spark: a highwind short story

SFF BloghopWelcome to the Storytime Blog Hop, where speculative fiction writers will entertain you with a varied buffet of short works! My offering is set in the city of Highwind, where a has-been composer seeks inspiration from the unlikeliest of Deep Night creatures. Enjoy!

Spark

“Good morning, Monsan Bevelski,” the orderly sang out, thrusting open the bedroom door. “Rise and—” He checked.

The room was empty. A swift glance around showed him the bed, not slept in; the missing cardboard slippers; the window that had been painted shut, but was now ajar.

The orderly hurried to the window, squeezing past the amputated piano on the floor. Handwritten sheets of music slipped under his rubber-soled feet.

There was no one in the narrow side-yard.

He swore. Then, running for the door, he yelled, “Korbin! He’s gone again!”

 

Hubert Bevelski spent the day skulking in alleys and peering around corners. The sight of a white garment across the street had him ducking behind trash cans and into crowds, his sneakiness accompanied by a clarinet solo in his head.

He couldn’t afford to be caught again. Not with the song of the spark fairies calling to him every evening. They were silent right now, in the weak, watery sunlight and the raw wind, but they would wake soon.

And when they did, he would be ready for them.

Hubert stuck his hands into the pockets of the ratty patchwork dressing gown that did double duty as a coat. Underneath, he wore his nightshirt and loose trousers. His slippers had long since disintegrated; he’d tied sacking material around his feet.

He didn’t look much different from the dozens of shabby old men one found all over Highwind. So what if he could barely feel his feet, wet from the icy slush on the roads and sidewalks?

He’d give both his legs for the spark fairies’ music.

Only it could fill the years-old hole gnawing at his soul.

Past midday, his stomach growled, a bass rumble. Hubert started, wonderingly.

Ah, yes. He needed food, didn’t he?

Hubert extracted a piece of sticky toffee, covered in lint, from his pocket. He popped it into his mouth, and sucked contentedly.

Then he heard it.

A snatch of song, faint and faraway.

Head up, shaggy grey hair lifting in the breeze, he scented the air like a hound on the hunt.

There.

Hubert plowed into the street. From the corner of his eye, he saw the horse half-rear to a stop, eyes rolling, sweat flying. Saw the driver’s mouth open in a shout, saw the wheel grate against the curb as the carriage body bounced to a halt.

He ignored it all, gained the pavement, and left the mayhem behind.

The fairies were calling.

A stray dog bared its teeth at him as he crossed a narrow street stinking of garbage. Slime seeped through his improvised shoes. He came to a set of cramped stone stairs, dark and slick.

Dusk had fallen in folds, like a midnight cloak, over the city. Banish lights came on, but not here. Not in this part of the city.

Spark fairies spiraled around him, then flew off. Their individual voices, tinny with distance, came and went. A thrill went over Hubert.

There was purpose to their movements. There was a song in their buzzing.

He picked up his pace, stumbling in his haste. More and more spark fairies flew past, intent on their destination. None tried to creep into his nostrils, to crawl into his mouth, to nip at his ears.

A wriggle of movement caught his attention. There, in front of a townhouse, its shutters closed against the cold, was a heat stick pushed into the top of a gate. Three spark fairies were stuck in the flypaper around it. Their brethren ignored the trio’s struggles.

Hubert didn’t. With careful fingers, he plucked each fairy off the paper and set it loose on the wind. Their delicate bodies were vaguely humanoid, but a close examination through a magnifying lens would reveal large, buggy eyes, glowing skin, and proboscis mouth parts, like a butterfly’s.

The spark fairies streamed across the streets in rivers of gold flakes. Their song was high and cold and sweet, like the flavored ices he had eaten with young women on picnics long past. It threaded itself into his soul, not quite whole and coherent, but coming together.

Yes, he could finally hear how the flutes would mimic their piping, how the violins would take up that wail. He knew just where he would place this music. His fingers itched to grab the greasy paper and stubby pencil in his pocket.

No. Listen first.

He came to a pond, unexpected, small, and secretive, sunk low into Highwind, surrounded by blank stone walls. The fairies swarmed over its still surface, giving it a greenish glow.

No. The glow came from beneath the dark waters.

Another song joined the spark fairies, something lower and softer, shading their music with shadows and depth. The fairies trembled above the surface, hanging like a golden mist.

They coalesced.

Hundreds, thousands, of fairies came together to form something more than the sum of the parts. The splintered song took shape.

Hubert watched, awed. The form that hung above the glowing pond was that of a woman. See, here her flowing hair, there the swell of her breast, down below the flutter of her gown. As he watched, spark fairies settled into the lines of her face, forming delicate features, glowing gentle eyes, lips half-open to sing.

The crescendo was coming. He knew it in his bones. The presentiment thrummed through his soul, the song he craved, the one that would inspire the ending of his unfinished symphony…

Projectiles flew over the pond. The woman broke apart as spark fairies fled, her features running like wax, great gaping holes appearing in her gown. Her song stretched into a thin thread, vanished in a whine and a buzz.

The glow disappeared. Noxious smoke filled the corner; the spark fairies unlucky to be trapped in it smothered, smoked, and fell in ashes on to the pond.

Hubert Bevelski, a void in his soul where the music had been, stood on the steps, bewildered.

 

“There you are, Monsan Bevelski!” The orderly put a heavy hand on the composer’s thin shoulder. “What a chase you’ve led us on all day!” His voice was still cheery, but his grip was unyielding.

The composer hung his head and said nothing.

Korbin snorted. “Wandered right into a swarm of spark fairies. He’d be dead if we were late by a few minutes. Actually, it might’ve been better if we had been.”

The other made a shushing motion with his free hand. Korbin’s voice took on a whiny note. “Oh, give over, do, Boris! He can’t hear anything anyway. Look what’s become of Highwind’s most celebrated composer: a deaf old man who couldn’t finish his tenth symphony in twenty years, living on the city’s charity.”

Boris darted a glance at the sagging composer. He was in his docile mood. “Well, watch your mouth around others, Korbin. Come on, let’s take him home.” He steered Hubert over to the stone steps, then carefully helped the older man up them. The day’s exertions had caught up to Bevelski; he shuffled up the stairs, leaning heavily on Boris for support. There was a tremble in his hands.

What was even worse, the spark in his eyes was gone.

Korbin skipped ahead, ribbons fluttering, bouncing on his toes in impatience. “I hear Ed Wyrd’s been tapped to finish that blasted symphony. We could be hearing it in the Grand Musicale Hall as early as next spring. Shall we tell Bevelski, do you think?” Malicious laughter danced in his eyes.

“Hush, Korbin,” said Boris, exasperated. “Have some respect, at least.”

“Pshaw!” said Korbin, unrepressed.

Arguing, the pair shepherded their charge to the safe road, and from there to the city-run nursing home.

 

Behind them, spark fairies buzzed uncertainly in the air. There was something they had to do… some purpose…

The feeling diminished, winked out. Hunger, that familiar friend, leapt to fill the space.

The fairies scattered in search of blood and heat.

The surface of the pond trembled. Wavelets lapped against the sides with a half-sob, half-sigh. A small wind skimmed over it, carrying faint words:

Next… time…

The waters stilled.

I hope you enjoyed this story! If you like my fiction, sign up for my mailing list. And do check out the others in this blog hop:
K. A. Petentler: The Twisted Tale of Isabel
Shana Blueming: Paper & Glue
Amy Keeley: To Be Prepared For Chocolate
Cherie “Jade” Arbuckle: After I Died
Karen Lynn: The Family Book
Angela Wooldridge: An Alternative to Frog
Thea van Diepen: Are You Sure It’s That Way?
Paula de Carvalho: Body Double
Kris Bowser: Tantrums
Virginia McClain: Rakko’s Storm
Grace Robinette: Georg Grembl
Elizabeth McCleary: The Door
Dale Cozort: Two Letters In A Fireproof Box
Katharina Gerlach: Canned Food

friday fiction

This is a blast from the past! Back when I first started writing short stories, I dabbled in humorous fantasy. The phase didn’t last long, but one of the results is this short story about an unlikely group of heroes confronting the Dark Lord.

Prophecy’s End

When the heroes burst into the throne room of Castle Doom, they found Umbraga the Dark Lord seated upon his throne of skulls (padded to spare the Dark Lord’s backside), with the Staff of Immolation across his knees.

Prince Florizel squinted myopically at a piece of stained parchment covered in crabbed handwriting and addressed the Evil One. “You foul villain,” he read. “Your ring… sorry, reign… of terror is at an end. This day you shall polish… polish?” Deep frown lines appeared between the prince’s eyebrows. He wiped his sweaty forehead, gave Umbraga an apologetic smile and said, “Excuse me a moment.” There was whispered consultation with the rest of the party, opened by Florizel’s irate, “Damned royal bards!”

After a furious exchange, the heroes turned back to Umbraga, with identical expressions of steely resolve. Prince Florizel stepped forward. “Umbraga!” he proclaimed. “This day you shall pol… perish!”

The Dark Lord looked at the prince with an expression generally reserved for a zealous housewife confronted with a cockroach in her kitchen. “Hah!” he said. “I can only be defeated by one wielding the Sword of Invincibility!” His gaze traveled to the weapon in the prince’s hand. “Is that a poker I see?”

Prince Florizel (who was short, fat and balding), looked at the floor and muttered something.

“Excuse me?” said Umbraga, cupping a hand around his ear.

Florizel looked up defiantly. “We threw away the Sword of Invincibility.”

Umbraga’s eyebrows shot up. “Threw it away?”

A tall, middle-aged woman with a mane of chestnut hair liberally sprinkled with gray, pushed to the front. She had a long face that–if you were being kind–could only be called “striking”. Or “horsey”, depending on who you asked.

“Of course we did!” she brayed. “The wretched thing would start glowing and singing at the presence of any malefactors, which, of course, was all the time in the cities. We nearly got arrested for disturbing the peace, and I swear, they were forming a lynching mob in that last town. And then, up in the mountains, it kept us awake all night, singing heroic sagas. We took a vote and down the ravine it went. And a good riddance, I say.”

Umbraga turned his disbelieving stare towards her. “And who might you be?”

“I’m the prophesied princess, of course.” The woman gave him an exasperated stare. “Now, can we get on with this, please? My best mare is near her foaling time, and I want to be back before she gives birth.”

Umbraga’s thin-lipped mouth turned down primly. “I’m sorry. A poker cannot defeat the Dark Lord. Unless it’s the Poker of Much Hurting?” His tone was hopeful.

The woman gave a neighing laugh. “No, it’s just an ordinary poker. Give Florizel anything sharp and he’ll stab himself in the foot more like than not! Why, the Queen won’t even let him carve the Winter Solstice turkey anymore, even though it’s traditional for the…”

Florizel, red-faced, interrupted. “Do stop rattling on and on, Martha!”

Umbraga looked ready to faint. “Martha? Martha? What sort of prophesied-princess name is that? I’ve been confronted by Clarissas and Emelines and they were all young and beautiful, not like this hag over here.”

“There are no other princesses, so you’re stuck with me. We can’t all be young and beautiful, you know,” said Martha, reasonably, “especially after six children.”

“Six children?!” shrieked Umbraga, spittle spraying from his mouth. “The prophesied princess-companion must always be a virgin. You,” he stabbed a bony finger in Martha’s direction, “do not qualify!” Looking wildly about, he pointed at the burly man hovering behind Martha and Florizel.

“You!”

“Yes, sir?” said the man, touching his cap politely.

“What’s your name?”

“Conan, sir.”

Umbraga relaxed. “That’s a good solid barbarian name, at least.”

“Um,” began Conan, holding up his hand. “I’m not a barbarian. Sir. I’m a painter.”

One of Umbraga’s eyes whirled madly in its socket.

“I wanted to see the final confrontation,” said Conan hurriedly. “So I can paint it. For posterity. Well, actually for the Royal Art Society’s annual competition. They always get hundreds of pastoral scenes with rosy-cheeked shepherdesses and portraits of fat children with puppies.  I thought I’d do something different this time.” His words trailed away under Umbraga’s withering stare.

“And I suppose he’s really a pacifist tailor?” Umbraga jerked his head towards the fourth member of the party who had detached himself from the group and was gently orbiting around the room like a moon on vacation. He had flowing silver hair, eyes of cerulean blue, and well-made clothing that showed off an excellent figure. Occasionally, he made notes in a leather-bound silver-clasped book with a long white quill that curled elegantly at the end.

“His name is Elindorian Bright Moon,” volunteered Florizel. “He joined us three days ago. We’re quite sure he’s an elf. Or a bard. Maybe even both.” His brown spaniel eyes looked appeasingly at Umbraga, whose fingers clenched convulsively around the Staff of Immolation.

He may be all right, but the rest of you!” said Umbraga, through gritted teeth. “What a sorry lot! Have you no respect for tradition, for custom, for Ancient Prophecies that Must be Fulfilled to Every Tiny Jot?” Conan and Florizel drew closer together under the blast of his scorn.

“Never have I seen such a motley, ill-prepared, ill-equipped set of would-be heroes! Does Good not train its Chosen Ones anymore? I have risen and been defeated twenty-five times in the last thousand years…”

“Twenty-nine,” interrupted Martha. “You’ve been defeated twenty-nine times.”

I am never defeated a prime number number of times!” shrieked Umbraga.

While Florizel and Conan tried to work this out, Martha said. “Oh yes, you are. You had to go through nineteen to get to twenty five. And it’s the last thousand and one years. We’d have come last year but we had to find Florizel first. He ran away from home when he found out about this Chosen One business and hid in a brewery for six months. And when we finally found him, we had to pry him loose from his barrels of Ostenian beer.”

Martha!” complained Florizel. “Do you have to dredge up ancient history all the time?”

“Chosen Ones do not run away from their Destiny!” blared Umbraga. He stood up, towering over the heroes, the Staff held out stiffly before him. Florizel and Conan cringed, Martha’s lips tightened. “I see that I must take things into my own hands, since Good is doing such a useless job of it. I shall have to train you.”

They turned horrified looks at him.

“You, Prince Florizel, will lift weights and run five miles every day. You will be permitted only stale bread and cold water. My Right-Hand Almost-Supreme Commander will instruct you in the use of the sword and the bow. You will retrieve the Sword of Invincibility from whichever ravine you pitched it in. The Princess Martha will get a complete make-over. Hair dye, manicure, new clothing, and three hours in deportment every morning. And as for the painter…” He drew in a deep breath.

They were not fated to know what delights Umbraga had in store for Conan. Just then, a lump of stone fell from the ceiling and landed with a thunk on Umbraga’s head. The Dark Lord’s eyes crossed. The Staff clattered to the floor. Umbraga tumbled headfirst down the dais steps to lie in a crumpled heap on the floor.

The trio stared at the Dark Lord’s body in stunned silence. Elindorian Bright Moon drifted over in a cinnamon-scented cloud and placed a hand on Umbraga’s chest.

“Dead,” he pronounced.

“Um?” began Conan, just as Martha said, “I gathered as much from that awkward angle of the neck.”

“I thought only the Sword of Invincibility could defeat him,” said Florizel. He whipped out a handkerchief as Conan once again uttered an “Um?” which was lost in Florizel’s giant sneeze.

“Damnit, Elindorian, must you wear that scent?” said Florizel, eyes tearing. “You know I’m allergic to it.”

“UM?” said Conan, louder. The others looked to see him pointing up at the ceiling. They looked up.

After a bit, Martha said, “It doesn’t look too stable, does it?”

Elindorian examined the enormous wax-covered blackened-iron chandelier hanging over their heads by a chain that was slowly working loose from the ceiling. “No. The whole building’s in utter disrepair, and Umbraga never heeded the warnings of the Department of Housing Safety. I came to deliver the property condemnation papers.”

As if to prove a point, the entire structure groaned alarmingly.

“Shall we?” suggested Elindorian.

There was a mad rush for the door.

#

Four figures stood outlined against the sunrise, watching the collapse of Castle Doom from a convenient hilltop.

After the dust had settled, Martha said to Elindorian. “We thought you were a bard.”

Elindorian flicked a piece of lint from his elegant sleeve. “I was once. Bureaucracy pays better.”

Martha looked back down at the ruined heap. “I wonder what Umbraga will do when he returns. A Dark Lord needs a moldering old castle, and there’s not many of them left since they went out of style centuries ago.”

Elindorian stifled a yawn. “I doubt that it will be a matter of any concern in the future. Umbraga will not return.”

“But he always does,” protested Florizel. “He’s indestructible.”

“Only because the Sword of Invincibility decapitates him without banishing his soul out of the world,” said Elindorian. “Crumbling castles, on the other hand, are not that subtle.”

The other three digested this in silence.

“Why, that…” said Florizel.

“Quite so.” Elindorian gave him an understanding smile.

Martha gave a cracking yawn. “Well, it’s a good thing we threw it away then. Let’s go home. Who knows what the servants are doing without me to supervise. Walter’s a dear, but he’ll let anyone walk all over him. And Firefly needs me with her.” After a thoughtful pause, she added, “I expect the children will be glad to see me, too.”

Florizel’s eyes grew misty. “Mother was expecting a shipment of ’34 wine when we left. It ought to have come by now. Yes, we’d better hurry back before she serves it all up to those jumped-up courtiers of hers.”

“I wonder if a Crumbling Castle painting will impress the judges?” mused Conan. “I’ll add lightning in the background, and just a hint of dragon wings. And robes flapping in the wind as the hero battles the Dark Lord…”

The figures disappeared down the hill.

#

In the cold dark waters of the river, the Sword drifted, dreaming of flaming dragon’s breath and marching armies upon vast plains.

One day, the Chosen will come. And together we’ll set the world on fire. Our names will blaze across the sky, our fame will make the nations tremble.

How long it dreamed, it never knew. A hand parted the waters above it, grasped its hilt. The Sword thrilled to the strong fingers, the manly clasp.

“What’s this, then, Anron?” yelled a coarse voice from further away. A peasant voice. The Sword disdained it.

The man named Anron had a voice like dark honey and cold steel. “A sword, Pilel,” he said. The voice reminded the Sword of the great heroes who’d wielded it. This man would be greater than any of them.

Pilel snorted. “What good’s a sword with Umbraga dead and gone?”

“No good at all,” said Anron. “But I always need metal for plowshares.”

coming soon: fiction blog hop

SFF BloghopOn August 26th, I’ll be participating in a speculative fiction blog hop with a number of other writers.

What’s that, you ask? Good question! On that day, all the participants will post a short story or flashfic on their blogs, and link to all the rest. You, gentle reader, will have the opportunity to go from blog to blog, feasting on the literary delights that await. Rest assured, there won’t be any explicit content.

My offering will be set in Highwind, the same city that forms the backdrop for Mourning Cloak and Wither.

Keep an eye on this space August 26th!

Singing for the Enemy & Other Stories

singing-enemy_WEBA disgraced War Bard takes a wrong turn in the jungle and falls into the hands of her enemy.

A pudgy, middle-aged accountant is chased through a smog-filled city by sinister men.

A mage bonded to a ship is given one last mission and a chance to win her freedom.

My latest release, Singing for the Enemy and Other Stories, is a collection of five fantasy short stories. Most are adventure fantasy, one is lighthearted and humorous, and the last a weird, melancholy flash piece.

Now available at Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords