Aug 29, 2013

Third Place: Don't Let Go by Meaghan Ward

I only remembered two words.  Everything else was a blur.  But those two words were all that mattered, right?  First I said them, stuttering and tripping on them.  Then he said them, firm, confident, determined. 
“I do.”
He didn’t kiss me.  And I didn’t think my father would add that important marriage bit to seal our vows.  

Romance was wasted on us. There we were under a cracked arch in an underground tunnel surrounded by the warm, somehow intimate, glow of a dozen candles, and yet all I could smell was damp earth and years of decay from the gaping black entrance of my ancestor’s catacomb. 
I didn’t need a man who would love me.  I needed a man who had a sword he knew how to wield and had made a vow he was honor bound to never break.  That’s all that mattered.  Because not only was I now my father’s only child, I was the only heir.

The tunnels were still and heavy with a thousand unspoken words.  I turned to my father.  His shoulders drooped, his head hung low, and he nodded.  “There’s not much time.  They may have broken through the gates already.”
 “Papa,” I choked.
“Hush, Ava.” My father said. He stepped closer and his hands cupped my chin.  “Don’t speak. You are all I have left.  If this is the last night I ever lay eyes upon you, let my last glimpse be of you heading to safety.”
“But Papa—”
“As your king, I order you to leave.  As your father, I plead with you to go. Promise me, Avalon… promise me…”

I nodded, not really knowing what I was promising.  Curse these tears!  The last few seconds I’d see my father alive and he was a giant blur.  I swiped them away with the back of my hand, willing his face back into focus.  He was looking over my shoulder now, staring down my knight husband. 
“If any harm comes to her, and I yet live, you will be a dead man.”
“If any harm comes of her, Sir, it will be because someone beat you to it.”

And my father smiled – a small, pained smile that thrust a dagger of pain through my chest.  He stepped back and spared me one last glance as soft as a caress.  “Never lose hope, Ava,” he said to me.  Then to my new husband: “Take her and be gone.”  He took another step back beyond the circle of light and the darkness swallowed him.

“Papa,” I whispered numbly as the world around me, that halo of light, was reduced to the flicker of a single candle, of fingers digging into my shoulder, and a deep voice that urged me to follow.
I was dragged down the tunnel. My legs felt leaden.  Not a word we breathed, and yet our silence seemed louder than words with the echo of his boots and the whisper of my skirts on stone.  Water trickled down the wall and dripped from the ceiling with a deafening, plop… plop… plop…  And above it all, somewhere beyond the layers of rock and dirt that entombed us, was the almost imperceptible clash of war and the final cry of a dying kingdom.

Ahead, dull grey light signaled the end of the tunnel and the beginning of the forest.  It was raining, and wisps of cool wind feathered against my brow.   Our light went out with a hiss. The candle was tossed aside.  It hit the ground, broke and lay bent at an odd angle, the wick the only thing holding it together.
“We’ll have to move quickly,” the man at my side said. His voice was soft and rumbly as his breath brushed against my ear. 
I shot the dark knight – my husband – a double take. I wish I could have read his face, but there was no expression, no feeling, nothing.  Just a mask.

He reached for my hand, gave my fingers a squeeze.  “Don’t let go, Princess.”
I nodded.  At least, I think I did.
Silently, we moved like shadows into the forest behind the castle.  Thorns ripped at my dress and pinged off his armor.  There was a nicker from the shadow of an oak. 

Before I knew what was happening, hands were around my waist, lifting me onto the back of a black destrier as if I weighed nothing, as if the horse wasn’t taller than him, and the knight wasn’t already weary from fighting hand to hand in the courtyard not five minutes before our impromptu wedding.
He mounted behind me. My back pressed against the metal of his breastplate, and it felt awkward – so awkward.

Who was this man I married? Who was this battle-hardened knight with the scar slashing across the side of his face who gently pulled my skirt over my knees and tucked it around my legs? I had to ask myself the question even though I felt all dead and empty on the inside - even though I didn’t want to think about anything or feel anything.  

He wrapped his arms around me to take the reins, and shifted uncomfortably. A click of his tongue and the giant destrier sidestepped and plodded forward with a snort. 
I sat rigid, every heavy step of the horse taking me further from the castle and jolting my spine.  Away from home and papa…  To disappear into the wilderness with a husband who had never really ever spoken to me except to say ‘I do’ and ‘don’t let go’…

“Don’t let go, Princess,” he said again.  The third time he spoke to me and he felt the need to repeat himself.  As if I could ever forget that he was my sole protector, and like the candle, the only thing that held us together was a vow woven in darkness.

And then it clicked.  He wasn’t good with words.  They came in short clipped breaths, but now I understood his meaning. 
Princess.  He’d called me Princess.
I twisted to peer behind us for one last glimpse of the castle I’d called home.  No.  It wouldn’t be the last time.

Don’t let go.
Don’t lose hope.
Because I was the true heir.
And this wasn’t the end.

Overall: 4 stars
This one wasn't an instant yes as the other two were, but the longer I considered third place, the more I came back to this one. I considered others, I vacillated, and still this story sat there, insolent and not caring what I thought. It was this self-assuredness that won me over. This story doesn't seem to need you to like it. It just is.

Concept: 3.5 stars
This isn't the most original concept I've ever seen, but my judgement isn't based on concept alone. I love how the author takes a classic, almost legendary, concept, and puts her unique voice and touch on it. From the moment we meet Avalon she has a strong draw that encourages us to look deeper than the fairy-tale veneer and imagine the real people involved.

Plot: 4.5 stars
The plot is one of the things that really shines in this story. The character arc and resolution are strong for such a short piece, stronger even than the two higher-placing entries. Like a candle in a dark tunnel, it pulls you on through the story, sticking you right inside Avalon's head and her adventure. I also love the mixed open/closed ending. There's a strong sense of closure but also what I as a musician call a "leading tone", a note that doesn't quite resolve the song, leading you on to the next part or just not concluding the song at all (those are The Most Infuriating Songs Ever.) And the fact that the last line is "this wasn't the end" is very, very clever - even though the last words are "the end", it again breaks convention by contradicting itself. To me, it's part of that confidence the story seems to have.

Characters: 4 stars

Avalon is a strong character. You can see that from the beginning. Placing her in a crisis was a good move. Whereas All My Tomorrows begins with a character comfortable in her setting and The Magpie begins with a character in his element, Don't Let Go begins abruptly, almost rudely, with Avalon's world ripping apart at the seams. Takeover, death, marriage, escape - all huge blows Avalon takes admirably. But each one chips away at her mask, showing us a little more of who she is, all in a very short time. Again, there is only one named character. The knight and Avalon's father remain secondary, though important, and that's just as it should be.

Execution: 3.5 stars

The strong voice is another of my favorite parts of this story. It's also one of the few entered that I couldn't justify suggesting that it be trimmed. This story is tight, each detail in its place, each sentence bursting with character. Not only Avalon's, but the author's as well. I've read enough of her writing to appreciate her strongly developed voice. It's actually similar to mine, since I've mistaken her writing for mine a few times. I've suggested swapping scenes before - giving her the info on one of my yet-unwritten bits and taking the info for one of hers and then each of us writing the other's scene. She has yet to take me up on it. Bummer.

Technical: 3.5 stars

As in most of the submitted pieces, I would like to see less passive voice. (I'm starting to sound like one of those rule-pounding editors. Heaven forbid. Let me say here and now that passive voice has its place. It just doesn't fit well here.) The mix of short, strong sentences with the unneeded passivity is slightly grating. Let me assure you, however, that it's nowhere near as bad as some of the drafts I wrote. Maybe I should post some of those on here sometime so you can all laugh at me.

That's it for the top three! Come back next week for the first of five runners-up. Title and author are secret until then. ;)


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Sandra said...

Good story. I always love reading Meaghan's writing.
Excellent Meaghan!!
Aww you won't tell us who the runner up is? *pouts* Can't wait for next week!

Elizabeth Kirkwood said...

Fantastic job, Lessie! :D