Temptation

 

The sun beat on his nape and his shirt stuck to his body, too wet to do any good in absorbing the sweat that trickled maddeningly down the center of his back and soaked the waistband of his pants.

His arms ached. Granite did not easily yield.

The soft ripples of the water mocked him, parading a breeze he did not feel. The pillar blocked what small air movement could be had. To add insult to injury, the hot stone reflected the stifling heat back at him. The path was an oven.

A dragonfly skimming the river caught his eye and he paused, mallet in mid-air and chisel in position, muscles bunching under the folds of his damp sleeves.

What if? he pondered.

He shook the thought out of his mind. Let the mallet land.

Who knew what lurked under the surface of seemingly inviting water. Better hot than drowned.

 

 

 

For Crispina’s Crimson’s Creative Challenge

 

 

 

The Visitor

 

“He should be here soon,” Ernest’s inert body belied the excitement in his eyes.

“It might not be today,” Gertrude noted. She knew he had to hold on to hope, but she could not bear to see him wade across another disappointment.

There have been far too many of late. And more coming.

“Oh, it will,” Ernest insisted.

Gertrude nodded. When he got something firmly into his head, there was little use in trying to dissuade him. Nor much to gain from it, really.

She wheeled him to a sunny spot out of the wind, arranged the blanket over his lap, and brought herself a stool. The both of them could use fresh air as well as what vitamin D they’d manage making.

They sat. She dozed off.

His cry woke her. Joy. Not pain.

“He’s here!”

Merlin, he’d called him. The osprey rested twice-yearly, mid-migration, on their chimney stack.

 

 

For Crispina’s Crimson’s Creative Challenge

 

 

One Down

Photo: #CCC56

 

It wished it could put its wings down.

For once.

Or rather, once again.

It was convinced that the only thing worse than being placed under a spell was being placed under a spell while one’s appendages were … well … spread-eagled.

Sure, the effect of petrifaction was dramatic. Everyone liked a good statue. What everyone conveniently forgot (for any educated person would have read about Narnia) was that most statues that appeared life-like were actually … petrified.

In every sense of the word.

You try holding your pee for that long. And let’s not even talk about kidney stones.

Or eggs.

Or last year’s meal, still lodged.

And yet, it was the perpetual taking off that rankled more than anything. The anticipatory knots in the back of the shoulders. The wind’s lift that refused to take hold.

It was a relief when the earthquake broke a wing.

One down. One to go.

 

 

 

For Crispina’s CCC challenge 56

 

 

 

Fortified

 

They’d fortified the ceiling.

So they said.

The old structure needed periodical reinforcing.

So they said.

The thickness of the walls supported their claims. The deeply recessed windows. The heavy coats of paint on ancient plaster.

‘Twas all a ruse. Of course.

The false ceiling hid a warren of crawl-spaces and narrow hiding places. A stream of escaped slaves was followed by a flood of those fleeing Nazi persecution and thereafter a steady trickle of modern-day refugees.

The ceiling hid them all. Young and old. Broken and defiant. Desperate and bewildered. Men and women and the all-too-heartbreaking child.

Some stayed a night. Others for longer sheltering. Hilda had stayed the longest. A girl on arrival, she was almost a woman at war’s end. She emerged educated. In silence. In stealth. In compassion.

She became the guardian of those who followed.

Fortified with hope of one day needing it no more.

 

 

 

For the Crimson’s Creative Challenge

Note: Dedicated to all the heroes who — often at tremendous risk to themselves — had managed to shelter the needy, the desperate, the voiceless, and the vulnerable during times of injustice, persecution, violence, horror, and hate. To all who do so still. May we one day need to do so no more.

 

Middle Child

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Photo: Keith Kreates

 

Her rooms were in the middle of the castle, hovering above the center of the river, sandwiched between two layers of guard rooms, bordered on both sides with sentinel halls.

Her residence, her very life, was perched between the woods on one bank and the manicured gardens on the other, split between one land and another, between a grand promenade entrance on one side and an into-the-wild entrance on the other, belonging to both and owned by neither. It was so by design.

Oh, she was no prisoner. She had the freedom of the castle and the pleasures of the adjacent lands. She could go riding or strolling, hunting or frolicking, visiting or picnicking. As long as she made sure to spend the exact time on either side of the river, as long as she took heed to show no favor, no preference, no prediliction.

Three of her attendants were timekeepers. One from each side of the river. One from a foreign country altogether. All three carried hourglasses and were charged with maintaining synchronicity. Disputes were rare, for they would mean a cease of all outdoor activities till the disagreement resolved, cause a strain on her well-being, tarnish their families, and lead to possible replacement. The timekeepers kept discrepancies to a minimum.

The comparable reality extended to everything: An exactly equal number of ladies in waiting from each side of the river, exactly the same number of servants, workers, soldiers, guards, and tradesmen who were allowed to live and work in, or gain access to the castle. The same number of her dresses had been made on each side of the river. Half the furniture, too.

The constant balancing act was tedious. It was also necessary.

“You are the bridge,” her governess had explained to her when — still a child — she was fed up with being shuttled across the castle mid-activity, so equal play time on the other side can be maintained. She did not want to have two of everything and be required to play with each equally. “You were born to end five hundred years of bloodshed.”

Her parents had defied odds and had sought alliance instead of massacres. They’d built a bridge over the fear and hate that endless war had fed. They’d began construction on the castle. They’d birthed her.

The people had watched and waited.

She was barely toddling when her parents’ carriage had gotten ambushed by some who’d believed that ending the alliance would enliven the centuries-old feuds. The warmongers were wrong. They’d killed her parents, but not the want for peace. People on both sides of the river came for the murderers. People on both sides worked to complete the castle-bridge and ensured the princess could be raised in its center.

It was on that day, cocooned in her governess’s lap, in the room above the river that had for generations divided her people, that she truly understood: After so much distrust, an exacting fairness had to be the glue that would hold peace till lasting trust could grow.

No betters. No less-thans. Not even the appearance of favorites.

The efforts to keep it so were sometimes so precise as to be ridiculous, but she preferred to err on the side of the absurd, rather than risk her people any harm.

She was the princess on the bridge.

Her rooms were in the middle of the castle, hovering above the center of the river, sandwiched between two layers of guard rooms, bordered on both sides with sentinel halls.

Her residence, her very life, was perched between the woods on one bank and the manicured gardens on the other, split between one land and another, belonging to both and owned by neither. It was so by design.

 

 

For Kreative Kue 238

The Essentials

 

Finally.

She shrugged her pack off and lowered herself so her back rested against a tree, blessing — for the umpteenth time — the waterproofs she’d splurged on several years ago.  The purchase had meant giving up puddings for two months, but she’d never regretted the trade-off.

Food was essential, but so was heeding nature’s call for spending time in the outdoors. It was required nourishment for her soul.

In any weather, no matter damp or cold.

Soon she’d make the tent, gather wood, and light a fire to cook her oats on. But first she just sat, filling her lungs with air and her mind with calm contentment.

Raised in the city, she didn’t know how hungry she was for the outdoors until friends invited them to join a camping trip. She was ten.

Her parents hated every minute of it. For her, it had been like finally finding home.

 

 

 

For Crimson’s Creative Challenge #52

 

Fading

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

They didn’t tell him he’d be seeing things.

They didn’t tell him how cold he’d be, or how alone, or how desperately he’d miss even the smallest comforts. Like a hue that wasn’t on the scale of dirty-white to sort-of-gray.

Maybe he was dying.

Was this how it would be?

He’d ask.

If he could.

They didn’t tell him he’d be unable to speak. Or that the voice he’d make would go unheard, unseen, unnoticed.

He blinked.

The stag was still there.

Perhaps real, perhaps conjured by the wish to flee combined with the worry about antlers being helplessly tangled as one tried to get away.

“You watch out,” he mouthed. Or said. Or yelled. “Don’t be fooled. Don’t be like me.”

The stag stood still. A statue. Another tree?

Then in one split second it bounded, disappeared.

Come back, he whispered. He’d never been so lonely.

He wept. He thought he did. He was so cold.

He looked at his hands. They blurred. He, too, must be fading.

Eternity.

The shadows crept near. A rumble of garbled monster-speech.

He heaved.

 

“Good trip?”

“He’s kind’a out of it.”

“He said he wanted to try some!”

“Yeah, but how much did you fools dump in his drink?”

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto challenge

 

 

A Roof Over Her Head

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Photo prompt: Michael Gaida @ Pixabay.com

 

It looked deserted from the outside, and if someone risked a broken neck to view the inside from the roof, it did not look all that more promising from that angle, either, which was exactly as intended.

It would not do to broadcast the availability of shelter when there were more who sought to ruin what was left than wanted to actually have a roof over theirs.

Better it appeared abandoned and on its last legs already.

The rules were clear: You do not venture out of the pits without permission, and never in daylight. No light allowed during nighttime. Night-vision goggles only. The internal covers at the bottom of pits, which obscured the actual bunker, were to be drawn only after the scopes ensured no one was in the perimeter. The motion sensors were examined weekly. The roof’s latches every other. They could take no risks.

Few had a roof over their heads since the cataclysm, and those who had been fortunate to find or be allowed under one, did best if they kept a low profile or they were certain to lose it. The roof. And the head.

Dingo knew all that.

He also knew that Marlee was out there somewhere, and that the only way for her to find him was for him to plant a signal she would recognize.

How, though, when he was still a Probational and wouldn’t be trusted to come topside without escort for another month?

He tossed and turned on his berth until Steven threw him out, ordering him to go jog on one of the treadmills till he got sleepy.

The common room was empty. The airlock doors blinked slowly to indicate the pit covers had been opened.

It won’t take but a moment to leave Marlee a sign.

 

 

 

For the FFFC photo prompt

 

Warp and Heft

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

“All houses bow with time,” Agnes fanned herself. The heat lay on the garden like a leaded blanket. Even the shade of the great oak offered only small respite, though their stifling rooms would be far worse.

“Yet not all houses must endure an Edmund,” Joan giggled behind her fan before frowning at her serving-woman for daring a grin. That girl ought to learn her place! Mockery of Edmund’s evident over-fondness for sweets and mutton was for his equals only to indulge in. It would not do to have the servants ridicule their superiors, or who knows who they would dare disrespect next!

At least the obstinate girl had manners enough to blush crimson and lower her eyes.

Agnes tilted her head mildly. “The estate out-dates our dear cousin by two centuries.”

“And may or may not last this one if he does not move his quarters,” Joan deadpanned but only with half-a-heart. Her wit was wilting. She wriggled two fingers and a woman stepped forward with a glass of mead and a linen square to dab the sweat off of her mistress’ forehead. Her own coif and underarms were dark with moisture. Joan sniffed the sachet at her wrist.

Insects buzzed. The minutes lingered. The house brooded heavy against the colorless sky.

“I wish the air would move,” Joan sighed. Her embroidery lay disused in her lap.

“I wish same.” Agnes’s ivory skin bloomed pink patches in the heat. Her needle, too, lay indolent. She gestured with her fan toward the horizon past the house. “Perhaps these clouds would soon shift the wind before them.”

A distant thunder rumbled as if in answer.

Behind the ladies, one of the serving-women squeaked.

Joan frowned.

“What is it, Marianne?” Agnes inquired, not unkindly.

“The house, My Lady,” the young woman’s curtsy was tense and her finger shook as she pointed it at the lattice work on the third story.

“What about the house?” Joan hissed. She found Agnes far too tolerant of serving girls’ dramatics.

A loud groan answered and the air itself seemed to shimmer. Or warp. Or weave.

A silence fell.

Joan felt the hairs at the back of her neck stand on end.

The insects. They’d stopped buzzing.

Even before her thought completed, lightening split the sky and sliced the roof, the latticework, the heavy beam, the second story window, and the chevrons on the wall, knifing deep into the ground.

Another bolt seared her eyes as it hit the oak.

Sudden wind rose and the air fled, taking with it any memory of the burning house against the raging sky.

 

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s Thursday Photo Prompt: Monochrome WritePhoto

 

 

Windowed

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Photo: Inbar Asif

 

“They’re all old,” the guide gestured, “but some are worse off than others, for they are windowed.”

“Age does not make a building old,” he explained. “Even if sooner or later years form spider webs of fine cracks on every wall, those are just realities built by time. The product of life.”

“But these ones,” his hand rose in half-salute, half-point toward a row of especially dilapidated shutters, “they are windowed.”

When our faces must have told him we still hadn’t the story he’d wanted be told, he sighed and took pity on us. So privileged we had to be to not have lived what would have let us understand the depth of meaning in his words.

“Rooms empty of everything but ruined dreams. Windows widowed of hope. Houses like these go beyond broken relics. Some had gone so long bereft of young ones to gaze through their portals in a waking dream, that short of a miracle to breathe life back into them, they are windowed: dried to the bone of sound, stripped of souls, ready to fall.”

 

 

For V.J.’s Weekly Challenge: Windows