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The Serpent and the Cup

by crowspark 

Posted: 29 December 2004
Word Count: 727
Summary: Grotto flash challenge

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To pause in the cooling glade is sweet. I am already tired and feeling my age. I stumble, twigs cracking underfoot. A cloud of butterflies billows from a bush, sunlight speckling their wings. Beyond the bush I see the mouth of the cave.

Nimue knows the way but I brush past her. Hooking aside a veil of trailing roots with my staff, I duck inside the dark opening.

I feel her resentment, the student ambitious to surpass her teacher, her one time lover.

I could have brought torches to light our path, but as Nimue had said, "Light spells to a Mage Lord are but a trifle."

At a word my magic staff glows, throwing arching shadows across the cave roof. We descend a rubble slope snaking between bolders. Far off the boom of rushing water. As we go deeper I feel the press of stone about me. Un-named dread stalks me.

After weary hours we reach a place where the path divides. Ahead still the sound of water. Left a narrower way. What is this fear?

I am startled by Nimue's smooth arms sliding round me in an embrace. She pushes her body against mine, her warmth is a shock. "Nearly there my love," she says. Only now she casts her own light spell. Taking the lead she enters the left hand path.

We emerge suddenly from a tunnel into a grotto of wonders.

The walls about us glint. In the rock are the shapes of petrified sea creatures.

Great carbuncles of smooth rock like melting candles dangle down the walls. In places a filligree of slender columns bar our way. We thread our path across a rippling surface dotted with stumps of stone. The contorted walls resemble faces of gods or demons, illusions which disappear as we move. All about us the walls blush blue and purple shot through with streaks of black and glinting gold.

At the centre of the cavern Nimue stops beside an enormous boulder. She drops to her knees and whispers, “There, look there!”

A corner of the rock has fractured revealing a chamber beneath. There is a gap only big enough for my arm. I thrust my staff into the fissure. Below I see a room, at one end an altar, covered by a cloth of gold, and on it stands a drinking vessel of great antiquity. I am dumbfounded.

“Can you reach it” Nimue asks eagerly? I cannot. I focus my will upon the cup but my spell is useless. This treasure exerts some force I don't understand

“Perhaps our joined powers could raise the rock?” Nimue offers, her face impassive. I laugh dismissively suspecting a trap.

I puzzle the problem. “I will shapeshift into a giant serpent and slide through the crack to retrieve the cup. When the spell wears off we will return to the surface.”

I detect no disappointment in Nimue at this change of plan. Perhaps my suspicions of her motives are unfounded.

I am close to exhaustion. Melding my form into a serpent is both painful and taxing. It is only Nimue's strength which finally enables the completion of the spell.

The grotto seems even stranger through my reptillian eyes. My tongue tastes the air nervously. Despite scales which easily grip the ridged floor I am tiring quickly. Something is not right. I seem to be battling a great pressure, like a wind roaring from the fissure. Now at the threshold of the opening the pressure is terrifying. My serpent form shimmers in the blast. I raise my coils up and lunge forward with desperate strength.

All is silent. Down here there is a pure white light emanating from the altar. By this light I see my true form again. My spell has been vanquished by the Holy Grail. Dread siezes.

“Nimue, help me,” I cry but she laughs and takes up my staff.

I try to reach the grail, to fling it out through the hole but Nimue brings down an avalanche of rock to seal my tomb.

“Goodbye Merlin, and may you and the Grail keep good company until the end of the world.” She sings a sweet mocking song of trees and fields, mountains and brooks. Her haunting refrain echoes and fades as she leaves me, trapped for ever, far from the world until the end of time.

(c) Bill West

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Comments by other Members

anisoara at 15:57 on 29 December 2004  Report this post
You've wowwed me, Bill! Grotto indeed! A literally fantastic portrait of an aging sorcerer and his ambitious apprentince, who literally steals his staff, quite figuratively unmanning him on top of everything else. Great work! (Sorry about all the literal/figurative stuff, but it's true.)


Account Closed at 16:09 on 29 December 2004  Report this post
Excellent Bill,
It has all the ingredients of a great flash. I think you managed to get his weariness across well and the description in the first line is enchanting.

I hope you are sending your flashes out and that we'll see some in print soon.


By it's light = its

there, look beneath.”= you need a capital letter on there and maybe on look too and even an exclamation mark after there (horrible though they are)

crowspark at 16:25 on 29 December 2004  Report this post
Thanks Ani you have made me blush!
Glad you liked it.

crowspark at 16:32 on 29 December 2004  Report this post
Thanks Elspeth, I have picked up your suggestions and corrections.

My first piece of flash appeared in the December edition of Thirteen, with Dee, Julie, Ben and Nik Perring!

Glad you liked this one.


Account Closed at 18:04 on 29 December 2004  Report this post
December was a great cru then!

DerekH at 18:22 on 29 December 2004  Report this post
Great flash, Bill... I especially love the last 3 lines, it ends the piece perfectly as both characters fade from the page.

You really had a fast pace running through this, I was struggling to keep up with my own reading (if that makes sense).



crowspark at 18:56 on 29 December 2004  Report this post
Thanks Derek, this is a piece that originally went flat on me until I did the frantic flash challenge and I came back to it re-engaged.

Glad you liked it.


Nell at 08:32 on 31 December 2004  Report this post
Hi Bill,

A magical tale with some evocative descriptions - I especially liked .. the press of stone... and the description of the grotto and the blast. Just a couple of small things:

...A cloud of butterflies billow from a bush... (billows).

...At a word my magic staff glows throwing... (a comma after 'glows'?)

I feel her resentment, the student ambitious to surpass her teacher, her one time lover. I don't know what your word word limit is, but it would be great if you could show this in a few words - with speech perhaps?

I should have brought torches to light our path. Her mocking smile at the suggestion had stopped me. After all, light spells are but a trifle. The middle sentence of these three seems awkward - maybe integrate them with a direct quote as to what Nimue said?

I noticed you've spelt 'Nimue' 'Nemue' in a couple of places too.

You've 'song' repeated in the last para - it should be easy enough to replace one with something else though.

Lovely poetic flash with echoes of sounds running through - a prose poem almost, and the last para is haunting.


crowspark at 12:54 on 31 December 2004  Report this post
Thanks Nell for your welcome advice. I have addressed most of them and will have a ponder this evening about those two rewrites.

Glad you liked it.

Anj at 20:13 on 01 January 2005  Report this post

As ever, the details that effortlessly evoke the scene - wonderful stuff. Love the relationship between Nimue and Merlin - the student outgrowing the teacher.

The opening three sentences jarred with me a bit - I can see they might be an onomatopoeia (did I spell that right?) thing, ragged breathing or something, but still I'd have liked the opener to have flowed into the story, because as Nell rightly says there is something poetic about this piece.

"A cloud of butterflies billows from a bush, startled by a breaking twig." - this is a fantastic image, but I think (forgive me) "Startled by a breaking twig, a cloud of butterflies billows from a bush ..." would have more impact - we'd then follow the action chronologically and the billowing image would linger with us, rather than the twig.

I love the way you turn the situation around midway, with Nimue taking over.

"Below I see a room, at one end an altar, covered by a cloth of gold, and on it stands a drinking vessel of great antiquity." This jarred a bit - I think it would have more impact as two sentences, the second beginning "On it stands a drinking vessel ...".

"echoing and fading" - would this read better as "echoes and fades"?

But all told, another wonderful piece.


crowspark at 23:52 on 01 January 2005  Report this post
Hi Andrea,

Yes, echoes and fades is much better and I have changed it, thanks.

You are right about the opening paragraph, too many short sentences. I need to think about this one.

It is very interesting that you suggest a version that is close to an earlier version of the butterflies section. Putting the "startled" at the beginning of the sentence leaves all those b's together at the end of the sentence and for me making it too ornate. This way round it takes the emphasis away but as you say makes the chronology suspect. It is all a bit of a balancing act.

You have also spotted another area of concern for me, the section relating to the cup/grail. Again I need to have a think about this section.

Thanks for your help Andrea. I will look at it again tommorrow when hopefully my head wont be so full of cotton wool!

Glad you enjoyed it.

eyeball at 09:18 on 02 January 2005  Report this post
Hi Bill,
This is terrific; it hits just the right note of antiquity and doesn't trip over into purple prose.

I love the description of the grotto and the para starting, 'The grotto seems even stranger through my reptillian eyes.' with its description of him battling against a force.

The only thing was that at 'The closer I draw to the cup' I thought he'd gone down into the chamber, and then at 'Now at the threshold of the opening' I realised he was still at the top, so it confused a bit. Great stuff.


crowspark at 14:16 on 02 January 2005  Report this post
Thanks Sharon, glad you liked it. There is still some tweaking to do as you mention.


crowspark at 17:04 on 03 January 2005  Report this post
Thank you everybody for your comments. I have finished tweaking and think this reads better than the original.

Dee at 18:46 on 03 January 2005  Report this post
Bill, this is truly fantastic. I’ve been meaning to read it since you posted it but kept getting side-tracked. So glad I found my way back to it at last.

So… as I didn’t read the original version… I can see where you’ve rubbed off a few bumps and I think this is now damn-near perfect. You really convey his misgivings and her edginess so well.

Great carbuncles of smooth rock like melting candles
Excellent imagery.

Only spotted one little typo:

At the center of the cavern
centre… is your spellchecker set to American English?

Love it.


crowspark at 19:47 on 03 January 2005  Report this post
Thanks Dee, really chuffed you like it.

I knew I should have bought a proper wordprocessor with a decent spellchecker!

Centre it is.


scottwil at 11:44 on 11 January 2005  Report this post
Beautiful, descriptive writing, Bill. Excellent work and lot of complexity in terms of character and relationships for a relatively short piece.


crowspark at 18:21 on 11 January 2005  Report this post
Thanks Sion, glad you enjoyed it.

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