Friday, 6 December 2019

Yule, The Arkhamas Way


Part, The First

   Coarse voices were sharpened by the frozen air while frigid projectiles streaked through the branches, pummelling target and trunk with dull, powerful thuds. Screams deafened tiny ears, while oversized eyes watched the onslaught carelessly from higher in the boughs, chipped teeth crunching through seeds and nuts as the cackles renewed with every strike.
   One of the child-like Arkhamas hung upside down from his branch, numb to the chaos beneath him as he chewed and stared in thought through the snow-smothered forest. Until a stray snowball hit him in the face.
   "So I saw the hoomans gettin' ready for Yule," he said slowly, roused from his daydream as he wiped chunks of ice and hidden stones from his pale forehead. "Draggin' great big logs about, killin' their cattle, bakin', bakin', bakin'..."
   "Ooh!" Seppy chirped below him as she stumbled out of the way of another icy attack, her hair deliberately knotted around sticks and acorn caps each as frosted as the trees. "What was they baking?"
   "Pies, sweetbuns, cider bread..."
   The snowballs stopped as a collective yearning dribbled amongst the ten of them.
   "We should pinch some."
   "That we should," Dag declared from behind a thick tree, winding up another powerful throw and knocking the twig-antlers tied into his hair with each exaggerated pass.
   The upside-down Arkhamas pursed his lips, his huge, silver-green eyes narrowing once again in thought as the snowball hurtled past him. "We should try their Yule."
   "You mean kill their cows?"
   "No - the rest of it."
   "Why are they killing their cows?"
   "To eat 'em, right, so they don't have to feed 'em," replied Angk.
   "Monsters."
   "Why d'you wanna do what they do, Puck?" Dag challenged him, diving quickly behind his tree to avoid the throws of three others. "They're stupid, they just argue about things, get loud and set fire to things, and they don't even enjoy doing it! Every year I hear 'em whinging about having to talk to people they don't like, too! I don't even get why they 'have' to talk to 'em!"
   "Yeah but," Puck, the first Arkhamas, swung himself back on top of the branch, matted hair falling back into a mess around him and opening the small birds nest tangled into it, "we won't be doin' any o' that! And we haven't done it their way before, either!"
   "We did," replied Seppy, "but they was still sacrificing things back then."
   "Yeah but that wasn't us that tried that, that was...flippin'...more-than-I-can-count-ago!" He looked imploringly across the others as a small bird settled into his hair-nest, until Erra, with a particular yet haphazard arrangement of moss and lichen in her hair and across her skin, finally grunted in agreement.
   "Not a bad idea," she said at last, striking Dag from the rear.
   "I wanna do it," declared Angk.
   "Me too," Seppy chirped.
   A chorus of other voices inside their heads agreed - the opinions of far more than the ten present.
   Puck beamed a chipped grin from his place in the branches and absently reached up to stroke the bird on his head. It tried irritably to peck at his fingers. "That's settled, then."
   "What d'we need?"
   "Erm...food. Lots of food. And a ham - smoke, a smoking ham. A big log we gotta burn, and more wood; a big circle of twigs, that stuff they drink they make from honey, presents, and food."
   "You said food."
   "Yeah, we need a lot of it."
   "I don't wanna do presents," said Dag, wrinkling his nose and adjusting his twig-antlers. "It just makes the hoomans angry."
   "Yeah there's no fun in that."
   "Where d'we get it all?"
   Another chorus of voices clamoured, and the eyes of all ten glazed. A moment later, Puck nodded and jumped down from the tree. "Let's go."
   The snowball fight was promptly abandoned.
 
   Giant eyes squinted low over a frosted drystack wall. None of the villagers had noticed them, nor the twigs rising a good foot higher than the tops of their heads. The humans carried on with their business, moving things around the open streets to make way for their evening's celebration. The enormous log that would be at the centre of those festivities waited just outside the village beside a number of empty carpentry stools.
   The squinting eyes sank slowly below the top of the wall. The antlers didn't.
   "We can't cut one ourselfs," Dag whispered to the three other Arkhamas, each crouching as low as he in the snow, "but we can hardly lift theirs, neither. We need an alternatiff."
   The four of them looked around in silence, until one of them snapped back and grinned. "Don't worry - I got an idea."
   There was no argument. As he rose and hurried away from the wall at a crouch, the others immediately followed, then broke off into the trees until they had looped around to the far side of the village. There, Dag and the others stopped behind their companion, who pointed back towards the river. Then, when the villagers' attention was stolen away by the cry of either a child or a dying cat, they made a dash for the log.
   "Shove it shove it shove it!"
   They did just that. With the stubborn strength of the four of them, the Arkhamas forced the log off from its stand in the very same moment that another cry of alarm rose from much nearer in the village. None of them looked back.
   Grinning and cackling, they chased the rolling tree trunk down the slope that wasn't really steep enough for it to be any fun, kicking and steering it when they were able towards the water some way below. They could hear the crunch of snow and the shouts as the villagers gave chase behind them, but all that did was stretch their grins even wider and tug whoops of enthusiasm from their chests.
   The river rushed ahead of them; they heard it before they saw it, and the moment the unstoppable log crashed into the water, they leapt, straddling the wood and howling in glee while the fastest of the humans stumbled and swore at the splash thrown back across them.
   "It's ff-freezing!" One of the Arkhamas shivered as they rode along the river on their prize, leaving the hollering, fist-shaking, cursing villagers behind them.
   "What, you esspected it to be like landing in a freshly baked pie?"
   "Lady's branches, I'm so hungry..."
   They howled and hooted as they were carried deeper into the wild tangles of the forest, and jeered at the hiss of a disgruntled näcken they passed in the water beside them. The vengeful water sprite sent a wave along behind them, which promptly caught up and threw both them and their log out of the river to land hard on the frozen bank.
   They stayed there, wide-eyed, dripping and still for a long moment in shock, until they burst out laughing. They picked themselves up, shook themselves off, wrung the water from their matted hair, and rolled their log onwards through the trees.


Part, The Second

   Seppy returned from her scouting to pensive faces. The ham was too heavily guarded. It was as if the butcher knew they were coming! Their plan was foiled.
   "Unless..."
   She and the others looked towards another Arkhamas - Onnie, who they swore had gotten smarter since she'd lost her eye.
   "Unless we pinch a different ham."
   "The butcher has the biggest," Seppy reminded her, shaking a wad of sawdust from her stick-tangled, acorn cap-woven hair. "We want that 'un."
   "Well yeah, but, that's prolly going to the mayor or whatsit, innit. We'll 'ave a better chance if we pinch it from a house."
   "Or two 'ouses," another supplied.
   Seppy's pale lips pursed in thought, then loosened a moment later as a silent agreement passed through the group.
   They turned as one towards the overgrown, snow-padded juniper bushes and followed them at a running crouch, hopping into any and every nook and hole they could find, moving as quiet and adept as delicious little forest mice. No one in the town noticed them, not even as they stopped and snickered, pulling faces behind the backs of oblivious people, nor slipped and froze their feet through a puddle whose ice had been shattered by some other clumsy sod before them.
   The town was big, but not unfamiliar; Arkhamas made frequent incursions into this and others, and knew where all the best food was - information they shared with the rest of them, in part so they wouldn't always have to be the ones to go and get it all themselves.
   Today, though, they followed their noses. Humans had a tendency to break habits on Yule, Midsummer, Evigskurd - most of their special occasions, actually. It made stealing that much harder, but it also presented new opportunities.
   Onnie was the first to stop. It took Seppy two more steps before she noticed the smell on the numb air. Meat. Salt. Alder.
   The four of them made a beeline right towards it, and stopped just across from an inn.
   Yep. Broken habits. Inns never made anything that smelled that good.
   "Distraction," said Seppy; the others were already nodding. They moved around between crates being unloaded from wagons, unnoticed thanks to musicians playing some racket on their noisy wheel-string-things, and slipped through an alley to a window.
   Seppy climbed onto another's shoulders, and Onnie followed beside her. The pair peered through the frost-clouded glass, sharing the image silently with the other two.
   People. Ale barrels. Fire place. Tables and legs. Lots of noise - a general tavern.
   And a kiln blazing in the back.
   Her giant eyes narrowed, and she turned them back towards the town and the forest looming beyond it. There were raghorns close by.
   Then they drifted towards the rot-crates at the other end of the alley.
   Jobs were assigned, all in eager agreement, and the two clambered back down before the others could carry them away in their enthusiasm. While they dashed off, Seppy and Onnie made for the back door of the inn. It was open despite the cold - clearly an invitation to make up for the butcher's tightness!
   They slipped inside, stifling their grins, and darted between the storage in the back, evading the eyes of the scullion boys. From their spot between a sack of onions and another of weird, white carrots, they noted every person, every hand-hold on the wall, every open crate; anyone and anything they could hide behind.
   And, of course, the most direct and the most covert routes to the kiln.
   But they didn't move yet.
   Almost ten minutes passed, in which time several of the onions had made it into the pockets of their stitched hides and furs - though only Onnie had pinched any of the weird, white and not-very-carroty carrots - before the most distant of their troupe announced his position.
   But it wasn't their turn yet. So they continued to wait for a few more minutes until the closer of the four gave his assurance.
   The smell of burning rot - both vegetables and meat that not even the dogs had scavenged - flooded into the tavern like a wave of foetid farts. The pair covered their noses and held their breath even as they giggled, their eyes watering both at the sour sting and the pressure in their cheeks. But it worked: the tavern emptied as quick as if they'd actually...well, released a wave of foetid farts.
   They moved only when the door swung shut behind the last staggering person, and began wrestling the kiln door open. A waft of smoke barrelled out over them, forcing them to breathe and choke while their eyes stung with tears all over again.
   But too much was at stake to give in, and the mouth-watering smell that followed the smoke out was enough to shut out any hesitation.
   The heat, however, was another matter.
   While Seppy backed away, Onnie was already on the move, and returned a moment later with an empty onion sack. Using some long metal sticks nearby, they hooked and tugged the ham out, a chunk of meat almost the size of Seppy herself, and dragged it into the sack.
   They turned and ran immediately, carrying it between the two of them as best they could. It was burning hot in their hands, but they knew they'd be grateful for it outside.
   But they didn't go out just yet.
   Dropping the sack to their feet, they stopped beside the back door even despite the lingering stink, a stink which mixed with the ham to create a confusing but ultimately sickening smell which Seppy felt was even more likely to empty her stomach.
   Fortunately, it didn't take long for the disgruntled voices outside to rise in alarm, and another to begin shrieking and whooping, punctuated by bestial roars.
   That was their cue.
   With their own excitement stifled down to involuntary splutters, they hoisted the ham between them and dashed out into the alley, down its length, and back along the winding route they'd taken in the first place. There was no time to marvel at the raghorn rampaging through the streets, charging at the panicking people, jutting its crescent antlers, swiping its taloned paws while another Arkhamas stood on its back, shouting and swearing and firing his slingshot, which was a shame, because it was always a good show.
   But they had what they needed, and the others would get away - Arkhamas always got away.

   The last sack tumbled out from the window, caught clumsily in short little arms with an 'oof' muffled beneath it, but Erra didn't follow it down. She lingered in the opening, scratching thoughtfully at the lichen on her cheek. When the boy below dropped the bundle of sweetbreads to the ground, he was already grinning. They all were.
   Within moments they'd clambered back in through the window and stood once again in the middle of the looted bakery.
   "Flour," Erra decided, making immediately for the duly labelled sacks against the far wall, "they always go for that first!"
   Another followed her while the others began climbing the shelves, kicking over utensils and taking small bites out of things as though they were oversized rats.
   "What d'they go for next?" The boy asked beside her, then his giant eyes widened further with his grin. "Eggs! Eggs eggs eggs - put the eggs where the flour ought t'be! In sacks!"
   "And crack 'em," she cackled joyously, "then, when they reach in, they'll get gooey fingers!"
   "And put the broom in the butter churn!"
   "I can't see no butter churn," another said from the shelves.
   "There's gotta be one! They use butter, and thass where butter comes from, right? They have--ppbbpbfff!"
   The others coughed and snickered from somewhere in the thick cloud of flour.
   Erra looked down at her hides as the puff settled, mud-coloured a moment ago, now white as bone.
   White as snow.
   Her huge, silver-green eyes brightened, and the others saw the same thing. Another burst of flour filled the air, then another, and another, until all five of them were completely white, and the bakery a delightful mess that someone else would have to clean up.
   They hurried back out, satisfied, and vanished with their plunder, catching not a single eye even as they ran openly beside snow-laden bushes.


Part, The Third

   The gathered Arkhamas spun from the light of the fungus glowing at the mouth of their setts as the rough, moaning voice cut through the dying light of the evening, and stared with wide eyes for the source of the terrible sound.
   "Weeee are the ghoooosts of Yuuuuule," it called.
   "Yer," another followed, far more coarsely, "we're 'ere to 'aunt you 'cause you're all naughty little theefs, every one o' you!"
   Five white Arkhamas stumbled through the trees, heavy with bags, and dumped them down with the rest while their companions laughed and clapped. A few, however, called names, their fright far too obvious in the shake of their voices.
   "Awwh come on," Erra grinned, plonking herself down next to a boy who had already reached for his spear, "put that cutter away, we was only messin'!" She frowned as her gaze dropped to the small box in the hands of another they had all gathered around. "Wassat?"
   "A tindy box," the boy replied, lowering his spear warily. "Onnie brought it back. Can't get it to work, though."
   "Yeah - been shakin' it, talkin' to it, throwin' it at wood," Puck shook his head vigorously, provoking a chirp of irritation from the bird nesting in his hair. "No good."
   "Tried opening it yet?" Onnie asked from her position as look-out in the tree.
   "There's no lid."
   "Push the side."
   "Ah!"
   "'Ere," Puck looked up towards the one-eyed sentry. "Why didn't you s'gest that before?"
   "You never said you was stuck."
   "...S'pose we didn't, at that."
   "There's just a rock and a chunk of metal in 'ere!"
   "Whack 'em together."
   "Not working."
   "Keep whackin' 'em together."
   After four more clicks, a flurry of sparks flew out in all directions, sending the group diving backwards for cover.
   Onnie nodded to herself in the tree while giddy laughter rippled below.
   Puck managed to find his feet and flap the snow from his clothes, then chuckled his way over to where six others sat at the huge log Dag and his group had rolled in. He drew a huge talon from his pocket as Seppy came over behind him, and joined the others in cutting into the bark.
   Seppy pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes over his shoulder, even as splinters of wood flicked about haphazardly. "Whatcha carving?"
   "Things. Important things."
   Her lips pursed tighter. "Why? What's the point if we're just gonna set it on fire?"
   Puck shrugged and continued cutting the shape of a pie into the wood. "Who knows, hoomans waste a lot of time on useless things."
   "Like complainin'," a girl said from beside him, rolling her huge eyes. "And worryin'. They don't even get any food outta any o' that!"
   "Hoomans are so stupid."
   The Arkhamas' cackles drowned out the screeching of nearby moon hawks. The clatter and yelp of pain behind them quickly shut them all up.
   Erra looked up from her rifling through the sweetbuns sack to frown at the boy clutching his foot on top of a pile of rocks. "What're you doing?"
   "Well we gotta set the twig-circle-sun-wheel on fire, right?" He winced, lifting the stone he'd just dropped on his toe and muttering an insult at it. "Well, if we roll it through the fire, we ain't gotta faff with that tindy box thing again. And it'll go faster if we roll it down a hill. So we're makin' a hill."
   "Yeah, one problem, right," Angk turned from another group and held up an oval of twigs rather than a circle, "this ain't gonna roll nowhere."
   He shuddered with a stifled yelp as another jumped up suddenly from beside him. "Leave it to me."
   They all blinked after her as she ran off into the night.
   Angk carelessly tossed the oval away. "Why d'we have to set fire to a circle anyway?"
   "Hoomans reckon it'll bring the sun back," Puck replied with another cackle.
   "Idiots," Angk grinned, lying back onto the frozen ground in his thickly-furred cloak. "They'd be better off using the twigs for fires and burning it at home. Or, not bothering at all, right, and just waiting for the sun to come back on its own." He waved his hand towards the dimming sky.
   Erra looked back towards them, the note of disbelief in her eyes caught by the fungus light. "They don't still believe that, do they?"
   "Nah, they just like setting fire to things. Any excuse, right. Even in summer! It's too hot for fire, but they still do it! And throw it around!"
   "Oooh I've always wanted to try that!" Onnie declared from her place in the tree.
   "Well it makes more sense to try it now than Midsummer..."


Part, The Thir--no, no wait, Fourth

   The forest had become black. Stars peeked through the bare branches, but they offered little light, and the moon didn't track through the sky as the sun did. But the Arkhamas, dozens of them, stared up at it anyway, waiting, until finally a trill pierced through the night from a short distance away.
   "How does that thing know when it's midnight?" Onnie muttered quietly.
   "Prob'ly hears the worms stop movin' and go to sleep. So..." Puck stepped forwards, rock and steel in his hands, and began striking them above the enormous carven log. It caught light easily enough.
   And died just as quickly.
   He blinked at it, then tried again. The flame was pitiful, but it survived. He stood watching it for a time, waiting for it to spread, and the others peered around quietly from behind him.
   He muttered a curse, then clashed the pieces together again. More sparks fell upon the log and another little flame soon flickered into life, but it sputtered where it was, just like the first.
   Puck turned and looked towards the others. "...Help."
   Four leapt forwards eagerly, fire rocks already in their hands, and began frantically clapping them together, starting countless little blazes until the log and all its carvings were alight, a few others standing to the side and using their cloaks to fan the flames.
   Soon, the rest were whooping and cheering behind them.
   The snow was already receding from the clearing when Puck clambered up onto the pile of rocks beside it. "Sun!" He bellowed, throwing his head back and arms open, silencing them all. "Oh sun! We light this tree so you'll come back to us, in a couple of moons when you usually would, but we're hoomans and are too stupid to compr'end the 'nevitable, and think you'll forget about us if we don't ask!" Then he raised his chin and howled into the night like a wolf, and while the dozens of Arkhamas around the fire howled in their own tradition, he turned and shoved the sunwheel - a huge, stolen wagon wheel - down the rickety slope and into the flames.
   Cheers erupted again, and louder as the wheel loosed a sputter of burning bark, then louder still as it crashed back out of the fire, fully alight, and barrelled through them all. One didn't dive out of the way quick enough, and they laughed as she leapt back to her feet, her furs and twiggy antlers catching quickly, and ran off after it in the direction of the river.
   "She got on fire faster than the logs," Puck cackled.
   He turned back to the others and beamed. "Let's eat!"
   They dug into the pilfered pies and snatched sweetbuns before he'd finished speaking, and he was only a second behind them.
   "Where's the ham?" He asked once he'd stuffed three rolls into his mouth at once.
   Seppy wiped the crumbs from her face and leapt to her feet, grabbed her spear, then turned and dashed towards a large bundle wrapped in two sacks on the ground. "It has to be smoking."
   "Oh, yeah! Smokin' ham."
   She pulled the burlap aside and stabbed her spear into the meat, hoisting it with some effort, and spun around to hold it directly in the fire.
   Puck grinned and dashed off to find something to fan the smoke with, while the rest began roasting things on the smaller fires left in the wheel's path.
   One of them soon rolled out a wooden barrel while Erra clattered behind with wooden cups. The food was abandoned by curiosity alone.
   They sniffed cautiously at their cups of golden liquid and passed each other uncertain glances. Puck raised his above his head and declared a count. They drank as one, and spat as one.
   "It tastes burny," Onnie rasped while the others coughed, wretched and dribbled. "On the dangly bit at the back!"
   "Why do hoomans drink this?!"
   "It's what they have to do," Puck said around his tongue, hanging it out of his mouth and wringing the last of the mead back off of it, "before they can start singin' and hittin' each other."
   "Why do they hit each other?"
   "Prob'ly 'cause they made each other drink this!" Puck turned and tossed his cup on the fire, the flames bursting briefly on contact. The rest of them blinked at it, then the rest of the cups followed.
   Again, the charred Arkhamas's furs caught alight, and she turned and rushed back to the river ahead of a chorus of laughter.

   The snow had melted from the clearing by the end of the hour. The fire was roaring, many Arkhamas had abandoned their thickest layers, especially for the evident fire hazard, and though a handful had eaten so much that they'd been sick, they continued to do so while others braved the mead again. A couple even found a liking for it.
   Erra picked herself up from the floor, wiping her mouth from vomit - neither from mead nor food, but for spinning around with two flaming sticks like a fire whirlwind - and saw the black stains on her hands in the fire light. Her giant eyes narrowed.
   She screamed in fright as Dag leapt up from the ground in front of her.
   "Wassat? Mud?"
   "Ash," she giggled as her heart settled, cleaning her hands off on his clothes. "Hoomans keep it after the log's burnt, I think."
   "They do, I think. Why?"
   "'Cause," she picked up a charred fragment of wood from close to the fire, then dropped it immediately with a clumsy curse, "they dust stuff when they clean their houses."
   "What do they dust?"
   "Shelfs and stuff. Puts some of the healthy dirt back, I think."
   Now Dag's eyes narrowed, and she grinned up at him. "Good idea!"
   The pair sat on the ground and Erra dragged over some more charcoal, hissing and peeping at the heat. Then she bashed them up on the ground in front of her and poked at it tentatively with a finger. Once it was sufficiently blackened, she grinned at him again. "Brace yourself."
   "I am ready."
   Dag fell as still as stone while she drew her finger over his face. Frozen in suppressed pain, he stayed perfectly still as she worked.
   "Guys, look!"
   Dag gritted his teeth while Erra's burning finger remained on his forehead, and turned his eyes in their sockets along everyone else's attention. Onnie threw five burning sticks in the air and started to juggle them. Cheers rose again, and a few threw their remaining mead at her. The sticks popped and flared, but she didn't stop juggling. Nor beaming - even as one stick got away from her when it was clipped by a flying cup and struck the twice-charred Arkhamas, setting her alight again.
   She groaned and ran back to the river.
   "You might be better off staying by the river tonight, Maz!" Angk hiccuped helpfully after her.


Part, The Last

   "'He fell off the box, and down came his socks, and he tumbled head over--'"
   "What's them bobbing lights?" Puck asked, squinting through the fire light to the far side of the forest where six small, orange smudges drifted through the trees.
   "Fireflies!"
   But he shook his head and strained his giant eyes even further. "Wrong time o' year..."
   "Wait, wassat? Listen!"
   They all fell silent at Onnie's warning, and discovered a voice slurring through the darkness. "--want fire, we'll give you fire!"
   Panic blazed through the Arkhamas. "Hoomans!"
   All thirty eight scattered from the fire. Several climbed up into trees as easily as squirrels, others dove into their setts, and more still started howling and finding protection behind tree trunks, seizing handfuls of nuts as they went.
   As those who had run to their holes returned with long bone spears, those clambering through the boughs above were advancing on the approaching humans.
   "They got arrows!" One of them shouted back to the rest. "Flippin' flamin' arrows!"
   "They want fire, eh?" Dag, face painted in a ferocious mask of ash, hissed viciously as he danced his huge weapon between his hands. "We'll give 'em fire, too!"
   Puck pulled his slingshot free from his broken pocket and loaded another with his own nuts, a chipped-tooth grin spreading across his own face. "And give it, we will!"
   The Arkhamas in the trees began whooping and bellowing around the humans as they drew back to release their fire arrows, startling them for a ridiculously long moment. It was enough for those with spears on the ground to charge forwards while others threw a volley of javelins from behind, set alight by the Yule fire. But the slingshots were even faster. The humans' bows lowered in surprise while nuts struck their faces, the Arkhamas's aim near perfect even in the darkness.
   Then the speared warband was upon them, stabbing and waving their bone blades around, cutting skin and fabric while the humans stupidly lifted their arms to protect themselves rather than take distance. A few arrows were clumsily loosed in the confusion, grazing tree trunks with hopeless thunks. One slicked past Onnie's ear in the boughs, nicking the top of it off. She bellowed in anger, then a new cry rose from her throat - a roaring, salivating, bleating cry.
   The others continued their onslaught below, pushing the six humans back with jabbing spears, shrill howling and strikes from all sides with iron-hard nuts. Arrows were knocked from bows to fizzle out on the snowy ground, and though the humans resorted in their shock to whatever other weapons they had on them, including a hammer for one fellow, their ideas of attack were broken for good when two raghorn burst in through the trees. Answering Onnie's call, the tawny beasts pounced in on silent paws, their crescent antlers lowered in attack, and it was nothing short of sheer luck that the humans stumbled out of the way in time to avoid being skewered.
   The six of them turned and bolted, two breaking their bows in an attempt to ward off those antlers in the process.
   The Arkhamas cheered and whooped behind them, throwing clumsy curses after their shadows.
   "They stank!" Dag observed once they were safe enough to turn their backs.
   "Like the drink, yeah," Seppy agreed. She popped her lips. "Poor guys. How'd they find us, anyways?"
   Dag scratched at the ties of his twiggy antlers as he and the others wandered back towards their festivities. "Followed us with the log, I reckon. We were chased to the river. Wouldn't've taken much to find us; follow the river and look for fire."
   Seppy nodded to herself, then shrugged. "We'll move off if we have to. But we won tonight. Come on - I wanna sing some more stupid songs! I know one about a bucket!"

   The sky was brightening. It was obvious while the fire died.
   The night had fallen quiet; only a few Arkhamas were still awake, and most of the noise came from their snoring.
   Puck smiled sleepily and handed another scrap of no-longer-smoking ham to the raghorns and ermines that had gathered. Erra pulled open a sack of sweetbuns and let the foxes at it, while birds and snow squirrels worked their way through a bag of nuts.
   Another poured the last of the mead on the dying fire.
   Puck watched it flare and frowned to himself. "Why would they ruin honey?"
   Erra settled down against the log beside him, resting her head on his shoulder. "This was fun."
   "It was. We should do it again next year!"
   She laughed and shook her head. "No. You always say that, and you're always disappointed. It won't be the same."
   "Oh." He slumped, disappointed anyway while his lip hung in a pout. "I guess."
   "Well it never is, is it? Just clutchin' at memories. Why don't we leave it and see what happens when Yule comes next year? I bet you get another great idea."
   He straightened at that. "Yeah. Maybe I will... It's more fun that way, ain't it? Less can go wrong when it ain't planned!"
   "You know what they say about the plans of mice and men."
   "...That hoomans should do things more quietly?"
   Erra grinned. "Ezzacly."
   She raised her chin, and Puck followed. The pair howled like weary wolves, tired, happy and full.
 
 
 
Words and illustration copyright © Kim Wedlock
No part of this is to be reproduced without my permission. 



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Wednesday, 14 August 2019

The World of The Devoted Trilogy

When the elves' faith in Vastal, the Goddess of Life, faded in their hubris, Zikhon, the God of Death, swept past Her failing defences and destroyed them overnight. But the faith the subjugated humans held in Vastal gave Her strength enough to fight Him back and save them alone, and to this day She holds the jealous god at bay. But should their faith wane in arrogance or neglect, the same fate will befall them.
As the Craitic Temple has taught for 700 years.


Magic found its way into the hands of the elves by Vastal. She grew so very fond of them that She gifted them each some small glimmer of Her power, perfectly shaping it to their physiology. They were grateful, and they used their magic with nobility, building homes for those unable and ever greater monuments to Her strength and beauty. But in time, as is inevitable of those with power, they grew selfish, concerned with permanence, status and possession, and they lost their way. They crafted for themselves opulent homes, ostentatious pass-times, and subjugated the humans they had once lived beside and watched grow.
Their priorities changed. Their culture changed. Their faith changed.
Then, one day, they were no more.

Humans rose in their stead, seizing the world they'd left behind without any question, the world they'd been forced to toil in for the benefit of another, and turned their skills to use. They quickly filled the elves' shoes and revived the lost faith.
But the magic had not been lost. It had found its way, through love or depravity, into human blood, though those few that bore it could scarcely use it. Only by concentration and utter focus of one's mind could it be utilised, and so the use of finger signs were born, aiding in the shaping of spells and intent and preventing the attention from wandering.

When the wounds of history had healed, the young, knowing nothing but ill tales of their past masters, turned to marvelling at the structures that surrounded them, the twisting towers and gilded archways, and when they began asking questions none alive could answer, the Historical Society was established. From here, humans began to learn of the elves and their lives before their magic, for some of their monuments and homes still stood, and a new understanding was formed. Greed was not born, but made, and the same would befall them should the extremity of their habits find its way into the human world.



But while lessons were to be learned of the past, new problems were born in their place. The age-old mistrust of their former masters hadn't died, and those that possessed magic were looked upon with increasing caution. As with anything that was not understood nor in the abilities of all, magic was feared, and the worry that mages might try to assert themselves as the rightful rulers drove some peoples and cultures to shun magic. Others, more trusting, allowed its wary practice, and others saw it purely as a means of protecting themselves from the magic of other nations.

And so the divides and borders grew wider across the lands than they had ever been under the rule of elves, and humans began to suspect one another. Wars broke out, monarchs kept secrets, and the division within their countries grew greater. The growing suspicion led to the need for spies, to watch and listen and discover their neighbour's plots - and even, in some cases, force their hand to lure them into a disadvantage. Politics blossomed alongside poverty, and the world became a darker place.

But the elves had left a reminder of their downfall. A reminder that now ravages the world regardless of a country's wealth, allegiance, perspective or prudence.

A reminder to be exploited by the desperate.
https://www.goodreads.com/series/265897-the-devoted-trilogy


An introduction to the world of The Devoted trilogy.
Great Western Woods' podcast team recently hosted World Building Quest, where a daily prompt aided writers in the process of building a world for their fiction. Since I'm so deep into the world of The Devoted trilogy, I decided to use it as an opportunity to hone what I had as well as present the world itself to readers.




Thursday, 1 August 2019

The Sah'niir - Release Day!

   One year to the day since The Zi'veyn's release comes the second in the trilogy, The Sah'niir!
   As I mentioned on my blog, I am a believer that if anything is important to the story, it won't be in the prologue or the epilogue. I like to use them as optional windows into an individual's life or situation - one you could politely opt to avoid. I don't really know why a reader would do that, personally I always read prologues and epilogues, but I do subscribe to the idea of important being contained within the chapters.
   That said, I am really rather pleased with the prologue for The Sah'niir.

   For the strange people who like to taste test a trilogy by reading a snippet of the second or third book of a trilogy, there is a free sample available of the prologue and first five chapters of The Sah'niir, so you can indulge your unnatural desires. You weirdos.
   For all other people, the first five chapters of The Zi'veyn are also available for free as a Kindle sample to read in your browser or Kindle device or app.


https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07TT815P4

https://www.instagram.com/kimwedlock/




Monday, 1 July 2019

The Sah'niir - Book Cover Reveal


After weeks of work, here's the official reveal of the book cover for The Sah'niir,
book two of The Devoted trilogy:


https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/46732155-the-sah-niir



The Sah'niir will be available on August 1st on Kindle & paperback.
Click here to pre-order, or search 'The Sah'niir' on your preferred Amazon website!



Friday, 21 June 2019

Moonstruck

   A shaking, mournful howl rolled hollow through the night.
   The forest blanched. The undergrowth quaked and cowered.
   The groan of the wind bellowed like the cries of the ghostly moon, hunting and hounding ceaselessly through the trees. Branches shook, leaves trembled, and the clouds above dashed and darted in panic; the moonlight flickered into the dense forest like a frozen, silver fire.

   The girl ran as fast as she could. Her dress billowed around her, snagging on clawing branches while roots rose up to catch her nimble feet. Alarm swelled in her throat, but her eyes were fixed intently forwards.
   The moon was full that night, and the power within its light was potent. One brush over bare skin, one look in the eye from the moon-beast itself, and she would lose her mind. And here she ran with no cloak to cover her arms, no hood to shade her face, no shoes to cover her feet, while the silver pools shifted and writhed at random all around her. And home...home was yet so far away.
   She dashed from shadow to shadow, holding her breath with each frantic movement, slipping down into the towering rock maze when the trees bent too far. Her heart hammered. She could feel it in her ears.
   She ran when the moon was hidden, taking advantage of the passing cloud, but it leapt out again all too soon, casting its maddening glare. She could feel its eye, wide and unblinking, relentlessly seeking her out. The hairs along her neck stood up, reaching up towards it as if lured by its perilous charm.
   But she was not so fooled.
   The tree trunks were thick; pressing herself against them, the glance passed over her and across the sheltering leaves, then she darted swiftly across to the next, the wind all the while tugging at her curls and casting leaves into her rosy face.
   It was only when she reached the edge of the thick boughs' protection, her breath burning in her chest, that her feet finally stumbled to a stop.
   A break in the trees.
   Her heart sank as her eyes passed helplessly over the broad, forest clearing.
   Quickly, she bowed her head, hiding her face behind her curls, avoiding the lock of the silver gaze, and watched the light blazing across the grass ahead of her. She steeled, and waited.
   Slowly, it dimmed. Then it vanished altogether.
   She broke away like a bull out of a pen.
   Her bare feet stampeded across the ground, scarcely avoiding the breaching, knotted roots, and dove without a glance around her into the safety of an elm. No sooner had she crashed into its trunk than the moonlight ignited the clearing once again.
   There was no time to waste in relief.
   She pushed off immediately, surging onwards through the shadows and battling once more against the flickering assault. She barely flinched against the blood-curdling yowl of a distant fox, nor glanced around at the hoot of a high-perched owl. Neither creature were prone to the madness of the moonlight; they did not share her trial, and neither could they help her.
   The girl hurtled on through the forest, and down into the maze again when the clouds became much too thin. When she came across another break in the trees, identical to the last, she didn't hesitate at the darkness. It was behind her in moments, with a heartbeat to spare, and this time no knotted roots betrayed her path.
   Her success only hastened the backlash.
   Fatigue soon set in; her movements became slower, duller, clumsier. By a single misjudgement, her bare foot glanced a silver pool.
   Her heart collapsed into her stomach. There was nothing to feel - no ice, no weight, no numbness - nothing at all to confirm it. But she knew it had happened.
   She ran on frantically anyway, hoping she was mistaken, but wondering all the while and with every frantic step just how it would happen if she wasn't, wondering if she would feel it, wondering how quickly her mind would be burned away by the moon.
   She heard again the cry of foxes. She spun this time, wondering as she stared through the flashing darkness if they were even real. Then she was suddenly upon a clearing. But she didn't stop to calculate.
   Despite the snaking roots, it was her own feet that finally tripped her.
She crashed, winded, to the ground, the heels of her hands digging into the earth, grazing across thinly buried stones. Her skin was unbroken, but blood didn't matter.
   Moonlight poured down upon her like a silent blanket of frost.

   She lay, unmoving.
   Defeated.
   Her tongue lolled out from the side of her mouth.

   Slowly, a shadow fell over her still form, and a face appeared before her eyes, darkened by the haloing light of the moon. "Moonstruck yet?" It asked conversationally.
   But the girl neither moved nor blinked.
   The face waited patiently.
   "I can't talk," she finally said, quite without moving her lips, "I'm mad."
   "Mad," it agreed, "not dead." The face withdrew, then a great hand closed around a single dainty wrist and she was dragged easily back up to her feet. "Up you get, little one. You've been running circles around the house for twenty minutes. Dinner's ready."
   At the mention of food, life returned to the little girl's eyes, and she dashed off towards the irregular stone house that stood all alone in the forest, giggling maniacally into the night.
   Rathen shook his head to himself and followed along with a helpless smile. "I'm quite sure you've been mad for years already..."
 
 
 Words & illustration copyright © Kim Wedlock
No part is to be reproduced without my permission.



Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Apply To Be A Beta-Reader

 Sign-ups closed.
All applicants, successful and otherwise, have been contacted!


   I recently finished a side project, and I'm really very proud of it - but I have no idea if it will work as a published piece. Why? Because though the book has been written as a stand-alone, its events fall between books 2 and 3 of The Devoted trilogy, and, as the writer of said trilogy (book 2 will be out this August, and book 3 is in progress), I know reasonably well everything that is going on behind it. Which means that I'm blind while reading through this side project.
   Therefore, I'm looking for a handful of readers to take a look at this stand-alone and tell me if it does, in fact, stand alone.

   Anyone can apply, and you will receive either a PDF or paperback version. If I release it, it will be some time next year, which means that beta-readers will be getting considerably early access. Applications are open worldwide and are made through the below form until June 14th 2019.


What will beta-reading involve?
   I'm not looking for proof readers, per se, but for people to read the story and, at the end, answer this question: did you feel like you needed more information, or did you want it? Or, were you lost while reading, or curious? If you needed more information, then I've failed and the book can't stand alone. If you were merely curious, then I'm happy. If you had no questions at all by the end of it, I'm even happier. I didn't want it to be a piece that would make people feel like they had to read any more of my work to get the best out of it.

   The project in question is called Hlífrún and is a 150 page collection of short stories that come together to tell a single over-arching story. Hlífrún is, of course, the main character, and while you meet her in The Devoted, book 2 (out this August), you have already met some of the forest denizens she rules over in The Zi'veyn - namely, the ditchlings and the harpies. But there are many more.
   Each short story is told from a different perspective regarding an event that shakes the world, and comes together at the end to a final solution and personal decision.

   On June 14th the application process will close and I'll begin picking participants. Everyone will be notified, successful or not, within 1-2 weeks, and postal addresses collected if required.
   Successful applications (which will be chosen at random, though paperback copies are limited) will be notified when their copies have been sent, unless PDFs have been requested, and will have 1 month (30 days) from receipt to read it and deliver feedback. For those receiving a paperback copy outside of the UK, this 30-day period will begin 2.5 weeks after I have posted it. No replacements will be sent if it goes missing because it's all paid for out of my own pocket.

   I'm not setting any NDA on it, so if you'd like to write a review for your website, blog or Instagram (after you have sent your feedback), that's totally fine, though the book will not be out for quite some time, and you're more than welcome to take a picture of the book or of yourself with it and post that, too. Be sure to tag me @KimWedlock on twitter & Instagram. The only thing I do ask, of course, is that you do not post the contents themselves anywhere, even as a snippet. Beta-readers will be given early access, but they don't have any of the rights to the contents.

   If feedback is largely positive, I will be submitting it first to literary agents, but am happy to self-publish it instead. If feedback is negative, then rather than release it as a book, I'll simply publish the stories and chapters for free on my website and Wattpad. The work will be made available to all, but I won't be making any money from it, which I hope will balance it out.

Apply here to beta-read Hlífrún
 



Wednesday, 13 March 2019

October's Blood

   A cool wind seeped through the woods. The trees creaked beneath its touch, stiff limbs wearied by the encroaching cold. A few more leaves were teased away.
   A rustle heralded her arrival; delicate feet tread over the fallen twigs and leaves, her fingers trailed softly, mournfully, over lichen-masked bark.
   She turned her grey face into the light that crept through the boughs.
   Just a few weeks ago it had warmed her bark-like skin. Just a few weeks ago it had enlivened the viridian roof of her queendom; the air had been gentle, laced with the colour and conversation of birds, and soft. Caressing.
   Just a few weeks ago.
   The bow of her lips sank further.
   Now, it was waning. Soon, the once-golden glow would fade to frozen, biting ivory. And her domain would once again fall still.
   "It will not last," a voice spoke behind her, small and silken. She did not turn towards the moth. "You cry every year."
   "Because it angers me."
   "It is Nature."
   "I am a skogsrå. I don't need you to tell me that."
   "You fear."
   "...I do."
   "But you are strong."
   "And they are vicious." Her slender, grey hand slipped from trunk. "The queendom - my­ queendom - is at risk. Every time the sun fades and forests drop their leaves and shadows, men wander in with their axes and flames. They take what they want, as though it belongs to them. As though we stole it. I cannot rest - I will not rest. The safety of these woods is my charge. My duty."
   She strode on, tail swishing irritably, the line of her plump, grey lips as hard as steel.

http://www.kimwedlock.com/
   The sun thinned in the coming weeks, just as nature decreed, and the skogsrå, Queen of the Woods, prepared herself for war.

   As the leaves drifted and the ice light flooded in, as the air emptied of rustles and squeaks, as hoarfrost and fog blanketed her world, she patrolled her domain.
   Her feet passed as light as a fox over the frost. Her shape was as invisible as a cat. Her eyes were as sharp as a falcon. And, when she found men, and axe, and fire, she struck as hard as a bear.
   The forest was hers to protect, and protect it, should would. For none but she could.

   Snow lay on the ground, the first of the fall, and early. Roots, soil, leaves, insects; all were trapped beneath the blanket, and the air itself was frozen still. Even time seemed to have been caught in its frigid grasp. But all was not dead.
   Men's voices, coarse and careless, rose above the muffling snow.
   Her sharp ears pinpointed them. She melted into the grey forest.

   The men moved purposefully, trampling hide and hollow without a thought, sharp axes slung at their hips, glinting in the callous snow. They stopped beside each tree, casting over them an appraising eye. Many were deemed unworthy; those unfortunate enough to hold their attention were marked with a single notch.
   The queen's lips curled in a snarl.
   The branch didn't creak as she leapt.
   Three men fell in seconds, raked, rent and ripped by wooden claws, and two more by axe blade, falling upon one and impeding another. Within minutes, the snow had turned crimson; thick, dark and ragged.
   And so she didn't see the shadow of a sixth pass across it.

   Agony tore open her eyes.
   White sunlight, above, below; all around. She hissed as it stung and ignited inside her skull, and wailed in shock and torment as blinding heat ripped through her back.
   She rolled herself over, a lifetime passing in seconds, onto lichen-speckled hands and knees. The snow where she'd fallen was golden with sap.
   But the surrounding light stole her attention from the rend through her hollow-bark back.
   Tree stumps did nothing to impede the careless, ivory sun.
   Nor conceal the bloodied footprints in the snow.



Words & Illustration Copyright © Kim Wedlock
Written for Neil Gaiman's 'The Art of Storytelling' class, lesson 8: Short Story Case Study
Image based upon visual of Hlífrún from The Devoted Trilogy



Tuesday, 12 March 2019

The Garden Party

   Rathen blinked. "Pardon?"
   "A garden party!"
   The bewildered furrow in his brow only deepened as Aria jumped up and down in the cramped little sitting room, beaming enormously, hands clasped hopefully at her chin. "You want to go to a garden party?"
   "Yes!" Her grin broadened. "An elf lady is having it!"
   Darkness flashed through his eyes. "An elf--"
   "Nooo," she hurried towards his seat appeasingly as the book snapped shut in his hands, "an elf of the night! Purple skin! She said there will be tea and cakes and games, and I'd really like to go!"
   A weary sigh slipped through his lips. He sat forwards and smiled gently, brushing a stray curl from her face. "There are no 'elves of the night' in these woods, little one," he said softly. "I don't know what you thought you saw, but--"
   "I didn't see anything," she rolled her eyes, "I heard about it."
   "...You heard about it?"
   "You don't need the details."
   "I 'don't need the details'?" His eyes narrowed, then defeat weighed down his head. "Nug."
   "Yes. And I think he would know better than you if there are night-elves out in these woods, or some other ones somewhere else." She leaned forwards to try to catch whatever he was muttering beneath his breath, but he raised his head too soon. Her smile waned, but she compressed her enthusiasm into a round little pout and dropped her eyes to her hands. "Please?"
   "Sweetheart, you know why we can't."
   "No, but I know why you think we can't. You've been fine for months and months." Her big, blue-grey eyes lifted to his. But she said nothing else.
   Rathen sighed helplessly, trapped between the grip of that sad little gaze and his own deep-seated foreboding. He knew what she was doing. It was her way. It had always been her way.
   But...never without cause. She rarely asked for anything.
   His head hung in defeat once again, and he heard her squeal of excitement. "I'll go and get readyyyy! Oh - and make sure you bring her some flowers from the garden!"
   With a helpless smile, Rathen watched her race off so quickly she almost tripped over the table leg.

Probably not canon.
Drawn and written for Faebelina's #OCGardenParty



Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Welcome!

I'm Kim - a hopeless fantasy writer.
Now, who the hell are you?


Here I'll post news and updates on upcoming novels, as well as illustrations, highlights, sales and bookish goodies I think you just might enjoy.

If you're not familiar with my work, allow me to point you towards my author page and bibliography. My fantasy books are aimed at adults and mature YA. Everything is available in paperback and Kindle, and from time to time I may offer competitions and giveaways for signed hardback copies, map prints and more. So stick around!

My most recent book is The Zi'veyn, the first of The Devoted trilogy released in 2018.
A tale of devotion taken too far, as well as magic, ruins and strained relationships.
Take a peek and read the first five chapters for free right here. Otherwise, find it for £1.99 on Kindle.
The Kindle app is free, by the way, and can be installed on any computer, laptop, smartphone and tablet.

The second of the trilogy will be out summer 2019.