Tag Archives: Fantasy

Weekly writing check-in: of wolves and viruses

So, this past week started off with a nice surprise. My flash fiction piece, Crying Wolf, was the Monday story over at Daily Science Fiction.

Then Wednesday happened. I woke up with all the classic symptoms of the coronavirus. On April Fools’ Day. Because, why not?

I’m much better. My chest is still tight, my lungs hurt a bit, and I’m short of breath. However, I’m not having weird, random pain in my lungs. I sneezed on Wednesday, and it felt like someone lit a match in my chest cavity.

I’m taking it slow, being careful, alert to any possible secondary infections. I wasn’t sick enough for the hospital, so for now, I have no idea whether it was the coronavirus or just some other random virus that decided to mess with my week. I wish I knew. Once I’m symptom-free, if I’m immune, I could go into the community and volunteer. But, of course, I don’t know for sure.

So. Not a lot of writing. I have been able to read, so that’s been a nice respite.

Be well, everyone.

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Free Fiction Friday: A Measure of Sorrow

Leaving March with a giant who’s as gentle as a lamb.

A wolf seduced her sister, and a witch wrapped her bony fingers around her brother’s heart, so when a giant came for her, she told him she wouldn’t go.

He plucked a rose petal from the bushes that grew around his castle, and that was her bed. When the day grew hot, he offered dewy raspberries to quench her thirst. When she refused, a single tear fell from his eye and splashed at her feet. The salt on her lips tasted like sorrow. She was drenched, but unmoved.

Only when he left his almanac out—quite by accident—did she creep from the threshold of her cottage. It took all her strength to turn the pages, but turn them she did. The letters were as tall as she was, but read them, she did.

He caught her reading. If he wanted, he could have slammed the book shut, trapped her—

or squashed her. He didn’t.

He looked to the book and then to her. “Will you come with me now?”

“I am not a pet.”

“Of course not.”

“Or a meal.”

He blew air through his lips, the force of it ruffling her hair. “You are much too small for that.”

“Then what am I?”

“I need someone to tend to the mice. They are ailing. And the butterflies. My fingers are too clumsy, and I cannot mend the rips in their wings.”

“So, you have work for me?”

“Good work, with good pay. You can keep your family well.”

“They would feed me to the wolves.”

“Then how am I any worse?”

How indeed? Did she trust this giant and his promises of mice and butterflies?

“Will you?” He extended a hand.

She stepped onto his palm, and he lifted her higher and higher—even with his mouth, his nose, his eyes. Then he placed her gently on his shoulder.

“What made you change your mind?” he asked.

“The almanac. Will you read to me sometimes?”

“Would you like that?”

“Very much.”

“I shall read to you every night.”

Mice and butterflies filled her days. On the back of the Mouse King she rode, clutching the soft fur about his neck, racing through the castle to tend to mothers with large broods, crumbs and bits of cheese tucked in a canvas sack. With thread from a silkworm, she repaired butterfly wings, her stitches tiny and neat.

The giant peered at her handiwork through a glass that made his eye all that much larger. When he laughed his approval, the sound rolled through the countryside. And every night, when he reached for his almanac, she settled on his shoulder and marveled at how someone so colossal could speak words with so much tenderness.

Even when his bones grew old, and all he could do was move from bed to chair, he read to her. When his eyesight grew dim, he recited the words from memory, so strong was his desire to keep his promise. Until, at last, the day came when the stories stopped.

A thousand butterflies fluttered into his room. Mice came from fields and forest alike, led by the Mouse King. They bore the giant outside, where they laid him to rest beneath the rose bushes.

It was there she learned that all her tears combined could not rival the sorrow contained in a single giant teardrop.

A Measure of Sorrow first appeared in Luna Station Quarterly and subsequently in Evil Girlfriend Media.

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Free Fiction Friday: Insidious Beasts

Sometimes help comes from surprising quarters.

I straddle the roof of my cottage, or rather, the part of the roof that remains. From my perch, I peer through the giant-sized hole and into my bedroom. The quilt is downy white, and part of me wonders if there’s any harm in simply dropping through that giant-sized hole and landing in its softness.

If there’s any harm in delaying what I must do today.

Above, the sky is clear, a startling blue that’s the color of forget-me-knots. Still, the air is sticky against my cheeks, and I taste the promise of rain on my tongue. Beneath the heat—and the late-summer storm that’s certain to roar through our valley—I sense the chill of autumn.

Yes, there’s great harm in delaying what I must do today.

With a finger, I test the ragged edge closest to me. A telltale red stains the thatch as if some giant creature cut its lips while taking a bite out of my house.

How—and why—did I sleep through that?

I woke to the sunrise touching my eyelids, birdsong in my ears, and a gaping hole above my head. That I don’t know, can’t remember, makes my stomach clench with foreboding.

“I can guarantee a lot,” comes a voice from the path below. “But, I never claimed my materials were giant-proof.”

Master Rinaldi stands at my front gate, fingers curled around the latch as if he’s merely waiting for an invitation to lift it.

I don’t grant him one.

“A giant did this?” I ask.

“What else? Insidious beasts. They’re taking over the forests, the hinterlands. You should move to the village. This is no place for a woman on her own.” He waves a dismissive hand at my cottage, which up until this morning, was a fine place for a woman on her own.

“Giants eat thatch?” It’s a ridiculous question. I know they don’t. We both know that.

He raises a suggestive eyebrow. “Perhaps it was searching for the treat inside.”

I ignore this. “You wouldn’t happen to have more thatch, would you, Master Rinaldi?”

I gauge the hole in my roof. The laborers I hired earlier this summer would all be in the fields, working to bring in the harvest. I could, perhaps, tackle this job on my own.

Perhaps.

When Master Rinaldi doesn’t answer, I turn my attention back to him. His gaze roves my legs, clad in breeches. There’s a calculating glint in his expression, one I’ve seen him wear in the marketplace.

Master Rinaldi knows weaknesses and how to drive a bargain. He is also blessed with a lovely wife and ten children, all strong and healthy. He is someone who has everything a man could want.

And yet, his eyes—and hands—roam.

If I wish more thatching for my roof, I suspect there’s an added cost, one that doesn’t involve the silver coins in my purse.

“So late in the season?” He shakes his head as if my plight is the saddest thing he’s seen in a month.

“I could try Master Carr,” I say, hedging my bets.

Master Rinaldi merely smirks.

The trouble is, Master Rinaldi’s supplies are the best—sweetest smelling, free of vermin, such as night loshes and murdocs. During the winter, too many families have slumbered beneath an infected roof only to never wake in the spring.

If I’m to make it through the winter, I may have to pay the price he’s asking.

The rumble starts so low and—to paraphrase Master Rinaldi—insidiously that I barely register it. The soft tremble travels the framework of my cottage until the shaking reaches my ribcage and bits of straw float to my bedroom below.

A shadow looms on the horizon—a giant-sized one, to match the hole in my roof.

Master Rinaldi falters. He steps away from my gate only to stop and double back. He doesn’t want to be here. But with me stranded on the roof, he has no wish to appear cowardly.

“Mistress Benton, I implore you. Pack what you can carry and leave with me now.”

The earth shudders with the giant’s approaching footfalls. I clutch the roof, the rough thatch cracking against my palms. Master Rinaldi stumbles, his gait haphazard, on a path that takes him away from me and toward the village.

“It’s coming back,” he says. “For you.”

Could I scamper down from the roof, grab a few precious belongings, and race for the village? Then what? Secure a room at the inn until my silver runs out? Throw myself on the mercy of the village elders? Of Master Rinaldi?

I shake my head, resolute in this.

“You’re mad,” he calls up to me. “A fool of a woman.”

Yes. Likely I am. But I’m a woman with a home of her own—a rare thing in these parts. If I leave, someone—a man—will claim this land. If I stay and die, then someone—a man—will claim this land.

No matter what I do, the outcome is the same.

So I choose to stay.

Without a glance over his shoulder, Master Rinaldi lurches down the path, his stride chaotic under the onslaught of the giant.

I hang onto the roof with all my might and wait.

* * *

As the giant grows closer, the steps grow lighter. It’s as if it knows the power in its footfalls and is now treading lightly.

And as the giant grows closer, I see that it—or rather—she is wearing a shift the color of forget-me-nots. Her feet are bare, her hands clenched in fists. Her hair, plaited into braids, is alternately gold, silver, and ebony.

She is awe-inspiring, and I can’t look away.

When the giant reaches my cottage, she kneels. This does not put us at eye level, although it comes close. Her eyes are the same color as her dress, and I think that may be why she wears it. I don’t know if vanity extends to giants, but I don’t see why it can’t.

She unclenches her right fist. In her palm rests the tangle that once was my roof. Interspersed in the straw and reeds is the inky black remains of a murdoc.

I press a hand against my chest and pull in a deep breath, just to reassure myself I still can.

“Is that why I didn’t hear you?” I ask.

The giant blinks her great blue eyes in what I take as yes.

“Has it been there all summer?”

Now a single tear rolls down her cheek. It lands on the packed earth of my walkway and splashes so high I can taste the salt of it on my lips.

How far gone was I? How close to death? My heart thumps with latent fear, and then my pulse sparks with anger. Convenient of Master Rinaldi to show up this morning of all mornings.

So convenient that, for a moment, I don’t have any words.

“How … insidious.” I say, at last.

A smile tugs the corner of her mouth. Oh, yes, she knows all about Master Rinaldi. The giant crumbles the tangle of straw in her fist, obliterating whatever remains of the murdoc. The wind steals the vestiges of straw and beast, lifts them high into the air, and carries them away.

Only then do I feel my breath return in full force. Only then does it occur to me to worry for someone other than myself.

“Are you hurt? Did the murdoc hurt you?”

Her smile has revealed something I missed previously. The blood. Scrapes and cuts, yes. She hurts.

“I have a balm, but it’s.” I point at the hole in my roof. I sigh. “It’s down there.”

She holds out a palm, and without hesitation, I step onto it.

I find the balm and a soft cloth, and I gesture for the giant to return me to the roof. From there, I lean forward, dab the healing balm—a recipe of my grandmother’s—against the wounds.

The giant laughs. In relief? Delight? It’s hard to tell. The force of it nearly knocks me to the ground.

Then she opens her other hand, and there is thatching, fresh from someone’s storehouse. I suspect Master Rinaldi’s.

Honestly? He owes me.

Together we make short work of repairing my roof. Near sunset, when the task is done, I pour us each a serving of mead, her portion in the largest bowl I own. She takes dainty sips but still manages to finish the drink almost immediately.

It is nearly dark now, I have a giant on my door stoop, and I’m not quite sure what happens next.

The giant pulls a piece of parchment from her pocket and unfurls it. The script is precise, but the letters so large I must back up to read the message.

My name is Martine.

I can speak, but my words are loud, and I don’t want to scare those around me.

If I’m showing you this note, it means I wish to be your friend.

“Martine,” I say. “That’s a pretty name.”

She smiles, her teeth so white and fierce that for a moment, I can’t collect my thoughts.

“I’m Benton,” I add, my heart pounding a strange beat. I’m not frightened. I’m not nervous. I want to name this thing I’m feeling, but suspect it’s nothing more than a spark of hope. I don’t want to extinguish it by staring at it too hard. “My mother wanted a boy and saw no reason to change the name when I wasn’t.”

Martine lifts an eyebrow, a wry gesture that makes me laugh.

“Do you have a place to stay?” I ask.

Where do giants stay? Does Martine have a family? Who are her people, and why is she alone?

She gives a slow shake of her head, and another tear trickles down her cheek. The heartbreak and sorrow that rolls off her might flood this valley.

“You can stay with me.”

Those blue forget-me-not eyes widen.

“I own the land from that corner of the forest, through the meadow, and all the way to the stream. Is that enough room?”

She claps her hands together, and the force of it reverberates across the land. Certainly, the villagers are trembling in their cellars at this very moment.

“Stay,” I say to Martine.

In time, I’ll learn of her heartache. Perhaps I can help her find her people, assuming she is lost, of course. Or perhaps she’s like me—a woman on her own.

“Stay, and be my friend.”

When Martine nods, that spark of hope kindles into flame.

And no matter how insidious Master Rinaldi is, I must admit that he is right in one respect.

This is no place for a woman on her own. But for two?

It’s perfect.

Insidious Beasts was written especially for the 2020 (Love) Story Project.

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Story Saturday: Ides of March

Need something to read for this Ides of March? Go visit the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Fair and pick up a new title or two.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Girl with the Piccolo

Sometimes you get by with a little help from your (fr)enemy.

No one thinks about the empty note casings after the nightly revelry. Someone has to pick them up, right? That I spent four grueling years at the Acoustic Academy at Stormy Point for the privilege is something I try not to think about.

True, it takes only a breath or two to chase the notes into my sack. Still, patrolling the DMZ (Disharmonious Zone) feels anti-climactic. I didn’t sign up for this. But now, with the sun nearly cresting the horizon, I can’t say what I did sign up for.

I holster the piccolo and continue the patrol. When I first enlisted, I wanted something shiny, something big and brassy, a trumpet or a trombone, or—if I dared to dream—the saxophone. (Really, who doesn’t want the sax?) The supply sergeant gave me a once over and puttered around her inventory on grizzled wings.

“Here you go, sweetie,” she said, dropping a piccolo into my outstretched hands.

My own wings sputtered, and I sank to the ground in disbelief.

“None of that,” the supply sergeant barked. “Remember, everyone underestimates the girl with the piccolo. Don’t let them.”

Perhaps I have. Let them, that is. This might explain why that piccolo and I now do border patrol.

Through my viewfinder, I scan the tree line on the other side of the DMZ. I catch sight of my enemy counterpart. She is a brilliant pink, where I am midnight blue. Her wings drip with glitter. Mine sparkle with stardust. I wonder how she can breathe a single note through her piccolo with all that tinsel in the air.

Through the lens, I see her eyebrows furrow. When her viewfinder is level with mine, I stick out my tongue. This, sadly, is the highlight of my evening.

I near the border, my bag overflowing with spent notes. I swipe the residue from a tuba casing. The tubas are so wasteful. I can fuel my piccolo for a week on what they leave behind. Across the way, the pink fairy dips and swoops; I suspect she’s doing the same thing I am.

A shift in the air makes the fine hairs on my wings stand on end. I shoot skyward just as a full marching band crowds the path alongside the meadow. Stardust fills the air. I could reach out and pluck notes as they float past me. I might. Except. This particular band? Doesn’t include a piccolo player. Underestimated? Try forgotten. Typical. They can play on without me.

I turn to fly away when the stench of rotted nectar hits me. I blink back tears. The aroma clogs the back of my throat. The players are drunk, spoiling for battle, and a wing’s breadth away from the DMZ. From above, I watch the band weave along the path, each rousing measure inching them closer to treaty violation. I cast a look for the security forces. Certainly, someone is on the way.

Or not. I blow a few quick notes into my piccolo, an alert that may not reach its intended recipients, at least, not in time. Frantic, I peer through my viewfinder. The stricken face of my counterpart stares back at me, a hand on her own piccolo. A few breaths and she will bring in her own band—and they will not be drunk. They will be deadly, armed with wing-piercing notes. They will tear across the meadow, swoop into the DMZ, reigniting the Fairy Wars.

All on my watch.

I pull out my piccolo. Next, I take a quick peep through my viewfinder to make sure my pink counterpart is watching. She is. I mimic holding a baby, of rocking it to sleep in my arms. Certainly, this movement is universal. Pink fairies come from somewhere, yes? I peer through my viewfinder again. Nothing but a pair of pink fuzzy eyebrows, drawn into a frown.

I rock my imaginary baby again, then hold up my piccolo. I run my fingers across it while holding my breath—one false note will bring my plan crumbling down. I check my viewfinder again. One of those pink eyebrows is raised. In question? Understanding? This time, I waltz with my imaginary baby before checking the viewfinder.

I hope her smile means what I think it does. I hope this isn’t a ruse. Without her help, I will be tried for treason, assuming, of course, I survive the ensuing battle.

I hold up a hand for the countdown … three … two … one. Fairies have many lullabies, but only one in three-quarters time. When pitched just right, it soothes the most colicky baby, sends mortals into a deep sleep. As for drunken fairies …

Her piccolo plays counterpoint to mine. At first, my comrades show no sign of stopping their rampage. In fact, the tuba player bursts through the ranks, intent for the DMZ and the meadow beyond.

Before he can reach the DMZ, his pace flags. The tuba slips from his grip. His wings falter. By the time both are on the ground, he’s snoring. The rest of the band drops off, in twos and threes, notes scattered everywhere. My own notes, and those of the pink fairy, play in the sky, creating an iridescent lavender that prolongs the night.

At last, I need a breath—and so does she. I alight on the tuba. From this vantage point, I can peer across the meadow. Through my viewfinder, I study my enemy counterpart. How many times has she fogged my view with pink glitter? How many times have I stuck out my tongue? This time, before she can look away, I salute. Then, I shoot skyward. Someone else can clean up all these notes. After all this time, I realize what the supply sergeant meant.

Never underestimate the girl with the piccolo.

That goes for both of us.

The Girl with the Piccolo was first published by Kazka Press. It subsequently appeared in Evil Girlfriend Media and was produced in audio by Cast of Wonders. You can listen to that episode here.

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Free Fiction Friday: Keeping Time

For March, it’s all about strange and surprising connections, unexpected friendships and traditions.

To get you ready for springing forward, I give you Keeping Time.

The mantel clock kept its own time. It was fussy, too, in the way old clocks sometimes are, refusing to work when wound in a way it found unacceptable. Because of this, in each generation, the task fell to either the youngest or oldest member of the household.

Maisey was five when her grandmother showed her how to wind the clock. She bounced on the balls of her feet, her fingers itching for their turn. She’d warm the brass key in her palm, the way her grandmother did. Every evening they’d clean the old clock with a soft cloth and lemon-scented polish.

“Pay attention,” her grandmother would say. “It will soon be your turn.”

“When, Grandma, when?”

Her grandmother chuckled. “Not soon enough for your father.”

But when Maisey’s turn finally came, her feet no longer bounced. After the funeral, she dragged a chair through the gathering, cutting off words about her grandmother—some soft, some less so—and clambered up to reach the clock on the mantel.

“Maisey!” Her mother’s voice cracked, its edges so sharp that, if it were a real thing, you could cut someone with it.

“I promised Grandma,” Maisey said.

In the middle of murmured condolences and her mother’s sobs, she pulled out the key and wound the clock.

When her father retired, Maisey offered the key to him. But he had too many golf games—and then, too many back problems—to bother with an old clock. Her mother spent so much time canning tomatoes (which no one ever ate) and volunteering (which gave her a headache) to remember the old timepiece gathering dust on the mantel.

So Maisey dug out a chain from her jewelry box and hung the key around her neck. The clock ticked on, grateful for the gentle touch of Maisey’s fingers. When she packed the car for college, she placed the clock in last, belting it into the front passenger seat.

She went through three roommates until the campus housing department found one who didn’t mind the faux mantelpiece taking up half their dorm room. After one too many broken hearts, Maisey let each perspective boyfriend wind the clock at least once. In the end, she picked the man with the lightest touch and most nimble fingers. She learned there were advantages to this well beyond winding clocks. When she graduated, she took him, the faux mantelpiece, and the clock.

Together, they built a life.

When at last her granddaughter was born, a girl whose eyes shined each time she heard the clock tick, Maisey knew her own time was drawing near. These days, she polished the clock more often, fussed over its placement on the mantel.

“We need to spruce you up,” she’d say. “Can’t have you looking your years—not like me.”

The wood casing gleamed in the light. When little Tessa pressed a finger against its side, she gave Maisey a delighted smile.

“Oh, Grandma! It’s warm.”

It always was, this old clock, warm and constant.

“You have always been my loyal companion,” she told it on the day she loosened the chain from around her neck.

Einstein once said, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” But what if, for the briefest moment, she could defy that rule—and even Einstein himself—by passing on the key before passing on herself? When Tessa turned five, Maisey presented the key to her, chain and all, and hovered while the little girl wound the clock for the first time.

And yes, there it was, her life, all of it, from her own grandmother’s death, the scrape of the chair across the floor, sharp braces against her lips, the whisper of taffeta prom dresses, textbooks weighing down her arms. Timothy on bended knee, the mantel and clock behind her, as if peering over her shoulder. On it went, in one great wash through her blood—all of time, all her life, all at once.

“What now, Grandma?” Tessa asked.

“Keep it well, my dear,” Maisey said, “keep it well.”

That night, the clock stopped ticking.

The afternoon of her grandmother’s funeral, Tessa dragged a chair across the floor and scrambled up to the mantel. She turned the key once, twice. Tessa inhaled lemon-scented dust, then held her breath. Behind her, the air shook. She turned, saw her mother, whose body trembled with sobs. Tessa jumped from the chair and threw her arms around her mother.

From the mantel, something shifted inside the clock. A single tock shuddered through its wood casing. Then, once again, the old clock started keeping its own time.

Keeping Time was first published by Kazka Press. It was subsequently produced in audio by The Centropic Oracle. You can listen to the story here.

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Weekly writing check-in: March, in like a lion (cub)

It is seriously nice here for the start of March. Mind you, we could be getting a lot of snow at some point (it is March in Minnesota after all).

Still, it’s 41 degrees, we’re forgetting to wear our coats, and someone just jogged by wearing shorts.

In writing news, this week, I worked on some new short stories, started an outline for an article, and took a second look at the stories for April.

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