portal fantasy

Rowan and the Fair Folk

I haven’t posted in awhile. Actually, I haven’t posted all summer. Summer is hard for me–many people get seasonal depression in the winter, but I . . . I have to be unique. I get seasonal depression over the summer. Maybe it’s the sun or the heat or the long days and short nights (I blame my vampire blood), but I become apathetic and everything becomes lackluster and doing anything is a struggle. This includes writing. I’m still deep into rewriting my first novel and was over halfway through when June stopped me dead in my tracks. I’ve only been able to get back into writing the past week or so, and that’s when I got this finished. It’s still rough, but it’s a fun little piece with a teenage girl and faeries. It’s only a little slice of the main character Jack’s story, but the beginning of the girl’s. I thought I’d share it–both as a celebration of getting through my Summer Writer’s Block and because as rough and ungainly as it is, I rather like it.

Enjoy!

 

“I’ll let you go, but you be quick, Rowan,” her papa said. “I want to make it to Delwyne before sunset.”

“I’ll be back before you have a chance to blink,” she laughed . . . And she was half good to her word, she was gone before he had a chance to blink. He gave an exhausted laugh.”Where does she get that energy?” he said as he leaned against his wagon and packed his pipe with tobacco.

Rowan bounded across the fields of heather. This was the first time he papa let her go with him to the Hollows, and the first time she saw the Faerie Tree. She was determined to be swifter than a trout, for she didn’t want it to be the last time. They didn’t see it on the way to the Hollows, for her papa took the main road, but he promised her he would take the old road back home just so she could see it. Once they got on to the old road, she kept watching, craning her next left and right, afraid to miss it in the forest surrounding them. “You won’t miss it,” her papa assured her, but she found it hard to believe him for the forest was so thick, the trees so tall, how was she going to see it? “Trust me,” he kept saying. “Trust me, you’re not going to miss it.”

He was right. As they came out of a little gulley and the cart crested the hill, she saw what he meant. “That’s it,” she said when she saw it. “Mm-hmm,” he agreed.

The forest continued around and ahead of them—a mix of birches and pine, but ahead of them, towering above the forest, was a tree unlike any she had seen before. Taller than any redwood or evergreen, it could have been the tentpole that held up the sky.

“That’s it,” she whispered in awe.

They came to a crater and the landscape drastically changed—gone were the evergreens and birches, replaced by the heather fields of Manusande Moor. The road continued down the crater side on a slight grade. As they descended, Rowan noticed the light, change as if dusk had settled early, and felt a tingle in the air—a static-y feeling the way the air feels during a thunderstorm. Her poppa seemed to notice, too, for though it wasn’t cold he shivered beside her and tugged his hat down lower. For as little use as her father said it got, the cobblestones of the road showed not a crack nor any divots or wear. Nothing grew between the stones—they looked freshly-laid.

“Well, shit,” exclaimed her poppa. Rowan smirked for her father rarely swore, and quickly apologized whenever he did—he must really be impressed if he doesn’t notice me, she thought. “I didn’t remember it being so beautiful. Maybe we’ll come this way next time.” He gave her a wink. He slowed the wagon down so they could appreciate the scenery.

That wasn’t enough for Rowan. She felt ready to explode with excitement. “Can we stop?”

Her poppa glanced at her and then the moor and then the road and then back to her. He tilted his hat back and rubbed his head. The few wisps of hair remaining perked up. He gave her a pensive look with his lips drawn tight and his head cocked to the side like a poorly-made scarecrow. “Well . . . .” He drawled, trying to hide his smile.

“Thank you, poppa,” she said. “Thank you.”

The wagon stopped on the side of the road.

 

She went straight for the tree, leapfrogging over rabbits to startled to run, and sprinting across the stream, for she had no time to waste. At any moment she might hear her father holler and then all would be over—her only chance to see a Faerie tree and perhaps one of the Green Folk themselves dispelled by the spell of her poppa calling her back to the cart. Not that she believed she would see one of the Green Folk—she knew that they had left the world and had either gone the way of the dragons or were as real as vampires or trolls . . . but, extinct or imaginary, she still hoped. She had grown a little too old to really believe in magic and the mystic, but she still hoped to experience a little magic and mystery. Hoped to catch a glimpse of gossamer wings or glittery cheeks or however their glamour manifested.

“Please be there . . . Please let me something . . . Anything . . . .” She whispered as she approached the tree. When she drew within twenty yards of the tree she came to a halt and took off her shoes. The buckles on them, she couldn’t remember if they were iron or not, and didn’t want to risk frightening off any faeries, so shed them and left them in the lee of a large stone. She checked the rest of her clothes—looking for any stray brooch or bell or button that might keep her from her dreams. Barefoot, she raced to the tree, her excitement and awe making her oblivious to the thorns and stones in her path.

 

From the road, the tree dwarfed the moors—the heather resembled the moss growing at the base of a birch or cedar. When she reached the foot of the tree, she felt no bigger than an ant. It was bigger than she imagined—wide enough that walking around it would easily take five minutes, and she barely reached the base of the trunk standing on her tiptoes. The roots were as big in diameter as her whole body. It smelled of rose and the musky vanilla of a Meerstane pine, but most marvelous of all was the music. She heard the music—a hint of music, faint notes no louder than susurration of a summer breeze through rye fields. Faerie music, she hoped, though she knew it was probably the song of a woodsman poaching or a ranger patrolling. The music grew louder as she drew closer to the tree, and she could make out some of the lyrics—something about a woman and rubies and rust and sand. She saw no one beneath the tree. Whoever’s playing must be on the other side . . . Unless the music’s coming from the tree itself . . . It is a faerie tree, after all . . . I’ll take a quick peek, and then hurry back to papa. On hand and foot, cat-like, she scaled one of the roots to the trunk.

She arrived at the trunk feeling like she had climbed the whole tree, and slunk against the trunk to catch her breath before circling it to find the source of the music. The road from where she sat was so distant, cutting across the land like the horizon, and her father’s wagon so small, no more than a shooting star. Can he see me? I bet I look like a buckthorn caterpillar inching my way along. I wonder when he began smoking . . . Mama smokes, too . . . Rowan stood and started her way around the tree. She stepped from root to root as if they were stepping stones in a river. When will I begin smoking? Will I just know? How do you know these things anyway—do you wake up one day and wonder where your pipe is, or does it come over you slow-like . . . Like growing up?  Sometimes I wish I could get it all done at once . . .  I’m not girl  . . . But I sure don’t feel like a woman . . . Growing up is a real pisser . . . .

She continued around the tree—the music grew louder and she went slower until, as she climbed over a particularly knotty and large root, she froze. Rounding the tree, she had seen below her the flowers of the moor, but clambering down the root, she saw something moving—someone moving. She hoped the music drowned out any bit of the squeal that might’ve escaped her stifling of it. It wasn’t the tree—it was someone, but was it a faerie? She pressed herself as flat as she could against the knots and the bumps of the trunk, and wriggled to the edge for a peek. From the voice, she guessed that the someone below her was a man, and not an ordinary man: he looked as if had come from the tailor, for his fine breeches and shirt showed neither stain nor spot nor any wearing or fraying, and his leather boots appeared to have been just put on, for no mud or leaf frosted the sides of the soles, let alone any kind of scuffing, wrinkling, cracking or any kind of wear. Unless he came barefoot across the moor with his boots in his backpack, only to put them on here to play music . . . Maybe he did . . . But the hat on his head stood in stark contrast to his clothes: it was a sorry excuse for someone in such well-made clothes to be wearing—water-stained and faded, with much of the shape—if it had any to begin with—long gone. The brim of the hat drooped, and there was a hole in the crown—a perfect mousehole. The brim and the angle of the head obscured the face, but she didn’t need to see him to know what he was. It was the hat that raised her suspicions and made her think that he was more than he looked. It stood out to her just as much as if he had goat legs or bat ears or his body was covered in rabbit fur . . . No man dressed so fine would ever wear something so shabby as that hat—why, none of the tramps or ragmen from Skillington to Emerath would wear something so stained and raggedy. A scarecrow would find a way to shake it off on the stillest day . . . .

 

In mid-thought she fell. He leaned back, and she would’ve caught a glimpse of his face as she craned forward, but too far forward she craned and got more than a glimpse. His guitar spilled onto the ground as she landed in his lap and they blinked at each other. The man didn’t seem a bit surprised to find a young woman dropping from the tree the way an apple might drop from an apple tree. He seemed to have the breath she lost from fear and embarrassment, for, shaking his head, he laughed.

“Oh,” she gasped. He smelled of Douglas fir and peaches and papa’s whiskey on a cool summer night with the fireflies weaving drunkenly over their heads as she and her sisters gazed up at the stars and listened to their parents drink and talk and babble with the brook that ran in back of their house. Her cheeks reddened and her eyes went rabbit-wide as she stared up at his face. “I’m so sorry—I didn’t—” She struggled to get up, like a fish a-ground trying to flop its way back to water.

“Well I think you did,” he said, and laughed again. He slid his hand from under her head down to her shoulderblades and helped her sit up. She sat in his lap her face inches from his fumbling for what to say or do. He appeared to be older than her eldest sister, but nowhere near her father’s age, and as handsome as any man or faerie she had imagined. His hand rested on her back, and she felt the warmth of it through her blouse. “I heard you from the other side of the tree,” she said, trying to sound casual. “It was lovely . . . What were you playing?” And you’re a Faerie, aren’t you? You’re real—they’re real. You’re a real faerie! She wanted to add, but held back for the moment, unsure of the proper etiquette for approaching the Fair Folk and not wanting to scare him off.

“Once you trade places with my guitar, perhaps I’ll play the whole song for you, and then we’ll see how lovely you think it is.”

“Oh, right,” she blushed and with his help clambered out of his lap. She handed him the instrument and sat down in its place. She watched him strum his guitar, and then start tuning it. His hands were slender, his fingers lithe and strong and reminded her of her mother’s, but free of callouses and scars and wrinkles. She rubbed her hands together in her lap and felt the lanolin softness of childhood already giving way rough patches. “So what are you called, and what brings you here?” he asked.

Bewilderment and then suspicion played across her face. She had heard the stories of what witches and faeries could do if they possessed your name. Enamored she may be, but not witless. She quickly stood up and curtsied, replying “You may call me simply, my lady . . . And I am here to . . . Pay my respects to the lady of the tree.”

Did he smirk at what she said? She swore she saw a smirk dart across his face as he finished tuning his guitar. “Well, milady,” he replied, his fingers tickling the guitar strings. “You may call me Jack. How serendipitous that we should meet like this, for I too am here to pay my respects to milady Gabrielle . . . Now,” he played a few notes and then stopped. “You know, since we’re both here to see Lady Gabrielle, let’s go in to see her now.” He gave her a wink and then sprang to his feet.

“Would you like to open the gate, or should I?” He asked as he fastened his cloak and tossed a scarf around his neck.

Rowan blanched. Open the gate? How? Why, she would have an easier time knocking the moon from the heavens with a cattail. She studied the tree—from its root tips to its many-limbed bower towering above them so high it could have been the sky—and saw no hint of a gate, nor any way of opening one. Was a word or a spell required? A symbol traced upon the bark, or a song? A knock, or a pattern of raps? She clenched and unclenched her toes as she puzzled over the answer, pulling up the moss in tiny clumps of velvet. Then the answer struck her—it was so simple she laughed. “Why don’t you open the gate, Jack.”

“It would be an honor,” he said and bowed. He strapped his guitar on over his shoulder. Nimbly, in a short succession of steps he bounded up the roots to the trunk and faced the tree. Rowan watched with curiosity as he fiddled with something on the tree, but his body blocked her view. What’s he doing? With a mischievous smile, he twisted around, holding something up. It was a ribbon red as a Meerstane wine.

“And there we are, milady,” he said. She stared up at him, a little disappointed and unimpressed. She expected something to happen . . . In the stories, something always happened—an archway formed from the wood or a shower of glitter as a rainbow appeared and faeries of all sorts waited on the other side . . . At least a tingle that put all uncertainties to rest. Her certainty certainly unraveled as the ribbon waved in the air and the tree remained tree-like, without anything of a gate about it. Jack became just a man, still a handsome and talented man, but no more a faerie than anyone else fairy-touched.

“That’s it?” she asked. She felt foolish and frightened, and wished she hadn’t asked her papa to pull over and let her she the tree up close—if they had remained on the road, it would’ve retained its beauty and mystique . . . Now, she would always remember standing here, staring at a fairy-touched ranger or woodsman or whatever Jack was . . . Staring at an idiot man waving a ribbon in the air.

In the distance a red grouse cried. As if response, she heard her name, “Rowan?”

“Coming, papa,” she hollered. Her papa’s voice swept away the last bits of the illusion she wrapped herself within and grounded her. “Bye, Jack,” she said.

Jack ignored her as he pressed his hand against the trunk. His fingers sank into the bark. The tree shimmered with a million needle-pricks of light as if dusted by snow and the bark swayed under Jack’s touch. Rowan took a step forward. He pulled aside the trunk, and a waterfall of sunshine cascaded down and bathed her in its light.

“You might’ve had better luck with getting it open, milady,” Jack said. Held back by his hand as if it was nothing more than a bedsheet hung out to dry, was the bark of the tree. “The gate hasn’t been opened in a long time, and Lady Gabrielle takes few visitors, so it took a bit more magic to open it.”

“S’real . . . .” she breathed. She took a few more steps forward. She left the light and stopped at the roots and rested a hand on it. It was cool and firm. “It’s real . . . He’s real . . .” she whispered as it finally sank in, and her hope was reinvigorated. She squirreled up the root while Jack stood there with one hand holding open the tree as if it was a carnival tent and he the barker. “You’re real,” she squealed.

Jack shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose I’ve been called worse things.”

“Rowan?” Her name sounded like a pot clattering over the kitchen floor. “Let’s go girl . . . You take any longer, we’ll have to walk back home ‘cause I’ll be eating the horses, I’m so hungry.”

Rowan sucked in her lips and bit down, sealing up her need to scream. There before her beckoned a mosaic path of turquoise and tourmaline and garnet, flanked by lilies and starcatchers and flowers to which she could put no name, dappled by morning sunshine, and perfumed by ripe peaches. Compared to this glimpse, this insignificant sliver, the doorstep to this Faerie realm, every garden she had seen transformed into a scrubby waste . . . And before she has the chance to forget her father and ignore his wishes, he has to call to her and spoil everything. Here was a chance unlike any other, something that would never happen again . .  .  and there was her papa, who relied on her and would someday be entrusting his entire business with her. Disappoint him . . . For a boy and beautiful scenery . . . Disrupt her entire life for a glimpse of someplace that would probably pale in comparison to her dreams? She curtsied. “As I said . . . Goodbye . . . Jack . . .” Her voice quivered and she brushed back tears. “It was .  . . It was an . . . Honor . . . Please . . . Please, give my regards to our Lady Gabrielle . . . .”

Jack gave her a sympathetic look. “It sounds like you’ve got promises to keep and miles to go before you sleep, so good-bye, milady. I will do as you wish.” She stifled a sob and took a deep breath as Jack stepped onto the path. When he was all the way into the tree and about to release the tree trunk, he stopped. “You know,” he said, the bark wavering beneath his fingers. He turned back to her, face alight by the sun and a smirk that suggested some kind of mischief. “Why don’t you join me . . . Come see the Lady yourself . . . Come. See the wonders of her gardens. I promise I’ll have you back before . . .” He scanned the area and then pointed at a blue swallowtail butterfly clinging to the side of the tree. “Before that butterfly flies away. Will you join me?” He extended his hand.

“Yes,” she cried, and settled her hand in his. “Oh, yes. Please.” The goblins take papa, I can’t pass this up. Hand-in-hand they went and the trunk of the tree fell back and became as solid as any other tree.

 

Rowan and Jack sat on pillows of moss beneath a massive oak, eating the sweetest of peaches. Jack plucked strands of mistletoe from the oaken bower, weaving them with holly and the red ribbon. Across from him Rowan smiled, a thin runnel of juice trickled from the corner of her mouth.

“T’is a very peachy peach, isn’t it, milady?”

“Mmmhmm,” was the only reply Rowan mustered.

Jack continued weaving and singing. The flesh finished, Rowan popped the peach pit into her mouth and rolled it over her tongue, sucking it to get the last bits. She gazed over the field of bluebells and took a deep breath. The air smelled of peaches and honey. She knew they couldn’t have been here long—they only followed the mosaic path a scant hundred yards before Jack saw a peach orchard off to their right and insisted they gather some to eat. Just beyond the orchard was the bluebell field and the hillock where they sat—but she felt so relaxed and carefree, as if she had been here forever.

“Will Lady Gabrielle be here soon?” So awestruck was she, Rowan had almost forgotten that they were here to see Lady Gabrielle.

“In her time, I imagine, she’ll see us . . . .” Jack’s voice drifted as he focused on a particularly uncooperative holly branch. “She sees us . . . Or haven’t you noticed?”

“What?” Rowan sat bolt upright as if one of her sisters had poured a pitcher of ice water down her back. She glanced around but saw only the flowers and trees and heard only the buzz of bumblebees and the songbirds singing.

“She’s there . . .” He pointed with his chin in so that he could have been pointing at anything in front of them. “In the shadows between the sunbeams . . . a lady with flowers in her hair and the pensive look of an overcast day . . . .” Rowan squinted, trying to see between the sunbeams, but that only smeared the fields of flowers and bring a laugh from Jack. “I’m sorry . . . I’m kidding . . . She’s down past the peach orchard, there where the path forks . . . half-hidden in by the trellis and the roses. She really does have flowers in her hair . . .  Calendula, I think . . .  And the look of someone who’s just had a very peculiar pair of birds fly into her house and nest on her favorite seat.”

Rowan traced the path through the orchard and along the field beyond to where the path forked and plum-colored roses formed a half-moon under which she guessed was the trellis. She saw no one under or near the half-moon of roses and thought that Jack was joking again when she caught a flash of something . . . Someone . . . A finger tracing an almost-blooming bud, the orange flowers in her hair bright flames, eyes and lips taut as if she was trying to make a hard decision . . . Then Rowan felt something brush her forehead and in the instant she turned her attention to Jack and back the woman was hummingbird-gone and Rowan wondered if she had imagined her.

“Milady of the Green,” Jack said, bowing with an exaggerated flourish. Rowan took off the crown Jack put on her head to examine it. “It’s lovely,” she said. “Thank you . . .” She put it on again. The ribbon strand tickled her ear, sending a shivering warmth through her body.  “Does that mean you’re my Jack of the Green?” She asked, doing her best imitation of her eldest sister flirting. Leaning back with her fingers in the moss and her feet soaking in a pool of sunlight, the earthy aroma of oak and the soil freshly-dewed and the sticky-sweet taste of peach lingering on her lips and tongue, intoxicating her, she felt giddy and free and capricious, as if she could do anything.

Jack winked. He took up his guitar, which rested against the oak tree, and strummed a few notes. “I believe it’s time for that song I owe you, milady . . . Something to tide us over until the Lady arrives . . . .”

He played. It was a slow song with a rousing chorus and in a dialect from which she understood one out of every five words, but she loved it. This song was for her. She had never had anyone sing a song just for her—she had her mamma’s lullabies when she was a babe, and her papa’s drunken mountain songs at parties—but no one ever went out of their way for her, so legs crossed she craned forward to catch every note and syllable to savor on the ride home and as she fell asleep that night. He closed his eyes as he sang and played, and she did the same. It was the rustling in the bluebells that made her open them. She twisted around to see what was behind her and she saw the Lady Gabrielle.

She stood where the sunlight ebbed and flowed against the shadows of the bower of the oak tree with her arms folded across her chest as if she was hugging herself, with a queer look that could be a smile or could be smirk. The folds of her dress fluttered in a breeze that only she seemed to be caught in, and she thought she saw one of the petals from the embroidery blow off, curling in the wind until it settled amidst the bluebells. Rowan glanced at her face the way she might the sun: boldly and daring, but also terrified of being blinded. Her palms dampened and her skin tingled as if her entire body needed to be itched.

Rowan wasn’t sure if she should say anything or what it should be, and decided to take a deep breath and focus to Jack—she didn’t want to seem rude, but rather than say the wrong thing and offend the Fair Folk, and one of the Court at that, she thought it best to act as if nothing could be more enthralling than hearing Jack playing, which did have some truth. Jack didn’t seem to notice the Faerie Lady—eyes closed, he continued playing. The song steadily picked up tempo as he played so that it ended in a rousing climax that dropped off suddenly with four notes plashing like raindrops atop the surface of a lake. He finished and, eyes still closed, smiled and said, “For you, Milady of the Green. The Ballad of Isobel and Almasy.” From his shoulder hung a wineskin which he took and drank deeply.

“Beautiful, my Lord of the Green, simply beautiful,” Rowan exclaimed. Jack’s song had exorcised the faerie from Rowan’s thoughts, so that it surprised her to hear someone speaking behind her, and at the same time.

“An awesome feat,” interjected the lady with a voice as sharp and soft as a rose. “You played that song with more skill than the songwriter herself. I’m sorry I didn’t hear it from the beginning.” Before she saw the Lady’s face, Rowan felt her eyes burning into her with the pricking clarity of a cloudless Summer afternoon. She felt without seeing the disdain and winced.

Rowan whirled around and soon found her feet, for somehow she knew that she needed to extend every formality and grace to the Lady. Jack nearly spat the wine he drank; instead he successfully contained it by choking it down and coughing. He appeared beside Rowan, hat in his hand, sweeping it before him as he bowed and she joined in a second later with a curtsy.

The intensity of her displeasure passed as quickly as it came, and Rowan saw the Lady smile, thin and fine as a boning knife.

“Forgive us Lady Gabrielle, for we meant no displeasure.  . . We have only come to pay our respects, and to—”

“Did I say I was displeased?” She said. Though she wasn’t much taller than Rowan, her bearing made it seem as if she towered as tall as the tree they went through. Gabrielle stared down at Rowan with a glint in her eye of sunlight off snow. Rowan hoped that that was a rhetorical question, because she wasn’t going to answer it. “Play for me.” She plopped down where she stood with her back straight and her hands folded in her lap. “You played for the raff, now me.”

With raised eyebrows Jack rubbed his chin and surveyed Gabrielle. “Certainly, but understand that whatever I play will not compare to the music of your demesne—the bluebells tinkling and the bumblebees hum, the crooning of the firs as the wind sweeps across their branches and the woodpecker’s percussion. The beauty here far overwhelms anything I may attempt.” A quirk of her lips hinted at a smile, but otherwise she remained still. Jack sat back down where he had been only a moment ago and tuned his guitar. Rowan sat to Gabrielle’s right, forming something of a triangle or crescent, and at what she hoped was a respectful distance that also kept just out of the Lady’s arm’s reach and within Jack’s. There was a tension between them, and Rowan could tell there was something more to this than just his playing for her—something was at stake, but what, she wasn’t sure.

Jack finished tuning his guitar and then, picking at the strings, tossed notes hither and thither until, with a wink that could’ve been for Gabrielle or Rowan, he closed his eyes and played. Rowan anticipated a slow and stately ballad or something musically complex, but Jack surprised her. It was a quick upbeat song about a young man taken by the Queen of the Green Folk to be her bride—the kind of mountain reel that infected your feet and legs with the mad desire to plunge into a dance so that the feeling might go away. It was the kind of song to play at a harvest festival or a wedding when everyone at the party was, as her papa said, “solid stoned and whiskified.” It was a commoner’s song filled with ribald humor for rough laughter. Rowan wanted to dance, but the Lady moved as much as might be expected of a stone statue, with only the occasional blink or the flutter of her dress as she breathed any indication that she lived, so she remained seated, the tapping of her foot the closest she came to dancing.

Jack finished. Without ever looking at Lady Gabrielle or Rowan, he set his guitar aside and then pulled a metal flask from the breastpocket of his shirt and drank deeply. Rowan guessed that he drained his flask. Replacing the flask in his pocket, he rose and extended a hand to Rowan. “I believe it is time we go, milady.”

She took the proffered hand and gave a slight nod of her head, “As you wish.” Even when she stood, she didn’t let go of his hand, for something about the place terrified her, the Lady most of all, and she had the sense that, if she let go, she would be stuck here, like a grasshopper in a spider’s web. It wasn’t until she was standing beside Jack that she dared look at the Lady again. Gabrielle remained seated, spine straight and head cocked slightly to the side, with a look as inscrutable as that of a cat’s.

Jack offered his free hand to the Lady. Her hand settled in his with the grace of a butterfly setting upon a branch, and then she rose from the ground. This close, Rowan could see that she was only a couple of inches taller, but she still seemed to dwarf Rowan. Her hand lingered in Jack’s and Rowan felt her cheeks blush with jealousy, and she instinctively squeezed Jack’s hand.

“Please do return again,” she said turning her attention from Jack to Rowan. She plucked one of the embroidered flowers from her dress—a sprig of Baby’s Breath. Out it came, as real as any other flower. She tucked it into Rowan’s crown. Rowan struggled not to flinch as the Lady’s hand came towards her. Jack looked like he was about to say something, but held his tongue.

“Something to remember me by,” she said with a wry smile.

Jack took the hat off his head and put on Gabrielle. He tugged down the brim in the front. “And something to remember me by,” he said. “A keepsake until I return.”

Speechless and puzzled, fingering the brim of the hat on her head, she watched them skip hand-in-hand through the bluebells. Taking off the hat, she held it in both hands with the brim beneath her nose, inhaling the aroma of woodsmoke from near-forgotten forests and hills, as they followed the path and faded into the orchard. As she felt the shudder pass through her realm as they parted the gate and left, she put the hat back on and said “Good-bye,” the words coming out like a sigh.

 

The smell of the moors greeted Jack and Rowan as they emerged from the tree. As promised, the same swallowtail butterfly clung to the tree opening and closing its wings.

“Rowan?” Her father called. “Rowan? Come on girl, we’re late—If you don’t get back here now I’ll sell you for nothing more than a few snail shells and a pumpkin at the goblins’ market.” It had only been a moment that she was gone, she could tell from the tone of his voice—gruff, but playful, and with a hint of worry.

Rowan squeezed Jack’s hand before letting it go. She wanted to remember his callused fingertips, his delicate but strong hands. She looked up into his face lit up with a cozy, comforting mischief and was ready to say to him, “Take me . . . Take me with you . . . .” She wanted to say, but the words evaded her.

“Go, milady,” Jack said. “Hurry, now . . . You’re needed by the sound it.”

“But,” she stammered. She knew she had to go and threw herself on Jack, latching her arms around his neck, burying her face in his collarbone., and nearly sending them both plummeting from their precarious place upon the trunk. He held her close, and then gently set her down. He got down on one knee and cupped her cheek in his hand. “One day we’ll meet again, milady, but until then . . . You have your crown, Milady of the Green, to remember me by, and I . . . Why, I’ll put you in the stars. Just above the Goblin Parade, I’ll put you—I’ll hang you from the brightest star there, you’ll know . . . You’ll see.” He took her hand, and kissed it. “Now, go.”

Rowan shook from the effort not to cry, and started walking back to her father. She took a few steps, and then turned around when she realized she never said “Good-bye,” but Jack was gone.

She skipped across the field. “Coming, poppa.” By the time she reached her father, the afternoon’s events had taken on the haze of a misty fall afternoon, so that all she did had become a blear of peaches and bluebells, of sunstroked mossy groves and music with the Queen of the Faeries and the Jack-in-the-Green.

She patted the ivy crown atop her head and her heart skipped a beat as she thought of the rough-yet-delicate fingers that wove it . . . Was it really this afternoon? Yes . . . Yes, this afternoon . . . .

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Gary Goes a-Huntin’–a deleted scene from my Novel-in-Progress.

Deleting scenes. That’s the hardest part of rewriting. I’ve cut so many scenes–so many chapters–as I’ve been rewriting. Most of them are terrible, and deserve their fate–being banished to the “Clippings” file–while others aren’t so bad, they’re boring or unnecessary. In the case of this scene, it’s redundant. I have an earlier scene that explores the same idea, but in a much more succinct and funny way.

For those of you completely unfamiliar with this never-ending story of mine, let me set up this scene, so it’s not so confusing. It’s a portal fantasy wherein four friends go out to the woods for a bachelor party, but end up in another world. Through various plot mechanics (and dumb choices on their parts), they end up getting split up. Gary, the character is this scene, ends up with an organization that seeks out and hunts the uncanny and supernatural–think, a Fantasy version of the X-Files. They begin training him to become a member of their group. In the scene before this one, he has to kill a pig. Here, he has to go hunting.

Enjoy!

 

In the intervening days after the kill, no one mentioned anything about his behavior, and Willem acted as if nothing happened: he continued training Gary in different aspects of the farm, and working with him in the afternoons on his martial arts, archery and crossbow marksmanship, basic swordfighting and hand-to-hand combat. At breakfast the next morning, Willem gave Gary a cock-eyed grin as he took a bite of hamster. It seemed harmless—a grin that said, “Look, you helped make this breakfast.”

Saethe took him out horseback riding in the afternoons—and though she could be a less patient teacher than Willem, she would stay out with him until he succeeded in that day’s lesson. She too, said nothing about the incident, though Gary was certain that Willem must have reported it. His certainty wavered for, a few days after the killing of the pig, Saethe had Gary join her and a couple other members on a hunting expedition. They were going out for elk, and felt it important to have him come, for his marksmanship with a crossbow was better than expected.

He took the crossbow because it felt very familiar, much like one of his dad’s rifles or shotguns. They never went hunting, but he and his dad would go up to a shooting range in the mountains on the weekends. Gary had no love of guns or violence, but this was the way he and his dad bonded. They talked little—either at the firing range or at home—but when they were out shooting together the guns did the talking for them. After firing off a few rounds, they both loosened up, and would chuckle and tease each other. From his time out with his dad, not due to any real effort on his part but from the sheer amount of time spent at it, Gary became a pretty good shot, and he found this carried over to the crossbow. Whereas the bow and arrow required strength and skill, the crossbow asked little of him, much like a gun. He had to load, aim, and fire. Once he grew accustomed to the weight and balance of the crossbow, it was that simple, and he could hit his target at least eighty percent of the time.

They didn’t go far to hunt—fifteen miles northeast of Baelrath, into the foothills. They left before the sun rose, in the tender hours of the morning when doubts about the sun rising and the belief in witches and wishes are taken seriously. The new day hasn’t officially begun, and the old still lingers, and between the two something new is birthed momentarily, something strange and uncanny that allows for witches and wishes and the end of the world. They rode on horseback in silence, the hooves of the horses shattering the crystallized grass, crackling, crunching thud the only noise. They stopped at the border between the forest and the meadow, leaving the horses with one of the stableboys. From there, they hiked up and over a ridge, through an evergreen forest thick with undergrowth, and then down the other side to where the forest met another meadow. They went along the forest edge, slowly, deliberately. One of the men, a lanky ferret, scurried low over the forest floor looking for sign of elk—scat or tracks. He found scat from a few days earlier, and prints, but to Gary the prints were indistinguishable from the rest of the forest floor, and the scat could’ve been made by any animal.

They continued on for another hour, the ferret-like man assuring them that they should be finding something soon. The sun spilled orange light over the meadow, and the crystalline grass sparkled. Stepping into the sun, bathing in its tangerine glow, was a herd of elk. For their size, they stepped daintily, picking their steps carefully. Gary had never seen elk, outside of a few photographs, and had imagined that they’d look just like deer, only a little bigger. What he saw astounded him—the mammoth size and presence stupefied him. They appeared with the sun—one minute it was dark and the clearing was empty, and the next, the sun poured out her rays and the elk sauntered out of the woods.

Saethe tapped him on the shoulder, and nodded to ready his crossbow. He had to remind himself that elk were just like pigs, but bigger, and with antlers. What if he missed, or just injured one of them, would it come rushing at him, seized by a berserker bloodlust? He slowly raised his crossbow, lining up his sight on the biggest elk out there—a behemoth with a shaggy reddish-brown coat that reminded him of redwood bark, and a set of antlers upon which could hang all the trucker hats at a NASCAR rally.

The elk took no notice of them, and nosed the ground snuffling the grass and eating it. It looked peaceful and content out there with its herd, with the sun stroking its glossy coat and polishing its antlers. Black birds flew over the field, cawing and jawing noisily like a flock of teenagers, startling a couple of the elk, who looked about skittishly. One more startle and they could leave, Gary realized—he had to fire now. His trigger finger caressed the iron trigger, and he hesitated—how could he take that animal’s life? It’s not like the pig he killed—they raised that pig solely to be eaten. This elk—it lived a life outside of the farm, free and wild, roaming wherever it pleased. Who was he to determine when and how it should die? This elk would help feed the farm for the rest of winter—there was no Whole Foods where they could pop in and pick up a pound of venison. The world was their supermarket, and if they wanted to eat well, certain sacrifices had to be made.

He pulled the trigger and the arrow whizzed across the meadow, piercing sunbeams and splitting the wind, finally penetrating the elk in its side. Stunned, it looked up, eyes alight with terror. It staggered forward a few feet, ready to run before its knees buckled and it collapsed onto the meadow.

The rest of the elk panicked and fled, springing nimbly into the woods, ballet dancers exiting the stage—their flight as beautiful as their moment of calm. Just as quickly as the elk had appeared, they disappeared, leaving behind their hoof prints and their dying companion. The elk lay there, crumpled and defeated, blood trickling from its wound. Gary could swear he heard its heartbeat at that moment—a quick heartbeat, quite contrary to what one would expect, especially with an arrow embedded in it. It wasn’t the elk’s heartbeat pounding like a hummingbird’s, but his own in his ears, pounding like the tell-tale heart.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. Saethe gripped him, beaming proudly. “Great shot,” she said. “Are you sure you didn’t have a crossbow back on your world?”

They walked out to the elk—Gary shuffling after the others, blind with shock. He was exhilarated at the kill, and saddened. He wanted to laugh and sing and cry all at the same time. This felt different than kill the pig—much less personal, for the pig he saw daily, while he had never seen this elk—or any elk, for that matter—and so it felt strange and foreign. Killing this elk felt like shooting a target in a video game—he killed a free-spirited animal, but an animal so foreign and unreal to him it might as well have been a zombie or chocobo. When he stood over the elk, saw its blood welling up around his crossbow bolt, and its thick tawny fur and brown eyes, he shivered and gasped. He reached down and stroked its rack of antlers, and then felt the spear-like tips. It was an awe-inspiring and majestic animal, more impressive to him than any unicorn, for this elk had a head full of horns, while a unicorn only had one; he felt powerful and cunning, too, to have taken down such an obviously strong and deadly creature.

“I killed that,” he said. Saethe glanced over at him and nodded. “Yep, you did. We were there, remember?”

He knelt down beside the elk. “I killed you,” he said, staring into its blank eyes which seemed to answer back, yes, you did, but don’t let it go to your head—for someday this will be you, too. He shuddered and turned away from the elk, looking up at the primrose clouds blossoming and the bloody seam of sunlight on the horizon.

The Ravenloft Inn Chap. 1 Part 2

Here, as promised, is the second section of the first chapter of my novel. When I go through my final rewrite, I’ll break this up into a few smaller chapters.

Enjoy.

They drove across the city to the suburb where Alec lived. As they entered the neighborhood, Jack slowed down and turned to Gary, a solemn expression on his face. “Alright, I’ve got to tell you two very important things right now. First, hide the bottle under your seat. We don’t want Alec’s parents to know we’ve been drinking. Second, there has been a drastic change of plans.”

Gary stashed the bottle under his seat and banged it against the seat’s metal frame. It hit with a clang that caused them both to fear its breaking. With the bottle hidden away, Gary looked at Jack, worried, “Alright,” he said. “As long as this new plan doesn’t involve me quitting smoking and still has drinking, I’m okay with it.”

“As I was driving to your place to pick you up, I realized that it’s probably a little unfair of me to drag you into the woods for your bachelor party—“

“But I’m cool with it,” Gary interjected.

Jack smiled. “Yeah, but you’re not that excited. So, we’re sticking with the original plan, but instead of staying in the woods three nights, it’ll be only one. Then, we drive back here and hang out at my dad’s house for two nights of debauchery—dorkish debauchery, mind you, because I’m sure it’ll involve board games, video games, and—may the Lord prevent it—role-playing. Is that plan okay?”

Gary beamed with joy, and looked as if he could reach across the Willys and hug Jack. “Oh, Hells yeah, my brother. We got the best of both worlds there. You are the man—”

Jack held up a finger to stop him from saying anything more. “There’s one caveat to this change of plans, though. One that’ll be like whipped cream on cherry pie—we’re not telling Alec and Greg. We’re going to let them think that we’re spending the entire three days in the woods.”

If Gary wasn’t excited before, this new act of mischief titillated him to a degree that he seemed ready to burst. “Oh, that’s perfect. I won’t say anything—why, I’ll even be sure to complain about this whole trip to make them ‘suffer’ even more. How did you ever get Alec to go on this trip? He hates going outside. I’m surprised that he hasn’t figured out how to build a teleporter so that he could still get to the Waffle House without ever having to step outside.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Jack said. They pulled up in front of Alec’s parent’s house where they saw him standing, flanked by his parents like an inmate surrounded by his guards. They stood there on their lawn in their pajamas and robes, Alec’s dad with his hands in the pockets of his robe, yawning, while Alec’s mom seemed to be stuffing advice into Alec. Greg, the final person to round out their camping quartet, sat on the concrete steps of the front stoop eating pop tarts and watching Alec with a smirk. “His dad did it all. I mentioned it in front of his dad, and before he could say no, his dad had us out in the garage looking for his old sleeping bag and reminiscing about some camping trip in the Ozarks he took when he was a teenager. One of the best experiences he had, he said. It helped him become a man. Alec refused to talk to me for the rest of the night.”

Though Alec worked in the IT department of an aeronautics firm doing something with computers that none of his friends understood, he still lived with his parents. His mother, worried about mooching roommates and despot landlords taking advantage of her son insisted they convert their basement into an apartment for him. His father protested, though not loud enough to be heard above his wife’s insistence, and so his son moved from his bedroom on the second floor to his basement apartment.

Greg on the other hand, had left home and high school at the age of seventeen—his home life was fraught with abuse, and high school he found tedious and dull. He lived in a studio apartment big enough for a futon and his pile of books, and worked as a cook in various greasy spoons until he got an apprenticeship as an electrician. Different as they were, Alec and Greg were inseparable, sharing a love of sci-fi and fantasy, video-games and role-playing. Add to this Alec’s parents’ sympathies for Greg’s struggles, and he stayed there most of the time, the pair of them holed up in Alec’s “apartment” coming up occasionally for delivery pizza or a trip to Denny’s or the Waffle House, and of course the daily interference of work.

Alec’s dad waved and his mom placed her hand on Alec’s shoulder. He brushed it off as if it was a tarantula, and headed towards Jack and Gary. “Stay there,” he muttered to Jack and Gary. “Let’s go before the parents say or do something. Greg, bring my bags.”

“Dude, do I look like your valet? Get your own bags.” Greg shouldered his backpack and said good-bye to Alec’s parents.

“Alec,” his mom bellowed. “Alec Enfield, get back here and give your momma a kiss.”

“Sorry mom,” Alec shouted back. “No time. Running late, we’ve got to go.”

“Alec,” she huffed, and started down the lawn after her son. “You are gonna say good-bye to your mother.” She waddled after him, a mother hen herding a stray chick. As she went down to corral her son, Jack hurried up the lawn to get Alec’s backpack without any more trouble.

“Alec,” Alec’s dad called, “Say good-bye to your mom. Sometimes that boy has no respect,” he said to Greg and Jack. “And watch out for him,” he added to Jack. “He doesn’t have the experiences in the wild like you do.” He took off his glasses and cleaned them with the hem of his robe. “God, I wish I could go with you guys. What a great experience for y’all. A great experience.”

After extricating Alec from his mom’s red-eyed embrace and saying their final round of good-byes, they piled into the Willys and left the city.

They went west, wending their way up a narrow-cut valley into the mountains. The city dropped off slowly, houses here and there, streets and stoplights stripped away, until there was nothing but the asphalt and a stray sign warning of deer or falling rocks to suggest that anyone came back here. Mist tumbled down the sides of the valley the higher they went into the mountains—it wound round the ponderosa and spruce, and pooled on the edges of the road. Jack rolled his window down and breathed in the musk of pine and wet gravel. Rarely did he see it so misty here; it reminded him of Oregon and the Misty Mountains of Middle Earth.

“Looks like we traveled—” He started to say but stopped when he glanced in the rear view mirror and noticed both Alec and Greg asleep. Gary had been snoring since they drove past Manitou Springs, but Jack assumed that Greg and Alec were so taken aback by the beauty outside of their windows they were dumbstruck. Instead, he realized they were struck dumb by sleep. He let them sleep, slowed down, and kept one eye on the road, while letting the other roam over the mist-enshrouded forest.

“Where will we end up this morning,” he wondered. A Martian town with white picket fences? A world whirling with worms and spice and danger? He played this game whenever he was out in the fog—out hiking or on horseback or occasionally in the Willys. He would crest a hill, or take a sharp turn on a trail and imagine that he wound up in another world. Sometimes it was as simple as a pristine wilderness, while other times he imagined complex worlds stolen from films or books he read or whipped it wholly from his imagination. It was a simple way to pass the time on long backpacking trips or drives back-and-forth between Oregon and Colorado, but ever since Samantha died it had gotten worse, and the idle game became a greater desire to chuck it all and begin again somewhere utterly alien. He always had a longing for someplace else, somewhere else—he didn’t feel like he fit in here and that he really belonged elsewhere. His parents were immigrants. He never knew his mother, who left Jack and his father shortly after Jack was born, but they were both from a place his father always described as “far from here under another set of stars.” His dad never gave him the name of a country, so Jack assumed them were Romany, wandering people with a country. His dad never felt completely comfortable in the United States, and Jack often wondered if his discomfort and unease stemmed from his father’s struggles to feel at home in America.

He started singing Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” and as they came to the top of a hill he imagined that when they came down the other side there would be a roadless stretch of meadow speckled with wildflowers, unsullied by humankind. When they came down the other side there was a dew-dampened road with a barbed wire fence along the side where a herd of cattle milled about complacently. Jack waved to the cows and continued on down the desolate road, unsurprised, but as always a little disappointed.

They stopped for breakfast at a donut shop in a small mountain town. Jack stopped at a gas station to fill up and he heard rumblings inside the jeep. The abrupt halt awakened the three sleepers. Gary and Greg got out and stretched their legs, and Alec cracked his window and moaned through the crack, “I’m hungry. Hungry. We need breakfast soon or I’ll waste away.”

Gary, who was leaning against the jeep and smoking a cigarette, joined in. “Shoot, I’m pretty hungry too. I ain’t had nothing but coffee this morning. When are we planning to get breakfast?”

Alec moaned through the window of the jeep, “Breakfast.”

Jack glanced over at Greg who stood with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his leather jacket, his eyes glazed with sleep, watching the cars pass by on the small mountain road. “Shit, dude,” he said. “You want me to start bitching, too? I’m not stupid, I know how you are. I ate some pop tarts before we left.”

“Well, I was thinking that we’d get breakfast in Buena Vista—there’s a diner there with this waitress—”

“Buena Vista—that’s like a couple of hours from here, right?” Greg said.

Alec groaned. “I need to eat now. In a couple of hours I’ll be dead.”

Jack shook his head, knowing that if he didn’t feed them Alec and Gary now, there would be mutiny and a miserable two hour drive ahead of them. “Alright, alright. See up ahead there,” he pointed up the road to a small shingled barn. “They’ve got the best bear claws . . . and just great donuts. You guys head on up there, and I’ll finish up with Bessie,” he patted the jeep, “and meet you guys, okay.”

They grumbled about the walk and the chilly, damp air, but hunger outweighed their slight discomfort and they set off. Jack watched them go—Alec in the lead, frantic, he looked like Mr. Spock on speed, Greg just behind him, and Gary, content to know donuts were on the way, took up the rear, a plume of smoke trailing from him as he puffed his cigarette, the little engine that could.

He sighed, “First crisis of the trip narrowly diverted. How many more bullets am I going to have to dodge, hunh, Bessie?” He patted the jeep. While he waited for the gas tank to fill, he popped open the hatch to dig out his wineskins. There was a liquor store next to the gas station, and he decided now was as good a time as any to fill them—and himself—up. He dug through his backpack and found his, and then remembered the one from his dad’s. He lifted Alec’s and Greg’s backpacks, and rifled through the box when he found the knife.

He had forgotten about the knife, but upon seeing it again it was all he could think about. He unsheathed it, and it glowed with an uncanny sheen. The traffic hushed and the outlines of the buildings and road blurred. The fog tightened around him, and he felt like boy in a blanket fort—safe and powerful and when he popped his head out the world wouldn’t be what he knew, but what he wanted it to be, where he belonged. He ran his thumb along the flat of the blade, and was about to test the edge with his thumb when the gas pump made a thumping sound and then a click.

He sheathed the knife and stuck it into his backpack, and then went to the liquor store and bought a couple bottles of wine to fill the wineskins. After filling the wineskins and taking a few swigs himself, Jack finally caught up with Gary and the others. They sat at a long table made of lacquered pine with two boxes, each capable of holding a dozen donuts, on the table in front of them. Eighteen donuts remained—the remnants of at least one powdering Gary’s beard. Greg nodded and Gary waved. Alec, hunched over the box of donuts, paid no attention to Jack, his focus on choosing his next donut.

“Damn. You were right, Seyfair—these are some of the best bear claws,” Gary somehow managed to say coherently with a mouthful of donut. He chased it with coffee. “Damn fine coffee, too.”

“What can I say I know my donuts,” Jack replied. He picked up a bear claw and sat down next to Gary. The fog leered through the window, over Alec and Greg’s shoulder, leaving prints upon the glass. “Now the coffee . . . It’s not bad, but there’s this little shack on the coast of Oregon, just south of Tillamook—”

“Not one of your Oregon stories, c’mon dude,” Greg interrupted.

“Hold on,” Gary pointed his coffee mug at Jack, plashing coffee over the table. He didn’t seem to notice, but Alec glared at him and sopped it up with a napkin before it ran off into his lap. “I’m here to defend this gentleman’s honor. I spent that summer out there in Oregon at Jack’s place when I was thinking of moving out to Portland. He’s right. I had some kick-ass coffee out there. What about that diner—Leo’s? Yeah, that was fine coffee.”

“Wait, you went out to Oregon, I don’t remember this? Why didn’t you move out there. It’s gotta be better than here.” Greg said.

“Eh, It’s just another city . . . I couldn’t find a job, and so I came back here. They took me back at the hotel and they bumped me up—made me front desk clerk. Besides, if I had moved out there, I wouldn’t’ve met Callie.”

“What if. . .” Jack said. He paused and stared out the window, past the fog and the world around them. He snapped back and picked up a donut. “What if you could go anywhere. I don’t mean anywhere as just anywhere in the world or fuck, even the solar system. I mean anywhere you could imagine. What if after we leave here we get back on the road, and as we’re driving through the fog we end up somewhere else. Like, we crest Wilkerson Pass and as we come down on the other side we don’t find a road or a rest stop or houses or towns, but . . . another place.”

They all stopped for a moment of miraculous silence to consider the possibilities. Alec leaned back in his chair, his fingers tented, and snickered like the villain of a melodrama. Greg gazed pensively over Jack’s shoulder, his thin lips clenched as he stroked his Van Dyke beard. Gary sipped his coffee and chuckled, tapping his pack of cigarettes on the table, a rhythmic, shamanic drumming. Jack watched them all with a knowing smile. Elbows on the table, his coffee mug held like a bell, swinging to-and-fro soundlessly. In the span of seconds and within each young man’s mind stardust collected into planets and continents formed. Empires rose and fell and destinies followed.

“Do I have to be me?” he asked. Alec envisioned not only a new where but also, and to him more importantly, a new who—he cast himself as he did every time he and Greg played AD&D as a fearless and mighty warrior-wizard in a forgotten medieval land. He rode into a battle on the back of a horse, a flaming sword in each hand, breathing in the fear of his oppressors, now the oppressed.

“Well, yeah, that’s the whole point—”

“Pfft,” Alec dismissed Jack with the wave of a half-eaten donut and then jabbed it accusingly at him. “Where’s the fun in this if it’s still just me?”
Greg cut in before Jack responded. “Dude, what are you talking about? You want to get blasted by a dose of gamma radiation and turn into the Hulk? This would be your chance to be someone else. Think about it—we could get away from here and go someplace where we could have anything we desired. You can’t be content with just sitting around on your ass here in the Springs, this place is like a fucking prison.” Greg too, imagined a fantasy world. Instead of combat, though, he imagined bookshelves crammed with tomes and mystic ruins relinquishing their arcane secrets up to him. He craved power—brute, physical power, of course, but that was easily gained. What he longed for was magical power—with magic he could do anything. He hungered for wealth and status—all he needed was the means to gain it, and power—a combination of knowledge and strength, cunning and magic—was that means.

“What if there was nothing?” Gary said. “What if the world just decided to stop existing and we drove off into nothing . . . Now that would be wacky shit . . .” He knocked a cigarette out of his pack and stood up. “I’m off for a smoke, boys.”

The possibilities of what might be waiting in the fog animated the rest of their conversation at the donut shop. Coffee cups emptied and refilled, and the plashes and pools of coffee were left unnoticed and unattended. Aliens and extraterrestrials, cowboys and Indians played out a spectral warfare, ghosts and zombies hungry for soul and flesh—a menagerie of horrors paraded across the table, tromping and trudging through coffee spills and over donut crumbs.

Fueled up, they piled into the Willys. Alec curled up like a cat in the back of the Willys. Against the protestations of his co-campers, he unrolled and unstuffed their sleeping bags, piled them into a nest, and promptly fell asleep. With Alec in the very back, Greg stretched out along the length of the backseat and dozed as well. Only Gary remained awake to keep Jack company on the drive. They continued their conversation, passing the bottle of peach schnapps back and forth as they talked. Jethro Tull’s “Songs from the Woods” played in the background, the soundtrack to their talk.

“You never said what you’d expect to find on the other side of the fog,” Gary said.

“I’ve gotta say, Gary, just like those guys,” Jack waved the bottle in the direction of the back of the Willys. “I want to go someplace where I can get away from myself. Someplace where I can forget myself for awhile—like this bachelor party. Now why’d you say nothing? Not that I was surprised—it was a total Gary thing to say.”

Gary chuckled. “Because why does there have to be something on the other side of the fog. Why does there have to be anything?”

When they got to Wilkerson Pass, the fog was at its thickest and their bottle of peach schnapps was empty. Jack stopped the jeep at the top of the pass. He turned it off. Silence filled the jeep. Jack looked at Gary. “Well, we’re about to find out what’s down there.”
An uneasy laugh escaped from Gary. A groan slumped its way from the back and Alec’s head popped up from his sleeping bag cocoon. “Why are we stopping? Are we there?”

“We’re at the top of Wilkerson Pass, and we’re—“

“So we’re not there yet?”

“No.”

“Alright,” Alec burrowed back down into the bags. “Wake me when we get there. Better yet, wake me when this is over.”

Greg peered though his dewy window. The forest formed vague shapes in the gauzy fog, making it hard to tell where a boulder ended and a tree began, so that the landscape looked nebulous and unformed. The fog shifted and swirled, adding to the dreamlike quality. “It’s like something from a Lovecraft story out there . . . I’m just waiting for the Deep Ones—” He stopped talking and his face paled. “Hey,” he said. “Hey, I think . . . Something’s moving out there.”

Jack glanced over and Gary pressed his face to the window, his eyes wide. He locked his door. “Where?” Gary asked.

“Right over there . . .Look . . . I think it’s coming towards the car.”

There in the fog they made an amorphous figure shambling towards them. Brown against the fog, it was hard to tell if it was on four legs or two. The tips of what appeared to be talons or claws cut through the fog.

“Oh man, I think it’s got some kind of nasty demon claws. Jack, what do you think,” Gary turned to Jack. “Do we need to get out of here?”

Jack shook his head. Downcast, resigned to their fate, he replied, “Nope, there’s no helping us now. If we try to go it’ll only scare it and make things worse.”

“Well you’ve got to do fucking something,” Alec screamed from the back of the car, making everyone jump. He sat up, holding a sleeping bag around his head like a shawl. “I don’t want to die stuck in this piece-of-shit car of yours on this piss-poor excuse for a—hey . . . .”

Alec stopped talking. They froze. The thing came down through the fog to the road. The talons were antlers, and the shambling beast they feared would tear them apart, a deer, picking its way carefully across the road.

“It’s a twelve point buck,” Jack said.

Gary laughed, and then Greg joined him. Alec scowled and grumbled under his breath. “You knew all along didn’t you, Gary said.

“Yep,” Jack said. “C’mon,” he started the Willys. It rumbled and grumbled. The buck, startled, disappeared into the fog as quickly as it appeared. “Let’s go see what’s waiting at the end of the road for us.”

The Ravenloft Inn Rough Draft Chap. 1 Part 1

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted. A few months at least. I’ve been engrossed in rewriting my novel–or trying to turn the rough draft into a novel. With sleeves rolled up and a smudge of peanut butter and strawberry jam on the corner of my mouth, I sit hunched over my laptop tapping away. I thought I’d share the first chapter. It’s not much more than a rough draft either, for when I re-read my novel I realized it had no real beginning. What was the first chapter is now about seven or eight chapters in, and I’ve had to add about sixty pages to create a beginning. Here’s part of the new beginning. I’ll share a little more later this month.

Enjoy.

1

Jack held the blade up. Red ran down the blade as if with blood, as if by unsheathing it he had pricked the morning sun. He extended his arm, holding the knife out, cutting figure eights in the rising sun, so that the horizon grew redder and redder. The handle nestled into his fingers. Snug, it felt like an extension of his hand. He measured the balance and weight, and then tossed it up and down in the air, marveling at the craftsmanship. “Wherever did you come from?” he asked the knife.

He found the knife this morning as he rummaged through a box of his dad’s camping supplies. The friends he was going camping with had no supplies, so he knew they relied on him for camping gear. He got extra pots and pans, and then decided to make sure there wasn’t anything else he could use. Tucked at the bottom beneath a wineskin, he found it wrapped in a silk cloth. He unraveled it, expecting to find something of his mom’s accidently stored in this box; instead, he found the knife. The bare bulb illuminating the basement provided ill light to see by, but he could tell even in this semi-darkness, the quality and beauty of this knife. The handle was brown, the color of chocolate, and made from a wood—or maybe a bone—he did not recognize. In the pommel of the handle was a star sapphire cabochon that shone with a starry twinkle. He held the sheathed knife up into the light, studying the sapphire. It’s like another world in there, he thought. He stuffed it into the box of camping supplies he gathered and went upstairs to the balcony, where he could examine it comfortably and in better light.

His examination came to end when he heard his father crossing the kitchen floor. His father was a barrel of a man—squat and solid—who communicated more through his body than he did words. This morning, Jack could tell from his father’s footfalls, that he slept well. Jack sheathed the knife and slipped it into the box of camping supplies. By the time his dad slid open the sliding glass door to the balcony, Jack was hunched over his guitar, tuning it.

“Mornin’,” he said. His dad nodded and set down two cups of coffee on the balcony railing.

“Got everything you need?” he asked, eyeing the box of camping bric-a-brac. Jack nodded. His dad chuckled, and a smile peeked out through his beard. “Can’t believe that Gary’s getting married. After he asked her, how did she get him to stop talking long enough to say yes?”

“Who knows? She may still be waiting to give him her answer.” They laughed and drank their coffee.

“So you boys are going to the mountains for Gary’s bachelor party? You sure it’s a good idea? Between the three of them, I don’t think they’ll figure out how to roast a hot dog over a campfire, or get a campfire started.”

Jack laughed. “Gary shouldn’t have made me his best man, then. Look, I want to get them out of town for awhile—Gary and Alec have their heads buried in their video games, and Greg, well . . . Greg’s a mess. They need to get away from these distractions. Get away to the woods for some soul-searching. Maybe it’ll help them straighten their lives out.”

His dad said nothing in reply—instead, he drank his coffee and brushed his beard with his knuckles and watched the chickadees and sparrows assault the bird feeder for their morning breakfast. He need say nothing, for his eyes betrayed him. Jack saw in his dad’s eyes the worry and concern he had for Jack. He knew his dad had concerns about how well Jack took care of himself, let alone his friends.

Jack strummed a few notes on his guitar, the opening of Cat Stevens’s song, “Father and Son.” He played the Cat Stevens song, singing while his dad leaned back in his chair and lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply, and puffed out blue plumes to mix with the red petals of the rising sun. This had become a routine for them—Jack playing and his dad smoking and listening. Neither one could find the words to adequately talk with the other, so they relied on music—carrier pigeons shuttling messages between them. In this way they joked and fought and shared their feelings. Once Jack finished singing, his dad stubbed out the cigarette butt. He gave his son an amused look, and then began to sing.

When he spoke he sounded as if deep in a mine shaft, but when he sang it was as if he lay in a meadow atop a mountain peak. He sang folk songs in his native tongue—songs of mining and mountains, murder and betrayal, the beauty found deep in the heart of mountains and in women. His songs were earthly and ribald, lyric and romantic. This morning he sang a song about a young woman who lost her first love in a mining accident and who mourned him the rest of her life, forsaking all suitors, so that she died alone and cold and regretting her decision.

Jack accompanied his dad, picking the tune of the song and playing along. When they finished, they both wiped tears from their eyes, though his dad did so with a smirk. “You work too much. Distract yourself . . . take time to play. I think you need a woman—or someone—to share your life with. The mountains will be there long after you and I are gone. Your youth you only have today.”

Jack wanted to tell him that he had had plenty of “distractions” throughout college: from Diana with the blonde hair dyed black because she wanted to be taken as seriously as her straight teeth, and who left him when he gave her a bouquet of rose stolen from the Portland Rose Garden to Samantha with her crooked nose and teeth, and red hair always a mess and a laugh like a squeaky chair. Samantha, who smoked pot and shot smack and played Scrabble naked in the moonlight, and who drowned in the ocean right after he proposed to her. Samantha was the end of a string of crushes, flings, and one-night-stands. They had gone camping on the coast, just south of the Heceta Head lighthouse where he took her on her first date and they watched the sea lions flop and frolic on the rocks. He told her they were only going on a hike to celebrate her fourth month of being clean, but then led her down a brambly trail to the beach where a campsite candlelit by Chinese lanterns awaited them. He took his guitar—which he tucked away on the side of the trail—and sang her the song, “Suzanne,” but substituting her name. He stopped after the first verse, took the ring from his pocket, and without a word from him but a tearful “yes” from her, he placed it on her finger. They celebrated around the campfire with s’mores and champagne, and then, exhilarated and bursting with nervous energy she stripped down and leapt into the embrace of the ocean. Jack, blind with joy, watched her swim, and thought nothing as she faded in the distance while the stars above her grew brighter and brighter. By the time the worried and went out to find her, it was too late. She was gone. She washed up days later, found by a fisherman at the mouth of an inlet.

Since her death a year ago, Jack had to admit that he had immersed himself in his field work. His dad knew nothing about Samantha, let alone any of the women he dated. He worried that school and spending time alone in the woods had broken Jack, and Jack let him think that—he didn’t want to try and explain everything to his dad, who was more a stranger to him than some of his professors. Theirs was a working relationship, and had always been so—Jack kept up his grades and his countless extracurricular activities—horseback riding, fencing, archery, guitar lessons, even etiquette—while his father kept Jack on task. He was more a mentor or a trainer than a father. Only when Jack went away to college did he and his father begin to have something of a relationship, but more like friends than father-and-son.

“When I get back, dad . . . When I get back I promise I’ll hose myself off and become a respectable gentleman, and then I’ll go out and find myself a bonny bride. Why, I’ll be sure to run off with one of Callie’s bridesmaids—maybe a pair of them.”

His dad chuckled, and the wrinkles in his weathered face all smiled, though his eyes held fast to his concern. “One more song, before you go.” He lit another cigarette in anticipation.

Jack fingered the neck of his guitar, feeling the strings to see what song he would find in them. He watched the birds flitting about the birdfeeder, and then settled in the sunrise, the scarlets and oranges and pinks. Finally, he found a song. Once he found it, he couldn’t think of any others, couldn’t remember any other chords but these. He played “Sugar Mountain,” by Neil Young, letting it reveal itself slowly, as slowly as the sun rose, and with as much beauty. When he finished, he sat back and drank his coffee while his father stared at him, uncertain what to think.

They sat there in silence, drinking their coffee, his dad smoking. His dad finished his cigarette. Jack finished his coffee. They smiled, shook hands and said their goodbyes. Jack loaded the box containing the pots and pans, odds and ends, and the knife, into his Jeep Willys. He checked over his gear one more time, waved at his dad who stood on the porch, and then got in and drove off to pick up his friends.

Jack considered what his dad said and what he read in his dad’s eyes as he drove to Gary’s apartment. Maybe he’s right, he thought. Maybe I’m being selfish by dragging them into the mountains. They’re going to hate spending a few nights there, but it’s going to be good for them. They need this. I’ve got everything packed . . .
He groaned and slapped the steering wheel. He is right. They’ll find some way to kill themselves out there—Gary’ll get drunk and fall in the fire, Greg will do something stupid like chase after a bear, and Alec? Alec will die from starvation because we didn’t bring enough to eat, or keel over from a heart attack when he mistakes a pine branch with a pinecone attached for a rattlesnake. Why? Why did I have to come back? I need music. That’s what’s wrong here.

Jack popped in the tape sticking out of the tape deck. The middle of Neil Young’s “Old Man” began playing, and he immediately ejected and yanked the tape out. “Damnit, the mopey bastard mix? That I don’t need right now.” He tossed it onto floor of the passenger’s side of the car. He fished through his box of tapes, found another one. He popped this tape in and found himself drowning in a Whiskey River with Willie Nelson. “Thanks, Willie.”

He pulled up to Gary’s apartment building recharged by Willie and ready with a new plan—they would spend one night in the mountains camping, and then the remaining two nights would be spent at his dad’s house drinking, eating delivery pizza, watching movies, and playing “Samurai Swords” and video games. Exactly how those guys spent every night of their lives, and exactly how he knew they would want to spend any celebration.

Gary and his fiancée lived in downtown Colorado Springs in an apartment building reminiscent of an English manor. When Jack pulled up, he saw Gary lounging on the steps leading up to the front door of the building, smoking a cigarette and reading a beat-up paperback, a thermos of coffee at his side. An army duffel bag slumped at his feet. Beside it was a red backpack. In his red plaid flannel shirt, ripped and faded jeans, and hiking boots, he looked like Brawny lumberjack down on his luck. Gary took a drag from his cigarette and waved. He and Gary had been best friends since high school, and though they chose different paths after high school—Jack went away to college for biology while Gary saw no point in college, and continued working at the hotel where he began as a room service delivery in high school, eventually becoming head front desk clerk—he still grinned when he saw him. Gary made him laugh, and posed questions to him that would’ve stumped most of his professors. They could, and often did, talk for hours—though Gary did the majority of the talking, while Jack listened, feeding him more questions or sometimes responding as Devil’s advocate. Sometimes, Jack would play guitar, musical accompaniment to Gary’s logorrhea, and the rhythm of Gary’s speech would harmonize with Jack’s playing, so that it became something of a song.

“Hey,” Jack shouted as he walked up the stone pathway to Gary. “Decent, hardworking people live here. The soup kitchen’s down the street a few blocks.” He took a quarter from his pocket and flipped it. It landed on Gary’s duffel bag. “Go buy yourself a cup of coffee.”

Gary chuckled, and began to respond when a young woman came out of the building and cut him off. “You’re just jealous because you could never pull off this look.”

“Good morning, Callie,” Jack said. Gary stood up when he heard her come out of the apartment building. Callie smiled and shivered as she sauntered barefoot onto the stoop. She carried a pack of Lucky Strikes from which she drew a cigarette. She set the pack down on the nearest window ledge, and then leaned against his back. She rested her chin on his shoulder as she reached around and fished in his shirt pockets for a lighter.

“I need you to take care of him, Jack, okay? Don’t let anything to happen to him. If he doesn’t come back in one piece, you’d better have a tuxedo ready ‘cause I’m not letting my wedding dress go to waste.” She winked, and gave Gary a kiss on the cheek. If anyone could challenge Gary to a talk-off, it was Callie. Jack joked about how much Gary talked, but Callie rivaled him, word-for-word, syllable-for-syllable. She was one of the few forces that could bring Gary’s jaw to a standstill. She lit her cigarette and then sat back on the wide concrete railing.

“What? I was counting on Gary to take care of me.” Jack replied.

“Shit,” Gary said, knocking a cigarette loose from his pack and propping it between his lips. “The only Jack I’m taking care of on this trip is Jack Daniels.”

“Seriously, look after him, Jack.” Callie said, pointing her cigarette at Jack. Jack waited for her to make a joke, to toss out a barbed bon mot, but she took a drag from her cigarette.

Jack bowed. “I will do everything I can to ensure his safety, my lady.” Jack picked up Gary’s duffel bag. “Come along, my prince—your chariot awaits . . . to drop you off at the railyard where you can wait with all the other hoboes for your ride out of here.” Gary began to walk with an affected air, as if he were a king sauntering to his throne, until it sank in that Jack had made the crack about hoboes, to which stopped walking and laughed, “You are a bastard, Jack.”

Callie slipped down from the concrete railing and gave them both hugs, and then kissed Gary. “I love you. Try to keep the stupidity to a minimum.” She held him at arm’s length and looked him over. “This . . . this is how I expect you to return. Maybe dirtier and more disheveled, but with all your limbs intact and functioning, and as handsome as you are now. Well, maybe you could come back a little more handsome.” She said with a sly smile.

With Gary’s duffel bag loaded, they waved their last good-byes to Callie and left to pick up Alec and Greg. Gary watched Callie recede in the passenger side view mirror of the Willys—she waved, and her blouse and gypsy skirt fluttered in the breeze along with the leaves and the branches of the oak trees in the front of their apartment building, so that it seemed as if all of the entire apartment complex joined Callie in wishing him “bon voyage.”

Gary kept his eye on Callie, refusing to let go of her image in the mirror. The farther they drove, the more indistinct Callie became, until she was indistinguishable from the rest of the landscape, no more than a speck of dust. He held onto that speck of dust as if it was the last grain of sand of Fantasia. “Damn . . . You know, this is the longest I’ll be away from Callie in the four years we’ve been together. We haven’t taken a vacation apart—let alone more than a night—since we met at Denny’s. Remember that story? When me and Allen were just hangin’ out philosophizin’ in our usual booth, and Callie and her friend Amber came over ‘cause they hears us talkin’ and loved listening to us, and I got so nervous I spilled my strawberry shake all over my basket of fries. I told her I always ate them that way, and they are pretty good like that, too. Allen thought that Callie liked him best, ‘cause she sat next to him and laughed at his jokes, but when we decided to leave, she—”

Jack nudged him, and Gary turned away from the mirror. As he did, the grain of sand that was Callie slipped from view and with it his train of thought. Jack held out a small bottle of peach schnapps. “I think it’s time that we begin this bachelor party,” Jack said.

“Hell yeah,” Gary said and took a healthy swig from the bottle.

As he did, Jack popped a tape in the tape cassette and the riveting bass of the Descendents thrummed through the Willys. Gary grinned and nodded his approval. Not another word was spoken as they passed the bottle of schnapps back and forth and sang along with Milo. He forgot the speck in the mirror as the alcohol washed away his trepidation about leaving Callie. This is shaping up to be a mighty fine bachelor party, he thought.