An explosion of flame erupted from the man’s mouth: the audience gasped, greedy with fascination for more of this vivid and intoxicating delight. Attuned to their appetites the magician twirled his fiery baton into the air, pirouetting two – no, four – even seven flaming batons, conjured seemingly out of nowhere at the finale of his act.
Such was the largesse of the heady celebrations, the eve the royal wedding, that every citizen of the Miracle Kingdom had wandered from their homes and into the welcoming night in search of amusement and enchantment: to see the dancers and the acrobats, the fire-breathers and the magicians, even to see the spirit-folk who threw spectacles of colour and light high into the night’s sky. There was even talk that the Princess herself would be performing in the Festival Pageant.
This rumour drifted among the crowds throughout that sprawling, stone-clad city: akin to the recent talk of union between mankind and the spiritual races, the thought of the fairy-born Princess Ferona participating in this secular festival caused much debate and intrigue; but none of this had quite the reality to it, nor the visceral interest, of the veritable fact that the bridegroom himself would be jousting at midnight. It had been declared by the Court’s own heralds that Lasius would take sport that night, and display his honour and his strength before the masses on the eve of his wedding through a battle orchestrated – as tradition dictated – to represent the struggle mankind had suffered at the hands of the Half-Fay. Drawn by intrigue, bloodlust and a deep sense of pride for their Prince and their history, the mortal populace jostled closer and closer to the arena as it grew thicker and thicker with human presence. Even at the eleventh hour the throngs of spectators awaited the display.
These were exciting times, before the marriage, the coronation; before the union between fairy and man, between the many Kingdoms; and the promise of such a rare spectacle was almost too much to bear.
And they were not to be disappointed. Upon the call of midnight a great fanfare, a dazzling array of lights, beckoned the young man into the arena. The mob roared with joy as the Prince Lasius emerged: radiant with health and beauty, his fine armour scintillating over the form of his chest and upper arms, he was the very manifestation of honourable manhood. At first his fine head bowed in modesty at their uproar – though high-born, he was but human, no great sorcerer or elven lord – but soon, like the rising sun, he raised himself high and bathed the auditorium in his splendorous light.
He drew his sword Catharick, so named for its cold, brilliant light – Catharick is the Ancient Miracular goddess of the sickle moon – and upon sight of this silvery blade the masses grew riotous with excitement, eager to see that fine, clean blade gloried with blood.
And so soon after, the opponent paced his way onto the stage. Clad in dark-metal, Oderin – or the swordsman portraying him, traditionally a prisoner granted a chance of freedom if they could fight and win in this display – drew his own foul blade and bellowed defiantly at the jeering crowd. Oderin was the Lord of the Half-Fay whose reign over the Miracle Kingdom had left humanity enslaved and in ruins. The spectators were mostly human, in number and in blood: and the bogeyman Oderin had in so many festival jousts been defeated to their unending pleasure. A criminal was executed, the effigy of Oderin was slain, and the spectacle of bloodshed appeased the masses. Even in these modern times, some grudges were too heavily-felt not to indulge with sport and play: the dichotomy of a land in transition.
So it was that, at the bugle’s call, they cheered with righteous passion as Lasius clashed swords with the mighty Oderin.
Swifter than a hawk he sidestepped his dark-clad foe; as if blessed by the Gods he evaded each deathly blow, and in a few dazzling manoeuvres had the foul Oderin on his knees. Lasius pulled at the tyrant’s long, lank hair, holding Catharick to the swordsman’s neck. At the promise of fatal blood, so soon in the battle, the crowd bayed for death and cried out for the murder of Oderin.
The young Prince Lasius held his vanquished foe for a second longer: and then cast him to the ground. The audience quietened, with an unsettled murmur.
“The image of Oderin is defeated,” exclaimed the Prince. “I shall not spill blood for his memory’s sake this night.”
A hissing dispersed through the audience – heads turned, questions were whispered, derisive laughs were exchanged – and yet the Prince continued:
“The fair Princess Ferona was herself a Half-Fay, before the purging. Born to their blood she elected, upon womanhood, to have that darker half expunged from her by The Rite. Though her race remains within her, her soul is pure of the Darkside. I would not stand before you, whole-human, and shed blood for amusement whilst claiming my soul too was pure.”
At this, Catharick was returned to her scabbard-home. The Prince, in defiance of both ritual and the bloodlust of the crowd, stepped into the shadows behind the stage.
Chatter and outcry broke out like a sudden shower amongst the spectators. Two such attendees, Poult the Fisherman and Fenerat the Carpenter, close friends since childhood days, turned to each other:
“It has been said the Prince has grown dark, and less pleasure-loving, late,” said Poult, scratching his beard distractedly.
“So it has,” replied old Fenerat: “some have it that the Princess has changed him, some way. Some moods he is fine, and free as the eagle; at other times he is a man bewitched. I for one could not think the fair Ferona would have so harmful an effect on a man of his temperament. Methinks the Prince has in his mind, to reunite the Kingdoms through diplomacy – that crooked art! – and not through the games of war.”
“The other Kingdoms desire no such union, though often it is spoken of,” said Poult. “And no, Ferona is no malice-maker. I would stake my house on it: the Darkside was cast out of her, though some say that Fairy-side is not so much dark as it is powerful. Yet I say that there is in her some curious quality. Her beauty is not questioned, neither, but that she can bewitch a man to see her…”
And such was the truth. Indeed, not one hour later, the pageant was to commence: and lascivious man and envious woman alike remained in their seats to witness the performance. The play in question, The Sister of Aronte, was well known to the people of the Miracle City as a classical piece performed at regal festivities. Every man of them knew that it would climax with the two sisters, one unclothed, the other prone in bed upon the attempt at her sleeping murder. Those women in the stalls who had not come for the art had certainly come to keep eye on their husbands.
The drapes had been drawn, and a curious, alluring light dimmed the arena to a persuasive and suggestive colour. Anticipation was heightened not only by the mise-en-scène, but also by the knowledge that the two sisters would wrestle for their queendom; that the victorious Affa would slay the treacherous Yuri even when caught unawares in her sleep; that Ferona, as Affa, would symbolise a modern shift in the politics of the Miracle City, in tolerance of pious Half-Fay. The conservatives turned up to ridicule this display of reckless lenience to that race; the liberals, to witness this demonstration – the second of the night, and indeed the second with a royal actor – of a new era of acceptance to the Half-Fay.
At long and lingering last the veils were drawn. Not one of the men or women present could have anticipated the beauty of Ferona and her character, Affa: overflowing with light and glory, her entire body pale and graceful as a vase of spring water, the Princess astonished them all with her poise and elegance. She recited the ancient poem of The Sisters, as Affa made to retire for the night: she curled cat-like onto the splendour of her queenly bed, and the phosphors were dimmed as the scene descended into a sweet yet perilous sleep.
The creeping Yuri – swift and deathly, balletic yet arachnid, a menace near-identical to her sleeping sister – danced onstage with a swirl of crimson smoke. Bare but for the thick, long trails of her obsidian hair which descended to caress her arms and breasts, her movements were rich with meaning. She embodied lusts and desires, delicate movements of cunning design, as she approached the regal bed. She sang her piece with the stage-whisper of a demon, clean and threatening as a naked blade.
Closer and closer to the Princess she crept. In near-silence she drew the steel blade and posed it evilly above her sleeping sister….
“You were a vision, my sweet,” whispered Lasius. His hand traced the delicate form of her milk-white shoulders, drifted through the wonders of her hair. “The people love you, almost as much as I.”
“I have always been a passable actress,” she replied with a girlish smile. It set his heart aglow to see her smile. The features of Ferona’s face, though elfin, were more radiant than any woman’s: it was said that as the Darkside had been banished from her, her own light and purity shone through the stronger for it. Such was the belief of the common people. Lasius cared not for the cause of it. He simply longed to bathe in its warmth and summer’s light.
It was not always so. Some days she had seemed curious with him: though distracted, different, unpredictable, he had placed these moods of hers along with the peculiarities of all females, regardless race. Under these clouds she would see him only in half-light, insisting upon the curtains being drawn – out of vanity, he thought – yet though for one minute she would be withdrawn and difficult, with a sudden change she would become incorrigibly intimate with him, pressing to him in the darkness of her chambers, feeling for him. She would tease him, entice him so. More than once he had tempted him from the celibacy expected of them both. Yet they were young, and their love was beyond their entire command.
Before him now, as he bade her the last good-night of her unmarried life, he saw in her the full qualities of her wonder. Loth to leave her so, he nonetheless reminded himself of the poor luck of coupling on the eve of marriage: he glanced back at her once more from the doorway, as she retired to her late, late night of rest.
Alone at last Ferona felt the peaceful, heavy lull of fatigue descend upon her. Her heart fought to keep her awake, and her mind at times quite raced from thought to thought: of how she had finally found happiness, of how frightened she was that the citizens would eschew her for her caste, of how far she had come from an abjured Princess of the Half-Fay since she had been purged of her Darkside.
Irresistibly, though, the enchantments of sleep enveloped her, and unawares she drifted into a sweet and pleasant slumber.
… The creeping Fairy – swift and deathly, balletic yet arachnid, a menace near-identical to her sleeping sister – emerged from the darkness with terrible intent. Bare but for the thick, long trails of her obsidian hair which descended to caress her arms and breasts, her movements were rich with meaning. She embodied lusts and desires, delicate movements of cunning design, as she approached the regal bed.
As if weightless she padded her bare feet upon those luxurious covers, unnoticed. As if a figment of a dream, she silently drew the long, steel blade, and poised herself lethally above the sleeping Ferona.
A gasping breath awoke the Princess: her eyes opened to the sight, the nightmare, of her very self knelt above her, naked and motionless, dagger drawn…
Ferona seized and cowered at the vision, as if to wake: and still, horrendously, the vision bore above her with inchoate malice. Her mirror image, her very self, an assassin!
Before she could cry, scream or move, the vision quietly laughed to her in a so-familiar voice:
“You know, Ferona, I think I could pass for you. We are so alike, in appearance. Even in flesh and form. My nights of passion with Lasius prove to me that even he knows not the difference!”
Her mind racing, her blood coursing with fear and revulsion, Ferona tried to speak: to curse this traitor, this fiend, this vile creature who accused Lasius of such terrible things… and yet…
“You purged me from your body, Ferona: to further your chances in this human city, and in pursuit of your blind ambitions, you cast me out. You cast yourself out. My spirit, exiled from you, sought refuge elsewhere. And carelessly, you expected me to die…”
Ferona froze at the understanding: the purging and the pageant, reality and fantasy, bled into one another before her waking eyes. Her past was braced for murder before her, had found bodily form, had through wicked designs and blackest arts conspired to this end. Her heart near burst in her heaving chest as she realised who knelt above her, ready to murder her…
“But Darksides do not pass into the other realm so easily.”
This was written as a response to my good friend and fellow writer, Gary Holdaway’s recent post, which you can (and really must) see here: https://garyholdaway.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/the-call-out/ This is a thrilling and chilling piece of short fiction in response to a picture I sent to him: as part of our ongoing challenge, he had to write a small piece which was either based on this picture, or which had as its “plot twist” that image as a central motif. Well worth a look: it’s thoroughly creepy and some damn fine readin’.
His own picture challenge can be seen at the top of this post, and rather threw me. I’m not really one to write fantasy, but there I had before me two females in a rather awkward position, one of whom definitely has pointy ears. Pointy ears means fantasy. It just does. So what was I to do? In true Palimpsest style I adopted a lot of themes from the canon: spiritual creatures as races, weapons with names, spiritual powers, kingdoms, the works. I gave it all a little twist, inspired by the picture, and typed like a man possessed. That is, I fear, how literature is written.
Now it’s my turn. Very soon you should all expect to see on Mr Holdaway’s blog – which you can find here: https://garyholdaway.wordpress.com/ - a response to the following stimulus. I have no idea what he’s going to write, which genre, how it will resolve itself: I am just as much in the dark as you, reader. So let’s see what he makes of it, shall we?
Best of luck, Gary.