Monthly Short Story Winner: Regret and Redemption
Your main character (MC) did something, planned or by accident, and it went terribly wrong. Life is now constant regret. Do they want to correct it? Is it even possible? Everybody should have the chance to redeem themselves, but this is not a fairy tale – or is it?
1. The story’s theme must be regret and/or contain a MC who tries to redeem themselves.
2. Prose must be 500-1500 words long.
3. Poetry must be 100-750 words long.
This month’s winning story was by Scott Hamilton, with “Keeper of the Clockwork Queen”. Congrats on your win, Scott!
You can find all our entries here.
And now on with the story!
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“Keeper of the Clockwork Queen”
by Scott Hamilton
“Mortalss,” Ancelegon hissed in the long, whistling way of dragons, “are foolss. But you, knight, are more foolissh than mosst.”
The dragon and I sat on the battlements where I had watched as Angelegon and the rest of the dragon-flight threw down our foes two days before. Somewhere below, my halberd lay in the smoking wreck of the battle. Sunlight splashed across us, but where the corruption had stained the stones black, the warmth of the afternoon sun failed, just as my courage had failed. No light would ever warm those stones, they had come for the Clockwork Queen. Our queen. My queen.
“I am.” I looked into Ancelogon’s irises, as gleaming bronze as her finely-scaled wings and long, sinuous neck. “I am foolish. But I am a coward, as well.”
“I ssaw no cowardss here.”
“I did.” I frowned at her, one hand on the hilt of my great sword, which I had not had the courage to draw when the great demon had batted the halberd from my stricken hands.
“I had the better view.” She shook her snout at me and blinked. The blink of a dragon is remarkable. It hides the beauty of their immortal eyes and then swiftly restores it in a way that trembles the heart. But knowing my courage was empty, that my bravery was just a lie, had set my heart beyond trembling.
I ran my fingers down her leg, over the ivory claws, smooth as glass and stronger than steel. “You were glorious,” I sputtered. “You saved us, you and the others. You saved the queen.”
“Gloriouss,” growled the dragon. “A foolissh word. But a knight musst have honor. And you . . . you have losst yourss?”
She knelt and drew me onto her back. I clutched her neck as we teetered on the brink, the blackened stones and earth before us, the shining battlements beside and behind. “Then let uss find it.”
She dove, then swept upward, her powerful wings thrusting us higher and higher. Below, the Thousand Thousand Roads converged from every horizon, leading to the gates of East and West in the walls of the Clockwork Keep.
“Tell me, knight, what iss thiss place?”
“The Clockwork Keep.”
“That is itss name.” The dragon turned her head and stared at me with a single bronze eye. “What iss it?”
“It is where the east and west meet, where the sun rises first and sets last.”
“You read too many bookss,” Ancelegon laughed. “What is itss purposse?”
I gawked at her. “It has no purpose. It is just . . . just where travelers come and meet under the protection of the Clockwork Queen.”
“That is a purposse! A noble one, worthh defending. Attend to the pathh of our enemies, knight – what do you ssee?”
Sweeping across the land like a broad brush painting tar, a dark swathe of destruction and corrupted earth led from the north in lazy loops toward the city. The dragon turned and swooped low over the trail. Burnt houses and barren fields of ash whooshed by beneath us. The dead, friend and foe alike, lay in twisted, blackened heaps here and there, the brittle bones of the good bleached white, the broken bodies of demons putrid, sickly gray.
“I see death.”
The stench of sulphur and death watered my eyes and caught my breath in my throat.
“Deathh, yess. What else?”
The blackened ground careened across the fields toward the city walls, and I saw how the wide gray of trampled greenery became a narrower. A darker streak of churned earth focused on the battlements where I blew the great horn and waved the golden pennant. The swarming monsters leapt the dike, climbed the walls in creeping waves, while I blew until my courage left me. I fled the walls, yelling until my throat could only rasp and wheeze while I ran down the stairs to the outer court, across the flagstones, and through the inner gate.
“You raised the alarm. You drew them to a narrow place,” Ancelegon hissed, “gave them something loud and full of blood to chasse. No ssmall thing.”
“I am faithless. I broke my oath. I yielded the outer walls.”
Ancelegon swooped into the courtyard, where the first of the dragonflight had rallied to the queen’s call. “You are a ssentinel, not an army.”
“I was a knight!” I cried. “I wore the crimson and the gold. I took oaths to defend these walls, to defend our queen. People salute me and thank me, for they know I stand the wall and I hold vigil while they sleep. But any farmer’s dog would have done better than I, a knight of rank, Keeper of the Clockwork Queen.”
I stared at the great patches of burnt flagstones where brave Balostrath and fiery Encindia had fallen. Their bodies had been burned on a mountain top, as is the custom among the great drakes, but I could hear the echoes of their cries. And sometimes in the deep night, I hear their echoes still.
“I fled, Ancelegon, while they breathed fire on our foes and fought and were pulled down. I might have saved them.”
“Perhapss,” she said, eyeing me. “Perhapss not.”
“I should have stayed. I should have stayed to the last.”
“You ssaved the queen. When the great one came, you held your ground.”
“YOU saved the queen,” I cried. “I held nothing. You won’t find a finer halberd in a hundred leagues: triple-forged steel, sharper than a razor, mounted on wire-wrapped oak. And it knocked it from me like it was nothing.”
She came then, the Clockwork Queen, and Ancelegon lowered her mighty head. I knelt as the queen made her delicate way down the steps to the courtyard. Her gold crown was set with countless jewels of green and red and lay upon locks of bound copper and gold wire. Her eyes of sapphire gems glinted and flashed above her veil of fine, silver filigree, like gossamer. Her swaying skirts were made from the same amazing stuff and swayed like cloth as she glided along.
“Ancelegon,” said the queen in her musical voice like the pipes of an organ. “Fetch the knight his weapon.” Ancelegon departed in a rush of wind.
“I am no knight, Your Majesty. Not anymore.” I held my eyes to the ground before her bronze-shoed feet.
“Stand and look at me,” she said. Her face of polished platinum was as perfect as always: high cheeks and long lashes of copper and gold. “What do you see?”
“I see my Clockwork Queen.”
“And what is it to be a clockwork, sir knight?”
“To be perfect,” I said.
Her lids of painted bronze narrowed over her veil. “And what is perfection?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Perfection is the absence of flaws. And if I am this, then it means I am not human – for all humans are flawed, are they not?”
“We are, Your Majesty.”
Ancelegon returned, bearing my halberd in her claws. She set the weapon on the ground and at the queen’s gesture, left us in a rush of wings.
“You are human, sir knight. And so you must be flawed. Tell me, what are your flaws?”
“I ran in the face of fear.”
“Where did you run?”
“To your tower.”
“And was my tower not the objective of the enemy? Does this not make my tower the most dangerous place in all the world to be?”
“It does. But I still ran from fear.”
The queen canted her head in her odd way. “Whatever you ran from, you ran into greater danger, did you not?”
The queen’s filigree veil swayed slowly as she shook her head.
“Take your weapon.”
I raised the weapon I had carried for so long for just such a day as had come, only to be as useless as I was.
“Your weapon was perfect, flawless and without peer. Is it perfect, still?”
“No, Your Majesty.” The head was scratched from its fall from the battlements. The axe-blade was chipped. The wire-wrapped handle was rent where the great demon’s claws had knocked it from me. And the weapon was stained black with corruption.
“Shall we melt it down, then?”
“No! It’s still the finest of its kind, my queen.”
She removed a glove and dragged a brass finger across the blackened blade, revealing the shining steel beneath. “Take your weapon to the finest smith and have it restored. And while he works the steel, you will remember what I tell you.”
“That your are flawed because you cannot see your virtues, only your flaws. Such perfection as I have shows me that you remain the finest of your kind. The bravest men are less fearless than dragons, but that does not make them cowards. Redemption cannot be found, only given, so I give it to you now. This was but a testing, knight. The corruption shall return. Who will defend me?”
And I did.
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