The Form of Shadow
Part XV of the Brass Automaton Saga
Mark Gardner started the Brass Automaton Saga over at Article 94 and then invited me to play along. His Project Page has links to all of the stories and background on the story itself, which is a mashup between Terminator and Snow White. If you’re new to our endeavor, it is the best place to get caught up.
|| The wave of Darkness left as quickly as it had hit; an instant of darkness in which John still saw the afterimage of the Dwarven Guard burned into his eye. He blinked it away and looked to his personal retinue, the Royal Swords. Each wasn’t just loyal to Oosah, but to him personally. They and Jarvis were the only ones left he could trust, and even then he wasn’t sure he would have been able to without their blindness. Although their training more than compensated for their lack of sight in hand to hand combat, they were incapable of any ranged attacks. It was the only advantage John had on them, beyond their sworn allegiance of course, but it was a grim comfort nonetheless. Even so he was soon walking amongst them, with a hearty clasp of the shoulder or arm as they emerged from the spell’s clutches, reminding them of their mission and that Prophecy assured their ultimate success. (That the Prophecies were silent on whether or not anyone would survive their ultimate success was tacitly ignored.)
It was still yet hours to dawn on a late Summer morning, and John was alone in the kitchen kneading dough for the daily bread he had promised Odc so many years ago. It would be some time yet before even the Head Cook or her scullery help would come in and start making breakfast. A single, tallow candle burned in front of him, providing him what little light he needed after so many years of ritual. It had started out as enjoyable, John thought as his hands worked the dough, before quickly becoming a dreaded chore. Until his grumbling woke Snow and she encouraged him to find at least some pleasantness to the task he remembered with a smile.
Surprising perhaps John most of all, he hadn’t found the silver lining until tensions with Rooskye rose to near outright warfare. With almost every minute of his day taken up by someone who needed him whether it was husband to Snow, father to his children, or King to a nation; the only time to himself during the day was here, in the kitchen, before anyone awoke. “Solitude, when chosen, is one of the greatest gifts one can give themselves,” he’d told the kitchen staff with the deep intonations of a philosopher after they had tried, again, to “help” their King. It had been years since he had had to share this precious time with anyone. Time that allowed him to think, to refresh his perspective, and to ease the myriad hardships of rule with simple, useful work.
So it startled him when he saw movement through the open scullery door. “Who’s there?” he demanded holding his floured hands above the dough. When there was no answer he grabbed a towel and headed to the door after quickly running water across his hands. Down the rampart, walking away from him, was a figure in a dark cloak holding out a dull lantern for light.
“Halt!” John shouted, and the figure stopped. John began walking towards it when the figure held up an arm to its shrouded face beckoning silence, before motioning John to follow and continuing on. John wasn’t sure why he didn’t simply call for the guards, choosing instead to quietly follow the figure. John lost sight of it as it turned the corner of the rampart heading towards the Orchard Gate. When John turned the corner himself he found the guards fast asleep, and the portcullis up. He was trying to wake them when he looked up to see the figure standing halfway between the castle and the apple orchard. Even with the lamp held high, John could not make out the figure’s face. John drew one of the guards swords and began trotting towards the figure alert for whatever Magick was afoot.
The figure turned and was quickly lost amongst the craggy shadows of the apple trees. John knelt beside the first row of trees, breathing as quietly he could, waiting for a sign of movement. A twig snapped away to his right and he was off! Movement flashed again and he turned to intercept the form. Ducking under a branchs and dodging saplings, John burst into a clearing amongst the orchard. With his eyes now adjusted to the dark, and a gibbous Moon shining through a clear sky, John could see the clearing was really just a toppled tree giving way to the night.
From behind it’s gnarled truck the figure rose, raising again its lantern. John readied himself, raised his sword and demanded, “Who are you figure!? Show yourself!”
The figure’s left hand raised and opened to show it was empty before slowly pulling its hood back and shaking loose long, blonde hair. John peered past the light of the lantern to see…
John slumped to the ground in shock. Not his little Reese, his beloved daughter, but her namesake stood before him as surely as the ground beneath him was solid. He dropped the sword and rushed towards her, only to stop at her outstretched hand beckoning him to hold.
“Reese! How can this be!?”
“I am, and am not, Reese,” she said quietly. “There have been many Reese’s each in her own time, one whom you knew, loved, and watched die. I am another Reese, another facet of her whole, compelled here by the strength of her love for you.”
“I do not understand?” he said plaintively, as if it was once again his own Reese as they were years ago, with her tutoring him through his confusion.
“You need not understand. You need only act. You must trust me John.”
“I trust you, Reese!”
“You remember the Brass Automaton? Our flight? You remember how I knew things? Things that were impossible to know?”
“They still haunt me,” John said quietly. “I trust you as I have no other, except my Queen, Snow.”
“That’s why I’ve come, John. A fortnight from now, Snow White will betray you.”
Continue on to Part XVI, The Stab of Betrayal