Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

The cover of the book Ashes of the Ancestors

Ashes of the Ancestors  is a rare thing for me, a story that arose out of its theme. Normally, I’m there for a character or a setting or a plot idea, but this one was all about the theme, because it’s a theme that matters a lot to me. That theme is how we relate to history and tradition.

I’ve spent a lot of my life pondering history. I caught a fascination with the past off my dad, and went on to do two degrees in history, as well as two years research towards a PhD I never finished, all about military and political prisoners in medieval Britain. When I got into freelance writing, I used that background to get gigs, and I’ve written hundreds of articles making history accessible. I write comics with historical settings for Commando. I’m known by some people at SFF conventions as the history guy, thanks to my ranting on panels about the sins of Braveheart and William Gibson’s magical time travelling penis.

Even when I’m making up imaginary worlds, I draw a lot of my inspiration from the real past. My writing notes are full of concepts drawn from history books. But history itself is seldom the thing I’m tackling.

This time is different.

For me, there’s a tension in how I relate to the past. History and tradition get used to justify a lot of conservative politics, while my knowledge of the past has made me ever more left leaning. Some people look at the past and want to cling to it. I look to it as an object lesson out of which we can learn what not to do, so that we can build something new, something better.

All of that was already swirling around in my head, and then I came across a couple of quotes that crystalised my thoughts. One was from Haruki Murakami, who said:

“History is the shared narrative that binds us together or tears us apart.”

The other came from Jeannette Ng in an award acceptance speech:

“Let us be better than the legacies that have been left us, let them not be prophecies.”

Those two sentences say a lot to me about how we relate to history and the sense of tradition with which it is connected.

History can be used as something we share, something we bond over, something that gives us collective purpose. When its meaning and its use are inclusive, that’s wonderful and powerful. But it can also be something that’s used to justify exclusion and violence, to draw a line between us and them, to say to people that they can’t be themselves because that’s not how things were in the past, even though that’s often untrue.

That’s a powerful lesson, but it’s useless if it doesn’t give us direction. That’s why I think Ng’s comment is so important. While Murakami helps us understand how the past affects us, Ng provides a way to relate to it as we go forward with our lives. Legacies are valuable things, but that doesn’t mean we should repeat them. We can always strive to do better, to build on what came before and make something new.

Ashes of the Ancestors is all about the different ways we relate to history. Some of the characters in the story want to cling to it, others to reject it. But in my opinion, neither of those is healthy or helpful. What works best for us as individuals and as a society is to see history, to learn from it, and then to step out from under its shadow.

It’s a theme that’s so embedded in Ashes that individual characters represent different approaches to the past. Maybe I’ll talk about that another day. For now, Ashes of the Ancestors is coming out next Tuesday, 7 February. You can pre-order the book through the Luna Press website and many good booksellers. And if you want more of my thoughts or to hear about upcoming stories, you can sign up to my mailing list.

Ashes of the Ancestors, my novella about ghosts, history, and tradition is almost ready to hit the shelves. There’s still time to pre-order the book and get it as soon as it comes out on 7 February. And if you’re wondering whether it might be for you, or if you want to find out a bit more, here are a few things you might enjoy…

  • Runalong the Shelves has a great review of Ashes, digging into the themes the novella explores. Matt’s recommendations have never steered me wrong in the past, so I was really pleased to see how much he enjoyed my book.
  • Over on The Fine-toothed Comb, expert editor Dion gave me space to talk about history as editing and how that connects to Ashes.
  • And last night, the book launch video for this set of Luna Press Publishing novellas went live. You can watch me and five other fabulous authors talk about our books and read scenes from them, to give you a taste of what you’re getting into. The other books are so good, I’d be recommending this even if I wasn’t part of it.

Only eleven more days! I’m very excited. Ashes of the Ancestors is the best thing I’ve had out so far, a fantasy story about an imagined past that I think speaks to our present, a story about tradition, choices, and how we move forward with history’s hand on our shoulder. If that sounds like your thing, then you can pre-order it at all these links:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Author wielding his books and grinning.

It’s a busy week by my standards, as two articles about my work have sprung up in the past few days.

First, there’s an interview about my upcoming novella Ashes of the Ancestors over at the Scifi and Fantasy Network. I had a fun time talking about writing life, history, & the literary importance of Winnie the Pooh.

Second, I’ve written an article about ghostwriting for Canadian genre magazine On Spec. This is the article that my previous Q&A was leading to, and provides a more detailed and coherent dive into what it means to be a ghostwriter in the modern market. It covers the nature of the work and how to get into it, so if that’s something you’re curious about, then check it out.

And if, after all of that, you’d like to see more from me, Ashes of the Ancestors is out in just a few weeks. It’s a fantasy story about memory, empire, and grappling with the past, and you can find links to preorder it over here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The locals stared into their cups.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

The cover for the book Ashes of the Ancestors

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

The cover of Ashes of the Ancestors

In a haunted monastery at the heart of a crumbling empire, a lone priest tends the fires for the dead. A servant bound by the bones of her family, Magdalisa is her people’s last link to the wisdom of the past.

But as the land around them dies, new arrivals throw the monastery into turmoil. A dead warlord demanding recognition. Her rival, seizing the scraps of power. Two priests, both claiming to serve the spirits, both with their own agendas.

As ancient shadows struggle for the soul of an empire, Magdalisa must decide how far she will go to keep tradition alive.

My novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, is now available to pre-order. A fantasy story about tradition and our relationship with the past, Ashes of the Ancestors is far and away the best thing I’ve produced so far, and you should obviously go grab a copy. It comes out alongside five other novellas from fantastic speculative fiction authors, which you can read about here.

Pre-orders really help a book to make a splash when it comes out, and are a great way of supporting not just authors but independent presses like Luna, so if this sounds like your sort of thing, please consider clicking on the links to pre-order it at assorted places. Think of the book as a gift to your future self, to be delivered on 7 February…

Me grinning like an idiot while holding my author copies

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

And just to prove that they’re real, here I am, getting excited about my author copies.

Happy reading!

Creepy clown.
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Rich found himself sitting on a wooden bench in the back of a circus tent. He couldn’t remember why they’d decided to come but it was probably Jen’s idea. She loved a good spectacle and there was plenty here. The fire breather illuminating the entrance; the juggler tossing chainsaws; the acrobats spinning like sequined nebulae overhead. The elephants and bears were a surprise, Rich thought that modern circuses had given that up, but there was something amazing about seeing a lion open its jaws wide.

The show began. The ringmaster swept his top hat down in a bow, blood red tailcoat swirling, then waggled his eyebrows. Eyes like bottomless pits stared right at Rich, who swallowed. How could a face look so expressive and so empty at once?

“Ladies and gentlemen.” The ringmaster’s smile bared skull white teeth. “Thank you again for joining us. It’s going to be a night you’ll never forget.”

Rich glanced around. Where had Jen got to? She was going to miss out. Perhaps she was buying refreshments. She always bought sweets at the cinema, why not at the circus?

A magician emerged.

“I need a volunteer from the audience,” he said. “How about you, miss?”

A young woman stepped up and lay down on a table. A box closed over her, with only her head and feet protruding. The magician produced a saw and started cutting. The audience laughed politely at familiar jokes while the saw scraped lower.

The woman screamed. Her head and feet spasmed. Rich stared, fascinated. It had to be a trick, a plant from the audience and a bag of red water. Part of him wanted it to be real, an awful mistake making a real night to remember, but then the magician wouldn’t be grinning, would he?

The audience stopped laughing, then started again, and Rich joined in, the tension snapping like an over-strained thread. The woman went limp and they laughed louder; they were in on the joke, weren’t they?

Clowns pushed the magician and his trick to one side. The ringmaster stepped forward.

“Don’t worry, we’ll be seeing them again later,” he said with a wink.

A knife thrower emerged, her bare arms covered with jagged tattoos. A knife spun gleaming through the air.

“I need a volunteer from the audience,” she said. “How about you, sir?”

The clowns strapped a man in an old-fashioned suit onto a vertical disk, a wooden target with splintered gouges where the knives had struck. The knife thrower pulled on a blindfold, tossed a blade through the air, caught it perfectly between her fingertips. The ringmaster spun the wheel and the man in the suit turned.

The knife thrower drew back her arm. The audience took a collective breath. A blade twisted end over end through the air and buried itself in the man’s chest.

Rich gasped, fixated on that spinning body and the pattern of blood on the floor. Then the ringmaster laughed, the audience laughed, and Rich was swept into the sound. Of course, it was that sort of circus. They would reveal the trick in the end. For now, clowns pushed the spinning board to one side.

A fire breather, head and chest shaved and gleaming, stepped into the ring with a burning brand in one hand and a bottle in the other.

“I need a volunteer from the audience,” he said, and looked Rich in the eye. “How about you?”

Rich scrambled eagerly across the seats and into the ring, let himself be tied to a post by the clowns. He’d never known that fire breathers needed volunteers. He wondered what the trick was. But even as he wondered, he glanced around, trying to glimpse the sawn woman and stabbed man, wondering in spite of everything if he might see a corpse.

Past the magician’s box, he saw Jen sitting in the audience. He wanted to wave, but his hands were tied. She had a bag of sweets. There were flecks of dark foam at the corners of her pale blue lips.

Ice ran through Rich’s veins as he watched her place another boiled sweet in her mouth, moving with terrible, stiff precision.

He looked across the rest of the crowd. Next to Jen was the magician’s volunteer, her guts pooled in her lap. Beyond her was the man in the old-fashioned suit, knife still protruding from his chest. The woman behind him looked like her head had been mauled by a lion, and flanking her were a couple with twisted, broken limbs.

Rich realised, with terrible certainty, that he had seen this before.

The fire breather took a swig from his bottle and held up the burning brand. His eyes glinted red.

“No, wait, don’t, I—”

Rich screamed as the inferno engulfed him. Through crackling flames, he heard the crowd laugh. Time stretched out in bright agony, until at last there was the sweet relief of oblivion.

Rich woke to find himself sitting on a wooden bench in the back of a circus tent. He couldn’t remember why they’d decided to come here. It was probably Jen’s idea.

The ringmaster swept his top hat down in a bow, blood red tailcoat swirling, then looked up and waggled his eyebrows.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he called out. “Thank you for joining us again. It’s going to be a night you’ll never forget.”

***

A few days early with this month’s flash fiction, but it seemed a shame not to get this one out in time for Halloween. It’s not my usual thing, but I do like to dip a toe in the darkness around this time of year.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox once a month.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Ashes of the Ancestors book cover

In a haunted monastery at the heart of a crumbling empire, a lone priest tends the fires for the dead. A servant bound by the bones of her family, Magdalisa is her people’s last link to the wisdom of the past.

But as the land around them dies, new arrivals throw the monastery into turmoil. A dead warlord demanding recognition. Her rival, seizing the scraps of power. Two priests, both claiming to serve the spirits, both with their own agendas.

As ancient shadows struggle for the soul of an empire, Magdalisa must decide how far she will go to keep tradition alive.

Exciting news – I now have a cover and a release schedule for my upcoming novella, Ashes of the Ancestors. A fantasy story about memory and tradition, Ashes of the Ancestors will be released by Luna Press Publishing in February 2023, along with five other fantastic novellas. You can read more about all of the books here, and I’ll provide details of where you can order the book nearer the time.

Dry, arid land.

Every morning, I fetch water from the river. I dip my jar into the shimmering, ephemeral current, watch droplets drip from the baked clay and vanish in the air. The jar weighs heavily on my head as I walk steadily up the stony bank and across packed earth, ignored by the vultures drooping from the skeletons of trees. I walk into the village, its dirt darkened by ashes and old blood, and pour my water into the bowl where my family used to wash. The bowl is broken, but the water fills it. A ghost of water in the ghost of a bowl, poured by the ghost of a woman.

I have walked this path and poured this water every day since I was old enough to bear the weight of the jar. I have kept walking and pouring every day since I died. While I do this, some part of my life remains. The damn builders will not win.

People are moving across the distant fields. A dozen of them, scuttling like beetles. Most carry spears, though one has a gun. Two carry a crate between them and move more warily than the rest. I don’t know their faces but the features are familiar, lips and noses of families I knew. They must come the caves where the survivors hid. I went there once, years ago, but it was too sad to stand beside my sister and not be heard, to see her scars and not be able to heal her. So I returned to my home, to my routines.

My bones lie next to the cracked bowl, as dessicated and dust-flecked as the river. Its bed is cracked like the skin of the farmers’ hands that brought life to this land before the dam. When I pour water into the bowl, I see those fields as they were: the green shoots of grain, beans sprawling up frames, goats muttering to each other. As long as I fetch water, something lives.

I turn from the bowl, from lost crops and the ghosts of goats. The people I saw are tiny, fragile things now, like insects approaching the dark wall of the dam, miles up the river bed from here. When it comes, their shouting is so distant it’s almost lost on the wind. A tapping repeats twice, then there’s silence.

I lift my jar onto my head. Normally, I only walk to the river once, but today feels different. At the bank, I hesitate. The ghost of our lost water has been growing fainter these last years. I can barely see it any more. Instead, I stare at the cracks in the dirt and feel as though I am sinking into them, draining into this parched land. The sun eases across the sky, its heat beats down, the shimmering memory grows fainter still.

There’s a roar in the distance, some beast I’ve never heard. A cool wind whispers through me. I don’t feel the ground shaking—how could I?—but I see pebbles dance.

I look upriver, into the wind. The unrelenting solidity of the dam has been broken, a gap appearing in its upper edge. Darkness streams out, staining the river bed. The darkness spreads toward me and my mind scoops up what I am seeing, carries it from my senses to my thoughts. Stunned and elated I stare.

The dam is broken.

As if that thought had touched the world, a whole flank of its dark wall shatters, tumbles, is swept away by surging water. The sound of its collapse reaches me a moment later. The river bed by my feet has darkened as the first damp eases into it, but that’s nothing. Cold currents of air spill through me as the water rushes past my feet. Real water, life-giving water, not the thin shadow I have clung to.

My jar lies discarded by my feet as I clasp my hand to my mouth. I would cry, but I have no tears, and so I laugh.

The water is silted; nothing could live in this. But soon it will settle, fish will return, the land will be green again.

My laughter is high, skittering, broken. I should be full of wonder, but instead I am made of fear. I have kept the memory of the river all these years, and it has kept me. What will happen to us now? When the dam builders sent their men, when the cold of the gun pressed against my head, I didn’t want to die. I still don’t. The thought of not existing terrifies me even more than the destruction I have seen, and I can no longer hide from that fear by carrying water.

A woman is approaching, one of those who went from the cave to the dam. The one with the gun. She stops right by me, reaches down, and for a foolish moment I think that she is picking up my jar. Instead, her hand passes through it. She dips her fingers in the river, drips the muddy water onto her tongue, smiles as bright as sunlight flashing off a fish’s fin. It’s the smile my mother had, and my sister. One I had too.

She slings her gun over her shoulder, leans down, dips both hands into the river. Water drips between her fingers as she walks steadily up the stony bank, across packed earth, past the vultures that flee from their trees at the strength of her stride. Dark drops and footprints mark the path I have followed for so long. At the edge of the village, she kneels and releases her remaining water into the dirt.

I am not afraid any more, not for myself or for the land, because I know that something lives on. I look out across the memories of grain and goats and beans. I let myself fade.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox once a month.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

An oak tree

Leana liked to visit her mother in the autumn, when the falling leaves hid the worn, pale fragments protruding from the dirt. It was easier to face her mother if her skin wasn’t crawling at the things seen amid the roots, if she thought of the trees as receptacles for souls and not devourers of bodies.

“Hello, ma.” Leana bowed before the tree. “I brought you new ribbons.”

She took hold of one of her mother’s branches, to untie last year’s frayed decorations, and tried not to think of placing the acorn in her mother’s mouth, back before they filled the grave. Had her mother’s soul left her old body in that moment, travelled straight into the acorn, or had it waited until the tree grew strong?

The branches slowly parted, as much of a greeting as her mother ever made. Lively voices and rustling leaves came from elsewhere in the forest, but not here. Not from ma.

“Things are good at the bakery. Old Humbert sends his regards, says he misses your help with the dough.”

Humbert said a lot of things, and the ones to Leana weren’t usually so kind.

“Olaf sends his best regards.”

Best regards. Twenty years together, and that was the best he could think of when she went to the grave. Had there ever been any passion there? It didn’t matter. She couldn’t walk away now, any more than she could leave the bakery. What would she tell her mother? Best to focus on tying the ribbons, instead of dwelling on these things.

Smoke tickled Leana’s nose. She ignored that too, concentrated on the bows, on making her mother look good, as she had done every day near the end, when ma couldn’t do it for herself.

“I thought I might cut my hair. What do you think?”

The branches swayed from side to side. Ma had always said that Lanea’s hair was her best feature; not her wits, like the schoolmaster said, or her smile, as Timol used to swear, before she started walking out with Olaf.

“No? Perhaps I’ll get myself a green dress instead. I’ve been wearing blue since I was a child.”

Another shake, more vigorous than the first.

“Maybe not, then.”

Leana sighed, then coughed as the smoke scratched her throat. There was a flickering yellow glow between the boughs of the trees, and a dark cloud rising. Leana’s heart raced. She clutched her hands to her stomach.

Fire.

She didn’t say the word out loud, didn’t want to alarm her mother or the other souls. Instead, she hitched up her skirts and ran, eyes streaming, into the smoke.

Sure enough, flames were advancing through the forest, reducing the trees to cracked pillars of ash. A wind blew down the valley, driving fiery destruction toward ma’s grave.

Sweat ran down Leana’s cheek as she jerked her head from side to side. There should be a bucket to fetch water, a broom to beat the flames, anything at all. There were only fallen leaves.

“Fire!” she yelled. “Fire!”

Perhaps they heard her in the village, but she only heard the crackle of flames.

Then came a voice behind her.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Her old friend Timol stood beneath one of the trees, painting tar onto its trunk.

“What are you doing?” Leana asked in horror.

“Making sure they burn.”

There were scratches on his face. The tree swayed, slapped at him with its branches. He ducked and scurried out, still carrying a bucket of tar and a thick brush. A moment later, a cluster of burning leaves hit the sticky black stain, and the tree started to burn.

Leana ran at Timol, tackled him around the waist and brought him to the ground. His brush went flying. The bucket fell on its side and tar oozed, thick and dark, into the fallen leaves.

“What are you doing?” Timol screeched, his eyes wide.

“What are you doing?” Leana replied, pinning him to the ground. “You’re killing them!”

Smoke billowed. Flying cinders scorched her perfect hair. Tears streamed down Leana’s cheeks as she watched the generations burn.

“They’re already dead,” Timol said. “I’m freeing them to pass on to the next life.”

“You selfish swine!” Leana slapped him. “You’re taking her from me.”

“We’re the selfish ones, clinging to them forever. Or perhaps it’s them, binding us to dead routines.” Timol shook his head, and he too wept bitter tears. “All I know is that it has to change.”

Leana stared at him, then deeper into the forest, towards her mother’s tree. The wind was dying down. Perhaps some of the forest would survive. Perhaps they wouldn’t lose everything. Perhaps Leana’s world could be preserved, like a ghost in the trees, like a memory of her childhood, like blue dresses and long hair.

A heart-gouging grief gripped Leana, not for the lost past, but for the hollow space where her own future could have grown.

She let go of Timol, picked up his bucket and brush. He scurried after her as she strode between the trees, through the smoke and swirling sparks.

“Leana? Be careful, Leana, you could catch fire. What are you doing, Leana?”

Her mother’s branches parted in greeting. The one with the ribbons twitched disapprovingly, drawing her attention to a job half done. Even when the world was at its worst, ma wanted to look good.

Trembling, Leana dipped the brush in the last of the tar, then ran it down her mother’s trunk. Nearby, sparks landed on fallen leaves.

Her mother fell completely still.

“I never liked being a baker,” Leana said. “Goodbye ma. Rest in peace.”

***

Exciting news! I have a new novella coming out next year. Ashes of the Ancestors is a story about friendship, loss, and the tensions of tradition, set in a monastery full of ghosts. It’s going to be published as part of Luna Press’s novella series, and you can read more details here. Luna have put together a fantastic lineup for this round of novellas, and I’m incredibly excited to be part of it.

This week’s story was written in part to go with that announcement, by touching on tradition and care for the dead. If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every month.

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This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Feathers falling

When Russ was young, he would stare out the classroom window, disinterested in the teacher, the helpers, and the other children, just watching the birds. Robins hopping through the hedgerow. Crows perched on lampposts. Gulls soaring on the breeze. To be so light, freed from the grasping hands of gravity, seemed like the most wonderful thing. The lives of birds made sense.

Whenever he saw a fallen feather, however small or battered or filthy, even if there was blood at its tip where some predator had torn it loose, Russ would keep that feather and take it home. His mother, though unsettled to see how he lined his bed, chose not to nurture one more argument in a household full of hurt. His father snapped that Russ should at least clean the damn things, but Russ ignored him. What if he cleaned off something important? What if he washed away the magic of flight?

The pile of feathers grew, day by day, week by week, month by month. Urban feathers and rural feathers, falling from either side of their home. Feathers from the garden, from school, from the woods, from weekends away with one parent while the other cleared their head. Wherever he went, Russ came home clutching a precious new treasure, light in his hand and soft on his skin.

As he added each feather to his bed nest, he imagined what it would be like to be that bird, to be clothed in feathers and fly free, away from all the strains and pains of the world. From trying to make sense of the things people said, of the words on the pages of books, of the rules that no one explained.

On the night his father left, carried away by the car’s angry roar, Russ clutched the feathers tight. They were so familiar, he wasn’t sure where his skin ended and the birds began. Out in the twilight, another feather fell in slow spirals. Russ opened his bedroom window and reached out. The feather landed in his palm, soft and heavy as sorrow. He added it to his nest, then settled in his sanctuary and fell asleep.

He woke to find his window open, letting in the dawn chorus and a breeze that lifted him off his feet. Feathers clung to his arms. He ran his fingers through their softness, and shivered into a smile.

As he jumped onto the windowsill, the sky cried out to him. He understood the movements of those wheeling shapes. His mismatched feathers could never compare with their beauty, but he could be among them.

He kicked off through the window and took flight. He glided in a giddy spiral over streets and fields, spinning toward the heavens.

In his dreams, this had been the moment when the world opened up to him, comprehensible at last from a bird’s eye view. The network of streets that bound his home to school, shops, and playground. The river’s route to the sea. The border between town and countryside, opposites that until now had blurred through hedges, verges, and paths. But streets were hidden by houses, the river by hills, and the town still oozed across blurred boundaries.

With swift strokes, Russ flew higher, determined to rise until the world became clear. But his arms were growing weary, the feathers that had buoyed him up becoming a burden. Their lightness was a lie, one more trick the world had set to confuse him. What had been weightless as the air was dragging him down, when he needed to soar.

He ripped out fistfuls of feathers. Black and white, stripped and speckled, they all tore free, mementoes of dreams crumpling between his fingers. He let the wind snatch them away, tumbling toward the ground.

The last feather out was the last one he had found. With it came his father’s shouts, his mother’s sobs, the slam of the door and the smell of petrol fumes. It felt weighty as a rock, but when he let it go, it drifted instead of plummeting.

With a lurching of his stomach, Russ realised that there was nothing left to hold him aloft, any more than to drag him down. He hung suspended, exhilarated and afraid, not knowing which would claim him, the earth or the sky. He squeezed his eyes tight shut and the wind rushed around him. Was he rising or falling? All he knew was that soon the world would make sense.

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This story was inspired by a workshop on writing the uncanny with fairytales, run by Claire Dean as part of the Leeds Literary Festival. It was an excellent session, which I left with a brain full of bright, buzzing ideas, and with the first half of this story. Huge thanks to Claire, and to Dan Coxon, who made the uncanny strand of the festival happen.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox once a month.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.