Yourself

For the how/why of the writing challenge, see here.

I cheated a little with this one because I had to rush out immediately the original 15 minutes were up, leaving this about half done. So the last half was done some time later, and typed straight onto my computer, seeing as I knew where it was going by then.

I have a nasty feeling I’ve given myself yet another constraint now – because all the pieces seem to involve baking! I’m not sure how long I can keep up a chain story of Manx baking-related tales, but there’s only one way to find out.

Oh, and for non-Manx readers, the man’s name Juan isn’t pronounced the Spanish way, but as it looks – Joo-ann, with a little twist that only a Manx accent can really do justice to (and no, I don’t have one).


Breesha Kinrade was not a fortunate lass. A plain girl, she grew into a plainwoman, and she caught the attention of Juan Cregeen, a plain man with a passion for nothing but the fish he brought up from the depths of the sea. Out on the water on his boat, the Sea Queen, he was as happy a man as ever lived, but on land he was sullen and prone to fits of bad temper, particularly when there was a storm brewing and he couldn’t get away from the shore.

Breesha bore with his surly ways and shouting as well as any woman could – and certainly he never raised a hand to her. But there was no love in their small house near the shore at Gansey, not between man and wife at least. He loved his boat, and she loved her baking.

For Breesha could make dough that you’d swear doubled in size the moment she left it to rise, and her bread was as light and fine as they’d eat in the dining room at Great Meadow, or even at the Governor’s table. But she baked only for herself, her ungrateful husband and the folk around who were too old to knead their own dough. They’d bring her the flour and maybe a little something extra for her trouble and Breesha would make them a fine loaf or a bonnag all gleaming and golden, and everyone would be happy. Even Juan tolerated her baking, because doesn’t even a fisherman need a full belly?

So Breesha was blessed with a talent but unhappy in her man and the poor cottage that was all they had to keep them warm at night.

And then one day on a trip to Douglas to visit her sister Ealish, who worked in a big draper’s shop, Breesha found herself in a bakery that sold the most delicious biscuits she’d ever tasted. Aye, you know the one – the fairy bakery. Because that place chooses them that will eat its wares. But it also chooses those that will serve behind the counter.

Well, the long and short of it was that Breesha soon found herself working there, and it was a terrible long way from Gansey to Douglas, even with the train from Port St Mary. But Breesha was happy. She loved serving the customers – a strange, bewildered lot most of them were, but always so grateful to taste the delicacies she suggested might suit them or theirs. A fine pork pie with glistening jelly might mend a broken heart, while a twist of pastry light as air would do as much for an ailing child as any tincture the apothecary could concoct.

And what was even stranger was that Juan didn’t seem to begrudge her the time spent away from their own hearth. True, she was bringing in wages, and that helped make their mean cottage a little more welcoming, for they could afford coal from time to time to supplement the peat for the fire, and real wax candles too. But he seemed to be more cheerful even than these little additions could warrant, and Breesha was puzzled as to the explanation.

Until one day the Douglas train broke down just outside Colby, and seeing that there was no help for it that day she turned around and walked home. She didn’t mind the walk at all, for it was a fine bright autumn day. And when she thought of it, she wasn’t at all surprised to find her husband sitting on the bench outside their cottage, laughing and singing as only a man deeply in love can do, while a mermaid sat on a nearby rock, combing her long dark tresses and smiling sweetly at him.

Juan jumped up guiltily at the sight of his wife, but the mermaid simply paused for a moment in her brushing and looked boldly at Breesha, then carried on admiring herself in the looking glass.

Breesha folded her arms and glared at the pair of them, but before she could utter a word Juan spoke with fierce determination. “I’m going to the sea”, he said. “I’m going to live beneath the waves with Mona here and never come back on land as long as I live.”

“Indeed, and I’ll not be giving him up”, said the mermaid swiftly. “For it’s plain to see you don’t want him, leaving his house all cold and dark all day and no one to pour the tea or keep the fire burning.” Breesha wondered exactly how the mermaid was going to pour Juan’s tea or stoke the fire under the water, but she’d learned at her mother’s knee that there was no arguing with a Ben Varrey. And, she realised, she felt no inclination to do so.

Instead, she went silently into the little cottage and gathered together her few bits of things – her mother’s Bible, and the little wooden cat she’d won at the Tynwald fair as a child, and the smart hat Ealish had given her last Christmas, and made a bundle of them and her scant other clothes. She’d come back with Simon the carter for her dresser and her fine china another day. Just now she felt nothing but relief at being freed from her marriage. For a husband lost to the Ben Varrey is as good as dead, and no blame at all on the wife who can’t stop him from leaving.

She took one more look around the inside of the cottage, then went out and watched the mermaid, still smoothing her shining black locks, while Juan looked on nervously. And before walking away to her new life she said, “I wish you well of my husband, for he’s been precious little comfort to me. I hope he’ll be more use to yourself”.

Evidence of writing!

Writing exercise #20 – Lighting up

It was always special when it was Selin’s turn to light the beacons. She was lucky that her group of novices had been so small – and that there had been so many who hadn’t made it this far. Well, she corrected herself, remembering Nalia’s pale face and her limbs splayed at the base of the Magnetic Keep, maybe not lucky exactly. But she was glad all the same that her turn came around relatively often – about every 200 days as far as she could tell. It was hard, sometimes, to keep track of time, especially when they did their long practices which could have them emerging, blinking, into the daylight and marvelling at the brightness of the sky after hours – or possibly days – spent in ritual.

Eventually she’d be able to count better and then she’d know what day it was just like Revered Lyanka, who could count seconds better than an automaton, even when she was performing the complicated ritual dances requiring her to sing a rhythm other than the one her feet were keeping.

Lighting the beacons required an awareness of time, too, but fortunately it only had to coincide with sunset, and that was easy to count. Selin had lived here in the Sacred Fort since she was very small, and she knew what the sunset looked like at every time of the year.

And she always started early too, partly because beacon duty was an acceptable excuse for avoiding anything else scheduled for that day, and partly so she would never be late with the final lighting.

She had some time left, still, she knew. Just the right amount of time to prepare the two beacons in the lake and then make the climb to the top of the Forlorn Tower to perform the lighting ritual. Many of the other novices preferred to take the easy option and light the beacons one by one as they prepared them. But ever since Selin had first seen it done, when she was only just old enough to be out of bed at sunset, she had vowed she would always do it properly, the way Revered Amanda had taught the first novices all those years ago.

So she removed her robes and took the wicks and flints and special oils, in an oiled skin bag tied around her waist, and she swam to the two beacons in the lake. One by one she lifted the heavy glass covers onto their special iron stands, prepared the wicks and replaced the covers, always remembering to seal around them with the special red beacon wax and to mark it with the Order’s seal.

And then she swam back to the shore, her arms and legs shaking slightly from the exertion of keeping herself afloat as she worked – and set off on the long climb up to the Forlorn Tower. The beacon there was easy to light, thankfully and this time she was profiting from someone else’s hard work because the large oil vat was nearly full. The only lighting days she disliked were when she had to fill the vat too.

And now everything was ready. She stood at the top of the tower, hearing the faint sounds of the Order drifting up to her in the blueing air, and she breathed the ritual breaths and spoke the appropriate words and finally lit the holy circle – the apparently magical iron ring that sent the flame to all of the beacons at once. The sun sank behind the hills on the other side of the lake, the sky darkened immediately, and the rest of the Order, all gathered in the main courtyard, all sang a single harmonious note at the same time… and the beacons lit.

From the one by her side to those around the curtain wall, the three huge ones on the roof of the main temple and the row of nine small ones on Revered Lyanka’s house, to the two now submerged in the lake – they all shone with a cool white light, and the dusk was suddenly a greyer, more veiled thing around her. And she held her breath and listened. Because now, she knew, they would come.

Writing exercise #13 – Clearly

In case you’re only now coming to this series of short writing exercises, here’s the explanation of what I’m doing.

This one’s a demonstration of why one of my English teachers – not the good one! – used to get so frustrated with me. She could set me any subject and I’d twist it around and produce an SF or fantasy story. It’s also a two parter, though even with the second part it’s once again only the start of something much longer. Second part to follow on Monday.


Being at the top of the Southern Tower always scared her, even now. Somehow it was more frightening being this far above ground but on a fixed surface she couldn’t control than it was being in her dart even higher up. Trust issues, Jared would no doubt say. Would have said… She took a deep breath and brushed away the moisture from her eyes. Up here it would be the wind, anyway.

A voice came from behind her. “Lieutenant Sanna.”

She turned, momentarily made dizzy by her own motion over the transparent material beneath her feet.

“Everything alright, Lieutenant?”

“Yes sir. Sorry sir. Just this…” And she gestured at the 2000 metre height of the tower beneath them, and the Colonel grimaced.

“Gets me every time too. But I thought you flyers were immune to this sort of thing.”

He gave her an arch look and she was suddenly sure he’d seen her tears and was just trying to distract her. After all, he must be well aware that the effect was by no means restricted to the land bound. She smiled gratefully.

“Well, you know how it is, sir. Us flyers just can’t count on you land dwellers to keep it still long enough for us to get away.”

He chuckled and looked down at his feet again, down through the two kilometres of almost perfectly clear building and right down to the ground.

Teej had never been able to understand why their ancestors had built the thing. There were plenty of other tall buildings in Valinq, but none of them made of this glassy material. Apparently it was possible – or would be if they had to power – to polarise the tower’s clear surfaces, providing apparently normal spaces for humans to occupy. But they barely had the power to run the lifts – and thankfully to keep them opaqued – so anyone who came up here had to have a pretty good head for heights, to say the least.

She looked over at the rest of her squad, all in black night issue coveralls with their dart harnesses over the top. One or two of them were finishing last minute equipment checks, but otherwise they were ready. Ready to launch the mission to find out why Jared had died.

How to make friends and influence… dinosaurs?

This a flash piece I wrote for A. Merc Rustad’s wonderful Robot Dinosaurs. They didn’t choose it for publication, but that’s OK. Anything that makes me write, and finish, a piece, is good! Also, this one isn’t strictly about a dinosaur (although I only discovered that as I was writing it…)


 

She’s slumped in the sweltering shade in the garden, sweating and irritated, when she first hears the noise. Of course, that’s not actually strictly true – she was a kid when she first heard it in some corny old film, and there was one on that Bowie track. But this is the first time she’s ever heard the sound in real life.

It doesn’t register to begin with. There are cars driving past in the distance, and she’s just so hot that nothing’s really sinking in.

Then she thinks it might be a notification on her phone, some new app that makes a noise like… And that’s when she sees it. It’s gliding down in the middle of the lawn, about 50 metres away. She knows what it is immediately, even as she’s walking, disbelieving, towards it – a pterodactyl. Smallish, maybe 50 cm from one wingtip to the other. As she gets closer, she can see that it’s definitely artificial, but at the same time kind of… organic? Covered in dark brown stuff that looks like velvet or the short fur on a cat’s ear. It looks up at her from where it’s crouching awkwardly on the parched grass and goes “Squeeeeee?”

She can’t stop herself calling it Terry. It has a little crest on its beak, but not a very obvious one, so she can’t work out if it’s meant to be any specific gender.

She discovers that these days they aren’t called pterodactyls any more, but pterosaurs. And that in fact they aren’t even dinosaurs.

She never finds out where it came from. Nobody seems to be missing a robot dinosaur. Or if they are, they aren’t looking for it very hard.

She goes on a date with Johan, a guy she doesn’t really find attractive, just because his profile mentions that he’s a palaeontologist. They actually have quite a nice time, although there’s no way she’s going to invite him home.

Terry’s a pretty good houseguest. It seems to run on solar power, because it likes to spend a good amount of the day standing about in the sun with its wings partly open like a drying umbrella. The rest of the time it sits on her desk in a cardboard box filled with tissue paper, which it tears up periodically with its pointed beak, dropping the bits onto her desk as if bringing her gifts. It doesn’t ever eat anything, although it occasionally snaps at flies if they’re bothering her, which is endearing but kind of scary because it’s so quick. It catches them quite often, too, dropping the squashed remains on the little heap of paper beside the box. At night it insists on clambering up the stairs with her when she goes to bed, where it sleeps on her discarded clothes.

It smells of cinnamon and gun oil, and now so does she. Several people are complimentary about her new perfume.

Terry’s pretty ungainly on the ground, because its wings don’t really fold up tidily, and it has to walk like a bat, kind of on its elbows. But it can launch itself into the air by doing a surprisingly high leap off all fours, and once there it’s really quite nippy. They play frisbee in the garden, her throwing and Terry snapping the plastic disc out of the air and dropping it at her feet.

As the weather finally gets cooler, she notices that Terry’s moving more slowly, so she brings out the big daylight lamp and the robot pterosaur does its umbrella trick in front of that instead.

After it’s been with her about six months, Terry occasionally starts coming over and pecking at her keyboard, then peering at the screen. She shows it how to type “Terry”, though it doesn’t seem to understand. But a few weeks later she comes downstairs in the morning and discovers that she’s apparently ordered a whole load of electronic components from Kjell & Company, plus some stuff she can’t even identify from a lab equipment supplier. When she confronts Terry with the email confirmations, it gives a tiny pterosaur shrug and settles down in its box.

The deliveries start arriving a few days later. She feels ridiculous trudging up to the village shop in the snow to collect packages ordered by a pterosaur, but she does it anyway, bringing them back and laying them out on the garage floor. Terry shuffles up and down, inspecting the items and turning them over with its beak. She digs out her old laptop and sets that up on the floor too, and watches as the robot pterosaur taps away at the keys, occasionally using a rear claw or a forelimb to move the mouse.

It clearly understands English, but it never communicates with her directly other than with the odd squawk or crooning noise that a cat might make to its human. She wonders if it somehow can’t associate the sounds she makes with the symbols it sees on the screen.

At any rate, after a day or two using a freeware CAD program, it produces a neat diagram showing how all the parts fit together. She’s pretty good with a soldering iron, and she’s used to making models for wargaming, so it kind of makes sense. She prints out the diagram, lays out the tools she thinks she’s going to need, and starts work, with Terry watching closely.

It takes her nearly a month, because some of the organic parts have to be grown in glass beakers. They just look like blobs to her, but sure enough when she lays the blobs in the right place in the structure, they ooze into position like they’ve always been there.

And when she’s finished, Terry squawks in satisfaction and stabs at the Enter key on the laptop, and the second pterosaur – a bit chunkier, a bit more obviously robotic – looks up at her from where it’s crouching awkwardly on the garage floor and goes “Squeeeeee?”

Clouds

Written for the flash fiction prompt “Clouds” for a Facebook writing group which may, or may not, involve badgers. Sparkly ones.


 

dsc_0015_1.jpg

Cloud dancing

Layla whirled and leaped on the dry grass, skinny arms and legs flying as she threw back her head and laughed at the sheer joy of dancing. She watched the skies as she moved, squinting then widening her eyes to see how the clouds were developing above her. She raised her arms above her head and changed to a movement that would probably have been called a reel, in the time Before.

Not that Layla knew anything about Before. She’d been born in the throes of the sticky time, the time when there wasn’t quite war but there certainly wasn’t peace, when the stability of the previous 80 years in that part of the world had gradually tipped into chaos. Maybe if she’d have been born Before she’d have been different. Maybe she’d have had people care for her and help her through a much easier life than he could make for her. Maybe she’d have been cured by some of those miracle medicines he’d heard talk of and kind of maybe just about remembered. But now all she had was him. And all Malc could to for her was make sure she could dance every now and then.

He watched her ecstatic, loose-limbed spinning figure and remembered how he’d first found her, hands bound and dragged behind a family of Eaters, destined to be their next meal. He couldn’t stand Eaters, so he’d shot two of them as soon as he’d seen what they were, another two as the smaller ones ran and screamed and panicked, and the final ones he’d killed close up. One of those had been young enough that he’d hesitated, but the mother had been holding it and when she’d run shrieking at him with a knife he’d put the next arrow right through the both of them. Stupid Eaters never kept much of a look out, as if the act of eating human flesh somehow made them immune to any danger. He always left them for the scavengers – and maybe one day he’d eat the flesh of a creature that had fed on those Eaters. But he would never become one.

So he’d fetched Layla out of the camp, retrieved his arrows and they’d walked on. He wouldn’t do things quite the same now. Travelling with someone else had made him more cautious in some ways. Especially someone like Layla. He’d seen straight off that she wasn’t right. But she wasn’t stupid either. She’d held still in the midst of that camp as he killed her captors, and she’d not shied away from him when he went to free her, instead presenting her bonds to be cut. And she’d proven herself handy enough with a knife in the time since, too.

She was, he reckoned, maybe 17 – perhaps a little younger, perhaps a little older. But no more than a couple of years either way. Skinny, always, no matter if they spent time in a caravan of travellers – not that they were ever tolerated for long – or were just walking the roads alone, sometimes hungry for a day or two if the hunting luck wasn’t with him.

So they’d travelled together for the best part of a year now, first as companions and then when Layla came unbidden to him one night, as lovers. He supposed he was perhaps five years her senior, but she was the first woman he’d ever had, all the same.

As for him, he’d survived first because he was with a big group and his parents were still alive. Then they both died, one of a broken leg gone bad and the other of some kind of fever, and he’d been tolerated for a while because of his skill with a bow. And then the boss man’s daughter had wanted him and he’d seen the way that was going and run rather than have his throat slit some night.

Since then – until Layla – he’d been alone.

He looked up at the sky. Time they were going, more than.

Layla was still dancing, but even she could see that her dancing was nearly finished for the day. He sighed. He knew that sometime – and he should have done it already – he’d have to stop this. Stop her. She wound down and came to a slightly swaying halt, smiling that beautiful, relaxed smile she always got when she’d been cloud dancing.

The adrenaline of the hunt had gone now, replaced by the fear of the potentially hunted. The smoke of the pyre would be visible from a long way off, and soon others would come to pick over the corpses. Not Eaters this time, but Layla had been jumpy and snappish for days and when they’d come across this lot she was in amongst them with her knife and no thought for her own safety before he could stop her.

Still, he thought again, he really would have to do something about Layla. As they walked quickly away from the billowing smoke rising into the sky, drifting away like a host of small black clouds, she put her hand in his and smiled happily up at him, her blue-green eyes full of love and joy. Yes, he’d have to do something. Just maybe not yet.