Tag Archives: winter

3 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – ADULT: Letting Go by Cassandra Page

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Christmas is getting so close now, so I thought you deserved a special treat – it’s Cassandra Page, author of Isla’s Inheritance, stepping out of her urban fantasy comfort zone into the world of the Adult. Cass is one of my nearest and dearest, and she’s a damn good writer. Check it out.
 


 
Letting Go
by Cassandra Page
 
 
Michelle decorates the house in silence.

In previous years, her home had been filled with carols and laughter. Her family decked the halls to Deck the Halls, and the night was anything but silent. At fifteen, Ben was too cool to hang baubles, and he’d ceded the right to top the tree back to his father after ten years of hogging the privilege. But Michelle caught glimpses of childhood delight behind his surly exterior, and hid her smile behind her hand.

That was before she found the emails.

Now she strings the tinsel alone, performing the familiar ritual not out of celebration but because she’s fallen into a rut with steep sides—too steep to climb. There is no joy in it. She hangs out his stocking next to hers, over the mantelpiece. The pair hang limply.

The phone rings, piercing the silence like a scream. A glass bauble slips from her fingers, shatters on the empty tiles beneath the tree.

“Hello?”

Silence on the other end. Then a familiar voice speaks. “Michelle.”

“Darren.” Her voice is as sharp as the glass shards. Glittering crimson.

“How are you?”

She fishes the dustpan and brush from under the sink, cradling the phone against her shoulder. “Fine,” she says. It’s even sort of true. She is hollow, mercifully empty of emotion behind carefully constructed walls. “Why?”

“Well, it’s the first of December, and I thought…” He trails off.

He knows her. After twenty years of marriage, he ought to. The first of December is when the decorations go up. And she’s alone.

“I’m fine.” A white-hot spot of anger flares, burning away some of the numbness. She grits her teeth, suppresses the emotion. If she lets anger in, the rest will follow. When she speaks, her voice is cool. “The divorce papers arrived yesterday.”

“You don’t have to do anything with them right now. Wait till after the holidays.”

“I signed them already.” She sweeps red shards onto the dustpan.

“Oh.” He sighs. “Did you want some company?”

“No.” She frowns. Why is he pretending to care? He left her after Ben— She can’t even think the word. “Is there anything else? I’m busy.”

He’s quiet for so long she wonders if he hung up and she didn’t notice. Then he says, “Have you read the emails yet?”

This old argument. When will he stop blaming her for what happened? “I read them last year.”

“Read them again. Properly, this time.”

“Leave me alone.”

“Goodbye, Michelle.”

She hangs up and tips the glass in the bin. It patters down onto a shrivelled banana peel, an empty milk carton, Darren’s discarded stocking.

It has been almost a year since her fight with Ben about the emails. Electronic love letters between him and that girl. Brittany. Bad enough that her boy was fourteen. Worse that the girl was so far from the wrong side of the tracks that she couldn’t even see them. Her older sister had died of a drug overdose; her father was an alcoholic who spent all his time at the RSL, feeding his welfare cheque into the poker machines.

Ben had stormed out of the house, hared off on his bike. The car hadn’t seen him in the dark.

The guilt claws at the walls around her emotions, tearing through them. Its talons are her grief, its wings her regret. She’s familiar with the beast. But before it can drag her down again, in a tangle of self-loathing and bourbon, a little mouse, curiosity, creeps in behind it.

The next afternoon, when the hangover recedes a little, she reads the emails.

***

The soup kitchen is bustling, the queue almost out the door. The first smell that invades her nose is of salty gravy, the next of unwashed bodies. She holds her breath and ducks inside.

“Hey, no cutting,” a bearded man mumbles, glaring at her from watery eyes.

“I’m not here to eat.” Her stomach churns. “I’m looking for someone.”

He smiles, gap-toothed. “Is it me?”

“No. Sorry.”

“Well, if you change your mind…” He winks, and she finds herself smiling back. Just a little.

“You might be able to help me. I’m looking for this girl.” She shows him the printout of the photo. It is pixelated, poor quality. Ben took it on his phone.

“Sure, I seen her. She’s up there.”

Michelle turns, squares her shoulders. Walks along the queue till she finds the girl.

“Excuse me.”

Brown eyes turn to her. There is no flash of recognition. Ben never introduced them. “Yes?”

“I’m Ben Rigby’s mother.”

Now there’s recognition. Also anger and grief. Brittany swallows the feelings, but Michelle can see they are old companions. As they are Michelle’s.

“What do you want?” Brittany says, eyes narrowed.

“To see you. I—” Michelle hesitates, looking the girl over. She’s the same age as Ben would have been, still a teenager, but looks older. Her hands are calloused from work; her bare arms bear faint green and yellow bruises, like bracelets.

“What?” The girl stares back, examining Michelle just as Michelle examines her. “If you came here to yell at me, forget it.”

“I didn’t. Actually, I’m planning Christmas dinner, and I wanted to invite you.”

Brittany’s mouth falls open. Then her expression hardens. “I ain’t interested in being your charity case.”

“It’s not about charity. I know you and Ben … cared for each other.” Brittany’s cheeks redden and she lifts her chin. Michelle looks down at her shoes, conspicuously expensive next to Brittany’s scuffed slip-ons. “I’ve spent the last year blaming you for taking him away from me, as much as I blamed myself for driving him away. And, well, Christmas is the season for forgiveness.”

“I don’t want your forgiveness,” Brittany says.

“No.” Michelle looks up, meets her gaze. “But I need to give it. If you’ll let me. I need to let go.”

The girl gnaws her lip, thinks for several moments. “I reckon Ben would want me to,” she murmurs. “Sure, I’ll come.”

Michelle feels something then that she hasn’t felt for almost a year. A tiny piece of joy. She gives the girl a piece of paper with details written on it. Brittany folds it, slides it inside her purse next to a battered photo. Ben smiles back at Michelle from the image, reminding her of Darren when they’d first met. She can’t help but smile back.

She pulls her phone out of her pocket. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s someone else I need to invite.”
 


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9 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – STEAMPUNK: My Brother’s Christmas Wedding by Bridget Shepherd

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I am so excited to be bringing you a steampunk Christmas story by the one and only Bridget Shepherd. I love steampunk, so I’ve been really excited about this one, and Bridget doesn’t disappoint. Although she usually writes sci-fi, fantasy and horror, Bridget kicks some clockwork ass in My Brother’s Christmas Wedding, so sit back and enjoy.
 


 
My Brother’s Christmas Wedding
by Bridget Shepherd
 
 
I slipped through the hive of bustling workmen rushing all manner of brass statues, figures and gears through the grand ballroom entrance without drawing more than a glance. Everyone here was fresh off the Fine Mechanical Services airship. They’d know my father and brother’s faces but not mine. Being the second son had its perks. It helped that I had dressed down in a black shirt and grey vest with matching slacks. At this time of day I should have been wearing an afternoon suit and jacket, preferably in brown or blue. Changing clothes four times a day had always seemed like a waste of time to me.

I ascended two flights of stairs and met Mrs. Mina Judson, the house staff overseer, on the mid-level balcony. My mother had asked me, without my father’s knowledge, to ensure that the decorations would be perfect for my brother’s Christmas wedding. Mina wouldn’t like this one bit. Sure enough, she wrinkled her nose when she saw me.

“Good afternoon to you too.” I smiled sardonically.

“Those mourning gloves give me the creeps, milord,” she said, staring at my hand like it might strangle her of its own accord.

“They’re not mourning gloves, Mina,” I said, though we’d been over this before. She’d been with the family since I was three and Martin five, and we were as close to friends as our stations allowed. “They’re work gloves. The black grease stains anything.”

“The Honorable Arthur St. Gale should not be wearing work gloves. On a lord, any black gloves look like mourning gloves.” She crossed herself superstitiously. “What’s milord’s fiancé going to think when she sees you in those?” She folded her arms over her well-worn mahogany corset and cream shirt.

“Good thing I haven’t got one then, isn’t it?” I grinned.

“As I heard it, you will soon enough.” It was her turn to grin.

“What in the world do you mean?” Please let her be kidding, I thought.

“Mr. Henley told me that Lord St. Gale has already drawn up a short list of suitable ladies. Lord Thornton will be married by December’s end. Milord will be married in the summer, no doubt.”

Lord Thornton was my brother Martin’s courtesy title as firstborn and heir to our father, the Earl of St. Gale and Viscount of Thornton. Mr. Henley was my father’s valet and the information was likely accurate. Me, engaged? I should have known this day was coming but it still hit me like an iron wall.

“If she doesn’t like them then she’s not the girl for me,” I managed to mumble, but the problem was so much deeper and more widespread than that. For one thing, I only felt that kind of attraction toward men. The enormity of my discontent with my lordly duties began to overwhelm me. I needed to do the one thing in my life that made sense to me. I needed to work on the machinery. “Anyway,” I said before Mina could say anything more on the subject, “mother asked me to personally oversee the installation of the mechanical decorations.” She made a face like she very much wanted to tell me that wasn’t a job for a man of my position, so I added, “You know my mother’s father dabbled in engineering and mechanics, and taught me what he knew. While you may find it unseemly, mother wants me to make sure the workmen don’t cut corners for Martin’s big day.”

“Begging Lady St. Gale’s pardon, I’m not the only one who finds it unseemly,” Mina said, “I can’t imagine them being very keen to work with you, milord. They’ll turn a cold shoulder as often as they can get away with.”

“What do you mean? Once I’ve shown them my skill shouldn’t they accept me?”

“It’s not about your skill, milord, it’s about your breeding. These workers would find me upscale while I’m decidedly middle class. The senior mechanics are upper working class and the junior mechanics and general laborers are lower. They’ll do their job because they have to put food on the table down below, but many of them resent your father and everything he stands for.”

“I’m not my father.” The venom in my voice surprised us both.

“I-I know,” she said, “I wouldn’t dare to talk about this with Lord St. Gale. Have I overstepped?”

“I’m sorry. No, I’d rather hear your thoughts.” I respected my father but on a bad day I’d call him a bloody tyrant under my breath.

“The fact is, they don’t know you, milord. Many of them have built up resentment, even rage coming from poverty down below. Many of these decorations,” she indicated the tall bronze statues and gold plated Christmas trees, “could feed their family for weeks, some even months. I’ve got a cousin down there who even I send money to when I can.”

I thought about it and frowned. “Frankly, I don’t know why we have so many expensive decorations, or a hundred sets of fine clothes for that matter. And I wish I understood large-scale economics, but I’m afraid I don’t.” I sighed.

“Milord really isn’t cut out to be a nobleman is he?” She smiled wryly.

An idea clicked into place like the last gear of a panel.

“You’re right,” I said, “that’s how I’ll do it.” I turned to leave.

“Milord?”
 
“I need to go talk to Jory. Thanks, Mina,” I said over my shoulder and trotted off.

*
 
Lucky for me, Mr. Jory Stedman, my father’s chief of security, had a soft spot for me. I explained that Mina felt my being a nobleman would get in the way of my mother’s task for me and therefore I had decided to go in disguise. I assured him that if my father found out what he was doing for me, he would blame me and not Jory. The next day Mina reluctantly introduced me to the supervising mechanic, Cole Ferris. Except I wasn’t the Honorable Arthur St. Gale anymore. I wore a mechanic’s uniform and my nametag read “Arthur Porter.”

“Mr. Ferris,” Mina said smoothly, showing no trace of the discomfort she must have been feeling, “might I introduce Arthur Porter. Here is his reference from Mr. Stedman.” She handed him a document stamped with the official wax seal. “He is a relative of Mr. Stedman who would be very much obliged if you would allow him to shadow your men. Of course, Mr. Stedman has made the arrangements for his wages. This will not deduct from your men’s existing pay in any way.”

“I won’t turn away extra help as long as he’s capable.” Ferris shrugged. “I reserve the right to show him the door if he gets in the way.”

Something passed over Mina’s features, I couldn’t be sure if she found the thought of him kicking me out unthinkably unseemly or unthinkably hilarious. Either way, she maintained her composure and said, “Of course.”

“Welcome aboard, Porter,” Ferris said and offered his gloved hand. A gentleman would have removed his glove before shaking but I appreciated not having to bother.

“Thank you, sir,” I said and gave him a firm gloved handshake. Mina must have been dying inside.

“I got Miller here shadowing me already,” Ferris said. A big gruff looking fellow behind him nodded to me, then glanced at Mina but didn’t acknowledge her. “He’s a transfer from an energy plant down below. So, you’re shadowing David Weldon.” Ferris turned to a man polishing brass figures a few feet away. “Oi, Carlson, grab that extra tool box and show Porter here to Weldon. Tell him he’s a local to shadow him. My authority.”

“Yes sir,” Carlson dropped his rag and rubbed his gloves on his pants. “How are ya?” He gave me a quick handshake. “It’s this way.” He turned to head off toward the small auditorium.

“Thank you for the introduction, Mrs. Judson,” I said to Mina.

She twitched. “You’re most welcome,” she said, swallowing the “milord.” Miller made a disgusted sound. I was beginning to think what Mina had said was true. He seemed to associate her with my father’s offices and didn’t find her worthy of thanks.

Carlson led me through the small auditorium. Despite its name, it still had space for both a dance floor and dining room seating for one hundred people. Mother had asked me to pay particular attention to this room as the groom’s banquet was to be held here next month and it was meant to be themed after Martin’s favorite Christmas decorations. I looked around furtively for estate servants who might recognize me but as I’d thought, I saw nothing but Fine Mechanical Services workmen. Relieved that my plan was not in danger of discovery, I took in the many works in progress all around the room.

On two sides men assembled eight foot tall nutcracker soldiers and mice. During dinner, a chamber orchestra would play a theme and they would spring to life and lumber across the dance floor, opening their mouths and raising their swords on cue. I knew because we’d had a much smaller set made by my grandfather which was among Martin’s favorites. Good for Mina for thinking of them.

Three giant brass Christmas trees with gold plated branches and tiers of rotating candle rings sat in various stages of completion. Elaborate flashing-candle arrays replaced the usual chandeliers. Everything was coming together nicely. I just wondered where the trains were. Martin had a fascination with trains that I didn’t think Mina would overlook for this occasion. I spotted a foot long brass train engine sticking out of a crate filled with train cars. It sat off to one side and a young man of similar age to Martin and I stood a few feet away working on an automatic meat slicer. He looked up when Carlson said “Hey, Weldon.”

The first thing I noticed about David was the warmth in his brown eyes. He shook my hand firmly as Carlson explained Arthur Porter’s situation in life.

“Great to have ya,” he said as Carlson left. “How’d ya like to get to work on setting up the punch bowl serving arm?” He said it with such enthusiasm that I smiled, knowing he shared my love for these machines.

“Would love it.”

I grinned and pulled the lid off of the labeled crate which was already on the temporary work bench. From the first piece I pulled out I saw the thing was a mess—just how I liked it. I vowed internally to get the thing working better than it had when it was new. David looked at the state of the punch bowl arm and then at me. Apparently satisfied, he got back to work securing the blades in the meat slicer. We worked in happy silence, the sounds of the fifty or so other workers providing cheerful background noise. The rusted iron in the arm’s joint began to pleasantly glide after a little spray and hammer. I recalibrated the spring loading action and had just finished applying a polish to the brass when David finished the meat slicer.

“That’s a great job ya done, Porter,” he said as we carried our machines over to the cooking appliances table. “It’s dinner time now. Would ya join us in the airship mess hall?”

“Thanks, but I’ve got other arrangements.” I wanted to go with him but I’d be missed at dinner and they weren’t getting paid any extra to feed another mouth.

“See ya tomorrow then?” He offered his hand.

We shook. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

*
 
I worked on cookware, serving ware and the odd automatic shoeshine machine the rest of November, until one day, three weeks into our time together, he asked for my help.

“Ya got a real eye for this work, Porter, maybe you can troubleshoot a little problem with me.”

“Bring it on.”

He led me over to the long neglected crate of trains.

“When I saw these trains on my list I knew I wanted them to run overhead here where Lord Thornton will be able to watch them while he’s dining. Seems trains are a favorite the lord and I share,” David said, gazing up at the ceiling like he could already see them chugging along in the air. This was the first time we’d talked about anything other than the machines. He hadn’t scoffed at my brother’s name. I wasn’t sure if that meant he didn’t hate the nobility or if he took such pride in his work that the art came first.

“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” I said. I knew Martin would love it.

“The problem is the fresco,” he said, pointing at the arches and angelic figures painted into this section of the high ceiling. “Can’t exactly drill holes in something like that.”

“Do you have any old train engines?” I asked.

“We have a few but nothing presentable for this kind of event.” David squinted at me like he was trying to read my mind about where this was going.

“That’s okay, they won’t be seen.” I grinned slyly. “Got any match-calibrated magnet boxes?” Grandfather had used them to put floating toys in our nurseries years ago.

David brightened. “If the middle attic above this room is accessible then you’re a genius.”

My face hurt from smiling so hard but I couldn’t stop. “I can get the key from Mr. Stedman.”

“Perks of knowing the local guy, eh?” He beamed at me and I realized that I liked this guy. Really, really liked this guy.

*
 
I went to Jory for the key and David went to get the magnet boxes from the airship. We met up at the door to the middle attic. It was nestled between the small auditorium and the guest rooms above. I felt like some damn kid sneaking around on Christmas night. I opened the latches, pulled a lever and the mechanical lighters brought all the wall candles to life. Boxes of summer decorations and sporting equipment were stacked two high on snaking rows of racks built up to the low ceiling.

“If these run the whole way we’re screwed,” David said.

“I haven’t been up here in years, but if I’m right, they don’t.” Everything looked so small now. The shelves were so tall when I was six years old and running amok anywhere and everywhere inside the estate walls.

We made our way through the maze of racks. As I had hoped, when we reached two thirds of the way through, the shelves ended. The rest of the room was like a ghost from my past. Illuminated by two small windows on the right, each chair, sofa and table was covered with a dusty white sheet but they were all exactly where I remembered them.

“When I was a child,” I said, “there were many live-in servants who had children. I used to play in here on rainy days.” I didn’t add that my father had forbidden me to and my mother had covered for me. My mother’s father had been possessed of some unusual views when it came to just about everything, including whether a gentleman should wear greasy work gloves from time to time, and whether or not a nobleman’s child should be allowed to associate with servant children.

“Hell’s bells, this is a common servant’s living room? Not just for the butler’s family or something?” David lifted a few sheet corners and whistled at the fine furniture.

“Is it not like this on other sky cities?”

“They call St. Gale a prize catch for an honest servant,” David said. “They say Lady St. Gale has a soft spot for her servants. Seeing this I believe it.”

Pride swelled in my chest at my mother’s kindness.

“And… none of your family or friends ever caught hell from Lord St. Gale then?” David looked at me like he wasn’t sure he should even be broaching the subject.

“I tend to fly under his radar these days,” I said wryly.

David blinked at me. “Is it not true then? Rumor is that any servant caught stealing, even food, loses a hand before he’s turned over to a jail down below. The lady’s the carrot and the lord’s the rod, they say.”

I went cold in the clammy attic. My father, have a man’s hand cut off?

“I-I don’t know anyone it’s happened to, anyway. No one talks about it.” Doubt formed a knot in my stomach.

“Sorry to ask,” David said. “Truth is, I’ve been penning a list of injustices.” He looked embarrassed. “I don’t rightly know what I’ll do with them, who I’d give them to, but I think people ought to talk about these things. The lords ought to abide by a kind of justice that’s fair. I try and get at least two people with firsthand knowledge of an injustice before I add it to the list. No sense writing up some bloody list of rumors.”

“Wow.” I was struck speechless. David Weldon, charismatic mechanic. David Weldon, man of fairness and justice. “You-You’re amazing.”

He turned beet red. “I don’t know.”

“I’d propose to you on the spot if I could,” I blurted, then flushed too.

David chuckled. “At least we could confirm whether Lord St. Gale punishes for that.”

“What would he chop off then?” I laughed.

David’s face fell.

“Wait, you’re not telling me…”

He nodded gravely. “It’s confirmed on St. Risden.”

I went pale.

“I know, no man wants to think of that, but it’s a real danger for some men,” he said quietly, and I saw then that he was like me.

“David,” I said, realizing I’d been thinking of him by his first name all along.

He caught the tone in my voice. “Then you’re..?” he asked barely above a whisper.

“Not only am I a man who loves other men, but I’m also Arthur St. Gale. The Earl’s second son. I’m a nobleman in love with mechanics. And I’m in love with you, David Weldon.”

David gaped at me and I steeled myself for rejection. I saw my mechanics career crashing and burning. It could never have lasted anyway, I thought.

But then, David kissed me.

*
 
After taking—ahem—far longer than necessary in that old middle attic, we had the magnet boxes installed in the tops of the shiny brass train sets and in the bottoms of the motley train engines. We left the latter running on a track and returned to the small auditorium with the former. Using a wooden ladder, I held up each engine until the matching engine passed by overhead and the magnet boxes zeroed in on each other. All in all we had five rings of train sets each floating along in the opposite direction of the one next to it.

“It’s perfect!” David shouted.

I grinned and almost fell off the ladder.

*
 
Mid December was upon us, and that meant David switched from fixing machines and designing displays to checking over the work that the junior mechanics had done without direct senior supervision. Not being an official Fine Mechanical Services workman, I wasn’t allowed to officially grade anyone so David gave me some homework.

A decoration’s interior would be designed and assembled in part on the airship and then matched with the gold plating and other fine pieces which belonged to and were kept here at the estate. This way the internal mechanics could actually be improved from year to year. My assignment was to compare a list of components and their respective weights with the weight that the preassembled pieces had been logged as when they were brought in for final assembly here at the estate. Of course, David expected them all to match up, this kind of comparison was only routinely done on parts made outside of Fine Mechanical Services, but since I had never performed such an examination before he considered it good practice for my future. Sweet that he thought I had a future in mechanics.

When I got to the grand Christmas tree directly behind the podium where my father would give his speech to Martin, I found a large discrepancy. I called David over.

He frowned. “You actually found something?”

“The spinning mechanism in the midsection of the tree is unaccountably heavy, look.” I pointed out the figures in the documentation.

“It must be some kind of upgrade. Maybe an extra stabilizer?”

“There’s another grand Christmas tree near the door.” I ran my thumb down the page until I found its figures. “Why upgrade only one?”

David sighed. “No dinner for us then. We’ll check it out after everyone’s left for the day.”

*
 
He went back and finished his examinations of the juniors’ work and at the end of the day when everyone had cleared out for dinner we both went hungry and opened up that sucker.

Doing so saved my father’s life. The middle spinning mechanism had been replaced with a time-bomb set to go off at the exact time my father was scheduled to be in the middle of his speech.

“My God,” I said. “What do we do?”

“Close it slowly,” David said. “And we’ll call the King’s explosive experts.”

Before I could, a slot that had read “set” flicked to a red panel that read “tamper.”

“Damnation!” David scrambled for a tool kit. The clock that had been ticking normally sped up and up, ringing in my ears.

“Have you done this before?” I asked hopefully.

He stuck a screw driver in the status slot and pulled it back to “set,” then to “off.” “Hold this,” he barked. I grabbed the handle from him and held it firm against the machine’s resistance. David sprayed an instant-dry fixative into a vent in the front of the bomb.

The ticking slowed.

And stopped.

“Oh God, thank God,” I gasped.

“Never,” he said.

“What?”

“I’ve never done that before.” He looked at me with a twitchy smile.

“Oh God.” We both laughed in hysteria.

Once we had composed ourselves, David and I closed the tree back up like nothing had happened and quietly took the matter directly to Mr. Stedman. David researched who had been assigned to that piece of the tree and it turned out to be Mitch Miller, the new guy shadowing Ferris. Somehow Miller had found out that we knew and was caught a few hours later trying to leave the city by trash barge. One of the King’s own explosives experts would be in the next morning to dispose of the device and take a sniffer dog around to check for any other explosives.

Mr. Stedman was called in to give an account to my father and, inevitably, David and I were named as his saviors and my whole charade was exposed. He called us to him separately. David would see him in his official receiving room and I would be sent into his study like the child he still considered me to be. Mother met with me in the adjoining library before I was to see him.

“He thanked your friend properly,” she told me, “your case is obviously more complicated.” She smiled sympathetically.

“Exposed because I saved his life. Good grief, the irony.” I groaned.

“What are you going to do with yourself, Arthur?” she asked, straightening my tie and tucking it back into my vest. “How are you going to have a happy future under your father’s thumb?”

“How do you have a happy life under his thumb?” I quipped.

“Your father has his problems,” she replied, “but he’s a smart enough man not to try to rule his wife the way he tries to rule his sons. Don’t worry about me, I have a happy life.”

I looked into her wise hazel eyes and believed her. “Does father chop off the hands of thieves before he sends them down below to jail?”

Her expression saddened. “Legally, he has the right. There’s nothing I can do besides try to counsel mercy.”

“And Martin? Will he continue that practice when he is Earl?”

“Oh, no. I’ve taught my boys better than that.”

Well, that was something at least. “And what would you recommend for my life then? The priesthood?” I asked somewhat feverishly.

“Why don’t you join Fine Mechanical Services?”

“Wha-” I sputtered.

“I looked it up,” she continued, smoothing the collar of my jacket. “Your father can’t disinherit you legally under the crown unless you commit a crime. Joining Fine Mechanical Services is not a crime. Just don’t tell him about your boyfriend.”

I sputtered some more and stared at her incredulously.

“I’m your mother,” she said in the same matter-of-fact tone, “I know everything.”

I shut my mouth and tried not to turn red.

“Stand up, shoulders straight.” She clapped me on the back. “Go in and face your father.”

I took a deep breath and entered my father’s study. I spoke to him frankly for the first time in my life.

*
 
Needless to say, my father was infuriated, but not enough to cancel Martin’s wedding. It helped that, as much as he considered my choice in career a wasteful embarrassment and mar on the St. Gale name, I had just saved his life. I told him not to worry about the mar. I was happy to keep the name Arthur Porter and leave my identity as Arthur St. Gale a secret until it suited me to reveal myself. Arthur St. Gale would be a target and I couldn’t put David in danger. As far as the servants of the house knew, Arthur St. Gale was going away to study business economics. And for all I knew, my father would actually pay tuition to a university to keep up the ruse. I couldn’t have cared less.

*
 
Christmas week was a wonderful success. Martin loved the trains, and the day after the groom’s banquet, he invited David and me to see him privately.

“Thank you for coming, and again for the trains.” He shook our hands, gloves off this time. “Mother’s told me everything and I wanted to tell you personally that you have my support. There are many areas where I agree with my mother rather than my father, and I hope you’ll feel more at home in St. Gale in ten or fifteen years when father’s retired and I take on the earldom.”

“Thanks, Martin,” I said and hugged him for the first time since we were kids. “I’m sorry we haven’t spent more time together as adults.”

“We’re on different paths, little brother.” He clapped me on the back, another trait he got from mother. “I’ll find a way to write to Arthur Porter, don’t worry about that.”

“I’ll count on it.”

“Lord Thornton, if I may,” David said and withdrew a folded envelope from his jacket pocket. “I took the liberty of copying you this list of injustices I have discovered in my travels around the kingdom. They are something a man of integrity like milord ought to be aware of.”

“David tries to get two firsthand witnesses before he adds anything to that list,” I added, and nodded for Martin to take it.

“Thank you for entrusting me with this list, Weldon,” Martin said solemnly as he took the envelope from David.

*
 
On Christmas Day, after the wedding and after Martin and his new bride had departed for their honeymoon on a luxury aircruiseship, David and I met in our cozy little middle attic. To our surprise, mother had furnished it like a bedroom, complete with candles and flower petals.

“She went overboard.” I rolled my eyes and blushed.

“It’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen,” David said, beaming.
“I should be grateful,” I said, becoming pensive. “Who knows the next time we’ll be able to safely sleep in a bed together.”

“Let’s enjoy it, worries are for the morning.” David sat down on the edge of the bed. “But before that, know this, Arthur. I love you. I’ll never tell your secrets, and you can always rely on me as a reference for your mechanical skills.”

“I love you too, David Weldon.”

***
 



14 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – DYSTOPIAN: Keeper of the Flame by Jacqueline Czel

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Behind today’s magical door we find a dystopian tale courtesy of Jacqueline Czel. Jacqueline termed it ‘tolkeinesque’, and I think that’s an apt description of a story that takes us to a fantastical dystopian world.
 


 
Keeper of the Flame
by Jacqueline Czel
 
She was a Keeper. Vale knew it. Something deep in his bones told him so. He also observed from across the spacious hall that she was very young. Being around thirty years of age she was by far one of the youngest keepers they’d ever had. According to the ancient legends, young keepers were far more powerful than most. It had been about six hundred years since the last Keeper blossomed before the age of seventy or eighty. It gave him and others much hope.
 
He scratched his red beard while he studied her as she moved among the growing crowd. Christmas was upon them and gathering together at the great hall was tradition. Clans from all over the northern lands they called Álfheimr trekked to Gimlé for the Yuletide festivities. They travelled at great risk. Bands of Dökkálfr, the dark ones from the south, had increased their raids on small villages and attacked all kinds of moving caravans. Making the journey to the hall was dangerous but most of them believed their traditions needed to be preserved at all costs.
 
Her long braided locks swept across her lush curves. She had shed her furs and her exposed bronze shoulders and arms glistened in the firelight. He watched her lean down to kiss the forehead of a small child who looked up at her with large blue eyes that sparkled like sapphires. It was a pure child and there weren’t many of them left. Vale wanted a child of his own. He knew it would be a well-loved halfling but unbound, fertile women were hard to come by.
 
Bands of humans passed over the ancient bridges that mysteriously appeared over a thousand years ago, as their dying planet became increasingly inhospitable for humans. Those who crossed over the crystal bridge hidden in the Aurora Borealis, were welcomed by the Ljósálfar in the place their ancients called, ‘still further above’ or third Earth, so long as these humans chose to leave all of their poisonous technologies behind. Other bridges opened to the southlands and humans from warmer regions merged with the Dökkálfr and other kinds of beings on the planet.
 
While the average ljósálfar could live to be over six hundred years, their chances of siring children were very slim. Inter-marriage with the humans brought more children into the fold but a long life without a family was still slow torture for many of them. It was believed that having a child was a gift that was only given to those possessing true faith in the eyes of God. Risking death in exchange for new life was the greatest gift a ljósálfarian woman could bestow upon her beloved mate.
 
Vale continued to stare at Kenna and wondered if she would willingly stare death in the face for him or any man. Her waist, the sway of her fine hips and curve her of thighs beneath her leathers, entranced him. A flood of desire filled him as well as a sense of guilt. It was considered sinful to lust but Vale couldn’t refrain. Even from afar, he thought her beautiful. She was worth wading through hellfire for.
 
He though she wouldn’t notice him anyway. His beard, incredible height and broad stature were sure signs that he was more human than elf. Vale also lived the life of a warrior. The scars on his cheeks and hands were evidence of many battles fought against the dark elves and ice giants. No beautiful, soft skinned woman would want such a hard man, an axe wielding killer who easily took life away from others.
 
Kenna knew many pairs of eyes were upon her in the hall because she was a new keeper, but one particular set burned a hole in her. They were very human, too. She felt his warmth, curiosity and desire. She had not actually gazed upon the man who had been staring at her, but knew what he was thinking. His longing, sadness and self-doubt warmed her heart. He had not seen her up close. He didn’t know she was a halfling too. Kenna understood the inferiority he felt in the face of pure blooded Ljósálfar. They were fair, lithe and graceful and possessed many unusual abilities. Even after centuries of intermarriage most halflings inherited very few of them.
 
Rather than turn around to look at him, Kenna scried him through the eyes of an old crone stitching a leather pouch on a bench nearby. He was rugged, a hot blooded warrior. She liked his beard and long reddish brown hair which fell in a thick braid down his back. She felt a pressing at her own mind and quit the third eye of the elderly woman. An older keeper sensed what she was doing. Keepers weren’t supposed to use their powers for personal gain.
 
As the sun set and stars illuminated the big northern sky, clans from afar kept arriving at Gimlé. While they settled into their quarters, the elders and keepers gathered at the far end of the hall to discuss the tree. There couldn’t be a true Yuletide celebration without an evergreen. In addition to cutting down a fir tree, boars needed to be culled from the forest for feasting. While many of their people worshipped the One True God, the Ljósálfar had a longstanding sacred oath with the ancient ash tree, Yssgdrill. It was forbidden to kill any of the trees in Álfheimr. A party must crossover the crystal bridge to retrieve the evergreen back on old Earth where the forests had regained their pristine glory.
 
Kenna watched as Baron Harald smoked his wooden pipe and blew curls of clove into the air. He was the reigning elder this year. The Baron studied the elders and keepers sitting before him long and hard. One elder, as well as one keeper would have to make the journey with the warriors that would be selected. Kenna’s eyes connected with his. His icy blue gaze beneath a thick, white brow tried to penetrate hers. She knew he could not. He blinked and shook his head. Kenna knew her dark eyes disturbed him as did her new powers. Halflings with elfin powers were rare. Halfling keepers were rarer still. She could easily cloak her still unknown abilities and Baron Harald didn’t particularly like or trust powerful women.
 
“Egill, he cried out in a raspy voice a moment later, bring the runes!”
 
A covey of thirteen would make the journey this year. The ancient stones sung the names. Egill, the blind caster, interpreted their song. Kenna’s was among them. A four hundred year full blooded ljósálfar elder named Meryl was sung too. Vale was the last warrior chosen by the stones. When his name was called, Kenna’s skin began to tingle. Something was not right. There was more to this journey than the fetching of the yuletide tree from the forest into which they were going to venture. A second message from the stones lingered in the air.
 
Kenna felt it but runes were not her gift. She could not hear their song or read the meaning of the etched markings laid out before her. She did however notice the nods of some of the much older elders and keepers. They knew something she didn’t. As they chatted quietly amongst themselves in the ancient elfish tongue they often spoke when discussing important clan matters so as not to disturb others, Kenna followed Meryl’s lead and excused herself. She had not yet studied the archaic tongue so she could not follow the conversation.
 
The uneasy feeling she had, stayed with her as she settled onto her sleeping furs in her quarters. She wondered what role Vale had in the unseen event that would surely unfold on their journey. She fought her wild thoughts and forced herself to sleep because the party was leaving at first light. Long before Kenna awoke the next morning the warriors had already saddled their horses, tied supplies to their mounts and hitched the sled to a team of wolf dogs that would pull the tree back to Gimle.
 
On hearing the din outside in the courtyard, a sleepy Kenna righted herself, pulled on her leathers and furs, laced her boots tightly around her calves and ran out of the hall to join them. She pushed her honey colored braids out of her face and quickly counted the number of horses. There were thirteen members of their party and only a dozen saddled horses. Before Kenna could protest at not having her own steed, a pair of strong hands lifted her off the ground. Vale planted her in front of him on the saddle. He slung his arm around her waist, picked up the reigns and kicked at his white dun which broke into a slow trot.
 
“Why don’t I get my own horse?” Kenna fumed.
 
She resented being treated like a child. She was a keeper, albeit a new one, but surely she was far more powerful than warriors with axes, swords and arrows.
 
“Because you’d be a burden if you did, he said in a smooth, deep voice. It was the first time he’d actually spoken to her. “You’re no horsewoman. The Dökkálfr and wild wolves would snatch you away in no time, little one.”
 
Kenna bucked against him and squirmed so she could jump off but was stilled when Vale tightened his arm around her waist. The words ‘do not’ crossed her mind at the same time. She turned her head towards Meryl who rode past them his own dappled steed. He looked regal in all white furs over which his long, white mane of hair cascaded.
 
“Don’t waste your time fighting, girl. He’ll over power you every time. He is a man who can easily protect or kill. That is all he knows. It is his duty to protect you on this journey. Let him.”
 
The full blooded Ljósálfar knew Kenna could read minds and therefore receive any messages he’d send to hers. He had a number of his own abilities, which he kept, like any wise elder, in reserve until they were absolutely needed. Meryl was being kind by explaining the way of the warrior to her.
 
Kenna was a child of the fields and had been kept away from the war being waged between the Ljósálfar and Dökkálfr by the old woman, Siggy, who found and raised her. Tales of battles reached their small cottage but she had never encountered any warriors until her powers exerted themselves. Soon after that, a couple of keepers showed up unannounced at the small croft. A handful of warriors escorted her and the other keepers back to the sorcerer’s hall in Andarsfjord.
 
She settled as best she could against Vale and let him guide his dun out onto the open trail leading to the Northern Lights. She kept her eyes focused on the warriors in front of them, Leo and Gilt, as they rode out. As the morning wore on, she shuttered her mind as she had been taught by older keepers so she wasn’t constantly assaulted by Vale’s thoughts. Most of the images in his mind involved him burying his thick cock inside her as he held her beneath him on a bed of furs by the crackling fire in his cottage. She had encountered Ljósálfar males who had entertained such thoughts about her before but his lust was unyielding.
 
Kenna reasoned by early evening that having her rear settled on the same mount in front of him for hours on end was fueling his incredibly vivid imagination. At every attempt she made to pull herself slightly forward on the steed, to put space between them, he swiftly drew her back.
 
The rest of the day passed uneventfully until they reached the borealis which floated between the worlds. The iridescent colors and shimmering flux awed Kenna who had never seen such wonder. Meryl had been there many times. He was one of the few elves who frequently ventured regularly back and forth between the worlds. Kenna and the others let him lead them across the glassy bridge.
 
Vale found himself enchanted not only by the handiwork of the God but the awe on Kenna’s face. He tightened his hold on her as his steed took them across the bridge. He noted the childlike wonder on her pretty face as she tilted her chin upwards to look at the moving colors. At one point she extended her arm and hand to touch it but he pulled it back without hesitation. Although he worshipped the one God, there was always the danger that some other deity or sky dragon might snatch her out if his arms.
 
At that moment she turned her face up at him. Vale blinked. Her eyes weren’t the ice, elvish blue he expected. They were large, almond shaped and almost black – human eyes. He gazed into her limitless pools and felt a stab in his chest. Vale noticed how the colors danced over her dark eyes and along her soft, curved cheek. She smiled innocently at him. She was far lovelier than he ever imagined. He set his jaw and looked away. It wasn’t wise for warriors to show their emotions.
 
Two more days passed and on the third a large blue spruce was found and cut down by the men. Later that night, Kenna studied Vale from across the fire pit while enjoying the scent of the tree. He hadn’t pay her much attention on the journey and even scowled at her on occasion. He still thought about undressing her in his mind and taking her on his furs, though. His thoughts were often more intense. She was still curious to know what the runes sung. Kenna was attracted to him but also annoyed by his incessant thoughts. She was more than a play thing and a pathetic charge on the back of his horse.
 
“Will you stop!” Kenna finally snapped in front of the other warriors and Meryl, who took to sharpening their blades. “I can read your mind, you foolish man.”
 
Vale turned his face toward hers, steeled his jaw and glared. He inhaled deeply, and exhaled a wave of anger. He had no idea Kenna possessed powers to that extent. Vale inwardly railed at having his private thoughts read by the very woman he’d been fantasizing about for days. His desire for her was undeniable. He normally didn’t spend hours pining over women but he had never been so drawn to one particular woman before.
 
“Don’t you think that’s a bad habit and bad manners?” He chided.
 
Before Kenna replied Meryl raised a hand to silence them. All ears perked up and the wolf dogs began to growl. They were not alone.
 
Vale quietly shifted his position and pulled his halberd from its sling. It was the second time in minutes he was caught off guard and it angered him further. He swore to himself he would make Kenna pay someday for being such a distraction. She deserved to be placed over his knee and given a good spanking. On the other side of the fire he noticed her jaw dropped. She picked up his thought. He suddenly realized he was going to have fun with his little mind reader.
 
“Enough!” Commanded Meryl while reprimanding their minds with his own. “Your lover’s dance is going get us killed.”
 
The other warriors had risen to defensive positions. Their axes were drawn. Leo and Gilt readied their bows. They would loose arrows into the darkness if they had to. Meryl, who stood closest to the fire, concealed an ancient Ljósálfar sword under his white cloak.
 
“Use your dust, girl,” he ordered. “Put that fire out now!”
 
Kenna reach into the small leather pouch slung her shoulder and quickly withdrew a small green bottle. She stepped closer to the fire. While doing so an incoming arrow flew through the air and narrowly missed her body. She took another brave step and unplugged the vessel.
 
“Quick, we’re open targets!” Meryl seethed.
 
She shook the dust in the bottle over the flames. All of the embers magically died before the powder hit the pit. They were now standing under the big, moonless sky. Starlight and their senses were their only guides.
 
Enemy arrows continued to slice the air. Meryl told the bowmen to loosen their own. They let out a round and heard a few cries as their arrows struck targets hidden in the darkness. They hit a couple of the Dökkálfr attempting to ambush them. As one of the warriors from the enemy party fell, Kenna crept into his mind with her own seizing his last thoughts.
 
“Help me, Luri,” cried the dark elf as his eyes closed forever. Kenna wondered who Luri was and passed the thought on to Meryl.
 
“Show yourself, Luri!” The elder commanded.
 
“Give us the girl, Meryl,” replied a menacing voice. “Then you can go back to hauling your rotten wood.”
 
Kenna blinked. She tried to press into the mind of that voice but met a sealed door instead. It was a well-protected mind. She instinctively knew Luri was quite sinister.
 
“Nice try lovely,” was followed by an arrogant laugh.
 
Vale snarled and the wolf dogs growled. They were dealing with a dark magician. It put him and his men at a disadvantage. He adored Kenna but at the moment wished they had a more seasoned keeper with them. She would be no match for Luri. The dark elf’s ruthless reputation preceded him and the fact that he came in person for her meant the Dökkálfr wanted her badly. Vale realized that Kenna’s powers were unsurpassed. He swore to himself he wouldn’t let Luri get his hands on her.
 
Kenna caught Vale’s thought and recalled the dire feeling the runes left her with.
 
“Get over here, little one!” He seethed.
 
That sinister laugh followed. Kenna turned towards Vale but she inwardly knew his axe was useless now. Luri wasn’t going to physically fight. Unpracticed Kenna pushed at her palms with her mind. She was a keeper of the flame and had seen what the more seasoned keepers could do. She felt a brief burning on the inside of her palms before cobalt blue flames swirled inside them.
 
“You Northerners are all fire and air,” Luri laughed.
 
Kenna inhaled deeply. She knew she was different, the dark ones did too. They wouldn’t have followed them to old Earth without reason. Kenna needed more information. She quickly realized that although Luri was a seasoned magician who knew how to shutter his mind, those with him weren’t so skilled or wise. She deciphered his second’s thoughts quite easily.
 
Long ago the Ljósálfar were given the command of fire and air while the dark elves were granted power over earth and water. Luri and his men believed she might possess the power of all the elements.
 
She thought about it for half a second. Was it possible? Why did they believe this? She pushed the thoughts away when an incoming arrow hit Vale. She heard him swear. She reached for him in the darkness and in doing so fell and sliced her hand on a jagged rock protruding up from the ground. The blue light in her palm went out as blood oozed from the cut.
 
Vale had pulled the arrow out his shoulder and flung it to the ground. He reached for Kenna and pulled her against his chest. She heedlessly pressed her bloody palm to his fresh wound. Vale growled as she touched him. Kenna felt all of his love and desire for her flow into her. She felt all of his remorse from his hard life and his desires for peace and a family. She saw herself and the world through his eyes as a burning sensation flooded her body. They were being bound by blood.
 
Kenna understood the smiles of the elders now. They had been fated and her warrior wasn’t just a life mate. He was also a key. Kenna understood. She called forth fire and cauterized the wound on his shoulder. Vale grimaced then gave her a knowing look before they heard Leo cry. They both turned to see a large, whirling dervish of blackness towering above them. Without thinking, Kenna stood up, raised her palms, focused her powers and stilled the sand. The particles were suspended in midair.
 
Others gasped as the older magician’s handiwork bent to her will.
 
“The full gift!” Meryl whispered.
 
The others gasped. None of them had ever seen a keeper who possessed the power of the four elements before.
Kenna muttered words that came to her mind and transformed the sand into snowy powder and let it fall to the ground. She then let a flood of new sensations wash over her. The feeling she had carried for many months of being an untrained keeper were gone. She knew her powers. Their secrets filled her.
 
Vale stood up next to her but partially guarded her figure out of habit. Kenna placed her hand in his. He looked down at her in awe. Because of their bond, Vale knew what she was pondering. He told her with his mind what he would do.
 
He shouted to Meryl and the other Ljósálfar warriors. The elder cast a safe guard around them before Kenna chanted a few words in the ancient elvish tongue, waved her free hand and called the power of air. The fastest way to end the fray was to take it instead of stirring it. She drew it from the Dökkálfr half a lea away. The sounds of gasping and rasping echoed in the darkness. The dark elves where suffocating as she called for the breath in their bodies.
 
“Retreat!” Cried Luri.
 
His distraught mind leaked his thoughts for the first time.
 
He had cast a quick safeguard for himself, his second and another dark elf standing close by but he knew it wouldn’t hold for long. He knew his other men were dying behind him. He turned and fled with his two remaining warriors into the Scandinavian forest, abandoning the rest of their entourage.
 
Kenna felt wobbly after destroying the Dökkálfr. She had never willfully sought to hurt or kill anyone before. She leaned against Vale as she regained her composure. He put his arm around her and stroked her hair.
 
“You have all four powers, little one.” He said in deep voice. “What do you think this means?”
 
“For starters, she replied, “We can bring the tree home in peace.”
 
Four days later, the massive tree was hauled up with ropes, steadied and tethered. Afterwards the young and old decorated it with wooden stars, pinecones, white feathers, and hundreds of small candles. After the Yule tree was finished, Kenna stepped back from it and lifted her palms. As the keeper who selected the tree, she had to light it this year.
 
She closed her eyes and concentrated. Every candle wick flared to life illuminating the great hall. Light flickered off the crystalline stones and granite containing bits of mica giving the walls a golden glow. The feasting tables were lined with tall candles which roared to life as did the lamps in the wrought iron sconces lining the walls. The warm light, a happy mood and scent of fresh pine filled Gimle. People reveled in the magic of the moment. Musicians perched in the corner of the room began to play Christmas reels which added to the festive air.
 
Kenna felt a familiar pair of eyes on her and turned around. As her smiling mate stepped closer to her, the ground began to rumble. Vale’s thoughts of stripping her naked and consummating their bond on his furs were interrupted by the shaking walls. He cupped Kenna’s chin and tilted it upwards. He stared into her dark eyes.
 
“I will bed you after we deal with those ice giants out there.”