Writing exercise #20 – Lighting up

It was always special when it was Selin’s turn to light the beacons. She was lucky that her group of novices had been so small – and that there had been so many who hadn’t made it this far. Well, she corrected herself, remembering Nalia’s pale face and her limbs splayed at the base of the Magnetic Keep, maybe not lucky exactly. But she was glad all the same that her turn came around relatively often – about every 200 days as far as she could tell. It was hard, sometimes, to keep track of time, especially when they did their long practices which could have them emerging, blinking, into the daylight and marvelling at the brightness of the sky after hours – or possibly days – spent in ritual.

Eventually she’d be able to count better and then she’d know what day it was just like Revered Lyanka, who could count seconds better than an automaton, even when she was performing the complicated ritual dances requiring her to sing a rhythm other than the one her feet were keeping.

Lighting the beacons required an awareness of time, too, but fortunately it only had to coincide with sunset, and that was easy to count. Selin had lived here in the Sacred Fort since she was very small, and she knew what the sunset looked like at every time of the year.

And she always started early too, partly because beacon duty was an acceptable excuse for avoiding anything else scheduled for that day, and partly so she would never be late with the final lighting.

She had some time left, still, she knew. Just the right amount of time to prepare the two beacons in the lake and then make the climb to the top of the Forlorn Tower to perform the lighting ritual. Many of the other novices preferred to take the easy option and light the beacons one by one as they prepared them. But ever since Selin had first seen it done, when she was only just old enough to be out of bed at sunset, she had vowed she would always do it properly, the way Revered Amanda had taught the first novices all those years ago.

So she removed her robes and took the wicks and flints and special oils, in an oiled skin bag tied around her waist, and she swam to the two beacons in the lake. One by one she lifted the heavy glass covers onto their special iron stands, prepared the wicks and replaced the covers, always remembering to seal around them with the special red beacon wax and to mark it with the Order’s seal.

And then she swam back to the shore, her arms and legs shaking slightly from the exertion of keeping herself afloat as she worked – and set off on the long climb up to the Forlorn Tower. The beacon there was easy to light, thankfully and this time she was profiting from someone else’s hard work because the large oil vat was nearly full. The only lighting days she disliked were when she had to fill the vat too.

And now everything was ready. She stood at the top of the tower, hearing the faint sounds of the Order drifting up to her in the blueing air, and she breathed the ritual breaths and spoke the appropriate words and finally lit the holy circle – the apparently magical iron ring that sent the flame to all of the beacons at once. The sun sank behind the hills on the other side of the lake, the sky darkened immediately, and the rest of the Order, all gathered in the main courtyard, all sang a single harmonious note at the same time… and the beacons lit.

From the one by her side to those around the curtain wall, the three huge ones on the roof of the main temple and the row of nine small ones on Revered Lyanka’s house, to the two now submerged in the lake – they all shone with a cool white light, and the dusk was suddenly a greyer, more veiled thing around her. And she held her breath and listened. Because now, she knew, they would come.

Bloody butterflies

The first in the series of short fiction pieces I wrote for the 15-minute free writing exercise. Each prompt consisted of a single word and a picture. Most of them came out a bit unpleasant, particularly this one. But I really have always found butterflies a bit sinister.

“I don’t know”, she said. “I just find them a bit sinister, that’s all.”

She walked a little further into the damp-smelling warmth, shuddering slightly at the contact of wings on her face.

“I think I read a creepy story about butterflies once as a kid. In a Misty comic or something. You know the kind of thing…”

She rolled her eyes at her companion sheepishly.

“You know, two girls on a hike or something come across a house inhabited only by a mysterious old lady, and she takes them on a tour of the house, and they have tea, and then they end up in a huge greenhouse like this.”

She gestured with one arm, and a ripple of colour launched itself into the air as her passengers were startled into movement.

“Like this, full of butterflies, and they sit down because it’s so warm and the fluttering of the wings is so relaxing, and they’re drowsy, leaning against each other, half asleep on an ornamental bench in the heart of this enormous, butterfly-ridden space…”

She suited her actions to her words, lowering herself rather gracelessly to the white bench beside the ornamental pool.

“…And then just as they’re sinking completely into unconsciousness, this sweet old lady says something that makes them realise that the tea was poisoned and she’s going to feed them to the bloody butterflies. So no, I’m not all that fond of them really.”

“I’m sure you can’t really feel like that”, said her companion with a smile. “I mean, they’re so pretty! Look at that red one there.”

A bright red butterfly was indeed perched nearby, crawling on the iron table on which the dirty tea things were scattered. The butterfly waved its feelers aimlessly, then flew away across the pool, leaving a splash of red behind it on the white china.

“No”, she said wearily. “I hate them.” And she turned to face her companion, staring deep into the beautiful blue eyes. “I hate them, because they make me do this”, she said, pulling the wickedly sharp knife from inside her jacket and slashing the teenage girl’s throat. The blue eyes were first horrified, then terrified, and finally just dully accepting.

The lifeless body slumped back onto the bench, and from all over the huge enclosed jungle of the greenhouse came the almost inaudible sound of fluttering wings.

She stepped carefully over the spreading pool and walked away towards the house.

“Bloody butterflies”, she said, looking back as she reached the door. “Bloody, bloody butterflies.”