Shouts down the hall woke Absulla from sleep. As with every time she awakened, it took a moment for the truth of her circumstances to sink in; the bars, the stone walls of her small cell, the horrible stench of the place. The newest prisoner howled in protest, alternately begging and threatening his jailers. Absulla shifted upright, frowning as she realized that she recognized his voice. She hung her head and sighed when it finally clicked. It was Yondi, one of her jailers. She’d long suspected that his stupidity would land him on the wrong side of King Myrinan’s wrath sooner or later.
He wasn’t a bad man. Plenty of her jailers were, but not Yondi. No, Yondi’s trouble was an inability to stop talking. In King Myrinan’s tyrannic regime, that was a liability. Already Absulla had learned plenty about the goings-on of the palace from her affable jailer, including the fact that the friends who’d helped her steal and free the king’s treasured chlotka egg were also alive, being kept in dungeons in other areas of the palace. According to Yondi, there were many dungeons to choose between. Even more interesting had been his description of the vast chamber where the king had a giant trapped beneath the palace foundations.
“Called Clap the Thunderous he is,” Yondi had said the other day. “Lies there sighing and weeping he does, but our great king is mighty, and that giant don’t rise though he could do it easy as pie.”
“Why not?” Absulla had asked.
“Don’t know,” Yondi had said. “Could be the lady giant.”
Absulla had been about to ask what he meant when another set of footsteps became audible and she’d changed the subject. Now, Yondi’s howls reached the cell beside hers and she listened as the other jailers tossed him in, clanging the door shut quickly. She heard Yondi throw himself against it, still in disbelief at being on the cell side of the door. That cell had been occupied until recently by an old woman who cackled a lot. No explanation was given when her cackling was suddenly missing one day, and Absulla didn’t have the heart to ask.
It took a while for all of the jailers to leave, and Absulla watched a Thruvian song thrush hop around outside her window. Those birds were rare even in the forests, and in a time before imprisonment, she’d have been elated for a week at having seen one. Their songs were said to be able to mimic speech, though she didn’t know anyone who’d ever actually heard one sing. A great number of legends circled around Thruvian song thrushes.
This one hopped back and forth, peering in at her while she peered right back. Finally, it took to the sky, and she sent up a silent prayer to help it get past the myrgulls circling the palace grounds.
“Safe skies, friend,” she whispered.
Finally, after the other jailers left to other parts of the palace and the remaining jailer began his rounds down the long corridors, Absulla relaxed and began her stretches. It would take the jailer a good part of the morning before he made it back to their section, leaving plenty of time to mine Yondi for news.
“Hi Yondi,” she said through the wall.
She heard a sniff.
“I don’t belong in here,” he said after a bit. “I were just being nice. Never seen our great king so mad as that. Thought he’d slice my head off at the spot.”
“What’s your crime?” asked Absulla.
“I were just talking to Clap the Thunderous while deliverin’ breakfast,” said Yondi, “trying to give him a better day like. It weren’t like I told him about King Myrinan keeping his secret claw hidden in the back of his armor or nothin’ and we were just talking, telling stories and the like.”
“I understand,” coaxed Absulla, hoping to hear more about this secret claw in the king’s armor. “If King Myrinan were concerned about the giant knowing about his claw, he wouldn’t wear it on his person, obviously.”
Yondi failed to take the bait. “Exactly,” he said, and he fell quiet for a few minutes.
Absulla frowned. Yondi’s limited mind was both a blessing and a difficulty. She’d hoped to trigger some kind of reaction with her assumption, not get agreement.
“And if it were really special,” she pressed, “the king wouldn’t wear it in the presence of the giant.”
“Hmm?” asked Yondi as if she’d interrupted his thoughts. “Oh yeah,” he agreed absently.
Absulla decided to try a different tack. “What’s on your mind?” she prompted.
“Just thinking about what landed me in trouble,” he said glumly.
“What was that?”
“Well, you actually,” he said, as if that were the most ludicrous thing that had ever happened.
Absulla went still. “What about me?” she asked, her mind already racing and her insides turning cold.
She’d been a resident of this cell for nearly a thousand days. After a while she’d begun to doubt that any other life had existed for her, as if the memories she had of running free in the forest were fanciful dreams her sleeping mind had built to amuse her. Was it finally time? Had King Myrinan forgotten about her, and now Yondi’s mention of her had reawakened the king’s wrath?
“Ol’ Clap the Thunderous were being kind to me,” said Yondi, “askin’ about the ol’ family, and we were chittin’ and chattin’ and he done asked after what happened to that ol’ chlotka egg he made years back for our great king. Wanted to know what great Myrinan had done with the chlotka, and wondered why his highness is having him create a new creature, one like the chlotka with changin’ shapes and all, but no egg. Then I says about you and the others stealing the egg and runnin’ off with it and coming back empty handed, and I turn around and ol’ Myrinan is standing in the door, red in the face and calling guards. I done nothing wrong but be nice. You see that don’t you?”
“I do,” said Absulla through a thick throat.
King Myrinan had commissioned another creature from the giant. One that couldn’t be stolen, it sounded like. She closed her eyes and fought off tears. She’d been so sure that the sacrifices she, Urielle and Hendron had made would count for something. Here, King Myrinan was going to have his desire and no one would stop him this time.
Movement caught her eye. Incredibly, the Thruvian song thrush had returned to her window. She frowned, wondering how long it had been there and trying to recall every story she’d ever been told of these near mythical birds. Most of the stories were hardly believable, having to do with their intelligence and cunning. It was the sort of tale her mother would tell in the evening, while blankets were warm and heavy around Absulla’s shoulders and the heat of the fire chapped her cheeks.
A great ache blossomed in her chest at the memories of her mother. Those had been happy days, though they’d felt hard at the time, under the constant press of Myrinan’s reign. In those days, he left the forest folk alone, and Absulla had grown up on the old tales. Giants, the shapers of all you see. Chlotka, the dangerous beasts without form. Winged folk and spider folk and rainbows with wills of their own. The stories her mother had shaped for her in those peaceful moments before sleep had been rich and magical, describing a world she wished existed.
“Hello,” she said quietly, taking a slow step closer to the window. The bird hopped back and forth, again peering in at her. Its behavior wasn’t right for a bird of any kind. Absulla could move slowly enough not to surprise a wild animal, but she wasn’t doing so now. Everything about this had the scent of something more. “It isn’t safe for you out there,” she said, again trying to keep her voice low so as not to invite Yondi’s conversation.
“Did you say something?” Yondi asked, and Absulla cringed, freezing in her progress toward the window.
If she answered so he could hear, she’d frighten it away. If she failed to answer him, he’d probably make enough racket that it would draw the attention of the guards. She sighed, taking one last look at the small spotted bird.
“I was just saying that it’s unfair that you’re in here,” she said loudly enough to be heard through their shared wall. Oddly, the Thruvian song thrush didn’t fly away.
“Exactly!” agreed Yondi. “Especially since this is the wing where ol’ Myrinan plans to hatch his new creations. Myir he’s calling them. Should be born tonight. Ol’ Clap the Thunderous said they eat fear, so our great king thought the North Tower would be the perfect nursery.”
A slippery chill crawled up Absulla’s spine. This was the North Tower.
The bird stayed through the day, hopping back and forth with small jerky movements.
“What are you up to, little thrush?” she murmured.
The bird opened its beak a few times before a song spilled out. “Arelil, Arelil, Arelil,” it sang.
Absulla gasped. In the language of the tree people, her people, arelil meant hope. That had been the name she’d chosen for the chlotka she stole from King Myrinan. Hope. That there could be another way. Of all the things for a Thruvian song bird to sing at her window… it had to mean something. She hadn’t thought any of her people had survived the last “cleanup,” but perhaps others had integrated into the town, or found employment at the palace, as she had.
“I will hope then,” she whispered to the small bird, and seeming to understand that its message had been delivered, it flew away.
The evening bells tolled, signalling a time when most people sank down at the end of a long day and took food. Absulla went to dig another piece of the nearly completed Elterin Tree carved into her wall. When she had started counting days by this method years before, she hadn’t thought there was a chance she’d complete the thousand piece tattoo her people used as a depiction of the journey through life. Each mark was a lesson learned. The last mark, completing the tattoo, was issued after death. She wasn’t certain she’d have the courage to carve that one, only a few days away now.
Her choice to carve the days using the Elterin Tree was a small, and likely futile effort to leave behind something of her people. Any tree dwelling folk would understand should they see it. She wondered, as she carved the day’s marking, what she would do in a few days once it was finished. Start a new one, perhaps. The thought made her heart sink. She had a vision of an old woman surrounded by Elterin Trees, her own still only half completed across her back.
The sun was low in the sky and shadows stretched across the wall. She shivered suddenly, feeling the hair on the back of her neck rise up. It felt like she was being watched. The window was empty, as was the small rectangular hole cut into her door. Still… she leapt back when she realized the shadows were moving strangely along her wall, weaving and straying with no relation to the sun’s movements. A low menacing chuckle filled the cell.
“That you, Absulla?” called Yondi.
“No,” she said, watching the shadows shift and unsure what to do. “I think there’s something in here with me,” she said, trying to remain calm so she could think.
Why had the jailer not come by? He was late in his rounds. A man screamed down the hall.
“It’s the myir,” said Yondi. “They musta been released already.”
Something pecked at Absulla’s shoulder, but she found nothing when she whipped around.
“Did Clap the Thunderous mention how to kill them?” she asked, whipping around again.
“They eat fear,” said Yondi. “Long as there’s fear in the world, they’re not gonna die.”
Something pulled Absulla’s hair and she heard several more screams down the corridor. Instead of looking behind herself, this time she held her ground, watching the wall. There was a figure emerging. It was grotesque, and getting larger the longer she looked at it. She couldn’t tell where teeth ended and thorny whiskers began. Long claws raked the stone wall. The creature’s muscles bunched, and Absulla closed her eyes. She wasn’t sure if she was relieved or disappointed at not finishing the Elterin Tree on the wall.
The myir shrieked a high-pitched wail that set her teeth on edge. Outside, far below on the palace grounds, a terrible roar made the very walls tremble. She heard an answering roar from farther off, and another, and more. Absulla peeked at the myir, which was staring uncertainly out the window. It seemed smaller than before. It seemed… worried. More roars. Absulla watched as the myir took several steps away from the window.
Suddenly, the palace lurched, as if the outer wall had been struck by a large object. Absulla could hear stones tumbling beneath her window, and the sound of further attacks, as if something were climbing up. She turned in time to see the myir turning to a puddle of ooze, which slithered under the heavy door. The sound of something climbing the impossible wall grew louder and more violent, as if the wall were being taken apart and hurled across the grounds piece by piece. She wondered if she had the courage to look, and after a minute of deliberation, decided it was curiosity more than courage.
Absulla jumped back nearly the moment she peeked. A chlotka! Not just one. Several. Climbing the palace walls. Black horns came into view first, and then the eyes.
“Absulla?” said the chlotka.
Absulla’s mind went numb. She’d accepted in the moment she saw the creature that this would be the day she died. There was no other way a chlotka encounter went, if the tales were to be trusted. Failing to find her voice, she nodded. The chlotka tore a gash in the stone wall, and reaching the most menacing claws Absulla had ever seen through the crack, pulled away a chunk and wiggled into the small cell.
“Arelil sends us,” said the chlotka. “Absulla, Urielle, and Hendron,” it said.
“Arelil?” Absulla managed to squeak. “He’s okay?”
“Arelil learned love and kindness from Absulla,” said the chlotka. “We are curious to learn the same.”
“There is a man in the next cell,” Absulla said quickly. “His name is Yondi. Can you bring us to Arelil, with Urielle and Hendron?”
The chlotka punched through the wall with its spiked tail. Yondi was on his back, some kind of slimy creature sitting on his chest. The creature, upon seeing the chlotka, leapt out Yondi’s window. The chlotka transformed into an enormous myrgull with two saddles strapped to its back.
“Are you coming Yondi?” asked Absulla, climbing onto the chlotka’s back. “The chlotkas are here to set things right. They’d probably like to hear about that claw King Myrinan wears, and all about Clap the Thunderous and the lady giant, too.”
Yondi got to his feet, brushing himself off and climbing through the hole. “Nice to meet you mister chlotka,” he said amiably. “The lady giant is stuck in a deep crevice under the castle, and the claw King Myrinan wears in his armor keeps her from being able to climb out, though I don’t see how. She’s mighty strong. And long as she’s trapped, ol’ Clap the Thunderous don’t fight back at all ’cause he thinks King Myrinan might hurt his lady giant friend.”
They took to the air and Yondi let out a whoop of delight. “Are we going to rescue the lady giant?” he asked.
“Is that love and friendship?” asked the chlotka.
“It is,” said Absulla.
“Then that is exactly what we’re going to do,” said the chlotka, circling back toward the castle.
Absulla saw then the battle raging in the sky between myrgulls, and it wasn’t hard to guess that half of them were chlotka in disguise. Two myrgulls were arcing back toward the castle as well, and Absulla laughed in delight at the sight of her long lost friends, Urielle and Hendron, riding their backs. She laughed as well as she pictured the additions she would need to make to her own Elterin Tree tattoo. She had taught a chlotka love and friendship. These were not traits often associated with the creature. And the number of chlotka who had come to help, to learn more of this love and friendship… incredible. She lifted her face to the wind. The air tasted like freedom and possibility. Hope.
“Yondi,” she said, “how do you feel about helping us free the lady giant, and Clap the Thunderous?”
Yondi grinned. “It’s no way to treat a lady,” he said, “giant or no. I think it sounds like a fine idea.”
~ ~ ~
King Myrinan, the last of the tyrant kings, was only on the throne for a short while. There are many theories as to what happened, and many more wildly fantastic legends regarding his reign. The only thing known for certain is that it ended in the utter destruction of his palace. Not even the foundations survived. The popular myth is that a host of chlotka descended upon him, drawn by his wickedness, but that is the fancy of legends and bedtales. Even if chlotka existed, which there is no evidence to prove, mythology tells us that chlotka are solitary creatures. Further legends of “the three,” are no more believable. Whoever these “three” were, the bedtales of villages throughout the land claim such an array of adventures and feats accomplished, from befriending chlotka and equally mythical giants to living in cloud palaces over the ocean, that it is generally accepted that “the three” is a construction of wishful thinking and over-imagination on the part of the commoners of the realm. What is known, is that King Myrinan’s fall marks the end of centuries of tyrants, and the beginning of a time of prosperity that stretches to this day.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at http://www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends about this short story blog – and pick up one of W. C. McClure ‘ s books. Thanks!