Chris has written more than 300 flash fiction/short stories. Working Vacation was 21st out of 6,700 in the 2016 Writer's Digest competition.
like the beards of old fishermen.
What does Queen Iyana want with a bag full of rocks? Rothfort considered the stones he had gathered from the shallows of the lake. She offered five thousand rues for this bag of ordinary rocks. That will keep me out of the bounty hunter business for at least two growing seasons.
The Lake of Shades was named, it was told, not for the willow trees with their drooping curtains of leafy branches hanging over her shores like the beards of old fishermen. Instead, the name referred to the spirits of the royal family going back to the first Andaran man and woman who had emerged from those waters when Ror, the God of Lightning, cast a bolt into its depths in a fit of rage.
Ever since, when one of the royalty died, the queen told her subjects, their spirit returned to the place from which all Andarans had come. The stones, Rothfort supposed, were symbols of those who swam freely in the fathomless depths under the orange sky. It was their heaven, the queen said.
No one had warned Rothfort of the nature and power of the stones he bore. They spoke to him incessantly, but their voices rolled over each other in an avalanche of words he could not comprehend. Thirty days crossing this barren wilderness had convinced Rothfort that he was losing his mind.
He had a visitor one night as he slept under the sky the color of dying embers. The man stood in the light of the campfire fueled with the twisted branches of a squat bush, the only living thing in this ruined land other than the willows that surrounded the lake, and spoke in not much more than a whisper.
Your mission, you believe, must be right in that it is for Her Highness, the Queen, that you travel, bearing precious carriage. But who is this so-called queen? What is the burden you carry? Is there a story you and your people have not heard for countless generations because such a tale has been erased from your written and oral histories by dark magic? Have you believed lies that have supplanted the truth?
Long ago, in days of leisure, peace, and plenty, the royal family, the true, ruled with benevolence toward their subjects of Dinas Gwyn, the great white city, and the regions around but with inattention to the enemy. The Dark Council was made up of kings and queens, bearers of dark magic who had lost much of their land holdings in the Great Wars.
They planned a secret coup which they carried out in the night, and the council has ruled in the place of the royal family ever since. The people knew nothing of it. The royal family, the peasants, were told, lived happily within the confines of the white palace. In reality, all five hundred members of the extended royal family, in addition to one thousand royal guards, were dispatched over a series of months to the Lake of Shades and drowned. The voices you hear from the stones are those of the ancients, imprisoned.
You gathered the stones thinking they were merely a few dozen, inconsequential rocks. But as you dropped one after the other into the bag, the souls were on the move. The magic which holds them has weakened so they can move from stone to stone. Not one soul was left behind. Their only hope is that you will have ears to hear and a heart to believe what I tell you now.
The one you call, Queen, is the greatest of the Dark Council and the first to fear that somehow the shades of the lake will break free from the spell that holds them. After you deliver the stones to this sorceress, this feigned queen, new dark magic will annihilate the living spirits trapped within.
In this meeting, I will not convince you that all of this is true. But we have time, as your journey is long. Before you arrive at the royal palace, I would have the stones from the Lake of Shades, not by force, but by your free will. If not, the shades will perish. We will speak again.
Rothfort awoke the following morning hearing the voices calling out from the bag, the words of his nighttime visitor sighing in his ears and the command of the queen in his memory.
Whom was he to believe?
The land between the royal palace and the Lake of Shades was wilderness without so much as a footpath to follow. Rothfort journeyed northward with the dark shadow of the Hoary Mountains to his left. If not for those ancient peaks which rose into the misty canopy, he would soon have lost his way until winter came and slew him with bolts of lightning, howling winds, and ice that would turn the rocky landscape into a glistening tundra with Rothfort staring up from an icy bed, his lifeless face reflecting the golden beryl sky.
He traveled alone, though he doubted not his night visitor with the strange tale of royal souls imprisoned in stones kept pace to his left or his right. Once, he thought he saw a raven soaring high against the mists. Another time he imagined a wolf lurking in the shadows, sights unheard of in this empty land. His mind was a rough sea casting about his choice night and day. Would he hand over, by his free will, the stones from the Lake, or would he deliver them to his queen? And why, he wondered, is my free will of such importance? The man could throttle me as I slept on any night and be off with the treasure he seeks.
Rothfort was weary of the mental torment. He had to know the truth. The voices cried out night and day. In desperation, he fell to his knees and opened the bag, exposing the stones, dry and dull. But the voices continued. "Listen to me. Does the stranger speak the truth or does he lie?"
Silence was their response. The absence of the wailing magnified the lonely wilderness around him. The voices returned with urgency as they sensed the moment of Rothfort’s decision had come. He speaks the truth, said one, then another and another until the air around was filled with the chaotic chorus as each sang in their own time—He speaks the truth until the articulations merged with such a volume that he fell prostrate onto the gravelly ground and covered his ears.