My collection of short stories, Weird Wild, was published on 20 March 2014. The first story I wrote for it was called ‘The Lake’ and was written as part of an online writing challenge. I didn’t know then what it would grow into!
I’ve always loved the woods. There’s nothing more relaxing than walking through forests, unless you’re being chased by a werewolf! We’ve visited forests in the UK, including ‘Wistman’s Wood’ in Dartmoor, as well as rainforests in Latin America and Asia and all helped inspire ‘Weird Wild’, with creepy mists, crooked trees and hidden dens.
The Stone Circle in Weird Wild is definitely inspired by my love of archaeology. I love Stonehenge and have been fascinated by stone circles, both in terms of what they tell us about our ancestors, but also the more mystical elements. My logical, scientific brain (and a number of my tutors!) debunked the idea of ley lines but there’s still something magical about these stones. Who’s to say they aren’t portals to the fairy realm?
How pretty are bluebells? It was an annual tradition growing up to visit ‘Bluebell Woods’ and see them when they bloomed each spring. I was fascinated to learn some of the more nefarious uses of this beautiful, if deadly, bell. I’d also never claim to be a poet, but the poem for Weird Wild was written fairly quickly, the voices and the bells ringing clearly.
So many beautiful lakes inspired ‘The Lake’. Whilst Lago Roja in Bolivia isn’t surrounded by trees like the lake in Weird Wild, the stillness and sense of isolation crept into the story.
Out in the wild!
As always, any sticky plot points were worked out during long walks. There’s something about being outside which definitely clears the fog and helps the writing process.
You can get your copy of Weird Wild from Amazon, or contact me below for a signed copy!
Still buzzing from ‘Train to Busan‘ last night, I was reminded of this short story I wrote a while ago. From memory it was written during a protracted battle with our telecom provider (or as was the case, non-provider!) and I’m sure it’s an issue many people will know well.
Thank you for calling
‘Thank you for calling. Have a nice day,’ Peter disconnected the call, took a deep breath and hit the flashing read button.
‘Hello, your through to TalkPhone. My name is Peter. How can I help you today?’
The female voice on the other end of the phone tersely explained the issues she was having with her mobile telephone.
Not bothering to refer to the script the company ordered all employees to follow, he had long ago memorised it, Peter suggested that the woman turn off the phone, take out the battery and sim, then replace them. He waited patiently as she followed his instructions. Hearing a beep at the other end of the line told Peter that his recommendation had worked.
‘Thank you,’ cried the woman.
‘You’re welcome, madam. Is there anything else I can help you with today?’
‘No, thank you.’
‘Ok, then. Well, thank you for calling. Have a nice day.’
He didn’t mind the work. It was better than his old life and at least he wasn’t hungry any more. They had called him Peter when he first started working there, telling him to forget his old name, that having a Western name was much better. In time, they had been right, he had forgotten his old name. He had forgotten a lot about his past.
Another call. Peter automatically ran through the script, his voice dry and devoid of emotion. However, the man on the other end of the line would not be pacified. Evidently his internet connection had been interrupted and he demanded an explanation. Peter flicked through his script until he reached the section about the internet.
‘There has been a problem at the exchange, sir. Please be assured we are doing all we can to rectify the situation and normal service should resume shortly,’ said Peter, reading the first excuse on the list.
‘The exchange?’ spluttered the man, ‘Do you think I’m an idiot? There’s no problem at the exchange. Where are your offices? Are you in India? I bet you’re in India,’ sneered the voice.
Peter quickly looked at the board at the front of the cubicles, ‘I can assure you, sir, I am in London. It’s cloudy out and I can see the 10.40 tourist boat cruising along the Thames.’
The man on the other end of the line grunted to show he was impressed, but he was not convinced.
‘As I said, we are aware of the problem and our engineers will have it resolved shortly. Is there anything else I can help you with today sir?’ enquired Peter politely, not rising the the anger he heard in the man’s voice.
‘Yes, you can just go and …’ started the man.
Peter cut him off before the man could continue his rant, ‘Thank you for calling TalkPhone. Have a nice day.’
Peter disconnected the call but imagined he could still hear the man swearing. Customers would frequently rant and swear at him. He didn’t really understand why they got so angry and couldn’t empathise with their frustration.
The truth was, Peter, and all those who were around him were in India. The whole village had been suspicious of the white men in expensive suits who had arrived unexpectedly a year ago, offering a solution to their problems.
The red light was flashing. It never stopped flashing, no matter how many calls Peter took.
‘Hello, your through to TalkPhone. My name is Peter. How can I help you today?’
‘Yes, I hope you can help me. I think there’s a problem with my telephone connection.’
Peter looked again at the board in the front, covered with photographs of London, schedules for events, a large clock and the local weather reports. He watched the hands on the clock as they completed their loop and started again, continuous, never-ending. He had never been to London, had never even left the village and now, with his job at TalkPhone, the possibility seemed even more remote.
Around the call centre, there was approximately one hundred of his assorted neighbours and members of his family. All had been recruited when TalkPhone had come to town. They each had a small cubicle just over a metre square, with a desk, chair, headset, phone and the ever-flashing red light. No one had bothered to decorate their cubicles; they only ever looked up to check the board at the front of the room, so why bother? It was just them and the red button.
Pushing the insistent red button once more, Peter said ‘Hello, your through to TalkPhone. My name is Peter. How can I help you today?’
* * *
‘Do we need a bigger workforce?’ asked the man in the expensive charcoal grey suit which matched the colour of his eyes. His features sharp enough to cut glass as he stared out of the office window, overlooking the call centre.
‘I’ve got the boys out scouting for suitable candidates now. TalkPhone has increased it’s sales by 50% in the last quarter and the boys in accounting project it will continue,’ the second man, his face blurred in the blue smoke of his cigar as he creaked back on his chair. His suit was made of the finest materials and rippled over muscles honed not in a gym, but on the streets. While many entrepreneurs were forces to be reckoned with in the boardroom, he had made his fortune by forced takeovers using fists and muscle. ‘Well, when you have a workforce this cheap, you can afford to offer cheap phone calls.’ He barked a laugh while his companion looked out over the hunched figures, huddled in their small cubicles, the red lights on their phones twinkling like stars.
‘Do you think they know?’ the grey man asked.
‘Know what? They don’t know anything, except what we tell them. They don’t feel, they don’t think, they don’t eat and they don’t shit. They never need to take a break and they don’t stop working until we tell them to. Hell, they’re the perfect workforce.’
Despite his earlier nonchalant air, the charcoal grey suited man looked troubled. ‘But what about the smell?’
‘What smell?’ another puff of cigar smoke wafted towards the ceiling.
‘Of decay. They’re decomposing, despite the freezing temperatures in here.’ The man hugged himself involuntarily. The walls of the call centre were thick to keep out the blazing sun and industrial coolers whirred constantly. A light mist descended from the ceiling, coating the workers in a sheen of damp but none moved to brush it away or even seemed to notice it.
Outside the once vibrant village had been turned into a dried mud pool: crops had been abandoned, houses deserted, and cars untended, left to rust on unkept road. Dogs and cattle wandered unchecked with eyes glazed.
‘So? The smell don’t bother them,’ came the reply from behind the cigar.
‘And what happens when their bodies finally give out?’
The laugh barked again. ‘As long as they have a finger to push the buttons and their voices boxes don’t fall out, they work. Besides, there’s plenty more where they came from. Like I said, the boys are out recruiting as we speak. There’s a village downriver. We’ve already started pouring the chemicals into the water. They won’t know a thing. Soon as they start dying off, the boys’ll be there to grab them and bring them back here. Don’t worry.’
Unconvinced, the grey suit turned back to the window.
* * *
‘Hello, your through to TalkPhone. My name is Peter. How can I help you today?’
‘Hello, your through to TalkPhone. My name is Victoria. How can I help you today?’
‘Hello, your through to TalkPhone. My name is Daniel. How can I help you today?’
‘Hello, your through to TalkPhone. My name is Laura. How can I help you today?’
The voices drifted up, mingling with the freezing mist as the zombies kept answering the call of the red button.
I’ve been pouring over my assorted writings in an attempt to get organised and I came across this piece, written but never submitted for a competition/anthology (it was written a long time ago so I can’t remember which). For assorted reasons I never finished it and have never returned to it until now.
Sometimes a story comes to you and it’s easy, a joy, simplicity itself to write. The characters are chatting and responsive to your guidance, the landscapes pour onto the page and as always the villain gets their comeuppance after a suitably exciting battle. And then there are the stories which, frankly don’t work. There’s no one reason why: could be that the characters aren’t fully formed in your mind, or your plans just aren’t fusing. Could be that you’ve only seen one ‘scene’ and there’s not enough for a complete story.
And that’s the case with ‘The Battle of the Deep (or The Battle of Ineray)’. I remember the submission asking for a short story set under the sea. I immediately saw a battle brewing between different sea creatures, with two ambassadors trying to stop the battle. I think I was partially influenced by the Gungans undersea home from Star Wars: Episode One, the Phantom Menace (say what you like about the movie, some of the concept art for the sets was impressive) and ‘The Blue Planet’ BBC show, narrated by David Attenborough. The characters are fairly ‘flat’ by which I mean, I didn’t hear their individual voices, style of speaking but most importantly I didn’t hear what they wanted and needed to say to get the story moving. Whilst my ideas for the characters were only half-formed (I could visualise them and my description didn’t ‘fit’ or do them justice) I wanted a really bright, vibrant and critter-filled underwater world which again didn’t really work out. However, the main issue was that whilst my ideas were vivid, I had no realy story. All stories start with an event, then some action followed by a resolution and with many of my stories I may not have a full map but there’s more than a vague idea but here, nothing. And frankly, all these issues show. It was a struggle to write and while I have no plans to extend this piece at the moment, never say never! Perhaps a rewatch of ‘The Blue Planet’ will help.
The Battle of the Deep (The Battle of Ineray)
*Translated from ancient slan-garr
Viceroy Glimpt looked around him, taking in the encrusted walls, the high scalloped archways and the large open windows. By now he knew every crack, every piece of peeling paint like the back of his hand by heart. He cast a furtive look at the two guards at the end of the corridor and tried not to let his agitation show: his every movement would be reported back to those in charge and he could not afford to cause an incident. Looking at the guards they watched him impassively.
A slight noise to his left altered him to the arrival of the Clerk to the Council. The Viceroy forced his face into neutral.
‘They are ready for you, Viceroy,’ the clerks bulbous eyes stated calmly as he gestured with one of his many arms.
The Viceroy uncurled his long tail. He was long, even for a merman, and his chest was broad, his gills on his neck undulated, fins spreading out from under his arms, silver tail ending in a whip snap, covered in scales, ‘And in what mood is the Council today?’ asked the Viceroy, a snap of his tail bringing him alongside the Clerk.
‘Grey, sir,’ replied the clerk,
‘As bad as that? It does not bode well for our meeting.’ The clerk did not respond to the Viceroy as they reached the large doors which signified they had arrived at the Council Chamber.
The slan-garr were perched around a large table, shaped like a toadstool a single root going down into the ground with the domed top in shades of red. The slan-garr were similarly shaped, with a large dome shell of interlocking plates currently flaring different shades of grey. Pin-like legs protruded from under the shell, continually moving and filtering tiny food particles from the water and easing them up and into their beaks.
‘The dragons are angered, Viceroy.’
‘What do the dragons care? They are creatures of neither sea nor land, but of the air.’
The king nodded his head solemnly, ‘Aye, but their spawning grounds cover both our lands. We have agreed to adhere to the old ways, honour agreements made by our forefathers. You cannot say the same.’
The Viceroy struggled to maintain his calm composure, but the knowledge that the dragons would fight on the side of the slan-garr turned his water cold.
He thought for a moment, then his predator grin slashed across his face.
A bit of flash fiction to enjoy with your Saturday. This was written a while ago as part of a speed-writing challenge and when I was still working for a hospital, which obviously influenced the content. I saw the hard work of the nursing staff and how often their contributions went unnoticed by others and frankly, hospitals after hours are CREEPY, very quiet despite all the people bustling around. Not going to lie, it’s not my usual style but I always aim to challenge myself in my writing so hope you like it.
We are the forgotten. We drift these halls unseen, day and night. We hear them calling, crying out, begging for mercy. But we are powerless to end their suffering. How we wish we could take their pain from them, pull it into ourselves and save them from their fate but that is not within our power and so we continue our eternal vigil.
One of them is weeping in the corner. We glide by, but know that even our gentlest touch will be of no help: where they are they cannot be comforted by us. Another is crying out for water. We move, but there is somebody already there, helping them drink.
Many people complain of the smell but we have been here so long we do not even notice it: the mix of blood, urine, chemicals and drugs can burn the noses of even the most devout veteran but for us it is nothing. It clings to us, penetrates us, is one with us.
Another whimper from one of the beds. We do not move, waiting to see if it grows into a full cry or dies out to a whisper. A hush. This is often far worse than a louder noise and can only foreshadow a bleak end. We move closer, offering soothing noises which mean nothing. Wide eyes greet us, a tremor of the lip and a small mew. They see us but do not recognise us, or fully register we are here. So often we are ignored but we are the ones there at the beginning and the end. Looking down we know it is nearly their time. We smile kindly until the last of the tremors have passed, and their eyes close. They are at peace.
A clatter and padding of unclothed feet tells us we are needed. With one final look we turn and drift away.
We love stories here. Be it the worlds of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler for the Lamb, Scott Snyder for hubby or Gaiman for me, there’s always a yarn being spun (I’m tempted to insert a pun about my knitting addiction here, but I digress).
But whilst I love to read stories, I also love to craft them. I’ve talked before about the voices in my head, telling me their tales (and more than once, their tails!). Way back in 2012 I submitted a short story ‘The Last Dragon Keeper‘ to the monthly Fantasy Faction Writing Challenge. In an open vote, my short story won! As part of National Share-A-Story Month, I thought I’d do a Throwback Thursday to the world of Eui, Rowan and dragons. Click the link to see the original article and carry on reading for my story of The Last Dragon Keeper.
The Last Dragon Keeper
Eui watched as the waves surged towards the shore. Ice had formed on the water, the motion turning it to mush as it covered the smooth grey rocks that acted as boundary between land and sea. She wrapped her arms around herself, trying but failing to keep out the wind, which threatened to tear her clothes and pick at her bones. She knew that her mother would scold her for forgetting her jacket but in her desperation to get out of the house, she had left it, stowed snugly in her wardrobe. Eui stamped her feet to try to warm them but the wind kept forcing its way through her thick boots, biting her toes.
The ground began to shake. It started with a slow trickle of the smaller rocks, which quickly blended with the mush of the ocean water. The larger rocks began to vibrate then roll down the hill and into the water. Eui stood her ground as rocks large and small snapped at her heels, flinching as the larger ones bruised her. Eui breathed deeply, inhaling the familiar ash scent that covered the island more deeply than the perma-snow.
The earth juddered to a stop and Eui carefully stepped out of the pile of stones that covered her feet. The icy slush boiled along the shore then all was still once more. Eui turned as she heard footsteps crunching on the gravel and smiled at her father.
“Your mother is worried about you,” he said, not looking her in the eye but focusing on the ocean.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said what I did.” Eui risked a look at her father but could not read his expression. The silence settled over them, only slightly comfortable.
Finally, taking a deep breath, Eui said, “The dragons are dying father.”
“As are we, Eui, as are we. We can only hope that they die before we do. A dragon alone in this world, without a Keeper, would soon fall prey to the blades of the Sagar.”
If they’re lucky, thought Eui, but she did not pursue the matter.
Every Keeper knew the challenges faced by the dragons. The Sagars were hunters who sold dragon meat and their scales and teeth, which held magical properties. For over a generation they had hunted and killed dragons, depleting their numbers in an unending quest for the perfect hunt: A mythical beast, defined by its purity and beauty. With each retelling of the myth, the dragon grew in grace and size until Eui, who had been told stories of the Sagar which had kept her awake at night, did not recognise the creature as being a dragon but an animal of pure virtue. Knowing no dragon had ever been born matching the myth kept the Sagars hunting and Eui from peaceful dreams.
However, the biggest threat was the dragons themselves. Females would lay between 15-20 eggs and would continually defend her nest from attacks by males. Of the eggs that survived, not all would hatch, with some being trampled. Finally the female, tired and undernourished, would die. If she was lucky, she might see the one or two of her offspring who would emerge from their eggs, snorting flames and growling to be fed.
In the absence of a mother, when the infant dragons smashed from their eggs, they would bond with a Keeper. The Keepers were almost as old as the dragons themselves but they too had slowly grown fewer and fewer until Eui and her brother Rowan were the only non-bonded keepers. The last surviving female was guarding her egg, waiting to die.
“It’s a very special time for your brother. He will be bonded, probably today,” said her father, his eyes remaining on the waves.
“And what about me?” asked Eui.
“Is that why you wish to leave? You lack purpose?”
Eui flashed a quick look at her father. He would claim that it was the wind that brought tears to his eyes, but the clench in Eui’s stomach reminded her of the argument with her mother.
“There is a world beyond the isle, father. I wish to explore and there is nothing here for me. There will be no more dragons once this has hatched and bonded with Rowan. A Keeper with nothing to keep.” Eui’s eyes flooded with tears that threatened to fall. Her father swung an arm around her and gently pulled her close for a brisk hug.
“Come, Eui. They are preparing for the ceremony. I have to get to the Great Hall. Greeson and the elders are waiting for me.”
Together they walked slowly up the beach, slipping occasionally on the loose gravel. Kissing her on the head before gently pushing her towards the settlement, Eui’s father walked towards the mountain. Suddenly he called Eui and she ran to him as the wind stole his words.
“Eui, Keepers are like the seasons. We are currently in the darkest winter we have known, filled with darkness and despair, but after the winter, the spring warmth always comes. Remember, your name means spring in the old tongue. Wait and you will see the beauty when we emerge from the darkness. I know you feel there is nothing for you here, but your brother will need your support and love. Being a Keeper is not easy and he still has a lot to learn.”
Eui gave her father a small smile, then turned and jogged into the settlement, flinging open their door. Her mother looked up from where she was sat by the table, her sewing needle raised. She regarded Eui with a stony expression.
Eui paused, looking contrite under the glare of her mother. “Father said you might need some help preparing for the ceremony,” she said finally.
Her mother laid down her needle. She studied the garments laid out across the table then quietly said, “Go and wake your brother. He needs to get dressed. The ceremony starts soon. The egg is hatching.”
Eui dipped her head and avoided eye contact with her mother as she wound around the large table and up the stairs. Launching into her brother’s room, she jumped onto his bed, bouncing up and down.
“Wakey, wakey,” she called as Rowan swatted at her.
“Get off,” he shouted as Eui continued jumping.
“Mother says you have to get up. The ceremony is going to start soon so you need to get into your dress,” teased Eui.
“It’s a robe,” roared Rowan, sitting up and pushing Eui off the bed.
She landed with cat-like grace, giving him a smug smile. “Whatever. The egg’s hatching. You’re about to become a Keeper.”
“Yeah,” said Rowan without enthusiasm, pulling a shirt from the floor and sniffing it. Deciding it didn’t smell, he dragged it over his head, then ran his fingers through his hair.
Eui watched her brother. Three years older than her thirteen, his training made him appear older but seeing him first thing in the morning always reminded Eui of how young her brother really was.
Playfully kicking him, she ran from the room, calling, “Your dress is on the table. Hurry up or I might spill my breakfast on it.”
Eui charged into the kitchen, Rowan a few paces behind. They both stopped when they saw their mother’s stern face.
“Hurry up,” their mother said, handing Rowan his robe. Smoothing her hair, she stood a little straighter and scowled at her children. “I will see you at the Great Hall,” she said, leaving them.
Eui grinned at her brother. Rowan ignored her and carefully picked up the robes his mother had spent weeks embroidering. Slipping the delicate fabric over his head, it cascade down his body. Checking the sleeves were straight, he tugged at the hem. Eui bit her cheeks to stop from laughing while Rowan slipped into his boots.
“It’s a robe,” he growled.
Eui couldn’t contain herself and started laughing.
Looking down at himself, Rowan sighed, then he too started giggling. “Ok, it’s a dress. Can we go? I have a dragon to meet.”
Together they walked from the settlement towards the Great Hall, Rowan complaining about the cold and the snow getting into his boots. Entering the cave that would take them to the Great Hall, they could hear the Elders singing, and the pained final breaths of the female dragon. The Great Hall was a large cave, which had formed in the mountain, decorated by generations of Keepers. There were designs showing the bonding ceremony, the history of the keepers and dragons, with some designs used to train young keepers.
Eui and Rowan joined their parents, on a large platform just above the pit where the dragon rested with her last remaining egg. The female dragon was large, her scales a burnt orange turning to red on her belly and yellow on her wings. Her breath was shallow and laboured; the keepers knew that it would not be long before she would join her brethren in the flame halls of the underworld.
Eui stole a peek at the egg. It was about the size of a boulder, with mottled brown spots and she heard the frustrated squeaks as its occupier nosed its way out. The Elders stood on the opposite platform, their chants rising and falling with the breaths of the female. The large dragon’s head drooped, rose, then fell again.
Greeson silenced the Elders with a raised hand. “She has passed to the underworld,” he said.
No one made a sound as they watched the dragon ease its nose, then its body and finally its long tail from the egg. It opened its mouth and coughed, sending a ball of flame harmlessly against the wall. Shaking itself, its wings unfurled and the Keepers stood amazed. The baby dragon’s body was a paler colour than its mother’s, but its wings were pure white, veins highlighted in golden scales that caught the light. Shaking its head, it emitted a small bark before experimentally flapping its wings. Its dark green eyes took in the unmoving body of its mother before it spotted Rowan standing on the platform. Another flap of its wings and it was eye level with the platform, barking happily.
The Elders began chanting in the ancient tongue. Eui did not understand all the words but knew it was the song to encourage the dragon to choose its Keeper. Rowan grinned as the dragon looked at him and bowed deeply as he had been taught. The dragon started to dip its head when it caught sight of Eui behind Rowan. Cocking its head to one side it forgot to move its wings, flapping quickly as it began to fall. Rowan remained bowed, but his mother shifted nervously. Rowan dared to peek and frowned when he saw that the dragon was not returning his bow. Finally, he stood and looked at his father, who shrugged his confusion.
Standing, Rowan blocked the dragon’s view of Eui. The dragon craned his neck to look around the boy. Eui looked back wide-eyed back at the creature floating effortlessly before stepping past Rowan and raising her hand towards the dragon.
The dragon swooped close, it’s sudden movement causing Eui to step back in surprise until the dragons long black tongue flicked out, licking her hand. Eui giggled, running her hand along the dragon’s muzzle as it growled contentedly.
“The dragon has chosen its Keeper,” called Greeson, his voice echoing.
Eui stopped playing with the dragon as the words struck her like a physical blow. She looked at Rowan, his face contorted with anger, her mother with her hand covering her mouth in shock and finally her father who was smiling at her. Stepping forward he lifted Eui onto the dragon’s back. Eui hugged the dragon’s neck as it rose and circled the Great Hall.
“Spring has come with the last Dragon Keeper,” Eui’s father said.
I’m terrible at promoting my different books (naughty author!). Anyhoo, here’s my latest short story, in the last of the ‘Fox Pockets’. I’m a HUGE fan of the ‘Pockets’ – they’re inexpensive, easily portable (the fit in your pocket so perfect for mums on the run who need a few minutes diversion, commuters who don’t want to overstuff their pockets or students who need a break from text books. I always joke that I keep mine by the loo as the stories are the perfect length to pee to!) and packed with New and established genre authors. There’s sci-fi, horror, fantasy and more so get your copy from Fox Spirit or Amazon. Check out the reviews on Amazon – my short story ‘Fun At The Fayre’ gets a mention in both!