A Bard’s Lament (Part 4)

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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.

 

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)

ABL cover full

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

A Bard’s Lament Cover Reveal!! Take a Look!

Day 27

Hi, everyone!

I just went to see Kingsmen 2: The Golden Circle (yeah I know it came out last year, but everything comes to cinemas months later in Japan). It’s awesome! If you enjoyed the first one, definitely watch the second if you haven’t already.

I finally found a cover for A Bard’s Lament! As some of you might know, I had a vote on three pre-made covers I found, but after someone honestly said they didn’t like any of them, I realised something important: neither did I.

I got approached by two very talented designers who made me a cover each. Both of them were great, but I ended up choosing the following:

What do you think? 😀

I’m personally very happy with it; it’s exactly what I had in mind and Maria Spada did an excellent job of bringing the concept I had to life. The other designer, Sanja Balan, also did a great job and I’m using the picture she used as promotional material.

If you’re an indie writer and you like the above design, definitely consider utilizing the skilled and very affordable Maria or Sanja, who were both extremely attentive, speedy, and helpful!

The release date for A Bard’s Lament is coming soon, so keep your eyes peeled! The blurb is below.

Ella and her sister, Lucinda, are doing what they can to survive in the wealthy village of Veilig. Though it is respected for its flourishing blackstone trade, Veilig has a dark secret that the nobles and guards protect, a secret known as “the Rathole” where captured Elf girls are imprisoned in a nightmare of drugs and prostitution. With debt hanging over her head and the captain of the guard keeping an ever-watchful eye over the village, what can Ella do to help? After all, she is only a bard…

Leave a comment and let me know what you think of the cover. See you tomorrow, and have a fantastic weekend!

The Queen’s Alchemist is Now Available in Paperback!

Day 23 [New Year’s Resolution]: The Queen’s Alchemist is Now Available in Paperback!

Hi, everyone! How’s your week going so far?

Though not my debut book, The Queen’s Alchemist is (so far) my only published book on Amazon. After several of my students asked me to give them paperbacks of it, I decided to publish it in print, not just as an ebook. That’s good news for those who prefer paper to ebooks!

AlchemistPrint copy

The cover was designed by the talented Victoria Cooper, who creates covers for thebookcoverdesigner.com. You can also check out her Facebook page.

The paperback is just $5.99, and it’s a great stocking filler, so give it a try! Don’t forget to tweet me if you decide to purchase it.

Get it on Amazon UK
Get it on Amazon US
Get the eBook

Time to Vote! Which Cover Do You Like the Best?

Day 17 [New Year’s Resolution]: Time to Vote!

Hello, children. I’ve almost finished my new story, A Bard’s Lament.

Veilig is a respected town, enriched by the blackstone trade. However, a dark secret lies underneath the village. Guards and nobles turn a blind eye as Elf girls are captured from the wars and taken to what Ella and her sister call ‘The Rathole,’ a prison of drugs and prostitution. With debt hanging over her head and the captain of the guard keeping an ever-watchful eye over the village, what can Ella do to help? After all, she is only a bard…

I hope you’re looking forward to the release as much as I am! There are just a few more details to sort out. I’ve narrowed it down to three covers. Ignore the titles for now, as they’re just examples by the designer. So, which do you like best?

cover vote

Please comment below or send me a tweet to cast your vote! I’ll post the results in a couple of days.

Thanks!

If We Could All Rediscover Our Love for Writing

Day 9 [New Year’s Resolution]: If We Could All Rediscover Our Love for Writing

If you’re a writer, you’ll probably be able to relate when I say that I’ve loved books and writing since I was a little kid. My mum read all the Harry Potter books to my brother and I, and my aunt gifted me a large collection of Jacqueline Wilson books when I was around seven or eight. I read a lot, and loved writing stories in school.

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When I was in Year 6, my teacher liked my story so much that he read it to the whole class, and then he wrote in my school report that I was gifted. Gifted. Me! I already liked writing before that, but that was the day I decided – I knew – this is what I was going to do.

My whole life was writing after that. I started writing the Fire Princess stories, scribbling on pages and pages of A4 printing paper. When I inherited my Mum’s old computer – big, heavy, bulky thing, it was – I’d sit and type for hours and hours and hours. By the time I was thirteen, I’d written three books. Not great books, mind you, but at the time that didn’t matter. I had no idea what the difference was between a good book and a bad book. I really, seriously believed that I would be a famous author by the time I was 20. That’s how easy I thought life would be!

I got the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and sent my poor Fire Princess novels, along with a poorly-written cover letter, to a lot of people, but although some people replied, they weren’t picked up by anybody. It didn’t deter me, though; I just thought I wasn’t trying hard enough, and it would happen for me eventually.

 

Then when I was 17, I started writing a fantasy series called the Blood Scrolls Trilogy, and self-published it (with a hilariously horrible cover) in 2014. Then a year later I met the proprietor of a Greek start-up publishing house called Quest Publications and they re-published it with a new cover. I’d done it! I was going to be a successful writer!

Ha ha.

Quest Publications are HORRIBLE, by the way; do not go anywhere near them. They didn’t edit or proofread the book (and the sequel) before it was published – even the proprietor didn’t finish reading it, and he was supposed to be in charge of marketing – and they put no effort into selling whatsoever. They “forgot” to pay me my share of the profits and if I offered suggestions, I was either told off and insulted or ignored completely. In 2017, I ended up firing them and finally got the rights to my books back.

Speaking of bad companies, check out this article on how to spot fake publishers and agencies if you’re trying to get published.

Even though Quest Publications finally removed me from their website, the damage was done. Because I hadn’t got any professional editing, some readers spotted plot holes or mistakes that should have been fixed before release. I got badmouthed on Goodreads and my reputation was damaged.

I was heartbroken. Imagine thinking your dreams have finally become a reality, only to have it come crashing down and be back to square one. Worse, actually, because Goodreads and Amazon never completely delete out-of-print books, meaning negative comments are going to be online forever.

Now and then, though, I’ll rediscover that excited feeling I used to get when writing. And I’m not talking about excitement for fame and fortune. I’m talking about that sheer, raw joy of creation, the excitement of buying a notebook and scribbling all your ideas down, no matter how outrageous they were. It’s something that was lost while focusing on writing what people like.

The Fire Princess books were very flawed. I sometimes go through them and laugh at how ridiculous some parts were. But they’re pure like nothing else I’ve written. I wrote whatever I wanted back then, because I wasn’t afraid to fail. I miss that feeling. Can you imagine what we’d be capable of if doubt didn’t exist?

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I might go back and rewrite the Fire Princess books. Why not, right? “You weren’t put on this earth to win a popularity contest,” my dad always says.

Writing shouldn’t be a chore, not unless it’s your day job, I suppose. Writing a novel is recreating a piece of your soul, and I sure put all my soul into those books from my childhood. I’d really love to have that feeling again, of actually enjoying the writing, not toiling through it with the promise of having a product at the end of it. Maybe we’ll discover that passion again someday.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all enjoy writing again?

Short Story: The Queen’s Alchemist

As well as blogs and articles, I also love to write fiction. If you like fantasy, check out my short story, The Queen’s Alchemist, available now on Amazon! It’s free on Kindle Unlimited or $1.99.

The Giants War rages in the north, and Queen Cassandra fears threats from the neighbouring kingdom will tear her fragile empire to the ground. Inside the palace, however, greater threats lurk in the shadows under false promises of loyalty and in the slums, there are whispers of forbidden magic. These seven stories tell tales from the Kingdom of Atharron, the homeland of the Mage Lords.

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Get it on Amazon US
Get it on Amazon UK
Get it on Smashwords

Writing The Queen’s Alchemist was a lot of fun, and it’s a short introduction to the Mage Lords of Theldiniya and their origins. I hope you enjoy this short story and be sure to Tweet me if you decide to buy!