Winter’s Writing War was Holy World’s second writing contest. The first was in January of last year and had five categories; poetry, short stories, novel hooks, drabbles, and creature description. This year the contest was open only to short story under five thousand words, in three categories: Historical, Science Fiction, and Fantasy. On St. Valentine’s Day, February 14, we announced six winners.
We had a total of 24 entries. 10 in the Fantasy category, 8 in Science Fiction, and 7 in Historical Fiction. Over the next six weeks the winning entries along with their judge’s comments will be posted on the blog in the following order:
Fantasy – First Place: Forbidden, by J. Grace Pennington
Science Fiction – First Place: Resurrection Train, by Braden Russell
Historical – First Place: Mama’s Clock, by Hannah Mills
Fantasy – Second Place: The Four Choices, by Riniel Jasmina
Science Fiction – Second Place: Verdani’s Key, by BushMaid
Historical – Second Place: The Messenger, by BushMaid
J. Grace Pennington
First Place – FANTASY
It was locked in a stone sanctuary, high in the mountains. I knew that, because everyone knew it. No one knew what it was, but everyone knew it was forbidden. There were rumors that some had tried in the past to see it, to use it, but those rumors were whispers from foregone ages. Few were even allowed to go up to the mountain anymore.
And as a dying race, men had no choice but to obey the orders given them.
Like most children in the valley I asked about the mountain when I was little. And like most children, I was shushed until I didn’t dare bring up the subject except in curious murmurs with my workmates in the gardens. We’d gather information wherever, however, and from whomever we could, then share it as we pulled the stubborn weeds in the gardens of the lords.
No human alive had seen it, though they said that the heirim and the kalor could see it as often as they liked. But they kept it from us, whatever it was. It was a thing not spoken of, a silent void reaching down through I didn’t know how many generations. Probably it hadn’t been used since before men began to die out and the heirim and kalor grasped supremacy.
My father, the stoneworker for the heirim, probably got closer to it than any other man. But he told me that the room where it was kept was always locked with big stone doors, and a single, bulky, furry male heirim always stood guard, day and night. The dominant races were taking no chances at man gaining entrance to it.
It was as if they feared that it would give men the power to take back rule of the valley — and with it, the world.
It would have been sedition to have said so aloud, and the kalor had spies everywhere, but I’d seen in my father’s eyes many times the desire to know what it was — what it did, what the other races were so afraid of.
Maybe that was why he let me go along with him to the sanctuary one day in the summer of my eleventh year.
I walked beside him in the dawn of the day, trying to match his steps as we hiked up the mountain, watching as his bucket of stoneworking tools swing with his arm as he took long, firm steps.
“What will I do there, Da?” I asked as we continued to climb, feeling the rising sun on our backs.
“The beds need weeded,” he said gruffly.
I kept silent, accepting the excuse. We walked on.
The sun was fast approaching its apogee when we reached the sanctuary, nestled near the top of the mountain.
I stared at it as we approached. It was grand, tall, with workmanship far exceeding any of the simpler, cruder structures the other races called mansions down in the valley. The heirim claimed that they had built it, and the kalor claimed that they had. I had once believed them, but it wasn’t long before my young mind put together the facts.
My father was the only one ever called to work on it.
Neither of the dominant races had built it. Only men had that kind of craftsmanship.
No one knew why it had been built, what it’s original purpose had been. Now, it was as bare and cold and empty as the square stone boxes that the other races called home. They had no use for the place. But it was a testament of their superiority, so they hung onto it with a tenacity that was unnecessary. Men had given up long ago.
A heirim met my father and I at the great stone door, his tall, furry body stationed in a masterful poise, supported by the spear he held. The spear was almost upright, but its point was slightly inclined in our direction. Just enough towards us for me to notice it.
The gaze of his black eyes pierced my father. “Who is this, Joram?”
“My son, Callan.” My father moved his free arm protectively around my shoulders. “He is here to weed the beds.”
The heirim stared at me, its round, furry face suspicious. “To weed the beds?”
“Yes, my lord.”
I looked up at the creature, snuggling a little closer into my father’s guarding embrace. At last the heirim nodded. “Weed, my friend. Joram, the pillar at the other end of the portico is in need of repair and some decorative work.” As he led my father towards the far corner of the building, he turned back to yell over his shoulder, “Weed, I tell you. You may enter when the sun is high and eat your meal, but you may not tamper with the sacred doors.”
I nodded wordlessly, and watched them vanish. The sacred doors housed it, I knew that fact as well as anyone else in the valley.
I watched them round the stone corner, and then knelt to begin to weed out the unwanted growth in the soft dirt beds around the structure.
I had made my way halfway across the front of the sanctuary when the hot sun began to send drops of perspiration rolling down my back. Breathing deeply I sat back and wiped my brow with my sleeve, then grabbed a skin of water from my pack.
I drank deeply, savoring the soothing of the liquid as it trickled down my throat. Then I hoisted up my pack and slipped into the cool stone of the sanctuary.
It was so bare. A single, empty room, pillared at regular intervals with ornately carved supports. The ceiling was high, with sweeping arches that seemed as though they must touch the stars on the other side.
Looking up at it made me feel small, so I brought my gaze back down and started ahead.
Those had to be them. Giant iron bars held them tightly shut, and they were forbiddingly tall and thick and heavy.
Fascinated, I walked forward, in a trance-like state. It was behind the doors. I was closer to it than I’d ever dreamed I would be.
The stone seemed to fall away before my eyes and reveal a fuzzy shape behind, something enormous, a machine of destruction that could make the heirim and kalor crumble before its power.
“Who are you?”
I dropped my pack and whipped my head towards the voice. I could tell it was one of the kalor just by the pitiful, whining tone.
I stared as he approached, just over my height, the long, thin, silky reddish hair riding down his back in torrents. His thin, feathered frame slunk nearer, his black eyes fixed firmly on me. “Who are you?” he asked again, not menacingly, just curiously.
“Callan,” I said.
He crept closer until he was close enough to lay a bony clawed hand on my shoulder, which he did, still peering intensely at me.
“You are a man,” he breathed, as if stating it to himself. “You must know how to use it.”
I stared back. “What?”
“You must know,” he said matter-of-factly, dropping his hand and approaching the doors. “You are a man.”
He reached under his feathers and pulled out a stone key. I watched as he fitted it hurriedly, with little, scampering movements, to the stone lock that hung below the bars on the door. “What are you doing?” I cried as he turned it.
“I must see it used,” he murmured, twisting the key viciously. “I must see it used before I die, and none of us can use it.”
I watched in fascination mingled with horror as he pulled the key out and a great levy of pulleys began to work, pulling the bars out one by one until they hung uselessly by the wall, leaving the great stone doors naked before me.
“Don’t just stand there, help me push!” the kalor cried, applying his shoulder to the left door. I rushed to help him, leaning my hardest.
It budged. A fingerlength. Two. Five. The sweat broke from my forehead and back again, but I kept pushing. Ten.
“It is enough!” he cried. “Quick… quick, inside.”
He scampered in, and I looked once over my shoulder at the empty room, then hurried after him.
The room was huge, larger in itself than any of the mansions in the valley, but it was so bare. So dark. Only a speck of light shone through the miniscule window on the wall opposite the doors. And in the center of the room were two objects. A small wooden stool, and a tall, wide object, larger than me, draped with a course green cloth.
The kalor hustled forward and swept the cloth away, and I stared.
A sweeping wooden frame, intricately carved, in a shape I did not recognize. It was smaller on the bottom than on the top, And stretched from top to bottom were strings. So many strings. I couldn’t count them all. But in the bit of light that came into the room, they sparkled.
“What is it?” I gaped, taking in the strings and the wood and the curves and the carvings.
“It is harp. We do not know how to use it. It makes noise, but we do not understand it. Only man understands it. Use it.”
He gestured with his spindly arm, making me tremble. “But… I’ve never seen one before.”
“Use!” he barked. “Little time!”
My heart beating hard with fear I slipped to the stool and settled myself onto it. Then I looked down at the strings, stretching away before me.
I reached out my right hand and laid it against the strings. They were cold. Metal. Strings of metal.
I ran my hand towards me, and heard the most beautiful sound of my life. Tinkling far sweeter than bells broke through the room, releasing rainbows in the dark, chasing away my fear with every gentle note.
I laid my left hand on the other side and did the same thing, then watched the kalor drop to his knees, eyes wide, clawed hands clasped. “Do it again!” he moaned.
Obediently, I pressed both hands to the sides of the strings and pulled them back, bending my fingers slightly. The sounds were louder this time. I reached out with my right hand and pulled a single string, releasing a sweet, clear sound into the silent, stony air. I did the same with my left hand, then began to pull other strings, trying the notes against each other, inclining my left ear towards it so I could better take in the beauty.
Seductive sparkles of sound leapt through the room, blending better as my confidence grew. The tinkles grew into a tune, and the tune into a song, and still I pulled the strings. The kalor, kneeling before me, wept, and listened, and mourned that he could not make the sounds. But any feeling of triumph over him I might have felt was swept away by the complete harmony we felt from being at the mercy of the beauty.
“What is this?”
I pulled my hands away from the strings, and for a moment, the magic lingered in the air. Then I was once again a slave child, in a dark, stony room on a hot day.
My father and the heirim stood in the doorway, my father’s collar being roughly held by his master. “Kand…”
The kalor jumped up, his hands still clasped. “Rebach, please, if you could hear, if you could hear what man can do, the music he can make…”
He was cut off by a bark from the heirim. “The sentence is upon you.”
Music. I rolled the word around in my mind, tasted it, found it to be sweet, to match the magic I had just made with the strings.
“And as for you, young man…” the heirim, it’s furry brows driven hard together, stepped towards me, but my father cried out.
“No, Rebach! It was my fault. I told him to. He is a child, he knew no better, he has many years ahead of him. I am the one who should be sentenced.”
I stared in bewilderment.
The heirim seemed to hesitate. My father’s eyes begged me for something, and the kalor trembled, tears still draining from his small, black eyes.
My father’s shoulder relaxed.
The heirim took a step closer to me. “You will never come back here. You will never speak of this to anyone. You will forget what happened here.”
I nodded, fear returning to me, but a small center of warmth remained inside my heart.
“Return to your home.”
I looked at my father, who held out his arms. Still unsure what was happening, I ran to him and he embraced me, holding me so tightly I could hardly breathe.
“Don’t forget,” he whispered. Then he let me go.
“Return to your home,” the heirim said again, and with their three sets of eyes upon me, I could do nothing but pass through the doorway, pick up my pack, and leave the sanctuary.
It wasn’t until I was halfway down the mountain, and the sun was touching the top of the mountain behind me, that the full import of my father’s absence hit me. Then I wept, cried my heart out as I walked, stumbled down the path, never stopping, but crying all the way.
My heart had been made complete and then broken in the space of an hour.
The years passed, and they did not heal the wound of my father’s death, nor did they erase the memory of the music. Never did I tell anyone about what had happened that day. Not my mother, not my children, not my grandchildren.
But in a dark corner of the cellar, carefully hidden behind my winter provisions, is a wooden frame, smaller at the bottom than the top, with metal strings stretching from the top to the bottom. I just need a few more strings.
Then at last I will hear the music again.
Why did this story win?
Luke Alistar: I LOVE the descriptions of music. I always do. My favorite books ever are ones that have marvelous pictures of music in them. The ending is wonderfully bittersweet.
Aubrey: Excellent opener. Great narrative style. Reveals just enough details to keep things clear and vivid without becoming “telling.” This premise has been done before, but the good writing gives this one an edge.
Bethany Faith: Music pretty; Bethy biased. The ending was nice. Sort of mysterious and not too sudden. The whole concept of the thing sitting in a basement where someone else can discover it leaves for a world of options, which is a nice way to end a story, in my opinion.
What would have made this story even better?
Luke Alistar: I must comment on something in the first line of dialogue in the story that bothered me. The father says something ‘gruffly’. The adverb is simply not needed. Without it, the words still carry a tone of gruffness. And if you don’t feel that’s enough, it can be reinforced with a comment about the father’s voice being gruff. Anything but the adverb. Other than that, the dialogue and writing is fantastic. Could use a little more visual details, but then, I’m a horribly non-visual person.
Aubrey: A few points of the plot were mildly confusing – if the temple-thing was “bare and empty,” why did they keep it well-repaired and have Joram add “decorative work” to it? The idea of the boy seeing past the closed doors was kind of weird. If the room was so protected, might they have covered the window? I was a little confused at the end with his father taking the blame, but it was a very lovely ending.
Bethany Faith: Of course, prejudices aside, there were some confusing parts where I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. The creatures that guarded the castle I was sort of left imagining by myself, which is okay in a sense, but distracts from the story more than I’d like. I would have liked to know a bit more about what happened with the whole incident, since the consequences sort of seemed to be skipped over to an extent.
About the Author
J. Grace Pennington is a homeschool graduate and a prolific writer, authoring novels, articles, film and book reviews, and screenplays. When she’s not writing you can usually find her working and playing with her family of eleven. Her greatest desire is to give glory to God with her writing.