Category Archives: Short Stories

Short fiction of various genres. <3

Nightingales (a short story)

NIGHTINGALES

by Melody Robinette

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(I DO NOT OWN THE RIGHTS TO THIS PICTURE)

 

Aria sheathed her blade on her hip before slipping out of the cottage she shared with her mother and three sisters. No men inhabited these woods. At least not for a fortnight. But beasts did. Best to be prepared.

The men of Arsondower worked down in the valley between the mountainous hills. They were miners of sorts; only, instead of coal…they mined dragons. They were known as Dragon Keepers. Aria’s own father was there even now, carrying on the tradition passed down man to man to man.

It sounded like a tale of old. How lovely and magical, you might think. But Dragon Keepers had only one aim.

Gold.

Dragon scales were worth their weight in it. And dragon eggs were worth even more.

Aria knew the way to the small creek that cut through the dense woods by heart. She’d been there more than any other place in her life, carting her bucket. Sometimes she liked to pretend she was traveling far away, to another land. She loved her family, but being cooped up in a cottage wasn’t exactly the dauntless life she longed for.

The women of Arsondower were kept safe in the mountains, tucked inside the shadows of the trees. They weren’t to venture down into the valley. It was dangerous. It was a man’s world.

A time or two, when Aria was too young to know better, she’d asked her father why she couldn’t help with the dragons.

It’s man’s work, Lamb,” he’d said. “You stay in the cottage with Mommy where it’s safe.”

You can help with the butter,” Mommy had added. “Won’t that be fun? You love helping with the butter.

Aria did, in fact, love helping with the butter. Mostly because she’d swipe the side of the churn with her finger while her mother wasn’t looking and pop the creamy glop in her mouth. But, the older she grew, the more curious she became. Not about butter. Curious about the dragons.

So, one night, she snuck out of the cottage to follow her father and brother into the mines.

What she saw there still haunted her.

Fire-breathing beasts the size of redwood trees were chained to the ground with heavy, steel manacles. Their hides, usually known for their slick sheen, were dull and bleeding where the miners had stripped off their scales. Tortured despair hovered like a ghost in their eyes.

Aria was petrified. And outraged.

Her father had always taught her to be kind to the animals of the forest, to treat them with respect and reverence. Only to shoot with the intent to kill and consume.

Never hurt.

But there he was, hurting the creatures whose profiles were sewn into their town’s flags. She couldn’t make sense of it. She wanted to ask him why he’d do such a thing. But she never did. She’d snuck back up to her house, claiming to her worried mother that she’d gotten lost in the woods.

 

Remembering this now, Aria looked over her shoulder as she knelt beside the cool stream, bucket in hand. Sometimes when the wind blew through the branches, she swore she could hear the tormented cries of the dragons kept chained in the mines below.

Golden hair spilled forward as she leaned down to scoop up the water, her red cloak dragging on the ground.

Ripples appeared suddenly on the water, followed by a great, undulating wind. The hood of Aria’s cloak blew back as her face pointed skyward.

Seven winged grey animals, streaked with blue, landed on the bank across the creek from Aria. Hopping to her feet, knocking the bucket full of water over, she unsheathed her knife, holding it before her and wishing she’d thought to carry her bow.

Once the wind created by the animals’ wings died down, Aria realized what they were. Peryton. Majestic creatures with the head, forelegs, and antlers of a stag. Their hindquarters, wings, and plumage were that of a bird.

A rather large bird.

This wasn’t what caused Aria to unsheathe her knife, though. For, atop the creatures were figures dressed all in black.

“Who are you?” Aria demanded, sounding much braver than she felt. “What do you want? I have nothing for you. Unless you find yourself in need of a water pail and a dull hunting blade.”

One of the figures slid off their peryton and stepped into the light, causing Aria’s knife hand to fractionally lower.

It was a woman.

Skin the color of the tree bark behind the woman brought out the intense green of her eyes. Her hair was pulled back in a tight braid down her back. Shining black armor darker than coal covered her slim frame.

“Who are you?” Aria asked again, only this time in a voice of awe rather than anger.

“I am Zinnia. And we are Nightingales.” Shoulders burdened by horned armor straightened with pride. “Protectors and saviors of dragon kind.”

“Dragons,” Aria said in a whisper. “But the dragons are down in the mines in the valley. Why are you here?” She swept her hand over the water and gestured to the trees.

“To collect you, Aria Seaweather.”

“Collect me? But…what—”

“You have a hunger for adventure and a tender heart for dragons, do you not?”

Mouth opening and closing, Aria looked over her shoulder, down at the mines she couldn’t see. Remembering. Feelings from that night long ago crept across her skin, raising hairs.

“Yes,” she said in a breath. “I do.”

“Then come.”

***

Aria was given armor and weapons and a peryton of her own. She left her clothes, red cloak, and bucket in a pile near the creek. Standing beside the water, she peered down at her blurry reflection and felt a fire ignite in her core.

Oh. This was what she’d been missing. This.

“Ready, Seaweather?”

Weaving her golden hair into a secure plait, Aria turned to face the Nightingales. “Ready.”

Riding the peryton felt like traveling on a cloud of air, soaring smoothly over the ripples of wind. The atmosphere grew warmer as they neared the mines in the valley. A squirming worm of nerves twisted in Aria’s gut.

“Seaweather,” Zinnia called out. “Take this.”

Turning just in time, Aria caught the black weapon tossed her way. It looked like glowing coals shaped into a sharp sword.

“What is this?”

“A sectar. It will cut through metal. Use it on the dragons’ chains.”

“It cuts through metal?”

“And flesh.”

Aria gulped.

The Nightingales swooped down unseen on the valley, leaping from their peryton, and moving stealthily into the mines. Aria clutched her sectar as she moved forward, into the dark holes of despair.

Bellowing dragons—three of them—thrashed their heads as the Dragon Keepers went at their hides with scrapers. Glittering scales fell like teardrops onto the mine floor at the men’s feet. Aria skirted the edge of the wall, the darkness of her armor blending in with the night. Her hair on the other hand…

“You lost?”

Turning on her heel, Aria’s gaze landed on a young man about her age with hair the color of speckled sand. His sapphire eyes shown in the dim light of the mines. Tucking the sectar behind her, Aria flashed a bright smile.

“I was just curious about the dragons,” she simpered.

Curious?” The man’s mouth tugged upwards in amusement. “This is no place for a woman. It’s not safe.”

She nodded, eyes moving over the other men. “I agree… There are many dangerous creatures here.”

He looked her over. “Why are you dressed like that?”

Suddenly shouts and roars sounded from behind Aria, coming from the other mines. The Nightingales had released the first dragons.

The man looked wild-eyed at the scene in the center of the ring of mines where Dragon Keepers were now running. He turned back to Aria, his expression changing.

“I’m a Nightingale,” she murmured, answering his earlier question. Lunging around him, she bolted towards the first dragon, slicing her sectar through one of the thick manacles holding the creature down.

The dragon protested at first, then, seeing that one of its four legs were free, stood completely still, waiting for her to release the other three. The sandy-haired man ran at her, but she ducked under the dragon’s emaciated belly.

The beast kicked out its free leg, connecting with the man’s torso as Aria ran the sectar through two more chains, sprinting for the fourth.

“Aria!” a familiar voice shouted.

Hand raised, weapon at the ready, she looked up. Her father stood in the mouth of the mine, gaping at her in horror.

What do you think you’re doing?”

Men began to surround her, approaching slowly. She clutched her sectar tighter.

“A woman’s job.”

And then she brought down the sectar, cutting the final tie. The dragon reared its head and thrashed its tail as the men tried to keep it from leaving the mine. It trampled over them as if they were nothing more than scurrying beetles.

Aria ran like a spark, a streak of fire, burning through the mine. Sectar met metal, slicing through as easy her mother’s knife cutting freshly churned butter.

One free, two free, three free. Go.

“Go!” she shouted to the dragons. “Hurry!”

The Dragon Keepers ran about the valley like ants whose home has just been invaded by a human foot.

The final dragon began to leave, but turned back to look at Aria. “Go on,” she urged. “You’re free now.”

He retreated, coming closer to her. She knew she should probably be afraid, but she felt nothing more than awe at the beauty of this beast. The dragon lower his head and Aria saw that his snout had been tied shut as well. Guiding the tip of her sectar, she delicately cut through the thin chains.

Opening his mouth widely, Aria could see inside, waves of heat at the back of his throat and the bubbling of flames.

She took a step back, but the dragon closed his mouth and lowered his head again, indicating Aria should climb up. Men were closing in on the two of them, wielding swords and bows and angry faces. Aria climbed up, clutching onto the dragon’s neck as he turned, opening his mouth again.

The Dragon Keepers who’d been charging towards them halted in their steps…and then ran like Hades in the opposite direction, trying to outrun the wave of flames rolling after them.

The dragon let out another burst of fire and a growl that almost sounded like he was chuckling. And then he stepped forward, emerging into the clear air, spreading his leathery wings out, looking up at open sky.

“That’s all of them, Seaweather,” Zinnia called from the back of another dragon. “Let’s take them home.”

Aria nodded, patting the beast beneath her. “Fly, boy. Fly away from here.”

A puff of smoke furled out of the dragon’s nostrils and he ran forward, pumping his wings until they both lifted up. And then they turned towards the light of the moon, leaving the chains of the mines and forest behind.

Both soaring towards an unmapped freedom.

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Ring Around Rosie (a short story)

Ring Around Rosie

by Melody Robinette

***

Ring around the rosies

Pocket full of posies

Ashes, ashes

We all

Fall

Down

***

 

Wesley Wilson

December 11th, 1983

Plukley, Kent, UK

A whispering wind blew through the creaking branches of the trees outside of my new house in my new neighborhood in my new town in my new country. Dad was always moving us places. It was his job. I wasn’t even sure what it was he did. He moved my mother and me around. That’s what he did. And then he’d be gone all the time. Working, I suppose.

Mother would clean the house and sit in her chair and sip tea. She wasn’t much for entertaining children. Her own son included. But I was smart for an eight-year-old, thank you, and I could entertain myself just fine. I’d grown used to it over the years. Why make friends when you would just end up leaving them?

Best to get used to imaginary friends. Get used to exploring. I preferred the latter.

The house in Plukley, Kent was nice enough, I supposed. The floorboards creaked and a musty scent hung like cobwebs in the air.

“Mother,” I called lightly to the hovering figure in the kitchen. “I’m going out.”

She responded with a small huff of air as she took another pass at the counter with her cloth.

Threading my arms through the sleeves of my corduroy coat, I left through the whining front door. The hinges squealed in protest of my departure.

The ground was hard with winter, but I welcomed the sweet scent of ice in the air. Our last town had been a beach town. The air was always salty. I hated it.

Our new house was nestled in sparse woods with thin trees. The houses were rather far apart from one another. Not like the town I lived a few years before where you could hear the conversations of your next door neighbors at suppertime.

On my exploratory walk, I reached a dilapidated trail leading away from our house into a thicker copse of trees. Of course, I followed it.

Walk into the woods.

What was the worst thing that could happen?

The silence in the town was unnerving. It was more than just sleepy. It was eery. As if all the residents had been gagged and tied up to keep from speaking. No animals populated the thickening woods, which I found rather strange. Though, it was winter. Perhaps they were hibernating. Bit early for that, but it eased my curiosity.

The copse of trees thinned out again to reveal another house similar to my own. But, if it was possible, even worse for wear. Peeling paint, hanging shutters, a grey aura of age emanating from the wooden beams. Attached to the house was a tall, wooden fence. It looked like an animal enclosure. For dangerous animals that were only fed with a long pole.

I approached it, of course, walking the periphery, running my hand along the dusty wooden planks. I tried to peek inside, but the slats between the boards were too narrow.

Then I saw the key.

Well, keys, I should say. A set of them stuck into the keyhole of the door in the wooden fence. Bone keys. At least that’s how I thought of them. My parents always corrected me when I used the term. But the word skeleton creeped me out, so I replaced it with “bone” whenever necessary.

The keys were swaddled in a thick film of cobwebs. I wondered how long it had been since they’d been touched by human hands. I reached out to take them and paused when I heard a strange, melancholy voice. A girl’s voice.

Ring around the Rosie. Pocket full of posies. Ashes. Ashes. We all…fall.

“Hello?”

The singing stopped.

“Is someone in there?” I asked in an unsteady voice, pressing my ear to the wood, listening. No more singing, but I swore I could hear breathing. “Hello?” I said again.

A voice lighter than the wind answered me. “Do you have them?”

I reeled back in surprise, my heart hurting from going slowly to bullet-speed in seconds. Again, I tried to look through the slit in the fence. I saw nothing but dirt. “Do I have what?”

“Keys,” the voice answered.

I looked again at the bone keys before me. They were stuck through the keyhole as if someone had considered opening the door but changed their mind halfway through.

“There are keys here,” I said. “Is that what you mean?” I sounded much braver than I felt.

“Come in,” the voice said. “Come in.”

I reached for them, grasping hold. My hand moved a millimeter to the left before I changed my mind. I didn’t like the idea of opening a door without knowing the contents within. There was not enough space to look through in the fence. But there was a keyhole.

Instead of turning the lock, I pulled the key out, bending down to look through the keyhole.

Inside the fence, there was no vegetation, no bush or flower or sprig of grass. Just a circle of dirt. In the middle was a raised mound surrounded by a sunken ring of a trail as if someone had paced around and around and around, wearing the dirt away. None of this mattered much to me, though. Because dirt wasn’t the only thing inside.

There was also a girl. A young girl. About my age, probably. Everything about her was fair, from her almost translucent skin to her corn silk hair. She wore a cream colored dress and sat atop the mound of dirt rocking back and forth, twisting her head from side to side. She started to sing again.

Ring around the Rosie. Ring around the Rosie. Ring around. Ring around. Ring around…me.

The hairs on my arms raised as her hollow eyes landed on me. She stopped singing and smiled with only her lips.

“Come in, Wesley. I’ve been waiting for you here. Come in.”

A susurration from behind me forced me to pull away from the fence, looking wildly around. A trio of wolves stood on the edge of the forest watching me with narrowed eyes and bared teeth. White foam ringed their mouths.

Singing girls locked in wooden cages. Rabid wolves. What kind of town had my father brought us to this time?

I stood slowly, the bone keys still clutched in my hand, trying not to startle them.

This movement was too much. They began to charge. I had a good ten seconds until they reached me. My options were slim. I could try to outrun them, but I wasn’t a fast runner. I could try to fight them, but I had no weapon and my arms were puny. Or…

I looked back to fence, and feeling I had no other choice, I jammed the bone key into the keyhole and turned it hard to the left. I slipped in through the gate and slammed it shut behind me. The wolves crashed against the planks, snarling and growling.

I tripped back onto the hard ground, my chest rising and falling in rapid succession.

“I’ve been waiting for you, Wesley.”

Scrambling to my feet, I turned to see the little girl standing inside the trodden ring of dirt now, leaning towards me.

“What do you…what do you mean?”

“Come,” she said, stifling a giggle. “Come play in the ring.”

I stood, but I didn’t move. The wolves were still growling at the fence.

“I’m Roselyn,” she said.

I remember her song and whisper, “Ring around the Rosie?”

“Yes!” She giggled. “Ring around me.”

She laughed again, and continued to laugh, echoing around the ring. All of a sudden the laughter stopped and her eyes slowly rolled upwards until only the white was showing. Then she collapsed into the ring. Forgetting my fear of her, I rushed forward, falling to my knees beside the trodden ring of dirt and peering down.

Her flaxen hair covered her fair face and she didn’t appear to be breathing. I moved to touch her.

Then her hand flashed forward and clutched onto my arm. Her eyes, still all white, flew open and mine fell closed.

***

Blinking away the darkness, I opened my eyes. I was lying on dirt. A mound of dirt. Lifting my head, I tried to take in my surroundings. I was on the mound of dirt inside the circular trail. I was inside the ring. But the girl who was here before was nowhere to be seen.

Then my gaze moved to the gate, to the open keyhole. To the white-blue eyes staring through. A screeching giggle sounded on the other side of the fence.

And then she started to sing.

Ring around the Wesley. Ring around the Wesley. Ring around. Ring around. We all…fall…down.