An Exercise in Voice

Catie MurphyCatie Murphy
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I’m on writing retreat this week, so I’m going to riff off David’s post in which people worry they’ll tell the same story somebody else has told, and give you a writing exercise. Normally I do this in writing seminars where nobody can read each other’s work until it’s finished done, so I’m going to establish one rule and I ask that you actually follow it.

Here’s the rule: first, before you go any further in reading this entry, right-click on “leave a comment/# of comments” and open it in a new tab or window. This is really important for this exercise. The entire point here is that you should absolutely *not* read what other people have written until you’ve done yours. Please, please follow this rule.

Edited to add: Crap. Apparently MW doesn’t open a fresh window with no visible comments unless you’re actually the first commenter. All right, then, I plead with you to unfocus your eyes and scroll past all other comments until you’ve written your own. Argh. This may not work as well as I hoped, but, well, please try.

I am going to present you with an extremely generic story point. I want you to rewrite the material I have provided the way *you* would tell it, and then keep going for a little while. Five or ten minutes, a couple hundred words, something like that. No more; this isn’t a long writing assignment.

Post your retelling of the story. Then, and only then, may you read what other people have written. Again, I ask you to please, please follow these rules, because doing otherwise will defeat the point.

Here’s your story:

Robin ran up the stairs in the tower to the locked door. A wooden bird was beside it. Robin’s heart pounded, chest tight with needing air. Robin poured water on the bird’s head and it sang, making the door open. On the door’s other side was a beautiful princess.

Go. Rewrite, continue on a little bit, post, and then read what others have written.

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40 comments to An Exercise in Voice

  • What a great idea!

    Robin scrambled up the curving stone stairs, hugging the water skin to her chest. Her foot slipped on the worn stone and she went down on hands and knees, fingernails scrabbling for purchase. She cursed this human body. What she wouldn’t give to have her wings back, to flit through the open air outside the tower and land, light as a leaf, on the window sill.
    She levered herself back onto her feet. Such silly, soft feet humans had, easily damage by stones and no good for clinging to a branch at all. Her legs trembled, heart thudding in her chest from the climb and the fall. She tried to whistle a few notes of the Spring Morning Song to raise her spirits, but her new throat didn’t know the shape of the notes. She slung the waterskin back over her shoulder and plodded on, reminding herself what the old priest had said, “Soft and slow. They stumble that run fast.”
    But time was running out. She would be trapped forever in this pale human form if she didn’t complete the tasks.
    Gritting her teeth, lungs burning, she reached the topmost step in the tower. A door with no lock or key stood there. “Make the silent bird weep to find the key.”
    What was that supposed to mean? She let out a sharp cheap of frustration and bounced on her feet. She would have fluffed her feathers, if she had any to fluff. The water on her shoulder sloshed.
    Hang on. Human brains were made for thinking, the priest told her. Use what you have. She bounced again. Tears were water that came out of people’s eyes, weren’t they? Maybe.
    She uncorked the waterskin and squirted water into the carved bird’s face. Drops like tears rolled down the wooden door. The bird shook itself and fluttered its wings as if it would take flight. Robin put out her hands and pushed against the door. Without a sound it swung inward.

  • rebnatan

    Water. Did she have enough water? All the stories said she needed water to free the Princess. Robin still had two almost-full gourds as she climbed the stairs, and she wasn’t even thirsty. The sun had been hot as she rant towards the tower, and the hill was a little steep. But a couple of sips had been enough to quench her mild thirst.
    Fire could be her problem, rather than thirst. If she had to cross some kind of fire-pit, two gourds might not be enough to cool it. Maybe she could pee on the flames. Maybe that’s why she was told that rescuing the Princess is a man’s job. They could aim better.
    She reached the top stair. No fire pit. No keyhole, no openings. No anything. Just an ugly little wooden bird on a table by the thick, wooden door. Robin sat down on the floor. What the hell was she supposed to do now? She fidgeted, pulling at the bird. It was attached. She yanked. It still didn’t move. Robin cursed. That didn’t help either. She pulled out one of her gourds, took a swig, and cursed again, dumping the rest of the water on the wooden bird.
    The bird sang. The hinges sang as the door slowly swung open, releasing the scent of salt water, revealing the Caribbean Princess, snatched mysteriously with a full complement of passengers, from the warm Atlantic waters.

  • Megan B.

    Robin’s legs burned, each step taking more effort than the last. The spiral stair seemed to go on much farther than he’d guessed when looking up at the tower from the outside. He wanted to stop and rest, at least until his legs felt lighter than lead, but he had no time.

    Panting, he arrived at the door and fell against it, shoving with his shoulder. It might as well have been part of the wall. He tried pulling, but that proved equally worthless. As he stepped back, heart still fluttering, two things became obvious. The door had no lock. And on the table beside it sat a wooden statue of a toucan, its wings neatly folded and its beak held high.

    Robin fumbled for his waterskin, unlaced it and took a swig. The liquid cascaded down his throat, relieving the dry ache. He nearly choked on it when he remembered the words of the princess, and pulled it away just before the last gulp hit his tongue. The water. She’d said he would need it, but what if she didn’t have his thirst in mind?

    He glanced at the bird, and found it looked different now, in some subtle way. It took him a moment to realize that its painted eyes had moved. As he lowered the waterskin, the eyes lowered too. When he raised it again, they lifted to follow it. Shrugging, Robin held it out and poured the last of the water onto the toucan. He expected it might open its beak to drink, but it made no move. The water dripped to the floor, and he gave the skin a shake to confirm its emptiness. Had he just wasted the last of it? And if so, now what?

    He dropped the skin, and it slapped against the stone stair. At that moment, the toucan’s beak parted. A humming note began, low at first, but rising. The bird sang, a wordless tune that made Robin smile and close his eyes. His legs no longer hurt, and his heart and lungs felt entirely rested. When the music stopped, he heard a creek, and looked to the door, now open just an inch or two.

    Patting the bird on the head, he pushed his way into the dim room, lit only by sun filtering through blue-green curtains. In the center of the room stood the princess, her hands folded in front of her. She wore a blue dress that reached the floor—or perhaps it only looked blue in this light. She watched him enter, and signaled for him to shut the door behind him. Only when he’d latched it did she speak.

    “That took you two hours, fourteen minutes and twenty-one seconds.”

    “It’s a long way from that grove,” he said. “What I want to know is, how did you beat me here?”

    “It’s a shame you lost the race,” she said, not acknowledging his question. “I would have given you that wooden toucan if you’d won.”

  • The guards taken care of, Robin headed up the tower’s sandstone steps. He ignored the pain lancing through his left side. It could hold. Once he got the treasure, there would be plenty of time to find a healer—afford a healer, even, without resorting to any more of the old wizard’s silly quests.

    By the time he pulled himself to the top, his breath was ragged, burning with the taste of blood. Clutching at the knife-wound with one hand, he grabbed the door handle with the other and pushed.

    It didn’t move.

    Damn. Another test?

    Then he noticed the wooden bird.

    It was carved in the same B’dinn style he’d seen throughout the rest of the fortress, so intricate that every feather was visible though the creature wasn’t larger than his fist. Its wings hung limp at its side, and an offering bowl rested on its head.

    Reluctantly, Robin reached for his waterskin, only half-full now. He’d have to find a water source before leaving; there was no way he’d make it back through the desert without filling up, now.

    Sure enough, as he drizzled water into the bowl, the bird leaned forward and its wings lifted back, imitating a dive. Gears moved, and with a rumble the door slid open.

    “Oh!”

    Inside was a young woman, probably no older than him, eyes wide with shock at his arrival. She wore a long gown of shimmering green silk, the fabric picked out with sapphires that matched her eyes. Her golden hair was pulled back in a braid and wound around her head. The room around her was empty.

    A princess, really? This was the treasure? Robin groaned. Once again, he’d been tricked.

  • The setting sun stained the sky red as Robin ran up the tower steps. Her heart pounded as she gasped for breath, praying to all of her gods and any others that would listen.

    At the top of the stairs she saw the thick oaken door and the rusty metal lock. And there beside the door, just as the legends promised, perched the gaily decorated Bird of Bristol, his tiny black eyes staring sightlessly at Robin’s feet.

    She pulled the flask from the pocket of her coat, and with shaking hands poured the water on the bird’s head. For a moment nothing happened, and she nearly cried, wondering what she had done wrong. Then, slowly, the bird opened its beak and whistled a low, mournful tune. The locked snapped off, the door swung open, and there, rising from her desk, stood the princess.

    “Well done, my dear,” she said, holding her hands out as Robin entered the room. “You mastered the magic and completed the course in record time. This is indeed a day of celebration.”

    Robin threw herself into the princess’s arms. “Thank you, mother, for allowing girls into this year’s challenge. When may I start my official training?”

  • christy

    Robin took the steps two at a time. The hours of daylight were running out and soon the demons would be out to play again. He turned the corner and skidded to a stop in front of the door.
    A wooden heron, polished to a gleam, blocked his way. It stared at Robin with empty, glass eyes that didn’t fool him. This thing was alive as much as he was.
    Robin tried to catch his breath again – gods, he didn’t think he could run that fast – and reached into his pocket for his water bottle. He made a silent vow that if the witch had lied to him, and the door stayed sealed, he’d spend the rest of his life tracking her down.
    He poured the water over the heron’s head. It opened it’s beak slowly, and let out a long, creaky note, and the door popped open.
    Wiping the sweat off his brow, he pushed his way into the room. “I’m here,” he said.
    But instead of Tara’s freckled face and bright blue eyes, he found a short, thin girl staring at him with wide eyes, flattened against the wall. The sunlight caught her hair through the window, turning it to bright gold. Her dress was made of red silk, bordered with gold on the hem, the square neckline embordered with small crystals.
    “Who are you?” Robin asked. Realisation dawned that Tara had already moved. The girl, royalty by the look of it, answered his question, but he couldn’t care less what she said.
    Damn it. He’d lost her again.

  • A. R. Gideon

    Robin raced up the tower stairs two at a time. Haran could only keep the guards at bay for a minute or two, if that. The stairs ended at a heavy stone door with no visible handle. His heart pounded in his ears, his chest tight with the need for air. He scanned the small corridor and saw a little wooden statue sitting on a small table. It was carved in the likeness of a phoenix rising from its own ashes, its beak open to silently proclaim its rebirth to the world. He pulled a small vial of water out of a pouch at his side, he really hoped that the old man hadn’t been lying to him. He uncorked the vial and carefully poured the water over the phoenix. For several heartbeats nothing happened, then color slowly bled into the statue, painting it in shades of red an gold. Slowly the= phoenix spread its wings, the most beautiful song Robin had ever heard coming from its throat. He stood transfixed as the little bird sang. As quickly as it had started the song ended, the phoenix went still turning back to its original dull brown. There was a sound of grinding stone and he looked up to see that the door had cracked open. Robin shook his head, why couldn’t mages ever just use a normal lock?
    He pushed the door open, the hinges squeaking from disuse. The room was dark, and he went inside cautiously. He heard the whooshing of air to his left and leaped backwards, narrowly avoiding the chair aimed at his head. He rushed forward, grabbing hold of his attacker. He spun them around and pinned them to the wall, his attacker giving a decidedly feminine gasp as they hit. She struggled for a moment before going still.
    “Just do what you came here to do and leave me be brute.” She said, her voice soft and harsh. Robin smiled.
    “That’s very generous of you, but that’s not why I’m here princess.” Robin said, releasing his hold on his captive and stepping back. She turned to face him, and Robin found himself staring into beautiful green eyes. Golden tresses framed her delicate face and cascaded in waves down her back. She stood tall and proud, and even in the dirty shift she wore she looked every bit the princess she was.
    “Then why are you here?” She asked, bringing Robin back to reality.
    “I’m here to rescue you.” He said with a lopsided grin. The princess looked him over and arched an eyebrow.
    “Some knight in shining armor you are.” She said. Robin frowned. He knew he looked rough, but that was just uncalled for.
    “Yeah well, the last ‘knight in shining armor’ that tried to get in here is now a pile of ashes. If you want to get out of here, I suggest you not complain.” Robin grabbed the princess’s hand and pulled her towards the door. “Now lets go.”
    He pulled open the door to hear boots on the stairs down below. It seemed that they had finally gotten past his bodyguard. Haran was a bear of a man, but even he had his limits. Robin pulled the princess away from the door and slammed it shut, the door and wall melding together to form a solid whole.
    “What now Mr. Hero?” the princess said with a sneer. Robin scanned the room but found nothing useful. Then his eyes fell on the window and a wicked grin spread across his face. The princess followed his gaze to the window and her eyes went wide.
    “Oh no. No, no, no, no, no.”
    “Oh yes.”

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Robin’s heart pounded as he dashed up the stairs inside the tower. The stone steps were damp with the fog rolling in from outside, and bits of grey-green vegetation winked at him from the other side of blocky, shutterless windows as he sped past.

    Abruptly, the stairs ended, and Robin was confronted with a large, heavy wooden door. Locked. His vision dimmed as he stood there trying to catch his breath. His legs burned with running so far and for so long. When his sight cleared, he saw that next to the door sat a small wooden bird, each feather carved precisely so that it looked half-finished, as though only more work were needed to bring it to life. Wizard’s wardens. How Robin hated them.

    Bringing out the flask Schmendrick had given him, Robin poured a drop of the contents on the bird’s head – a let-pass spell Schmendrick said was designed for locks. Robin could only hope it’s magic was broad enough to work on the warden as well. He didn’t have much time left.

    As the drop touched the carved head, the bird sang out with a high, clear trilling, and Robin jumped back, heart hammering. To his relief, though, the bird song stopped as abruptly as it began and the latch clicked on the lock, allowing the great door to sag open.

    With shaking hand, Robin pushed the door wider and stepped into the low, dimly lighted room beyond. At the far end, hanging by a tether within a circle of motionless lamp-light, she was there, a look of perfect, rare bliss frozen on her beautiful face. The princess Amalthea, caught like a fly in amber and soon to be shipped across the sea as an ornament to grace the Great Hall of the splendid palace of King Haggard.

    Sorry about the names. I spent absolutely all day yesterday coming up with about 30 names for my WIP and I’m all named out.
    Thank you thank you for this exercise, though. This was lots of fun. :-D

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Ooh. And I like **everybody’s** vesions.

  • Robin ran up the tower steps, stupid treadless boots slipping on the worn out stone, stupid clay pot sloshing water all over her blue and and blistered frozen fingers. She gasped for breath at the top, chest tight, heart pounding. She kicked the locked door, but, of course, if there was one door that wasn’t a bundle of bound sticks and couldn’t be blown down by a huff and a puff it had to be the only one she needed to get through. But that was what the water was for, right? Wooden bird, wooden bird.

    There it was, settled in an alcove beside the door. A chirping sparrow, beak wide, a small hole in the top of its head. Moving carefully, trying not to lose more water than had already splashed out on the stairs, the poured the contents of the clay pot into the hole. A whistling sound emerged from the beak. Yeah, sure, magic. She snorted, but listened carefully – there: the important sound, the lock clicking in the door. Robin grabbed the handle and shoved the door open.

    Beyond the door, sitting in a comfortable looking chair by the fire, a book on her knees, was a beautiful princess.

    “Oh,” said Robin flatly. “It’s you.”

    The princess looked up from her book and raised an eyebrow. “You were expecting someone else?”

  • Razziecat

    Robin raced up the tower steps, heart pounding. The door would not yield to her push. Beside it perched a bird crafted of age-silvered wood, one tiny black button eye gleaming. Robin drew out the vial of water the witch had given her, yanked out the stopper with her teeth and poured the brackish water over the bird’s head. A long, sweet note, lilting as a spring meadowlark, issued from its beak. With a soft, whispering sigh, the door swung slowly open.

    Robin edged up to the doorway, dagger drawn, and stepped through. There was a tall arched window, open to the sunset, and before it a woman wreathed in russet light, a crystal tiara throwing sparks from atop her chestnut hair. The woman’s eyes were green as mill water and wide with surprise.

    “I was expecting a prince.”

    “He’s not coming,” said Robin. “And if you want to live to find out why, you’d better comer with me. Right now.”

    “Ah.” The princess reached up and pulled the tiara free. She tossed it aside. “I always hated that thing.” With swift movements she kilted up her velvet skirts. Beneath them she wore brown leather riding boots. At Robin’s raised brow, the princess actually grinned.

    “I like to be prepared. I’m called Mercuria, by the way.”

    “I’m Robin.”

    “Well met, Robin.” She waved a regal hand, long fingers tipped with short, practical nails. “Lead the way.”

  • Vyton

    Robin ran up the winding, granite stairs in the northwest tower of the Castle of Two Moons taking the stairs two at a time. He reached the top with what he thought must be only minutes to spare. He hadn’t brought the hour glass with him. He would either make it in time or not. He always practiced the principle of, “Don’t look, run!” At the top he stopped at a heavy oak door bound with iron straps and hardware. He was not surprised that it was locked. To have sprinted through the gauntlet of trolls, fought past the pair of matched dragons, and swum across the crocodile-infested moat, a wide open door would have indicated a trap. The locked door provided reassurance. A wooden image of a kingfisher sat on an obsidian pedestal beside the door. The blue paint was worn, and the beak was broken as if someone had used it as a hammer. As Robin’s heart eased a little from the heavy pounding up the stairs, his chest tightened with spasms trying in vain to suck in enough air.

    What was the bird for? He was familiar with hundreds of spells and guards used by the priests of the Two Moons, and none of them employed kingfishers — or any other bird. He pulled a lodestone from his leather pouch on his belt and rubbed it over a small black square set in the wall beside the door. Nothing. In rapid succession, Robin said some of the universal “open-the-door” spells. Still nothing.

    “Hello!” he yelled as he pounded on the door. No answer, but he did dislodge a splinter with his right hand. Still breathing hard, he pulled his stone water bottle from the other leather pouch on his belt. As he pulled the wood plug from the bottle’s neck, he thought, “What the hell!” Robin poured water on the kingfisher’s head. It raised up and sang the shrill whistle chi-cheeeee.

    “Damn,” thought Robin. The door swung open on silent hinges and knocked the water bottle down the stairs where it bounced and echoed all the way to the bottom. Now that the whole castle knew he was inside the walls, and where he was inside the walls, he jumped into the chamber. Just like in all the tales he had heard growing up, there was a beautifil princess in a red velvet gown with gussetted sleeves and an empire waist. Her makeup was perfect, and not a hair was out of place.

    The contrast was jarring. He knew she had been held captive for three months. And before that she had traveled rough in a forced march from the coast to this mountain fortress. He looked for, but did not find a mirror, much less a dressing table. “Shape-shifter! Hell-hound!” he said as he reached over his shoulder for the two-handed battle sword that was in reality stuck in the neck of the dragon on the left.

    “Who? You mean little old me?”

  • bonesweetbone

    Robin tore up the tower’s stairs only to pause when she reached the door at the top. There was no handle on her side, but she knew what to expect.

    Tentatively, she lifted the flask from her side and popped the cork. Why they hadn’t bothered with a regular knob was beyond her. She was still skeptical about the bird. Robin tipped the flask and let the water flow over the small statue’s head, jerking and accidentally pouring water onto the floor when it began to sing.

    Gideon hadn’t mentioned it made sound. She wished she had time to study it. Robin stepped back, hand on the hilt of the thin sword at her waist. Her fingers tightened when she saw a human shaped shadow inside.

    “Step out slowly,” she cautioned, keeping her voice soft. No need to alert the guards. This was the first time she’d attempted a rescue on her own and she wasn’t about to muck it up.

    The shadow obeyed, though Robin’s jaw slackened when a woman stepped out. And not just any woman. Robin ducked her head as she curtseyed, the motion comical in her shirt and trousers.

    “Oh, my. What was Gideon thinking?”

    Robin’s head snapped up and she narrowed her eyes. To hell with propriety.

    “He was thinking that if you want to get out of here, you won’t second guess the help,” Robin snapped. “If you’ll follow me, your highness.”

    That said, she turned on her heel and began back down the stairs, cheeks flaming.

  • Unicorn

    Thanks for the post and exercise, Catie. I’m late as usual, and it’s too long as usual, but here’s mine:

    Robin pounded up the stairs, lungs burning, the hilt of his sword slipping in his sweaty grasp. He took the last three steps in one jump, half falling against the locked door. His heart was beating in all the wrong places. The wooden bird beside the door stared at him sightlessly through glassy, garnet eyes, still and magnificent with its bejewelled plumage. He sheathed his sword and scrabbled for the waterskin on his belt. Water slopped on his hands as his shaky fingers fought to open it, but there was still enough to splash onto the bird’s head. The bird began to sing. If “sing” was the right word. The eerie, rusty sound was more a war cry than a melody.
    Whatever it was, it made something click in the lock. Robin flung his shoulder against it and the door swung open. Inside, there was a beautiful princess, holding a dagger that dripped blood.
    Robin drew his sword, forcing his hands to stop shaking. “Where is she?” he demanded, fighting to keep a note of hysteria out of his voice.
    The princess slid nearer, sashaying like a cobra. Her full, scarlet lips curved into a smile the same shape as a scimitar. “You don’t need her anymore,” she purred. “Who needs a mad, blind girl when you can have me?”
    “I do,” said Robin, raising his sword. He spotted a movement out of the corner of his eye and lunged after it, dodging the princess’s dagger just in time. Alice, tied and gagged against the wall, fought one hand free of her bonds and stretched it out in the direction of his footsteps. “R-Robin?”
    “It’s me, I’m here,” Robin called over his shoulder as he spun to face the princess. She was already striking, but he reflexively parried the blow and the dagger clattered onto the floor. The princess hissed, a forked tongue flicking over her perfect lips. Scales erupted over her face, her arms and legs melting into her body. The fight had begun.

  • nothermike

    A bit long, but I was having fun…

    The water splashed, and Robin cursed, trying to balance the pitcher in both hands more carefully as he ran up the uneven stone steps in the wizard’s tower. He could hear guards below, and footsteps on the stairs behind him. It hadn’t taken them long to start looking for him.

    Where was that door? He glanced ahead, trying to see around the spiralling steps and the wall of stones on each side. Then he cursed as the water splashed across his hands again, and looked down at the pitcher.

    “There’s water on the stairs! Look above!” The guards behind him yelled,

    There it is! He felt his heart pounding, his lungs straining after the effort of fighting through the guards below without spilling the precious water and then running up the stairs. He looked down again, and saw that the pitcher was only about half full, with the water bubbling from being shaken as he ran. Still, maybe there was enough.

    On the wall beside the door, the carved phoenix raised its proud head. It was a beautiful wooden carving, painted brightly, seeming alive on its perch. It seemed out of place in the wizard’s tower, a place of grey stones and dark timbers, but it concealed the secret that the witch had explained to him.

    He lifted the pitcher high in his hand, and poured a glittering stream of water over the phoenix head. As the water hit, the eyes opened and the head tilted up. Then the stream of water bubbling into the inner workings of the wooden bird started the singing, a fluting whistle of notes echoing in the tower. He kept the water pouring, and the notes poured out, one, two, three, four…

    The water in the pitcher was running out.

    Beside the phoenix, the enchanted door wiggled in response to the music and then swung open. Robin dropped the pitcher and stepped inside, pulling the door shut behind himself. He thought he heard a heavy foot crash into it. Then he turned, and knelt. He smiled as he looked at the princess, sitting on a bench at the side of the room.

    “Robin? Is it really you?” she said.

  • Chris Behrsin

    The staircase seemed to go on forever. With each step, Robin worried that he might slip on the slime that dripped from the ceiling, and it might send him slithering down to the bottom again. But the guards were bound to be waiting there now, and Robin certainly didn’t want to be thrown in the cells. How would he explain his being here, unaccompanied in the tower then. What kind of princess would ever want to meet a simple scholar like him.

    Still, he had to hurry. Rigar’s spell would be cast soon, and so he had to move as swiftly, yet as deftly as he could. The air rushed cold around him, and cut through where his jerkin had ripped at his shoulders. He tried not to let this get to him and persevered to the top. A bird greeted him there.

    A bird with feathers of light, eyes of dark. A bird that tempted Robin’s eyes and mind away from its objective, and into its own spiralling vortex of magic. A bird that could cause Robin to stand and stare forever, to forget what he had to do, to forget who he was. The phoenix, it had caught fire and the spell was working it’s way into the princess’ quarters.

    No, Robin couldn’t let it. He had the blessing of The Seven, he had the strength to carry on.

    He removed the large iron key from his belt and put it in the lock. The muscles of his hand clenched around the key, and the bird caught his attention again. He looked into two perilous eyes, and he saw Rigar’s very own, black like those of a snake, with swirls that drew him away from this world, into the image of a spiralling galaxy of dark stars.

    “You think you can stop this,” a voice echoed in your mind. “Oh, sequestered one, minion of darkness, you think you have a chance. You’re one of mine, just like the seven. Just open that door, see what’s behind there. Break the ward, see what I can do.”

    Robin hesitated. He took a deep breath. So, yes, Rigar could be playing with him. But he had The Seven’s word for this, and if he couldn’t trust them, who exactly could he trust. But then he noticed, by the cage, the was a cup full of water. A gift from the seven, or a trick of Rigar’s? It didn’t matter, maybe it could save the bird.

    Robin removed his hand from the key, took the cup, poured the water on the bird. It let out a huge squawk, and then spiralled into a dark vortex of its own. The key in the lock too vanished, and the door swung open before Robin.

    There the princess waited, her hair a bundle of light, and her eyes a spiralling vortex of dark.

  • I like that over half of the commenters made Robin a girl – that’s what I was planning to do, but didn’t actually set aside the time to write it. These are great!

  • Seconded on how awesome and different these all are. Great exercise, Catie!

    Scribe, I have to say the Dark Knight Rises is still fresh in my brain. That definitely influenced my decison to make Robin a guy. ;)

  • I like this exercise!

    Somewhere ahead was a locked door. Somewhere behind was a very angry guard with a very sharp weapon. Inbetween were only stairs, endless and steep and spiraling up into darkness.

    Robin ran, his feet aching after the first hundred, his arms and chest after the next fifty, his hips and knees after the next twenty-five. By the time he reached the landing at the top, he could barely breathe; he could feel the spots dancing in front of his eyes, but there was no light to see them by. The only sound he could hear was his pulse, thundering in his ears, staggering through his body, sending tremors through his hands.

    There was a light beside the door at the top of the stairs. It was a dim light, just enough to allow the spots to flare in front of his eyes for a few moments. He gulped air, leaning against a wall for a moment’s relief, and listened to see if the pounding in his head was masking the pounding of feet on the stairs below. He couldn’t tell. The guard had looked fat and old and slow, but one never knew–and there were faster, younger guards nearby that could have been summoned for pursuit.

    As the spot faded from his vision and his breath came a little easier, he found himself staring at the light before him. It was a simple lamp, the wooden base shaped like a bird–a robin, in fact, which made him smile. She stil had her sense of humor, or someone involved in this gigantic mess did; and that lamp told him that she, or again, someone, had expected him to make this attempt.

    He worked his mouth and tongue for a moment, thinking hard about the morning’s meal–which he’d been forced to leave behind some time before this ascent–sweet, crisp apples; a pitcher of hot tea heavily laced with honey–ah. The honey did the trick, as always; his mouth filled with saliva.

    Robin took a shaky step forward and let a generous amount of spit fall onto the small candle flame. Darkness returned with a whiff of sulfur and smoke; far away, in an indeterminate direction, someone laughed.

    A soft click came from in front of him. The locked door had opened. All he had to do now was push through and see–

    He stayed still, staring into the dark, listening, waiting, gathering his courage. The silence was as impenetrable as the blackness. If anyone was coming up the stairs after him, they were being as quiet as a master thief about the matter. And why should they, after all? There was no way down except past their hands. He was as trapped up here as she was. The windows in the room beyond that door were covered in bars of cold iron; the stone throughout the tower was without fault or flaw. They could afford to wait at the bottleneck below, sitting back in their chairs and sharpening their weapons, laughing at the fool who’d tried to rescue a princess.

    He smiled, his breathing very even now, and with a stride and a push, went into the room.

  • Robin threw herself up the stone steps, hoping a mindless dash would erase the fear. But the yawning gap to her right pulled at her with unseen claws; she tried to outrun it, but the higher she went, the more aware she became of the distance to the floor below. She closed her eyes, but the image of her falling became terrifyingly real in her head, and she stumbled and fell against the wall of the tower. If she’d fallen the other way….

    She gathered herself and pelted on again, knowing that if she allowed herself to slow, to attempt a saner pace, she would freeze in place and cower against the rough and dusty slabs. The muscles of her thighs protested the unaccustomed effort, and just when she thought they must snap from the strain, she was there, facing a smooth oaken door crossed by two hammered iron straps fastened by square-headed nails. Despite what Brannock had told her, she pushed against it; it yielded not a whit, did not even creak. There was no knob or latch, not even a trace of hinges. But the sculpture was there, just as Brannock had described it–a roughly hewn eagle or falcon in a shallow niche at the height of Robin’s shoulder. She tugged at the straps that held the leather bottle to her belt and yanked it free even before they’d come fully untied. She nearly dropped it then, a brief desperate fumble that ended with her clutching it to her breast. Still cradling it thus, she unstoppered the bottle and then paused. The scent of the water brought to her clear images of what had come before, the struggle to attain it, the slog through the marsh, the unexpected resistance from the priests at the shrine, and Devon… oh, Devon! Would she ever see him again?

    Not if she didn’t complete the task, which suddenly seemed so anticlimactic after all she’d been through. She wanted to savor the moment, to prolong it and thus give it more significance. But there was nothing to it, she decided, just dumping some water on a damned wooden bird. Nothing to it.

    She was wrong.

    As she upended the flask and the first drops touched the sculpture, the bird threw back its head, opened its beak… and sang. Its voice charged the air with a pearlescent light, and Robin felt a thrill race through her. The stones of the tower ground against each other like great molars, and there came a great crack that sent a shudder down to the very foundations. But Robin felt no apprehension. This is part of it, she knew, this was meant to happen. And she watched the door fall away–not into the room or out of it but to some direction she hadn’t known anything could go until she witnessed it.

    As she marveled at this, the light from the bird’s uncanny voice spilled into the room beyond, dispelling shadows and settling like a gentle snow over the form of a young woman seated in a plain, cloth-covered chair. Her hair was blond and unbound, her clothing a simple dull blue tunic belted with a woven girdle. But her high brow, her finely chiseled features, and the piercing blue of her eyes bespoke nobility of the grandest sort. Those eyes rose to meet Robin’s own, and they flamed within as the princess spoke, saying, “You’re late!”

    I can’t tell whether this is overwrought or simply too long. Half of me like sit, the other half wonders what I could possibly have been thinking.

  • TwilightHero

    His heart pounding, Robin ran up the tower stairs to the closed door. There was no handle. The lock, where was the lock? He found the wooden bird carved at chest height, pulled out his flask and splashed water over its head. The carving opened its beak and sang, and the door swung inwards. Within, a tall, fair-haired girl in a white kirtle, about his own age, turned with a blank expression. Robin stepped in and smiled at her, still panting. He’d found her at last. She looked as innocent as he’d heard. “Hello, princess.”

    She looked from the carved bird, dripping water, to him. Her expression was unchanged. “How did you know how to do that?”

    Looks could be deceiving, he reminded himself. “I’m Robin, my lady.” He bowed. “I’m here to save you.”

    “Those are peasant clothes.” The princess frowned at him. “From what?”

    “Who.” Catching his breath, he glanced back as heavy footsteps, a fair number, sounded on the stairs. Men’s voices called to the princess. He’d known the distraction wouldn’t hold them long. “I’ll have to take some liberties with you, I’m afraid.”

    “And those are my father’s men.” Her tone sharpened. “Just what do you think you’re – ”

    She gasped as he hooked an arm around her middle, likely stronger than she’d expected from a man his size. Ignoring her struggles and shouts for help, Robin half-dragged, half-carried her out the open balcony doors as the guards stormed in. He gave them a wave with his free hand; they were too late. He put one boot on the railing, the princess screamed, and Robin carried them both off the edge of the balcony. It was a good thing the princess’s tower overlooked a lake. He was surprised no one had tried something like this before.

    Robin smiled again as they fell, the girl’s scream ringing in his ears. The king would not be pleased with this.

    [No idea where this is going, I just ran with it.]

  • sagablessed

    Dear Catie, a caveat: This was done quickly, but sister, you asked for it, lol.

    Robin stared at the steep tower steps, so ancient depressions had been worn in each by years of boots. Nothing of that former life could be seen now. Even the walls eked such stillness death herself would have been uncomfortable.

    His hand strayed to the wineskin at his side, his fingers caressing the stopper. ‘The old woman had better have been right.’ The months it had taken him to collect morning dew from the petals of wild roses, no two drops from the same plant, had cost him years. With a deep, slow inhale he bounded upward. It was not far, yet his lungs burned.

    Bronze decorations banded the wooden door. So far the witch had been right: there was no handle, no knob, and no keyslot. On a granite pillar, the height of his chest sat the marble bird-bath with cardinal made of what looked like oak. Every feather was carved to perfection, and naught marred the polished art save a fine layer of dust. Breaking the wax seal, he poured the water slowly over the lifeless thing. Where the dust was washed away color sprang into the wood. Wings now fluttering, song poured forth from it’s beak. Notes pure as spring sunshine shattered the un-natural somnolence. If his eyes had not been watching it Robin would have missed the door opening and begin to close. He leapt at the opening.

    Before passing, Robin poured a thin line of water across the threshold. The door froze in place. Robin stepped into the room. One bed upon which the princess lay, and a chair, where her Knight-Guardian sat. Not even such magic as held them both could stop Gavin’s beard from growing, however. Both of them were lost in dreams. Dreams that had lasted years.

    “My love, I am here.” Robin flinched at the echo of his own voice. With quick strides he approached his goal, his life, the reason his stars moved in their orbits. From the bottom of the skin one drop on each eyelid, and one for the lips. His knees shook as he gave his beloved a gentle yet firm kiss. Eyes green as grass and flecked with gold opened.

    “You need to shave, Robin.”

    “So do you.”

    Humorous petchulance laced a woman’s voice. “Why are all the good ones taken or with another man?”

    Robin did not let his eyes stray. “Sorry, sis. He’s all mine.”

    “Bitch.”

  • sagablessed

    Now that I have read them, amazing how so many of us ended with humor. XD

  • sagablessed

    And sorry about the mis-spelling of petulance. But I was rushed.

  • sagablessed

    And all other mis-spellings. My bad. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa.

  • sagablessed

    Just thought of the perfect ending. “Valiantly on each side did so many pillows surrender their lives in the ensuing battle between the Heirs to the Crown.”

  • NOT LOOKING! NOT LOOKING! I got too carried away (which always happens) and wrote too much, alright if I link it?

  • Please enjoy, those who wish to. It was longer than I intended, but when the muse cracks the whip, what can you do?

    http://www.danielrdavis.com/2012/08/25/an-exercise-in-realization/

  • [...] responses from an earlier post he wrote, on Fears. This prompted an exercise from Catie Murphy on An Exercise in Voice that works to prove that there should be no real fear of being trumped on an idea because even with [...]

  • And now I get to read, YAAAAAAAAAAYYYYY!!!!! (complete with Kermit arms)

  • Brigid St Bernard

    Robin trudged up the stairs. What was it now? “I’m coming!” he said wearily. In his mind, he was ascending Jacob’s Ladder in the Bible which he had just been reading, it being Sunday. And for encouragement, because he was sick and tired of it all, the relentless push and pull towards material success.
    At the top, the door was locked. O K – Then he heard it. A singing at his feet. A wooden bird. Only a Pinnochio of a wooden bird.
    “What are you and What are you doing?” he asked.
    The bird answered: “I, Sir, am a bird and I do what birds do. I sing.”
    “But you are wooden!”
    “Alas! for the mortal mind, for being confined by the material world.” said the wooden bird.
    “Aren’t you cheeky! Just.” He stood there finishing his ascent of Jacob’s Ladder in his mind, for he liked getting his goals and objectives done.
    Then turning back to the door, to his wife inside, he cried, “WELL, WHAT IS IT?”
    The door opened, and his elegantly dressed wife appeared. Like a princess locked in a tower, he thought belligerently.
    His gorgeous mate took one look at the wooden bird and screamed. “I THOUGHT YOU HAD PUT THE THING OUT!”

  • *beams* Okay, I’ll be carrying commentary on this post into my next one, but I dearly hope all of you–whether you’ve participated or not–have read these ficlets now, because I think they drive home the point splendidly:

    Nobody. *Nobody*. Can write the same story you’re going to. There are 25 or so responses here, and they’re all entirely different stories that sprang from the exact same half-dozen sentences. So please, take this to heart: *any* story you tell will be unique unto yourself. Never let the fear that someone got there first stop you from telling the story you want to tell.

    Thank you all SO MUCH for participating. Wow. Wow, I’m so completely delighted by this! Thank you!

  • lcmurphymhhe

    She stood at the bottom of the long spiral staircase following the upward movement of a thousand stairs – straining to see an opening – someplace where the stairs ended and a doorway into the next realm stood. Nearly hysterical, she wondered how she could climb this impossible trail and reach the top before she started to disintegrate.
    A door crashed open behind her and she knew they had found her. Beyond caring anymore, she bounded to the first level landing and prepared to sprint up a thousand stairs. Time was running out.
    Jumping up two stairs at time, not pausing to catch her breath or her balance, she wound round and round the tower stairs. Up and up she went till the air became thinner and her breathing more labored.
    No one followed her. Was luck was on her side this time? Where were the Guardians?
    Her thoughts were saturated with the panic that pulsed like a supernova through her ragged body. How would she know time had run out? How would she “disintegrate”? What would happen to this time/space realm if she did not reach the top and find the entrance way before she disintegrated? How could she get to the top faster?
    No way now but to run and run and run while the clock ticked in her head and her heart exploded with the exertion of getting to the top.
    She reached the top landing with a final exhausted leap and slid to a halt in front of a massive set of double wooden doors. As she looked up and down and side to side in an effort to find the way in, she noticed the birds on each side of the double doors. Carved wooden birds in various poses that seemed ready to attack stared at her as though they were alive. Heart pounding out of her chest and gulping in breathes of oxygen- deprived air, she dropped into a squat to recover and think.
    She gazed at each bird and noted the details. Each was easy to recognize as the details were meticulous and defining. Here blocking her way to the next realm, were the defending creatures of the elements of earth, air and fire.
    Her panic was replaced by a sense of calm. She would not disintegrate. She reached deep within her to find the knowledge necessary to complete this task. It was here. Finally she knew what to do. This is what she had been trained for.
    She, Robin, the Bird of Air, opened her flask of river water and poured the contents onto each head of the wooden birds. Each sang their own wind song. Her heart soared as the bird she was responded to their songs and the tower door behind the guardians slid open wide enough to let her through.
    She placed the cap back on the flask and with care, hooked it to her belt. She looked up and peered into the cracked opening of the doors. Beyond was dim and unknown territory. She took a deep breath and stood up taller. She slid through the crack in the doors.
    “o shit,” she said as the door slid shut behind her and her eyes adjusted to the new dimness.
    Sitting on the throne was a beautiful princess. Sparks flew from her enraged golden eyes.
    “Hello, Mother, “said Robin, the Bird of Air, with not just a hint of dismay, “how did you find me?”

  • Alan Kellogg

    Worry not about the story you tell, worry instead about how you tell the story.

    “Old man Thompson smiled to see the cat die, knowing the little bastard would never again assault long abused fingers.”

  • Robin’s heart pounded with every footfall as he charged up the stairs. The rough stone walls grazed his shoulders as he bounced from corner to corner in his desperate rush to reach the top. At the last step he slid to a halt. A wooden bird stared with polished ebony eyes, just like he’d been told. The door beside the bird looked stout to the point of fortified. There was only one way he was going to get the door open and he hoped it worked. The water in the flask sloshed as his shaking hand raised it over the bird’s head. He was sure that at any moment the statue would jerk to life and peck his hand, that he would drop the flask and its precious contents. The first drop splattered uselessly to the floor before he corrected himself and steadied his aim with his other hand. Water flowed down the bird’s head, off its back and down the pedestal it grasped with wooden talons. Nothing happened. Robin let his breath out with a sigh and swallowed. What would he do now? Just as he lowered his arms and prepared to leave, the door swung open.

  • Heh! And after reading mine a dozen times, my internal editor kicked in and I’m finding myself repairing the Word file some…

    These are all pretty fun reads, BTW. :)

  • wrybread

    Robin’s footsteps echoed through the deserted Campanile even though he’d made it a point to wear his Nikes. With every step a nagging voice in his head told him this was crazy, that if the Carabinieri caught him breaking into the Cathedral grounds at two in the morning he’d be sent home to Canada.
    He’d tried hard to resist the urge to do this. He’d dreamt of La Belleza Della Torre every night since he’d heard the story of the beautiful daughter of the duke who’d been locked at the top of the tower for loving an enemy soldier. Some stories had her throwing herself from the Tower, others said she starved, but they all agreed you could see and hear her ghost on moonlit nights.
    Robin had been sorely tempted to go at night to see if she was as beautiful as the statue of her in Piazza De Librei was. But he wouldn’t have followed through on the idea if it hadn’t been for the old gypsy lady.
    Robin was sure she’d noticed him looking at the statue. Her eyes locked onto his like a bird of prey. She’d motioned him to lean his head forward towards her. Then, she hung a wreath of dried bulbs around his neck and whispered three words: “Save the Lady.”
    Robin had been opening his mouth to ask what she meant when his father’s voice thundered “Vai Via!” from behind. These were the only Italian words his father knew, the ones he used to chase off beggars and hawkers. Robin’s father had dragged him off before the old lady could say anything more.
    Now alone in the tower, with no way of knowing how far he had to go, Robin fingered the dried bulbs the old lady had given him. His father insisted she was distracting him while one of her relatives robbed him, but it couldn’t be a coincidence, her telling him to save the lady after he’d dreamed of La Belleza. Robin hadn’t been surprised to see the old lady again at the foot of the tower, holding the door open. She winked, told him again to save the lady, and pointed upwards. Robin had seen a flash of golden hair at the top and that had been all he needed to start up the tower
    Now, though, he was tired. His legs ached. His heart pounded in his chest and his stomach heaved. He wasn’t suited for running up anything. He wondered why the old gypsy had chosen a boy who spent most of his life on the couch snacking and playing video games. He wheezed. His father wouldn’t be impressed.
    Robin was about to turn around and flee back down when he ran into something that fell over when his foot hit it. He shone his keychain’s LED down.
    The thing’s huge, penetrating eyes stared sightlessly up at him. The rest of its’ appearance did little to reassure him; from its’ two feathery horns to its’ huge clenching claws it looked like a Gargoyle.
    It was a wooden owl model with jewels for eyes. It made him think of the owl from that Clash of the Titans movie.
    This was it. He had to use this thing to save the lady. Looking up, he saw a stone door in front of him and realized he had reached the top of the tower.
    Gently, he lifted the owl up and sat it to stand.
    “Could you let me in, please?”.
    The owl stood there. Nothing happened. Robin tried prayer. Nothing happened. He tried every magic word from Harry Potter. Nothing happened. Robin didn’t need to do this. He took off the rosary of bulbs and crushed them in his hands. Something wet trickled down his hands. Water.
    Worth a shot. Robin crushed the bulbs and let the water drain over the owl. Its’ eyes flickered awake. It hooted a night-song. Robin would never have thought an owl’s song could be so beautiful.
    The great stone door slid open.
    The girl on the other side couldn’t have been two years older than Robin. She looked scared. She wore an emerald dress lined by gold jewels.
    “La Belleza?” asked Robin. “I’m here to rescue you.”
    La Belleza smiled and thanked her rescuer…

  • amora

    It was a rule that every prince needed to be physically fit. All the story books portrayed daring, handsome, and strong princes who could slay dragons with a pinkie finger. Robin needed to be ready. And thus, he ran up and down the stairs of the winding tower twice every day. He could count the number of steps in his head and the dark stones were his jailer ever since he was born in this forlorn tower.
    Robin froze, stubbing his toe on the bottom of the next stair. In the midst of the drab grey stone was painted shock of blue. A wooden bird had appeared beside the locked door he ran past every day of his life. His heart pounded, chest constricting for air from the exertion of his exercise. Sweat dripped from his brow, down his sweaty shirt, and dripped atop the head of the little blue bird that had Robin stooped over in curiosity.
    Robin jumped back in fright when the bird began to sing, it was a loud screech that tore at his ears and evidently tore at the nerves of the door. The door swung open suddenly, smashing the little blue bird into wooden pieces.
    Robin crawled on his hands and entered the unlocked door. On all fours, he was greeted by the eyes of the armored princess that had finally come to save him. She looked as if she could slay him with her beautifully manicured pinkie finger.
    This wasn’t in the storybooks.

  • Madigan

    Robin ran up the stairs to the too familiar locked door. The carved wooden Jackro Bird stared at her from its inset crevice to the right of the door. The door was more like an old enemy than a known friend. Yet, she again tried to open the door – locked, unmovable – just like yesterday, and the day before and just like every day for the past year. The door held no clue as to how to open it, the only adornment to the door was…the Jackro to the side.

    The Jackro Bird is a bird that floats on water, diving for small fish, frogs and other animals under the water. Under the water? For the first time in many, many months the thrill of a solution entered Robin’s mind as she raced down the stone stairs to a small alcove containing a water well. Cranking the rusted wheel to lower the barrel was not exactly easy, but soon enough the bucket appeared at the top. Her reflection in the water contained both a sense of anticipation, but also a sadness of another failure.

    Panting from the race back up the stairs with the full bucket, Robin wasted no time but threw water and bucket at the Jackro. The first drop of water caused the door to open suddenly. Too surprised to respond, Robin stared at the open doorway seeing for the first time in the last year Princess Amelia, her benefactor, friend and on occasion her lover.

    Amelia hovered two feet over a stone bench, or maybe an altar. Her auburn hair trailed under her moving slowing in the whisper of air that bounced around the inner chamber. Robin approached, leaned over and kissed Princess Amelia softly on the lips. Amelia opened her eyes and a tear rolled from her cheek to the stone altar below.

    P.S. This is my first writing endeavor ever.

  • jazzknits

    I’m late to the party. But, this was a fun exercise!

    Robin ran up the tower stairs. His face collided into the wall when the stairs abruptly ended.

    “Damn it all to hell and beyond.”

    He had hit the wall hard and had barely avoided tumbling down the stairs.

    Why had Miguel said the princess was in a room at the top of the tower? Didn’t that imply there would be a door? Robin promised himself that he would punch Miguel in the nose later. For now, Robin ran his hands over the stones, looking for a secret door.

    His fingers felt a small round indentation. He pressed it firmly, and a small shelf emerged just below his fingers. On the shelf, a tiny robin regarded him for a moment, and began grooming its plumage. Touched to see his namesake, Robin stroked its head lightly. He immediately wished he hadn’t because the bird began squawking loudly.

    Robin heard the not-so-distant roar of the ogre who had entered the castle after him. The damn bird was giving away Robin’s position.
    Having learned his lesson about why breaking magical artifacts usually ends badly, Robin decided to try out Lizbeth’s advice. Paul always said she was crazy, not stupid. And, Robin didn’t have any better ideas anyway.

    Grabbing his flask from his pack, Robin poured the water over the bird, which instantly transformed into a large wooden key. He picked up the key and touched it to the stone. A wooden door with keyhole revealed itself. Fitting key to lock, Robin opened the door and beheld the beautiful princess.