Monday, February 23, 2015

Fox In The Snow

Long ago, a boy made a wish to be one of the quicksilver foxes he saw in the woods. He was one of the few who could see them, darting hither and thither between trees like spirits of the air and earth – which they were, the stormfoxes. However, when his wish was granted – for it was, for he had taken an offering to the Winter King – he found it was not as he’d expected: instead of becoming a sprite like them, he was stuck between worlds, both man and fox – a werefox. In winter, when the Winter King held sway, he was a fox, but in summer the power of the Winter King waned and he became human once more. And even while he was a fox, unless it was in the weeks around solstice when the King was at his peak, the boy was merely a fox – not a stormfox like the ones he’d seen.
Worse, the stormfoxes resented his change, and harassed him, abusing him, nipping, biting, bullying. Year after year he sought to be accepted, but all in vain, for never would they accept a human so brazen as to assume he could become one of them.

One year, they killed him. They’d driven him mercilessly for days, and it was the time between winter’s true start and solstice when the Winter King was strong enough to keep the boy in fox form, but not strong enough to make him a stormfox – so he was hungry, and weak, and after four days of being hunted without rest his body gave in. The stormfoxes caught up with him in a small clearing where his fur bristled red against the snow, and they killed him – not quickly, not gently, but mauled him to death with nips like needles, letting the life drain from him slowly, like oozing blood.

He died, and then the girl found him.

She was only eight, and her dog back home had just been put down, and her grandmother had died of cancer, and she couldn’t bear any more death. She’d been walking in the woods behind their house, her mother too grief-stricken to care, her father too bound up with caring for Mother to worry, when she saw him, blood already turning brown.

She lay down and curled herself around him, weeping tears that burned her face in the cold. The snow seeped its way into her clothes, her gloves, her hat and shoes, and she shivered with cold that was warmer than grief, and thought about how much she’d loved her grandmother, how much she’d loved her dog, how much she loved her mother and her father and how she never wanted anything to die again.

She was an ordinary girl, perfectly ordinary, but she had that rare and special talent instilled in some at birth: when she loved something, it grew. The fox shuddered beneath her arms, a rattled intake of breath like dead leaves across the road. He twisted, turned, and licked her face.

The girl lay stunned just long enough for the fox, the boy, the creature who’d been dead, to squirm out from her arms and away.

Later, she told herself it must have been her imagination. The fox must not really have been dead, only cold, and her body warmth had defrosted it enough for it to recover.  And she forgot that though she was ordinary, when she loved things, they grew.


Monday, February 16, 2015

The Falcon

Who is she?
No one of consequence, sir, a serving girl. She is to be sold in the northern slave markets.
Send her to my room.

The list, written in pale gold ink, was an assassin’s list. A list of lives that no longer served their purpose. A list of servants no longer loyal to their masters. A list both priceless and rare.
Cinara blew gently on the paper, picking it up by a corner and shaking sand onto her desk. Shadows  cast by candle flame danced on sandstone wall to the cries of mourners. A priest chanted a prayer of protection to the distant gods.
Tonight there were prayers.
Tomorrow there would be no one left to pray.

Do you know who I am?
No.
Do you know how a falcon is trained?
No.
You feed them, care for them, and even when they are given their freedom they return to you, because they love you. You are my falcon. I will set you free, and you will return to me, bloody and wild, because you love me.

Silk skirts swept the floor as she walked to the armor, unbuttoning her overcoat as she moved. The maids had been sent away, leaving her alone to divest the blood-red mourning clothes. The bone crushing corset, the heavy skirts, the cage of bone - Cinara dropped them on the floor. If the silk ripped, the skirts stained, it no longer mattered.

Are you a slave?
No.
Do you know what your beauty would fetch in the market?
I am of infinite worth.
To who?
To my family- to my parents. I am their only child.
Where are they?
Dead.
Then you are worthless. But I will give you worth again. A new family, a new name, a new life with silks, jewels… adoration. All men will love you.
That isn’t what I want.
No, but it will get you what we both want, in the end.

Stripped of the noble regalia, she stepped into dull gray pants that flowed over her limbs. There was a sweeping sensation of freedom, intoxicating rebellion, as pulled on a matching shirt without corsets beneath. The scent of stone and earth clung to the fabric. Cinara shivered, enjoying the thrill of stolen moments.
She should be weeping, broken hearted, for the loss of her beloved father. When the candle burned out, she should be sleeping, haunting the land of dreams.
From under her mattress she chose a thin knife, one of many, and laid it on the table while she pulled on soft boots. There were no tears tonight. Silk and jewels did not buy love. The tears meant for a father had been lost too many years ago, when the banner overhead was a field of blue with bright stars, not the green snake and dagger.
Wealth bought obedience.
Loyalty bought love.

What do you want me to do?
I want your loyalty. I want your help in the war.
The war you’ve just won?
No. The war I haven’t started yet. The one I will win.

She left the candle flickering. No one outside would notice the errant light on a night like this. Let it flicker. Let shadows dance. Tonight blood would splash the walls while the scent of flowers perfumed the air and mourners cried.
Tonight the war began.
Tomorrow she would return to him, the falcon to her master.


Monday, February 9, 2015

At Any Cost

Bran peered around the corner of the house into the lane. All clear.
He sighed and felt his stomach unclench. Maybe he could get to class today without the obligatory meeting with Cyne.
He stepped out into the wide, dusty lane, swung his bag up onto his shoulder, and set off at a brisk walk.
“Morning!”
Bran jumped as Cyne popped out of some nearby bushes, tossing a ball of light between his hands. He scowled and kept walking. “What do you want?”
Cyne grinned. “Nuthin.” He tossed the ball of light high into the air, where it disappeared with a small flash. He elbowed Bran. “So. Have ­you uncovered any hidden talents lately?”
Bran’s heart beat faster as he tried not to get angry. His father had said to ignore Cyne and he’d get bored and go away. Bran quickened his pace.
“Aww,” said Cyne, falling in next to Bran. “C’mon now. You don’t need to hide it. You could just show me a little trick.”
Stuck-up pig, though Bran. Just ‘cause he thinks he’s so good.
“Oh,” said Cyne. “That’s right. I forgot.”
Bran braced himself, knowing what would come next.
Sure enough, Cyne jabbed him in the shoulder. “You don’t have any hidden talents.” He laughed uproariously.
“At least I’m not a traitor.” Bran clenched his fists, put his head down, and walked faster.
But Cyne just sped up too. “Traitor? You’re just jealous. You just wish it was you destined for the good life.”
“Don’t.” Bran fought to control his outrage. How could anybody want to be a galdorman? Filthy peacocks that made everyone else’s lives miserable, keeping the riches to themselves and forcing the ‘common’ people to do their dirty work for them…
­Ignore him, Bran heard his father’s words. He chewed on the inside of his cheek. But what did his father know? Cyne was too stupid to get bored, he’d never go away.
“Well, look,” Cyne was saying. “I could always put a good word in for you with the Galdre. Now that I’m, you know, one of them and all.” He clapped his hands together and laughed again as blue lights ran up and down his arms.
Bran fought to slow his breathing. Mustn’t. Get. Angry.
“But that’s right!” Cyne slapped his forehead in mock disbelief. “I can’t! Because it wouldn’t matter!” His face twisted into an ugly sneer. “Because you’re not talented. So it won’t matter what anyone says, ever again. I’m better, I won.”
No! Bran shouted in his head. I’m better, I won! I deserved to win that race, they picked me, me, not you.
Cyne stepped around in front of Bran and stopped, forcing Bran to either halt or run into him.
Bran chose to halt.
Cyne stooped and stared into Bran’s eyes. “I would have won that race. I should have won that race. You know as well as I do that I didn’t cheat. You’re a liar.”
Bran’s heart raced. “I… I am not!”
“Yes,” said Cyne, “you are.” He straightened and gave Bran a strange smile. “But you know what?”
Bran shook his head, glancing left and right in the hopes of escape.
“I don’t care.” Cyne’s voice was so quiet that Bran stared at him in surprise. “That’s right,” said Cyne. “I don’t. Not any more.” He swung his shoulders freely. “So, you go to school. You go, and enjoy your popularity that we both know you only got because you’re a liar. Because soon, I’ll leave, and I’ll go with the Galdre, and I’ll be ten times the man you’ll ever be.”
Bran’s face flushed dark red. He stepped up nose to nose with Cyne.
Cyne smiled down at him, amused. “Going to take me on, little liar?” He snapped his fingers and light flared around his ears.
“Yes,” said Bran. “I am. And I’m going to win.”
“Cyne!”
The two boys jumped apart and glanced nervously at the girl running down the street.
“Er, hi Acha,” Cyne mumbled.
She drew to a halt in front of him and glared. “Are you picking on Bran again?”
Bran wished he could melt into the street. It was bad enough that he had to endure Cyne every morning – but for Acha to have to see it? He shuddered. He might as well make himself an outcast right here and now.
“There, there, Bran.” Acha put an arm around his shoulders.
In spite of his embarrassment, Bran had to admit it felt good.
“He won’t bully you any more.” She glared again at Cyne.
Cyne blushed. “I wasn’t… I mean, I didn’t… It’s just that…” He stomped a foot. “He’s a liar!”
Acha stiffened. “Cyne (lastname), if that’s the best excuse you can come up with I’ll expect to see you back here within the week. The Galdre won’t put up with stupidity, or liars. Come on, Bran.” She took his arm and dragged him down the street.
Cyne shot him a poisonous look as he went past. “I hate you,” he muttered.
Bran stuck his tongue out, pulling his arm out of Acha’s and waving her onwards. “Who wins now, sissy?” he hissed at Cyne.
“Pig. I’ll get you for this.”
“Fine,” said Bran. “I’ll meet you by the brook right after school. Then we’ll see who’s the liar.” Bran narrowed his eyes, giving Cyne one last hateful look. He would put an end to this. His stupid dad didn’t know anything.
He caught up with Acha and slipped his arm through hers. “Let’s go.”

 ***

Bran’s heart pounded. What was he doing here? Was he mad? There was no way he could beat Cyne face to face, not against the galdor.
He hunkered down in the long grass and tried to pretend he didn’t exist. That worked okay until he discovered he was sitting in the middle of an ant trail. The horrible little bugs climbed up his bare legs, biting and tickling.
He slapped at them as he leaped to his feet.
That’s right, he thought. Even the stupid bugs want to pick on me.
He glared around the clearing. Well I’m sick of being picked on, he thought. I’ve had enough. I don’t care what Dad says, they’re not going to stop until I prove that I’m stronger than him. Just ‘cause he got stupid galdor.
His father would be furious if he found out Bran had picked a fight, but right now Bran decided he didn’t care. Besides, if everything went well maybe his father wouldn’t even need to know.
A whistle drifted into the clearing. Cyne.
Bran peeked around a tree to see if he’d come alone. He let out a sigh of relief. Cyne was by himself.
Bran’s momentary relief turned to irritation. Just like Cyne to come swaggering in here, whistling that stupid tune of his, like he had nothing to worry about.
Well he did. Cyne may have galdor, but Bran had brains. And he planned to use them.
As he retreated back behind the tree, Bran’s foot grazed a large rock.
He drew in a sharp breath as a thought struck him.
­Of course. He didn’t need to meet Cyne face to face. He just had to win.
Bran stooped and snatched up the rock. He slid forward, making sure to keep the trees between himself and Cyne.
The whistling got louder, and Bran crouched down to check how close Cyne was.
Soon, he thought. Nearly there.
He could probably make the throw now – but he wanted to be sure. He let Cyne take a few more steps.
That’ll do it, he thought. Bran jumped out into the middle of the path, and before Cyne had time to do more than gasp in surprise, Bran flung the rock.
He’d always been a good shot, and he felt a thrill of satisfaction when the rock connected precisely with Cyne’s temple and Cyne crumpled to the ground.
He laughed.
Cyne didn’t move.
Bran narrowed his eyes. He’d better get out of here, before Cyne woke up.
He stepped towards Cyne’s body and grimaced. Cyne was going to hurt for days when he woke up. No one’s leg should bend like that. Well, it served him right. At least he wouldn’t bother Bran again.
Bran tiptoed closer.
Something was strange – not right. A small tremor of uncertainty broke through his grim satisfaction.
Closer, closer…
Bran inhaled sharply as he realised what was wrong.
Cyne wasn’t moving. Not at all. He wasn’t… Bran swallowed. He wasn’t breathing.
He stared down at the body, horrified. What had he done?
He gulped and backed slowly away.
Maybe if he just left, if he went home and didn’t say anything – maybe no one would know. Maybe everyone would think Cyne had wandered out here by himself and gotten attacked by some wild animal – there were lots of dangerous animals in the area, it wasn’t impossible…
He cast desperately around the clearing for something that would justify him, absolve his guilt.
A flash of light caught his eye and he scrambled across the clearing towards it. Metal. He reached down into the bushes, twigs scratching at his arms and grasped the object.
A knife.
He turned it over in his hands and an idea formed.
Yes… It was better than being attacked by an animal. After all, some kids just couldn’t handle the fact that they were destined to be one of their family’s sworn enemies.
And if he made some burn marks around the clearing, and slashed at some of the bushes, no one would doubt that Cyne had used his galdor.
And, thought Bran, if the knife is in his hand, no one will doubt that he killed himself because he found out he was a Galdre. No one.
Bran nodded. Yes. And then no one would ever have to know that Bran himself had been here, and no one would suspect a thing.
But that meant he had to put the knife in Cyne’s hand.
He shuddered.
He’s seen dead things before, of course. He’d killed things before, even – chickens, and once even a cow.
But this was different.
This was… human.
He held his breath as he neared the body, half afraid that Cyne might spring up and yell, “Ah ha! You thought you could defeat me! Well you can’t! You can’t! You can’t do anything because you’re weak!”…
…And half afraid that he wouldn’t.
Bran crouched beside the body. It didn’t move. He let out his breath, then froze.
Cyne’s hands were under his body. To put the knife in his hand, Bran was going to have to move him.
A sick knot formed in his stomach and he hugged his knees.
Maybe it would be better to just go home now, to run away and pretend it had never happened…
Then he thought of Acha. She’d overheard his challenge this morning, and she knew he was meeting Cyne here this afternoon.
He swallowed. He had to do it. He had no other choice.
Bran reached out a shaky hand. It’s okay, he thought. All I have to do is turn it – him – over. Turn him over, put the knife in his hand, and then I can go. That’s all. Just one turn…
Steeling himself, he grasped Cyne’s shoulder and flipped him over with a quick shove.
Bran recoiled, throat tight as a pair of eyes stared straight up at him.
He gulped down a lungful of air, eyes fixed on Cyne’s face. “It’s okay,” he said out loud. “He’s dead, it’s okay, he’s not going to do anything.”
Besides, Bran thought. Even when he’s dead he looks ugly. He smirked.
“Not so tough now, are we,” he said. “Hey? Are we?” He poked Cyne’s shoulder. “Yeah. Your stupid magic didn’t save you this time, did it. You think you’re so great, so much better than me just because your dad’s got money and you’ve got galdor.” Bran stood, fists clenched and face tightening. “Well I don’t care!” he yelled. “I don’t! Because you’re not better than me, and I proved it! My stupid Dad said you’d get bored, but you wouldn’t, I know, and I showed you. I won.” He glared down at the body, clenching and unclenching his jaw. “I hate you. I hate you and all your stupid money, and your stupid, stupid magic. You’re a traitor, and I hate you.”
As he spoke Bran’s anger cooled, and he was left feeling strangely empty.
“And now,” he said to the body, “I’m going to make it look like you killed yourself, and then I’m going to go home, and I’m going to live. And I will never, ever forgive you, as long as I’m alive.”
He crouched over the body and leaned close to Cyne’s face. “Do you hear me? This is All. Your. Fault.”
He gripped the knife tightly in his fist and raised it high in the air.
“I wish I’d done this while you were alive.” He smiled, and plunged the knife down, deep into Cyne’s stomach. It went it right up to the hilt, and Bran gave it a twist for good measure.
“And you know what the best bit is?” he said, so close his nose nearly touched Cyne’s. “No one will ever, ever know.”
Bran grabbed Cyne’s hand and wrapped it around the knife hilt. He stood up and surveyed his handiwork.
A frown crossed his face. There was no blood.
He glanced around the clearing, thinking, and his eyes came to rest on the creek.
He gave a tight smile. Perfect.
Crouching down, Bran heaved the body onto its side, then over onto its stomach, and over and over until it was lying right on the very brink of the bank.
Perfect.
He straightened, stretching out his back. Now to doctor the clearing.
He pulled a packet of firelights from his pocket – thank goodness his mother insisted on him being prepared for everything.
Picking up a nearby rock, Bran struck the firelight against it and the light flared to life.
Holding the firelight to a bush, he blew gently on it to fan the flame. The bush caught alight and flared up. Perfect. He watched the bush crackle and wither, leaves curling in on themselves and disintegrating into fine, black ash. The flames spread and soon the bushes across the whole west side of the clearing were alight.
Bran had a panicked moment as the wind gusted down and fanned the flames deeper into the bush. What if the whole woods went up?
But the wind gusted back the opposite way and the flames died down as they devoured the bushes.
Behind him Bran heard a splash. He looked around; the body had fallen into the creek.

Bran smiled. He’d won.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Red Planet Refugees

Back in 2009 I published my very first short story in M-BRANE ezine.  It's now a free short story you can pick up anywhere ebooks are sold. And, what I never told anyone, is that originally SEVENTY was the prologue for a longer series. I never finished the series, but I wanted to share the opening with you, just so you'd know there is a happy ending for the crew of SEVENTY. If you haven't read SEVENTY yet, feel free to go pick up a copy and then come back to read this. 

This takes place several hundred years after the events in SEVENTY   



   Blue lightning arched through red clouds boiling on the horizon. The sun hung low of the, a reminder of the day to come, a reminder of searing heat and the outposts dwindling water supply. I pulled another shirt off of the line and risked a peek at the dark horizon.

Nothing.

The distant galaxies were too faint to be seen, and there were no near stars. We were the last outposts, the last human refuge before nothingness. I didn’t care, I was looking for the ice ship. Every year it was a race. The original colonists were left with a single vessel to conduct basic observations and experiments. When the domes failed that single ship moved my ancestors to the outpost monitoring the storm world. And now that one ship collected ice from the rings further out from the sun to give us the water we needed to survive.

I didn’t expect them today, or tomorrow, or soon. We still had six months worth of water left, if nothing went wrong. We could survive that.

Taking the last shirt off the line I waved to my neighbor. The gray haired matron was the eldest of her small clan and the only one I knew on sight. The rest she kept cloistered inside their dome, safe from the radiation of the sun. I didn’t have anyone protecting me. I didn’t have anyone to protect. My only brother left after his wife and son died. My parents died years before that in a rationing scare, we’d survived while they wasted away from dehydration.

On instinct I checked the water levels as I walked inside, all the monitors showed the tank three-quarters full. Good enough for now. I turned on the radio as I dumped clean linens on my make-shift bed and debated hanging my last few wet things on the line.

“Good morning everyone! This is Joe and Jo! Twenty-three minutes to full sunrise and it’s already one hundred and ten outside. Looks like it’ll be a hot one!” Joe yelled through the radio.

His wife, Jo, came on with a higher pitched but equally enthusiastic tone. “Hiya folks! Are you all ready for the day? Is your laundry in? Your dishes washed? Great! Because we have a full load of fun for you!”

I tossed my last suits into my basket and walked back outside, they were mostly dry and if I pulled them in before an hour was up nothing would burn.

Coming back I sealed the door behind me as the Hilda’s Children’s Chorus sang the wake up song. The radio chimed and the family in charge of monitoring water gave their daily report. Everything was fine, water levels were great, consumption was slightly up in the greenhouse because of the new seedlings being at “that stage” but things were expected to level out in about seventeen days.

The radio chimed again and Jo cut in. “That was great kids! I’m glad to hear you so perky on this hot, hot, day!”

“And thank you to the Dugroot clan for watching our water supplies. It’s a grave responsibility and for the last eight generations the Dugroot’s have proven they’re willing to sacrifice to see the rising generation watered,” Joe said, giving the word “grave” extra emphasis.

“Now that we’ve had the good news, let’s try some bad news!” Jo enthused.

“Over to you, Jessa!” Joe said.

The radio chimed as I slid into my usual seat and pulled my microphone close. I smiled just like my brother taught me and started talking. “It’s a wonderful morning over here at the Far Out Skywatch and let me tall you, folks, there is nothing to see. Not a blessed blip on the radar screen. We are well and truly alone. But that’s the bad news, let’s try some good news!”

“You have good news?” Jo cut in from the radios main control panel.

“Believe it or not, Jo, I do! Last dark we got a call from the ice ship, their doing well and they sent their letters home.” I pulled out my notepad and started dictating, “Johnny sends May his love and says he hopes to be home in time for the baby. Trounce says hiya to Ma and his brother. Matthew wants to let his clan know he’s learning piloting and catching now and making them proud. And young Egglebert who’s on his first tour sends to say hiya to all the folks at home, the view is great, and he’s loving everything, and then the captain cut him off.” I paused, imaging the clans gathered around the radio for our communal morning show laughing.

“The good Captain Tryer says to tell y’all that the ships fuel is at eighty-seven percent and they’re catching extra ice with the new nets that we rigged last season. Everything is in good working order, food supplies and morale are high. They expect to spend another twelve weeks catching and hope to bring home extra water this season.

“That’s all I got, folks. This is Far Out Skywatch, if something happens I’ll let you know!”

Jo and Joe took over as I switched off my radio. As I folded clothes and bathed Jo and Joe prattled on, telling jokes, discussing books, and asking questions of the various clans.

As they started the “To Hot to Talk” song I pulled on my shoes to get the last of the laundry off the line. I laughed at the stale jokes. There were only seventeen families that had survived the past two hundred plus years of hardships, eventually we’d run out of things to say. But Jo and Joe kept morale high while we waited each season for crops to grow in our dimly lit gardens and the ship to return with ice all the while praying to some deity none of us knew that one day the nations that had sent our forefathers out would come back to rescue us.

I paused by the sealed door and touched the little calendar that my father had left, eighty-eight. Eighty-eight season until inbreeding, faulty technology, or lack of food killed us. The first refugees to arrive at the outpost had calculated how long they thought we could survive and made the calendar. By now most people had thrown theirs away in despair, but I kept our, carefully removing one number each season, wondering in my ancestors who had carved the 324 pieces of wood ever imagined that we would still be on this planet when the wood ran out.

The radio chimed. I looked over my shoulder, frowning, I really needed to get my laundry in before the temperatures soared, but it was rude to keep someone waiting. The radio chimed again. With a shrug I walked over to the radio station my finger tracing down the line of lights to see who was trying to contact me.

Red four. Who was red four?

I hit the red light and my radar screen lit up green and black. I blinked as the radar blipped.

A blip?

What did that mean? My brother had taught me maintenance but he never mentioned blips.

I hustled to the back room where we kept the ancestors books, diaries, and valuables tucked away for a future generation of refugees. I dragged my finger across the titles, trying to read fast enough to find the book I wanted in a hurry. There, written in Geek, a technicians manual for the radar array.

I pulled it down and scanned for a picture that matched my blipping radar. I found it a quarter of the way through the book. The caption read, “Long Distance Array Radar Reading An Incoming Vessel.”

My heart stuttered as I skimmed the chapter. The black and green radar was the long distance, deep-space, radar, entirely different from the familiar red land-tracker that followed the ice ship landing.

I ran back to my radio and slammed my palm on the call button. “Hiya, folks, this is Far Out Skywatch and, um, according to the technicians manual I’m reading the deep-space array has been activated by a, a” I sucked in a long breath and spat out, “by an incoming hyperspace vessel that isn’t broadcasting the pre-programmed security clearance.”


“Folks, we have visitors.”

Welcome Back!

Dear Readers,

   It's 2015! Welcome back the Twins of Darkness and Good, where we post short stories written by Amy Laurens (from Australia) and Liana Brooks (from the United States), in theory once a week. These short stories are bits and bobs from various universes, sometimes stand alone drabbles, and are usually original drafts with no editing whatsoever. We hope you enjoy what we have to offer. 

All the best,
Amy and Liana