Never Sleep Under the Apple Trees – a fantasy short story

A farmhouse in an orchard
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I don’t even remember when I first heard those words, though they were probably from my mother. She would remind us every day when I was a child, tiring herself out watching for me while I tired myself out running around the fields and orchards.

“Never sleep under the apple trees,”  she said sternly. “The fairies will take you away.”

Her voice was the same as when she talked about the bandits in the hills or the local lord’s son, and children follow their parents’ fears, so I took the advice very seriously. I barely even sat under those trees, and watched their branches warily as we gathered the fruit at harvest time.

“Never sleep under the apple trees,” my friends and I would say to each other as we tripped over the cusp of adulthood, when the leaves always seemed to spread wide and the days to turn sleepy, while the nights were full of excitement, embarrassment, and discovery. We barely believed in the fair folk any more, but the words had become a code, signalling to be careful in case you got caught. We lay down with each other under forest oaks, in fields of tall grass, and on the backs of isolated haystacks, because what else were young people to do, but we never lay down under the apple trees.

“Never sleep under the apple trees.” Those words were imbued with such seriousness once my first child was on the way. Part of it was the caution a community flung around an expectant mother, when life was precious and birth could also bring death. It was understood that I should take no risks, and one of those risks was that fairies would switch my baby for a changeling while she was in the womb. I didn’t mind the advice. Carrying the weight of an extra person, it was good to have an excuse to stay way from hard orchard work.

Then I was a mother, bestowing the same wisdom on my own children. I’d never seen a fairy, but I’d seen how vulnerable young animals could be, and I was determined to keep my own young safe. I kept them away from sharp objects, long falls, deep water, and of course from sleeping under apple trees. I had never seen a fairy, but I had never seen anyone drown, and I wasn’t going to risk either.

The first time my own grandchildren told me never to sleep under the apple trees, I almost cried with joy. They were growing up so smart and so fast, becoming little people like the one I had been, like the ones their parents had been. I had grown and nurtured a family, just like I had grown my fruit trees, replacing the ones that fell, grafting saplings to ensure a good fruit. Mine was a loving pride.

By then, the meaning of the words had shifted again. “Never sleep under the apple trees,” my family reminded me, but what they really meant was that I shouldn’t wander too far, or doze off in out of the way places. My body wasn’t as supple as it had been, or as sturdy. I couldn’t always stand up on my own, and if I got stuck under some distant tree, with cold wind or a rain storm coming in, then I might catch the cold that carried me away. My family weren’t ready to say goodbye yet, nor was I, so I was careful, protecting my life both from the fairies and from myself.

But idle minds think strange thoughts. No longer strong enough for farm labour, I was left sitting by the back door, watching the orchard. I started to wonder why we feared the fairies, why it would be so bad to be taken by them. I’d had a good life, but not an adventurous one. I wondered what might have been.

And so, tonight, when my bladder woke me as it often does, I didn’t go back from the outhouse to my bed. Instead, I came out here and laid my head down beneath an apple tree. I’m so glad I did, because I never realised how beautiful you all were, how wonderful it would be to see you hovering in the starlight, ready to take me away.

I doubt I’ll have long in your land. Life has worn my body down, and I don’t have many years left wherever I go, but I am looking forward to seeing a world beyond this one, full of wonders like you. Perhaps I should have slept under the apple trees years ago, but then I wouldn’t have raised my family or tended this land, and there’s a magic to that too. So I suppose that the advice still stands.

Never sleep under the apple trees… at least not until your life’s work is done.

***

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***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Last Ember of Life – a fantasy short story

Glowing embers of a fire
Image by diddi4 from Pixabay

I watched the hearth fire fade, the glowing soul of the coals burning down, crumbling into weightless heaps of black and white. This would be the last time. I would keep no final ember alive, cradled in ash through the night to light the next morning’s fire. What was the point, when only I remained? The storm could have me.

The remnants of a log collapsed into dark dust, its sparks fading as they were caught by the wind blowing down the chimney stack. One ember remained, the moment of choice between life and death, holding open the doorway between this world and the next. As was their right, the ghosts of my hearth stepped through to witness its warmth. My parents, uncles and aunts, grandparents, generations before them. My wife, cradling our only child, who never made it past the birthing bed. They watched, expectant, waiting for me to scoop ash around that coal, so that it would burn, slow and steady, through the night.

I gazed at them, then shook my head. The kindling that waited by the hearth would never touch that coal. It would blaze strong and burn out. When my family left, I would soon follow.

The shutters shook and a slither of icy wind forced its way under the door.

Of all the family who had lived around this hearth, only Uncle Olaf was absent. On the night he died, we had carried fire from the hearth out into the night to tend to a sickly sheep. Unseen by any of us, Olaf’s spirit had followed that flame, and become lost when we extinguished it. A year of mourning was not enough to light his way home.

The spirits watched me. I had thought that I wanted to be with them one last time, but that feeling of finality made their presence unbearable. I lurched from my seat, flung the door open and strode into the night. The storm wind blew in behind me, scattering ash before it slammed the door shut.

Icy raindrops soaked my tunic and clawed at my exposed cheeks. The cold wind dragged the heat from my body as mercilessly as from the embers in the hearth.

I gripped the gate of the sheep pen. I should give my flock a chance. I lifted the latch and left the gate hanging open, but none of the sheep moved. They huddled together, companions warming each other in the face of a cold world. I envied them.

The house stood bleak against the hillside, only the faintest glow showing through the shutters. Once that faded, I would go back in. I would die where I had lived, like the rest of my family.

A voice emerged from the storm’s howl, like a lamb’s first bleat almost lost in its mothers birthing cries. A figure stumbled up the valley, torn cloak flapping, clutching a tree branch as a staff, one twisted leg trailing behind. I ran to them and saw a woman’s face, dripping wet despite her hood.

“Please, help,” she said.

I slid an arm under her shoulder and led her toward the house.

“What happened?”

“My horse slipped on the riverbank, crushed my leg and carried us both in. I barely made it out, and now…” Her words faltered, snagged on gasping breaths and chattering teeth.

I flung the door open and led her to my seat by the hearth. I had never seen anyone so in need of warmth and light, but all was darkness.

I grabbed a stick and stirred the dust of the fire. One small ember remained, hidden under the ashes. I placed straw around it, then slender sticks, and blew softly. For a moment, I thought that I was too late, but then a finger of flame rose from the straw, and the hearth fire was reborn.

For a moment, the ghosts of my hearth stood illuminated. The fire was growing, the door closing, and they faded from my world. The last I saw of them was my wife’s smile.

“Here.” I handed my guest a blanket. “Get out of your wet clothes. I’ll go fetch wood.”

Outside my house, the storm raged. Inside, the hearth fire blazed.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

The Ghost of a Guilty Hand – a fantasy short story

Sunan hefted a lump of stone from her barrow onto the steadily rising wall, then turned the stone until it fitted into place. She wanted to be able to say that this was half the struggle, finding pieces that held so snug together they needed no mortar, but almost all the struggle came in the building itself, pushing rocks around with one good hand and the stump of her other elbow.

As the rocks ground against each other, they released sparks of residual magic from the battle that had levelled the town. She remembered striding up the beach, a sword in one hand and a fireball flying from the other, certain that victory was worth more than its cost. She could almost see that lost hand, a ghostly after image.

A crunch drew her out of her reverie. Prasert had landed his boat and was ambling up the shingle.

“You’ll never finish it at this rate,” he said. “Not before the locusts arrive.”

“What would you know?” Sunan heaved another stone one-handed onto the wall. Its course surface pressed uncomfortably against her stump as she pushed it into place.

“I know that, without a shelter, no one can stay here through swarm season, and without that time to finish, you can’t make anything that will last the winter winds.” He pointed to  rows of scattered rocks, the rubble of her previous efforts. “You know that too.”

He deposited a sack of supplies next to her tent: grain, dried cod, lime juice, other essentials. A pouch was waiting there for him, filled with currency of all shapes and sizes, the dwindling fortune of a former mercenary.

“Trade’s quiet at the moment,” he said. “I could help if you want, just for a few weeks, to get that first shelter built.”

“No.” Sunan heaved another block into place, her anger lending her strength. She felt a little of the old magic flow.

“It’s no sacrifice. Having a port here would be good for—”

“I said no!” She spun around, clutching a rock, and glared at him. “This is my penance, to rebuild what I broke. No one gets to bear it for me.”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“Like demon fire you didn’t.” She slammed the rock into place, sparks flying as the stones cracked together. “I see you pitying the poor cripple, but I don’t need your charity. If I could kill for this place, then I can live for it.”

Muscles strained as she lifted another rock, and another, and another, smashing them into place in swift succession, barely looking at what she did. She would straighten them later. For now, she would show what she could do.

The magic flowed through her, a power flung about this place so wildly it would linger forever. Once, she would have bent it to her will. Now she endured it, like the sand between her toes and the course grass that scratched her skin.

“Sunan,” Prasert whispered. “Your hand.”

“Yes, my poor hand, it must be so worn from all this work. Gods forbid that I labour.”

“No, look, your other hand!”

“I don’t have another…” Sunan stopped and stared at the rock she was holding. Two hands gripped it, one calloused and sun-darkened, the other a ghostly haze of magic stretching from her stump.

She set the stone down and held the ghost hand up. The more she thought about it, the less it seemed like it was hers, and the harder it was to control. Still, she curled her fingers in, one at a time, each bending knuckle an effort of will.

“You’ve tamed the magic,” Prasert said.

“Yes…” Sunan stiffened as she stared at the hand, so familiar and yet so alien. “But it’s not mine.”

“It is now!” Prasert laughed. “And with two hands you can finish the shelter before swarm season. Isn’t that fantastic?”

“No! I have to do this through my own effort.”

She waved the hand away from her, trying to shake off the magic.

“You were a wizard. This is your effort.”

“No! This is cheating!”

“This is applying your gifts.”

“This isn’t… this isn’t… this isn’t how it’s meant to work.”

“Why not?”

“You wouldn’t understand.” Even as she said it, she knew how patronising she sounded, but she didn’t have the words she needed. There was a right way to do this, and a wrong way. The magic hand was wrong.

“Do you even want to finish?” Prasert asked.

“Of course.” She folded her arms. This was a ridiculous question.

“Do you? Because I think there are ways you could have finished by now, with better tools, or better plans, or just a little help. But maybe you want to labour here forever, punishing yourself in public view.”

“That’s absurd. And even if it was true, what business of yours would it be?”

“There was a port here once, well placed for traders and for locals. Since you helped destroy it, we’ve all gone without, and now the big bad mercenary is up here, saying hers is the only way to rebuild. Where do you think that leaves us?”

Every summer for ten years, he’d been bringing her supplies, but she’d never seen him like this; red-faced, brow crumpled, hands planted on his hips. He saw her looking at him, and he sagged as righteous indignation gave way to fear or guilt or something else she didn’t understand.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll be back next month. Still time for more building before swarm season.”

He walked down the beach, shingle crunching beneath his feet, and climbed into his boat.

Sunan looked at her ghost had. She still had a wizard’s skills, even if they had been neglected. With focus, she could make this go away. Then she could return to the work as she had been doing, the work she deserved. Instead, she picked up a stone with both hands and placed it on the wall.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale

Smashwords have just started their annual summer/winter sale, which runs for the next month. You can find a whole bunch of e-books at discount prices, including many of mine at 50% off. Meet Victorian explorers, magical gladiators, or a robot developing emotions. There are links for my books here, and more great discounts all across the Smashwords site. Go on, treat yourself.

The Carnival Comes to Carnage – a fantasy short story

Image by Merio from Pixabay

Dormud woke in the shattered stump of a guard tower that had been his home ever since The Fall. Creaks, thuds, and groans filled the air. Probably Levlin trying to rebuild the central spire again, as if that could bring the magi back, or Tolbar trying to make a lumber mill out of broken siege machines. Any minute now, Tolbar would start singing, and then any chance of sleep would vanish. Idiots, the lot of them.

Dormud dragged himself out of his pile of straw, kicked a rat away, and plucked a handful of fungus off the damp granite wall. At least he’d never go hungry as long as he stayed here in Carnage, as long as he didn’t mind the boils and the stomach cramps that came with living off the waste from a spell war.

Through the rusted bars of his window, people were gathering in the street. Not just his neighbours, but strangers in bright tunics, unloading poles and canvas from wagons. More idiots.

Chewing on his rubbery, bitter breakfast, Dormud stomped out into the town’s central crater. He’d heard whispers of the carnival, but never seen it before, and never wanted to. All these tents with their fluttering pennants, the barkers calling people to celebrate the wonders of the world, it was a cloth woven from lies. That woman in the pointed hat making puppets dance for the children, she would walk away with trinkets tossed to her by grateful parents, but what good would that do anyone? When the excitement wore off, they’d still be living in ruins, and they’d be poorer too.

Stones clattered from beneath his feet as he stomped along the slope and into one of the tents. A dozen of his neighbours sat on rugs amid a choking cloud of incense, while a string quartet played lively tunes. Everyone was smiling: the musicians, the audience, the man holding the tent flap back for Dormud. Fools the lot of them.

He stepped inside so he could see better. The music made him think of the time before The Fall, when he worked with others in the tower, serving the magi with their glittering robes and their grand visions for tomorrow. If his heart beat faster, it wasn’t because of the music, just the incense in his throat. That was why his eyes watered, why he struggled to walk away.

As he emerged, dazed and drifting, an hour later, he nodded to the man holding the tent flap. Maybe it wasn’t so bad for the inhabitants of Carnage to take a moment’s joy. It might not make the wasteland better, but it wouldn’t make it any worse.

Levlin smiled as she walked past Dormud. “Enjoying yourself?”

“No.”

He stomped off up the crater. Others might need the bright costumes and the music, but he didn’t. He had accepted the world as it was.

Four carnies stood along the edge of the crater, one at each compass point, arms outstretched, the wind whipping at ribbons that hung from their arms. It must be a strange wind, because all four sets of ribbons were flowing toward the crater.

Dormud squinted. He’d picked up a few tricks from the magi, a certain sensitivity. He saw the magic rising from the tents, faint but glittering ribbons that vanished into the carnies at the compass points. The power and potential of the townspeople being drained away.

The music, the incense, the smiles, it had all been a trick. For a moment, he’d let himself believe, but the world wouldn’t let him have that moment.

Dormud strode around the rim and grabbed a carny. Ribbons fell limp as he lifted her by her tunic.

“I knew this was a lie,” Dormud growled. “Leeches, the lot of you.”

“We give them joy,” the carny said in a trembling voice. “It’s a fair trade.”

“It’s not a trade, it’s a theft.” Dormud flung her into the nearest tent, which collapsed in a heap of broken poles and tangled ropes. “Leeches! Vultures! Get out or I’ll break your bones!”

He strode down the crater, casting aside carnies and tearing down tents, bellowing in fury as he went. Sad and confused, the people of Carnage watched as the carnies loaded their wagons and hurried out of town.

Dormud stood in the middle of the crater, his neighbours staring at him.

“Why, Dormud?” Levlin asked.

“Because they deserved it.”

What more needed to be said? These people believed him or they didn’t. Either way, they would go back to their lives of denial, the sort of idiots that carnies could dupe because a tune or a play had made them feel better for an hour. People who would give up their power, their potential, for a day’s relief.

As they turned their backs on him, Dormud heard a fragment of music, the carnies playing as they rode down the road. He remembered the world as it had been before, a bittersweet memory of shining towers, fine food, and lofty dreams.

“Levlin,” he called out.

She turned, slow as the closing of a dungeon door. “Yes, Dormud?”

“You still trying to rebuilding the spire?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll come help. And Tolbar?”

Tolbar looked at him, uncertain. “Yes, Dormud?”

“I’ll help you with your mill later if you sing for us now.”

“Sing for you?”

More people turned and looked at him in confusion, but Dormud had said all he meant to for the day. He lifted a block of stone from the crater’s edge.

The Fall was over. It was time to rise again.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Out Now – It Will Have Its Way

“Say what you would about East Berlin—and after two years Jo had a lot to say—but at least the men here were too scared to misbehave. Back in the States, every veteran thought his service gave him the right to get between her legs, and any man who’d stayed home was over-compensating for it. Never mind that Jo had risked more than any of them, playing native among her Grandma Kleiber’s people, praying not to fall foul of any of the smart Nazis…”

Did you ever wonder what would happen if dark forces stalked the streets of post-war Berlin? I mean, darker forces than Soviet spies, CIA agents, and black-market profiteers? OK, maybe that’s dark enough, but I’ve got a new story out this week that adds something more, with elritch powers stirring under the city. “It Will Have Its Way”, a historical horror story, is in the new issue of Aurealis, Australia’s longest-running small press sci-fi and fantasy magazine. Aurealis #141 also features stories from A. Marie Carter and Benjamin Keyworth, as well as non-fiction and reviews, all for the fabulously low price of $2.99, so go check it out.

Keeping the Fire Alive – a fantasy short story

Image by erikgoetze from Pixabay

Joran pulled his dirty blanket tight around his shoulders and crept out onto the crag, testing the packed snow with his foot before each step. To the west, the pass was draped in shadow, the tips of the trees not yet visible. Dawn took a long time to reach those depths.

Snow crunched as Letta trudged up the mountain, pushing a rickety barrow full of logs. She stopped a few feet away and squinted.

“Seen anything out there?”

“Of course not.” Joran gestured at the contents of the barrow, wood for their cooking fire and for the beacon on top of the tower. The beacon never burned, but still Letta chopped and tarred fresh wood each day, never giving it time to dampen and rot. “You should let me do that. I’m stronger than you.”

With the head of her axe, she prodded at the chain running from his ankle back into the tower.

“If you wanted to run free, you shouldn’t have killed that man.”

“It was him or me.”

“That’s not what the judge said.”

Joran pulled the blanket tighter, shivering against the wind, and peered west. He could see the tops of the trees now.

“There’s someone moving up the pass.”

“Merchants?”

“Is it ever anything else?”

Letta squinted again. Joran snorted.

“Why are you even up here if you can’t see?”

“I won’t leave my kin’s safety to criminals like you.”

“I could push you off the mountain, you know.”

“Try it.” She hefted the axe. “I’ll be checking the beacon, just in case.”

Joran looked down the valley again. This whole thing was a cruel joke played by some malicious god. One punch swung too hard and now he lived here, watching for an invasion that never came.

It was a bigger merchant caravan than usual, and better guarded. Sunlight glinted off something, spear tips or helmets. Scores of them. Hundreds. Thousands.

“Letta!” He turned, slipped, slid through the snow toward a precipitous drop. The chain jerked him short and he grabbed a protruding rock a moment before he would have screamed. “Letta, they’re coming!”

The crunch of footsteps. She appeared above, hauling on his chain.

“Get up here and help me with the fire,” she said. “We have to warn the city.” Then she looked past him, into the woods below. “Joran, what’s moving down there?”

“I don’t care, just help me up!”

“Damn your eyes, Joran!”

He cursed, shifted his weight against the crumbling ground, and peered over his shoulder, into the woods below the beacon tower. It would be a wolf or a cluster of crows, the sort of hard-living beast that survived the snow.

Steel glinted between the trees.

“Scouts,” he said. “Must have run ahead during the night.”

Letta let go of the chain and grabbed her wood axe.

“Don’t leave me!” Joran shrieked.

Letta strode off, toward the lone trail up from the wood.

“Light the fire quick,” she shouted. “I’ll hold them off.”

Cursing and straining, Joran grabbed a protruding rock and pulled himself up. He kicked a foothold from the snow and pushed higher. From below came voices, Letta and the scouts. He hoped that she could hold them off with words, because six to one was terrible odds.

Joran hauled himself back onto the crag, then dashed toward the tower, snow flying from his feet, chain clinking. He flung the flimsy wooden door open and, in the gloom of their tiny barracks room, scooped a bowlful of glowing coals out of the fire.

Thuds and shouts rose from the trail. A man screamed. Letta was putting up a fight, but she was no soldier, and her weapon was no war axe.

Joran’s chain rattled against the stone stairs that spiralled up the outside of the tower. Almost at the top, a jerk at his ankle stopped him short and he fell, arms slamming against hard edges, hot coals flying into his face.

The chain had snagged. He had to go back. Except that the sounds of fighting had stopped, and now three men were approaching the tower, dressed in armour and carrying swords.

Joran shook the chain. The men looked up and one of them shouted. Joran shook the chain again, shook as hard as he could. A few more feet of chain came loose, a few more seconds of hope.

Footsteps on the stairs, the jingling of chain mail. Joran ran up the last few steps and flung the remaining coals into a heap of carefully stacked wood. Smoke emerge from the kindling, then a flicker of flame, then a blaze as the heat touched Letta’s tarred logs.

Joran turned and raised his hands as the scouts reached the top of the steps.

“It’s done,” he said. “No point killing me.”

One of the men cursed. Another spat and peered east. “Maybe they won’t see it.”

On the next peak over, fire flared from a beacon tower. A minute later, it rose from another further east, and then another.

There was a red stain in the snow on the trail, and a dirty brown one at the base of the tower, where Joran’s blanket lay discarded. The fire warmed his back, a comfort in the cold and one last gift from Letta to her kin.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

War is Hell – a fantasy short story

Image from Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R05148 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

The world was an overwhelming roar, a noise so vast and deafening that Hans Feist shook all the way to his bones. The ground beneath him lurched; the air stank of smoke and blood; everywhere he looked, when he dared to peer from his tiny shelter in the trench wall, he saw earth and sky combine as fountains of dirt spewed from craters gouged out of the hellscape that had been the Somme.

So this was war. Not grand charges, noble duels, or banners flying over a victory parade, but being shelled to death, hungry and haunted, his trousers soaked with mud and piss. He clutched the tiny wooden crucifix his mother had given him and prayed for salvation.

He didn’t even know who was still alive. His brain was so shaken that he couldn’t remember the names of men he had arrived with, never mind the replacements who had come since. He couldn’t remember how long he had been here, just that it was too long.

An officer walked down the trench toward Hans. The man must be insane, to walk so openly through this storm of shells. Hans clenched with dread as he anticipated the moment when that pristine uniform and waxed moustache would be reduced to a cloud of blood. But the man kept coming, somehow untouched, and a worse fear gripped Hans. Was the officer going to order him up to his post, ready to defend the line?

The officer crouched in the mud, which barely touched his polished riding boots, and peered into Han’s tiny shelter.

“Didn’t make it into the tunnels, eh?” the officer said.

Hans shook his head. He probably should have tried. He would have been safer down there than in this muddy hole, but he couldn’t face the moments of exposure it would take to reach the steps. Fear was more powerful than reason.

“I can get you out of here,” the officer said. “For a price.”

Hans had heard about officers like this, ones who would offer a transfer to somewhere safer in return for sating their own needs. He wanted to think that there were lines he wouldn’t cross, but this shaking world made that untrue.

“What do you want?” he asked.

There was an explosion behind the officer. It should have torn him apart, but instead he was framed by the blast, silhouetted against the pale burst of smoke and debris. In that moment, spikes of windblown hair became horns and fire flickered from him.

“Your soul,” he said.

Hans squeezed the crucifix so hard that his hand ached. Now that he saw what the officer was, he could not unsee it. The pointed teeth, the snake-like eyes. The man drew a cigarette, lit it with fire from the tip of his finger, and offered the packet to Hans.

“Well?” the officer said.

Hans screwed his eyes tight shut. He should be better than this. His soul was at stake, something infinitely more valuable than this weak and trembling body. But he had lived in mud and blood and the roar of the guns for so long that he couldn’t remember what it felt like not to be afraid.

He opened his eyes. “Yes.”

As he took the officer’s hand, a sense of peace came over Hans. Was this part of the deal, or was it the certainty that came with knowing that, whatever happened from now on, his future had been decided?

The officer pulled Hans to his feet, then led him away, walking through the maze of twisting trenches. They didn’t see another soul, but the shells kept shaking the ground, filling the air with noise and debris. With each step, Hans left a little of his fear behind, shedding a weight that had held him down for so very long. He strode purposefully through the mud, toward a light beyond the clouds of smoke.

He was almost free.

The officer turned to look at Hans and mouthed a single word: “Now.”

There was a crash and a force like a hundred hammer blows flung Hans off his feet, slamming him into the trench wall. He slumped to the ground, half his body blazing with pain. With one working eye, he stared down at the blood and guts sliding from his torn tunic. All the fear flooded back, redoubled by his inner scream of pain.

The officer stood over him and chuckled.

“You said you’d save me,” Hans said. “We had a deal.”

“And I fulfilled it, many years ago.” The officer crouched to look Hans in the eye, and his smile was terrible to see. “Now we are into the payment, and we both know what your idea of Hell would be.”

Through the pain and the fear and the death of hope, Hans felt himself slip toward darkness. Tears ran down his cheeks.

“Why?” he whimpered.

“Because I can.”

The world faded away…

Hans Feist woke to an overwhelming roar, a noise so vast and deafening that it shook him to his bones. He didn’t know who was still alive, couldn’t remember how long he had been here, but he knew that it was too long.

***

This isn’t the only war story I have out this week. Horror of Hurtgen, my latest issue of Commando, is out on Comixology, in newsagents, and as part of a bundle through DC Thomson’s online store. Set in the late stages of World War Two, it follows an American soldier caught up in the horrifying fighting in the Hurtgen Forest. Fighting through a fever to prove himself, he finds himself facing real monsters alongside the Nazis. Are his visions real, and what will they mean when his squad finally reaches the enemy lines?

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

The Demon Behind the Throne – a fantasy short story

Picture of a demon.
Image by Carabo Spain from Pixabay

As he entered the throne room, Temujin forced himself not to stare at the demon. It was eight feet tall and glowed like fire beneath chains forged from holy steel. Qadan the Terrible had conquered it, as he had conquered every kingdom of the steppes.

Temujin bowed before Qadan and held out a long roll of hide filled with neatly scribed figures.

“My lord, an accounting of this year’s tribute from the provinces,” he said. “A measure of your power.”

“Ha!” Qadan said. “This is the real measure of my power.”

He clicked his fingers, the demon’s eyes glowed, and the accounts burst into flames. Temujin dropped them and leapt back, his heart racing. It didn’t matter how many times his master showed off like this, to courtiers or family members, servants or ambassadors, it still had the power to shock. This was how he held his throne.

“I’m bored,” Qadan said as the accounts crumbled into ash. “Let’s go hunt.”

He strode out of the room, courtiers hurrying after him. A servant scurried in, swept up the ashes, then hurried away.

Temujin stood alone facing the demon. He wiped his hands on his robes, then clutched them together to hide his trembling.

“You should fear me, little man.” The demon’s voice was the rumbling of war drums across the steppes, the crash of city walls falling. “If I were free of these chains, I would crush you like a tick, blood bursting between my fingers.”

“Would you?” Temujin asked. “Or would you have better things to do?”

“Ha! You’re right. You are not important enough. I would lay waste to this empire, make a ruin of everything your warlord has built, show the world how weak he is.”

Temujin drew a key from the sleeve of his robes. It had taken him years to learn where the key was kept, years of working his way up the imperial bureaucracy, of suffering Qadan’s taunts and threats, of hiding everything he thought and felt. Years in which the ghosts of his family faded while their bodies rotted in a province the warlord didn’t remember conquering. Temujin had thought that his fear would fade in that time, seeing the demon every day, but instead it had grown, a cold and spiky presence in his guts.

Some things were more powerful than fear.

Temujin slid the key into the lock that bound the demon’s chains. There was a click, too quiet, without the drama the moment deserved. Then the lock fell open and the chains crashed to the floor.

The fire of the demon blazed and Temujin staggered back. The demon howled with laughter, then sprang into the air. It burst through the ceiling, splintering rafters and scattering tiles, then flew away, raining fire on the city as it went.

There was a rush of footsteps. Qadan burst in, a hunting bow across his back, followed by a herd of courtiers. He stared at the empty chains and his face went blank. He clicked his fingers and nothing happened.

“My lord, the demon broke free,” Temujin said, fighting back a grin of triumph. “It has sworn to tear your empire down.”

“All is lost!” wailed one courtier.

“Ruin and destruction!” shrieked another.

“The horror!” howled a third.

“No,” Qadan said, grim faced. “Gather your weapons. Gather your soldiers. Gather your priests. I will not let my empire go down without a fight.”

The courtiers rushed away, leaving Temujin and Qadan.

“We grow weak in times of rest,” Qadan said. “Our enemies stop fearing us.”

“As you say, my lord.” It was all Temujin could do not to spit out smug words. Revenge was his. Now he just had to get out alive.

“That’s why it’s good to have a threat at the ready.” Qadan prodded the fallen chains with his foot. “Defeating it will reforge our weakened metal.” His grim expression slipped into a predator’s grin. “I have been looking forward to this.”

“But…” Temujin stared, mouth open. He took a shaking breath. “Surely you never meant to…”

“Your robes are burned, Temujin. You must have been very close to the demon.”

Temujin’s blood froze. He could hear his family ghosts calling him to join them.

“Always have a threat ready, Temujin. It keeps you from complacency.” Qadan turned away. “Prepare fresh accounts for my return. I’m going war.”

***

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***

Silver and Gold

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold is available as an ebook from Amazon or through the publisher’s website.

Confusion Cake – a fantasy short story

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Dawn was bursting over the rooftops when I reached the bakery, to find Aisha up to her elbows in flour. Behind her, the fire in the oven built to a golden glow, the previous night’s lucky bun turning to ash in the flames, binding one day’s baking to the next.

“Good morning, Gwen,” Aisha said brightly. “Could you make the calm and apple tarts?”

I didn’t mind that Aisha set me straight to work. That was what we did to keep her bakery going, to make sure that I could work with her every day.

I mixed the pastry, cut it into rounds, filled them with apples and soft, dark sugar. As I sprinkled on the cinnamon, I remembered a summer afternoon, the two of us sipping tea in the sunshine. My calm flowed into those little pastry cases, to be baked in with the other flavours.

By the time I put the tarts in the oven, Aisha had made a dozen other treats, delicate pastries full of melancholy or wistfulness, eclairs of joy, churros sprinkled with sugar and acceptance. There was a reason why her name was the one above the door.

Together, we worked on the bread, a simple staple without the flourish of spices or emotions. As I pounded the dough, I pretended I was fighting an ogre, and Aisha laughed at my dumb monster sounds. Our fingers touched as I passed her the finished loaves, and for a second my heart beat as loud as the ogre’s roar.

The first customers came around seven. Aisha served them with that same smile she gave us all. She sold them joy and whimsy, inspiration and exaltation, all wrapped in perfect pastry.

An old lady beamed as she tasted one of the tarts.

“This is very good, my dear.”

“That’s Gwen’s work,” Aisha said, turning her bright smile on me, and I felt so tall my head could have scraped the ceiling.

“Haven’t you trained her well,” the old lady said.

As she left, I jealously eyed the box of cakes in her bag.

Not long before midday, there was a lull in business. Having put fresh loaves in the oven, I crept up behind Aisha, pressed a hand against her back, and reached around her for an éclair.

“No!” She laughed as she slapped away my hand. “They’re for the customers.”

“I just want to try one.”

“I’ve made you something special,” she said. “Just like always.”

I pouted. “What if I don’t want special?”

She brushed a floured hand against my blushing cheek. “You deserve it.”

Then a builder came in looking for his lunch, and we were back to work.

For most of the day, the coffee pot was just a coffee pot, a source of tarry black caffeine, but in the middle of the afternoon a woman came in who needed something more.

“I’m not sure,” she said with a frail and quivering brightness, looking across the pastries rather than at Aisha. “I just wanted something to… to…”

She bit her lip and blinked hard.

“There’s a table by the window,” Aisha said. “Gwen will bring you a coffee.”

This was something she had taught me early on. Not every moment was one for excitement, contentment, or ambition. Not every day was bright. As I poured the coffee, I thought about walking away from the bakery night after night, leaving Aisha behind, and the melancholy flowed from me into the cup. I set it down in front of the woman and she smiled at me with forced brightness.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

She took a sip of the coffee, and then she broke. Tears streamed down her face as she slumped over the cup, giving in to the sorrow she so badly needed to release.

“Why doesn’t he want me?”

I wrapped an arm around her shoulder and held her until she was still. I understood her sadness all too well, and the need for human contact to carry her though. Aisha silently brought a churro to the table, and when the woman’s sobs subsided, she found acceptance in that warm, sugary stick.

“Thank you,” Aisha said, once the woman was gone. “Here, I made you something.”

Late afternoon light glistened off the glaze of a complex knot of pastry, with a spoonful of tapenade at its centre and a sprinkling of chilli. The things she made me were always like this: unique, spectacular, and with none of the sweetness she offered even casual customers. I tried to look excited, for Aisha’s sake, and failed. I wanted sweetness and comfort from her, not the bite of bitter and savoury spices.

In spite of everything, I held out hope. Pastry crumbled against my lips, and the earthiness of olives gave way to the sharpness of chilli. Through it all ran a sliver of grief, the memory of a beloved grandmother’s funeral. It was my turn to cry.

“That’s amazing,” I said, and Aisha smiled.

But it wasn’t what I wanted from her, to be the subject for her experiments, an outlet for loss, curiosity, bewilderment, whatever she was playing with today.

She brushed a crumb from my lips. I drew back, almost colliding with the wall. I couldn’t take this any more.

The shop was empty, the counters clear of bread, pastries, and pies. All that remained was Aisha’s good luck bun, her personal superstition, baked each day before I arrived and thrown into the fire the next morning. There were no cakes filled with joy or contentment for me.

Aisha closed the door, telling the world that we were done for the day. She turned back to me with the same soft smile she offered everyone, and it was too much. I couldn’t be just an employee to her.

“I—” The words caught in my throat. “I can’t work here anymore.”

Aisha stiffened. For a long moment she stared at me.

“I see,” she said. “Please bank the fire and lock the door before you go. You can leave the keys beneath the loose slab in the alley.”

The keys slipped from her hand and clattered on the counter. She strode out into the street.

I stared after her, feeling angry and confused. After all these months, no goodbye, no thank you for my work. It made me glad I was leaving. I deserved better.

My gaze fell on the good luck bun. Apparently, I didn’t matter, but making that bun did. She could make time for that but not to say goodbye.

I snatched up the bun and sank my teeth into it. Didn’t I deserve some good luck?

A warm feeling rushed over me. My stomach fluttered, like it had the first time I had met Aisha. I tingled from head to toe at that memory. Except that it wasn’t my memory, it was hers, and that fluttering feeling was still there.

The strange pastries I had been trying turned from experiments to a revelation, Aisha showing me her secret self. Her disappointment when I frowned at them hadn’t come from a baker showing off her skills but from a woman opening her heart only to be rebuffed. I felt the fear of rejection, baked into a bun with that love day after day, locked down in the only way she knew how, making it possible for her to work alongside me.

I dropped the remains of the bun and rushed out the door, keys and fire forgotten. The slapping of my shoes against cobbles echoed around the street, a fanfare announcing my approach. Aisha turned to look at me in confusion a moment before I swept her up in my arms.

Perhaps tomorrow we could make confusion cake together. We had been living with its ingredients long enough.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.