This is a fantasy short story that I wrote last month. I’m posting it to go along with some upcoming writing tips. The story is set in the same world as Fox. Hunting and Giving Best, chronologically about the same time.
by Rose B. Fischer
©2014, All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reprinted or shared without the written consent of the author and clear direction to the original content.
Castle Malimore stood like a sentry at the top of the mountain path. Its sharp spires stood out against the inky purple sky, as if the castle had stabbed the darkness with them and caused morning to bleed through. The only sounds were the crunching of Imani’s boots against the dry leaves that had drifted into the path overnight. She could have drawn a portal; Aldra had shown her how they worked, but she liked the forest before everyone woke up. Seeing the castle like this was comforting and exhilarating.
The narrow door that opened to the kitchen was unlocked, and she opened it just enough to squeeze inside. There was already a fire going, coffee was brewing on the stove, and something was baking that smelled like cinnamon and sugar. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Lord Malimore was crouching to give Padishah and Empress their breakfasts. The two hounds chuffed lightly and wagged their tails to greet Imani. Lord Malimore half turned, straightened, and smiled hello. Imani smiled back.
“Hello, Empress. Shah. Good morning, sir.”
The table at the far end of the kitchen was full of wooden bowls for the rest of the dogs and the other animals. Imani slipped out of her shawl, hung it on the back of a chair, and started to dish out the food. Malimore left Shah and Empress to their meals and came to help her.
“When are you going to stop calling me sir?”
“I don’t know. Probably never.”
He chuckled, brushed the backs of his knuckles against her cheek, and worked in silence for a while. They set out the dogs’ dishes and went to feed the other animals. Then Imani followed him back to the kitchen so that he could check on his cinnamon rolls. She had been coming to help him with his morning routine for several months now. He’d invited her when she started seeing Todd, and she still found it a little strange. Thad Malimore was Lord of the Manor, a great Sorcerer, legendary teacher, and a hero in his own right. Yet he had no cook, and the only paid servants were a gardener and general groundskeeper who were more like trusted agents than hired help. He spent his mornings cooking for his children — all 11 of them — while Reynard and Micah took care of most other things related to household upkeep. She hadn’t expected the Malimores to live so much like average people.
“I didn’t know if I’d see you this morning,” he said. “Weren’t you supposed to visit your father?”
“I changed my mind.”
“You want to talk about it?”
“Not really. I’d just rather be with Todd. I’m wasting my time with my father.”
“All right, sweetheart. If that’s how you feel.”
Imani nodded, grateful that he wasn’t going to press the issue. They set out the trays of rolls, covered them, and put the rest of the dishes in the double sink basins to soak. Once that was accomplished, Thad looked up, studied the sky, and then looked at her. Imani recognized the grin he was hiding and raised her eyebrow.
“What is it?”
“Well, since you’re here, I have something to show you. Go up to the roof. The west tower. I’ll meet you in a minute.”
“Yes, sir,” Imani said, picking up her shawl again.
Thad raised a finger in a half teasing reprimand for the “sir,” but he didn’t comment. They left the kitchen together and took the winding stone stairs up to the third floor. There Thad veered across the landing to his favorite workroom and Imani continued all the way to the west tower and the stretch of roof beyond it where he liked to sit when he was looking out over the mountains.
The sky was beginning to lighten, but the pinks and golds in the eastern sky were only thin fingers stretching out to brush the western edge of the horizon. The wind was icy up here, and Imani pulled her shawl tighter around the shoulders. She walked to the edge, lowered herself into a sitting position with her legs dangling over and waited, watching for Thad.
As she expected, his magic carpet came out the workroom window, circled the paraphet that ran along the third story, and came up to land beside her. As he did, she saw that he was holding an ornate brass telescope in his right hand. He moved to sit with her, and he gestured upward to a group of stars just above the horizon line. The sun’s fingers weren’t touching that part of the sky yet, and Imani could see the star cluster clearly without the aid of the spyglass.
She knew those stars. She’d seen them many times on her walks in the mountains. The largest was in the center of the group , and six others created a rough circle around them. The big one had an odd shape, and she wasn’t sure it was a star at all. The smallest hovered at the far edge of the group like a shy youngest sibling.
“Do you know what those are?” Thad asked as he fiddled with the telescope.
“People in town call them the flame and the spirits,” Imani said.
“Do you know why?”
She shook her head.
“Here, watch as the light gets closer,” said Thad. He handed Imani the telescope and continued speaking as she raised it to her eye. “You can see it with the naked eye, but it will last longer and be clearer with that.”
“Is the glass magic?”
“A little,” he nodded.
Imani touched his hand with her free one, and peered through the telescope. As she watched, she saw the center star erupt in a violent burst of colors — blues, reds, pinks, greens, and purples that fanned outward and appeared to touch the smaller ones. Each of them lit up and sent glowing spirals out to touch the center star again.
Imani gasped, and the telescope slipped out of her grasp. Thad raised his hand and the little device swooped back to him like a homing bird come to roost. Imani swallowed hard and stared at him. He winked and gestured back to the sky. When she looked again, she could see that he was right. She could still see the center star lit up. It looked like the top of a lit torch, but none of the other dazzling activity was visible without Thad’s telescope. There was too much light in the sky.
“That’s amazing!” she breathed.
“There’s a very old legend that says those stars are the source of magic in Synn,” said Thad, giving her hand a little squeeze.
He shrugged. “Magic comes from all sorts of things. Those stars might have some. I don’t know. I don’t think they’re the primordial source.”
“I understand ‘the flame’ but why ‘the spirits’?”
“The flame is The Flame of Knowledge,” Thad explained, raising his hand to point out each of the spirits as he mentioned them. “The spirits are embers. Wisdom, Magic, Passion, Inspiration, Temperance, and Mercy. There’s a dragon and egg debate over whether the embers lit the flame or the flame gave off the embers.”
“It sounds more like a myth than a legend,” said Imani.
“Maybe so. There are places in the world, societies who worship the flame and the spirits the way that people here worship the Holies.”
“I thought everyone in Synn believed in the Holies.”
“Most people, nowadays, but not everyone. Or maybe…not just the Holies is a better way of putting it. The flame and the spirits were a tradition that ran alongside the religion of the Holies for a long time. It’s mostly been lost now. Only Sorcerers really remember, because the flame and the spirits still inform our practice of magic. But people remember the stars because we’re still trying to reach them. Still trying to figure out what makes them do that.”
“No one knows?”
“Scholars have theories. So do mystics and dreamers. Inventors. So much of our history, our ingenuity, advances in science, magic, medicine…it all comes from trying to figure out that one mystery. Just people dreaming of getting up there and figuring out what they are.”
Imani smiled a little wistfully. “It’s too bad no one has made it.”
“Well — because! Don’t you want to know what they are?”
“Sure. But in the meantime we’ve got steamships and streetlamps and magic telescopes we never would’ve had if we hadn’t tried and failed a few thousand times. Sometimes it’s the reaching that matters. You get something out of it whether it’s what you wanted or not.”
Imani rolled her eyes skyward and laughed.
“That’s very subtle, sir.”
“Well who said I was trying to be subtle?”
“You drag me all the way up here just to give me a non-lecture about visiting my father in prison and you’re not trying to be subtle.”
Thad shook his head. “It was just a side benefit.”
“Okay, then why show me?”
“I show you things all the time, don’t I? I didn’t have an ulterior motive. Anyway, if you don’t want to visit him, then don’t. It’s up to you. You’re certainly not under any obligation.”
“Probably not. But I am a bitter grouch. I hold grudges, and I’m a lot less sensitive than you are. I don’t want you to wonder if you missed out for the rest of your life.”
“You’re not a grouch, Lord Malimore.”
He raised his eyebrow.
“Okay, you can be a bit grouchy sometimes.”
Imani leaned her head on his shoulder and felt a shiver pass through her as his warmth made her realize how chilly the wind was. Thad’s arm moved around her shoulders. He hugged her lightly, and she closed her eyes.
“It’s not the same,” she said.
“Reaching for the stars compared to reaching for the hand of someone who isn’t going to be there when you expect them to. When you need them.”
“You’re right. So don’t expect that.”
“Then what’s the point of reaching at all?”
“Maybe you get to touch for a minute or two. Maybe you get to feel something or learn something you never would have otherwise. I wouldn’t count on it, but maybe you realize you were wrong about him this time. At least you won’t regret not trying. Life isn’t always an all or nothing proposition.”
Imani bit her lip. The wind made the tears in her eyes sting. She was tempted to rub her face against Thad’s shoulder, but she wasn’t sure how that would go over. He was still Lord Malimore.
“All right. I guess I’ll go the next time,” she sighed.
“Do you want me to go with you?”
Yes. But then I’ll hide behind you the whole time.
She shook her head. “I’ll ask Todd.”
“As you like. If he’s occupied, I’ll go along anyway.”
“Of course, my dear.”
Imani sat for a while, watching the sun come up and the stars fade. When the flame and the spirits were barely visible in the early morning sky, she frowned and turned to Thad again. He looked at her and smiled, waiting for the question.
“Why The Flame of Knowledge? Why is knowledge the most important?”
“Because knowledge is where the real power lies, Imani.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it. Everything else — land, politics, religion, money — they all fade. They crumble, rot from the inside, they go out of fashion. Nations fall, religions die, money burns or gets used up or gets tied up with politics and becomes worthless. In a drought or famine or some other disaster, no one cares which side you’re on, which god you worship, how much gold you have stashed away. The people with power are the ones who know how to find water and food and make medicine.”
“Or the ones who stockpiled them.”
“Because they saw the signs of a disaster coming and knew what they meant. Same thing with a war. Gold or politics, even religion may keep you out of it for a while, but sooner or later the tide changes, the gold runs out. The people who survive then are the ones with the right knowledge and the will to use it.”
“Is that what you do?”
“Partly. You think that makes me a bad person?”
“No…I…I love you. But I don’t have any need for power. It makes me uncomfortable to hear you talk like that.”
“Being interested in power and understanding how to use it isn’t the same as being hungry for it. Not everyone who has it abuses it. Knowledge is how I keep this family safe —out of the political wars and the religious battles. It’s how I keep my children safe and fed and clothed and in books up to their eyeballs. It’s why the nobles and the guild leaders come to me for help, rely on me, but can’t control me, and it’s why the children in that town below us will have full bellies this winter and aren’t sick with dysentery or some other ravage.”
“And that’s why their parents will trust you even if they’re frightened of you.”
“That’s right. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care what happens to the children.”
“Not everyone is like you.”
“You’re right. That’s why I’m always looking for bright young people who’re capable of guarding the flame.”
“So, why are you telling me this and not Todd or one of your daughters? I’m not a sorceress.”
“I am telling my daughter, dear. And you don’t have to be a sorceress. Kane and Syas have no magic either. I expect you to take good care of my son.”
Imani blinked. She raised her head, looked at him for a long moment, and said, “I’ll always do that, Lord Malimore, but not for you.”