What Miracles Remain – a fantasy short story

The cover of the novella Ashes of the Ancestors

The first warning Dareios heard of the fire came from a dog.

He was lying on the miraculous grass beneath the village’s one tree, that trunk which had sprung overnight from the earth, restoring life to the parched ground around it. He lay exhausted from a long morning trying to coax crops from the dirt, while also trying to ignore Yianna’s mindless talk of hope and the future. Dareios worked as hard as anyone because this was his home and that was what you did, but any fool could see that the land was dying, and he was sick of suffering through Yianna’s delusions.

A howl ripped through the air. He bolted to his feet, caught the hint of smoke, and hurtled into the village.

“Fire!” he bellowed, sprinting toward a crackling sound. From the fields, others took up his cry.

However the fire started, it had spread fast. Four houses were ablaze and flames were advancing into neighbouring homes.

Dareios tore a curtain from a doorway and battered at the flames. Sparks flew and ashes whirled while hot air scratched his throat. Neighbours appeared, some with blankets to batter at the flames, others buckets of dirt. No water. There wasn’t enough in their world for this.

Dareios beat at the flames until his muscles ached and he grew dizzy with the effort. Others were wearying too, but not the flames. They ate their way through the village, swallowing homes and hope.

“My house!” Yianna dashed past Dareios and through her front door, despite the smoke spewing forth.

“Don’t be an idiot!” Dareios shouted. “It’s too late for yours.”

“Never too late.” Yiana flung bedding out the door while the smoke billowed thicker and darker past her. “I’ll want these in my new home.”

“What new home?” Dareios flung the curtain down. “There’s nothing left.”

The flames had devoured half the village, were approaching the last few houses and the tree beyond, one green thing in all the parched hills.

“There might be.” Yiana flung pants and tunics out the door. “You’ve got to have hope.”

“Hope?” In his fury, Dareios flung one of the tunics back through her window, into the flames. “I’ll give you hope.”

“Stop that!”

“No.” He flung shirts after the tunic, then grabbed a stack of wooden cups. “You don’t get to tell me to hope any more.”

He pulled the cups back, ready to fling them into the flames, but Yianna flung herself at him. They went tumbling in the dry dirt and falling ashes, punching and kicking, clawing at each other. Dareios poured all his misery and frustration into those blows, and Yianna, ever the hopeful, ever the fighter, hit him just as hard.

“Stop it!” someone shouted. “Stop, both of you!”

His heart burned with a furious heat, fuelled by the pain where the dry dirt of misery had rubbed at his raw soul. He kicked and clawed and pressed Yianna into the earth, even as he choked on ashes.

Hands grabbed Dareios. No one was strong any more, but they hauled him and Yianna apart, dragged them to their feet and made them face the end.

“Look.”

The tree, their beautiful miracle, was in flames. Branches charred. Leaves blackened, curled, flew away. The grass at its roots twisted and crumbled.

Yianna sobbed. Dareios sneered.

“So much for hope,” he said, trying not to remember how that grass had felt beneath him, how the wind had seemed gentler in the tree’s shade.

The tree groaned and fell, hit the ground in an explosion of charcoal. Nothing living should burn so fast. Dareios forced himself to watch, even as the others turned away in tears, watched the stump of the tree collapse inward, nothing but black dust.

“No hope,” Yianna whispered.

Then it happened. Water sprang from the hole where the tree had stood. Dareios rubbed his eyes, unable to believe what he saw. A second miracle born from the death of the first. Then he was running again, out to the fields and the tools abandoned there.

“Quick!” he shouted. “Dig ditches, carve channels, get the water to the crops.”

“What about the houses?” someone shouted, waving toward the raging flames.

“Forget the houses.” Dareios pointed at the water flowing across the ash-mottled ground, turning the ghosts of lost homes into grey mud. “This is life. This is hope.” He stared wide-eyed at Yianna. “Who knows how long this will last? So dig!”

***

This is the second story in a short series. You can find the first, “Picking the Bones of Hope”, over here.

If you enjoyed this story, then you might want to check out my novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, which is set in the same world and explores our troubled relationship with history and tradition. It comes out on the 7th of February – that’s just four days time! – and can be pre-ordered here:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Picking the Bones of Hope – a flash fantasy story

For Eirwid, stories were the perfect currency. They added no weight to his pack, leaving space for the trinkets he took. They could be copied, but they could never be stolen and never ran out. Unlike coin, they had value wherever he went, because people craved entertainment. Even in a place where the crops withered, the ground cracked, and houses collapsed into sink holes, he could buy bread and water, and time to look for better things.

Twilight illuminated the people in the inn, their slumped shoulders, dust-caked features, raw knuckles with dirt in the wounds. They drank weak ale in the gloom, candles and fuel for the fire saved for another day.

“…and those who survived sailed west, leaving only their ghosts.” For a moment after he’d finished the story, Eirwid kept the carved whale on the table, its stone glowing with the magic of a long lost people. Then he opened his pack and put it back with the rest. A mirror that showed the dead. A bag of seeds from a forest that never stopped growing. A fragment of shell from a phoenix egg, icy cold to the touch.

The applause was muted, except for one woman who clapped loudly and smiled. A serving lad put a cup down in front of Eirwid, unasked payment for an implied service.

“They say there’s an abbey.” A man dragged his head up to look at the visitor. “The place they buried the first empress. A place folk can go for guidance from her ghost. Your travels ever take you there?”

Eirwid shook his head. When they landed in the Talaian Empire, he and Olweth had tossed a coin. They had to split the territory somehow, get what they could before the empire went to ash, and it was easier to trust to luck than to argue. She’d got the Eternal Abbey and he’d got the borderlands. She’d probably cheated on the toss, but it was hard to resent a thing done with skill.

“I’ve not been there,” he said, “but I hear you can get good advice for fine gifts. Maybe the ghosts can tell you how to save your crops.”

He pretended interest in his drink. This was the moment he’d been steering towards, a chance to find out what there was of value in this town.

The locals stared into their cups.

“What would we have worthy of an empress?” The cheery woman laughed. “Sold it all years ago, didn’t we?”

Some of them nodded. Others just looked at her resentfully. It was a tale Eirwid had heard a lot in these lands. He’d stopped assuming it was a lie, stopped sneaking around trying to find the hidden goods.

“Too bad.” He drained his cup and got to his feet. “Thank you for your hospitality. I should get going. I’ve a long walk ahead.”

“Now?” the serving lad asked. “It’s turning to night.”

“Best time to travel.” Eirwid tapped his cheek. In the light of day, they’d seen how pale his skin was, how it freckled and blistered in the heat under which they worked the fields, desperately trying to scratch hope from dead dirt. He’d be glad to get out of this sun-blasted land, to meet with Olweth and sail home. They’d still tell their stories, but they’d have real currency too, once they finished picking the bones of empire.

“Safe journey, and thanks for the stories.” The cheerful woman waved. Some of the others muttered farewells.

“I hoped, when you turned up,” said the man who’d asked about the abbey. “Hoped you might bring something that could save us. But hope’s a curse, isn’t it?”

Eirwid’s hand went to his bag. There would be something in there that could help, for a while at least, one of the small marvels he’d gathered. But how long could these people hang on? Their land was doomed. Warlords were riding from the south, fighting over the scraps. Better to save these treasures than to throw them away.

“Hope is important.” Eirwid put on a sad smile. “Yours will get you through.”

It wouldn’t. He’d seen enough dying places to know that hope was never enough.

Eirwid walked out into the night. Heat was still rising from the baked dirt. A dog whimpered where it lay. Eirwid walked on past.

Footsteps followed him out of the inn and he reached for his knife before glancing over his shoulder. It was the sad and weary man who’d asked about the abbey.

The man knelt by the dog, two half-dead creatures of leathery skin over jutting bones. He set down a bowl of the town’s precious water and a strip of dried meat. The dog lapped eagerly at the water while the man, alone at last, sobbed into his hands.

Unseen in the darkness, Eirwid gritted his teeth. Better to save what he could than to throw it away. And yet…

He stepped off what passed for a road, into a field where the locals had spent the day breaking the dirt. He reached into his pack, into a pouch within, took out a seed that came from a forest that never stopped growing, and planted it. The moment it touched the earth, the seed cracked open. Hard ground crumbled as roots delved. A shoot rose, questing, into the air.

It wasn’t crops, but it was roots, which could hold good soil in place, maybe draw up water from below. It would just be hope, which was a curse, but maybe these people could cling on long enough to make something worth taking next time he came through.

Olweth would curse Eirwid for a fool at throwing away their profits, but it served her right for cheating on the coin toss.

The ground creaked as roots delved. The dog barked. Eirwid walked on into the night, already working out how he would tell this story.

***

The cover for the book Ashes of the Ancestors

If you enjoyed this story, then you might want to check out my novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, which tells the tale of the Eternal Abbey and other people trying to survive Talaia’s fall. It comes out on the 7th of February and is available to preorder now through the Luna Press store.