Here’s my entry for the first Flash Fiction Draw Challenge (the post for the original January draw is here, and a round-up post for all the stories I’m aware of that were written is here). In case you didn’t know about this challenge, there’s a video here explaining (and showing the first draw), but the quick version: I used a deck of cards (three suits) to randomly put together a genre (in this case: Fairy Tale), a location (in this case: a prison) and an object (in this case: a tattoo machine) and challenged anyone who wanted to play to write something over the next week, with a maximum of 1,000 words.
My resulting tale was “Tinder,” a queer re-telling of the “Tinderbox” fairy tale, by Hans Christian Andersen.
It’s one thing to be poor, another returning from the king’s army poorer still. That was me, before I found myself in prison, awaiting the gibbet.
Before I’d heard of prophecy, I’d served my term in battle. I fought witch flameborn beasts as well as any, my survival as much luck as skill, my wounds clear enough proof.
No soldiers escorted me. Wounded, I was sent home without coin for service, instead “rewarded” with freedom, a limp, and terrible memories.
I encountered the witch before I’d made it to my king’s land. We eyed each other, but I bore no armor, and she no flame.
“You’re no soldier,” she said.
“No longer. You don’t fight for your emperor?”
“Were you free to choose to not fight for your king?”
I laughed. “My service…ended.”
“Usefulness, more like.” I noticed only two fingers on her left hand, and her thumb but a stub.
A witch unable to strike a match would ignite no tattoos.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Hm.” She cocked her head. “You have the scent of prophecy.”
“If you say.”
“Come. I have work. Treason, but it pays more than you can use, if you’re wise.”
I was a man unconcerned with kingly approval.
The split in the huge tree was ink black.
“Inside are three beasts. Guardians. But you are not marked as a witch?”
I had no tattoos. “No.”
“Bare your skin for the dogs, show them. They won’t stir. All I ask for is the tinderbox within. It will allow me magic again. The coins you may take.”
Three dogs, though “dogs” does no justice. The smallest with eyes wide as saucers, its body scaled to match. Ink black, they guarded three piles of coins; copper and silver and gold, each dog larger than the last.
I gathered the coins first, then the tinderbox in my paltry rucksack. When I took the tinderbox, the three beasts faded. Last I saw their eyes: the largest’s wide as a tower window.
The witch watched me dress.
I gave it. “I hope this restores your life as these coins might mine.”
“I half worried you would keep it. Or harm me.”
“I’ve learned witches wish to protect their land and emperor.” I spoke treason.
“You don’t know why you fought, do you?”
“Prophecy. Your king’s son is locked away because the king fears the emperor’s soothsayer.”
I did know the Prince never left his tower. But not why.
She drew a deep breath, and put a hand in her robes. I tensed—betrayal?—but she gave me a vial.
“In thanks,” she said.
The ink became three dogs etched round my neck by a woman with eyes like the witch and an accent to match. Many escaped war by becoming smaller, hiding among the shadows of the city, out of view of the castle.
The sting of her needles, the thrum of her odd device driving the needles still comes to me some nights when I dream.
Without work, the coins I’d gathered went. None offered work to a man as scarred as I. It didn’t matter I was strong, I was a reminder of a war they chose to believe would never reach them.
I walked the city, circling the castle, hoping to find something.
I looked at the tower and remembered the witch’s word: prophecy.
Summoning the first dog was an accident: a rare cigar to warm a cold evening. A spark touched my dog low on my neck. Had I worn a shirt, or the match been easier to light, it might never have happened.
The dog crouched low before me, ready to obey.
“Fetch,” I said, not even sure what I intended.
It returned with the prince.
He was handsome, schooled, had soft hands, and though he was afraid after the dog drew him through shadows to my rooms, he savoured his brief respite from his tower. We spoke.
Then didn’t speak.
In the morning, he told me of the prophecy that birthed war: the king would beget a son who cared nothing for princesses, who would fall for a man with no work.
I struck many a match on winter nights, and was much warmer for the prince’s company.
They found us, eventually. What trickery, magic, or simple deduction I’m unsure, but when they came, there was no escape. To my surprise, my cell was as large as my cheap room, and the cot as comfortable, but I wasn’t allowed cigars, and had no way to barter.
No prisoner is given the simple pleasure of a warm fire.
My former soldiering meant nothing—I knew of the prophecy.
For that I would die.
Beyond the gibbet, I see my prince. The king has made him come, of course. To watch as the king would defy prophecy. The proclamation calling for my death is made. I step up to my place.
“Will we grant last request?” The prince’s voice is loud in the nearly empty square. There are few here. The king, queen, prince, and two jailors. Also the black hooded man who will end my life. Is this born of a fear of the king: what if I spoke? What if I told?
The king eyes his son with fury. It’s a soldier’s right.
“Your request?” the prince asks. His eyes are misery.
“A cigar,” I say.
The dogs spare the queen, who faints dead away as the first beast tears her husband’s throat. The guards take longer. The black hooded man falls last.
None here learned to fight flameborn beasts.
The Prince’s hands shake while he undoes my binding. The cigar smolders at my feet. My neck burns where I twisted as it was brought to my lips.
“Now we run,” he says.
“Did your prophecy say how this ends?”
He only smiles.
I wonder if anyone will tell our tale true.