ISSUE 18, January 2018



Cover Art by Glass Valkyrie Studios



*Please enjoy our monthly issue for free. Be aware however, that this free version contains some formatting issues such as the abscence of italics. To experience the stories in their properly formatted versions, you can purchase a copy on Kindle or a print edition through Amazon.

The Touch of a Spindle
By Janel Brubaker

    Her body trembled as she stood from the bed and moved toward the window, the stone floor cold against her bare feet. She wore only her cream-colored satin chemise; the hem touched the floor and the sleeves covered her arms to her wrists, but the fabric was thin and did nothing to warm her in the winter cold. She hardly noticed. A fire crackled in the hearth across from the bed, inviting her to take in its heat, but standing near it meant looking at the man she hoped to forget. She could still feel his hands pawing at her, the heat of his flesh against hers. Though she stood on the opposite side of the room from him, she could feel him over her entire body, as if he had imprinted himself on her, into her skin and hair and lips. It was like this with each man her father sent to her bed.
Princess Rosalyn of Brier stared out of the frosted window at the winter sky. Stars filled the midnight canvas, winking down at her from their celestial thrones. She focused on them as the man who had just had his way with her dressed himself, though in his drunken state it took him several minutes to find his trousers and boots and tunic, and longer still to pull them on his tall frame. As he stumbled around her chamber, Rosalyn took in the beauty of the clear, winter night, how the moon’s rays lit the snow-covered courtyard with silver and white. It was a cold beauty, a quiet beauty, and an odd contrast to the blundering noises behind her.
The man said little, which was the only thing for which Rosalyn was grateful, and when he did speak, it was never to her. She was beneath his notice outside of the bed sheets. She was a mere woman, after all. What could she possibly think, know, or feel that would be worth his time? Rosalyn stared at the stars and the winter moon as the man, an ambassador from some nearby country, stumbled drunkenly from her chamber, shouting down the hallway for his attendant to assist him. He slammed the door behind him and only then was Rosalyn free to let out the deep breath she’d been holding since he’d first come to her room.
In the silence of her own company, Rosalyn wept. Her body ached from the prolonged encounter. Bruises had already begun to show on her arms where his hands had gripped her. Of the men who’d come to her chamber in the last few years, he was far from the worst, though that didn’t make him kind or gentle. Like the others, he’d been too concerned with his own pleasure to notice her discomfort. Of course, her pleasure was of little consequence. She could almost hear her father’s voice in her mind reiterating that these arrangements weren’t meant to benefit her, but rather the country. The happier an ambassador or royal visitor was, the more likely they would be to sign treaties or agree to political marriages. And since she had been born a daughter and not a son, her body wasn’t hers to control, and her choices weren’t her own, but her father’s. Eventually, he would make her a marriage arrangement (though that would only come when he had exhausted all other uses for her), and then she would be perpetually bound to bed a man she hardly knew. Until then, she must “earn her royal rights” by obeying her father in all things.
It hadn’t always been this way. Rosalyn remembered days where she had been, if not quite happy, then content. Could she ever be happy when her only living parent blamed her for the death of the other? Still, in the midst of her father’s drunkenness and neglect, she’d found peace in the little joys the palace offered her; the beauty of the gardens in spring, swimming in the country lakes and rivers in summer, riding her horse through the villages in autumn, and her favorite; sitting in the winter stillness, absorbing all the earth offered on the altar of the harshest season. Winters in Brina, her home country, were unforgivable to most, yet heaven to her. She had been born in the middle of January, when the snow fell the hardest and the winds blew relentlessly. From the time she could walk, she had always felt an affinity for the cold and the ice and the snow.
For fifteen years, she had lived in the palace with few real friends or companions, resigning herself to the fact that her father never had, and never would, love or care for her. He kept to himself and let her alone to do whatever she wished, so how could she really complain? Once a week, at least, he hosted banquets and masquerades and concerts for his guests, and she would attend and attract special attention from ambassadors and courtiers, who would ask her to dance. Her father would watch from the throne or his place at the high table as she twirled around the dance floor, smiling and laughing. Courtier’s would whisper flatteries in her ear.
Rosalyn sighed and looked up at the stars, tears falling down her pale cheeks. What she would have given to return to those days. Now, no one asked her to dance except those who had arranged with her father more intimate relations. She couldn’t remember the last time she had laughed or even smiled, and no one seemed to notice or care that the princess, once lively and warm, had turned to brittle ice.      
The door to her chamber opened and one of her maidens, Cassandra, entered to draw her bath. As always, Cassandra said nothing of the bruises or of Rosalyn’s tears. She was there to serve, not to offer advice or comfort, though Rosalyn saw the young woman’s sympathetic looks. She may not have spoken her views of Rosalyn’s father aloud, but Rosalyn could tell that Cassandra disagreed with what the King expected of his daughter, of what he put her through.
Once the tub had been filled, the chemise slid off Rosalyn’s shoulders and onto the cold floor. She stepped out of it into the tub, the water hot and steaming. It burned her skin, but it was the only way to erase the encounter from her body. Rosalyn normally despised the heat and preferred the cold. Heat thawed, bringing pain to the surface, while the cold numbed limbs and noses and lips, masking pain until she could almost convince herself it wasn’t there at all. But a hot bath helped her to feel cleansed. It allowed her some solace from the nightmare her life had become.
She sank into the tub as tears continued to steam down her face. Cassandra poured the hot water over her shoulders and down her back, soaking Rosalyn’s long, black hair. With a cloth and soap, Cassandra worked up a lather, then gently ran the cloth over Rosalyn’s body, down her back and shoulders, over her neck and chest, across her breasts and down her arms. Cassandra ran suds through Rosalyn’s hair, detangling it and removing the scent of the drunken bastard who had used her now for three nights in a row. Cassandra never seemed to tire of Rosalyn’s crying, and while she never spoke, her presence was comforting to the nineteen-year-old princess all the same.
As Cassandra combed her fingers through Rosalyn’s hair, Rosalyn thought of her mother. She knew very little of her, as her father never spoke of her, and there were few still alive who had known her. She knew that her mother had been a royal fairy, that her marriage to the King had been an attempt to end the bloodshed between humans and the fae, that she had been a powerful and compassionate presence in the palace. Rosalyn imagined a great beauty with large wings and fierce eyes, a woman of strength and valor. Some of the older courtiers had whispered tales of her mother flying into battle six months pregnant, wielding a sword and shield as if she hardly noticed her bulging belly, vanquishing the ogres almost single-handedly. The fae were notorious for their battle prowess, the women especially, so it was no wonder her mother was battle hardened and courageous. She would never have allowed herself to be used the way I have been, Rosalyn thought to herself. I am nothing like her.
While Cassandra helped Rosalyn bathe, three other maidens removed the bed sheets and replaced them with fresh linens. It wouldn’t be enough to erase the night’s events from Rosalyn’s mind, but it would help her sleep. After an hour of bathing, Cassandra helped Rosalyn from the tub and dried her off. She grabbed a cotton smock from the princess’s wardrobe and helped it over Rosalyn’s head. Her duties complete, she curtsied and left the chamber, having not spoken a single word. Rosalyn watched her leave before forcing herself to climb into the bed she’d come to despise. Her body was stiff and she needed to sleep, but as with every night her father sent a man to her chamber, sleep tauntingly eluded her. She poured a few drops of poppy’s serum into her mulled wine and downed the glass. Then she pulled the covers over her head and cried until she was too exhausted to shed another tear. Only then, as her eyelids closed, did the comfort and safety of sleep embrace her.
***
Morning dawned with a silver winter sun on the horizon. It was Rosalyn’s twentieth birthday, though she knew no one would celebrate. Her mother had died giving birth to her and her father, now a slovenly drunk, had always blamed her. Rosalyn believed it was why he treated her like a prostitute, selling her body for political profit.
Rosalyn stared at herself in her full length looking glass as her maidens fussed over her gown and hair. Fiona, Rosalyn’s principal lady-in-waiting, smiled as she hooked a simple silver chain around Rosalyn’s neck.
    “You look just like your mother,” she said softly, squeezing her shoulders affectionately. Lines etched into her skin around her eyes and mouth, and silver had begun to eat at the auburn of her hair, revealing her advanced age. “Your slender neck, your dark hair, your pale skin and freckles...you remind me so of her. She was a great beauty, just like you.” Rosalyn gave a small smile. She loved hearing of her mother, though Fiona was now the only person who would speak of her. Everyone else feared the King’s wrath. He hated being reminded of his late wife. Fiona was the only member of Rosalyn’s household old enough to remember Evangeline, the fairy Princess. “I’ll never forget how beautiful she looked in that glass coffin, as if she were only asleep or under a spell.”
“But she wasn’t,” Rosalyn said, a chill crawling over her skin. “She was dead.”
Fiona met Rosalyn’s gaze in the looking glass. “It wasn’t your fault, dearest one. Women die in childbirth every day. It was the will of the gods that your mother’s life be taken to bring you into this world.”
Rosalyn stiffened. “My father doesn’t blame the gods, he blames me. He has always blamed me.”
Fiona sighed and said nothing. She was a commoner, after all. For her to speak ill of the King was treasonous and punishable by death, even if she spoke the truth. A moment of silence passed between them before Fiona’s face brightened with a smile. “I’ll never forget the day your mother arrived at this palace,” she said, lacing up the back of Rosalyn’s gown. “She stepped from the carriage in a beautiful gown of yellows and oranges, her golden wings stretched out behind her. Her black hair hung in waves over her shoulders, and her dark eyes took in all of this with curiosity and anticipation. A sword hung at her hip, and a bow and quiver filled with arrows was slung over her back as if she were a mercenary come to extract payment.” Fiona laughed. “The only sign of her royalty was the diadem she wore on her head,” she added, pulling the very same diadem from the velvet pillow on Rosalyn’s vanity. Rosalyn listened closely, taking in each word as if it would be the last she heard on earth. “Your father was smitten from the first, and she could tell. He doted on her every wish and she made him a better ruler.”
Rosalyn looked away. The chill on her skin had sunk into her heart, numbing her from the inside. Her mother made him a better ruler, but she had made him harsh. Cruel. Rosalyn let out a deep sigh as she examined herself in the looking glass; she may have looked like her mother, but there wasn’t a bit of fairy in her veins. Fate had clipped her wings and stolen the magic from her blood. She was merely human, and her father treated her as if she were little more than property. Fiona placed the simple silver diadem on her head and slid a single finger down her cheek.
“Pain tests us,” she said, staring into Rosalyn’s eyes. “It reveals who we really are. In the years since your mother passed, your father has failed each test Fate has presented to him. This is a reflection on him, not you.”
“And yet I am the one who suffers.”
Fiona sighed and moved away, leaving Rosalyn to herself. She stared at her reflection and ran a hand along the silver chain necklace that hung around her neck. It matched the diadem on her head, the only two pieces of jewelry she owned which had previously belonged to her mother. Having symbols of her mother so close to her mind and soul filled her with a sense of peace and strength, even if they were only fabricated.
As a princess, there was precious little she was allowed to do during the day. She had grown out of her lessons years before and her father never allowed her to join him in the council chamber or in political negotiations. Therefore, she could only occupy herself with reading, walks in the garden, rides through the countryside with her retinue close by, and mingling with courtiers. Aside from reading and riding her horse, she hated everything else that was expected of her. She sometimes convinced the palace philosophers and theologians to engage her in conversation, but they inevitably reported back to her father, who would yell at her and demand that she leave them alone. Her intellectual curiosities also reminded him of Evangeline, the woman he loved and lost. Most days, Rosalyn resigned herself to the gardens, too exhausted to challenge her father. Only courtiers were allowed to traverse the palace gardens, and most of them hated to be around Rosalyn, so she was left to herself.
She particularly enjoyed a wild, forest-like section of the gardens. The royal gardeners hadn’t yet tamed it, and given her father’s hatred of the outdoors, progress in the cultivation of its design had been stalled for years. Rosalyn didn’t mind. She loved the cover of the trees in spring and summer and the autumnal changing of leaves, but mostly she loved how the cold, winter sun glimmered through barren branches, casting rays of silver on the white snow. Fiona always fretted over how long Rosalyn spent out of doors in the winter cold, but Rosalyn paid little attention to the cold. She liked to inhale the crisp winter scent and felt one with the trees among the silent snowfall. It was the only place she felt she belonged.  
It was here she decided to spend the day. She sat on a stone bench at the heart of the small wilderness, surrounded by trees both barren and evergreen. The sky above was clear and grey, the sun shining between the branches. She could hear the murmur of courtiers in the other parts of the gardens and in the courtyard; part of her longed to join them, to mingle and laugh and drink wine, but she knew they didn’t want her there. They had heard of the men who frequented her chamber. How could they not have? Palace staff knew of what took place, though they weren’t privy to the specifics, and now Rosalyn had been branded a whore. The friends who used to see her, speak to her, dance with her, hadn’t come around for years. The young men and women, sons and daughters of Brinan nobility, who had once seen her as a potential spouse, now saw her as nothing more than a common whore, damaged goods, a disappointment to the people.  
She ran her hands through a section of her long hair and stared absently at the snow. She wondered what her mother would say of her father’s treatment of her. She liked to think her mother would be ashamed, would chastise the King, would withdraw her love from him. As she thought these things, a raven landed nearby. Rosalyn smiled. She recognized the bird from the silver tips of its wings. It greeted her with a raspy caw and the cock of its head. She chuckled and reached into the folds of her skirt where she’d put a slice of bread and pulled it out, tossing crumbs and little chunks at the bird’s feet like she did each day it visited. But today it didn’t eat. It hopped closer, ignoring the crumbs she’d tossed to the ground.
“Not hungry today?” she asked, folding the bread back into her skirt.
A puff of black smoke engulfed the raven and a moment later a woman stood where the raven had been. She was clad in a gown of black with long, silver feathers sticking out of the shoulders. She had silver hair and skin like amber and enormous wings with black and silver feathers. Rosalyn jumped to her feet, startled by the woman’s presence.
“Rosalyn, there’s no need to be afraid. I’m not here to harm you,” the woman said with a smile.
“Who are you?” she asked, looking around to see if anyone was nearby.
“My name is Senn.”
Rosalyn thought she should feel frightened, but she didn’t. “Have...have you really come to me as a raven all this time?” Senn smiled and gave a single nod. Rosalyn furrowed her eyebrows. “Why?”
“To watch you closely. If I had come to you like this,” she said, motioning to herself with her hands, “I don’t think I’d have gotten close enough. The palace guards, at least, would have attempted to throw me out of the palace, and that’s saying nothing of your father and his hatred of reminders of the past.”
“I don’t understand,” Rosalyn said. “Why did you want to watch me? I sit and do nothing every single day.” Rosalyn was curious as to why this woman, who clearly possessed magic and resembled a fairy, would be interested in her. “Why would you remind my father of the past?” Senn smiled and her dark eyes flashed with what Rosalyn thought was excitement.
“I’m a fairy. One look at me, and your father would be reminded of your mother. She was a fairy,” Senn said, clasping her hands in front of her. “In fact, she was fairy royalty. That makes you royalty by blood not only of the human race, but of the fae as well.”
“I’m not sure you want me ruling over the fae,” Rosalyn said. “I don’t seem to have inherited any of my mother’s gifts, though I’m told I look a great deal like her.”
Senn’s eyes narrowed and stared into Rosalyn’s as she took a few steps toward her. “Magic manifests differently in each fairy. As you are only half fae, your magic may be hidden by mortality, but I am sure it flows through you, nonetheless.”
Rosalyn felt something flicker in her chest, something foreign and unidentifiable. It was faint, obscure, and hardly worth noting, but it took root and continued to beat. As she stared into Senn’s eyes, it strengthened.
“You were meant for more than this, Rosalyn,” Senn’s voice said, though her lips didn’t move. A moment later, Senn held out her hand and in it was a spindle from a spinning wheel. The needle, instead of made from bone or iron like every other spinning wheel she’d seen, seemed to be made of ice. It was pale in color, tinted blue, and sparkled beneath the rays of the silver winter sun. Rosalyn frowned and looked back at Senn. “Weave your own future,” Senn spoke again.
Rosalyn took the spindle, unsure of what she was to do. Once the spindle left Senn’s hand, a puff of black smoke engulfed her once more and she was gone. Rosalyn sighed and hung her head. What was she supposed to do with the spindle without a spinning wheel to attach it to? She shook her head and dropped it, leaving it in the snow as she made her way back to the palace. It was late and the evening feast would begin soon, which meant her father would expect her to be in her chamber waiting for whomever he sent to her that night.
Rosalyn ignored the stares and whispers of the courtiers as she walked into the palace. She had been outside so long, even the palace felt warm against her face. She made her way up the stairs and down the long corridors to her chamber. She shook her head as she walked, mulling over what had happened in the garden. She told herself it had been in her head, a concoction of escape to beat against the loneliness of each breath. It was sad, really, that a princess even needed to create a kind of fairy guardian to feel less alone.
She opened her chamber door, determined to set herself right, but froze as she entered. Before her, close to the window, was a spinning wheel with the spindle attached, the ice-needle long and gleaming in the firelight, but not melting. Never before had a spinning wheel been in her room. It was possible one of the maids had left it there by accident, but she thought it unlikely. They never used her chamber for their sewing, and she doubted that any of them possessed a spindle made of ice.
She shook her head and told herself she was being ridiculous, that there was a reasonable explanation for the presence of the spinning wheel, and to hurry and change before supper was served. But even as Fiona and the other maidens helped her change into an evening gown of crimson satin, as they brushed her hair without noticing the spindle or the spinning wheel, Rosalyn could hardly keep her eyes off it. She had the strangest urge to touch it, to run her finger along the needle to the pointed end, and prick her skin with it. She wanted to feel the chill inside of her body, feel it draw blood, watch the red drip from her pale skin. She didn’t hear anything Fiona said. All she knew was the spindle and Senn’s words echoing in her mind.
The women left and Rosalyn sat on the edge of her bed, staring at the spindle. Her supper had been brought, but she hadn’t touched a bite. She mulled over Senn’s words, unable to think of anything else, until she couldn’t take the temptation any longer. She stood to her feet, walked to the spinning wheel, and pressed her finger into the jagged, icy end. At first, she felt only a slight pain. She pulled her hand away and stared as blood flowed from the wound. The flicker in her chest intensified, pounding with her heartbeat. She closed her eyes for a moment and then opened them as Fiona entered her chamber. Seeing the blood, she rushed to Rosalyn’s side.
“What happened?” she asked. Rosalyn didn’t respond. Fiona grabbed a cloth and held it against her finger. Rosalyn could only smile. Fiona frowned. “Why are you smiling?” she asked.
Rosalyn shook her head and began to laugh. “I do not know.”
Fiona pressed her hand to Rosalyn’s forehead and then pulled it away, gasping. “You’re ill,” she said, motioning for her to move toward the bed. Rosalyn just stared at the blood and continued to laugh. A tingling sensation filled the tips of her fingers and flowed up her arms. Fiona pulled back the bed covers and fluffed the pillows, her hazel eyes staring at Rosalyn, concern in each crease of her brow. “Please, come to bed,” she urged, but Rosalyn only laughed.
Fiona continued to urge Rosalyn into bed, saying she would explain all to her father and make sure she was given an uninterrupted night’s rest, but Rosalyn ignored her. The room was hazy and her head felt heavy, as if she had consumed too much wine. When another maid came to the chamber and said the King had demanded Rosalyn’s presence at the feast, Rosalyn didn’t fight or shout. She motioned for Fiona to finish lacing up the back of her crimson gown.
Fiona hesitated, but seeing she wouldn’t convince Rosalyn to take to bed, she sighed and did as she was bid. “You are ill,” she said, in a scolding tone. “It’s from the many hours you spend in the cold. I warned you before not to be so reckless with your health.”
“Why should I care for my health?” Rosalyn asked, laughter lingering on her lips. “What do I have to live for but satisfying the pleasures of men’s flesh?”
Fiona cast her eyes away from Rosalyn’s as she moved around to lace up the back. In the looking glass, Rosalyn saw her frown and drop her hands. “Gods above…” she muttered, taking a step backward. Rosalyn looked over her shoulder at the woman and was about to ask her what was wrong when a sharp pain filled her back. She sucked in a deep breath as the pain crawled beneath her skin and a strong pressure built, increasing until tears filled her eyes and cries flew from her lips. Fiona said she would go for the surgeon and ran from the room, leaving Rosalyn alone in her agony. Cassandra and some of the other maidens heard her cries and came to help, but as soon as they saw her, they stayed in the hall, their eyes wide, mouths gaping.
Rosalyn turned her back to the looking glass, anxious to see what was ripping through her flesh. Her eyes widened in shock. Protruding from her back were four stubs of bone, all emerging from between her shoulders. As she watched, the bones lengthened, as if reaching out of her like fingers grasping for something onto which to hold. As the bones grew, large feathers appeared, greater than any she’d seen before, all of them pure white or ice-blue. Rosalyn screamed, her voice echoing down palace corridors and staircases, as the bones continued to extend from her back for several minutes more, feathers sprouting as if from inside the bones themselves, until, at last, they had reached their full extension and were completely covered.
The tingling returned to her fingers. Through her tears, Rosalyn looked down at her hands and saw a faint light shining beneath her skin. She looked up at her open chamber door where the maidens stood with Fiona and the surgeon.
“What is happening to me?” Rosalyn whispered. None of them moved to help her. She saw the fear in their eyes and knew they wouldn’t come any closer. The pain returned, beginning in her fingers. It was like a pulsating burn, a throbbing in her bones, an ache in her muscles. She watched as the dim light beneath her skin flowed up her arms, as if with blood, and with it the pain extended. Rosalyn tried to breathe through the ache, but in moments it consumed her entire body. She fell forward onto all fours and gritted her teeth. She could see her hands emanating pale light and looked back at her reflection; the light reached her face and her black hair was turning white. As each strand of hair changed color, so too did her gown, as once crimson, it shifted to pale blue and silver. The light faded from beneath her skin and up into each strand of her thick hair, and only when all of her hair was white did the pain subside. She could breathe easily. She wiped her eyes and stood to her feet, her entire being consumed by winter.
She grinned at her reflection in the looking glass. She was a fairy, a member of the Winter Fae. The silver chain around her neck and the diadem on her head had been transformed into ice, each with a pale blue crystal at the center. She tried moving the wings that now protruded from her back and they flitted together and then apart. Laughter fell off her lips. She turned brightened eyes toward Fiona and saw the woman, filled with awe and fear, move away from the door. In her place, a familiar man entered; he hadn’t yet been sent to her chamber, though she’d seen him conversing with her father more than once and assumed he would soon come to collect his end of whatever bargain he’d made with the King. He entered the room and stopped mid-step, hesitation in his dark eyes. “Princess Rosalyn?” he said, his voice deep and raspy.
Rosalyn nodded, staring into his eyes with a newfound determination. “Hello, Lord Hale,” she said, taking a step toward him. “Has my father sent you?”
He nodded, scanning her from head to toe. He looked as if he might run back down the hall as she continued to edge closer, but even when she stood close enough to touch him, he remained still. She lifted her hand and ran her fingers through his blonde curls.
“You are a handsome one,” she said with a smile. “Tell me, have you come to rescue me?” she asked, quieting to a whisper as she leaned forward to press her lips to his. Their lips touched briefly, hardly more than a brush, but it was enough for the magic to take hold. As she pulled away, ice crystals formed on his skin and his eyelids fell shut in a deep sleep. With his last moments of consciousness, he stumbled to her bed and fell onto his back frozen in place, a sleeping man encased in ice.    
It was then Rosalyn remembered the banquet. The all too familiar chill ran beneath her skin once more as she moved toward the door, icy determination in her veins. The maidens stepped aside as she walked through the hall, her large wings pressed together in the narrow passage.
She came to the banquet hall, the large double doors opened for the guests. As she approached, the sound of the orchestra filled the grand hallway, the music floating on air as if it had wings. She walked into the ballroom and glanced around the enormous space, filled with courtiers all waiting for the princess to arrive, so they could eat. As she stood in the doorway, her wings unfurled behind her, people pointed, gasped, and whispered. Rosalyn let out a slow breath as the chill centered in her chest spread throughout her limbs. She looked down at her left hand; a small ball of ice crystals hovered just above her palm. She grinned and brought her hands together until they were almost touching, then slowly pulled them apart. The ball of ice crystals extended into a long staff made of jagged ice which she held in her left hand. From the bulb held in the crest, pale light glowed.
Rosalyn let out a slow, deep breath, and from it a cold breeze spread through the ballroom. The torches that lined the walls and filled the room with golden light were snuffed out, as was the enormous fire in the hearth. Most of the courtiers were too stunned to move, but several guards attempted to subdue her. They all found their feet stuck to the floor by packs of ice. Rosalyn waved her right hand and snow began to fall from nowhere, blanketing the banquet hall in a sheet of white, lulling the guests to sleep. As the temperature dropped, Rosalyn walked through the hall toward her father’s throne. He stood, attempting to look confident and unafraid, but Rosalyn could sense his fear. It smelled of piss and ale.
“Who are you and what gives you the right to interrupt a royal - ” he began, but as she came closer he stopped, recognizing his own flesh and blood. His brows knit together, crinkling his aged skin. “Rosalyn? What in the devil has happened to you?” he asked.
Rosalyn said nothing. She took her staff in both hands and pressed the bulb of glowing ice against his chest so that frost began to spread over his entire body. His eyes filled with every emotion she’d felt since she was fifteen; disbelief, denial, rage, hatred. And like she had been with each man sent to her chamber, he was now powerless to stop the chill that slowly consumed his body.
“You’ve always had a heart of ice,” she muttered as his limbs froze in place. His eyes were the last to freeze. Rosalyn watched as the last seconds of life slipped from his body. And as his frozen form stared blankly at her, she turned her back to him, vowing never to look back, never to think of him again. The banquet hall was filled with several feet of snow and ice clung to the walls and ceiling. Every living soul was asleep, frozen in time. Unlike her father who would never wake again, their sleep was temporary. She would decide when to wake them, if she decided to wake them. In their sleep, they would be plagued by dreams, visions of torment, of perpetual winter, of hunger and limbs bitten by frost, of helplessness. Maybe they would learn what it meant to be trapped.
Rosalyn walked through the banquet hall and out of the palace into the empty courtyard. The winter wind greeted her, rustling her long, white hair. Fiona, Cassandra, and the other maidens had all left the palace and now stood nearby in the courtyard. Rosalyn gave them a nod, sparing the only souls on earth who had shown her kindness. They nodded back and fled the palace. The familiar caw of a raven came from her right. She looked to where the raven perched on one of the open doors of the palace and grinned. The raven leaped into the air and flapped her silver-tipped wings, calling for Rosalyn to follow. With the swift twirl of her staff above her head, Rosalyn morphed into a white raven and took to the winter sky.   

Janel Brubaker

Janel Brubaker recently graduated from Clackamas Community College with her associates in English and Creative Writing. She worked as a student assistant editor for the Clackamas Literary Review for the 2015 and 2016 editions. She is currently the Managing Editor of the M Review. She has been published in Sick Lit Magazine, The Bella Online Literary Review, Heartbeat Literary Journal, Crab Fat Magazine, Dark Fire Fiction, Linden Avenue Literary Journal,Slink Chunk Press and (boink) zine,Corner Bar Magazine, Anomaly Literary Journal, and Sheepshead Review. Janel is currently pursuing a B.A. in Creative Writing from Marylhurst University.



Geese and Gingerbread
By Mary E. Lowd

​​
A hundred-some baby geese wandered through the field of mint.  Shanna watched them from the river's edge where she was busy washing the kitchen rags and tablecloths.  She'd heard stories about geese who laid golden eggs and brothers transformed into swans, but she had no brothers who'd gone missing, and when she finished with the washing, she found no glints of gold hidden in the mint.  Only a smooth, round stone that felt nice in her hand, so she slipped it into her pocket.
Shanna carried the washing back to the witch's house where she worked, and cowered when the witch berated her for wasting time.  The witch baked gingerbread and sold it to the local children.  Shanna had been one of those children once, hungry and alone after her parents had sickened and died.  She'd traded her freedom for a taste of the witch's gingerbread, and yet she couldn't regret it.  Working her hands sore and calloused as she labored for the witch was a better life than dying in the streets.
Every day, the geese wandered through the field beside the river, and Shanna watched them grow from fuzzy gray goslings into elegant long-necked fowl with a striking splash of white on each of their black-feathered heads.  She sang to the geese as she washed clothes in the river or gathered mint leaves for the witch's baking.  They flocked about her, hoping for crumbs of gingerbread that Shanna swept from the floor of the witch's house and brought to throw at the them.  She liked to pretend they loved her singing.
When autumn came, the geese flew away, and Shanna spent a lonely winter with the witch.  After finishing her daily work, Shanna would sit beside the window in her small room and wonder where the geese had gone.  She’d hold the smooth, round stone in her hand, feeling its cool, dimpled surface, imagining her flock of geese visiting faraway castles and kingdoms, places she would never go.
Occasionally while kneading a giant ball of gingerbread dough, the witch would stop to massage one hand with the other, straighten out her bent back, and mutter, "Someday, I'll teach you to bake my special gingerbread."
At first, Shanna's heart filled with excitement at the idea.  She was more than a laborer; she was the witch's apprentice, earning the witch's trust.  But as the winter wore on, the witch's mutterings felt more like a taunt, a trick to keep Shanna working hard.  A drop of hope meant to forestall any complaints.
When the geese came back in the spring, Shanna greeted them like long lost friends.  In return, they scattered and squawked, spreading their wings and flapping in their ungainly way about the mint field.  Shanna told herself they were happy to see her, and she spent the spring and summer singing to them, watching a new batch of goslings grow, and learning to hate the witch for teasing her with promises she clearly wouldn't keep.
As autumn neared, Shanna's heart began to freeze over with anticipation of her goose friends leaving.  In desperation, she waited one night until the witch had gone to sleep, and with a single lit candle, she spent hours poring over one of the witch's spell books -- a dusty ancient tome she'd been explicitly forbidden to ever touch.  She cringed at every sigh of the wind, fearing the witch would wake.
Among the crumbling pages, Shanna found a spell to turn her smooth, round stone into a wishing stone.  It was a powerful spell, and Shanna could hardly believe her luck at how easy it was to cast.  A few words chanted, a few strands of her golden hair burned in the candle's flame, and a drop of blood rubbed into the gray surface of the stone.  That was all.
The next day, Shanna took her new wishing stone to the mint field. She stood surrounded by her geese, and wished to be one of them.  The stone fell from her hands as her fingers stretched and grew feathers.  Her neck lengthened as her nose hardened and curved into a beak. Her back hunched over and her toes grew webbing between them.  Shanna the goose shook herself free of her clothes, flapped her wings, and reveled in the new sensation.
Flying took practice, but she was used to working hard.  By the time the flock began their migration, Shanna was flying with the best of them, and proudly took her place in the V.
The geese flew over fields and rivers.  They slept beside ponds and took to flight again.  At the end of their journey, Shanna found herself in a field beside a lake, dotted with forget-me-nots. It wasn’t that different from the field of mint beside the river, near the witch's house.  There were no castles.  No kingdoms.  Only geese that she could no longer sing to.  Her voice was nothing but a rasping honk.
Yet the sun was warm on her feathered back, and she had no chores.  She passed the winter pleasantly, if dully, telling herself that she was glad to be free of the witch's scolding and taunting promises.  However, she missed the broken pieces of gingerbread that the witch used to give her, claiming they were no good for selling.  The witch had broken a lot of cookies.
By springtime, Shanna had nearly forgotten she was ever a girl and not a goose.  She flew in the V from one swampy field to another until she found herself in a familiar field of mint beside a river.
An old woman sat beside the river, and when she saw the geese, she said, "My girl loved you geese.  I miss her so."
Shanna was startled by these words, and her goose nature told her to flap her wings, hiss, and fly away to the other side of the field.  But the girl's heart inside her pulled her toward the old woman.
"Hello, dear," the old woman said to the goose.  "Do you know what happened to my Shanna?  I never got to teach her how to make my gingerbread."  The old woman reached into her pocket and held out a spicy-smelling lump of cookie.
The goose took the gingerbread eagerly from the old woman's hand and swallowed it down.
The old woman smiled sadly and said, "I never told her she was like a daughter to me.  I wish I had her back."
The word 'wish' sent an electric tingle through the goose's body, down her long neck and out to the tip of every pinion feather.  The goose honked, trying to say the words, "Wait -- hold that thought."
The old woman couldn't have understood her, but she tilted her head, smiled strangely, and nodded anyway.  The goose waddled off into the field of mint, poking her beak into the leaves here and there, searching for the smooth, round stone.  When she found it, the goose lifted it with her beak, brought it back to the old woman, and dropped it beside her with another honk.
The old woman picked up the stone, turned it over in her hands, and said, "Oh, Shanna, wishing stones never work out well."  She looked at the goose.  "You hate your wish now, don't you?"
The goose flapped her wings and squawked, trying with all her might to explain how lonely and bored she was as a goose.  She wanted to sing again and hope that someday the witch would teach her to make gingerbread.  As a goose, she had nothing to hope for.  Just one field after another, all the same, all lovely, all dull.
The witch held the stone to her breast with both hands and said, "I wish for my daughter Shanna back."
The feathers fell away from Shanna's body, and the old woman wrapped a shawl around her while she reformed into a girl.  The witch embraced her, and the girl spent many stumbled words, now that her tongue could form them again, apologizing for stealing the spell and running away.  "You worked me hard," Shanna said, "but you were always working hard, too."
"Hush," the witch said.  "All's forgiven.  Let's go home, and I'll teach you how to make my gingerbread.  Today."
The geese watched them leave, and the wishing stone lay in the field of mint, forgotten and waiting for another fairy tale to begin.

Mary E. Lowd

Mary E. Lowd writes stories and collects creatures. She’s had more than one hundred short stories published, and her novels include the Otters in Space trilogy and In a Dog’s World. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish. The stories, creatures, and Mary live together in a crashed spaceship disguised as a house, hidden behind a fairy's rose garden in Oregon. Learn more at www.marylowd.com.





Silent Convesations
By R.A. Goli

The day was gloomy. Dark bloated clouds drifted across the sky, threatening rain they had yet to deliver. A soft mist carpeted the ground, as though someone had poured boiling water on a tub of dry ice. It floated over the tombstones, silent and ominous. Despite this, I didn’t feel cold as I walked around the cemetery. I weaved through the pathways between the graves, admiring the intricate work of the older headstones and marveling at the shiny opulence of the newer, marble graves of the wealthy.
Even in the cemetery, the rich, middle class, and poor were kept separate. I sighed, making my way to the non-denomination area where many of my relatives lay. We were definitely not a wealthy family, but the headstones were beautiful in their simplicity. Most of them had a photo of the family member buried beneath, and I said a brief hello to each of them as I passed. There was a particular plot I was heading to.
            When I arrived, I sat down cross-legged and gently placed my fingertips on the acrylic planchette. My grandmother’s Ouija board was a beautiful one. Old but sturdy, she’d cared for it well, polishing it and wrapping it in cloth when not in use. Carved from oak, every letter was painstakingly etched by hand. Swirling patterns adorned each corner, their fine tendrils coming together along the board’s edges. Both the sun and the moon, which represented ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, wore happy, smiling faces.
Once, when I was young, my grandmother had caught me playing with it and I’d gotten in trouble. She’d explained it wasn’t a toy and said she would show me how to use it properly when I was older, which she did. She’d also promised to bequeath it to me so she and I could communicate after she was gone. While that makes me sad now, at the time, I remember feeling excited by the prospect.
I closed my eyes and concentrated, focusing all my energy into clearing my mind and guiding my fingertips. I opened my eyes and saw my grandmother sitting opposite, mimicking my position, her fingers on the other end of the planchette. She smiled warmly and I smiled back. The fog had dissipated and a light breeze caused her hair to shift. I wanted to hug her, but knew I couldn’t. She nodded towards the board and I returned my attention to it. We sat there for a long time, but the pointer didn’t move.
When I looked back at my grandmother, there was a sadness in her eyes. Her lips were moving but no sound came out. A tear slid down my face and she smiled and blew me a kiss. I pretended to catch it and press it against my cheek. She chuckled silently, then stood, picked up the board, and pocketed the planchette. I stood too and watched her brush the dirt from her pants. She spoke again and though I couldn’t hear her words, I could read her lips.
“I love you, too,” I said, which I knew she wouldn’t hear, but would understand. We said the same thing every time. I walked with her to the cemetery gates and she disappeared through them, going home to Grandpa. I turned and headed back to my resting place. A cold, hard lump settled in my belly and I bit back the urge to scream.
It doesn’t matter, I told myself. We’ll try again next week.

R.A. Goli

R.A. Goli is an Australian writer of horror, fantasy, speculative and erotic horror short stories. In addition to writing, her interests include reading, gaming, the occasional walk, and annoying her dog, two cats, and husband.

Her short stories have been published by Broadswords and Blasters, Fantasia Divinity Magazine, Deadman’s Tome and Horrified Press among others. Her fantasy novella, The Eighth Dwarf is due for release Spring 2018. Check out her website https://ragolifiction.wordpress.com/ or stalk her on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/ragolifiction.
.​
The Sworded Woman
​by David W. Landrum

 
Cold white azalea—
                    lone nun
                    under a thatched roof.
                        -Basho

Everyone had said Japan would be beautiful, and Jing Lin had to agree as she walked out into the billowing morning. The wind blew cherry blossoms through the air, while off in the distance, the sea roiled with tempestuous waves. Masses of heavy, grey clouds scudded through the sky. Occasionally, sunshine broke through, making odd light. She held her skirts and enjoyed the rough weather, the scent of the cherry trees, and the sting of cold on her face. She turned to Duan, her serving woman.
"Do you like Japan?" she asked.
Duan, a woman of humble origins who had come into her service only a month ago, still seemed amazed that Jing conversed with her.
"I do, my lady," she managed to say. "I never thought I would see foreign lands. This kingdom is very beautiful."
The government had boarded them in a house overlooking the coastline. Magnificently landscaped, it rose from the earth in a graceful design of wood and stone. Gardens and well-arranged groves of trees surrounded it and the Buddhist shrine nearby, its white marble shining in the streaks of sunlight that flamed out when the clouds parted. Flowers, colored pavements, carefully spaced trees trained to grow straight up or sideways graced the walks that led up to the shrine. She let the concerns of her business here fade from her mind as she enjoyed the scene about her, but she could not drive off her worries for very long.
Jing hoped they were treating Alexis well. She had still not been allowed to see her. In this house, the house of a nobleman, her best friend lay imprisoned, charged with proselytization, still a crime in Japan. The authorities had indicated Jing could see her after the midday meal.
Alexis Burnette, a friend from Cambridge, had come to Japan as an interpreter for the British government. During their years at Cambridge, Alexis had studied oriental languages. Jing taught her to speak Mandarin Chinese and a little bit of Japanese, which she did not know well but had learned at the suggestion of her father, who saw the Japanese as potential allies against China. When Jing ascended to the throne of Xingnoa, she had hired tutors and learned to speak Japanese more competently. Japan had threatened both China and Xingnoa but now felt concern about the British and Americans and their ambitions in the Pacific and were more friendly and conciliatory. The incident with Alexis had caused a crisis.
Because Jing's father had granted Alexis Xingnoan citizenship when she visited there years ago, the British had asked Jing to appeal for Miss Burnette's release as a citizen of her kingdom.
Jing thought it might work. Alexis could be executed for what she had done or (more likely) given to the samurai official she had offended, who would make her a slave or worse, sell her as a slave. The Japanese government had warned the British against sending missionaries to their land and had laws against evangelism and conversion of Japanese citizens by foreign nationals. The government saw this as a test of wills between them and Her Majesty the Queen. If, however, they released Alexis as a citizen of Xingnoa, they would save face and avoid a more serious confrontation. Jing hoped for the best but knew the surreptitious nature of the government here. She heard Duan's teeth chattering.
"Are you cold, Duan?"
"No, my Lady," Duan lied. Her upper lip had turned blue. Jing laughed.
“I'm sorry. Let's go inside. You can warm yourself by the fire."
Jing Lin had been a soldier from age thirteen, had slept on the ground in winter rolled in a blanket, had endured snow, hail, and icy wind on military campaigns. Over the years, she had built up an indifference to the weather. She often forgot others did not possess her same indifference to the elements. The two of them went into the noble's house.
"Warm yourself," Jing ordered. "I need to speak to Nintoku. Return to our quarters and rest when you are warm. I've been running you about too much." She gestured to the fireplace. Duan bowed and walked over, spreading her hands to the flames.
Nintoku greeted her politely. She accepted tea and sat with him to discuss the negotiation that lay ahead.
"The task is formidable," he said, in the periphrastic style of Chinese politicians. "Yamada is highly offended. Natsume is his only son. He has disgraced the family and left it desolate by converting to the Christian faith. Persuading Yamada to excuse the woman who facilitated this will be a difficult task."
She noted that Nintoku used high-level vocabulary because he knew her knowledge of the Japanese language was basic. These men had subtle ways of insulting you.
"The son's conversion was voluntary."
"It was. The authorities have spoken to him. It only remains to see the degree to which they prevailed."
Jing sensed they would get nowhere with the young man. If someone did something as radical as converting to a new religion—especially in a nation like Japan, where people viewed conversion as treason—chances his repudiation of his new-found faith were slim.
She and Nintoku finished their tea. Jing set out to her quarters. As she wandered, enjoying the cold, her eyes lit on a figure thirty yards or so ahead of her. A tall, slender woman wearing a white garment, shivering and slapping her sides for warmth, stood in the shelter of a hut with four poles supporting a thatched roof; nothing protected her from the wind. Jing had not explored this part of Nintoku's estate and had not seen the hut or the woman before. She approached.
The woman looked up at her. Jing spoke, articulating her Japanese with special care.
"Sister, why are you out in this weather without a cloak?"
The woman shivered so much she could not answer but then managed to still her body enough to speak.
"Did Nintoku send you here?" she demanded, rather rudely, Jing thought.
"He did not. I am his guest. Who are you? What are you doing out here in the cold with your body so poorly protected?"
The woman seemed remorseful.
"I'm sorry, Lady." Only then did Jing notice the woman's hands were shackled and her left foot chained to one of the supporting pillars in the hut. "I did not mean to speak rudely to you. I plead my infirmity." Her teeth chattered as she spoke. "My story is too long to repeat. I probably will not live through this day. The core of my body is cold and soon I will die of it."
The woman, attractive, and with an ascetic look to her, stared out, abject and miserable. Jing opened her mouth to ask more questions but stopped, contemplated, and walked under the thatched roof. She regarded the wooden post to which the woman was shackled and then broke it with a kick. As the woman gaped in amazement, Jing tore apart the bamboo handcuffs she wore. When the woman recovered from her astonishment, she sank to her knees and wept.
"For the love of the eternal gods, what have you done? Now he will kill me. He will take me out to the shore and tie me to a pillar so I freeze to death or drown."
"You're going to freeze to death anyway if you stand out here any longer." Because the woman looked so frail and so close to death already, Jing picked her up in her arms and carried her back to her quarters. Her chain dragged on the ground. She did not protest. Jing only hoped she could save the woman. Years of fighting in the mountains had made her familiar with the dangers of hypothermia. She knew how to counter it, but sometimes too much of the body's heat had gone and a victim could not be revived.
She opened the door to her room, carried the woman inside, and lowered her on a mat in front of the fire. Duan looked on, startled.
"I have no time to explain. Go get some hot tea. We have to move quickly."
The woman wept. Jing knew an exterior fire would not revive her. The inner heat of the body had to be rekindled. She saw a pitcher of wine left over from last night, poured some, and held it to the woman's lips. Even something cold would help.
"Try to drink, young woman."
She managed to get some down. Getting a closer look at her, Jing saw she was not all that young, maybe in her early thirties. She drank a cupful before Duan returned with hot tea. Jing saw signs her inner warmth was returning.
"Let's remove her garment and massage her. We must get her blood flowing."
They peeled off the smock and began to rub the woman's body. She looked thin but had a gracefully shaped form. After she and Duan had messaged her, color returned to her limbs. She spoke more coherently and responded positively when Jing asked her if she wanted to sit up. Duan brought her a quilt to wrap in and went for more tea.
"Thank you," the woman said.
"I am happy to help."
"You are?"
"My name is Jing Lin."
Her eyes opened fully. "You are the Princess from Xingnoa, on the Chinese shore?"
"I am she. Don't try to bow to me, for the love of the gods. Just continue to warm yourself. What is your name?"
"Kohana."
"You are under my protection, Kohana. You need not fear for your life."
"Yamada will be angry. He will not tolerate your advocacy of me."
"Yamada? What does he have to do with this?"
She looked up at Jing with tired, hollow eyes and opened her mouth to speak.
"No," Jing said. "You can tell me later. You can speak of it when you're recovered more fully." Her Japanese was sounding far too formal but she did not know how to speak in a more demotic manner. "I think it would be good for you to eat something. I'll have my serving woman bring you food."
"You are very kind," she said weakly. "The blessing of Kwan Yin, Goddess of Compassion, be upon you."
Duan came with more tea and a plate of warm food. Kohana finished eating and lay by the fire. Jing respected her silence. After perhaps a half hour, she spoke.
"I will tell you my story now."
"I understand your language imperfectly. I must ask that you speak slowly."
"I am a nun. I entered a quiet place on the outskirts of Endow when I was fifteen. I wished to know enlightenment, peace, and hoped to serve others. Things went well until the landowner who supported our convent got on the wrong side of a junta of samurai. They seized his land and assets. We were told to return to our families. By then my mother and father were dead. My brothers and sisters lived far to the north. I stayed, by permission, when the other nuns left. When Yamada came to survey the land, he took a fancy to me and claimed me. I appealed to the priests and prioresses in the city. Most were afraid, though a few pled for me, but to no avail. He took me as property. He didn't want to force himself on me for fear this would vilify him in the eyes of people he now ruled. So he had me brought here."
She said no more. The fire crackled. After a while, Jing asked, "Here he will not be censured if he forces you?"
"No, Princess."
"I will not allow such a thing to happen."
"He is powerful and will have his way. I will give myself up to him and become his concubine, as he wishes."
"I won't allow it, Kohana. You mentioned the Goddess of Compassion, whom I was dedicated to at birth."
"You must not endanger your life over me. It is an unworthy thing that I am not accepting what Fate has brought me."
"Nonsense. I've come here to defend another woman from Yamada—a British woman whom I befriended long ago. He seems to think he has a claim on her."
Kohana fell asleep again. Soon Nintoku entered the complex where Jing and Duan were staying. His stern face told her he had discovered her rescue of Kohana.
"Princess, you have behaved in a most unseemly manner."
"No more than it is unseemly to freeze an innocent woman almost to death. I have taken her under my protection."
"That cannot be."
"It is. If Yamada wants her, he will have to take her from me."
Nintoku leveled his gaze at her. "This is most extraordinary."
"I would like to speak with Miss Burnette."
"I have promised you will see her, and you may see her now. But afterwards, I must ask you to speak with me in private."
"As you wish. If my offense is so great as to cause scandal, I can leave and go to our embassy in Osaka."
"That should not be necessary. Please, this way."
After Jing called Duan to attend to Kohana, Nintoku led her to one of the many outbuildings on his estate. The wind still roared in from the sea. Two guards came to attention as they approached the doorway. He unlocked the small house and led Jing inside. She laid eyes on Alexis for the first time in ten years.
Seeing her again, she felt a floor of love and tenderness for the English girl who had befriended her at Cambridge, helped her with her English, assisted her in bridging huge gaps of culture, and comforted her when she wept out of frustration from being in a foreign culture. They held each other for a long time. Jing wept. She was trained to set her emotions aside, to be controlled, stern, and face all things with unflinching stoicism. Her heart melted at the sight of Alexis.
Finally, the two of them got control. Both laughed at their emotionalism.
"My friend," Jing said. "You look well."
"And you. Jing, I'm sorry I've caused all this trouble."
"There will be time for that later. The task at hand now is to free you from this situation and get you safely home."
Alexis threw back her head and laughed.
"You haven't changed, my belovéd friend—not a bit," she said. "'Focus on the task at hand; center your focus on the deed that must be done.' How many times did you tell me that when we were in school? And how many times have I relied on that piece of advice?"
"I'm flattered you learned something from me."
"I learned everything from you, Jing."
"Well, we don't have long. The task at hand is to get you free."
"I don't know if that's even possible. But let's not all be business. You are a married woman now. You have a child?"
"I do. And you, Alexis. You have a young man who loves you."
"I have a young man who is my lover. I suppose that shocks you, Jing, but he and I want to be married. Since he couldn't marry me, we began a liaison. We are married in the eyes of God even if no one officiated when we vowed ourselves to one another."
Jing stared. Alexis smiled.
"You're speechless."
"You surprised me . . . a great deal."
"You're surprised that I'd even let a man take me to bed and be intimate with me."
"I will be truthful and say that I am. You told me you did not intend to marry but wanted to give yourself in service to your religion."
"I did say that. Now I believe that doesn't preclude being married. I love Yamada and am his wife—maybe not officially but in fact."
"Perhaps you should make this known."
"I can't do that, Jing, and you must say nothing of it. If it's known that I lost my virginity to Natsume, his father will simply say I'm an immoral woman. And it will be a scandal for the British government. We must keep this a secret."
"That is probably wise. What do you plan to do?"
"I'm relying on our government to use diplomacy to free me."
What little Jing knew about Yamada from the situation with Alexis and from Kohana's story, told her he was a ruthless, heartless man. She doubted diplomacy would work. More and more, it was clear what she would have to do.
Alexis asked about her marriage. She told him about Chen, whom she had not met, about her child, whom she missed sorely, and her father, who was in ill health and had stepped down and made Jing ruler of Xingnoa.
"So you're a Queen now?"
"I still use the title ‘Princess’. I don't like the idea of being a Queen. It's too—Imperial, I suppose."
"You were always a democrat at heart. I'm surprised you haven't turned your nation into a democracy."
"I might eventually do that. It would take some years, though, for the people to be accustomed to ruling themselves; and for a democracy to succeed, the populace must be educated. I'm working on a series of reforms that will bring all this about, but it's slow going. Our people are traditional."
"And they have such a capable ruler, why would they want to change their form of government?"
Jing smiled. "You're very kind."
They talked more. Finally, a servant appeared and said the interview was ended and Nintoku requested her presence. She took leave of Alexis. Attended by Duan, she followed the servant to the magnificently accoutered manor house where her host lived. Nintoku received her in the main hall. A man stood near the doorway. Jing knew—from his dress, his bearing, and the cold, scornful look in his eyes—the man was Yamada.
"This is the sworded woman?" he asked.
Nintoku flushed with embarrassed at Yamada's rudeness.
"This is Princess Jing Lin, ruler of the Kingdom of Xingnoa."
"You will deliver up both the English woman and the nun to me."
"You certainly do not go upon protocol, sir,” Jing said smoothly. “I am accustomed to being addressed by my title."
"Your title means nothing to me. You will return those women to my control."
"I will not. They are both under my protection."
"If you do not give them to me, I will take them by force."
"I will oppose you."
He sneered. "I am told you are a warrior and have led armies."
"I have, and I will oppose you if you attempt to seize Miss Barnette or the holy woman, Kohana."
"I'll come here with my army or the police and take what is mine by legal right."
"If you do that, I'll post a challenge."
He stared a moment, then sputtered on a contemptuous laugh, "I will not accept a challenge by a woman."
"Are you afraid of me?"
His face darkened. "I'm not afraid of you."
"You'd better be."
"You sit on a perfumed cushion and on a white horse, far from the action of battle, and call yourself a warrior for this. I won't fight you."
"I'll post the challenge in all the major cities. I'll use our embassies to circulate it. All of Japan will know that you are afraid of a woman."
"You are treading upon dangerous ground, Princess." He sneered out her title.
"You are correct in that, sir. Sun Tzu once wrote, Ground on which you can only be saved from destruction by fighting without delay, is dangerous ground. I see I must fight you and not hesitate to do so."
"Here we don't consult books of philosophy in order to fight our wars, as you apparently do. We use skill. If you send out a challenge, I will have no choice but to respond."
"Consider it already sent. I challenge you to combat." She turned to Nintoku. "Nintoku, you will dispatch a scribe to my quarters. I will have him write the challenge out, since my mastery of your language is imperfect and I want the import of the challenge to be clear to all." She turned back to Yamada. "I will fight you in the morning. Nintoku, I want the combat staged in the green near the hut where Kohana was imprisoned. We will face each other when the sun is at the third hour of the day. I will not accept seconds. Whoever wins, the duel is ended."
"It will be so," Yamada said. "You are foolish to throw your life away."
"By your leave sir," Jing Li said. She bowed to him and departed with Duan.
                    ****
Nintoku sent a scribe, who helped her write out the challenge. He sent it to be copied and dispensed. The speed by which word of her duel with Yamada spread through the countryside amazed Jing. She received communications by messengers stating that the British ambassador, the governor of the province, and a number of officials from the Japanese and foreign governments would all attend. Diplomatic efforts to free Alexis proceeded at a feverish pitch, though to no avail. The honor of the Japanese people was at stake. Yamada had been challenged by a member of the Chinese race, whom the Japanese despised; and by a woman, nonetheless. Jing knew the duel would take place. She wondered if she had been foolish to do such a thing. She also realized what she had done was the only path open to her given her values and given the things in which she believed.
Rather than feverishly practicing, she went to a small, empty room Nintoku kept in the house for those who wished to pray and meditate but might not want to do so at the shrine he maintained there. She borrowed a small table and set the image of Kwan Yin upon it. She knelt, bowed her head, and prayed.
Goddess, you know all things, and you know that I doubt your very existence. Yet I call upon you in this, my time of need. Give me strength and skill. Give me victory. Come to the aid of that which is good and right, knowing I do not seek glory or gain but seek to protect the purity of two women who have been wronged. I seek your blessing. I seek your help. I seek your mercy.
She stopped. There was nothing more to say. And even as she prayed against the fear and apprehension she felt, her anger and determination grew—even in a sacred space, even in the presence of the Goddess of Compassion. She did not underestimate Yamada's skill. All the same, she felt that right was on her side and so she must prevail. Sun Tzu had said whoever had the Way prevailed in combat. And the Way meant compassion. Too formulaic, she thought, and too easy. Still, it was truth she had long relied upon. She grew weary of kneeling and seeking the help of a supernatural power whose existence she doubted. Jing got up and went back to her quarters.
Kohana was cooking a meal for them. Duan bowed and gave her a note from Alexis.  She sat down in front of the fireplace and opened it. She read the following, written in English in a clear even hand:  And after him was Shammah the son of Agee the Hararite. And the Philistines were gathered together into a troop, where was a piece of ground full of lentils: and the people fled from the Philistines. But he stood in the midst of the ground, and defended it, and slew the Philistines: and the LORD wrought a great victory. I Chronicles 11:11, 12.
Despite her anxiety, Jing smiled. She remembered Alexis sending her bible verses back in England. She would often leave them on her desk when Jing felt down, homesick, and overwhelmed with studies and with the scorn the other students heaped on her as a woman—and an Asian woman at that. She was not a Christian, but the passages from their sacred text always comforted her—perhaps more because they came from someone she knew loved her.
She remembered the years they spent together. She had done her degree in three years—in Literature; her father had recommended this to ensure her mastery of the English language. Not able to live in the dormitories at Cambridge, she and Alexis had rented an apartment there, sharing rooms and a bed those years. Sleeping together, living day to day, eating together, sitting and reading, walking, studying—these had taken away the layers of convention by which we disguise ourselves. Jing did not have a sister. Alexis had become her sister, a mirror of her femininity, a confidante, and an ally. They had bonded in those three years. The bond they had formed could never be erased.
She looked again at the section from the Christian bible Alexis had sent. She remembered a time when the army of Xingnoa had fought a group of Chinese soldiers. The Imperial government later said they were rogues who had crossed the border of Xingnoa without authorization. Everyone knew this was a falsehood and that they had been sent to probe and test the kingdom's military might. Jing was nineteen. She and group of eight soldiers were surprised by a formation of twenty Chinese who released a swarm of arrows at them. Four of the troops fell. An arrow stabbed into Jing's thigh. The other four fled.
She managed to stand, gathered her courage, called upon Kwan Yin, and began releasing arrows at her opponents. She let fly in a frenzy of motion and when her quiver was empty, saw that she had hit over half the enemy, killing or disabling them. Cold comfort, she thought, the pain from her wound throbbing, blood flowing down her leg. They released arrows at her. She dove to the ground, hid behind two fallen troops who lay on top of each other, took their weapons (they were armed with crossbows that released bolts) and released the projectiles at the approaching troops. Arrows fell about her, sinking into the flesh of the slain men and whizzing through the air like giant, angry hornets. She killed four more of the Chinese with bolts.
It took a long time to reload a crossbow, and Jing was certain her enemies would fall upon her and finish her while she clumsily fitted a projectile into the bow and pulled back the spring. But when she looked up to take aim, she saw they had fled. She looked behind her, thinking the main part of her army had advanced to rescue her, but only the wintery valley covered with a thin layer of snow, the hard-blue sky, and the distant mountains hovered in her field of vision. She turned. The enemy soldiers had not doubled back. They continued their flight. Stretching out her wounded leg, she pushed the arrow through so it would come out without greatly tearing her flesh and making the wound worse. Perhaps her screams alerted some of the other soldiers, because help soon arrived. When her wound healed, she interceded for the men who had abandoned her.
"I called upon the Goddess of Compassion, and she delivered me," Jing said. "She will not allow their slaughter. They should be punished, so let them be demoted and fined. I make my plea as a follower of the Goddess and as a virgin woman."
These were two powerful appeals, so her father let her request stand. The soldiers were demoted and a fine levied on them rather than being killed.
She had never told Alexis the story of that day. Perhaps someone else had when she visited the kingdom. At any rate, the quotation she was sent appeared auspicious. Her anxiety eased. By the time Kohana served her supper, she had recovered her confidence. Master Sun had said one first wins and then goes to battle. Jing knew she had won. Her confidence did not reside in foolish dreaming. She only wondered how things would play out after she had defeated Yamada. And how would she defeat him?
                         ***
Samurai fought with stealth. They allowed their opponents to attack and responded according to their observations while awaiting the antagonist's first move. Their duels, Jing had been told, consisted of a long period of waiting and observing and then a quick, bloody swirl of swords leading to the death of the less competent of the two. She would use this to her own advantage. She fought with quickness and precision, but probably Yamada would be faster than she. She tried to think of an alternative way to win. Jing knew she had to kill him. He could not be disarmed. Even if she could disarm him, he would have to commit suicide to atone for the disgrace of being overcome by a woman. Having heard of the gruesome manner the Japanese dispatched themselves, she did not want to subject even someone as brutal as Yamada to such an ordeal.
On the morning of the duel, she ate and then went to the small shrine she had set up. She lingered there a moment but decided not to pray. Her allegiance to the Goddess was more philosophical than religious. And Jing did not feel like abjection this morning. She went back to her chamber. Duan attended her as she bathed and dressed. Kohana braided her hair. At the designated hour, she went out to face her foe.
Another windy day blew clouds across the sky. A large crowd had gathered to see the combat. She counted many Japanese officials. Some in the crowd wore European garments, which made her imagine the British diplomats who had been negotiating for Alexis' release were present and probably had been trying to stop the duel as well (the British always tried to stop wars except the ones in which they participated). Yamada stood on one side of the marked-off area where they would fight. His entourage of attendants numbered some ten. A contingent of soldiers stood by to interdict any treachery by Yamada's supporters. None of the diplomats from Xingnoa had managed to get there in time. She was glad. They would make a fuss trying to stop the combat, and Jing did not want to deal with such a complication this morning. She needed to keep her focus—especially in this combat, which would call on her to focus more clearly and minutely than she ever had before.
"When you fight a duel and you are about to engage your opponent," the Shaolin master from whom she had learned so much had told her, "do not watch his arm or his sword. Watch his eyes, because the moment before he attacks you, his eyes will betray him." This advice had given her victory more than once, both in single combat and on the battlefield; but she wondered if it would be effective when fighting a man who had probably been taught not to betray himself in any way before he struck. He undoubtedly strove to keep his demeanor enigmatic. Still, the memory of her old teacher's advice had come to her mind for a reason, not as an idle thought. Something about Yamada prompted the recollection. Though she had only seen him once, and only for a short time, she knew the advice Master Yanwu had given her would be the thing to do in fighting him. She committed herself to it. She would not, as she had originally intended, try to confuse him by means of a feint. She would watch his eyes. She would adapt to the situation and strike at the gaps—the empty with the full, as another wise teacher had put it. She walked up to her side of the dueling site.
Nintoku led an official to the center of the ground on which they would fight. An official read a long document, but the wind carried his words away and Jing could not catch any of it. The Japanese soldiers took their places around the edge of the marked-off ground. Some of them smirked at the sight of a woman going up against the samurai champion. Jing advanced to the center of the area to meet Yamada. They bowed to each other as protocol required, and to the man who had read the document, and then took their stances, facing one another.
They stood about a foot apart. Yamada wore a red robe with padded shoulders over tunic and trousers. His boots shone even in the grey of a blustering morning. He wore his hair tied up in a bun. Neither of them wore armor, since it was a dual and not an ordinary instance of combat. Jing had dressed very plainly in black tunic and black trousers and had let her long braid hang free. The two of them stood there, the duel that would kill one of them beginning.
Jing watched his face. She had meditated all her life and knew how to still her body and focus her concentration. Of course, she realized, he would know how to do this as well. She had applied what had been religious training to her later pursuit of arms. In the Taoist convent where her parents originally thought she would be cloistered, the abbess had taught her ceremonial fighting, first with staves and then with a sword. When her father told her she would inherit the kingdom, she startled him by saying she intended to remain chaste as she would have as a nun but also to pursue the martial arts. Her religious training and training in weapons combined to make her a deadly fighter. She had lived as a chaste virgin until she decided to open herself to the love of men at age twenty-six. The hours she had spent in her youth meditating, focusing her concentration on the Tao, and bringing her awareness to the still point, aided her as she waited for Yamada to move.
Five minutes passed, then ten. They faced each other. Both stood still as stones. Jing felt her focus grow—almost to the point that she saw what he seemed to see a few moments into the future. Her Shaolin master had told her such things could happen, since all points of time existed at the same time and when the mind was free, it could transcend the limits of temporality. She waited. He gripped a katana sword—slender-bladed with a long grip. She told herself her thoughts must not wander, but then realized that the type of sword he had revealed how he would fight and held the solution to how she could win. As if she had seen the future, Yamada moved.
He swung the sword as quick as lightning flashes. If Jing had not anticipated his attack, she would have been killed immediately. She also knew his secondary strategy and how he would swing the blade after she dodged it. Rather than stepping back, ducking, or falling to the ground to spring up at him again, she pivoted and swung her blade at him. He brought the katana up to parry her attack, but she had anticipated this. Stopping the sidelong sweep of her weapon and summoning all her strength and precision, she thrust the sword straight up, hitting Yamada under the chin, driving the blade into the roof of his mouth and into his brain.
Death came instantaneously. He collapsed, so quickly Jing barely pulled her sword back before he fell. Blood gushed from his mouth and eye sockets. She jumped back as he fell and assumed a formal stance, her bloody jian blade held in front of her. She held the pose for five seconds and then relaxed. Looking to the left, she saw Duan on her knees vomiting at the sight of the bleeding body of Yamada. She was a farm girl, not used to seeing such things. Pale but dignified, Kohana approached and took her blade to clean it. Jing turned to the officials.
"You will deliver the woman Alexis Burnette to me," she said. The officials, stunned at her victory, nodded. "You will also give me legal custody of Kohana, the nun."
The wind blew, swaying the branches, ruffling Yamada's clothing. The officials again nodded.
"As you have slain Yamada," one of them said, "all that he owned is forfeit to you, Princess."
"He has a son."
"His son is disinherited."
She thought a moment. "Then I claim the property and will send representatives from our embassies to assess its value and decide how we will dispose of it. Until that time, I trust your government will see to it there is no plundering of what I have won with my sword. I ask that the young man, Natsume, be given safe passage to my kingdom. I plan to grant him sanctuary." She looked over at Yamada's corpse. "I understand that by your laws, this body is my property. I return it to his family for burial."
Silence came but for the wind roaring through the tops of the trees and the sound of the waves pummeling the shore a hundred yards away. When the officials did not speak, Jing said, "I declare this matter is ended. I will retire to my quarters now."
The gathering broke up. Yamada's relatives picked up his body. They looked angry but thankful that she had allowed them to bury their kinsman; often, such corpses were disposed of in a dishonorable fashion.
Jing returned to her quarters. Soldiers posted themselves around the structure. She felt weary and lay down but got up after a short time to check on Duan, who apologized profusely for her undignified behavior. Jing embraced her as she wept out of shame.
"What you did should be the response of anyone who witnesses such a thing—myself included. Go take some wine and lie down. Kohana can attend me. I'll call for you later."
When Duan retired, Kohana knelt in front of Jing.
"Please," Jing said. "I should be kneeling to you."
"No. You are a virtuous woman."
"Virtuous women don't go around killing people."
"Sometimes they must. When we are left with no choices, we must take the way that is least destructive."
"I need someone in my court who is wise. Will you come to my land and serve me as a counselor and adviser?"
"My order of sisters is dissolved. My family is distant and I have not seen any of them in years. If I remain here, Yamada's relatives will murder me. I don't speak your language, but I am willing to be your servant if you will have me, Princess."
"I speak your language, and you might learn the Chinese tongue more easily than you think. Thank you, Kohana. I will be privileged to have you dwell near to me."
She felt night should fall, but it was not even noon yet. Messengers arrived with word that personnel from the Xingnoan embassy in Koto were near and would be there in a few hours. Her father was sending her usual entourage and a ship to take her back home.
She sat down and tried to settle her spirit. Since age seventeen, Jing Lin had fought and killed, but for some reason slaying Yamada bothered her. No doubt he qualified as reprehensible.
He wanted to come into possession of two women, one a pledged virgin, and make them his sexual slaves. Reports suggested his oppressive, tyrannical nature. But to travel from her own land and end up stabbing a man to death distressed her, however justified her action might have been. Alexis had caused the confrontation—but if Alexis had not created an incident to which she, Jing, had to respond, she would not have discovered Kohana and saved her from captivity and degradation. The ways of causality went in strange directions—a series of paths in the fog in a murky forest where trees bent their branches to obscure the way ahead.
A noise came. Nintoku let Alexis in. She threw her arms around Jing and after they broke their embrace, looked at her and smiled.
"Nintoku said he was taking me to see the 'Sworded Woman.'"
"That's a Japanese idiom for a woman who fights—'a woman who wields a sword' would be a more proper English translation."
"Oh," Alexis said, an elf-like a smile on her face. "I thought he meant 'sordid'—as in s-o-r-d-i-d—unsavory and immoral."
They laughed and hugged again. But their laughter turned to tears as both let out the grief and tension they felt. They cried as Duan and Kohana looked on. Finally, they stopped and again, looked at each other.
"I'm sorry you had to kill a man because of me."
"There was no other way. Let's not discuss it. You're safe. I'll tell you about Kohana later. If you and your husband wish to stay in Xingnoa for a time, you are welcome. My roof is yours."
"Thank you, Jing. We might. Natsume speaks Chinese. He learned English in a mission school, but I don't know if my parents are open to interracial marriage. They might not want me to come back to England."
"You are welcome as long as you wish to stay."
"Natsume stole away to China. He's at the British embassy at Changchun. It will be easy to journey to Xingnoa from there."
Duan served them tea. Jing explained Kohana's story.
"When I was young, I was so keen to proselytize you. Now I see how you show compassion, bravery, and how full of good you are, Jing Lin. I'm sorry I was so crass and aggressive back then."
"It is no matter. The Bible verse you sent me was helpful. It reminded me of something that happened when I was young—before I came to Cambridge." She told Alexis the story of her guard abandoning her on a wintery battlefield.
"I'm glad it helped," Alexis said. "But I'm sorry for what you endured because of me."
Jing said there was no need for apology.
                    ***
The diplomats from Xingnoa arrived at dusk. They were relieved to see that she was well and that things had fallen out to Jing's favor and to the advantage of Xingnoa.
"How is that—other than that I am alive and not dead?"
"It has worked for the good of the nation—certainly in the fact that you are alive to lead us so capably; but in addition to this, the Japanese have offered to sign a treaty with us—a treaty to promote trade and provide for mutual defense."
Xingnoa, a small kingdom bordered by China and Russia, occupied a precarious place. Throughout their history, China had threatened its existence. Natural barriers protected the small nation, but advances in technology were making the mountains and rough terrain less reliable as a means of defense. For protection from larger, rapacious nations, and for opening new markets for Xingoan goods, a treaty with Japan would serve them well. Jing's father would be pleased. He was in his last years and had stepped down and made her ruler of the land. She had produced a son who could carry on the succession after she was gone. She was probably too old to have more children, she thought—but you never knew. The diplomats told her a ship had departed from the Port of Three Mountains where, years ago, she and Chen had scuttled a British warship that had docked there to send an expeditionary force meant to conquer Xingnoa and make it a British colony. Now Chen was her husband.
The lines of causality were an endless web, constantly shifting and changing, Jing thought. We made our way along it as best we could. We had to be prepared for anything the gods, or fate, or chance might send our way.

David W. Landrum

David W. Landrum teaches Literature at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. His speculative fiction has appeared widely, his revised fair tales in Modernday Fairy Tales, The Fairy Tale Whisperer, Father Grim's Book of Stories, Non-Binary Review, and many other journals and anthologies.



​ 


About the Editor:
Amber M. Simpson

Amber M. Simpson has been writing short stories and poetry since the age of ten. Lover of all things horror and fantasy, she writes mainly in these genres, often with a touch of romance thrown in for fun.  Amber lives in Kentucky with her husband and their two crazy but loving little boys.