“What if there really are giants?” the girl asked from the backseat.
“Giants?” her father repeated from the driver’s seat. “Sure there are. Remember when we looked up that stuff? The most poisonous snake in the world, all that stuff? Remember the world’s tallest person? That guy was way up there. Forget how tall, though.”
“No, no, I don’t mean tall people. I mean giants. The ones that’re taller than houses.”
“Like in Gulliver’s Travels?”
“That wasn’t a giant,” she said from the passenger seat. “He was regular size. The people were really small. The Lilliputians.”
“I always thought he was a giant,” he said.
“Nope. But there was a giant in Jack and the Beanstalk.”
“Right. That was a giant. A giant with a castle in the clouds.”
“What if they’re real?” she asked from the backseat. “What if they’re not in the clouds, but they’re hiding down here? Like behind those mountains over there?”
“Could be,” he said. “I can’t see over those mountains, so they could be there.”
“Would they be mean giants?” she asked from the passenger seat.
A pause, then from the backseat: “Maybe some of them. But not all. Like people. Some are mean, but most are nice.”
“Do the nice ones keep the mean ones in line?” he asked from the driver’s seat.
“Yeah. Yeah, they do.”
“Good. ‘Cause if the mean ones got loose, wouldn’t they smash things? Being giants and all, couldn’t they smash buildings to bits?”
In the rearview mirror, he could see her roll her eyes.
“Why do you go right to the violence?” she asked from the passenger seat.
“Dunno. Just figured if giants are real, then people should be worried. Those giants could snap skyscrapers like they’re made of twigs.”
“What if they’re just shy?” she asked from the backseat. “They don’t destroy things, and they don’t walk around because they’re really, really shy.”
“Could be,” he said. “So… what do they do all day?”
“Hide. Maybe they don’t want people to steal their stuff, like Jack did.”
“Like when he stole the giant’s gold?” he asked.
“Exactly,” she said from the backseat.
“But what if they built castles in the clouds to get away from us?”
“Even that’s not safe. As proven by the story.”
“True, true. I suppose they’re smart to hide then.”
“Yep. ‘Cause they’re really good at it.”
The three of them looked far into the distance, at the clouds and mountains, and tried to see if they could spot any evidence of giants.
A painting by Edward Hopper is provided for Fandango’s Flash Fiction Challenge #113 (#FFFC), one of soft sunlight entering a cafe’s window and illuminating a woman and man sitting at separate tables. Hopper was certainly effective at capturing quiet moments in his paintings. And here’s my attempt at a story behind this quiet moment…
Mistaken Identity? by Dave Williams
Where was Patty? Why did she have to be late for most of their outings? She and Lula had agreed to meet at 9 o’clock Saturday morning. They’d eat breakfast, then walk the town, see what struck their moods.
Lula sighed and glanced at her watch and sipped coffee. Two blueberry muffins eaten while waiting for her friend. Lula had planned to eat only one muffin then decided on a second because she was still a little hungry and the first one tasted so yummy.
And the second muffin had given Lula something to do while waiting. Something besides sips of coffee and gazing through the window at the sidewalk and street and trying to stop wishing the man would stop looking at her. She should’ve brought her borrowed book, My Cousin Rachel. Entering the story would’ve been preferable to this limbo.
Why did the man at the next table keep looking at her? The nerve of that guy. Well dressed, but bad mannered. The man’s head swiftly swiveled away to avoid Lula’s gaze when it turned to him.
Why did Lula have to choose this dress? The style had skyrocketed in popularity after The Seven Year Itch, and some women aimed for a subtler approach to Marilyn’s dress. Just don’t stand too long over a subway grate. You’ll get more attention than you bargained for.
Turning heads was one thing, but leering was much different. But was man at the next table leering? Not exactly. More like close observation. Did he have an itch for redheads?
Why did men have to be so simple and single minded? Of course he was sizing Lula up. Why hadn’t he asked to join her? Or ask to buy her a drink? Was he extremely shy and summoning the courage?
Would she have felt different if the man looked more like Gary Cooper, or another handsome actor?
Lula had enough. She asked, “What do you want?”
“I-I’m sorry,” the man said. “I was watching your mannerisms to see if you matched hers.”
“Princess Britel,” the man said. “You look just like her. But looks can be deceiving.”
“Who’s that?” Lula asked.
“She the only princess in the Land of Osip.”
Lula thought that was an odd name. “Never heard of it. What country is it in?”
“No country here,” the man said. “It’s in another dimension.”
“Huh? Another dimension? You reading one of those spaceman books?”
The man shook his head. “No book. Osip is real. I had to take a dimensional traveler to get here. It wasn’t easy.”
“Are you sauced?”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m not drunk,” the man said. “I swear. My name is Grel, and I’m an agent sent by King Swegnon and Queen Meldrin to find their daughter. The poor princess was kidnapped by the evil wizard Frillbeld, who claims he put her in another dimension and cast a spell to replace her memories with false ones.”
A moment as Lula soaked in the man’s explanation, then she burst into laughter so loud it surprised her, and she covered her mouth with her hand until the laughter settled down. She said, “I’m sorry, that came out unexpectedly. So you actually think I’m this princess? This Bridget?”
“Britel,” Grel said. “I think there’s a good chance you are her. Not only do you match her appearance, you tug at your ear just like her.”
“But lot of girls probably do that.”
“I don’t know. Is it common among women in your dimension?”
“Some of us do it,” Lula said. “Hey, if you’re from another dimension, how come you can speak English?”
“All of us agents are trained in the language of the dimension and country,” Grel said. “Other agents are in other countries right now.”
“I can’t listen to this any longer.” Lula lifted her handbag from the floor and stood from the chair. “Good luck on your, um, mission.”
“Wait.” Grel looked worried. “Can I get your phone number to check if any flashbacks come to you? Memories of when you were in Osip?”
Lula laughed. “There’s the kicker. I’ll give you a point for creativity to try to get my number and ask me out. But you’re a bit on the silly side for me.”
“I’m not lying. It’s the truth. Swear.”
Lula crossed the cafe, pushed through the revolving doors, and stood in front of the store next to the cafe. As long as the strange man couldn’t see her through the window. If he came outside, she’d hit him with her handbag and yell for help.
The photo immediately made me think of fairy tales, of Little Red Riding Hood running through a forest. Instead of going down that path, though, I wanted to try something different. A tree who wants to become a person. Pinocchio with roots rather than strings.
As I started writing, the story’s idea flourished. And the story grew much more than I anticipated. So it’s a bit on the long side. It’s not exactly flash fiction. I hope you enjoy it…
Tree Made Into Flesh
The eldest in the grove of druids heard the tree’s wish as he strolled the woods. Years of meditation had gifted Aelfraed — and a handful of other druids — with the ability to hear trees. But only when the trees spoke loudly enough. Their murmurings were never heard by humans.
This afternoon, a tree directed its voice to Aelfraed: I wish to become a person.
Startled, Aelfraed stood still and tried to figure out which tree had communicated.
Tis me, an oak said.
Why? Aelfraed projected his thought to the particular oak. Why not remain a tree?
I wish to move. Really move. The wind plays with me, and I can move my branches when I concentrate hard. I want more. I walk to walk and run and jump and dance. I want to see other places.
Aelfraed couldn’t remember hearing or reading about such a request from a tree. His heart’s sympathy shone toward the tree, yet his mind chose caution. He thought, I cannot give you an answer right away. I must mull on this dilemma. I don’t know if it can be done.
It can, the oak said. Stories have been passed down of trees becoming people. The druids made a magic to transform them. The tree-people were spotted by other trees who knew they weren’t real humans. Word spread of the journeys of the tree-people.
But that could be legend, Aelfraed thought. Made-up stories of old.
It was real, the oak said. Much more has passed in the lands than you humans know of and can even imagine.
Aelfraed nodded slowly. I will think it over and ask the others for advice.
Don’t waste your time, another tree said. It’s a foolish wish.
Stay a tree, yet another tree said to the oak. You are lucky to be one. Humans live the lives of twigs. We are of sturdier stuff.
I don’t expect you to understand, the oak said. I’ve been wanting it for years, and finally have expressed my desire.
Rather than continue his afternoon ramble, Aelfraed returned to the home of the druids — a circle created by several small cabins and a large dwelling, all log-walled, the trees of which had been prayed over for three days before felling for construction. The circle was centered by fruit trees and a garden of vegetables and herbs.
As Aelfraed called out to his fellow druids for a meeting, they stopped their tasks to assemble in the large dwelling’s main room. The elder spoke of his experience in the woods. The other druids listened with growing wonder, and flicked glances at each other. When Aelfraed finished relaying the tale, the fellows gave their opinions.
“We can’t offer assistance to this tree,” said a druid with long, gray hair. “It goes against nature.”
“Aye, that it does,” said one with an especially bushy beard.
“If we did it,” another druid said, “other trees could want the same treatment. Think of the consequences. The forest would lose trees.”
The long gray-haired druid (which, truth be told, described several of the gentlemen) said, “That would be a tragedy. And all the extra people walking about would need extra resources. More food, more houses.”
“That would throw the world off balance,” said the one who always had foul breath, no matter how many mint leaves he chewed.
Aelfraed said, “But that wouldn’t happen if we agreed to help the oak and stopped there. We could refuse other trees if they asked for the same metamorphosis.”
Many druids chirped their agreement with the elder’s statement.
“Why can’t the oak wait?” said a druid. “When it passes on — which will hopefully be years hence, God and Goddess willing — it will go to the Otherworld. It can move about there. Perhaps it will be reborn as a human.”
“No one knows if spirits have a choice in the Otherworld for their next life,” said one who sported a braided beard.
Aelfraed said, “Choice or no, the oak could be reborn as a moving creature. Doesn’t have to be a human. Could be bird, bear, or bug. Any of those would answer the oak’s wish.”
“I hope to be reborn a bird,” one druid said.
Many others chirped their agreement with that hope.
The druids voted on the topic of the oak, and the overwhelming majority chose against helping it turn into a person. One of the two voters on the other side was Garrick, the youngest in the grove.
That night, Garrick waited until his roommates were snoring, then quietly left the cabin and went into the large home. To the small library. Lighting a candle, he searched the crowded shelves for a tome that might include the spell. After a few tries that didn’t offer the answer, a book offered it on a page topped with the title, Transmutation From Tree To Human. The lettering curled ornately on the capital letters. Garrick read the spell once with enthusiasm, realized he didn’t comprehend, then read it multiple times until he memorized the incantations.
Garrick wolfed down breakfast the next morning, amid gentle reprimands of others who said his stomach was sure to gurgle. He paid them no mind. He volunteered for the chore of collecting nuts, so he could head deep into the forest.
There, Garrick whispered, “Which one of you wants to become a person?”
He closed his eyes and concentrated on sounds. Bird song. Wind. Rustling on the ground, perhaps a squirrel or chipmunk. Garrick had been jealous of the elders who could hear trees, and he wondered how many years of contemplation were required for him to accomplish that goal. Now, though, he had to gain the ability if he was to carry out his want to help the oak. Garrick found nothing wrong with the oak’s wish. Let the tree have its dream before shifting to the Otherworld.
However, no tree’s answer alighted on Garrick’s ears — that he could detect. Possibly, the trees talked to him, yet he didn’t have the power to listen. He continued walking, asking the same question in his normal voice. Shouting would’ve spread his query farther, and would’ve raised the risk of another druid overhearing Garrick, then telling the others.
Still no answer came for several days in which Garrick searched the woods, repeating the question. He ventured into different parts of the forest. His mind said this was a fool’s quest, to give up and carry on with his life. But he argued back that he should keep trying.
One afternoon, Garrick’s mind took a break from its debate, and he thought of nothing in particular. The kind of entrancement one gets while giving oneself to the moment, not concerned with past nor future. When one is lured by the rhythms of striding legs and fresh-air inhalations.
Amid the forest’s typical music came something different for Garrick. Tis me, a voice said. The two words appeared in Garrick’s head. But he figured someone had uttered them out loud.
“What?” Garrick asked, turning around and looking for the speaker of the words.
Me, the voice said. I’m the tree who wants to become a person.
It worked! Garrick thought, then he said, “Which tree are you?”
Here. As branches rustled, Garrick kept turning until he saw the trembling branches.
“I can do it for you!”
You don’t have to speak aloud, the oak said. Think on what you want to say, and I can hear it.
I’ll try, Garrick thought. Can you hear this?
I can. So you know the spell?
I used to, Garrick thought. But I can’t remember all of it. I have to study the book again.
Please do, the oak said. And please bring clothes. I doubt my bark will turn into some manner of clothes if the spell works. I hope it works.
As do I. Good idea about clothes. I had not thought of that.
Garrick sneaked into the library again that night, more excited this time about opening the book and reading the transmutation spell. After reading, he closed his eyes and mentally repeated the incantations. Opened his eyes to check if he was correct. Since a few words were wrong, he did the eyes-closed test a few more times to ensure he knew the words. On the way back to his cabin, Garrick took a set of robes from the room of supplies.
The next day, right after breakfast, Garrick set off into the woods. The extra robes were secreted underneath the robes adorning him, so he looked as if his belly was fuller than usual. He followed the trail he had prepared the day before. Two small stones next to trees served as markers for the path he needed. He smiled at the lesson gleaned from a children’s story. The last marker was a circle of pebbles at the base of the oak, now seeming as a necklace to Garrick.
I’m glad to see you, the oak said. I worried that you wouldn’t come back.
“I wouldn’t do that to you,” the young druid said, then realized his mistake and thought, Sorry. I’m not used to this way of talking.
It takes a while to get used to. Do you remember the spell?
I do, Garrick thought as he set the extra robes on the ground. Are you ready? Do you still want to become a woman?
After the oak answered both questions, Garrick drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out. He envisioned the spell book’s page, the careful writing. He spoke the words, focusing on the specific words for female, not wanting to make an error for the gender.
The oak blurred, as rainfall can blur the edges of things. Except now, only one tree was affected. The oak’s blurriness grew in intensity. Garrick watched in fascination as the branches, leaves, and trunk could no longer be distinguished. The blurry mass lowered in size. Its edges began to sharpen. A silhouette came into focus. Then details, then no more blurriness remained. There stood a woman. A handsome woman with brown hair. A nude woman.
“Sorry!” Garrick cried out, whapping his hand over his eyes, which had snapped shut. Two layers to block his vision.
The woman let out a guttural yowl, as if she was suddenly in pain. Garrick asked what caused her the pain, but she still yowled. Garrick braved a peek. The woman was bent over and clasping her head with both hands. She fell, landed on her side. Garrick looked at the ground and went to the robe bundle and placed it on the woman, who had thankfully stopped yelling.
“Put on the robe,” Garrick said, hoping her pain had ended, not that she was getting accustomed to it.
As the druid replaced his hand as blindfold, he heard the woman grunting and the sound of fabric rustling.
“How?” The voice was feminine, with its owner suffering a sore throat. The woman coughed, cleared her throat. “This … this is your talking?” Her voice had smoothed a bit.
“Aye,” Garrick said. “Are you hurt?”
“The trees. They shouted. Shouted I am stupid. Shouted I make a mistake.”
Garrick had not heard the other trees in his head, and he felt sorrow for the woman to endure the punishment. He said, “I’m sorry. Are they still shouting?”
“No. This talking feels strange. And the clothes. I do not know how to wear the clothes.”
“Look at how the robes fit on me.” He tugged the bottom of his robe. “Put this part over your head, then pull it down yourself. Move your arms into the sleeves.”
The woman’s grunts mixed with rustling fabric again. Finally, the woman said she had finished. Garrick released his self-given blinder. Enrobed, the woman stood as if she was drunk or on a frozen pond. She trembled, and her arms windmilled.
“May I hold your hand, so you won’t fall?” Garrick asked.
She consented. Since the woman looked so off balance, Garrick held her left shoulder and her right forearm. His grip helped steady her. Garrick walked slowly, telling the woman to put one foot in front of the other. When she got the hang of it and walked by herself, both of them cheered. She said she was tired, so they sat with their backs resting on trees. The woman said she wanted her name to be Clover. Her tree name was quite long, so she preferred something simpler.
Clover kept looking down at herself. Raising her hands and wiggling their fingers. Sliding her legs to extend them, bending her knees to slide them back. She placed a hand on her belly and said that part felt uncomfortable. Garrick, assuming she had a stomach ache, stood and gazed around to see if mint grew nearby. The idea dawned on him that Clover might be hungry. He offered that as a possible explanation.
“What is hungry?” Clover asked.
Garrick was stunned into silence. Clover looked as a woman, yet her mind was as a toddler about being human. Garrick had been focused on the spell and had spent no consideration to what might happen afterward. While Clover continued to rest, Garrick hunted for edible plants and returned with wood sorrel and chickweed. Clover had no problem with chewing her first meal as a human. The motion came automatically.
The druid took the mantle of responsibility to begin Clover’s education. As a tree, she had never needed to move for nourishment. It was delivered to her. Now she had to work for food. As they walked hand-in-hand, Garrick pointed out which plants could be eaten. They followed a stream’s sound and soon came upon it. Garrick demonstrated how, while kneeling, to scoop up the water and drink it. He told Clover that he had to get back to his home. He would visit her tomorrow. In the meantime, she shouldn’t stray far from the stream, as she required its refreshment. Clover promised, and said she remembered the safe plants to eat. They were already well known to her, from her tree years of witnessing the cycle of growth and death.
In the days afterward, Garrick plunged into the forest and walked to Clover whenever he had the opportunity. He brought her bread, which Clover always ate with fervor. Her confidence and ability in movement grew quickly. Clover laughed as she jumped, skipped, twirled. Showing off her new skills for Garrick. Her excitement was infectious, and Garrick could not help but laugh with her and clap for her progress.
An unexpected feeling bloomed within Garrick. An earnest love for Clover, brighter than what he had felt as a teenager for a few maidens in the village, before he left and became a druid. That ardor differed greatly from the adoration Garrick had for nature and the camaraderie for other druids.
While walking alone and lying in bed, Garrick entertained visions of running off with Clover, stopping at a village where he was a stranger, and starting a new life. Husband and wife. They’d have children. Every day, Garrick would feel the warm glow of Clover’s light. Each time, however, he got after himself. That was a selfish dream. Clover should experience the world beyond him. Let her roam without him. She deserved that.
And so, Garrick didn’t suggest joining Clover as her impatience strengthened to leave the forest. From him, she had learned about village life, what to be careful about when around other people. The lessons helped to prepare her.
Clover had one last request. More comfortable clothes than the druid’s robes. Garrick scorned himself for not thinking more than the kind of Eden he enjoyed with Clover now, and a variation on Eden they could have in a town.
“I will have a dress made for you,” Garrick said. “It will take days to get made, though.”
“It would be worth the wait,” Clover said. “And I’d like it to be lavender colored, please.”
Garrick went to the tailor in the nearest village, and they sorted out a trade. A dress in exchange for many deliveries of fruits, vegetables, herbs, roots, and leaves. Some, Garrick would steal from the druids’ garden. More, he would find in the woods. Plants for eating and plants as medicine. Garrick would have to work for a time after the dress was finished to pay off the debt. Yet he was willing to expend those efforts for Clover’s happiness.
Happy she was when Garrick brought the lavender dress to Clover and held it up. She called it beautiful and marveled over its softness. Far softer than the robes. Garrick turned to face the opposite direction as Clover changed clothes.
When Clover said she was done, he turned back around. Here was a princess from fairy tales. Also a wood fairy from those tales. A combination of magical creature and human. Garrick was at a loss for words, and even more astounded when Clover hugged him.
“Thank you for all you have done for me,” Clover said. “I shall never forget you.”
A storm lashed within the druid. Joy and love for this woman. Shame for his thoughts. The embrace was a sanctuary and temptation.
After a moment, Garrick broke the embrace and stepped backward, saying, “And I’ll never forget you. You should go now. Go and have adventures.”
Tears slid down Clover’s cheek, toward her wide grin. She nodded and began to walk.
Branches reached for Clover, the ends sticking into the bodice and sleeves of her dress. This time, Garrick heard the trees yelling: Stay here! You belong here! You are not one of them! You’ve had your fun, now make him turn you back into an oak! That is your proper life! You defile nature!
Shock held Garrick in place. As if he had become a tree.
But Clover didn’t need a dashing prince to save her. She spun, like in her bursts of dancing, and freed herself. She ran faster than Garrick had seen her run before. Other branches reached, but could not snag her. Seeing the rips in Clover’s dress angered Garrick. This was her first time wearing the lovely garment. Even though it could be mended, the dress would never look the same.
He would never be the same, either. The lavender dress diminished as Clover extended her distance from him. When the lavender spot disappeared, Garrick went home, burdened by a heavy heart.
Several days later, he followed the trail of pebbles leading to the stones that once encircled an oak tree. The circle’s middle was dirt. Garrick found a patch of clover and, with his hands, dug up clumps of it and replanted them inside the circle.
Frequently, Garrick returned to the growing clover with its necklace of stones. He sat by it and spoke of his wishes for Clover, for rich experiences and a life of wonder. The trees did not say anything to him.
I’m writing this letter in the hope it’ll get to someone who enjoys reading of adventure. Jolep said this letter will be delivered to such a household.
My name is Diego Suarez. My adventure started when my family vacationed in Nagua, Dominican Republic. We did the normal stuff people do on a beach vacation, and had lots of fun. One day, we went to a history museum. That was when I learned about Captain Vincente Ochoa. And that’s when my life changed.
In the late 1600s, pirates attacked Captain Ochoa’s galleon, the Nuestra Señora de la Valencia, to capture the load of gold on board. Captain Ochoa blasted the pirates with his cannon. But his ship was severely damaged, and he limped it to the island that became the Dominican Republic. He beached the ship and ordered his men to march into the jungle and bury the chests of gold. Then the men worked to make the Valencia sea-worthy again. But their numbers were decimated by fever, jaguars, and heat exhaustion. None of the sailors was rescued.
The buried gold became legendary. Treasure hunters have searched ever since, yet the gold has never been found.
The legend captured my imagination like nothing had in many years. My life back in Atlanta had become routine. I went out with friends, but getting drunk every weekend grows old after a while. While I dated around and had some great times, I wasn’t in the mood for a serious relationship. The gold gave me a mission above those things, to do something big with my life before I turned 30.
I bought books about Captain Ochoa and read them after work to learn all I could about the man. His life in Spain, becoming a sailor, his exploits on the high seas. Theories of locations where he could’ve beached the Valencia on that fateful day.
I went alone on my next trip to the Dominican Republic, and checked out the locations of the theories. I talked to the locals for clues that might help me. I followed their clues and found nothing. Wild goose chases resulting only in frustration.
Sad to say, the desire to find the treasure overwhelmed my life. I could hardly think of anything else. I quit my job, sold my car and belongings, broke the lease of my apartment.
Once again I went to the Dominican Republic, this time to search every possibility. Only after everything was tried would I have given up. I stayed past my tourist visa, and kept my head down to avoid the authorities.
One afternoon, I became lost in the jungle while following yet another clue. I was thirsty and exhausted. A sudden rainstorm made me seek shelter. A cave entrance on a mountainside beckoned. I slumped off my backpack and collapsed on the cave floor and fell asleep.
Hours later, I was shaken awake. A stranger’s face glared down at me. A face that could’ve belonged to a pirate. Wispy goatee, small gold loop earrings. The stranger demanded I tell what was I doing there. I broke down and told of my obsession with Captain Ochoa’s gold. The stranger took pity on me, said I needed to forget the gold and find a new direction in life. He would help me move toward that. He introduced himself as Jolep Teeko, an elf who lived in the World Beyond the Cave.
When you heard tales of Oz and Narnia, you probably thought places like those could never exist. But they do, dear reader. They do.
Jolep led me deeper into the cave, until it opened to a land that’s on no map. The jungle seemed similar to the one I had left. Teeming with tropical plants, colorful flowers, birds. Except this place had a village built by elves on a sunny spot along a river. When I was seen approaching the village with Jolep, word spread and soon a crowd stood around me. They were slender, long-haired, wore an odd assortment of clothes. I learned they took discarded shirts and dresses from the outside world and patched them together into new clothes.
After Jolep told the crowd my story, I was welcomed. I slept in a hammock until a bed was made. Their eagerness to hear about my life removed my initial shyness. I’ve made many friends. They’re huge soccer fans, and I’ve joined the daily games. I’m not nearly as good as them, and they playfully tease me about my clumsiness. And I’ve helped with fishing and retrieving fruit from high in the trees. The fish, fruit, and grains are so flavorful, they make you swoon. Nightly, they tell stories and play music.
I’m regaining my strength and sanity. Jolep was right: I need to forget the gold. I plan to stay for several more months, then I’ll head to the outside world and start over. The elves tell me once I leave, I can never return to this wondrous place. I wish I could come back, but I miss my family and friends.
Jolep encouraged me to write letters to my parents to tell them I’m okay. Jolep has stationery he stole from a cigar company. My letters will be delivered through an underground system of carrier-elves. And Jolep suggested I write a letter to a stranger, one who appreciates stories of magical places.
Halo Scot did a great job in setting up the environment in this book. The story happens far into Earth’s future, after us dumb humans have demolished most of the planet into an uninhabitable mess. People live in Antartica, either in the downtrodden Shelf or in the city of Zawad. Added to that, the sky has torn a hole, which leads to the dimension of gods.
And that’s not all! (Said in a deep-throated voice of a guy narrating a movie trailer.) Humans are born with special abilities, depending on the season of your birth: spring as healers, summer as mages who can control gravity, fall as shapeshifters, winter as protective shields.
Impressive world-building here. Inserted into this world are our main characters: Julian Kyder and Sira Rune. Both are born on a solstice (Kyder in summer, Rune in winter), so their abilities are especially powerful. The book’s chapters alternate the points of view of these two characters.
We follow Kyder and Rune in part of their childhood, through teenaged years, into young adulthood. And believe me when I tell you this isn’t a “gosh I feel awkward in high school” type of story. Um, no.
Be prepared for dramatic scenes, because this book is a wild ride. Kyder and Rune make their way in this world, taking initiative to better themselves and dealing with horrific events. We see the powerful influences of family, from Kyder’s single mom to Rune’s parents and brother. Shocks that come early will reverberate for years.
I found that I was pulling for the characters and wishing their struggles weren’t so difficult. But the characters are shaped by these, in a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” kind of way.
This ride isn’t for squeamish readers, as Halo Scot has included a content warning in the book’s blurb. Yes, there’s very graphic violence. There’s torture and self-harm. I had never heard of “grimdark” as a story category, and this book is both grim and dark. And it has a gripping story.
This is the first part of the Rift Cycle series, which has four books — all of them have been published.
Here’s the second dragon story, as a different take than yesterday’s story. This one is still meant for young readers, though it’s a bit shorter than the first story…
The Angry Dragon
Once upon a time, there was a castle in the Land of Greengrass. A king and queen lived in the castle, along with their children, Prince Terry and Princess Mary. They were a happy family.
One day, Prince Terry and Princess Mary rode horses out of the castle. People in the village waved to the princess and prince as they passed by. Terry and Mary said cheerful “Hellos!” and “Good days!” to the villagers.
After the village were farms. The princess and prince said cheerful “Hellos!” and “Good days!” to the farmers and the grazing animals. The farmers waved back. The cows said, “Moo.” The sheep said, “Baa.” The pigs said, “Oink.”
After the farms was the forest. Terry and Mary kept going on the road and entered the forest. They liked seeing the many trees and hearing the birds chirp to each other.
Suddenly, there was a crash as tree branches snapped. A dragon landed on the road in front of Terry and Mary!
“I am Vuzgert the Terrible!” yelled the dragon, showing its sharp teeth.
The two horses stopped walking and stared in fear at the dragon. Terry and Mary patted their horses to calm them.
“Is ‘the Terrible’ really a part of your name?” asked Princess Mary.
“Yes!” roared the dragon. “I know who you are. I’m going to kidnap you and demand that the king and queen give me all their gold to get you back.”
The princess and prince drew their swords.
“You’ll have to capture us first,” said Princess Mary.
Vuzgert the Terrible rumbled with a mean laugh. He said, “You don’t have shields, and you’re not wearing any armor. I can burn you to a crisp.”
Princess Mary said, “If you burn us to a crisp, our parents won’t give you any gold. They’ll send an army of knights to come after you.”
Vuzgert the Terrible frowned and said, “Good point. I won’t burn you. Instead, I’ll fight you until you give up. Then I’ll bring you to my hideout. Then I’ll tie you up. Then I’ll fly to the castle and tell your parents to give me gold for you.”
Prince Terry raised his sword and said, “We’re not going to make it easy for you.”
“Wait a second,” said Princess Mary. “Let’s say your plan works. What are you going to do with all the gold?”
“Put it with my other gold,” said Vuzgert the Terrible.
“You don’t buy anything with it?” asked the princess.
“Nope,” said the dragon. “I don’t need to buy anything. I just find stuff to eat when I get hungry.”
“Why do you need the gold?”
“Because it’s beautiful!” yelled Vuzgert the Terrible. “It glitters in the sunlight. I love looking at it.”
“That doesn’t sound fun at all,” said Prince Terry.
The dragon snarled. “It is fun!”
“I have an idea,” said Princess Mary. “We could use your help. We’re going to build a new library that’s much bigger than the old one. You could help by lifting the heavy stones.”
“Ha!” laughed Vuzgert the Terrible. “Why would I work for you?”
“We’d give you a place to live and food,” said the princess. “Our cooks make delicious food. You could play games with the people in the castle and village. Do you play games in your hideout?”
The dragon didn’t look as angry. He said, “No. I just admire my gold.”
“Why not try something different?” asked Prince Terry. “You could have more fun.”
Vuzgert the Terrible thought for a moment, then he said, “It would be nice to try different food. And it would be nice to play some games.”
Princess Mary slid her sword back into its sheath. She said, “As long as you promise not to burn people or houses. And you don’t kill people with your claws and teeth.”
“Okay, I promise,” said Vuzgert the Terrible.
“How about you take off ‘the Terrible’ from your name?” asked Prince Terry.
“Then people wouldn’t shake in fear when they see me,” said the dragon.
“They’ll still be scared of you,” said the prince, who also put his sword away. “Until they realize you’re a nice guy.”
“I could be a nice guy?” asked the dragon.
“Sure, you can,” said Princess Mary. “People can change.”
The dragon smiled. “It’s a deal. My name is just Vuzgert from now on.”
And so, the prince and princess and dragon returned to the castle. The villagers were scared when they saw Vuzgert. But they relaxed after Princess Mary and Prince Terry explained the bargain they had made with the dragon.
Vuzgert was a big help in building the new library. He helped in other projects, such as digging a large hole for a pond, where kids loved to play. Vuzgert was given plenty of food, and he made lots of friends. He was happy with his new place to live.
Recently I wrote a couple dragon stories, very short ones (stories, not dragons) that are meant for young readers. I’m posting the first today, then the second tomorrow. They’re not sequels. They’re different takes on knights having to deal with a troublesome dragon. I’m curious to see which (story, not dragon) gets a better response in likes and comments. Hope you enjoy these!
Two people from the village of Pimfrob walked many miles to the castle. Their names were Osbert and Lefsy. They were glad to sit and rest their tired legs while waiting in line to talk with the king and queen.
When it was their turn, the two villagers were amazed by the beauty of the throne room. Columns rose to the ceiling high above. The walls were covered in gold decorations. The villagers knelt on the red rug.
“A dragon showed up, and it’s attacking our farms,” said Osbert.
“It’s stealing our pigs and cows,” said Lefsy.
“Can you help us?” asked Osbert.
The king and queen talked quietly between themselves. Then the king said, “We will send our best knights to deal with the dragon. You can leave with them tomorrow. Spend tonight at an inn outside the castle.”
The next day, the villagers rode on a wagon. A man named Cadmus sat in front of the wagon and held the reins of the two horses that pulled the wagon. Alongside them, three knights rode on horses. The names of the knights were Lady Regina, Lady Ingrid, and Sir Hartmut.
“Why are only three knights coming with us?” asked Osbert the villager. “Why not a big group?”
“A big group could alert the dragon that we are coming,” said Lady Regina. “Then it might fly to another part of the realm. Three of us can better surprise it.”
Osbert and Lefsy understood the wisdom of surprising the dragon, so they talked of other things during the trip.
The journey took most of the day. When they arrived at the village of Pimfrob, the knights and Cadmus rented rooms at an inn. The horses went into a stable, where they ate oats and rested.
The knights and Cadmus walked to the nearest tavern. The villagers were excited to see the knights, and thanked them for coming to deal with the dragon. The villagers said the dragon probably lived in the mountains near Pimfrob. The knights ate dinner with lots of vegetables, and they drank grape juice.
The next morning, Cadmus helped the knights put on their armor, which shone in the sunlight. Cadmus stayed in the village while the knights rode off on their horses.
Soon, the knights came across a fork in the road. One way continued along the flat land. The other way led to the mountains. The knights directed the horses to the second path, which was more narrow than the dirt road. The path became steep and rocky, but the strong horses easily made their way.
Once the knights reached the top of the first mountain, they looked around. They saw piles of stone on the next mountain. The stones were stacked in a wall in the shape of a circle. In the middle of the circle lay the sleeping dragon.
The horses strolled down the mountain, where more trees grew. The knights tied the horses to trees, because the horses were safer from the fighting that was about to start.
The knights carefully climbed up the second mountain. Their plan was to sneak up to the dragon and shove their swords between its scales while it slept. That would’ve been the quickest and safest way to defeat the dragon.
However, the beast woke up before the knights reached it. The knights were most of the way up the mountain. The dragon rose to sit on its hind legs. It roared and spread its wings. The dragon was scary, but beautiful. Its scales were a mix of blue and green.
“How dare you attack me?” said the dragon in a loud and rumbling voice.
“You’re stealing pigs and cows from the farmers!” shouted Lady Ingrid.
“I have to eat!” said the dragon. “And I shall eat you after roasting you!”
Flames rushed from the dragon’s mouth. Thankfully, the knights were ready. They crouched near the ground, then held up their shields. The fire hit the shields and did not burn the knights.
Lady Regina was an expert archer. When the dragon’s fire stopped, she let go of her shield and took the bow off her back and strung an arrow on the bowstring. Resting on one knee, she took aim and shot the arrow. However, it bounced off one of the dragon’s thick scales.
Laughing, the dragon lifted into the air, its huge wings flapping. It flew a little ways off.
“Hurry!” said Sir Hartmut. “Let’s climb higher!”
He grabbed Lady Regina’s shield, and the knights moved as quickly as they could up the mountain. They knew the dragon needed a break between each time it breathed fire. The fire had to build up in its body before it was released.
At the top of the mountain, the knights climbed over the wall of stones. Now they were more protected.
The dragon roared in anger and bellowed fire. But the rocks blocked the flames, so the knights were not hurt. When it was safe, all three knights lifted their bows and shot arrows. Lady Ingrid’s arrow missed the dragon. Sir Hartmut’s arrow pierced one of the dragon’s wings. Lady Regina’s arrow landed between two scales.
“Ouch!” yelled the dragon. “That hurt!”
“It was supposed to hurt!” yelled Lady Regina. “Now will you leave this place and go back to The Land of Dragons?”
“No!” yelled the dragon. “The Land of Dragons was getting so crowded back there, food was hard to find. Food is easier to find here. I’m staying!”
The battle continued in the same way as before. The dragon was becoming frustrated at not being able to scorch the humans with its fire. And the knights were becoming frustrated by not hurting the dragon. Their arrows plunked off the dragon’s scales. Also, the knights were worried because they were running out of arrows.
Lady Ingrid had an idea. She told it to the other knights, and they agreed to try her plan.
“Hey, dragon!” shouted Lady Ingrid. “Can we stop for a minute and talk?”
“Is this a trick?” growled the dragon, who hovered next to the mountain.
“No,” said Lady Ingrid. “We’re getting nowhere fighting like this. We need to find another way.”
“What other way?” asked the dragon.
“We could use you at the castle,” said Lady Ingrid. “We’re building a new library that’s much bigger than the old one. You could help by lifting the heavy stones. We would pay you with food, so you wouldn’t have to steal it.”
“That’s it?” asked the dragon. “Just lift stones?”
“We could find other jobs, too,” said Lady Regina. “You could pull up trees to make way for a new farm.”
The dragon looked suspiciously at the knights. The dragon asked, “And this isn’t a trick?”
“It’s not, we promise,” said Lady Ingrid.
“Okay, it’s a deal,” said the dragon. “By the way, my name is Maynard.”
The knights walked back to their horses, then rode to Pimfrob to tell the villagers what happened on the mountain. Maynard waited outside the village, so he wouldn’t scare anyone. The villagers were happy the dragon was leaving their area. But they said to be careful that the dragon didn’t cause trouble at the castle.
“Maynard deserves a chance,” said Lady Regina.
The knights and Cadmus left to where Maynard waited, and the group went to the castle. Maynard was a big help in building the new library. He helped in many other projects, such as digging a pond where the village kids loved to swim.
Maynard was given plenty of food, and he made lots of friends. He was happy with his new place to live.
She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted. Three short lines, fired over social media in response to questions of why Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced on the floor of the United States Senate, for daring to read aloud the words of Coretta Scott King.
The authors of the stories in this book are Seanan McGuire, Charlie Jane Anders, Maria Dahvana Headley, Jo Walton, Amal El-Mohtar, Catherynne M. Valente, Brooke Bolander, Alyssa Wong, Kameron Hurley, Nisi Shawl, and Carrie Vaughn
The stories are great examples of how a skilled writer can include a lot of information in a small space. These eleven flash stories manage to create other worlds by offering glimpses of those worlds and allowing the reader’s imagination to expand from there.
In the stories, women strive against forces that wish to keep them down. Several stories begin with the same three sentences: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” From there, the writers fly off in various directions. It’s interesting to see where different authors go from the same starting point.
One character battles a monster to defend a city. Another wants to connect her brain with a neural network. Another strives to escape a labyrinth. Another dares to touch the emperor’s heart.
I enjoyed some stories more than others, which is no surprise in an anthology of stories by different authors. Overall, I found this book to have quality sci-fi and fantasy stories.
As of today, the ebook is free on Amazon, a very nice incentive to check it out.