PRW Runner-up Tour: Wisdom and War by Kathleen Palm
Rage rolls like waves from the mortal world into mine. The battle calls.
I answer. Born of the dark chaos of the beginning of everything, it is my purpose.
The realm of faerie stretches out around me. The wispy black of my dress shifts at my feet. Sadness weaves through my mind at the thought of war, of destruction. My shoulders straighten, and the raven feathers of my cape rustle, for before the fight, the choice exists.
Pixies scuttle across my path, animal-like noses twitching. “Our Queen. Our Queen,” they mutter.
Clumps of grasses wander from under my feet. “Make way. ‘Tis the Goddess of War.”
Under the draping branches of a willow tree, denizens of faerie skip in a circle, holding a human captive in the dance. The lilting tune of magic keeps him trapped in the mass of revelers. His wide, manic gaze unable to process the sights of strange creatures writhing in passionate movement. His body teeters at the edge of breaking.
Mortals. Playthings, falling under faerie spells so easily. Yet humans are more, their hearts able to change. If only they embraced their goodness. I glance at the man mesmerized by the glamour, his soul twisted by false visions of forever light. His strength forgotten, lost to the dark.
I do not pity him. He has chosen. Yet the shadow of sadness falls over my heart.
Large oaks sway in the breeze, carrying the scent of an oncoming storm. Once again, I am called to offer a different path to those going to war. An offer of wisdom. An offer few take. I have soared over battlefields, crying in agony over those who died in the fight.
A group of spiked sprigans race by on jagged limbs, holding a screaming, wiggling bundle. Their blue eyes glitter. The fae cause mischief, harmless pranks. They can’t help what they do, for it is their role to play. Men, however, have the ability to learn and grow.
I move with purpose through the ancient rowan trees, holding power, and conjure my staff. The bushes shake as Leprechauns dash beneath their branches, clutching shoes in their tiny fingers, gold jingling in their jacket pockets.
“The Morrigan,” they whisper. “The Morrigan walks.”
My name fills their minds with awe for I am death, forever called to battle. Forever giving my warnings. So many wars. So many deaths.
Man continues to destroy. Choices forgotten. Chances to take another path missed.
I pause at the edge of the forest and stare at the glade where faeries play magic games without worry or care, without love or hate. Groups of bluebells and yellow primroses dot the wild grasses, waving in a warm honey-scented breeze.
Bright red mushroom tops create a perfect circle, a place of magic. Creatures dance around the ring, passionately chanting, frantically waving their arms. Blue, green, and brown-skinned wonders shriek in glee. Teeth and spikes gleam in the light. Claws wave. Goblins stomp and mutter, their large ears flapping. Wings flutter and buzz as sprites flit through the air, giggling.
Play pauses as I enter the clearing. “Morrigan,” the call, bowing their heads.
I nod in return, sending blood red hair falling around my face.
Silently, I cross into the ring, sweeping my rowan staff in a circle as I spin. The pull of war guides me as I create the entrance into the human world. Swirling wind envelopes me. I slam my staff onto the ground and a shimmering wall extends into the air. I step through, travelling the place between worlds, where nothing and everything exist together. The rage of an oncoming fight tugs at my mind. My heart pounds with the heaviness of my task. I transform, covering myself in the guise of age. My shoulders hunch, back bending. My flowing hair turns gray and matted. I lean on my staff as my knees lose strength, but my mind remains sharp, my vision clear.
The centuries, but a fleeting moment for me, touch my mind with memories of struggles that have plagued the mortal world. The battlefields have changed from bloodied plains to dark alleys. The warriors have transformed from proud armored men and painted braves to frightened boys. Revenge resides in the hearts of men. The purpose of the fight lost to greed.
My soul twists with grief. I go to the road to grant a vision on the eve of battle in hopes that wisdom settles in their minds.
I walk as a shadow, my feet never touching the ground. A stream greets me, gurgling contentedly. I sit upon a large flat rock and gaze along the gravel road that will bring my warriors to me. Breathing deep the scent of the world of men, I wail. The sound creeps through the air, striking sadness into the hearts of people who hear it.
With a wave of my staff, bodies appear at the edge of the water, a tangled knot of bloodied arms and legs, of faces twisted with rage. Five men. Gory holes line their chests and heads. Their blank stares express none of the pain, the hate. All emotion gone, lost to the void. Waves of distress wash over my heart. Lives lost in the fight.
A battle yet to occur.
There’s still a chance. These can choose not to fall.
Carefully, I dip my hands into the stream and pour cold water over the bodies, letting it wash away the blood. A haunting tune flows from my lips, weaving through the dead and into the sky as I work. Red tinted water trickles into the stream, which sweeps away the sins of the future slain. Jagged silver branches line a glimmering area on the far side of the road. The doorway of death. Always with me.
I turn at a crunch of gravel and gaze along the empty path.
A group of five boys flickers into view, transported by magic, brought here to choose. Boys still, though they reached the age of manhood long ago, chosen to receive wisdom because of a glimmer of light in their souls. Laughing, they punch each other in the arms and slap each other on the backs. Stained pants and ragged shirts adorn these children. Their smiles fade and the jokes stop as they stare at the scene.
The road to war always leads to me.
I push knotted gray hair out of my face as I stand, leaning on my staff. Their eyes glow with confusion as their gaze travels from my bent form to the bloody mess on the ground by the river. Their lips curl up in snarls of unease when they take in the road and stream.
Gut jiggling, one steps forward, glancing at the bodies with a look of amusement for he sees only what his limited vision allows. He adjusts his worn, blue cap. “What’s this, old woman? Dead animals? Better get out of here before we hunt you!” He laughs, as do the four boys clustered behind him.
I gaze into his brown eyes, then throw my head back and laugh, cackling and shrieking. The hatred darkening their hearts gleams in their eyes, but that doesn’t hide their weaknesses. They know nothing of true power, of the force they possess. My heart pounds at the challenge.
A lanky boy in back shuffles forward, running his hand through tight brown curls. “The wicked witch gave up her broom for a gun, hey Jeb?” he says with an uneasy chuckle.
Jeb extends a greasy hand. “Where is your gun, witch? Hand it over.”
I glare at them, pointing a crooked finger at each. The leader, Jeb, projects confidence, but can’t completely hide his fear. The lanky one shifts on his feet, his green eyes darting to the ground. The biggest of the group, strong and solid as a wall, scowls from Jeb’s side, and a round, grinning face hides at his elbow. And one other, standing a few steps away. Young. Uncertain. His dirty golden hair falls over his clear hazel eyes, as yet, untouched by bad deeds. He sends prickling ripples of interest along my spine.
Tapping my staff against the ground, I grind it into the blood-soaked soil. “I am no witch.”
Jeb saunters forward, crossing his tattooed arms over his chest. “Then who are you?”
“I am The Morrigan, the Phantom Queen.” I glance at the bodies on the shore, torn clothes, lifeless limbs. Once again, sadness creeps into my heart. “I wash away the sins of the dead.”
A snort of disbelief erupts from the biggest in the back. Jeb gestures to his friend with a wave of his hand. “Bear here doesn’t believe you, loony toons. And neither do I.” He spins, arms extended. “Anyone here think this crazy bitch should go back to whatever nut house she escaped from?”
The tall, lanky, and nervous boy raises his fist in the air. “Yeah.”
“Milo agrees,” Jeb hisses at me, then glances over his shoulder. “What about you, Zero? Do you have an opinion, newbie, or will you just stay silent like always?”
Sparks of fear light the eyes of the youngest, as he nervously sweeps hair from his eyes. Fire of hope flares in my mind.
I focus on the boy, his forehead wrinkled in thought. “They call you Zero?”
Jeb snaps his head around, eyes blazing. His bloated finger jabs in the air as if to intimidate me. “You don’t talk to him.”
A growl rumbles in my gut. Flames rage inside, leaping to my eyes, burning in my words. “Powerless mortal, I do as I please.” I shift my gaze to the boy hovering in the back, fighting the darkness trying to overtake his soul. “You, boy, what is your name?”
His lips tremble. “Z—”
“No,” I say with a wave of my arm. “Not the name these doomed souls have given you.”
He pauses and takes a breath, glancing at Jeb and the others. “Mitch.”
“There is hope for you, Mitch,” I say. “You do not have to share the fate of the others. None of you must suffer. I offer you all a chance to change, to take control of your lives before it is too late.”
Laughter rings from the group. Except Mitch, who stumbles back. Hope flutters in my mind.
“Look, Queen of the Crazies,” Jeb states. “No one here is going to suffer.”
I sit on my rock, gazing at the bodies lying next to the river. “You are headed to war. War always ends in pain, in loss. Death awaits you all if you continue.” I nod to the doorway, hovering on the road before them. Yet they don’t see it, no one ever does.
“War?” young Mitch says. “You didn’t mention anything about a fight, Jeb.”
Adjusting his cap, Jeb races to Mitch’s side, his hands gripping the front of his shirt. “It’s none of your damn business, Zero, you’re nothing. And you should know… there’s always a fight. Life is a battle.”
I shift on my stone seat, my thoughts drifting to the world of faerie, of dancing sprites and grumbling brownies, where love and hate don’t exist. Humans are granted those emotions and fail to appreciate the gifts.
Milo sniffs. “Yeah, Jeb’s right. Don’t listen to this old bat.” He pulls up his shirt, revealing the butt of a gun.
I hold up my staff. Flames flicker in my soul once again.
A high-pitched giggle comes from the round face peering out from behind the largest. “Watch out, she’ll hit us with a stick.”
I wave my staff over the bodies lying in crumpled heaps on the ground. “See, mortals. See your future.” Blood seeps from wounds, staining the ground and water. The sins of man a terrible curse. My heart grows heavy. But I do not judge. I do not pity.
“Whoa, shit,” Milo cries. “That’s no animal.”
“Old lady is a murderer,” Jeb says, his voice holding a tremor of fear.
“I did not kill these men,” I reply.
Movement sweeps through the group as they point weapons at me. Except Mitch, who furrows his brow, worry shining in his eyes. I stand, unmoving. Fear is unknown to me, worry not worthy of my company.
Jeb waves his gun. “Yeah? Then who did?”
“These dead are but shadows of what might be. Look closely. Do you not recognize them as the men that stand beside you?” My mind spins with the darkness revealed, with the choice they face. I merely offer a glimpse of the future, a choice.
Jeb snorts, but his smirk fades as his gaze fixes on the bodies.
Milo drops his arm. The gun falls to the ground with a thud. “That corpse is wearing my shoes and…” He raises a shaky finger. “That’s Bear’s vest. And that one looks like Zeke.”
“It’s us, Jeb,” the round-faced Zeke says, fear dripping from his words.
I turn to gaze at Zeke’s future, his lifeless features, his mouth open in a silent, forever scream. He’ll die first. “This is how you will be later, after the battle. I am washing the blood and sin from your limbs before your journey into the hereafter. Yet there is wisdom here as well as death.”
Jeb swallows. “Them, but… not me.”
I chuckle and bend down, reaching into the gore, pushing aside twisted limbs. My fingers close on the brim of a worn blue cap and pull it free. Bits of flesh fall from the hat and land with a splat. Jeb stumbles back, his hand reaching for the identical one on his head.
Mitch forces his way to the front. “You said we have a choice.”
Jeb flings his arm in front of the boy, trying to push him back, but Mitch shoves him away. “Tell me.”
Hope twists through me. “You may choose to leave this path of destruction.”
Jeb grabs his gun and points it at me. “Lies. Crazy bitch, you tell me to choose some other way, but I have the life, the power I deserve. I’ll fight for it all!” His eyes narrow, his soul darkening more. “Let’s get out of here!”
Jeb turns and the others follow the command, except Mitch, who gazes at me, longing in his eyes. He plants his feet.
“Bear,” Jeb says with a growl, “grab the newbie. He doesn’t get to choose.”
Mitch pulls a knife from his pants’ pocket and holds it at Bear’s massive chest. “Yes, I do.” He steps back, his face a mask of determination.
A bit of the darkness that covers my heart lifts. So rare are these moments of victory.
Bear glances at Jeb, who shakes his head.
“We’ll get him later,” Jeb grumbles, rage at having been disobeyed burning in his eyes. “Come on. We have work to do. Honor to defend.”
The now group of four wanders along the path towards war. They don’t look back. The silver framed doorway of death swallows them and they disappear, changing to black smoke, which disperses in the cold wind of death.
Mitch gasps. His knife falls to the ground. He stands perfectly still, his hands at his sides, fingers stretched out in shock.
My body straightens, grows stronger. Ratty gray hair transforms into smooth red waves. Unblemished fingers wrap around my dark wooden staff. “You are wise to choose change.”
“Who are you?” Mitch says, his mouth hanging open.
I sweep the staff in a circle, spinning it faster and faster. A glint of silver replaces the wood and I hold a sword in my hands.
“Now, I am wisdom. But my work isn’t finished.”
With a snap of my fingers the sword turns to smoke, hovering in the air at my feet.
Mitch gestures to the spot where Jeb and his group vanished. “What about them?”
“Death will take care of them. My work begins on the eve of war, but ends on the battlefield.” I wrap my cloak around my shoulders, the feathers rippling in anticipation of my purpose. “Go back, boy, and live.”
Sadness grows in my belly. My heart races, bringing fire to my eyes. Mitch cries out in fear, then turns and runs.
My body shifts, transforms into yet another version of myself. My cape becomes black wings. My feet grow talons. I push into the sky, the currents of air beneath my raven’s body filling me with power. Thunderclouds amass on the horizon.
Screams of rage. Echoing gun shots. But my shriek of agony drowns out the sounds of war.
The battle calls.
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