Category: short story

Under the Shadow of the Moon

As promised, here’s another short story. I hope you enjoy!

Under the Shadow of the Moon
By R.R. Wolfgang
The girl stepped out from under the canvas shelter, pulling her cloak tight around her shoulders and tucking her hood against the heavy downpour. A quick survey of the mud-covered street told her there was not much to see here.  Rust-colored shacks, doors closed tight against the wind, and only the dimmest of light seeping from behind closed shutters and doors. Each shack looked nearly indistinguishable from the shack next to it.
The girl was lost.  There was nothing familiar about this place.  Try as she might, not a single memory came forward about this place or about anything from more than the moment before. She did not know where she was. She did not know who she was.  She remembered nothing. The more she tried to pinpoint any single memory, the more it flitted just out of reach.
Perhaps this should have been unsettling, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t anything. 
The girl was cold and her boots were wet through and through. She looked down at her pale hands, stark against the boring brown of the mud, and back up into the clouded skies. In that moment, a knowing seeped into her being. This was a desolate and unkind place.  It reeked of unfriendliness. Anger. She had to get away. Far away.
Instead, the girl was caught in the middle of the lonely road, not sure which direction to go.  Until something caught her eye. There, rising into the night’s sky along the Eastern road stood a tree like nothing she could have imagined. Even on a dismal day like this, it defied the bland grayness of its surroundings.
The contrast of its full branches against the dark skyline behind it should have been ominous, but somehow it wasn’t. The shimmer of the rain on its leaves somehow made the tree shine against the dark gray of the clouds. It seemed surreal. Otherworldly.
With great resolve, she set her jaw and made for the tree.  Its thick branches would certainly provide a safer cover than any hut in this town, if her gut was to be trusted.
As the girl slogged through the ankle-deep mud, she was surprised that she had no desire or inclination to knock at any of the passing doors. Perhaps there may have been a friendly face behind one of those doors – but she doubted it. There was no laughter in this place. Even when she strained to hear, there was nothing. Under the sound of the heavy rain, there was only an equally heavy silence.
No, behind each door, something grim waited. Not for the rain to stop, but for the last shades of light to disappear beyond the horizon. Only then would the doors open. A chill shook her small frame then. She did not want to be near this place when true night fell. So she walked.
After what felt like hours, the girl finally left the town behind her.  The road to the tree still stretched far ahead.  While the tree itself had grown against the horizon, it still seemed so far away. And although she could barely feel her feet, the girl forged ahead, forcing one foot in front of the other until the monotony of it was mindless.
As she walked, a numbness seeped into her being. Each step became increasingly difficult and the girl felt those little memories dance further and further out of her reach. Daylight was all but gone and some unknown fear tickled at the back of her mind. She glanced back over her shoulder.  The town was now a good distance behind her, but something seemed profoundly wrong about it. It stirred.  For a moment, it seemed as if each building rose from the ground and shook the rain and mud from its wooden frame. Could that be possible?
No, it must have been her imagination. She shook her head and looked again. There. A ripple that spread from one house to the next until each building seemed taller. And then they moved.
The girl tucked her hood back over her hair firmly and tried to run.  It was like moving through honey.  The tree continued to stretch farther and farther into the sky. At some point, the rain stopped and the sun set, but the tree still shone in the night. Its branches bent and twisted to some unseen and unfelt breeze, reflecting the glow of the moon.
The closer she drew, the brighter the tree grew. Bathed in its light, the girl forgot how numb she felt. She forgot the nagging fear of the monstrous town that shambled behind her.  The tree stretched out ahead of her, above her, and spanned wider than the road by more than ten times. She could smell it now – a clean smell of earth, leaves, and grass. It smelled alive.
The girl approached the magnificent trunk and now, underneath the thick foliage of its branches, she felt safe. Just then, the ground vibrated beneath her feet. She did not have to look behind her to know that the monstrous shacks were closing in around the tree. She felt them, all those rambling shacks, their anger and rage pulling at her. They wanted her to give in. To give up. She dared not turn and look, for fear of what she would see. In seeing, she knew, to her very core, she would cease to be.  So the girl did not turn – she did not look behind her.
Instead, the tree drew her to it. Some soft melody sang to her from its branches and leaves.  Although her ears still felt a roar of silence, she heard the music.
Finally, the girl was close enough to touch the tree. Only then did she see its true form. It was breathtaking. The bark was of a silver hue that, even lacking her memory, she believed she had never seen before. It glowed – not the glittering of rain in the fading daylight – it was the tree itself that shed light. Veins of silvery light traced their way intricately down the tree’s form. It was as if the tree had captured the very essence of the moon.
Again, somewhere in the distance, she heard that whisper of a haunting melody.
The ground shook again and this time the tree shook with it, a brace of its silver leaves falling towards her. Lost, the girl felt sad. She had led the town here, to this beautiful tree. It could protect her, she knew it, but at what cost?
The girl raised her hand and gingerly touched the tree’s bark, she closed her eyes and she fell…
                        …into the nothingness.
The girl heard something and her eyes shot open. Her neck and back ached. She could feel that. In many ways, her body still felt numb. She blinked and sat up, stretching her arms and yawning. She was still under the tree, but the world around her had changed. In fact, the tree had changed. It was still as majestic as it had been a few moments ago, but everything was different. 
It was a few moments, wasn’t it? 
The tree… She touched the tree. That was the last thing she remembered. Yes, it was all she remembered.
The bark was no longer silver and gray, but a rich brown and gold.  The leaves were a brilliant red, shining a coppery glow in the bright rays of the sun. The girl leaned back into the soft wood and felt immediately at home. She had been afraid of something, but she couldn’t quite remember it. Much like she couldn’t remember anything else. She looked up into the thick net of branches and foliage and reveled in the soft bark at her back.
She heard that music again. Yes, she had heard it before, if she could just remember where. The tree shook, and she felt a rhythmic thumping. A fear rose in her throat. Something was so familiar about that rhythm, that melody. She just couldn’t quite place it.
The tree hummed then. She felt it. In its wordless song, it told her not to be afraid. It would protect her. She leaned back and felts its roots embrace her. She felt warm for the first time as she closed her eyes and fell once more into the nothingness.
The girl woke again feeling profoundly unsettled. Something was different. Something was wrong. The tree rattled and shook, and in the night’s sky, the branches were nearly devoid of its once brilliant foliage. The bark was silver again and she felt the cold seeping back into her skin.
“Please,” she screamed at it, even as she realized no words left her mouth. Her fingers sank into the bark, pieces falling away at her fingertips. She felt nothing. “Please, tell me what I must do.”
The song came back to her again, closer, with its haunting sadness. She fell against the tree, eyes swimming with tears, she tried to speak again.
“Please, tell me what I must do to save you.”
She thought it answered her, but she did not understand. It breathed the word into her soul, a word etched with sadness and hopefulness.
That didn’t make sense. Did it want her to run? Where to? She didn’t know where to go. She closed her eyes against the tears, feeling the soft, brittle branches embrace her as she held its glowing silver bark in her hands. She felt the ground shake again, and the tree shook with it, just as she fell into the bright light of the moon.
SSSSseellllleeeeeennnnnnnnnaaaaaaaaa….Ssssseellllleeeeeennnnnnnnnaaaaaaaaa…. Sssselleeeennnaaaa…
That sound it was familiar. She heard it getting closer and closer, louder and louder. Yes, and the music, that drum beat, so familiar. So loud. It was so shrill. Her head swam and she tried to push her eyes open but just couldn’t.
It was too hard. She tried to open her mouth to scream, but again, no sound came out.
SSSSseellllleeeeeennnnnnnnnaaaaaaaaa…. Sssselleeeennnaaaa…
The girl opened her eyes, and, as the world sped up around her, she remembered.
“Oh, my baby, thank god,” a woman cried as she wrapped her arms around Selena’s shoulders. The ambulance hit a bump, and the whole vehicle shook slightly.
“It’s okay, Mom,” she said, stroking her mother’s silver-red hair. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
Through the small shaded windows of the ambulance, Selena could see the warm glow of the moonlight.  And she felt safe.

On This Day

On This Day
By R.R. Wolfgang

Here I sit, quill in hand, and I am aware. I feel at peace. I feel everything. The quill is light in my hand, its feather soft against my cheek. As I write, I feel and hear the scratch of the nib against the parchment. I feel the smudges of ink drying on my fingers. I feel the breeze drifting through the window, and close my eyes. For a moment – just a moment – I almost forget there are bars in the window, casting long shadows on the solid dusty granite floor of my cell.
Still, today, I tell myself I do not see the bars. Today, I feel the pen in my hand and know that soon I will be free.
Of course, I could write these words with a thought, a whisper or thrill of my mind, but then I would not feel the lightness of the quill or the dry parchment. I would feel nothing. Still, a voice in my head rages at this mundanity. It rages at my fate.

I am, after all, Queen Syrices. I have a myriad of other names, of course. The Dread Queen, Dark Queen, Queen of Shadows, and of course, the Deathspeaker. The list of my pseudonyms was read aloud at the Grand Hearing, along with the list of my alleged crimes. Some charges were fair. Perhaps even just. I could deny the charges, like so many do, with their dying breath crying their innocence. But I know who I am. I know what I am, and I know what I have done.

Kin-slaying. That was the first of my charges, and the most egregious, according to the laws and customs of this land. Of my land. I cringe to even write the word. It haunts me. I did not speak the word that ended my sister’s life, as I was accused. But I might as well have, for I did not speak the word that would have saved her. I saw her death in my dreams, as true a dream as I ever had, but I said nothing. I did nothing. And in my inaction, I condemned her to a death both long and painful.

As an apprentice in the Arts, I was taught the same rules as my brothers and sisters at the Academy. There is no greater power than to know what the future holds. To know what is to come, what will be or what may be, to hold a person’s life in your hands – there is great power and great responsibility. For every vision a wizard sees, the wizard has a choice – to pluck from that vision the truth and to give the subjects of the vision a chance to change their fate, or to follow the darker path. The path of inaction – to see a death and do nothing. That is murder, according to the laws of my people. By those laws, I might as well have cast the ill-fated spell that ended my sister’s life.

Of course, my guilt in her murder is relative. While I did not speak the word that killed my sister, I can truly say that if given the chance, I would have. I would have weaved a spell of such agony and treachery, she would have been days dying, not mere hours. Dear Cherys, she would experience the sorrow, helplessness and rage I felt as I watched my beloved people die. The people she had condemned to death, for nothing more than a title, a ruined building and a silver circlet. I would have killed her with my own hands, if given the chance. I would have reveled in the warmth of her blood running down my hands, staining my gown.
But that opportunity never surfaced. Years went by, and not once did she send a message, magical or otherwise. I glimpsed her in my dreams at times, the only magic that she allowed me to keep. And eventually, my anger diminished and I felt sorrow at her death.

Regicide. That is another of my charges. Did I slay King Gerad? Yes. Yes. Many times yes. And with great pleasure. I killed the ignorant pig, and his cousin, and even his wretched mother. I spoke the words, the Words of Death, in plain view of my hand-maids, the cooks, and the guards. Even the stable boy probably heard me through the window overlooking the common yard.
Yet not one of those souls did anything to stop me. It took three breaths to chant the full Words of Death, and not one soldier raised a sword, not one laid a hand on me, or shouted a word of interruption. Perhaps they, like the king, did not realize my magic had returned. Or, perhaps the rumors of my magic had spread to them and they feared me. I like to believe they, too, felt relief when that man and his pitiful family choked on their expensive wine, and died in a pool of their own vomit and blood.

By that act, I bound myself to this fate. The fate of all magic-wielders in these dark times. Some say the king looked beyond the dark stain of magic when he chose me as his queen. I know for a fact, however, that he chose me after looking upon my visage in the scrying pool of a hedge witch. A witch he later had murdered for the crime of using magic. I was fated to be his queen, she had told him. The most beautiful woman in all the lands. I like to believe this hedge witch had seen her own death. That somehow, she believed that by sending King Gerad to me, she was sending him to his own death.
Of course, King Gerad began his courtship quite politely by asking for my hand in marriage. But his reputation as a mage-slayer proceeded him and I refused. I knew him to be a tyrant who used his magicians for his own ends, and killed all those who would not bow to him.
Somehow, each refusal made me all the more enticing. I captivated him. Perhaps I was that obstinate nag that needed to be broken. Perhaps he was simply curious to see if he could deceive the High Sorceress, rumored to be the most powerful wizard in the whole of the Thirteen Lands. To this day, I do not know what he hoped to achieve. Any soothsayer he hired no doubt told him of the many weavings this future would hold.

Yet when King Gerad came humbly into my throne room, and kneeled before me and the council of wizards, something seemed changed. When he presented that ring to me, all those years ago – oh, how it sang to me! Such a bittersweet tune. And the auras weaved such an intricate net, veins of silver and gold twisted together around the most brilliant ruby I had ever seen. I was instantly intrigued. More than intrigued – I was enchanted. I had never seen a magic quite like it. To this day, I do not know how my sister managed that spell. She could not have been alone – how many of my brethren, my sisters, how many conspired with her? I asked that question many times over the years, and I cannot fathom the answer. What did the king promise them? Riches, power? Or, more likely, that he would free their beloved from captivity?
Still, when he gave me the opportunity to try the ring, I could not resist it. Every fiber in my being screamed a warning, but how could it possibly be a threat to me? There I stood, in the middle of the Wizard’s Hold, dozens of wizards, witches and sorcerers there to come to my aid. What hurt could possibly come from trying on one tiny ring, just to feel and explore whatever magic it might have held?

But as soon as that ring was on my finger, I was powerless to remove it. Nor could I use my magic to stop what happened next. I watched, helplessly, as King Gerad’s men and his own wizards destroyed everything I loved and held dear. I, the High Sorceress of the Wizard’s Hold, watched my Hold, my Alabaster Tower destroyed. My sister, Cherys, was paid her fee and rose in my place as the High Sorceress of the Wizard’s Hold, and the few wizards and witches remaining. To this day, I do not know if they rebuilt my Alabaster Tower.
After that day, I became the king’s prisoner. Later, his captive queen.

Of my many sins, no doubt you wonder if I regret the murder of my King? He brought ruin down on everyone I held dear and opened my eyes to the pleasure in the world of darkness.
So, my answer is no. Even at the brink of peace, I do not regret killing that man. I remember it with glee. Many of my wizards looked to me, waiting for me to speak a Word that would save them, but I found I had no voice to speak. If I had been able to undo that spell, well, the king would have been dead sooner, and I would have more friends in this world. But I could not undo that spell, try as I might. In the end, it was through the king’s own folly I escaped my bonds, not through any craft on my part. He became wary of the empire my sister was slowly rebuilding and sent for her death. I could have told him of the consequence of his actions, but I did not. I rejoiced when I dreamed my dream, and planned my revenge. Had he truly expected the bond to hold, after the sorceress who cast the spell died, taking all her magic with her? Did he really, after all these years, know so little of magic? Or did he tire of life?
Do I regret what I did afterward? Yes. I suppose I do. That charge brings a new sorrow, a new guilt. I cannot explain my actions, any more than I cannot excuse them. With my eyes open as they are now, I can only say that this last charge – this I do regret.
Tyranny. When King Gerad’s guards fell to their knees and swore allegiance to me, I cannot explain the darkness that filled my soul. Here were my captors, either silent observers in my abuse, or men who spat on my skirts when the king was not looking. These people had brought sorcerers and witches to the common hall and made me watch as they tortured and murdered them. And now, bowed at my feet, they expected mercy?
I granted no mercy that day. I heard the tales and whispers around the city and the countryside. I knew it was called the Red Day. They say I made a crown from the teeth of my victims and a bodice from the skins of the guards. That on that day, the blood of my enemies came to my hips, and I drank from the bitter pool. Those are crude, silly lies. I did no such thing. There was nothing left of the men and women I killed. Nor did I bathe in nor drink the blood of my vanquished enemies.
Their deaths were quick and hollow, those guards and maidens who laughed and threw food at my fallen brethren. At the time, I thought I relished each kill. In truth, I was no more happy when I went to bed that night, surrounded by my new guards, and my loyal handmaidens. My sleep was fitful, but I awoke and my rage was still unquenched. I sent my men, sworn by magic and true to my soul, out with warrants for all the lords and ladies loyal to my dead husband. Oh, my men were fast. They beat the horses of all the other rumor-mongers.
When the lords and ladies arrived, expecting a fine ball in honor of the king’s anniversary, how surprised they were! I alone greeted them, on my new alabaster throne, surrounded by unfamiliar faces.
I lined the walls of the castle with their corpses, of course. As anyone who reads this little missive already knows. Contrary to popular opinion, I did not kill the pregnant mothers or babes. No, only those of age were on the end of my Word.
I think it was years before my rage subsided. My handmaiden, my closest confidante, she warned me I was becoming soft. That my softness was a weakness in this world, but I do not believe that is so. I suppose my end began when I remembered my Master’s voice once more, telling me of the Rules of Magic. When the memory of the screams of my friends dying slowly became mere echoes. When I no longer saw their blood on the walls every time I closed my eyes. Only then could I begin to remember what it was to have friends. To love. To feel the joy of life.
If that is a weakness, I am glad I weakened. I am glad that I no longer wake up each morning, wondering whose death will be on my conscience by the day’s end. This morning, I woke up before the sun and felt relief for the first time in a decade.
Ah, there is the gentle tap at my door. Dear, timid Arcimen has come for me. As he promised, he has brought me my judgment. A small vial of simple crystal resting on a velvet pillow. He also brought a chalice filled with the Akiarian wine I so adored while I ruled as the Dread Queen. Dear boy. So brave, but I could see his hand shake as I reached towards him. I took the vial but waved away the wine. I saw no purpose in ruining such a lovely wine with the bitterness of this foul cocktail. I uncorked the vial and downed the liquid with one drought.
As Arcimen promised, I feel it working immediately. Gratefully, he relieves me of the vial and backs carefully out of my cell, locking it firmly behind him. I cannot help but smile. Even today, I am feared, in a cell, in the highest tower, engraved with magic solely intended to keep me inside. But that does not bother me. Not today. 
I fear that I must lay down soon. The quill grows so heavy in my hand, but that is of no matter. In writing this simple missive, I have but one simple wish.  

Know this, dear Reader – on this day, I, Syrices, the Deathspeaker, will finally be free.