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Tuesday, 14 September 2021

The Harvest Watch

Estimated read time: 13 minutes

     It wasn't that long ago when the wild things still wandered; when the forests were still dark places and village walls meant only tentative safety. When there were no reliable hearthfires, no filling meals every night, no guarantee of survival through the winter - none of the luxuries we have now in our rug-strewn, stone-built homes.
     It wasn't that long ago, and yet, for that basic uncertainty, things were done so very differently.
     Before the leaves fell - before they even turned - the final harvest of the year would take place. From the beginning of August to the end of September, villages would be out cutting and gathering their grains, laying them out to dry and storing them through the winter - some to eat, most to sell. Whatever was needed. And then, when the coldest months came, the oldest or sickest animals would be slaughtered. But that meat would never go far enough. Grains were staple. Crucial. Populations relied on those more than anything else.
     But even without the risk of stampedes or smoking-house fires, a grain harvest was never a straight-forward thing. Aside from the back-breaking work, there were also the threats of rot and pests. One ill-timed autumn rain could plunge whole provinces into famine. And so the old deities were beseeched and offerings left to the wild itself, to appease the witches and the vengeful spirits that dwelled within against attack, abduction, cursing the grain or directing the scavengers.
     And it wasn't that long ago that the deities may have answered.

     The girl turned her father a wide-eyed look through the dappled forest light, and again she watched the strange pride in his smile as he nodded his head towards the tree stump.
     For some reason, of all the children in the village, she'd been the one chosen to carry out some kind of important duty. She'd been taught a poem, shown how to arrange wheat husks, and that morning had her golden hair pulled and braided with summer flowers and her dress painted with berries. Then she'd been brought out here, so deep into the forest she couldn't see the fields behind them. That was strange, after having been told for eight years not to stray anywhere near the trees, but being here now was...exciting. And scary. So scary and so exciting that she couldn't keep her knees still. And only partly because of all the villagers' eyes on her.
     With a deep breath, she looked ahead and took the last two steps towards the tree stump, stole a glance up at the twisted woody giant looming close behind it, then followed her gaze as it dragged back to the bundle in her hands. The first head of grain, cut by her father that morning, a privilege for his daughter having been chosen. Leaving this on the altar and speaking the old poem was supposed to make the forest happy and keep them safe while they worked in the fields outside. But that, she'd decided, didn't make any sense. Why grain and not a loaf of bread? And would bread or grain really make the forest happy?
     Probably not. There wouldn't be enough. The forest was big. And once the grain was gone, it was gone, and the happiness would be gone with it. It wouldn't last anywhere near long enough to cut the crops. It had taken a year last time, as far as she could remember. Certainly not the two months her mother kept saying it was.
     But the grown ups wouldn't listen. So she'd taken matters into her own hands.
     While the adults watched, she reached out and laid the head of grain on the tree stump just as she'd been taught to, perfectly in the centre of the few rings and carved shapes she could see through the lichen. Then she stepped back and carefully recited the words:

"The first head cut,
we bring to appease,
and carry our
hearts bare in our pleas.
Contain this time
your huntress shadows,
and spare our young
the depths of barrows."

     She stole a peek behind her. All eyes were closed.
     She bent quickly and set her straw-stuffed doll down at the foot of the stump, and was upright again before anyone noticed. "Tall trees; fields fallow; may we all thrive as one."
     There was a murmur of approval behind her while the rest of the village stirred, and as her father's hand came to rest proudly on her shoulder, she erased her mischievous smile, stood tall, then turned and led the gathering away. As their footsteps moved from twigs to grass, the forest fell silent behind them.
     And the twisted tree looming over the stump twitched.

     Two flecks of green glowed softly like fireflies in hollow sockets, barely breaking the dappled darkness, and a head of twigs, woven into a horned bear skull, creaked high on its neck among the boughs. The silent, glowing stare followed the fleshy creatures closely. And only once stillness embraced the dark again did the tangled trunk follow.
     With barely a rustle through the sticks and roots, the misshapen trunk split, and two latticed, lichen-marked legs stepped over the altar in a single stride. Three steps the kvistdjur took, a guardian grown of twigs and roots, before it stopped frozen again and turned back to the stump. For a long while, it stared at the head of grain resting on top.
     The warning had been made. The humans were moving.
     And the kvistdjur would stand guard against them.
     Turning on its wooden heel, it began its march to the edge of the shadows to take up its vigil against the creatures loose in their golden fields, until a squirrel bounced onto its leafy antlers from a branch above. Again it froze, obligingly this time, and glowing eyes followed it down to its shoulder, along its arm, down its leg and across to the altar. And there it noticed, as the squirrel stopped and sniffed tentatively at the foot, a small human of equal size sitting among the roots.
     Its horned head twitched.
     As fast and graceful as a mantis, the kvistdjur flickered to its knees beside it. But while the squirrel sprang up to the grain, the kvistdjur realised its mistake. It was no living human, but a thing in human cladding and stuffed with dry grass.
     Slowly, the kvistdjur peered closer. The cladding was frayed, the straw was rotting, and the nut that resembled its head was cracked and scarred. The thing didn't move as it was prodded with a woody talon.
     For another long moment, it watched and waited, but still nothing happened. So, while the squirrel began stealing apart the grain, chittering at its approaching kin, the kvistdjur dismissed it, rose without a sound, and marched at last to its vigil.

     For days, the kvistdjur roamed the woods, watching the humans and their scythes butcher the golden fields. They were dangerous with these weapons; they cut too clean, too quick, too greedily. Saplings and squirrels would be no match. Too much could fall too fast, and if they were left unchallenged, the humans would do it again the next year, and the year after that, and more of them would join with each swarm.
     And that morning, in the dying light of a half-moon, they had wandered the closest yet.
     The kvistdjur stared from the shadows, firefly eyes aglow with every flash of steel, woody talons twitching, as long and sharp as scythes themselves. Their voices were too clear. It could feel them in the ground, see them fluttering through the leaves, disturbing every edge of life until those animals who were able finally moved away for sleep or safety. Before too long, the wilds would grow wistfully empty.
     Glinting movement towards the eastern edge suddenly snatched its malicious stare, and it dashed ahead while the glowing heart in its chest tightened and flared through the weave of its ribs. A tall, skinny one was moving slowly towards the trees.
     Wrapped in shadow, the kvistdjur stopped nearby and controlled the flare of its heart.
     Nearer, the creature wandered.
     The kvistdjur's talons stretched and flexed, its leg twitched impatiently. But before it could flicker forwards, the figure stopped and sat down in the shade.
     The kvistdjur remained as watchful, rigid and motionless as the trees.
     For several long minutes, the skinny one held its burning attention without once turning at the heat of those eyes. Then it rose again and moved back into the fields, oblivious to the danger.
     Slowly, the woven guardian creaked and settled in the shift of dappled light, until another voice stirred the leaves nearby, one higher and more vibrant than the rest.
     Again, its stare flicked onto its target: a small human, fairer and more golden than the rest. But this small one didn't cut, instead it gathered what the others had reaped and bundled it up in arms too small for the job, yet a job it did with glee.
     This one, the kvistdjur watched for a long while.

     Another puff of alarm went up ahead as the trees bent out of the kvistdjur's way, and the hunting one ran and stumbled on through the roots, firing back another haphazard arrow that whistled through the guardian's woven body. But it already had distance; the bow gave it reach. The kvistdjur couldn't chase it all the way out, and it was already too far from its post. It had little choice but to leave the hunting one to another. It was far from the only guardian in these woods.
     As fast as a bird, it turned and surged back through the forest, flickering between the trunks towards the edge of the trees where again it stopped, stared, and twitched at every flash of the scythes and every careless movement. But this time its eyes were searching, and as the small human walked by again, struggling with the bundles of grain, red-faced and glistening in the sunlight, the kvistdjur's attention settled.

     An entire moon had passed since the warning was left on the stump; that night, the sky was black and empty, and where the humans had retreated inside, light glowed through the holes in their nests.
     The kvistdjur watched them blaze.
     For all its vigilance over twenty-eight passes of the sun, nothing yet had forced its hand. But it was only a matter of time. And there was more than one attack front to watch.
     Finally, the lights went out, and one hour later, the kvistdjur turned and stalked away through the woods in search of hunters, traps and trespassers.
     It listened carefully to every sound that bounced across the trees, distinguishing between the wilds and invasive footsteps. As empty as the woods now were, humans would still try their luck, as with the reaping of the golden fields came the reaping of deer, boar and grouse. Their captives were never enough; they would kill yet more while keeping their own alive. The patrol had to be made.
     Finally, something snapped nearby.
     In a heartbeat, the kvistdjur spun and made towards it at speed. Leaves parted, branches moved aside, and owls hooted directions. But the kvistdjur was already there. It leapt, it landed, and it caged the human in its limbs. A sharp squeak was all that stopped its talons from striking.
     Bright firefly eyes stared down into the huge reflective orbs of the small, golden-headed human, whose body remained as still as stone in its grasp. Neither moved, neither made a sound. A long, warm breath of wind danced between them, stirring leaves and golden strands.
     It must have carried something with it; the small human suddenly scrambled backwards, struggled to its feet, and ran away without a sound.
     The kvistdjur watched it flee in silence. Then its stare sank back to the ground where it had lain. Another tiny, straw-stuffed human lay strewn in the dirt. One with tiny twigs tied to its acorn head, and two green, mossy smudges for eyes.
     Talons closed around it, then it rose back to its feet and stalked off after the small creature. It broke into another rapid run when the squeak rose again nearby, morphed into a shriek, and was answered by the snarl and bark of wolves.
     The kvistdjur burst in behind them, roared bitterly from its wooden throat, and sent the wolves fleeing.
     And again, it and the human stared at one another for another long moment. But though the creature was guarded, this time it didn't run. Instead, it dared a step closer.
     The kvistdjur twitched backwards, then sharply raised its talons.
     The small human hesitated, but its stare never broke. And it took another step.
     The kvistdjur hissed nervously.
     The human froze. The pair of them stared. Then the human's mouth moved, but no squeak came out. Several wolf howls nearby stopped whatever sound it was about to make, and it turned and ran off again.

     The kvistdjur watched the creature throughout the harvest, and the creature stared back into the woods from time to time. But they didn't step near one another. Then, after another black night and another new moon, nothing but one single stalk of grain was left standing in the flat, golden fields. The kvistdjur watched as all humans gathered around it, and the smallest of them, the fairest, its golden head dressed again in flowers and cladding coloured with berries, stepped forwards with a scythe and felled it.
     The kvistdjur straightened. The sign was made, the ritual done. Its vigil here was over.
     Duty fell from its shoulders as it turned its head to the breeze, and looked off back into the woods just as a shard of orange drifted down beside it. Its talons rose gently to its leafy antlers even as it peered up at the yellowing trees.
     It was time to move on. The Drowse was on its way, and the kvistdjur's final task was approaching.
     Turning its back to the human fields, it opened its other hand, dropped the two grass-stuffed figures to the dirt, and stalked off into the woods. These wilds were safe from this harvest.
     It didn't notice the small human looking its way with a smile.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock

Thursday, 26 August 2021

The Devoted Trilogy - Character Art Portrait Compliation

Character portraits of The Devoted trilogy, 2021.

Support me on Patreon to get early access to all art, as well as short stories,
snippets, deleted scenes, beta-reading opportunities and artist collaborations!

Rathen Koraaz

Salus, Keliceran

Aria Koraaz

Inquisitor Garon Brack

Petra Dalin

Anthis Karth

Eyila, of the Ikaheka


Friday, 6 August 2021

The Power of Music

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

     Sixteen months is too long for a full-scale war over pride. Especially when both rulers have only the most tenuous adoration of their people to begin with.
     A single misplaced ermine pelt had started it; ever since, the kings of Adelaare and Venvalk had been blinded by their blood haze, and it seemed neither sundial nor moth-eaten purse would drag anything to a rational close.
     With no sign of relenting on either side, their people were suffering sorely. Trade was dwindling, loved ones had been lost, homes had been ransacked; the nation struggled just to smile, and a nation without the will to thrive was a nation defeated. Battles may still play out, but the war had already been lost - and when both sides were falling side by side into the same trap, there could be no winner.
     Something had to end it, and fast.

     In the town of Sparling, these words were on everyone's lips, but followed always by the fateful question: "what can we do?" A single pebble may start an avalanche, but what good was it if no one was around to get caught in it? No one ever looked their way; they were insignificant. Sparling was a resource, nothing more. It, like so many others, produced the necessities for war - weapons, armour and horse shoes, flour, meat, wood, but little else. No ideas, no arts, no fine things worth paying attention to. All things for use by the military, or to pay for it. Revenue of one kind or another. That was all.
     And the people themselves, though they were among the workers and traders the nation depended on, were worth nothing. Hardship, poverty, misery; the crowns decided that their subjects' wellbeing didn't matter, so long as they were alive.
     And so, far too often, warlords overlooked that one final, crucial detail in their campaigns: war needed the people's support. Without it, the nation would crumble from within long before its walls were broken from without - and, for better or worse, the anger born of  oppression and worthlessness was the quickest way to rouse a broken spirit.
     But Sparling wasn't quite there yet. No one had quite reached breaking point, and the hope that someone else would do something first was still floating through the gutters.
     However, though anger might be the quickest way to rouse a broken spirit, there were other methods - slower perhaps, but effective.
     And on one August evening, one came right to them.

     "Ooh!" A child gasped from her perch in a tree at the edge of the neighbouring woods, and thrust a short finger out towards the road. "Daddy! Look! Jesters!"
     "What are you saying now, Melie?" Her father grumbled, and looked up from the fence he was fixing to peer off along to the distance. He stiffened a moment later. "Travellers?"
     Then a melody drifted through the golden dusk.
     "Oh! Oh! Daddy, listen! Such happy music! Can we go see?! Please?!"
     "Melie, go warn the guards."
     But she had already scrambled down the trunk and run off towards the road.
     The troupe of musicians and actors were welcomed reluctantly into the town, and everyone gathered about them defensively in the square, waiting for the first request of food they couldn't spare, or a bed they refused to. But no such burdens came. The troupe had begun a skit the moment they stepped through the gates, and joy radiated from them like heat from the sun. Their comedies, bright costumes, rainbows squeezed from fiddles, accordians and tambourines were their own contribution to the war effort, they'd announced, with the promise that they'd transformed the spirit of every town and village they'd tickled their strings in.
     The locals remained sceptical, but the troupe played on with unflinching mirth, and, as the evening wore on, their promise proved true. There was at last some kind of cheer trickling its way through the streets, and for the first time in months, the town of Sparling smiled. Japes and laughter filled the square, while music seeped through windows and stirred up even the sewers. Smiths set their work aside, thieves left the shadows, and farmers drifted in from their fields. Life glowed again.
     But as far as their promise held, as was the nature of joy, it couldn't last forever. When the moon shone and the performances came to a close, the town slipped back into melancholy, stirred into longing rather than action, and the troupe, apparently satisfied, moved on to cross another townstead off their map. One evening of revelry wasn't enough to transform Sparling's spirit after all.
     And one of them could see that more clearly than the rest.
     "Come along, Ilse," the red harlequin told the flutist as they moved back out through the gates, hoisting her patched and fraying bag higher over her shoulder, "we've a ways still to go tonight if we're going to keep to the schedule - unless of course you plan on walking there backwards?"
     Ilse flashed her a smile. "I don't. But..." The flutist's eyes pulled back to the town. "It wasn't enough..."
     A hand came to rest on her shoulder. "Some people need more," the harlequin told her softly. "Sometimes music, sometimes just time. It'll sink in. We touched them deep enough, you'll see."
     "I know..." But Ilse still didn't turn away.
     A sigh soon rose from behind her, and the hand slipped from her shoulder. "Fine," the harlequin grumbled. "Catch up with us when you're satisfied, all right?"
     "Good." The harlequin cast Ilse's grin a cocked smile of her own. "We need you and your pipe!"
     And so, while the rest of the troupe moved on to keep trying to spread the cheer, the flutist stayed, paid generously for a room in the most impoverished inn, and played her music beside the town's clogged fountain from the first chirp of the dawn. And again, the grim town revelled.
     But it was different this time. Somehow, her music had power. Alone, unsullied by the tints and shapes of the others, it shone and sang in vibrant golds and lilacs, and the sunlight itself seemed to swirl and gather with every trill. The colours and rhythms moved them just as she'd hoped they would, deeper than the whole troupe had, and they danced and laughed the whole day away, thrown into movement like cheerful puppets on golden strings.
     Children jumped and played around the well, young women smiled and giggled around a forgotten Maypole, young men showed off their strength by the masonry, married couples danced and spun through the gardens, and every voice sang out together whenever a familiar tune came by.
     Chores were discarded, arguments forgotten, even the rumble of stomachs went blissfully unnoticed. Fear and helplessness no longer sat in the corners of their minds. They escaped the shadows fully, and spirits lightened in the sun.
     The flutist smiled behind her pipe. This time, she would reach them.
     As evening set in, the children splashed buckets from the well, soaking themselves and others, and threw the buns they'd forgotten to eat. As the sun faded, young men ran and climbed across crates and wagons, and as the moon rose, young women splashed in the puddles.
     The adults weren't far behind them.
     Well-water rained, muddying the ground, quenching the forges, ruining the smithies' work.
     Lanterns swayed, knocked by the slipping dancers, sending stray flames skittering towards the store houses.
     Carts were smashed and horses fled.
     Pigeon coups blazed when the store house fires grew.
     The wells clogged with people falling in.
     Fields burned, cattle bellowed and stampeded through fences.
     The forest smoked, seethed and crackled.
     Revenue was lost.
     And still Sparling danced.
     The townsfolk smiled, grasping one another, swapping partners, hands on hands, hands on hips, hands on necks, hands wrenching heads, snapping necks, laughing all the while.
     Bodies fell, broken, drowned and burned.
     And the flutist rose and walked away, smiling impishly behind that enchanting pipe, and Sparling burned down merrily behind her.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock

Sunday, 1 August 2021

Veysuul Release Day!


     It's release day, and the end of The Devoted trilogy! It's been a very, very long journey, and while I'm sad to reach the end, I also find myself surprisingly satisfied. There's nothing at all that I feel I've left unfinished; everything is as it should be. Veysuul is the ending I wanted the trilogy to have.

     Veysuul is currently available as paperback, Kindle and on Kindle Unlimited, and Kindle versions can be read via the free Kindle app, downloadable on all tablets, smarthphones, laptops and computers. I do plan to expand distribution at a later date!

     Naturally, release day was a celebration, and involved many sweets! I baked and decorated a black & gold cake (chocolate fudge cake, golden white chocolate ganache, black cocoa buttercream, golden modelling chocolate), and The Cake Baroness made these wonderful biscuits inspired by the book cover! A wonderful and sickly time was had by all, and very well-deserved.

     I've made hardbacks available to patrons for purchase at print price, should they want them, and I still plan to have more goodies for them by the end of the year, finances permitting. If you're interested, head over to my Patreon page and pledge $1-$3 a month, and get extra benefits like WIP snippets, news on my next book long before anyone else, and, for the time being, exclusive access to the origin stories of every lead character from The Devoted!

Thank you all so much for your support over the years, it truly means a great deal. I hope you'll stick around for future stories! I already have my next book in mind, and a duology after that! There's plenty still to come!