Tag Archives: contest

The Kinder Choice

Here’s a short story for Rachael Ritchey’s Blog Battle this week, where the word is restraint and the suggested genre is Historical Fiction, specifically Western. 

This is one of my current favorite characters, the gambler prophet whose dice give him insight into what’s to come. But this is a generation later, when the Gift has moved on to a new face – Annabelle Boudreaux, a troubled woman with a deck of cards that calls her to action. 

I really want to turn one of these into a NaNoWriMo book or similar project, but for now, they’ll pop up in short stories.

—-

The moon casts a bright silver light across the plains, and stars twinkle over the Falstaff Saloon. The street smells like manure and tabacca-spit despite the soft pitter-pat of rain, and cigar smoke rolls out the door like a fog. The music inside fills the breeze with a dancin’ tune, the fiddler better than this corrupt town deserves.

Mercado’s whole gang is inside. The man himself is upstairs—chasin’ sporting girls, countin’ blood money, maybe both.  The century may have turned, but men are pretty much the same as ever.

I feel the ache in my bones—joints that have seen a several dozen years complain at the thought of what’s to come. I put this life behind me twenty years ago, and I’m not keen on seeing it claw back out of the plot where I buried it.  

The young brunette next to me slides the last round into the chamber of her revolver. The Devil’s Sharpy, Annabelle Boudreaux has the Gift just like I once did—with a deck of cards instead of my old pair of dice. ‘Course she uses it pretty much the opposite of me.

“This is a mistake, Annabelle.”

“It was a mistake for him to snatch Aideen off the stage—one of many poor choices Mercado’s made over his lifetime.”

Aideen Brannaghan—Annabelle’s half-sister and partner-in-crime, a timid Irish lass who’s decent with a pistol, but deadlier with a pair of knives than anyone I know, once you spark her temper. We could really use her now… but then we wouldn’t need to be here in the first place.

“I meant us, alone, trying to take him down.”

“It’s what the cards said would come to pass.” She laughs, and the whiskey on her breath nearly gets me drunk. I wonder how she sees straight to shoot, but then I remember how the Gift worked in my day. It’d be hard to miss a target all glowed up like an electric lantern.

“Maybe something’s changed,” I venture, knowing how weak and futile the plea must sound.

Annabelle slides out a deck of gleaming cards and fans a dozen in her hand, every card a one-eyed Jack. The hearts catch my eye as important—something she never bothered to explain. I ain’t sussed out all of how she interprets what the Gift shows her.

“You of all people should know better, Mister ‘God’s Shooter’ himself.”

I spit on the ground. “A stupid nickname from a far-fetched story written by a fool.”

“Quite a few stories, or so I hear… the better part of ‘em true.”

“Not a lot of men you can trust. Pretty girl like you has to know that by now.”

“Men lie, but graves don’t. You ready?” She flashes me that smile of hers, then turns away before I can respond.

“You ain’t.” Like most women I’ve cared about, once she gets an idea in her head, there’s no dissuading her. My words are wasted before they’re out my mouth, but I say ‘em anyhow.

“Just try to keep up.”

With that, Annabelle dives through the swinging double doors of the saloon, and thunder booms from the pair of Colts in her slender fingers. The fiddler’s bow screeches to a halt and he dives behind the bar.

“Show some restraint,” I shout over the din, laying down some covering fire at the boys on the second floor. “You can’t just go in guns blazin’ like the Gift is some kind of magic shield.”

Annabelle shoots me a glare. “But that’s what you did for years.”

“An’ I got the scars to prove it.”

She plugs one of Mercado’s goons with a no-look over-the-shoulder shot. Makes me wonder if the Gift works different for her than it did for me. Then she gives me a raised eyebrow. “Pretty sure no one but Lucien ever landed a shot on you, Zack. You can’t lie to a natural born swindler.”

“I’m not talkin’ about my skin, girl. Some hurts, time don’t heal.”

“That much I already know. That’s why I’m here… to give back some of the hurt Mercado done to me and mine.” She fans the hammer and sweeps the room. Three more toughs drop to the hardwood floorboards. Quiet fills the main room downstairs, and there’s a muffled scream from the second floor.

“Aideen,” Annabelle shouts. She dashes up the steps, and I hobble after her quick as my age permits.

Before Annabelle reaches the double-doors of the master suite, gunfire tears through the polished wood. Annabelle shoulders through the doorway, guns at the ready, disappearing from my view.

Unexpected silence hangs over the saloon as I lurch toward the shattered doors. Once I reach the suite, I find Annabelle holding Aideen close, the younger girl half-dressed, her short splash of red hair tucked underneath Annabelle’s chin.

A wisp of smoke curls up from the pistol in Aideen’s shaking hand, and two bodies lay slumped in the corner with large crimson stains in their pretty white waistcoats. “Had to wait until I could get loose,” Aideen whispers. “But I almost—they were going to—“ She trails off, eyes squeezed shut.

Annabelle’s gaze remains fixed. Her hand doesn’t flinch at all, the barrel of her Colt trained on the bead of sweat runnin’ down the furrow between Mercado’s eyebrows. The man sits against the wall clutching the gunshot wound in his leg.

Annabelle’s finger tenses up on the trigger. Then she smirks. “Aideen, go get your knives.”

Aideen starts collecting her things and hands Annabelle one of the long steel blades.

“Let the law clean this up, girl. You done what you set out to do.”

“Oh no,” Annabelle says with a mirthless laugh. “He’s not buying his way off the gallows again. Getting Mercado was just the start. Now we can have some fun.” She turns a hungry grin his way, and he goes whiter than a playing card. “I’ve been waiting years for this, amigo.”

“Annabelle, don’t become the thing you hate. Trust me.”

“This man,” she says, waving the Colt in Mercado’s quivering face, “is a scourge on this whole Territory, a pus-filled boil of infection on the back of humankind.” Her face is red an’ steaming, her eyes like a locomotive furnace at full bore–and Mercado’s tied to the tracks up ahead-a that train. “The things he’s done deserve an eternity of all God’s wrath, and I think it’s fitting we get started in the here and now.”

“Think about what you’re doing, dammit.” I see the pistol flinch in her hand—gotta hope what I’m sayin’ might sink in. “You been given this foresight for a reason, a purpose, something bigger and greater than seekin’ your own self-interest.”

Annabelle swallows hard, and the barrel of the Colt dips toward the floor. “You’re right, Zack,” she says with a long sigh.

Then she blows Mercado’s brains across the wood-paneled wall.

“Christ have mercy, girl, what did I say? Show some restraint!”

Annabelle dumps the empty cartridges on the floor in the spreading pool of blood and hands the knife back to Aideen.

“I did,” she says, colder than a desert night. “You don’t know what all I had planned.”

My Life’s Work – a #BlogBattle short story

Here’s my Blog Battle entry for this week, in the genre of fantasy, with the theme word of “selfie.”
I especially enjoyed writing something placed in my own fantasy setting from my novel Diffraction. 


Update: My Life’s Work tied for the winning story this week. Thank you for the votes! The other winning story is World Views by Carl Bystrom. Check his piece out, along with all the other BlogBattlers participating each week.

– – – 
I hear their voices long before I see them. Footfalls echo in the halls. Laughter and commentary resounds off the palace’s high ceiling and polished marble floors.

“Look at this piece,” the man says. “Astounding… like what a falcon in flight must see from on high over the City’s towers.” He sounds refined, educated, a man of wealth and relative ease. Probably one of the City’s many so-called Ministers–men and women whose title implies service, something of which they are invariably found only on the receiving end.

“So real,” his companion replies, her soft voice hushed in awe. “I
feel almost faint, as if I might fall through and plummet to my
death.” Too chipper for my taste, too airy. I imagine she’s the upper
class equivalent of dancing girls in the Outskirts–there for show,
not insight. Her voice calls to mind a songbird displayed in a cage,
able to delight for short durations, but insufferable if permitted to
make constant noise.

“Still better to you than the portraits?”

“Much,” she says. “I don’t like the faces. The landscapes at least are
magnificent.”

“Reminiscent of Serathil’s work,” the man says. “I know that’s what
they all say of Marwen’s paintings, but I had no idea the similarities
would be so striking.”

“Perhaps Marwen learned some of the same techniques… or more likely stole them.”

Or perhaps I fought for years to master my craft, you coddled child. What do you have that wasn’t given to you for no other reason than the fortune of your birth or the depth of your bosom?

And then I remember the Visitor years ago–his unhinged personality, inhuman predatory eyes, and alluring offer.

Why did I ever agree?

“Do you believe the stories about Serathil? How she captured such
lifelike scenes on canvas?”

The man shrugs. “The Abbey’s Devoted declare it was a gift of the
Divine, some blessing of Aulis that allowed Light to shine through her brush. But the Arcanists claim she used some form of Refocusing
technique, blending the elements into her portraits and landscapes.”

I’ve heard plenty of similar answers. I wish it were something so
simple, so pure.

This month, the Lord Mayor put my life’s work on display–a welcome opportunity for a better perspective. The Academy and Arcanists’ Hall each presented a few well-known examples, and Lord Peledor graciously brought forth several obscure pieces from his private collection. For the benefit of the commonfolk of Aulivar, they all said. But precious few commoners dare walk these halls. All I’ve seen so far are stiff-necked nobles and haughty elites of the upper class.

All of them say what I already know. Her work is so like Serathil, but not quite. Colorful, but less so. Vivid, almost as if the canvas
moves… but not as much as her masterpieces. Forever a step behind.

They don’t know the decades I spent trying to catch up. Days of
fasting, hours of fervent prayer, begging–pleading with the Divine to
grant me a touch of the same favor. I studied with failed Arcanists
and any Elemental willing to explain the secrets of magic. I spent
vast sums to learn what little they deigned to share–all for naught.

And would they even care? Does anyone recognize the effort that goes into an art form? Do they admire the discipline, the growth, the long transition from unskilled pieces no better than blotches of color to amateurish, misshapen portraits, then finally to lifelike scenery and recognizable faces? Perhaps I never reached Serathil’s perfection, but I’m confident no artist worked harder or did more than me with the raw ability granted her by the Divine.

One woman is born with an effortless gift that leads to inevitable
greatness and recognition. Another comes to the art without noticeable skill, but through constant effort and relentless discipline rises and improves to grasp at the master’s heels. Is that journey worth nothing? Must one surpass all others to be praised, or is it enough to improve beyond one’s present limitations?

I already know the answer to this.

Despite all my effort, my skill proved insufficient to garner public
awareness. But with the Visitor’s gift–the brush, its wood stained
and charred black like a log from the hearth.

For a moment, I feel my fists clench, the old fury building and
burning like bile in my chest. Every so often it strikes me that I can
still feel anything at all.

I try to avoid the eyes of the portraits around the room–the ones
that face me, at least. My best work, indeed, but also my worst. I
dare not dwell on it, but every time I behold one of those faces, the
rush of grief and guilt threatens to consume what’s left of my heart.

“Serathil’s methods are inscrutable,” the Visitor hissed so many years ago, his hand extending his dark gift. “Even to the best of your kind. But there are other ways to capture a… life-like, soul-full
quality.”

In the gallery, I watch the man lead his companion across the hall to
my most famous piece–Dawn Kisses the Snowtips. The ivory walls of Aulivar gleam and the City’s towers cast long shadows that seem to move with the viewer. Sunlight flares off white peaks on the horizon, and clouds shift in hue from crimson to amber to gold based on where one stands.

The woman gives a satisfied sigh. “Marked improvement, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes,” her noble replies. “Consider the light shown here, the way it
sparkles off the windows of the City. Aulivar at the height of the
Alliance, centuries before this land fell from greatness.”

The woman looks around the gallery and shivers. “I like these faces
much less, though.”

“Why is that?”

“The resemblances are far better, yes. But… there’s a sadness when I look at them. They’re all wrong. See that despair in the eyes? Or
perhaps it’s anger. Most unnerving.”

“Not surprising, given the tragic stories behind some of these. That
one,” he says, pointing, “is the youngest daughter of an Aelwyner High Lord, painted when she received the sigil of Strength on Markday. She took ill not long after, and withered away before the year’s end.”

“Poor thing.”

“And this fine elder gentlemen? Grand Sage of the Academy. He
succumbed to dementia in the months that followed. Probably well on his way when this was commissioned.”

He strides toward the one I hate most. “The wedding of House Hallaben and House Veray, nobles who lived in Alathon during the time of the Magistrate. The city fell soon after, and their entire bloodlines spilled on the streets in the overthrow.”

They all stare out from the celebratory scene, not with the joy and
mirth I remember from that day, but eyes full of hatred. Eyes that
look straight at me, knowing, accusing, condemning.

I took pieces of their souls. I dealt them fatal wounds, my
brushstroke more deadly than the rebel swords that eventually finished what my painting began.

The woman shudders and turns my way. “What about this one?”

“Marwen herself,” he says, examining me. “Her final portrait–an
unclaimed commission at that. Typical arrogance, devoting her finest
work to her own image. They found her dead in her studio, with the
paint still wet.”

“Do you think the tears are for what she never achieved, always
sitting in Serathil’s shadow?”

He strokes his chin. “Or perhaps for all she might have done, given
more time to capture the beauty of the subjects who came before her.”

—-

If you didn’t know, I have recently transitioned off my free WordPress site to this one – http://davidmwilliamson.net

If you enjoy the stories and updates I post here, please take the time to subscribe to this new site. Thanks for reading and for your support!

– Dave

Opportunities

Here’s a fantasy entry for Rachael Ritchey’s weekly Blog Battle, this time centered on the word, “troop.”
Anyone who is willing to read all the short stories posted today (until midnight Tuesday Pacific time) is allowed to give three votes for their favorites. Check out the other participants’ works and let Rachael know what you think.

—-

Mokreesh watched the oncoming merchant caravan with hungry yellow eyes. His misty breath slipped through sharp teeth slick with saliva.

A line of human travelers wound its way like a serpent through the hills south of Aulivar’s glistening white walls. Several mules–tasty if stewed long enough–pulled creaking wagons burdened with crates and barrels. Human scrawl marked the contents, but Mokreesh couldn’t make any of that out. Besides, the mystery was half the fun of collecting the spoils.

First, we have to win… which means breaking the streak of bad luck. His gloved finger traced the scar tissue that covered the right side of his face, a constant reminder of an Arcanist’s fireball.

That was two months ago, Mokreesh thought. And every raid has gone to piss since. Supplies are dwindling, and anger is brewing.

His second in command Grunnash drew his massive blade. Metal rasped and gleamed in the afternoon sun. Grunnash stood with hands on hips, glaring down at the humans. Never one to stoop or kneel, even if it risks giving us away.

He grinned at Mokreesh. “These sheep are fat for the slaughter. Surely this opportunity is ours to seize. On your signal, my chieftain.”

The other marauders hunkered in the bush and bramble along the hillside, awaiting the word. Mokreesh looked on them with pride. He would restore theirs soon.

“Watch out for your troops” had been the previous chieftain’s last words so many years ago. Mokreesh understood. If you take care of your men, they’ll get the job done. In the two decades since Mokreesh became chieftain, that wisdom brought the clan greatness and wealth.

Until that old crone Kalgha cursed him as a stubborn oaf before the altar of Kurnn. Then the bad luck started. Broken weapons in the middle of a fight, unexpected enemy reinforcements when victory seemed certain, the stray spellcast with a one-in-a-million chance that “happened” to sear off half his face.

Mokreesh didn’t buy into all the spiritual mumbo-jumbo Kalgha used to keep the clan in line. But every time he passed the altar now, he felt the flaming eye of Kurnn watching him. And he’d even tried prayer once, using a young human merchant guard as an offering. The man seemed devout; for six hours he had cried out to his gods for deliverance.

Neither of them got the answer they wanted that day.

Today changes everything.

Mokreesh hefted his battle-axe and raised it high. All around him, his warriors tensed, ready for the charge. Bloodlust and hunger shone on their grinning faces.

Mokreesh opened his mouth to bellow a war cry–

A glint of bronze on a merchant’s face struck fear into Mokreesh’s heart like an icy spear. Unbidden memories of anguish and flame filled his mind. Is that an Arcanist’s etching? This caravan may have magic users protecting it.

He noted a flash of armor beneath a wagon driver’s cloak. Are those trained guardsmen disguised among the caravan?

Was that a Gracemark on that woman’s hand? What powers might she possess?

“No good,” he muttered. “No good.” He lowered his weapon to the ground. The thick axehead thudded into the dirt.

Grunnash hung his head and shook with rage. “Fifth time in a row.”

“It’s a trap,” Mokreesh said. “Let them pass. Let’s relocate to the north road. We might catch some craftsmen bringing wares to–”

A sudden searing pain flared to life in his chest. He blinked at the length of bloody metal thrusting out of his ribcage. Words failed him. Weariness rushed through his body, and standing seemed impossible.

Mokreesh slid down Grunnash’s blade and fell to his knees, clutching the gaping wound. His vision blurred, but he could make out his warriors turning their backs and striding away through the brush. Following Grunnash.

Breathing became beyond difficult, and no amount of pressure stopped the flow. Mokreesh gurgled in the leaves and grass. Stabbed through the heart, from behind no less.  

An image of Mokreesh’s former chieftain floated into his mind–a glimpse from the day Mokreesh bested him in combat and took control of the clan.

“Watch out for your troops,” he had whispered as he died.

And now Mokreesh understood.