THE THRILLING DAY!!
But wait. Don't scroll down yet. We have some important stuffage before the winners. :P
First of all, I want to say that many, many entries in this contest showed a phenomenal amount of skill, artistry, and thought. I was intrigued and delighted as I read through them. The joy, sorrow, expectancy of winter or Christmas really shone strongly through them. There were a lot more than three stories vying for placement, and we deliberated long and hard over each choice. In the end, we feel that these three entries encompassed creativity with the prompts, faithfulness to the winter/Christmas theme, and good grasp of writing skill. Personally, I felt like I had a song in my heart after I was done reading the first place entry.
So without further ado, we are absolutely THRILLED to present:
First Place: Song for Liselei, by Elisabeth Hayse
Second Place: Red Yet White, by Victoria Marinov
Third Place: We Three Gifts, by Sarah Holliday
And I would also like to extend my personal Honorable Mention to:
Stardust, by Carrie-Grace McConkey
Untitled, by Hannah Wilson
The Journal, Esther Hayse
The Journal, Esther Hayse
Congratulations!!! *throws confetti* *hands out eggnog and cupcakes* Your entries delighted and inspired us, and in celebration, Emily, Annie, and I are each posting one of the entries on our blogs. Continue below for We Three Gifts by Sarah Halliday and be sure to stop by The Curious Wren and The HeroSinger for the other winning entries. Huge shoutout to these ladies for being awesome judges.
To those of you who didn't win, I still want to thank you so much for participating. Truly. To take the time to write and edit and send in a story for our little contest moves me very much. I feel torn I cannot choose all of you, and I want to say, if you didn't see your name here, please know that you are still a brave writer who's willing to let your work be seen and judged. That is a step that many people have never taken, and I hope to see you again in future contests. It was each one of you entering that made this contest a success, and I'm going to be watching in excitement to see where your writing journeys lead. *cupcakes and eggnog to you, too*
Cozy up with your snacks, and join me for We Three Gifts by Sarah Halliday!
We Three Gifts
She would be born on the twenty fifth of December, her mother decided. Christmas-born, she announced to an awestruck, celebrating kingdom. There was the then-queen’s first mistake: little children don’t come when called.
Christmas morning, she had her servants prop her up with a fluid cloud of pillows gathered from all corners of the castle. They embraced her on all sides with arms of silk. Like soothing a swine into acceptance, stroking its head before bringing down the axe. Only there was no pain, no butcher’s knife to her abdominal region. So, enlisting help of a mixture from the apothecary, she resolved to drag her child into being.
She welcomed the pain. She demanded it. And after six nightmarish hours, she smiled at the harsh screams of her infant.
She named her child. She murmured. “You will be adored.”
And the axe fell.
The motherless infant was laid in a gleaming, sandalwood cradle, swaddled in fragrant, lavender sheets woven with ribbon gold. From the moment of her birth, she was fitted as a queen, provided for as a queen, exalted as a queen. It would be only fitting that she become a queen.
We observed her beginning and her coronation as one holiday. We may as well have spit over her parents’ graves.
When her mother passed on from this world, she yet remained oblivious to the crackling of the cannon that widowed her and had effectively orphaned her daughter. “Land disputes,” the new queen would be told, well past the age at which she was old enough to be taught the meanings of revenge or assassination or war. Such simplicity. Stubborn, beautiful simplicity.
Simple queens breed simple subjects. It was Christmas evening, and the masses were clueless as to how to honor a funeral, much less two. Too much complexity, too much rise and fall. So their superiors chorused, “On with the show!” and plopped her mother’s crown over her head. It slid down her nose and kept from settling around her neck like a noose only by catching onto a breath of an ear. Her coronation guests applauded the ill fit and danced in circles around her cradle-turned-throne, singing her name. Already she was expected to fill the role of miracle.
We observe from a candle-glowing table, from the arms of a handler, from the middle of a silent harbor. Tonight is a night of giving, and while the rest of the populace rains flower petals over her bed, we are the three lone gifts of tonight’s festivity. We are what’s left of her inheritance and what remains of her future.
We are the final mistake.
We three gifts tell tales of the crown
Children rise and monarchs drown
History’s faded, future’s jaded
For the child born high-renowned
I am only what I make my wearer to be. To the proud, I am as lace, delicate and ridden with imperfections advertised as careful design. To the mysterious, I am as a solid shell, a shadow to hide in from the world. My velvet twists and turns are as precise as if penned by a calligrapher. Many a pair of dainty hands have stroked the bridge of my nose, traced the gaps where eyes should be, tied and unwoven the two silk ribbons on either side. These ten-year-old hands weigh upon me with the heaviest disinterest.
“I wouldn’t rather I had to hide,” the new queen whines. She dangles a ribbon loosely against her garment. It’s a lovely species of dress, a green that winks with gold embellishment.
“It’s a masquerade, your highness.” A new pair of hands, simpering-maid ones, wrench me from her grip. “A good queen sets the precedent.”
And as she ties the two ribbons against the queen’s golden hair, she adds, “Do wear your mother’s mask. It’s an heirloom. The court would be proud.”
I see the world through new eyes, eyes that can’t see far past a turned-up nose.
I am dumped unceremoniously upon the workbench of the palace jeweler, ancestry disregarded with a flick of her fingers. They’ve aged; there’s six more years of power in them since they first stroked the greying velvet.
“Gold,” the queen ordains. “I want every inch of black plated in it. With diamonds also. Embedded like stars.”
The jeweler protests. Her queenship has crowns that fill that very criterion, precious jewels in which to wrap her fingers and neck. I sense his reluctance to soil a treasure of the royal line of matriarchs.
“You’d be doing them a favor,” her royal majesty dismisses. “For the first time, my subjects will look upon this mask and know it for what it is: the mark of a queen. When you’re through, I want even a fool to recognize me, even when I hide my face.”
I am ornamentation over the eyes of a statue of an ancient goddess.
At the same time, I’m dancing, as I have in masquerades of old. Though her head is held aloft with a queenly grace, this dance is a forced affair. Each time the music stops, I am twisted with a longing gaze directed toward the throne. She shudders with claustrophobia. She fingers my ribbons every time a new pair of eyes glances over her, just another mask in the crowd.
This is her first masquerade, and she’d rather it be her last.
She is unwilling to shoulder her discomfort for one minute more. Spying a partner−a lanky youth masquerading as a noble for the night−she approaches and raps him on the shoulder.
“Tell me I’m beautiful,” she demands.
The boy’s eyebrows disappear behind his mask. “What for?”
“It’s what’s expected of an honest gentleman,” she insists. Her face burns. I burn with it.
He shrugs. “Wouldn’t be very honest if I did tell you,” he says. “I don’t even know what it is you look like.” There is the faintest twinkle of cheek in his tone of voice. It is enough.
I am flying.
I come to rest against a marble pillar, facedown upon the ballroom floor, discarded. No one notices, a familiar feeling.
Meanwhile, the music has stopped, replaced by a bemused buzz. Heels click nervously on the floor, skirts shift and shuffle clumsily. The whole room is bowing.
Luxuries of power aligned
Diamond, gold, and velvet entwined
On face most fair, but ne’er to share
To her pow’r let none be blind
I am the offspring of the ancestral champions of the hunt. Bred for tracking. Trained to follow a scent like a trail of golden thread through a maze. Bred for hunting, for stamina. My silver fur can shake off the frigid reality of the iciest of snowfalls. All signs of life down my hunting path shrink back as I bare my teeth and dig my claws into the ground. Bred for loyalty, that is, if such traits may be bred. I believe otherwise.
I was born to be her protector, not her companion. My loyalty was my own first gift to my mistress. And in time, I would come to offer her all I had in the one field I ever knew.
Humans have trainers too; the difference is that they insist on denying they are being trained. My lady was also trained in the hunt, given a horse and a whip and the words I had been drilled to understand. I became an extension of her gloved hand, the knife she would descend upon her quarry to make the final blow.
Knives become blunt over time, no matter how often they are driven against a stone. There came a time when my senses dulled, when running along a forest trail became as difficult as running through snow, when a stone in my belly weighed me back down to earth faster than I could leap.
That same year, I became a mother.
I gave birth to five pups, and they were mine to nurse until they were deemed strong enough to learn the ways of the hunt, to learn to replace this withered tool. My mistress never saw them until they were of hunting age. I never saw them again.
I died alone. I remember cold; I also remember moonlight. I used to never notice moonlight and other such trivialities of the eyes. But that was before I lost the keen focus of my smell, before my handlers left plates of food at my door that shrank in size each passing day. I counted days by counting passing footsteps. I thought of my mistress, who was my companion, but I could never be hers and that’s why I died useless.
That was the date of my death, the day the palace groundskeeper tossed my body into the wood and left it for the flies. But I was not yet gone from the world.
My former commander had matured into an elegant huntress. I would have once traveled in any direction her finger indicated, and we were formidable. But at the head of the five of my litter, they became an army, a storm. They blew between the trees like a blizzard and left the ground barren in their wake.
One morning while returning home from a rather meager victory, an adder, slipping between the shadows cast by the foliage, crept up alongside the party. It sunk its fangs into the paw of Balthazar, the strongest of the pack. The chaos that followed was instant. The dogs converged on the serpent for a swift kill. The hunters converged on Balthazar. With the swift slice of a silver knife, they contained the poison. All the while, the huntress sat poised, waiting for the report.
They wrapped the stump in the few pelts they had obtained to stem the outpour of blood, but Balthazar still hobbled, whimpered. The party spoke in hushed voices. They hypothesized the worst: that he would no longer be active in the hunt.
A clear female voice cut through the silence. “Smother him in today’s kill.”
There was silence. “My lady?”
“This one can no longer hunt.” Her voice dripped logic like a bough that dripped icicles. “And game was scarce this morning. The only use we can expect it to have anymore is target practice.”
This was the real moment I died, when they took my pup and matted his fur with the innards of fox, lathering him until he was unrecognizable to the smell. Even his brothers looked upon him confused. This was the moment when my mistress failed to consider the mother when ordering the murder of a son. My memory fell like a fresh kill at her feet.
“Scare it off,” she ordered. “Fire the gun.”
Born a hunter, cunning and shrewd
My last gift−I offer my brood
She giveth what may, she taketh away
Ne’er ‘twas for I to feud
I am the artistry of shipbuilders. I am a vessel that is very much hers. Royal colors fly gaily from the crow’s nest. The woodcarvers outdid themselves in detail, threatened against presenting a lack thereof. The gun ports resemble palace windows; most don’t even hold a cannon so as to not obstruct the view. My sails glow. They have neither known wear nor tear. They have never pointed away from the harbor.
My function is not that of a warship.
Though I may look the part, what with the sheen and the grandeur and the mere size, I follow the real warships into battle years after the battle began. I slink between the ranks of fleets victorious and add my victory cry to theirs, pretending I was there all along. I trade bolster for bluster. The wisps of cannon smoke for wispy curtains. A war room for a parlor room. Crew quarters for her private chambers.
Yet I am still the commanding vessel of the royal armada. Were anyone to ask my thoughts on the matter, I would say I felt like a fool on a throne. But any question is drowned out on all sides by several miles of open water, and inside, talk turns to battles. Voices of the generals overlap amidst the salty wind. But it is after the voices have receded that the rigid finger of the only woman aboard points in swift decision, to action she knows will bring the swiftest, most brutal retribution upon her meddling foe. Whether it be by means of the sacrifice of hundreds, or toeing the line around civilian territory. This is her inheritance, what she was raised for, to wage a war miles away from its reality.
And she still will refer to it as a land dispute.
At long last, there is a cease-fire, a dimming of the cannons. The officers receive news that her presence will soon be requested at the negotiations of the enemy’s surrender. The captain steers confidently, though he can’t bring the speed up to much more than a shameful crawl.
I was never to be a warship. But I was also never to be a casket. Makes one tend to think that anything’s possible. Possible as a screech in the night that comes from no mouth. Ice on cedar. Ice can fell a tree. It can also fell a ship. Water soaks through pores. It shaves away splinters. Splinters rent by ice. I die because of a few splinters.
She and I die of the same cause. We are weighed down by our embellishments. She by her twinkling mask and the golden stars embedded in her dress. Worse still, she is caught in her final moments in the act of cowardice. Not even by the most tenuous, thread-width tethers can she be called a war hero. She has false visions of martyrdom; she has never known sacrifice.
As she is drowned, she fancies she sees lights below, reminiscent of the candles illuminating the smiling faces of her coronation vigil. One by one, the lights go out.
A glitt’ring hull, a palace at sea
Ne’er known war, but ruins I’ll be
Gathering depth, heard her last breath
Decrying the irony
Stars of diamond, star on high
Stars of the deep reflect the sky
Her lights once shone, now left alone
Adored at birth but left to die