PWTP4-QFMaybe it’s because there are eliminations riding on this thing, but I had a really hard time deciding my favorite story this week.  As to be expected for our playoff qualifiers all of these were solid stories.  To see who joins Bret and Christina in the semifinals, you’ll have to jump with me.

Brian

Nicholas cracked opened the door to the dining hall and peered inside.  None of the lamps had been lit.  Only the moonlight shined through the tall windows on the southern wall.  The air was heavy and filled with a musky scent.  From the far end of the room something could be heard breathing, slow and deep.

“I can smell you, boy.”

The voice was guttural.  Nicholas could feel its vibration in his bones.

“Where is my dinner?”

Nicholas collected himself and walked fully through the doorway.  All he could see was a pair of eyes, burning in the moonlight.

“There. . .”  He struggled not to stammer.  “There are no more sheep, my lord.”

A growl erupted from the shadows.  Nicholas instinctively looked away.

“The shepherd boy,” Nicholas continued, “has fled with his herd to a nearby county.”

Standing closer now, Nicholas could see a hand come out of the shadows to grasp a wine glass.  The hand was covered in fur, sharp nails protruding from the fingers.  The glass shattered from the grip, dark wine mixing with blood as shards cut into the paw.

In the dim light the tip of a snout emerged, revealing a wicked smile lined with an impossible number of teeth.

“Perhaps,” said the beast, “we should see what else is on the menu.”

*    *    *

Resting a gloved hand against her forehead, Anna tried to will her headache away.  She winced as a small bell rang in the distance.  Footsteps echoed down a nearby hall and a portly servant entered the room.

“Lady Marshall has come calling,” said the servant.  Anna grimaced.

“Show her in.”

As the servant began to walk away, Anna called out.

“Gertrude, where is Nicholas?  I haven’t seen him at all today.”

Gertrude turned around and, with a flat expression, said, “Nicholas is no longer working with us.”

Anna tightened her lips.  Gertrude left, and a few moments later an older woman wearing an extravagant dress and a ridiculous peacock-feather hat came waddling down the hall.

“Young lady, you look just terrible!”

Anna sighed very audibly.

“I had a late night, Mother.  William was. . .in a mood.”

Lady Marshall took a seat and stared down her nose at the girl.

“Well,” she sniffed.  “You can keep the details to yourself.  By the way. . .”

Lady Marshall widened her eyes and cocked her head.

“My dear child, what have you done to yourself?”

Anna pulled her hand back from her forehead.  Several dark, spotted stains had formed on the palm of the glove.  A thin line streaked along the bare part of her arm, ending in a red drop hanging half-formed from her elbow.

Anna felt dizzy.  “It’s. . .it’s nothing.”

Lady Marshall passed Anna a small handkerchief.

“Clean that mess up,” Lady Marshal huffed before sitting back in her chair, watching Anna through narrowed eyes.

“As I was going to say, how are things going with this enigmatic man of yours?”

Anna wiped the blood from her arm.

“It’s complicated.”

DK: I like the dual perspectives, and I really like the atmosphere through Nicholas’ part of the story – the language and descriptions there effectively heighten the tension.  Some of that impact gets blunted a bit once the second section gets going, as the nature of the situation is probably apparent before the story reaches its conclusion, but this is a good take on the concept.  BRONZE

DG – I like the way this is revealed. The two sections are very distinct, which is a good thing.  This is a good start to this round.  GOLD

Annette

Gerda’s callused feet slapped against the stone stairs as she raced up them; careful not to spill the honeyed mead she had clenched to her skinny chest. Having spent her eight years of life in the castle, she navigated it with ease.

Her mother had been a kitchen drudge, who bled her short life away in the throes of child birth. The kitchen staff had taken pity on the little orphan and raised her in a basket next to the big stone fireplace where the castle food was cooked. Eventually, she became the castle “runner.” She had even become a favorite of Lord Edward (master of the castle and defiler of kitchen maids) and stayed close so that whenever he bellowed she could take off at a run to deliver or fetch whatever he desired.

Now she entered his Lordship’s private library, slipping in unnoticed as he met with his Captain and his brother, Lord Henry. She crept up to the big table and placed the flagon of mead at his elbow. He did not notice.

“We have only two days, three at the most.” Lord Henry said. “The scouts say that they have at least two siege machines. And it is a certainty that they will find a suitable tree to construct a battering ram in your own well maintained forest.” Lord Henry stood. “There’s no other answer. After a summer with very little rain, our stores will never see us through a siege of any appreciable length. We have to leave immediately.”

Gerda slipped out but stayed in the hall, listening intently. Eavesdropping as a serf is just a matter of survival, after all.

The Captain asked “My Lord, what of the servants?”

Lord Edward sighed. “It’s unfortunate, but they will have to stay and serve the new master, until I can return with enough men to take back what is mine. We don’t have enough provisions to feed all these people on the road nor can my other estate support them. Quite a few of them will be slaughtered when the castle is overrun, I fear.”

Gerda stayed while the men made plans to leave at first light. She told no one what she had heard. Gossip in the castle spreads as quickly as plague.

As she curled up next to the big fireplace in the kitchen that night, Gerda fretted. With no actual household position, the new lord would probably throw her from the castle, give her to a pederast or kill her. Gerda’s survival instincts were sharply honed and she was up long before dawn. She crept quietly out of the kitchen with her possessions: a small knife and an extra pair of small clothes.

Gerda hid in the courtyard, staying out of sight of the rushing soldiers and footmen. She didn’t make her move until the entire train had been assembled and was ready to depart. She ran up to Lord Edward as he sat his mount at the head of the line.

“Please, Your Lordship, please take me with you!” Gerda begged. “I don’t eat much and I know I can help you. I can run errands and messages and get your food and whatever you need!”

Lord Edward looked down at her with annoyance. Lady Catherine, Edward’s wife, called from her carriage. “Edward, we are NOT bringing your filthy child with us.”

Lord Edward turned irritably to his wife. Before he could say anything, Gerda said “I am sorry, Your Lordship, I should have asked your lady wife.” She dropped her eyes and stepped back. She didn’t trust her expression.

Lord Edward reddened. “I say who comes and who stays,” he bellowed. “You go climb in with the food,” he ordered her. “Guard the supplies.”

Gerda scampered to the back of the line with the supply wagons before he could change his mind. Once safely settled among the food stuffs, she allowed herself a small smile.

DK: I like the idea of the character Gerda.  Her background and present circumstances are really ripe for emotional development and payoff, and the situation she finds herself in – having to figure out how to get away due to the nobles leaving, I mean –  is easily sympathetic for the setting.  I enjoyed her perspective, although I thought some more development might have been even better – for instance, I don’t really get a sense either way if she’s aware of her relation to Edward. Since Gerda is really the only formed character in the piece, I was a little frustrated that I didn’t get as fully invested in her mindset.

DG – Resourceful girl.  I like her character, although I wish the story was a little bit more deep.  For a story about sneaking and manipulating, it was a little bit straightforward for my taste.

Margaret

Late afternoon shadows spread across the red sandstone walls of Glamis.   Up in the sunlight, the castle glowed warm and welcoming, but in the woods, the cool October air had already emerged victorious from its battle with the warm sunlight.  A chill wind whispered across Brianag’s neck, and she pulled her caul over her auburn hair.

Castles grew like great oaks along the river Tay, thick and strong and plentiful.  Lords and ladies lived in excess in the high towers while the bones of their monstrous, deformed offspring crumbled behind bricked-in walls.  Brianag pulled the letter from her breast pocket and read it in the fast-fading daylight.

Fair, beautiful Fionn had stayed for dinner.  He had laughed at the family stories and danced with the ladies.  From his crude innuendo, Brianag thought it likely that he had taken one or two serving girls up against the warm kitchen wall when no one was watching.  And though he was drunk and exhausted, he had somehow been startled from sleep by the pounding and hammering and clattering of a stone mason.

“The stories, Brianag!  They must be true; or why would I have heard such sounds at that hour?  I must find the chamber.  What noble shame lives and dies in muted secrecy behind thick walls?”

Fionn was a fool.  What he hoped to gain by uncovering the long-held Lyon secret was of no interest to her, but it had been months since that letter, and worry was eating holes into her heart.

She tucked the letter back into her cloak and approached the guard to inquire after her brother.  She was escorted to the drawing room, and a serving girl brought her warm ginger and cheese.  Brianag eyed her swollen belly and breasts as she left.  One of Fionn’s conquests, perhaps.

She returned again with a pile of linens and invited Brianag to follow her.  “You are to stay in the guest chamber miss, and the lady Lyon will see you in the morning.”

“Of course.  What’s your name?”

“Aileana, miss.”

“And did you know my brother, Aileana?”

Aileana pulled the linens closer to her round belly, and mirth or fear turned the corners of her mouth.  She almost spoke, but responded instead with a quiet nod.

“The lady will see you in the morning, miss.”

Brianag noted the guards at her door.  Any chance of looking for her brother tonight was dashed.  She undressed to her braies, pulled on a white nightdress, and slid under the lambswool blankets.   She stayed awake through the night, listening for tell-tale hammering, scanning the shadows for secrets.

The rising sun brought light to the room, and in the early dawn, she finally slept.  She awoke to the sounds of paper shuffling.  The letter!  In horror she turned to see Lady Lyons reading it.

“Your brother is a fool, Brianag of Birnam!  Who else has seen this letter?

“No one, my lady!  It wasn’t his words that brought me here!  It was the silence that followed them!  I swear it.”

Aileana entered the room with a basin and a pitcher of warm water.

“Aileana.  Miss Brianag wishes to join her brother.”  She smiled at Brianag and departed.

Aileana curtsied and drew a long knife from the pitcher.  Before Brianag could scream, her tongue had been cut from her mouth.

It is said that if you stand near the great oak on a moonlit night, when  cool mist settles on the Birnam woods and Glamis stands in shadow against the twilight, a fair face can be seen peering from a high window.  He watches, without moving, until the velvet darkness lightens to gray.  And in the moment that he fades from a sight, another figure appears.  A woman, dressed all in white, crosses the castle grounds below the window, her dark mouth open in a soundless scream.

DK: This one, I think, carries through its setting and established tension to the most fully realized ending.  The descriptions, especially the extended ones mirrored in the opening and closing paragraphs, are really evocative.  I also found myself liking the usage of lines like “wore a hole in her heart”; that style really fits with the middle age-feel of the setting and helps heighten the impact of the conclusion.  SILVER

DG – It feels like a legend, which is good.  I can’t shake the feeling that the first half of this story ends up being unnecessary.  I’ll also admit to wanting a look at the monsters.  You toy with me, whoever you are.  BRONZE

Melissa

    Maybe hundreds years ago, these passages were well known, but Maddie may well have been the first person to step in them for centuries.  Their age felt heavy on her shoulders and smelled of dust and flakes of skin.  She climbed down the stairs, and as the fireplace entrance squealed shut behind her, the darkness became impenetrable.  She couldn’t imagine what they did down here before electricity.  When she flicked on her flashlight, though, she got a clue: sconces.  They lined the walls every 20 feet or so.  She inspected one, only to be greeted by a friendly spider who crawled out and blinked at her with a dozen eyes.

    She left it alone.

    Somewhere upstairs, hotel guests and maids and bellhops went about their business.  Down here, she heard none of it.  She stepped through the silence, every footstep an echo.  She counted her steps as she went, but eventually, the tunnels wound and climbed and descended so often that she lost count.  She knew the castle hotel like nobody else on the grounds, though.  She grew up here.  She could tell east or west with her eyes closed, even in hidden passageways.  She anticipated she’d find her way out.

    What she didn’t anticipate was her flashlight going out at step 3,465.

    Neither did she anticipate the flicker of flame that lit up in response.

    She paused, blinking at the flame ahead of her.  It could be miles away or mere meters.  As she moved closer, though, she realized it was mere steps away, and the flame — it shone light upon a face.

    Two eyes, flickering, a small nose, skin as pale as fresh linen.

    Maddie’s breath caught.

    A voice whispered, “Let me out.”

    Maddie didn’t respond.

    “Please,” the voice said.  “Let me out.  It’s cold in here.  My fire doesn’t work.”

    Maddie inched closer, peering in darkness.  The flame never lit more of the face.  Just the large eyes and the pale skin, and just the edge of a pink upper lip.

    “How did you get down here?” Maddie said.

    “It’s long story,” came the reply.  “Please let me out.”

    A rattle, and the sound of something scraping against earth, clanking against metal.  Footsteps padded against the ground, and then the face was there.  Right in front of her, eye to eye, noses almost touching.

    Maddie held in a gasp.  She lived in a castle everybody thought haunted.  She dealt with angry American customers.  She had learned to respond to everything with an expression of closed of disinterest, and she forced that now.

    “Who are you?” she asked.

    The flame moved from the face, and for the first time, Maddie realized that it came from the girl’s hand.  And it was a girl. Long, matted hair in the shadows, her figure just barely discernable at times through the flicker of flame and shadow.  The hand that held the flame…Maddie blinked, but know, the flame had no source.  Just the hand.

    The girl held up an arm to show that it was shackled.  “The key is just behind that stone,” she said, nodding to something behind Maddie.  “You can see it.  It’s carved with the image of a key and a flame.  They thought it would be funny, see.”

    “Who thought what would be funny?”

    Maddie found the brick.  She dug at the mortar with her fingernails, pulled the brick out.  An old key sat behind it.

    “Please.  Hurry,” the girl said.

    Maddie shrugged.  She unlocked the girl from her chains, and the girl sighed a sigh of relief that sounded like it took all the air in her lungs.  Then she rushed forward and wrapped her arms around Maddie.  Her body was warm for being stuck in this dank area, warm and pleasant.

    “Thank you,” she said, the flame getting brighter to light them both.  “Thank you.”

    The flame whooshed large, brighter, hotter.

    The world went up in flame.

DK: This has probably my favorite buildup of the four.  I really enjoyed Maddie as a character; she has a developed perspective and a nice blend of curiosity and world-weariness.  I also like how this one’s take on the prompt leads it to a modernized haunted-house “resort” sort of setting without really beating the reader over the head with it.  I felt like the ending, while sharp and startling, was almost too abrupt for the weight of the buildup that preceded it, but there’s obviously a whole lot I really liked here, and that outweighed the ending ultimately in my mind.  GOLD

DG – I had a feeling it was a bad idea to unlock her chains.  For some reason I want to give the fire-girl the benefit of the doubt.  Perhaps it’s the sadism of her original captors hiding the key right there, that makes me see her maybe as a little less of a monster.  Maybe I’m overthinking it since I only have four stories to read.   SILVER

————–

Tallying up those medal points

Melissa – 8
Brian – 6
Margaret – 4
Annette – 0

Margaret and Annette take their leave of us here.  Really solid season from both ladies.  We should take a moment and acknowledge their good work.

Enough about them.  The semi-finalists in alphabetical order are Christina, Bret, Brian, and Melissa.  They have until Thursday, January 9 at 8 PM to concoct a story in 653 words or less inspired by the following image.

PWTP4-SF

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