“I’m very into science-fantasy, that kind of swordfights and magic and technology thing.” -Gary Numan
“You know you can’t be here,” the guard says.
He stands wide-legged with his left hand on the hilt of his long sword. Dani tries to remember if she can recall his name and if she knows something about him she can use it to her advantage. Coming up with nothing, she tries another tactic.
“You know me,” she says. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important.”
Taking a step toward him with her right sandaled foot, she presses into the slit of her silken dress so the entire length of her muscular leg shows from calf to thigh. She watches his eyes travel the length of her body, his voice wavers a bit when he speaks.
“I’ve strict orders,” he says. “You aren’t allowed anywhere near the Queen.”
His hand tightens on the hilt of his sword, steadying himself, as Dani leans forward allowing the tops of her breasts to become candlelit, the gold medallion between them catching the light and gleaming brightly. He shakes his head and takes a shuffling step back.
“I can’t,” he says. “I really can’t.”
Dani flows towards him, closing the space between them within seconds. She reaches for the guard’s rough right hand held rigidly at his side. She pulls it into her soft one and turns it over, running her thumb along the callouses. His breathing pattern changes and his shoulders and knees become soft. She presses her lips to his ear, allowing her body to fall heavily into his. He swallows loudly and she can see goosebumps prickle on his thick neck.
“I’ll be right back,” she whispers.
Slipping her body around the trembling guard, like smoke blowing from gently parted lips, she disappears into the shadows and up the wide stone steps. She’s learned to use her power like this, to lure and to distract. It’s how she befriended the Queen, and also why she’s been banned from the palace. The guard won’t follow her, and he won’t remember why. A heaviness makes her pace slow, followed by the familiar feeling of regret.
The monsters are coming. Her vision from the fire dances before her, an afterimage half in darkness and half in light. She has to warn the Queen. The ticking of a clock she can’t see surrounds her, whispering it may already be too late. She stumbles sideways and presses her palms into the cool wall to steady herself. The Old Woman told her she’d have a vision and it would change everything. She’s spent half her life waiting for the moment to occur, and when it did earlier tonight, it wasn’t at all what she imagined.
Dani was at the tavern performing one of her frequent concerts on her golden clavichord, a spectacle of purple-layered silk. The packed crowd came to hear Dani sing of the beauty and tragedy of Andromeda, chained to a rock because of jealousy. She’d begun to sing the part about the serpent slithering toward the princess when she’d glanced at the fire.
That’s all it took—one single glance. There, as if waiting for her always, was the future displayed in all its horrid brilliance. It danced within the flames, vivid and terrifying. She’d stopped playing and screamed, the drunken audience clapping as if it was part of the show. Pressing through the crowd, she’d rushed outside and run all the way to the back entrance of the palace. The fate of the entire kingdom rests on her convincing the Queen to believe in this vision, but she isn’t sure she believes in herself or if it can be stopped.
Dani feels a panic surge like bile within her gut and forces herself to continue up the dark staircase. Memory comes to her as she steps up and up in the dark on silent steady feet. She considers the nature of time and space, like old friends or playmates who either haunt or beguile you with visions of happiness or tragedy. It seems to Dani the older she gets the thinner the fabric of time seems, and the harder it becomes to distinguish memory from the truth. Words float around her. Words like crazy and cursed. She begins to think this might all be for nothing.
Perhaps what she saw in the fire had already been, a vision of evils far away and long ago. She wants to believe it more than anything, but a tugging in her chest, her heart perhaps, tells her what she saw will happen and will happen soon. Only the Queen can stop it, but after what happened between them, Dani isn’t sure she’ll listen. To hope feels childish, but it’s all she has. It’s all anybody has.
As she nears the top of the staircase she imagines the Old Woman waiting for her dressed in her tattered brown cloak, her long silver hair flowing around her, leaning on her crooked staff and singing. She’s been gone for so long, and yet the memory of her hasn’t dulled.
She’d found Dani in a mushroom patch, a dirty blonde baby smiling in a single ray of sunlight.
“My bright dandelion in the dirt,” the Old Woman called her.
As she grew, she taught Dani to play the clavichord, the instrument of wistful poets and star-struck lovers. The stringed keyboard would come alive in her tiny hands and she’d play for hours each night while the Old Woman stared into a roaring fire to read the flickering flames as if they were an open book. Dani would play and the Old Woman would sing of prophecy, destiny, and magic.
Dani smells her earthy scent and imagines her love like a mist or fog filling the dark staircase. She rushes up the final three stairs, to find not the Old Woman waiting for her, but an unfamiliar soldier in a bright, silver suit of armor. He holds a thick metal lance in front of him—a clear stop sign. She halts.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
His voice sounds echoey and deep from within his shiny helmet. Dani can see how small she looks in the reflection and tries to square her shoulders and stand straighter. The soldier presses the sharp iron lance into the flesh above her left breast. She feels the sharp point pierce the skin.
“I need to see the Queen,” she says. “It’s a matter of life and death. Just one minute with her. Please.”
“You aren’t allowed here,” he says. “She doesn’t want to see you.”
She can’t reach him through the metal, can’t touch the part of him open to her. He presses the sharp lance harder and she feels it slide further into her flesh, warm blood runs down the inside of her dress, making the purple fabric darken and stick to her body. Prickles of sweat form on her forehead and she sways slightly. She summons all her strength to stay upright.
“I must speak to the Queen,” she says. “It’s urgent. Please. Please!”
The soldier presses harder, the lance becoming thicker and thicker, widening the hole in her fabric and her body. She can feel the warm blood now on her foot and hear it dripping onto the stone floor. This man will kill her. The certainty of it emboldens her, breaking free a surge of power she usually keeps still and controlled. It whips around her, like a fierce wind, blowing out the nearest torches on the wall.
With closed eyes, she grabs the lance with both hands and spins with it still inside her body, freeing it from his grasp. He grunts in frustration and reaches for her, but she dodges him spinning and spinning in circles. She can feel his energy faintly but focuses on her own. With all she has, she pulls the lance free of her body with a sickening wet sound and a scream of pain. She staggers back from the soldier and holds the heavy lance out in front of her. Her hands and body vibrate and she opens her eyes.
“I need to see the Queen,” she says. “Please.”
“Never,” he says with a laugh. “Just look at yourself. You’re shaking like a leaf. You don’t have it in you, Dani.”
“You know me!” she says. “Please. You have to listen.”
He laughs again and she realizes he must be the Queen’s personal guard, the one who turned the Queen against her. The suit of armor and the iron lance are to protect himself from her, to make her power useless. It makes her furious, but there’s no time. She has to reach the Queen.
She lowers the lance and runs at the soldier intending to flick off his helmet, instead, the sharp point sinks into flesh she can’t see between his helmet and chest plate. Roaring, he stumbles back, teetering for a brief second, and then falls down the steps. The clattering of metal hitting stone over and over lasts for a minute and then goes silent. She can’t see the bottom.
For several breaths, Dani doesn’t move. The monsters are coming. The words slide like an iceberg inside her stomach and she spins from the staircase and into the torch-lit maze of hallways. As she walks, she tears a strip off the bottom of her dress and presses it against her bleeding wound, using the tight fabric of her bodice to hold it in place. She’s amazed that, after all this time, the path to the Queen’s room is as familiar to her as anything.
The Queen’s wide bedroom door sits ajar and Dani steps inside to find the formerly exquisite space has been transformed into a crude workshop. Gone are the beautiful paintings, the racks of dresses, and the ornate bureaus covered with sparkling jewels and crowns. Instead, long tables crowd the room in a haphazard way, filling the space and giving it a confusing and dirty feeling. Metal, wires, bolts, springs, cogs, and weights litter the tables and the floor. Dani steps carefully around the debris toward the center of the room.
Sitting in the place formerly occupied by the Queen’s four-poster bed is a wide metal barrel filled with bright orange coals. The Queen stands before it with enormous brown leather gloves covering her hands and forearms. Her golden hair, dirty and dull looking, is tied at the nape of her neck with a piece of leather. She’s wearing a soiled pair of dark pants and a matching shirt.
As Dani watches, the Queen pulls a rectangular piece of hot metal heated to a dull red color from the coals and carries it to a curved piece of black iron sitting on an old tree trunk. She grabs a wood-handled hammer and begins pounding the hot metal. She turns and hits, turns and hits. Dani inches a few steps closer, and the Queen looks up. Her eyes widen for an instant and her mouth looks about to form words, but instead, she looks away and returns to her pounding.
Dani feels weak from the heat, the acrid smell of the burning metal, and her recent blood loss. Her power is completely drained, she steps carefully through the chaotic room until she finds a pile of dirty furs laying in the far corner. They smell of wet dogs, but she lowers herself onto them anyway. The Queen continues to work for several more minutes before suddenly slamming the metal onto the floor and kicking it across the room with a loud clatter. It lands inches from Dani’s face.
The Queen pulls off her gloves, throws them on the floor, and walks to Dani with loud, heavy steps. Hands balled into fists at her sides, she towers over Dani and presses her lips tight together. The Queen’s eyes, as blue and beautiful as Dani remembered, sweep over her bloody wound but the expression on her face doesn’t change.
“What do you want?” she says.
Dani tries to stand but finds her entire left side is now weak. Instead, she attempts a smile, which isn’t returned.
“I miss you.”
Dani regrets the words the second she says them. The Queen makes a strangled sound and takes a step back. She grabs the material of her pants and twists it in her hands. There are tears in her downcast eyes and when she speaks it’s a low hoarse sound spoken through a tightly clenched jaw.
“Get out. I don’t want you…here.”
The pause between the words feels important, and when Dani answers she speaks softly and carefully.
“I’m sorry…I didn’t come to fight with you. I’ve come because…well, I’ve come to warn you. The kingdom’s in great danger.”
“It was, when you were here,” her words come out in an angry rush. “ You have no power now and I have no use for you. Get out!”’
She continues to stare at the floor and her hands are fists again.
“No, you don’t understand. I saw a vision in the fire…”
She’s told the Queen of her days with the Old Woman and her prophecy, and they make eye contact for a brief moment. It’s a flash, a slight lowering of the defenses Dani used to live behind, a softness of her features, and a small parting of her lips. Dani reaches a hand toward her and the Queen kicks it with her heavy booted foot and spits on the floor. It hurts. There’s no love left and Dani wishes she’d never come back to the palace. She should have gone far away like she asked. This has been a terrible mistake.
Sobbing, Dani manages to pull herself into a seated position. The pain radiates across her body to her right side. She swallows sour sickness in her mouth and tries again. She must make her understand.
“Please,” Dani says. “I know I hurt you and I’m sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am for all of it, but this isn’t about us. The kingdom is in great danger from…”
“From what?” the Queen says looking at the floor.
The Queen doesn’t shift or even look up. Dani realizes she has no words to describe her vision and feels the horror of it rush through her. She should have thought of this, of how she’d have to convince her, what she’d say. She’d expected a flicker of love to be there, a tiny flame she could blow on and use to get the Queen to listen. She didn’t count on the iron lance or the Queen to look and act so differently.
She’d fully underestimated her heartache, the pain she’d caused with her betrayal, and the way it has transformed the once young and trusting Queen into this strange woman in front of her. It had all happened so fast and she’d not had a chance to explain. Now, it’s too late. The monsters will come and so will the piles of bodies. She can’t stop any of it.
The Queen stares at the floor for a few minutes further, sighs loudly, and then stomps across the room to one of the long work tables. Dani tries to summon something within herself to move, to get out of here, but there’s nothing left. She’s never felt this empty and helpless before. She’s numb and terrified.
There’s a series of flashing and popping sounds across the room followed by a loud creak and stomp. Steam fills the already hot room, smelling of oil and metal. Dani can’t see anything until the Queen returns with an odd-shaped soldier at her side.
He’s roughly the size and shape of a man but covered in darkened curving brass. A bright yellow dandelion is stamped in the center of his chest, the stamp the Queen would press into the letters she’d write and stuff under Dani’s pillow at night. The stamp was created to represent their love and friendship. For a brief second, she thinks it’s a message of reconciliation. A symbol of hope.
Then she looks at the face of the soldier and where the eyes should be are giant slats looking into the darkness, a void of nothing. Realization hits her and Dani covers her mouth in a silent scream. The Queen’s lips curve into a chilling smile.
Fear beats within Dani like a second heartbeat. She can feel the two rhythms warring within her chest, a battle for her body. She begins to shake violently, and her breath comes in tiny raspy gasps.
“The monsters…” she whispers.
Looking around the room she can see what she didn’t before. The piles of metal and debris are parts. Body parts. There’s a pile of bronze legs on one table, several heads on another, arms and torsos scattered here and there. The Queen’s smile widens as the metal guard bumbles toward Dani with rigid, robotic steps. With much creaking, the bronze soldier lifts Dani into its hollow arms. Peering into the dark slats, she can see there’s no man inside the machine.
“The monsters…” she says again.
The Queen laughs as the metal man carries Dani’s limp body out of the room and into the maze of hallways. Dani touches the dandelion stamp with her fingertips and watches it disappear and reappear as they pass the torches on the wall. If she’d understood earlier, maybe she could have done something. If she’d patched things up years ago, maybe she could have stopped it. The Old Woman told her the vision would change everything.
Dani’s realization has come too late.
The monsters are here.
She will be the first to die.
The bodies will be piled in the courtyard.
Author’s note: Science fiction and fantasy are my two favorite genres. I mixed them together this week with this strange little fairytale of visions, monsters, and lost love. The idea for the robotic soldier came from years of exposure to Steam Punk and researching the story of the Ancient Greek robot Talos. I also researched the oldest instrument with a keyboard and was happy to find the quiet beauty of the clavichord. If interested, you can watch someone play music on a clavichord from late 16th or early 17th century Italy. Thank you, as always, to everyone who takes the time to read my short stories. Your comments make my day and keep me going on this crazy journey. I wouldn’t press so hard to find the story if it wasn’t for you. Your support means the world.
Short Story Challenge | Week 14
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story where something bad is about to happen but nobody believes the main character. We had to include the words Andromeda, stop sign, dandelion, iceberg, spectacle, poet, candlelit, keyboard, bumble, and robotic.
Write With Us
Prompt: A writer with noisy neighbors
Include: dentist, rainbow, explosion, horizon, cactus, palm, Saturday, latte, beets, and sample
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
- Week 6: Through the Glass Windshield
- Week 7: The Final Goodbye
- Week 8: Sunset, Sunrise
- Week 9: Returning Home
- Week 10: The Water
- Week 11: Aw, Phooey!
- Week 12: Meeting Time
- Week 13: The Old Man