The God of Flowers and Honey

It’s always an event when a god comes to your village.

I was the first person to notice him this time. I was in the outer pasture, looking after the sheep. It’s an important job but not an active one. If a wolf threatens the flock I leap into action. If a lamb manages to get trapped in a clear field, it happens, I rescue it. But when that’s not happening there’s not much to do but sit around, staring at the horizon and dreaming of something interesting.

Of course when that interesting thing came along it took a while to recognise it.

He was just a figure on the horizon at first, just another traveller on the road through our village. We get them occasionally, not often but enough that it’s not an event. I idly watched him and it was only as he got closer I realised it wasn’t a cloud of road dust surrounding him.

Have you ever seen a swarm of bees? I’ve seen a lot of pictures of what people think it looks like. Usually they’re depicted as a black cloud. That’s not it at all. There’s no sharp outline to them, no contours. Suddenly there’s a lot more bees in one place then there should be and by the time you realise that they’re almost on you.

Which meant the squat figure in the centre of them could only be one thing.

I called out to the other shepherd, a kid named Steven, and he came running. Like I said there’s not much distractions as a shepherd and it wasn’t like he was doing anything. I pointed out the god immediately.

“The village has to know,” I told him.

“Right.” He nodded determinedly, turned on his heel and took off. I stared after him in disappointment. I’d wanted to be the one to go, to get the accolade and excitement that would come with the news. I suppose I could have raced him back but the sheep needed to be watched.

So instead I gathered the herds together, sat under a tree where I could see them all and waited for the god.

And then, there he was.

It had been a few years since the God of Flowers and Honey had visited our village. It had been a while since any god had been by, honestly. A couple of decades ago the God of Myths and Stories had spent a week here but I think he found it boring as he hasn’t been back since. And Jocelyn swore that she saw The Night Walker once but that was probably just for attention. But that meant I didn’t really know what to do so I just sat watching my sheep.

Apparently that was the right choice. He walked up to me and I braced myself for a painful death. Instead he let out a sigh and sat something down next to me.

“What’s your name, young man?”

“Iwan, your grace.”

He waved away the honorific. It wasn’t his way. “Do you mind if I rest for a spell?” he asked. “It’s been a long road.”

“Of course not,” I replied. “Help yourself.”

I snuck a look at him as he settled himself down. He was wearing loose, white robes stained brown with the dust of the road and yellow with pollen. Beneath them there was the outline of a boxy body that seemed to emit a deep hum. He turned to look back at me and I gazed up into the mask that all gods wore. It was hexagonal, a deep amber colour and had two deep, black eyes that stared right into my soul. Like all god masks it fitted so tightly into the head that it was hard to see the joins. A light brushing of white hair covered the top.

And, of course, he was alive with bees.

Bees crawled out of the collar of his robe and over his face and eyes. Bees buzzed out of his wide sleeves. Bees returned, laden with pollen, passing their brethren in mid-air. I blinked and tried not to flinch away as one flew right by my face.

“Are they disturbing you?” the god asked. “I could quiet them but this is a lovely meadow full of flowers and I would hate for them to miss it.”

I licked my lips nervously then very carefully shook my head. “Nope. I’m fine. This is fine.”

I’m fairly sure he could tell that I was not in any way fine but he said nothing. We sat for a while in silence, him seemingly very comfortable, while I was resisting the urge to leg it. I kept one eye on my sheep and examined the thing he’d set down. It seemed to be a box, wrapped in muslin. The odd wisp of smoke escaped from it from time to time.

“Would you like something to eat?” the god abruptly asked. I wanted to refuse but it’s bad manners to refuse a god so I said I would. He reached within his robes, deeper than I would have thought possible, and withdrew a fist sized chunk of honeycomb. It was oozing with honey and my mouth instantly started watering. I had hazy memories of the god passing out the treat to small kids when he last came through but, as I said, that had been years ago and I hadn’t had anything like it since. It was all I could do to take small bites of it and not just inhale it.

“Bees are a lot like sheep,” he said while I attacked his gift. My mouth was full of the sweet sticky comb so I didn’t reply. “They’re a group, like a flock. Sometimes they have to be guided to new fields to eat, sometimes they have to be protected from predators. Sometimes they stray and have to be brought back. Most of the time though you just stay by and watch them.”

“Bees can sting you,” I said, having finally swallowed in a dignified way. “Sheep can’t.”

“Sheep can attack you, if you threaten them. But allow them to be, guide them gently and they won’t hurt you. Hold out your hands.”

I obeyed and he reached inside himself again but this time he took out a handful of bees. Before I could take my hands back he’d dumped them into the bowl of my palms. I froze, waiting for the pain and the sudden stings but it didn’t come. They swarmed over my fingers but they didn’t hurt me. Suddenly fascinated I raised them to my eye and stared at them. Fuzzy insects though they were I suddenly could see what he had meant.

“So you’re basically a shepherd?” I asked then inwardly winced at my audacity. But the god just laughed and scooped up his bees again.

“Of a kind I suppose.”

We spent the remainder of the time chatting away, talking of the fields and flowers that were nearby. I was no longer scared of the bees that came and went, understanding them better now. Eventually we were interrupted by a murmuring from behind us. From the village a group approached, headed towards us and led by Quinten, the Flower Priest. It was the welcoming party, assembled at last to greet the god.

“I was wondering if you could do me a favour,” he said, getting to his feet while the crowd in the distance got closer.

“Of course,” I replied. “Anything.”

He reached a hand out and laid it gently on the package by his side. “Could you keep an eye on this for me? I’ll need it later but it would be best if it stayed where it is for now.”

“Of course,” I repeated.

“Great. I’ll send someone to get it and you when it’s needed. Don’t unwrap the cloth around it and keep it safe. And please, if you can, talk to it a bit.”

“Talk to it?” I asked but he was already walking towards the crowd. There was a cheer of delight as they met and mingled before disappearing off towards the village.

Leaving me, the box and the sheep.

At first I just stared at the box, alert to any danger. The steady hum was still there so maybe I’d been mistaken about it coming from the god. The smoke that still occasionally worked itself free smelt sharp, like pine sap.

After a while with nothing happening I started to calm down and the box became just another thing to check on. I’ll admit, I even became bored. Usually I could listen to Steven’s inane rambling to pass the time but he hadn’t come back.

The solitude really started to get to me once night had fallen. I was hungry, having only eaten the honeycomb since lunch, but there was nothing around for me to eat. I wandered around to stretch my legs and stared up at the nights sky. The sheep had mostly settled down to sleep and so I was alone in gazing up at the myriad of stars that coasted above me. My eyes followed The Lumberjack’s Trail and settled upon The God-Father’s Eye. Then I cast my gaze back to the village. By now the festival celebrating the god’s arrival would be in full swing and here I was.

It was then I followed my god’s last instruction and started talking to the box.

“I can’t believe they left me here,” I said to it. “I was the first one to stop him. I should be there now. Instead I’m out here, with you.”

It didn’t reply, the humming was more muted if anything, but I felt better, somehow. Like there was something listening and agreeing with me.

I will admit, I spent a lot of time complaining to the box as the night drew on.

Finally, once the nights’ chill was sinking through my woollen cloak, Steven appeared. He staggered a bit as he made his way over to me and sat down a bit harder than he should have. At least he’d enjoyed the night.

“The god wants you,” he said without preamble. “He asked if you could take him the thing.”

“What about the sheep?” I asked.

“I’ll look after them. I’ve had enough of the party anyway.”

I wasn’t fully convinced he was capable but who was I to refuse a god? I walked over to the box and gently picked it up. It was heavy and the humming grew it pitch as it moved.

“Shush, it’s ok,” I told it and it quietened down again as I walked off. Slowly. I don’t know how strong the god was to make carrying it seem effortless but he was clearly stronger than me.

Down the road I went, following in the god’s footsteps hours later, and into the village. I knew where everyone would be without having to ask.

The god’s temple was a huge greenhouse, lit from within by many lanterns and candles. The Flower Priest carefully grew a variety of exotic flowers inside, following the teachings of his profession. There was usually a feeling of warmth and peace when you walked inside. Tonight the heat remained but the peace was shattered by the town celebrating loudly.

I pushed my way past neighbours, still carefully cradling the box. In the centre of the room, surrounded by the village, the god was holding court. He had summoned his swarm back inside himself and was busy handing out honeycomb to the children. Seeing me he straightened up.

“Ah, you’re here! Excellent, it’s time to make the announcement. Put it here, would you?”

He gestured to his side and I put down the box with the same level of care that I had used up until that point. I was about to move away back into the crowd but he laid a gentle hand on my shoulder. The other he raised in the air to get everyone’s attention. It took a while but silence eventually spread across the crowd. Then the god began his pronouncement.

“I come baring good news! There has been a new birth in my hive, a new queen born. The time has come for part of the swarm to go its separate way, to find new flowers. And it is here this swarm will be based, in this village where it will live, to give honey and wax.”

With a flourish he pulled the muslin off the box, revealing a hive within. Then he turned and looked down at me.

“And I put it into your care, young Iwan.”

Have you ever had your life change, irrevocably, in a moment? It’s a heady feeling. One moment I was just Iwan, normal shepherd. The next I was a Honey Priest! It felt unreal, a joke, and so I stammered out an objection.

“I…I am not worthy. You are a god! Where you walk the flowers bloom.”

“And you will do a marvellous job looking after my children, if you show at least half the dedication you have shown to looking after your sheep.”

It was then that I realised. This whole thing, the discussion of bees and the long wait deep into the night, had been a trial. And by waiting patiently and looking after the young hive I’d proven myself worthy of joining his priesthood.

I looked around, as everyone began to congratulate me, until I saw a discordant cord within all the happiness. Quinten looked deeply saddened. He met my eye and smiled weakly but I couldn’t help feeling that something had gone badly wrong, even as I was swept away.

I found out the truth the next morning as I was getting a brief instruction in the care of the bees. The god gave me my new bible, a book on beekeeping and instructions on how to keep them safe. I noticed his swarm was still hidden and asked about it. His mask moved slightly and I could feel him smile at me.

“Well that’s the problem. You see, this isn’t their territory any more. It belongs to your swarm now. When a queen is born the swarm separates and they go their own ways. Two swarms can’t exist in the same place or else they’ll fight. That’s why I have to go away.”

“But you’ll be back, right?” Even if it was years later we would still be here, waiting for him. He had to come back, didn’t he?

He just sadly shook his head. “You and Quinten are my representatives here. Train others in your jobs and, if you have need, come and find me. But this is the last time I will visit your village.”

There were a last few words, both to me and the Flower Priest. There was another speech to the villagers, a few more honeycombs handed out surreptitiously. But then it was the end.

He left as he came, retreating into the distance until he was just a figure surrounded by a cloud of bees. Then he was gone.

It was a happy day, for we had been blessed. It was a sad day, for the god would not return.

Creation out of Destruction

A blacksmith standing in front of a stained glass window.
Art by Salem Newman

The last world died in flame and chaos.

Fire covered everything, the heat searing the land. All that used to be was rent asunder. Life died, rocks cracked and everything ended.

And out of that destruction stepped the Blacksmith.

He was all that was left of the past. He looked across the black and broken landscape and decided that this would not do. He alone remembered what had been. And while the old world was gone the materials were there to rebuild, to make it anew. And so that’s what he set out to do.

First he built the Godholm, raising the metal spires to the sky and digging the basement into the earth. Deep within it he constructed his workshop. And he set to work.

The dead landscape was an affront to him and that was what he decided to fix first. He created the God of Honey and Flowers, weaving the memory of all the colour and sweetness that old world had lost and binding it together in a box. A great buzzing arose and the God awoke. He walked out the door and kept walking. Where he passed grass and flowers sprouted under his feet and bees followed in his wake.

But while he was life The Blacksmith knew that that was not enough. He melded memories of healthy rot and decay, of things dying only to live again, and then he took a sliver of the dark sky to serve as wings. The Nightwalker flew from the Godholm, never to return, for while he loved his daughter she reminded him too much of the past.

Soon the land was green again and filled with a healthy buzz of bees, while in the shadows lurked mushrooms and spiders.

And it was better. But not enough.

He created the axe first and the man to wield it afterwards. When the Lumberjack opened his eyes he was handed the first sapling and then the tool that would eventually cut it down. He strode forth and soon his forests began to sprout and cover the land.

And it was better. But it was not enough.

The Blacksmith then turned his attention to the sea. Five miles from Godholm lies Startagain Bay and it was here he stood, looking out over the water. The sea was broken, the water stilted and half solid instead of flowing. He sighed and held out his hand. From his fingers dropped The Leviathan. Small it was at first, barely the length of a worm. It fell onto the sea and started eating. The corruption was its diet and it was hungry. The water in the bay eventually started to move more naturally, shone more cleanly and the Leviathan, now massive, slipped out into the ocean.

Happy with his progress the Blacksmith returned to his workshop. He brought with him the shine of the moon on the waves from the bay, the taste of brine and a net of ocean mist. With them he made the God of Oceans and Waters and set him to continue where his elder brother had started. He would bring the fish back to the waters.

And it was better. But it was not enough.

Insects and fish were all very well but he remembered bigger, more complicated creatures. He smote the essence of the wild on his anvil, the howl of a wolf to the moon and the lowing of cows in a field. The Brutal God of Animals barely acknowledged him as he stalked from his birthplace, out to the wilderness that was forever his home. Fast on his heels came the God of Fruits, a bunch of seeds clutched in her hands.

Finally the project was done. The Blacksmith left Goldholm and went to see what his children had created.

The landscape was healing. Instead of a blasted wasteland there was colour and life. Deer wandered the forests, fish swam in rivers and birds called overhead. There was still work to do, there would always be work to do, but he’d created the tools to get it done.

It was then that he discovered the first humans.

Pitiful they were, lost children wandering around, clothed only in scraps. They saw him and shrank back in fear, running and screaming. The Blacksmith was surprised, for he thought their kind had vanished from the world they’d destroyed. But his heart was filled with pity. He knew that his world would not be complete without them.

So back to his workshop he went.

From a lantern he created The Lost, to look for them in the dark places and gather them into the light. From a warm fireplace he made The Founder, to create villages for them to live. And from a drop of his own blood he made the God of Medicine, to see to the people and make them well.

And for a while all was well. The villages were created and filled, mankind became healthy and well fed. They should have been content.

But the seeds of destruction lie in the heart of man and they take little effort to grow.

The villages started wanting more, more food, better houses. They became angry that the Lost would bring more people that they didn’t know, even though there was plenty for all. The villages went to war with each other and families turned against each other.

Then came the Betrayal.

With The Founder dead and The Lost gone, The Blacksmith flew into a rage. He was a god of creation but at that moment all he wanted was destruction. He took up his hammer and strode towards the villages, ready to end the blight of humanity once and for all. But before he got there he felt eyes upon him.

He looked all around but there was no one to be seen. However the pause had broken his temper and he returned to himself. He looked upon mankind not as a thing to be destroyed but as something to fix. Something to be guided.

He took the bloody spear that had taken his son and from it made the God of Honourable Combat. For he thought that if mankind was destined to fight then they should learn a sustainable way to go about it, not the mad scraping for power that had gone before. The god left and gathered his warriors, training them not for peace but for preservation.

He took his tears and made the Many-Faced God of Love. If humans could learn how to love each other and be free, he thought, then they wouldn’t want to break each other. The God came together gracefully and hugged their father. Then they left.

He took his anger and beat it again and again on the anvil until it was purified and from that he made the God of Law and Justice. So that when humans did break the laws they knew that a fair accounting was in store. The god tipped his hat and left with his long strides, to try and make the world a better place.

But he also knew that humans had to have something to reach for. So he took the last sight he’d had of the Lost and made the God of Maps and Mountains, so that humans would always want to reach for the horizon and explore. The God barely nodded to his father, rushing out the door to see what he could find.

And finally he took all his memories of the last world, all the things that had once been and would never be again, and he made the God of Myths and Stories. So that humanity would know what they had lost and try and learn from their past.

This god didn’t leave like the rest. He stayed with his father for a week, talking to him and learning all he could. For the god knew that every good story starts at the beginning and The Blacksmith was the beginning for us all.

His duty to mankind done The Blacksmith went back to where he’d been stopped from destroying humanity. He looked around, trying to work out what had been looking at him. He searched under rocks and behind trees but couldn’t find anything. Finally, once the sun had set, he looked up and into one hundred eyes.

This was another god, one he hadn’t created but which had managed to slip out of the last world with him. But they hadn’t manged to make it to this new world, trapped outside it and only able to look in.

The Blacksmith felt sorry for them, and thankful that they had woken him from his dream of death. So he went back to his workshop. He couldn’t bring them into this world but instead he made them puppets that they could control, five hundred of them that walk among us to this day. And so was born the God of One Hundred Eyes and One Thousand Hands. And they were welcome.

Thus the new world finally came into being, along with the gods that guide us to this day. Remember well, child, that we are a second chance. One that must not be squandered. Love yourself, love each other and love the gods that keep us safe.

And let us never forget.

Happy 2023!

A very belated Happy New Year to you all! I can’t believe January is almost over. I’ve spent most of the month getting things organised so I thought I’d take a moment to talk about how my current projects are going.

I’m getting back into writing a short story a month again this year! This time, instead of fairy tales I thought I’d try something a bit different. It will be an anthology of stories, essays and poems about a pantheon of gods. All the stories should be from different perspectives, but never those of the gods themselves. I think it’s going to be a neat project and can’t wait to see how it turns out. The first story, Creation out of Destruction, will be going up tomorrow.

The book review website that I have been talking about for over a year is reaching completion and should hopefully be going up over the next week or two. I took a long time to think about what I wanted to do with it and how to face a few problems I used to post book reviews on my old blog (please don’t go looking for it) but then I became a published author and eventually realised that I would be posting reviews written by people I know, which could be awkward if I slammed it. Therefore I decided that I’d only upload positive reviews onto the new site, making it more of a recommendation tool rather than a review one. That does allow me to do some fun stuff with it though, which I’ll cover closer to the sites release.

Finally, the Demon Hunters uploads are currently on hiatus. The next few episodes have some cutaway scenes I want to film and I’m having trouble scheduling that. The episodes themselves are also turning out longer than I was expecting so when I start again there’ll be a more staggered release schedule than once a week. Annoyingly, the bulk of the work, recording and editing the reading of the book, is done. It’s just the little additional flourishes around that that is taking so long. But I think those will elevate the whole thing so it has to be done.

That’s enough to be going on with for now. So I’ll see you tomorrow for the release of the new short story.

A Short Time Later…

Well it has been a busy week and a half

Between my dishwasher destroying itself in a way never before seen, according to the nice engineer, a few doctors appointments and maybe getting evicted, maybe not (it’s currently looking like not but I only found that out about an hour ago) it’s been quite an exciting wee while. But all that chaos aside I have manged to get a lot done.

The first, and most exciting, news is that my new novel is finally in a finished enough state that I’ve sent it to a few agents. I’m really excited about this one, I think it’s really good. It’s called All The Little Creatures (working title, I’m bad with names) and is a Young Adult Sci-fi novel. It’s kind of like a mix between Star Wars and Pokemon. If that sounds interesting to you you can read the first chapter here.

Secondly, the Demon Hunter series, where I read the terrible book I wrote when I was 14, is about ready for posting! The trailer is up and the first episode will be posted this Friday, the 25th. You can find out more about it here!

Lastly, you might have noticed that the website has been given a bit of a glow up. I’ve been meaning to do it for a while and this seemed as good a time as any. It should be a little easier to see what projects I’m currently working on and what I’ve done in the past.

So all in all a lot has happened in a short space of time. And there’s more to come so keep watching this space!

Where was I and what was I up to?

Hey guys, it’s been a while.

Last year I challenged myself to write a short fairy tale every month and post it up on my website. I managed it and I think they turned out really well. So the obvious thing was to try that again this year.

I would say I made it to March but it’s more accurate to say that March was the only month I posted in.

Long story short, my sister got married and that sucked up roughly the first half of the year (and was worth it, it was an amazing occasion.) And I moved house and had to get all set up (my last place ended up unlivable and I had to stay with my parents during Lockdown and a bit longer). Which brought me to June, at which point I had to take a look around and make a decision. I was happy with the fairy tales but they didn’t bring in much attention and no money. I could try playing catch up on the short stories this year or I could devote that same energy to trying to get another book published. I picked the latter.

The book is now finished and looking pretty good. I’m going to send it off to some agents on Monday and I’ll also chuck the first chapter up on here. But that’s not all I’ve been working on.

Some of you reading might be aware that I’ve talked about my first novel a bit in the past. Not Attack of the Giant Robot Chickens, which was my first published novel. I mean the first novel I ever wrote. It was terrible, angsty trash called Demon Hunter. I had a great time writing it and cringe whenever I think about it these days.

However I did sink three years of my life into it and it was pretty influential to me. So I thought it might be fun to record me reading it for the first time in years and see what I liked about it and what was just terrible. It’s mostly all recorded and I ended up with ten episodes. I’ve got some editing to do but they should start going up on my YouTube channel towards the end of the month. The current estimate is that the trailer will out on the 21st and the first episode on the 25th. Be sure to check it out, it’s…something. It’s definitely something.

That was going to be all I posted about at this point but Twitter seems to be burning down a bit right now and that’s accelerated some of my plans. I read a lot of books and I do mean a lot. I’m currently at 105 this year and that’s just books I’ve read for the first time. So I’ve decided that I’m going to start posting up book reviews on a new website. I’ve mentioned this before and then it got shuffled back in my priorities list. I was going to approach this next year but, well, aforementioned burning of Twitter means that it might not be the easiest to advertise it in the future. So look for that around about December.

Oh, and I also got diagnosed with ADHD so that’s a thing.

That’s that for now. For the rest of the month I’m going to be finishing up a few things with the novel and the YouTube series, write a new, completely separate novel and get started on the short stories for next year, which I am going to be posting monthly. I’ll update you all when something interesting happens but for the moment keep an eye out for the chapter and the trailer for Demon Hunters. And have a lovely day.

Season’s End

There once was a girl who was born of the storm.

Her name was Cirrus and she was daughter to the King of Storms. But that isn’t important. It was where her story started but it didn’t define it. In truth she remembered little of that time, just rage and pain and fear. The important moment, the first one that she remembered clearly, was when something broke through all the bluster and rage of her father like the sun through the clouds. The first thing that she remembered was a face, peaking in at her through a window in the tower she lived in.

This was the boy who didn’t fear the Storm King. He would come to visit whenever he could sneak away from his parents’ chores and goats. To begin with she tried desperately to ignore him. Her father was always angry when she spoke to the villagers who came to give him offerings and she desperately tried not to make him angry for he would punish her for all her faults, real and imagined. But the boy was persistent.

He began to appear more and more, making funny faces and trying to get her to laugh or talk to him. Though Cirrus kept trying to ignore him she found herself watching for his brown hair or blue eyes at the window, listening for his whistle. Eventually she gave in and they would occasionally play together. Only in her room, for she wasn’t allowed to leave the tower and didn’t want to risk her father finding out that she had made a friend.

She tried to keep him calm and happy, coming when he called and performing any chore he had for her. But some things are inevitable and she could not calm the storm’s anger. He needed to do that himself and he found blaming Cirrus easier.

Then one day she was curled in her bed, tears falling like raindrops from her eyes, her cheeks smarting from her father’s latest remonstrations. She wasn’t aware that the boy had picked that day to visit until he was sitting next to her, an arm awkwardly outstretched in the half-formed promise of a hug he wasn’t sure he should deliver.

“Why are you crying?” he asked.

Without knowing what else to say she told him, “Because my father is angry. And when he’s angry he hits me.”

His face grew dark and Cirrus shrank back from him, scared that she had made him, her one friend, angry and that he would hit her. But his fury was not directed at her.

“Pack your clothes and whatever you don’t want to leave behind. I’m getting you out of here and taking you where he can’t hurt you ever again.”

“But that will just make him more angry!”

The boy smiled at her a crooked, half formed grin. “Then let him be angry at me. I can take it.”

The girl of storms packed mechanically, not believing that escape was possible. The Storm King would track them down and then she’d be in even more trouble. But she didn’t have the energy to fight and so she gathered her things and followed the boy out of the window and to the village below.

First he led her to a blacksmiths but it was closed up and dark. So he took her to a house instead, banging on the door and demanding to be let in. Cirrus followed behind, not paying much attention to her surroundings, still just going through the motions. She listened vaguely until she heard the boy say, “I need you to take her and go far away, where he can never find her again. Please.”

Then the reality of the situation finally began to settle in and she peaked around her friend at the people who would save her.

There were two women standing there. These were the mothers that Cirrus would come to love. One was big and expressive. She wore her bronze hair short and was always ready with a hug and a kind word. She was the mother of metal, called Eos or sometimes Kaolinite. The other was the mother of ice, Uki. Her hair was dark and she wore thick gloves on her hands. She was often withdrawn and quiet but when Cirrus needed her she was there and held her hand so tight. They were both bearers of cursed blades, one a dagger, one a sword, that they didn’t let out of their sight.

They all looked at each other then Uki glanced at Eos for a quick moment.

“We’ll look after her,” said the shorter one as the other nodded.

And like that she had a real family.

The boy went running after that, back to his family and out of her life, though not out of her thoughts. Eos sent a quick glance skating over the building before turning to Uki.

“I need to get some things from the smithy. Can you stay here for a while?”

Uki smiled coldly and showed her the bronze dagger. “He wouldn’t be the first elemental I’ve killed and I’d mourn him a lot less.”

“Take care.” With that Eos left and Uki started rummaging around, finding some rucksacks and filling it with food and other things. Cirrus stayed crouched by the fire, staring into the flickering flames and wondering when this dream would end. She was startled to feel a quick touch on her shoulder, gentle as a snowflake, and turned to see Uki standing there.

“Don’t worry,” was all she said. “You’re safe with us.”

And then the blacksmith return, packed a few more things and they were gone.

Across the plains, over hills and through forests they travelled, Uki stalking ahead, cold eyes searching out the path while Eos helped Cirrus along. They would hide from storm clouds, flinch from investigating breezes. Every night they’d huddle together, sharing Uki’s furs and Eos’ cloak, not willing to risk a fire that might draw attention. Cirrus would stare up at the sky, waiting for the thunder of approaching footsteps or the crack of a slap. But each day they would get up and start moving again, getting further and further away, and she began to hope.

Safety was a hole in the ground, the entrance to a tunnel that Cirrus would never have found on her own. Stepping into it was like being smothered in wool. A connection to the sky and weather that she’d never been aware of was abruptly cut off. She collapsed, gasping, but Mothers Metal and Ice sat with her, comforting her and waiting until she was strong enough to continue.

Then it was through tunnels, along passages lit only by the occasional lantern and otherwise by the glowing blades of the mothers. Through the labyrinth they strode, Eos in the lead this time and Uki holding her hand, until they came to a little green door. Kaolinite dithered in front of it, suddenly nervous, before knocking.

A small man opened the door, squinting up at them. His eyes were green and his hair a muddy brown. He was the same size as Cirrus and Uki and Kaolinite towered over him. “Hi Dad,” Mother Metal said awkwardly. “We needed to go where the storm couldn’t find us. Can we stay here for a while?”

There was a pause and Cirrus was afraid that all the travel would have been for nought. Showing up unexpectedly like this? She knew fathers and knew that a beating was what was expected. She flinched back when the knocker yelled but it was in delight, not anger.

“Of course, of course, come in!” he cried, seizing his daughter and guiding them inside to the fire.

And her family got a little bigger.

Grampa Kernowite dotted on her. She learned that Kaolinite, his daughter, had come to him as a teenager and that he’d never seen a child as young as her before. He would bring her little presents, interesting rocks and a few sweet treats that he found somewhere. She’d play with them in the flickering light of the fire, the sparkles in the rocks combining with the sugar in her mouth while the adults worked on expanding the home for all of them. Soon she had a room all to her own, a place of safety where she could hide away. And at first she did, spending days cowering in the quiet. Her mothers would bring her food and sit with her. Kaolinite would tell jokes while she ate and Uki would just sit in comfortable reassuring silence.

But every so often she would creep into the main room, where Grampa Kernowite would tell her stories, sometimes about the great legends of the knockers and sometimes, lovingly, teasingly, about the embarrassing things Kaolinite had done when she first lived with him. Those were her favourites, Kaolinite would squawk in fake outrage and swat at her father. Cirrus would find herself laughing, bell-like chuckles that filled the room with the smell of fresh spring rain. Slowly, like a plant growing, she began to spend more time outside. Her bedroom was always there when she needed it but she needed it less and less.

They stayed underground for years, growing in the dark and quiet. Cirrus grew taller, both inside and out. She grew confident, able to have a discussion or an argument without flinching, able to look people directly in the eye without feeling like it was a sin.

The first time she lost her temper felt like a failure. She found herself yelling at her family, her eyes flicking, her voice cracking like thunder, her hair stained a dark black. In that moment she saw herself as her father and her rage left her. Fleeing to her room she locked herself away in the dark, surrounded by self-hatred and recrimination.

It was Uki that came to her then, not Kaolinite like she would have expected. The two sat quietly for a while, getting used to each others’ presence and feeling out the situation. Then she embraced the cloud child, holding her close while she flurried with sobs.

“It isn’t wrong feeling emotions,” her mother eventually said to her. “It’s what you do with them. And while you blew and stormed you didn’t lash out. You are nothing like The Storm King.”

It was also Uki that started taking her on trips to the surface, letting her feel the weather, the sky, the wind and her connections to them. At first Cirrus was reluctant, worried that her father would find her, worried that this was another way she could be like him, but Mother Ice refused to listen to her. “The sky is a part of you,” she told her daughter. “Don’t cut yourself off out of fear.”

Cirrus might have complained more but being outside felt so good. It was like part of her soul was stretching out and connecting. So she said nothing and they’d make the journey outside regularly. Slowly she mastered her abilities. Going back underground was a pain but her family waiting for her there made it worth it.

And so, together, they persevered.

Until one day they got a message.

Deep underground they had been protected but above ground a harsh and dark winter had been raging with no ending in sight. Somehow a messenger found out where they were and came seeking Uki. He was wrapped in furs like she was but shed them as soon as he could. He and Mother Ice talked together for a while and then he went away.

That night they all gathered in the livingroom and Uki told them what had been told to her. Years ago a threat had arisen in the north and she had stopped it. Now it had returned, long before it was expected and her village had sought her out

“It’s my responsibility,” she told them. “I have to go.”

Kaolinite got up and embraced her, kissing her. “You don’t have to do this by yourself,” she told the other woman. “We’ll all go.”

And so, together, they prepared, some gathering and organising provisions, Kaolinite working on tools they’d need in her smithy. Grampa Kernowite helped them pack, made sure that they were all well provisioned and gave them big hugs. He and Kaolinite embraced for the longest, for they had been parted before and knew the pain it would bring. But they also had been reunited and knew that they would be again.

“We’ll be back,” Kaolinite promised. And then they left.

The going wasn’t easy. Snow lay thick on the ground and more joined it every day. However Cirrus found that she had some control over the weather and was able to ease their way. Uki was used to walking through snow and instructed them in the best way to do it. Together they made good progress.

But the further they went the more withdrawn Eos became. Her happy words became infrequent and she would spend hours just walking, not communicating with anyone, just staring haunted into the distance.

“We’re close, aren’t we?” Uki asked her one night. Eos grunted non-committedly, so the other woman continued. “We should go and see them. We have time and it would be good for you.”

Mother Metal looked at her wife with fear in her eyes. “But what if they drive me out again?”

“Then we will leave and think of them no longer. But you owe it to yourself to see if they’ve changed.”

Eos didn’t say anything else that night but the next day she took the lead and they headed in a slightly different direction.

By and by they came to a village. To Cirrus it looked identical to the others they’d passed through but Eos looked at it as if it was a dangerous beast, waiting to devour them. But Uki took her hand and she took a deep breath and led them through the scattered buildings to where a blacksmiths’ bordered on a house. She knocked on the door and after a while it opened.

The man looking back at them was clearly the blacksmith. He had the same general physique as Eos, with broad shoulders and thick, muscular arms. Life had carved deep lines into his face, beneath his brown hair and around brown eyes so like Mother Metal. He stared at Eos with shock for a moment, as another woman, his wife, came to see who was at the door.

“Eos,” the blacksmith breathed and then he threw himself at her in a hug. His wife joined them a moment later.

And her family got a little bigger.

They stayed there for a few days, healing and learning about one another anew. The weaver and the blacksmith were full of tearful apologies for how they had behaved, devastated that they had lost their daughter. Eos listened to these words and embraced them afterwards. They didn’t fix the past but it made it easier to face the future.

Sadly the winter waited for no man and, freshly provisioned and with hearts now full of good cheer, they left once again, promising to return.

They travel for almost a week before a flash of light cut through the night in front of them and they found themselves before a curious sight. A lighthouse, in the middle of a forest, the beam of it’s light swinging carefully through the darkness. They climbed the hill to its base together and knocked on the door.

The man who answered the door was a wizard according to Eos but he didn’t look like one to Cirrus. He wore a belt of tools and a leather apron instead of the robes that she would have thought and he had thinning brown hair instead of a glorious white mane and beard. But his eyes were kind when he greeted the travellers, beckoned them inside and made them comfortable.

“How can I help?” he asked while they drank from warm mugs of soup.

“You might not remember,” Eos began. “But many years ago you asked me to make you a heart.”

“Ah, the bronze worker,” the wizard replied. “You did excellent work.”

“Thank you. But now I’m here to ask you a favour. We must get to the far north as quickly as possible, to help stop this winter. Can you help?”

The wizard thought about it for a moment then smiled. “You’re in luck,” he said. “And right on time.”

They spent the rest of the night and the following day resting, enjoying being inside where it was warm and comfortable. Then that night he took them up to the top of the tower, where the beckoning light turned and flashed. They stood there, staring out into the darkness while the snow fell around them, thick white flakes that flashed in the light and then were gone. After a while Cirrus felt something approach through the air, something that felt like no cloud she’d ever encountered, too thick and solid.

It wasn’t a cloud and suddenly a ship was there, balanced impossibly on thin air. Details came sparingly with every flash of the light. One flash showed the sky blue hull, another the green sails, a third the name, The Emerald Queen, and the last the crew, dressed in long, blue coats and running about, getting ready to dock.

“This should get you north,” the wizard told the family.

“No, we can’t,” the captain of the ship said a little later. They were sitting together in the wizard’s bedroom while the rest of the crew were running up and down the stairs outside. “The wind is blowing from the north and we can’t sail against it. In this weather we might not even be able to leave. I’m seriously considering staying here until the winter is past.”

“This winter will never pass,” Uki told him. “Unless we get north.”

“I’m sorry,” the captain replied. “But we can’t get you there.”

The two glared at each other until Cirrus spoke up.

“I can.”

They both turned to look at her, surprised for she was quiet and rarely spoke. She inwardly quailed under their stares but kept talking. “I am the daughter of The Storm King. I can feed the wind into your sails if you will take us there.”

“It seems the easiest way to solve this problem,” the wizard said from where he’d been sitting quietly, watching the discussion. The captain stared at Cirrus with calculating eyes.

“If you can do what you say then we have a deal,” he finally said. “This winter is bad for business and we’ll all be for the better if you can stop it.”

And so they join the crew. The next day they went to board and saw the wizard standing on board talking to a man in a wheelchair and a woman made of metal. The woman considered them as they came on deck, her hair dyed the green of the sails, a sword sheathed at her waist while the hilt of another poked over her shoulder. On her left breast Mother Metal’s maker mark stood out prominently.

“Did you make her?” Cirrus asked her mother but the blacksmith shook her head.

“She made the heart that powers that body,” the wizard said. “Serafina came to me a sword that slotted into what you see before you. The mark appeared on its own over time.”

Serafina glared at Mother Metal in such a way that Mother Ice edged in front of her wife, one hand on the cursed dagger. Then, without a word she turned and stalked off. The man, who was a mechanic called Malcolm apologised. “She’s had a hard time of it and is not fond of her body,” he explained. “Just leave her alone.”

The rest of the packing went fine and the wizard said his goodbyes and left, casting off the ropes that bound The Emerald Queen to the lighthouse. The captain made a tour to ensure everything was shipshape then turned to the Cloud girl. “Shall we be off?”

Cirrus grabbed at the wind and bent it to her will. The prow turned to the north and, with a gust, they were away!

It was slow going. Cirrus could feed the sails but only if she stayed on deck. When she was too tired or cold they had to drop anchor while she went below decks to recover. Her mothers would spend time with her when they could, or the mechanic in the wheelchair would carve her wooden figurines but her most consistent companion was Serafina, the metal woman. She was constantly on deck, keeping watch, helping to furl and reef the sails, practising with her sword. But most of the time she walked the railing, her eyes ever outward.

“What are you looking out for?” Cirrus asked her one time while she was carefully threading wind into the sails.

“Sky pirates,” the sword said to her. She wasn’t sure whether that was a joke or not but spent the rest of the trip sending fearful looks to at the abyss beyond the ships’ railings.

Eventually, slower than they’d have liked but far, far quicker than if they’d walked, they came to the far north and the village that waited for them. The village whose name meant First Warning.

The ship didn’t stay long after they disembarked, let down on bosuns seats to the ground below. Once it was unloaded it turned south and was snatched away by the wind. Cirrus, Eos and Uki turned to see the villagers who came to greet them.

Most of them were welcoming and happy to see them but not the elders. They began lambasting Uki, right there in the ice and snow.

“You shouldn’t have left,” they said.

“I needed to,” she replied.

“We needed you here for when this happened again. We needed our Hero.”

“I would have wasted away here, torn by inner turmoil. There was no place for me here, waiting for something that could never have come.”

“But come it did,” they told her.

“I’m here to set things right,” she finished and would say no more.

That evening the sun set but it didn’t rise the next morning.

They set out into the cold and darkness. Eos had prepared for this, in her forge, and they clutched handwarmers deep in their pockets, strapped snow shoes to their feet and walked across the frozen plains, tied together and heading ever northward. Days past without notice, the dark making them meaningless. At night they huddled together in their tent, the spark of the fire the only light they would see. Every day was just like the last and nothing was different.

Until one day it was.

The glaciers rose before them like a slow wave, cresting the horizon and threatening to bury everything they knew. The ice walls looked eternal and unbreachable but Uki had beaten them before. It hadn’t been without cost but she had grown in ability and experience. And this time she wasn’t alone.

And so Uki made the climb but she did it with bronze climbing spikes that Eos had specially made. Only the tip was her special bronze and would sink in easily before the water froze around it. She did it with a rope around her waist, fastened to each spike she drove in and with her wife and daughter holding the other end. So when she did fall, near the top with the end in sight, her family was there to catch her.

First Eos then Cirrus came after her, carefully tying the rope on and half climbing, half being pulled up. They rested at the top, on the frozen sea where curls of waves lurked under the blanket of snow. Then they set off again, to the castle of ice that appeared in the distance.

“Almost there,” Uki muttered, almost to herself. She said it to be reassuring but it came out like a dark promise.

They crossed the sea, tripped and sliding but not falling, with the mocking call of the wind swirling around them. They reached the castle, a beautiful building made of ice. Uki said there was marble bones supporting it but if there was Cirrus couldn’t see them, just flawless prisms of green, purple and blue. Up the stairs they went and through the doors, following the wind. Uki took the lead, knew the way and they passed the frozen wonders of architecture like they weren’t there. The voice on the wind changed, turning from mocking laughter to tears.

Then they were in the throne room and the source of the winter, of all the hardship was before them.

Not on the throne but beside it, curled in a ball of white fur, hair and sadness. A little girl, sobbing her heart out.

Cirrus stared at the girl and saw herself, who she had once been, lost and alone and scared.

Her mothers’ stepped forward, Metal and Ice, different but the same.

“You have been causing these storms, this winter.” One said. It didn’t matter which, for they were both united in this.

“You have hurt people. You are hurt yourself.”

“But that doesn’t matter. We are here now. We are here for you.”

They both smiled and warm that had nothing to do with the seasons and everything to do with love filled the room. “We will take care of you, our daughter will teach you to control your powers.”

“You are safe. You are loved.”

“You won’t be alone any more.”

Cirrus looked down at the girl who would become her sister.

“Don’t worry,” Cirrus said. “We’re here for you now.”

The girl of ice got up from where she was crying on the floor and embraced the girl of storms. They held each other close, sharing the pain and reassurance. Slowly the women of metal and cold joined them, enfolding them in protection and love.

And their family got a little bigger.

New Year, New Me.

Hello all! Happy 2022!

We’re almost through January and already this year has been excellent. Due to a number of reasons from family health to my flat being laughingly uninhabitable I’ve been living with my parents since March 2020. While this was great in a lot of ways I work best with less distractions, such as Family Meals, Loving Interactions and a very cuddly cat. But I have a new place to live now that I moved into a few weeks ago and it’s almost set up. And let me tell you, this place is amazing and I’m already more focused. I’m really looking forward to getting a lot of work done.

So what have I got coming up this year? Well I’m glad you asked.

Writing!

Last year I managed to put up a fairy tale almost every month and I’m continuing it this year. The final fairy tale in the series, Season’s End, had to delayed but it will be going up on Friday! And next month we’ll be starting a new anthology. Something new. Something….different.

That aside I am an author and it’s been too long since I published a book. That’ll be the next priority, working on a novel, getting it polished and sending it off to places. The first draft is already written but it needs a lot of work. I’m hoping to get it into a good state over the next few months, at which point I will be submitting and doing some other stuff while I wait for a response.

I’m also planning on having monthly group writing sessions on Twitch. The general idea would be that I put up a picture that can inspire people to write a short story. Then we all work on it while chatting away and at the end I will read out my own work and anyone else’s that feel comfortable. I’m imagining it slightly like an episode of Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting. I think it’ll be a lot of fun, though I have to get everything set up first so it’ll probably be starting in March time.

Reviews!

Reviews and word of mouth is really important for all authors and it really helps if you write them. It was for this reason that I used to spend an hour every Sunday writing reviews and posting short summaries of them on Twitter. However for a number of reasons this was quite restrictive and I wasn’t happy with the reviews I was producing. There’s also the problem that I tend to binge read series of books. It finally came to a head last January when I spent an hour writing reviews for Ben Aaronovitch’s fantastic Rivers of London series and composing tweets for each one, trying to make them short but different and informative while also not posting any spoilers. Adding together the main series, some spin off novellas and comics that was twelve books and by the end I was done. I decided that I’d find a different way of doing things and then that plan got lost in the general chaos that was 2021.

But as I said, reviews are important and so I’m going back to them this year. The currently rough plan is having an archive of them as part of my website, where they’ll all be easily searchable by category and there’ll be author profiles, with certain books and/or authors featured each week. That’s going to take some setting up though, between working out how to actually do that and writing reviews for the 284 books currently in my to review backlog. I’m aiming for mid-April/May before that’s up and running.

School visits!

I love doing school visits but, understandably, they’ve fallen off a bit in the last few years. I really want to get back into them though so I’m offering five free school visits to any schools in Scotland, either in person or online, for this semester. If you’re interested in this email me on skaldstavern@gmail.com. Also better move quickly, one of the spots is already taken.

Secret Projects!

Just like all authors and creative people I’ve got a ton of ideas that I’d love to work on in the near future. These include, but are not limited to, entertaining videos essays, other collections of short stories, interesting websites, cooking videos, audio dramas and more. However I really, really don’t like talking about ideas before I start on them for a variety of reasons, mostly in case they never come to fruition. But I’m still going to be working on them in the background. Which means that all the stuff above is just a taste of what I’ve got coming.

So keep an eye on this website. This is going to be an exciting year and I can’t wait to share it with you all.

The Searching Sword

Who am I? Wish I knew. But for the moment I’m going by Serafina.

I started life not as the woman you see before you but as a sword, a consciousness gradually awakening over time. I don’t know how common that is, a sword awakening. We’re not a chatty lot, the only time we talk is when we meet in combat. But then we sing.

I had a wielder back then, a man named Eric. He would talk to me and appreciate me, even when I couldn’t talk back. I grew to love him, his firm hand on my hilt and the sure way he swung me. And once I could communicate with him, he came to love me back.

I think.

Because suddenly he started talking about me having a body. A human one, not my sword self. I thought what we had was personal, two being working on concert but it somehow wasn’t enough for him. He wanted me to give that up, to stop being a sword, to become something else.

I wasn’t sure. I was happy as I was. But I also loved him. If that was what he wanted maybe changing myself wouldn’t be so bad.

I didn’t even understand how it would be possible but Eric was always capable at getting his way. There was a wizard at that time in the west. Eric heard about him and took me to him, asking him to make a body for me. I wasn’t as aware of my surroundings when I was a sword. I could feel anything that touched me and I could talk to my holder but that was it. So when I was suddenly handed to someone else and another voice talked to me it was a shock.

“Are you sure you want me to make you a body, a different form to this one?” The wizard asked me.

And I replied I want my wielder to be happy. This is what he wants.

With those words I sealed my fate.

The work on my body went quickly. Barely a month later I was again in the wizard’s hands, passing over my new vessel. I didn’t really have much of an opinion on it, who was I to judge a body when I’d never had one? One final time he asked me, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

I’m sure, I told him, like a fool. I want to do this.

Then I was inserted and there was pain.

I don’t think humans realise just how much the world is. I had senses now and they were bombarded, all of them. There was smell first of all, a completely alien sensation telling me all about what was around me whether I wanted it to or not. I had a mouth and it was filled with copper. Unfocused light blazed through my eyes and thunder pounded through my ears. The silk of my clothing grated upon my skin and the table was rough and solid beneath me, gravity pressing me down into it.

And then something I recognised. A hand in mine, one I knew intimately. Eric.

I focused on that, letting it be my anchor. Slowly the confusion of the universe died down, became manageable. I was able to focus on him and see his face for the first time. It was handsome, I suppose, symmetrical and all that. But it wasn’t as important as his hand in mine.

He helped me to my feet and we went outside, gods, the light inside had been dim, and started down the hill. I could see that we’d been inside a lighthouse in the middle of a forest but I didn’t think to question it. I was too busy taking it all in, the colours of the trees, the sounds of the wind through the leaves. The five men with clubs who suddenly blocked our path.

My wielder had been an amazing swordsman, killing many people in duels or less dignified fights. But now he was without a sword, I was trapped inside this useless body, and the loved ones of some that he had killed had caught up with him.

He tried to talk his way out of it. It didn’t work.

I don’t want to talk about what happened next. I can barely remember it, just a blur of emotions, fear, pain, sorrow.

I came back to myself kneeling beside Eric’s still body as the wizard found me. He didn’t say anything. Just helped me to my feet and back to the lighthouse.

The wizard buried Eric where he fell, sheathing him in the earth. He would take me out to see him once a day and I’d just sit numbly beside the grave for hours at a time. Everything was too much, the sensations without and the emotions within. I was a doll, not needing any sustenance. I would probably have just sat slumped by the grave for the rest of time if not for the wizard.

He encouraged me to get up each day, to practise moving, to practise being. I still found walking hard and sensations still overwhelmed me but he helped me work on it. Apart from the time I spent by the grave he would talk to me, in low murmurs to begin with so I wouldn’t get over stimulated. He set me at a table and had me chop vegetables and cut meat for meals while he sat across from me and worked on other tasks. It helped with my dexterity and slowly I got better. The textures of the food was harder to get used to in some way, the sliminess of the meat, the rigidness of the carrot that echoed with a crack when it was cut. And yet slowly I began to notice it less, to dial down the loudness of the world. But every day was hard.

“Can I go back?” I asked the wizard at one point. “I just want to be a sword again.”

He sat down with me and, very gently, explained that my soul was now split between the sword in the sheath in my back and the rest of my body. He talked about co-efficients and balanced harmonies and a lot of other things I didn’t understand. All I got out of it was that I was trapped. This was who I was now.

I had to find something to motivate me and I went traditional. Revenge.

The day I decided to hunt down those that had killed Eric stays sharp in my mind. It wasn’t anything personal, though I’m sure it felt that way. But it gave me a reason to pick myself up whenever I fell.

It was also the day that I changed out of my clothes for the first time. I’d been wearing the same silken dress since I’d got this body and it was beginning to get in the way. It tugged and slid over my skin in uncomfortable ways, binding my legs if I moved wrong. The wizard dragged out some simple homespun clothes and apologised that he didn’t have anything finer.

“I have some blue dye,” he said. “I could pretty them up a bit.”

I hesitated. I didn’t really care about the clothes but it had given me an idea.

“My hair is made of silk,” I said to him. “Could you dye that blue instead?”

He looked at me. I’m not very good at reading body language but I’m fairly sure he was thinking it was a terrible idea. But then he smiled.

“Of course. Just let me get it set up.”

I hadn’t chosen anything about my body, not really. Not what I looked like or even if I wanted to be a woman. But I chose this. And, standing in front of a mirror in my new clothes and my sky blue hair, I felt just a little bit more comfortable in myself.

I worked hard and soon I was able to focus through the distractions and toddle about the lighthouse. I no longer needed the wizard to take me out to the grave but I also didn’t spend as much time there. I had a purpose and would not be distracted.

I learned to walk and then I learned to run. It wasn’t easy, I fell a lot and acquired some dents in my face from hateful roots. But I did it.

It wasn’t enough.

The wizard looked at me strangely when I asked for a sword but he didn’t ask questions. By then I was able to move easily, steady on my feet. I could run, skip, climb the stairs and I’d taken over cooking. But that wouldn’t do me any good when I found those murders. I needed to fight.

The first thing I learned was that swords are not naturally graceful. I suppose I was lucky. Eric was a master and in his hands I swam through the air. With me, my sword flopped like a stranded fish. It was heavy and unbalanced, wavering where it should have been steady. It was like trying to learn to walk again.

And just like then persistence was the key. I practised day after day, how to stand, how to hold it, how to attack. I was lucky, I suppose I had learned something from being wielded by Eric because there was a feeling of rightness when I did something correctly. It came rarely at first but I focused on it and it started coming more and more often until I could move and it would seem like my sword and I were one.

And every time I sheathed it I thanked it for it’s work. I didn’t know if it was like me and conscious but it never hurt to be polite.

It took a year and a half before I was happy with my movements and that I could properly complete my mission. Well I was confident I could kill the men when I found them. Finding them might be a problem, I am face blind and find it hard to tell humans apart, but I was sure I’d be able to do it. I had all the time in the world.

I was just getting ready to leave when the boy came.

To be more exact I was in the middle of leaving. I had learned long ago why the wizard lived in a lighthouse. It was a port for sky ships, some far-flung outpost of a trading empire where they could refuel or repair. They came on schedule and one night, when the latest one was due, I slipped out and away. It slept wrong to sneak away like a thief, especially after all the wizard had done for me, but I didn’t like the idea of saying goodbye.

The trees were closing in around me when the sky ship floated by overhead. As usual it appeared with a suddenness that was disconcerting but I had gotten used to it. Not everyone got the chance.

I heard a harsh whinny and then the shattering of branches and something crashed away, followed by a final sounding thump. Curious despite myself I want to investigate.

There lay a boy, collapsed like a marionette with it’s strings cut. I thought for a moment he could see me but that must have been the moonlight glittering on his eyeballs. There was no sign of the horse, it must have bolted, throwing off its rider. I stared at him for a while, thinking. No one would know I had been there. I could go off on my quest and leave him here. The wizard might find him in the morning or he could regain consciousness and walk there himself. There was nothing tying me here.

Eric wouldn’t have hesitated but I am not my old wielder.

I gathered him up and brought him back to the tower. I could always leave later.

The wizard fussed around him, asking me to put him in the bed that was left on the ground floor for visitors. I carefully laid him down then stepped back. It was a few hours before the boy woke up and I learned that no, he wouldn’t have walked here in the morning. He couldn’t walk at all. That’s why he had come, seeking help from the wizard.

The wizard offered to let him stay here while he made the boy a wheelchair while I thought over this revelation. He would have died, alone and unnoticed in the forest if I had followed my impulse and left. Just like Eric.

Then the wizard said my name and I looked up to see him beckoning me over. As I walked to the bed he told the boy, “She was the one who found you.”

The boy gaped up at me, gratitude that I didn’t deserve on his face, I think. “Th..thank you,” he stammered.

It was too much. I left.

The wizard found me a bit later, kneeling by Eric’s grave. “I know you were planning on leaving,” he started in his no nonsense manner. “And obviously I can’t stop you. But I’d like to ask you to stay for a bit. I might need help with the boy and you’re stronger than I am. Please?”

I thought about it, remembering that moment when I was just going to leave him there. To die.

“I’ll stay if he needs me,” I told the wizard. “But I don’t know what help I’ll be.”

He nodded and went back inside. I stayed where I was until the sun rose. Then I got up and went back inside.

The boy’s name turned out to be Malcolm. He was good at whittling, attentive while the wizard showed him how he was putting together his wheelchair and terrible at cooking. The first time he tried he filled the room with smoke and started a fire that I had to put out. After that I agreed to teach him what I knew and, like when I started, I put him to preparing vegetables.

I would stand cooking, watching his nimble hands cutting carrots or lean against the wall while he talked to me and carved wooden figurines. His hands were fascinating to me, always moving or busy, always expressive. He would pause what he was doing to make a joke or start carving extra carefully when he was angry. I was able to read him much better than anyone else. He almost reminded me of Eric. Not that they were anything alike really but I’d connected with him through his hands as well.

After a month the chair was completed and I started getting ready to once again leave. I thought that Malcolm would go home and there’d be nothing tying me here anymore. I still had my mission. I was going to avenge my wielder.

Then the wizard said that Malcolm still had to learn how to use the chair and, though he didn’t say it, that I had to stay. And I did. I had vowed, after all, to say as long as he needed me.

And I tried to ignore the little voice in my head, calling me a traitor for being so happy about that.

Working with Malcolm was hard. I decided to help train him, after all I’d also had to learn a new way of moving, but I wasn’t a particularly good teacher and he wasn’t a good student. He fell to the floor and I’d pick him up, again and again and again, until he’d get angry.

But he always apologised, which I wasn’t expecting, and used that anger to work twice as hard. Soon he was able to get himself in and out of the chair with ease and glide across the floor smoothly and without hesitation. One night I was watching him wheel around and I don’t know what came over me. But I stepped forward and asked, “Want to dance?”

He looked surprised to be asked but I stretched out my hand to him and he took it. His fingers were sure and covered in calluses, though in different places to Eric’s. Slowly I led him around, then back again. I twirled away and he followed. Slowly, without talking, the dance evolved.

I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed dancing with another person, moving in harmony with them. It wasn’t perfect, there was stumbling and missed directions, but it didn’t have to be. I felt a part of my soul unclench and happiness spread through me. Only as long as the dance, but that was enough.

Once we’d finished I looked at him, my eyes beaming, and said, “You can move beautifully.” Then I remembered what the dance signified. “Will you be leaving now?”

I saw the confusion in his eyes, the uncertainty. But before he could answer the wizard spoke. I hadn’t even realised that he was watching.

“I’ve been thinking about it and I’d like to show you how to convert a dwelling, to make it easier for you to move about. We could do up this tower so you could get upstairs. I think a maybe a lift…”

Malcolm spun in place and then shot forward, enfolding the other man in a tight hug. Over Malcolm’s head I could see the question in the wizard’s eyes. Would I stay too?

And it was then that I put aside my revenge.

We all stayed together for another six weeks. The wizard had said that it was to convert the lighthouse and they did that. But it was just an excuse and we all knew. He began teaching the boy his trade and Malcolm took to it with ease and joy. I would still practise daily on my sword work but only to make sure I didn’t become rusty, not for any real purpose. The rest of the time I cooked and helped when needed.

Then came the storm.

A ship was due that night and the wizard was up on the roof getting the lamp set up when the lightning bolt hit. The lamp exploded and he was flung down the stairs. I managed to get to him, get him to bed and then get Malcolm. He regained consciousness once and begged us to fix the lamp. Then he sank back into a darkness I feared he would never rise from.

I thought that it was a lost cause but Malcolm wouldn’t hear of it. Even though I had to carry him up the stairs, away from his wheelchair and into the wildness of the night, he didn’t hesitate but got stuck in. We worked through the night, focused on the same task, two beings joined together through will alone. It was like being with Eric again, only constructing instead of destroying.

We managed to get it fixed just in time. The ship came safely into port and the day was saved.

A week later, a week filled with fixing and mending for all of us, and we were in the wizard’s quarters. The ship’s surgeon had nursed him back to health and, though he was still a little shaky, he was almost back to his old self.

He laid out his news quickly. The ship’s mechanic had been impressed with the work that Malcolm had done and offered him a job on the ship when it departed. Malcolm would be able to leave, to see the world in a way that he could never have dreamed off, to be free.

And yet, he hesitated. I don’t know what held him back but when he complained about not knowing anyone there I found myself talking.

“I could go with you,” I said. Then I realised what I’d said and added awkwardly, “If you want.”

He looked at me, broken in a way I didn’t understand. And then he spoke his true fear. That he wouldn’t be good enough.

We laughed at that, the wizard and I. What else could we do? He had been here mere months but I felt like I’d seen him grow up, and that I’d grown along with him. He’d accomplished so much. And he thought this was beyond him? After our laughter we kindly told him what we thought of that!

And so, together, the boy and I joined the crew of the sky ship The Emerald Queen.

She was beautiful. The bottom of her hull was painted sky blue, the same colour as my hair and the boy’s wheelchair cushion. The name was painted in golden cursive near her prow, where a figurehead nested in the shape of an eagle. The sails were as green as her name, stretching out above and to the side of the deck. She was graceful, despite her size. We gathered our luggage, what there was of it. I only had my sword, the clothes I wore and the wooden figurines Malcolm had carved for me. He had even less. We stood on the main deck, amid the bustle and shouting and, as we lifted off, I once again became disorientated.

I thought I’d gotten past this but everything was happening all at once and it was overwhelming and I just couldn’t, I couldn’t focus, I was being overwhelmed! I grasped for Malcolm’s hand and clutched it tight. I thought he looked at me, probably confused, but he didn’t pull away, only held on. I focused on that and a beat I drummed into my leg with my other hand and slowly I was able to clear the confusion. Together we stepped down into the cabin while the ship took flight, leaving our old life behind.

I hated the next few weeks. In the lighthouse I had understood my place in the world. I had a routine and a job. But on the ship I was surplus. There was nothing for me to do. I started with helping in the kitchen but they already had a cook and he had an assistant and there was no place for me. My sword was taken away from me when I tried to practise with it on the deck. They claimed it was something about regulations and that I wasn’t trained properly but when I asked to be trained they turned me away. I realised that they saw me as luggage, something that Malcolm had brought on board and not a person in my own right.

The boy kept me company, telling me about his day and occasionally I would help in the engine room. But I had neither his skill, nor his interest in the subject. I found myself spending more and more time in the hold by his hammock, turning my thoughts over and over in my mind

What was I? A emotional crutch for Malcolm? A doll that could sit in the corner and say things for someone else amusement? Just another object? Was that all I was destined to be? I refused. I would just have to get off at the next port. Maybe go back to hunting down the men that had killed Eric. Malcolm would be fine. He made friends quickly and he hadn’t needed me along in the first place. He was just scared.

I was brooding over these questions when the pirates attacked.

They came in the middle of the night, in balloons that swam up from the inky depths of the sky. The watch was cut down and then they swarmed down below decks.

They were all gathered up, the crew, and herded into the hold where I was sitting. We were surrounded by gold toothed grins and rusty swords. A part of me sniffed in derision at the state of them but most of me was concerned for Malcom, who was thrown to the ground from his hammock.

I was unarmed. That amused me a little, an unarmed sword. As the pirates advanced on us, clearly ready to start killing any dissenters I focused. My body was steel. I would be able to get through this.

Then Malcolm thrust himself in front of me.

“Get behind me, Serafina,” he shouted. “I’ll hold them off for as long as I can.”

I stared at the back of his head for a moment, marvelling at the ridiculousness of that statement. Hold them off? He’d barely last a second. A single cut from one of those substandard swords would end him. And yet he was still trying to protect me. Why?

Because, I realised, he valued me more than he valued himself. And he would defend what was important to him.

I finally understood my purpose.

I was a sword.

I drew myself.

It felt wrong, so terribly, terribly wrong. I was a sword and I was a body and being two things at the same time was painful! And yet still I attacked.

The years of practise came to my body, allowing it to move fluidly, to slice. And my sword knew exactly where it was supposed go. I shattered the weak blades before me, casting the pirates back. They swung at me and I dodged, more nimble than Eric had ever been, more direct in my thrusts.

Thirty pirates came down into the hold. Fifteen made it out and I was hot on their heels. But the longer I was drawn the higher rose the pain until I was acting more on instinct than anything else. My senses were beginning to go one by one, and I could feel my life force guttering.

I don’t know how many pirates escaped, scampering into their balloons and away into the night. But it wasn’t many.

And then I collapsed, sinking down into blackness in a mirror of those I’d just driven off.

I came back lying in a hammock. I never slept and so had no cause to lie in one before. It was a very strange sensation and I would probably have remarked more on it but Malcolm’s face swam into view. He was sat on a high stool where he could watch over me, whittling something while he waited. I must have made a sound or movement because he abandoned his work and grabbed my hand.

“Serafina,” he cried. “Are you ok?”

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. I’ve never known, not really. But right there, with his hand in mine, I thought I was.

No moment could last forever though and after some shouting and running out of sight another face appeared, supported by a magnificent uniform and topped with a ha.. It wasn’t the captain, he hadn’t survived the attack, but it was the first mate, now in command.

“I’m sorry, Serafina,” he said. “We misjudged you. We all thought that you were some project of the wizard’s and….”

He trailed off awkwardly and then held up a sword. It was mine, the one that they’d taken off me.

“You saved us,” he continued. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. I know that we have no right to ask this of you, considering how we discarded you up until now, but I’m asking if you will protect us again. Take up this sword and join this crew properly?”

I was tempted to say no, just to spite him. That I wasn’t just another tool. But everyone needs a purpose. And for the moment, this fitted me very well.

“I will,” I told him, Malcolm’s hand still in mine.

And so that was my job. I helped where needed and, when I wasn’t I walked the deck, practising with my sword, dancing with Malcolm and guarding the future. And usually I did nothing. But not always.

In a perfect world, a sword is very rarely drawn. But it always has the potential to be.

Who am I? I’m still not sure. But for the moment I’m happy going by Serafina.

The Kitten and her Girl

Like all cats I was born knowing that I was special.

I was one, and of course the best, of a litter of seven kittens. For the first few weeks of my life my mother nursed us and told us of our purpose. All cats have a purpose, of course. Only lesser creatures don’t. Some of us are ratters, some are companions. My purpose was of great importance. I was to be a witch’s cat! I would be sent to a witch, who would give me a task to fulfill.

My mother told us about other things, the world in general and our place in it. Cats are beings of balance. We walk the line between the Wild and the humans, we stalk through the shadows of the world, our own masters who chose help humans in matters they can’t navigate.

When I was old enough I left my mother and stepped through the ways secret to cats until I found my witch. By this point I was fully in my power, master of all I surveyed, a full ten weeks old!

It was nearing the end of the day when I arrived at the home of the Witch of the Heartwoods. My mother had heard about her from her witch and knew her to be sensible and of proper import for one such as me. I stepped from the shadows and saw the witch sitting in a rocking chair in front of her house, sipping tea and watching the colour fade from the sky. I roared mightily to let her know I was there and she looked up, a smile bursting across her face.

“Well hello there,” she said, coming across and kneeling in front of me as was proper. “And what is your name?”

I ignored her, washing my face to show what I thought of such impertinence. Everyone knows that a cat’s true name is secret. Then I looked up at her and roared again.

“What a cute meow,” she said and gathered me up. I would have protested but she was very warm and comfy and the journey had tired me somewhat. She took me inside and fed me water and some fish. After that I was given a cushion, upon which I fell asleep.

And so I was a witch’s cat.

It was very boring.

The witch did not often get visitors, living so deep in the woods. Those she did have were barely worth my attention and I often didn’t greet them myself. The house was well appointed, with a lot of plush seats to sleep on, but the trees grew so tall that there were rarely enough sunbeams in which to sprawl. She also had her own way of doing magic and didn’t need my assistance. I was wasted here and I could see the witch agreed, though she fulfilled her side of things with regular offerings of food and strokes.

The day all of this changed and I was given a purpose I was napping in the back room of the witch’s house. I heard the visitors come in and the bustle as my witch supplied them with that tea drink but couldn’t be bothered rousing myself to investigate. I would have probably dozed through their whole visit if the witch hadn’t coming into the back to find me.

“Kitten,” she said respectfully, “I have a task for you. The family out there have a girl who must venture out into the dangerous woods. I want you to go live with them and, when she leaves, go with her and protect her.”

I yawned to show her how I felt about her waking me. “You want me to leave?” I asked.

“Of course not,” the witch replied earnestly. She was at least intelligent enough to understand Cat, even if she couldn’t speak it. “I love having you here. I simply feel that this is a better use of your time. This is a quest worthy of you.”

The idea of a quest did intrigue me and, as I had mentioned, I was getting bored. So I agreed, the witch picked me up and brought me through to the other room.

I saw my new family.

Frankly I wasn’t impressed.

There were three of them, parents and their kit. The parents looked old, whereas the girl was barely in her teen years. She was the one I had to protect and no surprise, being so young and small.

She did have comfortable arms though and she held me close as was proper upon being handed me. I focused on her and missed what the parents were saying to my witch. However I did hear them say, “So when danger appears it’ll grow big and frightening or….?”

The audacity of them! Thankfully my witch set them straight with a smile.

“No, it is what it is. This will keep your daughter safe.”

By this time they must have seen more of my majesty or the sheer obviousness of the statement had finally gotten through to them. Either way they said nothing more, just thanked my witch and took me to my new home.

Much though I felt it demeaning to be in a common store, far beneath my station, I had to admit that it was much comfier than the witch’s hut. The shop and attached house were spacious, with lots of interesting nooks and crannies to investigate. There were many of the much missed sunbeams and they were quick to feed me, though they had to be reminded from time to time.

It was while I was patrolling my new domain that I heard them discussing the problems in the forest. Apparently some wolves and some bandits had moved into the area. It was no wonder that they needed me to protect the girl. Just being around the house must have made them feel safer.

Eventually the day came when the girl needed to make her next delivery. She packed a rucksack, shucked on a green cloak and picked up a basket, which was the perfect place for me to ride in. Then we set off.

The forests have a wild beauty all of their own. The sun dappling through the leaves and the swaying of the basket combined to have an almost soporific effect. It was tempting to fall asleep but I had a duty to protect the girl. Luckily I was a cat and we have the ability to doze while being completely aware of our surroundings.

The day wore on, the girl visiting five different houses of people who didn’t interest me. They looked at me, uncertain and awed by my magnificence, as was only right. Nothing of particular note happened and eventually we started walked back.

Which is when I noticed the wolf.

It was lurking on the side of the path, just a little further on. The girl, with her substandard sight, hearing and sense of smell, was unaware of it. I, of course, could easily defeat it in combat but the girl might get hurt. And unlike properly civilised people she didn’t speak Cat, so I couldn’t warn her. What was I to do?

I was reduced to communicating in the most basic of pantomime. I stood up and stared off the track, away from where the wolf lay in wait. Then, once I was sure I had her attention, I leapt bravely from the basket and led the way to safety.

It seemed that she had gotten the message because I heard her crashing through the undergrowth after me. I had no doubt that the wolf would also be coming after us so I kept up the charge, leading her around unexpected hollows and the worst of hanging branches. This was unsustainable though. Wolves could run faster than her, even if they couldn’t run faster than me, and I had to find a place where it couldn’t get her.

Eventually I both heard and smelt men ahead of me, emphasis on smelt, they were an uncouth bunch but needs must, and led her to them and safety. I decided to let her go first into the clearing where they were making their camp. They would naturally be terrified if I suddenly burst upon them and they were, after all, humans. I dealt with the wild, the girl dealt with the humans.

I knew I had made…well not a mistake, merely a miscalculation, once the girl entered the glade. She reacted to them not in joy, like I’d have expected, but rather in fear. After a few moments I realised that, instead of a gang of smelly but helpful humans, these must have been the bandits that I’d heard of. And they were surrounding the girl.

I was in something of a quandary. Yes, I could just leap into the middle of them and kill them all but there were a lot of them and, again, the girl might get hurt. I was amazing but there was only one of me. There was a chance that a few of the bandits might have enough presence of mind to harm the girl. I needed a large group that would be properly distracting.

I decided to abide by the third law of Cats. If there’s something you don’t particularly want to do, get someone else to do it instead. With that I turned and sped through the forest. Why solve one problem when you can solve two?

It didn’t take me long to find the wolves. I simple had to go back to the path and follow the wolf’s scent back to where they gathered. It was a large pack, several families all gathered together, probably as many as the bandits were. I decided to make an impression upon them. A proper introduction can solve all sorts of problems.

I appeared in front of the pack of wolves like a ghost, unseen but feared, and roared. Heads turned and a large wolf that must have been the alpha stalked over to me.

“What do you want, little morsel?” he growled. “Speak before we snap you up!”

I understand that some leaders need to make themselves feel more important but really. If I hadn’t needed him I would have struck him down on the spot. “I come baring a warning,” I told him. “There are men not far from here that are coming to hunt you. You must attack them first!”

A low chuckle broke from his jaws. “Oh, must we? And why is that?”

“Because if you don’t they will hunt and kill you all! I will do you a favour and lead you to them but you will owe me.”

The chuckles weren’t just coming from the leader now as the pack gathered around. “I think I’ll just eat you,” the wolf said, leaning close to me and showing his fangs.

I inwardly sighed. Why were some animals unable to listen to reason?

Other methods would have to be used.

I extended my claws and swiped the wolf across the snout.

He recoiled with a satisfyingly high-pitched squeal. The rest of the pack lunged at where I used to be but I was already speeding through the trees. Within a moment I heard a hunting howl and they were after me.

A cat like myself will always be faster than some canines, of course, but I will admit that they were faster than I expected. I had to let them keep me in sight, of course, but they were getting a little closer than I’d planned. We were only halfway to the camp and the howls were uncomfortably close.

It was a surprise when we almost crashed into the bandits. I managed to vanish into the undergrowth just in time but the wolves weren’t as cunning. Both group stopped and stared at each other for a moment.

What were they doing here? Then I saw the girl leading them and realised that she must have somehow figured out my plan. Maybe she wasn’t so bad after all.

The wolves snapped out of their confusion first and attacked. Several bandits fell before the rest got their act together and counter attacked. I saw the girl stumble off to the side and vanish as the fight got under way. Just like I’d planned.

I stayed to watch the confrontation play out, hidden safely under a bush. Both group struck at each other with ferocity doubtless born of their inner limitations. While the wolves had gotten first blood the bandits were armed with swords and axes and these fake claws counted for a lot. The fight ground on, more falling on both sides every moment. Eventually the tattered remains of both groups limped away, neither a threat to anyone any longer. Just as I’d planned.

I headed back to the path and waited for the girl there. The day was nice and warm and I was tired after completing my quest in such a final way. So I found a nice sunbeam, curled up and waited for the girl.

Saving the day must have taken more out of me than I had thought because the first that I was aware of the girl’s return was when she picked me up and, holding me close, began to walk back home. The basket had vanished at some point but being carried like this was a nice substitute. I curled up deeper into her arms and purred to let her know that I was satisfied.

The girl held me tight and whispered in my ear, “You may not have done anything to help but I love you anyway.”

It’s not her fault. She’s only human.

The Girl and her Kitten

There was once a couple who lived in the Greatwoods. They owned a shop in a village and worked hard at it. They would order in supplies from villages around them and sell them to their own villagers. Thanks to them people living around them were able to acquire things that they would never have access to otherwise and they became very much respected. And eventually they had a little girl and their lives were complete.

But life had passed on a bit before they were blessed with a child. They loved her and raised her to the best of their ability and when she was old enough she started to help around their shop. She would help stock the shelves, carrying goods from the storage basement and sweep and polish the floor. As the years went on she started doing more until she reached the age of fourteen and took over delivering groceries once a week to the people who lived out in the woods.

To begin with this was a simple job, one which the girl looked forward to. She would put on her green cloak, shoulder a backpack full of the less delicate supplies and then pick up her basket that contained the items that could be broken. She would spend the rest of the day walking through the forest, greeting her far flung neighbours and enjoying the fresh air and peace of the wood.

But after a while things began to get dangerous. A pack of wolves moved into the area, known mostly through their howls in the middle of the night. A little while later word of bandits attacking lone travellers started being whispered. The couple were worried about their daughter and suggested that she might stop the deliveries. But she loved her days walking along the trails in the trees and wouldn’t hear of it.

So they went to see a local witch, hoping that she might have the answer.

The witch lived deep in the forest, in the Heartwoods where few dared venture. The shopkeepers and their daughter closed the shop for the day and set off before the sun had fully risen. To begin with they traveled through the light but as they got closer to their destination a dusk fell, the trees crowding closer together and blocking out the sun. Then, at a little before midday they arrived at the clearing where she lived and saw the witch.

She was the antithesis of her surroundings. After the gloom of the Heartwoods the bright patch of sunlight that shone into the glade was almost as blinding as the witch’s smile upon seeing them. She was out working on her garden, her glossy black hair falling in ribbons down her back.

“Welcome,” she cried, straightening up and dusting the dirt off her hands. “Come in, come in. I was just about to have a cup of tea.”

The family exchanged a look but it seemed rude to refuse so they followed her in.

The witch’s house was built back onto one of the gigantic Heart Trees. Once through the door they found themselves in a large room, with tables and chairs scattered about and a cauldron bubbling over a fire. In quick order they found themselves pushed into plump, comfy seats while the witch busied herself with cup and leaf.

As they drank the aromatic liquid they explained why they’d come, the girl scowling at the very idea she might need help. She finally interrupted her mother as the tale was coming to the end.

“We would go with her…”

“But they are old and there’s no point. I can look after myself.”

The girl’s father sighed and shrugged helplessly. “So we have come to ask you. Is there anything you can do to keep her safe? A weapon or something?”

The witch shook her head. “I don’t sell weapon or anything that makes it easy to hurt people. But I might be able to get your girl a guardian creature.”

Her parents exchanged a relieved look. “If it will protect our daughter then that would be fantastic.”

The witch gave them a bright smile. “Wait here, I’ll be right back.”

The witch disappeared through a curtain in the back of the room and vanished from sight. Not from hearing though, a couple of bangs, thumps and a loud roar escaped and fled past them. The parents exchanged another look, this one worried, remembering all the bad things they’d heard about witches. The girl, however, sat up straight and looked eagerly towards the door.

After a few moments and a lot more worrying cacophony the witch returned. In her arms was a kitten, a white so pure it was almost glowing, except for a smudge of black on top of its head. It was looking around with curious green eyes that settled almost immediately upon the girl.

The parents exchanged a final look as the kitten was deposited into the girl’s arms and started purring as it was held close. “Is that it?” the father asked.

“That’s it,” the witch replied with an easy smile.

“So when danger appears it’ll grow big and frightening or….?”

“No, it is what it is. This will keep your daughter safe.”

They weren’t sure but there was no arguing with a witch so they thanked her and left.

Over the next week they kept a close watch on the kitten, waiting for it to do something special or dangerous but they waited in vain. The kitten behaved completely normally. It would spend the days darting about the shop, chasing dust or sunbeams, sleeping in comfortable places and yelling for fresh food.

After the week it was time for the girl to go out on her deliveries again. Although they couldn’t see how it would help her parents urged her to take the kitten with her, which she did with joy as she had fallen in love with it. With her cloak, her basket, her backpack, and the kitten she set off.

Everything was fine to begin with. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. The girl had five homes to visit and five houses were visited without a problem. Bag and basket empty she started along the well worn path for home. See, she thought to herself. I knew my parents were over-reacting.

The kitten, who up until then had been sleeping peacefully in the now empty basket, suddenly sat up and started staring off the side of the path. The girl stopped, unsettled by the sudden movement. Then a moment later the kitten pounced from the basket, hit the ground and sprinted into the woods.

“Kitten, wait!” the girl cried. Barely stopping to think about what she was doing she dashed after it.

Through the trees and the underbrush they went, sticks splintering under the girl’s boots, the kitten a seldom seen white blur in front of her. The girl ran faster, not wanting her beloved pet to get lost but after a while she realised that she hadn’t seen the kitten in a while and, despite her intentions, it was now her that was lost. She stopped and tried to make her way back home.

Then suddenly she stumbled into a glade and, looking up, came face to face with the bandits.

There was nothing else they could be. There was no reason for a gang of twenty men to hang out around a fire in the middle of the day, dressed in mismatched armour and clutching weapons. There was a moment where they all just stared at each other. Then the bandits were scrambling to their feet and the girl found herself surrounded and crowded back toward the fire in the centre of the clearing.

“Well what do we have here?” one of the bandits asked. “And what will we do with it?”

Another of them shouldered his way to the front of the group. He was bigger than the rest and his hair hung in a lank ponytail down his back. Judging by the way everyone deferred to him, he was the leader. “You know what we do. We take everything she has,” he growled at the one who had spoken. Then he leered at the girl. “And maybe have some fun with her.”

But the girl had worked in her parents shop since before she could remember and, though she was terrified, she knew how to negotiate. “Sure, you could hurt me,” she said as calmly as she could. “But would that be the most profitable thing to do?”

The bandits were still moving closer to them but their leader, who was the leader for a reason, forced them to back away. Turning to the girl he asked, “What do you mean?”

“Well,” said the girl, thinking quickly. “I work at my parents shop and they’re very successful. They bring in a lot of money. Every week I have to walk this path and give people groceries. What if I also paid you a small amount as well? Then you would have a consistent income stream, which would benefit you more in the long run.”

The leader thought about it for a moment. “I have to problems with this proposition,” he eventually said.

“What are they?” the girl asked eagerly. They were negotiating! She could do this!

“The first,” the bandit leader said slowly, “is what you said about a small amount. There’s a lot of us, as you can see. I’m not sure a small amount would cover all of us.”

“I can give you more than a small amount,” the girl said. “Tell me what you need and I’ll look into it.”

“Well that brings us into the second concern. Which is, if we let you go now then we don’t get anything for a week. If we even trust you to come back.

“No, what I think we’ll do now is that you’ll lead us to your village and your parents’ successful shop.”

The girl wanted to say no but she didn’t have any choice. So she agreed, picked a direction and started walking

Luckily the bandits weren’t locals and so didn’t know the forest. Knowing this the girl lead them off in the wrong direction, wracking her brains as to what to do next. It was only when a howl split the air that she knew what she had to do.

“What was that?” the leader of the bandits asked.

“Oh, that was just the shepherd’s dogs,” the girl lied. “They can be a bit loud.”

From the look on his face he didn’t buy it. Thankfully he didn’t have to for at that moment the wolves attacked.

The pack crashed through the trees in front of them, running at full pelt. For a moment it looked as if they hadn’t expected the bandits to be there but then they changed direction and charged. The first few bandits fell to their teeth before the rest were able to unsheathe their weapons and charge in.

The sound was devastating. Howls and yells, screams and cries all blended together into an almost physical blow. The girl turned and, leaving it all behind, ran back through the woods, searching once again for her path. She walked for what seemed to be an age before she found herself back in part of the woods she recognised.

The girl finally made it back to the path and there she found the kitten, curled up in a sunbeam. Carefully, she scooped it up and started walking back. It didn’t rouse, just snuggled into her arms and started purring.  

As the girl walked to the door to her home she hugged the kitten close and whispered in its ear. “You may not have done anything to help but I love you anyway.”

It stayed peacefully asleep and did not reply.