Thursday, May 6, 2010

Elephant Words week 5

Here's another entry from my time playing in the Elephant Words sandbox, a flash fiction site where 6 contributors have to create a new story each week based upon a new image. And each one has to have their story up on each of the other days of the week according to a rotating schedule. Nick Papaconstaninou created the place and it's going strong nearly three years later. You should check it out if you have the chance.
But for now, my entry for week 5 of Elephant Words, based upon the image above:

Fire and Ash

Gem’s parents died suddenly when he was only six. The tiny village organized quickly – the boy’s neighbors took him in – and sent off dispatches to any known relatives with regards to young Gem’s misfortune. Only one replied. His Uncle Valencium.

People in the village were wary of Gem’s uncle. He lived in a thatch hut atop the bald hill that overlooked the village and rarely made his way down from this perch. There were many believed him to be an alchemist of a kind, though they had no proof, and objected to Gem staying with some mystical hermit.

But, the young boy’s stay was determined overlong after two weeks. And so, Gem found himself being escorted by two elderly women in long, dark robes up the hill to his Uncle Valencium.

When Gem arrived, he found the whispers had been true. Gem’s uncle was indeed a wizard and a powerful one at that. Many years ago, he had been banished from the walled city that lay a day’s walk to the west for acts none would discuss. Those rare times that Gem broached the subject it always sent a chill through his uncle, and the boy quickly dropped the matter.

Thankfully, his uncle had a loose memory, and these dark thoughts would soon whisk away on the breeze, leaving a void to fill with knowledge and laughter. It had been too many years since Valencium had known an apprentice, and when his nephew reverted to his care, he was happy at the thought of imparting his wizardly knowledge to the malleable child. It was an amazing time for young Gem. He learned alchemical techniques for transforming the brittle vegetation surrounding their hut into lush plentiful foodstuffs – yet another myth proved true – as well as how to become invisible, how to snatch whispered secrets from a stolen breath, how to make a spinster fall in love with an ass, along with a multitude of other incantations, spells, and potions.

But the most intriguing aspect of this time with his uncle was the enclosure on the second floor – a second floor not evident from the hut’s exterior. Gem would often hear bumping noises coming from the secret room, a scratching of claws waking him many nights. Whenever he asked his uncle about this, he would only say, “Later. Save that for later,” but that later never arrived, not with his uncle.


Valencium had a renewed spirit in these years, finding purpose in his life where there had been none for so long. And Gem absorbed everything fully, his mind open wide to the possibilities that lay ahead of him.

A score of years passed, and with each passing season Valencium looked younger, more vigorous, while Gem grew to be a stout and handsome young man. A new generation in the hamlet below was now talking about the old hermit and his nephew, though sometimes he was named as a son, and the strange rituals performed atop their hill. Gem enjoyed going down at night and walking unseen among them, hearing the tall tales being spun. Gem would come back to his uncle with a multitude of stories for him, and the two men would laugh heartily until daybreak.

And then one day, his uncle passed away.

It happened without fanfare. Valencium did not awaken one morning, and when Gem walked over to check, he found his uncle was not breathing.

Gem searched his memories and pored over the parchments that were stashed all about the hut, but nothing could he find that would reincarnate his uncle. But what he did find in those stacks was almost as important. Valencium’s final wish had been left for his nephew to find, and at the bottom of the parchment, the young wizard also discovered the “later” he’d been awaiting all these years was now at hand.

So Gem took his uncle down to the base of their hill and dug five holes, burying different parts of his uncle in each, for it is never safe to bury a wizard complete. Chanting over the small mounds, Gem wept openly for the first time he could remember. Masking the area with a complex fa├žade spell, he returned to the hut on the hill and slept for three days.

On the fourth day, Gem rose before the sun and performed a cleansing ritual prior to fulfilling his uncle’s last wish.


The gray haze of dusk seeped over the hard stone of the city walls as Gem approached. He had been all day rolling over the valleys that lay between, and the sack on his shoulder was heavy.

“chrp” The sound from the burlap was weak, almost a whisper.

Gem had not been ready for the sigh of the feeble bird when he opened the secret room that morning. But looking into its eyes, Gem had come to the realization that his uncle and this bird were connected in some way. During the trek, he had come to understand better that bond and knew bringing it to the city was as much a return for Valencium as it was for the ancient bird.

Gem toiled up the final few yards to the base of the eastern wall and dropped to one knee. Sliding the sack off his shoulder, Gem carefully untied it and let the burlap slide to the ground. The bird within was more frail than he remembered it being that morning. Its wings convulsed weakly, barely sighing on the night air as they moved. Trying to lift its head, the animal found the effort too much and let it fall back to the hard ground, its eyes twitching erratically as it did so.

Gem felt a tear roll down his cheek, the night air cooling its traces. Leaning over, he picked the bird up – which was all bones and skin now – and stood up. Looking up, Gem bent at his knees and drew the bird down before heaving it toward the upper reach of the wall where a lit torch flamed dully in the cool night. A soft flutter of wings accompanied the young wizard’s throw and he watched as the skeletal bird arced toward the torch and passed right over its flames.

In a sudden burst, the bird erupted into a monstrous ball of flames that lit the entire valley for miles around, sending guards rushing over the sides of the walls in an attempt to escape the fire. The tiny sun roiled vigorously, sending heat off in incredible waves. Sweat stood out on Gem’s brow as he shaded his eyes with a hand, working a spell to insulate him from most of the heat. This went on for many minutes; the screams from within the city brought a smile to Gem’s face.

But eventually, the flames started to subside, pulling back into themselves until all that was left was a ball of flame roughly the size of a small man.

From the midst of this fiery ball, a great bird of flames shot forth screeching through the night. It wheeled and came back over the city flying low over the parapets. Making one final turn, the regal bird sped off into the night. The residual fireball was now fading, leaving the dull flicker of the torches to light the night. Inside the screams continued to ring while outside, Gem sat down and watched the soaring flame roll off into the night. A smile came to the young wizard’s face and he thought of his uncle, laying beneath the mound back home, smiling just as broadly.


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