September 9, 2011 — 43 words
By Terra Whiteman
1889 Labs is looking for an experienced php/Wordpress developer to help with site coding. This will be a paying gig. Those who are interested, please contact MCM at MCM[AT]1889[DOT]ca.
**UPDATE: The position has been filled.
September 7, 2011 — 1,527 words
By Terra Whiteman
Bonnie Sparks is the head book blogger over at Bookish Ardour, one of the more popular book blogging websites in the writing and reading community. She spends countless hours reading and reviewing small press and indie authors, and featuring them on her site for curious and perspective readers.
As you may recall, Bonnie also wrote a rather enlightening guest post last month on 1889 Labs, pertaining to strength vs. intellect in protagonists of fictional stories. And, since Miss Sparks spends a large chunk of her personal time supporting the indie fiction community, I think it's time to return the favor.
This week I had a chat with Bonnie Sparks about her life and passion for literature.
TW: Tell us about yourself. Who are you? Where are you?
BS: I’m a writer and book reviewer based in Australia, in the process of working on my first novel, and an advocate for LGBT causes and raising awareness for lesser-known illnesses.
TW: Tell us about your book blog, 'Bookish Ardour'.
BS: Bookish Ardour is mainly a speculative fiction book blog I began in 2009. I use the term mainly because speculative fiction is what I read and reviewed predominately, but we also review classic literature, LGBT friendly fiction, non-fiction on occasion, graphic novels, and poetry.
BA was first created as a means for me to post about the books I read as well as ramble about other bookish subjects. I then began reviewing on a regular basis and accepting requests from authors. In the last couple of months I’ve been slowly turning BA into a team effort in order to concentrate more on my writing. I’m still looking for more members for the team, but so far it’s working out really well.
TW: Judging from your book blog, you are extremely passionate about literature. What brought on this undying love for books?
BS: I know for me books are not only a wonderful source of entertainment, but also open windows to many divergent worlds and perspectives. People can learn a great deal from reading and it doesn't matter if books are non-fiction or fiction, we’re able to learn from both.
Part of my childhood was a little too serious and real for a young mind to cope with so stories were a great way to have a break from reality, as they are for a lot of people, and I became quite the escapist. On the other hand, in some areas of my childhood, I was sheltered to a degree and reading was another way of learning about different elements to the world. At times I still am an escapist for those reasons these days, but I believe my love of books is tied into being a writer and storyteller as well. At least I find it helps with writing.
TW: Who are your favorite authors of all time?
BS: H.G. Wells and Anne Rice are the top favourites of all time. I've been a fan of Anne Rice since I was 14 and never wavered. H.G. Wells on the other hand is an author I found later and I love his work more for his ideas rather than his writing. Patrick Rothfuss, Anthony Burgess, Stephen King, Tobsha Learner, Bram Stoker, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley are definitely up there as well.
TW: Other than reading, what other hobbies do you have?
BS: Gaming. I go through gamer geek phases when I need a break from books. I also enjoy photography, which I'm getting back into, and dabbling in other artistic areas. Creating something people can use, support forums for example, and working on projects every so often. I currently run my own book club as well and help others to set up their own.
TW: As you know, the book world is changing. For the first time ever, e-books are beginning to outsell print. What are your thoughts on the e-book vs. print topic?
BS: I read eBooks already and it's definitely a medium I'm contemplating for my own novels, but at the same time a small part of me protests against them. In how the world is moving with this digital age making stories not only more accessible, but also possibly attractive to people who can't be bothered to pick up a paperback, is fantastic. If digitising stories can get people, who wouldn't read otherwise, reading than who are we to fault it? What’s more there’s the added bonus of saving trees, which is brilliant, and the amount of space eBooks free up.
The reason a small part of me protests against eBooks is because, like a lot of other bibliophiles out there, I adore books for their physical form as well as what they contain. There is nothing akin to having that book in your hands, feeling the paper, the smell you can instantly recognise, and I admit I love the aesthetics of books sitting in a bookcase.
I’ve spent plenty of time in bookstores and libraries over the years and have very fond memories of doing so. They’re both places I’m comfortable with on top of representing what books are to me; a collection of knowledge and imagination. I would be quite sad if they were to become non-existent.
At the same time, I don’t consider stores and print dying out as something to really worry about. I like to believe there will always be those die-hard fans of print out there, I don’t see why both mediums can’t exist side by side, and a story is not about its appearance. While I’m able to understand those readers out there who are passionately against the popularity of books, I believe that fight it is a waste of time, and we need to adapt.
TW: Aside from reading, do you write? If so, can you tell us a little about it?
BS: Yes I do. I’m currently in the middle of writing a dystopian novel, which I’ve been working on since late last year. I began it during NaNoWriMo and I think it’s safe to say that playing hours of Fallout just before influenced me, but I’ve loved dystopia for years so maybe not. Unfortunately my health has gotten in the way of continuing that story, but I’m now working on getting back on track with it and hope to finish by the end of this year.
I’m also working on a few short story collections and have other writing projects on the backburner, all of which are speculative fiction. I started out writing horror, but I’ve branched out and don’t wish to stick to one genre under the speculative fiction umbrella.
TW: Finally, what do you think books contribute to the human world? What purpose do they serve personally, culturally and societally?
BS: I wonder what books don’t contribute? Enjoyment is only the tip of the ice burg. There’s also the element of escapism, which I personally feel is healthy to an extent because we all need a form of time out every now and then. There’s the ability to educate, incite passion, broaden a person’s mind, and I believe feeding your imagination can help you in your daily life, whether it’s coming up with a solution to a problem, or attempting to see all sides to a story.
On a broader level, ignorance is something that is crippling society; it has been since human kind came into existence. People need a way to emotionally connect and stories have the power to do so while helping to open up a person’s mind. For instance, I already knew about the Holocaust when I read The Diary of Anne Frank in my teens, but when you’re not experiencing the event yourself you’re not always able to understand the extent of how horrifying it is for someone, nor what they’re thinking at the time. Granted reading about it is not similar to being there and never will be, but I believe reading a person’s thoughts and feelings can give another both an insight of what others go through and help one realise we’re all individuals with a shared makeup.
Reading is another way of educating and call me idealistic, but I trust books as a way to help remove ignorance.
Bonnie Sparks is the admin, editor, and a reviewer at Bookish Ardour in between being a struggling writer working on her first novel. You can find Bonnie on Twitter (@Bonnie_Sparks), her personal/writing blog, GoodReads, and Facebook.
September 1, 2011 — 949 words
By Terra Whiteman
Greg X Graves, author of Bears, Recycling, and Confusing Time Paradoxes, has just released Codex Nekromantia, a tale of survivalism in a dystopian world after a zombie epidemic.
Necromancers have filled Constantinople...with zombies!
No, not that Constantinople.
Constantinople, Illinois, a nucleus of urban sprawl in the middle of midwestern soybean fields.
Codex Nekromantia is the chronicle of the survivors of the zombie catastrophe. Well, survivors makes them sound organized. Stragglers is more accurate - besides, how can the self-raised corpse of the city's founder count as having survived anything? Greg X. Graves tells the story of life, love, necromancy, the fragile human condition when caught between the jaws of a very robust human condition, and wholesale zombie slaughter.
$2.99, available in the Amazon Kindle Store (print coming soon)
I also recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Greg X Graves about his newest book.
TW: Tell us a little about Codex Nekromantia. How did you begin writing it? What made you decide to?
GXG: I began writing it in 2005. At the time, I was working on a SERIOUS BZNZ science fiction novel that never took off. Which is a shame, because it involved lots of airborne travel, zeppelins and floating cities and the like. Codex Nekromantia developed as a way to blow off my frustration towards the Novel That Wouldn't Work.
As is the way of things, my blow-off project eclipsed by my main project, both in my excitement level and the completeness of the draft. Still, I've written about a dozen versions of the Codex Nekromantia plot, several of which have abortive drafts attached to them. None of them have the humor of the finished product. But you won't know that until I'm dead. They will never see the light of day while I'm alive. My wife has permission to sell them after I die in case she decides to get into the writing advice market with examples of what not to do.
TW: This is your second book published by 1889 Labs; the first being humor. What made you decide to take on an apocalyptic/dystopian genre?
GXG: While I was writing Codex Nekromantia I didn't really notice the brutality of the plot. In retrospect, yeah. Wow.
In the darkest times people let their light shine. I think that the book betrays my general optimistic feelings towards humanity. Humans are pretty neat. That's unpopular to think, let alone say. And there's plenty of reasons not to: look at all the bombs that we have invented because that town over there is 1. intact 2. not on fire 3. isn't full of enough corpses.
But then again, people are always proving my point, like dragging other people from burning buildings. Don't believe what sour internet commentors or the news say about humanity. They're the equivalent of that loud, angry little man in my head that is constantly shouting about how dull, fat and incapable that I am. He'll be there pouring out his rage and indigestion while the rest of my brain's getting on with life and enjoying a mighty fine sandwich.
Apocalypses magnify otherwise ephemeral qualities, and what I see through that lens is a good humor. I hope that shines through.
TW: Do you have any other works in progress?
GXG: You know that science fiction novel that I mentioned earlier? With the zeppelins and floating cities? The one that spurred me to start a whole new novel so that I didn't have to work on it? In keeping with my newfound tradition of finishing novels that have been knocking around for years, I'm finishing that up this fall.
If you're a fan of World War I, Nikolai Tesla, Marie Curie, really huge explosions, or international intrigue, I hope that you'll check it out.
If you're a fan of quiet little books where not much happens, well, sorry. Lots and lots of stuff will happen, often all at once and to many different characters. Perhaps, um, go have a lie down instead of reading it?
TW: Are there any authors or works that have been an inspiration to you?
GXG: Two major names come to mind: Kurt Vonnegut and Terry Pratchett. Both prove that that fun, interesting and profound are not mutually exclusive.
TW: Aside from writing, what other interests do you have?
GXG: I have served as a Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master, and have written all of the campaigns that I've run. That was always a blast.
A historian by training, part of what draws me to writing is the research.
Apparently, looking around my office, I'm also interested in putting together particleboard furniture.
Finally, Starcraft 2 infests my brain. I'm a frequent lurker on the Starcraft subreddit and watch day9's excellent web series whenever I get a chance.
TW: What are three things you plan on doing before you die?
GXG: Being awesome.
Get your copy of Codex Nekromantia HERE
August 31, 2011 — 2,250 words
By Letitia Coyne
The young men fought bravely, all swordsmen. Their action seemed effeminate and contrived before the brutal onslaught of the veterans, but it kept them alive for a short time. From the moment they burst out of the burning house, Dragan could see it was a rout.
They were outnumbered two to one by men who had survived nine months of every year by killing, and the line of veterans moved as one, bearing down on the cornered defenders.
To his left, Lukas swung a war axe, its twin blades as wide as a man's chest and its handle doubling his reach. The boys who faced him ducked and feinted, but fell.
His own sword bit into flesh, just as it always had, and he moved forward without looking at the faces in his path. He fought because he had no other choice. It would be the last time, he promised himself. There was no case but men at his own door that would make him bear arms again.
To his right, Freya moved with the line. Her step was as fast and as confident as ever, as if she had not been through these months of hell and torment. Her expression was all focused rage, bearing down on a doomed foe. She swung her sword high, turning her weight into the blow as she brought it down on the lighter blade of her opponent. The blades locked, hers sliding down onto his quillon and protective gilded basket, meeting hilt to hilt.
Her position was superior, and Dragan turned away, raising his own sword in attack and bringing it down onto the young man ahead of him. Slicing down onto his unprotected shoulder first, Dragan then reversed the angle as his victim reached instinctively to his wound, thrusting up into his exposed stomach and chest.
He stepped onto the fallen lad, using both hands to draw up the blade stuck fast against bone. Beside him, Freya's opponent took his weight onto his thighs, shifting his balance and using the main strength of his back and legs to drive upward against her hold. He doubled her weight easily, and that in hard, youthful muscle. As Dragan roared in alarm the youth lifted her sword high, turned at the zenith and reversed his swing. His light blade with its fancy hilt and shining gilding flashed.
Freya leapt back, speed and agility still her best defense, but the tip of the blade caught the excess in her tunic, ripping it, catching and dragging her weight awkwardly to one side. In an agony of slow motion horror, Dragan watched her spin. Her left knee twisted, buckling as she turned away from the point. Her sword arm came up and out instinctively to brace against her fall, but the injury in her shoulder was a weakness for which no skill could compensate. Her arm straightened and jarred, her eyes were tight closed, and pain roared from her open mouth as her chest and shoulder caved. She hit the ground hard.
His sword came free, trailing blood in a fountaining arc toward where she lay.
Her attacker had regained his balance and held his sword vertical in a double-handed downward stab. Dragan turned into a backhand swing, the sharp tip and razor edge of his blade rising to catch the young noble just below his ribs. As his momentum carried him in a tripping stumble over where she lay, Dragan swept the lighter sword’s threat aside and slashed back, taking the youth's head cleanly from his shoulders.
To fall out here was to die. Ahead, the crack of Lukas’ axe filled the gap in their line, his swing making good use of the space. Dragan stood above her, straddling where she lay, with his fist and forearm wrapped in the tunic of his headless-foe. He held the gouting corpse like a shield as he peered down at her gore-stained form. None of the blood was hers, but it soaked her like an omen, sliding into dark, gelatinous puddles and draining into the thirsty earth.
Her eyes were wide with pain, and ran with tears of shock. The sword that had once turned like an extension of her own flesh, lay just out of reach as her curled fingers twitched and trembled in the mud. He lowered his sword arm, bending to offer the support of his wrist, and she turned her face up to his, glaring from her own Hell up into his.
For a long moment she lay still, as realizations that needed no words passed between them. Looking away, searching for her sword, she spat and wiped the bloody drool from her lips. Then cradling her right arm tight against her belly, she reached for the strength of Dragan’s forearm, and he pulled her to her feet.
The guerilla fighters rallied, digging-in in the familiar formation of a marching camp as the sun rose over the burning ruin of Lenka's home. They had increased the count of their horses by ten, and their weapons count had doubled. It was a start in a war that would end when there were no more horses to ride or men to wield the swords.
Dragan left them with his blessing and Freya followed him, cursing silently as they rode the track back toward their home. The silence that clenched her anger tight was filled with too many words. If she began, they might never end and she wanted to scream out her frustration, to argue some kind of defense. And if words failed, to slap away the look of relief that eased the lines of Dragan’s face.
His wordless calm spoke to her of justification. He need not answer for lies; his judgment had been proven right. He’d called her incompetent and he’d seen his call vindicated. He was wrong. He was wrong.
Blood had dried in itchy scabs across her arms and inside her tunic, and she picked at the irritation, scratching and flaking the accusing marks from her skin. The blood was not hers; how often had she worn the blood of other men? How often had she caught a sword that had been meant for him? It was only a moment. The morning was a workout after too long in a cold stiff hibernation, but her blood would warm.
It was only a moment. He was wrong. But she couldn’t find the confidence to say the words aloud.
* * * * *
In the darkness, Freya wept silently. Beside her, her husband slept, his breathing slow and even. His arm was her pillow, and as her sadness curled into her back and shoulders, she turned her face into his side, breathing the warm familiar smell of him deep. If every other dream he'd cherished had been a lie, at least he had made her feel safe when she slept beside him. He had made that one impossibility real.
Harder sobs rose at the thought and she sat up, pulling her snuffled breath away for fear of waking him. The air was cold, rushing up her back with a breath of ridicule, and she pulled a woolen rug up over her shoulders. Beneath the coverlet, the warmth of him spread across their bed, surrounding her hips with its comfortable wash. Perhaps sensing her movement, he rolled in his sleep, turning to reach for her, resting his hand on her thigh. It too, was hot against her skin.
Fat tears pushed from under her screwed up eyelids and a breath hiccoughed, as loud as a cry in the silence of the night. She lifted his hand and held the warm palm against her face, letting her tears run into the deep lines of fate. There was strength in his hands, in his long fingers, and she covered them with her own and pressed them close against her cheek. She turned her lips and kissed each finger, forcing a gag of silence over her breathing. The long lost infant she had been clung to him, drawing on the comfort and security the world had never offered her.
Dropping her face in desperate shame, she wove her fingers through his, and held their clasped hands tight against her belly. She had begun to rock, and her tears fell onto the sheet that bunched around her. The silver ring which had grown tight around her index finger, now showed as a dark shadow on her middle finger.
Her hand was fatter. She was fatter and softer.
She'd never eaten so well in her life, and for the chance to be full, to have eaten until there was no hunger gnawing, she had Dragan alone to thank. The little girl within her could never have dreamed of a day when there would be too much food. Smearing tears across her cheek and wiping her nose with the back of her hand, she leaned and kissed his shoulder.
A corner of the sheet hung free and she eased it up and used it to wipe the dampness from her hands and her face. She wadded it tight and pressed it hard against her nose. It worked as well as anything might to muffle the sound as she tried to snort back the thickness that throbbed in her sinus. Two deep breaths through her mouth helped to quieten sobs that still kicked and coughed from her throat.
The crying had to stop, but it was not an easy intention to put into effect. For just a few moments she sat, trying not to think, just breathing some sense of control into her system.
Beside her he snored softly. Her free hand moved out, and traced gently down the line of his jaw. Awake or asleep, his features did not change. They were so familiar. He didn't smile enough, he never had, but this was a face she had grown to love. The heat of fresh tears burned her eyes, and she cursed silently to herself, shaking her head at the pointlessness of all this, and wiped them away.
He loved her, and the burn that knowledge brought was deep in her chest. It seized her heart, stopped its rapid beat with a clench that prevented her breathing. Everything inside set hard and only the screaming that never stopped wailed in her head. She would never deserve that love. It was beyond her and above her.
She brought her knees up hard against her chest and pressed both fists over her ears, as if the noise inside might be silenced that way. Nothing ever stopped it but violence. Nothing but action, and she forced herself to straighten, then to curl herself around and onto her knees, and to climb over him to the floor beyond.
Out of the corner of her eye, a movement caught her attention and she turned to look. Lenka had lifted her head and shoulders and lay propped on an elbow, staring silently at Freya over the ashy fireplace. There were no words to pass between them. Freya felt nothing for the girl lying in those deep shadows, neither friendship nor animosity. In all, she supposed, they were the same, both looking for a way to get what they needed from a world with little enough to spare for anyone.
In his sleep Dragan frowned deeply, mumbling, and a weak smile trembled on her lips for his confusion. "This world makes no sense to me, either," she whispered. She kissed him lightly on the cheek. "I love you."
* * * * *
Dragan woke with his heartbeat heavy. It throbbed a hard pulse in his chest and throat, and it echoed in his head. Before he had woken enough to clear his thoughts of dreams, his body thumped its warning from deep inside. He was aware of the cold air first, and then the emptiness that caused it.
Without opening his eyes, he slipped his hand out to cross the bed beside him. Freya had never woken early, not in all the years he'd known her. His bed was empty and there was a bitter inevitability in that fact. Even the slight hollow where she had lain was cool to touch. All the warmth of her flesh had vanished into the night.
If he rose, he could follow her.
Around him the air was only just beginning to lighten; the house was dark, with only the kiss of silver on the sill. It was unlikely she had been gone more than an hour, and he knew in which direction she would ride. She would join the mustering forces to the north. And she knew he would know where she was, but this time it would not matter if he followed. There would be no more lies, no matter how necessary.
The cock called for him to begin the day, but he stayed. Tears burned hot, and a lump rose in his throat that would not move. With his eyes closed he could believe, just for a few more moments, that she was still beside him. He would rise and she would groan, and snuggle deeper into the pillow and try to stay asleep.
The chance had passed. Too many chances had passed. And he lay on the bed and recounted every one. Just this once he would have held her, and said, "I love you. I need you with me."
It was too late. She was gone.
August 29, 2011 — 2,479 words
By Letitia Coyne
The sun was low as Freya sloshed the wet cloth up over his shoulder and down his back, washing away the muck of a difficult calving. Dragan rubbed his arm with a heavy block of ashy soap, the rough texture scraping at the drying blood.
"Freya," Dragan hissed her name and she spun to the urgent call. "Look."
On the rise above the bier, tracking cautiously down the path toward the house were three riders. In the low light there was little to see clearly enough to identify them. They were armed. One rode with his sword drawn. A long quiver of arrows hung from another saddle.
They were dressed in dark, earthy tones and at least one showed the glint of metal, suggesting mail. That was as much as they could gather, but soon enough they would know more. The riders were slowly approaching them, warily scanning the pastures and buildings for movement or threat.
Freya crouched low and shuffled to the wall where the scythe and harvest hooks hung. She lifted them down carefully and carried them back to where Dragan stood.
The leading rider had noticed the movement and he held out a hand to halt his companions while he walked his horse slowly forward. "Dragan?"
The light was too low for safety, but Dragan stepped forward wiping the damp from his skin.
"We were told you were here, but we weren't sure which farm."
From behind the cover of straw, it was hard to hear the conversation clearly. Once they were close enough to speak without yelling, it became impossible, but Freya watched as they clasped hands like comrades. The other riders approached, dismounting, their weapons sheathed. Dragan welcomed them all and they turned to walk the horses through into the house-yard.
These were farmlands; there were no armed and mounted men in these parts. Unless they were searching for someone. As the riders followed Dragan in through the door, fear and excitement gelled in equal measure, quaking in Freya’s knees and bubbling cold in her stomach. Armed men, here. Tucking the smallest reaping hook into her belt at her back, she edged along the dark wall to the doorway.
Their conversation carried clearly in the warm air, and the first words she heard hit her heart like a jab.
"We heard Freya was here, too."
They were looking for her. There was no good reason for the tears that rose or the urgent need to laugh or sob, but she rested her head back on the daubed wall and slid down onto her haunches. Men had been sent after her. They were fools to walk into her house and sit like ducks, but her desertion mattered enough to the hierarchy for them to send men after her. She pressed a hand over her mouth to muffle the confusion of sobs.
It was too dark on the hillside now for Freya to be certain there were no riders following, so she waited in shadows, listening. Dragan was noncommittal, digging for information from them rather than sharing, and their answers, as they came, stopped her breath and her tears.
"There's been a revolt on the front lines. Not everyone yet, but word is spreading and countless men have already left the fight and turned back to their homes. And now we've returned, and we've found there are noblemen taking our land. Our homes have been claimed. They're moving down the river, this way."
Dragan spoke her burning question for her, "Wait. A revolt? What kind of revolt?"
"It's all been a lie, Dragan, and now we know the truth of it. We heard it from an officer. Right from his mouth.”
Freya listened with sickly apprehension as Dragan teased out the details. She knew the story, she'd lived it. The officer was Tobias Paske, it had to be, and she felt the rock hard certainty of it in her bones. He wasn't dead.
Dragan’s questions were flat, a word or two that seemed heavy with reluctance, but the answers came in a rush of bitterness and passion for revenge.
“We were mustered in a marching camp back behind our lines getting provisions and medical aid a few months back, and an officer was brought in. He was near dead and the boys that brought him in were all from the citadel. They'd been sent out looking for him. And Freya."
Paske had been taken across the peaks to the closest surgeons, and he'd been talking. The men who’d carried him in were already incensed at his ravings by the time they reached the camp. And when the surgeons had him stable enough to be questioned, there was no protocol that could stop the fighting men around him from demanding answers. He'd told them everything. All that he'd laughed and told her. It was true.
Now that same truth had come back in the mouths of the men Freya had abandoned.
"He explained how it is, Dragan. There's a lot didn't believe him, as you'd expect. But I heard him. I was there and I walked away from it all. I might have lived in doubt all my days, but when we got home we found he was telling the truth about this.
"Young noblemen are moving out from the cities into the farmlands and acquiring any land they want. We don't have enough men working the land, and they don't have enough room to live. They're sending us off to die and now they're taking the homes from our wives and daughters."
All the fear and joy had drained from Freya’s face with the heat of her blood.
Dragan was wrong. Paske was alive. It was all true. Everything he'd said was true. And worse.
"There was talk all through the valley about you being here, and we volunteered to come looking for you. Others have ridden back to the front to try to convince the men there that they have to come back. Our blood's better spent keeping our homes."
Dragan had been silent while the stories poured forth. Tales from men they knew, and rumors spreading through the ranks of the war weary from all across the empire. But Freya no longer needed him to voice any questions. She no longer needed to hear the stories told.
She shoved back onto the hard surface, using its stability to push herself up to a stand. He was silent, and she wanted to see his face. She needed to see how he took the news that Paske was not dead. She needed to hear him explain his mistake. He didn’t need to ask any more questions. He needed to answer them.
Rolling against the wall, she turned her shoulder to the doorframe and stepped out into the shaft of light. "He's alive," she said bluntly. The faces at the table might have been familiar if she had troubled to look at them. But she only saw Dragan.
Two stools skidded backward as their occupants stood suddenly. "It is you." One rider dipped his head in a small gesture of respect, and smiled. "Matias. We fought together last season. You remember me?"
Freya flashed a stiff smile at them. "Yes," she lied. Her attention went back to her husband. "He's alive. Paske is still alive."
The second standing soldier bobbed his head toward her, too. "Lukas," he said, and pointing to his seated companion, "Onni."
Again she flicked a smile toward the men, and walked steadily closer.
"He can't have been too lively; I threw him down the slope." Dragan watched his hands, and the standing men moved slowly back into their seats, aware of the tension.
"He was alive enough to talk, Dragan."
Matias had not finished with his appeal, and he broke in over the solid silence between them. "The thing is, Freya, the farms along this valley are being taken. There's barely a league between here and the nearest stolen property. They killed the old man and his wife from the big orchard."
From where she had hidden in Goda's dark corner, Lenka let out a wail of grief and horror. All eyes turned to her and the old woman who pulled her down to comfort her, but Matias continued, "They have a small guard, maybe a dozen. No more. All young men. But they'll only stay there a few days. By then they'll have in provisions and more mounted men will have come down from the north, and they'll move to the next place they feel like taking."
Matias made a fist of one hand, grinding his anger and frustration against the palm of the other. "That's how they've been working so far, and we need every man that can hold a sword. We have to stop them now, before they dig in any deeper. Once their numbers get too high, we'll have no hope but to run." He turned his plea back to Dragan.
"Will you join us?"
* * * * *
Nothing had changed in the room. Not the light, not the air, and yet it seemed to be darker and colder than it had been a moment before. To Dragan, it seemed even the smell had subtly altered. In one instant he'd had everything he'd planned in his life, and in the next it was gone.
The encroaching nobles might come or not, but the core of his hearth and home would be forever changed. The war had come to find him. And so soon.
"How many of you are there?" His voice was already rough with the rub of foreknowledge.
"Here, we have thirty-four. That's all. Most of us are veterans, but we've only got the weapons we carried with us. We need every hand, every sword."
"How long until you expect men back from the front?"
"There aren't enough horses. The riders we sent out will have been on the frontline for days now, but how long it will take them to stir up dissent; and how many will come; and in which direction they'll move, I can't say. Any that do come this way will be traveling on foot."
Freya was glaring at him; he could feel her without looking up.
"You have enough men. If you say there are only a dozen young bucks, all city boys, you can take them without us. Keep their horses and their weapons."
"They're not untrained.” Lukas took up the plea. “Whatever they were planning in the cities, they were planning for a long while. These men are trained up. They're not an easy target, but we can stop them, if we stop them here."
Freya started to speak but he stopped her with a look. "Where are you from? Do you still have a home to go to?"
"My farm has been taken," Mathias answered.
"Gersamian," the others answered in unison, naming a city further west.
"This is my home." Dragan spoke quietly to own his clasped hands. "If nobles are coming and they're as close as you say, then I'll be staying here to keep my own roof safe. As for those already at the orchard, you have the men to deal with them, you don't need us. Take my horses."
"Don't speak for me!" Freya had waited as long as she was content to wait, and he turned up to look at her for the first time. Her face was a mask of pain and anger, but her eyes sparkled with new life. "And no one will take my horses."
She took a seat beside him, her arms crossed on the table. "That farm is not an hour's ride from here. If we don't follow them this time, we have no hope of stopping the young lords when they get here." She turned to face him. "You know I'm right."
She was. All the weights he’d balanced so carefully had shifted, and the crumbling of his lies left no solid ground beneath his feet. In the hard lines that set around her mouth, he could read the words she left unsaid. They were accusation and he had no defense. They were reproach and he had no answer. And she would go.
Lenka's sobbing argued her cause with irritating clarity, while his mother made soft cooing noises and stroked her hair in the darkness. He knew Freya was right; even when his heartbeat was too slow and heavy to admit the cold terror that was rising in his chest; even when he knew it would cost him everything he had. She would go with them, and without her there would be precious little left here worth defending.
"When do you ride against them?" His words slipped out like a sigh of resignation, and he wanted to call them back.
"Tonight, if you're coming. We’ll attack at dawn." Mathias’ face lit with hope he had been afraid to admit. "The others are assembled between here and the orchard."
"Good." Freya nodded, her voice low and loaded with censure. "We're in."
* * * * *
Ahead, scouts moved silently across the summer pasture and her blood rushed with them. She was trembling; each heartbeat seemed to echo from her knees to her fingertips. She would have laughed aloud for the sheer joy of being in uniform, but this was not the time for celebration.
She waited in the trees above the house, where the sun would rise behind her. The men who crouched around her watched silently for the signal that the guards had been dispatched. In all her years of warfare she had never faced a siege, and neither had any of her companions. But the novelty caused her no concern, a battle was a battle. When it came to living and dying there was only the rise and fall of swords. If the buildings were inconvenient, the simple solution was to be rid of the buildings.
Flames smudged orange against the predawn sky as the thatch caught alight. Lenka's family home was fine and wide, with a stone annex and chimney pot over the vent, but its magnificence would not save it from the fire. The men sleeping within would have no choice but to engage on open ground. Their horses were of no use to them, and their sword skill would be matched.
Already the morning felt like a victory.
As the flames slowly took hold, her comrades stood, ready. She didn't look for Dragan; she knew he would be behind her.
In a howling sprint they covered the short distance to meet their enemies, as men burst from the doorway in gouts of smoke. Some were unarmed in their haste to escape. Those clung in close to the mud walls, taking cover between their sword wielding brothers and the heat and falling embers of the roof.
August 24, 2011 — 584 words
By 1889 Labs
We've had quite a busy August, and it's time to do one final recap before we move onto September, which will be full of even more guest posts and new releases!
Kindle: $0.99; Print: $9.99
Set in Iraq, China, and many other places, Bone Fragments reflects the kaleidoscope of life at war, evoking the colors, sounds and sorrows of those in battle, and those left behind.
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Ebook: $2.99; Paperback: $12.99
The second installment of The Antithesis Series
Qaira Eltruan is the Commandant of the Enforcers, Sanctum's Special Military Sect of angel exterminators. The war against the Archaeans has been nothing but a seventy-year stalemate, yet everything is set to change with the arrival of a mysterious Scholar who can serve to sway the battle in their favor. But this Scholar has secrets of her own...
Secrets that may kill them all.
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1889 LABS EXCLUSIVE SERIALS
War is hell, and then it starts to hurt.
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From the dark, basement speakeasies of 1926 Chicago, to the decadent parties of the Hollywood elite, psychopathic Clara slices her way through various people across America in her quest for fame.
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And that's all for this month. See you again in September!
August 24, 2011 — 2,098 words
By Letitia Coyne
"We can sell the horses." He'd been considering it for some time, but it was only in the week since Lenka had returned with the second beast that he had come to a decision. Keeping them made no sense. When they traveled to market they would use the bullock wagon to carry the excess wool and produce, and the grain to be milled. Saddle horses were not necessary.
"No. I look after them. And they're not costing you anything in feed."
It was a long time since he'd seen any real anger in his wife. She'd been calm and accommodating in everything, not making any great demands in the running of the farm or complaining about the chores she'd had to keep up. With Lenka ensconced in the house, she'd followed him into the fields each day, working beside him at anything and everything that needed doing. Calm and biddable in all things. Until today. "They're just good money standing in the yard." He met her anger with his own niggling irritability. "They're solid horseflesh. Someone will pay well for them."
"Money to buy what? Golden buckles? Fancy clothes? I think Lenka has her stitching all planned for the next few years. She's spun new wool to weave already, so we don't need money for clothes." She had her hands on her hips and her feet firmly planted on the ground. He knew that look and that stance. In the last few days she had been antsy and argumentative, and today she was obviously not planning to back down.
Her determination on this point made him equally stubborn. "Why do you think you need a horse?" There was nowhere on the farm more than walking distance and if she did choose to travel to market with him, it would be in the wagon. There were too many memories tied into keeping those horses and he recognized that fact; there was no other reason for her to want them here. They stood nearby with the promise of escape on their broad backs and she had no need for escape. Not anymore.
"Why are you so intent on getting rid of them? They've done nothing to make you suddenly decide to sell."
Ignoring the question, he stood. The sow they were watching had moved out of sight with her piglets, and he strolled through the trees until he caught sight of the foraging family. Freya's anger at the prospect of losing the horses sent a frisson of concern up his spine. More than concern, it was irritation.
When she followed she was stomping along, lifting her skirts high to keep from tripping and skidding down the leafy slope.
Choosing a mossy log, he tapped it with his staff and then sat. "You need new clothes, or at least some linen for Lenka to stitch something new." She wrestled constantly with the loose dress, tugging the bodice down and lifting the skirts. It was made from heavy wool, and in the summer sun it brought a flush to her cheeks and sweat to her hairline. When she worked in the fields, she tucked the hem up into her belt so her legs were bared to the thighs. "You must want something that fits."
"That fits! I don't want this at all." She held the skirt out at him, waving the mud-stained hem in his face. "It's nothing for me to work in the fields like a man, but I have to dress like this? There is no more stupid idea in all the world than that. Look at it."
She had carefully put the worn suede of her uniform aside, he knew. It was folded and placed lovingly at the bottom of their chest, and more than once he'd considered burning it. It was probably something he should do. "That's just how things are done down here, I told you that." Like the horses, the uniform represented a tie to a different time and a different life.
"You told me the neighbors would expect me to dress in skirts. You said they didn't trust a woman in uniform." Her hands gripped her hips again and she'd squared off in front of where he sat. "I could tie branches to my head and cavort naked in the moonlight every night and no one would know. No one comes here. No one cares!"
"It's early days, yet. They'll come around." The image of her dancing naked across the pastures brought a smile, and his smile made her lips go white. "And some of them will start to soften just knowing Lenka is here now." There were times in a past life, when he'd enjoyed stirring her anger just to watch her temper bloom. There were other times, usually when she had access to some sort of blade, when he'd known enough to be careful not to goad her at all.
"Will they now? You said they'd judge me by what I wore, but that wasn't true, was it? The judgment was already made. They won't judge Lenka, though. They'll come to visit for her sake. They'll work with you if she's in the mix. And that's what we want, is it?"
"Yes. It makes everything a lot easier." He was still grinning, even though he knew it was a mistake.
"They'll all be pleased to see Lenka here. You said there was no fat-assed farm-girl. She's easily three pick handles across the rump, that one. So that wasn't true either, was it?"
"Not as you mean it. But it has been better since she's been here." The smile had slipped from his mouth." A lot more peaceful."
"If things get any more peaceful here, Dragan, I swear to you I will turn into that log." She kicked the log he sat on with such sudden force it cracked, and he stumbled forward as he lurched to his feet, almost falling with its pieces. "As it is, I lie in bed at night and count my own heartbeats just to be certain I'm still alive."
Damnable temper the woman had. There were things she should start to count in her favor. If it wasn't perfect, this farm was safe. It was the only place she had. "Yes, I noticed." There was nowhere else for her, she'd said so herself. No one else. "I've had to check you were breathing, myself."
"You know," she said too quietly, "—I'd kill any other man who said that."
"Left a trail of corpses, have you?"
"I should have. I could always start today."
He nodded, regretting his words as they'd left his tongue. There was too much pain in the dark light of her eyes and the tight line of her mouth, too many hidden tears. There was too much of her life they'd left behind, and she hadn't complained. Strains of remorse colored his thoughts. He could afford to give her more time if she needed it to begin to belong here. After all, he had everything he'd ever wanted right now. And she had nothing of her own.
Dropping his face, he asked, "Was this about horses?"
She didn't answer and she didn't look away. The coldness of her glare touched him without needing to see it, and the regret he felt at the jibes slipped over his skin like a shadow.
"Keep them, I don't care. Like you said, they cost nothing to feed." He turned to follow the snuffling piglets and he listened for her footsteps following.
The sow had moved deeper into the trees to where the leaf litter was thick and damp. The rustle of their rooting and the quiet grunts of the mother calling to her young were the only sound. The cool darkness of the forest shade and the still earthy air caught in chills on the back of his neck. When he finally turned to see where she had gone, he stepped back in surprise. Freya was standing behind him, silent.
"Why do you want to sell the horses?" she asked, the words as quietly challenging as her frank stare.
"I told you, they're only wasted here. Money I could use."
"You don't need the money."
"Right, so keep them."
"Why do you want to sell the horses?"
"All right, then." If she was adamant he should tell her. His voice rose. "Because you don't need them." She looked from his eyes down to his feet and her brow furrowed, but he'd begun and the words continued, the accusations. "You want them because you hope you'll get the chance to leave here one day. To go back to doing what you love."
"And I won't."
"And you want to make certain by making sure there is no way I could escape."
"Escape what?" He laughed derisively. "This is the life we chose. This is it. This is all there is. Outside of this farm, there are the cities you hate and a front where you won't survive."
"So you keep saying."
"Accept it. For the love of all things holy, Freya: you are not the soldier you were. You haven't trained for four months, and you're getting soft. You favor the right side all the time, in everything you do. You must see it by now! Even if you are still good, you're not good enough to stay alive out there anymore."
There was no expression on her face at all. Her eyes were vacant, staring past him at something he could not see. Like a corpse. The strident tension in her back and arms had fallen into a slouch, and she shrugged and nodded.
She turned away from him and started walking back toward the riverbank.
"Freya." There was no answer, and she kept walking slowly through the trees. He jogged after her, his heartbeat rising toward panic. Catching her arm, he turned her back to face him. "I'm sorry. You know that. I wish I'd not had cause to say it." But it was said and he cast about urgently for some way to pay back what he'd taken. There was nothing more he could give her, nothing that made up for what was gone.
"And forget the horses. They don't matter. Keep them. Keep everything. I gave you everything I have when we wed."
She smiled, a wan drawing of her lips over her teeth that did not light her eyes. "What made you think I wanted everything you have?" She pulled her arm free and kept walking slowly away.
* * * * *
Freya left him and walked back along the riverbank, seeking the small hollow she had made her own private space. She did not get there often, but at times when she wanted to be sure there were no eyes upon her, it was to this place she came.
For two days now she had felt the rhythmic cramps niggling deep in her pelvis, getting slowly worse, and now the pain was growing sharper with every step. She knew the pain; she'd lost count over the years of how many times her body had spat out its contempt for nature.
At first, as a child, she'd had the tiny lives dragged out by the women above the ale hall using their long, hooked bone. Or been blistered and burned by their pessary wads of black hellebore and rue. As an adult, though, she'd never had the need for intervention. Her body knew she was not fit and fertile ground. Seed never settled in her body for more than a few months.
A trickle of warm blood seeped down her thigh and smeared as she walked, and she lifted her skirt, careful not to let the stain touch any of the fabric. She groaned with one sharp spasm and leaned against the nearest tree, holding her breath to keep from crying out until it passed. Then she walked to her small private place and lay down on the mosses to wait for the pain and the bloody mess to pass.
It was easy to believe the tears that ran silently from the corners of her eyes as she lay there were tears for the pain. When she began to sob, she told herself it was because she was alone with her loss, again, and not because she cared at all for what he'd said. But even when she rolled into a tight ball and cried from the depths of her soul, she knew that this time, like every other, was a simple blessing and one of the few she had ever known.
August 22, 2011 — 2,662 words
By Letitia Coyne
The straw was piled high in the bier, bright and golden and smelling as clean as a summer's day, while inside the house, the odor of decay had pushed Freya past her determination to be content.
Layers of straw and rushes had been laid, and every year a new thatch was leveled over the floor. The old was left beneath the new, year after year, with the waste of life matted down into its depths and left to fester. The stone of Orlik was as hard and cold underfoot as the life it supported, but the warm stench of living in a compost heap was much worse.
The decision had come easily, inspired by the rush to be out of the claustrophobic confines of the house and away from the exasperation of fists clenched in endless frustration. Happy to be moving again in the open air, she tugged armloads of clean straw free, carried them to the door and piled them there, ready. When it seemed she had enough, she set to work with a hayfork and rake, dragging all of the rotting floor covering out into the sun.
As she worked, Goda whined incessantly and Freya ignored her, redoubling her efforts whenever she felt tempted to silence the old woman. It was hard work, and the packed earth floor was damp and musty when its covering was removed. Still, it was worth the toil when she spread the new straw across the floor, and the house began to smell fresh.
Dragan was away on the slopes with his vines, and she knew he'd be pleased by the improvement when he returned. It was something she could do, something to work her strength against, and an effort that would ease the prickling memories of filth and destitution. But the old flooring was piled by the door where she'd pushed it out and it ruined the effect. Shrugging, blowing a hard breath full of fatigue down her chin, she looked at the damp grey pile. She would need to rake it, bit by bit, to the yard for the chickens.
Or she could burn it.
Inspiration spurred her into action once again, and she took a lit brand from the fire and shoved it deep into the driest part of the waste pile. It took a moment to catch, but breezes teased the flame and encouraged it. In a few moments flames were crackling and licking out across the surface, drawing down into the moldy depths, and smoking. The rotting grasses gave off thick grey smoke that billowed up and rushed into the house on the wind.
The louver above could only release a small amount of the smoke and although the window streamed, Freya coughed and choked as the house filled. The smoke smelled of rotten vegetation, and she caught up the pail that held the day's water and cast it over the flames. It dented the blaze a little, but only made the smoky smolder worse. Coughing, she tried to avoid the worst of the billows as she threw a heavy fleece onto the flames and walked up onto it, stamping her feet. Her weight and the thick cover compressed the mass starving the deeper parts of air, and the flames themselves were dying down, but their vapors now carried the reek of singed wool as well as the putrid odor of damp smoky rot.
She was smeared in sweat, soot, and damp mold when the emergency was finally dealt with. The pile of straw and ash still seethed on light breezes and it still blocked the doorway with filth. Far from smelling sweet and clean, the house reeked of dirty smoke and burned hair. It was a disaster. Between fits of coughing, Goda wailed from within, demanding help to get out of her home, and Freya rushed back in to help the old lady struggle out into the clean air.
As they crossed the doorway and out into the sunshine, Freya looked up from her misery to find Lenka standing with their horse, staring horrified at the fire. She seemed frozen as Freya and Goda doubled against each other, gagging the smoke from their lungs. She dropped the reins and ran to them, seizing Goda in loving arms. "Mother, what's happened? Are you all right?"
There was no enquiry after Freya, but it was a relief just to hand over the weight of the old woman. Goda had begun to weep, loudly praising the child of her heart, hugging Lenka hard against her breast, and stroking her hair and her cheeks like she was a precious golden icon.
Shrugging her cape from her shoulders, Lenka strode back into the house and reemerged with the high backed chair and set it steady for Goda to sit. "I had to come back, Mother. My father sent me and said I wasn't to leave here." She glanced over her shoulder at Freya and away, kneeling at the old woman’s feet and clasping her hands. "Will he be angry, do you think? I'm afraid of what he'll say."
Freya answered for Goda, hoping she could head off another tirade. "He won't be angry. He's spoken of sending for you, anyway."
Shock dropped Lenka's mouth open. "When? Should I have come earlier? Why didn't he come for me?" She’d turned, and seemed ready to leap up and sprint across the pastures.
"Goda needs someone to help her and I don't want to do it. He said he might keep you here to do for her."
"He'd keep me?" She smiled, having selected enough of the statement to suit her own purpose and turned back to Goda to share her joy.
"He needs someone to care for his needs, more like," Goda snapped. "He works all day and then does a woman's chores when he comes in. There are some here who have no useful skills in a home. They'd be best suited to the barn."
It was going to start no matter what she did, so she picked her rake from where it leaned against the wall and began to rake the fetid mass toward the yard gate and the chickens.
Lenka's smile widened. "I should fetch him a meal. Where is he now?"
"Out with the vines. You go, quickly. There's pork belly and corn bread in there. He'll be glad of some proper food to work on."
"I should help you clear the smoke, first. You can't stay out here alone." Lenka stood with her hands on her hips, her thick ankles well spaced and reliable.
"You're a good girl. My own sweet daughter. I'll be better now you're home, won't I? And he'll soon remember how good it was to have you here, before she came." Goda dropped her voice, but Freya worked no more than four paces from them so her words were easily heard. She rested her hand on Lenka's stomach and asked, "Has there been any show? Do you know yet if you're rounding?"
"No, no show. That's why my father sent me. I've been home a month and there's been no cycle to see. He's bent on Dragan keeping me. He says he must." She walked swiftly up to the saddle bags and lifted them down, holding them out as she walked back. "He sent these for you. He said you wouldn't have a good choice for fruit with things as they are, so he sent them for you and for Dragan. Also these."
One of the pouches was filled with cherries and plums, and tied to the handle of her basket were four stout jugs. Alcohol, Freya guessed, and she watched the basket that held them move. She hoped they were brewed strong. A well earned blinder would do her good, especially after she'd finished raking this mess.
As darkness fell, she watched Dragan walk across the top of the ridge with Lenka walking slightly behind. The country paragon had wafted the smoke from the building as well as she could, and set the table with bowls of ripe red cherries and a large wedge of cheese. There was cold pork belly fat and onions left out ready to fry. A fine meal, indeed.
And she'd set a pot of vinegar to boil over the fire, its sharp steam driving the smoke vapors away from the walls and the thatch above. She'd taken out the furs and fleeces, all the blankets and linen, and draped them over the stone wall and briars to air in the sun. Then, when she had done all a good wife should do, she'd set out across the field with her basket filled with food and drink for Dragan.
Freya stood by the door, waiting. She had spent the afternoon raking her mess away, and then gone down to the river to try to wash some of the stench from her own skin and hair.
She'd wanted to open the first jug of strong wine and make a start on it, but she'd made herself wait, as she must. Impatiently, she counted the steps it took them to reach the house, trying to will them both to run.
Even as he ate, Lenka sat behind him, holding the jug of brandywine on her lap and waiting for him to drink from his cup before refilling it. His plate was piled high with seared pork and onions. The fruit bowls were moved into easy reach. Under her thigh she'd trapped a skewer, rolling a knob of cheese over the coals to soften and melt for his bread.
She was the perfect wife; Freya knew it with the same certainty that insisted she herself was incompetent. It was an irritation to see her so composed. Lenka knew how to do things that Freya had never guessed anyone needed to do. Freya's response was to take one of the brandy jugs to herself and a chock of bread and some fruit, and to take a seat at the opposite end of the table. She nibbled at the solids, but she poured the warming liquor down her throat with absolute relish.
Goda lay on her bed, contented, a bowl of softened cheese, bread, and fruit resting on the floor in easy reach.
Everything was calm and ordered. Peaceful. There was no need for Goda to point out any deficits tonight, when simple perfection shone for her from the stool behind her son.
Dragan was tense and silent. He didn't speak at all when Lenka served him, or when she brushed her abundant breasts against his shoulder and arm as she served. Although Freya watched her every movement steadily, Lenka never returned her gaze. She was careful to always keep her eyes averted, but that didn't stop a smile of smug satisfaction from flashing across her lips from time to time.
Freya smiled, too, and poured herself another drink.
There was warmth in the air and in the wine. And watching annoyance tighten Dragan's brow while Lenka either ignored it or was oblivious to it, warmed her too, with the expectation of sport. For too long, here, she had let her heartbeat tick away the hours. There was fun to be had in this grim situation, and she grinned just a little as she considered the possibilities.
When the meal was done and Lenka had moved into the shadows by Goda's bed, Dragan leaned his elbows onto the table and raked his fingers up through his hair. "The grapes look good," he said to Freya. "They had enough rain over winter. If it holds off now, they'll be sweet and full at harvest."
There might have been something she could say to that, but it was of no interest. Grapes grew. Sheep fattened and had lambs. Each morning there were eggs to collect from the hens and milk to drain from a cow. Farming was not work that needed any genius, as far as she could see.
"Good," she said.
"The barley is heavy, too. It'll be a good crop, but harvest will be hard work."
"Why?" No genius, maybe, she thought, but muscle and sinew did not ever go astray. She had caught and dragged sheep for shearing, and their small size belied their brute strength in a tussle. Everything about working the land seemed to her to be hard work.
Lenka leapt from her chosen place and rushed to stand by his side. "Father'll send workers for us," she said, smiling her smug half-smile. To Freya directly, she said, "Since you came, none of the neighbors who’d come to help with the harvest will make the journey, like as not. It's a terrible hard job for one man, but if I ask, my father'll send hired workers." She grinned widely, "And even the neighbors’ll come if there is money to be made."
"Problem solved." Freya shrugged and grinned back, "What a helpful little poppet your farm girl is, Dragan. So many ways she can help around the house."
"Leave it," he warned quietly, still resting his forehead onto his hands.
"Skilled. I'd say she was widely skilled. We're lucky to have her here. Where do you suppose she should sleep?"
"Lenka, go back to my mother. This isn't any of your concern."
Her full lips drew into a pout and she dropped her face like a spoiled child, but she dragged her feet off toward the far corner of the house obediently.
"Yes Lenka, go back over there." Freya yawned with an exaggerated stretch. "I need to talk to my husband about grapes."
Dragan looked up from under his brows and shook his head, smiling suspiciously. "Grapes?"
"Yes. This brandy that Lenka was kind enough to bring for us was made from grapes. But, I can taste another fruit." She stood and moved up closer. "You tell me what it is." Leaning in along the top of the table, she turned her face up under his and kissed him softly on the lips. "What's that taste like?"
Feeling Lenka's cold stares across the width of the room, Freya had no need to turn. She wanted to laugh and a smile played on her lips and sparkled in her eyes, but she stood instead and slipped the bows from the lacing of her bodice. Dragan shook his head at her again, but there was no conviction in his rebuke. His smile had grown wider, and there was a strange light in his eyes that moved from sadness or regret, to nostalgic amusement. She just had time to hike her skirts and move to straddle him where he sat, when he reached quickly for the lamp and snuffed the flame.
The stool was too small to hold them both safely, and he chuckled from deep in his chest as the legs wobbled unsteadily. Her basque was easily discarded, its laces serving to hold it closed and nothing more. She lifted it free and wrapped her arms around his neck, drawing loud breaths between kisses and moaning in the darkness as she slid her lips across his cheek. "Tell me about the harvest," she breathed against his ear.
Her teeth brushed the hard muscle of his neck and the heady scent of his skin brought a flush of heat up her throat. He didn't answer, running his hands along her thighs, under the swathes of fabric that draped her hips. His hands cupped her ass, pulling her tight against him and he dropped his mouth to her shoulder. There was no pretense in the rush of her pulse when he stood, lifting her with him, and moved to sit on their bed. In the darkness, Freya slid to the ground between his knees, slipping his tunic up so her lips found the hot skin of his belly. Above her he exhaled in a soft pant, and as she loosened the laces of his breeches, quiet sobbing began in the far corner of the room.
August 21, 2011 — 847 words
By M.E. Traylor
She wanted to do one of those message in a bottle things, one that read something like:
But not only did Hannah not have handwriting that fancy, at this point it just seemed easier to go along with it.
Day three: Recon.
It wasn't actually day three, it was more like week something-or-other, but it was day three of reconnaissance.
She was sweeping the top deck again, because there was nothing else to do and it was outside. It was morning, and it felt nice. Seventies maybe. It seemed like there were more guys up top, sitting around doing stuff with rope, or nets. Some looked like they were playing cards. She had yet to find the inboard motor, GPS, or radio. She needed to find an excuse to get into the cabins. Hannah had gotten to the point where she was starting to work around the big wooden box at the front of the ship, when she found her progress blocked. He was staring out over the sea, and he was not paying attention to the cleaning lady.
"Move." He looked up in surprised irritation, blinking. She swished the broom at him. "Moooove." He kept staring at her, looking vaguely hostile. "Move." Hannah scooted forward, and he backed up, into the box behind him. She heaved an exasperated breath. "Move. Move. Move." She tried to dance around him, just as he tried to step aside, and they ended up blocking each other again. "Move, move, move." He tried to slide past her the other way the same time as she tried to duck that way. "Move move move move—"
Hannah's brain suddenly went blank, and she didn't flash back to when the guy had slapped her when they chucked her overboard. She flashed back the last time she'd been slapped by her mom, for back-talking in that particularly tense space of time right after someone's been laid off, and suddenly every smart aleck remark is a calamity.
The sting went deep, the numbness from the impact wearing off after the first second. Standing there tight with nerves, he looked like he was ready to do it again. Hannah straightened her face to look down at him, trying to comprehend that he had just fucking slapped her.
In movies they never show how much it hurts your goddamn hand to slap someone. At least if you do it hard. And Hannah generally went in for the pound."You do not fucking slap me."
He looked at her, stunned, one side of his face turning pink, as if this was not a possibility he had considered.
She slapped him again, and he threw up his hands in front of his face, tangling their arms. Snatching back her hand, she darted in from the other side and got him again.
"Try that on for size."
"Get back here, you sorry motherfucker."
He was already scrambling away and she kicked a leg out to trip him, dropping the broom. He stumbled, still protecting his face, so she got him one in the stomach.
"Mudut!* Aff— Stop!" Hannah kicked him in the calf, tripping over the tilt in the deck. "I am gonna—"
"You'll what? Fucking slap me?" He kept backing, toward a little group standing on the high side of the boat, a black guy and two white guys, one of whom was Blondie.
Everyone started backing up when it became clear that there would be no deviation in course, but then the guy went and hid behind Blondie.
"Getter off me!"
Blondie looked confused, and also like he was threatening to smile again, in that way that made Hannah think that maybe he wasn't running on all cylinders. Ignoring him, she reached around and whacked at the guy again.
"Fucking whore," she said, catching him as he tried to dash around Blondie.
"How did this start?" Blondie asked, like he was asking the weather.
"She was, aggh! She wouldn' leave me alone, an' I hitter, and then she went crazy—" He dodged again. Blondie took this opportunity to step out of the crossfire. "Juele!"
"Pansy-ass bitch." She smacked the back of his head, then got his arms a couple more times. When she stopped, he froze, arms still covering his head. She pointed at him. "Don't fuck with me." Then she turned around and marched off to find her broom.
"Mirea, toludt fasi ak behom."**
**“Mirea, you have a hilarious life.”
M.E. Traylor writes free sci-fi and fantasy novels over at metraylor.com. Met's current project is Guts and Sass: An Anti-Epic, where you can read about all your favorite fantasy tropes and character types... not quite the way you've learned to expect them.
August 18, 2011 — 3,332 words
By M Jones
The radio spat scratchy ragtime at them as they sped into the heart of the desert, past Perch Springs, past Valentine and its tiny red schoolhouse made especially for Old World settlers. The journey had given up the night and was now fully engulfed in the fireball of day, the heat melting into their every pore.
"I can't wait to meet Charlie." Clara's eyes were wide and bloodshot from lack of sleep and hot sand creeping into the corners. "He won't know what hit him when he meets me, I'm going to walk right up to him and give him a big sloppy kiss, one that says he can't say no to me, no matter how much he might try."
"Charlie Chaplin," he muttered. The motor oil had lost its lustre and now sat ill in his host's gut. He was going to have to get rid of it soon, and since Clara refused to stop the motor car, his only recourse was to retch over the side. A splatter of black littered the passenger door, marring the shining cream-coloured finish. But Clara had other things on her mind, and the wrecking of a car would only mean finding a way to get a new, better one.
He settled back in his seat, feeling sick from the constant rocking motion of the motor car on the uneven road. Clara's rambling was another wave that kept crashing over him, doing its best to capsize his stomach.
"Charlie's a genius," she assured him. Her dark eyes danced with glory, the whites wide in an unsettling eagerness that infected her entire demeanour. "When we get there, you have to be on your best behaviour, no whining in the background, no looking all rumpled and bored. Besides, your target will be there, at Charlie's house, you can feel that like I can the feel the camera on me, and the flicker of that film clicking frame by frame. We're helping each other now, aren't we? Charlie's mad for girls like me, girls with open minds and willing to do what others won't." Her grin was lopsided, her lips bleeding and cracked, blistered from the relentless heat. "We ain't stopping. We're heading straight on, through the heart of Los Angeles and onto Sunset Boulevard, we're going into West Hollywood, and we're going to Charlie's house."
"Glad you know the route." He yawned and settled back in his seat, the queasy feeling of his inner body sloshing inside of his host easing slightly. "We don't even know how long we've been travelling. He might not be home."
"Oh, Charlie will be home!" Her eyes widened further, shots of red piercing the whites in tributary rivers. There was something wrong with her, he thought, and a real nag of concern assailed him as she began her chatter anew, talking of Charlie, of silent films, of Lillian Gish and switchblades and fat men with wallets and one good fella after another, each with a bottle of good booze.
"Charlie, he'll put me in the lead, and I know I'm going to get it. 'Romeo, Romeo.' Do you hear how I'm saying it? All forlorn and hopeless and knowing it's the end? 'Romeo, Romeo.' He'll point that camera of his at me, his lead star, his main lady, his 'It' girl, and he'll shout, loud as you please--'Fire!'"
"They don't say 'Fire' in movies. They say 'Action!'."
"Don't be stupid. They aim and they shoot with those cameras, don't they?" Her bleeding grin was for the highway alone. "We're ready for you, Miss Clara. We'll try that shot, the one Lillian used last time, in The Sparrow. Steady now. We want to see fear, Clara. Real terror. That's right, like a little trapped sparrow banging against its cage. Hear that? That's the clap of a black clipboard by some nobody, that kid who's just happy to be there. He's on his own dime, but he'll give a feel if he gets a part. FIRE!"
* * * * *
He could sense the ocean, even though they couldn't see it yet. The air was scrubbed clean with salt, oxygen-full breezes coursing over them the more they drove. It was early evening on an unknowable day, but Clara was keen to tap her heels and keep the radio tuned to the same scratchy jazz station, the horn blaring in uneven spurts.
"Just listen to that guy play!"
"He's no Langley."
"This one's got a name for himself. He's been in pictures."
"Ones with no sound. There's no comparing, Clara. Langley's soul is in his horn, and you'll only find that kind of honesty in Chicago, in a basement, with no one caring whether or not they hear it."
"You're a big, nasty grey cloud on a sunny day, that's what you are." She did a sharp turn to the right, onto Huntington Drive, following it south. "This will take us right into Los Angeles," she said, her voice breathless. "You can taste the Pacific, we're so damned close!"
He was exhausted. From one state to another, bathed in blood, he had no energy left for Clara's misguided enthusiasm. "We're close to what?"
"Charlie. The party. Your target. Don't you ever listen?"
His host's eyes were partially closed, an expected darkness overtaking them. He was so damned tired.
"Target," he repeated.
"That's right," she said, falsely bubbly and full of energy for her own goals. The switchblade was forgotten in these moments of vanity, but he knew it was ever present in her possession. Her eyes were wider than usual, a strange mania present in her that sent a shiver of worried understanding through his jelly essence. Her lipstick was uneven. There was a tear at the hem of her dress. There were bloodstains on her shoulder. The feather boa she'd taken as a gift from Reggie was tattered and wilted, most of the larger feathers long since torn out by the wind that whipped at them as they drove. She wrapped it around her neck anyway. She looked like a sick bird with a molting disease.
"I need to fix my eyes," she said, a shaky fingertip smudging the days old kohl that lined them, smearing them into black pockets, giving her the appearance of a corpse. She snatched her hand mirror out of her hand bag and with one hand still on the wheel, she fished out her kohl with the other. She propped her hand mirror onto the steering wheel with her elbows, and in this awkward pose managed to apply another line of black without poking herself in the retina. "There," she said, smiling at her ghoulish reflection in her hand mirror. "Let them try to say no to me now!"
"You haven't eaten," he reminded her. "We could have stopped at that gas station, back around Pasadena. You should have had a sandwich, at the least, and a cup of coffee."
"I don't need that sort of thing, not anymore," she said, her words a harsh whisper against the road, his doubts, her own intentions. "I'm going to go to that party, and Charlie is going to have one look at me, and it's all about becoming the flickering light. That little dash between dark and light, that's going to be me, that's going to be my grey shadows up there. Nothing else. Nothing at all, and that's the way it should be."
She drove right, onto Mission Road, and then west onto North Broadway before crossing interstate five. They sped above the Los Angeles River, the desert already a distant memory behind them. Long, spindly palm trees lined their ascent into the arms of Hollywood, a quick jaunt past Sunset Boulevard, where Clara's wide, crazy eyes were pinprick stars in the surrounding darkness. "Almost there, almost there..." She let out a horrific, tortured squeal, one more suited to her victims than as a cry of victory. She released her hands from the steering wheel to punch the air, her feet kicking in happy, barefoot glee. Lines of blood were etched across her ankles. She'd cut her toes driving without shoes.
They pulled into a modest looking house, its front end surrounded by cars of all shapes and sizes, a buffet for those enamoured by the wheels only wealth can buy. She slammed the brakes and pulled the car into park beside a black Chevrolet, the wide expanse of her trunk blocking it in.
"You should park across the street," he tried to tell her, but she was already out of the car, heedless of her bleeding feet, her tattered feather boa trailing behind her. She was roadkill, and she didn't care. She'd made it to Hollywood, to her own target, to this party, and nothing else mattered but shadows and her mindless vanity.
The door swung open and they both slid in, serpents uninvited to that first, perfect garden. She waved her hand high, heedless of the odd looks the wealthy patrons of the party were giving her. "Charlie!" she shouted, trying to gain a small, rather shrivelled man's attention. "Charlie! It's me! It's Clara!"
He broke free of the tousled redhead at his side and made his way slowly towards her, his cane offering him poor support. This wasn't Charlie Chaplin, of course, and judging from the tall glass in his hand it was clear he had more than a small rum runner connection. "Clara," he said, and his voice was broken glass. He held out his arms and she ran into them, giving him a severe kiss on the cheek. "It's good to see you. It's been a little while. Chicago, it's too cold and too far for me, I like the ocean air." He smiled softly and patted her cheek, his eyes as cold as hers were black. A mutual assassin. "Imagine that, you showing up here. You got nerve, kid. You got some kind of crazy devil in you to bring you here."
He glanced up, catching a good glimpse of her companion. "Hey, Frankie. Look who it is. Our old friend, Clara." She winced as he dug his fingertips into her clavicle, her smile faltering slightly as she looked back at the man who had been her companion for her bloodbath of a trip. "Bet you never thought you'd see her again, did you?"
Charlie's watery eyes narrowed as he looked on him. "Frankie...You not feeling good or something? It's the strangest thing, I thought you were on the patio, out the back, by the pool. You got changed, too." He shrugged. "Do what you want, you always do, pal. Just like my little Clara, here. Now come on, sugar, you and me, we got some catching up to do."
"You got a part for me, Charlie? You going to put me in your pretty pictures?"
"Sure, sure. I'll make some pretty pictures of you, all right."
She giggled as Charlie led her into the melee of people, the party in full swing. It wasn't much different from the speakeasy in Chicago, the same worn faces, the same drunkard props at the bar drooling onto the counter. The only difference was the softening salt air that coursed over them, and the desert warmth that refused to fully leave. A Chicago that was easier to bear.
A hand rested on his shoulder. Its familiarity sent a shiver of memory through him, and he closed his eyes against its onslaught.
"I can't believe you brought her here," a voice, so similar to his own, hissed at his ear. "She's a cannibal. She wants to be in films so she can bend out of the screen in spirit and tear into the crowds so she can eat them."
He turned, and wasn't surprised to see a familiar face. It held every nuance that was his usual features, apparent after every host was taken over. A certain cut to the jaw, a definite height and shape of the neck and shoulders. The face was always the same, and it was this face, his own face, that stared back at him in longing sympathy.
"Frankie," he said. He cocked his head to one side and his larger twin did the same. "I was wondering who that was."
"It was you," Frankie said.
"I don't understand."
Frankie smiled. He placed his hands in his pockets, casual and cool, an easiness about him that was envious. "She never told you how she made you." He let out a bitter laugh. "Of course not. Clara and the truth don't see eye to eye."
"Who are you?" he asked, a sudden rush of anger burning inside of him. This man who had his face, his mannerisms, his structure--he seemed more solid, as though there was more of him holding him together. Frankie nodded and gave a friendly wave to a pretty young woman and her beau as they passed. When they were gone, he slid a cigarette out of his side pocket and slowly lit it.
"She was the one who did it. Who tried to kill me. She almost got her wish, but I managed to get away, even if a little bit of me got left behind." He took a drag of the cigarette and let out the thin smoke in a single breath. "That's what you are. Poor Mikey, getting full of that little bit of me, just because she happened to feel a tiny bit of remorse." He laughed and shook his head. "You know what we're made of. Jelly and black tar. Well, she shot me point blank in the face and the host just crumpled up like paper and I fell out. Then she went ahead with that stupid switchblade of hers and started cutting into what solid bits of me she could. Of course, I managed to scrape most of myself together, but I guess you're that little bit I left behind." He took another drag of the cigarette. "I have to give you credit. You lasted all that way with her, and she never once tried to cut you up. That's something even I couldn't accomplish."
He couldn't understand. He didn't want to. It wasn't like this for them, it was humans who were fractured and blindly searching for memory, who put images on screens in hope of silver light to trigger some forgotten emotion within themselves. They wilfully ignored the truth. They didn't see the director shouting orders in the background, the actors carefully memorizing their lines. They didn't see the rising starlet running her palm across the front of the producer's trousers. They saw shadows and light and believed in nothing.
He held his hands against his head, pressing his palms against his temples as though warding off a terrible noise. Langley's horn was a crescendo in his memory.
"Don't tell me any more," he pleaded.
"You know who you are," Frankie harshly chided him. "You're the shadow, that flicker of myself that follows the rules, who can't leave them behind. Cutting you out was the best thing Clara ever did for me." He tossed the remains of his cigarette into the pool behind him, the surface one of polished pearls. "Do you know who our superiors are? Dead weight. That's right, there is no home to go to, no place to rest our weary heads when our target is achieved. They dumped us here to punish us. Criminals who dared to feel singular instead of part of their constantly churning, never fluctuating futures."
"The future was always changing, and there were consequences," he tried to argue. He could feel his voice getting hysterical, his throat constricting in fear. "We can't just walk away from our responsibilities."
Frankie let out a scoff at this. He grabbed two drinks off of a visiting tray from a harried waiter and handed one of them to his twin. He took it and downed it, wishing it was motor oil.
"You should drink more of this stuff," Frankie advised him. "It makes a good preservative. Better than the oil."
"I don't want to talk to you...."
"But you will. What choice do you have? You're me, after all, a little piece that got chopped off and was allowed to grow. I feel sorry for you. Sorry for myself. All you've believed yourself to be is a task, a thing to get done. I'll bet you spent the whole trip obsessing about your target, and how he'd better be here for you to kill. Do you know what the target really was?" He took a sip of his scotch, wincing at is went down uneasy. "It was you. And me. I was so angry they put me here, so miserable to think I was stuck with that psychotic bitch, Clara, I wanted to end it all. And I knew how to do it. Just a wrong look her way, a little threat to her ego by brushing her hair from her eyes and trying to be coy. It's that easy. That's how the devil springs out of her, and it cut me down, blew my host's head off and hacked me into pieces." Frankie let out a bitter laugh over his drink. "Shame it didn't work, of course."
He collapsed against the side wall, settling in among a dried flowerbed. The drink in his hand rolled onto the patio stones, and a drunken actor kicked it out of the way. "Suicide."
"Murder in all forms."
"It's not right. Killing isn't right."
"You picked a strange travel partner, if that's what you believe."
He felt sick, the oil he'd consumed earlier wanting to visit him anew. He grabbed another cocktail off of a wandering tray and downed it, much to his twin's amusement.
"I killed a man," he confessed
His twin merely shrugged. "Who hasn't?"
"He was innocent. He just wanted to find his brother."
Frankie tapped his fingers on the side of his glass. A nervous gesture. A thought turned physical.
He took another swig. A warm rum on a hot night.
"You're right. That is very sad."
They stood studying one another for a long moment, imperfect mirror images that couldn't quite recognize each other. Finally, he let out a long sigh and forced himself to stand, his twin offering his hand to help him up.
"She's a bad person," he said, meaning Clara.
"We're all bad people," Frankie said, reassuring him with a soft squeeze on his shoulder. "But take some good advice and cut her loose. She tried to kill us once. You know what she's like. She doesn't leave anything half finished."
Frankie patted his back. His name was called, and it floated above the crowd, a singsong need for a dance. "That's her," he said, and bit his bottom lip. "She tries to kill me and now she asks for a dance. I know how you feel. You want to be rid of her, but you can't. She'll kill you before you get a chance to do that for yourself. She's like that motor oil, slick and black as death and just as smooth as it goes down. Inevitable. Quick to run you down."
And with this he slid into the crowd, off to his fate with the girl and the switchblade, leaving his accidental twin behind. He had to wonder, how many other splinters of himself were wandering out there, each captivated by a task he couldn't properly fulfil. There could be dozens.
Clara had shot him point blank in the head. The splatter of his essence had to have been significant.
He'd forgotten to ask, how small had he been before he found his way into Mikey's body and grew into it. An inch worth of jellied substance? A droplet?
There could be hundreds of fragments of himself out there, lost, wandering the linear desolation this violent world alone. A mob army of disconnection.
He sloshed within his host's gut. Sick. Unsettled.