Uncategorized

Flight: A Science Fiction Anthology

Hi everyone, I just thought I’d let you now that the science fiction anthology I’m part of is now out.

Here’s a link to the ebook, and the paperback should be available by the end of the week.

I’m very excited to be a part of this, and look forward to reading the other stories in it myself.

 

books, Uncategorized

Flight Anthology Cover Reveal!

I don’t think I mentioned this in any previous blogs, but one of my short stories was selected by Elephant’s Bookshelf Press to be in their upcoming ‘Flight’ anthology, which will feature a multitude of authors from various parts of the globe.

Elephant’s Bookshelf Press has been publishing great books and anthologies since 2012, and I believe Flight will be its fourteenth book (or thereabouts – don’t quote me on that). They’re a small but enthusiastic team that love getting new and established authors onboard, and from my personal experience, they’re a joy to work with.

Flight is currently scheduled for release in mid-November, and I’m very happy to be able to share its fantastic cover with you:

Flight ebook complete

Look out for updates, as I’ll be posting order links as soon as they’re ready!

Short Stories

The Magic Bauble

The Christmas lights blinked on and off, making the tree look as though it was twinkling. I sat under it, filling my nose with the smell of new wrapping paper and tinsel, wishing it was already morning.

‘Now, Rupert,’ Nan said, sitting down in the squashy armchair next to the tree. ‘I have a very special present for you this year. You can open it tonight, but you have to promise not to use it until tomorrow.’ She had a mysterious smile on her face as she said it, and produced a small box from her handbag. ‘Do you promise?’

‘I promise.’

‘Very well then,’ she said. ‘Here you are.’ She handed me the box, which was wrapped neatly in silver paper. I undid it carefully, knowing that this wasn’t the type of present you could tear at in a mad rush. Inside was a bauble. Just a single bauble made of blue metallic glass. I felt the happy expression slip off my face, replaced by one of extreme puzzlement.

‘It’s a bauble,’ I said.

‘Yes, but a very special bauble,’ Nan said. ‘I gave your father one just like it when he was your age. Now, you must be careful not to drop it. And don’t forget, you mustn’t hang it up until tomorrow.’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s bad luck,’ she said. Then she laughed. ‘Don’t look so disappointed, Rupert. You can have the rest of your presents tomorrow.’

While I was in bed that night, I heard Mum and Dad talking to Nan. Since I was too excited about Christmas day to sleep, I crept onto the landing at the top of the stairs and listened to what they were saying. To my surprise, they were talking about me.

‘Are you sure it was wise giving it to him this year? He’s awfully young,’ Mum said.

‘Nonsense, Maggie. Alexander here got his at the same age, and it didn’t do him any harm,’ Nan said.

Dad laughed nervously. ‘We should be getting to bed, you know how early he wakes up on Christmas day.’

I heard then get up, and not wanting to be seen I ran back into my room and threw the covers over my head. Dad poked his head around my door, and I let out a few fake snores. Satisfied, he left, closing the door behind him. I sat up, my heart thumping with excitement.

The bauble was on my bedside table, still in its box. I picked it up, switching on my bedside lamp so I could see properly. It looked just the same as before, plain metallic blue, without any decoration at all. My own reflection stared back at me, so distorted that I let out a snigger.  Wanting to stifle the sound, I forced my fist into my mouth, but dropped it away again as I saw what was now on the bauble. It was a picture of a giant air balloon. It looked so real that I put my hand out to touch it, but it vanished, leaving me staring at my reflection again.

Certain that it hadn’t been some trick of the light, I looked away again and turned back to it quickly. There it was again. The exact same air balloon, drifting across a cloudy sky. Careful not to touch it this time, I looked closer. There was a man in the basket of the balloon, dressed in a short brown leather jacket and a matching cap with giant goggles on the top. He was waving at me. I blinked and rubbed my eyes, but it he was still there, grinning widely and swinging his arm in great arks. Staring stupidly, I waved back. As soon as I did, the picture changed and I saw myself taking the bauble downstairs and hanging it on the tree. Then the picture changed back to the man in the balloon. He was looking at me expectantly.

‘I can’t,’ I whispered. ‘Nan said it would be bad luck if I hung it on the tree before tomorrow.’

The man folded his arms and shook his head. Again the picture of me going down to the tree appeared, but this time it didn’t go back to the man, just to my reflection. I sighed, not knowing what to do. In the end, my curiosity won out and I crept downstairs, wincing at every creaking floorboard.

The tree lights were still on, twinkling away merrily, and I noticed that several more presents had been placed under the tree. Gingerly, I reached out and placed the bauble on one of the middle branches. I looked at it reflecting the lights, and suddenly felt myself falling. The room fizzled away and I landed with a bounce on a giant cushion, floating along in a pinkish sky.

A group of birds flew past me, circling around the other cushions floating about. I watched them swerve as the bright greens and reds of the air balloon floated up to my level. The man in the basket appeared soon after, chuckling to himself.  ‘I thought you’d never make it, lad,’ he called over to me. ‘Welcome to the World of Impossibilities. Anything you wish will come true while you’re here.’

‘Anything? Really?’

‘Of course, lad. Your imagination is the limit,’ he said.

‘Then I wish for…a hamburger,’ I said. A hamburger appeared in my hand, hot and smelling as scrumptious as any I’d ever had.

‘Now you’re getting it, lad. ‘Fraid I best be off now though. I’ll be seeing you,’ he said, and waved goodbye as his balloon sailed higher and higher.

I waved back, before attacking my burger with delight. It tasted just as delicious as it smelt, and while I was eating it I considered what the man had said. Anything I wish would come true? I had to test it. Ignoring the sudden butterflies in my stomach, I took a giant leap off the cushion, landing on another that was at least a whole football pitch away.  I bounced straight off it, high into the air, and went on to bounce off another and another.

Fifty giant cushions later, in mid-jump, it occurred to me that I could choose not to fall if I wanted. I stuck in the air, looking around at the cushions floating around me, and spotted a rainbow, bright and colourful as the one painted on my bedroom wall. I could slide down it and find out if there really was a pot of gold at the bottom.

Excitedly, I ran through the air. A thick red carpet appeared from nowhere, rolling out in front of me, taking me directly to the rainbow. It was soft and squashy under my feet, and I felt so light and springy that I had to practice my cartwheels all the way along. Unfortunately I wheeled my way straight into the side of the rainbow and hit it with a thud. I got up, putting out a hand to steady myself and felt that the rainbow was smooth.

Giggling with excitement, I jumped on it and whooshed down with incredible speed. I put my hands down to try and slow myself, and found that the colours of the rainbow were now precious jewels. I gathered up whole handfuls of them, but then landed in a giant black cauldron, buried up to my neck in gold coins. No, not gold, chocolate coins, wrapped in gold foil. They were just like the ones that Mum usually hid in the Christmas tree. If only my pyjama bottoms had pockets, I would have stuffed them full of jewels and chocolate to take back with me.

That brought me to a sudden halt. How was I going to get back?

I climbed out of the cauldron and looked around. There were great buildings of marble and granite all around me, with wide streets full of market stools covered in brightly coloured awnings. In the square where I had landed, a musician played a flighty trill of his flute, and jugglers and fire eaters competed for spectators. Dancers swirled about, trailing sleeves of fine silk. It was the most wonderful sight I’d ever seen.

‘Come here boy, and taste the fruit of your dreams,’ a merchant said.

‘No, try on our finely tailored suits,’ said another, brushing the first one away.

‘Don’t listen to those petty traders, boy! You should come here, and take home one of our fine woven scarves for your mother, or a clay pipe for your father,’ said another in a stripy suit. It was so colourful that it made my eyes dizzy.

More and more people called out to me to come and look at their wares, and some even got into heated arguments over who would serve me first. ‘But I don’t have any money,’ I replied each time, but they would simply say I could pay them next time or that it was a gift. Soon my arms were growing tired under the amount of boxes I was carrying, and my feet grew hot from walking. I was sleepy and I wanted to go home.

‘Please,’ I said to the people I passed. ‘Please, how do I get back?’ But no-one took any notice, they simply laughed and said I was pulling their leg.

It would be Christmas morning soon, and I would miss it all if I stayed. I had to get back.  Still everyone laughed at me, and the faces that had looked so kind now looked cruel and began to frighten me. I was lost and alone, and I began to cry.

I found a shadowy corner and sat down, trying to rub away the tears. A shadow passed over my face, and I looked up.   ‘What’s the matter, lad?’ It was the man from the air balloon, still with his leather cap and goggles.

‘I don’t know how to get home,’ I sniffed.

He knelt down and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t despair lad, just remember what I told you. Anything you wish in this place will come true. Though I have to say your wish is a rare one. Most people that come here don’t tend to go back,’ he said, rubbing his chin. ‘Only once has someone done it, and that must be nigh on thirty years ago now. A young boy, if I remember rightly. Looked just like you in fact. If I didn’t know better I’d have said you were one and the same.’

I looked at him and saw he was serious. ‘I…I think my Dad might have come here, when he was young.’

‘That must be it then,’ the man said. ‘Still, if you really want to go back like he did, all you’ve got to do is wish it.’

‘Th-thank you,’ I said.

‘No problem, lad. Have a safe trip now.’

His face swam out of focus as he spoke, and I found I was being pulled upwards as though someone was pulling on the back of my pyjamas. Faster and faster I seemed to go, and then…THUD. I landed back on the floor in front of the Christmas tree, blinking. Light was pouring in through the window, and I could see snow falling outside. I heard footsteps behind me, and turned around guiltily.

It was Dad, wearing his chequered dressing gown. ‘Merry Christmas, champ,’ he said, smiling. Then he caught sight of the bauble still on the tree and raised his eyebrow. ‘Didn’t get much sleep last night then?’

I shook my head, thinking he’d be angry, but his mouth split into a wide grin and he started laughing. I laughed too, so hard that my stomach muscles hurt.

‘I feel like I’ve missed something,’ Mum said from the doorway, with Nan appearing behind her. ‘What’s the joke?’

‘Nothing, Mum,’ I said innocently, and Dad laughed even more.

‘See, Maggie?’ Nan said to her. ‘I told you it would be all right.’

 

 

 

 

 

Short Stories

The Spectacle on Jingle Street

Max clung tightly to his mother’s hand as they crossed the street. She was so tall that her face was nothing but a shadow to him, framed by her wide brimmed hat. He wondered if he would even recognise her if he saw her when he was out with Nanny Kate. He thought not, for it was a rare thing to see her at all.

He sighed and looked around him. Unlike the previous winter, there was snow this year, and Max couldn’t stop staring at it. He remembered Nanny Kate telling him that it was made of flakes of frozen water, but Max thought it looked more like the white powdery sugar dust that she usually put on her cakes. It didn’t taste like it though.

‘Max, please refrain from eating that. I refuse to have people think that you are nothing but a filthy street urchin,’ his mother said, bending slightly to brush the snow off his jacket. He caught a glimpse of pale skin and wheat coloured hair, but then it was gone again, replaced by shadow. ‘I simply don’t understand why your father wished us to come out in such weather without a carriage at least; and to think we must walk past that awful spectacle on Jingle Street, too.’

Max looked up at her. He had no idea what a ‘spectacle’ was, but he had heard of Jingle Street. Nanny Kate had told him about it only a few weeks ago. She said that every year, on Christmas Eve, a group of performers would arrive and do the most dazzling things; acrobatics, dancing, fire breathing and playing fine music. At the end of it all, they would call all the children forth and give each one a present.

Nanny Kate had made it sound so wonderful that Max had pleaded with her to take him there; but she had simply smiled and said that Christmas Eve was an important day for her family and perhaps his mother would take him instead. He had doubted that very much and he had been right to, for no sooner had he asked her than she sent him to bed without any supper.

From what he had managed to overhear, the purpose of their outing this evening was for his mother and him to meet his father for a party at the ‘establishment’. The ‘establishment’ sounded rather terrifying to Max, for Nanny Kate had told him it was a place where many important people gathered to meet, though they often disliked each other and some, she had said, were even enemies.

The rules at the ‘establishment’ were strict; he was only allowed to wear his best clothes and he wasn’t allowed to run around or talk unless he was spoken to first. Nanny Kate had been most certain about that, for his parents’ reputation depended on it. He supposed that if it was that important, then he had better be on his best behaviour. Still, he wished Nanny Kate was here now, taking him for a walk in the snow and perhaps making the snowballs that she had told him so much about. He had spent the previous Christmas Eve’s with his other nannies, so he couldn’t understand why he had to go to this awful party. Why couldn’t he have gone wherever Nanny Kate had gone instead?

His mother turned down a small side street, walking so swiftly that he had to almost run to keep up with her. At the end she stopped and he heard her inhale deeply. Then, she marched out into the next street, her head held high and holding his hand so tightly that it began to hurt.

Max gasped. Large lanterns made of paper hung down from thick rope attached to the side of the buildings, lighting the entire street. They were every colour he had ever seen; bright blues, purples, greens, yellows, oranges and reds; even silver and gold. They extended back so far that he couldn’t even see when they ended. But that wasn’t all; there were men, with legs longer than most people were tall, gliding around with long, trailing costumes. There were rows of dancing girls in delicate gowns flowing just like water; they spun and leapt across the snow while tiny bells at their wrists and ankles tinkled gently.

Crowds of people, many of them children even younger than he, stood in the street to watch them all, laughing and joking with each other in a way that Max had never seen people do before.

Further back was a man surrounded by small fires and, as Max watched, he picked up the fire and ate it before breathing it back out with such force that the flames seemed to lick at the very moon.

‘Mother, did you see that?’ he asked, pulling excitedly at her arm.

‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, Max. Now come along, or else we shall be late,’ she replied without even glancing at him.

He sighed and looked at the ground, but then a voice caught his ears, singing a song so soft and sweet that he thought it would lift him off the ground and let him float about the sky, drifting on the wind. As they walked closer, the song became clearer and he realised he recognised the voice.

Jumping up, he saw over the heads of the other children crowded about the centre. There, standing in a gown of red velvet with her golden hair spilling down her back, was Nanny Kate. He had never seen her look so beautiful before; all she wore around him was her grey dress and apron with her hair pinned back tightly away from her face.

Tugging free of his mother’s grip, he ran forwards into the crowd, pushing and crawling past until he was right at the front. Nanny Kate saw him and smiled, coming to the end of her song.

‘Max,’ she said, stepping forwards off the platform she had been standing on. ‘You’re just in time, my father and I are about to hand out the presents.’

‘Why, of all the people!’ Max’s mother said behind him. ‘Nanny Kate, I cannot say how disappointed I am in you. To think that you are involved in all of this; encouraging my son to consort with such riff-raff!’

‘I’m sorry that you feel that way, Ma’am,’ Nanny Kate replied, a crease appearing at her brow. ‘I thought that perhaps you had brought Max here at his request.’

‘What foolishness. I would never consent to such an idea,’ his mother sniffed airily. ‘I shall expect you to hand in your notice first thing tomorrow morning.’

‘But Mother, it’s Christmas Day tomorrow. Don’t make Nanny Kate leave!’

‘That’s enough, Max. Now come along,’ she said, and pulled him back out of the crowd.

He looked at Nanny Kate and cried; large, fat tears rolling down his cheeks to drip in the snow. She looked back sadly, but smiled all the same. Then the other children crowded back around her, begging her to sing something else, and she was lost from his sight.

That evening went slower than any other time in Max’s life. He refused to talk to his mother and ignored everyone who tried to ask him something, even when his father took him aside and threatened to return all his presents to the shops if he didn’t behave.

When they arrived home, he was sent straight to bed. He went gladly, wishing desperately that he could run away from them both.   Jumping on his bed, he picked up his pillow and beat it angrily at the window.

‘Max?’

He stopped, thinking that he had imagined it. Nanny Kate couldn’t have returned and come into the room without his parents knowing.

The thought made him cry again, and he flung the pillow across the room and buried his head in the bedcovers.

‘Max, there’s no need to cry.’

He looked up. It had definitely been her voice, but how?

Looking around the room, he saw no-one, not even a shadow. Then he glanced at the window and gasped. There, as though it was a reflection, was Nanny Kate’s face, looking straight at him.

‘Nanny Kate?’ he said, touching the glass.

‘Yes, Max, it’s me, though this is just an image of myself. I have something to attend to at the moment, but I will be along shortly. Promise you won’t do anything bad until then?’ she asked softly.

Max nodded, unsure what to say. How was Nanny Kate doing this? What did she mean, an image of herself? She was here but not here. The thought made him dizzy.

‘Good boy,’ she replied with a smile. ‘I won’t be long.’

Her face vanished then, with Max’s own taking its place as he continued to stare at the glass.

 

He wasn’t sure when it was that he fell asleep, but he woke to a loud clatter on the roof.

A moment later, there was a rustling coming from the fireplace in his room, and, lighting the lamp beside him, he saw two feet appear under the chimney.

An old man ducked under the grate and walked out into the middle of the room, his long white beard hanging down to his knees. He wore a large red coat, trimmed at the collar with white wool.

As Max stared at him, another pair of feet appeared in the fireplace. Nanny Kate gracefully knelt down and came out, hopping over the grate to stand beside the old man. She still wore the red velvet gown that he had seen her wearing at Jingle Street, but now she was wearing a green cloak too, covered with holly berries and leaves embroidered in gold thread.

‘Good evening, Max,’ she said, embracing him fiercely as he ran over to her. She turned to the old man, who, Max saw, was also carrying a large sack made of patched leather. ‘This is my father. He wanted to give you a present earlier, but you left before he was able to.

‘A present? For me?’ Max asked, staring at the old man.

The old man smiled warmly and pulled a small package, wrapped in green and red paper, from his bag. ‘Here you are, young man,’ he said, placing it in Max’s hands.

With a nod from Nanny Kate, Max opened it. Inside was a silver pocket watch, with his name engraved on the inside. The dial was strange, for the numbers went round first in the usual order, but underneath they went in reverse.

Nanny Kate knelt down and took him around the shoulders. ‘Merry Christmas, Max,’ she said. ‘Remember, no matter what happens tomorrow, you can always speak to me by wishing on this pocket watch.’

‘I can?’ he asked.

She nodded. ‘Yes, but make sure your parents never find out about it. I would hate for them to take it from you.’

‘I will,’ he said seriously. The old man chuckled slightly.

Nanny Kate stood up. ‘We must go now, I’m afraid. Goodbye, Max.’

Both she and the old made stepped back into the fireplace, directly under the chimney. Max blinked and found they were gone.

He sniffed sadly and looked at the pocket watch, listening to the ticking of the second hand. There was something soothing about it, and soon he found himself back in bed, drifting gently off to sleep.

 

Short Stories

The Ice Unicorn

The sun reflected brightly on the newly fallen snow covering the entrance to the take-off pad. The trap door shuddered, making the snow atop it shake, and then it sprang open as the square take-off pad was raised up from deep within the grotto below. When it reached ground level, it came to a smooth stop.

The reindeer tethered to the polished sleigh upon it snorted and stamped their cloven hooves; their breath steamed out in front of them to merge with the air. From a smaller trap door a few metres to the side three people emerged. The first was a man with a silver beard and wearing a large red velvet suit. Following him came a tall, dark haired woman with rosy cheeks and warm eyes, and a slender, nervous looking boy barely into his teens.

Together they were the Claus family, and today was Christmas Eve, the day they’d been preparing for all year. And for young Garret, this particular Christmas Eve would be the most important day of his life. He was dreading it.

He watched as his father and mother made their final checks on the sleigh, making sure that everything inside was secure and that the reindeer were happy and healthy. Garret smiled; he knew they would be because he’d fed them Super Hay that very morning, so that had plenty of energy for the night ahead.

‘That should do it dear,’ Santa said to his wife as he adjusted one last strap.

Imelda raised her eyebrow. ‘Are you sure? You haven’t forgotten your No-Chimney key like last year? You couldn’t get into a single flat until you came back for it just before dawn.’

Santa took a small key from his top pocket. ‘Right here, dear,’ he said with a grin. Imelda inclined her head and stepped back as he heaved his considerable bulk into the sleigh. He blew her a kiss and gave Garret a thumbs up, before clicking his tongue at the reindeer. They heeded his signal and in moments were racing off, gaining height with each step until they were well above the clouds, hidden from sight.

Imelda sighed and turned to Garret, putting her arm around his shoulders. Soon he would have to leave, too, and she could feel his anxiety as keenly as if it were her own. ‘You are just as much a Claus as your father, Garret. The Ice Unicorn will see that and grant you the Claus powers too,’ she said softly.

Garret slumped his shoulders. ‘But I’m nothing like him,’ he said. ‘He’s a born leader; he makes decisions quickly and the elves respect his opinions. The only thing they do with me is ask why I continue to fix broken toys when I could just ask them to make new ones.’

‘That’s because they don’t understand you yet,’ Imelda said. ‘Don’t forget, they’ve known your father for a very long time, but they’ve only known you for a few years. Now, do you have everything you need? Gloves, cloak, boots, fairy-dust lantern?’

Garret nodded.

‘Good,’ she said, and embraced him tightly. ‘Be confident, Garret. Meet with the Ice Unicorn and receive the powers that you were born to use.’ She gave him one last hug, and then went back inside, leaving him to face the sudden flurry of snow on his own.

He looked to where it was blowing from; Crystal Mountain, the home of the Ice Unicorn. Wrapping his cloak tightly about him, he took a deep breath and began the long trudge to its peak.

 

After an hour, Garret was forced to stop. A deep crag blocked his path; too wide to jump across and too long to go around. The light was also fading fast, soon everything would be obscured by darkness.

He took out his fairy-dust lantern and shook it briskly. The dust inside activated and sent out a cloud of glowing particles to illuminate the area around him. They were bound to the lantern by a magical field, so the particles moved with it.

In its light, he spotted the brown and white trunk of a Mocha tree half hidden by a clump of snow. It was on its side; if Garret could free it from the ground, maybe he could use it to fashion himself a bridge.

He pulled on his elf-spun gloves, enriched with candy wax to make them waterproof, and began to dig away at the snow covering the tree. It wasn’t easy, the snow had started to turn to ice and was difficult to loosen, but eventually he succeeded.

The tree was long enough to reach the other side of the gap with several feet to spare, and after he’d heaved it into place, he stepped lightly across it and continued on his way.

The mountain grew steeper and the air thin. Even through his many layers, Garret felt the keen sting of the icy wind as it roared down at him, causing him to lose his footing time after time. It wasn’t long before he had to grip the mountain with his hands too, not just to keep his balance, but because the path angled up sharply, forcing him to climb.

Just as exhaustion set in, he reached level ground again. Relief flooded through him, but only for a moment. The climb was over, but the test was yet to come.

Before him, carved from the magnificent crystal of the peak itself, was a set of double doors.  After a fleeting desire to turn back, he forced himself to open them— and plummeted straight down a hole to land in a mound of soft snow.

Shaking himself free, he swung his lantern around and caught sight of a single door lit with a ring of glowing crystals. He went through it, following the spiral path within until he came to the entrance chamber, opposite the double doors that led outside. Wryly, he saw the hole he’d fallen down, marked clearly with a large warning engraving. He sighed and turned right, where a tunnel led further into the mountain.

Inside, the walls were carved crystal. They depicted members of the Claus family throughout the ages, showing the workshop of the grotto and the age-less elves, and even the different sleighs that had been used. The carvings sparkled in the light from the lantern’s glowing particles, giving them an ethereal quality, as though they were real people frozen in time.

Garret came to the end of the tunnel and found himself in an enormous cavern bedecked with multi-coloured crystals that hung from the top like giant stalactites. On a pedestal in the very centre was a crystal statue of a unicorn, detailed so precisely that every individual mane hair was visible.

He stared at it in awe. Could it be the unicorn, simply pretending to be a statue? After all, crystal and ice were hard to tell apart when carved, and perhaps the reason the Ice Unicorn was named such was because its body was made of ice.

Tentatively, he stretched out a hand and placed it on the statue’s muzzle. It was cold, but not enough to be real ice, and didn’t move at all. It really was just a statue.

Garret looked around, wondering if the real Ice Unicorn was watching, but he was alone. ‘How can I convince it that I’m worthy if it won’t even show itself?’ he said aloud, slumping to the floor.

‘Perhaps you should look again,’ a voice echoed around the cavern.

Garret started. ‘Who said that?’

He turned back to the statue, but it was unmoved. The only thing lively about it was his own reflection looking back at him from its glassy surface.

‘Well, that’s a start,’ said the voice.

Garret spun around. ‘Are you the real unicorn? Why won’t you show yourself?’

‘Because you are not ready. Look back at your reflection, and tell me what you see.’

‘I…see myself. Holding a lantern and looking confused,’ Garret said.

‘And?’ the voice pressed.

‘That’s it. There’s nothing else to see, it’s just me, Garret Claus—‘

‘There you have it!’ the voice said. ‘Think, now. What does it mean to be a Claus?’

‘I suppose…that we are the family people look to at Christmas, to help bring hope and joy to the children of the world. That’s what we’ve done for hundreds of years, anyway.’

‘And do you want to continue that, to share the responsibility with your parents? Or is there another path you wish to take?’

Garret looked down and picked at his sleeve. The voice had asked the very thing he’d been wondering himself. ‘I’m not sure. I’ve been brought up to expect to take on the same role as my father, but…what I really want is to fix old toys so that they can be enjoyed again.’

‘Do you repair these toys so that you can play with them yourself?’ the voice asked.

Garret shook his head. ‘No, I give them to father so he can deliver them at Christmas.’

Suddenly a loud crack rang through the air, and deep lines appeared on the statue. There was a tremor, and whole chunks of crystal fell from it onto the ground, revealing iridescent white fur underneath. More crystal fell, and in one swift motion, the unicorn reared up on its hind legs, freeing itself completely. It shook its golden mane and pawed the ground as though it was glad to be able to move again. Its horn glowed a rich blue; the sight of it took Garret’s breath away.

‘Forgive me Garret, I did not mean to deceive you. But until you told me your true wish, I was bound to that form. I shall now grant you the powers that all the Claus’ before you have attained,’ the unicorn said, and began to lower its horn to Garret’s head.

‘Wait,’ Garret said, holding up his hands. ‘I don’t understand. I just told you that all I want is to fix things. I’m not worthy of the Claus powers.’

The unicorn snorted softly. ‘No, Garret. You fix toys to give to others, so that they may find joy in what was once broken and cast aside. I have watched you since you were small, so I know your true nature well, but even if I did not, your words would be enough to convince me that you are every bit as worthy of this power as your ancestors. With your insight, you can improve upon the legacy that they built,’ it said. ‘Hold still now, this will be cold.’

Without another word, the unicorn touched him with its horn. A wave of ice swept through him, but with it came a reawakening of all his senses. Voices of children the world over filled his ears, fading in and out depending on whether he wished to focus on them. Time was also no longer a mystery; he understood how to slow it like his father was doing that very night.

There was something else, too. A tingle in his fingertips. On a whim, he snapped them together; a pile of broken toys appeared. With another snap, they were fixed, like new again.

‘Do you understand now, Garret?’ the unicorn asked.

‘I…yes, I think so,’ he replied, marvelling at what he’d just done.

‘I am glad,’ the unicorn said, and stepped over to the far side of the cavern. It touched its horn to the wall and a window appeared, shimmering like water. Through it, Garret saw his father and mother waiting on the take-off pad with the sleigh. His father must have just come back. ‘Step through, Garret Claus. Live your dreams and inspire the dreams of others.’

Garret hesitated, but the unicorn nudged him through. Then he was standing by his parents, who smiled broadly at him.

The unicorn watched them embrace from its distant home, and silently went back to stand on the pedestal, turning into crystal once more

Extracts/ Flash Fiction

Merry Weather

At first, I didn’t see her. She was caught between two bushes, tangled up in cobwebs, spindly branches and the lacy trim of her silvery blue cape. I did hear her, though. Cursing so much that I thought a group of drunken sailors had strolled around the corner from the pub in town.

But no. All the swearing was emanating from a tiny fairy, red in the face from her efforts to untangle herself.

If it wasn’t for the fact that she saw me and gave such a scowl that my legs automatically wanted to run for the hills, I might have laughed. Instead, I mumbled an offer of assistance while pulling my most solemn expression, and stepped forwards to help. My fingers slipped in my attempt to de-cobweb her and I ended up jabbing her in the head. She bit me for that. Straight through the skin, so that a bead of blood rose from the puncture wound and stained her clothes. I winced, but her long frenzy of expletives detailing every inch of my incompetence drowned it out. Then she wept, equally as loud, about the state of her clothes and how they were positively ruined.

I think it was supposed to make me feel sorry for her, but in actuality it made her terrifying hold on me weaken enough to simply pinch her roughly out of the tangled mess, tearing her cloak completely. She wailed even more. I pointed out, bluntly, that she was free and if she hadn’t have been wearing the ridiculous thing, she probably wouldn’t have ended up in that state in the first place. In answer, she took a small stick from the top of one boot and jabbed it at my nose. Hot sparks shot out the end, singeing my nostril hairs. I let her go in disgust and watched her zoom away, emitting the wettest raspberry I’d ever heard. At least, I hope it was a raspberry…

Uncategorized

Expectations of the Homo Sapien has a new cover!

Recently, I was introduced to Canva.com by the Facebook page Books Go Social, and discovered that I could make my own ebook covers either for free, if I didn’t use any images, or at a small fee ($10) if I used an image and wanted it for multiple uses. So, after much deliberation (well, not too much, because I knew it needed to be done) I made a new cover for my novelette, Expectations of the Homo Sapien, a story about a young professor attempting to teach the working classes evolution in Victorian England – a task which doesn’t go too well.

I knew my old cover didn’t really give any hints about what genre the story was in, and though I liked it for its simplicity, it didn’t have any intrigue to it at all:512ckcMx6aL

So I decided to make one with an image and font that gave a sense of the time period. Here’s what I ended up with:

A Novelette

The setting of the image is similar to one detailed in the story, and I like how the model appears to be waiting, or indeed, expecting, something, which I thought worked well with my title. I also love how dark the room is, because even though the story isn’t really dark, it does have its moments.

Anyway, I’m quite pleased with the results and find the new cover much more appealing. The Kindle version is live on Amazon now (though for some reason, when posting links on Facebook, the old cover still shows up in the page preview), and the paperback version should be live in a few days.

Extracts/ Flash Fiction

Wyld Times- a story idea

Aelfire’s head rested on a small, moss covered mound, his body stretched out on the grass as the sun lit the hill. His long hair was splayed out around him, and so deep was his sleep that he didn’t even feel the gentle tug as the pond nymphs plaited it into the lengths of silver rope weed growing out of the pond’s spongy bank.

‘Ladies, please,’ Gwenti said, striding towards them from where she had stood watch over Aelfire from the shadows of the woods. ‘I think that’s enough playtime for now. Run along.’

The nymphs chittered angrily and dived back into the murky waters of the pond. Gwenti sighed. Those mischievous creatures were always up to something when Aelfire rested there. It was as if they couldn’t leave the boy alone. She knelt down beside him and carefully untangled his hair. He didn’t stir, but the day was well underway and she needed him awake. ‘Lord Aelfire,’ she said, putting a hand on his shoulder.

Nothing.

She shook him. ‘Lord Aelfire, it’s time to move.’

He yawned and rolled onto his side, blinking as the sunlight reflecting off the pond hit him full in the eyes. ‘Already? I thought you said we had til noon?’

‘It is noon, my Lord. The city beacon has already been lit, in a few moments the Gulls will be released. We need to be well away from here by then. If they catch us so close to the city gates, then it’s an automatic fail. Not only for you, but for me too. If you fail this trial, my role as your guardian will be over. They’ll choose someone else to train you in the Wylds, and believe me when I say you don’t want that, and nor do I. Your mother would never forgive me if I let you end up in the hands of one of them.’ 

‘You worry too much, Gwenti. We’ll win this trial,’ Aelfire said with a grin. ‘Just…where’s the first checkpoint again?’

Gwenti cast him a long, hard look.

‘Hey, I’m joking, I’m joking,’ he said, picking up his pack and slinging it over his shoulder. ‘I know it’s the Mergrave stone. Let’s go.’

Reviews

Review: Three short stories by N C Stow – The Leshy, The Kupala Night, and Voopyre

All of these short stories are based off of Russian folklore, which I’ve never explored before, and as well as introducing me to new concepts and ideas, I learnt a few new words too:

Izba – a traditional log house of rural Russia, with an unheated entrance room and a single living /sleeping room heated by a clay or brick stove.

Pech – a large stove used not only to cook with, but also to heat the izba. They normally have a nook (the small space between wall and stove) where small children can sleep to stay warm.

Although these terms aren’t explained in detail, you get the idea of what they are quite quickly from their usage, so it doesn’t interrupt the story flow in any way.

Now let’s get to the actual review (before I get distracted and end up running away with the fairies). I’ll start with The Leshy, which is the first one I read and I believe the first one to be published. This story was very poetically written, with beautiful imagery and strong characters, despite its length. Without giving away too many spoilers, the plot focuses on the onset of Winter, a spirit. Winter kills the Leshy, a tree spirit, and Mavka, a young girl, wakes up having seen this happen in her dream. She the ends up being summoned by Winter herself, a summons that she can’t refuse.

I felt there were a lot of whimsical, magical touches to this piece that reminded me a lot of more well-known fairytales, but this story had the edge in that it stayed with me for a long time after I’d finished reading it.

I read The Kupala Night next, and as with The Leshy, spirits/gods played a large part in the story. This time, however, the focus was on Night looking for his true wife, Day. Kupala refers to a night of traditional celebratory dances, of which there are six. However, Varvara, a girl who has just come of age to go to the Kupala games, is warned by her grandmother (or ‘Baba’) not to stay for the seventh dance, which confuses Varvara because there isn’t one…at least not one that she knew of.

This wasn’t written as poetically as The Leshy, but there was still a lot of strong imagery and a soft touch of romance, too, plus a nice twist at the end.

Voopyre is the newest of these three stories, and though I did enjoy it, something about it just didn’t click as strongly with me as the other two. I can’t fault the writing, it’s just as good as The Leshy and The Kupala Night, but there’s still something that didn’t gel. Then again, I was very tired when I read it and I did get interrupted quite a bit…

Anyway, in Voopyre the story focuses on Zverovoy, the beast master/spirit as he takes an interest in a girl who walks through his forest. But he can’t get to her, so he calls upon the Voopyre, a creature that can tear apart the Kerchief of the world, to do just that. Zverovoy knows that to save her friends, the girl will need to call on him to find the Voopyre to replace the torn part of Kerchief, and thus he will see her again.

It was interesting and the idea that “‘Earth is a headscarf, and we are the thread'” really gripped my imagination, as did many other parts of this story. So, even though it wasn’t my favourite of the three (my favourite is The Leshy, because it’s just so beautiful both in how it’s written and what it’s about) it’s still worth a read.

They all are, in fact.

 

 

Extracts/ Flash Fiction

Sweet things

The hessian sack over Parro’s head was clean, not dust ridden and mildew stained as she had expected. Then again, the soldiers guiding her and the rest of the group of potential royal poisoners were of the King’s personal guard.

Under her soft faux leather boots, she felt the firm evenness of flagstones. It was a welcome change from the three miles of cobblestones they’d just walked, and also a sign that they were finally nearing the castle. Perhaps they were already in the courtyard.

She felt herself being marched through a maze of sharp turning corridors, hearing the guards bark at any servant who wasn’t quick enough to scurry from the path. Eventually the party came to a stop. Then the clink of heavy chains, the grinding of a door that was not often used being opened, a sharp push forwards so that everyone stumbled against each other, and the same door being closed behind them.

The sacks were removed from everyone’s heads as the chains were being strung back across the door, and Parro got her first look at the King’s private audience chamber. The room was windowless, the light coming entirely from bright torches held in iron sconces on the walls. The floor was tiled with grey granite, and was devoid of decoration other than the royal banner at the far end, underneath which the King was sitting in a silver filigreed throne. His manservant stood next to him, still to the point that one might have mistaken him for a statue.

The King’s gaze was fixed on the poisoners, but none looked him in the eye except Parro. She examined him closely; his expression was flat and disciplined, but his eyes stared back at her with a keen intelligence. She quickly dropped her head; it would not do to give herself away just yet.

The captain of the guard made the poisoners stand in line, facing the interior of the room, where a table adorned with various apparatus was being set up for the demonstrations that Parro presumed would shortly take place. She caught sight of another group of people gathered in a dark corner. She focused her vision, and saw that they were shackled together. Prisoners. At least that answered the question of just how the demonstrations were to be carried out.

‘I presume they have all been checked, Captain?’ the King said when the preparations had been completed.

‘Of course, sire. I personally checked each candidate, only one of them had any marks pertaining to either spy or assassin guilds, and I dealt with him as soon as I found it,’ the captain replied, tapping the hilt of his sword meaningfully.

The King raised a bushy eyebrow. ‘Oh, from which guild?’

‘The Oens, sire.’

The King grunted. ‘The Oens? I’m surprised one of theirs made it as a candidate at all. It seems our selection protocol has become rather lax of late.’

The captain stiffened. ‘I shall see to it that proper disciplinary action is taken, sire.’

‘Good. Now, I think we should proceed, don’t you?’

The captain bowed, and turned to address the poisoners. ‘I shall call your names one at a time to present your skills. You may request as many prisoners to use for your demonstrations as you wish, but do not bore us with flowery words. Be direct, be swift, and be thorough. Once your presentation is complete, you must take your place back in line and wait while the other candidates present their skills.’ He took a scroll from his belt pouch and unrolled it, reading out the first name on the list. ‘Lector Heeny, please present yourself to His Royal Majesty, King Theroux the Second, Ruler of all Mentrolis.’

A thin, trembling man stepped forwards to the centre of the room, carrying a neat wooden box in his skeletal hands. He set it down on the table and opened it, taking out a myriad of vials and boxes, as well as a bottle of clean water, and began mixing various ingredients together with the apparatus that had been provided.

Parro stifled a yawn. The man’s poisons were basic and the shudder in his hand as he called for his first prisoner betrayed the fact that he had not once stayed to watch his victims die.

The prisoner, a middle-aged woman whose threadbare pantaloons were stained with fresh urine, struggled against the guards as they dragged her towards Lector Heeny. The poisoner gave a stammered speech to the King as to what the poison he had mixed would do, and then asked the guards to hold the woman’s head so he could poor the miniscule measure of green liquid down her throat. The pitiful man could hardly bare to look at her as he instigated her death.

The woman choked and tried to cough it up, but already her muscles had begun to seize. Within a few brief seconds, her entire body became stiff and she fell to the cold floor. Lector Heeny shuddered and turned away, already mixing the next poison for his demonstration.

So it went on. Poisoner after poisoner was called to display their lacklustre skills, while the bodies of their victims were hauled away and covered with a dark sheet. The King neither displayed his displeasure, nor acknowledged the candidates in any way… until Parro was called.

She walked to the table, putting her deep case up on its surface, and with her other arm, swept the apparatus laid out for her onto the floor. ‘Excuse me, your Majesty,’ she said as they shattered.

The King raised one bushed eyebrow. ‘It is unusual for a woman to be in your line of profession,’ he remarked.

‘I assure you that my skills are not lacking. In fact, to be worse than these other candidates would be impressive indeed, you Majesty,’ she said.

The King snorted in amusement. ‘I hope for your sake that your confidence is not unfounded.’

Parro smiled, and snapped open her case. From within, she pulled out two serving trays with domed metal covers, concealing the contents inside, and laid them on the table with a deft flourish of her arm.

‘What is this, woman?’ the captain snapped, rushing forwards. ‘His Majesty has called for poisoners, not a serving wench. How dare you waste his—‘

‘Captain, stand down,’ the King said, holding up his hand. ‘Let her proceed.’

The captain stepped back, his expression incredulous. ‘But sire—‘

‘Captain, if you disobey me, it will be your tongue on which this woman’s poisons will fall. Is that clear?’

‘Yes, sire,’ the captain replied, his face turning grey. He turned to Parro. ‘Proceed, woman.’

‘Why, thank you, Captain,’ she said. She took a bottle from her case, and placed it next to the first serving tray. Then she turned to address the King directly. ‘Your Majesty, there are a vast amount of poisons in this world and, while effective, a great many of these now have known antidotes. Though these antidotes are only available for a substantial sum, they are not out of reach for those of a high societal standing. It has also become expected now that when hosting a feast, someone is sure to be the target of a poisoner’s deft hand, so people are being more cautious than ever. Even the ambassadors of Importa and Tlousin, whom I believe have recently lost your favour, have prepared themselves for such.’

Surprise flickered across the King’s face, but he regained his control instantly. ‘You have kept yourself well informed, woman. However, what is your point on this matter?’

‘My point is simple, your Majesty. There is a growing need for new poisons, and I have concocted one that I believe you’ll find most interesting.’ Parro lifted the domed cover from the first tray as she spoke, revealing a curried dish boasting a hue of deep orange. The fine use of spices in the sauce made the dish so aromatic that it almost chased away the stench of the prisoners. Almost.

‘That is Umbren, is it not? A staple served widely in Tlousin,’ the King remarked.

‘And a favourite of Lord Enru, the ambassador of Tlousin,’ the captain added. ‘He requests we send for ingredients for it all the time.’

‘Indeed,’ Parro said. ‘The first poison I wish to demonstrate only reacts with certain seasonings, which means to say that if administered in any other food or drink, it will be harmless. It also merges with the ingredients so well that it becomes untraceable; even a practiced healer examining the stomach contents of the victim would not find it.’

She clicked her finger to the guards. ‘Two prisoners,’ she said. As the guards brought them to her, she undid the cork on the bottle, adding several drops to the curried dish and then pouring a measure onto a spoon again taken from her case. ‘Observe, your Majesty.’ Forcibly opening the first prisoner’s mouth, she let the poison drip straight onto their tongue from the spoon. Then, washing the spoon in water to remove any saliva, she used it to take a level scoop of the curry, which she then forced into the second prisoner’s mouth. Satisfied, she stepped aside so that the King could see the effects in full.

While the first prisoner made a face of disgust, the second fell to the ground without so much as a cry.

‘As you can see, with this poison, there is no violent frothing, convulsing or bleeding. The man might have died naturally of a brain clot, for all anyone need know.’

‘I see you were not merely boasting after all,’ the King said.

Parro inclined her head, acknowledging the compliment, and turned to the second serving dish, again removing the dome to reveal the contents. On the dish was a glass gravy boat, but instead of holding brown liquid, it was filled with a tart yet honeyed smelling condiment. ‘This is a popular new sauce for meats that has made its way here from the continent. I am sure your chefs are already perfecting the recipe to serve it to you. What they do not know, however, is that this sauce is a poison far more deadly than any you have seen today. The reason why no one realises it, including your chefs, is that by themselves, the ingredients are harmless, just as other spices and herbs. It is only when mixed do they become so potent, and they kill very, very slowly. Not only that, but the taste is believed to be so divine that the consumer quickly becomes addicted.’

The King stood up abruptly. ‘Are you trying to tell me that someone from the continent is bold enough to poison me, woman?’

Parro walked around to the front of the table, facing the King directly. ‘That is exactly what I’m telling you, your Majesty.’