Another open-ended one, the sort that has so much possibility that it's often as much work to narrow it down to something workable as it is to come up with anything. But there was something about it that suggested the Big Messy Project, and particularly the lands inspired by Tolkien and Lewis. Maybe I could pick up where last week's writing challenge left off...
From all directions came a hail of round greenish fruits about the size of an apple. One hit my shoulder hard enough to hurt.
I bit back a yelp of pain. Whoever was behind this obnoxious little stunt, I wasn't giving them the satisfaction of seeing me cry.
I backed away from the trees, doing my best to make it look like I was trying to get a better vantage point. If it looked like a retreat, my tormentor would press the advantage for all it was worth.
That was when all the branches of the massed trees lashed as if blown by a hurricane wind – except there was nothing but the lightest of breezes. And then another hail of those fruits came flying my direction.
I was running before my conscious mind even registered it. The fruits clattered on the flagstones behind me.
The path took a downward slope, gentle at first, but steeper the further I went. Soon I was scrambling ground keep my footing, until I realized I was well beyond any possible range of the trees.
And that I'd gotten so far off the path that I couldn't even see it. Time to stop and figure out where I was.
Any thought of retracing my steps vanished as I looked back. How had I managed to get down that slope without coming crashing down? Unless the slope hadn't been that steep going down...
A sudden chill gripped me and I shivered, recalling my observations of the Lands That Are Not of Men. Like many descriptions of Faerie in folklore, or Wonderland in Lewis Carroll's famous story, they had that tricksy changeability, a fluidity of time and space, of logic and proportion fallen sloppy dead.
I recalled the stories I'd been told of what could happen to humans who broke the bounds. So far nothing horrific had befallen me, but I wasn't eager to press my luck by going tramping about without consideration. At least make a good-faith effort to get back on my side of the boundary, to show that I'd meant no trespass, and hope that I would not be judged too harshly.
Except doing so was easier said than done. There was no way I could climb back up what was now a steep slope, not quite a sheer cliff but certainly something that would require specialized skills and climbing gear.
However, a scan of the ground stretching beyond me on the other side revealed no sign of the path continuing. In fact, what had been solid ground and boreal forest was giving way to something more marshy, with shallow pools scattered here and there among willows, cattails and other wetlands plants.
Nothing to do but pick a path through the best I could, hoping it would eventually bend back toward regions I knew to be safe. Touch nothing I didn't have to, and generally show as best I could that I was here by mischance, that I had made no willful breach of bounds.
How long I walked I could not tell. I would not be surprised if time were as malleable as the lay of the land in this place. I only knew that I was bedeviled by hunger and thirst, to the point that even the scummy puddles started to look inviting. I recalled all the wonderful food and drink on the breakfast table at the Little Cottage of Lost Play, how I'd hurried right past it all in my haste to get the children to safety...
I stopped, listened. Yes, those were voices in the distance.
My first instinct was to head in that direction. Voices meant civilization, and thus safety.
But if I had wandered into the Lands That Are Not of Men, there was no reason to believe I could trust whoever I found here. Folklore is full of stories of the fairy-folk playing tricks on mortals, whether out of malice or simply because their minds do not work as ours do, and thus they have no idea how much harm they might be causing.
Perhaps I had best approach carefully, scout out who these people might be and only if I felt confident that they were trustworthy should I approach them.
On the other hand, it seemed as if the ground were growing even soggier in every direction save that which led me ever closer to the speakers. Could the land itself be conspiring to force me on a particular path?
And then the vegetation opened out onto a cleared area, a little hillock just high enough to raise it clear of the water table. Under a rude shelter three women in mismatched garb worked over a vast iron cauldron, reminiscent of Shakespeare's wayward sisters, or the weird sisters of the original account that would become the foundations of the Scottish Play.
They continued to chatter as they toiled over their cauldron, not the famous lines everybody thinks of, but a language I could not parse? Scots Gaelic? Latin? The prosody sounded European rather than, say, Japanese or Arabic. However, I was a Slavist by training, before I'd left that behind to pursue advanced degrees in history. All I could say for certain was nyet, it was not any of the Slavic languages.
I could glimpse something within the cauldron, a vague shape that at first put me in mind of a severed head, somehow still animated and chattering with them. But as I drew closer I could see that no, it was an illusion of the mind's determination to see patterns in randomness, and particularly to see faces in anything that combined three dark spots in a way that suggested eyes and mouth: the Moon's near side, or a three-prong outlet.
And then I realized with a jolt of astonishment that the interior of the cauldron was impossibly deep, lit by a whirling vortex of orange and purple lights that only superficially resembled an incandescent liquid. Not a vessel, but a portal to some impossible other place.
I stopped, measuring the distance between myself and them, the possibility that they could grab me before I could flee. I had no great desire to be thrown down that spiraling tunnel to who knows where.
I'm thinking that something comes out of that cauldron/portal, and this is the Inciting Incident that leads to her flight through the Lands That Are Not of Men, and thus to the "Elves and Motorcycles" scene from last year. However, it's getting later than I'd intended to still be writing it (mostly because I fell down a research rabbit hole and lost about an hour this evening), so I'm going to wind it up there.
I also got a story written for the latest Indies Unlimited Flash Fiction Writing Challenge. It's about Toni's first meeting with Cather Hargreaves. Again, I'd known the general form, but I didn't know the exact circumstances.
As always, if you'd like to participate in Odd Prompts, just send your prompt in to firstname.lastname@example.org to be assigned a prompt of your own. Or if you're not up to the commitment of trading prompts, you can always check out the spare prompts and see if any of them tickle your creativity.
There will be a new word and picture prompt up at Indies Unlimited on Saturday. Until then, the polls will open tomorrow for voting on the Readers' Choice Award, and will close at 5PM on Thursday.
In the meantime, keep writing