Tag Archives: writing prompts

Flashfabulous Friday

Happy Friday! For today’s rather weird post, I used a random word generator to source the following words:

fur :: arch :: frost :: migraine :: search

Read on to find out what I made of them, and happy weekend…

The Elder Grove

Image: 123rf.com

Image: 123rf.com

Word came with the first frost. She was dying: this time, they were certain. We made ready to leave, packing our things in haste.

‘Do not fret,’ said my man. ‘If all goes as I hope, we will not be leaving the House this time. You will have opportunity to purchase what you need, and more.’

So, we travelled light. Within a day and night, our journey was done. Torches burned around the walls, either to welcome us or to warn that there was strength within, still.

We dipped our heads beneath the low arch as we crossed onto her property, as customary. Despite myself, I admired the woman who made the entrance to her home such that none could enter without bowing. When this place became mine – as, in time, it would – I resolved to keep this gateway. The rest could burn.

At her bedside, shadows kept watch. Her breaths were short and wet, and her eyes sealed shut.

‘Mother,’ said my man. ‘We are here.’

I knelt at her feet. It is easy to show deference, when one has need.

‘Mother,’ I said, though she was nothing of the sort, to me. ‘Greetings.’

‘And so the vultures gather before the meat is even cold,’ she said, her voice like a corpse being dragged over gravel. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought she was trying to laugh. ‘Have you mounted a search of my person yet? My rooms? Should I draw you a map, perhaps, to the choicest baubles?’

‘Mother, please.’ My man folded his hands around one of hers, but she ripped it free. ‘We are here to pay our respectful homage. To bid you farewell, if necessary.’

‘You will bid farewell, certainly. But not to me,’ she said, and died.

We buried her in the grounds of what had been her home. Snow settled on our hair as we bent our heads, and our blood ran cold as hers as we waited for them to pack down the soil. We retired to our chamber as soon as was decent, where fire and food awaited us. I locked and unlocked with keys that had been hers, like a fool. I spoke of destruction and rebuilding in my own image. We laughed, my man and I, and drank to a new beginning and a glorious end.

An ache – a migraine, but worse – started to throb behind my left eye as I settled myself at his side late that night, like a spear thrust through my skull. I closed my eyes and hoped my pain would lift and let me rest, for it had been a trying day. In time, it did. But I should have known it for what it was.

In the morning, the bed was empty beside me.

The servants did not know, or could not say, where my man was. Eventually, I begged them to help, and one girl – they were all girls, though I did not understand the importance of this, not then – told me to check the elder grove.

‘By the lake, ma’am,’ she said, barely whispering. ‘That’s where they all end up, eventually.’

I ran.

Halfway there, I found my man’s fur – a wolf he’d stalked and slaughtered single-handedly, barely out of childhood. He would, I knew, sooner die than part with it.

My steps faltered, but I carried on, the fur clutched close.

The grove was thick with trees, tall, naked of leaves, sturdy-trunked. Each tree bore many branches, and on each branch was a man. Some – like mine – were recognisable; others mere scraps of fabric and bone. Tree and flesh were one, each growing into the other as though nature had fashioned them thus. The elder grove. The grove of the Elders.

My head burst with pain, and I fell to my knees. My man’s fur never left my hand for a moment, but my senses scattered. When I woke, I made my way back to the House silently, and the women received me without a word.

In time, I gave birth to a son my man would never see. I found myself raising him at a distance, with the whip, just as my man had been raised, and as for the House? Not a brick, nor a mote of dust, was altered. If the idea ever crossed my mind, the pain which gripped me left me comatose for days on end, and I soon learned to modulate my thinking.

Over the years, the faces of the servant girls all grew to look the same. We labour together, my women and I, to keep the House safe.

The first frost has fallen, and I feel the cold hand of death upon me. My son and his woman are almost here. I will not warn him about the Elder Grove, even though the memory of his father’s fate pains me, alone, in the dark.

I will not warn him, for the House must survive. If I fail in my duty, I know it will find a way, and it may not be as merciful as I.

Writerly Wednesday

The prompts from CAKE.shortandsweet were delayed today, so I went ahead and improvised: I created five sets of five words using a random word generator, and then I took the first word from the first set, the second from the second and so on until I had the following prompts:

Mile :: idiot :: brooch :: duck :: iron

Image: hdw.eweb4.com

Image: hdw.eweb4.com

Justice

The only problem with iron bullets is – of course – they kill humans, too. Mortflesh flowed around us like they were caught in a slipstream, their tiny, self-obsessed brains unseeing as we passed among them. Not for the first time, I wished for the freedom to fire at will, but I knew well the Council would have my powers if I dared to try it.
‘Where is he?’ muttered Klaas, beside me. ‘How is he hiding?’
‘Let’s hope he hasn’t embodied yet,’ I replied. My finger was light on the trigger of my weapon, concealed in a fold of my robe. ‘If he has, we may never find him.’
‘Chances are slim, surely?’ Klaas’s eyes flickered, gleaming golden, considering and discarding mortal faces one after another. ‘He hasn’t had long enough to find a subject.’
‘All he needs is one mortal willing to be an idiot,’ I pointed out. I saw Klaas nod, shrugging.
‘They are easy to fool,’ he agreed. ‘Something shiny – a brooch, or a bangle of jade – and they’ll do most anything.’
‘Not that you’ve tried it,’ I said, glancing at him.
‘Of course,’ he said, his voice like fresh milk, his eyes far from mine.
And then, I saw a flash between the trees ahead of us – light too pure to be mortal, too beautiful for this earth. The light of a fae, impossible to conceal.
‘Half a mile, dead ahead,’ I murmured to Klaas. He turned to face me again, the golden tang fading from his eyes. ‘Between the trees.’
He blinked, and looked. ‘I see it.’ His stance changed as he trained his eyes on the light, sparkling in the failing day. He took off at a run, mortflesh scattering either side of him. I followed, drawing my gun out of my cloak.
Within moments, we were within range. His light was so clear, so clear, that it made my eyes sting, but a mortal woman stood over him, arms outstretched, seemingly unaffected. I saw him turn to face us, baring his teeth in a hiss; the woman’s approach did not slow.
‘Come on, darlin’,’ she was saying. ‘Come on to Marie, now, and she’ll take good care o’ you.’ She dropped to a crouch, extending an arm toward him. ‘Who’d leave a tiny child on his own in a public park, eh? Who left you all alone?’
‘He’s glamoured,’ I said, and Klaas nodded. Behind the woman, the rogue fae glimmered, his mocking eyes gazing up at us. Five more seconds, and it would be too late; five more seconds, and he would be embodied. Beyond our reach.
‘Ma’am!’ I yelled, desperate. ‘Step away!’
She jerked in shock, turning.
‘What’s going on? Who are -‘ She caught sight of my gun, and shrieked a little, falling backward. ‘Get away from this child!’ she shouted, extending her arms to shield the creature behind her.
‘That’s not a child!’ called Klaas, waving a free hand at the woman, gesturing for her to move.
‘The hell it’s not!’ she replied, shuffling backward. Behind her, the fae laughed, silently. ‘Come on, darlin’. Let’s get out of here and away from these horrible men.’ She turned to me. ‘I’m callin’ the cops, right now!’
‘You must trust us!’ I shouted. ‘Duck, ma’am! Please!’
‘Young man, I – ‘ she began, but the rest of her words were cut off as a gurgling cry tore itself from her throat. The fae had made its move. Two sparkling hands plunged into the woman’s mouth, swiftly followed by its glimmering arms. It lifted its face to sneer at us before ducking into the human flesh that would give it sanctuary, making it immune to our judgement. The woman flopped on the ground, her arms and legs thrashing, her face turning scarlet as she struggled to breathe. Her eyes were filled with tears.
‘Dammit,’ I growled. I took aim and fired just before the fae finished slithering inside its mortal skin. The woman’s body jerked once, twice, as the bullets found their mark.
‘You’re going to be in worlds of trouble,’ remarked Klaas as she slumped on the ground, the growling fae already dragging itself out of her flesh.
‘Just grab him, and let me worry about the Council,’ I said, sliding my gun back into its holster. The dead woman’s eyes regarded the sky as we stepped over her to bind the wounded fae hand and foot, ready to drag him back to where he belonged.
Like I said. Humans find it so easy to act like idiots. Something told me, though, that taking the Council’s punishment would be a little easier, this time.

Flashilicious Friday

Somehow, Friday seems like the perfect day for celebrating the art of flash fiction. It’s a celebratory, happy sort of day, and writing flash makes me feel happy, too. It all fits. It’s probably part of the Unified Theory of Everything, or something.

Or maybe it’s just a fun way to while away a Friday morning.

In any case, I set myself three flash challenges today – three short pieces, two under 200 words and one under 300 words, and each of them based around a different set of five prompt words thrown up at me by this random word generator. Easy, right?

Well, you be the judge.

Theoden King's hall from 'The Lord of the Rings'. Image: therpf.com

Theoden King’s hall from ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
Image: therpf.com

Words for Story 1: Spine, salt, pillar, fur, trap

The Bride

He laid a trap for me so fine, so gentle, that I placed my head inside the noose like a pet dog nuzzling at its master’s knee. He allowed me to destroy myself through my own pride, but even now, I admire him, as I must.
As a warrior, he is unsurpassed. As a hunter, he is finer still. As a husband, he was better than some, but that was not enough.
The door stands open. The air tingles across my face, drying my tears to frozen salt. The spine of the mountains stretches out before me, white and blinding; I close my eyes against it.
‘Your fur,’ he commands, holding out his hand. I slide out of it. The wind bites, savaging me through the thin linen shift which is all I am permitted to bring. I hand it to him, my fingers steady. I am proud of that.
‘Your blade.’ He stands like a pillar, immovable. Fixed. Holding up the world. My betrayal has cost him nothing; he is eternal. I hand him my knife and sheath, my grip shaking, just a little.
‘Farewell,’ I whisper, stepping barefoot into the snow.
He says nothing, and turns away.

***

Image: flickr.com

Image: flickr.com

Words for story 2: Prophet, colony, mouse, cup, gutter

Failure

It’s not supposed to be like this, Sue whispers. The prophet said –
I know what he said. My eyes fix on the mouse, lying on its side, curling and blackening like overdone toast. Our last test subject. So much for ‘ten generations of prosperity.’ Some prophecy.
If the mice are dying, that means conditions outside have changed.
Yes. I cup my hands and slot my face into their warm hollow. It does.
So what do we do? Sue turns to me like I have the answers. I feel her gaze like a red-hot brand.
We seal the ship. I turn to her. We leave. Now. Today.
Abandon the colony? Sue pales.
We have no choice.
But the people… Sue’s voice trickles away. She is sentimental, but no fool.
This was only ever an experiment. I try not to sound cold. It always had the risk of failure.
We should hurry, then. She clears her throat. Before they realise. Before – A thump brings her to a premature halt, followed by another. Louder. Her eyes glitter as she faces me.
It’s too late, I say, just as the cabin lights gutter out.

***

Image: avintagegreen.com

Image: avintagegreen.com

Words for story 3: Bib, sugar, address, bill, steering wheel

Wife and Mother

You feel it as soon as you set foot in the kitchen, that crunch under your sole that says Jeremy spilled the sugar again this morning, and again neglected to sweep it up. Before you even flick the light-switch, you know what will greet you. Dirty cereal bowl stacked on top of the dishes he’d promised to do last night while you were feeding Lucy. Fag butt swimming in the sink.
You breathe.
The baby monitor in your hand coughs, crackling. A wail pierces you.
‘Christ almighty,’ you whisper, crushing your fingers around it. Your eyes fall on the fridge, where the phone bill is still pinned beneath the novelty magnet you bought on honeymoon. It smiles at you like it’s apologising for not being paid, for allowing Jeremy to forget it again. Your name – half you, half him – and this strange, leafy new address stare at you.
Is this you? Is this all?
The monitor sobs. A snuffle.
You turn, knocking off the light. You wrap your dressing-gown tight. You chuck the monitor onto the hall table and grab your car keys. Out the door. Down the steps. Across the pavement.
Behind the steering wheel, you sit and shiver. It’s early. Silver sky.
You glance in the mirror and Lucy’s car seat is there, empty. A stray bib, covered in yellow gunk, lies crumpled within it.
Your knuckles whiten on the wheel. Your keyring spins, slowly, hanging from the ignition.
You slam the door so hard when you go back inside that Lucy wakes, her screams like fingernails raking down your face.
You place the keys gently on their hook, concentrating hard.
‘Coming, darling,’ you mutter to the wall. ‘Mummy’s coming.’

***

I hope you enjoyed these. All feedback (of the good, bad or indifferent variety) is welcome. Schöne Freitag, lieblings.

Wednesday Write-In #86

The prompt words this week:

mistake :: baggage :: curlew :: tear :: shatter

Image: brokesch.blogspot.com

Image: brokesch.blogspot.com

The Uncrowned King

Whoever found the curlew would be crowned King of the Slob, and Da had been limbering up for weeks, getting himself in prime hunting fettle. Me and Jimmy had been spending every evening after I came home from school gluing feathers to our paper headbands, which Mam had measured out just right for us, like crowns. Camouflage, she called them.

Now it was the night before, and Jimmy and me were nearly sick with the excitement.

‘It’ll be us, this year. I can feel it,’ Da said, striding around the kitchen table with his legs spread wide, body low to the ground. ‘The Flahertys, lads. This year. Kings of the Slob!’

‘King of all the eejits, more like,’ said Mam, stepping over him to dump a load of warmed plates on the table.

‘That’s what you say, Mary,’ said Da, in a dark and shivery voice, turning on Mam with his hands outstretched. ‘But it’d be a mistake, me dear. A big mistake!’

‘Phelim!’ she shrieked, flicking the tea-towel at him. ‘Will you ever cop on to yourself!’ But she was laughing, too, so me and Jimmy knew everything was grand.

‘I won’t!’ he roared, grabbing Mam up into his arms. She shrieked as Da tickled her, and Jimmy started clapping, like a baby. He slithered down off his stool and ran to them, but Mam swung back her hand just then to clatter Da around the head, and she knocked Jimmy down instead.

There was a second when nobody moved or said anything, and then Jimmy’s little wail – like a newborn lamb – rose up from under the table.

‘Holy Mother of God,’ said Mam, dropping to her knees.

‘Is the child all right?’ asked Da, holding onto the sink to keep himself on his feet. ‘Oh, sweet Jesus,’ he muttered, half to himself. From beneath the table I could hear Mam’s gentle whisperings, and Jimmy’s sobs, easing until they were barely there at all.

‘Come on, now,’ she said, straightening up, a red-faced Jimmy in her arms. His whole body was juddering and he had one fat fist shoved into his gob. Mam wiped a tear from his cheek. I wondered if I was the only one who noticed his curlew-hunting crown was shattered, though – it hung down at the back like a broken washing line, trailing feathers and bits of glue and Sellotape.

‘Me poor little man,’ said Da, and Jimmy started sobbing again. He threw himself forward, reaching out, and Da plucked him from Mam’s arms. The crown fell apart then, tumbling down in pieces all over the floor and Mam’s clean tablecloth.

‘Ah, will you look,’ said Mam, flapping at the shards of hat with her tea-towel. ‘There it is, gone.’

‘No matter,’ said Da, smoothing Jimmy’s sweaty hair, fine and blonde, back from his sticky face. Jimmy blinked, his bottom lip puckering out like the bowl of a spoon. ‘Sure there’ll always be next year. Won’t there, Joe?’ Da looked at me. The band of my own curlew-hunting crown felt hot against my head, and a stray piece of feather was digging into my skin. I felt like I’d swallowed something that was too big, something that was struggling as it went down into my stomach. Something with claws, and a long beak.

‘Answer your daddy, Joseph!’ said Mam, scooping up bits of feather with her hand. She frowned down the table at me. ‘You can hardly expect to go hunting the curlew without Jimmy, now, can you?’

I slid my crown off and put it on the table, and before anyone could say anything I ran out the back door and off down the lane. Redmond, the farmer, kept cows in the far field, and they seemed to understand most things.

I came back when I was ready, muck to my ears, and Jimmy was sitting on the kitchen table playing with Mam. She was clapping, and he was giggling, and he was wearing the crown I’d left behind like it was his birthright, and not one bit of bother on him, none at all.

**

Note for the curious: The ‘Slob’, or Sloblands, is the name given to an area of marshy land not far from where I grew up; it is now a bird sanctuary, where curlews are encouraged to breed and nest. I’ve invented the ‘King of the Slob’ and the curlew hunting, and – because curlews are endangered in the British Isles – I really don’t recommend hunting them for real!

Wednesday Write-In #84

This week’s words were: murky  ::  favourite mug  ::  hasty  ::  myth  ::  murder

Image: pinterest.com

Image: pinterest.com

Crisis Management

I knew it as soon as she came through the door. Murky look in her eyes, mouth drawn tight, frown lines like steppes across her forehead. When she threw her backpack into the corner without giving it a second glance, I knew for sure.

Favourite mug. Kettle on.

‘I could murder a cup of tea, love. You?’

‘Thanks, Mum.’ She slid into her chair, folding her legs under herself like she used to do when she was tiny. I had to look away, just for a second, as the kettle started rumbling beside me. A blink or two, and I was fine again.

‘Everything all right?’ The kettle clattered and clicked, belching steam. She spoke, but I couldn’t hear her over its racket. I poured the tea, carrying the mugs to the table. She wrapped her fingers around hers without even looking – her fingernails are gone to hell again, I couldn’t help thinkingbefore telling myself to shut up.

‘So. Is it something at school?’ I blew across the surface of my tea, pretending to watch it ripple. I saw her lick her lips, and the pained flash that crossed her face.

‘I told you,’ she said. ‘I’m fine.’

‘Good, good. So, how’s Maths? I know you were having some difficulty last -‘

‘Mum, is it true? About boys?’

I coughed. ‘What about boys, specifically?’ I took a mouthful of tea and held it.

‘That they can – you know. Tell.

I swallowed. ‘Tell?’

She rolled her eyes at me. ‘Come on.

‘You’ll have to give me something else to go on, darling. I’m good, but I’m not a mind-reader.’

‘It’s embarrassing,’ she muttered.

‘Try me.’

She started to chew the inside of her mouth, and tilted her head so that her hair fell down over her eyes. She huffed several long, pained breaths in and out before finally managing to clothe her thoughts in words. ‘That they can tell if you – if you’ve done it.’

‘Ah.’ I took another mouthful of tea, wondering why it suddenly tasted like acid. ‘That old myth.’

‘Myth?’ she said, flicking her hair out of her face and gazing at me with those eyes, so clear. So like her dad’s. My heart lurched, but it passed.

‘Yup. Think about it. How would they tell? It’s impossible.’

‘Stacey says it’s obvious. Like, on your face, or whatever. She says it’s like you might as well wear a big sign on your back saying ‘Virgin!’ unless you – you know.’

‘Well, no disrespect to Stacey,’ I said, putting down my tea. ‘But she’s talking nonsense.’

‘Really?’ She smiled at me, her dimples showing. ‘Them’s fightin’ words, Mum.’

I grinned. ‘Bring it on.’

She laughed, then – a genuine laugh, head thrown back. I felt a throb of something large surge up my throat, and my eyes filled again, and I had to blink hard to keep it all in.

‘Go, Mum!’ she said, looking back at me. ‘So, it’s for real? They can’t tell?’

‘Nope. Nobody can. Well – maybe a doctor. But that’s all right, isn’t it?’

She shrugged, her eyes falling. ‘Well, it’s good to know.’

I leaned in, and put my hand on her arm. She didn’t pull away, but she didn’t look up. ‘There’s no need to be hasty about anything like this. Do you understand? You have time to make your own choices, in your own time, and don’t let Stacey – or anyone – pressure you. All right, darling?’

‘Yeah, Mum. Keep your wig on.’ She unfolded herself, shaking off my hand. ‘I’ve got homework, okay? See you later.’ She grabbed up her bag and was gone, her untouched tea still steaming on the table, and I nursed my heart for a few moments before hauling myself to my feet and getting on with making dinner.

I wish I’d had a mum like me, I thought, as the carrot peelings piled up and the oven warmedbut then I just put the potatoes on and forgot all about it.

Wordhunter

As we made our way home yesterday, my husband turned to me and said: you look good.

This isn’t an unusual thing, I’m happy to say. I’m a lucky girl. I married well. My husband’s full of compliments, most of the time ones I don’t really deserve. But anyway.

‘Oh, yeah?’ I said. ‘Why’s that?’

‘You look relaxed,’ he said. ‘Happy.’

That, friends, is probably because I decided to take yesterday off. I pushed myself away from my desk. I went into Dublin city for a few hours. I took a long, long walk. I saw some friends. I – *gasp* – bought a book.

Darlings, how I have missed thee... Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Darlings, how I have missed thee…
Image: commons.wikimedia.org

It was great.

I’ve made a few significant submissions in the last few weeks. I’ve been working hard. I plan to make some more submissions next week – short stories to magazines, entries to competitions, some more research into agents who (I hope) might like my work – and I’m glad I decided to take a day to myself yesterday, because this is the thing about writing, or indeed about anything at which you want to succeed.

It takes hard work, and not just for a day or a week or a year. For always. Relentlessly.

But that’s also the beauty of it. Working hard at something you love is the best feeling in the world. Having said that, though, sometimes you do need a break, and it’s okay to take one.

Image: abeforum.com

Image: abeforum.com

However, today it was back to the grindstone. It’s Friday, and for the first week in a few weeks I am able to take part in Flash! Friday’s weekly challenge. This week, the fiendish gamesetters decided that the compulsory element – which has to be included in your story somewhere – was ‘A Detective.’ The image prompt (I can’t find a usably small version of it anywhere) was the interior of a bus carriage – which I interpreted as a train carriage, but let’s not worry too much about that! – showing a pair of feet clad in admirably shiny black shoes leaning up against a pole.

You’ll just have to scoot on over to Flash! Friday to see it for yourselves, I guess.

In any case, I managed to find a story which I could fit, just about, into the wordcount, and which met all the requirements, and with which I was reasonably happy, and here it is:

**

In Her Footsteps

Day 214. Da and me get up early. Since we sold the car, we’ve been takin’ the train to school, and that sucks.

‘Got your spyglass, buddy?’ he says as we leave the house. I run back to get it, and my notebook. Can’t believe I nearly forgot ‘em! Gotta be on duty, all the time, if you want to be a real detective.

I flip through my notebook once we’ve found our seats. “Day 87: No siteings. Day 176: No siteings, no trale.” I’m better at spellin’, now, but there’s still no sightings, still no trail.

Then, I hear somethin’. Clack-clack-clack, real fast. I flip my glass to my eye. My mouth tastes funny as I look low down, at people’s feet.

There! Black, shiny, creased across the toe, just like Ma’s favourite shoes. The only thing she took with her when she disappeared.

I’m up before Da can stop me, but the lady’s not Ma. She never is.

**

So, there you have it. Far from perfect, but that’s not the point. The point is, you get back up on the horse/into the saddle/lace up your boots and start again. You keep on heading for that goal, and you keep on finding words and putting them down, and you never stop searching for your personal best.

Happy hunting! Oh – and, have a wonderful weekend.

I'm off to catch me some words... Image: teachwhatcounts.com

I’m off to catch me some words…
Image: teachwhatcounts.com

 

 

 

Wednesday Write-In #83

This week’s words were:

relapse  ::  busy bee  ::  ocean  ::  pacify  ::  putrid

Image: travelblog.org

Image: travelblog.org

A Traitor’s Grave

‘He wants to hear the ocean,’ gasped Lily, stumbling out of the putrid bedchamber with her arms piled high. Streaks of unhappy colour – browns and greens and off-yellows – yawned their way across the linens she carried. Old blood. Sepsis. Ill-humours. The heralds of death.

‘And how are we expected to do that?’ I muttered, falling into step beside her.

‘There has to be a way,’ she muttered, her face sweating and her teeth gritted. ‘I just – ugh!’ She stopped, throwing the soiled bandages to the ground. ‘I can’t!’ She slammed her fists against the wall and leaned her forehead on them, her shoulders quaking through her thin gown.

‘Lily, I –‘

‘Just leave me be!’ she snapped, and I drew my hands back. ‘Please, Maryam. I’m all right.’ She took in a deep breath, before pushing herself upright once more and bending to pick up the linens.

‘How is he? I mean, really?’ I asked, sinking my hands into the slimy, stinking fabric. Lily let me help her without a word, and that said everything.  ‘Does he – I mean, how long?’ We slipped into the darkness of the long narrow hallway, our feet finding the way without light, as they had done for all the years between our girlhoods and now.

‘He’s suffered a major relapse,’ said Lily, and even though I couldn’t see her, I could imagine her looking around for peeping eyes and spying ears. ‘It’s impossible to pacify him now. He’s like a starving man who’s forgotten how to eat.’ She paused, and I thought about how she licked her lips when she was nervous, and the shine in her dark eyes. ‘He has a day. Maybe,’ she whispered.

‘If I run, right now, and wake the Librarian, I can get a recording of the ocean,’ I said, my throat contracting. ‘If that would help. If it would help you, I mean.’

‘My busy bee,’ she said, her words stumbling. ‘It wouldn’t do any good. It’s the real ocean he wants, the real thing. He’ll know a recording.’

‘But – it’s impossible,’ I said, my eyes flooding, warm and wet. I blinked, hard, realising we’d stopped walking. We stood, in darkness, our Lord’s sickness between us, and only one day left. ‘It can’t be done, Lil. The ocean? Nobody’s heard it in a generation, not for real!’

‘Sssh,’ she said, like she was comforting me. ‘I know. He knows it, too. He’s playing for time, is all. But he’s too sick.’

‘But that means… it means…’ I wanted to fling the sodden bandages far from me, but instead I sunk my fingernails into them, feeling them rip beneath my hands.

‘You know I loved you, Maryam. Always,’ she said, so quickly I barely heard it.

‘Lily –‘ I said, but a clanging bell smashed my words to shards and turned my blood to ice. Voices shouted, and the darkness lifted a little as, somewhere close by, someone lit the first of the torches. He’s gone, I thought, and my heart clattered around inside me. The Lord’s dead.

‘They’ll be coming for me now,’ I heard Lily’s voice say, straight into my ear. Her lips were warm on my cheek.

‘I won’t let them take you,’ I wanted to say, but it was as if I had swallowed a handful of thorns. I won’t let them touch you I won’t let them butcher you I won’t I won’t

‘I won’t leave you alone,’ she said, shoving the disgusting bundle of cloth at me, making me stumble.

‘Wait!’ I screamed, but it was too late.

In the darkness, her sure feet found the top step without difficulty, and she fell without a sound.

They buried her alone, in an unmarked hole, because only the beautiful can be interred as handmaidens of the Lord, and only the perfect can join him in the sky. From the top of my tower I can watch the old soil reclaim her body – her traitor’s body. Or so they say, at least. I know better.

She promised she’d never leave me, and she kept her word.