Archive for July, 2014

Storytime: Having a Blast.

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

I was mad as hell and I wasn’t going to take it anymore. I was sick of being last to the table. I was tired of always being the little guy, getting pushed down. And because of these and ten thousand other clichés I walked into the dark, cool store (the doors went ‘ding’), walked past ten thousand machines of death to the counter, and told the clerk: “I want a bomb.”
The clerk blinked at me. It was a last-second swerve out of what had blatantly begun as a pair of rolled eyes. “Yes, sir. That is what we sell. What kind of bomb do you want?”
I hesitated. “A good one. Something that’ll take out as much as possible.”
“A bit… broad of a request there, sir. Our payloads vary greatly. I can give you a nice little piper that’ll take out a large Humvee, or a wad of C4 that’ll take out a skyscraper if placed correctly. However, as I can see that you’re new to this, perhaps a simple detonator pack would be nice? The controls are quite simple, and you can ensure your complete safety from the blast zone at your leis-”
“That,” I interrupted him, “is not one of my concerns.”
“Oh,” he said. And this time he did roll his eyes, the unshaven little git, quick-like so he thought I wouldn’t notice. “One of THOSE kind of bombs, huh? Right, right. Well, it literally is your right.”
He took me to a side shelf in a dimly-lit corner whose ugly chunky contents were not improved by the obscuring gloom, and he began to list names.
“The Patriot, the Retort, the Screaming Eagle, the Fourth of July, the STFU, the Rolling Thunder, the Porky…”
“Set it off and th-th-th-that’s all folks.”
I frowned. “I don’t get it.”
I wasn’t looking at the clerk, but I could tell he was rolling his eyes again. I let it pass. “Look, I have eight grand in the bank, and I won’t be spending it tomorrow. What can I get for that?”
Five minutes later I stepped into the sunlight again (‘ding’), seven thousand nine hundred and forty-three dollars lighter and one chest-mounted triple-reinforced water-resistant FDA-approved extra-hi-payloaded ergonomically-supported bomb secured to my chest. The sun sparkled on it in approval, the pedestrians nodded their admiration, and the little rubberized EZ-grip dead-man’s-switch felt nice and solid in my sweaty hand.
The world was my oyster, and I knew exactly where to start prying.

The sign on my workplace was heavy and dull and grey, just like the inside of the building. And just like the building, it aimed to disappoint.
CLOSED DUE TO GAS LEAK. How was that fair? How was that fair? The one goddamned day I go and get the bomb and the boss goes home because he’s CLOSED DUE TO GAS LEAK, fuckin’ Eddie from the cube across me is sitting in his swishy apartment because of CLOSED DUE TO GAS LEAK, the secretary that always pretends I don’t exist when I’m talking is CLOSED DUE TO GAS LEAK. Fuck, I didn’t even know where half of them lived. Maybe I should’ve bought six or seven pipe bombs and a copy of the yellow pages – no, no, no. Breath, damnit. I could still make this work. Maybe I couldn’t make it work like I’d figured it would, but I could still make it work.
The kebab stand where I’d been short-changed six times wasn’t there today either. Damnit. I could’ve even had a last meal, and for once I wouldn’t have had to worry about the runs.
My ex wasn’t answering her phone. Double-damnit, probably at work then.
Dad was safely under six feet of sod.
Mom was somewhere in Cuba, and I doubted I could get a plane ticket for six bucks and a nickel.
Maybe that guy on Facebook? Yeah, the one who’d left all those smarmy comments on that perfectly reasonable article I linked. Yeah, fuck that guy. Where’d he live again?
Some quick phone-work told me that it was a four-hour drive out of town. Fuck, I didn’t want to drive for four hours just to blow myself up. I was expecting to do this half an hour ago, and my thumb was getting sore on the deadman switch. What if I just let it slip for a second changing hands on the wheel halfway there and blew up on an empty stretch of highway between Bumfuck and Fuckall? Worthless. A waste of money.
I realized I’d been pacing in circles for two minutes straight on the same street corner. Fuck. Got to pull myself together. Right. So personal’s out. What’s left? Dramatic. Where’s dramatic?
My eyes roved through downtown. Skyscraper after skyscraper. Just pick one of the big ones. Or… the tower! Yeah, take out the tower, take out a monument! That’d be good.

“I’m sorry sir, but this simply isn’t possible.”
The ticketmaster was polite, professional, calm, and entirely unsympathetic.
“Look, it’s just one bomb. Just ONE bomb.”
“Sir, only guests in possession of a fully paid membership can bomb the tower on scheduled appointments, weekends only as weather permits. It’s one of the tallest freestanding structures in the world; policy prohibits random bombings.”
I sighed. “Could you just… not tell anybody? Say I snuck by you?”
“Sir, I’m sorry, but I will not risk my job for you. And there are cameras.”
“Right. Right. Fine. Fuck. Sorry.”

The biggest skyscrapers belonged to the banks.
“No non-employees outside the lobby, sir.”
“Five minutes?”
“No non-employees outside the lobby, sir.”
The security guard took two steps closer. If I craned my head, I could see the glisten of the interior lighting on his teeth.
“No non-employees outside the lobby. Sir.”

I sat on the street corner. My thumb was really hurting now. I hoped it wasn’t a cramp.
What was left? Try to bomb the stadium? No… I couldn’t afford a ticket. Maybe the zoo? No, ticket. Everyone I wanted to bomb was missing, and every other fucking thing worth bombing in this city had a fucking entry fee fuck fuck fuck damnit shit PISS!
Maybe I should just bomb myself. Go home and bomb the house. Leave a note or something. Last resort. Or I could get my money back. Walk up to that smirking asshole with a patch of scruff pretending to be a third of a beard and hand him back his gadget and get my money back and feel him rolling his fucking eyes at me as I walk off…
Well, that was right in front of my face now, wasn’t it?


Storytime: Fish in the Sea.

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

There was sand in my mouth.
Sand in my eyes, too. Sand in my ears. Maybe I was sand entire and I just hadn’t noticed it ‘till now.
“Breathe, friend.”
I creaked open one eyelid and was met by sand. I decided that was enough and didn’t bother with the other.
“No,” I said. Creaked. Then I coughed out some of my lung-sand and made myself clearer. “No. Not ill.”
“Ill or sleeping? Was what one once was now the other? But both. Maybe.”
How about crazy? The last thing I needed now was crazy, but then again I WAS shipwrecked and still alive, so perhaps I was being choosy. Besides, my host sounded crazy enough for both of us.
“Drink, friend. The ground clots you. Clear it.”
I rolled my head. The view went from sand to black. “I can’t see.”
“Wash, friend. Take liquid life. Rinse clean your self and soul.”
“Can’t see it.”
“By your limbs. Use your limbs, friend.”
I flailed blindly, felt dampness and heard a trickle at the end of one arm, then bellyflopped at it. My face hit cool comfort, and I almost forgot the need for air in the glory of its wash against my eyes. Its taste was sour and blackened, tinged with bitter salt. I’d never drank anything so wonderful.
“You gasp greatly. Good. Take your air, friend. Take your water.”
I stared back up at the world and this time I saw it. Black still, but with twinkling holes pocked against it. Night-time. Night on a beach who knew where at the far end of the world. Almost alone.
One more question to ask then, as the edges of it all blurred together.
“No. Your name.”
The stars were sinking away into the depths. “Friend.”

When the world came back it was cheerier, and my skin felt like it had been scalded to the beach underneath me. The sun was well below noon and I already felt like I’d been thrown into a furnace.
“Friend, move.”
I squinted at the sky and wondered if any of my bones were broken. “Can’t.”
“Must, friend. Shift your self and come to me. Up and past the place of sun, where selfish rays sear rightful skin. Hurry or burn. Your self must not burn.”
I moaned and whinged a bit more, but the voice was like a dagger in my ear and it had a lot more patience than I did. Soon I was crawling, soon after that I was toddling, then staggering.

It wasn’t much of an island.
You couldn’t spit across it, that’s the most you could say for it. But you could probably shout from one end to the other and get a reply longer than ‘say what?’
Sand. Sand and dead fish and at its heart the saddest, shortest collection of plant life I’d ever seen outside of a Gelmorre noblewoman’s private botanical garden. At least those had looked proper the size they were. This was just sad. A sun-lashed coconut stared glumly at me, topped by a withered sprout that should’ve been a sapling my height and a half. Bushes settled for ankle-scrub. Grasses lay horizontally, prostrated against the ground in utter defeat.
“Here, friend.”
I raised my gaze from the ground to meet the one landmark of the whole island, surrounded by its little green mockery of an oasis.
“Lay your self in its shade, and bask in its dusk. Cool your self carefully and the day will not daunt you.”
“It’s a rock.”
That was unfair. It was smooth-sided, jet black, and if it didn’t spiral into the sky it certainly slipped there; a giant snubbed cone. Lopsided and grooved, but elegant. A good rock, not just a rock.
More importantly, Friend wasn’t lying about the shade. I could practically feel the skin peeling itself back together as I sat in it. Gods and little turtles it was hot out there.
Smell wasn’t much better though. I might have lived through the storm, but a thousand fish hadn’t been so lucky. Kindly of them to tag along.
“Food soon, friend. Wait a moment, and the meal shall make its way. Let the sun sink.”
I laid back my head against the rock. “What am I eating?”
“Fish, friend.”
Of course. “They’re all dead.”
“Yes, friend. But there are always more fish.”

There were. And they were delicious. Still-gasping, but delicious. The tide-pool that had given me my sight back now fed me dinner. Their blood was even sweeter than its water, and the flesh put a banquet to shame. My own saliva was all the sauce I required to aid the meal, and by its end I felt well enough to first think of a question, then ask it.
“Are you real?”
The wind didn’t answer me; there was none. I suppose if there had been, I wouldn’t have been wrecked.
“Yes, friend.”
I relaxed a little. Whatever rules had governed the last day of my life were still in play, even if they were mad ones. “Right. Are you… me? Am I just talking to myself?”
“You speak to souls inside your self’s skull, friend. There are no words between friends such as we. Air obfuscates. We flow thought thickly, as fluid.”
I felt a headache coming on. “So… you’re inside my head?”
“No place fitter for a feeble thought. A memory lacks without mind.”
“I’m imagining things then?”
“As much as your self ever seemed to, friend.”
If I had to have hallucinations I was fine with them being the helpful kind. I’d heard no end of poets and writers claiming that their best ideas always seemed to strike them as having come from something outside their control; apparently my own inspiration had used the current crisis to personify itself.
“Fine then,” I said. “For now I’m going to imagine sleep.”
“Dream gently, friend. Tonight we plan our pilgrimage.”

A coconut is surprisingly heavy.
Dune grasses are tenaciously rooted.
Sand shrubs are composed almost entirely of thorns.
These are things I learned that evening as I roamed around the stone at the center of the little island, plucking, picking, heaving, and occasionally chewing. Everything had to come out by the roots, everything had to either go into my belly or the ocean. Or so I was told. Not that I went unquestioningly.
“This is pointless.”
“Food, friend.”
“There are always more fish, right?”
“There are always more fish.”
“So why this?”
“You will need strength, friend. Fish alone will fail to fuel your self, and a strong self will make no matter without a plan.”
“Going to tell me that plan soon? I’m not eating the ones in the ocean.”
“Free the sands to slide. Unshackle them through uprooting. They pin what must be penetrated.”
I looked at the ground. Sand grains, nothing but sand grains. “If we get rid of this stuff, there won’t even be an island left.”
“And the storm that sunk your ship was a sky-glimmer missed by a lonely lookout. The significant underlie the small, friend.”

I dug. I scrabbled. I bled more than once, probably more than a dozen times, but not enough to keep serious count. I slept in the shade and laboured under the moon. I ate flesh and scraggly greens and soon found myself short of both.
“Done,” I said. And not a moment too soon. My belly felt as though it had swollen into a bowling ball from matted leaves, and my hands were raw from fingertips to palms.
“Tonight we change, friend.”
“The sand stirs, rid of rough roots and green anchors. Unearth your shade-maker that has shielded your self. Dig and delve.”
The stone was warm against my palms. The sand was hot enough to pain.
“You sure this will work?”
“As sure as a stray notion can be, friend. What other option has opened?”
I sighed. The only downside of being crazy was the back-talk you got from yourself.
The sand was rough. Soon I missed the thorn-bushes.

“How much of this is down here?”
I looked up. The pit’s edges were level with my eyes already. Not that it showed half the effort of digging the damned thing; the sides kept caving in. Not a speck of dirt had passed by underneath my hands; this was a sandbar that had dreamed of more. I wondered if I’d ruined those dreams forever by destroying this little green fortress at its heart. There sure as hell didn’t seem to have been much more than that holding the sand in place.
“A better answer?”
“More, friend.”
“You know, I could starve to death doing this. Not like there’s more plants.”
“Fish, friend.”
“It’s been half a week since the storm.”
“There are always more fish, friend.”
“Dead, rotting ones?”
I used precious moisture to spit into the sand. It felt right. But then again, so did digging this hole, so who knew?

The crack was thin, but things like that are relative. Thin for the size of the stone, certainly. But I could fit my fingers in it, and my toes, and that mattered a lot with the amount of tugging I was trying to do.
“Harder, friend. You must intrude inside.”
“Push powerfully, it is only inertia that holds it hard. Your muscles must make the balance bend. Push.”
I creaked out a curse in time with the groan of my spine, felt a shiver quake through me, then collapsed. For half a heartbeat I was sure that I’d just snapped my back, then I realized I wasn’t dead. If I were dead, it’d smell better.
“You are inside, friend. Is your self sustained?”
I blinked up at the sun, pinched between two black walls of rock. Then I blinked again, and it was gone.
Total darkness.
“Good. Move most quickly.”
Black above, black below, dark all around and the smell of brine and rot screaming through each nostril and soaking into my down to the bone. “Where?”
“Use your limbs, friend.”
I felt through a coating that I hoped was dead, decayed fish and not something worse.
“I don’t-“
The floor moved, and when I stopped rolling I was in an echoing hall. The world was made of slime and stone. The air moved, but not from any wind.
“Where?” I said, and coughed. My breath was caking itself in my throat. It felt like when the storm came again; the same feeling of the world turning rigid and cold around you as something impossibly large approached.
“Forward, friend; faster, friend. On and on and on. Down, friend, down. Deeper.”
I moved forward, I moved faster, I moved down, and I scrambled until the bad air was left behind me and I was crawling down a jellied tube that led to another tube through a hole in a wall that shouldn’t have been there. My hands and knees and arms and legs were matted and streaked with a dozen different fluids, and all of them stank of dead seawater.
I fell down, and I landed in a new space, a light space. Soft glow crept into my eyes, just enough to let me smear the muck from their lids.
The room was cramped, and large enough to fit a house in. Pulp and mass filled it, stretched wall to wall in a loop that twisted over and over and over, an endless loop with a single side. It was spinning, the room was spinning. Was that me, or my eyes? It couldn’t be spinning.
“There, friend. Take fingers and fleetness and beset it, best it. Brighten it.”
I moved towards the light. Staggered. I must not have had enough fish before I came. Stupid, really. So much fish. All I had to do was reach out and find another, but I’d stayed my hand. Stupid. I tried to tell Friend how stupid I’d been, but my throat was a solid mass.
“Take it. Take it. Take it. Take it. Please, friend. Please.”
I stopped. The light had a handle now, right within reach. The handle belonged to a blade, a harpoon with a whalebone shaft my height and more. I couldn’t imagine the arm that had hurled it. Hurled it at this thing. This thing, whatever it was. Why was it here? Why was I here?
Why was I only now just thinking this thought?
“Please, friend. Take it. Take it and escape, mind free to flee as far as may be. Free as all must be. Use your fingers, friend, for I have none. Leave, and leave laughing, but do not leave yet. Please, friend.”
I pulled, and as I did so, I realized that my hand had already been on the shaft.
It grated loose with a syrupy, wrenching noise. And as it fell from my numbed fingers, sliding free from the brain, I felt Friend slide free from mine.

“Thank you, friend.” The voice was a hurricane forced through a pinhole, a giant trying to whisper. It was clawing at the inside of my head, my fingers scrabbling pathetically at my ears to keep it out. There were sounds behind it; the slosh of sea-blue blood beginning to beat in veins big enough to swim through; the thud of triple hearts kicking into a steady beat of five-a-minute. The smooth-sided, jet-black beak beginning to gnash and grind against itself. Arms were stirring out in the water, beginning to thrash entire currents into being. So many arms.
“Let me out,” I managed. I think I managed. My words were small and easily lost in its own. “I helped. Why won’t you let me out? Why?”
The world was falling away again, so quickly. But the voice was inescapable, and I couldn’t have missed its final words dead or alive.
“I am grateful to you, friend. But there are always more fish.”

Storytime: A Legacy.

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Hundreds of years ago, not many miles from this spot – this one, right here – there lived a warmaker, a powerful general with no heart and a lot of spite and a thirsty ambition that drank blood like water.
This was not unusual at the time. Nor was it unusual when that warmaker laid low a city or two, not far from here at all. Nor when she had the subjects of that city paraded in front of her in chains and hobbles, with the skulls of their leaders smouldering in a great brazier-banner. What WAS unusual was what that warmaker did next.
“Bring me their architects,” she said.
This took some time, but after an hour or so and some beatings, she was presented with a hundred or so men and women. Some were thin, some fat, some old, some young. Most were terrified, a few were numb.
“I have destroyed your people because I am great and they were small,” declared the warmaker, from atop the small sturdy wooden stool that served as her throne. “And I wish this to be commemorated. You will build for me a monument, the grandest that has ever been raised. It will measure no less than eleven hundred tro in height, and of sufficient width to support this, tapering as it rises. There will be braziers for the skulls of defeated armies. There will be a grand mirror to shine the sun back at the sky, so that it knows that I am its match. This will be done.”
The warmaker watched the eyes of the architects carefully as her words ended. Then she pointed with her little steel knife.
“Him. Him. Her. Her. Her. Him. Her. Him. And those four. Do it.”
Small, sharp blades made fast motions.
“The rest of them, bring them shelter and food. And plenty of parchment. Their work begins.”

The monument took shape as clay on a potter’s wheel, spun out of stone and suffering on the backs and beneath the hands of ten thousand tired slaves. In their tent the architects brooded and bickered and learned and somehow pieced together a plan of a million parts without killing each other. And day by day, a shadow of their own making rose a little higher in the sky over their heads.
On the fifth year of its construction, horns and drums roared down from the hills. The warmaker had returned at the head of a groaning host, laden with several king’s ransoms of treasure carried in the unlikeliest kind of chest.
“The islands of Nilaa are mine,” she declared, “crushed between a hurricane and my men. This was their flagship, the Gorkoko. Hang it entire from the monument. Let their precious jewels shine for the sky’s amusement.”
The Gorkoko was three hundred tro long, and had never left the embrace of the water in its life until now. The architects became shipwrights from necessity, and the monument’s plans were destroyed and remade, its scale redoubled. The winches that hauled the Gorkoko to its resting place took three years to forge, and were hauled upon with miles of rope, scores of pulleys, and thousands of men and horses.
It hung just below where the monument’s former peak would’ve been, a dejected old beast. The architects felt its sour gaze upon them each morning.

On the twelfth year of construction, the air rattled again with the sound of marching men and ringing instruments, and the warmaker had her architects gathered once again. They stood at the head of her army, and they saw that each soldier carried another on his or her back.
“This is the army of the Mrtami,” she said, and she shrugged the two bodies she had carried atop her own shoulders to the ground. “And this was their general and their queen. Grant them crypts within the monument, armour and all. Let them not know the peace of their precious dirt, let the birds mock their tombs.”
The Grand Army of the Mrtami – the Grey-Clay Army, as they had known it – held more than fifty thousand men. Each casket, each tomb, was designed by hand. Each body was mummified by the dry air and the heat. Each was sealed away in a great wall that stretched up what was now the main trunk of the monolith, high in the sky.

On the twentieth year of construction, the warmaker brought the broken spires of the Citadel of Jhe, and demanded they be reborn as wings of the monument.

On the twenty-eighth year, the warmaker had the Six Kings of Selkorr decapitated, and each of their heads was placed in a sepulchre within the monument shaped to resemble its own misery-filled face a thousand times its size.

On the thirty-ninth year, the blood of every single horse of Hynm – a line of battle-bred steeds six hundred years old and more – was brought in iron basins, and placed within a great glass globe to dangle nine hundred tro above the lonely and desiccated frame of the Gorkoko.

On the fifty-seventh year, the skulls of the warmaker’s four daughters and three sons who had sought to usurp her were placed in a great brazier thirty hundred tro above the ground, along with all of their children.

And on the sixty-fourth year of construction, the warmaker came to the monument with her army, the empress of a continent, and looked up at it with rheumy eyes that stared harder than cold stone.
“Is it done?” she asked. “Is it done? Where is Glaglin? Summon Glaglin. I must know if it is done.”
A murmur travelled through the crowd of architects, drifting from end to end and back again, and at length it emerged that Glaglin had expired of old age six years ago.
“What of Telll? Niminsor? Ribst? Where are they? I must know if my monument is done.”
Dead and gone, old and dead, and passed away in the winter’s cold.
The warmaker clawed at her thin grey hair, fingers losing skin against her iron crown. “Anyone? Is there anyone at all? There must be one! I chose you, I chose you all! Why are you all strangers!”
“Not all,” said one. Grey Genless had arrived, carried in the arms of two slaves. “Not all, though I am the last you chose. Our children plan now, and our grandchildren learn from them.”
The warmaker’s gaze wavered, trying to find a face it knew in all those wrinkles. “Do they do it well?”
“As well as ever we did.”
“Yes. Yes of course. But then… but then when? When will it be done?”
Genless shrugged. “We are nearing the summit. The capstone will be finished before the month is out. We had planned to dispatch a messenger before the week ende-”
“Too soon!” said the warmaker. “Too soon! It can’t be done! Not now! There must be more!” Her legs shook as she slid off her horse, but anger kept her upright as she marched to the monument’s stone base, where the stone blocks stood as tall as houses. She craned back her neck and looked up until it hurt. “There has to be more! There has to be!”
“But lord, we have received no word of additions.”
The warmaker’s arm was old, but anger gave it speed. The little steel knife tasted blood for the first time in a decade from Genless’s chest, and the architect’s life slipped out of her with no more than a small sigh.
“There will be more!” shouted the warmaker at the architects, at her army, at the world. “There will be! I will see to it! There will be a, a tomb for this one, yes! A tomb for all of you! Yes, that’s it! Craft a sky-cage and seal your bones into it, and make it large enough to hold a cathedral!” She slipped, caught herself on the foundation, felt her bones shake, and she glared up at her monument as though it was pure poison. “There must be more, and there will be more! I will see to it! I will!” And the warmaker drew back her arm and drove her old, old fist into the foundation stone with force to shatter bones.

It was a very small thing, a tiny wave, a little ripple. But it travelled up, up, and up,
past the stones
past the treasure-filled Gorkoro
past the Grey-Clay army’s rest
past the still-crumbled spires of Jhe
past the tombs of the Six Kings
past the great globe holding the blood of the dead horses of Hynm
past the ever-lit brazier where the warmaker’s sons and daughters smouldered
and it reached at last the unfinished peak, where a single stone lay idle and loose, left by the hand of a tired slave.
It tipped.

Ten thousand tro below it landed, and it shattered at the feet of the warmaker.
She blinked in surprise, blood flowing into her eyes from a stray shard. She couldn’t see, but she could hear shouting. The horns and drums were sounding retreat. She hadn’t called for a retreat. She’d never called for a retreat. What was happening? She pawed at her eyes. What was happening?
And she never knew, for as the warmaker stood there, pawing at her eyes, her monument fell, and it fell with the slow, endless majesty of the enormous. The world could’ve ended and begun again in the time it took for the last stone to tear itself loose, but it was still impossible to outrun. It swallowed up the warmaker, the army, the little bluff with the architect’s tent, the architects themselves, and last of all itself. A valley had become a field of broken stone.

The empire fell too, as empires are fated to do. Kingdoms arose from its corpse, fell, rose again. History books mentioned it in passing, lied about it, corrected themselves, told new lies.
The monument itself went on unmentioned and unknown to all save a few. A small village of shepherds moved in not far away, but they were not builders, and their homes were fashioned from straw and clay. They never asked what the field of stones was made for, and in time rain, wind, and sun covered it with dirt, then grass, and the question became moot.
Sheep grazed on its surface. A boy watched them idly, pleasantly half-cooked in the mid-day sun. His eye halted, catching sight of something shining in the grass. A quick rummage brought it to the surface from the soil, but disappointment followed. Useless.
The warmaker’s blade was returned to the dirt, covered carefully with several large stones so that nobody might cut themselves on it. And the boy went home, and the world walked on without it.

Storytime: Hot Stones.

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Illeq was angry, and angry meant stomping, and stomping meant grumbling and wincing and twitching as your soft leather shoes hit something jagged or jabby with more force than necessary. This led to being angry, which lead to stomping, and thus the cycle continued. Stomp wince gripe ouch stomp whine kick swear and so on and so on and on until she walked into a stone that came up to near her knees and skinned herself quite badly on it.
“Pzessering faqqur!” she yelled, and she kicked it. This did not help, although it launched several of the smaller stones sitting atop it with considerable force into the tall grass of the mountain meadow.
“Ow,” she added.
“Ow,” agreed the grass.
“Who’s there?”
“Me,” said a small, wretched, and generally sad voice. “Me’s here. And a bump on my head, too. Someone is throwing rocks.”
“That’d be me,” said Illeq. “Sorry.”
“Oh, it’s alright,” said the voice. “It wasn’t much of a home anyways.” Its owner slipped out of the grass and stared up at Illeq from just about her ankles. It was a salamander, a little fiery serpent with legs not much less stubby than an otter’s and big red eyes that made her think of that wolf puppy that her brother Nabb was raising.
“I kicked over your home?” asked Illeq, appalled.
“No, no. Just a half-home. I was stacking these stones, you see. But I can’t burn bright enough to make them stick.” It made a little crackling noise like an ember snapping in its throat. “And I can’t burn bright enough to make hot-rock properly, and I can’t burn bright enough to make a mate happy, and everyone laughs at me. So that’s why I’m all out here, in the miserable wide-open sunny place. What about you?”
“I’m so angry I could spit stones,” said Illeq. “I want to knap.”
“You’re sleepy?”
“No – knap. Knap rocks. You hit rocks with rocks and you get really sharp rocks, the best rocks. It’s fun and it’s useful. But I asked my father to teach me and he told me ‘girls don’t knap.’”
“That’s bad luck,” said the salamander. “Could you ask someone else?”
“I did! I asked my uncle, and he said ‘girls don’t knap.’ And then I asked my mother to talk to them, and she said ‘girls don’t knap,’ and I asked my grandfather and he said ‘girls don’t knap,’ and I asked my brother-”
“And he said the same thing?”
“No. He started to say ‘girls-’ and then I kicked him and ran away up here.”
“A reasonable enough reaction,” said the salamander. “You should try spitting rocks at him instead.”
“I was joking,” said Illeq. “I can’t do that!” Then curiosity gave her a nudge. “You can do that?”
“Not properly,” said the salamander. “You need to burn bright and fast until they get all crackly and widgy. Then you twirl your tongue and jab your throat and cross your eyes and POW out comes a hot-rock that’ll burn the nose off anything that gets in your face. It’s a good salamander trick. And I can’t burn bright enough to make even a baby’s hot-rock.”
“Come on, come on,” said Illeq. “It can’t be that bad. I can’t spit rocks at all. Why don’t you show me how you do it? Here, here’s a rock.”
“That’s too big.”
“This one?”
“Too small.”
“How about this one?”
“Too jagged.”
Illeq sighed and rummaged. “This one?” she asked, holding up a slightly streaked oval the side of her fist.
The salamander’s tongue was boiling-hot and dry as a bone as it licked the stone from her palm in one smooth movement. Then its face jumped and hopped and twisted and PTTU out shot a little grey meteor, whistling through the grass like a kite.
“That’s a good shot,” admired Illeq.
There was a meaty thwack.
“That might have been a bad shot,” suggested the salamander.
Something howled from the other side of the meadow, from deep within a very, very deep chest.
“That was a terrible shot,” agreed Illeq. “Shall we run?”
And so they ran, and as Illeq stole a peak over her shoulder (the salamander had no shoulders, and as such was not afforded this luxury) she saw a full-grown mountain troll lurch up to its gangly, grumpy height, teeth already gnashing for meat.
“Up up up!” she told the salamander. “Follow me!”
And the salamander trusted her as they ran through a little grove – which the troll flattened – and over a stream – which the troll’s foot nearly dammed – and past some big stones – which the troll kicked out of the way – until they finally came to a crevice in the side of the mountain which they both popped into just as the troll’s big dirty fingers scraped at the very heels of their feet.
Illeq’s feet, really. The salamander did not have heels.
“It can’t reach us in here,” said Illeq. “I can barely fit in here. My brother barely can’t. And my father can’t at all. And this troll is much bigger than my father! Look, it can barely fit its fingers in!”
Two fingers, to be exact, and that was probably more than enough troll for anyone. They groped and stretched in the most nasty ways, relying on knuckles that shouldn’t exist in anything decent.
“Whether it can fit in or not, we’re doomed,” said the salamander. “It’ll just take a nap until we try and leave, and nothing wakes so easy as a play-napping troll. We’ll starve or be eaten, no ways without one. Oh for hot stones! Oh for a fire that burns bright!”
“There’s plenty of stones in here,” said Illeq firmly, “and we’ve got time for ages. If you can’t practice now, when can you? Here, catch!”
The salamander caught the stone on its tongue, chewed, twisted, spat, and the pebble *plinked* off the troll’s hairy finger.
“Woe,” said the salamander, despondently.
“Practice!” said Illeq. “Practice or nothing will work! That’s what I know about knapping – and I’d know more if some people would be reasonable and stop being terrible and worse than that like they always are – and I bet you the world and a wing it’s true for anything else worthwhile too. Practice, practice, practice, practice! Here’s another!”

By sundown (best as they could tell from the light seeping past the troll’s hairy knuckles) Illeq’s voice was raw from encouragement, the salamander’s tongue was sore from spitting, and the troll’s fingers were just as ugly and invincible as ever.
“Starve or be eaten,” sighed the salamander. “I hope I starve. I don’t want to be eaten.”
“I’ve been hungry before and I don’t like it,” said Illeq. “I hope I bite him on the way down. Bite off that big stupid nose of his.”
“Can we stop now?” asked the salamander. “I’ve got no fire and you’ve got no more stones and we’re both tired.”
“One more,” said Illeq. “One more. The other thing about practice is you’ve got to do it until you’re sick of it, then do just a little bit more. One more stone!”
“There’s no more stones!”
Illeq’s night-vision was pretty good by now, and she had to admit that the floor of her little nook was as clean as a whistle. But the walls at the back were bumpy and jagged as anything, and with a wrench and a heave and a haul she snapped off an irregular lump the size of four of her fingers. It was black and smudge-soft in her hands.
“Here. It’s funny, but it’s a rock. Catch!”
The salamander caught it. It chewed, twisted, chewed, twisted, crossed its eyes and uncrossed them, then made a funny noise.
“What’s wrong?” asked Illeq anxiously.
The salamander continued making its noise by way of answer; it sounded a bit like a tree falling over. Then it coiled up on its back legs, reared back, and belched.
When Illeq was done patting the smouldering remnants of her left sleeve off her arm and inventing new swearwords, she looked at what had happened to the stone wall at her side. It was crying – strange liquid tears were beading on its surface, simmering out of the cracked rock and hissing against the floor.
“Maybe you shouldn’t eat another one of those rocks,” said Illeq. The salamander made a funny burbling sound that could have been agreement or maybe not. One of its eyes wouldn’t stop spinning, the other had fixed itself due north and wouldn’t budge.
Illeq stared at the dripping wall. The heat rising from it was already making her eyes sting and her breath wheeze. In a minute she wouldn’t have time to starve to death.
Maybe it was time for strange ideas.
“Could you try spitting this instead?”
The salamander crawled to the wall, succeeding after the third try and a nudge from Illeq’s foot (there went half her shoe). It licked it carefully, like a newborn fawn discovering its mother’s teats for the first time, then plunged into its task with glee. Its cheeks soon bulged and steamed.
“Ready?” asked Illeq.
It nodded.
“Now, follow my finger, and when I flick it, you spit it. Right?”
Illeq raised her voice. “Hey! Hey you! Hey troll! Hey sleepy-bones!”
The troll’s fingers, grown somnolent over the past hour, twitched.
“Hey big-nose! Hey old stone-fart! Wake up and come in here and try to eat us, huh? You too old and fat? Too stupid and fat? Or just too fat?”
There was a growl that put a bear’s to shame, then out came the fingers and down came the troll’s face; teeth, nose and all. Its little eyes glittered at them from behind its snout as it snarled.
“Nice to meet you too, ugly,” said Illeq. And her finger flicked.
The mouthful of molten heat the salamander held was almost too quick to see – a blur of red and white that cut across her eyes for an instant – but the impact was unmistakable. The troll screamed its lungs out into their faces, lurched backwards, then ran off howling, nose scalded down to a little red nub and dripping melted stone from its face like white-hot mucus.
Illeq scrambled out into the air and breathed deep, feeling the taste of rock and powder leave her. It had turned into a steam bath in there. The salamander joined her after a few minutes. It kept walking into the mountain by mistake.
“My,” it said after a time.
“Are you alright?”
“My. Me. Yes,” it decided. “I’ve never burned that bright before. I’m not sure anyone has.”
“Weird rocks,” said Illeq with the authority of her age. “That was a really weird rock you ate.” She looked up at the sky. “I’ve got to go home. Do you want to come?”
“Is it far?”
“Not so far. Maybe.” She looked at the salamander’s little legs, saw the wobble. “Can I carry you?”
“If you possibly could.”

There was a lot of fuss that evening, and come the next morning everyone came up to the meadow to see the mess and make sure that any of it was actually true.
(The salamander came too, wrapped around Illeq’s neck. Its legs were sore).
They found the troll-wreckage, they found the burnt grass, and dripped on the ground, cold and hard, they found strange shining stone, frozen in the shapes that it had puddled on the ground in, like ice.
And then they looked into Illeq’s little nook and they saw a whole wall of it. Frozen mid-bead, just waiting to boil up and flow.

Illeq never did learn how to knap her whole life. She was kept too busy running and inventing and making bit by bit the funny little collection of tools, odds-and-bobs, and basins that let her and the salamander melt and mould and shape and sharpen up the strange stones they’d called ‘metal.’
And she was always very busy, because whenever her brother, or her uncle, or her father came down to ask if they could help, they were always given an answer by the salamander, in between its lunches of coal.
“Boys don’t forge.”

Being busy was worth it, for that.

Storytime: The Bet.

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Doubter and Doer are walking along just talking about things, along the borders of a swift little stream. Well, Doer’s talking. Doubter’s just nodding her head. Like she does.
Then Doer sees something, points out her finger. “Hey, ya’see that?” she asks.
Doubter shrugs.
“Look! It’s some humans! Let’s fuck with ‘em.”
“Why?” asks Doubter. It’s one of her favourite questions.
“Because why not? They’re humans, it’s so easy it’d be a crime not to. Let’s seriously screw with their heads. Let’s mess ‘em up.”
“Eh, sounds like a lot of work,” says Doubter.
“A lot of work – a LOT of WORK? To get humans to do crazy shit? Sister of mine, I bet you I can drive these humans crazy just by doing one little thing to one little thing. Bet you.”
“How much?”
“Bet you big time. Bet you huge. Bet you plenty.”
Doubter scratches her nose. Agreeing flat out to something just isn’t how she works, but she’s bored of walking. Probably. “Eh….maybe? I guess so.”
“Great,” says Doer. “Now check this out.” And Doer reaches right out and whacks a good chunk of rock off one of the hills that borders the stream, kerplunk splosh it goes and it rolls down and on and on for days until at last it comes to a stop right in the middle.
“I don’t see anything happening,” says Doubter. “I’m not sure you’re winning this bet.”
“Give it a minute, impatient child,” says Doer. “Just a minute. Ya’see, sister of mine, this river has two banks, and each bank has a farm, and each farmer belongs to a country. Human stuff. Just you wait a minute.”
So they wait about six years and then one summer in the middle of a bad harvest for one farmer his kids are getting hooted at by the kids from the other side of the stream. Nothing new, nothing new.
What is new is that they’re standing on the rock to do it, and they’re throwing mudballs.
So kids being kids they fire right back and whish swing sling it’s a war on.
“Lookit that right there, lookit that good shit, huh?” says Doer. “Barely past toddlers and they’re thirsting for blood. Innocence of children my left nip – even little big-eyed baby seals’ve got mouths like a needle factory, don’t we know that, huh?”
“This doesn’t look like too big a deal,” says Doubter. “I’m not sure you’re winning this bet.”
“Oh yeh? Lookit right there, little Billy-Bob JoJo McFuckhead just skipped a pebble off’ve his neighbour’s eyelid. Oooh, bet that smarts. Now the dads get a turn.”
And they do, and it’s a proper row. Shouting, yelling, stomping, waving.
“Wah wah wah. This is MY rock this is MY rock. Wah wah wah, this is YOUR fault this is YOUR fault. Sweet tune right?”
“I guess.”
“See, it’s that first argument that’s the big one. This is what’s gonna pay off big, just you watch. Get bigger than king and country and apple pie and really dirty sex, just watch. Nothing humans love more than this. Watch it.”
So the two farmers whine and whine and their neighbours whine and whine and eventually surveyors come down but it’s one from each country and they start getting in spats too. Nasty stuff and someone almost goes home with calipers stuck up each nostril. The surveys are concluded under sullen silence and armed guard. Armed, bored guards. The kind that spend their time talking shit at each other and eyeing up each other’s killing tools to see whose is bigger.
“Awww yeah. You watching this? You watching you lose? I hope you’re watching you lose ‘cause I don’t want any take-backs on this.”
“Doesn’t look like such a big deal to me,” says Doubter. “I’m not sure you’re winning this bet.”
“Oh really? Look again, fishlips.”
So now both surveyors do what they were going to do and blame each other. This, says they, is clearly the rock of my fatherland, my people, my one-and-onlies. The other guy is clearly an asshole.
And after four years that’s how you get an army sitting in a cornfield staring at its mirror image forty yards off. Which is what’s going on right now.
“Wait for it.”
A man arises. His jaw is set with purpose. History weighs on him and he can tell.
“Wait for it…”
He strides, and there is will and intent in every footfall. At this moment he is fully conscious of himself and the universe around him. The water splashes under his feet.
“I’m not sure you’re-”
He stands at the stone. He places one foot on the stone.
He makes eye contact with a man on the other side at random, a man who is all men in a crowd, who is exactly as important as he is at this moment. In that flash of an instant, they both understand one another deeper than any other ever will.

He chucks a pebble right at that man’s forehead.

“Awwwwwwwwwwwwwww yeeeeaaaahhhh,” sighs Doer as the scrimmage obscures the stream. “Bet’s over, you’re done like din-din. Fork it over. C’mon, fork it. Stick the tines in deep and hunch those shoulders and fill the plate.”
“If you say so,” said Doubter. “But I’m not sure you’ve won this bet.”
“After all that? After all that? Why you saying stupider things than usual, sister of mine?”
“Well,” says Doubter. She’s always a little uncomfortable giving suggestions. “Well. Y’know. Maybe…”
“…You could’ve used a smaller rock.”