A Bard’s Lament (Part 4)

Read part 1
Read part 2
Read part 3

Part 4

If Ella was hoping that Lucinda would open up the next morning about where she’d got the drug, she was left disappointed. Shortly after waking up in a daze, sleep sticking her eyes together, Lucinda clammed up completely, dressing in a frilly red dress and ignoring Ella’s questions.

As she was about to leave, Ella grabbed her arm. “Promise me, Lu,” she urged. “That you won’t take that… stuff again. Haven’t you seen what it does to the vagabonds, to the Elves in…” she dropped her voice, as if Captain Sackle was waiting outside their door, “…to the Elves in the Rathole? It makes you slow, turns you stupid! It makes you forget who you are!”

Lucinda made to leave, but Ella held her. “Promise me!”

“All right!” Lucinda snapped, speaking for the first time that morning. She shook her arm free.

“Who’s Caskhell?”

Lucinda froze, her hand on the doorknob. She didn’t answer.

“He gave you the Lilac Flame, right?”

“Keep your voice down!” Lucinda whipped round, her cheeks burning scarlet even under her makeup. “I already promised I won’t do it again, all right? Just forget about it.” She yanked the door open.

“Where are you going?”

“To see someone about the bridge!” she hissed, slamming the door behind her.

*

That evening, the tavern buzzed with conversation, and although it wasn’t as busy as it had been the previous night, gossip permeated the air as off-duty guards, blackstone miners, bakers, and farmers bid the day goodbye with mead and ale. The rainstorm of the night before had promised bountiful crops, and Ella let the positive vibes power her voice.

“…Merry songs were sang, and the people did cheer,
When the holy tree blossomed for the first time in years.”

The lute notes faded. Several of the closest patrons gave a short applause and Ella gave a graceful smile as her hat jingled with coin.

“You should play at Krem’s mansion,” a drunk farmer suggested as he dumped several tullies into the hat. “You’d make nobels by the hundreds.”

It wasn’t the first time Ella had heard this suggestion and as always, she thanked him before depositing half her earnings into the usual pouch about her neck. Gregor gave a short cough from behind the bar.

The door swung open and an Elf boy, wavering somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, stepped inside the tavern with purpose. A woman followed him, her portly figure adorned with fine silk robes, jewels decorating her silver hair. The tavern didn’t quite fall silent, but farmers and merchants’ conversation died and chairs scraped to make way as the noblewoman followed the male Elf through to a vacant chair by the fire.

Behind the noblewoman was a timid-looking Elf girl wearing a grey dress matted with dirt. As she passed the staring patrons, several of them muttered and chuckled. As the noblewoman sat and snapped her fingers for the Elf servants’ attention, interest in her faded and the regulars went back to their drinks and conversations.

Gregor approached the noblewoman. “Welcome to the Pitman’s Respite. How rare it is to see your radiance grace this lowly tavern, Lady…?”

“Gertrudine,” snapped the noblewoman, as if personally offended the tavern owner didn’t know her by name.

“Lady Gertrudine.” Gregor expertly graced.

“And I came because Knora insisted on it.” The noblewoman gestured to the Elf girl, who perched on the end of a wooden stool, her back to the fire and her head bent. “The Jewel Mansion taverns do get dull after a while. They don’t hold the same… adventure.”

“Quite,” Gregor chuckled. “Do enjoy your time here, Lady Gertrudine. May I offer you a drink?”

“She can do it,” Lady Gertrudine waved Gregor away, who bowed and went back to the bar. The noblewoman snapped her chubby fingers again; the Elf girl jumped to her feet and scurried to the bar.

Ella strummed the beginning of her new song on her lute. She had written it in the early morning as the morning sun’s rays had warmed her face and Lucinda had snoozed beside her. Ella watched as the Elf girl, Knora, shuffled towards the bar and ordered a bottle of black mead.

“Did I ask for black mead?” Lady Gertrudine screeched, while a group of miners at a nearby table chuckled. “Stupid Elf!”

Ella strummed notes louder on her lute while Knora uttered a stuttering apology. Ella began to sing, moving her fingers to strum the complicated notes of her new song.

“Winter turns to spring,
The birds return in their flocks.
Hope is in their wings,
The Dragonstone will bless us all with warmth again.

Winter turns to spring,
From the north, twelve swans fly.
Hope flies in their wings,
Summer comes, along with glorious harvest.

With the warm months,
Come the harvests,
Grow flowers,
Bloom trees.

Twelve swans fly,
From the north and,
From the west,
Six geese.

We’re waiting for winter to end
And bring sun’s warm peace.”

Ella glanced up as the noblewoman’s hands clapped together. Beside her, the Elf servants watched her play. Ella gave a small smile and sang the last few verses again, much to Lady Gertrudine’s apparent delight. Scattered applause greeted the last few notes, and the noblewoman ushered Knora ahead as she waddled over. Ella and the Elf girl’s eyes locked for the briefest of moments before the servant dropped some coins into the upturned hat.

“Thank you, my lady.” Ella beamed at Lady Gertrudine.
“Beautiful!” was the noblewoman’s reply. “Do come and play at the Jewel Mansion sometime, won’t you?”
“I would be honoured.”

When the noblewoman had drunk her fill of whisky and her Elf servants had guided her drunken figure outside the tavern, Gregor approached Ella. “You’d think the old hag could afford more than a handful of tullies,” he commented, peering into the upturned hat. Ella laughed.

“It’s the wealthy who hang onto their riches the tightest,” she whispered back.

*

“What was that I heard earlier?” bellowed a voice. It was gruff and strangled as though the speaker’s throat was full of saliva. A squat, red-faced man approached Ella as she was packing away her lute. “‘Play at the Jewel Mansion sometime,’ was it?”

“Father,” Gregor joined them from behind the bar. “It’s nothing… she didn’t mean…”

“Because you’ve got a long way to go before you can even start thinking about playing anywhere else.” The landlord looked even uglier than usual, his face scrunched as though he had just been forced to swallow a sour lillenfruit. “Unless you want to be homeless, you and you sister will be working here until that house is paid for in full.”

“I know, Mr. Farwing,” said Ella quietly. She pulled her lute case onto her back, her hands brushing the pouch at her neck, which was now tucked safely beneath her tunic.

“You’ve got a long way to go before you pay off your mother’s debt!” he shouted after her and she pushed open the tavern door. “A long way to go!”

Ella gave an annoyed growl as she left the dimming lights of the Pitman’s Respite behind. As if she needed reminding. She inhaled the cold air, the icy wind piercing her nostrils, the image of her landlord’s purple, shouting face floating in her mind’s eye. Sometimes it seemed as though Farwing enjoyed reminding her of her mother’s debt, of the fact that she and Lucinda had no choice but to work in the tavern, and that if she wasn’t able to sing and play the lute, Ella, too, would be selling her body for coin…

A loud clanging noise in the shadows yanked Ella from her thoughts.

“Who’s there?”

There was another ringing sound, like something large and metal was clattering to the ground. Ella’s eyes flicked from along the north wall, which was bathed in moonlight, to the darker shadows the silvery light couldn’t penetrate. She briefly thought of the dagger tucked into her belt, but before she reached for it, someone emerged from the shadows and Ella relaxed.

“Skave, you gave me a scare,” she greeted the silhouette of the skinny man in rags who limped from the shadows. On rare occasions, the vagabond that roamed the town would be able to slip into the tavern and order a small ale, to settle by the fire and hear Ella sing. Those days were rare, though, as people feared Skave, with his wispy white hair and skeletal figure. Only Elves were considered to be below him.

As the clouds parted and Ella saw Skave more clearly, she gasped. “What happened to you?”

His face was battered, an ugly bruise forming near his temple and fresh blood trickling from near his eye. Skave waved a shaking hand. “Jus’ got in the guards’ way,” he mumbled.

“Was it Sackle?” Ella whispered, a surge of anger rippling through her.
“Nah, not him,” Skave’s eyes flickered as she gave another weak wave of his hand.
“You’re a rotten liar.” Ella sighed through clenched teeth. “Wait here.”

“Where you goin’?”

Skave didn’t follow her inside; he had probably seen Mr. Farwing march in only minutes earlier. She avoided the gaze of her landlord, who was grumbling into a pint of ale, and scurried to the kitchens. Skave was shivering when Ella returned, clutching a loaf of bread wrapped in cloth, a small lump of cheese, and a tiny bottle of whiskey. “To keep you warm,” she whispered, pressing the goods into his hands.

“Dragonstone bless you, Ella,” he mumbled. Ella eyed his bruise with disgust. “They shouldn’t be allowed to do that,” she whispered, her teeth clamped together. “Especially Sackle… captain of the guard has better things to do…”

“Now, don’t you be interfering,” Skave warned. “Wouldn’t want you gettin’ into trouble. You’re riskin’ enough as it is.”

“I’m risking nothing at all,” Ella replied, but as she spoke, she brought one gloved finger to her lips. “I’m just a bard, remember?”

A Bard’s Lament (Part 3)

Read part 1
Read part 2

Part 3

Ella finished her song, bitterness filling her as the old scent of smoke and honey pressed in on her memory. To this day, her stomach recoiled at the scent of honey-glazed pastries.

Locals called it the Rathole, though according to the officials, it simply didn’t exist. The abandoned house, one of many on the deteriorating Laxx Street close to Veilig’s northern wall, might as well be empty for all the notice that guards and nobles took. Ella wasn’t so innocent as her seven-year-old self had been. She knew what happened to the Elven prisoners the soldiers brought back from the wars. All Elves were servants, but not all were lucky enough to work as cooks or cleaners in the nobles’ mansions. Especially not the young ones.

Nobles, miners, guards, bakers, and merchants alike, ranging from those who had barely reached adulthood to middle-aged husbands, thought they were sneaky when they approached the old house to creep through the dining room and down the staircase into the cellar. Guards turned a deaf ear to the cries and moans coming from the house on Laxx Street. Sometimes, the nauseating scent of what Ella had thought as a child was honey and smoke couldn’t even be dampened by the rain on the walk home. It sickened her. Lucinda chose the life of selling her body for coin; prisoners of war did not.

Veilig was Mage territory, far from the borders of the eastern forest where, it was said, dwelled the Elves. Ella had first laid eyes on a real Elf when she was a teenager, on her way to take lute lessons. The slender, pointy-eared creatures had enchanted Ella; they moved with a lithe elegance that humans could not, and seemed to disappear in the shadows when unnoticed, melting into the background and reappearing when summoned by their human masters.

Masters. Ella supressed a scoff. Masters for slaves.

Long after Lucinda had retreated from upstairs, rearranged her dress, and left the tavern with her cloak around her shoulders, Ella finished playing her last song, Harvest Moon. The tinkling notes faded to the resuming buzz of talk as she collected her earnings.

She counted nineteen tullies, six sagles, and a single nobel, the finest coin of silver ore. It was adorned with the eye of Shavon, the Mage Lord, reminding them that he was always watching. Ella deposited half of the coins, including the nobel, into the small sack tied around her neck, tucked it beneath her tunic, and packed up her lute into the case. It was her most prized possession, and she’d had to play for six weeks straight to pay it off.

She dumped the rest of the coins onto the bar and bid the patrons goodnight – most of them were singing, arms wrapped round each other, or snoozing into their drinks – and braved the rain outside, pulling the hat over her fiery hair as she slung the lute case over her shoulder. Above her hung the battered old sign reading The Pitman’s Respite, along with a painted picture of a pickaxe crossed with a mug of ale.

Outside, the pattering rain muffled any sounds coming from the Rathole, and Ella was thankful for it. As she headed home on the lonely street, her boots splashing into puddles, she glanced up at the walls that surrounded Veilig. Even in the rainstorm, the guards wandered the walls, eyes on the lookout for Centaurs or Elf soldiers. As she went, Ella silently counted.

Twelve guards patrolled the north wall. As she neared her and Lucinda’s shack, Ella wandered along the cobbled street, cold water leaking into her boots; she made a mental note to mend them. Guards patrolled the west wall, the rain plinking onto their chainmail armour as their dark figures watched over the moonless night. Ella counted six of them.

I’ll have to remember that.

*

Ella closed the door against the pounding rain and pulled off her cloak. She put down her lute case and eased off her boots, which were soaked through to her stockings. After hanging her sodden cloak, she busied herself with building a fire.

It wasn’t until the flames crackled merrily in the grate that Ella spotted Lucinda, curled up on the armchair in the corner.

“Everything okay, Lu?” Ella asked. Her sister didn’t seem to hear her – she sat with her arms wrapped around her legs, staring off into space with her eyes half-open. Ella crouched in front of her.

“Lu, what…?” Ella froze. Permeating from Lucinda’s dress, so strong that she didn’t know how she hadn’t noticed it as soon as she had walked through the door, was the unmistakable stench that Ella hated more than anything in the world: black smoke mingled with sickly-sweet honey.

Fighting to remain calm, Ella asked in a quiet voice, “where is it?”

Lucinda didn’t answer. She looked to be somewhere close to sleep, though her eyes flickered, her breaths shallow and laboured, as though her lungs were full of cobwebs. She protested weakly as Ella searched her, checking in her pockets until she pulled out the small tin tray that fitted in her palm. Further rummaging revealed two short, burnt-out matches and what looked like several tiny, grey stones.

Ella put it to her face for a closer look, and immediately wished she hadn’t; almost gagging on the sickly, smoky stench, she recoiled.
Lucinda!
Her younger sister groaned, and swiped at Ella’s hand, which was clutching the small tray of Lilac Flame. She scrambled away from her.
“How could you?” Ella’s furious whisper was barely audible over the hammering rain that rapped on the window like hammers. “Who gave this to you?”

Lucinda mumbled something. Ella crouched by the armchair as Lucinda whispered, “Caskhell.”

“Caskhell?” Ella replied, puzzled. “Who’s that?”

But Lucinda couldn’t or wouldn’t answer anymore. She lay slumped in the armchair, eyes glazed. Ella grabbed her by the arm and hauled her to her feet. She could barely carry her sister to bed, she was trembling so much with rage. She carried Lucinda to her mattress and laid her onto it, and then ran downstairs to throw the Lilac Flame into the fire. The fire glowed pink for the briefest of moments as the stones crumbled, and then they were gone.

Fighting back tears, Ella helped Lucinda out of her foul-smelling dress and wrapped her in a thick blanket before flinging herself onto her own bed, glaring at the ceiling. How could Lucinda be so stupid? The Lilac Flame was either for the homeless or for those in the Rathole, and she wasn’t going to let her little sister be either.

She fell into an uneasy sleep, waking every hour and checking that Lucinda was still breathing before closing her eyes again, the sweet smoky smell still assaulting her senses. She was still awake when the rain ceased and the morning sun peeked from the hills.

 

5 Reasons Why I Don’t Self-Publish Anymore

Since the invention of the internet, the publishing industry has transformed in the last twenty years. Social media is full of writers tweeting and advertising their books and hundreds of new titles are published every single day.

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It’s free for you to self-publish, unless you count the potential costs of editing, proofreading, and book cover design. These are optional, but it’s generally accepted that investing in these makes the quality of your book better.

Self-Publishing

I self-published my first fantasy novel when I was nineteen after paying some guys from my university to create the cover. I was really proud of it! People who read it gave it great reviews and I was full of happy confidence. I’d been writing since I was ten years old and this, I thought, was the first step to reaching my goal.

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The original cover for Blood of the Fallen. I thought it was awesome at the time…

A new publisher got in touch to tell me that they were interested in re-releasing the book under their name. I was ecstatic! On my 22nd birthday I signed a contract and handed over the rights to Quest Publications.

The Publisher

I’d wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid and I felt like things were finally coming together. I wrote the sequel and they published that, too! I waited for the books to appear all over social media and for the fans to come flowing in.

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My books published by Quest. I thought I’d made it.

It didn’t happen, though. Quest Publications, I later learned, was little more than a couple of guys in their basement who had no idea what they were doing. They didn’t even edit or proofread the books before publishing. I was told to market them myself and collect reviews, and I had to remind them to pay me. After a lot of heartbreak and frustration, I cut ties with them.

I was back to square one, except my reputation had been damaged by Quest.

I didn’t bother re-publishing the novels after that because I found out the first few people hadn’t been completely honest with feedback. I found out my books were not very original, the world was a “stock fantasy world,” and there were parts that didn’t make much sense. People were giving five-star reviews out of pity, kindness, or because they wanted similar return treatment.

To say I was “crestfallen” would be an understatement. I completely lost my confidence. Here are some reasons why I don’t self-publish anymore.

1. It’s Expensive

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Yes, self-publishing is (technically) free. Amazon and Kindle Direct Publishing doesn’t charge you for clicking the “publish” button. However, once you’ve paid for editing, proofreading, and a nice book cover, it sets you back at least a few hundred dollars – more so if the book is long.

Unless you’re already famous or extremely market-savvy (which I’m not), you’re never going to make that all back in sales. If you take your project seriously by paying for all the needed services, you’re likely going to lose money. I just can’t afford to do that.

2. You Market More Than You Write

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When you’re self-published, publishing the book is just the beginning. You have to have a big social media presence such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and maybe YouTube, too. You have to schedule tweets. Make videos if you can. Have an amazing blog. Expand expand expand.

I enjoy using Twitter, but I don’t enjoy posting about my own books all the time. I know people whose entire online presence revolves around books they have written and published themselves. Hate me for saying this if you like, but it comes across as narcissistic. Trying too hard.

I like tweeting funny memes and witty one-liners. It’s tiring having to market myself and it’s a lot of hard work for very little reward.

3. The Self-Published Community is a Mess

No, this does not apply to all self-published writers. I have a few friends who self-publish who are really cool. However, indie writers in general are annoying and really up themselves.

I talked about this a bit in my article How Toxic “Book Review Groups” Can Destroy Your Writing Career. Self-published authors flock together to swap Amazon reviews, which to them is even more important than sales. People are dishonest with each other on feedback (“yes, your book is wonderful! I’ve left a review. Have you read mine yet?”), snobby, and often react in an angry way if disagreed with. It’s a community I want no part of.

4. People Agonise Over Reviews, Not Sales

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I’m pretty sure this is a myth, but there’s a sort of belief among indie authors that having lots of positive Amazon reviews makes your book more visible. People will give away free books in exchange for a promise that the reader will write a review, and the aforementioned review groups or the arguably worse review swaps take priority over developing your craft or working on your next book.

I admit that I was swept up in that, as well. But what’s the point in working so hard and spending a lot on releasing your book when you’re just going to give it away for free anyway? The whole system is a mess and just got annoying.

People who have disagreed with me, even with things unrelated to writing, have hunted my books around on Goodreads and Amazon and left (obviously fake) one-star reviews. This kind of behaviour can be really upsetting and isn’t fair at all. Personally, I think there’s a good case for getting rid of Amazon’s reviewing system altogether.

5. Books Can Be Low-Quality

Who doesn’t want to save money? All too often, writers don’t want to or can’t afford help with their book development or design and end up with awful covers, bad grammar, and plenty of typos. I’m sure my first books were the same! The worst part is that if you’re a writer yourself, you can’t possibly tell them. The general responses you get are “I’d like to see YOU do better!”

Even if you do hire an editor, it is generally another struggling indie writer who is just trying to make extra money, and they therefore can’t offer much in the way of valuable, professional editing.

I’ve read some great indie books, but they’re honestly very rare. I can take a book that has been published by HarperCollins or Penguin Books much more seriously.

I’ve published a few stories on my blog because:

  • They can be edited. If I spot a typo, it can be quickly rectified.
  • They’re free to read.
  • It’s not possible to write Amazon/Goodreads reviews for them.
  • I can get more honest feedback. My blog is visible to all, and people might feel better about pointing out errors if it’s not a “real book.”

Self-publishing is something people will continue to do. After all, some self-published titles have found enormous success. However, I don’t personally want anything to do with it anymore.

I’ll probably continue to publish short stories on this blog and maybe look for an agent once my latest novel is done. Who knows what will happen? For now, I’m leaving my short story, The Queen’s Alchemist, on Amazon, but avoiding self-publishing in the future.

*All images are copyright-free unless otherwise stated

A Bard’s Lament (Part 2)

Read part 1

Part 2

“‘Evenin’, miss.”

The beast-like figure of a local blackstone miner with more muscle than brains hovered over Ella, blocking the light of the lantern and casting a shadow over her and her lute. He breathed in ragged breaths, like there were cobwebs in his lungs.

“How many… more songs? You coming to… spend the night… again?” he asked; every few words, he stopped to breathe. Ella didn’t answer, but busied herself counting coins. The shadow wavered.

“Hey, you listening?”

Gregor made a movement from behind the bar, but a second shadow fell over Ella, forcing her to look up.

“Were you looking for me?”

A woman almost identical to Ella sidled up to them. The woman’s slender finger was on the giant’s chest, on which a bronze signet ring glittered in the lantern light. The beast frowned for a moment, and stared dumbly between the bard and the newcomer.

“Sisters,” the standing girl explained. “I’m Lucinda, remember? Don’t worry; we’re almost the same. Just remember, I’m ten months younger.”
She giggled. Ella said nothing, but started fiddling with her lute to avoid looking at the pair.

His face lighting up in eventual realisation, the blackstone miner turned his back to Ella and slid his hands around Lucinda’s waist. “You coming upstairs?”

Ella’s fingers tightened on her instrument.

“Sure,” Lucinda purred. “I normally charge three nobels for the whole evening, but you get me for two nobels and a sagle since you’re so cute.” She gently touched the brute’s nose, an expert smile dancing on her crimson lips. She glanced at her older sister. “The Dragons may have blessed Ella with the voice of a nightingale but they blessed me with these.” She gave another shrill giggle and even dared to briefly grasp her own breasts as she leaned against the miner, who gave a knowing grin.

“Selling her body to patrons,” someone grumbled. “Like some common harlot.”

“I didn’t hear you complain when you stayed here last week,” Lucinda retorted, her voice like silk. Ella looked in alarm at Sackle, but he was giving an appreciative chuckle as the guard beside him blushed. “Asked me to keep your bed warm while your wife was away, didn’t you?”

“Lucinda,” Ella muttered in warning.

An off-duty guard at another table gave a shrill giggle. When Lucinda gave him a knowing wink, he jumped and slopped mead down his front.

“Anything is better than working in the Rathole,” Ella heard Lucinda mutter as she bounced after the miner. Ella watched them go, then busied herself with counting her earnings.

“Ella, was it?” an older woman called from near the bar. “Do you take requests? Could you play Hope’s Horizon?”

“Of course,” Ella replied with a smile. “That one’s my favourite, too.”

*

Ella strummed her lute, allowing the sound of notes to drown out the guttural moans from upstairs and take her to happier times, many years ago, when she and Lucinda were children. Memories flashed in her mind as she played, of making daisy chains, trading handmade dolls for hot pastries, and sneaking to the servants’ quarters to catch a glimpse of an Elf.

The bard sang the requested melody as her memories took her back to the day when they had first stumbled upon the Rathole.

“Lu!” the seven-year-old Ella called, mud caking her boots as she stood to face the abandoned house on Laxx Street. Fear pulsed through her young mind as she saw no sign of her sister anywhere. Was she hiding? “Lu, come out! If you don’t, I’m telling Ma!”

Silence. The old house frightened Ella; it reminded her of scary stories their mother always threatened them with when they misbehaved. Most of the children at the marketplace whispered that the abandoned building was haunted. It stood, black against the afternoon sky, and seemed to tower upwards forever.

“Lu, I want to go.” Her voice came out in barely a squeak.

The door of the house was ajar, as if someone had just come out… or gone in. Ella approached it. Had Lucinda wriggled inside in some game of hide and seek?

Ella left the bright sunlight of the outside world and stepped into the old house. Broken wood and enormous cobwebs adorned the walls darkened by grime. She swallowed. What would Alice and Sammy, the marketplace children, say if they knew she’d come in here alone?

A sudden, odd creak made Ella jump, and she ran across the first floor, her boots stomping on the wood. Each room was empty, stretching; there was nowhere for Lucinda to hide. Ella skidded to a halt, and jumped as she caught the sound of a high, girlish moan. Was Lucinda hiding beneath the floorboards?

Trembling, she reached the top of a staircase, where steep stairs led down to a red door. Ella shook her head in defiance. She won’t be down there, she consoled herself. Too scary.

Ella ran across the deserted house again, the thumping of her footsteps sounding, to her child’s mind, like a hundred galloping horses. She turned a corner and passed a shattered window. There, though caked with dust, was where a rug lying in the corner caught her eye. It may have been pretty, long ago, with a striped pattern of yellows and blues. Now, however, mould and neglect had stolen its beauty.

There was a lump under the rug. Was Lucinda hiding from her? Ella, fury sweeping through her, marched towards the filthy material, ready to berate her younger sister for hiding.

She pulled up the rug and threw it aside. It wasn’t Lucinda hiding underneath, however, but the large ring of what looked like a large, dusty trapdoor. Ella blinked in surprise.

“Lu, are you hiding?”

Something told her that Lucinda hadn’t hidden under the trapdoor by herself, but another feeling was taking hold of Ella: curiosity. They didn’t have a cellar in their shack, and despite her fears, Ella felt rising excitement. What would the marketplace kids say?

Ella’s small hands grasped at the iron ring and she struggled to pull open the trapdoor. With one final pull, it opened with a haunting creak. She wanted to shout, but when she said “Lucinda,” it came out in barely a whisper. A strange smell wafted up from the darkness, like an unpleasant mix of honey and smoke.

Was that another cry? Had Lucinda gotten lost or hurt herself? Ella’s imagination went wild, imagining her sister wandering clumsily beneath the old building, maybe hurt and unable to get out. Though doubt pressed on Ella’s thoughts; Lucinda was scared of the dark. What if she was lost?

“I’m coming down, Lu,” Ella called.

Her small boot touched the first stone step leading down into the darkness. Something echoed below, like falling pebbles. Ella’s small heart fluttered, but she refused to be scared. If Lucinda was down there, it was up to her to fetch her out.

Ignoring her fears, Ella descended the stairs. She counted thirteen of them. With each step, the dull smell of smoke and sickly sweet honey got stronger, making her eyes water. When Ella finally reached the cold floor at the bottom of the stairs, the dim light from the trapdoor showed that a path ahead led to a stone corridor.

“Lu!” she yelled, the echoes of her own shouts bouncing off the stone walls and sending chills down her spine.

The cellar, long and narrow, was black, cold stone walls pressing in from the sides. It was too dark to see the ceiling. Ella shivered, inhaling the smell of honey and smoke mixed with damp, silently wondering whether Lucinda was waiting to jump out at her.

She ventured along the passageway, her breathing growing quicker and shallower. “Lucinda?” she called again, then immediately regretted it; her whisper echoed back like the breaths of ten ghosts. She hurried along to the other side – if she could confirm that this strange corridor was indeed empty, then she could return to the sunshine above…

The passageway curved to the left and Ella almost ran into the wall that greeted her. The walls narrowed, whether naturally or not, it was difficult to tell, so much so that it looked as though only one person would be able to squeeze through at a time.

Curiosity led Ella onward; she knew that Lucinda wasn’t down here in this darkness, but her inquisitive mind spurred her to edge between the stone. Why was it the children never played here? Ella’s dress rustled against the compressing walls. She felt braver with each step. What would Alice and Sammy think when she told them that she explored the house’s cellar alone? Her little steps turning to strides, Ella turned another corner and squeezed through the narrow gap.

A hanging lantern greeted her, and the passageway opened to a much wider corridor; along the passageway, stairs curved upwards on the right. Excitement and fear flooded through Ella. A lantern could only mean one thing: there were other people here. The warm glow illuminated deep boot prints in the earth, as though a thousand men had marched through over years. Ella gently stepped onto one of the footprints. It was big enough to be her father’s.

“What are you doing down here?”

Ella jumped as though she’d been struck by Yuelif’s lightning. The hulking figure of a guard appeared, his muscular arms folded and thick brows raised in surprise. Ella stumbled, the backs of her ankles painfully hitting the stone wall. He towered above her small frame, blocking the lantern light.

“I’m looking for my sister,” she squeaked.
“You’re way too young to be here,” the guard grunted. “How did you get down here?”

Fear overcame Ella as she stumbled past the guard and fled up the stairs, almost tripping on her skirt. “Come back when you’re a few years older!” the guard chuckled after her as she reached the top and slammed into the door. She pushed it open and inhaled; she was inside the old dining room.

When Ella slammed the heavy door shut and turned to go, she screamed at the redheaded figure that stood behind her.

“Ella, it’s me!” said Lucinda as Ella crumpled to the floor, sobbing. “What’s the matter? Did you hurt yourself?”

“Let’s go home,” Ella sobbed.

Read part 3

Struggle (Free Flash Fiction Story)

Struggle (1)

If you’ve ever seen your own mother cry, you’ll know how awful it feels. Especially when you’re the one who is causing her pain. She wept into her palms, great, racking sobs, refusing to look at me. A shadow had fallen across my father’s face and my stomach tightened at the thought of seeing him cry, too. Of seeing my broad-shouldered hero dissolve into tears just like his wife.

He didn’t cry, but wrapped an arm around my mother’s shaking shoulders.

Then we were moving house again, just like that, to a new city and a new life, leaving my betrayal trailing behind us as though by moving across the country the problem would go away. It hurt me that they thought it was a problem, something to hide.

After unpacking my stuff, I walked past our new bathroom. My dad was standing there, shirtless, the tiniest beer belly resting on his belt. He was shaving. He turned to glance at me, one eye spotting me hovering in the doorway, his razor on his chin and frozen on the spot. I gave him a half-smile, shoving my hands in my hoodie pocket.

He hadn’t said much during the drive to our new home. Mum had ranted and raved, screaming about the betrayal of her only child. How she’d kick me out of their home if I were old enough. Dad had stared straight ahead at the road, his grip tight on the steering wheel, his eyes narrowed.

His eyes weren’t narrowed now. He held up his other hand. A second razor.

I shuffled towards him and took it. “Give it a try,” he said.

I squeezed next to him at the sink and looked at our reflections. The shaving foam was stark white against his dark skin. I stood behind him, pale in comparison, taking after Mum’s side of the family with an ivory shade.

“Water.”

I rubbed warm water over my face. “Shaving foam,” Dad reminded me.

I squeezed the thick, creamy stuff onto my hands and piled it onto my cheeks and chin. It looked messy, like a screwed up Santa Claus beard. I gave a shy grin and the foam wobbled, stuck to my skin.

I brought the razor to my cheek and brushed it against my jawline. The blade ran along my smooth skin, collecting the foam as it went. Dad carried on shaving his own stubble, before shaking the creamy bristles into the sink. I copied him, watching as the globs of white slid down the porcelain.

We were shaving together for the first time.

My new school was just like the others before it; it was bland, boring, with students squinting at me, the new kid. I caught one girl looking at me from the corner, her hair the colour of sunset, her sweet smile catching my eye. Everything else behind her seemed to melt into grey. I almost smiled back.

The teacher paused at my name. “Ashleigh Cunningham,”

“Present,” I replied, my voice sounding even higher as my nerves swarmed inside my stomach like bees. “Just- Just ‘Ash’ is fine.”

The girl jumped, and her eyes widened in sudden understanding. She looked around, flustered. Anywhere but me.

“Certainly.”

I returned home to find my mother weeping again. She was clutching a lilac dress, something I’d only worn once to appease her, her tears dampening the nauseating white lace as my dad sat stony-faced beside her.

“Are you telling me,” Mum gasped between sobs, “that I’m supposed to accept the fact that my daughter is dead?”

“Not dead,” Dad caressed her pale arm. “Free.”

He smiled up at me as I came in, slumping my school bag on the floor. Mum looked up at me with tear-filled eyes, the sky-coloured pools I loved so much.

I thought she would scream again, or throw the dress at me, or tell me to get out. She got to her feet, sniffling, wiping away one last falling tear. “Ash,” she whispered, and her skinny arms embraced me.

“I love you, Mum.” My heart warmed at her hug, her acceptance.

“I love you too, son,” she whispered back.

A Bard’s Lament (Part 1)

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Part I

The resounding twang of the lute seemed to breathe life into the tavern. Upon the fluttering sounds of lute strings, nearby conversation quietened, like a dimming candle, as it always did when Ella played.

She plucked another two strings, anxiety building as her eyes flicked between the door, which was partly obscured by a swaying patron, and the barkeep, Gregor, who stood behind the bar. The bottles of local ales and exotic concoctions behind him reflected the lantern light. He caught Ella’s gaze as he cleaned a mug with a rag that had seen better days. His fixed stare was full of just one simple word: careful.

She watched as Gregor’s gaze moved to the table beside Ella; there sat Captain Sackle, an intimidating figure even without the usual glinting chainmail armour, sitting with two other off-duty guardsmen. He chuckled into his mug of ale at some unknown joke.

She’s late.

Ella plucked another string, prolonging the sonnet’s introduction for as long as she dared.

“You going to take up space all night or are you going to play?” asked Captain Sackle, throwing her a look of disdain. He drained his mug, crimson liquid spilling onto his greying beard. He didn’t wait for an answer, but resumed his conversation. Nervousness bit at Ella’s insides as bile that burned the back of her throat.

Where is she?

The stone felt cold beneath Ella’s thighs where she perched in her usual spot, inhaling the smell of ale and firewood. She swallowed, moistening her throat as she tried to steady her trembling hands. Then the tavern door opened with a scrape. Her heart leapt.

The cloaked figure sauntered between the patrons before she plopped her thin elbows onto the bar and ordered a lillenfruit ale. Relief flooded through Ella, and she smiled as she tucked some of her red hair behind her ear.

When she played the first few notes the gathering noise, which had resumed when Ella had stopped picking the lute strings, died down once more, save the odd cough or scrape of mug on wood.

The lute strings told a story of great history, fallen gods, and an empire descending into darkness. Ella’s voice seemed to melt away the gloom of the small pub, brightening the cobwebbed corners, filling the hearts of the patrons with faith and hope. The hooded figure at the bar gently tapped her slim, dark fingers on the wood, nodding to the tune. She hadn’t removed her hood, and the fabric rippled as her small chin bobbed, a single strand of midnight-blue hair visible from beneath the fabric.

“Through our fractured faith,
Evil and darkness reigned
Then, to save us,
The Dragons came.

Yuelif of the northern lands,
Lifa guards the southern sands
Eastern Dragon, Kelten, reigns
Brave Parrax of the western straits.

Bravely, the Dragons fought
The wicked Darkma plague
But evil did endure;
Parrax fell to their dark blades.

The Dragons paid the price
When we forgot who we are,
Parrax’s soul ascended,
Now she watches from afar.

We must regain our faith
Pray to the Dragonstone
And remember the four Dragons
Without them, we are alone

Now the Mages guide us
Strong, our faith will burn,
Waiting for the day
The Dragon Gods return.”

As Ella strung the final few notes, the buzz of conversation resumed as a few nearby regulars clapped. A few of them rose to deposit coins into her upturned hat, where they landed with a jingle. When the small crowd dispersed, the bard glanced back over at the bar, but the hooded girl was gone.

Read Part 2

Spoiler-Free Review: “Wave Me Goodbye” by Jacqueline Wilson

If you’re British and you like books, it’s likely you’ve heard of Jacqueline Wilson. This much-loved children’s writer has written over 100 books now and is famous for characters like Tracy Beaker and Hetty Feather.

I was one of the kids who had some of the book sets when I was little. I had books like The Lottie Project, Double Act, The Suitcase Kid, Vicky Angel, Girls in Love, The Story of Tracy Beaker, and The Bed and Breakfast Star. She often writes books about girls around ten years old who are going through some kind of drama or tragedy, such as their parents’ divorce, poverty, bullying, and the like.

I actually hadn’t read any of Wilson’s books since the 2000s, unless you count re-reading The Illustrated Mum on Kindle a few months back.

It was cool to see that Wilson is still writing, and my dad bought me her 2017 novel Wave Me Goodbye, about a girl who is sent to the countryside right before World War II breaks out in 1939.

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“September, 1939. As the Second World War begins, ten-year-old Shirley is sent away on a train with her schoolmates. She doesn’t know where she’s going, or what’s going to happen to her when she gets there. All she has been told is that she’s going on ‘a little holiday’.

Shirley is billeted in the country, with two boys from East End London, Kevin and Archie – and their experiences living in the strange, half-empty Red House, with the mysterious and reclusive Mrs Waverley, will change their lives for ever.”

A lot of Jacqueline Wilson’s characters are very similar: around ten years old, female, timid, introverted, and often don’t have many friends due to moving around a lot or being considered “weird.” They’re usually creative and good at imagining things. Shirley Louise Smith wasn’t much different. I was more interested in the time in which the story was told; we hear a lot about soldiers’ experiences in World War II, but I hadn’t come across anything from a London child’s perspective before (I’m not saying that this book is the first of its kind, but that it was an interesting change written by one of my favourite authors).

Shirley is sent away on “a little holiday” to the countryside. I found her mother to be an interesting character; strict, strong-minded, and at first, slightly narcissistic, and unwilling to tell Shirley at first that she (the mother) won’t be travelling with her. She gets exasperated with Shirley’s love for reading and wishes to be more “posh.”

I often felt very sorry for Shirley. She considers herself ugly and hates her short hair. She loves to read and often pretends the girls from her favourite book, Ballet Shoes, are around her. She has trouble making friends and is bullied by others. On top of that, she misses her parents terribly when she is billeted. It makes us appreciate how tough it was for the children during the war as well as everyone else.

I loved the characters Kevin and Archie; in my opinion, they made the book’s story stronger. I enjoyed following Shirley on her adventure and was interested in the background of the family they were staying with.

Wilson did a great job of making Shirley relatable. Shirley loves books which are appropriate for 1939 but are also understandable by today’s children, such as old fairy tales like Cinderella, Mary Poppins, and Alice in Wonderland. The language seemed fairly appropriate for the time “cor blimey”/”bally” but I wasn’t completely convinced with Archie; he was supposed to be around three or four years old but he often spoke in longer sentences that I imagine a toddler would usually struggle with. Nevertheless, he was an incredibly cute character.

All in all, I was impressed with Wave Me Goodbye. The ending was nice, although it left a lot of questions open such as the fate of her father. That being said, it was a story about Shirley, not about the war itself.

Overall I give Wave Me Goodbye four stars out of five, although I would rather give it 4.5 as I remained entertained the whole way through and will probably read it again sometime in the future. Nice job, Wilson!

4stars

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Spoiler-Free Review: “The Queen’s Rising” by Rebecca Ross

Hi, everyone. I just got back from Ishigaki in Okinawa, and it was a few days’ rest I desperately needed. Keep an eye out for photos and blog posts.

While on my trip, I read a book I’d been waiting to read for a while. I’d seen it on Twitter and immediately fell in love with the cover. It was a debut fantasy novel by American writer Rebecca Ross, someone I’ve come to admire deeply. I bought it and read it any spare minute that I wasn’t playing about on the beach or sampling the delicious Okinawan food.

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“Brienna desires only two things: to master her passion and to be chosen by a patron. Growing up in Valenia at the renowned Magnalia House should have prepared her. While some are born with a talent for one of the five passions—art, music, dramatics, wit, and knowledge—Brienna struggled to find hers until she chose knowledge. However, Brienna’s greatest fear comes true—she is left without a patron. 

Months later, her life takes an unexpected turn when a disgraced lord offers her patronage. Suspicious of his intent, she reluctantly accepts. But there is much more to his story, for there is a dangerous plot to overthrow the king of Maevana—the rival kingdom of Valenia—and restore the rightful queen, and her magic, to the throne. And others are involved—some closer to Brienna than she realizes.

And now, with war brewing, Brienna must choose which side she will remain loyal to: passion or blood.”

I felt a pull to this book immediately, and from the first page, I knew I’d made the right choice. Ross writes with flair and explains details flawlessly, using sights and smells, especially, to really suck me into the world without going overboard on description. Brienna was sort of the anti-Mary-Sue; it was refreshing to come across a character who struggled with her pursuits. She was not gifted with art or music like her patron sisters, and eventually chose to passion in knowledge, working hard to catch up to her classmate. This book also defied stereotypes, and things which I thought I saw coming a mile away turned out to be entirely different than I expected. There were also twists that made me audibly gasp, which I think annoyed some of the surrounding travellers.

Some reviewers so far have complained that there was no action until later in the book, but I genuinely enjoyed exploring the world that Ross created, with its scents and beautifully described Magnalia House, the school in which Brienna studied. I don’t believe that all books should have brushes with death to hook you in from the first page, and I was gently seduced into the story. Ross’ prose is just gorgeous. I felt aching in my heart reading this book, an inspiring envy, and was captivated by the story she told.

I recommend this gorgeously crafted novel to any lover of fantasy, who enjoys discovering new worlds and learning rich and unique histories. Although there were several questions left unanswered at the end of the story, this is a fantastic stand-alone tale that I hope every book lover reads. I give The Queen’s Rising five stars out of five.

5stars

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What Do You Do When You Have Writer’s Block?

The last few months of 2017 and January 2018 were fantastic for me, writing-wise. I pumped out dozens of articles for various websites and finished a novelette. I wrote every day. I even made some money.

But every day of February so far has been a disaster. I’ve got a quarter of the way through articles before dismissing them as trash. Two unfinished fictional projects poke the back of my mind all day when I’m working or cooking, but as soon as I sit down to write, my mind goes blank.

Am I burned out? Or is it just writer’s block?

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I’m pretty upset about it. Today’s a national holiday, which means I’m not at the office and it should be a day of working on the final of my fantasy trilogy. I just quit my job to be a full-time writer, for pity’s sake. Now I can’t even manage a five-hundred-word article and the idea of writing fiction would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.

What do you do when you’re suffering from writer’s block? I’ve been reading a lot. I love to read anyway, but I’ve already demolished several novels in 2018 alone. I’ve also been playing video games. I’ve been writing for this blog, but that to me doesn’t really count as “writing.” I want to finish my trilogy! I want to start working on a new project!

So how do you beat writer’s block? A quick Google search takes you to a few articles. I just found this one on GoinsWriter, which suggests music, walking, coffee, reading, and even freewriting. Writers Digest says you should write when everyone else is asleep, clear your desk, exercise, and work on other creative projects.

This slump suuuuuuuuuuuuucks. What do you do when you have writer’s block?

Spoiler-Free Review: “Angst” by David J. Pedersen

Day 39

I’ve just finished reading a fantasy novel called Angst, written by David J. Pedersen.

“When Angst turned 40, he knew it was over. Angst had longed to be a knight of Unsel, to make his mark in history, to be remembered for heroic deeds and wondrous acts. He grew up knowing he was destined for something great, but now it is too late. Not only is 40 far too old to become a knight, Angst is one of the few able to wield “the magics”.”

Most protagonists in fantasy novels are young and gifted, destined from birth to be the hero and saviour of the story – often not relatable at all. One of the first things that draws readers to David Pedersen’s Angst is the fact that the main character is the exact opposite of this stereotype.

Angst is the perfect name for this character: he is unsatisfied with his life, a gift that should have been cherished makes him an outcast, and he spends his life in skull-numbing boredom. After turning forty, he believes his dreams of becoming a knight, and subsequent hero, are over. That is until he draws a sword that has been unmovable for as long as anyone can remember. It just might be up to Angst to get to the bottom of the problems plaguing Unsel… once his back stops hurting.

Angst is just an adorable character. Pedersen cleverly captures the mid-life crisis, urge to become something bigger and better, and the fearless, cheeky flirting of a forty-year-old. It was really interesting how these elements fit nicely into a fantasy story.

The story itself was incredibly creative and I’ll have a hard time forgetting many different aspects of the world of Ehrde, including places, beasts, and the concept of the Vex’kvette. I found that I was carrying the book around with me so I could read it on the train and during my lunch breaks.

There were a few things I wasn’t sure about. Something we find out about Heather, Angst’s wife, could have been foreshadowed, along with several other things. I also couldn’t bring myself to like the character Rose, although that is personal preference because I’ve heard she’s a very popular character. Nevertheless, this was a fun story to read and I look forward to reading the next one! I give this book four stars out of five.

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