Love’s Folly

by T. A. Hampton

“Good morning, Fair Lady!”

Conner swept into the store from the back room where he’d just checked the delivery schedule. Deirdra looked up the counter and greeted him with a smile that rivaled the daisies behind her. She was in the middle of a large arrangement of stargazer lilies.

“Hello, Conner, you big tease.”

“You wound me, Deirdra.”

“If the truth is too painful to bear….”

“Ouch.” Conner clutched at his chest as if he’d been shot with an arrow. He moved in behind the counter to look over her shoulder at the order she was working on. “Another Valentine wedding, I see. Ah, let’s see, who is it this time?” Conner turned the work order so he could read the names. “I give it a year.”

“Conner!” Deirdra turned and smacked his arm. “Don’t mock.”

“I wouldn’t dare. Romance and love are, after all, my livelihood.”

There was a rude sound like a snort of laughter from his backpack. Conner dropped the bag on the floor and kicked it out of the way, but thankfully, Deirdra didn’t seem to have noticed the sound.

“I have a full day of deliveries. I’d best get to it.”

“I have reinforcements coming in this afternoon,” Deirdra said, turning back to her arrangement.

“Reinforcements?”

“You remember Niko? He’ll be delivering part-time through the holiday.”

“Niko.”

Deirdra glanced up at his tone. Conner turned away and retrieved his bag heading for the back room and his delivery list.

“Oh, come on, Conner. You’re not still angry about what happened last year?”

“What’s to be angry about? I just don’t like the guy, that’s all.”

“Well, you’ll probably rarely see him. If at all.”

“I’d better go load up.” Conner bent to retrieve his bag before returning to the back room.

“Need a hand?”

“Nah, I got it. You’ve got your hands full with that wedding.”

In the back, Conner checked the delivery log again and began removing arrangements from the refrigerator. Smaller ones went into boxes to be loaded into the back of the delivery van. There was one larger arrangement destined for a local funeral home. Conner liked those sort the least. Death was so contrary to his nature.

Once loaded, Conner climbed into the front of the van, carelessly tossing his backpack onto the passenger seat beside him.

“Ow! Enough of the abuse!”

“Oh, shut it. You’ll live.”

Conner took a moment to remove the heart-shaped box from his bag and set it on top of the bag. With a quick glance at his itinerary, he put the van in motion.

“I thought you were going to give me to the girl.”

“I am.” Conner shot a glare at the box. “I will.”

“It won’t work, you know,” the box continued. “You’re doomed. Cursed.”

“Shut it. It’s different this time.”

The box only laughed. At a stop light, Conner stuffed it roughly back into his bag. He studiously ignored any further attempts to draw him into useless conversation. Instead, he focused on making his deliveries.

Usually, when he delivered flowers to offices or homes, he was met with smiles and happy greetings. Today, however, his most cheerful delivery was the to the somber funeral home. One woman evenburst into tears and threw the flowers back in his face. Conner tried to catch the vase, but it slipped and shattered on the ground in a puddle of baby’s breath and roses, splashing him with water and bits of floral foam as it fell.

When he climbed back into the van, the box of chocolates was laughing at him again from inside the backpack. Conner pulled it out, ready to tear the box to pieces.

“Doomed,” it whispered.

The fat, baby angel on the box lid mocked him. An arrow clutched in its chubby hand. Conner hated the image. He wondered how on Earth had he ever become associated with this image.

But the box was right. He was doomed.

Conner put the box back into his bag. He put the key in the ignition, ready to head back to the store and call it a day. He started the engine, put his hands on the wheel. But rather than put the van in reverse, he dropped his head onto the wheel.

“Aahh!”

“Good afternoon, Fair Lady!”

Conner swept into the store from the back room, this time, the box of chocolates with the chubby angel baby in his hand. Let the fool box try and speak now.

Deirdra’s soft laughter ceased at his entrance. Only then did he realize the lady wasn’t alone in the store. Leaning insolently on the counter across from Deirdra was Niko.

“Conner.” The other man didn’t rise, instead picked up a Queen Elizabeth rose, twirling it in his hand.

“Niko.”

So much for never seeing the bastard.

“Play nice, boys.”

“You needn’t worry for my sake, Deirdra.” Niko turned to Deirdra and held out the blushing pink rose. When she moved to take it, he took hold of her hand and lifted it to his lips. “Until later.”

Niko brushed past Conner on his way into the back room, nearly knocking the box of chocolates from Conner’s hand.

“I’m glad your back, Conner,” Deirdra said once Niko was gone.

“You are?”

Conner joined Deirdra behind the counter and watched her carefully arrange the roses. He never tired of watching her work.

“I finished the wedding flowers, and I’d hoped you would be back in time to deliver them.”

“Oh.”

“You sound disappointed.”

“What? No. Nothing like that.”

Conner tossed the box onto the counter, momentarily forgetting what he held. The pudgy Cupid stared up between them.

“What’s this, Conner?”

“Uh, I—. I got you a gift.”

“Really?”

Conner dared to lift his gaze to hers, ready to find the anticipated rejection. But her eyes only glinted with merriment, and her lips lifted into her signature smile that never failed to raise hope in his chest. He forgot how to breathe.

“That’s sweet.”

Deirdra’s gaze returned to the box, and the spell was broken. Conner could breathe again. He watched her hands as she moved to lift the box lid. The angel stared back at this with a mocking gleam in its eyes. Conner moved to prevent her opening the box, then saw again Niko lifting her hand to his lips.

She lifted the lid. Inside were a dozen tiny Cupid figures, all with bows drawn. Conner nearly groaned in despair. He’d forgotten how ridiculously childish the candies must seem, especially in light of Niko’s suave charm.

“What is this, Conner? Are these supposed to be arrows shot to my heart? Make me fall in love?” Laughter danced in her eyes.

“Haha!” Conner laughed, the sound one more of desperation than of mirth. “I don’t know, Deirdra. Did it work?”

“Hmm. Let’s see.” Deirdra plucked a chocolate cherub from the box and lifted it to her mouth. Conner couldn’t look away. She bit the candy, letting it melt on her tongue. Her eyes closed as she savored the sweet. “Mmm. That’s good chocolate.” She held the box out toward him. “You want one?”

Conner glanced at the candy, but gave a slight shake of his head. He knew a little too well what was possible with just a taste. Been there, done that. A tiny bit of chocolate clung to her lip, and Conner wanted nothing so much as to lean in to kiss her. Before he could, however, Niko returned from the back room.

“Deirdra, you want me to deliver those wedding flowers? I’ve plenty of time.”

“I’ve got the wedding flowers,” Conner said, turning to Niko in irritation.

“Sure thing, Conner. Just offering to help.”

Niko didn’t return to the back room, moving instead to stand in front of the counter. He reached for a chocolate before Conner even realized what was happening.

“What are you doing here, Niko?”

“I forgot my keys,” Niko said, popping the candy cherub into his mouth.

“Hey, that’s—.” Not yours. Conner finished the thought silently as Deirdra handed Niko a set of keys from behind the counter.

He watched as their hands touched. Watched the secret smile on her face, the one that dashed all his hopes. The cherub on the candy box grinned up at him in malicious delight.

“I’ll see you later,” Conner said turning away from the bitter scene. “I’ve got flowers to deliver.”

As he passed into the back room, Conner plucked a yellow carnation from a bucket of flowers. He glanced back over his shoulder at Deirdra and Niko. With a sigh he turned away and dropped the flower back into the bucket.

It was true then. In every age he was fated to find the most beautiful woman on Earth. Doomed to fall madly in love with her. And cursed to watch her fall in love with another man.

Shattered: Part One

JANA

The universe doesn’t always warn you when your time is up. If it did, though, would anyone listen? Do things differently? Make different choices?

I am Jana, an Empath. Bonded since birth to my Empath brother, our minds work in unison. But as often as not, we are at odds with one another in our struggle to be separate but together.

I emerged from the overgrown brush beneath the trees and into a small clearing. The mid-morning sun sparked on dust motes scattered through the air. A grasshopper flew sharply away at my approach. At the center of the open space, I stopped. The new fruit on the trees behind me lent a sweet aroma to the air. I closed my eyes and turned my attention on my brother.

All the way out here, Marcel’s anxiety was like a swarm of bees in my head. Indeed, the whole of the campus was humming with the news from the war front. As I stood still, just breathing, I focused all my energy on my brother.

Marcel.”

I spoke his name aloud as if I stood before him and not on the other side of the compound. It had little effect. His anxious pacing continued unabated. I could feel it rising in me as well, the need to move, to do something. It’s what had driven me here in the first place. If I didn’t gain some control of this, and soon, his anxiety would swallow us both.

Frustrated, I let go the way Marcel never could. I screamed at the morning sun, as loud and as long as I could manage. In the near silence that followed my outburst, an unseen eagle cried out as if in sympathy.

Pointing my body toward the north where the White River flowed out of the foothills, I drew my sword. Slowly at first, then increasing my speed with each rotation, I went through the forms Master Chen had taught me. Again and again I completed each motion, letting my body work while my mind remained focused on Marcel. I pushed him as hard as I pushed my body.

Marcel’s pacing slowed and finally stopped. He pushed back against my mind. The reports from the war front had him agitated, leaving my mind in chaos as well. On days like this, my connection with my brother was almost more than I could stand.

Enough, Marcel.’ I pushed the words along the bond, the way we’d communicated for as long as I could remember. ‘It’s time to stop.’

I let the sword drop from my hand in frustration. I leaned over, hands resting on my knees as I gulped in air. Sweat ran from my face and dripped onto the blade at my feet. The blade glinted dully in the sunlight. It was in need of cleaning. The idle thought was swept from my mind by another, and another. Marcel’s mind was never still.

With a sigh, I stood to my full height, taking in a deep breath as I did so. I brought my arms together in front of me, one hand poised over the other as if I held a small ball. I let go my breath in a long exhale.

I stood that way for several moments, breathing in and out. I focused on calm, sending it outward to Marcel.

At last my mind found some measure of peace, and I began to move through the meditative forms I’d learned long ago. I closed my eyes, breathing in and out as I moved in rhythm with the earth. I let the wind direct my body as I focused only on the peace of the hilltop.

Move, inhale, step, exhale. Turn, and start again.

I was so focused on Marcel, on trying to calm the chaos he lived in, I didn’t notice right away I that I was no longer alone.

Here you are.”

I opened my eyes at Andreú’s words, hiding my startled response.

What are you doing here?” I asked.

Andreú pulled me into an embrace, spinning me around in circles. His joy was infectious and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

Put me down!”

He stopped spinning and let my feet back down to the ground, but didn’t release me.

I’ve been looking all over for you.”

That was a waste of your time. You should have known I’d be out here.”

And I would know that, of course, because certainly you’re not supposed to be in Elder Harlan’s philosophy lecture right now.”

Ugh! That man is insufferable. I don’t know why he insists we continue to sit through his boring lectures when we should be learning something far more practical. What with the war going on.

Right.” Andreú looked down at me, his eyes twinkling with mischief. “Then, of course I should have known you would be beating up some poor lout on the training yard. Because what is more practical than that?”

Andreú!” I slapped at his shoulder, trying to push myself away, but he held me even tighter. “I don’t beat anyone up.”

Of course not. Still, you were not there.”

Master Chen has his hands full with all the new recruits. I wouldn’t be able to get a real workout. And I didn’t feel much like getting beat up myself by a bunch of clumsy farm boys with sticks.”

Fair enough.” Andreú pulled me down to sit on the ground beside the tree, keeping his arm wrapped around my shoulders almost as if he feared I might flee. “But then I should have known by your absence at the yard that you would naturally be with Marcel.”

I’m not my brother’s keeper, Andreú.”

Aren’t you?”

That’s not fair. I look out for him, is all.”

He’s a grown man, Jana.”

I know that—.”

Shh.” Andreú put a finger on my lips to forestall my words. “I’m sorry. Let’s not fight.”

When I would have protested further, he leaned in close and kissed me. I had come to like these stolen kisses perhaps more than I should. But I let it continue. And didn’t resist when he pulled me onto his lap so that I straddled his legs with mine, knowing he did it deliberately.

Andreú pulled away first. When he did, he kept his hands on my face, leaving me nowhere to look but at him. His eyes held passion, and I could see he very much wanted to continue our little kissing game. As much as I did. But when I leaned in to do just that, his hands held me back.

When I looked back into his eyes, I noticed something I had missed. Besides the physical hunger was something deeper, a more intense longing. Almost a desperation.

What is it?” I asked, suddenly worried about his answer. Andreú dropped his hands from my face, moving them instead to wrap around behind my lower back. I felt a sudden, unexplainable urge to flee from him. But his arms held me in place. “Andreú?”

Jana, you know how I feel about you.”

A sensation akin to worms wriggling inside my chest made me squirm on his lap, trying to pull away. I knew now where he was going with this, and I simply couldn’t sit still and let it happen. Not again.

And I know you care for me too,” he continued in a rush of words. “Would you stop?” His hands shifted to my hips, trying to keep me still.

Andreú, please don’t do this.”

No, Jana. I will do this. Marry me. I love you.”

The words had been spoken. I quit fighting against him as the worms became instead a block of ice. I couldn’t breathe. Didn’t dare meet his gaze. I couldn’t bear to witness his pain when I refused him again.

Nothing has changed, Andreú.” I didn’t dare speak above a whisper for fear I would choke and begin to cry.

But don’t you see? Everything has changed.”

What? What has changed?”

The war, Jana.”

The war!” I said in disgust. I pushed away from him, but moved only so far as to settle on back on his knees. “Is that all anyone can talk about?”

It’s worse than they’re telling us. They will send us all out.”

Send us? To war? What are you talking about? We’re all that’s left here. They can’t send everyone.”

If we don’t go there, the war will come to us. It’s only a matter of time.”

When I’d pushed away, Andreú’s hands had remained, resting lightly on my knees. He moved them away now, rubbing his face before dropping them into his lap. He looked away too, so that he no longer held my gaze. I could see the tension in his jawline. I wanted to reach out to him, to touch his face and somehow soften the hardness that I saw there. But fear for my brother held me back.

Marcel can’t go to war. It would destroy him.”

He’s a capable Empath. You need to give him room to do what he’s capable of. He’s your brother, Jana, not—.”

Yes, my brother. And he needs me.”

He’s a grown man. Why do still protect him? Why does he need you so badly you can’t find your own happiness?”

You don’t understand. Marcel is different. He can’t… He’s not…” I fumbled for the right words and failed. “He is not like you, Andreú. He’s different.” My words sounded harsh even in my own ears. “I’m the only one who can help him.”

Then help me understand.”

I stared back at him, trying to read what I saw in his eyes. All I saw was pain. I pushed to my feet and stepped away. I needed the space as I tried to rein in my wild thoughts and emotions. I turned my back on Andreú, looking up the river toward the hills. It was hard to believe that war and death and ugliness waited just beyond this peaceful scene.

Marcel had picked up on my distress despite how I’d tried to keep it from him. He was pacing again. I needed to end this. Quickly. Before things got out of control once more. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly before turning back toward Andreú.

You and my brother were friends once,” I said. “I just wish it could be that way again.”

I’ve tried, Jana,” he said with a weary voice. “He hates me.”

He doesn’t hate you, Andreú. He’s afraid…”

Afraid? Of what?”

Of what you mean to me.”

And do I? Mean something to you?”

How can you even ask that? You know you do.”

Do I?” Andreú clambered to his feet and held his hands out to me, but I refused to take them. He stood an arm’s length away, his gaze holding mine with an intensity I found difficult to return. “How can I know that, Jana? You’ve never said anything.”

I always thought there’d be more time.” I looked away, unable to hold his gaze any longer. I even went so far as to turn my back and walk a few steps away. He was quiet for so long, I nearly turned back to be sure he was still there.

There is no more time, Jana. The war, it’s coming.”

I didn’t turn around. I wasn’t ready to let him see the emotions I knew were plain on my face. After a few moments of silence, Andreú came and stood beside me. Together we stared down into the valley. The sun was now high in the sky.

From below came the sound of bells. We stood together, our hands not quite touching. His body sagged, and I could hear the resignation in his voice.

It begins,” he said. “We’re already too late.”

__

©2016 T. A. Hampton
Part 2, coming soon

A Short Story, a Promise and a Publication Date

Last month I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo. Go on, check it out. If you love words, it’s great fun! I had a goal in July of writing 31,000 words, and I succeeded. My project, a series of short stories.

A Decision
Now that the rush of Camp NaNo is over and I’ve had a few days to recover, it’s time to turn my attention back to a promise I made before the event started. I asked for your feedback on which of five stories you’d most like to read.

To be honest, I was surprised by the responses I got from you about which stories you wanted to read. I suppose my story blurbs were a bit sketchy, and probably not all that interesting. They were written based off very vague ideas as I tried to form a story from two or three words. In some cases, I didn’t even have a solid character on which to hang the story idea.

Nevertheless, you made your choices, and I thank you for your participation! Your choices helped give me direction in July. The story that received the most votes was:

The Adventures of Andreú and Marcel
Andreú and Marcel are Empaths of legend in the realms of Bangor, Dyfedd and beyond. Feared by the Jut’ma of the northern wastelands, revered as gods by the islanders of Bisbaine, and even spoken of in awed whispers by the Arikkaans, the stories of Andreú and Marcel are far reaching indeed. They are credited for the rise and fall of empires, for the creation of mountains and rivers and the birth of the islands. But not many know – or remember – their exploits were all for the love a woman.

The Process
When I first decided to try working on a series of short stories, I started by making a list of story ideas. I generated several ideas based on two separate novel worlds I’m currently working on. From this list, I randomly selected ten ideas. It so happened that there were five from each novel world. I decided to go with the ideas from the novel I’d been working on most recently, and those are the ideas I presented for input from you, my readers.

It turns out, ten ideas was beyond overly ambitious a goal, as I suspected it might. Even the five I narrowed it down to were more than I could complete in a month. I did finish the story above and began writing two others. I also did some preliminary sketching and research on a fourth.

New Title, New Focus
Having a single story to focus on gave me a place to start. Still the idea suggested by “The Adventures of Andreú and Marcel” is very broad, and implies the possibility of a great many stories. Therefore I zeroed in on a single phrase from the proposed story blurb: “all for the love of a woman.” I took this and imagined a single event which could have been the beginning of all those adventures. This narrower focus also suggested to me a new title for the story, which in turn helped me focus it even further.

I decided to write this story in the first person point of view. But when I started it, I wasn’t entirely sure who was the main character of the story. So I decided to write it from the perspective of each of the three main characters and see where that took me. As it turns out, the story is now told from the first-person perspective of all three, each character with their own section of the story.

Writing it this way made the story longer than I’d first anticipated. Instead of my original goal of three thousand words, the final first draft is a little more than seven thousand. I don’t expect the final draft to retain this length, but it will likely still be longer than my initial plan. I’m still fairly new to writing short stories, so this has all been a learning adventure.

What Happens Next
Now I begin the journey of rewriting the story to make it perfect. Or as perfect as I can make it. I will give it a good run through myself before sharing it with a couple of trusted individuals. I would also like to run it by a couple of beta readers before I publish it. My goal is to have it all polished and ready to publish by Saturday, September 3.

First step, print the draft and read through it. Next I’ll build a plot outline. I’ll likely do a complete rewrite, removing in the process all the extra bits I left in during NaNo.

It’s a scary thing, sharing a piece of fiction. For some reason it is harder for me to share my fiction than a book review or an essay. Maybe it’s somehow more personal. But on that note, it’s time to get back to work on this story. I’ve made a promise, and I intend to keep it.

In the meantime, I shared a sneak peak here. And just for fun, here’s another bit of the new story, “Shattered.” I hope you enjoy it.

   Andreú pulled me into an embrace, spinning me around in circles. His joy was infectious and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
“Put me down!”
Andreú stopped spinning and let my feet back down to the ground, but he didn’t release me.
“I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“That was a waste of your time. You should have known I’d be out here.”
“And I would know that, of course, because certainly you’re not supposed to be in Elder Harlan’s philosophy lecture right now.”
“Oh, ugh! That man is insufferable. You also know I skip out on that as often as possible.”
“Right.” Andreú looked down at me, his eyes twinkling with mischief. “Then, of course I should have known you would be beating up some poor lout on the training yard.”
“Andreú!” I slapped at his shoulder, trying to push myself away, but he held me even tighter. “I do not beat up anyone.”
“Of course not. The fact remains, you were not there.”
“Master Chen has his hands full training a bunch of brand new recruits. I would not be able to get a real workout. And I didn’t feel much like getting beat up myself by a bunch of clumsy farm boys with sticks.”
“Fair enough.” Andreú drew me back down to sit on the ground beside the tree again, keeping his arm wrapped around my shoulders almost as if he feared I might flee. “But then I should have known by your absence at the yard that you would naturally be with Marcel.”
“I’m not my brother’s keeper, Andreú.”
“Are you not?”
“Oh stop. I look out for him, that’s all.”

The Rise of Eldor, and Other Stories: Introducing my July 2016 Camp NaNoWriMo Project

This July will be my eighth Camp NaNoWriMo adventure. I’ve worked on a number of different projects during Camp NaNo from novels to picture books. This time around I plan to work on a series of short stories set in the world of my current novel in progress. Since I’ll be writing too fast and furiously to adequately edit any of the stories for publication during the event, I thought it would be fun to ask you, my readers, to choose one story to be posted here on the blog once the July challenge is over.

That said, below are summaries for five of the stories I intend to pursue during July. These stories are the Legends and Histories of my novel world. If you find any of them intriguing, please let me know in the comments below. The story receiving the most interest, I’ll publish in full here later this summer.

1. The Rise of Eldor

During a time of unrest for the Empaths, whispers of an elder deep in the mountains above Bangor City lead four young Empaths on a quest to find him, to find an answer to who they are and what their role in the world should be. One among them may not be who they say they are, however. Can they reveal the traitor and reach the old man in time, or will the destiny of the Empaths be forever turned along a darker path?

2. A New Name

Captured on the battlefield and sold into slavery, Dalgren of Bangor must now prove himself in the gladiator arena. If he survives the training round, he’ll earn a new name from his benefactor. He isn’t the only new recruit hoping to earn a name, however, as Dalgren finds himself pitted against some of the toughest foes on the island.

3. Dyfedd’s Dagger

Prince Ashari of the fledgling kingdom of Dyfedd has been pledged in marriage to the Princess of Bangor with the hopes that this union will bring peace between the two nations. But treachery is afoot and Queen Cleo of Bangor is poisoned. Can Ashari prove his innocence and win the heart of the woman he loves?

4. The Plains Wars

There is a place near the edge of the plains, where the mountains begin to crumble toward the sea, a high plateau surrounded by mystery. When this holy site is violated by villagers from eastern Bangor, the plains people have no choice but to respond. Now it falls to Clemen, Lord Regent of Bangor to find a peaceful resolution or plunge three nations into war with the people of the plains.

5. Adventures of Andreú and Marcel

Andreú and Marcel are Empaths of legend in the realms of Bangor, Dyfedd and beyond. Feared by the Jut’ma of the northern wastelands, revered as gods by the islanders of Bisbaine, and even spoken of in awed whispers by the Arikkaans, the stories of Andreú and Marcel are far reaching indeed. They are credited for the rise and fall of empires, for the creation of mountains and rivers and the birth of the islands. But not many know – or remember – their exploits were all for the love a woman.

 

There you have it. A sampling of what I’m working on. Did any of the stories catch your interest? Your comments and feedback are welcome! Please choose your favorite and I’ll share the one voted the most interesting in full later this summer. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

Crib with afghan

Cradle

The cradle sat unmoved from the place where it was first brought into the house, filled with blankets, and all the unused accouterments of infants, buried now under layers of spare pillows, afghans and Grandma’s quilt. The cradle had been purchased on a whim, a chance encounter that spoke of a dream yet unfulfilled, a siren song of desire. That was years ago. Now all that remained was something to trip over, to sweep under; the cradle all but invisible under the years accumulated upon it, bereft of use, of meaning, little more than an elaborate storage box, a hope chest ruined by the realities of dead dreams and ravaged hope.