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Sunday, 31 October 2021

Happy Halloween

 I've been busy with art lately, and here are my newest pieces, all for Halloween.

Embrace The Curse



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Friday, 8 October 2021

Not After Midnight

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

     The cackle of children was the only sound to break the chill, autumn night. No breeze stirred but what was whipped up when they jumped or ran, and the fog shied back from the gusts of their breath. Nothing and no one roamed the roads they followed, nor the fields they crossed. There was only the village far ahead of them, and the troupers' caravan far behind.
     Yet they peered into bushes, high up into trees, and around behind notice posts anyway, searching for anything older human eyes might not be able to see.
     They always turned up empty.
     But they walked on, undiscouraged, until the road passed over a river running thick with the recent rains, where there was still certainly enough room beneath the bridge for a troll to hide. But it must have been out hunting for other nosy children that night, because it was nowhere at all to be seen. Again.
     The constant lack of any kind of sighting was beginning to grate. Why call it 'The Troll Bridge' if there was no troll?
     But, when a deep, mournful creak rolled through the air like the snore of some huge, sluggish beast, all six of the children came to a secretly hopeful stop and peered up along the river.
     The old mill stood out along the waterside, a dark silhouette, glowing in the fog while the full moon hung behind it. It was a deathly sight, forbidding; the place itself was like a phantom.
     The creak groaned again as they stared.
     The youngest boy slid up closer to the others, his eyes just as wide as the moon as he peered up over the top of the bridge wall. "W-why does it make that noise?"
     "The storyteller might know," an older girl replied, her own eyes far narrower. "We could go back to the caravan and ask him."
     "We don't need to ask him."
     Her sceptical gaze flicked towards another boy, who regarded the scene with confidence.
     "And why not?"
     "Because," he turned her a smug grin, "I know what it is."
     Other various degrees of doubt tumbled onto him.
     "It's the ghost of a troubadour, who broke his neck when he was trying to get away out the window when the miller caught him with his daughter. And now his ghost is stuck in there, tuning his screechy strings, getting ready to serenade her so she'll fall in love with him and run away from her stupid father."
     All eyes turned back out across the river - except for one boy, who adamantly shook his head. "Yer wrong and stupid, Tam. It weren't no troubledor, it were a witch. She cast 'er spells and tried to take the whole village as slaves, but they caught 'er before she could finish, and tied 'er to the water wheel, and she starved and drowned. It's true, me da' told me!"
     "And this time, you're wrong and stupid, Rhys."
     Rhys's cheeks flushed bright red even as he scowled towards the oldest girl. They burned brighter as he watched her lean against the drystone. "I bet you don't know what it is, Mandy. Yer stupider than I am."
     Mandy fired him a scowl of her own. "I do know, actually. It's just the wheel creaking. It's old and makes lots of noise, especially when the river's this high. Some nights it spins faster and gets louder. And some nights it spins even faster, until it's screaming into the moon, spun by the ghosts of the river's drowned dead."
     The children all fell silent and watched the distant wheel turn slowly in the darkness.
     Then a black mass of crows suddenly erupted from a tree a short ways up the river, and all the children jumped and squeaked.
     A long moment later, when their hearts had stopped hammering and the youngest had stopped crying, the final girl spoke up, her voice careful, considered, and her eyes as sober as stone. "You're all half-right," she said, immediately drawing their attention. "There was a witch, and murder, and the dead turn the wheel.
     "The millers owed a witch for lifting a sickness off of them, but they couldn't afford to repay her. They wouldn't admit that, though, so they saved what they could, setting aside a little of their earnings every week, and the witch was patient. It was all fine - until the village found out about it. They thought that, because they were alive by the witch's magic, they were still under her spell, and she was using them to poison the grain and kill or enslave the entire village. So the village killed them before they could."
     "How awful!" The youngest boy gasped, and the girl simply nodded her head.
     "But they were good, honest people, so even in death they're still trying to repay the witch and feed the village that murdered them. That's what the creak is."
     "That's so sad," Mandy sniffed. "Should we go and talk to them? Tell them to stop?"
     "Many have tried. Everyone who has have fallen ill with the same sickness the witch cured them of."
     "Oh... Then can't the witch just help them pass on?"
     The girl shook her head, her eyes glassy and burdened as she watched the wheel turn. "She can't. And she feels guilty, so her ghost haunts the mill, protecting them while they work. No one who goes in there ever survives..."
     Silence closed in around them as though the night itself had swelled, and suddenly the lone, woeful creak didn't seem so frightening anymore.
     Tam was the first to stir, drawing his eyes to the sky. The rest stared at him in outrage when he dared to break the stillness with a whisper. "I have to go. It's nearly midnight and my mum will flip her lid if I'm any later."
     "Ours too," the youngest girl said, taking the youngest boy's hand.
     "I'll walk back with you," Mandy declared, at which Rhys immediately decided to follow. Soon, all six children were walking back along the road, steeped in their thoughts, until they reached the boundary of their village.
     "Not going in, Rin?" Tam frowned as the girl with burdened eyes took a bucket from beside her front door and started back towards the fields.
     "No, I promised my dad I'd milk the cow for the morning time."
     "Oh, okay. G'night."
     Rin left the village behind her and dashed out to find her family's meagre cattle, sleeping in the fields. She slowed as she neared, and looked back around through the darkness.
     No one was following her.
     She knelt beside one of them and pulled the knife from her boot, hushing and soothing the startled creature as she let the blood from its neck. Once the bucket was a quarter-filled, she smeared mud over the wound, whispered another apology, then ran off towards the river.


     The ghostly fog had dispersed. The mill stood now as just another black, crumbling shape in the night.
     Rin crept towards its old, wooden door, knocked three times, then once with her foot, then twice more with her knuckles, and entered.
     Moonlight seeped in from the cracks in the derelict ceiling, dust drifted like snow in the beams, and mice darted between her footsteps. The rattle of the bucket's handle was the only sound to be noticed, but she could hear the rasp in the shadows if she listened for it.
     She stopped beside the grind stone just as a sharp and ragged sound broke through the innate silence. Then the rasping grew. The floating motes of dust undulated on the air.
     And a face appeared from the darkness.
     A face with sinking, misaligned eye sockets, a split bottom jaw cocked to the left, and a skull that was larger on one side than the other; a head set upon a long neck above bony shoulders, one disproportionately smaller, that mantled a broken rib cage, several of which were split outwards.
     There was nothing else beneath it.
     It peered down at Rin, and Rin smiled back.
     "I'm sorry I'm late," she said, extending the bucket, and watched the long, broken, bony hand reach out to take it. Then hesitate, as it always did. It gave in when she rattled it.
     "You don't need to keep coming here," the wraith told her in a distant, shattered voice. "It's not safe. And I'm happy alone."
     "Of course you are."
     She watched the wraith vanish, then reappear on the far side of the mill, floating as if it sat in a chair. She followed after him. "Sure you don't want to pass on?"
     The wraith nodded. "I'm content here for now, thank you."
     "I'll always ask."
     "I know. But not after midnight."
     "Never after midnight." She sat down beside him and waited patiently for that single stroke of the dark, when he would recount another of his lost and ancient memories.

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

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.

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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