Elena Dubrass sipped her tea and stared across the plantation. From here on the porch she could see fields of snappers, their verdant heads bobbing to catch the frogs that occasionally hopped across their roots, while grey-faced gilgar labourers worked their way along the lines, draining the sap.
A cloud was appearing over the jungle, like a wave creeping up a beach.
She heard their butler Stiviss approaching. He had an eery elegance, his scales glistening above an impeccable tailcoat. And though his features were ill-suited to smiling, there was a warmth in his voice that she seldom heard from Harald, whose long absences were not what she had hoped for in a husband.
‘If I may, mistress.’ He placed the cake stand on the table. ‘You might wish to join Mister Dubrass in town.’
He looked as happy as she felt at the prospect of her going to Harald. This life must be lonely for Stiviss too, separated from his kin by a higher station.
She leaned back in her chair, layered skirts rustling. There was a lonely beauty to this place, with its scarlet frogs and its hungry plants, its snake-faced natives and its golden sunsets.
‘Why go to town?’ she asked, taking a honey wafer. He had been harping on this issue for days.
‘The frogs.’ He held her gaze a moment, then turned abruptly away. ‘There are few left, and they are turning brown early – an ill sign.’
‘Nonsense.’ She would rather stay here with Stiviss than be chased by superstition towards Harald.
A cry rose from the plantation, and then another. Gilgar were running out of the fields and into the jungle. Elena stared the way they had come, towards the dark shape she had taken for a cloud. She could hear the buzz of razor locusts descending to devour the snappers. She had witnessed small swarms before, felt a thrill of fear as she shuttered the house against them, but never so many, and never so fierce.
‘Mistress, the balance has tipped,’ Stiviss said. ‘They will devour us all.’
She gazed enraptured at the approaching swarm. She had known this place was beautiful, but outside of the jungle it had felt safe. Now it was a dark thing that made her heart race.
‘Into the house,’ she said, pulling herself away from the sight.
Stiviss shook his head and pointed at the mansion’s upper floors. Already locusts were swarming across one corner of the roof. A window cracked and then shattered beneath the weight of the swarm, a shutter falling free with a crack of flying nails.
‘You were right, Stiviss,’ she said. ‘We must go into town.’
She began to hurry round the house, realised that he was not following. She turned and saw him standing, gaze shifting between her and the jungle, face full of doubt.
‘Come on,’ she said, grabbing his hand. ‘If I’m losing this place then I can’t lose you too.’
His hand tightened round hers and they ran for the barn.
The buggy was out and they leapt aboard as the bulk of the swarm reached the fields. Jasmine, the old brown mare, snorted in panic as the buzzing grew.
Stiviss helped Elena up, those ridiculous skirts getting in her way. She cracked the reins and they jolted off down the dirt track, stray razor locusts slashing at them with sharp, narrow legs.
Jasmine raced with all the fuel of fear, but the swarm was faster. Elena felt them slashing at her arms, saw blood run pale down Stiviss’s face. The creatures seemed to have more taste for him, and for Jasmine, whose flanks were soon raw and seeping. The horse stumbled and fell, the buggy grinding to a halt as she panted out her last.
‘Quickly!’ Elena leapt in terror from the carriage, began running up the road. Behind her, Stiviss slid to the ground with a thump and lay groaning in the dirt.
She ran back, winged bodies battering her face, and put an arm around him.
‘Stay with me,’ she said. ‘We have to get to town.’
‘This is just a warning.’ He shook his head. ‘Just the beginning. Too many snappers, eating all the frogs. Nothing left to eat locust eggs. The balance has tipped. The jungle will devour your fine colony.’
‘And you?’ she asked with growing horror.
‘My people will be safe,’ he said. ‘We are part of the jungle.’
‘But you… this…’ She gestured at his wounds, then at the buzzing swarm.
His wheezing laugh turned into a wince.
She stared in horror at the ruin of the buggy, at the red mess that had been her fine horse, at the pain across Stiviss’s face. And then she looked at the jungle, the swarm thinner near its foliage. A place full of beauty and terror, full of the unknown. Could it be safe? Could she ever become one with that?
She should run for town, flee all of this with Harald. But what if she took a risk, for all that beauty?
And for Stiviss.
She lifted him in her arms, struggling under the weight and her own pain. She had never had to carry a person before, but between his kindly face and the locusts’ assault she somehow found the strength.
‘Stay with me,’ she said as she ran from the road, locusts slashing her all the way.
‘Stay with me,’ she groaned as she stumbled into the trees, the creatures still buzzing around her head.
‘Stay with me,’ she murmured as she collapsed into the undergrowth.
Now the swarm no longer reached her, held off by the thick greenery and the easier prey that small birds made.
She turned her head, saw Stiviss smiling back at her. The jungle was lush around them, frogs croaking, birds singing, the scent of sweet, strange flowers on every breath. And through the pain, through the buzz of the swarm vanishing into the distance, she felt freedom.
If you liked this story then you can find links to the rest of my Flash Friday stories here. You might also enjoy my fantasy collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus. And check out the #FlashFriday tag on twitter, which seems to get used for a bunch of things, including other authors posting their flash stories.
Tomorrow sees the beginning of NaNoWriMo, in which I descend into the pits of madness trying to keep on top of my own word count as well as my freelance writing work. If you’re also doing NaNo you can find me on the website as gibbondemon, feel free to add me as a buddy and we can egg each other on through the insanity.