Happy Saturday! Our writers went on retreat today, so we’re posting a little later in the day than usual. Today’s story results were all freshly written this afternoon.
This week’s prompt was: “I knew I’d found something crucial when…” (Prompt courtesy of eadeverrell.com)
Three writers wrote for this prompt, including a new author for this blog, Mattias Bergman.
I knew I’d found something crucial when the door seemed to materialize in the wall right next to me. I’d been down this alley several times before and couldn’t remember ever seeing that door. My stepmother would have pointed out that I probably just hadn’t been paying attention the other times; she liked to point out my deficiencies like that.
But this time she would have been wrong. I was — fairly — certain I’d have noticed this door. It wasn’t like the others that looked like utilitarian rear exits into the alley. None of them were meant for customers. This door, however, was definitely trying to coax people in.
It was arched and ornately carved out of some beautiful dark wood that seemed to shimmer in the hot summer sun. There was a bronze plaque on it with the head of a raven emerging from the top. I had to step closer to make out the words engraved on it. I squinted to see past the dazzle of reflected sunlight.
Books for all Tastes and Needs
I stopped and stared; the more I thought about it, the more certain I became that this door had not been here two months ago when I’d last walked this way. Could someone really have opened a new bookstore in that short a period of time? And if so, why have the entrance in the alley?
I’d been in lots of bookstores over the years and had read a variety of welcome signs, but Books for all Tastes and Needs was a new one. Especially since the word Needs seemed to be emphasized; the letters slightly larger and cut more deeply into the bronze. And although I made it a habit to never pass up a bookstore if I could help it, for some reason I felt hesitant about entering this one.
The fingers of my right hand cramped suddenly, and I realized I’d been standing there, holding the doorknob, staring at the plaque for several minutes. Which was ridiculous. I gave myself a shake and opened the door slowly. It made no sound, and I nudged it just wide enough that I could peek inside. I was ready to slam it shut and run if necessary.
I sniffed, then relaxed as the familiar smell of paper and glue and leather — all the delightful scents of a bookstore — tantalized my nostrils. It felt like coming home. Only, a much better home than mine these days.
I opened the door a little farther and glanced around. It looked like…a bookstore. Why had I been overreacting like that? I stepped closer and somewhere inside the shop a bell tinkled. Well, whoever was running the store knew I was here now. It didn’t make any sense to hesitate out here in the hot alley. It was supposed to be 104° in Sacramento today, and it felt at least that hot now.
I stepped into the blessedly cool store and looked around. Many of the books on the shelves looked quite old. The sign hadn’t said anything about antiques, but I started to worry that I’d entered a place that sold rare old books rather than the modern fantasy and romance I preferred.
“Can I help you?”
The voice was dry and quavered a bit. I looked to my left as a bent old man tottered out of the shadows lurking between two of the floor to ceiling book shelves. He gave me a sweet smile — large enough to show the one missing tooth in front, and said, “We have something special here for everyone. Whatever you want or need.”
Had he emphasized ‘special’ and ‘need’? It had been subtle; so subtle I might be mistaken. But something was making the hair on the back of my neck twitch.
He simply stood there, smiling, as though waiting for something more.
“Uh…I like romance and fantasy. Can you point me in the right direction?”
“Certainly, my dear.” His smile flashed again, and he gave me a courtly bow. “Follow me.”
Why did I feel like I should turn and run instead? This was a nice old man in a beautiful bookstore. I really was being ridiculous.
“Books are special, aren’t they?” His voice didn’t sound as old and dry now that he was walking in front of me. And he didn’t look quite as hunched over from behind. “They can teach us things we didn’t know about ourselves, and the right book can change our lives.”
“I’ve lived a thousand lives,” I quoted. George RR Martin liked to kill off too many of his characters for my taste, but that was still one of my favorite sayings.
“Oh, yes, the esteemed Mr. Martin. He has an understanding of the possibilities of books. More than most.”
Which seemed a bit condescending to me. I wouldn’t want a bookstore clerk talking about me that way if I was a famous writer.
“Of course,” he said, voice deeper and more resonant than before, “he has not had the opportunity to experience books from the inside.”
Condescending and quite obscure, I thought, suddenly irritated. What did he mean, experience books from the inside?
He stopped in front of a shelf in the farthest corner of the store and ran his hand over several of the titles. “Fantasy and romance, you said?”
“Yes, either of those.” Hopefully he couldn’t hear my lingering irritation.
“You seem like the type of person who enjoys stories loosely based on fairy tales.” He peered at me closely and said, “Such as Cinderella.”
I nearly jumped out of my skin. How could he possibly know that I frequently told myself I was living a modern Cinderella story? I opened my mouth to say…what? What could I say?
I needn’t have worried. He continued without a pause. “But perhaps Little Red Riding Hood would suit you best, my dear.”
He pulled a book titled RED off the shelf and handed it to me. I started to open it about a third of the way in to see if I liked the writing style, but he put his hand on top of the cover holding it closed. “Before you open this, you must know one thing. You must not lose this book; you will need it to get back. Never forget this! If you lose it, you will be forever lost within this story.”
“Right,” I said. If I hadn’t been so interested in the book, I might have thrust it back at him and run out of there. He was talking pretty crazy now. Especially since he sounded like he was offering me a gift rather than a warning.
But instead of running, I opened the book. And everything I knew about life changed.
She knew she’d found something crucial when she saw the cloth-wrapped bundle.
She had hoped for something interesting as soon as she felt the flagstone of her bedroom floor shift beneath her foot. Her tutor had been with her at the time, lecturing her regarding her poor penmanship, her doubtful posture, her failure to remember the twelve different curtsies she was to perform, depending on the rank of the person she was greeting.
This was so ordinary that Rose had learned not to listen long ago. Today she just stood in the center of the room, let the words wash over her, and gently wiggled the loose stone with her foot—until she wondered if it would be visible, and stopped.
She waited until she was alone to investigate further. She was alone so much that she knew she’d have an opportunity soon enough.
Her tutor eventually stalked out, and her maid wouldn’t be in for an hour to dress her for dinner. The maid she’d had a few years ago, when she was only ten, might have come sooner, just to be friendly. The maid she had now was silent, eyes always downcast, and had always ignored any pleasant overtures Rose had made. She wouldn’t arrive a minute before her appointed time.
As soon as the heavy wooden door closed behind her tutor, Rose crouched down, green skirt bunching around her legs, and prodded the loose stone. She had never noticed it before today, but there had always been a rug over this portion of the floor. It had just been taken out for cleaning that morning.
Treasures were hidden under loose stones and behind loose planks in stories all the time. Not that she’d read many stories—she wasn’t allowed to go to the library unsupervised, and her tutor didn’t always bring her the books she requested, if he disapproved of them. But she’d got a hold of some. Enough to know about secret compartments.
She was just trying to get her fingernails into the crack between the stones when she heard a soft scratching at the door. She jumped up at once to open it, and let Stripes, the big orange cat who ruled the castle cats, stroll inside. Stripes belonged down in the kitchen, keeping the rats away, but she came to visit Rose regularly. Even though that wasn’t allowed either.
“Hello there,” Rose said, rubbing Stripes’ head and receiving a happy purr in response. Cats didn’t care about things like curtsies. “I found something interesting—at least, I hope so. It might be nothing…”
She returned to the loose stone, now with Stripes crouching beside her. It took some minutes, but she managed to lift it out, revealing a dusty hollow beneath. And a cloth-wrapped bundle.
She’d lived in this tower bedroom for as long as she could remember, but the castle had been occupied for generations. The bundle might have been hidden away years, even decades ago. She carefully reached in and lifted it out. The cloth was covered in dust, and when she wiped it away, the fabric felt soft and worn, faded to a dingy blue. Stripes sniffed the cloth and sneezed.
Rose set the bundle down on the floor, and carefully unwrapped layers of fabric.
Inside was a statue. She lifted it up, set it upright on her table by the window where the light was better, and studied her find.
It was a statue of Mariqwe—the lioness standing with her made that clear—but Rose had never seen one like this.
She had never seen the goddess Mariqwe depicted as a woman warrior. A woman, yes. A warrior, yes. But not both.
All the gods changed gender across their depictions, dependent on what felt right to each follower. Mariqwe, the God of Passion, was more changeable than most, sometimes presented in their love aspect, sometimes in their war aspect.
Rose glanced up at the statuette on her mantle, a female Mariqwe in her love aspect. It had been given to Rose by her father, and she had always felt guilty about disliking it. The woman just looked so…dull. Her smile was too sweet, her eyes completely blank. Even the cat standing by her feet looked silly, smiling in a ridiculous way that no real cat ever did.
But this new statue—this one was ceramic too, but there was more dimension to the face, more life in the eyes. This Mariqwe was standing with feet apart, one hand on the sword at her belt, staring ahead with an expression of…not anger. But determination. And the lioness sitting beside her had a face like a real cat’s, no simpering smile there but a firm resolve.
Her father had a life-size statue of a warrior Mariqwe in his throne room, but that was a male general, sword drawn, with a roaring lion beside him. Rose had had nightmares about that lion when she was very small. It was the only cat she had ever been afraid of.
This statue wasn’t frightening. This statue looked like someone she’d like to know.
Maybe even someone she’d like to be. No one would tell this woman what to do.
Well, of course not, she was a god. But that wasn’t what Rose meant. The statue on her mantle looked like she probably got pushed around by the other gods all the time.
Stripes pawed at her ankle, and she absently gathered the cat up, scratching her head as she looked between the two statues. She’d like to replace the one on the mantle with this new one.
Her father would never allow that.
Without being able to define exactly what rule it would break, Rose knew she would never be able to put this warrior woman up on display for everyone to see.
And after all, there was a reason someone else had hidden her away.
She put Stripes down again, carefully refolded the faded old cloth, and put it back in the hidden compartment. She’d never be able to explain where it had come from if someone saw it. She found a blue shawl in her wardrobe—she had dozens, and she couldn’t remember the last time she’d worn this one—and used it to wrap up the warrior woman, more secure in this cleaner, newer cloth. Then she hid her away again, and replaced the stone.
It was the only safe thing to do. But Rose liked knowing she was there.
Mattias Bergman: Abraham and Odin
I knew I’d found something crucial when the screaming hordes stopped dead. Stilled was the thunderous roar of their thousands of voices. The catapults sat unmanned, their stones untended. Even the screams of the wounded died down.
All their eyes raised to mine, the thoughts behind them unreadable.
Across the great plain of the Golden Horn below the city wall, from the bay to the north into the misted fog on the south, westward to the rising hills of Anatolia, the siege paused, dormant, expectant.
I pushed up my helm to wipe the blood of battle from my eyes, and stared at the reliquary in my hand. Sigurd had told me of the faith these people put in such things, as if they were the very apples of Idunn herself. But all I could see was a box. A golden one, with bright colored inset gems, but a box all the same.
They said there were bones inside. Someone named Abraham, father of something or other. But from the outside, I had no way to tell whether they were Abraham’s, or whether there were even any bones in there at all.
So how could all those Saracens tell, massed in the thousands out there in the fields?
Or was it the reliquary, after all, that made them pause? I raised the box high above my head and waved it back and forth. In answer, the uncountable mass of the invading army rocked back and forth, their collective gaze never leaving that box.
To my left, the Byzantine warriors stopped their work to follow the reliquary as well. Pitch-fires flamed untended, archers lowered their bows and arbalests and the enemy’s assault ladders were left unchallenged against the parapets.
“Say something,” croaked a voice at my feet. “For God’s sake, say something!”
I knelt beside the man, leaning close to hear his words. His gem-studded mitre lay on the stones beside him, trampled flat. A Saracen arrow protruded from his breast, and blood ruined the intricate white silk and gold inlay of his Patriarch’s robe. He had not even bothered to don armor. I had heard that these Christians valued belief above actions, but his belief had not saved him.
“What shall I say, Despotes?” I asked. What did I know of their Christian ways? “Do they know of Valhalla, do you think?”
“Blasphemer!” he hissed, struggling to rise to his elbows. His eyes locked with mine. “Dare not mock the very spirit of Abraham himself!” he spat.
His head turned from side to side, and his voice rose. “Is there not a true Christian here, one to take the emblem of the City?” he called, but none answered. To be sure, most lay dead, their bodies and weapons covering the city walls two deep. The rest, even the few remaining officers, just stood unmoving, their blood-caked faces transfixed.
“Ekluo! Enkakew! This is no time for the faint of heart!” cried the Patriarch, collapsing back onto the blood-stained stones of the city wall. He stared hard at the sky, lips moving in some unheard language. He closed his eyes, and intoned, “O Lord Most High, grant thy host here on Earth thy blessings, and safeguard her against thine enemies. I pass the honor of thy burden. Let Abraham have his bearer!”
The reliquary flared white-hot in my hand, yet I could not let it go. I fell to my knees, eyes forced shut in overpowering pain, as if I were grasping an unquenched sword in my hand. Leather charred away from flesh, flesh burned from bone, and then bone itself seared through. But still I could not let go.
And then the burning stopped.
I forced my eyes open, one part of me wondering how I could possibly be holding the reliquary with my hand burned away.
The stench of burnt flesh hung in the air, but only from the field below, not from my hand. It was untouched, still holding the golden box. Which shone.
“Abraham himself has accepted you, heretic,” hissed the Patriarch through clenched teeth. He coughed, and a river of blood flowed down along his cheek to pool on the stones. He raised one hand to point at me with a shaking, gnarled finger, and his voice was weak. “You swore an oath to defend the City, Varangian. Keep it.” His arm fell to his side.
“How do I do that? And what makes this box shine?” I asked, kneeling low beside him.
But he was gone. Lifeless eyes stared glassily upward at his god.
I stood, at a total loss. The Patriarch was right. An oath was an oath, and for mine I would stand in judgment before the Valkyries, before Thor, before Odin himself. But how to keep it?
Below the walls, the Saracens grew restless, their voices rising. A few even raising their weapons. The light from the reliquary was fading. I looked to my fellow soldiers of Constantinople, strung out in a thin line along what remained of the city battlements.
“What do I do now?” I asked.
But no answer. A few just shrugged, while most turned back to the fight, shoulders drooping.
To my left, Strategos Phocas bellowed to his soldiers, “Push those ladders, men, before the bastards get it in their minds to climb again!”
I caught his arm. “Strategos, how do we wield this?” I asked, holding out the reliquary toward him.
“No, Varangian, not we” he frowned, waving the box away. “I would take your burden, if I could.” He swayed, and his eyes darkened. He pointed at the reliquary. “But it would not let me answer my Patriarch’s call. No, the task falls to you.”
I caught the anger in the old general’s face. Understandable. The man struggled under at least a dozen gashes from the day’s fighting, and might not last the day. Would his Valkyries, or whoever judged these Christians, also understand as well, that he had at least tried?
Trying would not be enough, but perhaps he could yet help. Below us, the invaders were regaining their will, and once again rushing the ramparts. This time, there would not be enough of us to stop them. I pointed at the dead form at our feet. “You must have seen many such battles, Strategos. What would he have done?”
He stroked his beard in thought, his weathered brows knitted. “In the reign of Tzimikis, we had such a siege as this, though the Saracens were nowhere as numerous as today. Even so, John called for the Patriarch, and he walked the walls with the Icon of the Virgin. The invaders left.”
I frowned at that. It always puzzled me why these people could not make up their minds. An unfulfilled maiden, yet also a mother? Besides, Odin, in his various disguises, bedded any number of maidens, and we did not give any offerings to them. No matter, belief was belief, and that was all that mattered. But how to wield such a belief?
“Is that all he did, walk along the walls?”
“Well, no. He raised his voice in holy scripture, so I am told, and the power of our Lord’s words turned the hearts of the infidel.”
“So you were told? What words did he use?”
“That, Varangian, I cannot say.”
That was no help. I did not know the magic words either.
The stones below me shook as a rock struck the wall. I looked over my shoulder. The enemy were once again climbing the ladders, and arrows rained down from their siege towers.
Phocas drew his sword and turned to help his men, calling over his shoulder, “We are thin here, and will break any moment. You best think of something soon.”
An arrow caromed off my helm, bringing stars to my sight. Not a few paces south of me, a new siege engine was pushed to the wall. So little time left.
I drew my sword, already bright red with the day’s work. I could meet the tower head on, and take as many of the enemy with me into Valhalla. A good way to die. If I took enough, the Valkyries would be certain to choose me.
I was still bound by my oath, and my own death would not satisfy it, no matter how worthy. No, Odin would not forgive that. Even the gods were bound by their oaths.
But what could I possibly accomplish with this Christian relic? No matter its power, I had no idea how to wield it. Like a wolf cub with a longship, what good did it do him?
But I would try.
I held the reliquary high over my head, and waved it as I had done before. Yet the invaders came on.
I walked along the wall, as Phocas said the Patriarch had done before. Nobody heeded me. Not even an arrow shot my way.
Words. The Patriarch had used words, Phocas said.
“Here me, you Saracens!” I called, still pacing the wall. My voice carried out, much louder than I had thought possible. “I call on you to leave this city!” My voice rang out loudly enough, but still they came on. What was it the Christian gods valued? What had I heard them speak of? “Go home, and live in peace!” Perhaps that would wield the weapon. No result. What else? “Ah, and mercy!”
Still no effect.
By now, the enemy had gained a foothold on the city walls themselves. Close-quarter fighting erupted all around, with the city’s defenders slowly falling back, even as the ranks of the invaders grew.
I pictured the Patriarch walking the parapets, speaking the words he believed in. Words that I did not know.
But what words did I believe in?
“Hear me, Saracens!” I cried again, striding the walls with more force, drawing my sword and waving it over my head. “I welcome you, each and every one! I welcome you with my blade!” My voice carried, much louder this time, and the fighting subsided, the invaders not pressing as hard.
“Just wait your turn, and I will fight each and every one of you! We will fight, and we will die!” An arrow struck my leg just below the mail, and I stumbled. I cursed. If all their archers turned on me, then I would never fulfil my oath.
The reliquary glowed, and the pain in my leg disappeared. I looked down to see what had happened, and the arrow was gone along with the pain. How could that be? Was this some trick of Loki’s? No matter why — I might still honor my oath to Odin.
But it was not to be. A rain of arrows flew from the siege tower, and I braced for their impact. Not a chance to escape so many, but I would meet my fate with my eyes open and my sword blooded.
Dozens of them.
The gold box pulsed bright again, and they bounced. Off my helm, off my chainmail, even off my unarmored skin outside the gauntlets. My head cleared, the meaning of it flooding in. Perhaps Abraham spoke with Hel, or the Christian God had some understanding with Odin. Either way, the relic responded to the old beliefs, the ones I knew.
I grinned wide, pulse pounding. “Come on then, every one of you! When I die, I promise to return from Valhalla to fight the next man! We will each earn our rewards in Valhalla, and each day we will fight as we do today, till Ragnarok takes us!”
That was the way it was ordained to be.
With the glowing reliquary in one hand, my raised sword in the other, I advanced on the Saracens atop the walls. “Who will die with me first? Let him step forward!”
* * *
Phokas raised his goblet in a toast, his wine to my ale.
“They will surely call you Strategos for this, or at the very least Domesticos,” he grinned. “although domesticos for what, I cannot say.”
I smiled, taking a long pull on the ale. Not bad, considering the innkeeper had little grasp of the finer arts of brewing. But he had been commanded to learn. “Still, though, I cannot believe they all just left. I really wished to fight them all, and with the help of your Abraham, I believe I could have.”
“That is just it, I warrant, that you believed, I mean. Just like I told you about when the Patriarch used it. He truly believed in Scripture.”
“Yes, but why did they just stop fighting and depart?”
The old general leaned forward and smiled. His arms were deeply scarred from his wounds, and the left side of his face was still a mass of red, but his eyes shown clear. “I wondered about that. Your words certainly were not anything from Scripture, even an old general as I can see that, and I could see you were ready to fight. But Bishop Chrysoberges tells me — they say he will be the new Patriarch, by the way — he tells me,” he leaned forward and brandished his wine goblet at me, “that your words did not matter, even when you called to fight every last man of them, so much as the fact that you believed those words, believed them with your very soul.”
“And that —“
“And that, my good Varangian, was enough for the spirit of Abraham to do its work. And our spirit, at the very least the spirit of Abraham and the Holy Church that rests in our relics, well, that spirit believes in peace.”