Currently giving away free kindleversions of my Southern Gothic novel, “The impostor”. Written and illustrated by yours truly (for whatever that is worth). Giveaway ended on 5-15-22.
An Excerpt from a fantasy novel currently in progress.
CHAPTER V. Stones, Clouds, And Bogs
“Beware, Edmund. There is no stronger magic than the magic a wizard works upon himself. There is no stronger enchantment than self-delusion.”—Master Avon’s warning.
All poetry was fancywork. That was what Edmund thought (quite bitterly) as he walked across the heath in a general Eastward direction. He was staring down at the calfskin, reading the poem over and over again in the hope that he might come to understand it more clearly. Nothing came of this, however. He wondered, once again, if Master Avon was testing him, or having a lark at his expense. He had often been used for a laugh by the other squires. They told him at times that such-and-such maiden was asking about him. When he went to call on the maiden at her residence, the servants would fetch her, then return, telling him that he was not known at that residence. Edmund had fallen for this mischief more times than he cared to admit. Even when he knew he was being tricked, he could not convince himself not to seek out the maiden. Of course, the squires employed others to trick him as well. Even the knights had taken part in the chicanery, and laughed just as loudly as their squires when Edmund returned the next day, looking downcast and friendless.
The heath was vast. The night settled quickly, too, and the wind blew with a colder edge than in the Midlands. Edmund deduced from this that he was in the Northerlands. Thus, he was in the direction that the Black Knight took Princess Felicia, though Edmund doubted that Master Avon meant for him to rescue the Princess presently.
The sky darkened over distant mountains, and then overhead, and stars sparkled in the cloudless black dome. The night was moonless, however. There were shrubs aplenty along the heath, and pink-colored gorse, and occasionally larger trees that had managed to make a home of the vast solitude. It was beneath one such tree that Edmund decided to await the morning. He was not so cold to need a fire to be warm, but he did value its light. So, he conjured a fire and fed it some of the shrubs he gathered from the heath. Laying next to this fire, he fell asleep for a time.
He awoke late in the night. What woke him, he did not know. Not at first. Slowly sitting up, he looked out upon the heath. The stars were bright, but the starlight did not illuminate much of the heath. He did fancy he saw some of the gorse bushes trembling. The wind was still, yet the gorse shook anyway. He wondered why. He glanced about, then lay down closer to the fire. He was tired after a long, eventful day. He fell asleep.
It was a white night come the next morning. A thick fog blanketed the heath, reducing the sun to a white shadow in the clammy mist—more moon than sun—and sight was hindered. A ll things not within a stone’s toss were hidden. Edmund sat up and rubbed his eyes. The fire he had conjured in the night had extinguished. The cool air made him shudder, and not just because it chilled him. It seemed to cocoon around him covetously, as if it had been summoned from a witch’s cauldron. The sun was like a blind witch’s eye in the sky. Edmund feared he would see three witches approach him from out of the fog (for witches always worked wickedness in threes, as everyone knew).
Edmund stood up and stretched. Sleeping on the moor was no worse on him than sleeping on his mat at home. It had not been uncomfortable. What made him uncomfortable was the milky murk that swirled around him. He looked up at the pale sun and followed it Eastward, leaving the tree behind. As he walked, he peered at the calfskin in his hands and reread the poem. It did no good. No new meanings came to him. At length, he tucked the calfskin into the sleeve of his father’s tunic and walked with his eyes focused on the fog and the gorse.
At midmorning the fog parted, thinned, and then dissipated. Trees grew more frequent as he progressed across the heath. This did not comfort him as much as it should have. They were twisted willows with heavily-laden heads. Some seemed to swoon leftward or rightward, as if to fall, and some were bent doubly, as if groveling toward their own roots. The heath, too, changed. The gorse fell away, giving way to spidery grass and becoming soggier beneath Edmund’s shoes. Though the fog had parted, the sky was as much overcast as not. The mountains still seemed faraway and the smell of rotting vegetation grew. Edmund’s unease grew, too.
Edmund started to feel famished. He had not had anything to eat since the mushroom soup yesterday. Thus far he had not seen any animals except the occasional birds and mosquitoes, and a single heron flying overhead. It would not have mattered if there were deer and elks and sheep out here. Edmund had been raised as a weaver, not a hunter.
Still, his stomach would not listen to reason. It was empty and wished to be full. Having no other recourse, Edmund sat down on the grass and thought for a moment. Part of him wanted to tear open the All Ways, walk the path of the Betwixt, and return home. Obviously Master Avon had set him upon another trick quest. Much like with the books that proved to be less than crucial to his lessons, the poem must have been less than crucial to his quest.
Edmund’s stomach grumbled loudly. Such a loud complaint broached no debate. Knowing he needed to eat, Edmund spoke a spell, imagining the Betwixt and the threads on his mother’s loom. Shortly thereafter a cluster of mushrooms sprouted from the grass. However, he had been careful not to indulge the spell overmuch. The mushrooms were enough to feed him, and no more than that. They were also none of them poisonous. He then summoned another fire, gently roasting the mushrooms over the flame. He ate the mushrooms quickly, then stood up. It was as he stood up that he realized that there was a gigantic hairy hand outstretched toward him.
Edmund yelped, then leapt back. The hand remained where it was, straining toward him. The hand was as big as Edmund’s torso. The palm was peach-colored—not unlike Edmund’s own hand—but the hair on the knuckles and the back of the hand was thick and white. The arm to which the hand was connected was large and muscular and covered in white hair, also. It extended out from under a willow tree. The willow tree’s foliage bulged with the large figure beneath it. Edmund did not know what to make of the figure, for it was more concealed than revealed beneath the willow tree’s tresses.
Strangely, the figure could have easily emerged from the tree and overtaken Edmund, but it did not. In fact, the gigantic hand flinched back as a cloud parted above and sunlight speared through to lance at it.
“I mean no harm, surface dweller!” a voice boomed from under the willow tree. “I only need help!”
Edmund stayed warily away from the tree, but he did call out to the creature.
“How can I help you?” he asked, “and who are you?”
“Who am I?” the voice boomed. “I am Flint-Tusk.”
“What are you?”
The creature known as Flint-Tusk grumbled. “Have you no worldliness, surface dweller? Have you no etiquette? I am a troll!”
Edmund’s stomach turned to icy slush. He had heard of Trolls. They were, invariably, eaters of men. Though out of reach of the large hand, Edmund nonetheless took a few more steps back. He wanted to put the whole of the heath between them.
“Why should I help an eater of children?” Edmund said, turning away. “I must leave.”
Edmund paused, looking over his shoulder. The troll had withdrawn his hand back under the willow tree. His bearded face peered out from between the spindly tresses of the tree. He had sharp features in an apish face. His tusks jutted out of both corners of his mouth, vertically, near his cool-blue eyes. There was a white mane from the creature’s forehead, flowing back to either side of his bearded face. The beard and the mane were divided and bound into two tufts apiece by what appeared to be golden bracelets. Edmund wondered to whom the golden bracelets had belonged before the troll had taken them..
“I am at your mercy, young surface dweller,” Flint-Tusk said. His tusks scraped against his teeth as he spoke, and sparks flew like fireflies, occasionally landing on his beard and singing it black here and there in places. “I had trusted too much in the fog this morning to assure my safety. As you may or may not know, trolls cannot endure direct sunlight. I was returning to my cave in the mountains when the sky suddenly parted. I flung myself beneath this tree, and here I have remained.”
“You sought breakfast…?” Edmund said. The realization that he could have been eaten dawned on him. He grimaced with horror. “You tried to eat me?!”
The willow tree shook with the troll’s clumsy form. “No, no, no! Indeed, not! Had I wanted to eat you, I would have eaten you. But you were too measly a morsel. I instead ate the bear that was sniffing about your campfire as you slept. Indeed, I saved your life, surface dweller.”
Edmund was overwhelmed. He did not know whether to believe the troll or to run away while he could. He took another step back and felt something beneath his shoe that was not gorse or shrub or spidery grass. Looking down, he saw a bear’s paw under his shoe. It was only a bear’s paw. Nothing else remained.
“You ate the fur, too?” Edmund asked, feeling disoriented. The world tipped sideways slowly, but he put his hands on his knees and breathed.
“That is the best part,” Flint-Tusk said, “besides the fat and the bones.”
Edmund steadied himself, then stepped away from the bear paw. “So you saved my life?”
“Inadvertently,” Flint-Tusk said, his tusks sparking on each syllable. A spark caught on the willow, and then the willow caught fire. “Oh no,” the troll said. “My cover is burning.” He tried to pat out the flame, but his words sparked more flames upon the willow tree. “I do not mean to hurry you,” the troll said. “But if you could somehow save my life, I would be forever in your gratitude.”
Edmund watched the flames wind up the side the willow, even as the troll attempted to snuff them with his big hands. The flames did not seem to bother the troll, but he was certainly squeamish about the sunlight, saddling away from the side of the tree that was burning away. Before he could stop himself, Edmund focused on the intermittent clouds, the Betwixt, and his own worded will.
“Clouds, become mountainous in the sky—
converge, overcast, spread far and high.”
The brightening morning suddenly darkened with clouds that grew thick and vast overhead. Shadows pooled and deepened all around the heath until the morning had become crepuscular in its tones and tints and hues. The willow tree continued to burn around the troll, but he still cowered beneath its flames until nought was left of it but blackened branches over his furry white shoulders. Flint-Tusk held his large hands over his head as if awaiting a pitiful end. After a long moment of cringing, he looked up, through his splayed fingers, and saw the clouds hanging heavily overhead. He lowered his hands.
“Ah,” he said, “you have saved me, magical surface dweller. Thank you.”
Edmund nodded. “You saved my life, too. It was only right that I should return the favor.”
“Indeed,” the troll said. He stepped out from beneath the smoldering remains of the willow tree, his white hair tinged with smoke. He was massive—far larger than Grenneth, Gwenneth, Stanneth, and Alfreth, though he certainly reminded Edmund of them as he approached the Apprentice. “That is quite some power. We trolls can move mountains, but could never aspire to move mountains in the sky.”
Edmund marveled at the feat, too. It was the most extravagant feat he had thus far accomplished. He wondered what consequences would be wrought from it, and he feared them.
“I believe they spread far enough that you may return to your cave,” Edmund said, looking at the clouds and their road toward the mountains.
The troll nodded, his giant fists on his hips, arms akimbo. Edmund realized, then, that the troll was nude, and so he looked away, embarrassed. The troll did not seem embarrassed. Being nude was natural for a troll, it seemed.
“Well, come along,” the troll said, starting toward the mountains.
Edmund lingered behind.
“Come along with me,” Flint-Tusk said, tusks sparking as he spoke. “I have not yet returned to my cave.”
“Why must I go with you?” Edmund asked, alarmed.
“Because I do not trust mountains made of air,” Flint-Tusk said. “They do not stay still like mountains made of stone. They are not as trustworthy.”
Edmund looked from the troll to the distant mountains. He opened his mouth to protest, but realized that the troll had, in fact, saved his life. Thus, Edmund was honor-bound to make certain that the troll returned safely to his cave. After all, it was not as though Edmund was obligated to enter the cave; only to see that the troll entered safely. He followed the troll, but stayed beyond arm’s reach. They spoke as they walked.
“Have you never met a troll before?” Flint-Tusk asked.
“No,” Edmund said. “I have read of your kind before. In tales of heroes.”
“Surface dwelling heroes?” Flint-Tusk asked. His muscular large arms swung at his sides as he walked. He could have smashed a tower down with such arms. “We have been maligned by such heroes. Not all of us eat children.” He shrugged. “Only a handful.”
The troll shook his head ruefully.
“Grah!” he growled. “That really burns my beard! We are not all of us eaters of men!” To prove his point, Flint-Tusk’s gnashing teeth and tusks sparked a flame that caught on his beard. “Oh! There goes my beard again!”
The troll pinched his beard until the flames were wisps of smoke.
Edmund let the point rest. Instead, he tried to recall what he knew about trolls from the heroic tales and from what the Gran Stone knights had told the squires. Generally, they were big and strong and dumb. They ate women and children and babies. They had to be slain. Yet, Flint-Tusk seemed articulate and uninterested in Edmund as food. He was certainly big and strong. He had read somewhere that trolls were Elementals born from rocks. Flint-Tusk seemed born of rocks. The troll’s face was seemed to be made of h mountainous ridges forced outward, extruding in an apelike exaggeration. There was nothing soft of such a face, nor did the white mane render him cuddly such as it might have for a dog or cat. His tusks extended up from the bottom lip, past the upper lip, and its under-bite, and up past the shelved-brow with its beady, nearly blind eyes. The troll’s nubby nostrils were slits angled downward and inward toward the lips. All in all, Flint-Tusk was just what Edmund had always imagined a troll to look like, only he did not seem to act too much like a troll.
“What is your name, surface dweller?”
“Edmund,” Edmund said.
“‘Edmund’? That is a strong name. It sounds like…like…mound. Like…bed-mound. Yes, much like the mound of rocks we trolls sleep on. Your name makes me feel refreshed, Edmund. It makes me feel as if I am ready for a new night of hunting.”
“And where are you from, Edmund?”
“I am from Gran Stone.”
“Grand Stone, you say?” the troll said, mishearing him. “A fine name for a strong city! But I doubt it can compare to the glory of The Behemoth’s Backbone. And the sea surrounding it! The Behemoth’s Blood could drown the earth with its waters! If you could only see it! Wide and vast and red as virgin blood!”
“Is it real blood?”
The troll frowned over his shoulder at Edmund. “What?! No! Course not! There’s some kind of mineral there which reddens it. Also heals sick trolls, or so my mother claimed. We trolls are considered the children of the Behemoth, after all, along with giants and ogres and orcs, so it would only make sense that we could be healed if we bathed in the blood of our mother.”
Edmund remembered, then, that he had read or heard somewhere that trolls had been born of the great Behemoth; a colossal beast whose bones had been burned to stone by Mathara’s flames, and it was the body of the Behemoth that formed the land on which the World-Unfurled unfurled.
“What about goblins?” Edmund asked. “Are you related to goblins?”
Flint-Tusk’s white mane bristled at the question, his tusks sparking as his teeth.
“Trolls and goblins related? Those lichen-licking elven half-breeds?! No. No, we are not. Goblins are of the Unseelie Court. Us trolls are of the Behemoth’s blood…the Behemoth’s bloodline, I mean to say, not the sea, though there are some who think we may have come from the sea rather than from the actual Behemoth. Personally, I don’t know what to think. I don’t get up in the morning to ask big questions like that. I get up in the morning and want to eat something, so I eat something, or someone, then I go to take a nap, and so I nap.” He nodded at his own words, ratifying their wisdom. “Eating and sleeping. Yes, a simple life is always best.”
“I was wondering about goblins,” Edmund said. “They live in bogs, don’t they? Or swamps?”
“They do,” Flint-Tusk said. “The muck-sucking half-breeds.”
Edmund could see a swamp spreading to the East, beneath the mountains. The soil beneath his own shoes had become soggier. Trees grew haggardly up from the peat, like the broken, gnarled fingers of witches. Moss hung from their twisted branches.
“Perhaps…” Edmund said, “…perhaps I must meet with goblins to come to an understanding of something.”
Edmund stopped by the edge of the swamp, looking out over its expanse. The misty murk seemed to dissolve everything at the distance, from the mountains to the sky. Edmund wondered if even the sunlight could pierce the dimness of that teeming-cauldron of mist.
Flint-Tusk stood beside Edmund, looking out over the swamp. He was twice Edmund’s height, and tenfold his breadth.
“You might reconsider, lad. A skinny boy like you is but slim pickings for a troll like me, but those goblins will make a banquet of your skin and bones. Or at least season their broth with the skin of you. They are not picky.”
“I do not know what I am supposed to do,” Edmund said. “Master Avon sent me here, but I do not know why.”
“Master Avon?” Flint-Tusk said. “The Master of All Ways?”
“Yes,” Edmund said, not knowing whether it was good or bad that the troll should know him.
“So you must be his Apprentice,” Flint-Tusk said. “The Master has not had an Apprentice in a long time…not since Master Avon was Apprentice Avon.”
When Flint-Tusk saw Edmund’s look of astonishment, the troll chuckled. It sounded like stones grinding in the back of his throat.
“Yes, I know Master Avon. I became acquainted with him shortly after hatching from my stone egg. He knew my father—may the stones rest his bones—and he was always welcome in our cave.”
“Who was the Master then?” Edmund asked, curious.
“There was no Master then,” Flint-Tusk said. “There was a Mistress. Mistress Lorne.”
“Oh,” Edmund said. He was confused. “The tales never mention there being a Mistress.”
“There were several,” Flint-Tusk said, pinching another beard-flame to smoke. “Men and women both have been Masters of All Ways.”
“I know so little,” Edmund said, shaking his head at his own ignorance.
“Most mortals know even less,” the troll said. “Which is why I tell you not to go into the swamp. Goblins are not to be trusted. None in the Unseelie Court should be trusted. They are wily by nature.”
The troll glanced up at the clouds again, then hurried off toward the mountains. Edmund lingered a moment longer, staring out into the swamp. He then followed the troll.
“Trolls are of solid making,” the troll said as they continued their walk toward the mountains. “We are made of firm stuff, of stuff that is to be trusted. You can stand on stones. They are grounded, so to speak. Your peoples make homes of stones and things, and use them for protection. I cannot say I agree with doing this, but I must say that it signifies a certain trust of your people in stones. No such trust may be placed in goblins. They are made of swamp roots and muck and such. They are not solid, but changing, shifting, like peat. They are like the bog itself. At a glance it seems you can walk on it, but all at once you fall in and are swallowed up! That is how goblins are.”
This was a lengthy speech, and so there was a lot of fire wreathing Flint-Tusk’s apish face after he had finished. He snuffed the flames in his beard and mane, both of which, by now, were more black than white. Edmund, meanwhile, was thinking about goblins and what he had heard and read of them. They lived in swamps and bogs and stole and ate children, and they were not to be trusted—that was about all he knew. He wondered, however, if all of this was true or if this was another situation such as with trolls; that the legends vilified them for the sake of a good story and to glorify the heroes that defeated them. Then again, he thought, Flint-Tusk did not trust goblins. On the other hand, Edmund had heard that a lot of Elementals disliked one another inherently. It was similar to how Gran Stone and other Midland kingdoms disliked one another on principle.
“So,” the troll said. “When do you return to this Grand Stone of yours?”
“Gran Stone,” Edmund said. “It is called Gran Stone, meaning ‘old’ stone, or so my mother told me.”
“Old stone?” The troll laughed. It was like the sound of a boulder rolling down a mountainside. “You humans always use more words than you need, thinking it makes you more intelligent. Worse than elves in that respect—though not so vain. All stones are old stones. They are the bones of the earth. Might as well say ‘wooden tree’ or ‘wet lake’. We trolls know how to name things in proportion to the thing in question. Take my name, for example. Flint-Tusk. Such a name as that tells you all you need to know about me without wasting any air. By the Behemoth’s belly! There I’ve gone and set my beard ablaze again!”
True to his word—and true to his name—Flint-Tusk’s talking had set his beard ablaze again. He batted at the mischievous flames with his meaty fists and eventually smothered them out with such force as would pulverize mortal men into pixie dust. He then yanked at his beard, pulling it up to get a better look at it and the damage done. As bad luck would have it, he uprooted more hairs than were burned by the small wildfire along his jaw line.
“See?” he said. “This is why it is good to eat the pelt of a bear! It helps me grow my hair back again.” The troll sighed and it was like a wind through an echoing cave. “Remember this, Edmund, if you remember anything at all: you never know when what you say may catch like wildfire. Better, then, to make sure when you speak you are calm and true so what you say is calm and true.”
Edmund agreed, though his eyes wandered up the slopes of the mountains. When had the mountains become so large? He had been so preoccupied with other thoughts that he had failed to notice the drastic change in their distance. They loomed larger now—reaching up into the clouds Edmund had summoned—and they ran from West to East, ostensibly without end. They were grayish blue, but dark blue where the clouds drifted over them. Where the pinnacles and crags cut through the clouds it was like the fangs of a dragon biting through the fleece of a sheep. The summits reminded Edmund of Gran Stone, but covered in snow and ice. For a while Edmund feared that he would have to follow Flint-Tusk up the mountain. This fear proved misplaced, for the troll soon pointed out the mouth of a cave at the base of the mountain.
“That is the opening to my home,” Flint-Tusk said. “I would not trust any surface dweller with the knowledge of it—for I would fear for my clan’s safety—but you are Apprentice. I trust you as I would trust Master Avon.”
“Thank you,” Edmund said. “Speaking of trust, Flint-Tusk, why did Master Avon visit you when you were a…um…hatchling?”
“He was not Master Avon then,” Flint-Tusk said. “He was the Apprentice. And he has visited us many times since then.”
“Right,” Edmund said. “But why?”
“To speak to us about the rumblings,” the troll said. “To make sure they are brief and not frequent.”
“Rumblings? Of the mountain?” Edmund stared up at the mountain. It was beyond the scope of his experience for comparison. It blocked out the sky. “Is the mountain a volcano?”
“No,” said the troll. “It is the Behemoth’s Backbone, as I told you. And the Behemoth sleeps. Master Avon wishes that it not waken.”
Edmund was taken aback. “You mean it is the actual backbone of the Behemoth?”
“Of course,” Flint-Tusk said. “Did you not hear me when I say that we trolls name in proportion to the thing being named? We do not waste time or air on superfluities.”
“I see,” Edmund said, feeling quite nervous. “And, so, the Behemoth is sleeping? What would happen if it were to awaken?”
The troll threw up his hairy hands in a gesture of non-commitment. “I suppose the Behemoth would tear the All Ways asunder and everything would fall into chaos. It would be as it was before the Behemoth went to sleep.”
“And…” Edmund hesitated. “And Master Avon fears it will awaken?”
“Eventually it will,” the troll said with less gravitas than the truth warranted in Edmund’s estimation. “But I will not live so long that it would matter to me!”
He laughed again and it seemed that the whole mountains shook with his laughter. Edmund nearly told him to be quiet lest the Behemoth wake, but he was himself silenced by the sight of the other trolls huddling near the mouth of the cave.
“My family,” Flint-Tusk said. “My wife, my daughters, and my son.” He held up his fists in a gesture, knuckles to knuckles. The trolls did likewise, all smiling—or smiling as much as trolls might smile. They all had white manes and white beards like Flint-Tusk. “They are pleased. So am I.”
Flint-Tusk suddenly halted and turned to Edmund.
“Apprentice Edmund,” he said. “You have aided me in my time of need.” Edmund attempted to interject, but the troll would not allow him. “For what you have done, I should invite you into my clan’s cave tonight and feast with us. However, it is the time of the Great Grind. This is a volatile time for trolls—a violent time—and would certainly prove deadly for any outsiders.”
“This is all finely thread,” Edmund said. “You saved my life first. You owe me nothing. There is no need for tassels and lace.”
At this, Flint-Tusk scratched one of the tufts of his beard. “I was not entirely truthful, Apprentice Edmund. I ate the bear that would have eaten you. That much is true. But that was only after I noticed the bear. Before I noticed the bear, I noticed you. And I was seeking to devour you.”
Edmund felt the blood drain from his head down to his feet. He had no idea where his blood had gone.
“You were going to devour me?” Edmund asked.
The troll wrung his gigantic hands in discomforted penitence. “Yes. But only because I was very hungry. Normally I would not deign to eat such a hairless, fatless creature. Fur and fat and bones are what we trolls value in our meals.”
Edmund felt himself grow very queasy and nearly swooned. However, the thought that the troll might still eat him—especially if he were to faint—sobered him.
“I…I thank you for not eating me,” Edmund said.
“But you see,” Flint-Tusk said, “this is why I still owe you a debt. I did not save you from the bear. The bear saved you from me. And you have saved me from the sun. Therefore, I owe you a debt.” The troll knelt, then, on the soggy heath and pushed his fists together. “I, Flint-Tusk, vow to aid Apprentice Edmund in his time of need. So long as the mountains touch the sky, I am indebted to you.”
Edmund blinked rapidly, still trying to overcome the shock of knowing that this troll had nearly devoured him.
“I accept your vow,” he said.
The troll rose to his feet.
“Thank you, Apprentice Edmund. And when you see Master Avon, recall me to him. I know he will remember. He bandied me upon his knee once. I was his favorite among my parents’ hatchlings.”
The troll then went to the mouth of the cave, under cover of the clouds Edmund had provided. He rejoined his family with much celebration.
Edmund wondered if he had abetted someone who might eventually eat an innocent man, woman, or child. Then again, he knew Master Avon and Master Avon was not concerned with these trolls; only in the Behemoth. Edmund told himself he should, perhaps, concern himself with world-ending events, too.
And yet…what if the trolls ate children? What if they stole into a village at night and devoured every villager, young and old? It was a horrible thought, as was his own culpability in the potential scenario. Edmund’s mercy today may have doomed countless innocents tomorrow.
Edmund looked at the cave again. Flint-Tusk was with his wife and children. They embraced him as any human family might their own father. Relief faintly softened every hard-chiseled face. Notwithstanding their tusks, their fur, their apish faces, their strength, and their size, they were almost like any family in Gran Stone. Their nudity, too, ruined the resemblance, but that was negligible. Perhaps Edmund had done some good in the World-Unfurled. He did not know, but he hoped so.
My novella is up on Amazon. It is a revised version of a novella I published in my 2017 collection “Strange Hours”, which I am embarrassed to say was flawed with infrequent typos and hanging sentences. I will have a free giveaway for it sometime soon. Poe meets Lovecraft meets Douglass in this tale of Southern Gothic Horror.
Below is the link to the page containing my free novel Chloe Among The Clover. If you are a cat person, or a dog person, or a child at heart, give it a read. It is dedicated to pets both lost and found.
For a limited time my children’s novels are free in their kindle format. Though written for children, they also touch upon deeper themes and adult subtexts. I am rather proud of them, though I wish they would gain greater traction (and readership). Below is the link for the first novel. The 2nd novel is titled “Stormy Within The Strawberry Patch”. It is listed on my author page.
CROSSROADS AND REVELATIONS
After my oath, and the passing of night into morning, they took me as far from the farm as I had ever been. We followed the road that the Man used for his Truck, and I was surprised to find that it led to yet more roads. Bigger roads. Longer roads. Roads that were so broad that they were marked to split them in two. There were more Trucks and Cars here than I had ever seen. They drove by at speeds that no Cat could outrun, nor any Dog or Bird. The Trucks screamed in fury as they passed.
“Look upon this road,” Claw told me. “What do you see?”
“I see Cars,” I said. “And Trucks. And bigger Trucks.” A gigantic Truck rushed by, slamming its winds against us as it pulled a rectangle nearly as large as a barn.
“What else do you see?” Claw asked.
The morning light was bright as the sun rose over the distant hills, spilling its golden broth into the valley. I saw dark heaps of shadow here and there upon the road. They looked like clumps of mud and grass at first, and then they looked like something else; something horrible. I looked away. Haggard, crimson-stained hair rustled in the wind.
“This is what the world of Man promises us,” Claw said. “This is what happens to us as Man conquers the earth, cutting down the woods and taming the fields and the animals and the plants. Man would make a lap-pet of all of us, pretending to be our ally, even as he slaughters us upon the bedrock of his civilization. Look at them,” he commanded me. “Bear witness to their sacrifice. Bear witness to their murders. They rot upon the roadside of Man’s kingdom! Do not misunderstand: Cats are at war with Man. Whether you wish to believe it or not, this is what Man’s truth entails. Even as he pets your head he plots your destruction.”
I trembled in horror. I could not bear the sights of the road, nor even the sounds. The hissing swoosh of the Cars and Trucks passing along that shadow-stained road were all threats against my life. The wind from their passage smacked at me, promising me death even as their wheels cut through the heaps of shadows that littered that path like a careless graveyard. They were indifferent about who they had ran over. They did not feel any sorrow for what they had done.
But the Man and the Woman I knew…they were not the same. Were they? I remembered that Jack had been ran over with the Tractor. It almost killed him, but he survived. That was why the Chickens called him the “Miracle Dog”. But the Man had not meant to do it. Jack had been overeager. He had ran out in front of the Tractor. That was all.
But these hopeful thoughts were blown away by the hissing wind that struck my face as each Car and Truck dashed along the road.
There were other animals besides Cats and Dogs.
“I see…I see Opossums, too,” I said. “And Deer…”
“There are many animals left in ruin here,” Zoe said, standing beside me. “Animals like opossums, raccoons, birds, rabbits, deer— nothing a Cat would not kill and eat. But here the humans waste blood and hearts. They let the sun and air eat of them, and flies and vultures and other lesser creatures.”
“Profligacy,” Pug-Nose said, snootily. “Unclean deaths. No grace. No skill. Only a wasteful mess.”
“And some not even dead,” Calico said, smirking, “but rolling about, tortured by an inexact death. Tactless and crude and thoughtless.”
“Whereas Cats are nothing but intent,” Zoe said. “When we kill we honor the dead with our full attention. When we spot prey we honor our prey with all of our heart and mind and whiskers and claws and teeth. Humans kill with their eyes on nothing but their own lives. Cats kill while seeing their prey’s lives. We see you. We acknowledge you in your death. Humans do not. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” I said.
“Good,” Zoe said.
I remembered the Truck that obeyed the Man and the Woman; the Truck very much like these Trucks and Cars that drove by. I thought of my conversation with Marion and Duke; of the thought that the Man created Dogs and Foxes and bid them fight for the world. Was it, then, the Man’s fault that Jack died? Was that why the Man said he had a mean heart and chose not to have children of his own? Perhaps moonshine revealed the truth of the Man, too, just like moonlight revealed the truth of Cats.
I looked upon the road one final time. So many animals whose bellies were pregnant with rotten shadows. I could not help but think of Claw’s shadowy eye as I looked upon the dead. When Claw spoke again, I thought I could see his shadowy eye peering at me from all of the shadowy dead.
“Man looks upon the other beasts and, in his hateful envy, he builds fences to contain them, pens to enslave them, caves to imprison them, and he thinks himself the ruler of the earth. But he is the worst beast of all. Sooner or later I will overthrow him. Cats are the superior beasts. We do not cage our prey— we catch them and we kill them, allowing our prey to die with honor. Man kills beasts slowly over a lifetime of years, their lap-pets dying as they live, and never truly living at all. It is a living-death. This is the greatest wrong, and it must be corrected.”
Author’s Note: Another sample chapter from “Stormy Within The Strawberry Patch”, my upcoming children’s novel for both children and adults which, honestly, is more akin to Watership Down than Charlotte’s Web. Progress has been fast, so far, but that is because I did so much work on it before my long hiatus that I am merely coming in to lacquer the wood, so to speak, right now.
Fog Of War
The rains departed and a mist rose up from the warm grass, rolling out from the Big Water like a herd of Sheep in a quiet stampede. The clouds above cleared and the moon shone brightly. It was nearing midnight. I was in a mood for hunting. I wanted my blood to race and my mind to stop thinking. My nerves were anxious and my instincts were itchy. I needed to scratch something to stop that itch. I needed to kill something soon or my thoughts would kill me. I needed to kill the thoughts spiraling around inside me like bothersome flies with their sharp bites.
Out to the wheatfield I ran, slipping into that strange mix of thin stalks and thickly overlapping crowd. The full moon was covered in the paw prints of a giant beast prowling nearby, lurking in the shadow beyond its glow and ready to pounce upon the unsuspecting earth below. I heard tittering from the hill. My need to kill was replaced by curiosity. I followed the laughter until I came to the top of the hill, where the concrete foundation protruded from the grass like a gray scar through green fur.
Two foes faced off in front of the Fox den. A large male Fox was bounding around in the fog, leaping here and there while, between him and his den, there stood Claw; still and unmoving as an icy statue never to thaw. Even his tail lay still around him, like fallen snow on a frozen frond.
“I will give you the opportunity to leave,” the Fox said. “Go now and never return.”
Calico and Pug-Nose tittered. They sat at the edge of the foundation, below the oak tree that grew up between the concrete’s cracks. Zoe was in the tree, watching from a branch. All three of them watched Claw. Claw said nothing. He stood as still as before. His one good eye did not follow the Fox as the Fox continued leaping around in the fog. The Fox spoke in a reasonable, courteous tone. Claw stared straight ahead, as if disinterested in the Fox’s antics.
“I know you think you can linger outside a family’s doorway and intrude on their quiet evening,” the Fox said, “but just think of how you would feel if someone did the same to you.”
“Our home has no doorway,” Calico jeered. “The world is our home. The open sky and the broad earth is ours and ours alone.”
“That’s right,” said Pug-Nose, wheezing through his flat-faced nose. “Doorways are for people who fear the world. We do not fear it. The world fears us.”
The Fox spoke a lot, and I would have thought him confident except for a slightly nervous twitch in his poofy tail. He was as large as Claw, but he seemed to be more concerned with making a spectacle of himself than actually fighting. If anything, he fought with Foxy truth. He leapt all around Claw, his tail bouncing after him. He changed direction so much that it was hard to keep track of him as he spun through the fog and shadow. His tail misled the eye, just like a Fox’s word misled the mind. The fog swirled with him, trailing him like his tail. Claw remained still, however, the mist bedewing his whiskers. He was a statue of hoarfrost.
“All this time spent here,” the Fox said, “and you could have been hunting something better. Chickens, for instance. Or mice, if you prefer.”
The Fox bounded round and round, his speech and tail baffling to me. If I had been caught in that whirlwind I would not have known when to attack, nor which direction. The Fox was disorienting.
“You think you are rooted in your spot,” the Fox said. “But the Wind Fox would pull you up into the sky and eat you. And you never know when he will show himself.”
The Fox hastened, moving faster and faster as if he might become the Wind Fox. I began to step back, wondering if the Wind Fox would appear.
And yet Claw seemed unfazed. The Fox’s confidence grew, mistaking Claw’s silent stillness for confusion. He suddenly sprang forward, his teeth gnashing toward Claw’s throat. Quick as lightning, Claw’s paw struck the Fox across the face, sending him tumbling back into the wheat. Claw had not used his claws. Why, I did not know. The Fox stood up slowly, and shook off his hard tumble. He looked at Claw again. The Fox’s grin, and the gleam in his eyes, were gone. I felt a thrill, and the hateful glee of revenge. I knew, then, that the Fox could not defeat Claw, and I could see that the Fox knew this also. He looked toward his den, behind Claw; a black hole in the earth. I thought he would flee. I triumphed in the thought of his flight—his cowardice.
Claw finally spoke.
“Your words will change nothing,” he said. “You are all meat and blood for my morning meal. Nothing more. The wind does not hear the shivering of the leaves it blows. It does not care.”
The Fox bared his teeth again.
“The Wind Fox will take you!” the Fox cried. “He will eat you! You will be his morning meal!”
He charged at Claw. He charged without Foxy truth in his tail. He charged without strategy or deceit. He simply leapt at Claw, head-on, and for a moment it appeared that Claw would do nothing. Yet, as before, Claw struck out at his foe at the last moment. The Fox tumbled again. This time Claw had drawn blood. The Fox’s face was ragged with cuts. I felt my own cuts burn anew as I watched the Fox’s cheek bleed. But it was a sweet pain between us. The Fox’s pain resonated in my own wounds, and I reveled in that pain. I savored every burning ache and agony. If I could have sliced off my tail so he could have felt that pain, I would have. I hated him and his kind more than I could ever love myself.
The Fox stood again, and again he looked toward his den. Again he charged at Claw. This time he landed upon the large Cat, and for a moment it appeared as though the Fox had finally tackled and overcome Claw, the two of them rolling over.
But it was a feint— just more of Claw playing with the Fox. Claw flipped the Fox, in an instant, and latched onto his neck and pinned his fiery body to the ground. The Fox became still as stone.
And then, just as suddenly as he had pinned the Fox, Claw released him and stepped away. The Fox, looking as bewildered as I felt, shakily pushed himself up from the earth. Claw stepped away from the den, as if he was inviting the Fox to return to his family. I saw the female Fox look out from within the shadowy mouth of the den. I thought I could see Candice, too.
Trembling, the Fox walked toward the den. A smirk passed across his snout, for the briefest moment, and that was when Claw tore the Fox’s white throat open with a swipe of his paw, spraying the wheat and grass with blood. The Fox flipped and floundered about—much like the fish from the overturned bowl—and then, gradually, he lay still upon the earth, moving no more.
The hush of the wheatfield was haunting. The fog gathered close like ghosts creeping all around. And then, out from that silence, I heard quiet sobbing beneath the concrete foundation.
I did not know what I felt in that moment. Satisfaction? Regret? Pity? Maybe I only felt envy toward Claw, for he knew what he was with absolute certainty. He was a Cat.
“Where are your witty words now?” Claw said. “What is a word to the power of a sharp tooth or a talon? What good is a word from a throat easily torn? Better to use your mouth for biting rather than speaking in this blood-steeped world.”
Calico and Pug-Nose leapt down from the concrete, smirking at the body of the Fox.
“He was no match for you, Claw,” Calico said.
“No match at all,” Pug-Nose said, wheezing through his nose. “Like a little mouse.”
Claw said nothing. He began to eat the Fox. I watched him eat the Fox. I watched him eat Candice’s father while the full moon shone pale among the silent stars.
When Claw had finished eating, he approached me. His white mouth was crimson, and his one eye an icy blue. His missing eye was black with shadows, and it almost seemed as if the sobs from the den came from his dark socket.
“Why are you here, little one?” he asked me.
“I…I wanted to learn,” I said.
He stared at me as much with the black hollowness of his skull as he did his blue eye. “And what did you learn?”
“I…I don’t know,” I said. My thoughts fumbled over one another, and none of them seemed satisfactory for the question.
“By killing, we become stronger,” he said. “We gain strength from every foe we defeat and devour. I began with insects and mice. Then came moles and chipmunks and squirrels, chickens and geese and whatever bird I could claim with my teeth. And then came the larger prey. The fox cubs, and then foxes themselves, as you have seen. In time I will devour men and women, too, and more.”
“The Man has the THUNDERSTICK,” I said, fearful that what he said was true. “He has the power of the thunder and lightning. I have seen it blast a Snapping Turtle’s shell to pieces in the Big Water. I have seen it explode a Hawk into a cloud of feathers in the sky. He uses it against the Coyotes, and Jack told me he had killed a Bear with it once, too.”
“He has a trifling bit of power,” Claw said, indifferenty. “When I kill the Wind Fox I will have true power over the storm. No man will be able to destroy me. I will wipe their ilk off the face of the earth. Their shelters will not save them. Their buildings and their roads and their machines will not save them. I will run riot over the earth and devour them all.”
I looked past Claw, watching Calico, Pug-Nose, and Zoe gather around Candice’s father. They gnawed at his bones.
“He was no wolf,” Claw said, “but at least he was no dog, either, tamed by man.” He did not take his eye off of me, or the dark hollowness of his empty eye socket. There came into his expression something of wry appraisal.
“Dogs were once wolves,” he said. “Did you know that? Powerful, fierce wolves. But Man enslaved the wolves, and took power away from them, one generation after the next, until some have become as weak and puny as that dog that foolishly died chasing foxes in the field. Think on that, and know who your true enemy is.”
He turned his back toward me and walked to the Fox’s den. He stared into that darkness where Candice and her family huddled together. I felt that Jack had been avenged, even if I had not been the one to avenge him. I watched Claw in wonder and admiration. I did not feel sorry for Candice or her family. I did not feel sorrow for her father. No, I thrilled at the thought of being strong like Claw. I wanted Foxes to fear me. I wanted everything to fear me. I wanted to fear nothing. I would be like Claw, I told myself. I would be as ice-cold as Claw seemed to be. No topsy-turvy feelings. No warring emotions to spin me around and around in a tornado. I wanted to stand as still and solid and cold and unfeeling as he did—as if made of ice and hoarfrost.
Author’s Note: The above is a sample chapter from a children’s novel I had started to write as a sequel to my first children’s novel “Chloe Among The Clover”. I had set it aside while finishing my other novels/short stories and had recently had time to pursue its conclusion while recovering from an automobile accident (that was not my fault). My nephew has been urging me to finish it since he loved the first one so much. The sequel is titled “Stormy Within The Strawberry Patch” and is nearly finished. I have been finalizing the first half of the novel and now will finalize the second half in the oncoming days.
To honor the Super Blood Wolf Moon, I am having a free giveaway of my supernatural thriller “The Dark Dreamer” (under my alias SC Foster). If you enjoy horror, action, myth, romance, and mysteries, then give it a chance this week.
This weekend I will be having a giveaway for my children’s novel “Chloe Among The Clover” on Amazon kindle. The novel follows a chick in the (literal) Summer of youth and is intended for children on a surface level, but also is intended for adults in its symbolism and subtext. I have received positive feedback from children and adults, so if you want some light reading, give it a try. There is a paperback version too, priced at $8. I hope to have the sequel, “Stormy Within The Strawberry Patch”, ready by Christmas.