Tag Archives: Fantasy

2020 Recommended Reading

As we wind our way toward the waning days of 2020, I thought I’d scroll through the 98 books I’ve read (so far) this year to see what I could see.

What did I see? A handful that really stood out. Mind you, if I finish a book, that means it was entertaining and did everything a book should do. But there were definitely some four and five-star reads this year.

That being said, these are my four and five-star reads. There’s a very good chance they are someone else’s one-star reads. That’s the way entertainment works.

Without further ado, here are the  books:

Fiction

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab

Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees

Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel by Martha Wells

You’re sensing a trend, aren’t you, right up until that last title. My pleasure reading definitely skews historical/fantastical, plus I have a thing for spies.

I absolutely love the Murderbot series of books, and I highly recommend them (and reading them in order). In fact, I reread the first four in preparation for Network Effect (and I’ll reread all of them next year when book six is out).

One of the points of view in The Secrets We Kept is in first person plural, that of the typists. Really, it made the book (well, for me, at least). I absolutely plan on writing a story in first person plural one of these days and inflicting it on unsuspecting slush readers everywhere.

Nonfiction

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Come for the bears, stay for what really must become a Coen Brothers movie.

True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News by Cindy L. Otis

Young adult nonfiction, but really all that means is the prose is lively and accessible (rather than dull and serious and self-important). For middle school on up, especially for adults who forgot that they learned about yellow journalism in high school.

For Writers

The Heroine’s Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop Culture by Gail Carriger

From the description:

This is an excellent reference guide for genre fiction authors seeking to improve their craft or for readers and pop culture enthusiasts interested in understanding their own taste. It is the perfect counterpoint to The Hero with a Thousand Faces not to mention Save the Cat, Women Who Run With The Wolves, and The Breakout Novelist.

If you’ve been stymied by all the usual suspects when it comes to writing advice, seriously give this book a try. I can’t tell you how many oh, so that’s why moments I had while reading this.

QuitBooks for Writers series by Becca Syme

I read Dear Writer, Are You In Writer’s Block? this year but I recommend all of Becca’s books in the series. Granted, they are probably more useful if you have a passing familiarity with CliftonStrengths, but I still think you can get a lot out of them even if you don’t.

Standout short story (that you can read for free)

Little Free Library (over at Tor.com)

A wonderful little story. You can also buy a copy for your e-reader (links at the bottom of the story post).

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New Release: Here’s How We Survive: The (Love) Stories for 2020

One year. Four dozen stories.

115,000 words.

Here’s How We Survive: The (Love) Stories for 2020

When I first conceived of this project, way back in late 2019 (around November, I think), I had no idea what 2020 would bring.

Then again, none of us did.

All I knew was that I had any number of previously published stories that weren’t doing anything and several on my hard drive that had never found a home.

With a little creative scheduling, I figured it would be fairly easy to write enough new stories to fill in any blanks.

Then 2020 actually happened.

I wondered what I’d gotten myself into and feared that somewhere along the way, I’d get derailed. So I took it one story and one week at a time.

It was both easier and harder than I thought it would be. In some ways, it became my anchor for 2020. I could always edit a post, create images in Photoshop, or excavate stories from my hard drive.

(Note: if you’re fairly new to writing, it may seem strange that you can forget about writing stories. I’m here to tell you: it really does happen.)

A couple of times, I came this close to not having any stories scheduled. At others, I had so many in the queue, there wasn’t enough room on the WordPress dashboard to display them all.

Once, I became exceedingly confused and published a story on Thursday, realized my mistake, and unpublished it until the next day. This was post-COVID, so we can simply blame lingering coronavirus brain fog for that.

I learned a number of practical lessons, things like it’s good to have several posts in reserve in case you sprain your ankle or that scheduling each story/post will take much longer than you think it will.

The project–and 2020–gave me the chance to reflect on my writing in a way I’m not sure I would have otherwise. As the saying goes:

Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten.

Or, in this case, fifteen. That’s the breadth of the stories in this collection. It’s not the sum total of my entire writing career, but it’s a significant portion of it. I chose not to include some earlier stories (and, actually, some later ones too). They’re not necessarily bad. They were published, after all–one even nominated for a Pushcart Prize. They simply didn’t fit the collection.

So now I’ll turn my attention not only to 2021 but beyond. Sure, there are many things I’d like to accomplish this coming year, but I’m going to keep my eye on the next decade as well.

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Free Fiction Friday: Heart of a Pirate King

It’s the last story of the (Love) Stories for 2020 project, so it’s a tale about pirates and Christmas, spies and animal helpers.

Thank you to everyone who has been reading along with me this year!

The first shot across the bow landed well beyond Sebastian’s ship. Deliberately, it was true.  Even so, in its aftermath, a mist of seawater washed his face and kissed his lips.

That was Estella, through and through, her way of fluttering her eyelashes, of casting a sultry, come-hither glance.

Sebastian wasn’t falling for it. Indeed, he steeled himself against the onslaught of both cannon fire and feelings. The tiny part of his heart—the piece she hadn’t splintered beyond repair—had leaped at the sight of the Siren and her captain coming into view.

Right up until Estella ran the Jolly Roger up the mast.

A pink Jolly Roger.

With hearts for eye sockets.

“Your wife, Captain.”

His first mate had the uncanny ability of voicing the obvious without it sounding … obvious.

“My estranged wife,” Sebastian corrected.

He clutched the rail, grip tightening on wood worn smooth from years at sea, and licked the salt from his lips.

“She mocks me,” he said, ostensibly to his first mate.

“Aye, Captain,” Hadim replied. “She mocks us all.”

Sebastian cast the man a look, the sort that would wilt a weaker man’s soul.

“But mainly you,” his first mate amended.

Again, obviously. On the other hand …

“No.” His sigh was heavy, a waterlogged thing in his chest. “She mocks us all.”

When had it gone so wrong? When had Estella turned traitor? Or perhaps she’d always been one, and he’d simply failed to see the cracks in the façade, the clues to her deception.

“Captain!”

The shout came from the lookout. The boy in the crow’s nest was leaning so far forward that Sebastian feared the lad might tumble to the deck below. The boy’s arm was outstretched, his face a mask of fear.

Sebastian followed the trajectory and saw reason enough to put fear in his own splintered heart.

The royal navy, in battle formation, bearing down on him.

A second shot whooshed across the bow, this one closer and filled with intent.

Ah, yes. Estella as bait for this trap—a deliberate distraction, something to keep his gaze pinned in one direction while neglecting all the rest.

Still … the entire royal navy? Well, he had ridiculed the pretender to the throne more than once, called out the king’s corruption. Sebastian let his gaze survey the sea, count the frigates, and calculated the odds—and then immediately dismissed them.

Was he not Sebastian Black, Pirate King? Did he not captain the Tyrant’s Bane?

“Come about!” he called, his crew snapping into action almost before the cry left his mouth.

He would take the fight to them—to Estella and the royal navy.

Or die trying.

* * *

What woke him, Sebastian couldn’t say. The gentle bob and sway of the plank beneath his chest and head? The insistent, if gentle, nudge against the small of his back every time his fingers lost their grip on the sea-soaked wood?

Or the chattering that sounded, in turns, like laughter, admonishment, and mockery.

Yes, it was the mockery that woke him.

The sun blazed hot in the sky above. Waves licked the burnt skin along his arms and back, bringing both agony and relief. His mouth was parched, his throat a dry husk.

The sight of fins circling in ever tighter loops sent his heart soaring. He strained to find purchase on the plank, its shattered and soggy edges crumbling beneath his fingers.

Then one of the creatures poked its head from the sea and filled his ears with more of that mocking chatter. A dolphin. An entire pod of them. They surrounded him, keeping him afloat, prodding the plank this way and that, like an expert navigator making minute but crucial course corrections.

“What happened?” His voice was little more than a croak. He asked the question rhetorically, certainly not to his constant companions.

Even so, a dolphin poked its head from beneath the surface. It was a tiny thing, no more than a pup. It regaled him with a stream of chatter that—if Sebastian didn’t know better—was a narrative of what had happened from the time he spotted the Siren until he fully woke, stranded at sea.

Yes, it had been a rout from the start—the entire fleet against the Tyrant’s Bane. Without warning, without support from any other quarter. In the past, they’d always counted on advance notice, a whisper network of fishermen and dockworkers, disgruntled guards, the townsfolk who observed comings and goings.

But for weeks now, nothing.

Other than betrayal and surprise, obviously.

Worst of all? He hadn’t crossed sabers with Estella. Oh, he’d been looking forward to that. Not their first dual, naturally, but Sebastian had vowed to make it their last. He would’ve gladly gone down with the Tyrant’s Bane if only he could have taken her treacherous heart with him.

But if the Tyrant’s Bane had sunk, he possessed no memory of it. A concussion, perhaps? His head felt clear. When he probed his skull with careful fingertips, nothing ached, and his skin came away free from blood.

“So, where are we headed, little one?”

The dolphin chattered away in between leaping up and over waves. They were undoubtedly headed somewhere. Away from the trade routes, it seemed. Although, from his vantage point, here in the heart of this vast, cerulean sea, he had no true way of knowing.

Call it instinct, born from years traversing the seas. The water around him tasted wilder, salt sharp on his lips. They were heading toward the edge of the known territories and into the uncharted seas.

Which would make the odds of rescue infinitesimally slight.

Sunset brought relief to his eyes and skin, if not his worries. Even when he spotted the bump on the horizon, Sebastian shut his thoughts against the onslaught of hope. Weary, dehydrated, weak from hunger. His mind was primed to welcome a mirage.

And yet, the bump grew larger, the landscape more defined. Cliffs jutted from the sea, palm trees swayed in the breeze, and in a wide, sweeping bay, water lapped against the shore.

The dolphins’ chatter increased, as did their insistent nudging against the plank.  His toes touched sand the same moment the sun kissed the horizon behind him.

Before he released his grip on the wood, before he clambered to shore, the dolphin pup swooped by him one last time and bussed his cheek.

Sebastian staggered the few feet to dry land and sank gratefully into sand toasted warm by the day’s sun.

* * *

A breeze stole over his skin, one cool enough to wake him but with a scent that promised heat. Sebastian rolled, sat up, and took in the quiet of the island around him.

It was time to take stock of his new home.

On his person, he possessed breeches—and nothing more. No shirt, never mind scabbard and saber. Oh, how he mourned the loss of the latter. Where was it now? At the bottom of the ocean, most likely. Or perhaps clutched in Estella’s tiny—but surprisingly strong—grip.

No matter. Sebastian had battles to fight here. He doubted the immediate ones required a saber.

Fresh water. Shelter. Food. In that order. He plowed his way through the sand until he reached the tall grasses and lush vegetation beyond the shore. Once there, he discovered a path.

Overgrown, to be sure, clogged with snaking vines and underbrush that threatened to obliterate it from existence. But a path, nevertheless.  Sebastian followed it into the thick, leafy interior.

Large fronds shielded him from the sun’s unrelenting glare. Cool mist bathed his skin, and he licked his lips, sucked in deep breaths as if that alone might sustain him. Above the birdsong and the buzz of insects, something else babbled.

He was nearly upon it before realizing what that sound was. Water, tumbling over rocks. A waterfall, and beyond that, a wide, clear pool that looked perfect for bathing.

Sebastian knelt at the water’s edge and scooped a handful, touched his tongue tentatively to the liquid already slipping through his fingers, ready to recoil at the taste of salt.

Fresh.

It was fresh.

He fought the urge to gulp, to greedily slurp all that he could. Control. Tiny sips. Fresh did not mean pure, necessarily. In any event, he had no wish to inhale a gallon’s worth, only to regurgitate it across the jungle floor.

He ventured farther along the water’s edge and inspected the pool. Was there anything lying in wait, something with teeth as sharp as sabers? He eased one foot in, and then another, and then because he was Sebastian Black, Pirate King, threw himself into the pool.

It didn’t do to be overly cautious, after all.

Free of salt and sand and sweat, he continued his exploration. There were coconuts, of course, more than he had hope of consuming. All manner of tropical fruit. With each step, hope kindled in his chest. With each discovery, he moved with speed and purpose.

If he could survive, then he could be rescued. If he could be rescued?

Well, then. He could wreak revenge, for his crew, the Tyrant’s Bane—and his heart.

The path led around the pool and back toward the sea. Before he reached the shore, Sebastian stumbled upon a shelter. In need of repair, but its bones were strong, a sleeping pallet already fashioned. And did his eyes deceive him, or was that an actual tinderbox?

The shelter was several yards up the coast from where he washed ashore, tucked in a cove that would protect him from the worst of the tropical storms. At the ocean’s edge, the rocky outcroppings provided numerous tide pools filled with shellfish and crabs. The latter waved their claws as if daring him to pluck them from the sea for the day’s first meal.

Sebastian shielded his eyes and surveyed his domain. He had fresh water and a means to sup whenever he liked. Here on this island, a banquet was spread before him, every last item a delicacy on the mainland. Yes, he would feast like a true pirate king.

And last, but certainly not least, he possessed a ready place to lay his weary head. Things, he mused, could be much, much worse.

It was then that he turned his attention toward the shelter and spotted the skeleton.

* * *

“Have I ever told you about my wife?”

The skeleton, beneath the shade of a palm tree, didn’t respond. But then, it never did.

Sebastian considered his word choice and amended, “My estranged wife. No? Oh, my friend, I suspect you’re lying to me.”

He sat in front of his shelter, that evening’s meal bubbling on the cook fire. In addition to the tinderbox, he’d uncovered a pot and few makeshift utensils. The rich aroma of shellfish and wood smoke laced the air. A breeze brought the scent of salt that lingered on his tongue.

He was never without salt or the slight but constant grit of sand between his molars. Such was the price of living in paradise.

“You can’t possibly want to hear the story again,” he said, ostensibly to the skeleton. “What? You do? Oh now, my friend, I believe you’re humoring me.”

At first, Sebastian thought to give this poor soul a proper burial. That meant digging without a shovel, which he was more than willing to do. It meant carrying the bones bleached white from wind and sand and sun.

This, too, didn’t disturb him. As a pirate king, he’d seen—and dispensed—his share of death.

No, the simple fact was the skeleton seemed at peace where it was. As if this sailor had settled beneath a favorite palm one evening, closed their eyes, and never opened them again.

The skeleton itself was a tiny thing, and Sebastian suspected it may be a she rather than a he. With no way of knowing, he referred to his constant companion simply as my friend.

In any event, he felt only slightly less foolish speaking aloud. His captive audience had no way of protesting. Sebastian had no reason not to voice his woes about his current state, his shattered heart, Estella’s treachery, and his … confusion.

“It started off quite well, my friend. The way a pirate love story should.”

Oh, but it had. Their courtship had been as fierce as their rivalry. Estella’s Siren was faster, more nimble than the Tyrant’s Bane. Sebastian commanded far more power. The sight of the Jolly Roger running up the mast of his ship struck terror in the hearts of the so-called sovereign’s tax collectors, greedy merchants, and navy frigates alike.

Truth be told, the king’s men were far more cutthroat than Sebastian’s crew had ever been. He liked to think of it as righting wrongs, restoring what belonged to those who could not defend themselves.

And, well, yes, Sebastian and his crew certainly helped themselves to the surplus. Under King Thaddeus’s reign, there was more than enough surplus to be had.

Estella had a way of getting there first, swooping in on the Siren and collecting that surplus. Her crew was small and ferocious, not a man among them. She commanded them not with an iron grip but with skill and intuition. She matched tasks to sailors, and even the unlikeliest crewmember flourished aboard her ship.

The first time Sebastian had spotted her on the bow of the Siren, his heart had seized. Her hair was the color of black silk and flowed like the Jolly Roger above her head. Her skin glowed in the sunshine, the exact color of damp sand.

The first time they crossed sabers, he had—to her surprise and his own—stolen an ill-advised kiss. He left that encounter with a gash along his cheekbone—and without his heart.

The first time he intercepted one of the king’s frigates bearing down on the Siren, Estella had sent over chests of coin and barrels of wine—enough to keep his crew happy and well in their cups.

As for Sebastian himself? An invitation to sup in her cabin aboard the Siren.

In short order, they joined forces, joined hearts, joined in marriage.

“The rest should have been history, don’t you agree?” Sebastian stirred the stew with a stick, testing the bits of meat for tenderness. “I thought we were of one mind, one heart.”

Ridding the realm of King Thaddeus? Restoring order and fairness to the seven lands and their many seas? With their share of the cut, they could lower the Jolly Roger and sail into the sunset, eventually landing on an island much like this one.

“Perhaps with a few more amenities.” Sebastian rubbed his chin. The beard was thick and truly magnificent. Although, in truth? He longed for a shave, for a shirt, and for a clean pair of trousers.

“And then, as you know, she betrayed me.”

Possibly it was a trick of the setting sun, the light glinting just so off his silent companion. The skull took on a skeptical expression as if it doubted this part of the tale.

“Perhaps I am wrong.”

But he couldn’t be. With his own eyes, he witnessed Estella on the palace balcony, her arm linked with the king’s. Although Sebastian stood far back in the crowd—and in disguise as well—he’d detected the possessive glint in Thaddeus’s eye, the lift of the chin that spoke of triumph.

Estella herself was nearly lost in a profusion of pink silk and satin with enough lace that it was a wonder she could walk.

“If not betrayal, then what?”

He longed to know. Estella cared nothing for fancy gowns and the niceties of court life. The sea was her home, the Siren and its crew her heart.

If the skeleton had an opinion, certainly Sebastian would have found relief rather than fear in its words. But his companion merely stared out to sea as if the answers were there, lost among the waves.

“If not betrayal, then what?” He spoke the refrain softly, a thin sliver of smoke rising from the fire as if to capture the words. Perhaps there was no answer, at least not one he would ever know.

Sebastian knelt next to the fire and eased the stew from the flame. Yes, he would sup like a king tonight, but he would sup alone, as he had for the past month.

Without his pirate queen.

* * *

The ship on the horizon dipped in and out of view. Behind Sebastian, at the jungle’s edge, sat a stockpile of firewood. He held a fistful of kindling in one hand, the tinderbox in the other, his grip so tight, he risked slicing his palms with both.

And yet, he couldn’t bring himself to start the fire.

Not yet.

Was this rescue or arrest? The sun glinted off the water, the glare stinging his eyes.  He had no hope of knowing which until it was too late.

His crew wouldn’t rest until they found him—dead or alive.

But then, neither would the royal navy.

And so he stood, the kindling biting into what little tender flesh remained in the center of his palm.

When he noticed the gentle gliding of the albatross, Sebastian couldn’t say. It soared high above the sea unperturbed by the ship behind it or the island before it. From its beak, something swung.

He shielded his eyes against the day’s brilliance and tracked the bird’s progress as it drew ever closer.

The albatross released its payload with the precision of an expert artilleryman. The item tumbled from the sky, landing within feet of Sebastian. As for the bird, it looked enormously relieved to be free of its burden—and a bit cheeky, as if it knew something Sebastian didn’t.

Since he’d been stranded nearly two months now, the entire realm no doubt knew things he didn’t.

He dropped the kindling and pocketed the tinderbox. Armed with a slender piece of driftwood, he approached.

A satchel lay on the damp sand, close enough to the sea that the tide might steal it if he didn’t move fast enough. He looped the driftwood through the strap just as a wave licked the edge of the bag.

For a long moment, Sebastian surveyed the satchel. Then he poked at it, prodded it with his bit of driftwood. The bag remained still. Besides, it was far too slender to hold much of consequence. He didn’t discount poison, but then the albatross had appeared hale and healthy.

Then curiosity overrode vigilance. Sebastian drew the satchel toward him and undid the flap.

It didn’t do to be overly cautious, after all.

The first item to greet him was his own image under the phrase:

Wanted: Dead or Alive.

The likeness was passable, although it lacked the magnificent beard he now sported. Beneath his name was an outlandish reward, enough coin that Sebastian might consider turning himself in—and worry about keeping his head later.

Next was a second wanted poster, this one for the captain of the Siren. The artist had drawn Estella with an exaggerated hand, turning her into little more than a sea hag. The entire realm knew of Estella’s beauty, and such an illustration would do little to deter treasure hunters.

His fingers shuffled the remaining contents—letters with the royal seal, battle plans for the navy, all manner of correspondence. All of it pointed to one objective. The concerted and concentrated effort to capture one man:

Sebastian Black, Pirate King.

Chatter drew his attention from the papers in his hand to the sea beyond. There, the ship on the horizon still bobbed, no closer, no farther away. Except now, a rowboat headed toward the island.

A single occupant leaned forward in the bow as if will alone could propel the boat. But no, it was the chattering pod of dolphins that took up the task, nudging and pushing the rowboat closer and closer to shore.

His gaze tracked the boat until Sebastian could make out the black hair that flowed like silk, skin the very color of damp sand, dark eyes that lit with delight at the sight of him.

Oh, yes. Quite the sea hag.

“Sebastian! My love!” Estella leaped from the boat before it fully came to rest on a sandbar.

The dolphin pup bussed her cheek as she waded to shore through waist-deep water. She held a bottle of wine aloft in one hand and pushed through the sea with the other.

“My love!” she called again. “Merry Christmas!”

Was it? Mentally, he counted the days since becoming shipwrecked, and well, yes, he was missing a day or two. But indeed, it could be Christmas.

This could also be a hallucination, brought on by a bad bit of shellfish, perhaps.

Estella halted three feet from him, soaked to the skin. She offered up the bottle of wine. When he refused it, she shrugged and set it on the sand. She unlaced her sleeves from her bodice, pulled off her boots, and placed both on the beach to dry.

“How do you like the island?” she asked.

Sebastian remained silent.

“It was my grandmother’s,” she continued as if he’d responded. “It’s where she came to rest, in the end.”

His gaze traveled up the shore, toward the shelter and his silent companion.

“Yes, exactly,” Estella said.

He didn’t demand. He didn’t rage. He didn’t kick sand or fling the wine bottle out to sea (really, the latter would be a terrible waste). Sebastian merely stood there, stony. True, after a long moment, he folded his arms across his chest. He may have tapped his foot.

Estella sighed, the light in her eyes fading to sorrow. “Oh, my love, I cannot apologize. I can only explain.”

When he continued his silence, Estella grimaced.

“I suppose I deserve this.” She gnawed her lip, a sign she was searching for the right words, not false ones. “Several months back, my spies brought word to me that the crown planned on marshaling their forces to capture you, convict you, and see you hanged from the neck.”

She gestured toward the satchel, and he nodded. That much, he had ascertained.

“And my spies?” he said, finding his voice at last. “They brought me no word of this.”

“Your spies had been infiltrated, my love. Indeed, so had members of your crew.”

This? This was news. News he wanted to deny; news he felt the truth of deep in his bones. Had not his whisper network gone silent? Had not he detected a false glint or concealed fear in the eyes of the townsfolk and even his crew?

“And yours had not?” he countered.

“Indeed, not.”

“And why is that?”

“My spies are invisible.”

He barked a laugh. Yes, this was his Estella, through and through, outrageous and audacious.

“Really?” He raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

“Forgive me, my love, but how often do men notice the woman scrubbing the palace floors, or the ones sweeping the hearth and laying the fire? Do they notice the serving wench except to slap her bottom? Or think nothing of babbling to those who work in the royal pleasure houses?”

Oh, she had him there. Her network had always produced better intelligence than his own ever did.

“What are you telling me, then?” he said. “That you arranged all this?”

Some of that delight returned to her expression, those dark, soulful eyes glowing with it. “With a little help.”

“Why not simply tell me?”

“Again, forgive me, my love, but your temperament is—” She paused again, a hint of teeth against her lip. “Legendary.”

Well, perhaps.

“Could you have playacted the role?” She didn’t let him answer. “For the plan to work, you, your crew, including the various spies, had to be convinced that I had turned traitor. There was no other way.”

“And if I don’t forgive you? If I strike you down here, right now?”

“I would gladly do it all again. I would lose your love and my life if only I could save yours.”

It struck him then, hard and fast, like a blow to the gut. Not betrayal—at least, not the sort that mattered. But a crafty, well-executed plan that her clever mind and courageous heart put into action.

“And you fooled Thaddeus as well?” Another counterpoint, weak as it was.

Estella laughed and rolled her eyes in disdain. “You’ve seen my wanted poster, have you not?”

Yes, the act of a petulant child. And yet, Sebastian was still at a loss. How did they proceed? As if nothing had happened? As if his heart hadn’t been splintered beyond repair?

“What is it we do now?” His words were more musing than question.

“Oh, my love.” She spread her arms wide, and her smile was brighter than the midday sun. “We celebrate Christmas!”

She headed for the rowboat, turning every few steps to urge him to follow. “Come, come see what I brought.”

Without recourse, Sebastian followed.

* * *

A tiny fir tree sat well back from the cook fire. Red and gold ribbons bedecked its boughs, and all manner of gifts surrounded its trunk—lumpy parcels wrapped in brocade and tied with even more ribbons. One was definitely the size and shape of Sebastian’s saber.

Estella knelt next to the fire, stirring something she claimed was fudge, although it was far too soupy for that. When he dared mention the fact, she merely eyed him.

“And when was the last time you ate chocolate?”

She had a point. He’d gladly toast the holiday with the dark sludge rather than the wine that sat cooling in the tropical shade.

“Who waits for us,” he asked with a nod toward the horizon. Yes, he had also dared utter the word us, dared to hope, dared to believe in the schemes of this pirate queen. “Is it the Siren?”

“It is, with Miriam at the helm in my absence.” She gave him a sly smile. “And Hadim as her first mate.”

“Indeed?”

“In fact, they’d like you to marry them once you’re restored to the Tyrant’s Bane.”

“Marry … them?”

“As captain, can you not perform the ceremony?”

“I … well, yes. Of course. But Miriam and Hadim?”

Estella glanced away. He had the distinct impression she—once again—rolled her eyes. Then another thought struck him.

“The Tyrant’s Bane?”

“Being repaired by your crew.” She removed the fudge from the fire and set it to the side to cool.

“Then it didn’t sink.”

“The Tyrant’s Bane? I doubt it could.”

Sebastian sat back, the onslaught of both thoughts and feelings threatening to overwhelm him.

“Estella.” Her name emerged from his throat rougher than he intended. “What do we do now?” This time, his words were more question than musing.

She turned toward him, and oh, her eyes were so tender. She inched across the sand, drawing nearer to him.

“First, we celebrate Christmas. Don’t you see the gifts beneath the tree?”

“I’m afraid I have nothing for you.”

“Oh, I’ve accounted for that.”

Of course, she had. “And then?”

“Then, I thought we could get reacquainted.” She drew a finger along his cheekbone, the one where she’d left a scar so many months ago. “Although perhaps you could shave first.”

“And perhaps I won’t. Besides.” He nodded toward the skeleton. “I’m not sure we should in front of your grandmother.”

Estella laughed, the sound light and airy and like bells at Christmas. “And then we’ll spend the week immersed in plans and strategies and tactics. On New Year’s Day, we shall row out to the Siren prepared.”

Sebastian took her chin between forefinger and thumb. It was the prelude to a kiss, and he wanted to savor the moment. “And then what, my love?”

“We take the fight to them.”

He kissed her then, and it was both gentle and rough and fierce as both their rivalry and their courtship. In his chest, he felt the splinters of his shattered heart mend. They entwined together until not a single fracture remained. His heart, now whole once again, nestled securely beside that of his pirate queen.

Heart of a Pirate King was written especially for the (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Flowers and Stones

A contemporary retelling of Diamonds and Toads, one filled with coleslaw, tattoos, and forget-me-nots.

I’m standing at the self-checkout when the first pinpricks race up and down my back. I freeze, an entire cabbage clutched in my grip. For a moment, with the icy sensation against my spine, my mind blanks.

I stare at my hands. Why cabbage?

Oh, yes. Coleslaw. Homemade. It’s been a long week, and I’m in the mood to shred something. Coleslaw is good for that.

I roll the cabbage between my palms like it’s a basketball. With a little finesse, I could give it a spin, land a three-pointer in the open grocery sack at the checkout station across the way.

Another wash of pinpricks reminds me that I’m not the one in the family who does those sorts of things. No pickup games with vegetables or ill-advised tattoos for me. So instead, I scan the cabbage and drop it in my canvas sack—only to have the screen flash at me:

Unexpected item in bagging area.

The light above my station blinks in time with my heart. I stare at the cabbage, in the sack, with dismay. In this case, I’m that unexpected item.

A cashier and then a manager try to scan the cabbage. They struggle to add it manually, fingers jabbing at the screen. Then the manager sends the cashier for a price check. Even then, she can’t add the amount to my bill.

I keep my lips pressed together, not daring to say a word. I know if I speak, I’ll simper like some old-school Disney princess.

And that won’t help.

“You know what?” the manager says, at last, her tone conveying that this is all my fault, although she can’t really explain why. “It’s on us.”

My remaining groceries are waiting, some patiently, like the carrots. Others not so much, like the mint chocolate chip ice cream that’s starting to sweat.

A third wash of pinpricks chases across my skin before the pain centers between my shoulder blades. An urge—to rush to the restroom, rush off and leave everything behind—overwhelms me. I want—need—to find a mirror.

At that moment, I don’t care about anything else. Not my groceries, or even my purse. I’d leave everything behind all so I can yank up my shirt and glimpse the image emerging on my skin.

That urge thrums in my blood until it emerges as a compulsion. I remember to grab my purse, but I leave everything behind in my search for a restroom.

This is a high-end grocery store, with carpet and chandeliers, and enough samples on Fridays to make a meal (which is why I shop here on Fridays). The restroom is well-appointed, with a beveled mirror and infinity sinks.

I crash through the door. I don’t do a stall check. I don’t care if anyone else is here. I plant myself in front of the mirror and yank my shirt up and over my shoulder.

Then I spin, a slow rotation, like a dog trying to catch her own tail. The second I spot the intricate design, it slips from view. At last, I pull out my phone for a selfie.

Just as I snap a photo, a woman walks into the restroom. She halts, dark eyes panicked. Well, yes, she’s just stumbled onto a bit of crazy. I wouldn’t blame her if she backed out slowly, hands raised in a pacifying gesture, and then ran for the manager.

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Then her expression softens. Curiosity rather than fear lights her eyes.

“Oh, hey.” Her voice is low and melodic and full of appreciation. “Did you just get some ink?”

Not exactly.

But I nod. “Yeah. Sort of.” As if there’s sort of when it comes to tattoos.

“Let’s see.”

Again, her expression is bright and friendly. So I hold still and let a complete stranger examine the tattoo between my shoulders.

“That’s wicked good,” she says. “Where’d you get it done?”

I have no idea.

I swallow. “A place out in San Francisco. They’re fantastic.”

At least, I’m pretty sure it’s San Francisco. I clamp my mouth shut before I can rhapsodize about a place I’ve never been.

The woman pushes up a sleeve. “Great minds, huh?”

I don’t know what she means, but I nod and admire the triple moon goddess tattoo on her forearm. It’s really well done, and certainly there by choice rather than a surprise, like the one currently stinging my back.

The woman takes another look at my ink, her eyes squinting as if she’s having trouble focusing.

“Is it … fading?” She shakes her head. “No, now it’s …”

I slip my arm back into my shirt before this gets truly awkward. “The lighting.”

Again, I press my lips shut before I can enthuse about the ambiance. Instead, I point to the chandelier above our heads (yes, fancy, even in the restrooms).

She accepts this with a nod. Because, really, what’s her other option? Declare that my tattoo is changing before her eyes?

She heads for a stall. I take that as my cue to leave.

When I reach the self-checkout station, I discover my groceries are bagged and paid for. There’s a note—a kind one, to be sure—suggesting that I find another place to do my Friday grocery shopping.

The manager won’t meet my eyes. Because, yes, this has happened before.

I wait until I’m three storefronts away and tuck myself into a corner by the kiddie haircut place that’s closed for the evening. It’s dark and safe, and I concentrate on the brick rather than the fire against my back.

I tug my phone from my jeans pocket. The picture I took earlier is slightly unfocused. But I’ve done this so many times, it hardly matters. I tap and zoom, crop and enhance.

At last, an image emerges.

A triple moon goddess.

The scrollwork is intricate, and the woman in the restroom was right; it really is wicked good.

And this can’t be a coincidence. Something is brewing. That much, I know. Still, as I study the tattoo, I don’t know what it means.

Or what it is my twin, Alyssa, is trying to tell me.

* * *

Finding a tattoo artist in a city the size of San Francisco isn’t hard. Alyssa’s found any number of excellent tattooists in any number of cities.

It’s finding one who won’t remember working their magic on her skin that’s the issue. Another? Finding one the crone doesn’t know about.

Alyssa doesn’t know if an actual crone is shadowing her steps. It’s simply the name she’s given the thing that’s haunted her and Emma since they turned eighteen. The crone knows things she shouldn’t, knows things she can’t.

Every time Alyssa thinks she’s outsmarted this being, something else disrupts her life—or worse, Emma’s.

Moon and Stars Tattoos is surprisingly empty for this time of day. One artist bends over the extended arm of her customer, her brow etched with pure concentration. The others appear on the verge of napping. Through the open door, Alyssa catches strains of something ancient—Fleetwood Mac, she thinks. She’s never been much for music, but it sounds like something her mother would listen to.

Alyssa decides to risk it. Her card is ready, printed fresh this morning. The words: Can’t speak, acute laryngitis should get her into a chair and inked without any issues.

As for the tattoo itself? Alyssa will let her gaze wander the artwork displayed on the walls. The right image will announce itself. If she’s meant to get ink today, meant to warn Emma, that image will lead her to the right artist.

A hush falls on the space as she steps through the door. One of the male artists smirks. Another day, another time, she’d open her mouth and let him have what for. After all, what for is her primary skill. But not today. Today is too important.

One of the women raises an eyebrow. Yes, Alyssa knows. She looks impossibly young. They’ll probably ID her, too.

“Can I help you?” the woman asks. If her eyebrow is skeptical, her voice, at least, is kind.

Alyssa doesn’t mean to be rude (really, it simply happens all on its own), but her gaze is still tracking the images on the wall, searching out the one she needs, and so she barely gives a nod.

It’s the scrollwork she notices first, intricate and refined. It reminds her of the very first tattoo she ever got, the one that was an apology, a love letter to her twin. With a shaky hand, she points.

“That’s one of mine,” the woman says.

Alyssa digs the card from her pocket, praying that the words haven’t transformed into something obscene between this morning and now. Her heart thumps in her chest. Everything feels right, from the music to the tattoo to the woman waiting patiently.

She knows better than to wish too hard. It’s like a beacon, sending her hopes and fears into the world where anyone might pluck them from the sky.

Like the crone.

Even so, her entire being is focused on the card and, at the same time, not. She fills her senses with everything else. Rainbows and unicorns decorating the wall, the music playing low enough the words are a mere suggestion, the scent of anticipation and blood.

The door is three steps away. Depending on what’s now printed on the card, she can make a run for it. A quick break to the left, and it’s all downhill. Not that anyone will chase her. At least, no one ever has. But this could be a first.

Alyssa pulls out the card and hands it to the woman and waits.

And waits.

“Oh, no problem,” the woman says at last. She grins at Alyssa, and her eyes sparkle with delight. “Really, the less you say, the better my work. I’m Samantha, by the way.”

Alyssa digs out her ID and hands it over.

Samantha glances at it. “Nice to meet you, and yeah, I was going to have to card you. You barely look eighteen.”

Alyssa shrugs. The male tattoo artist—the one with the smirk—snorts.

And because Alyssa is feeling triumphant, she sends him a smirk of her own. When he averts his gaze, her triumph doubles.

She follows Samantha to her station. While she waits, Alyssa lets her gaze wander the art on the walls once again until it lands on the triple moon goddess.

This time, her smile is nothing but pure.

* * *

Everyone in the call center knows to route the worse customer calls to me. They’re not supposed to. It’s not an official policy. If anything, our manager would wring his hands, sweat gathering on his forehead, and insist it isn’t fair.

No one ever listens to him. Since our center has the highest customer satisfaction rating in corporate, he never insists too hard.

At the end of each year, I get a holiday bonus and a plaque.

At the end of each year, I try not to think about the full-ride scholarship I gave up.

Sometimes I pretend I’m Snow White and each caller a dwarf, albeit ones who never made it into the fairy tale (Irate, Belligerent, Passive-Aggressive, Confused, Outraged, Lost, and Arrogant).

Repeat complainers sometimes ask for me by name. A few send me holiday cards.

I’m incapable of saying a bad word to them.

I’m incapable of saying a bad word to anyone.

To compensate, I take out my frustration on inanimate objects. Cabbage, carrots, and a fierce grater all wait for me in my kitchenette. I’m going to shred the heck out of some vegetables.

I’m going to forget about the customer who called me every foul name in the (urban) dictionary before breaking down and admitting that his wife had died. All he wanted was a pair of pants that fit, but since she did all the shopping, he had no idea what to order.

I’m going to forget about the lonely old woman who didn’t want to complain so much as to talk to someone.

I’m going to forget I can still feel the residual burn of the triple moon goddess between my shoulder blades.

At this point, all that remains is a ghost of a tattoo. I’ve watched at least two dozen come and go over the years. Sometimes they’re sophisticated—works of art in their own right. Sometimes Alyssa sends me nothing more than a heart, the red so vibrant you might mistake it for fresh blood.

And sometimes she sends a message.

I’m shredding and wondering what on earth I’ll do with all this coleslaw. I’ll never be able to eat it all on my own, and it’s not like you can freeze coleslaw. My mother, perhaps. Maybe she’s having a luncheon this weekend or some sort of charitable event.

A knock comes on the door of my tiny cottage. Yes, just like an old-school Disney princess, I live in an actual cottage. Although hardly anyone ever knocks on the door.

When I answer, I find my mother backlit by the big house up on the hill. Fairy lights adorn the patio, its slate gleaming as if by magic. In the yard, it’s as if a celestial hand has sprinkled tiny stars along the branches of all the trees that surround what is, in truth, a mansion.

This is not the modest split-level Alyssa and I grew up in. Henry, the man who owns this mansion, is not our father. He is like a prince at the end of a fairy tale, but one with a salt and pepper goatee and round, rimless spectacles. Instead of sweeping away the maiden, Henry fell hard for the matron.

He still can’t fix all that is wrong.

It’s as if my thoughts have brought my mother to the cottage doorstep. In truth, they may have. Above her head, above the house on the hill, a moon rises. Not quite full, but only a few days off.

I look at my mother and blink. For a moment, the young woman from the restroom appears before my eyes. I blink again, and my mother replaces her.

Maiden. Mother.

I’m afraid to blink a third time. So instead, I say, “It’s lovely to see you.”

It doesn’t matter if that’s true or not. It’s the only thing I can say to her. We don’t talk, haven’t since Alyssa and I turned eighteen. I don’t mean that in a Lifetime movie sort of way, although the results are nevertheless the same.

My mother stares at me, clutches her throat as if the words she wishes to speak burn.

Perhaps they do.

“I’m making coleslaw,” I say, brightly, as if there aren’t any number of things we should be talking about. “Could you use some? I’m always happy to share.”

Something sparks in my mother’s expression, something that tells me I’m on the right track.

“Are you having guests?” I venture.

“Yes.” The word is no more than a whisper, but it is a word. “Guest.” Relief floods her eyes. She turns, and I follow her gaze to the swollen moon rising above the house.

Guest. Singular.

A full moon.

And then I know.

* * *

Once upon a time, a young woman cradled two daughters inside her, her belly as round as the brilliant full moon.

When the time came, there would be three of them, three to make a family.

But the daughters were too eager, not content to stay put until the time was right. So the young woman sent her hopes, her fears, into the world.

Someone plucked them from the sky.

There would be three of them, three to make a family.

But only until the debt came due.

* * *

On the flight home, Alyssa pretends to sleep. Even with headphones and a book propped in front of her, the guy (and it’s always a guy) next to her will want to talk.

She can’t risk the altercation, the escalation, the plane making an unscheduled landing in the middle of the country, and security escorting her—and the guy—off the plane.

It’s happened before.

She feels the stirrings of that impulse—to lean across the middle seat and ask the guy next to her about those three restraining orders. Oh, and some outstanding child support payments as well. It would be gratifying, absolutely, to watch this guy’s complexion go from ruddy to bright red, to have half the passengers cheering him on, half applauding her.

This is how the crone tempts her. Alyssa can’t know these things about this guy. But in every altercation (and there have been several), she’s always been right.

Instead, she channels everything she knows and loves about her sister.

It was Emma, of course, who saved them that first day, who held fast even when Alyssa started spewing hateful words.

She hadn’t meant to say them, of course. But in the last seven years, she never has. She can hear what she says warped, transformed in the air until these mutations reach the ears of the other person. A simple I love you becomes I hate you—and always have.

But the crone never counted on Emma, her sister who should’ve gone on to some Ivy League school, been a doctor or a scientist, or something more.

They say twins have their own language. If so, Alyssa and Emma had long forgotten theirs. But that didn’t stop Emma from picking up on the false notes in Alyssa’s tone. It didn’t stop her brilliant twin from grabbing a pencil and scribbling a message across her calculus homework.

What’s going on?

They spent a blissful Saturday exchanging notes until the crone caught on. It took three days before text messages were ruined, and another five for emojis.

By then, they had a plan. Alyssa would leave. Emma would stay, take care of their mother and explain the situation as best she could.

That was when Alyssa went in for her first tattoo. The intertwined E and A were so beautiful, the letters surrounded by fancy scrollwork and leaves. At the time, Alyssa didn’t think to question why that bit of artwork was on the wall, at eye level, as if waiting for her.

She only knew she had to get it. Alyssa held her breath, worried that there was something too magical about the artwork. It would change before her eyes, and she’d be left with something nasty or obscene on her skin. When it remained—perfect and oh, so beautiful—she hurried home, excited to show Emma.

Alyssa found her twin clutching her ankle, pain and fear flashing in her eyes. Together they sat on the lower bunk and watched as the tattoo faded from Alyssa’s ankle, bloomed on Emma’s, only to vanish entirely after a few minutes.

But during all that, the image remained pure.

And Alyssa knew that no matter where in the world she was, she’d have a way to send Emma a message.

Their mother wasn’t surprised to find Emma burning the goodbye note Alyssa tried to pen before she left—one filled with so many invectives it was hardly a note at all. (It was a silly attempt, but Alyssa had to try.)

Over the years, they’ve peeled back the layers of their story—of crones who might grant wishes but always demand their due in the end.

And, at last, they’ve reached the end.

Now, on this final flight home, Alyssa knows there’s only so much she can channel of Emma. Her sister speaks in flowers, Alyssa in stones. Emma’s words perfume the air, Alyssa’s sting the ears and bite the flesh.

If Emma is often too pure for this world, then Alyssa is well suited for it. Because sometimes the guy sitting in seat 1F deserves what for.

Alyssa knows this, too. This fight, this final confrontation that’s waiting for them, it won’t be the two of them against the crone.

It’s Alyssa versus Emma.

And Alyssa plans to win.

* * *

I’m clutching a gigantic bowl of coleslaw, my arms aching with the effort. With careful steps, I navigate the path to the main house. One distraction and slaw will coat everything—me, the decorative stones Henry has placed by hand, the flowers and shrubs he pampers.

Dusk shrouds the patio. My mother stands on the slate, haloed by those thousand fairy lights. On the table sits slender-stemmed glassware, an elaborate floral arrangement, with sweet, summer wine chilling in silver buckets. It’s the trappings of an evening garden party, and an expensive one, too.

It will all go to waste.

My mother’s hands are clutched beneath her chin, her dress billowing about her. She is as picturesque as any fairy tale princess, except her eyes are huge and wary.

Above the house, a full moon rises. There, in the twilight, the first evening star glimmers.

The night holds its breath. It’s waiting, as we all are, for the crone.

I’ve known all along what Alyssa plans to do. How could I not? Her intent is indelible, present in each and every tattoo she sends me. Now that I’ve received the final one, it’s as if all the pieces have fallen into place.

I know, without consciously knowing. I’m ready because she’s made me that way.

I won’t let her do what she plans on doing.

A ride-share pulls into the circular drive, blaring death metal and spewing exhaust. Alyssa steps out, throws a handful of bills at the driver, and then gives him the finger for good measure. Hands on hips, she surveys the backyard. Her feet are clad in steel-toe boots. Her jeans are worn through at the knees, and the collar of her gray T-shirt hangs loose.

She looks like she did the day she left, and not a minute older.

At the sight of her, my chest constricts; my heart is tender and raw.

If the past seven years don’t show on my face, I feel them in my bones. Like Sleeping Beauty, I long for a hundred-year nap. I’m tired of this relentless niceness. It is false and draining, and I can’t imagine another seven minutes living this way, never mind years.

That’s why I plan to stop Alyssa. I will step into the void, offer myself as a sacrifice to the crone. She wants more. She wants blood.

She can have mine.

My gaze meets Alyssa’s. Her tough-girl stance shifts. I wonder if she can read my intent in the same way, if it’s in the blood and always has been.

The crone materializes equal distance between us.

I don’t drop the bowl of coleslaw, but I let it slip through my grip. My fingers guide it to the ground, where the soil swallows it up. A cackle rings in my ears, unsettling and scornful. The slaw, of course, was a mere pretense.

I have not fooled the crone.

To my surprise, she is not the hideously-bent creature from any number of tales. She is not any one creature.

I blink and see my manager from work. I blink again, and the sales clerk from the grocery store appears before my eyes. A third time, my guidance counselor from high school, the one who urged me to apply to Harvard.

Is the crone everyone and no one at the same time? I dart a look toward Alyssa. Her eyes are narrowed, brow furrowed in confusion. I wonder what it is she sees. Missed opportunities? A truncated life, or one denied?

And because I am looking at Alyssa, I see the moment she decides. It’s there in the way the soles of her boots churn the earth, the tightening of her fists. I start my run a split second before she does.

I will win.

I think this as I gain ground. I think this as I pull ever closer. What will happen when my body meets the crone’s? I’m not sure. I only know I need to reach her first.

The full moon shines down on the backyard, revealing a pathway to the crone. She is everyone and everything I cannot have. She is everyone and everything Alyssa’s been denied.

I’m so close, hands extended, fingertips yearning, when something white and billowing brushes past me, the figure lithe and quick.

Our mother.

She reaches the crone before I can, before Alyssa can. When the two collide, the night explodes into a million stars. A wave washes through me. There’s a loosening—in my heart, my throat. I feel words, real words, in my mouth.

I want to laugh. I want to cry. I want to reach out and bring my mother back.

When those million stars fade and only the moon illuminates our backyard, nothing remains of my mother or the crone. In their wake, we discover a patch of rich earth surrounded by quartz and agates.

We stand there, me, Alyssa, and Henry, and marvel as seedlings push through the soil, sprout, and bloom as if moonlight alone sustains them. Daisies and roses, slender lilies, and flowers I don’t know the names of, but certainly, Henry does.

At last, around the border, a flock of forget-me-nots blossom. Henry kneels, gathers a handful, and says:

“As if I could, my love. As if I could.”

* * *

Henry is like a prince in a fairy tale.

He smooths the way for Emma to start college. When she balks, Alyssa prods and cajoles, poking her sister relentlessly until—at last—she enrolls in the honors program.

Whenever Emma falters, Alyssa says, “Don’t you dare waste that brilliant brain of yours.”

Henry smooths the way for Alyssa, too. She agrees—reluctantly—to take classes of her own at the community college. One each semester. She navigates the strange language of profit and loss statements, of double-entry accounting. Until she’s fluent, Henry will keep the books for her, make sure the taxes are paid on time.

The first artist (other than herself) to step through the doors of Flowers & Stones Tattoos is Samantha from San Francisco. The first customer (other than herself) is a woman who wears a triple moon goddess on her forearm.

Her storefront is a cozy, safe place in this world. She handles the rude customers by channeling Emma. The ones who are lost, who stare at the walls until their gaze lands on the artwork they need? Those customers she tends to with care. Alyssa sends them into the world again, armed, she hopes, to fight their own battles.

When the E and A tattoo doesn’t bloom on Emma’s ankle, Alyssa drags her to Flowers & Stones. While Samantha works on Emma, Alyssa swears she feels the residual burn against her skin.

On weekends, she, Emma, and Henry gather. The garden overflows with blossoms and fragrances. The quartz and agates gleam in the sunshine. A sapling takes root, flourishes in less than a season to shade the chair where Henry rests each evening.

They are three, Alyssa thinks.

Three to make a family.

Flowers and Stones was written especially for the (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Simon the Cold

For December, it’s stories about helpers, magical and otherwise.

I first met Simon the Cold outside the library on a night so icy it stole all the moisture from my breath. My feet crunched through the slushy mix of sand and snow. I walked with my head bowed, the air sharp against my cheeks. That was why I nearly crashed into the man bent over the garbage bin, its latticework gleaming with frost.

The glow from the man’s headlamp illuminated the inside of the bin like a spotlight—not a single sliver of light was wasted. I stood for a moment, regaining my balance, my jeans stiff with cold, and watched the man pull treasures from the dark depths.

He glanced up and said to me, “You’d be surprised what people throw away.”

When I didn’t respond, he added, “Or maybe you wouldn’t.”

I forgot about the books I had on reserve. Instead, I raced to the second-floor cafe and bought the largest coffee on the menu board—the Caffeinator. With my pockets crammed with sugar packets and little containers of half and half, I ventured back outside. My boots skidded on the ice. A drop of coffee landed on my wrist, the scent warming the stale winter air, but I hardly felt it against my skin. My heart started pounding the second I spotted the man, still at the garbage bin. Heat flashed across my cheeks. I studied the cup in my hands. What was I doing? Was this in any way sensible?

Then I thought: How can I not do this.

So I marched forward, boots crunching, coffee sloshing, until the man raised his head and the headlamp shined its spotlight on me.

“I can’t take that from you,” he said.

I stood in the circle of his light, clutching the coffee, completely without words to convince him.

“And no tricks,” he added. “You look like the tricky sort to me.”

Perhaps it was nerves, or the cold, or the fact, I’m the least tricky person ever born, but I burst out laughing. “I’m not tricky at all,” I said. “In fact, I’m pretty transparent.”

“Ah, that you’re not, girly. That you’re not.”

Normally, someone calling me girly—of all things—would crawl beneath my collar and chew away at my restraint. But this man meant it, if not with kindness, then as an acknowledgment.

I see you there, young person, and what you’re trying to do. I’ve survived without you for this long and will continue to long after you’ve forgotten me.

That was why I took a step forward. He’d returned to sort his treasures, leaving me in the cold and the dark. He didn’t glance up. He didn’t stop his sorting. His fingers twitched ever so slightly. They were pale and stiff. Items slipped from their grasp, rattling the contents of the garbage bin.

I took another step forward.

“Old Simon hasn’t had a shower, girly, for quite a while. Just take that as fair warning.”

Nothing, I decided, could smell worse than this stale winter air. I took one last step and set the coffee on the edge of the garbage bin. From my pockets, I pulled the sugar packets and half and half.

“It’s funny,” I said, placing them next to the to-go cup. “You’d be surprised what some people throw away.”

When he didn’t respond, I added, “Or maybe you wouldn’t.”

I walked toward the parking lot and threaded through the cars until I reached my own. I didn’t look back. That, I sensed, was part of the deal. So I left the lot by the back exit and drove the long way home.

* * *

It was only that night, in my dreams, that I saw with clarity the strange paleness of the man’s skin. The color, the texture, was like wax poured over real skin, the hue still there, but hidden deep beneath the surface. In my dream, I worried about frostbite—his and mine. When I woke, the comforter was crumpled at the foot of the bed. My skin felt waxy and prickly. I ran the shower hot until steam filled the bathroom and I had melted all the wax away.

Outside was that brilliant, breakable cold. Snow cracked, ice shattered and popped. Everything painted in bright colors—white, blue, yellow—the only colors in the world, it seemed, or at least the only ones worth noticing.

Maybe that was why I didn’t see the delivery truck. Maybe that was why I didn’t hear the horn. Maybe that was why, at the last moment, I felt myself jerked backward by the hood of my coat. My arms flailed, and my boots skidded against the ice-slicked sidewalk. I tumbled into the alleyway behind me and fell into the arms of the person who’d grabbed me.

It was him, the man from the library, the one in my dreams. Old Simon, he’d called himself, but I couldn’t remember if that was something he’d told me or part of my dream.

“You shouldn’t have done that, girly,” he said now. I didn’t know if he meant stepping into traffic or buying him coffee the night before.

“Old Simon’s got enough to do.” He heaved me to my feet with surprising strength. “Don’t need to add looking after you to my list.”

“You don’t look that old,” I said.

When he laughed, all I could see was a young man beneath all that wax, rich dark skin hidden beneath the layers of what looked to be oh, so cold. Only his eyes weren’t pale—or young-looking. This was a pair of eyes that had seen their share of winters and pedestrians trampled by horses, clipped by trolley cars, and bounced off windshields.

“I am old,” he said. “I have much to do and no time for rescuing you.” He brushed off his jeans and tugged his camouflage jacket into place by the epaulets.

“I can see that.”

At the entrance to the alley, he paused but didn’t turn around. “You can?”

“It’s in your eyes. At least, most of it is.”

“And the rest?”

“You’re looking for something.”

“That I am, girly.”

“I’m Halley,” I said, wanting to be clear on one thing if nothing else. No more girly. “Like the comet.”

“Returned to give me some grief?”

“Maybe I’m here to help.”

At that moment, I doubted my sanity. My pulse went thready. With a hand, I braced myself against the alley wall, my fingertips scraping icy mortar. I was a woman who lived on library books and television reruns of Doctor Who. I was young enough to still be called girly and not really mind. I was young enough to believe that someone like Simon the Cold had a mission and that I could help.

I was young enough to simply believe.

He hadn’t moved from the alley’s entrance—a good sign. He was listening, his head cocked back to catch all the telltale sounds of the alley. In front of him, cars churned up slush. Boots trampled sand and salt. But Simon’s attention? All on me.

“We could start with another cup of coffee.” I dropped my hand from the wall and walked toward the light.

“That we could, girly,” he said when I reached him. “That we could.”

* * *

I went with the ceramic mugs, despite the odd look from the barista. I picked up the solid black container of half and half and plunked it on the table, despite the odd looks from everyone else. Simon added cream and sugar like I thought he would. Patrons stared at me, at my cup, and the one opposite it. Their gazes flowed through Simon.

“People don’t see you,” I said.

“People generally don’t see the homeless.”

“But this is different.”

“I’m still homeless, girly.” He brought the mug to his lips, paused as if reconsidering something. “Halley.”

“I can see you.”

“That you can.”

“Why?”

He didn’t answer. Instead, we drank in silence, steam from the coffee filling the air between us, warming it until Simon himself looked warmer, his skin darker, as if the steam had melted a layer of frost.

“Are you sure you want to help me,” he asked.

I nodded.

“Good.” He set his cup on the table and grabbed my hand. “Because we start now.”

We dashed through the coffee shop, scooting past bags of beans and boxes of supplies. I glanced back in time to see two policemen—no, two things—reach our table. Hairy, large, and shapeless one moment, dark blue, official looking, clean-cut the next. They flickered from one form to another, like a hologram of two images.

I stumbled and fought to regain my balance. “Those aren’t people.”

“No.” Simon tugged me through the door and into the alleyway. We plunged into the shadows, the alleys behind the storefronts a labyrinth of brick walls and trashcans. Despite the cold, the stench of rotted vegetables lingered in the air.

“You’re not people,” I added.

Even in the dark alley, I caught Simon’s raised eyebrow. “I can’t be anything other than myself.”

“And that self is?”

“In trouble if we don’t keep moving.”

And so we ran, Simon in the lead. He kept hold of my hand and tugged me around Dumpsters and over pallets that creaked beneath our boots. We crunched plastic sacks and cardboard boxes. The air felt sharp in my lungs and clouds of my breath misted my face. My neck, where I had wound my scarf, started to heat. Without breaking stride, I yanked at the wool.

At last we emerged at the far end of the alley. Up the block, people streamed in and out of the coffee shop. Even at this distance, I could taste the coffee in the air. I sucked in the scent, grateful for anything that didn’t reek of water-logged wood or rancid meat.

“What are those things?” I asked.

“Something that would harm us all.”

“But you won’t let them.”

He dropped my hand and then turned to look at me. Outside, he was more wintery than before. “No,” he said. “You won’t let them.”

I touched my mittened fingers to my scarf in disbelief. How could I stop those things? I didn’t even know what they were. But Simon simply nodded.

We stood in the cold forever. At least, it felt like forever. Then I noticed the world around me, people moved at a glacial pace, their breath hanging in the air. Cars inched forward, each tread squeaking the packed snow.

“What did you do?” I asked Simon.

He grinned an icy grin. “I thought we needed a breather, a little time to collect our thoughts.”

“You can stop time?”

“No one can stop time. I merely . . . slowed it down, for a bit. It won’t stop our friends from the coffee shop for long. They’re too clever for that.” He took up my hand again and tugged me forward, through the ice statue pedestrians.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “One minute you don’t want me around, and the next I’m supposed to stop something?”

“Oh, girly … Halley … it’s more complicated than that.”

We continued our strange trek through frozen people and things, a dog with one paw raised, ready to shake; a split bag of groceries, cans hanging in midair; a shower of suspended grit from a snowplow.

“That night at the library,” he said when we’d reached the bridge that spanned the river. “And in the coffee shop. You saw me. I’ve been waiting for the one who sees. I just didn’t expect her to be so puny.”

“Hey!” I pulled from his grip. “I’m not as puny as I look.” That didn’t sound quite right—or at least, not as right as I wanted it to sound.

“I don’t know why they send me the likes of you,” he continued, almost as if I wasn’t even there. “You small ones who see too much and are far too fragile.”

A low boom sounded behind us. It sent a jolt through me, then it resonated with how hard my heart was beating. I was many things, but fragile wasn’t one of them. Simon grabbed my hands again, yanked me fully onto the sidewalk seconds before a black SUV rumbled past.

“Fragile. Like all humans.”

My heart thudded even harder, and the scarf around my neck felt tight, like it was choking me, deliberately. “The world, it’s—”

“Speeding up, and so should we.”

We ran, again. This time, I stayed silent. This time, I kept pace with Simon and thought about being fragile.

Maybe he was right.

* * *

The neighborhood changed the farther we went, from old Victorians in the painted-lady style; to respectable, if smaller, houses; to un-shoveled sidewalks, cars up on blocks, and chain-link fences that looked as though someone—or something—had clawed through them.

I’d never been to this part of town before. The longer we walked (our legs had given up on running miles back), the more certain I was of one thing: this part of town didn’t exist. It was another of Simon’s tricks. Unless it wasn’t, and it was simply one of those things people didn’t want to see.

Not seeing. There was a lot of that in the world, more than I ever realized.

“If you’re not human,” I said to Simon, “then what are you?”

We’d moved to trudging down the center of the street, the only clear path through all the snow. The accumulation hid the sidewalk, smoothed the steps leading up to houses. All the windows were dark, and the sun was sinking, its rays and warmth obscured by the tallest buildings.

“Something old,” he said to the pound of our footfalls.

“Not cold?”

“Not what?”

“That’s why I—” I broke off and tried again. “When I look at you, words pop into my head,” I said. Out loud, this sounded nonsensical, but I pushed on, with both my feet and my mouth. “I think: Simon the Cold. You don’t look old to me, just . . . frost covered.”

I braced for an outburst. After all, was it better to be old or cold? Either way, it wasn’t much of a compliment. But Simon’s laughter echoed against the buildings. For a bare second, the sun seemed to swell, glow brighter, before turning remote and winter cold.

“Oh, girly.” He cleared his throat. “Halley. I am both. I am in my winter.” He raised a hand, indicating the air, the snow, the ice around us. “This is like looking at my reflection.”

“But it’s not really your reflection,” I said.

He shook his head, a smile still lingering. “No, it’s not. Which is why I need to finish my work before spring comes.”

At last we reached the city dump. The entrance booth was empty, the gate looped with chains and padlocked. Simon walked up to the fence, passed his hand over the locks. They sprang open, the chains swinging with their weight.

“We need to arm ourselves,” he said.

“Here?” My gaze scanned the piles of discarded objects, tires and dishwashers and things that glinted in the setting sun.

“You’d be surprised what people throw away.”

Simon walked through the gate, his headlamp already secured. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a second lamp.

Hand outstretched, he offered it to me. “Or maybe you wouldn’t.”

The glow of the lamp revealed treasures. And yes, I was surprised by what people threw away. In some cases, I wasn’t sure it was people doing the throwing. In my hands I held a sword in finely-wrought silver. If I swung the headlamp away and peered through the dark at it, all I saw was a broom with most of its bristles missing. Simon piled odds and ends into a grocery cart, one that had no hope of plowing through all the snow—unless you viewed it by lamplight. In that case, it was a sleek sled.

My fingers lighted on a garbage can lid. I knew without even using the headlamp that it would make a perfect shield—right size, right heft, its handle made for my grip.

“Is this how you see the world?” I asked Simon.

“Most of the time. Even old Simon can fall back into lazy habits.”

“So we see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear.”

“And the battle rages in front of our unseeing eyes.” He nodded. “Yes. There are layers to everything. People, this world, the things you hold in your hand. Most of the time, we don’t need to see these things. Most people don’t either.”

“But now?”

“Now, things are bad. I am . . .” He hesitated, the briefest of smiles gracing his lips. “Cold, and winter is much weaker than it appears.”

“And those things in the coffee shop?”

“If I’m ice—”

“They’re fire?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. They would burn this world, but not in the way you’re thinking, not with flame and destruction. They spark infidelities, betrayals, revenge. Oh, there is far too much revenge in the world. Why humans have developed a taste for it, I can’t say. It starts sweet but turns sour. It would fill your throat and choke you.”

I clutched my broomstick sword, another question occurring to me. “That night at the library, when you turned your headlamp on me. What did you see?”

Simon was silent for a long moment. He plucked a few more items from the debris and added them to the shopping cart. Before he turned from me, he uttered one word.

“Hope.”

* * *

We left the gates to the city dump unlocked.

“For those who might need things,” was all Simon said.

The air felt warmer against my cheeks as if, somewhere, an invisible bonfire heated the city. First one, and then another snowflake floated down, big fat flakes, the sort children loved to catch on mittened fingers and on their tongues. The night filled with snow until I could barely see where we were going.

That, I realized, didn’t matter. Simon knew the way. After a while, I discovered I did too. If I shut my eyes, the route we needed to take became clear, as if a map of it was on my eyelids. We were headed back toward the city center, straight into the heart of the banking and financial district.

“Why there?” I asked Simon.

“It’s where they start their destruction, burning resources. Think of the crash of twenty-nine, or of o-eight for that matter.”

“Will they crash the world today?”

“If not today, then someday, or somewhere. Old Simon can’t be everywhere at once.”

But we’re here now.

I didn’t say it out loud. Perhaps I only thought those words. Even so, Simon’s shoulders straightened, his step quickened, and I marched alongside him. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a mission, a purpose. I could do something—something worthwhile.

“You’ve always had a purpose,” he said, the words soft as the snow. “Remember that.”

They met us in the street, armed with briefcases and umbrellas, dressed in pinstriped suits. One woman wore high heeled shoes and yet glided effortlessly through the snow. I blinked and saw her, not as she appeared to everyone else, but her true form—a fiery beast that melted a path through the ice. Her cell phone was a weapon, something I only realized when Simon yanked me to the ground.

A lightning bolt whizzed over our heads and sizzled against the coffee shop’s brickwork.

I hunkered down next to Simon, my gaze taking in the things that surrounded us. The rest of the street had cleared, the snow so heavy, it had chased everyone else inside. Streetlights bathed the night in a yellow glow, and through that glow, they approached. Bankers, police officers, firefighters—all occupations you’d instinctively trust. They circled us, each braced to attack.

“I’m going to count to three,” Simon said to me, his voice calm and steady, like we were having a conversation in the coffee shop. “Then I want you to rush the one next to the fire hydrant.”

The firefighter. Even in disguise, he was a good head taller than I was. He clutched a hose, which, if anyone cared to look carefully—but of course, they didn’t—would be utterly ridiculous in all this snow and ice. In the world viewed through my headlamp, the creature held a coil of barbed metal. The weapon was thin, flexible, curling and uncurling like a snake. The creature stood there, unmoving, the coil undulating as if it had a mind of its own.

Simon grunted. “He’s yours. I’ll take care of the rest.”

Mine? “But—”

“He’s the one I can’t fight.” Simon’s voice had dropped now. “That’s where you come in.”

“Why can’t you fight him?”

“I can’t even touch him. We’re cut from the same cloth, as the expression goes, or in this case, the same piece of the universe.”

“You’re related.”

“In a way. But then, so are we, Halley. So are we.”

“And that’s why I can see you—and them.”

“She catches on quickly.” This was not Simon, but the firefighter, the huge thing in front of us. “Did you also inform her of her role after today’s confrontation?”

“She has no role.”

“Only if you dispatch us, and dear brother, and you are not up to the task. Not now, so far into your winter.”

“We shall see.”

The world exploded then. The firefighter shot skyward, flames and heat evaporating the snow. The air filled with steam. As a teen, I’d taken a year of karate, but I was no fighter. I didn’t know how to handle a sword. And yet, my hands knew what to do. My feet knew where to take me. I dashed not to where the firefighter had been standing, but where I knew he’d land, my sword at the ready.

His coil caught the blade seconds before his feet touched the ground. I blocked the second blow with my trashcan lid shield. But that barbed metal was pliant, and it wrapped itself around my blade, yanked the handle from my grip.

I panted, gaze darting between where my sword clattered to the road to Simon. The others surrounded him. He remained still, passive. I prayed he had a plan—for him and me.

The creature approached, barbed metal twisting this way and that, flicking toward my boots, catching strands of my scarf when I failed to lift my shield in time. I jumped back just as the coil swirled to catch me around the ankles. He advanced again, and again, I leaped. Leap, tangle, leap tangle, our movements a dance that led us away from Simon.

Keep him away from Simon. This was my only thought, even as my shield slipped from my grip and spun on the snow-slicked asphalt. Keep him away from Simon.

A crack reverberated. The buildings around us shook. I spun. We both did. The firefighter lowered his weapon and stared. A blizzard engulfed the other creatures, freezing them in place. At first, the rapid disintegration left me breathless, my stomach churning. A piece here, a piece there, torn apart, scattered.

The firefighter roared with so much force, I stumbled backward.

And onto my sword. With my teeth, I tore the mittens from my hands and picked up my sword. My fingers ached in the cold, but I clutched the grip, crouched low, and waited.

The firefighter twirled the coil, its barbs sparking in the air. In my mind, I saw its trajectory: toward the center of the fight, toward Simon. It would end him in a brilliant blaze of fire.

I sprang forward, caught the coil as it extended forward, the blade of my sword clanging against the metal, shaving off the barbs.

The blow sent me to the ground, sent the sword flying from my grip. The coil hung in the air and then fragmented, tiny barbs littering the ground, stabbing the snow.

The firefighter shrank. Pieces of the others broke off, scattered in the street before vanishing.

“Spring,” the firefighter said, his voice weak. “Spring.”

And then he, too, was gone.

I stood alone in the empty street, no sign of creatures, no sign of Simon. Nothing to show for what had just happened, only fat snowflakes that stuck to my cheeks and the broomstick I held in my hands.

* * *

My library books were overdue. This was what happened when you took time out to fight creatures no one else could see. The night I returned them to the library, snow still crunched beneath my boots, but the air felt soft against my face. Most everyone went without their hats and gloves. I’d left my mittens at home.

I glanced at the garbage bin, half hoping Simon would be there. He wasn’t, of course. I returned my books, paid my fine, and on the way out, stopped for a Caffeinator, making sure to stuff my pockets with sugar and those little containers of half and half. For old time’s sake, I told myself.

I could never find my way back to the city dump, although I tried several times. I still had the broomstick. I hung it above my fireplace. No one ever asked me about it. I wondered if anyone could see it, and if so, how it looked to them. When I spied it from the corner of my eye, it gleamed, the handle intricately carved.

I was going to balance the cup of coffee on the edge of the garbage bin, but someone stood there, head cast downward, a glow illuminating the contents inside.

My heart sped up. I clutched the to-go cup so tightly some of the coffee slipped from beneath the lid. A flash of pain spread across my skin, then the cool air rushed in to heal the burn.

I approached, but the man didn’t glance up.

“You’d be surprised what people throw away,” I said.

He took a step back, as if embarrassed at being caught. My heart pounded faster. Not Simon. Not Simon.

Then, I saw his eyes.

“Simon the Cold.”

“I ain’t cold, girly.”

“Halley.”

“That’s right, the comet. Here to burn another path through my sky?”

“What happened?” I asked.

“You talking about the winter? My winter?”

I nodded.

“You were there.” The question was in his eyes, if not his voice.

I nodded again.

“The way it works,” he said, his words slow. “I don’t always remember.”

And now I was cold. Simon? Not remember me?

“But it’s hard to forget a comet that blazes through the sky, especially one that saves your life.”

“I did that?”

“You did. But now I’m in my spring, and—”

“I’m nothing?”

“Or everything. That’s the problem with spring. It’s hard to tell what might grow. You can only plant the seeds.”

I held out the coffee then, both hands clutched around the cup.

He shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way.”

“How would you know? You’re in your spring.”

His laugh made the temperature rise at least a degree, maybe more. Wet, heavy snow slipped from a branch and plopped on the ground. I still offered the cup, arms outstretched, until—at last—Simon the Warm took it from my hands.

Simon the Cold was first published in Frozen Fairy Tales, and more recently produced in audio by The Centropic Oracle.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Heart Whisper

It’s not all bad, a whispering heart. If you listen closely, it can tell you what you want.

Isabelle Sterling pulled the pickup truck off the gravel road and bumped her way to the windbreak thirty feet in. With the engine off and the windows rolled all the way down, it was quiet—at last. A soft breeze whispered in the tall grasses and rattled cornstalks.

Isabelle jumped from the cab. The tallest stalks reached well beyond her waist. She peered down row after endless row, all black earth and rich green. The scent of soil was thick in the air, warm from the July sun.

Farming wasn’t one of her skills. Marilyn wouldn’t let her near the enclave’s gardens—not even the potted herbs—for fear she might wilt them. Still, even Isabelle knew this was a good omen.

She headed for the passenger door and the precious cargo belted in the front seat—like a toddler. Her truck still wore the dust of Georgia, the black paint flecked with red, the deep rust the color of blood. She wore it too. Every time she licked her lips, she could taste the red clay earth.

Isabelle eased the wooden crate from the cooler in the front seat, kicked the door closed, and headed for the road.

The rest of the trip would be on foot. She wiggled her toes inside her combat boots. Since being discharged, she tugged them on once a year for this trek up the bluff.

They’d carried her through Afghanistan; they could carry her here as well.

At the crossroads, she inched forward, just enough to stand in the shade cast by the stop sign. Her truck waited patiently behind her.

Anyone traveling this road would disregard it, maybe figure a farmer was checking her crops. Or more likely, a farmer had abandoned it there in the windbreak, keys in the ignition, and left it and everything behind—a relic to relentless toil and debt. She’d seen three such pickups on her way to the bluffs.

Isabelle sighed. It wasn’t the truck she was worried about.

This was her fifth year up the riverside bluff.

This was the year she wouldn’t come back down.

She felt the rumble first through the soles of her boots. All the hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention. She spun, jumped back, heart pounding a cadence she couldn’t control.

Breathe, breathe, breathe.

In the distance, a white pickup truck barreled forward, a cloud of dust blooming behind it—just a farmer, and nothing more.

Just a farmer.

She was, in the words of Marilyn, overreacting. Or hyper-reacting. After five years back on the soil of Black Earth, Minnesota, she knew better.

Or at least everyone thought she should.

The dust cloud grew larger, billowing like a sandstorm. Instead of slowing for the stop sign, the driver was gunning the engine and planning to run straight through.

She backed up, stumbled over the edge of the ditch.

It wasn’t far enough.

The damn truck was coming straight for her.

Deliberately.

What. The. Hell.

The truck swerved, and she pitched backward into the ditch. A spray of pebbles pelted her bare arms. She lost her grip on the wooden crate. It fell to the ground with a crack, the sound like a gunshot. Its contents spilled among the rocks and weeds.

The truck flew through the stop sign. Then the driver jammed on the brakes, backed up, and came to a halt on the road right above her.

Isabelle blinked and braced her feet against the earth. The rumble of the engine competed with the roar of her pulse. Dust floated on the air, filled her mouth, scratched her eyes.

From inside the cab came the relentless hammering of death metal. The driver lowered the volume and then hung himself out the window, fingers drumming the flame decal on the side of the door.

“Sorry about that, honey. I didn’t see you there.”

Like hell he didn’t. Isabelle gave him a stare, the one she’d perfected in boot camp, the one without a trace of emotion except for silent contempt.

“Need a ride?”

“Oh, I’m good.” Her palms stung. Her tailbone ached. But what hurt the most were the remains of her cargo scattered all around her.

There was no salvaging that.

“You sure you don’t need a hand?” The driver drummed the side of his truck even harder, a strange, staccato beat that made her heart pound a warning.

“Positive.”

“A pretty girl like you, out here all alone? Someone might get the wrong idea.”

“Someone might, but not you,” she said, weaving magic into her voice. “You’re smarter than that.”

She could see the spell weave around the guy’s head, tangling with sweaty strands of blond hair, clouding his blue eyes. And she saw the moment he shook it off, too.

Sadly, he wasn’t smarter than that.

“Those peaches wouldn’t be for me, would they, sweetheart?” His gaze went not to the scattered fruit but to her chest.

“No.” This time, Isabelle dispensed with magic. Instead, she infused her words with all the Georgia sugar she could muster. “But these are.”

With that, she raised both her middle fingers.

It was a dumb move, but after all the searching, the bartering, and thirty-six hours of driving, she didn’t need to deal with some dude-bro joyriding around the area, scaring livestock and running over cats.

He wasn’t local. Local boys (and girls) knew better than to get stupid around the river bluffs. They’d head into Mankato or even drive up to the Twin Cities.

This guy? If he didn’t leave now, he might not leave at all. Not today of all days.

His fingers stopped their drumming. The knuckles of his hand went tight.

She needed to end this—quick.

Isabelle bared her teeth. The glamour was simple, barely a spell at all. She preferred fox or coyote. Today she wasn’t taking chances.

She went with mountain lion.

During her first year in college, after her roommate’s disastrous encounter at a frat party, Isabelle had taught her the trick—along with some hand-to-hand combat moves. Despite evidence to the contrary, the enclave insisted that there were those who could weave magic—and then everybody else.

Isabelle didn’t believe it. Everyone had magic. Of some kind.

Except for maybe dude-bro here.

He blanched, blinked, and gaped, his mouth open like a fish left to flop around on the dock. Without taking his eyes off her, he put the truck in gear and inched respectfully up the road. At the stop sign, he took a right, the way leading to the interstate.

“There’s a good boy,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “And don’t come back.”

* * *

Isabelle used all but one bottle of water to give the peaches a bath. She cradled each one in her palm, the way a mother might hold an infant’s head. She washed away the dirt, used a fingernail to pry pebbles from the tender flesh, and placed each one back into the crate as if tucking it in for a nap.

And she still had the three-mile walk ahead of her.

“Uphill, both ways,” she said—ostensibly to the peaches—and laughed. Then she placed her palm against her heart and waited.

She wasn’t sure what, exactly, she was waiting for. But the gesture calmed her, reassured her that her heart was still where it should be, that it still beat, that neither it nor she was completely broken.

A breeze chased strands of hair from her cheeks. The crossroads were quiet once again.

It was time.

She tucked the last bottle of water into a knapsack, hefted the crate to her hip, and started her trek up the river bluff.

* * *

The barter had come through at the last minute, as barters tended to do. Isabelle needed twelve perfect peaches. And no, she couldn’t dash into a grocery store and toss a handful into a shopping basket.

Peaches, plucked by hand. And not just any hand, but that of enclave matriarch. And not just any peaches, but ones from Georgia.

Peaches were plentiful. What Isabelle lacked was something to offer in return. Then, she connected with an enclave courier in as desperate of straights as she was.

After that, it was nothing but the whisper of wheels against the interstate and some truly terrible talk radio. At last, she reached the red clay of Georgia, where her counterpart, a woman named Denisha, met her at the southern enclave’s peach orchard.

“Oh, snowdrop,” Denisha said when Isabelle hopped out of her truck. “Let’s get you out of this heat.”

Isabelle laughed. She’d been to Georgia before—three weeks of airborne school in August, no less. But that had been a lifetime ago, and her blood was sluggish and thick from Minnesota winters.

She grabbed the cooler from the seat. The thing was icy, even after all that driving. A trace of its contents filtered into the thick Georgia air, at odds with her surroundings. A harsh, cold, fishy odor that—judging by Denisha’s wrinkled nose—was overwhelming the sultry, sweet scent of peaches.

Inside the orchard’s office, they headed for the kitchen area. Denisha poured them both some sweet tea. She was about Isabelle’s age—late twenties or so, and she wore her hair in a coil of braids on top of her head. She looked like a queen capable of ruling her own enclave.

With the first sip, the sugar flowed through Isabelle’s veins. Enclave brewed. It had to be. There was enough magic mixed with the sugar and caffeine to not only revive her but fuel her drive back home.

“So this is really a thing,” Denisha said while Isabelle unpacked the cooler.

“It’s a thing.” Isabelle held up one of the packages. “Straight from the lutefisk capitol of the world.”

The dried cod, soaked in water, then lye, and then water again—because who the hell eats lye—was a gelatinous, smelly, and baffling delicacy. She’d grown up in Minnesota and didn’t understand it. She had no hope of explaining it to someone out of state.

“I thought she was joking with this request.” Denisha shook her head. “I’m really hoping she doesn’t ask me to share this year.”

Isabelle’s hand stilled on the package, the cold burning her fingertips. “She shares?”

“Sometimes. Depends on the request. Honestly, I think it’s partly a test, you know—will you do my bidding and all that. But it’s worth it, right? I wouldn’t give up being a courier for anything.”

Oh, how Isabelle wanted to ask. She wanted to ask so badly. Did Denisha see their enclave’s patron? Speak with her? Share the yearly offering? What was that like? The thought of it made her heart drum against her ribcage and her palms sweat.

“Yeah,” Isabelle said, heat prickling her cheeks, betraying her. “I wouldn’t give it up either.”

Denisha collected the packages of lutefisk. “So, I cook this … how?”

“You can boil it, but it’s probably better if you bake it. And if you have any bacon or pork drippings, you can serve that on the side.”

“Everything’s better with bacon.”

“In this case, it might just save you.”

Denisha laughed. “This is going to be an adventure.” She packed the lutefisk into the refrigerator and then filled a thermos with sweet tea. “For your drive back.”

“You don’t—”

“Oh, yes, I do. You saved my ass. Those.” Denisha pointed to where a crate of peaches sat, twelve perfect ones in a bed a straw. “Are for your patron. But these?” She hefted the thermos. “And those.” Denisha gestured to a canvas sack overflowing with even more peaches. “Are for your drive back. Trust me, those things are magical. You’ll eat the entire bag before you get home.”

Denisha walked Isabelle to her truck and then gave her a hug so heartfelt it chased the air from her lungs.

“Text me if you need any help with the lutefisk.”

“Count on it.”

Isabelle drove off, opting for back roads rather than fight Atlanta’s rush hour traffic. She felt as if she were leaving behind a friend, although really, she’d only known Denisha through messages on the courier group chat.

What did couriers do before the internet? In the Black Earth town hall, there was a photograph of a woman—a Sterling woman, one of Isabelle’s ancestors—carrying a basket of something dear cradled in her arms.

The woman’s feet were bare, her dress faded and frayed. The entire town looked as though it’d been coated in dust. In the background, an ancient Model T sat, discarded, forgotten, or most likely, both.

Isabelle thought about that woman on her drive back to Minnesota, wishing she could ask whether being a courier had been worth it.

* * *

Halfway up the bluff, the urge to pluck a peach from the crate and take a giant bite nearly overwhelmed Isabelle.

Denisha had been right. If not for her own bag of peaches, Isabelle would’ve eaten the offering. After that, driving past Black Earth and heading straight for the boundary waters—and paddling into Canada—would’ve been her only option.

It was one thing to scramble for an offering at the last minute, quite another to deliberately sabotage yourself.

Oh, but the peaches were tempting. They honeyed the air. The phantom sensation of juice running down her chin, sticky and tart, had her swiping at her skin. She’d eaten the entire bag within hours, amazed they hadn’t sent her racing for a rest stop bathroom.

But these were enclave peaches, picked by a matriarch. Overindulging wasn’t a danger; it was mandatory.

From this point on the river bluff path, she spied the cave opening, but only because she knew where to look. It was the darkness between pine needles and leaves. It was the cool that chased away some of the day’s heat, sending a wash of goose bumps across her bare arms and legs.

She reached the spot where the mosquitoes stopped nattering in her ears and biting the back of her neck. The spot where most people turned around, their legs suddenly and oddly tired, their sunburn fierce despite thick layers of sunscreen, their water bottles mysteriously empty.

Isabelle kept going.

The path turned rocky. During her first run as a courier, she’d pulled on the combat boots on a whim, more from nostalgia rather than practicality.

Turned out to be a wise decision.

Her heart pounded again. Isabelle paused, shifted the crate on her hip so she could hold it with one hand, and pressed her free palm against her chest, waiting once again.

Her heart thrummed with a steady thump, thump, thump. During her last Army physical—one for yet another deployment requiring yet another round of shots—the doctor had paused, stethoscope pressed against Isabelle’s chest.

“Has anyone ever told you that you have a heart murmur?”

Isabelle’s breath caught in her throat. She gave her head one slow shake.

The doctor listened, the crease between her eyebrows deepening. “Strange no one has ever … huh, this is weird. I’m going to order some tests.”

The words froze Isabelle in place. She knew, even without the tests. It was the enclave.

She was being called home.

Even now, when her heart pounded or skipped a beat, when the air felt odd in her lungs, she’d hold herself still, listen with all her might, as if somehow she could hear the defects of her own heart.

She continued the trek, the climb registering in her thighs now. This last stretch always made her doubt. Was she on the right path? Would she walk in circles, searching for the cave and never finding it?

Then the entrance loomed, dark and foreboding, a place for bears or wolves or definitely something that might swallow you in a single gulp.

And well, yes, their patron could do that. But she—like all patrons—had a particular palate. Human flesh wasn’t on the menu. Isabelle adjusted the crate in her grip.

Apparently peaches were.

She stepped across the boundary where the path ended and the flat, smooth surface of the cave entrance began. Cool air washed over her, chasing the sweat from her skin. A burst of color filled her eyes. Gemstones glinted in the sun—blood reds to dazzle, blues the color of midnight, and greens that made her think of those endless fields of corn.

The gems looked ripe, like they were their own kind of fruit. You could reach out and pluck one from the wall—if you were foolish enough to try, that is.

In the center of the entrance stood a small altar made of marble, its surface only a few inches larger than the crate she carried. The first time Isabelle had placed an offering there, relief filled the breathlessness in her lungs. Certainly she’d never be asked for something she couldn’t carry.

In all five years, she hadn’t. Perhaps that was enough of a reward.

She crouched and brushed the marble surface and then exhaled to chase away any errant grit or dust. The altar was clean; it always was. But it felt right to do this, to make this final gesture before she left.

Assuming she would leave this year.

As always, if her patron lingered inside the cave, Isabelle couldn’t detect her. No sigh filled with smoke. No tail scraping the cave floor. Nothing but the gemstones glinting playfully and the altar waiting for her offering.

She eased the crate onto the surface and stood—one step back and then another.

Nothing.

Perhaps she’d been wrong about the five years. But no, when she’d returned from the Army, Marilyn had specifically said the previous courier—Isabelle’s second cousin—had “finished” with her duties.

Her matriarch hadn’t elaborated on what “finished” meant, exactly, only that the woman was nowhere to be found. And that it was Isabelle’s turn.

And ten years ago, before she’d enlisted in the Army, there’d been another such turnover. Indeed, it was one of the reasons she did enlist. Out of sight, out of mind.

Now, here she was. Another Sterling woman after five years of service to a patron she’d never seen, never mind spoken to.

She’d tried, of course, that first year. She called out, peered into the cave, even dared to take a few steps inside. The hollow space swallowed her voice. The light from the gemstones faded a few feet inside the void. No scent of brimstone or smoke, only that of clean, dry earth. If her patron lingered somewhere beyond, shrouded by the dark, Isabelle couldn’t tell.

If not for the vanishing offering—last year’s had been Mozart Kugeln from Vienna—she’d say nothing inhabited the cave at all.

So that was it: five years and nothing. Perhaps Marilyn would meet her at the crossroads where she’d left her truck and relieve her of her duties. Maybe this was like the Army. She’d done her time, served as best she could, but lacked the … heart for anything else.

But it had been a good five years. She’d gotten her degree and traveled the world—this time to places where people weren’t shooting at her.

That was worth something.

“Thank you,” she said into the stillness. “It’s been an honor to be your courier.”

Isabelle was at the boundary, toes of her combat boots flirting with the edge, when a sonorous voice sounded behind her.

“Oh, my child, that sounds like a goodbye.”

* * *

It was only after her discharge from the Army that Isabelle found herself freezing at the oddest provocations. She couldn’t account for it.

After all, she’d stood in the open door of a C-130, the pines of Georgia thick beneath her as the plane banked for another run at the drop zone. She was out the door the second the light turned green, no hesitation. She could work in the sand, the mud, the rain. She knew when to be still and when to move.

But here in the civilian world? Here with her patron?

She froze.

“It’s all right, my dear.” The words were low, infused with brimstone and heat, mist and flowers.

It was such a strange, enticing combination that Isabelle found herself turning around. She froze once again, this time in awe. Her patron was a shimmering green that changed with the light—from one angle, the icy green of new growth, from another, the deep somber skin of a ripe avocado. Flecks of red raced along the surface of the scales. The forked tongue was red as well.

But the eyes were a glowing amber. And it was those serious eyes that surveyed her now.

“Are you really a dragon?” It was an impertinent sort of question, and Isabelle almost wished she could bite it back.

“Some people call me that. I prefer to think of myself as myself.”

“Me, too.”

“Indeed. It’s a Sterling trait, one I’ve always admired.”

Isabelle glanced about the cave. She knew that she wasn’t some sort of damsel-in-distress sacrifice. Why now and what next both hovered on the tip of her tongue. At last, she went with:

“I don’t understand.”

“The enclave still needs you, my dear, they have always needed you and the Sterlings before you.”

“To do what?”

“The hard work of making ends meet, I’m afraid.”

“But, the gardens, and the farm, and the—”

“Etsy shop?” The dragon’s voice rose, more amused than sardonic. “Not enough to survive on, never mind thrive. We have always sent the Sterlings into the world. They’ve always been the most capable of handling the vagaries of life.”

Like making a thirty-six-hour roundtrip for a crate of peaches or dealing with dude-bros in their pickup trucks.

“Yes, exactly that.” The dragon grinned.

At least, Isabelle assumed that’s what all those teeth meant. She recalled the glamour she’d used on dude-bro. Forget fox, coyote, or even mountain lion.

Maybe she’d been a dragon all along.

“Indeed,” her patron said. “You’ve also been a soldier and a scholar. For five years, you have catered to my … whims. You’re ready to strike out on your own.”

“I’m to leave the enclave?”

“Not permanently, but for the time being, yes.”

“Will the enclave call me home again?”

Wisps of smoke rose from the dragon’s nostrils. She shook her head as if startled by Isabelle’s question.

“My child, didn’t you know? That was me.”

Isabelle touched fingers to the left side of her chest. “But—”

“I had to break one small part of you so that you could come home to us.” The dragon paused, and it was as if she spoke the next word with great reluctance. “Intact.”

The meaning of that word—intact—sank in immediately. Isabelle had kept herself from watching the news, from keeping up with her old unit, searching the internet for details. Somehow, she knew. She knew exactly how that last deployment had ended.

The dragon blew out a smoke ring. It broke against Isabelle’s chest, soothing but not healing her heart.

“It’s not all bad, a whispering heart,” her patron said. “If you listen closely, it can tell you what you want.”

“I’m afraid I can’t hear it.”

“You will. With time.” The dragon inclined her head toward the peaches, still on the altar. “Now, will you stay and join me for this repast?”

Isabelle took two steps forward and knelt at the altar. “I will.”

* * *

A full moon helped Isabelle navigate the path down the river bluff. Once in her truck, she rested her arms on the steering wheel and gazed through the windshield. Above her, through the fringe of cottonwood leaves, a field of stars littered the night sky.

She was going to miss this view.

Her phone, which she’d locked in the glove compartment, buzzed. She fumbled with the latch and pulled it out in time to see a text message flash across the screen.

Denisha: I never did ask. Were you on your fifth year too?

Isabelle: Get your walking papers?

Denisha: Sure did. I could use a brainstorming buddy if you’re available.

Isabelle: I’ll start driving south.

Denisha: I’ll head north.

Isabelle: Meet you in the middle?

Denisha: Meet you in the middle.

When Isabelle returned to Black Earth, she found Marilyn on the town hall steps, haloed by lamplight. Two duffle bags, a suitcase, and three boxes—all of Isabelle’s worldly possessions—surrounded her. In her hands, Marilyn held a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine.

Without a word, she handed it to Isabelle. Inside was the picture of the barefoot woman, cradling the basket, chin tilted resolutely for that journey up the river bluff. Now, when Isabelle studied the photograph, she noticed something new.

The woman wore the barest trace of a smile as well.

“Her fifth year,” Isabelle said.

“Yes, indeed.” Marilyn hugged her then, arms thin but capable. “We will miss you, but you are ready.”

“And when it’s time to come home?”

Marilyn raised her gaze to the river bluff. “You’ll know, one way or the other.”

On her way out of Black Earth, Isabelle passed a truck pulled over on the side of the road, a white pickup with flame decals. It sat there, discarded, forgotten, or most likely, both. A relic to something, although she wasn’t quite sure what.

She drove into the night, listening to the whisper of wheels against the interstate and for the quiet murmur of her own heart.

Heart Whisper is (yet another!) dragon story written for The (Love) Stories for 2020 Project.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Aleag the Great

For November, it’s stories of saying goodbye, letting things go, and endings that bring about new beginnings.

The hue and cry of the villagers woke Aleag from a sound sleep. Dreams of ice and granite shattered, leaving him with the scent of spring in his nostrils—the elusive and tantalizing hint of violet, the heavy perfume of lily of the valley. He stretched, dug his claws into the earth, and peered down the mountain.

The villagers clambered up the mountainside, pitchforks and handcrafted spears clutched in their fists—as if such things could pierce his scales.

Did they need to do this every spring? At best, it was tedious. At worst?

At worse, something—or more likely someone—would knock the delicate balance between human and dragon off-kilter. Aleag was growing weary of the whole charade. He wouldn’t be responsible for the resulting destruction.

At the center of the crowd, a young woman stumbled. Her wrists were bound, her feet bare and oddly pink. Her gown fluttered around her ankles like sea foam. Every few steps, she glanced over her shoulder as if the threat was behind her instead of straight ahead.

Curious, Aleag emerged from his cave, tail casting a graceful arc once free of its confines. Sun glinted off his scales, its heat warming his blood and clearing the last of the icy dreams from his head.

He could taste his next meal in the air.

The villagers approached, scrambling over the last rocks and boulders to reach the outcropping that held his cave. The lord mayor took the lead. The man’s blood trembled in his veins. Aleag could feel it from where he waited.

Interesting how some men conquered fear with the threat of shame.

Then again, when you were offering up such a tasty morsel, courage had little to do with it.

Aleag deigned to meet them at the stake, the location where—year after year—they secured their sacrificial lamb, where—year after year—they would barter.

Aleag always bartered.

After all, he saw no reason to make this easy for them.

* * *

Someone yanked the rope. Lily stumbled forward, more a dog on a leash than a human being. That someone jerked again. Not Peter. No, never Peter, not in his new role as village lord mayor. Peter wouldn’t soil his hands in all this.

The rope passed from villager to villager—her friends, her neighbors, her patients—until, at last, it was Jack who had the unlucky chore of tying her to the stake.

“I’m sorry, Lily,” he whispered, an anxious glance in Peter’s direction.

“No more than I am.”

She’d known from the start that if it ever came to something like this, Jack would choose Peter over her. He always had, always did, and always with an apology.

At least tethered to the stake, she could see her little cottage in the valley below. Still intact. Still safe. Someday, it might prove useful again, if not to her, then someone very much like her.

The dragon approached, footfalls shaking the ground, pebbles scattering down the slope. A few bounced and came to rest against her bare feet, the feeling of them cool against her skin, like a balm. For the first time in a week, her feet stopped their ceaseless ache.

The dragon snuffled and sniffed, the force of his exhales ruffling her hair.

“And you are?” His voice was impossibly low, a quiet murmur meant for her ears only.

“Lily.” She managed that single word with her own quiet power, surprising herself, if not him.

“Of the valley?”

“If that’s what you wish.”

He snuffled again. “I thought I’d detected spring in the air, but I doubt my wishes have anything to do with this proceeding.”

“Then we have that in common.”

He surveyed her with his large yellow eyes, her startled reflection staring back at her from the dark pupil. It was an astonishing thing to be seen so completely. At that moment, Lily felt her entire being exposed—the secrets she kept in the cottage, the ones buried deep in her heart.

“And you are?” She knew his name; all the villagers did. Every spring, they scaled the mountain. Or rather, most of them did. Lily always remained in her cottage out of protest.

Until this spring, anyway.

Still, it only seemed polite to ask.

The dragon inclined his head. “Aleag.”

Peter stepped onto a nearby boulder, out of grasping range, Lily noted. He wore a sky blue sash of silk about his waist, indicating his rank as lord mayor. He puffed up his chest and began to speak.

“Aleag the Great! As is our tradition, we bring you an offering of spring!”

“Are you really?” Lily asked under her breath.

A hint of steam rose from the dragon’s nostrils, almost in question. “Am I what?”

“Great.”

The dragon snorted a stream of fire that sent the villagers scampering down the incline. Even Peter tripped and fell backward, Jack’s outstretched arms breaking his fall.

“It would seem,” Aleag said, humor and heat in his words, “that I’m at least adequate.”

When one was staring down certain death, one generally didn’t laugh. And yet. Lily found herself biting back the smile. “What would you need to do to be great?”

“Oh, the usual, I suppose. Crush a few villages beneath my claws, lay waste to the harvest, incinerate a couple of forests.” A sigh rumbled in his chest, the sensation shaking the earth beneath her feet. “I find I lack the enthusiasm for such things.”

Below, the villagers scrabbled back up the mountain, slower this time, their footfalls wary. Peter glared at Lily as if she were the one responsible for his undignified tumble.

Perhaps he had a point.

Lily turned to Aleag. Oh, but he was a fine creature. If not for her untimely end, she could admire him. Indeed, a creature such as this should be worshiped.

“What’s going to happen?” she asked.

Aleag swiveled his head and stared at her with the force of both eyes. Even without the stake and rope, Lily would’ve been trapped by his gaze alone—prey to his predator.

“My child,” he said. “Have you no idea?”

* * *

Peter clawed his way up the boulder a second time. Sweat had sprouted along his spine the moment they’d left the village. Now it coursed, a river overflowing its banks. The back of his tunic was drenched, the stain spreading into the sash’s heavy silk.

Leave it to Lily to make the creature laugh. Laugh! Of all things.

He brushed his hands against his thighs. His wrists ached from the fall, and the tender flesh of his palms—it had been several seasons since he’d worked the harvest—stung. He pulled himself up straight. He was the lord mayor, after all. As such, he was due a certain amount of respect.

“Aleag the Great!” Peter tried for the second time. “As is our tradition, we bring you an offering of spring!”

The dragon scrutinized him, from the top of his head to the bottom of his leather-clad feet. The gaze was unrelenting. Tingling erupted along Peter’s skin, a shower of needles, the sensation both sharp and tantalizing.

This is what these creatures did, of course. They made you crave the pain and welcome your own demise. Peter shook his head, blew out a breath, and cleared his thoughts.

Or tried to.

“An offering.” The words rumbled as if the dragon were bored. “What if I don’t find it … adequate?”

Before Peter could answer, Lily and this … this … this creature exchanged glances. It was as if they both found the situation humorous.

Heat rose in his cheeks. “She is our most treasured asset, our village healer. We do this to honor you.”

“Your healer?” The dragon swiveled his head, that remorseless gaze sweeping over Peter before the creature set its sights on Lily. “Pray tell, why would you sacrifice your healer?”

“To honor you.” Peter puffed out his chest again. He knew, of course, how dragons were, how they wouldn’t accept a sacrifice without some bartering, without knowing what it cost the village. The last lord mayor had told him such. That the most difficult part of the job was selecting a maiden each spring.

Truth be told? This year, it hadn’t been that hard.

“So, when the blacksmith blisters his hand,” Aleag intoned, “the carpenter tumbles from a cottage roof, countless women labor to birth children, are you telling me your healer won’t be missed?”

“There are other healers in this land.”

“Perhaps there are, and perhaps seeing how cavalierly you treat your own, they will decide not to make your village their home.”

“Perhaps, but our village is filled with a number of wise women. We will do without.”

His words sounded tinny, their echo doubling back on him. Behind him, the disgruntled murmur of a dozen of those wise women made his ears burn. Doubt churned in his stomach. He pressed a hand against his belly to steady himself.

Truly, Lily wasn’t that skilled. Truly! Any old fool could coax women through labor and set a broken bone. Yes, Lily had the touch. The mere brush of her fingertips could cool a fever or soothe a colicky infant.

She had brought him back from the brink, certainly. Peter exhaled as if the thickness in his lungs remained. Yes, she’d brought him back; for that, he’d always be grateful. But he could not abide—

“I refused his offer.”

Lily’s words rang clear, loud enough—he swore—to be heard in the valley below.

“Hm?” Aleag’s murmur emerged with a puff of smoke. “What was that, my dear?”

“He proposed,” Lily said. “I refused. Then he threatened me, and I refused again.”

“And now, you’re here.” Aleag swung his head around, that penetrating gaze finding Peter once again. “How interesting.”

* * *

And here Aleag thought this proceeding was going to be a bore. He peered into the crowd. The lord mayor looked, in turns, a putrid, sickly green and flushed to the point of violence. Yes, shame made a man do many things he might later regret.

“We were friends, always had been, since we were children.” Lily twisted, her gaze going from the lord mayor and then to Aleag. “But I had no wish to marry him. I have no wish to marry at all.”

Aleag snorted another stream of smoke. “You are wise beyond your years, my dear.”

Laughter rippled through the crowd. Women near the back bent their heads together, their whispers low and conspiratorial.

“Perhaps,” Aleag began, and now he addressed those beyond the lord mayor and the few men who remained at his side with pitchforks and spears. “Perhaps you should rethink your sacrifice. It seems to me that a man who could be so vindictive is perhaps not the man you want as lord mayor.”

Oh, and now the lord mayor turned a delightful shade of gray. He wobbled in his stance. Shame. Ambition. These things were never good for the soul.

“Stop it.”

Aleag blinked. Lily’s voice halted the soliloquy he’d been brewing in the back of his mind. Indeed, there was so much to work with. The defiant damsel, the spurned lover, the innocuous and yet sly third who hovered in the background. A fierce column of women who looked on the verge of toppling the lord mayor. The men, slowly but certainly slinking down the slope.

“Excuse me, my dear?”

“I said, stop it. Stop toying with us. It’s deliberately cruel, and you know it.”

He stared at her, his gaze unflinching. To her credit, she withstood it. “What is it, then, do you suggest I do?”

She tilted her chin in his direction and held up her bound wrists. “Take your sacrifice.”

* * *

Silence settled on the crowd before a ghastly cry went up. The sound was filled with despair and remorse, and so much shame that it shook Lily to her core.

Peter leaped forward, hands scrambling on the smooth surface of the incline. He pawed his way forward, boots skidding against the rock.

“No!” he cried. “No!”

Lily spun away from him, her whole being intent on the dragon. “Do it. Do it now.”

Aleag gave her a slow blink as if he didn’t need to move, as if time wasn’t of the essence.

“Because it will serve him right?” he asked.

“Because every other outcome is worse.”

Worse for Jack, for Peter, certainly for the village. Even if they couldn’t see it.

“Let me be the last sacrifice this village needs to make.”

Something sparked in Aleag’s expression, a glint in those yellow eyes. His lip curled, revealing the teeth that would soon be the end of her.

And yet, Lily felt … nothing.

No, that was hardly true. Her heartbeat thrummed in her throat, the roar of blood in her ears. She stole one last glance at her little cottage below. It had been a good home. Certainly, until a week ago, it had been a good life as well.

“This is what you want?” the dragon asked.

“It is.”

“Very well, then. I’m more than happy to oblige. You are the smaller morsel, but dare I say, bound to be the tastier one.”

“He with the most teeth gets to say what he wants.”

Aleag snorted yet another stream of smoke. “You have a sharp wit, my dear. Pity I have to eat you.”

“I don’t think you’re capable of pity.”

Those were Lily’s last words. For a moment, she saw the world around her in all its colors—the glorious blue sky, the sun painting clouds on the horizon pink, the green and red-roofed cottages in the village below.

And then everything was black.

* * *

Peter fell to his knees. He was late, much too late. The sweat that coursed down his spine washed across his entire body, his skin flashing cold, then hot, and cold yet again. He mouthed words, senseless things, the only coherent syllable that of an ending chant.

“No, no, no, no.”

The men holding pitchforks let them clatter to the ground. They crept away with barely a glance backward.

The women of the village cast him looks so caustic that certainly his skin would erupt in blisters. They, too, departed down the mountainside, in groups of twos and threes, their murmurs rising upward, taunting him.

Murderer … coward.

Fool.

It was this last that rankled most, although Peter couldn’t say why.

Then, only the three of them remained on the mountaintop: Peter, Jack, and of course, the dragon.

“Was … was she really the last?” Where he found the courage to ask, Peter couldn’t say. His words came out thick and phlegmy. He sounded like a child with a cold, not the lord mayor of a thriving village.

“Indeed. In all the years I have bargained with your village, it’s a wonder no one else ever thought to ask.”

Peter pushed to his feet. He wobbled, only to have Jack steady him by the elbows. He shook off his friend and stumbled forward.

“Are you telling me that all we had to do was ask?”

“Why not? It seems like a reasonable request, does it not? Please stop eating our maidens, if you would, dragon, sir.” Aleag said this last in a singsong, the taunt grating at Peter’s insides.

Peter glanced around, wondering if he might pick up a pitchfork and run this damnable creature through the heart.

“I wouldn’t try if I were you,” Aleag said as if reading his thoughts. “The request would still have required a sacrifice. The previous lord mayor knew as much.”

Peter’s mouth fell open. The air in his lungs grew thin, and his breath came in gasps like he’d never inhale fully and completely again.

“Go,” the dragon ordered. “Leave now. Take this knowledge and become a better leader of your village than he was.”

The creature retreated to his cave. A mist covered the cavern’s opening and settled on Peter’s face like morning dew.

He continued to stand there for a very long time.

At last, Jack plucked his elbow. “She’s gone.”

Peter nodded, his gaze fixed on the cave. He took one long, last shuddering breath and let Jack lead him down the mountainside.

* * *

The aftermath was Aleag’s favorite part. On this side of the mountain, nothing impeded his view—no village, no smoke, no pitchforks—nothing but the endless valley and the river below. He’d take a season—spend time counting the wildflowers in all the nooks and crannies—before deciding where to settle next.

He let his chin rest on his crossed forepaws and waited.

It would be a while before the damsel in distress woke from her slumber.

* * *

What Lily noticed first, she couldn’t say. The sun warming her limbs? The cool stone beneath her back? Or was it the elusive, tantalizing scent of violets washed with fresh pine?

When she opened her eyes, nothing but the dragon filled her view. Sunlight glinted off his scales, and she squinted, raised a hand to her brow until her eyes adjusted.

She was … alive?

“How did you sleep, my dear?” Aleag lifted his head just enough to look at her full on and then settled back down, almost like a hound at the hearth.

She raised herself on one elbow. “What did you do?”

“How did you sleep?” he asked again, not impatient, but certainly implacable.

Lily pushed strands of hair from her cheeks. She sat up and considered how she felt. Refreshed. Renewed. “Very well, actually.”

“I thought as much. A good sign, that.”

“Is it?”

“Indeed. The maidens who sleep the best find the most success on the other side.”

Lily glanced about. Yes, she recognized this side of the mountain. Often she’d trek here, searching out herbs and rare mushrooms, gathering up the profusion of wildflowers that grew in the valleys. “Wait … other maidens?”

“My dear, you don’t think I actually eat any of you, do you?” A shudder ran through his form, scales rippling like water. “Credit me with a bit of taste.”

“Then what do you do with them?”

“Chat for a bit and then send them on their way.”

“On their way … then the sacrifice?”

“Is never returning to the village, never letting anyone know they’re alive. Most agree that’s a small price, considering the alternative.”

“So each spring, they simply walk away?”

“As you will do, as well.”

Lily wrapped her arms around her legs and let her chin rest on her knees. “You agreed never to take another.”

“The time had come. I was growing bored with the whole charade.”

“What will you do?”

“Find a new spot to settle, another mountain. I assure you, the world is filled with mountains, with any number of well-appointed caves.”

Lily stood, stretched. Excitement thrummed in her veins. No, she couldn’t return to her cottage—that was clear—but perhaps she could begin a new life elsewhere. She glanced down at her feet, the skin still aglow with pink from their scalding. Before she went anywhere, she’d need to find some shoes.

“My dear, are you willing to make another exchange?” Aleag nodded at her feet.

“I might be,” she said.

“In that case, do you see that clump of violets over there, in the outcropping?”

They were a lovely bunch, lavender and cream-colored, their scent subtle and sweet. Lily nodded.

“Bring them to me?” The dragon kneaded the ground with his claws. “I don’t possess the dexterity for such matters.”

She gathered the bunch and then continued from there until her arms overflowed with blossoms. She returned to the outcropping and placed them gently in front of Aleag.

He plucked one and then another with tongue and lips, movements precise and dainty. He shut his eyes, and a sigh escaped him, the sound of it pure contentment.

“Thank you, my dear.” He caught her in his gaze and nodded at her feet. “How did you come by such a burn?”

“When I … refused Peter—”

“The lord mayor?”

“Yes, when I refused him, he got upset, knocked my cauldron from the hearth. The stew soaked my shoes.” Lily stepped close and raised the hem of her dress. “I’m lucky it was only a bad scalding.”

Aleag blew a stream of smoke across her skin. It was cool like spring, and fresh. It stole the last of the heat from the burn, the pink fading, the scars healing. Now she shut her eyes in pure contentment.

“Thank you.”

“It was my pleasure. I don’t often partake in such a feast.” Aleag flexed his claws. “I can’t pick them myself, after all.”

The sound of scrabbling caught Lily up short. The noise came from behind her. She spun in time to see Jack scale the lip of the outcropping.

Jack took a few stumbling steps forward and halted. He unslung a knapsack from his shoulders and placed it at Lily’s feet.

“It’s not much,” he said, “but there’s some clothes, good boots, and a few of your books. I hope I chose the right ones, and, of course, your stash of coins from beneath the loose floorboard.”

Lily shook her head. “I … don’t understand.”

“Usually, my grandmother is the one who does this.” Jack peered around her to address Aleag. “I hope you don’t mind, sir.”

“Under the circumstances? Quite understandable.”

“The women in the village? They know?” Really? Then why hadn’t she known?

“Only a few, and I only found out … after everything with Peter.”

Lily took the knapsack and ducked behind a boulder. She emerged dressed and ready for travel.

“Will you come with me?” she asked Jack.

“As far as the crossroads.”

So like Jack, choosing Peter over her. He always had, always did, always would.

“He needs me,” Jack said. “You don’t.”

Yes, perhaps that had always been true.

Lily approached Aleag and placed a kiss against his scaly snout. “You’re a bastard, you know that?”

“Most dragons are, my dear.”

“But thank you.”

“Again, the pleasure was all mine.”

Jack walked with Lily as far as the crossroads. She memorized the feel of his sturdiness next to her, his calloused palm next to her own. She’d miss him.

Even after everything.

* * *

The village prospered under Peter’s reign. The harvest never failed. The forests provided a never-ending supply of game. Every spring, violets covered the mountainside in a blanket of lavender and cream.

The sight always made him think of Lily.

As the years passed into decades, Peter became known as Dragon’s Bane. He never confirmed the rumors—that he had singlehandedly dispatched a dragon from their village.

He never denied them either.

After his third wife died, Peter relinquished his role as lord mayor. He and Jack found a cottage on the outskirts of the village where they tended a few acres of land and spent long evenings in front of the hearth.

It was only then that Jack told Peter the rest of the story.

Aleag the Great is another dragon story written for the (Love) Stories of 2020 project.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Mad Scientist Next Door

Wrapping up October with a story about fences, neighbors, and (of course) Halloween.

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: That infernal racket

Madam,

I don’t know what possesses you to conduct your experiments at three o’clock in the morning, but on behalf of all our neighbors, I’m begging you to stop immediately.

The solar panels, unsightly as they are, at least provide a function. I concede that the Rube Goldberg machine is educational.

This latest contraption of yours? What, pray tell, is its purpose? Other than to shake my house to its very foundation, I see no reason for its existence. I can’t begin to fathom what you’re doing or what your electricity bill must be.

For the sake of the neighborhood, I implore you to cease at once.

Alistair Payne

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: That infernal racket

Sir,

What possesses you to be skulking around after dark? I nearly dialed 911 the other night, thinking a prowler was about.

If you must know, I conduct my experiments in the wee hours as a courtesy to the neighborhood, as to not cause a brownout during the summer months. Besides, the Rileys have never complained.

Doctor Emilia Brandenburg

P.S. My electricity bill is none of your business.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: H.H.A. Board of Directors
Subject: Meet your new president!

It’s with great pleasure that I announce the results of last week’s election. Wanda Waverly will serve as the Hemlock Homeowners Association’s president effective immediately.

Although a new resident, as owner/manager of the Pick-n-Quick chain of convenience stores, Wanda brings her business acumen to the position of president. We are pleased she has decided to not only call our little community home but has stepped up to serve as well.

Daniel Brown, Esq.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: That infernal racket

Doctor Brandenburg,

The Rileys are far too polite to lodge any sort of complaint. I shall take this to the board and the new president. See if I don’t.

Alistair Payne

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: That ghastly eyesore

Really, Doctor? A fence?

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: That ghastly eyesore

Sir,

My cedar fence is lovely, board-approved, and offers adequate privacy for both parties. Of course, this assumes that one party does not skulk about during the witching hour with his ear pressed against the slats.

Speaking of eyesores, tell me, please, how long that cauldron has been moldering on your front lawn. A few flakes found their way into my yard, and I conducted several tests. My estimate is at least fifty years.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: Bylaws

To clarify some points brought up in last night’s association meeting:

  • All structures, temporary or permanent, must not exceed the dimensions outlined in appendix D of the H.H.A. bylaws.
  • Lawn ornaments are limited to three, must be no taller than two feet, and considered generally tasteful.

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: You win

Sir,

I cannot believe you are so petty as to lodge a complaint against my fence. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect you of some sort of witchcraft. I measured the boards myself, and I know they were in compliance with the bylaws.

But down it goes until next spring.

E. Brandenburg

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Good riddance

Dear Doctor,

It is hardly my fault if you cannot competently wield a ruler.

A.P.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Good fences

Sir,

I always thought Frost was being ironic when he wrote good fences make good neighbors.

Now I know better.

E. Brandenburg

P.S. Your animosity toward me is one thing, but the Riley’s play structure as well? Shame, sir. Shame on you.

P.P.S. Don’t bother to respond. I’ve blocked your email, and any additional missives from you will go straight to spam.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: Halloween

To clarify some additional points from the previous association meeting:

  • Due to safety concerns, the annual Halloween parade has been suspended indefinitely.
  • Any structure erected for a holiday event needs approval, in writing, from the H.H.A. board ninety days in advance.
  • All items handed out for trick-or-treat must be wrapped and sealed. The Pick-n-Quick outside the main gate is offering H.H.A. members a 5% discount on all candy.

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Wrapped treats

Mr. Payne,

I left some cellophane wrappers on your front porch. I constructed them based on the treats you distributed after last year’s Halloween parade. I think you will find that they will provide adequate coverage and pass muster with the board.

Yours,

Emilia Brandenburg

P.S. The eldest Riley child, Alyssa, works as my apprentice, as you may already know. She’s informed me that contrary to my earlier accusation, you have toiled to … modify the Riley’s play structure so it conforms to the bylaws.

I’m not sure how you accomplished this. My own tools are finely calibrated, and certainly, the inspector for the H.H.A. possesses adequate ones. No need to tell me. The squeals and laughter from the Riley’s backyard are all I need to hear.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: Wrapped treats

Doctor Brandenburg,

Let me extend my gratitude for the wrappers. While they caused a few raised eyebrows (I thought our esteemed president’s would vanish into her hairline), my treats were—undeniably—wrapped and sealed.

And thus, Halloween—along with the Riley’s play structure—was salvaged, at least somewhat.

Yours,

Alistair Payne

P.S. I could explain how the glamour on the play structure works, but that would defeat its purpose.

P.S.S I sorely missed your yearly light show.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Halloween

Mr. Payne,

Well, yes, everyone loves a Tesla coil—or nearly everyone. I find myself nostalgic for previous Halloweens—the parade, the costumes, the children’s cries of delight when you unveil the gingerbread house. I don’t see the point in denying them all that.

I must confess that this year simply didn’t feel like Halloween.

True, my sugar skeletons always pale in comparison to your gingerbread people. I suspect the adults only take my treatises out of pity (and no one thinks “trick or treatise” as amusing as I do). Of course, everyone leaves before the anatomy lecture.

And yet, I’ve come to rely on Halloween, along with the Hemlock block party, as a way to interact with my neighbors. This year’s curtailed celebration has hit me harder than I care to admit.

Yours,

Emilia Brandenburg

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: Halloween

My dear Doctor,

I wish to assuage your melancholy. Trust that I have lived enough years to see more than my fair share of petty tyrants. I predict this Wanda Waverly will move on in due course to terrorize yet another homeowners association.

In the meantime, I will spend the winter working with the beautification committee and planning next spring’s gardens. They will be spectacular.

Yours,

Alistair Payne

P.S. Trick or treatise is beyond charming. If I promise no tricks, may I read one of your treatises?

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: the gardens

Dear Mr. Payne,

Botany has never been my forte, but I eagerly await the coming spring’s glory that is your garden. How you outdo yourself every year, I simply cannot fathom. The Hemlock Community entryway is the envy of all.

I do, however, have some thoughts on streamlining the irrigation system. Please refer to the schematics in the attached PDF.

Yours truly,

Emilia

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: Spring has sprung!

Can you believe winter is finally over? Whew! That was a long one.

In anticipation of spring and all it brings, I would like to announce the following changes, effective immediately:

The beautification committee has been disbanded. Instead, H.H.A. has hired a landscaping company that will take over the planting and care of the foliage around the community’s entryway and main gate.

Regarding the main gate, H.H.A. has contracted with a security company for the front entrance. The gate will be locked at midnight every evening and unlocked at six in the morning.

Happy spring, everyone!

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: The Main Gate

It has come to the board’s attention that locking the main gate between the hours of midnight and six a.m. has put undue hardship on some residents of Hemlock Community.

Rest assured, we only had your safety in mind when we implemented these rules. Our aim was to keep out any undesirables that might threaten the residents.

That being said, this is no excuse for deliberate sabotage! When the perpetrator is found, justice will be swift.

The board can (and will!) revoke membership in the H.H.A. Without membership, the perpetrator can no longer live in Hemlock Community. Further, the board can (and will!) foreclose on the perpetrator’s house and subsequently evict him or her. See paragraph four, sub-paragraph three in the bylaws.

In the meantime, to pay for a security upgrade to the main gate, including keycards for all residents, we will use the funds earmarked for the annual block party.

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: last night’s meeting

Alistair,

I thought my heart would burst from my chest during last night’s meeting.

Would they have poor Mrs. Riley wait outside the gate for hours on end? I simply let her inside the development. That’s hardly a crime. And yet, I’m certain this Waverly woman suspects it was me.

Granted, everyone who’s about during the later hours knows that Mrs. Riley and I often share conversation over a cup of tea when she returns from her shift.

Although, really, even with the upgrade, this new security system is laughable. It’s not keeping anyone out, although I suspect it’s keeping many of us in.

Of course, with a little rewiring … nothing a child of five couldn’t do … except for rigging the system to play The Imperial March whenever Wanda Waverly drives through the main gate.

Now, in the light of day, I concede that may have been taking things too far.

And yet, I find that I can’t regret it, either.

Yours,

Em

P.S. The Imperial March is from a movie called Star Wars. I’ve included a link to an article about it on Wikipedia.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: last night’s meeting

Emilia,

Taking things too far? Not nearly far enough. I’ve been offering the landscaping company my expertise, gratis of course. Not that they’ve taken any of my advice. The poor hydrangeas; they may never recover.

Ah, but they’re a loquacious crew, and I’ve unearthed an interesting fact. The owner of this company is Wanda Waverly’s daughter.

What a strange, petty nepotism this is.

Alistair

P.S. You have me pegged. My ignorance of current cultural phenomena provides the Riley children with endless hours of amusement. I no doubt will provide this same service to their grandchildren.

I do, however, have a passing familiarity with Star Wars. The franchise appears to have a number of vocal and passionate devotees.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: That hideous sign in your front yard

Emilia,

I could not believe the sight that greeted my eyes upon waking this morning.

A For Sale sign? I’m not certain what’s worse—the garish design or how the support appears to impale your front yard.

Tell me all that’s the matter. Certainly, things aren’t so dire as this?

Alistair

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: That hideous sign in your front yard

Alistair,

Indeed things are that dire. Every time I step off my front porch, there she is, that Waverly woman, clipboard in hand.

In the last two weeks, I’ve received five citations. One more, and I forfeit my home. If I can’t find a buyer, the association can (and will!) foreclose on my house.

Beyond that, I suspect she, or the board, or someone is throttling the power supply into my house. I was conducting a delicate experiment in my third-floor laboratory the other day, one that needed a constant stream of electricity.

Suffice to say that I did not achieve that constant stream of electricity. Suffice to say I no longer have a functional third-floor laboratory—or eyebrows.

Worst of all? I was accosted last night. As you know, it’s my habit to stroll through the development in between experiments. It clears my head and refreshes me. But last night, a security guard curtailed my walk. He said I wasn’t allowed to stroll after midnight.

When did the development start employing roving security guards? Did I miss that announcement? Although he was, to use your own term, rather loquacious. Did you know that the owner of the security company is Wanda Waverly’s nephew?

In distress,

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: The gloves come off

My dearest Emilia,

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve weathered my fair share of petty tyrants. Remind me to tell you how I thrice defeated eminent domain claims on this particular plot of land. The Payne residence remains, as it has for … let’s say, decades.

I cannot abide by this treatment of my friends and neighbors. I’m uncertain of what I shall do, but trust me, dear Doctor, I will do something.

Alistair

P.S. Your estimate about the cauldron is correct, or nearly so. It’s been there for a good sixty years. It’s a stubborn thing, and I cannot convince it to move. That it just barely meets the prescribed dimensions for lawn ornamentation no doubt vexes Wanda Waverly greatly.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: The gloves come off

My dear Alistair,

So which am I? A friend or merely a neighbor?

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: The gloves come off

You, my dear Doctor, have the rare distinction of being both.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Worried

My dear Alistair,

I do not like the look of that strange mist that surrounds your house. It feels malevolent to me. As unscientific as that sounds, I stand by that assessment.

I do not pretend to understand your craft. However, I know that any work created in the throes of anger will not have the desired outcome.

Yes, I know you witnessed this morning’s sixth citation. The entire neighborhood was privileged to witness that event. If you truly want to help, perhaps you could make my third-floor laboratory vanish. I’ll never find a buyer at this rate.

Please, my dear friend, I beg of you. Don’t do anything you may regret.

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Dearest Em,

Have you read that fairy tale? I wouldn’t say our current association president is wandering around naked (certainly there’s a stipulation against that in the bylaws, but I digress). She does, however, have a few transparency issues.

I have an idea, one that does not involve my craft or your discipline. Are you willing to hear me out? I’ll meet you at our adjoining property line at the witching hour.

Yours,

Alistair

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Dearest Alistair,

I am still completely flabbergasted, even after sleeping on the idea.

Do you really think it will work? I cannot possibly be the best choice. After all, you’ve lived here longer than I have. You would hold more sway, would you not?

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Dearest Em,

I have lived everywhere longer than you have. I am set in my ways, set in my craft. If you were to flip open one of those illustrated dictionaries, you would find my portrait next to the entry for curmudgeon. Were I not to get my way, I’d be tempted to conjure a few special apples or perhaps an unsightly pox.

You, on the other hand? With your keen mind and willingness to take in data, experiment, adjust your hypothesis based on new information? How you eagerly gather input and listen to those around you?

Why, yes, you are obviously the best choice for this endeavor.

I have every confidence in you.

Alistair

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Curmudgeon

This, from the man who handcrafts a life-size gingerbread house for the neighborhood children each Halloween? And then sends them home with pocketsful of treats?

Oh, yes, you are quite the curmudgeon.

Em

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Last night

Oh, my dearest Alistair, please tell me you did not employ your craft to sway last night’s outcome.

I can hardly believe it’s true. But if it is, I want it to be an honest prize.

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: Last Night

My dear Doctor, you wound me. Do you think I would employ enchantment to obtain what I want?

Yes, yes, I might. Certainly, in the past, I have. In this case? Other than canvassing on your behalf and ensuring there was no subterfuge from any quarter, I performed no other tasks.

Alistair

P.S. Besides, I can hardly cook up an enchantment with my cauldron on my front lawn, can I now.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: H.H.A. Board of Directors
Subject: Meet your new president!

It’s with great pleasure that I announce the results of last week’s election. Dr. Emilia Brandenburg will serve as the Hemlock Homeowners Association’s president effective immediately.

Emilia has made Hemlock her home for the past five years and has—quite literally—brightened the entire development. We look forward to her fresh ideas and vast experience in her new role as president.

Daniel Brown, Esq.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Bylaws and Halloween

Effective immediately:

  • The annual Halloween parade will take place starting at 6:30 p.m. on the 31st. Everyone is invited to participate.
  • The beautification committee will reform under the auspices of Mr. Alistair Payne in time to decorate the entryway and parade route. All volunteers are welcome.
  • A belated block party and impromptu association meeting will take place in front of the gingerbread house at the end of the Halloween parade.

Emilia Brandenburg
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Halloween

My dearest Em,

To assuage any doubt you might be feeling this morning: You were simply splendid in your new role, as I knew you would be.

You will make a fine president.

With all my admiration,

Alistair

P.S. Your Tesla coil was magnificent.

This is the second outing for my curmudgeon witch Alistair Payne. He first appeared in Letters of Smoke and Ash.

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Mini-release Monday: Dragon Whispers

Dragon Whispers: Six Tales of Dragon Adventure and Lore

Here be dragons … six of them.

Often mercurial, preternaturally perceptive, always inscrutable.

What if you had to barter for your village while tied to a stake? Or if the one thing you always wanted—a dragon of your own—was forever denied? Where might a midnight chase through a stately hotel lead?

From adversary to lover to devoted friend, from epic to urban fantasy—follow six heroines as they encounter six very different dragons. They’ll barter and bargain, chase and be chased, and in the end, learn the true meaning of dragon’s bane.

Dragon Whispers gathers together the dragon stories from The (Love) Stories for 2020 project:

  • Aleag the Great
  • Knight at the Royal Arms
  • Fire and Ivy
  • Dragon’s End
  • Heart Whisper
  • Dragon’s Bane

Let the adventure begin!

Don’t buy this book!

All right, you certainly can buy this book. I’m not going to stop you.

However, all the stories in it have (or will) appear as part of The (Love) Stories for 2020 project. So you can absolutely read them for free as well (Aleag the Great and Heart Whisper are scheduled for November). Plus, I’ll be releasing a compilation of all the 2020 stories at the end of the year.

So why release this (somewhat) slender compilation and then tell people not to buy it? Reverse psychology?

No, actually, I have a couple of reasons for doing this. As I was working on the project, I discovered I had dragon stories—in my head and on my hard drive—enough to create their own compilation.

These themed compilations sell surprisingly well for me–in markets you can’t really see. Library pay-per-checkout, print library sales, print sales via Ingram, and subscription services like Kobo Plus and Scrib. I have books that don’t sell on any of the e-retailer sites (and have the Amazon rank to prove it, ha!) but sell in print.

Unfortunately, it’s a murky thing. I can’t tell where these books are selling (most of the time), so my only recourse is more = better.

Also, it’s been more than a year since I’ve released something new. It’s always good to practice the steps since things change all the time.

But most of all, it was fun. I enjoy the production side of things almost as much as the writing. And maybe it’s a result of 2020, but it feels good to make something and put it out into the world.

So, sure, go buy the book if you wish, but if you’re in a reviewing sort of mood, I’d love some of those as well. Drop me a line, and I’ll send you an electronic copy.

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Short Story Saturday: Simon the Cold in audio

My story, Simon the Cold, is now out in audio from The Centropic Oracle. This is the third story I’ve had produced by them, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Simon the Cold first appeared in Frozen Fairy Tales from World Weaver Press.

If you’re a writer, I highly recommend submitting to The Centropic Oracle. They’re great to work with, do a thorough editorial review, and the whole process is transparent in their submission manager. So, dust off the reprints and send them in.

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