Hello everybody! At long last, we have Results.
First off, I want to sincerely thank every single person who entered. There was not a single story that I did not enjoy, and I was blown away by the creativity you all implemented with the prompts. It was honestly painful whittling it down.
However, we had to, and it is my pleasure to announce to you the winners.
3rd place: “We Three Gifts”, by Sarah Holliday
2nd place: “Red, Yet White”, by Victoria Marinov
1st place: “Song for Liselei”, by Elisabeth Hayse
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): “Stardust”, by Carrie-Grace McConkey, “Tree Heart”, by Joni Patterson, and “The Dark Masquerade” by Hannah Wilson.
And I have the great honor of featuring the first-place entry here for you all to enjoy!
Song for Liselei
LIESL clutched her cloak about her neck. The Bleakwood creaked and groaned in the wind, its trees standing like ruined sentinels upon long shadows, reaching stiff arms into a dying gray sky. A lone hawk wheeled among the streaking clouds. The sun was nearly gone.
She had never been to the edge of the wood by night. Always before her brother had been with her. But her brother was gone now, these three days—gone like Father and Mother, gone like the snow, blown from the treetops by this bitter wind. Yet the snow would come again, and Hannes would not.
She wondered if the hound would come tonight, or if having waited in vain for three nights he had found a new haunt, a new hand to nuzzle, a new source of food. She and Hannes had fed him scraps every night for more than a year, but she had forgotten him these last few days. Even now all she had was a stale crust from the loaf she had half-eaten at daybreak. She was sorry. He was a fine animal and must have been accustomed to far better meals before he was lost in these woods. Only lords owned such dogs—tall, rangy, wolf-bred.
Her whistle met with no answering howl of joy, no whining scramble through the snow to meet her. She leaned against a tree and slid her back down the frozen bark, legs thrust out before her in the hard snow. Hot tears poured from her eyes. She was alone.
For a long stretch all the world stood hopeless and still. Then she heard, from afar, a voice singing.
Something in it stirred her: first her numb mind, then the blood in her veins, then the embers of her deadened heart. There was a strange power in the music, as though it was meant for her, whether the singer knew it or not. She scrambled to her feet shivering, cheeks stinging, heart racing.
The shadows parted beneath the trees. Her throat caught. A silver-clad rider on a great black horse came forth, singing to the new stars as though his heart would break. It was a dark, kingly face—a mournful face, with shadows cast beneath the brow—but in this moment it was consumed with the joy of making those strong, noble, throbbing notes. She did not understand the words he sang, but she knew they were of love.
There came a hoarse, howling bark and the song broke off. The man reined his horse in tightly with a sharp command. Dashing through the snow toward her was the hound.
‘Down, Hero, down!’ the man said, and through the wild assault of warm tongue and gray fur she saw him dismount. He took the hound by the scruff, scolding him. ‘A maid, Hero! For shame!’ The dog’s ears lowered in submission, but his tail wagged in secret glee.
Liesl brushed fur off her cloak.
‘I am sorry for my dog,’ said the man, shaking his head. ‘He is a rascal.’
‘It is no matter,’ said Liesl.
The man seized his horse’s bridle again. ‘Was it you who looked after my Hero in the woods? I had thought him dead a twelvemonth.’
‘My brother and I,’ she said. ‘We found him last winter, lamed.’
‘I am indebted to you both.’
She had not intended to weep, but tears came spilling out.
‘What, ay?’ said the man, moving toward her in concern. ‘Something troubles you?’
She hid her face.
‘Where is this brother of yours?’ he said with a smile in his voice. ‘He should take you home—it is too late and cold for you to be out in the woods.’
Liesl shook her head. ‘He is gone,’ she said between tight sobs. ‘He died of fever three days ago.’
The man murmured an exclamation and knelt to dry her tears, all smiles gone. ‘What, little maid? And what of the rest of your family?’
The sobs came harder.
‘It is a great thing, then, that I have found you,’ he said, getting to his feet. ‘I will take you back to Diamonta.’ A spray of glittering snow fell from the hem of his cloak. It was a fine cloak, thick and scarlet. His gloves were of new leather, his boots tall, coming higher than the knee. Liesl had never seen a man so richly dressed.
‘Who are you?’ she asked.
The man set his hands upon his hips. ‘I am Prince Diormo,’ he said, ‘and Diarron the Kingfather calls me son. Hero!’ He turned aside to snap his fingers at the hound, who was beginning to wander.
She felt suddenly faint. ‘You do not want me,’ she said. ‘I am cursed.’
‘My father said so,’ Liesl insisted. ‘That is why we had to leave our home. I do not remember it, but he said it was so.’
‘I am not afraid of curses,’ said the prince stoutly. ‘Shall I leave to the winter’s mercy one who was the saving of my Hero?’ He scratched the dog about the ears and under the chin. ‘And my father would not forgive me for leaving you.’
She did not protest. He took her hand and helped her climb onto the horse.
‘I will sing a song for you,’ he said, and swung up behind her, scattering light and shadow from his boots. ‘Come, Hero!’
FROM the moment the Princess Iolanza saw the girl, she recognized her and was afraid. She had thought Diarmo conquered. For a year he had sung only of Iolanza—her flashing eyes at daybreak, her jet hair at eventide. She had expected soon to bring him under her father’s dominion in the Deep-land. Yet now he rode in with this girl on his saddle, handing her down like a queen, and he had allowed her to stay at Diamonta, in the Kingfather’s palace, on some foolish excuse about his hound, and he had decked her in made-over gowns of his mother’s. He was not in the habit of bringing home peasants. Surely he had guessed from whence this maid sprang.
It was at the Festival of the Winter Moon that hope utterly forsook Iolanza. The light of a thousand candles blazed that night, glinting from glassy walls, glowing fiercely upon the golden pillars that ran upward like fiery trees, branching out to uphold the vaulted ceiling. The Kingfather sat upon his ivory throne, his hair streaked silver, his proud, hawkish face alight with joy; and at his side stood Diormo, carven in his father’s image but with sable hair. Ay, he was so handsome that night. The image haunted her dreams ever after.
She had dressed in scarlet, perfumed herself with spices and oils, hung her neck with rubies. She wore the mask of black lace that she had worn the night they first met, she and Diormo, and she saw that he was hungry for her glance, her smile, her laugh. But sitting in the shadow of the throne was the girl with the sad, dreaming eyes, and the sight set her soul burning.
As Diormo took her hand to dance she said, ‘The peasant child ill-becomes your father’s dais.’
‘Ah, no,’ he replied, smiling. ‘She does no harm. She is a good girl and the dogs love her.’
‘The ring is set upon my finger tomorrow,’ she said, ‘and the crown upon your head the day after. By the third day, let her be gone from here.’
‘Why?’ He laughed as they whirled in the light of the candles. ‘Have you taken a dislike to her?’
He was mocking. Her battle-blood rose. ‘Diormo,’ she said, ‘you shall send her away.’
‘Shall?’ A dark note colored his voice. ‘Shall? That is a strong word, Iolanza. I want you for my queen, not my goddess. If this is meant as a test of my love—’
‘It is no test of your love. Áncielo! If I wanted to test your love I should have had you in torment long ago. But she must not stay.’
He was stubborn. ‘Why should I send away a maid who never harmed a soul, who saved the life of my favorite hound—’
Anger burst in a flash before her eyes, blinding her. She jerked her hand from his. ‘Enough! Will you send her away?’
They had stopped in the middle of the dancing floor, and the room had ceased to spin around them. The music went on, faster and faster, but the dancers slowed.
She saw him scrambling for an answer, caught between her demand and his pride. The black eyes flickered. ‘No,’ he said.
Rage rushed through her, sweeping all before it in a cold wave. She tore the mask madly from her face, threw it to the ground, and stamped upon it. ‘Take a bride from the gutter,’ she said.
‘Seek me in my father’s realm! All the songs your soul can conjure will not avail you against the Darksinger.’
As through a haze she heard the gasps of the onlookers and saw the face of Diormo, aghast at her father’s name. Fiercely she laughed. ‘You are surprised. But my father draws all powers of music to himself. You might have known he would send for you, Diormo of the Proud Voice.’
And she cried out, and casting her red train about her, vanished.
PRINCE Diormo strode from the hall like a storm, the shadow of Iolanza’s words dark upon him. He locked himself in his apartments, answering to no one. But about midnight a low knock was heard at the door and his chamberlain’s voice called, ‘Your highness, the child Liesl is gone.’
Diormo jerked his doublet over his shirt and flung the door open. ‘Kidnapped?’
The chamberlain shook his head. ‘Fled.’
He reached for his belt and wrapped it round his middle. ‘How long ago?’
‘She was seen an hour ago, but not since.’
‘That accursed woman! Why should she bedevil the girl? What can she have against her?’
‘Will you have your dogs called?’ asked the chamberlain.
Diormo flung on his cloak. The breeze made the candle by the door dance. ‘Yes, bring them to me. The dogs will find her.’
LIESL awoke to the sound of trees murmuring. At first she thought she was back in the Bleakwood, but this forest was warmer, these trees thicker and darker. A heavy night-musk hung in the air.
She had jumped into the lake. That was it. The prince had lost his bride because of her, and she had run down to the lake from Diamonta on the heights. She had seen the lights—a million twinkling lights, not stars, summoning her from its depths. And now she was here, not in the starry city that had called to her heart, but in this strange forest. She had come into the Deep-land, of which so many tales were told.
She wandered as in a dream through patches of moonglow and shadow, unable to feel hurt or cold or sorrow, until at last she stumbled upon a treeless glade, bathed in music. Were they fairy-folk that danced here, tall and beautiful? They seemed to be inviting her to join in, laughing, and she knew the words of their songs….
Come to the Forest,
abode of the night-folk,
home of the dancers,
Come to the Forest,
dwelling of dreams;
cast off your fears,
tangled in moonlight;
dance in the light of the stars.
She knew not how long she whirled among them before she saw the dark figure, standing under the eaves of the forest watching her. At first she thought it was Diormo, but as it advanced toward her slow horror chilled her heart, and she knew that it was not he.
‘Liselei,’ said a strong, soft voice, calling her by a name she had forgotten. ‘You are come home. Have you forgotten that there is now no throne here for you?’
In that moment her memory returned. She remembered the Darksinger, who had arisen over the Deep-land and set his accursed song upon it, singing castles down, singing the sun from the sky. She remembered her father, wounded and withered by the cruel voice, and the flashing-eyed princess who had laughed at her.
The night-folk fled. Her enemy loomed over her, a great gaping blackness in the soft, sweet dark of the forest. He opened his mouth to sing, and her knees nearly gave way. She had no voice to oppose him.
Then, from afar, came the sound of a dog barking.
‘WHAT, ay?’ Diormo strode into the glade, eyes flashing. ‘Slay a child for a woman’s jealousy? Is that the way of it?’
‘Jealousy!’ The Darksinger braced his shoulders. ‘You are a great fool, Diarron’s son. This is the Deep-king’s daughter.’
‘Then she is queen of this place!’ Diormo cried, amazed.
‘Not so,’ said the Darksinger. He cried shrilly. From the trees swarmed forth many shapes, dark like himself. Diormo strove against them, but they seized him and held him fast. The dogs cowered.
Then out of the darkness came Iolanza, clad in silver. She looked upon the prince with still eyes. ‘So. You have come. Not seeking me, but championing the peasant child.’ Slowly she nodded. ‘Ay, Diormo. I see.’
‘Go from me,’ he said, as though it pained him to speak. ‘I would not harm you.’
‘You will not,’ she said. ‘You will be destroyed. But I will go, as you ask.’ She turned, and with one last, long look, melted into the trees.
Diormo struggled. Watching his brave, defiant face, Liesl was afraid. Had she not told him there was a curse upon her? But he had scorned curses.
‘Will you die too?’ mocked the dark voice. ‘You who loved my daughter? Must I set an aria burning in your veins until the panting life is gone?’
Diormo closed his eyes, and Liesl thought that he was in despair. But his lips parted, and he began very softly to sing.
The mocking lines of the Darksinger’s face deepened. He smiled as a man who is threatened by that which has no power. ‘Ay, sing on,’ he said. ‘I will meet you there.’ Diormo’s voice grew richer, as if he drew strength and beauty from the night, and Liesl, listening, sank to her knees. Around them loomed the dark shapes, but above them hung the stars.
Raise, O night, thine evil;
Strike, O dark, to slay.
It is thy soul shall tremble first,
And thine arm shall fall.
Arise, arise, my heart!
Cast down the circling stars!
I see it now beyond the hills:
The dawn is coming.
The shadows that had pinioned him fell back trembling. But the Darksinger strode toward him, crushing him down with a voice like black thunder in the trees:
A bold song,
A brave song.
Sing, ay, sing on:
Dawn shall not rise on thee.
Night reigns eternal!
Despair, now, and die.
But Diormo rose again, swaying, bracing his legs, singing of the morning that rose somewhere beyond the sky, casting golden light upon lakes and glades and fells—upon Diamonta, gleaming in the dawn. Again and again he staggered before that mighty voice as Liesl had once seen her father stagger. Never had she heard a mortal man sing as he sang in that hour; and he strove with pain for his breath, yet he breathed on.
At last he was cast to the ground. He sobbed rather than sang. The Darksinger towered over him. ‘Give up, brave fool. It is over.’
But Diormo raised his head again and staggered to his knees, crying defiance.
A violent, white-hot note stabbed through his song as though to slay him. He rose up, and it seemed that all the forest rose with him and the very stars trembled as courage poured forth from his mouth. And he sent his last strength through the heart of hisfoe in an agony of glory.
The earth was shaken; the heavens bowed. Rain fell in sheets and light sprang up from the ground beneath their feet. The Darksinger fell limp upon the grass, and the voices of all the people of the land rose together, crying in wonder, Liselei! Liselei!
BUT Liselei the queen crawled to Diormo, who had fallen in the crushed and dewy grass, and she wept. A nuzzling warmed her shoulder and she threw her arm about the neck of the hound. He lay down with a sigh, his head upon his master’s body.
She remembered the words of the Darksinger—night reigns eternal. But she looked, and the sky was bathed in golden flame: the sun was rising. She remembered, too, what he had said to Diormo—dawn shall not rise on thee. And she raised her eyes and saw the dawn, and heard the wind singing in the branches of the trees; and Diormo rose upon his knees, wiping her tears from his face.
‘Liesl,’ he said. ‘Is it you?’
‘It is I,’ she sobbed. ‘It is the morning, Diormo.’
He took her hand and they stood upright, looking about the glade. The hound whimpered with happiness. The prince reached down to scratch him beneath the chin. ‘You are a queen now,’ he said gently, and his voice was hoarse. ‘Shall I take you back to Diamonta?’
‘Back to Diamonta?’
‘I am not afraid of curses.’ He smiled.
‘The curse is broken,’ she said softly. ‘Yet I have a kingdom I must rule here.’
He nodded, swaying a little. The hound ran ahead of them through the sun-soaked grass, barking with joy. ‘You will stay, then,’ he said. ‘Yet not forever, perhaps.’ He looked down at her gently. ‘When you are weary, come to the forest, Liesl, and lift up your head; and I will stand beside the lake that is below Diamonta, and I will sing to you.’
She smiled through sudden tears. ‘I will,’ she said.