Here are three snippets from this year’s failed NaNo project, Nothingmore. Don’t worry. It’s just resting. I’ll get back to it eventually.
The dark king told everyone that the fall from the Ridge of Sorrows was endless, but that wasn’t true. Everything ends eventually, even that. It all happens very slowly though, giving you time to look around. Time to think or cry or pray. Time to watch the life you’re falling away from flash before your eyes like the in-flight movie on the way to certain death.
When Rivers fell, down and down between smooth walls of black granite veined with silver, she saw those she loved. Those she hated. Those she owed and the debts she would never have a chance to repay. Mostly she saw Matt. His face. His hands. His long, lean body stretched out—innocent and full of longing—beside her own.
Hurtling downward, imagining someone else loving the man she’d never had a proper chance to love, her tears fell up and then splashed back down into her eyes like rain. She didn’t bother to wipe them away.
She couldn’t help but think about who was to blame for the sad way her life was going to end. It was a short list. First there was Nina. Just thinking about that lying bitch made Rivers made enough to scream. Nina had pretended to be their friend for years, fooling Rivers and Tab, fooling everyone. The whole time she was just waiting around, ingratiating herself, until her king told her it was time to attack. Then three nights ago, the orders came and Nina revealed her true self. She’d chased Rivers, pulled her into the dirt, and delivered her to the dark Elvish king’s underground kingdom.
Second was Nicholas, that soulless bastard. His pale face was the first thing she’d seen after she cleared away the dirt that caked her eyes. He’d smiled at her in that sinister way of his, amusement making his blood red eyes scarier than usual, as she lay on the floor of the king’s great hall coughing up dirt and mud.
Then there was the dark king himself, Daniel, that fucking lunatic. The fact that his desire to see her dead was nothing personal made her hate him most of all. She was just a pawn, a thing he could use to get what he wanted. When she couldn’t—or wouldn’t—help him, because she wasn’t useful, he threw her into his dungeon with exactly as much thought as a normal person would give to throwing away a used tissue. He’d expected her to die there, forgotten.
A very distant fourth was Tab, that idiot. Rivers hated to put her best friend on a list that included three of the most evil people she’d ever had the misfortune to meet, but Tab belonged there. Rivers loved Tab, loved her dearly. Like a sister. But God, she was infuriatingly dense sometimes. The last few years had proven just how blind someone could be when they didn’t want to see. Half the time Rivers wanted to grab Tab by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. Just grab her and yell “We’re Elvish, you simpleton. How can you not know this?”
Rivers sighed. Now she’d never have the chance.
She felt her body speed up, suddenly falling faster than before. Faster and faster, her heart beating in time. Her body tensed, bracing for the impact she’d been told would never come. Then just as her body told her she was going to hot, something caught her, some magic, and gently dropped her onto the dusty ground.
She knocked her head against the floor and bit her tongue, but that was the worst of her injuries. Nothing was shattered. All her bones were remarkably, blissfully, still beneath her skin where they belonged.
“I’m alive,” she whispered, surprised to hear her own voice. “You can suck it, King of Darkness. I am alive.”
Rivers got to her feet, brushed the dust from her arms and legs, shook out of her long blond curls, and looked around. She felt giddy and nauseous. Happy to be alive and determined to stay that way. She made a list of things she’d need. She needed something she could defend herself with. She needed water. She needed shelter. She needed a piece of paper and a pencil in case she needed to make another list. She especially needed her cell phone.
“I bet they get terrible service down here anyway.”
She laughed and the sound echoed back at her, bouncing off the stone walls around her. She turned on her heel, taking everything in. The round room looked like the bottom of a well only instead of water, she was nearly ankle deep in what appeared to be ash and dust and the crushed petals of dried roses.
There were four wooden doors. Each of them was very tall and very wide. And each one had an ornate key fitted in its rusty lock. Rivers wandered the circumference of the room, stopping to inspect them one-by-one.
None of them were particularly appealing. Each of them was exactly the same. They were all ten feet tall and six feet wide. All some cold gray metal. All marked with small, shiny silver stars. Each had an ornate key sticking out of a rusty keyhole.
“Pick a door, any door,” she muttered.
Eventually she picked one, turned the knob, and went through.
Owen sat, his long legs stretched out in front of him, staring at the crackling fire that warmed his keep’s great hall. A hound, black as night and still as death, slept at his feet. Another, this one gray and sleek and growling roamed restlessly in the shadows behind him.
“Come Greer,” he called to his pet. “Let Norn pass. She means us no harm.”
“Thank you, my Lord,” the woman said in the soft hiss that was her voice. She skirted around the unsettled hound and came to stand before Owen’s throne. She bowed as low as the curve of her ruined spine would allow.
He remembered when Norn had been beautiful long ago. She wasn’t anymore. Her skin and hair and eyes had faded until all were nearly the exact same chalky shade of gray, a color that reminded him of dust and forgetfulness. Her back was bent, her hands gnarled. She hobbled along on legs that ached and hips that ground bone to bone.
She never seemed regretful. Even as the Old Magic ruined her, stealing away everything soft and supple and sweet about her until she’d become an old woman in a flash of years instead of the crawl of centuries, she seemed to feel she’d been given a fair deal. She’d told him once that she’d always known the price for the Old Magic’s help would be high and she paid willingly. Norn was content to watch her beauty leech away in exchange for its help. What she’d gotten in exchange for her youth Owen did not know. Norn refused to say.
“Speak,” he said.
Norn bowed again. “I would not disturb you, my Lord, except that a woman has fallen into the round room.”
Owen sat up, his interested peaked. “A human woman has fallen into Nothingmore?”
Norn shook her head. “No, my lord, not a human. She gives off a faint hint of power. Elvish, I’d guess, and of the Light by the look of her.”
As jaded as he’d become, the news intrigued him. It had been a long time since one of the Light Elvish dropped into Nothingmore. It was a very long way to fall.
“Where did she come from?” Owen knew the answer. There was only one way into Nothingmore and one way out.
“The King of Darkness threw her from the Ridge of Sorrows, I suspect.”
The hall, full of the rowdy, wild creatures who rode by Owen’s side – the tailed and scaled, the horned and fanged – fell silent. They all knew the punishment for reminding the Lord of Nothingmore of the Dark Elvish King was swift and merciless. The last fool to mention his name had been sent to the lookout tower near the forest by the Red Door where Nidhug the Dragon, keeper of the Old Magic, lived. No one had heard from the poor fool since.
Norn gasped. Realizing her mistake, she braced for her punishment.
Owen looked at her, watched her heart racing away what she believed would be the final minutes of her life. He hated King Daniel, despised him even, but he would never harm Norn. In all of Nothingmore, a land populated by the nightmares and monsters who rode the Wild Hunt and the unfortunates the dark king threw from the ridge, she was the closest thing he had to a friend.
He sighed. “Has anyone been sent to find the woman before she chooses the wrong door and the dragon does?”
Normally, Owen didn’t himself about those who fell but this was a rare occurrence. In all his years as the Lord of Nothingmore, he’d only seen one other Light Elvish in his domain.
“No, my Lord. I shall go myself,” Norn promised, backing away. “I’ll go now and bring her to you.”
“There’s no need,” Owen said, surprising himself. “I’ll go.”
The room fell silent as everyone, monsters all of them, fell to their knees. Rivers looked at Owen.
“My lord,” they said as he passed.
“Welcome home, my lord,” they hissed.
Owen headed to the front of the room, his long strides quickly eating up the distance. As he walked, Rivers could see the tension creep up in his back. Saw the way his hands fisted and the effort it took him to relax them again. By the time he reached the throne at the front of the room, he was like a different person. Any hint of softness, every shred of humor, was gone from his eyes. He down at her with eyes that were cold and gray and lifeless. He was more frightening than any of the monsters kneeling at his feet.
She wouldn’t let herself be afraid. Everyone knows monsters and wild dogs can smell fear. They take it as weakness. They attack. She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath.
Heads scaled and horned and horrible lifted and turned to stare at her. A chimaera lifted its three heads to look at her. Long after the lion and the snake looked away, the goat head continued to stare at her.
“This woman is Rivers the Wise,” he announced.
“And this is Owen,” she muttered under her breath, “the lord of Nothingmore.”
“I claim her as mine,” he continued, ignoring her interruption though she was certain that he’d heard. “We are bound by an exchange of gifts and she bears my scent upon her skin.” There was an audible sniff-sniff as the creatures in the room leaned ever so slightly toward her. Owen waited until their attention came back to him before adding, “To touch her is to die a painful death at my hand. To hurt her is to live an excruciatingly painful life under my care. Do I make myself clear?”
A chorus of yes and yes, my lord filled the air. They’d leaned toward her as a group a moment earlier, now they leaned away. It was very clear that no matter how big or hideous, every one of his riders was terrified of the Lord of Nothingmore.
“Norn?” he called. “Come and take my guest to the white tower.”
An old woman hobbled out of the crowd. She looked at Owen and then at Rivers, disapproval plain on her wrinkled face.
“Why do you hesitate, Norn?” Owen asked. “Have you not heard me?”
“My body is old and deaf, my lord, but I do not hesitate.” The old woman bowed. “Come with me girl,” she said. “I will take you to the white tower as my lord commands.”
Rivers followed Norn through the halls of Naught. The old woman prattled on cheerfully, pointing out doors and where they lead—down to the wine cellar or out to summer kitchens. Everything around them was white or gray or some shade in between.
“Excuse me ma’am?” Rivers said.
“You may call me Norn, child, though it’s not my name.”
“Oh. Well, what is your name? I’d rather call you by the name you belong to.”
The old woman laughed. “Norn is me enough,” she said. “Did you have a question.”
“I did but this seems more important now. Why do people call you Norn is that’s not your name?”
The old woman sighed. She sat on a silver white bench covered in white silk brocade. Rivers looked at it before she sat down too, noting the lingering pink in the patterns flowers. She supposed that meant it was new.
“Norn is not who I am. Norn is what I am. Or what I was long ago. Do you really want to hear this story? It’s quite sad at the end.”
Rivers nodded. “I do.”
She sighed. “Long ago I lived with my two sisters at the bottom of the tree of stairs, down far deeper even than this Gods forsaken place. We were the weavers of the fate and destiny and we were happy the three of us, in our work. The Gods left us to do what we wished with the lives of mankind. They did care over much what happened to them. I am ashamed to say we played with them like children with dolls. We were cruel sometimes just for sport. We had far less freedom with the Elvish. Their fates were whispered to us by the Goddess herself and we were to weave them true, just as we were told. For thousands of years I did exactly that.
“Then one summer day, I was given a new thread to weave for a Light Elvish boy. He was a sweet-faced and freckle-cheeked babe. Fresh and delicious like an apple. I watched him grow to man. He was so kind. So smart. He was quick-witted and happy. Everyone loved him. Everyone.
“The Goddess came to me on the eve of his twenty-second birthday and whispered that it was time to cut his threat—“
“Kill him?” Rivers asked.
“Kill him,” Norn confirmed. “She told me he could not live to see his next year. I begged for her to change her mind, to alter his fate, but she could not be persuaded to spare his life.”
“That’s terrible,” Rivers said. “What did you do?”
“Do? What could I do? Could I kill this man who I’d watched and loved since he drew his first breath? Could I stop a heart that beat as my own?” Norn shook her head. “I was a cold thing, but not so cold as that. I had no choice. I called the Old Magic and made a deal with it, trading my youth and beauty and gift of foreknowledge for the man’s life.
“I know he lives still because I am still here. When he goes on to Eversummer, I will retake my old form and return to my sisters.”
Rivers was confused. It would be one thing to make such a bargain for a human—their lives are so short—but an Elvish man could live thousands of years. “I hoped he thanked you.”
“Oh, I never spoken to him. Not before or after I traded with the Old Magic. And anyway, I was sent here, to Nothingmore, to serve my sentence that same day. I never saw the man again.”
“You traded your life to save his and he never even knew you existed?”
“I don’t suppose he did know me, but I knew him. I knew him and I loved him and even though I’ve cut the threads of thousands upon thousands of lives, I could never have snipped his. When these old bones ache or this ruin of a body stoops closer and closer to the floor, I picture his face and know I did right. I’ve no regrets.” Norn stood and stretched. “All right then, let’s go.”
Rivers stood too and walked with Norn, sneaking glimpses down at her occasionally. “I just don’t get it,” she admitted, earning a chuckle from the old woman.
“Why should you? You’ve never been in love.”
Rivers thought of Matthew but not to interrupt.
“Sometime, someday,” Norn continued, “you’ll meet a man you love enough to give everything for. You’ll forget reason or sense—everything. His happiness will be your happiness and then, only then, you’ll understand why I did it. If you’re lucky.”
“You didn’t tell me your name,” Rivers said.
“No, I didn’t.” With great difficulty, Norn looked up at Rivers. “The white tower is up these many steps,” she said. “I haven’t climbed them in more than two hundred years and I don’t fancy climbing them now. Can you make it alone?”
Rivers looked up into the darkened staircase. “What’s up there?”
“Two bed chambers, a bath, and a library. No monsters allowed in the white tower.”
“I guess I’ll be okay on my own then,” Rivers said although she was reluctant to part company with the old woman. There was something about her that Rivers found comforting.
“I’m sure the Lord will turn up presently,” Norn said. “Go easy on him when he does.”
Rivers rolled her eyes.
“Night, girl,” Norn said.
Rivers watched her new friend walk away down the wide, dim corridor.
“Owen?” Rivers said.
She couldn’t see him but she could feel the weight of his gaze across the dark room. “Is that you?”
“Yes,” he said.
She sat up, looking in the direction of his voice. “What are you doing in here?”
“Watching you sleep.”
“But it’s dark in here.”
He laughed. “I can see you perfectly well. Your hair is in a loose braid that is resting on your right shoulder, trailing over your breast. You are wearing one of Norn’s white cotton gowns but the tie has come undone and the deep v is open. Your lips are parted and in your eyes the colors I brought to life and swirling faster and faster as you listen to my voice.”
“Owen,” she sighed.
He approached the bed slowly and sat at the edge. “I can not sleep for wondering,” he said. “Would you leave with him?”
“Would you let me?” she asked.
Now that he was closer, she could see him too. His chest was bare, covered only by the dragon tattoo that curved around his torso. His leathers were unfastened and loose around his waist. His long hair was unbound, a trail of midnight down his back. The pink rose charm she’d given him from her necklace was still woven into his braid.
“No,” he admitted. “I cannot let you go. I do not believe you really wish to go.”
“Of course I do,” she replied. But her voice trembled and even she could hear that she sounded unsure.
Owen didn’t speak. Instead he climbed up onto the bed, easing her back on the pillows, stretching his body over hers so he lay pressed against her. He took her mouth, gently at first, teasing her with his lips and tongue until her lips parted on a sigh. He dove into her, tasting the honeyed sweetness of her mouth, sucking softly on her tongue. He rolled his hips against her, pushing the hard heat of his body into the welcoming softness of hers.
His hand roamed from her small waist to her full breast. He looked down at her, saw her breathless and flushed. Saw her desire for him shining in her eyes. He didn’t hesitate another second before he opened the loose neckline and placed his hand against her bare skin. He caressed her, plumping the tender flesh before circling her beaded nipple with calloused fingers.
“Touch me little one,” he whispered against her lips. “I have seen you look at me with hungry eyes, as I have looked at you. Let us deny ourselves no longer. Please.”
It was his request, that one whispered word. Ragged and rasped and raw. His need laid honest and bare before her.
The Lord of Nothingmore didn’t ask for things, he took them. He’d lived a life time that way. Never asking for permission from anyone, taking whatever he wanted without a thought.
But he’d asked for her touch, for her hands on his skin. His plea was too sweet. Too irresistible. Tentatively, she ran her hands over his broad back, feeling the velvet of his skin and the muscle moving beneath it. He rolled his hips again and she could feel his hard cock pushing against her.
She couldn’t deny him, deny herself. She wanted to touch him. To be touched by him. She wanted his kiss. His taste. She wanted to feel him, moving against her, inside her. It was crazy. Ridiculous. But it was true. Owen, her desire for him, for every part of him, was the one thing of which she could be sure. She didn’t believe in soul mates or Homecoming. She never had. But as Owen kissed her neck, exploring the underside of her chin with gentle nips, she realized she’d found hers. He was hers.
“I do not want you to leave me, Rivers,” he whispered.
“I won’t,” she promised, pulling him closer.