Let’s Get Out of Here, Just You and Me

Let’s get out of here, just you and me. I don’t need the promise of tomorrow and yesterday tastes bitter in my mouth. I want to watch the sun rise over a landscape that breaks into all the things I never thought I’d see; all the things I was too afraid to reach for. We’ll take your car and I’ll man the radio, I’ll play the soundtrack of my life and you’ll smile like you don’t know. We can chase the memory of passion lost, a trail growing colder with every mile we leave behind.

Let’s ditch this town, this tired collection of haphazard streets and lawns built on haste and disinterest. I imagine blue skies and sweet air that isn’t heavy with all the choices we’ve both made, the words we never should have said, and pretend, for a minute, that the grass really might be greener. I want to grab your hand and leave the path we’ve started down, I want to scream fuck it all into the bleeding sun and give it all up. I want to take for granted everything I have with you and recapture the uncertainty.

Let’s stay up late and watch the stars move in tandem with the moon. We’ll remember younger days of whispered promises on shooting sparks in the void and the wild hope of a tomorrow that might never come. We’ll laugh at the sheer enormity of everything we can’t see and feel free in the face of all the things we could never hope to understand. We’ll pretend we’re not afraid and fall asleep as the moon dies and the stars sputter like the dreams we built in the dark, forgotten under the press of the sun.

Let’s make promises we can’t keep. They taste the sweetest as they roll off our eager tongues, like the temporary pleasure of a stolen candy and forgotten just as quickly. I want to pretend for a few hours more that this might last longer than a few hundred, uncounted heart beats. I want to sit here, hands clasped and sweaty, and pretend for just one second more that this might mean something. Something more substantial than time long lost and passed.

Let’s turn ourselves into something we’re not. I’ll be that girl the broken slivers of me once dreamed of being and you can pretend you’re everything I thought I wanted. We can build ourselves using the pieces others left behind; all those lofty ideals and unrealistic gems of plastic brilliance. A fair and convincing façade from across the room, just don’t get too close or you’ll see the cracks in the warped glass. We’ll be actors in a play that has no audience aside from our two silly hearts that are so damn set on ruining the lines. You’ll say you love me and I’ll smile and say ‘I know.’

Let’s say goodbye. And this time we’ll mean it, I swear. When we hug, our bodies disjointed and graceless as they collide in a mockery of the passion they once possessed, we’ll force our smiles and our words will slither all across our teeth. I’ll turn to leave and you’ll stand at your door, the one that was always hard to cross, and I won’t turn and you won’t wait. The door will click closed and I’ll get into my car and drive away. The anticlimactic ending to a tired song that I’d long forgotten the words to, but a part of me will always remember the chorus.

Let’s get out of here, just you and me.

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The Queen’s Armor

The Queen’s Armor

By Brianne McDonald

 

Princess Amara did not turn when the door to her private chambers opened in the half darkness of a swiftly falling, winter night. Her fingers, pale and long with no ordination save her marriage ring, clutched the cold stone inlay of the windowsill with sudden, but contained, desperation. The moon, near full, was high in the sky and it held her gaze. The touch of its cold, silver rays chilled her far more than the snatches of frozen air that swept across her skin from the edges of the window-glass. It was a chill that dove beneath the surface of her skin, past bone and steadily thrumming blood, to the core of her.

The Capital stretched out from the roots of the palace in long, cresting waves and eddies that spanned toward the distant, shadowed mountain peaks of the south. Those peaks were violent and jagged, razor teeth in an angry, eager maw. She had never liked the look of them, not since she’d first laid eyes on them shortly after her hasty marriage almost five years ago. The city though, so vibrant, so full of life and variety, –so unlike the world she’d grown up in– she had loved almost instantly. Within its many turns and folds she’d often stood where she stood now and imagined a simpler life. A happier one that was not so far removed from everything she wanted. But the twinkling lights of thousands of homes and the lives they encompassed could not draw her away from the damning eye of her Goddess, hung like a noose among velvet and diamonds.

Amara felt the pressure of his gaze between her shoulder-blades, drawing her attention as the door closed softly behind him. Muscles tensed beneath a cotton nightgown and a fur lined, heavy winter robe. Her heart stuttered traitorously and her breath caught as the familiar, heavy press of his boots across lavish rugs neared. The smell of him hit her: leather, sweat, horses and spice. Her eyes fluttered helplessly, a desire that she’d long suffered pressing in on her and she wished him gone with an intensity matched only by her desire for him to stay.

“Amara, we must-“

“Don’t,” she said, her voice broken, “Don’t say it. Don’t say anything. I can’t bear it.”

She heard Brant’s steps falter and then stop. He was close, so close she could turn and stare up into his eyes that were as familiar to her as her own. Close enough that she could press her lips to his as she had imagined in weakened moments, alone at night when her husband had been away and her hand could slip unseen beneath her gown. Close enough that she might reach out and trace his jaw with her finger tips and catch the warmth of his skin against her palm as she’d long dreamed of whilst lying next to the man who had been her husband. Not her husband anymore, no, not after the terrible message they’d received the night prior.

The moist heat of Brant’s breath gently parted the loose falls of her hair and skittered across the back of her neck, effectively weakening her knees and quickening her breath. Her subjects called her cold, aloof, unfeeling; and it was a reputation she’d acquired through hard work and perseverance. Her mother had helped her to cultivate it and her husband had both appreciated and despised it. A façade only one man, one person, had ever torn away from her. And she could almost hate him for it.

“Tell me what I should do then, Amara. Tell me how I can best serve you. If it is to be in silence, then so be it, but don’t send me away, not again.” His voice carried a raw, desperate quality she’d never heard from him before. Her heart, already unsteady, pounded against her ribs in protest. She couldn’t speak the words she knew she needed to say, for her, for him, for her son and daughter, and for the kingdom she was now expected to rule. She couldn’t speak them because she knew the hope that echoed from him now. It was the same hope that had spread through her like swift poison at the awful news. The news broken to her, to their entire court, over the lavish Winter’s Feast, to a series of gasps, cries and shouts. The same hope that had overwhelmed her shock, loss, and terror for one bright, dreadful moment before reality had snatched her back up in its unforgiving wake. It was a hope, though short lived, that had been replaced by an all consuming guilt.

He grasped her suddenly, ripping a soft cry from her startled lips, and spun her fiercely around to face him. The touch of his hand, not felt for nigh on three years, burned through her thick robe like a fire too close to fragile skin. He pressed toward her and her hands, trembling now, caught at the stone weakly to brace herself.

Brant’s face was ferocious in the silvered darkness, the heat of his eyes battling the chill in her soul like a spark in an empty hearth. He gripped her arms in his large, rough hands and she hissed in pain and pleasure. The pain was far removed from physical expectation but was more akin to a near-frozen limb subjected to warmth, only rather than a limb, it was her heart. And she couldn’t bear it, not now, not ever again. If ever she’d needed her armor of snowy expressions and winter stares, it was now.

She opened her mouth to banish him from her presence, this time for good, but he was too quick for her, too determined and stubborn. He’d always been so damned stubborn. His lips bruised hers with their force and his teeth clashed against hers so hard her ears rang, but nothing could dull the sweet pain that rose up in her unbidden and unwanted. She tasted blood as his tongue pressed forward like a battering ram, not requesting, but demanding entry into her mouth.

Amara had seen men break. She’d watched as the world had taken them apart one small, almost forgettable piece at a time, until they were little more than flesh and weary bones. Her mother had taught her that women, though rarely physically superior to men, could build themselves emotional armor and weapons stronger than almost any plate-mail or sword. She’d crafted her armor and weapons carefully, learned to use them with wisdom and care. Now she felt the pieces of them break down around her as Brant’s grip on her loosened and her arms rose to draw him in closer.

She had loved her husband, Vrance, the Heir Apparent to the throne, now dead somewhere, likely loaded on a creaking cart alongside the body of his father, the King, on his way back to her with a beaten, ruined army trailing behind. She had loved him as much as she could love a man after her heart had already been taken by another. He had been good, kind, and honorable, a competent warrior, and a fair tactician with an even, merciful hand. The type of man doomed to die, her mother would have said. In comparison, Brant was not often kind, he was harsh and blunt, his honor he wore like a gilded cloak, to be tossed aside when necessary, and mercy was a thing to be avoided unless entirely warranted. He was also, more than likely, the father of the three year old Prince who would tomorrow be crowned King, making her the Queen Regent.

When he pulled away from her, their heavy breaths condensing between them, her back was against the wall and her legs around his hips. He set his forehead against hers and said, “You’ll rule this kingdom with a cold, iron fist. You’ll save them from the armies in the south and make this city stronger than it has been in two hundred years.” His hands slid her gown up her thighs as her fingers scrambled against his shoulders and gripped at the unruly lengths of his inky hair. Vrance had been golden, like the Prince’s in all the tales and songs, bright and shining. Amara had always found him too bright to look at for long.

“And I’ll be here,” he said. “I’ll stay in the shadows as I always have. I’ll protect you from anyone or anything that dares get too near.” These words he pressed like brands against the rapid thrum of her pulse where it sped along the white column of her neck. His teeth bit down and Amara let the last of her defenses go with a soft cry.

She had loved her husband and his father. She had respected them and admired them for what they were. But they had notions of honor and peace that dark times always ignored. Raised in a country that had been war torn long before her birth, Amara understood the reality of violence that a place like the Capital had long forgotten. What her country needed now was a ruthless detachment that would save them from the evil that crept toward them a little more each day. What her country needed was a few shadows to combat the tide of darkness before it swallowed them whole.

With the watching, glowing eye of the Goddess she had once served looking on in silence, Amara opened her arms to Brant, once the King’s closest friend, and the steward of their kingdom, and let herself become the Queen she knew she had to be. She would protect and save them, and he would protect and save her.

Killing Kings

Killing Kings

By Brianne McDonald

 

 

James nudged the lifeless body of the former King with the tip of his grime encrusted boot. He glanced up at me, flecks of blood on his cheeks, “So… that’s it then?”

I glanced around the massive hall, harsh noon-light filtering through the jagged edges of shattered stained glass windows. The floor was bathed in hues of red even without the added ambiance of all the blood. It was a throne room and I doubted it had ever been as silent and empty as it was now. The air was heavy though, thick with pain, fear, and death. It caught in the back of my throat like sticky sweet bile.

I understood the intent of James’s perplexity. It all felt very anticlimactic.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I had expected. Fanfare? Angelic creatures descending from the heavens to bless and sanctify my victory? I didn’t need a holy man or ancient tome to tell me that this moment was many things, but none of them were holy. I enjoyed battle; I enjoyed the prospect of death nearly as much as I anticipated the challenge of living. Call it a character flaw. I had many. I’d long realized that not all men felt similarly, but those who did were only qualified to a certain type of life. I was not made for quiet halls and gentle palaces. I felt driven to conquer, but never to linger, always I pressed on, searching for something I couldn’t quite name. I suspected it was a certain type of vengeance, though the perpetrators of my childhood suffering were long dead. I wondered who was I attempting to punish. All of humanity? Or maybe just those I felt deserved it. Those I felt were of the same ilk as the men who had destroyed my life, who had ruined the man I might have been. It may have seemed a heroic notion, but I wasn’t misguided. I was no hero. I was a killer and there is very little that is heroic about killing. It’s mostly a lot of mess. I found beauty in death and pain. It wasn’t quite pleasure, exactly, more like a reverent awe that I’d learned to appreciate and respect.

“Yeah…” I said quietly. A drop of the King’s blood slipped down the tip of my sword blade and splattered on the golden rug beneath our feet. “That’s it.”

“Huh,” James said, crouching down with a creak of leather and the faint grind of poorly oiled armor to roll the King over. The man was large, taller than either of us and quite a bit wider, and he flopped onto his back with a resounding thud. He was at least two decades older than I, with a carefully trimmed beard and thick black, gray streaked hair. His eyes, the color of dun, where opened and glossy, a very thin stream of blood creeping from the edge of his lined mouth. James reached out and pulled the crown from his head and tossed it to me with a sly smirk.

Driven by an instinct I couldn’t name, I caught it on the edge of my sword. I let the golden circlet slide down the blade with a cringe worthy thrum until it met the worn cross of the hilt with a sharp sound like the tolling of a bell. I had no intention of wearing the blasted thing. I didn’t need a crown to govern men. A true leader was evident from the moment he stepped into a room, or so my father had always said. Besides, we could use the gold. War making wasn’t cheap.

James swiped at his nose with the back of his hand, leaving a trail of dirt and blood like a streak of war paint across his ugly face. “What do you mean to do with his son?”

I sighed and turned, heading back down the hall. I didn’t bother to side-step the bodies. They were all dead anyway. James fell in step behind me, eying my raised sword and the crown it carried with amusement. There was very little in life that James didn’t find amusing, and I’d proved to be a never ending source for him. I could hear the voices of my men and the faint crying of women from the court yard below. The sound was more sobering to me than the trail of bodies I left in my wake.

“We’ll take him with us.” I said at last when we reached the end of the chamber and turned into a deserted hall. Several vibrant trails of blood across the worn stone indicated my men had already set about collecting the dead, leaving me to my supposed moment of victory. They needn’t have bothered. King killing had proven to be remarkably easy and uneventful, actually.

James shot me a sharp look, “Is that, er, wise milord?”

“No. But we’re going to do it anyway. Be sure to bring his wet-nurse, and do your best to keep the lads from her. One babe is enough to be dragging around with an army.”

James knew better than to argue, though his look told me he certainly wished to. He knew me better than most. We’d been on the road together a long while, but I would hesitate to call him friend. The man who considered James his friend was a fool indeed, though I supposed the same could be said of me. I had use of soldiers and allies, not of friends.

I couldn’t explain my desire to bring the princling brat. I had a slew of crimes under my belt, more than I could honestly recall, but I’d yet to consciously set about murdering a child. Though sense told me that if there were ever a child to murder, this would be the one. I was, after all, responsible for the death of its mother and the wielder of the sword that had felled its father. But something within me stayed my hand, cautioned me toward mercy where it normally did not. I wasn’t in the habit of over analyzing my instincts and actions, so I did what I had long done; I embraced the impulse and moved on. The boy-child would live and maybe, someday, he might even be of use to me.