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A Fantasy Prologue

By CJ MillerPublished 2 years ago Updated 7 months ago 15 min read
Runner-Up in The Fantasy Prologue

There weren't always dragons in the Valley. Whilst Lysander drew breath, all manner of beasts were relegated to the Highlands, leaving the gentle to inherit the Village. In gratitude, the Meadows erupted with vitality, a thousand shades of florid splendour peacocking for the merriment of Men and Dwarves alike.

The Colouring, as 'twas dubbed, ushered in peace and prosperity theretofore unknown. Alas, things of beauty are never destined to endure. On the eve that found the Stone Witch creeping through the Tower, fierce winds destroyed...

Chapter One

Mirta Kralj wedges a scrap of parchment against the book's spine, a gesture born of habit more than function. For as often as she's devoured this volume, The Mists of Olde Zagreb, every page can be located with eyes squeezed shut.

The small girl hops from her bed and lands with nary a thud, the rug's surface scuffing her feet anew. Despite many an available sock, she is perpetually—nay, proudly—barefoot, having refused a swaddle even in infancy.

Life makes for myriad prisons in due course; the humble sole should well be spared.

By her best estimation, morning has returned. Releasing a yawn in the shape of an O, she patters to the cupboard, her trusty sidekick bringing up the rear. His panting bathes her heels in warmth, a welcome comfort.

Midway through their travels, she comes to a halt, the familiar listlessness taking root. Versed in her oddities and customs, Pip stops short, avoiding calamity.

She gives him a scritch beneath the chin. "Darling boy."

In a moment, Mirta will continue on as though nothing has transpired. This, too, is de rigueur. For now, the worn path of thirteen paces remains daunting as a trek across the tundra.

She debates how many rituals one can perform without betwixt periods of purpose. Save for her pup, that chalice runneth dry.


La-da-dee Da-da-dah

Mirta retrieves two bowls and ladles up the porridge, placing a generous helping on the slate tile. Hips a-wag, Pip munches with the gusto of a feasting prince.

She plops down next to him, pushing her spoon to and fro. It is tempting to envision the lumpiness as a buttered biscuit, a jammy egg, perhaps some clotted cream or, woe, Nan's beach plum preserves.

The borscht her mother deemed a cure-all may right suffice, earthiness be darned.

Like vines in a jungle, she shoves these visions aside. Recasting their lot as something grand might, she frets, loosen her grasp on the tangible. She already feels a dying dandelion whose wisps could be stolen away by a sneeze. The blandness, then, shall serve as mealy anchor.

Mirta takes a nibble.

Food and sundries have become a curious business. Like clockwork, the larder refills itself in secret, always the same scant pickings: water in the basin, a portion of crisps, the infernal oats.

She burns through kindling only to find her pile replenished, the lamp blubber following suit.

Curiouser still is the music that swirls in the cellars of her mind. Shy of a lullaby, less than a dirge, the melody is unnerving, cloying. Ceaseless.


La-da-dee Da-da-dah

It has been this way since the troubles arrived.

On that drizzly, ho-hum Tuesday, she rose to find her mother heating the kettle. When she requested sausage, there came no reply. When she tugged the tall woman's apron, her pleading was met with a chilly hush.

Mirta banged on pans. She hollered in hysterics. She sobbed into her sleeve. Good as erased, the ruckus amounted to naught.

Her father soon claimed his spot at the nook where he, too, failed to inventory his daughter. Both greeted Pip, she noticed, with their usual fanfare, her brothers repeating the surreal slight.

Frightened to her fingertips, Mirta wanted to run, to call upon her aunt by the babbling brook, but knobs would not turn and levers would not pull. So it remained for a grueling stretch, she alongside them, a specter unseen.

Wary of this possibility, she took a sewing needle and stabbed the pad of her pointer, wincing as a ruby bubble formed and dispersed.

Evidence that her heart still endures, if only by its lonesome.

Her final moments among kin are never far from thought. Elaria, her mum, was peeling potatoes for stew, their kitchen made fragrant by sputtering onions and herbs. Mirta, desperate over the dearth of touch, reached out to caress her curls.

On contact, an arc of white lit up her periphery and rattled her skull. Next she knew, she was buried beneath a pouf of linens, the bedroom door refusing to budge.

When at last it gave way, she emerged to a foreign landscape. The house, stripped of many a belonging, was cold and caked in dust, its cheery chairs muted by neglect. But for a lantern, all was dark.

Her family was nowhere to be found.

With them went the windows and other means of egress, every cranny buttoned up tight. She hasn't known two-legged company—nor sunshine and songbirds, nor freshly plucked tomatoes, leafy to the nostrils and tangy on the tongue—since.

No rain to invigorate her senses. No winter or autumnal delights.

Once upon a time, the thatched roof would trickle inward, leaving the odor of mould on the air. Though offensive to start, she rather grew to like this invader from the Outside.

That, too, took leaky leave.

Led astray by faery stories, she sought to rejoin her tribe through the promise of magick: yanking on candlesticks and peering into mirrors; embracing incantations as if they were a birthright.

Searching the hutches and chifforobes for passage to planes wild.

Her quest yielded none better than a broken spirit and three or so splinters. Exhausted, she sank to the carpet and, praying for grace in surrender, allowed fate to wash over her, a grim baptism.

Pip, praise Gods, can meander beyond these walls via a gap in the eaves, one that vanishes at Mirta's approach. Eleven sleeps ago, he carted in a sprig of lilac that clung to his coat.

This was the day she learned spring survives.

Mirta inhaled the nectar until it faded to ambrosial murmur, stowing the browned petals beneath her pillow as proof that the world wakes and slumbers and, somewhere, children play.


La-da-dee Da-da-dah

As she scrubs the breakie pot, her reflection peeks out from its patina. Upswept almonds that rest upon corners; a hint of a nose with blunted tip; a heart-ish profile that narrows to a point.

Her mane, the shade of Provençal lavender.

Time is a nebulous affair, no reliable method by which to track its progression. She has yet to age a wink since her eighth Name Day, this ill-fitting skin a second cage for the girl who grows within.

By contrast, she knows a pain assumed native to Elders, those whose odysseys have, without rhyme or reason, gone on longer than their beloveds, by and by taking each teensy joy that made the doing of the dull bearable.

Through it all, there is Pip, the stray her father brought home whilst she was in nappies. A fuzzy soldier in her war against solitude, an ardent sympathizer when the burdens declare victory.

She once asked her grandmother why dogs are partial to fur over scales.

The better to absorb your cries, Mimi.

Mirta rarely has the chance to pet Pip, precisely, for when in want of affection, he takes matters into his own paws. Shimmying beneath an arm with the slick of his snout, he will toss her hand skyward, leaving no option but for it to land atop his dome, that perfect scoop of vanilla crème.

He then lowers his lids in bleary bliss, or stares adoringly into her soul, his capacity for love unencumbered, as if he hadn't come to them mistreated.

Maybe, more astutely, because he had.

In the early stages of exile, she would give chase about the cottage, hungry for amusement. Pip romped and tackled, apologetic in the event of clumsy claws and errant tooths.

Sometimes the licking of her face would be so exuberant that she'd squeal and gasp with glee. A passerby, were he able to hear, would've remarked, "Therein lives jubilation."

Pretty notion, that.


She freshens Pip's drinking dish, the greenish colour a gateway to topics unwise.

She thinks of Henrik, the boy from across the stream whose mother so despised Mirta for being from Afar. Mrs. Helena Smed had been careful to overlook that most, Smed clan included, are interlopers at some juncture, a challenge to another's propriety.

Folk tend to vary from bartered seedlings, seldom sprouting where planted.

Henrik's locks had been the blond of cornsilk. His eyes, vials of sea after squall. On the evening he came to her window, each pressed a palm to the frozen pane. Under a taper's glow, her gaze met his and, for but a blip, recognition ignited in those teal orbs.

Mirta's heart journeyed to the Cosmos and back. If there were one alive who would enquire of her welfare, champion her return to the Free—who could simply remember to remember her—it was dear Henrik, he who fished her half-dead from the Swamp on a portentous afternoon in their sixth year.

Instead, eyes reverting to hollows, he turned and disappeared down the lane. Dreams notwithstanding, she never saw him again. At that, only through tears, vignettes of their golden hours behind rain-pelted glass.

She wonders now, shame dappling her cheeks, if what she perceived as concern had been her own visage, a trick of the light transmuted into hope.

No poison so fatal to the Damned and the lonely.

Observing his retreat, Mirta saw that hero is the parlance of myth. Young lads are but cowards, no sturdier than the cocky sunflower that bows its head at first frost.

Henrik, prone to bombast and quick to swear an oath, qualified in spades.

And yet her friend is with her; an ache in her shoulders, a heaviness about the chest. He is not alone. When the day has been arduous and the night won't remit her to Nod, she ponders her ghosts past the brink of absurdity—

Whether they carry on independent of rumination; whether they still resemble those on which they were fashioned.

If they, these phantoms, may become conscious enough to consider her in return, perhaps shake apart the mysteries that hang like cobwebs.

With a shrug, she closes herself off to the dross.

Sweet Pip needs his supper.


Once her pup has gone off to frolic, Mirta kneels before the hearth, stoking the fire with a length of iron.

Above the crackle, among the interminable riff, she catches a rustling sound, then that of leathered footsteps.

Finally, the rasp of male breath.

Without turning, she says, "I knew you'd come."

"It was meant to be."

The stranger first appeared during the witching hour, so very long ago. She happened to be afoot, a tot toddling in want of juice.

Wee Mirta had screamed at his imposing form, at coalish eyes that spoke of the Shadows, but when her parents reached her side, the room was vacant.

They convinced themselves of night terrors, easily remedied with steamed milk and snuggles. The disquiet in her core told a different tale.

He will return, she thought, somehow aware fuss was futile.

The eventual absence of doors did nothing to allay this certainty. It is, after all, her curse to know of select things.

Her father studied his parcel and its creaturely inhabitants. Her mother, their home; how to leaven bread, conquer fever, and mend the ficklest of fabrics. Damir, the oldest, spewed philosophy with uncharted aplomb.

Brother Aerin could tame person and beast with instruments assorted.

Mirta wears no such cap. She's made solely of instinct, that thrumming, primordial strand that shoots straight through the innards and taut up the spine, as though in place of smarts, she'd been granted foresight.

It has not, to be delicate, proven useful. One could foresee the demise of entire kingdoms with exacting detail. Until the empowered act, it's merely words, less substantial than the spittle on which vowels are borne.

Thus it comes as faint surprise that today—on this day with no name, in a month of uncertainty, in a year falling neatly between the dawn of Man and unholy Oblivion—the Traveler has returned, seated himself on fusty furniture, and fixed her with a look of stark, unbridled hatred.

She pivots.


He is puffing on something embered, its perfume rank. Plumes of smoke waft towards her like outstretched tentacles.

She looks away, repulsed. The only smoke she enjoys is that which lends cosiness to a holiday morn. Or, she amends with longing, her grandfather's pipe, loaded up with cherry tobacco for a sunset stroll.

"What do you want with me?" she says.

"Have you not the desire to ask my identity?"

His voice is menacing, scratchy, ants traversing her neck, their toes dipped in peppered honey.

"Would you answer in earnest?"

"Impertinence," the man drawls, "is most unbecoming."

Ignoring his haughtiness, she surveys the nearby table, its surface scattered with chronicles of adventure. Despite her skepticism, a dash of hope lingers.

She allows herself one query.

"Am I the subject of prophecy?"

The Traveler leans forward, wetting her ear with exhale. He smells of mead and salt pork, a nauseating amalgam, and his clothes harbour the road like a seasoned vagabond.

"You, Mirta, are beneath a commoner," he spits. "Abandoned to wither."

He knows my name, she thinks, even pronouncing it as Nan had: Meer-ta.

The girl inspects the shopworn floor, an attempt to obscure her anguish.

"My family will be back," she asserts, frustrated that the sentiment seemed bolder before shared aloud.

He savours her discomfit, smudging the sooty stick out on his boot. It hisses. a series of sizzling S's bouncing off the curved framework.

"Do you fail to understand? They do not want you. What of value can you offer?"

She juts forth her chin, willing tremor not to permeate speech. "I pity you your cruelty, sir."

"And I pity you your sopping sincerity. But worm food to the cunning."

"I am the descendent of kings! Our name means as much. Father told me, and he does not lie."

His laughter is phlegmy, derisive. "One could fill a library with what you don't know of Evan Kralj."

As he speaks, a distinctive spark slithers behind his pupils. She has, she sees now, met this man on many occasions.

He wore other faces. The refined woman with an ebony braid. A wizened clerk cloaked in feeble façade.

Today he is fair with waxy pallor, trout left to rot under noontime rays.

She suspects this is the demon unadorned.


La-da-dee. . .

Perhaps reading her mind, the Traveler approachs.

As he does, Pip scampers in from the fields. Noting their proximity, the canine makes short work of the parlour's depth, his body between them before Mirta can react.

She feels a surge of fondness matched in ferocity only by Pip's growl. Gone is the ball of fluff who once snoozed besides her cradle. In his stead stands a guardsman, millennia of wolfish defenses resurrected in a blink.

"No, angel. No!"

Mirta rests a hand against his noggin. He is vibrating with fury, scarcely able to obey.

I know, she relays through soothing strokes. I'd like to dismantle him, too, Pippy.

The Traveler, for his part, seems undaunted. He gingerly steps around the duo, tossing a sack of beads, umber and plump, upon the fire.

From behind them comes a whoosh.

The room is alight with the beauty of a pregnant moon, more glorious than any in her memory. Where a wall should be, there is but open space, a locale too vibrant to be confined by language.

Stars glitter like faceted gems. Trees of every hue sway and swish in the wind. A lush mist—Mirta's favourite—trickles from their branches, ready to cleanse all trace of days passed in sorrow.

"This," he says with self-importance, "is my purpose. Stay or go. I will tell you no more."

Entranced, the girl wiggles her bare toe past the mirage's border, repeating the process until her ankle is submerged. A breeze eddies about starved flesh like kisses from Valhalla.

It's as wonderful as she imagined.

Dabbing away the weepies, she archives the sensation with care. Then, unexpected to all, Mirta summons the discipline to withdraw.

"I will stay. Here, I've got sustenance and the finest companion. Only a fool would squander such blessings."

It is not enough to consume fables—one must heed their warnings. She will not risk leading Pip into mayhem.

With that, the Traveler hoists up his satchel and strides towards the moonlight.

Sans warning, he changes course, lunging into her orbit and taking her by the wrist.

Pip charges forward, set to give his life, but the man releases Mirta and turns sharply, leaving the portal exposed and center. The dazed dog touches down upon exotic earth, having jumped through time and space.

By means nefarious, Mirta has been fastened to the ground, limbs solid as whittled wood. She can only stare at her precious pup, his horror plain.

There shall be no rescue tonight.

I love you, she mouths. Always.

Pip's enormous eyes echo her vow.


Satisfied, the Traveler makes his exit, extinguishing the flames with a snap. As the enchanting world dissolves, he leaves her with one last riddle. "You were but a complication, never the prize."

Pip, giver of smooches and source of smiles, is gone.

So, too, she realizes amid her grief, is the distant music.


For Chance


About the Creator

CJ Miller

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insight

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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Comments (3)

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  • Brian DeLeonard2 years ago

    I was really pulled by Traveler and his riddles. Very compelling.

  • The cadence of your writing is lovely and fits the story well. My great great great grandfather's name was Lysander!

  • Sara Rose2 years ago

    I absolutely loved the way you played with language in this story. I could almost feel it, if that makes sense! There was such rich imagery throughout. I'm looking forward to Chapter Two :)

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