When his vision returned, Crispus was sprawled on the ground, surrounded by his men. The signum lay beside him. Two soldiers helped him to his feet as someone asked if he felt unwell.
“Here, sir. The signum. You dropped it,” a soldier said.
Crispus shook his head, backing away. He turned to his second, the one ready to carry on if he fell.
“You carry it. The gods have given me a vision. There is something else I must do.”
Ignoring their questions, Crispus pushed through the ranks to find Valens. The battle had yet to start, but the barbarians hollered nearby, taunting the Romans. He could see the centurion hadn’t issued the command to attack, and Crispus wasted no time finding Valens.
“Why are you here?” Valens asked.
“We must flee!” Crispus whispered urgently.
“Where’s the signum? Who leads the charge?”
“Forget that! Did you hear me? We have to run!”
“What? Why? What are you saying?”
A few velites shifted uncomfortably, unsure how to respond to Valens arguing with an officer. Crispus hoped he had kept his voice low enough to prevent eavesdropping. If not, he knew it would only be a matter of time before someone tried to detain him.
“Venus, your patroness, Valens, has warned me not to fight.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“Do you love me?”
“Crispus. Now’s not the time.”
“Now is always the time because it’s impossible to know when you’ll be out of time.”
“Are you testing me? You think I’m too scared to fight?”
Shaking his head, Crispus moved closer.
“I should have said this sooner, but pride prevented me. I love you, Valens.”
Valens smiled cautiously, happy to hear Crispus’s words but unsure of what to make of his lover’s behavior.
“I love you.”
“We have to go.”
“You’re not making sense.”
“I refuse to lose you again.”
“Yes. Now, let’s go.”
“Ok, but I think it best to take you to the healers first.”
Crispus surprised Valens with a passionate kiss.
“No healers. Follow my lead. No one should challenge my rank with the centurion occupied. I’ll explain everything when we’re alone.”
“But, the battle?”
Realizing Valens didn’t believe anything he had said, Crispus started to panic.
Venus, how can I convince him?
Crispus laughed, recognizing the irony in his question. But the revelation gave him an idea. He knelt down and bowed his head.
“What are you doing?” Valens asked.
“Come on, I really think you should see the healers.”
Crispus didn’t move, silently waiting. His response came quickly in the form of a dove bearing a sprig of myrtle in its beak. Valens gasped, seeing the bird alight on Crispus’s shoulder.
“Do you believe me, now?” Crispus asked.
“Yes…but why Venus favors you eludes me.”
“I needed to learn a lesson.”
“Desertion is a serious offense, Crispus.”
“Of that, I am well aware.”
“It’s not honorable.”
“What? Sacrificing yourself to save others? Keeping your promise?”
“No one will believe you.”
“Is honor dependent on fame and praise?”
“No. Such things can cheapen it. Replacing honor with hubris.”
“It’s now or never, Valens.”
“They could execute us.”
“Then we’ll die together.”
“Lead on. I’ll follow.”
Crispus pulled himself straight and barked a few orders causing Valens’s squad to snap to attention.
“I’ve had enough of your insolence, soldier!” Crispus shouted, pointing at Valens. “You think you’re special?”
“Ah…no, sir,” Valens said, genuinely caught off guard.
“Disgrace! You should be in chains for your cowardice! That’s it! You’re coming with me!”
Crispus ripped the wolf pelt off Valens’s head.
“Drop your shield, soldier.”
Valens didn’t need to act because Crispus’s demeanor truthfully spooked him. Valens’s squad watched in shock as he tossed his weapons to the ground before Crispus roughly seized him to escort him away.
“What are you looking at? Can’t you see a battle’s brewing?”
“Yes, sir!” the squad said in unison.
“Eyes forward, soldiers! You’re about to get a first crack at the enemy! Miss that signal, and you’ll have more to deal with than me!”
When the centurion finally signaled the velites to advance, Crispus and Valens ran the other way.
The Romans routed the barbarians, securing the bridge without Crispus, and his absence didn’t go unnoticed.
After receiving troubling reports, the centurion ordered a manhunt.
It didn’t take long to uncover discarded garments and gear bearing the signifer’s insignia and a ridiculous account of men transformed into doves.
Until now, Crispus had ignored the peculiar mists obscuring the river and fields beyond. Suddenly hearing his name again surprised him, drawing his attention to the bridge.
“Someone does still live,” Crispus said.
“Do you know who it is?” the god asked.
“How could I? I don’t recall these mists. Are they your creation?”
Crispus cupped his hands about his mouth and shouted.
“Ah, you do know who it is.”
“No, you’ve made me your puppet, and I’m tired of this game. Reveal the meaning of this word I utter; if not, just kill me. I don’t care anymore.”
Crispus paused to listen as the shouting grew louder.
“How do I know this isn’t another of your tricks?” Crispus asked.
“The man speaks your name, does he not? Surely, he knows you.” the god said.
“I’m the signifer, third in command. Every soldier in my century knows my name! My task is to lead the way. This man’s confused, seeking the signum for guidance. Your chains prevent that!”
“Then you recognize the voice?”
“A hundred men serve beneath me. How could I possibly know who it is?”
“I’ve heard mortals form strong bonds fighting together.”
“I’d know the centurion’s voice and recognize some veterans, but the others…probably not. Besides, all men sound the same on the battlefield.”
“Surely there must be someone precious to you?”
The response felt wrong to Crispus.
“Wait. Maybe…I can’t remember.”
This realization troubled Crispus more.
“I know who calls you,” the god said.
“Then why are you asking me for his name?”
“You fascinate me, mortal. Answer this question truthfully, and I’ll release you.”
“I am no coward, no panderer of lies. Honor demands the truth. Ask me what you will.”
“Name what your heart holds most dear.”
Crispus wished he knew the god’s name; it might be easier to find the correct answer.
“You promise to free me?”
“You have my word.”
Crispus suspected nothing kept a god from breaking an oath, but he felt compelled to play along.
“Then I shall tell you.”
“But, before you answer, be sure to leave no door unopened within your heart, for I see a truth you hide from even yourself.”
“I know myself,” Crispus grumbled.
“Rome. I live and breathe to safeguard her.”
The god shook his head.
“Honor then. A good death won with bravery.”
“I am my own man! Even the gods don’t see all! I speak the truth.”
“You do not.”
Crispus howled, yanking the chain, desperate to be free.
“My men! I’ve lost countless soldiers, many dear to me! I’ve since hardened my heart, hoping never to feel such a loss again.”
The god shook his head and began to fade away.
“Prepare yourself, Crispus, to behold the greatest power in the world.”
“Don’t leave me!”
A sudden commotion pulled Crispus’s attention back to the bridge. The lost soldier remained shrouded in the mist, but Crispus could hear the man’s desperate plight. He didn’t know what danger the man faced but felt certain a fierce passion compelled the soldier to confront his terror, enabling him to hold his ground. Crispus’s heart skipped, realizing the stranger fought to rescue him. Shame and anger gripped him as he wracked his brain, desperate to identify the man. A bizarre thought came suddenly to him.
That word! Could it be this soldier’s name? What was it? Valens? Yes, Valens!
“Valens! Follow my voice. Your signifer calls!”
Crispus waited, watching the bridge intently until he saw a host of shadowy figures materialize in the mist.
“Valens! Bravery brought you this far! Mars surely favors you! Your foes are but shadows! Strike, and they will flee before you!”
With a shout, the soldier burst free from the mists, and Crispus hollered, fists in the air in triumph.
“Here! Here! To me!” Crispus cried.
The man ran toward Crispus, slowed, then stopped, clearly confused. Crispus remembered seeing the soldier in the past but nothing else.
“Friend! Here! I’m here! A mighty chain binds me! Here!”
As the soldier silently approached, Crispus felt confident he knew the man, but the memory remained out of reach.
“I don’t understand. I feel nothing. Everything is blank. I was sure if I could only cross the bridge…find…someone I love? I’ve forgotten everything.”
The soldier’s legs crumpled beneath him as he fell to the ground.
“What’s your name?” Crispus asked.
“I don’t remember anymore.”
“Is it Valens?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know me?”
The man looked up, and Crispus’s heart leaped as their eyes met.
“No. Maybe? No, I don’t think so. Crossing the bridge was supposed to fix things.”
“I think I remember you. We were friends…close friends.”
“What’s your name?”
The soldier repeated the name slowly, testing its familiarity before shaking his head.
“Are you Valens?”
The man absent-mindedly toyed with a medallion dangling from a chain about his neck as he pondered Crispus’s question.
“I don’t know.”
Crispus knelt, holding his palm out.
“Can I see that?”
“I’ve seen this before. Who is it?”
Something clicked in his mind, and Crispus began to remember.
You are Valens. You’re the answer to the god’s question.”
“A question? From which god?”
“Valens, it’s me, Crispus. Try to remember. You and me…we…you love me…and… I love you. It’s you I hold most dear. I’m sorry I couldn’t admit that. I had lost someone. I promised myself never again. Oh, it doesn’t matter. You just need to remember. Try to remember.”
A wind picked up, chasing the mists away, and Crispus sensed the presence of another behind him. He turned expecting to see Eros, but instead, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen approached.
Crispus bowed his head in reverence.
“Your chain is broken. You are free.” Venus said.
“My lady, forgive me. In my quest to honor Mars, I have insulted you.”
“Love is exceedingly powerful. Observe how Valens throws everything away to keep it. Even the gods fail to resist. Your scorn of love has put you in great peril, mortal. But your lover’s faith has saved you. Go before I have a change of heart.
“What of Valens?”
“A worthy devotee, Valens has proven to be. Immortality shall be his reward abiding with me.”
“No?” Venus laughed.
“Please. Restore him. I beg you. I love him.”
“Do not sully the word, love! You know nothing of love, warrior. You may be free of my chain, but your heart remains bound to another, and Mars does not take kindly to meddling.”
“Surely, you of all the gods know how to change his mind? Please. I will do anything. A mortal life devoid of love is meaningless. I see that now.”
“But, what of honor and glory? Would you malign your own name to be with Valens?”
“Your test has changed me. I swear an oath to put love first. I’ll endure any hardship, any humiliation if I can spend my days with Valens.”
“Renounce war with its violence and death. Vow never to strike another mortal ever again.”
“You will be called a coward.”
“I do not care. Return Valens to me. Please.”
Venus smiled as her laughter filled the air. Crispus’s vision clouded, and he felt himself falling.
Valens groaned and rolled over. His pounding head and the memory of a pleasant dream made him want to go back to sleep. Sitting up, he looked about to find himself in the grass, surrounded by thick mist. He wondered if a sudden change in weather had delayed their march.
Noting a soldier lying nearby, Valens sought to dispel his confusion.
“Hey, friend. What’s the hour?”
Valens spoke louder.
“What’s happened, friend? My head’s foggy.”
Valens shook the man gently.
Again, no reply came.
The silence made his skin crawl.
“Get up! Are you dead?”
Valens knew the answer.
Wobbling to his feet, he rolled the body and retched. He had to pause and steel himself before investigating further. But in every direction, he found only death.
Gods! How? How?
Numb, Valens staggered aimlessly in the mist, probing every corpse he found for signs of life.
“Am I the only one left?” he shouted.
Disorientated, leery of the swirling mists, Valens knelt weeping and prayed.
Beauteous Lady, Jewel of the Gods, I beseech your aide. If another survives, surely it must be Crispus. Please guide me, Venus.
Valens’s heart sank as the silence persisted. He rocked gently, mumbling to himself.
“Crispus. Crispus. Crispus.”
Crispus’s voice rang out, piercing the gloom as if waiting for Valens to utter his name.
Valens leaped to his feet.
Silence hung in the air, making Valens fear he might be hallucinating. Despair swallowed him until he heard his name again.
“Crispus! Where are you?”
Not waiting for a reply, Valens charged blindly in the direction that felt sure right.
“Keep speaking! I’ll follow your voice!”
Hope restored, Valens ran, dodging or leaping bodies as needed.
“Damn this mist! It’s not natural. Crispus?”
Valens stopped, concerned he had somehow turned himself around. He recognized the distinct trickle of flowing water and remembered the river. Valens had last seen Crispus holding the signum high on the bridge. Guessing the direction, he hoped to follow the river to the bridge.
“At the river! Don’t know which way the bridge is! I need you to yell again!”
The cry sounded close. With a quick dash, Valens saw massive stones materialize before him. Peering across the bridge, he thrilled as the mists thinned, revealing a figure far off on the other side.
Rushing across the bridge, Valens experienced an attack of vertigo right before stepping onto the other side. Pulling him up abruptly, the sensation knocked him to the ground. Dazed, he tried to collect his wits.
“I’m… coming. I Must have run too fast. Whoo! Felt like I was falling. I’m coming.”
Crawling to his hands and knees, he looked to see how much further he had to go.
Valens remembered crossing the river, yet somehow, he hadn’t moved. Crispus’s figure still stood across the bridge on the other side. Bewildered, Valens turned slowly, surveying his surroundings, gasping again at the slaughter as if seeing it for the first time.
“Gods! The legion’s gone!”
His hands flew to the sides of his face, inadvertently brushing a gash on his temple. He winced.
“Wounded? I… don’t remember.”
“Crispus! Yes, he’ll know what to do. He’s on the other side waiting.”
Valens ran, nearly reaching the other side of the bridge until vertigo struck, and he found himself back where he had started. Something refused to let him cross; the thought frightened Valens.
The gods toy with me. Venus, help me.
Valens tried to cross repeatedly, only to end up at the beginning each time.
But he sensed something else happening. He increasingly had difficulty thinking clearly, and he struggled to remember things.
“Strange place. So cold! What was the name?”
Valens grip on sanity continued to deteriorate, and eventually, only the carnage and finding Crispus alive filled his mind.
“Dreadful. So many dead! They’ve sacked Rome, and their gods blight our lands with ice and snow. Crispus’s surely nearer death in this cold.”
The power of the bridge gnawed at his self-awareness.
“Why am I carrying this spear?”
Removing his cloak, Valens stared, trying to understand what he wore.
“A wolf pelt? Strange. Just cross the bridge. Crispus will explain.”
Valens suspected every attempt to reach the other side stripped another piece of him away, and suddenly it occurred to him the bridge could take his memory of Crispus too. The realization froze Valen in his tracks. Panicked, unsure if he should continue, he frantically deliberated about what to do. He stared longingly at the figure waiting on the other bank.
Why isn’t he coming to meet me?
Is he hurt? If so, how does he stand on his feet?
“Crispus?” he shouted.
Seemingly in response to his call, multiple shadowy figures coalesced in the mists at the other end of the bridge. Valens’s heart raced, and his bowels squirmed as the shadows solidified, barring his way.
Gods! Is this what destroyed the legion?
The shades crept closer, and Valens trembled, knowing he must face them. His spear felt heavy and dull in his hands.
I’m no warrior. Not yet, anyway. Venus beseech Mars to aid me.
The stench of death grew, and a sinister chill gripped Valens as he forced himself to confront the evil presence. He advanced with increasing difficulty. Monstrous features resolved more clearly with each step, sapping his courage.
The beasts have killed everyone except me. I’ve no chance.
Someone dear. A friend? No, one more than that.
That’s why I cross this bridge!
Caught between conflicting desires, Valens stood, feeling his resolve break.
“I’m sorry, whoever you are! Sorry, I can’t remember your name or even your face! I am weak! The terror is too great! Forgive me! I dare not cross!”
The shout engulfed him with a flood of harmonic noise. With his fears washed away, Valens felt his courage welling up in response to hearing his name. He stood a little taller and raised his spear with a firm grip.
“Love rushes to fortify me, impelling me forward whatever the cost! If reunion in this world eludes us, then know love will bring us together in death!”
Valens roared a battle cry, brandished his spear, and rushed headlong into the beasts blocking his way.
A shout caused Crispus to start, freeing him from troubled dreams. Instinct drew him into a defensive crouch as he reached for his sword. But his hand found the scabbard empty. Confused, he paused, straining to listen, but only an eerie silence greeted him. Glancing about, he noted the stonework of a bridge close by. A memory returned.
We fought to take the bridge.
Their numbers were sparse.
We flooded it with ease.
But something teased Crispus’s mind, and he wrestled with pinning down what he had forgotten.
We had carried the day.
Our victory, sure.
Lost in thought, his gaze drifted to the bridge. An inscription marked the distance to Rome. The words surprised Crispus. He appeared to be on the other side of the river, the side the enemy defended. He didn’t recall making it across the bridge.
This is all wrong. Something stopped us. Surprised us.
Crispus clamored to his feet, desperate to understand. A ghastly scene confronted him. Countless Roman and barbarian bodies lay twisted and torn everywhere he looked.
There were suddenly more of them. How? They came from nowhere.
Despair seized Crispus, fearing he alone survived until he remembered the shout that woke him. Someone else lives, he thought, straining again to listen.
Despite his anticipation, the volume of the cry surprised him. Whoever called had to be near. Crispus hesitated, unsure of which direction the sound came from. Guessing, he lurched forward until a sharp pain pulled his feet out from under him. He wrenched his eyes to find his ankles clasped in a heavy chain.
Crispus flailed on the ground, searching for the survivor in vain.
Crispus felt his mind slipping. The voice grew louder.
“Where are you? Show yourself!”
Only his ragged breath and pounding heart answered, taunting him.
“Perhaps, I am dead, and these are the shades of hell before me.”
Laughter, lively and bright, resounded from behind. Crispus turned to behold a beautiful man lounging atop a barbarian corpse. The man hadn’t been there before.
“Who are you?”
The stranger laughed again.
“Why laugh? Look at the horror about you!”
“What are mortals to one such as myself.” the man said.
“You are a god, then.”
“May I ask your name?”
“All you need to know, Crispus, is you are the cause of this slaughter.”
“You heard me, mortal. All this death is your fault.”
“That detail doesn’t concern you.”
“An appropriate question. The answer will come in good time. My task is nearly over. I merely linger to amuse myself.”
“So, it was you calling out?”
“Who then? Do you know where they are? I can’t find anyone alive.”
His question elicited more laughter, and Crispus grew angry.
“What is so funny?”
“You! And your desperate search for a voice, unable to recognize it as your own.”
“I do not understand.”
“Pay attention, mortal. I will show you.”
The god stretched an arm as if fetching something slung on his back. Crispus gawked, seeing a bow made of light materialize in the god’s hands. With a pluck of his hand, the god pierced him with a radiant arrow.
“VALENS!” Crispus screamed.
His hands flew to his chest, but he found no wound and felt no pain.
“What is this word I utter? Please, be merciful! What have I done to incur your wrath?”
“Would you be fortunate if it were I you had offended.”
“My mistress is a jealous god, and you have belittled that which is most dear to her. Behold the results.”
“We outnumbered the barbarians. How did their numbers multiply?”
“Rome is mighty but blinded by hubris. I easily supplied the savage beasts with the means to hide their numbers.”
“Why not slay only me?”
“You live to learn your error.”
“The barbarians litter the field too. Why?”
“Once engaged, it is difficult to contain the god of war’s lust for blood.”
“Faithfully, I served Mars.”
“No mortal meets his needs for long. But rest assured, plenty of fools are hungering for the glory found in battle. Death is always the price for such honor.”
“And now I am abandoned to live in dishonor.”
“Does life mean nothing to you, mortal?”
“Please, give me the means, and I’ll do it myself. A signifer dies with his men. It is cruel to let me live.”
“Honor is more important to you?
“It’s all mortals have. Without it, life is meaningless.”
The god picked up a sword from one of the dead and tossed the blade at the soldier’s feet. Crispus snatched the sword up.
“You have shown me kindness beyond measure. Thank you.” Crispus said.
The soldier didn’t know what reply he had expected, but the god’s smirk surprised him. It unnerved Crispus as if knowing a trap lay ready but unable to determine where and when.
“Your mistress…she wants me to learn something. I do not pretend to understand the ways of the gods, but surely you risk garnering her displeasure.”
The god grinned, shaking his head.
“I will do this. Honor must be restored.”
“Oh, I know you will.”
With a curt nod, Crispus angled the blade toward his heart, closed his eyes, and fell.
He felt no pain. Opening his eyes, Crispus watched the tip of the sword rise and fall as it rested gently against his chest. He had caught himself, stopping the fall. He tried again but failed even to prick his skin.
Crispus searched himself, satisfied to reaffirm he didn’t fear death. A part of him longed for it. But, he sensed something more substantial preventing him from ending his life. The feeling confused him. He couldn’t explain why, but Crispus knew something or someone laid a stronger claim to his heart than his fear of dishonor.
“Who is your mistress? What have you done to me? Release me!”
The god hummed merrily, drawing his bow to smite Crispus with another magical arrow.
“VALENS!” Crispus screamed.
Dropping to his knees, bewildered and defeated, he searched his mind to uncover the meaning of the word he felt compelled to speak.
Valens waited in the wings for the signal to dash headlong into danger. Last night’s bravado had faded, allowing his fears to mount. Expecting a more significant barbarian force, he thanked the gods, seeing his side outnumbered the other for his first battle.
“Remember, lads. Speed’s the velites best defense. Dash in and out, nipping at the fringe. Don’t stop. Throw. Keep running.” A veteran said.
His youth and inexperience had landed Valens in the velites unit. He wore no armor, only a wolf-pelt cloak for a uniform, and carried a small shield and several javelins. Tasked with harrying the enemy like a pack of wolves, Valens’s squad aimed to dispossess as many front-line barbarians of their shields as possible.
Searching the ranks, Valens spotted Rome’s golden eagle glinting in the sunlight atop the signum. Crispus, garbed in gold and scarlet with a lion pelt on his head, bore the Roman banner as a weapon. He knew the officer relied on Mars for success in battle, but Valens felt better praying to Venus to protect the one he loved.
“There’s our cue to advance! The battle begins! Fly, brothers! Fly like Mercury himself, and I’ll meet you on the other side!” the veteran shouted.
Valens sprang into action, sprinting across the meadows toward the waiting barbarians. Numerous clumps of thorny brush dotted the fields, forcing the velites to weave between the razor-like briars. The effort slowed Valens’s pace, making him feel vulnerable.
Nearing the uneven enemy lines, Valens targeted a foe and, using his momentum, threw his first javelin. His eyes lingered, watching the weapon arc through the air until striking his target’s shield. A triumphant whoop leaped from his mouth until he felt sharp thorns goring his legs. Valens halted, frantically kicking and pulling, scolding himself for forgetting the briars. The tangle fell to the ground revealing its dry, exposed roots. Surprised, Valens looked back to see a large hole where the briars had been.
Briars, back home, take two men to rip out. Merely running through these pulled the whole thing up. He thought.
Reconsidering the landscape, the unnatural pattern appeared obvious now. Realizing the enemy had transplanted the briar, Valens saw his foe in a new light. The Romans had foolishly assumed the barbarians were an unsophisticated lot incapable of devising such defenses.
An arrow pierced the ground at his feet, wrenching Valens out of his reverie.
Fool! How long have I been standing here?
Vowing to learn from his mistakes, he leaped back into action, seeking targets for his remaining javelins. Valens focused on aiming and sidestepping briars; thus, he had no idea if he had disabled more barbarian shields. Throwing his last weapon with satisfaction, he hurried back to the relative safety behind the Roman legion.
His part finished, Valens accepted a proffered spear from one of the older soldiers and readied himself to provide cover for a fighting retreat if the prime soldiers failed.
“Will it be difficult to secure the bridge?” Valens asked.
“Shouldn’t be. We’ve superior numbers.” an older soldier said.
“My run wasn’t a complete failure. At least one javelin flew true.” Valens said.
“One hit could alter a soldier’s fate for the better.”
“Always the hardest. But, you’ve proved yourself now, lad.”
Valens watched a comrade limp back, shieldless, using his wolf pelt to staunch a spreading splotch of blood. He realized more than half of the velites had yet to return. Valens burned with shame for complaining about his scratched legs. Remembering Rome had the advantage here, he wondered how many wolves typically survived a run with worse odds.
Why did I make it? I should be dead.
Valens thrust the thought from his mind, returning his focus to the battle. The barbarians had managed to break through a section of the shield wall manned by less experienced soldiers. Valens watched Crispus rush forward, with the signum high, alerting everyone more support was needed. Soldiers shifted, forming a spearhead of veterans to push the barbarians back onto the bridge.
“The enemy retreats! Is it already over?” Valens asked.
“Wouldn’t be surprised if …”
A gurgle cut the old man’s reply short.
Valens turned to find the veteran soldier wide-eyed, clutching at an arrow in his throat. Stunned, he watched the man collapse, dead before hitting the ground. Valens struggled to grasp what had happened.
We’re out of range.
Valens stood frozen, listening to a chorus of sickening sounds as others dropped about him. He became aware of a growing rumble from behind. Valens turned to investigate, but someone slammed into him, knocking him to the ground and causing him to thwack his head on a rock. Dazed, gasping for air, he struggled to get up.
What’s that noise?
A warm, stickiness oozed down Valen’s face stinging his eyes. Swiping his brow only brought pain and blurred his vision. Squinting to focus, he saw blood on his hand and panicked.
Gods! I’m wounded! Venus, help me!
Valens felt the ground begin to vibrate. Peering back, he beheld a horde of barbarians fast approaching from behind the Roman lines.
Where in gods did they come from?
Valens discovered the answer to that question as a brute of a man materialized before his eyes. Another trapdoor to his left flung open, showering Valens with dirt and debris.
The ground! They were hiding beneath us!
Everything made sense now. The briars were too readily unearthed because they hadn’t grown there. The thorny plants had probably just been moved to conceal hundreds of pits. The real barbarian army had lain in the ground waiting for an opportune time to ambush the Romans from behind.
Valens tried to call for Crispus, but his voice failed him as he passed out.
I’ve decided to write a short story for each monthly prompt from a blog I’m following called Writer’s Unite. I missed the submission deadline this month and last. But, there’s always next month to get my act together.
Please visit Writer’s Unite and support all the authors who worked hard to craft a tale capturing the essence of this month’s photo. The site organizers aim to help writers gain more exposure.
Once you read the story, you’ll understand my eagerness to post at least part of it by the end of February. After all, it’s supposed to be the month of LOVE!
“You Pray to Your Gods and I’ll Pray to Mine”
The new recruit shivered, tightened his cloak, and leaned closer to the fire.
“Why Rome desires such lands baffles me,” he said.
“A little snow won’t kill you. Besides, the countryside’s rich with timber and furs,” another said.
“The forests of Lebanon provide plenty without the cold,” he replied.
“We’re not here for spoils, lads.” an older soldier said.
“Then why have we come? No Roman would want to live here.”
The old soldier nodded thoughtfully before smiling.
“Name’s Titus. And you are, lad?”
“Not wealth we’re after, Valens. Our legions march into this wilderness for one reason only.”
“To hunt and kill every barbarian we find lest their numbers swell enough to breach even the walls of Rome,” Titus said.
Cheers erupted from the rest of the company about the fire pit.
“But, Titus, must it be so cold? My breath turns to smoke, and my stones shrivel, threatening to fall off.” Valens said.
His comrades laughed, gulping more wine.
“This far north, best to find someone to warm your bed sooner rather than later,” Titus said.
Valens glanced longingly at the ornate command tent.
“I’ve already done so,” Valens said.
“Careful, lad. Only experience and skill in battle gives a man his place of honor here.”
“Are we to ignore the arrows of desire?” Valens asked.
“No, lad, as long as it doesn’t lead to trouble,” Titus said.
“I seek no favor.”
“I can see that. Otherwise, suspect you wouldn’t be sitting in the cold with us.”
The old man chortled, slapping Valen’s shoulder.
“Ignore me, lad. I’ve grown old and leery of Cupid’s games.”
With eyes wide, a soldier spat out his drink to whistle sharply. Everyone stood for the signifer, an officer, third-in-command of the entire century. Valens struggled to keep a straight face watching the man approach.
“At ease, men. I’m on no errand of business.”
“How can we be of service, sir?” Titus asked.
The officer inspected each man until resting his gaze on Valens.
“I confess there’s one among you who’s drawn my interest. May I sit? Not as an officer, but as a fellow soldier.”
“A soldier’s always welcome about our fire,” Titus said. “Make room for a comrade-in-arms!”
The men shuffled, making space, and the officer pulled Valens into a warm embrace as he sat.
“Suppose Valens has been complaining about the cold?” the officer asked.
“You’d wither beneath the desert suns of my homeland,” Valens said.
“A soldier does his duty wherever he has to.” The officer said.
“As does this soldier.”
“Yes, but not quietly.”
“Pardon me, sir, but perhaps young Valens here has the voice of a future signifer,” Titus said.
“Ha! Well said, my friend. Timon, is it? No, Titus! Please, call me Crispus. It is I who share your fire and drink.”
“What think you of Titus’s suggestion, Crispus?” Valens asked.
“A signifer must embody Mars’s lust for war on the field. You’re bold, brash, and outspoken. Your skill in arms grows. Let’s see how you fare in your first battle tomorrow.”
“Are you ever afraid, bearing the signum on the frontlines? Or does Mars relieve you of such emotion?” Valens asked.
“No. Fear enables one to find courage. Fear motivates.”
“A good soldier fears dishonor, not death. Honor is everything.” Crispus said.
“And love?” Valens asked.
“Surely love is what compels us to attempt the impossible.”
“Bah, love is weak. Love hampers a soldier, clouding his mind. Love causes men to lay aside arms hoping in vain to spare the weak.”
“And yet love leads nations to war. Love destroyed Troy.”
“Forget you, the tale of Achilles, Valens? Agamemnon angered Achilles with the theft of Briseis. Honor demanded he deny the Greeks their best warrior. And yet his love for Patroclus drew Achilles back to fight. The gods warned against it, to no avail. Love’s compulsion destroyed Achilles.”
“One mustn’t speak so! Venus is a jealous god. She suffers not the scorn of mortals.”
“Are you a priest of the goddess of love?”
“The blessed lady has always been my family’s patron. We honor love above all.”
Valens removed a delicate chain from about his neck to present a medal to Crispus.
“What god do you serve first?” Valens asked
“Mars, of course.”
“Our patrons are lovers. Explains our ready bond.”
“Treacherous Cupid’s arrows lead Mars to Venus’s bed. Truly, Mars is wedded only to war and the honor it brings.” Crispus said.
“Have anything other than disdain for the goddess of love?”
“Let’s not quarrel. I admit life would be dull without the blessings Venus bestows. But, I mistrust her ways.”
Crispus tried to kiss Valens.
“Then I shall endeavor to teach you not to dismiss the power of love so idly.”
Valens stood to leave the fire.
“I thought you were cold,” Crispus said.
“Love will keep me warm.”
Crispus followed, smirking.
“Signifer! Any news? What awaits us tomorrow?” one of the soldiers called.
“A river lies ahead with multiple crossings. The general has chosen us as a vanguard. Our task is to secure safe passage for the rest of the army.
“Do you expect much resistance, Signifer?” another soldier asked.
“Throw your javelins true, soldier. Soften them up, and I’ll take care of the rest.”
Kaitlin huffed, noting the time. She hated being late but couldn’t go to work covered in droppings. After watching safely indoors until the ambulance arrived, she raced upstairs to shower and change her scrubs.
Already unnerved by what had just happened, Kaitlin nearly fainted seeing her reflection in the bathroom mirror.
“Oh, my God!”
A vicious scratch ran down one side of her face. Hastily tending the wound with topical antiseptic and a prayer, Kaitlin vowed to call Ms. Agnes’s family as soon as possible.
“The poor woman’s possessed. Lord, help us.”
Running to her car felt like the bravest thing the young woman had ever done. Forgetting to buckle up, Kaitlin revved the engine and tore out onto the road with a screech. Her hands shook as she called Ms. Agnes’s daughter. She nearly screamed as the call went to voicemail.
“Ah…hi, Emily. This is Kaitlin Jones. I’m sorry to say your mother’s had a fall, and I suddenly realize I have no idea what facility they took her to. But, something strange …ah…please call me back as soon as possible.”
Kaitlin prayed for safety and forgiveness as she sped to work. Her mind spun, replaying the bizarre circumstances surrounding Ms. Agnes’s accident, eventually concluding something diabolical lurked at her neighbor’s house.
With the parking lot unusually full, she struggled to find a space in the furthest row away. Grabbing her bag, she threw the door open, hitting the car aside hers.
“Just what I need.”
Slamming her door, Kaitlin looked to see who owned the car. A Support Farmers, Buy Local bumper sticker made the woman’s blood boil.
“Great! Michelle’s working! Could things get any worse? Ooh, if Jane’s called out again and switched shifts with Michelle, she’ll get a piece of my mind!”
Once on the floor, Kaitlin apologized for being late and turned her attention to taking over the shift. Any earlier trace of fear or apprehension vanished as she assumed a cold, calculating, professional demeanor. Management applauded her efficiency and impossibly high standards. But, her staff learned quickly to avoid igniting her infamous temper, known to reduce even seasoned employees to tears.
“Who’s Michelle covering for?” she asked.
“Jane called out. Some emergency with her dog.” The day charge CNA replied.
“Not even close to a fair trade,” Kaitlin said.
“If you ask me, you’re too tough on that girl. A little kindness goes a long way.”
“I have been. Besides, if little miss klutzy’s daddy wasn’t chief hospitalist, she’d have gotten the boot already.”
“Careful, Kaitlin. You’re management’s darling, but hurt one of their own, and you’ll regret it.”
“Everyone says I play too hard, but I’m fair.”
“Gosh, look at the time. Got to go. My kid needs a ride home from practice. Have a good night.”
A loud clamor echoed from down the hall. The women peered around the corner to see Michelle splayed out on the floor, surrounded by a mess of food from a tray for one of the residents.
“I’ll try. But I can’t promise Michelle will make it through the night.”
Michelle wrestled with a pit in her stomach as she slowly climbed the stairs to the second floor of Bassett Nursing Home. She didn’t like her job, hating how it made her feel utterly incompetent. After an extra month of training, Michelle struggled with even the simplest tasks. She longed to quit but feared the repercussions. This week began horribly and had only gotten worse. Her immediate supervisor, Ms. Jones, made it clear the time to shape up or ship out had come.
Michelle couldn’t help but notice an edge to Ms. Jones’s voice when she presented herself for duty. A new resident had moved in yesterday, upsetting the orderly routine her boss thrived on. An ominous feeling seized Michelle hearing her shift assignment.
“Sink or swim, Michelle. This is your last chance. Prove me wrong. Do you understand?” Ms. Jones smiled.
Barring a miracle, she’d be fired by the end of tonight. Michelle wanted to cry but refused to in front of Ms. Jones. Despite her humiliating ineptitude as a CNA, she hadn’t given her supervisor the satisfaction of seeing her break.
“Come along; I’ll introduce you.”
Michelle walked onto the floor and followed meekly as Ms. Jones led her down the hall to the furthest room on the left. A tower of smudged, crumbled boxes had been piled next to the door.
“I want these dealt with today.”
“What are they?”
Ms. Jones rolled her eyes.
A quick rap on the door, and Ms. Jones barged in without waiting for a reply.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Agnes.”
“What’s good about it?” an elderly voice groused.
Michelle watched Ms. Jones’s body language change as she forced a laugh. She had never seen her boss act this way. Did this patient actually intimidate her supervisor? Michelle moved to get a clear view of this rare beast.
“Oh, goodness me, Ms. Agnes! I can’t thank you enough for finally agreeing to remove that horrible necklace!” Ms. Jones cried happily.
“I should think so! When she thought I was asleep, I caught one of yer little minions trying to take it from me.” The old woman said.
Michelle stared in wonder as a frail, wrinkly old woman with a pile of unruly steel grey hair atop her head held Ms. Jones captive in a withering look.
“Really? You must have been dreaming.”
“No, I was not.”
“Well, as a Christian, I appreciate not having to look at it.”
The old woman cackled.
“You know the problem with people like you, Kaitlin?”
“Whatever do you mean, Ms. Agnes?”
“You’re too narrow-minded. Jesus, don’t care a lick what I wear. With you, everything’s either Christian or not. The world doesn’t work like that, Kaitlin. I’ll have you know I’m mighty close to Jesus in my own way. And he tells me he ain’t got no time for yer gate-keeping foolishness.”
Ms. Jones’s mouth hung open, her clenched hands trembling. Michelle braced herself for a tirade. But instead, her boss turned and walked out the door.
“And who are you?”
“I… I’m supposed to…Ms. Jones asked me to… I’m your….”
“Yer name, girl. What’s yer name?”
The old woman tilted her head as if listening to something before grunting.
“You going to preach at me or try to steal my things?”
“No. No, I would never.”
“Ms. Jones told me to help you settle in. She said to start with the boxes. Unless you need something else?”
“Well, I’ve been waiting forever to use the toilet. Help me up. Then get the boxes. Not dignified to wet oneself.”
Michelle rushed to the old woman’s bedside. She struggled to lower the side rail.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you know how to work the bed?”
“Yes. Well, I should. Just a minute.”
“Dear, I can’t wait any longer.”
After shaking the bed several times, Michelle managed to lower the railing.
“Aren’t you going to help me up? I busted my leg.”
Michelle tried several ways to support the old woman before using the wheelchair. It took even longer to haul the woman onto the toilet.
“Now, put me back to my bed before I catch a cold.”
More confident reversing the process, Michelle relaxed, daring to enjoy the small victory. She felt a smile forming until the old woman hollered. Michelle jerked the wheelchair back.
“Careful, girl! This ain’t a bumper car!”
“Sorry! My depth perception’s horrible!”
“Don’t rush and watch my leg.”
Disaster struck again as the foot of the bed started folding up, surprising Michelle as she fussed with the pillows.
“No, no! That’s no good at all, girl!”
“I’m sorry! Controls were on the floor, and I must have stepped on it.”
Frantically readjusting the bed, Michelle brought everything level again and slid the railing back in place with an audible sigh.
“I’m old, so forgive me for saying, but you’re awful at this. Look at you. You’re sweating like a pig.”
Michelle burst into tears.
“I know. I know. I’m sorry, ma’am. I do try, but I’m all thumbs with nursing stuff.”
The old woman clucked her tongue and shook her head.
“Then why are you here, honey?”
“It’s my parents, my whole family, really. Everyone’s a doctor, nurse, or works in medicine somehow. We even have Uncle Stan, who’s a pharmacist.”
“All my cousins, my brother…and then there’s me. I’m trying, but I’m just awful at this.”
“Do you want to be a CNA?”
“What do you want to be?”
“I don’t understand…a CNA. I don’t think I’m smart enough to do anything else. I could never be a nurse or a….”
“Shush, girl! Smarts don’t have anything to do with it. You need to figure out what’s in yer guts.”
Michelle shook her head, frowning.
“Course you do. What puts a zip in yer step?”
“But, daddy says….”
“To hell with yer daddy and ma! It’s yer life, honey. What’re you passionate about?”
Michelle laughed, swiping tears away.
“Ma says if I had my way, I’d be barefoot, covered in dirt all day in the garden.”
“Got a green thumb, girl?”
“I’d say so.” Michelle giggled.
The old woman’s eyes grew bright.
“Hazard a guess at what’s in ’em boxes out there?”
“Ms. Jones said plants.”
“Some real beauties from my yard.”
The woman laughed wickedly.
“Bitched and cried ‘poor me’ until my daughter Emily agreed to dig ’em up.”
“There’s one over there.”
Michelle noticed a potted plant and some garden tools on the window sill for the first time.
“Bluebells! They’re beautiful!”
“Should have seen ’em when Emily pulled ’em out of the box. My daughter’s knowledgeable. I taught her the best I could, but she’s a city girl. Damn near killed those bluebells! Can only imagine the state of the others.”
“But, look at them now. I can practically hear them sing. They’re quite content.”
“Would you help me get the others settled?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am. I’d love that.”
“Call me, Ms. Agnes.”
Michelle got to work hauling boxes in, squealing like a kid on Christmas morning as she opened them. Agnes marveled to see the transformation in Michelle. The young woman handled each potted plant expertly, knowing which needed extra attention.
“I told Emily to bring extra pots and a bag of soil. Did she?”
“Shady here most of the day. Wood lily and corydalis should do well.”
“Oh, Agnes. Woodland phlox!”
Michelle surveyed everything thoughtfully.
“Can I split a few to combine in this big pot? The wood lily and bluebells would look lovely together. There are ferns outside. I can add a small one with some rocks….”
“I love it. Let’s do it.” Agnes said.
“Ms. Jones will question my going outside, but she did tell me to take care of the plants first.”
“Don’t tell. Sneak out. It will only take a bit of time. Leave Ms. Jones to me.”
The women giggled mischievously.
“Can I use your hand rake and trowel?”
“Of course, unless you want to use yer hands.” Agnes teased.
“Wouldn’t hesitate at home, but it’s a nursing home. People will frown at the dirt under my nails.
“I always say, eat a peck of dirt before you die.”
“Be right back.”
Michelle stopped in the doorway, tilting her head as if straining to hear something. She shook the hand rake.
“You hear that, Ms. Agnes?”
“That rattle. Sounds like a pebble or some gravel inside the handle.”
Michelle turned and jiggled it closer to her ear.
“Yeah. Something’s in there jangling about. A bell? Like the one my cat has on his collar.” Michelle said.
She waved it around again.
“Definitely, sounds like a bell. Hear it?” Michelle asked.
“I can. But you’re not supposed to.”
Confused, Michelle tried to read the expression on the old woman’s face.
“Why do you say that?”
“Look inside,” Agnes said.
Michelle flipped the tool over.
“The bottom screws off?”
“What’s inside? Did you put a bell in there?”
Michelle twisted the end of the handle and pulled it off. A marble threaded on a leather cord tumbled into her hand. Holding it to the light, she saw a pattern marking it.
“This is a fairy stone. I forgot the name of this one, but it’s rare. People usually find the cross-shaped ones.”
“It’s called a Maltese cross. Quite rare.”
“Is this the necklace Ms. Jones mentioned?”
“It’s stunning…in a natural kind of way. Why does she want you to take it off?”
“Ms. Jones’s afraid of its magic.”
Michelle snorted but stopped abruptly, seeing Agnes was serious.
“That’s just superstition and stuff.”
“Put it on.”
“Do you have an imagination, girl?”
“Yeah? But, what’s that got to do with anything?”
“Humor an old woman. Please put my necklace on.”
“Because you heard the bell.”
“I don’t understand. Are you feeling ok, Ms. Agnes? Should I fetch a nurse?”
“No, no. Don’t do that. Just try the necklace on. I want to give it to you. That’s all. Don’t you like it?”
“Well, yes. But, I can’t take your necklace….”
“Go ahead, just try it on. It’s mine. I can give it to whoever I want to. None of my kids ever appreciated it.”
Michelle slipped the leather cord over her head.
“There. How’s it look?”
The old woman smiled with a sigh, turning her head as if to address someone.
“Lovely. Don’t you agree, Gideon?”
“Yes, Agnes. Perfect. Michelle’s just perfect!”
“Oh! Oh! Look at that! I mean…him! Ms. Agnes, please tell me you can see too!”
“Yes, girl. This is Gideon.”
“Hello! I’m so happy! Agnes has been searching for someone like you!”
Agnes’s daughter waved goodbye, slowly backing her new BMW down the gravel drive. Its shiny tires crackled and popped, kicking up a dusty haze. Emily hadn’t stayed long, and Agnes hadn’t expected her to. The old woman knew neither could tolerate anything longer than an overnight together.
Agnes had grown fiercely independent with all but one of her children far from home. Her friends and neighbors felt sorry for her. Yet, after devoting most of her life to caring for her siblings, a husband, and seven children, Agnes preferred it this way. She kept her nose out of others’ business and expected everyone to stay out of hers. Meddling invariably spawned trouble, she thought.
“Ooh, the gall! Who does she think she is?” Agnes groused.
“Don’t give her the right to barge in here, telling me what to do. Ooh, I could scream! I don’t need that ding-bat next door keeping an eye on me. I’ve worked hard cultivating a wall of rude silence, hoping to keep her out. Now, she’ll be here evangelizing and waving church bulletins in my face!
“She’s worried about you.”
“Kaitlin Jones? Nah! She’s just a nosy neighbor. I tell you, she’s on to us, Gideon. She must have seen something.”
“Oh, you mean Emily? Ha! She’s worried her brothers and sister will blame her if crazy ol’ ma drops dead unattended. Suppose being the oldest, she feels it’s her duty. But there’s a right respectful way of helping, and then there’s bossy! Besides, I’m not alone. Though none of ’em believes me. Too much of their daddy in ’em. Loved him dearly, but not one lick of imagination in that man.”
“Agnes, you do grow frail.”
“Shut yer trap. What do you know of frailty?”
“I observe it.”
“Oh, shush, Gideon! Who’s side are you on?”
“Well, nothing wrong with withering and dying unless there’s more work to be done and no one to pass it on to. That’s my problem.”
“Pity none of them show any interest.”
“Bah! It’s these times, all these computers and gadgets steer ’em away from nature.”
“The forest went without before. It will do so again if need be. You push yourself needlessly.”
“There’s time. Maybe one of the great-grandchildren.”
“Hope springs eternal.”
Agnes threw her hands up, indicating the time for talk had ended, and turned with a grunt to survey a kaleidoscopic spread of primroses. A satisfied smile stretched across her face.
“Delightful. Little beauties really do thrive amongst the cedars, don’t they?”
“And, as promised, a wider array of colors.”
“Hmm…and I figured they were just angling for top billing closer to my side door.”
“They’re prone to vanity,” Gideon whispered.
“Well, I’ll reward ’em with some pickle juice.”
Agnes ambled toward her backyard, lips pursed in determination. She never surrendered to the pain before noon.
“Shame you can’t work yer magic on these here bones. Arthritis is a bitch.”
“Agnes, you know I’m not that kind of fairy.”
“So you’ve said.”
Agnes reached for a rusty chair that bounced and wobbled as she sat.
“Moment’s rest won’t hurt.”
Agnes scanned her yard, making mental notes.
“Forget-Me-Nots could use a pep talk; they’re becoming tattered. But, Gideon, the wood lilies and bluebells are really taking off. Never feels like spring until the bluebells pop.”
“Shh. The Helebores!”
“Ah, they’re plum tuckered out now. See, their color is all but gone. They sure did well this year.”
“Don’t go calling them winter flowers again. You scandalized the whole yard last time.” Gideon chided.
“Hmm? Oh…everyone got over it eventually. What do you think needs doing first?”
“Bloodroot’s spreading close to the lawn again.”
“Yes, and with Emily’s daughter expecting any day now, the last thing I need is poisonous flowers in the grass.”
“It’s decided then. We’ll work on coaxing the bloodroot to yield ground. It will surely take all morning and afternoon. Ornery vegetation.”
The following day Agnes ached from yesterday’s battle with the bloodroot. But she went to work anyways. But, after hauling a ladder out to investigate a window box with failing sea thrift and candytuft, she conceded her body needed a day off.
“Another cup of coffee and lazing out here in the sun sounds good.”
“What about the sea thrift? It looks water-logged.”
“Shouldn’t be. Lots of holes for drainage and full sun. The other box is fine. See.”
“I’ll go take a look if you can’t.”
“Thank you, Gideon.”
Agnes sat on a stone bench amongst a bed of rock cress, alyssum, and creeping phlox. She closed her eyes, savoring the warmth of the rising sun. The hum of honey bees amongst the surrounding blossoms threatened to lull her to sleep. She let herself drift off.
The old woman started awake to find Kaitlin Jones inches from her face.
“Aargh!” Agnes yelped.
“Praise Almighty! I thought you were dead!” Kaitlin said.
“Dead!? Can’t an old woman rest unmolested in her own yard?!”
“I’m just doing what your family asked me to.”
“Spy and suss out a good reason to put me away, you mean.”
“How you talk, Ms. Agnes. I’m here to help a neighbor in need.”
“I’m not as frail as I look.”
“No, shame in aging, Ms. Agnes. Happens to everyone. I enjoy helping the elderly. Did you know I’m a lead CNA at Bassett Nursing Home?”
“How marvelous for you.”
As irritated as Agnes felt, she laughed, seeing Gideon dance upon Kaitlin’s nose.
“Want me to round up some wasps?” he asked.
Agnes shook her head.
“Are you ok, Ms. Agnes?” Kaitlin asked.
“I’m fine, thank you. I don’t know yer arrangement with Emily, but consider it canceled. I don’t need no help.”
Kaitlin took a step back, putting her hands on her hips.
“I disagree, and I told your daughter as much.”
Agnes attempted to rise up and chase the woman off, but her knees betrayed her.
“Look, Ms. Agnes. I’m no snoop, but….”
“Oh, that’s rich! You don’t fool me. I know you eavesdrop on me.”
“Well, someone has to,” Kaitlin frowned knowingly before loudly whispering, “I hear you talking to invisible people.”
Despite the pain, Agnes hauled herself to glare directly into the young woman’s eyes.
“Nothing wrong with talking to yourself. It’s a mark of genius!”
Kaitlin shuddered, crossing herself.
“It’s not natural, Ms. Agnes. Are you dabbling in the occult?”
“Look at your yard. It’s not natural.”
“Because I’ve got a green thumb?”
“This is more than good gardening. What about your pagan statutes and altar?”
“Those are garden gnomes!”
“And your amulet?”
Agnes clutched her Maltese fairy stone necklace protectively. The woman merely guessed, Agnes told herself.
“My pastor gave a sermon recently on the legends surrounding the state park. Did you know godless people from around the world come to Fairy Stone Park to find stones like yours? Supposed to let you see fairies and whatnot. Work of the devil, I say.”
“It’s a rare geological specimen. Nothing else to it. Like it or not, these parts are one of the few places to find one. I wear it as a token of local pride.” Agnes lied.
“That’s it. I’m going to get more than wasps.” Gideon said.
“No, stop,” Agnes said.
“Stop what?” Kaitlin asked.
“I meant…now stop all this foolishness. If you wanted to tire out an old woman, then you’ve succeeded, Ms. Jones. I haven’t the strength at the moment to tend my garden. I think a nap is in order.”
Agnes pushed her way past her neighbor.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Agnes. Let me help.”
“No, thank you.”
“Perhaps, you’d like to come to church with me this Sunday?”
“No, I would not.”
“I’ll check in on you later if you don’t mind.”
“You aren’t very bright, are you, Ms. Jones. I’m trying to tell you off.”
“But, I promised your daughter….”
“That’s none of my business. You do what you need to appease yer conscience, and I’ll mind my own. Good day, Ms. Jones.”
“What’s the ladder for? Surely, you don’t mean to climb at your age!”
Agnes turned to sneer at her neighbor.
“Goodbye, Ms. Jones.”
A luxurious nap restored Agnes’s resolve to tackle the window box. Gideon had discovered standing water inside, meaning something clogged the drain holes.
“How are you going to clear the blockage?” Gideon asked.
Agnes brandished a couple tools garnered from her garage. Laying aside a plastic bucket, a trowel, and a hand rake, she clasped hold of the ladder with both hands and a weed puller clenched in her mouth.
“Be careful, Agnes.”
Mumbling something snarky, she climbed the ladder. Rung by rung, she proceeded slowly until she could reach the three holes on the underside of the box. Leveraging the weed puller in one hand, she probed a hole.
You should wait and have someone take it down.
“By the time I can get someone, I’ll have lost the sea thrift. Look at it. Awful.”
Agnes pierced the closest drain hole, only to be disappointed by the release of a trickle of water.
“You were right, Gideon. I can see the puddle.”
“Why wouldn’t I be right?”
Agnes took a moment to give the fairy a deadpan stare.
“I’m just making conversation. Helps me focus,” Agnes said.
Her arm began to tremble as she stretched to reach the center hole. The weeder met with resistance. Peering closer, Agnes swore.
“I told Emily those river stones she bought were too small.”
Undetermined, she took the time to position the weeder to better lever the offending stone over. The effort made her sweat, but she didn’t give up.
“Ah! That did it!” she crowed, feeling water rush over her hand.”
“Well done, Agnes. Now get down from there before you fall.” Gideon said.
Agnes stood on tip-toes to watch the water drop in the flower box.
“Still sluggish. I’ll clear the last one just in case.”
She should have moved the ladder. But Agnes decided to try stretching further. She realized her mistake too late as the ladder slowly tipped.
On the ground, Agnes came to in a twisted heap with Kaitlin Jones above her, yelling frantically. Any harsh words deserted Agnes as an awful pain shot through her right leg as she rolled over.
“I told you to be careful, Ms. Agnes! Why didn’t you ask me for help? Now, look at you!” Kaitlin cried.
Agnes didn’t reply, instead focused on assessing her injuries.
“I told you. Nothing good comes to those who stray from Jesus. Are you ready to give that amulet up? It’s evil, I tell you, Ms. Agnes. Let me help you take it off while we wait for the ambulance.”
Agnes shoved Kaitlin away, but the fire erupting in her wrists made her instantly regret it. She must have broken them when she fell.
“Gideon!” she cried.
“On it!” he cried.
“Who are you talking to? Who’s Gideon? Lord Jesus, protect us!”
Agnes laughed through the pain, hearing the fairy muster his forces to attack.
“Only thing I need protection from is you, Ms. Jones! Now, I suggest you be off before it’s too late.”
The young woman crossed herself hurriedly, eyes darting about. Agnes had tried to warn her. She watched with a clear conscience as Kaitlin fled from the swarm of diving birds.
Stumbling to his feet, raising a hand to protect his eyes, Connor squinted into the unexpected glare. Off to his right, he could discern a frail old man’s silhouetted figure walking toward him within the brilliance.
“What? Who are you?”
“Someone you should trust.”
“I don’t understand.”
(connor time runs low)
“Wait! Where is that light coming from? Is that another fern flower?”
(connor a better life awaits take it)
“Ignore the voice! Yes, by God, it is another fern flower! Listen to me, Connor! You’re making a mistake!”
“What? I’m so confused! How do you know…?”
(connor the bloom fades)
“Using the flower is a mistake. What you’re asking for is wrong.”
“Asking for my fair share is wrong? You don’t understand. It’s humiliating how they treat me, my family, everyone living in orbit!”
“I know how you feel. But, this isn’t the right way.”
“You don’t know how I feel! You don’t know me!”
“I do because I remember. The exhilaration of stepping into a new world intoxicated me. I gave in to the temptation, ignoring the warning I felt, the warning you feel now. My greed destroyed me, leaving only anguish, robbing me of the joy I sought.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m you. I’m what you become. I am your future.”
“It’s true. Trust me, Connor. Wanting for nothing, having everything life offers is a lovely dream, but….”
“You’re lying, trying to trick me out of what I deserve!”
“No, I’m trying to save you and prevent me from ever happening.”
“This is crazy! The flower won’t give me what I want? The voice lies?”
“The voice speaks truthfully, but it does not reveal the cost of wishing.”
“Choosing this path will provide you with unimaginable wealth. But, you can never share it.”
“And that’s a bad thing? Surface-dwelling snobs hoard everything without consequence!”
“Connor, you will gain what you wish but lose everything you love. The fern flower’s power can never be used to help anyone else, even friends and family.”
“Hey! Disembodied voice! Is this true?”
(using the flower to help others will negate its power undoing your wish)
“Will my wish hurt my family?”
(no your good fortune need not come at their expense)
“See! I can make things better for myself. I’ll explain everything. My family will be happy for me. They’ll understand. Finally, I’ll be able to help them if there’s a real emergency. I’ll give everything up when I need to.”
“Connor, altering reality is dangerous. It changed me. I didn’t want to acknowledge it, but I began to think of myself as invincible, above the law. Justifying my actions became easier the further I slipped into the world I created for myself. But, it all came crashing down when Phoebe…when she….”
“What about Phoebe? Why are you crying? What happens to her?”
“I had the power to save her, but I hesitated. Addicted to the life I created, I feared losing the flower. I reasoned the odds of helping her were slim. I told myself I would sacrifice everything when all other options ran out, but I waited too long. She died unexpectedly from complications during an experimental procedure. My greed subjected her to needless suffering.”
“What? I’d never allow that to happen!”
“Connor, I’ve lived a privileged life, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. I’m ashamed to admit it, but my memories of enduring ridicule have always prevented me from doing the right thing. No matter how I tried to have it all, the flower has consistently denied me the true treasure of sharing my life with someone else.”
(infinite are the paths the flower offers with foresight you may choose differently)
“Yes, you’ve given me the warning I need.”
“No, don’t do this.”
“Why shouldn’t I enjoy the good life while I can? If I make wise decisions, nothing bad will happen.”
“Think of Phoebe.”
“I’ll write all this down! I promise to remember! I’ll be better than you!”
“Will you? Is it worth the risk? Will you accept wealth, power, and status now, knowing people you love might suffer and die because of it?”
“But, the voice says I can take a different path.”
“I beg you! Walk away from this evil!”
(it is time to choose)
His future self’s warning frightened Connor. He rejected the possibility of ever becoming this wretch. But, the thorny seed of doubt had been planted. No matter how he tried to pluck it out, the grotesque image of a bleak, lonely future grew, threatening to overwhelm him. He shook, cried, and stamped his feet as he gazed between the ugly old man and the exquisite flower.
“Connor, all the universes have to offer isn’t worth a damn thing without someone to share it.”
(will you take the flower)
Connor hesitated, hoping to ascertain the true strength of his character. He desperately wanted what his other classmates possessed but feared the uncertainty. He knew he couldn’t rule out the danger of making the same mistakes.
“Connor, reflect on the happiness you have now being amongst friends and family. Contentment comes in many forms.”
He recognized the truth in the old man’s words, realizing he only yearned to be accepted. Suddenly, he understood if Bright Star Academy couldn’t give him that, somewhere else could. Fate had dealt him a difficult hand, but he suspected changing reality should happen, moment by moment, throughout one’s life.
“I’m afraid I must decline. Some things are just too good to be true.”
0500 hours, June 21, 2433
Connor found himself abruptly standing in the meadow overlooking the school campsite. His teachers and classmates gathered quietly about the fading fire. He entered the circle and sat down next to a fellow student whose name he couldn’t remember.
“Where’ve you been, Connor?”
“Got lost. Thought I found something. Turned out to be nothing.”
“Well, you missed the excitement. Freddy fell into the river, trying to fish a wreath out. He almost drowned! Ironic, he’s so athletic but apparently can’t swim.”
“Must’ve been quite the sight.”
It occurred to Connor his classmate spoke to him normally without any hint of derision.
“Wait…why… why are you talking to me?”
“Ouch! But suppose I deserve that. Hey, I know I shouldn’t let those jerks intimidate me. And I’m sorry, Freddy and Brad give you such a hard time.”
“It has made things kind of rough.”
“Well, you seem like a nice guy. Anyway, I’m tired of letting them decide who’s cool and who’s not. Personally, I could care less if you live in orbit.”
“Now, I need to apologize. I’ve no idea what your name is. In my defense though, I don’t talk to anyone.”
“Nice to meet you, Nathan.”
Professor Dalton interrupted the quiet of predawn as he jumped up and down excitedly.
“Amazing, Dabrowski! That last spike in multidimensional radiation topped everything! I hope it didn’t damage my scanner. It’s completely silent now. I’m not even picking up the background levels we saw yesterday afternoon. Whatever it was, it’s gone now. But, I must say this has been a worthwhile experiment. Plenty of data to publish!”
“Ah, sorry to hear that, Dalton. Perhaps, the approaching dawn drives the denizens of Para away. Look, the sun’s beginning to rise.”
Connor smiled eagerly, facing east to witness his first sunrise. He couldn’t help but feel as if he had passed some test. He didn’t expect his difficulties to vanish, but he felt hope again.
1200 hours, June 21, 2507
Jeeves and Alfred waited, watching the sun climb higher and higher.
“It’s 12:00. Sir, has not returned. What does this mean?”
“Sir has found what he sought.”
“Per his instructions, seek out our new master in New Seattle.”
This tale was inspired by a submissions call from Shoreline of Infinity Magazine for their upcoming September 2022 issue themed around science fiction fairytales. Hope you check it out. I’m eager to read what made it in!
Convinced the source of the distant glow was multidimensional, Connor rushed off, determined to confide in Professor Dabrowski. Having misjudged the distance and his ability to navigate the darkness, he stopped to recover his bearings. His heart sunk, realizing the light had vanished. As Connor searched for it, the dazzling radiance rematerialized in the field before him. Staring in disbelief, he couldn’t shake the feeling it beckoned to him. Mesmerized, he stepped tentatively forward.
Startled, Connor halted. Rooted in place, he trembled, doubting his sanity.
(don’t stop now)
(follow the light all will be revealed)
An unbearable urge to enter the woods welled inside Connor. But, he found the light’s retreat into the dense undergrowth disconcerting. His courage failed at the forest’s edge.
“What do you want?”
(to help you connor)
“How do you know my name?”
(your mind is easy to read)
“Why couldn’t anyone else see the light?”
(you are the one chosen)
(you endure great unhappiness)
“Why should that matter?”
(is it wrong to remedy harm inflicted)
“No, but I don’t understand. Who are you? Why do you move deeper into the woods?”
(the gift resides there within)
(indulge your curiosity bravely follow the light)
“Why should I trust you?”
(risk abides in every action and refusal to act)
“What will I find?”
(what you already suspect)
“The fern flower?”
Connor wrestled with conflicting emotions. Endless possibilities ran through his mind. Although the offer tempted him, experience had taught Connor nothing in life was truly free. He supposed interacting with another dimension could have unforeseen consequences. Faltering, he tried to decide whether to play it safe and return to the bonfire or accept the risk, follow the light and take his fair share of wealth and privilege.
“Stay there. Don’t move. I’m coming.”
Connor tramped forward, pushing through the brush until he stepped into a hollow filled with radiant light emanating from a floating orb of energy. A large oak stood in the middle, its branches thickly overhanging to create a secluded grotto. Nestled between the tree’s gnarled roots, a beautiful woodland fern grew. Fine motes of light drifted down from underneath its fronds, coating the ground with glittering dust. A golden stem extended up in its center, bearing a magnificent flower.
Connor watched the luminous sphere descend and merge with the blossom to cast an array of iridescent light through its translucent petals. Connor felt an intense heat radiating from the bloom.
(rarely do mortal eyes gaze upon the ferns fiery blossom)
“I… I am honored.”
(do you know the magic it holds)
“Professor Dabrowski says it has the power to grant wishes.”
“If I wish for something, will it happen right away?”
(the magic works subtly until time brings your desire to fruition)
“How’s this possible? Magic isn’t real in this world.”
(what you call magic is simply energy capable of shifting reality bringing desired aspects from countless parallel universes into this one)
“I want to be like my classmates. I want to live on the surface. I want to be respected and admired. I want the life they have!”
(ask for limitless wealth the rest will follow)
Connor crept closer to the fern. Variegated light illuminated his body as he fell to his knees. Tentatively, he extended a hand to touch the flower.
“Do I pick the blossom?”
(fear not the bloom is imperishable utter a wish pluck it forever yours to keep)
The crack of snapping wood and crunching leaves startled Connor out of his reverie. He vainly searched the surrounding darkness, his eyes struggling to adjust. He suddenly suspected someone had followed him. The thought angered him.
“Hello? Who’s there?”
(a woodland creature ignore it make your wish)
Connor recalled his mother’s fear of wildlife.
“Animal? It sounds huge.”
(the hour grows late)
Detecting a trace of irritation in the voice’s tone, Conner again reconsidered accepting help from the multidimensional entity. But, his qualms fled as he turned back to behold the flower’s ethereal beauty. An intense desire for wealth and status reconquered him.
“Yes, of course. You’re right. I’m sorry.”
Energy pulsed up his hand as he grasped the flower, numbing his entire arm. The stem resisted his pull.
(state your desire to reap the bloom)
A dazzling flash accompanied by the crackle of arching electricity interrupted Connor’s wish.
“Wait! Stop! Say nothing! There’s something you need to know!”
This tale was inspired by a submissions call from Shoreline of Infinity Magazine for their upcoming September 2022 issue themed around science fiction fairytales. Hope you check it out. I’m eager to read what made it in!