Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Darahir and Shalenn

   In a world of love and loss, it is a tragic truth and paradox that the two should cross so often, and an inexplicable inevitability that one should be pursued so eagerly despite the knowledge that the other will certainly follow, whether the first is successful or not. No matter one's race or disposition, blind hope and willing ignorance both fuelled and empowered them all.
   Because the joy that one could win in the lull between the two was worth every ounce of conceivable misery.

   It was in a coastal town in the luminous borders of Ygalis that Shalenn first snared Darahir's attention. Even at twelve years old, she was as beautiful as the golden rays of sunlight burning away the rain clouds, or the colours of a waterfall scattered under moonlight. Boys fell at her feet before they even understood the kind of spell she had them under, and girls detested her for it.
   Darahir, however, adored her. When her chores took her out into town, she chose her route by the best way to glimpse her, but ran away whenever Shalenn happened to be close, and when she was tied up in her alchemical studies, her attention still managed to wander its way out from her father's workshop, down the street, across the branching streams and through the magistrate's window, where the girl with sprays of elderflowers woven into her braids sat at a desk, practising her lettering. She spent hours imagining how she might finally speak to her, what she might say and how she might say it, and when that chance came, she ran away again.
   With every spring, Shalenn grew more radiant, and where boys grew bolder in their pursuit of her, and girls more hateful, Darahir grew only weaker. It wasn't helped by the fact that Shalenn rebuffed all new acquaintances - but she wasn't surprised by it. The magistrate's daughter wouldn't lower herself to the company of lechers and opportunists, not with her family's wealth and influence draping over her as she stepped so gracefully into marrying age. She was a higher breed.
   But Darahir knew that she needed only twenty seconds of bravery to prove she was different, to prove that it wasn't contacts or benefits she sought to befriend, but her.
   Bravery that, for reasons she couldn't fathom through the rapid beat of her heart, dragged a great amount of terror along with it. Every time she entertained the idea, she felt as thought she needed twenty more just to summon it. And Shalenn deserved more than a cursescript or decoction to feign it.

   For better or worse, the matter was thrown far out of Darahir's hands when she was out in the White Marshes one autumn evening, gathering salts for the cobbler's tonic.
   A shriek like the ripping of worlds shook the mists, and she abandoned her panning to run straight towards the terror, pulling a strip of parchment and ink box from her jacket as she went. She was already scrawling incantations before the second shriek tore through, and threw the crumpled sheet into the face of coalescing wraith as the helpless scream rose behind her. Seizing the woman's wrist, she dragged her away before any more could wake, and when she at last turned towards her on the safety of the road, Darahir's heart lurched and leapt up into her throat as though she'd been kicked in the gut by a horse.
   Pale, shaking, terrified, Shalenn stared back at her with eyes as wide and silver as the moon. 'Darahir' was all she said, breathed in a whisper, but that alone squeezed her heart higher. And then, with something far warmer than gratitude burning in her eyes, she kissed her.
   Surprise gripped Darahir before she could react. She recoiled instead, in shock, and in fear. And before she could make any sense of the moment, Shalenn had fled. Her sobs drifted back through the night while she stood alone in the dark, trapped in the grip of incomprehension, and the horror that chased it away.
   Weeks passed before she saw her again, at the door to Shalenn's own home, but her effort to apologise, having spent hours every day obsessing over her choice of words, were met cold.
"It doesn't warrant explanation," Shalenn had told her primly. "Thank you for coming by. Was there anything else?"
   "No," she'd replied with a defeated furrow, "nothing else..."
   The door had been closed on her.
   And Darahir became consumed. Consumed by the insult she'd paid her, by the look in her eyes when she'd kissed her, by the taste of her lips when they'd parted. Shalenn had spurned all others, but her...
   Darahir returned to her again a week later, and again a week after that, and the week after that, bringing her elderflower perfumes and sprays, and inks for her work. And each of her visits, and each of her gifts, were met just as glacially as the first.
   But Shalenn continued to open the door, even though she knew it was her, and that was enough to lure her back time and again.
   And then, in fate's truest fashion, war crashed against their shores.
   The alchemist's craft of poisons, blade oils, bombs and cursescripts were required for the effort, and Darahir was both obliged and proud to serve. But the thought of leaving Shalenn, her insult only just beginning to thaw, filled her with a dread so deep that it invaded her very existence. And so it was that an idea came to her in her dreams.
   An echostone, an obsidian shard with which one could be summoned to another's side. With it, Shalenn could call her when her temper soothed and her insult softened, whether she was one or one hundred miles away. With it, she would not forget her. With it, she would win her, in her own time.
   Obsidian wasn't rare in Ygalis, if one knew where to look, and an alchemist always did. It took three days to create the cursescript and sear it into the glass, and she left it with a note and a spray of elderflowers on her doorstep. She didn't wait for her to answer her knock.

   The campaign lasted for two and a half years, and she battled through it all with an unwavering hope in her heart. Even when the war was lost, and Ygrona absorbed Ygalis into its own rule.
   Darahir returned to her afterwards, but the coast had ravaged, and the town taken. Ygrona's banners snapped in the breeze where Ygalis's colours had been what felt like only yesterday.
   Shalenn's home, too, had been taken by another, a rich foreign family who'd taken the rule of the town. A young family recognised her, one with a profession still valuable to keep around, and told her she'd been among those to flee just before the occupation, and had taken little with her.
   "Did she take a black, glassy stone?" She'd asked, feeling her heart rise as high as it had when Shalenn had looked her in the eye in the marshes. It fluttered when they nodded. They knew because the looters had been vocal in their irritation that she hadn't left it behind with the rest of the magistrate's riches.
   Darahir spent years searching for her, but could find her nowhere. None had seen her - though none had been looking - but she had no doubt that they'd remember if they had.
   And while she still held hope in her heart, exhaustion inevitably set in. She settled down, expanded her craft, and waited for her. She came into the service of nobles and generals, and she earned her coin and titles. And she waited for her. She turned aside courtly suiters and the sons of dukes and counts. And she waited for her.
   And all the while, the ache in her heart grew deeper.
   By her middle years, the nights seemed to stretch longer, winters grew colder, and sicknesses came more often and sank with deeper hooks. As she lay in her bed one morning, decoctions on the table beside her to chase out a fever, she felt a strange stirring in her heart, heard a phantom voice whisper beside her ear, and felt the warmth of breath brushing across her skin.
   Her hope surged, adrenaline fired, breath choked in her throat. She lay there, listening to Shalenn's voice, while the world slipped away around her.
   In the same moment, in a bedroom back in a coastal town in Ygalis, the echostone tumbled from a limp hand and shattered across the floor.

© Kim Wedlock



Monday, 8 June 2020

Hlífrún Art Week

   This past week I've been sharing some of the artwork for Hlífrún (printed exclusively in the Patreon-exclusive hardback edition) across social media. Here are the gathered pieces.
   All were drawn by myself



There is one skogsrå per continent, and Hlífrún is the skogsrå of Arasiin. She has barkish skin, a wood-hollow in her back, a cow tail, a toned and muscular frame, and a twiggy, branching crown. She traverses the forests like a phantom, melting into trees and reappearing hundreds of miles away in a single step. She is not kind. She is not patient. Her fancies change like the breeze, and there's no knowing what her smile might mean. She is nature itself, and if you find yourself on the wrong side of her (or any side, having said that), watch your step.



Harpies - half-bird, half-human migrants of the south, perching watchfully in the oldest trees. All from kestrels to eagles bow to their superiority, and they, in turn, protect them from poachers and collectors.
They also make wonderful battle scouts.



The askafroa. She is a real danger - assuming you're within range. But range is, really, all it takes. They're aggressive opportunists, and will cast fast-acting curses on you, or your whole village, if you offend her or harm her tree - assuming she doesn't grab at you with twiggy hands.



Vakehn, forest guardians. They're not born to the wilds, but the wilds have adopted them all the same, neutralising old connections by growing lichen, miss and fungi over chestnut skin and forest green hair. Their weapons are made from wood approved for use by the queen, and they wrap themselves in gossamer and lichen to break up their shape like bird nests, and to maintain some degree of modesty - one of the few lingering connections to their previous culture. Their magic is used in defence of the wilds, and they answer readily to Hlífrún.



Arkhamas (or 'ditchlings') are pale, when they're not filthy, with matted hair tangled with all kinds of stuff, live in setts and drop from trees. They move around in warbands and steal food and clothing from villages. Folklore says they steal children and turn them into Arkhamas, but that's just not true. Children who live with them do so voluntarily, but rarely for very long. Kids run away on impulse, but soon miss warm food, beds and mother's kisses.





Pre-order Kindle for release on June 20th.

Paperback will be available on release day.

Cover art by Frenone.



Friday, 5 June 2020

Hlífrún Sneak Peek - Chapter 1


Hlífrún, Chapter 1


     A gentle, viridian breath rustled through the world. Weighted by the rich scent of loam and moss, the air pirouetted under the cool tug of the breeze, while the fresh edge of rain cast a welcome division in the long-unbroken midsummer heat. There was promise in that, of life and abundance, and enthusiasm hung like a restless fog stirred up by every other breath.
    The air was not silent. The air was never silent. Here, there was always some sound of comfort or company, overlapping and interlocking with another into an unrecitable harmony. It was a melody without rhythm, composed of the rustle of dark, summer-kissed leaves, the warble, chirp and trill of birds, the squeak, croak and howl of beasts and the babble of rolling streams. It was a symphony filled with secrets, while the voices of the trees themselves whispered 'welcome, Queen,' into the winds.
    She opened her dark eyes and watched the colours of eternal twilight shift through the forest around her, glittering in the fidget of leaves aglow with the sparse leak of sunlight. A pair of woodlarks looped and flitted briefly into view in a dazzling display of iridescent gold, and a beetle tumbled from a tree, landing with a soft thud on the damp moss below.
    Then all fell still once again.
    Hlífrún's grey lips curved into an insuppressible smile.
Here was serenity. This was a place of ancient souls; a place where time slowed and wandered, the smallest measure that of the passing sun, the longest that of the turning seasons. There was nothing to rush for here, no urgency, no fret. There was only life. All was as it had always been.
    ...Almost.
    Her gaze dropped back to the ground. Her heart sullenly followed as she locked onto the tidy mat of winding roots that stretched forwards for some feet, young, bare and smooth; ash and rowan woven together in a mutual charge to bridge the abyss that rent the otherwise pristine forest.
    Though she begged them not to, her eyes followed the line of that gaping wound yet again, searching despite the hole in her heart for a clue of the scale of destruction. Mercifully, the trees spared her that torment. She could already feel the rend all too deeply, as though her own body had been torn. And she supposed it had been, in a way. The spirit of this and every forest was equally her own.
    The leaves above fluttered with the heavy shudder of her heart. She drew herself back in with a sigh.
    She knelt gracefully in the damp soil, rain water swelling around her knees and trickling through the grooves of her grey, bark-like skin, and slipped a rough, slender hand down through the dirt. The earth bowed aside willingly.
    As she closed her eyes and released a slow, focused breath, a fine, off-white sheath began to form around the exposed roots. It crept out across them slowly, spreading like a tangled, fibrous web, sealing where they overlapped and wove together, where they knotted, where they released. Then a second mass responded on the far side of the rift, bleeding through the sheared soil. But it was slower. Sluggish, as though the last drops of its life force were ebbing away, sacrificed for this final growth.
    The approaching web ambled closer, creeping further and faster along the roots as though it recognised its kind, and when it burrowed at last into the severed soil, seized and anchored by the woody spears, the second, struggling mass bloomed.
    In that instant, the forest changed.
    All around, the pockets of grass and wildflowers that had found sun enough to grow stood taller and brighter, their scents intensified, and the branches of the surrounding trees reached higher toward the morning sun. Bark darkened around their trunks, roots thickened and flexed, and the soil that nourished them all swelled and sweetened with vitality.
    Pride flared through Hlífrún's blood. She drank in the rejoice of the forest, the tinkling songs of the flowers, the young, twitching voices of grasses, and the rumbling creaks of the ancient trees as each declared their gratitude. Even the air seemed to lift and hum.
    The change was glorious.
    Her eyes flicked towards another patch of rustling, quivering grass and watched a mole poke its head out from the soil. She beamed gleefully as it squinted towards her, and returned its relieved snuffle with a wriggle of her own nose before it bumbled lazily back into the earth.
    This rift was the last of them, at least for the moment. The mykodendrit had been repaired at the most vital locations - its fungal network would heal, and her influence across the continent's forests would repair with it. She could already feel her primordial link to the Vaen Steppes strengthening far in the north.
    She stayed there for a while, relishing the summer breeze as it teased her thick, dark mane through her twiggy crown, and bathed in the sounds of her queendom.
    Until another concern edged its way to the front of her mind.
    She didn't muddy the air with her sigh. She rose instead, lifted her chin, and walked on through the forest to address it.
    Midsummer's Day was almost upon them. It was an important day, a crucial one for life, the most vibrant of the year - but it was also a day that was in sore need of vigilance. Humans always built their fires in a preposterous celebration of the sun, and every single one of them seemed to think that they could control the most destructive force of nature. In her thousands of years, she'd never once seen a shred of evidence that suggested they were learning from their mistakes, even as whole villages burned down from a single stray flicker, never mind the forests.
    But, the wilds were not helpless to them, especially not with her at their lead. She and its denizens had developed a steady system over the centuries, and while a number of parties needed reminding of their role at almost every such occasion, it remained fairly reliable.
    Fairly. Unfortunately, humans couldn't always be so easily predicted.
    A tangle of juniper parted on her approach, and she stepped through with a distracted thanks.
    Her woody fingers were already curling into fists as the most recent of human offences blazed its way to the front of her mind: the blackened, skeletal trees, reaching from the scorched earth like gnarled claws pleading for help; the dead silence that weighted the stifling air more heavily than the heat itself; the woven willow faces of kvistdjur, her loyal forest wardens, charred and crumbling where they lay, unrecognisable, dead, dry and bare of leaves.
    She caught herself and loosened her fists, ignoring the sap that oozed from the fresh wounds on her palms.
    That day was almost half a century behind her, but the responsibility, the failure, remained as if it had been yesterday. She'd fought even harder since to ensure it didn't happen again, but the fear that humans would inevitably find some other way to blindly destroy her domain seemed to dig its roots even deeper into her heart with every passing year.
    And so, that morning, her preparations began anew, first with a few polite visits to reinforce the weakest links in her chain of defence - and the näcken and the Arkhamas were perhaps the least reliable of all.
    In fairness, the näcken weren't deliberately difficult - they didn't fall under her rule, so they couldn't be expected to hear her call to arms through the roots. But her sister, the Mother of Currents, didn't deal as directly with the creatures of her domain as Hlífrún did, and for that reason, the Mother of Roots wasn't above bypassing her and eliciting the river sprites' help herself. They would provide it readily enough - as long as they stood to gain, too. Which, of course, they did: by redirecting the flow of their rivers to put out stray fires or stop them from spreading in the first place, their water would pick up fresh nutrients, and that would benefit everyone.
    No, the näcken were not deliberately difficult.
    The Arkhamas, however, were.
    The short, almost child-like creatures were numerous, loud and impulsive, and seemed to refuse all authority. But their unique ability to communicate silently across vast distances was just as crucial to damage control as the näcken's rivers. And besides, she'd long since found a clever little way to deal with the unruly things.
    Hlífrún, stepped from the damp soil and into a birch tree, melding into the bark as though it wasn't there at all.
    When she stepped back out, the birch and surrounding forest had become an alderwood, the nearby sound of birdsong had been replaced by cackles, whoops and the sound of clambering feet, and what peace had draped the trees was now an indignant protest. But, whatever the Arkhamas were doing, it was only a minor offence. The older trees got, the more easily offended they became.
    She brushed her hand soothingly over the bark as she stepped down to the root-laced soil, and felt their collective disgruntlement fade. Then she started straight towards the racket.
    They soon fell into sight: seven of them, their pale skin smeared deliberately with mud, clad in either animal hides or human clothes stolen from washing lines, playing, eating, whittling while one was chasing a weasel. It was a harmless game - if the weasel didn't want to play, it would've been quick to let them know.
    It took some time for them to notice her - she'd stepped fully into their glade, in fact, before the weasel felt her presence, and even once it had scurried away from its would-be captor and up onto the tree beside her to nuzzle at her cheek, the rest of them still took a few moments longer to work out why. The trees were looming disapprovingly by that point.
    "Yer Majesty!" The weasel-chaser cried, grinning as he finally dashed forwards to greet her. The rest remained stubbornly where they were, on rocks, in the branches, and an eighth poked her head out of a hollow tree trunk. "'Appy Midsummer-Or-There-Abouts! What'n can we do for ya?"
    "Happy Midsummer," she smiled despite herself, stroking the weasel's head. As bold and troublesome as Arkhamas were, she couldn't help her affection. Their presence alone always lightened her mood.
    A single root rose from the ground and twisted itself into a stool, which she sat upon gratefully, her cow-like tail swaying happily behind her. "It's exactly that which I've come to talk to you about."
    Every one of them narrowed their oversized eyes with shared suspicion. A few wandered over her naked body. She smiled sweetly and ignored it. "I have a job for you all."
    "Again?" One of them groaned.
    "Yep, and it's very important."
    The first boy, one with sticks and bones tied into his matted hair, folded his arms and looked down his snubby nose at her. He had to tilt his head a fair way back to do it. "You said that last year."
    "And this year," she smiled brightly, "it's even more important. The humans will be lighting their Midsummer fires in a matter of days--"
    "Why do they do that?"
    "Now of all nows, an' all!"
    "Yer, it's hot enough, ain't it?"
    "--And I need you all to keep your big and wonderful eyes open," she continued over the gaggle.
    The bone-haired boy watched her for a moment. They all did, each sharing their thoughts in silence. Then came the whistle of air being sucked in through chipped teeth. "Sounds like a big respons'bility, Yer Majesty. What with the magic an' all - I mean, there's already a lot we gotta watch out for, ya know..."
    "I certainly do," she beamed, "which is why it's such a very big responsibility, and why I need your help so very much this year. I need you to keep watch for bonfires stacked too close to forests and move them away, I need you to stop anyone from lighting anything too close, and I need you to raise the alarm if anyone does."
    "Like I said," the boy smiled not quite as sweetly, "big responsibility, and a fat lotta work, to boot. Per'aps we'd all be better off if'n you just asked your vakeys to do it."
    The other Arkhamas began nodding and agreeing - audibly.
    She rested her chin in her barkish hand and pretended to ponder the suggestion for a while. Her dark eyebrows drew slowly together. Then her round lips pursed in doubt. "I'm not so sure the vakehn are capable of this kind of job. I mean, it takes a certain kind of strength and determination to face humans, wouldn't you say? I mean, if they could do it, I would've asked them already. After all, I know how dreadfully busy you all are..."
    Their eyes narrowed again.
    "No," she sighed, "I'm afraid only Arkhamas can do it."
    The bone-haired boy grunted. "Well, that's a shame then, ain't it? 'Cause we're just tooooo busy. Like you said yerself, 'Majesty."
    She sighed and rose to her feet. A flicker of victory passed over the Arkhamas's faces until they noticed that she, too, was smiling. "Thank you," she beamed.
    The forest children blinked at her as the root stool unravelled and returned to the ground. "What?"
    "I appreciate your help, Gaz," she sang, turning her tree-hollow back towards them and stepping away into the trees. "I really don't know what I'd do without you!"
    "H-hey, wait, what--"
    "You'd better spread the word right away and move out to the borders, or you might miss something!"
    "Bu-bu-but," Gaz reached out after her as the others scrambled to their feet in confusion, "we didn't agree to nothin'!"
    "Thank you, my dearests! I appreciate your co-operation, so very much!" Then she stepped into a tree and vanished - though she remained in there just long enough to hear the defeated groan waft out through the glade.

    When she stepped out again, the alderwoods had shifted to willows leaning silently along a river bank. She wended and wove her way among them, following the deep, flowing river below very carefully, stifling her trepidation. Water was a wonderful, life-giving thing, but unlike the earth, it was somewhat...insubstantial. It had a surface, technically, but there was no physical way to stand on it, and while it was true that her wild magic allowed her the ability to do just that, it still sent a chill through her bones. She greatly preferred solid ground - but she wouldn't find a näck that way.
    She continued to step carefully, and a musical sound of softly-bowed strings soon rose from further along the river. She smiled and moved a little faster towards it. The beautiful, alluring sound grew louder and sweeter, calling her closer and closer.
    Fortunately, she was immune to its magic.
    She stopped before the source of the melody and leaned forwards over the water, hanging on to the tree. It lowered her closer on her request.
    "You won't lure me in there, I'm afraid," she told her reflection, and waited as the music rose a little louder. She simply smiled and shook her head.
    Soon, another face half-rose from the water surface, breaking her reflection - that of a boy much like an Arkhamas, but with green, scaled skin, yellow eyes with the slitted pupils of a frog and long, algae-frond hair that drifted with the flow of the river. Those eyes looked back at her with some degree of irritation. She met them with an unbroken smile. "Now, young man: I need your help."




This excerpt is the entirety of chapter 1.

Read the whole story in Hlífrún.

Pre-order Kindle for release on June 20th.

Paperback will be available on release day.

Cover art by Frenone.



Monday, 1 June 2020

Hlífrún Pre-Orders Open!

   Hlífrún is now available to pre-order on Kindle! Paperback will be available on release day (June 20th) because Amazon still don't seem to have figured out how to make paperbacks pre-order yet, but if that's the piece you have your heart set on, just sit tight ^^

   Otherwise, search Hlífrún (or 'Hlifrun' - the accents don't seem to make a difference) on your preferred Kindle store, and you'll have the Queen's company on the Summer Solstice. Hopefully ours will go better than hers...

When the abuse of magic rips open borders and plunges the Emerald Kingdom into winter at the height of Midsummer, Hlífrún - skogsrå, Root Mother and Queen of the Woods - must find some way to thaw her forests, repair her eternal connection beneath the soil, and protect her kin from the deadly ravages of frost, magic and humans.

Inspired by the creatures of Scandinavian folklore and set within the world of The Devoted trilogy, this stand-alone supplemental and series of short stories sees the struggles of nature against the carelessness of civilisation as it fights back with root and claw.

Hlífrún is a stand-alone supplementary novella to Kim Wedlock's 'The Devoted' trilogy.



Cover art by Frenone