A Shapeless Voice – A Short Story

I missed Snippet Monday yesterday. Yeah, yeah. Go ahead and yell at me. I’ll send my battalion of children off to attack you (though they’ll most likely just ask for snacks and want you to watch My Little Pony with them.)

Instead, I bring you a short story (quite short, only a tad over 1200 words) from the world of The Half Killed, more specifically, a look into Dorothea Hawes’ life before the events of The Half Killed.

So without further ado (because really, I need to get started on dinner and herd the children inside for French Toast and bacon) here is A Shapeless Voice. Enjoy!

*** A Shapeless Voice

The matron’s woolen dress smelled of perpetual damp, the fumes growing stronger, transforming into a miasma that dulled the senses and brought out a headache when she stood quite near the fire or any other source of heat. The heavy skirt, darkened with dirt near the hem, swished across the scrubbed wooden floor, catching on the edges of threadbare rugs, or knocking the occasional chair off balance.

But it was when she stood over your shoulder, the rough weave of the wool scratching at your arm, that you could think of nothing but brushing it off as you would an irritating insect. Of course, you could not move as you wished, and so you remained still, with the old woman breathing down your neck, her bones creaking in time with the slow, steady cadence of your words.

And when you faltered, she only struck your back with the flat of her hand, your spine straightening, sometimes arching away from her touch. It was never a forceful hit, nothing meant to cause you considerable pain, but simply a reminder that she was there, behind you, beside you, watching, listening to the word of God as recited by your tongue. It became clear, quite soon after your arrival, that she never touched you but to hit you, that this same quirk of her personality was followed through with her treatment of all the other girls. And there were so many of them now, more than enough girls to fill every bed, crammed onto the tiny mattresses in pairs, so that you fell asleep every night to the sounds of heartbeats other than your own as your thin legs fought for a share of the blanket.

As soon as you finished with your turn, the book passed on to the next girl, and then the next, until the entire lesson had been read. One of the other matrons spoke up then, ordering the lot of you to the rooms at the top of the house, and the lights were extinguished behind you, darkness filling your wake as the footsteps of fifty girls stamped up the narrow staircase to the dormitories.

There was some light from the moon, enough to cast shadows on the wall as you stepped out of your dress and took care to hang it on the peg beside your bed. Your shift was scant protection against the cold, and you shivered as you clambered into bed, the stiff fabric sliding up your legs no matter how much you tried to keep it pulled down. The blanket you tugged up to your chin, then over your mouth, just high enough so you wouldn’t have to see the pale cloud of vapor escaping from your mouth on every exhalation.

One by one, the girls around you succumbed to sleep. Better to sleep than suffer through the cold. You were one of the few still with your own bed, and so there was no other body’s warmth to calm the trembling that shook your bones. You wished for sleep to come to you, but it never did, leastways not until the pale, sickly light of dawn brightened the tall, greasy windows. Light, then. A few minutes of rest were what you found before the bells began their ringing, another day called to life with the sound of shuffling feet, of coughings, whisperings, scratchings, all as faces and necks were scrubbed, as the previous day’s dresses were donned, as the fifty pairs of feet tramped along the corridors and down the stairs again to breakfast.

But the sleep itself was not what frightened you. No, no. It was the dreams, the visions that flashed before your eyes, always so close, yet always seemingly just beyond your reach. And the voices… the voices were louder then, because in rest you did not possess the power to fight against them, to shut them out. And knowing this, they taunted you, telling you things you never wished to know.

And come morning, every morning, when the ringing of the bells pushed that other less melodious ringing of sound from your head, there was only more exhaustion than the night before. Though you made every attempt to disguise it, still the other girls inquired if you were well. But you told them there was no reason to worry, and so you washed your face, and braided your hair, pinning it close to your head before covering it with the itchy white cap.

Another day of lessons then, of basic reading and copywork, all of it followed by hours of sewing. Or, in your case, because your stitches had never been fine, of untangling bits of thread and yarn for the others to use. The work was dull, numbing to both body and mind, and you sat with your eyes narrowed, back bent over your task until the light from the windows dimmed. A few candles would be lit, though you still had to bring the work quite near to your face. By the time the call for the evening meal came, your eyes were narrowed to slits, the red reaching in from the corners, stinging until you wiped the tears away with the back of your hand.

Night came again, overtaking you before you were aware of it. The bells rang, and you fell into step behind the other girls. Another night, your dress hanging on the peg, the exhaustion sweeping over and around you until the dreams pressed in again. The voices found you, attacking with greater precision, never pushing at the same place twice in their search for a point of greater weakness.

And when they found it, they slipped inside, all stealth and cunning. One voice in particular struck you with more familiarity than the others, yet it spoke softly to you – so softly – lulling you into a deeper slumber, one that threatened to smother you with its offer of peace and comfort.

The screaming was not enough to wake you. Your throat was already sore from it, as though you had been crying out for some time without any knowledge of it. When you finally opened your eyes, you saw the other girls in the dormitory, all of them crowding away from you, pressed against their own beds, against the walls, a few of them running out the door, falling over each other in their haste to escape.

One of the matrons appeared then, a younger woman with dark hair unbound, still in her nightdress. You remembered the expression on her face, the horror that flashed in her eyes. Then, you noticed it. The placement of the other beds and furniture in the room, all of it shoved far away from your own, as if they’d been swept towards the walls by a great hand. Only your bed, you recalled, sat untouched in its original position.

The matron staggered forward, her hands reaching out for your shoulders, gripping them, shaking shaking shaking until the screaming stopped. You gasped for breath, realizing then how close you were to fainting from lack of air. Before you could blink, before you could form a single word on the tip of your tongue, she struck you across the cheek, the wound stinging from the scrape of her bony knuckles.

A stupid girl, she called you. A monster. And as she spoke, the soft familiar voice echoed the same thought in your ear. Only you were more inclined to believe him above all others.

***

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Roll Call!

I haven’t updated here for quite some time. There are reasons for that. The 6yo daughter went through several months of treatment for Lyme Disease. I discovered I was pregnant, then immediately dove into 2 1/2 months of awful morning sickness. Then the holidays. Now the kids are passing a bug around from one to the other like a demented game of Hot Potato.

But! I’ve been writing. The sequel (hopefully standalone-ish) novella to The Half Killed is well underway, and has a title! The Death Within should have a May release, and I’ll be sure to share cover art and all of those other goodies once they’re finished.

I’ve also jumped back into writing some shorter pieces of fiction. This one that I’m posting today is… different. A bit more sci-fi, I think. It wants to spiral out into something larger in my head, but for the moment, it’s just a snippet of a story/chapter, with a touch of humor (well, *I* thought it was funny while writing it way too late at night) and some new characters. Maybe I’ll spend some more time with them in the future. But for now, meet Dave. DAVE

 

Dave

The sign was in need of a fresh coat of paint.

It wasn’t much of a sign, really. It was wood, and it was vaguely square, and some claimed to see a few indistinct words scrawled across it, but regardless of the various arguments on what was necessary for a sign to be a sign, no one could disagree that this one was due for a bit of freshening up.

The sign hung to the right of a door – a typical door: knob, window, small strip of tape where the glass had cracked – and was meant to direct potential customers through the door and into the shop within. It was not a wholly uncommon occurrence for people to take one look at the sign, and the door, and the entire street before turning around and deciding that their business wasn’t nearly important as they’d originally thought.

Randall Smith paid no attention to the street, the sign, or the door, and the last one only for a  brief moment when the keys from his pocket made an appearance to slide into the lock. The door threatened to stick in its frame, but again, only for a moment. A swift kick to the warped panel of wood, a muttered curse, and he was inside.

The darkness was expected. Randall didn’t wait for his eyes to adjust before he returned the keys to his pocket and strode into the room. The shades were still down, and the square that might have been a window if he bothered to touch it with any kind of cleanser or cloth let in only enough light for him to see his hand in front of his face. He didn’t notice the other eyes that stared at him, blank and lifeless. Or the disembodied limbs crammed onto the already full shelves. One set of fingers twitched, and then there was a hum. Another twitch, and behind the counter, a blank screen lit up with a deep blue light.

“Welcome to Obsolete Robotic Services. If this is your first visit to our location, please step up to the counter, state your name and the nature of your repair.”

Continue reading “Roll Call!”

A Short Story and a Twist of Lyme

Last week, my youngest daughter began complaining of leg pain and her left knee swelled up. A couple visits to the doctor later, some talk about juvenile arthritis and lupus,  and she was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease and is now on a three-week course of antibiotics that will – hopefully! – give this illness the giant, massive kick it deserves.

Because of being distracted by waiting for her diagnosis to come in, I didn’t accomplish much in the way of writing this week. Daughters of Men has sat and collected dust, and aside from the last few edits for An Unpracticed Heart, I wasn’t doing much creatively. And then Monday night, a story began spilling out of me, flooding faster than I could scribble it down on the page, and now it’s Friday and this little 2200 words of something is done.

Writing this pushed me through some massive stress this week, and so here is the result of that stress, a little thing I call… Splintered Teeth.

*** Splintered Teeth

The creature was not as large as the legends had made it out to be.

The stories had betrayed her, tales told at night and over fires, the hands of the elders casting shadows that dipped and swayed, dipped and swayed, fingers taking on the shape of wings that stretched across the night sky and tugged at the edges of dreams just begun. Wings and fire and claws that scraped the earth, a barbed tail that could curl around a mountain peak and wrench the stone away from its foundations.

So the legends had said. As if the weight of all the world and creation could be carried on its monstrous back. Monstrous. Monster. A thing to taint her imaginings and turn them into nightmares. And there it sat, grey and scarred and blind, and curled in on itself, like a cat dozing in the sun.

It clung to the edge of the cliff, claws hooked over the rocks as if the mountainside offered no more space on which it could sprawl. Its tail – thicker and more blunt than the picture painted in her mind – trailed over the side of the cliff and out of sight. And there were its feet, the ones she could see, bearing their cracked, broken talons. Too large for its body, or what its body had shrunk to with the descent of years on its frame.

But it was the wing that drew her gaze, a span of grey tinged with a dull shade of russet. Perhaps it had once borne a more vivid hue, its scales and skin gleaming like a jewel in the daylight. Perhaps it had once been a beautiful, a terrible, a frightening thing. She had assumed so much about it before setting foot on the trail, when the first warning had reached them that the monster had been sighted, spiralling through the fog, a twist of shadow circling high above them.

A dragon.

The last dragon, the elders said. With a hitch of fear in the voices, a wheeze in their lungs as if the creature’s great claws had already begun to wring the life from them.

The last dragon. The end of it all.

Continue reading “A Short Story and a Twist of Lyme”

Flashy Frriday

That’s a typo in the title up there. I’m leaving it because I like it.

Writing has been a bit of a slog lately. Very few new words. It’s also back to summer weather this week and I never work well once the temperatures begin to float above 80 degrees. The only thing I can claim to have accomplished this week is a piece of flash fiction for a contest being held over at Booknest.eu. They’ve posted all the entries – so far – over there, but I’ll plunk mine down here just because. The only requirements (beyond the 300 words rule) was that it contain the words “black” and “wing.”

Buyer’s Remorse

I didn’t expect to see him on my doorstep.

“All sales are final,” I said, shutting the door before he could speak.

“Wait!” He shoved a booted foot in the gap, the oak slab crushing his toes. “I only want to talk.”

I opened the door, releasing his foot back to him.

“Moira.”  

I shook my head. “You gave up permission to call me that.”

He sighed. “Miss Delaney.”

“Better.”

“The potion…”

“… is fake,” I interrupted him. “I told you. Some herbs and spices. A dash of honey to make it go down smoothly. At the most, it might cure your bad breath.”

“It wasn’t for me.” He lowered his chin. “She wanted it, thought it might strengthen our love.”

“She’s a fool.”

“Well…”

You’re a fool,” I added. “Go home. Back to your lovely house and lovely girl and all the riches she’s brought you.”

“Moira,” he repeated. “I’m sorry.”

My hand went to the latch. “Go home, Finn.”

“I should’ve never left you,” he whispered. “But I couldn’t stand to be poor anymore, to toil and slog my way through life.”

I nodded along with his words. “And I gave you nothing,” I said. “Except everything I had.”

“You mix concoctions.” His lip curled upwards. “You’ve no real power, no skill with charms. And I was to work my fingers to the bone, for both of us?”

“You’re right.” I looked down, a study in penitence. “I’ve no skill with charms.”

“Moira, I—”

A whisper from my lips, and he diminished. A plop on the doorstep, and there he sat, all soft black feathers and pointed beak and two small wings.

“No skill with charms at all.” I scooped up the bird. “But that was transfiguration. And if you were smart, you would’ve learned to tell the difference.”

First Keeper by Steven Kelliher: A (mini) Review

First Keeper tells the story of the first Ember of the northern sands, and the nightmarish scenario that led to his awakening. fbdf95e4e244cbe2ab51e211f45e4f77

It serves as a prequel that takes place roughly 15 years before the start of The Landkist Saga, and features cameos by many of the main characters whose trials are chronicled beginning with Valley of Embers.

First Keeper by Steven Kelliher is a short story, only 33 pages long by my Kindle’s count. I have not yet read the Landkist Saga (beginning with Valley of Embers) but I’ll begin this review by stating that this little tease of a tale makes me look forward to diving in to the rest of Kelliher’s work.

The writing has an evocative style, some lines and paragraphs almost carrying a touch of something poetic about them. We’re introduced to Ninyeva, who in turn introduces us to the story of the first Ember by way of a tale told by the fireside.

Keliher’s way with prose might not be for everyone, but I found it to be rich and beautifully detailed right where it needed to be, and the scene of the “birth” of the first Ember is a skillfully wrought thing, one that still sticks in my head several days later.

It is available on Instafreebie here and you can also find it on Goodreads here. This is a quick shot of a story that I definitely recommend.

Midweek and a Short Story

I have a massive to-do list looming over my head, so instead of tackling that I sat down and wrote a short story.

But! Before we get to that, I do have the pre-order link for The Stranger, a horror anthology due out October 2nd that will include my standalone prequel to The Half Killed, “With My Own Eyes.”

Now, the short story.

It’s another entry into the files of That Victorian-era Werewolf/Gaslamp Fantasy Story I Need To Sit Down and Write. (I keep saying “this fall,” but this fall is almost here, so… hmph.)

So read, enjoy, and be warned that it’s a longer one, nearly 6k words. Just so you know.

An Only Pawn An Only Pawn
A flick, a brief push of air as the folded note cuts a path towards the tabletop, and there is the name and particulars of the person I am to kill, written in a cramped, blotted scrawl.

A confession, Reader: I have never killed another person. No matter that I unfold the paper carelessly, that I read the words forged on the surface of the vellum as if I were scanning the details of a shopping list; inside of me there is a great tremor of something—fear, perhaps—that what I have been appointed to do will mark an event from which I can never recover.

“There’s no concern over whether or not the death should appear natural.” The man across the table from me—Edwards, is his name, as if he were a valet come to decry the muddy state of my boots—brushes his knuckles across his jaw before pausing to bite at the edge of a ragged fingernail. Nothing else about him is ragged: his coat and trousers are immaculately tailored, if a bit nondescript. It’s not our purpose to garner attention here, in a middling tavern that treads a delicate line between the upper echelons of London society and the filthier holes of drink and gaming.  

“So a slit throat and all will be well, hmm?” I look at the paper again, at the name that loops its way across the upper corner of the page.

Lady Ariadne Drummond.

Continue reading “Midweek and a Short Story”

“The Stranger” Cover Reveal

Today, on this most auspicious of eclipse days (eh, or it’s the first sign of the apocalypse. EITHER WAY) I am absolutely chuffed to bring you the cover reveal of The Stranger, an anthology in which I will release my horror/fantasy short story, “With My Own Eyes,” a prequel to my novel “The Half Killed.”

Corbeau Cover large

I love it. (Am I allowed to say that? Yes. Yes, I am.)

The release date is set for October 2nd, perfect timing for Halloween and cups of cocoa and crunchy leaves (unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, then… well.) I’ll post again soon with pre-order links as soon as they’re available. Now, time for coffee and some solar/lunar gymnastics…

Stranger Teaser 1

More info can be found at Corbeau Media.