Patrick has enjoyed reading and writing fantasy since he was young. His short fiction has appeared in Neo-Opsis and Sci Phi Journal (upcoming). In addition to these, he has placed semi-finalist twice in Writers of the Future in 2015.
He lives in southern Ontario with his family.
SHATTERED by Patrick MacPhee
Would anyone notice if she slipped out of line?
The morning fog concealed the pasture in a dreamlike haze. Nearby, the adults had been allowed to gather loosely near an old well. They shared whispers full of village gossip, rumours of distant troop movements, hope for much-needed rain, but no one gave any consideration to the long line of children. She could flee.
The line lurched forward and she shuffled closer to the quartet of royal soldiers and the large black tent. The other children remained silent. Most of them were part of the latest wave of refugees and stood listlessly, eyes glazed over unburied traumas.
She glanced about as much as she dared, hoping that no one spotted her trepidation. To her left, tree shapes stretched against the glassy confines of the fog, a short dash away. To her right, bored villagers maintained their languorous vigil. She found herself scanning them for signs of father, but memories burned through the fog, squeezing her heart. She choked down a sob as the line moved again and pretended to smooth back her hair while secretly wiping her eyes. She clutched her hands to her chest and stared at her feet as they moved forward.
“Aren’t you a bit young?” said one of the guards. He glanced idly about the pasture, fingers tapping his spear lightly.
No turning back. She lifted her head towards him, a tall and overweight man in his forties. He reminded her vaguely of an uncle she used to have, before he’d gone off to fight and disappeared from her life.
She stood dumbly, embarrassed at her own embarrassment. “Suit yourself, then. Enter and be seated. Do not speak unless spoken to.”
She nodded, croaked out something that she hoped sounded like an agreement, and entered.
Even after the morning gloom, the tent was dark. The edge of a chair bumped up against her stomach and she repressed a cry of pain through clenched teeth. She grabbed the chair with both hands and sat down carefully. Slowly, the shape of a table took form in the dark, along with another chair opposite, in which she barely discerned the form of a cloak.
She jolted as the cloak moved. A flame hissed into existence, a candle set between them, illuminating a woman’s face. Her skin was pale and worn. Her hair was wavy and dark, streaked with grey. An old scar split one cheek, nearly to the eye and she jolted again. The woman’s eyes were pink and in the flickering light of the candle seemed to dance between purple and red.
“You have been crying.” The woman’s voice had a rich and full tone, but was also strangely flat, as if she had once been a brilliant singer whose voice had been worn away by a lifetime of dirges.
She said nothing. There was a presence about this woman, like a sky darkened before a gathering storm. She fought a growing urge to run away and doubted she could keep her footing if she tried.
“What is your name, child?”
“Why are you here, Bronna?”
“I...” she looked down, her carefully prepared answers clouded over with the memory of father, dying, helpless. And there she had been, crying, helpless.
It might have been her imagination, but the woman’s severe expression seemed to soften.
“You seek power, then; perhaps the ultimate power, the power over life and death.”
“Is it true?” she heard herself say. The Shapers were known for their mastery of the stones, but even among these, one stone stood above, a legend among legends. Bronna’s heart skipped a beat as the woman the woman placed an object on the table, a hewn stone about the size of her hand. Its colouring was a mixture of dark purples, blues, and pinks, which reminded her of a winter’s evening sky.
“Do you know what this is?”
She nodded meekly, her breath too quick and shallow to answer.
The woman’s eyes widened slightly. “You possess one of them.” Bronna gasped as those intense pink eyes bored into her, instinctively clutching the stone hanging at her chest, the tiny shard that had ultimately done so little to help father. “And you have shaped it.” It was all Bronna could do not to squirm under that withering glare. “You are worried that it was an accident.” Then she smiled grimly. “But perhaps you are worried that it was not an accident. Worried and a bit intrigued – and of course, such thoughts are sinful given your recent circumstances, yet you cannot push them away. The fire is kindled and it will burn its course.”
“Are you a witch?” Bronna blurted out. She cupped her hands over her mouth as she felt her face go red, but to her great relief, the woman laughed lightly.
“We shapers are called many such names, Bronna. In time, you may hear them all. In the meanwhile, you may call me, Aideen.
“Now, let us see if you truly are gifted. Take the stone.” It was neither warm nor cold, though it was surprisingly light. “Good. Now, shape it.”
Bronna forced her furrowed brows to smooth and her opened mouth to close. Aideen said nothing. Her strange pink eyes stabbed into her deepest fears, yet revealed nothing in return. Bronna closed her eyes. She thought of moving the stone, transforming it, anything. Nothing happened. She thought of her own stone, tied about her neck with a simple strand of old leather. It rested next to her heart, a tiny fob compared to this one, but the only thing she had left of Father.
She became aware of the presence of someone else in the tent, perhaps a guard or another shaper like Aideen. She craned her head to see, but her eyes slipped off shadow. Suddenly, the stone warmed in her hands and shone a rich, brilliant golden light that filled the tent.
She laughed and looked to Aideen, but the stone faded almost instantly, leaving them with the disappointing dimness of their single candle.
“The stones can grant you power, Bronna.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice. Bronna leaned in too, torn between fear and wonder. “And not the trifling powers that men cling to. I speak of true power. Power beyond the sun and moon, power beyond life and death, power beyond anything you can imagine. If you are willing to do what is necessary.”
That evening, Bronna visited her parents. They rested in the village cemetery that had scattered itself along a vale nestled beneath the church’s watchful eye. She would always remember the cool spring air of that lonely spring evening, the fresh scents of lilacs and apple blossoms wafting up through her thoughts, on their way to crimson-topped mauve clouds and a smattering of stars.
The place was crowded with solders’ graves, their freshly cut tombstones standing stark and solemn vigil before the night. Next most numerous were the plague victims, set in waves that marked the turning of the seasons as surely as the snow and flowers. Mother’s was among them, faded and moss-covered. She had never known her, but father’s stories had painted such wonderful pictures of her in Bronna’s mind’s eye, pictures that had already begun to fade.
Father’s was easy enough to find. The new stone marker would stand out for several years at least, but touching it brought too many memories, chasing after fireflies, or comforting her after an encounter with the village bully, all of it filtered through the lens of his death into misery. She tried to find the words for a more solemn prayer, a proper and dignified goodbye. In the end, all she could do was cry.
They left at dawn.
* * *
The being of light rests at the shores of reality. In this place, the song of creation echoes softly, hauntingly beautiful, each note touched by sorrow, yet together trembling into joy.
With the infinite love of a master artisan, it infuses the evanescent sands of physicality with the dark waters of the abyss. Its hands give shape to the mud; a world, a person, or a single thought, each is precious, a masterpiece of force and form.
* * *
Thunder jolted her awake. For a moment, Bronna was unsure where she was. Shapers’ tools lay strewn about her desk, along with so many unfinished projects. Rain crashed upon the roof. Cold wind whistled through wooden shutters.
After eight long years of Aideen’s unyielding tutelage, Bronna had yet to repeat the shaping as masterfully as she during that first test in the tent. Failure coupled easily with shame, a silent and ever-growing burden.
She cleaned her heavy shapers’ glasses, wishing she had developed more discipline. It was the rain this time. It reminded her of lazy summer afternoons back home, hiding away in the loft above the barn, daydreaming about life in a big city such as this one. Such daydreams had paled next to her first sights of the capital; massive walls, manned at all hours by grim soldiers, or the vast maze of streets within, all teaming with an endless throng of inhabitants.
She stretched her stiff legs and walked haltingly to the window. The rain had filled the crafts guilds street with mud; the frenetic rush of peasants had drained away. She could look forward to a leisurely afternoon of quiet study, perhaps an early evening curled up by the fire with a novel. And as always, father crept into her cosy fantasies.
Wearily, she trudged back to her work. She sat in the hard, uneven chair and fastened the shaper’s glasses tightly about her head. She selected a chisel and grasped the stone firmly. It promised to heal blood ailments if only she could find the nerve to strike the final cuts.
Some time later, thunder jolted her again. She leaned back in her chair and tried to rub the sleep out of her eyes, but her arms felt like lead. Her gaze darted over her work, which seemed to swim before her. Nothing made sense.
“Answer the door, Bronna!” snapped Aideen from upstairs.
“Yes, Mistress!” she called back in time to avoid a second, much louder admonition.
She opened the door and immediately felt intensely aware of her appearance. She ran a hand through her hair, hopelessly dishevelled. With the other hand, she tried in vain to dissolve some of the fatigue from her eyes, or perhaps smooth out the red mark on her nose caused by those annoying glasses.
A handsome young man stood on their doorstep. He lifted his hood and the downpour immediately darkened wavy brown hair and plastered it to his forehead. He had an honest face, which must have found it easy to hold a smile, and expressive brown eyes, which squinted now against the rain.
“Uh, hello there. Are you the shaper?”
The sting of rain intensified as her eyes widened. “Oh, how rude of me. Please –”
“Come in,” finished Aideen behind her. Bronna gasped and stepped out of her way. “Forgive my apprentice, my lord. She is foolish,” she murmured with enough derision that Bronna felt her already reddened face burn brighter. “What brings you here on so inhospitable a day, Lord...”
He shifted about slightly. She heard “Darmid” barely above the rain.
It meant nothing to Bronna, but Aideen pursed her lips and nodded immediately. “Son of Prince Etheon. It is indeed an honour, your highness.” She bowed low and Bronna, after an awkward pause, lurched forward into as proper a bow as her stiff back would allow. Darmid shifted about more, smiled thinly and ran a hand through his soaked hair. Was it nervousness? Her eyes narrowed. Not quite, although his demeanour was dominated by hesitation, perhaps even fear. He met her eyes and she looked away as he shuffled into the room.
“No, no, I...” he glanced about the shop, then swallowed. “Look, we need your help. Can you come with me? I know it’s sudden – and if it’s a no, then that’s fine - it’s just...it’s urgent.”
Bronna braced for one of her mistress’ explosive dismissals, so she was shocked when Aideen merely nodded.
“You have a carriage I trust? We shall leave immediately. Bronna, get the stones,” she snapped her way as Darmid left and shouted something to the waiting coachman. Bronna hurried to the upstairs closet, to a secret place under a floorboard, and retrieved a satchel full of about two dozen stones, none of which she had been able to shape. She returned as Aideen pulled on her cloak. She took the satchel, glanced inside with practised intensity, then secured it shut.
“You were staring, again. I’ve told you not to do that. The stones may yield to our gaze, but people prefer their secrets. You made him uncomfortable.”
“I’m sorry, Mistress.” But...
“He was already uncomfortable,” finished Aideen. “What did you learn?”
She went over her initial impressions of the handsome young nobleman. Aideen nodded.
“He feels some measure of guilt over his position, a discomfort with his own privilege that may speak to his character, though it is not an uncommon phase they go through – usually brief.”
“You mean he is insincere?”
“Oh, no. He is sincere. When he is sincere. But after a day’s work in the slums helping the poor, or whatever it is that he fancies to do, does he then break bread with them and rest his head under their roofs? Or does he return to his luxurious manor guarded by soldiers who wouldn’t hesitate to kill any poor soul who trespassed?
“These are royals, Bronna. This Darmid seems like a nice enough boy, but you can be assured the rest of them are not. They will hurt you as soon as look at you, for profit or for sport, it matters not. Believe me, I know.” She gestured to the scar on her cheek. “Stay close and say nothing.”
“Yes, Mistress,” she said, her face bowed demurely.
Aideen reached out, cupped her chin, and lifted gently.
“Bring something warmer this time, will you? The rain is cold, tonight.”
Bronna rarely attempted to see into her Mistress, both because it was extremely difficult and because Aideen always realized what she was doing and then punished her severely. However, it was difficult not to attempt to see more deeply into those enigmatic pink eyes. She saw genuine concern, which was itself oppressed by an ancient and ever-present pain. However, another feeling had clawed itself stubbornly and determinately above all else; resolution, so profound and total that Bronna nearly trembled to see it.
Aideen smiled knowingly and Bronna realized that she had been granted a rare and special insight into the elder shaper’s mind.
“Yes, Mistress,” she repeated. “Thank-you, Mistress.”
They rode in compunctious silence, joined by an imperious old man who scrutinized them with a mixture of contempt and fear, though he would not hold Aideen’s gaze long.
“I trust we can rely upon your discretion,” he said measuredly.
“His Highness can always count upon our discretion, lord chamberlain.”
She looked to Darmid, but he was already looking at her. He looked away smoothly out the window to the weeping night around them, as though he had been glancing about every which way. It was a childish game and the circumstances were hardly auspicious, but she felt her heart lighten.
The rain clung to them for several miles as the driver wound a circuitous route through a lower city that recent riots had flooded with rubble and thugs. An hour later, they arrived at a strange sort of tavern near the docks district, which resembled an odd cross between a villa and a jail.
A grim-faced guard bade them enter and she immediately felt uneasy, as though she stood close to an unruly dog kept on too long a leash. Darkened halls enveloped them, lit only by a few low-lit oil lamps and the guard’s lantern. They passed a curtained arch that delineated the common room. Laughter and music mingled with smoke in the dim light, a surreal blur of noble excess. She pictured Darmid among them and was glad no one could see her face redden. Eventually, they reached a room in one of the tavern’s least-used areas. More guards. She reached for Aideen’s hand, which her mistress snatched away with a sidelong scowl.
The doors creaked open to the best room in the inn. A roaring fireplace cast flickering light about the best room in the inn. It reflected wildly in the stoic eyes and severe faces of a dozen nobles of varying ages and dress. Despite the warmth, she felt a chill and clutched her cloak tighter.
Opposite the nobles, on the far side of the room in an exquisite four-poster bed, a diminutive old man lay sweating and naked. A silk cloth covered his loins, along with a variety of extremely rare and powerful stones, large ones placed up and down the centre of his torso and others held by velvet straps to his arms, legs, and forehead. His chest shuddered with frantic, shallow breathing, while his eyes cast about the room, glazed and blind, terrified and alone.
Bronna rushed to his side. She caressed his head with one hand and wiped her tears with the other. Aideen took the healer’s chair and sifted through her satchel with unhurried efficiency.
“Please help my uncle,” stammered Darmid. “We’ve had healers and even a few shapers, but...” he broke off. At first, Bronna suspected Aideen had silenced him with a withering glare, but he had buried his face in his hands.
“Let us work, your highness,” said Aideen with surprising gentleness.
With agonizingly slow deliberation, Aideen descried the king’s malady. Her pink eyes took on a faraway look as her fingers lingered on each stone in turn.
“There,” she whispered, after a full minute’s attention to a large rose-cut stone on his chest. “Listen to this one. Hear how it echoes.”
Bronna’s hand was too slow. Aideen seized it and slapped it onto the stone. She repressed a sigh. After years of futile efforts, she had yet to “hear” more than vague whispers. Bracing for the inevitable scolding, she closed her eyes and emptied her mind, “like two cupped hands waiting patiently for the stone to fill them with its story”.
Her stomach fluttered with nausea. Someone had joined them, again. Darmid? She craned her head, but he stood near his relatives by the fire. Suddenly, the nausea shot up to her head. Specks of light swirled at the edges of her vision. The room spun and shimmered.
She was aware of her hands holding the stone, but in this strange twilight of the senses, she seemed to have another pair of hands, which felt as though they reached into the stone. However, any impressions received were not physical, but best expressed in terms of the mind and heart. The stone was strong and full of pride, yet...she frowned. There was indeed an echo. Amidst such strength and vigour, a subtle and malignant undercurrent.
The room faded back into view. Aideen held the guilty stone high.
“His Majesty has been poisoned.”
The king twitched violently.
“See here, lord chamberlain. This stone has been undercut. It has strengthened his heart while also filling his body with toxins – notice the jaundice.”
Stiffly, the chamberlain took the stone, nodded grimly, then tossed it to the floor.
“We are finished here.”
“Is there nothing you can do?” implored Darmid.
“Aside from taking the blame for one of you? No,” she continued, over a rising din of outrage. “The poison has set too deeply. His heart was saved, but at the expense of his liver.”
The chamberlain stepped forward and cut the air with a curt gesture. Several large men emerged from the shadows and Bronna’s heart raced. They carried no weapons, but their intentions were clear.
The chamberlain said, “We had determined as much, Aideen. We don’t know which of you managed to slip that stone in here –”
“Liar! This stinks of your kinds of intrigues, Eldrich.”
“Lies? You say there is nothing more to do, but I know you carry a very special stone, a stone that can do a great deal. We need only a...” his eyes turned to Bronna. “...sacrifice.”
TO BE CONTINUED