Circus

I haven’t done a Friday Flash Fiction Challenge in a while because (a) I haven’t been inspired lately and (b) I fell off the blog wagon for a while. However, last week was a recycled challenge–go to iTunes (or whatever you use), hit shuffle all songs, and write a story based on that song title. I cheat (partially because I have embarrassing music and partially because I can) so Circus was the second song. This is actually part of a nascent idea which may become a longer story.

Allison Harvard from ANTM

Allison Harvard from ANTM

       The conversations of the masses as they milled outside the walls were tinged with more bitterness than usual.
       “It’s not every day you see something like this. One of Them in the ring. Bout damn time, I think,” one older man said, the tattoos along his cheeks testament to time served in the Wars.
       “Centuries of them watching and doing nothing. Revenge at last, eh?” a middle aged woman sneered to her companion, her beak-like nose hardly detracting from the pattern of scales across the left side of her face.
       “Don’t let anyone hear you say you feel sorry for her—even if you feel that way,” a young man gripped his companion’s arm, the intricate detailing around his eyes tightened as he glanced nervously at the encircling mob.

       Iona heard none of this, only the rumble of voices and the endless shuffle of feet as she leaned against the wall of her subterranean cell. The massive weight of the stone above pressed upon her and she wondered at the strength of the arena that it did not collapse as the thousands of spectators filed in. Weak sunlight filtered down through a grille set high in the wall and she stared at it until her eyes ached, hoping it would help her vision adjust more quickly once she was outside. There was a thump against the heavy wooden door and she straightened, lifting a hand to the steel crest that arched from her forehead to the back of her skull—a parody of a helmet from a long dead warrior culture. It fit close against her skull and the hammered metal fins were feather-light, but she felt the weight of it nonetheless. She checked the clasps on the shoulders of her gown—deep purple and plunging in the front and back, with decorative silver plates across her breasts and stomach. They might turn a knife. Once. The gown pooled on the floor in artistic whorls that were more suited to marble floored ballrooms than dank stone. She heard the massive bar lift and the keys turn in all three locks.
       The door swung inward and she stepped forward, keeping her chin up. They led her through the narrow twisting warren of corridors, past other barred doors, until the floor began sloping upwards. She stood still while they fitted light metal braces over her forearms—braces like steel lace, more decoration than protection. She noticed that the pattern mimicked the white and gold designs that covered her arms. It was lighter here and she could see the way the ceremonial tattoos flashed in the sunlight. Iona shut her eyes and breathed deeply, reminding herself of her mother’s words as her skin was inked. Drink in the pain, force it to become part of you, do not let it overwhelm you . They opened a cabinet where the gleam of bronze and silver glittered. Swords, spears, tridents, axes. There were two short swords, over-sized daggers. She gestured and one of her guards took them. She would not be able to touch them until they sent her out into the arena. She could hear the roar more clearly now as the crowd began to chant for the entertainment to begin.
       She remembered her first fight—watching in the cool, shaded box high above the hot sands. The servants kept their silk, wing-like fans moving in time to make sure it was never too hot or too drafty as their mistresses sipped wine flavored with honeyed peaches. She was twelve and tried unsuccessfully to mimic her mother’s effortless posture as she reclined in the cushioned wicker throne. Her current lover stood behind her, toying with a long platinum curl that tumbled artfully over her shoulder. Iona’s wine was mainly honey and peaches, but by the time the drums began to pulse, her tongue felt thick and her eyes heavy. Her mother’s cool touch on her arm roused her and she sat up straighter, wine forgotten, as the drums began to beat faster and faster, filling the walls of the arena before bursting into the cerulean sky.
       The honeyed peaches were less pleasant as she retched in her bedroom hours later, unable to forget the way the blood looked as it leaked into the sand, how the floor of the arena was spotted with dark stains by the end of the afternoon. She had been unable to tear her eyes away as men fought each other, fought women, fought beasts whose hunger was evident in the lines of their ribs, in the way the skin sagged from their empty bellies. Her mother herself brought Iona cool water with orange slices floating in the bowl and coaxed her to drink until the foul taste of the wine was gone, bathing her forehead with the dregs of citrus-scented liquid. Iona tried to think of the fresh smell of oranges as her guards herded her uphill again, towards the sunlight and the hot sand.
       She stood in the shadowed arch, blinking against the glare that flared off of the smooth golden pool. The sand was raked into pleasing patterns and swirls—once again mimicking the tattoos that covered her skin. She felt the ground thrum under her sandaled feet as the drums began, felt it in her breast. She breathed and let her heartbeat quiet, matching the slow pounding. They did not speed up their cadence. These were funereal drums. She held out her hands and felt the leather bound handles of her chosen weapons slide into her hands. The leather was rough against her palms as she felt their balance. One of the guards put his hand on her elbow and she turned to stare at him until he took a step backwards, releasing her. She stepped forward into the light as she heard her name.
       “We give you today in a fight to the death, the once majestic, once all-powerful ruler of the land–” The crowd bellowed their displeasure. “–the former Imperial Empress, Iona Augustin.”

Wasteland

Chuck Wendig’s latest flash fiction challenge: use ten random words of Chuck’s choosing in a 1000 word story.*

         Half the willow’s branches were gone, burned away. The damage turned the delicate tree into something grotesque, like the otherwise perfect face of a beautiful woman disfigured by scarring. Fletcher wondered idly if a summer storm was to blame—bolts of merciless lightning pounding the tree, the tallest thing for miles. He heard a familiar whirring sound and stood, dusting off the ash that clung to his trousers. The packed clay beneath it showed evidence that a river once flowed, perhaps feeding the dead willow once upon a time. The dirigible floated effortlessly down several meters away. Fletcher broke into a trot along the dry riverbed, pulling the kerchief tighter over his mouth to keep too much of the ash from invading his lungs.
         “Oy, ‘ad a nice day in the country?” a muffled voice greeted him as the door to the dirigible slid open.
         “Top notch, Cal,” Fletcher said, digging an elbow into his friend’s side.
         “Don’t know why we keep making these runs. There’s nothing to find,” Cal pulled the handkerchief away from his own face and adjusted his goggles as he twiddled some of the controls, sending the dirigible skyward again.
         “At least you get to sit around in this oversized balloon while I scrape around in possibly radioactive dust,” Fletcher wiped the sweat off his brow on his sleeve and grimaced at the gray streak it left.
         “The Gull is an innovative piece of aircraft, Fletcher McCready,” Cal said, wounded.
         “And how many times have you had her up in Grafton’s getting tuned…this week?” Fletcher laughed and grabbed a canteen of water as he lounged back against his seat, glancing out the front windscreen.
         “Bugger yourself,” Cal said.
         Fletcher made a rude hand gesture in response that Cal couldn’t see and took a swig of water. It was lukewarm, but tasted heavenly after all the dust.
         “What were you doing down there anyway?” Cal asked, piloting the dirigible with one hand as he swiveled to look back at Fletcher. “Looked like you were staring at that tree.”
         Fletcher shrugged and gulped some more water, but Cal continued to look at him, eyebrows raised above his flying goggles.
         “Do you remember the last time you saw a tree—a real one?” Fletcher asked.
         “What do you mean, ‘real’? The trees we have in New Utopia aren’t good enough for Master McCready?” Cal adopted a refined accent, turning back to the front of the dirigible. “Perhaps the leaves aren’t quite green enough? Shall I lodge a complaint with the Council of Shrubbery?”
         “Oh, sod it,” Fletcher glowered at Cal’s back. “I don’t care what the scientists say. Those things aren’t real; they’re fake, just like half the things in ‘topia.”
         “Would you rather live down here? An hour out there and you smell like you’ve been using Eau de Sulfur and Brimstone,” Cal laughed.
         “Yes, Calhoun Stuart. I would much rather live in a desert brimming with radioactive particles and under constant threat of atomic destruction,” he mimicked Cal’s tone. “That’s not a life, it’s a long funeral. Prat.”
         Cal laughed and they lapsed into silence for the rest of the ride, Fletcher seething inwardly. He knew Cal liked to needle him, but for once, he’d like his best friend to actually listen. No one else noticed—or cared—about things like the trees. Things that captivated Fletcher. He remembered climbing trees outside his old home—the way the bark felt beneath his fingers, the smell of the damp wood when it rained. The trees glistened in New Utopia when it rained. But it wasn’t like the dripping, rain-bejeweled glitter he remembered. It was eerie, unnatural. He was lucky to live in ‘topia, he knew. Topside, people didn’t last long, even with protective masks and suits. After the Last Great War, the air itself turned toxic. Fletcher knew he should wear a mask when they went out on runs to the Waste, but it wasn’t too bad this close to New Utopia.
         He picked moodily at a hole in his trousers until he felt the dirigible drop down into the canyon that led into New Utopia. They landed effortlessly and Fletcher had to admire Cal’s skill at the helm; he would crash the Gull in seconds. The heliport doors slid shut over them and it took Fletcher’s eyes a moment to adjust to the sudden darkness compared with the blazing light above. He tried not to grit his teeth as Cal locked down all the controls and they grabbed their knapsacks. He could smell the darkness—the cloying scent of rotting earth and the things that lived in it. The glow-lamps that dotted the passage out of the heliport were a poor substitute for sunlight. A shape moving in the dark in front of them made him reach for his knife before the figure tackled Cal with a clearly female laugh. He curled his lip and skirted his friend, hurrying up the stairs.
         Honestly, he thought, you’d think they hadn’t seen each other in months and I know they were snogging before we left this morning.
         “Fletch! OY, Fletch!” Cal caught up with him, holding Lilah’s hand.
         “Hello, brov,” Lilah smirked.
         “What’s the rush?” Cal asked, slightly out of breath.
         “Excuse me if I don’t fancy sitting around watching my best mate snog my little sister,” Fletcher said, shifting his grip on his knapsack.
         Lilah rolled her eyes, “It’s been bloody months, Fletch. Get over yourself.”
         Fletcher shrugged in answer and lengthened his stride. He was taller than Lilah and Cal by several inches and it wasn’t difficult to escape. He had good reason to return home before anyone else—especially including Lilah.
         Once back in the pod he and his family called home, he opened the flap of his knapsack. Nestled in the top was a small cutting in a glass jar. Taking something from Topside, especially something living was strictly forbidden. This level of deceit could get him exiled Topside, but Fletcher couldn’t help but smile.

*the ten words: FUNERAL, CAPTIVATE, DECEIT, BRIMSTONE, CANYON, BALLOON, CLAY, DISFIGURED, WILLOW, ATOMIC