I stared at a blank screen for fifteen minutes, trying to figure out how I was going to write this. Then I realized that the problem, in this case, was its own solution. I needed a spark, a kernel of concept around which my ideas could gel, and this is an excellent topic about which to write.
As often as not, the solution is both easier than it was here, and more difficult. It is rare that I can give myself the impetus for a new story. I will say "I'm going to write a story about a young man who has discovered that he can fly," only to discover that I cannot write the story. I will get four paragraphs into it and the stall out.
On the other hand, if a suggestion comes from an outside source, I can often run with it, producing a surprising amount and quality of text before I run out of juice. I've written stories that have been started because of dares, or that have started with a random sentence picked from a book, or whose character, setting, and motivation have been generated randomly. These are the stories which have allowed my creative process to roam free.
And that's the secret, I think. High school and college taught me a lot about what a story should be, about form and meaning and word choice. These were valuable lessons, but they also shackled the creative mind, bound it to follow these rules. But when the creative mind is given a push, and is allowed to run with the momentum it is given, it produces. It spins a tale on its own. I don't get to direct it, but I don't need to. It knows better than I do what is good, what is interesting, what is significant.
Form and meaning and grammar and spelling are all important to a story, but this doesn't mean it's necessary to force them into a story while it's being crafted. An underlying meaning is usually better served when produced naturally. Whenever I try to force a concept into a story, it sounds like I'm preaching. When I let the creative mind build the story without analyzing things, the story usually packs much more punch.
Form and grammar and all of the other pesky rules of writing are easy. I deal with them later. When I'm editing the piece, I'm taken over by the instruction I've received on the topic of writing, and I fix all of the mistakes the creative mind made.
In the end, I have two choices.
I can try to craft a masterpiece, building a story with perfect grammar and spelling, and with a cleverly-put meaning which will dazzle and astound my readers. And this piece will sit in a folder in my hard drive, one-quarter complete, for years.
Or I can let my creativity do its work. The story won't come out perfectly polished, but it will come out. It will exist.
"Three days from now, you will vote on the one who will rule over you for the next year. The election will determine every aspect of your life, what happens to every coin, every scrap of food, every moment of every day. And so you must, of course, make the proper choice of whom to give your life over." The words flowed over the crowd like silk and honey, sweet and seductive.
I stood at the edge of the Listener's Corner of Hyde Park, watching Queen Mab as she spoke to the citizens. Her beauty was so great as to be painful. When you set your eyes on a beautiful woman every day, are tantalized by the rise and fall of her breasts, the curve of her hips, and the stretch of her legs, and realize with each viewing that she is utterly unobtainable, you are feeling a scant measure of the pain one feels upon seeing the Queen of Air and Darkness.
The pain was made worse by the rowan sprig pinned directly to my chest by an iron needle. Though the pinning itself caused no small amount of hurt, the true agony came from the protection the sprig provided against Mab's glamour. I was denied the belief that she was attainable, making her beauty true torment. However, this torment also left me with my own free will, something that most of those standing in the Listener's Corner could not claim.
She finished her speech, and the enraptured audience chattered its approval. They would, of course, vote for her. Just as they had for the past fifty years, ever since the Parliament had put an end to Victoria's monarchist rule and instituted a democratic vote for England's ruler.
And just as she had done for the past fifty years, she would wield the Empire for her own amusement and for the strength of her kin. People would work their hands to the bone and still not earn enough to feed their families. They would have children they could not afford, and would sell them to the fairies in return for a few loaves of bread. Wars would be fought, not only to spread Mab's mortal influence, but also to instill hope and fervor within the Empire, and fear and death in its enemies. The lives and souls of mortals around the globe would go to strengthen the fae.
This is what I and my fellow conspirators wished to stop. I felt for the miniature crossbow in my pocket. It used gears to allow the ivory bow to be drawn, creating tension equivalent to that produced by the gadget's full-sized cousin. I wrapped my fingers around the grip, its every curve molded specifically for my hand.
"If you once again elect me as the ruler of the British Empire," Mab was saying, "I will protect you against those who would sow chaos amongst our great land, those who would bring uncertainty to your lives."
I moved forward, shouldering the entranced throng out of the way in order to get closer to my target. My fingers quivered around the crossbow. I would have only one chance. There were four guards among the crowd; fairy men armed with razor-sharp short blades and preternatural speed and strength. I had seen one of those swords cleave through the ribcage of a man while its wielder appeared to put forth the same effort I would to carve a tender roast.
As I approached the front of the crowd, I surreptitiously glanced at the guards. The only one within reach was the one at Mab's side. His hand rested loosely on the hilt of his blade, and he scanned the crowd with seemingly lazy eyes. He didn't seem to have noticed me.
"There are those who would steal from you your choice of ruler," her voice dropped to a warning note. The crowd replied with a worried gasp. "They would commit treason against the Empire and betray the democratic process by taking action against me beyond attempting to defeat me at the polls."
Time slowed to a crawl as I withdrew the crossbow from my pocket. It was as though I were moving through honey. The guard's eyes flicked to me. His sword was in his hand and swinging in a broad arc as he took two steps toward me.
I pointed the crossbow at Mab and moved to pull the trigger, even as silvery death rushed toward me.
"Stop!" Despite being whispered, the word carried immense weight. Even with the protection of the iron and rowan, I felt my muscles momentarily freeze. The guard, the crowd, the entire square stopped entirely. Even the birds and wind of the surrounding park had fallen completely still and silent. I recovered, feeling the charm slough off the Queen's command, and looked to the blade that had stopped mere inches from my shoulder. I took a shaking step back, as if the guard might continue the stroke at any moment and cut my body in two.
I saw then that it wouldn't happen. The crossbow's bolt; a length of rowan tipped with a sliver of iron, wrapped with a tiny cluster of four-leaved clover and St. John's wort, stuck from his chest, right above his heart. His eyes fogged over. This is not a figure of speech. It was as if his brilliant green eyes were a field in the morning. They then darkened until they had become black, and he fell forward onto his face.
Mab stepped forward, slowly and deliberately. I scrambled away from her, weaving among the statue-like crowd, but no matter how quickly I moved, the fairy Queen drew steadily closer. I found myself backed against one of the low walls that surrounded the square, with her beautiful, terrible form looming before me. She was a head shorter than me, but I might as well have been staring at a giant.
She reached out and touched my cheek, gently caressing her nails down my face, then over my chest. I looked down as my shirt fell open, sliced cleanly by her razor-tipped fingers. A single drop of blood fell to the ground. I reached up to my face and found a delicate scratch where she had touched my skin.
Mab plucked the charm from my chest, sliding the pin free of my skin. I felt lust surge through my veins. My gaze caressed her generous curves as she held up the sprig. Little wisps of smoke curled from where the iron touched her skin. "Did you think I would not notice this little precious? You might as well have doused yourself in kerosene and set it alight while trying to hide from me.
"You have done your job well," she said, and I swelled with pride that I had done right by my Queen. "The people will see how dangerous my opposition is, and will rally even more readily to my banner. Now come, let us return to the palace." Her words wrapped silk around my spirit, binding me to her. As if she had given some signal, the crowd began to move again. She said to one of her guards, "Get rid of that." She gestured at the fallen body, which had begun to change into gnarled wood. "In dying, it failed me."
Mab strode away from Listener's Corner, the roll of her hips a promise to me, a promise I am sure was for nobody else. Everyone in the Corner fell in step behind her. They followed because they wished to be close to their Queen. I followed because I would be the Queen's next lover.
I was sure of it.
* * * *
Sam Hirte-Runtsch is a lifelong student, a dreamer, and a hoarder of books. He began writing in junior high and high school, where his English teachers simultaneously encouraged him to write and taught him how not to do so. He eventually overcame this education, and started writing in earnest.
He lives in Minnesota with his wife, who supports him through the tough times of a writer, and their three deranged cats, who deign to let him live in their domicile.
Penumbra's next issue will be released on August 1, 2012