New Ribbons and Old Bones – a fantasy short story

An oak tree

Leana liked to visit her mother in the autumn, when the falling leaves hid the worn, pale fragments protruding from the dirt. It was easier to face her mother if her skin wasn’t crawling at the things seen amid the roots, if she thought of the trees as receptacles for souls and not devourers of bodies.

“Hello, ma.” Leana bowed before the tree. “I brought you new ribbons.”

She took hold of one of her mother’s branches, to untie last year’s frayed decorations, and tried not to think of placing the acorn in her mother’s mouth, back before they filled the grave. Had her mother’s soul left her old body in that moment, travelled straight into the acorn, or had it waited until the tree grew strong?

The branches slowly parted, as much of a greeting as her mother ever made. Lively voices and rustling leaves came from elsewhere in the forest, but not here. Not from ma.

“Things are good at the bakery. Old Humbert sends his regards, says he misses your help with the dough.”

Humbert said a lot of things, and the ones to Leana weren’t usually so kind.

“Olaf sends his best regards.”

Best regards. Twenty years together, and that was the best he could think of when she went to the grave. Had there ever been any passion there? It didn’t matter. She couldn’t walk away now, any more than she could leave the bakery. What would she tell her mother? Best to focus on tying the ribbons, instead of dwelling on these things.

Smoke tickled Leana’s nose. She ignored that too, concentrated on the bows, on making her mother look good, as she had done every day near the end, when ma couldn’t do it for herself.

“I thought I might cut my hair. What do you think?”

The branches swayed from side to side. Ma had always said that Lanea’s hair was her best feature; not her wits, like the schoolmaster said, or her smile, as Timol used to swear, before she started walking out with Olaf.

“No? Perhaps I’ll get myself a green dress instead. I’ve been wearing blue since I was a child.”

Another shake, more vigorous than the first.

“Maybe not, then.”

Leana sighed, then coughed as the smoke scratched her throat. There was a flickering yellow glow between the boughs of the trees, and a dark cloud rising. Leana’s heart raced. She clutched her hands to her stomach.

Fire.

She didn’t say the word out loud, didn’t want to alarm her mother or the other souls. Instead, she hitched up her skirts and ran, eyes streaming, into the smoke.

Sure enough, flames were advancing through the forest, reducing the trees to cracked pillars of ash. A wind blew down the valley, driving fiery destruction toward ma’s grave.

Sweat ran down Leana’s cheek as she jerked her head from side to side. There should be a bucket to fetch water, a broom to beat the flames, anything at all. There were only fallen leaves.

“Fire!” she yelled. “Fire!”

Perhaps they heard her in the village, but she only heard the crackle of flames.

Then came a voice behind her.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Her old friend Timol stood beneath one of the trees, painting tar onto its trunk.

“What are you doing?” Leana asked in horror.

“Making sure they burn.”

There were scratches on his face. The tree swayed, slapped at him with its branches. He ducked and scurried out, still carrying a bucket of tar and a thick brush. A moment later, a cluster of burning leaves hit the sticky black stain, and the tree started to burn.

Leana ran at Timol, tackled him around the waist and brought him to the ground. His brush went flying. The bucket fell on its side and tar oozed, thick and dark, into the fallen leaves.

“What are you doing?” Timol screeched, his eyes wide.

“What are you doing?” Leana replied, pinning him to the ground. “You’re killing them!”

Smoke billowed. Flying cinders scorched her perfect hair. Tears streamed down Leana’s cheeks as she watched the generations burn.

“They’re already dead,” Timol said. “I’m freeing them to pass on to the next life.”

“You selfish swine!” Leana slapped him. “You’re taking her from me.”

“We’re the selfish ones, clinging to them forever. Or perhaps it’s them, binding us to dead routines.” Timol shook his head, and he too wept bitter tears. “All I know is that it has to change.”

Leana stared at him, then deeper into the forest, towards her mother’s tree. The wind was dying down. Perhaps some of the forest would survive. Perhaps they wouldn’t lose everything. Perhaps Leana’s world could be preserved, like a ghost in the trees, like a memory of her childhood, like blue dresses and long hair.

A heart-gouging grief gripped Leana, not for the lost past, but for the hollow space where her own future could have grown.

She let go of Timol, picked up his bucket and brush. He scurried after her as she strode between the trees, through the smoke and swirling sparks.

“Leana? Be careful, Leana, you could catch fire. What are you doing, Leana?”

Her mother’s branches parted in greeting. The one with the ribbons twitched disapprovingly, drawing her attention to a job half done. Even when the world was at its worst, ma wanted to look good.

Trembling, Leana dipped the brush in the last of the tar, then ran it down her mother’s trunk. Nearby, sparks landed on fallen leaves.

Her mother fell completely still.

“I never liked being a baker,” Leana said. “Goodbye ma. Rest in peace.”

***

Exciting news! I have a new novella coming out next year. Ashes of the Ancestors is a story about friendship, loss, and the tensions of tradition, set in a monastery full of ghosts. It’s going to be published as part of Luna Press’s novella series, and you can read more details here. Luna have put together a fantastic lineup for this round of novellas, and I’m incredibly excited to be part of it.

This week’s story was written in part to go with that announcement, by touching on tradition and care for the dead. 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 month.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

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.

A Heart Full of Feathers – a fantasy short story

Feathers falling

When Russ was young, he would stare out the classroom window, disinterested in the teacher, the helpers, and the other children, just watching the birds. Robins hopping through the hedgerow. Crows perched on lampposts. Gulls soaring on the breeze. To be so light, freed from the grasping hands of gravity, seemed like the most wonderful thing. The lives of birds made sense.

Whenever he saw a fallen feather, however small or battered or filthy, even if there was blood at its tip where some predator had torn it loose, Russ would keep that feather and take it home. His mother, though unsettled to see how he lined his bed, chose not to nurture one more argument in a household full of hurt. His father snapped that Russ should at least clean the damn things, but Russ ignored him. What if he cleaned off something important? What if he washed away the magic of flight?

The pile of feathers grew, day by day, week by week, month by month. Urban feathers and rural feathers, falling from either side of their home. Feathers from the garden, from school, from the woods, from weekends away with one parent while the other cleared their head. Wherever he went, Russ came home clutching a precious new treasure, light in his hand and soft on his skin.

As he added each feather to his bed nest, he imagined what it would be like to be that bird, to be clothed in feathers and fly free, away from all the strains and pains of the world. From trying to make sense of the things people said, of the words on the pages of books, of the rules that no one explained.

On the night his father left, carried away by the car’s angry roar, Russ clutched the feathers tight. They were so familiar, he wasn’t sure where his skin ended and the birds began. Out in the twilight, another feather fell in slow spirals. Russ opened his bedroom window and reached out. The feather landed in his palm, soft and heavy as sorrow. He added it to his nest, then settled in his sanctuary and fell asleep.

He woke to find his window open, letting in the dawn chorus and a breeze that lifted him off his feet. Feathers clung to his arms. He ran his fingers through their softness, and shivered into a smile.

As he jumped onto the windowsill, the sky cried out to him. He understood the movements of those wheeling shapes. His mismatched feathers could never compare with their beauty, but he could be among them.

He kicked off through the window and took flight. He glided in a giddy spiral over streets and fields, spinning toward the heavens.

In his dreams, this had been the moment when the world opened up to him, comprehensible at last from a bird’s eye view. The network of streets that bound his home to school, shops, and playground. The river’s route to the sea. The border between town and countryside, opposites that until now had blurred through hedges, verges, and paths. But streets were hidden by houses, the river by hills, and the town still oozed across blurred boundaries.

With swift strokes, Russ flew higher, determined to rise until the world became clear. But his arms were growing weary, the feathers that had buoyed him up becoming a burden. Their lightness was a lie, one more trick the world had set to confuse him. What had been weightless as the air was dragging him down, when he needed to soar.

He ripped out fistfuls of feathers. Black and white, stripped and speckled, they all tore free, mementoes of dreams crumpling between his fingers. He let the wind snatch them away, tumbling toward the ground.

The last feather out was the last one he had found. With it came his father’s shouts, his mother’s sobs, the slam of the door and the smell of petrol fumes. It felt weighty as a rock, but when he let it go, it drifted instead of plummeting.

With a lurching of his stomach, Russ realised that there was nothing left to hold him aloft, any more than to drag him down. He hung suspended, exhilarated and afraid, not knowing which would claim him, the earth or the sky. He squeezed his eyes tight shut and the wind rushed around him. Was he rising or falling? All he knew was that soon the world would make sense.

***

This story was inspired by a workshop on writing the uncanny with fairytales, run by Claire Dean as part of the Leeds Literary Festival. It was an excellent session, which I left with a brain full of bright, buzzing ideas, and with the first half of this story. Huge thanks to Claire, and to Dan Coxon, who made the uncanny strand of the festival happen.

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 once a month.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

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.

Shadows of Stones – a fantasy short story

Stonehenge

Shadows stretch like memories across the field, outlines of ancient stones hiding details of the modern ground. The longest shadows of the shortest day. A time to end and to begin. I follow those shadows away from the stones. The cheers and chants from behind me sound false, forced, a faded imitation of past glories.

The rhythm of my footsteps takes over. I abandon thought, drift into movement, let my self go. Years of practice have made me a master. My mind is blank by the fourth step, refilling by the fifth, as memories left by past walkers rise to meet me.

I’m wearing furs and hides like the others around me, hands worn and muscles aching from a satisfying day’s work. We look back, see the stones we’ve set in place, smile. One of the women is leading a young pig, fat and sweet. We’ve earned our celebration.

I’m a farm girl walking with her lover, the two of us flushed and giggling. No one knows what giant set the stones down, but everyone knows that these places grant fertility. Soon, we’ll be a family.

I’m a scholar in a powdered wig and tailcoat, my servants scurrying behind with the surveying instruments which will prove my theories. I turn too quickly, and a silver button flies off my coat. If only I’d known how to still my mind, I could have walked with my ancestors and had all my questions answered.

I’m myself, the modern me, three years ago. The air’s colder than I remembered, the sky just as bright. I take off a glove, reach into my pocket, grip the ring box. I summon my courage and turn around. I see you there, framed by the shadows of the stones. Your eyes are blank. You’ve fallen into the trance, stepped into memories, and it’s only later that I’ll realise you’ve slid into mine. You know what I’m thinking, and you have an answer before the question is out. Your eyes focus, and you shake your head.

I watch you walk away. Every detail of this moment is as stark and cold as I remember.

Sadness sinks me to my knees. I dig into the dirt, find that elaborate silver button, tarnished by two centuries. It’s round like a ring, round like the circle of stones, the circle of regret that I came back to break.

A shadow stretches towards me, a promise of new memories. I don’t know if she’s here and now, or if I’m still caught in the past. I don’t know if I’m me or if I’m a memory, revived by footsteps a hundred years from now. I just know that I’m ready to go somewhere new.

I smile and hold out the button, a silver decoration shining in the bright midwinter light, a gift from the past and a promise to the future. The old year is ending, a new one ready to begin.

***

Like “Winter’s Shroud“, this story was inspired by a prompt from the British Fantasy Society and first published in their monthly bulletin. If you’re based in the UK and you want to get more involved with fantasy fandom, or to meet like-minded writers and fans, then I totally recommend signing up to the BFS. They do a great job of providing a home for Britain’s fantasy community.

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.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

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.

One With the Waves – a fantasy short story

On the first day of summer, Steve walked out of the ocean, and the tips of his fingers dissolved into sand, running in a slow slick down the damp surface of his board. He gave his hand a shake, half expecting that the sand would flick off and he’d see that everything was normal. Instead, a part of himself spattered into the tide line, with the stranded seaweed and the empty shells.

Bewildered and frightened, he walked up to the house, found his phone, took a picture of his fingers, their ends blunt and grainy. He wanted to send the picture to someone for help, but who was there? No doctor would believe him, and his friends would ask what he was going to do about it, a question to which Steve, on principle, only ever gave one answer: make great art.

Damp and salt-crusted, he walked from the lounge into his studio, stared at the potter’s wheel. He hadn’t touched clay in months, not since Diana’s departure. Instead, he’d gone to the sea every day, to wash away the past. Even art had seemed unimportant.

He found clay, water, tools, and started the wheel spinning. The clay ran through his fingers, soft and familiar, and he sank into the work like he was sinking into the waves. The clay became gritty as the ends of his fingers sloughed away, until he found the boundary between his body, his art, and the world. Then the sand stopped flowing. The pot he made wasn’t his best work, but he was steady in a way he hadn’t been for months.

The next day, a toe disintegrated, breaking his balance as a wave hit. He fell from his board, spluttering and frustrated, and headed for the beach, where he realised what had happened. This time, he went straight to the wheel. The clay flowed through his fingers, the side of his foot solidified, and at the end of the day, he had work worth firing in the kiln.

On the third day, he woke with sand in his bed and flesh missing from his thigh. For the first time in years, he didn’t go to the ocean. He went straight to the wheel.

Throughout his life, art had meant peace to Steve, but now he worked with a feverish intensity, throwing everything into the clay. Hunched over the wheel, he lived in the tension between his work and his body, on the cusp of a wave that was forever about to break. Every day, some part of him collapsed into sand. A clump of hair, a chunk of arm, a strip of flesh along his side. Creating stopped the collapse for the day, but every morning he woke with a knot in his belly, feeling for the grit between the sheets.

He wondered if this was a message from his muse. If he could make the perfect pot, could embody his essence in art, perhaps this would all end. He would be solid again. But less than a day after he set his best ever vase on the mantle, he woke with a hole in his cheek.

For weeks, he fought the slow collapse. Pot after pot piled up, while the sound of the sea through the windows called to him. He forced himself to ignore it, to find that crucial solidity. Still, every morning, there was less of him.

One evening, he faced the open door of the kiln, hairs rising as he was blasted by its heat, and he considered climbing inside. Perhaps that was the answer, to fuse his sand into glass, a crystal clear image of the man he was right now. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it, to become hard and unyielding. What was life without change, life closed off from the world?

He looked through the window at the waves he hadn’t felt in weeks, heard the call of the breakers on the shore. He stopped struggling to maintain his body. Sand trickled down his arm and, instead of fear, he felt peace.

Leaving a print of sand with every footstep, Steve walked out of the house, across the beach, into the surf. Waves washed over him. The tension in his belly vanished. There was nothing in his world but the lapping of the ocean and the sound, oh so peaceful, of the waves. He let his mind drift and the water washed him away, one grain at a time, as he became one with the sea.

***

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.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

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.

How to Edit a Heart – a fantasy short story

I squeezed hand sanitiser from the dispenser, the smell of alcohol mingling with the coppery scent of the library. It was important to be hygienic in a place like this, especially for the writing group.

Helen had set up folding seats around a plastic table in a side room, past crowded shelves, their raw red contents pulsing with life. Not the neat, shapely hearts of valentines, but the real ones. The ones that held stories.

The other writers looked up as I came in. Each of them had a cup of coffee or a bottle of water, one of Jim’s homemade cupcakes, and a reading cloth set out on the table.

“Oh good, you’re here at last.” Helen always smiled. Sometimes, I thought she meant it.

“Sorry,” I said, though I was only two minutes late, straight off a long shift. I took my seat, unfolded my cloth, reached for a cupcake.

“Why don’t you start, now that you have our attention?”

“Me?” I fumbled my cake, hastily swept up the crumbs. They formed an awkward little pile in front of me. “It’s not my turn to start, is it?”

“Go on.” Cheryl nudged me. “Your story’s so interesting. We’re all dying to read the next chapter.”

As far as I was concerned, I was only a heartbeat away from writing cop show fanfic, but the others looked at me expectantly. I unbuttoned my shirt, opened my chest, and with trembling hands, laid my heart out on my reading cloth. Blood ooze into the thick cotton as I pushed it into the middle of the table, careful not to catch an artery on my ribs. They say that many of the best authors die young, leaving a story full of confidence and vitality, but I was in no rush to find my place on the shelves.

The others leaned in. I ran my tongue around the inside of my dry mouth, wishing I’d had time to take out my water bottle. I clasped sticky hands together in my lap to keep from fidgeting, and looked from face to face, anxious to hear what they would say.

“I like the childhood anecdotes,” Cheryl said, “but they slow things down, and it’s at the hospital that things get really good.”

I nodded, leaned forward, pinched a strand of the heart’s muscle between finger and thumb. Helen had a professional editing scalpel, with a personalised grip, and when she made changes, she cut away with confidence. I wouldn’t dare wield one of those, even if I could afford it. What if I made the wrong cut?

I peeled off that piece of heart, laid it on a small cloth next to the cake crumbs. For a moment, I felt dizzy, like I’d missed a breath.

“Your description is still clumsy,” Helen said. “Here, here, and here.”

Her finger jabbed out, and I froze as she almost touched my right atria. I liked the parts she’d singled out, but everyone said that, to write, you had to be willing to get your heart broken, and Helen was so clear on what made good writing. I pinched away a piece of flesh, then another, and another, feeling weaker each time.

“Is this the best way to resolve the new chapter?” Jim asked. “The twist doesn’t feel right.”

With a pale hand, I took that part too, added it to the pile of discarded flesh, a monument to my mistakes. Cheryl watched me from the corner of her eye. I stared at the pile of crumbs, trying not to blush at my embarrassing attempts to tell a story.

“I know it’s not my genre,” someone else said, “but does this business with the talking crow make sense?”

“The villain’s motivation feels weak to me.”

“I’m not convinced by the scene in the gardens…”

I sighed, summoned what strength I still had, started peeling more pieces from my heart. With each one, the room became more distant, the voices flatter. I could bear to hear them, as long as they came that way, as long as I told myself I didn’t care. My heart beat quieter, its steady thump fading. I grew colder, weaker, my thoughts slow.

A hand on my wrist, holding me back. I looked from my blood-slicked fingers, to that other hand, up the arm to Cheryl’s face.

“Maybe I was wrong,” she said. “Those anecdotes at the start, they give your character life.”

“But you…”

“Try putting one back.”

Uncertainly, I picked up a piece, set flesh against flesh. A small part of my story knitted back together. Someone murmured approvingly.

“What else do you think is worth keeping?” Cheryl asked.

I looked at those discarded pieces. There was a strip of description that I loved. It didn’t fit now, but perhaps it could, if I grew the scene around it. I took that piece, felt its strength between my fingers. Helen glared disapprovingly, and for a long moment I hesitated. But owning a scalpel didn’t make someone an expert storyteller.

My heart beat louder as I put old pieces of story back in a new place.

***

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.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

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.

Winter’s Shroud – a fantasy short story

Image by ArtTower via Pixabay.

The snow fell so hard and fast that it obliterated the landscape, leaving an expanse as pale and featureless as a funeral shroud. I pulled my cloak tight, but it wasn’t enough. Warmth and feeling leeched from my flesh. Disoriented, I stared through the falling flakes, seeking any path home.

There was only the white.

Grief spread like ice across my heart. Not just grief for myself, but for what my family would feel at losing me. Grief for their grief, and for the struggles that would follow. Then rushing after it, like an avalanche down a mountainside, came crushing isolation. I was going to die alone.

Adrift in the endless white, my mind slipped numbly from the present. A memory stirred: my first childish experience of grief. A white fox had come limping down the mountain, her fur ragged and her leg broken. I had tried to nurse her back to life, despite my parents’ disapproval, but my love and care came too late. In the end, all that mattered was the comfort of my embrace, warmth and softness as she faded into stillness, and my tears when it was over.

I cried again now. For her. For me. For my family.

Tears hit the snow and froze to gleaming points. They became eyes staring up at me, the centre of a face formed from the white. My fox emerged with slow, uncertain movements, her fur still ragged.

She nudged me with her nose, then limped away through the merciless snow. I couldn’t watch, unwilling to lose her again. She yipped, the child-like sound demanding my attention, and she nodded with her head, pointing purposefully into the pale void.

“I can’t,” I whispered. “Too cold.”

She came back, took a corner of my cloak between her teeth, and tugged.

“What’s the point?” I whispered. “I can’t even feel my feet.”

She tugged again and growled, forcing me to follow. I put one foot in front of the other, dragging my legs through the thigh-deep snow. Step by step, I made a path, and with each step, feeling returned to my toes, warmth filling my body and soul.

I didn’t see the rise until I was on it, white ground parting from the white sky. Houses appeared, their shapes indistinct but familiar. Was that my village, or was it someplace else, standing perfect and forever amid winter’s shroud?

The fox stopped her limping tread. Her shining eyes became tears again, and she melted away.

“Thank you.”

I ran my hand over the place where her fur had been. The cold had left me, and the grief with it. This time, I hadn’t lost her. She had found me. She had brought me home.

***

This story was first published in the British Fantasy Society Monthly Bulletin, December 2021. I like it so much, I thought I’d share it here as well. If you’re based in the UK and you want to get more involved with fantasy fandom, or just to meet more like-minded writers and fans, then I totally recommend signing up to the BFS. They do a great job of providing a home for Britain’s fantasy community.

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.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

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.

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.

***

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.

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.