He watched her pale finger press one of the buttons. A chair was pressed into his backside forcing him to sit, as if gravity was suddenly a thousand times more powerful. He couldn’t even move his feet or his hands. His butt was planted in the chair.

Whether ’tis in us to arise with day    

And save ourselves unaided.

His breathing slowed. He felt a pressure, like when you’re super sleepy but still need to drive home. He wished he could get fresh air to wake up. The ground beneath him shook and shimmied – an earthquake. But he knew better. They were moving. This turret, covered in overgrown brambles and vines and filled with waves of light creatures, was moving.


Free-Range Fiction: Collaborative Storytelling, Part II SPOILED BACON

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I’ve been really pushing myself to do these exercise the Herr Wendig set out for us. It’s been helpful in getting the juices going and practicing character development, continuity, and plot arc. Those active in this challenge are trying hard to make sure everyone got a Part II to their start. Here’s my attempt to help WombatTony with their piece SPOILED BACON. Below in italics is the first part, and in regular text begins my section. Each part is just 1,000 words, so you can see it takes some time to get all the story elements in there. Enjoy. Comment. Thanks.

100_0870Cyrus silently cursed IKEA as the Allen wrench twisted through his fingers and fell to the ground again. Not that this creation was made of flimsy Swedish wood. This was the result of years of research, experimentation, and trial. But every time that damned L-shaped hex key spun too fast or too slow for the screw, he found himself using the furniture store’s name in vain.

“Straightedge and Phillips did fucking fine before those Aryan SOBs showed up in every neighborhood,” he exclaimed before wetting his raw fingers in his mouth.

 Three more rightie-tighties, accompanied by one more tiny-tool projectile, and he stepped back to look at his masterpiece.

The time machine. His time machine.

It didn’t look too impressive in the dingy motel room off of Interstate 64. No light came in through the thick curtains drawn over the window that they had probably hung in front of since 1950. The faint illumination came from an incandescent light bulb that might as well have still had Thomas Edison’s initials on it, peeking out from underneath a lamp shade made from that same curtain cloth.

But he had to be here in the 21st century. Because what Cyrus had created was a time machine, not a time and space machine, a fact which had become all too clear on his test run. He went back a week. What could go wrong? Until he missed materializing inside a late-model Buick by a manner of inches.

So it was back to the drawing board. Kept most of the time elements intact, but allowing for objects which might exist in that spot in the past. Cyrus didn’t expect to find any Buicks in 1676, but who knew how the riverbank had grown or moved over the last three-and-a-half centuries.

Regardless, Cyrus needed to be here in Virginia when he went back, because it would be a hell of a lot harder to get to Jamestown back then. No Interstates, no satellites to guide the GPS on his phone. To say nothing of the Native Americans. Or Indians, as he was going to have to get used to calling them.

As he left the dingy motel in the direction of the Historic Jamestown Settlement, his thought shifted from the where of his destination to the when. Seven years after Cyrus, the naïve college senior, proclaimed the election of Barack Obama signaled a new age in race relations, little had changed. They might have gotten worse. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. And on a more personal note to Cyrus, the constant skeptical glances, the “Affirmative Action” quips,  at a smart, college-educated black man.

Racism was embedded in America. The only way to change that was to go back to the source. His first thought had been stopping Lincoln’s assassination, but that might be too late. Would an extra three years of “be nice to the south” Reconstruction have made that much of a difference? Segregation and an intrinsic belief of inferiority of the former slaves would still reign.

So maybe he could go all the way to the beginning. Literally. The first black slave coming to America, right here in Jamestown, one year before the Pilgrims even arrived. But what good could he do then? Kill a few slave traders. Then what? The slaves he freed wouldn’t even survive the conditions, probably. And a few months later, the next ship would arrive.

So not too early in race relations, and not too late, he finally decided to split the difference and arrived like a racial Goldilocks and the just-right spot, precisely one hundred years before the hypocritical Declaration of Independence. Bacon’s Rebellion, the great schism between white indentured servants and black slaves. If those two groups could be kept together with common goals, the permanent racial divide might never emerge.

Standing over the back channel of the James River, Cyrus took one last breath of 21st century air and flipped the switch. The machine whirred and whooshed as it attempted to pierce the ether of time, like a 1994 modem making the painstaking connection to AOL. Cyrus wondered about what sight would greet him on the other side, in order to avoid focusing on the vertigo about to hit. Traveling across one week had been bad enough. How nauseating would three hundred years feel?

Then it came, much worse than before, and he no longer cared about what he would see. Only that he would survive.

As Cyrus fought to keep his breakfast and every other meal he had ever eaten down, another stray thought ran across his mind. A suppressed query. When he revamped the space element on the machine, had he re-checked the time component? Before the test run, he had configured and reconfigured every step with time as the only variable. He had triple-checked his math, dotted every imaginary i, crossed every theoretical t.

Had he done that this time? Had he rechecked the time components after fixing the spatial variable? As the world started to shift, as his body began to stretch and condense through time, his mind kept returning to the vague iron-left-on-at-home feeling that something had been overlooked.

Then the constriction of his abdomen stopped all tangential thoughts.

“Definitely gonna hurl.”

Cyrus lurched out of the time vortex onto all fours as heat spewed from his bowels onto the hard forest soil. Twice. A third time before he could even inhale. Stomach still convulsing, he focused on the hard-packed dirt still wobbling under spittle hanging from his mouth like taffy.  The world, reality itself, transitioned from a shake to a swoon as sobriety and sanity fought for control. 

After what could have been a minute or could have been a week – what is time, really? – Cyrus pulled his right hand off the ground to wipe his mouth. Then his forehead. He slowly raised his eyes off the vomit-splattered dirt to take in his surroundings.

“Shit,” he muttered. 

This was not 1676 Virginia.

 91818-004-CB4352C3Part II

No, it wasn’t Virginia. It wasn’t Kansas either. He didn’t even think he was on Planet Earth. He pulled the vital goggles away from his head and let them rest on his forehead. He blinked hard, there was dust in his eyes, his nose, his mouth. Slowly he was able to parse out that he was on something of a wide trail – not quite a road. The confusion in his brain was leaving, and more and more of his situation came into focus. He pushed himself up and stood upright. On either side of the road was a wide expanse of land that went seemingly on and on. He saw no trees, no animals, no buildings, and certainly no people. Also, when he’d left Virginia it was barely into Spring. Where he was now, the sun beat down hot, hard, and dangerous. Water. He needed water, especially after being sick. With this heat he would become dehydrated fast. There would be no spoiling Bacon’s Rebellion or any race relation correcting. He’d be dead. He decided to just head down this trail and see where it ended. He took the machine’s pack off his back. All the settings looked right. But, this land was not his beloved Virginia. Cyrus disconnected the vital lines from his eyes, ears, and mouth. He put everything neatly in stow in the pack and placed it back on his back. It just looked like he was a college student from 2015. In the middle of where, though?

He still felt a little woozy, every now and then his steps felt unsure, like he’d drank too much wine. Drink. Water. Need to keep moving. Time travel was not for sissies. None of what he was attempting was for sissies. As he walked, searching for water, he wondered where he had gone wrong. What hadn’t he accounted for, anticipated? It was that stupid Allen wrench’d gear, likely.

“Fucking Ikea.”

He reached a slight uphill part of the path and saw a few trees in the distance. He knew those kind of trees:  Umbrella Thorn. There was only one place where he could be:  Africa.

Damn. Still got the ‘space’ part of travelling time and space wrong.  

Cyrus’ thoughts raced, as did his heart. He concentrated on his breathing. Keep a cool head. Now to figure out what year it was. But first, water. He looked up in the sky to try to figure out what time it was. How long before dark, before he became prey to some of the Earth’s best predators? He hoped a few hours, because that tree in the distance needed water. There had to be water near that tree. Cyrus picked up his pace. His breathing became more rapid as his emotions churned. He slapped the side of his head. Stupid. No provisions. And no one knew what he was doing. He might get taken down by a pack of hyenas at this point and all of this would have been for naught.  

He could see a small tributary. It moved. It moved, which way? He looked up at the sun. He imagined it was moving West.  That meant it must be connected to another body of water.  Or headed that way. Africa. West. The Atlantic.

Cyrus knelt down at the edge of the stream. The stream was tepid, but it was still cooler than the air or that blasting sun. Although the tributary was small, it was wider than the path he’d just come from, but too narrow for Cyrus to think it a proper river. He washed the dirt from his hands. That dusty path was all over him now. He washed his face in the water. It was dangerous, maybe, to drink this water, Cyrus surmised; but, he had to stay hydrated. He could go without food. But he had to drink and get his fill. So, he did. It cooled not only his skin, his insides, but also his thoughts. He could do this. He had a mission. He would complete it.

A low growl came from behind Cyrus. He didn’t move quickly, but slowly turned his head enough that he could see what appeared to be some kind of dog behind him to the right. Next to his left hand was a rock, bigger than his fist, but still wieldable. Another growl as he moved his hand towards the rock, and then a bark. More barking and growling. Cyrus grasped the stone and in one swift movement, as if he was fielding a baseball and throwing it to first, whipped the stone at the dog. The stone caught the animal in the mid section and the dog ran off away from Cyrus. Cyrus stood up, and began heading downstream. In moments he noticed his footsteps had an echo. He spun around, only to be descended upon by two men. White men. British men.

“Get him!” the taller of the two yelled as his hands reached Cyrus’ shoulders and tackled him.

“Wait, wait! No!” Cyrus cried. The two men were both loaded down with ropes, knives, and pistols. Neither man was shaven, sporting days old beards. They were filthy. After his quick stream bath, Cyrus looked a thousand times cleaner. He was likely more educated, too.

“He speaks English!” the shorter man gasped.

“Doesn’t matter,” the taller one said as he bound Cyrus’ hands behind him. “That’s the ship load. Time to make preparations to get underway.” He roughly stood Cyrus up on his feet by his bound hands. The shorter one took hold of Cyrus as the taller one bound his mouth.

“Can’t have him yapping away,” he said.

“The doc may decide this one’s his anyway. He likes ‘em smarter,” the taller man shoved Cyrus forward, downstream.

Cyrus was glad they were headed downstream, that meant he’d been right in his calculations. Now it was time to calculate his escape.

Free-Range Fiction: Collaborative Challenge Take 2

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So, ElctrcRngr, took on I’LL TAKE MONDAY and continued the story. I love the humor that EctrcRngr added into it, helps complete the main character. Well done fellow, Word Nerd! I implore my readers to go to the link, read it and comment on it at my collaborator’s blog, please. Alright, time for some reading:


Then, I found that Redfire389 also took on I’LL TAKE MONDAY. (I feel a bit Sally Field here that more than one person were grabbed in by the story and character and wanted to find where it went.) Again with the humor, and once again someone from the UK, which is curious to me. My friend says it might be the Bagpipes that I brought into the first scene.



Free-Range Fiction: GREEN & BROWN IN RIVERLAND (Part II of 4-Part Story Challenge)

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Below is my contribution to the second part of another writer’s story. In Italics is the original story by DangerDean. Regular text below is my contribution. Thanks Herr Wendig for the challenge, again. Danger Dean didn’t give it a title, so I’m calling it:  GREEN AND BROWN IN RIVERLAND

The hunt would be successful, Birdkin thought, and all because of him. None of the River tribe had caught any meat this time, and it had seemed like they would dine on nuts and greens because of it. But now he, Birdkin Riverson, was poised to fill the larders of his people. He had spotted a vole sniffing and scratching its way through the forest and he was poised to fall upon it. He was stretched taut on a branch above, camouflaged. His skin was already as brown as the bark, and his long hunting coat—brown with hints of green—hid the rest of him. Once the rodent approached his blind he would drop on its back and cut its throat with the his knife. He would claim the heart as his warrior prize and mount the teeth as a necklace, or on a war club, or maybe a war club necklace, he wasn’t sure.

The animal came nearer, twitching its whiskers as it scrabbled in the dirt for seeds. Birdkin started to loosen his grip, then froze. Across the feeding trail the vole was using, past Big Cedar, but definitely in River Tribe territory, was a Village Tribe scouting party. Three that he could see, crouched in a thicket chewing on trail rations. They weren’t making any effort to hide, but he wouldn’t have seen them if he wasn’t up on the branch. He let out a birdlike chirp, which alerted Blackwhisker and her sister Greywhisker, perched in a crook of Gnarled Oak. They looked toward him and he pointed toward the hostile patrol. More subtle chittering and chirping alerted the entire hunting party, which began converging on the three Village people.

Birdkin watched his vole trundle through the brush past him and sighed. No meat for now, but this was more important. If the Village Tribe was bold enough to break an age-old truce something had to be done about it.

This had been a wide-ranging hunt, and riverfolk spanned the area around the enemy patrol. Now with a few well-timed signals they moved silently over the forest floor, weapons drawn, and before the villagefolk saw what was happening they were surrounded by surly, growling River people brandishing bows, swords, pikes and knives. Shinetooth Eightfingers stepped forward and addressed them.

“You are in the land of the River People, which is ours by ancient truce, and in which the presence of People of the Village is proscribed.” The three Village people seemed unperturbed.

“State your business, and explain why we should not make you a fine meal for ravens.” A lanky, green-skinned warrior of middle years stepped forward.

“Our business? We wanted to take an afternoon stroll to a part of the forest we’ve never seen. You have pretty lands here. I can’t tell you why you shouldn’t kill us, except that we made it onto your lands undetected and more of our people may decide to take afternoon strolls. They would not take kindly to our deaths.” A squat, heavily-muscled nutbrown thug piped up.

“And we killed your sentries without you noticing so we—“ A green woman in an acorn helm swatted him in the back of the head.

“Shut your seed-hole, Dirteater.” Two River Tribe scouts ran up to the group.

“We found Thistle and Mossbeard! They’re dead! Garrotted with spider silk!” A collective growl rose from the assembled River people.. The green patrol leader grinned slyly, but his satisfaction was cut short by fierce whistles from Blackwhisker and Greywhisker.

“Cat!” Everyone yelled in unison, and scattered as the animal, a striped tom, landed in the clearing. It swatted its massive paw toward the three Villagers, knocking Dirteater unconscious several feet away. The animal leapt to him and held him down with a paw, not noticing that Dirteater’s two companions were now attacking it. They first threw pikes at its flanks, then before it wheeled around began hacking at the back of its legs with their swords. The River folk were stunned. No-one they knew had tried to take on one of the cats in battle. It was unheard of, until now.

The Whisker Sisters drew their bows and let fly volleys of arrows at the beast, while the rest of them surrounded it and aimed arrows and spears. The bravest and most foolish closed with the creature and tried to stab it with their small weapons. Birdkin was one of these, climbing tufts of fur on its leg and hacking tendons before he was thrown off again and again. The cat was not used to its prey fighting back and attempted to flee, but it could not shake off its attackers. The green woman in the acorn helm spun a weighted length of woven silk above her head, then released it to spin around the cat’s front legs. She pulled it taut and the animal began to topple, yowling in fear. Most of the warriors who had been climbing its flanks jumped clear, but Birdkin, who had made his way almost to a shoulder, kept hacking away, unaware that he was about to be crushed. The green woman, seeing this, leapt forward and into the air, tackled him around his midsection, and propelled him out of danger. He looked up at her, and tried to thank her, but hitting the ground had knocked the breath out of him. He mouthed the words just as his own people surrounded her and dragged her away.

Once the cat was down and they had access to its throat the crowd made quick, if messy, work of the beast, then took inventory of the situation. Three River warriors lost their lives, as did Dirteater and the Village patrol leader. With the work of the rest of the tribe they would have meat to last for many moons, which was fortunate, as they didn’t know when the Village Tribe would make its attack. They withdrew for the night, and Birdkin, snug on his moss bed, dreamed of a green woman in an acorn helm.

Part II

During the River Tribe’s common meal at midday, Birdkin went to find Shinetooth Eightfingers. Around the glen where the Gathering Circle was, there was much chatter about the events of the day before. Birdkin spotted the Whisker Sisters; they stood in front of the prison hut. A couple of kids chased the River Tribe’s domesticated water fowl. The Honwoos honked and barked, and the children giggled and yowled in delight. Greywhisker nodded towards Birdkin as he crossed the glen to the far end and moved closer to the prison hut, giving him awkward pause. Greywhisker always went out of her way to greet him, which sometimes irritated her sister, Blackwhisker. He approached the fire circle that stood about six stones from the prison hut; five of the old women of the River Tribe were processing the hide of the big cat and preparing other pieces of the carcass for use.

“Birdkin,” one of the old women inside the fire circle and closest to the prison hut called. She motioned for him to come to her.

Birdkin approached, kneeling down in front of the matriarch. “How shall I serve you, dear wise one?

The old woman’s dark hair was streaked in white. She let out a giggle that denied her many moons with the River People, “You are a right respectful lad, Birdkin, but it is not how you shall serve me, but how I shall serve you.” Birdkin raised his head to look at her, tilting his head to one side like one of the Honwoos did when checking for predators. This made the old woman chuckle, “Relax, Birdkin. Old Tannerlass means you no trickery.” She stood up, her old bones now giving her age away in her stiff movement, and came to him and placed a beaded leather necklace around his neck. At its center was one of the large teeth of the Cat his hunting party had killed. The old woman had cleaned and shined it and layered it with fish fat to make it glisten. “We thank you for your bravery yesterday,” said the old woman, Tannerlass.

“Thank you for such a blessing,” Birdkin said. The old woman nodded and Birdkin left the fire circle, heading back to the Whisker Sisters.

Grey Whisker smiled at Birdkin’s approach. “Stand your duty,” Blackwhisker growled, a long scar on her right cheek growing taut with her irritation. Unlike her sister, Blackwhisker had no patience for Birdkin, save as a hunting party member. She gave Birdkin only the most cursorily respect.

“I am not here to tear you from your duty,” Birdkin said. “I just wondered about the condition of our captures.” Greywhisker and Blackwhisker sandwiched between him. Greywhisker painted all in the powder of white river rock and Blackwhisker painted all in the powder of black river rock. They were born on the same day, Blackwhisker during the end of the night, and Greywhisker born at the beginning of the day. They had always been a part of his world, but weren’t in it always, though. There was comfort and discomfort with them always for Birdkin.

“They are as fine as any capture,” Blackwhisker said. “Shouldn’t you be seeing Shinetooth right now?”

“Aye,” Birdkin said and puffed out his chest and straightened his shoulders back, to give Blackwhisker a reminder of his elder status above her. He had 24 moons on the Whisker Sisters. “I know that he will ask about the captures. I will just be sure that they are ready for their trial.”

Graywhisker immediately moved to allow him to pass. Blackwhisker grunted, but acquiesced.

Inside the confinement hut sat two of the members from People of the Village patrol that had broken the ancient truce. The green acorn woman and another scout found after the Cat was dead.

Birdkin approached the green acorn woman. He stood only a stone and a half away from her. “I wanted to properly pay my respects and give my gratitude to you for your actions with the Cat yesterday.

The green acorn woman said nothing. She just stared at him, her eyes that of a practiced hunter.

Birdkin took a step back, surveying her sinewy, muscled, green arms. They held such strength like he had not seen in a woman before, he tilted his head in curiosity.

“I see why they call you Birdkin,” the green acorn woman said.

“And what do they call you?” Birdkin tilted his head to the other way, blinking rapidly.

The green acorn woman met his question with that silent stare he’d given him after his reverent sentiment.

Birdkin was not flustered, “Very well. I shall just call you Green Acorn Woman.” He laughed at himself, and then went around to the other prisoner. He was a young boy, barely to hunter status as The River Tribe. Unlike Green Acorn Woman, he wouldn’t look at Birdkin, and clearly had been weeping, as stripes of tear tracks streaked his face. He was very lanky, as if he hadn’t quite finished growing. Both the capture’s green skin was so interesting to Birdkin. It had this luminescent almost. It was like stars in a night sky, but pulled down to the Riverland.

“What do they call you, lad?” Birdkin nudged the boy’s foot trying to get him to look up at him.

A scream rose from behind him, a battle cry. Birdkin spun around grabbing his knife in one fluid motion, before him was a charging Green Acorn Woman, her teeth bared and fingers curled like a Cat about to attack.