Tag Archives: fantasy

Indoor Watch

Billy Rain hated Indoor Watch.  Indoor Watch was boring.  There was no one to talk to, for one thing; you just had to stand stock still in a corridor like one of those suits of shining armour Lady Fireblast had on display throughout the castle.  Empty armour could do this job just as well, he grumbled to himself, and I could be out there in the sunshine.  Perhaps having a bit of a paddle in the freshwater pond he knew was beyond the castle grounds.  The very thought of it made his toes itch.

A sudden noise roused him from his wishful thinking.  Instantly alert, he pressed his ear to the thick, oaken door he was supposed to be guarding.  Behind it was the apartment of Lady Fireblast’s daughter, the Infanta Svetlana.  It was Billy’s rescue of her from a gang of hoodlums on the High Road that had won him his post in the Guard.  That day had changed his life forever.  So too for the Infanta: she had not been seen in public since the attack.

Beyond the door: silence.  Billy Rain hesitated.  What if the Infanta was in trouble?  What if some accident had befallen her?  What if an intruder had climbed in to accomplish what the thwarted hoodlums had not?

Steeling himself – which was ironic, considering he was already clad in armour – Billy Rain turned the handle, shaped like a dragon’s head, and pushed the door open.

The chamber was dimly lit.  Heavy drapes blotted out the sunlight.  The air smelled stale and… of porridge!  Billy Rain slipped in a puddle of it, landing with a clang on the flagstone floor.  A silver platter lay nearby, along with the remains of a shattered china bowl.  The wall and the back of the door were newly redecorated by a splatter of creamy oats.

As though someone had dashed their breakfast against them…

Billy Rain began to suspect the intruder was a Goldilocks figure – Don’t be silly, Billy!  Affrighted of storybook characters!

He got to his knees and then to his feet, using the staff of his pike as an aid.  A pair of blue eyes stared at him from the shadows beneath the four-poster’s canopy, two turquoise gems resting on velvet.

“Your Highness,” Billy cleared his throat and bowed as much as his armour would allow.  “I didn’t mean to wake you.  I heard a noise.”

The Infanta did not respond.  But then she wouldn’t, would she, he remembered?  Ever since her rescue, Svetlana Fireblast had not uttered a word.  The castle was rife with rumour.  She’d be better off if those louts had murdered her, the poor lamb, the lesser folk gossiped.  Instead of being shut up in her room, shut up in herself, all dead on the inside.

Billy Rain approached the bed.  The Infanta was propped up on pillows, her face pallid and expressionless, her mouth slack and her eyes – those brilliant jewels – unmoving and unblinking.

“I thought happed I’d better check it out,” said Billy.  “The noise.  Looks to me like somebody didn’t want their porridge.”

Behind him, the door slammed shut.  He almost jumped out of his armour.

A draught, happen… But no; all the casements were shut and curtained.  Billy Rain was at a loss.

The Infanta didn’t seem to know he was there.  He dared to wave his gauntleted hand in front of her eyes.

Nowt.

He sighed and reckoned he ought to get back to his post.  And to think, I’d been mithered about being stuck indoors for a few hours!

The door wouldn’t open, pull on it as he might.  He tried to prise it open with his pikestaff but the weapon was torn from his grasp by an unseen hand.  It flew across the room and directly into the forehead of a portrait of Lady Fireblast.

On the bed, the Infanta did not, could not, move.  But her eyes were shining a little brighter.

“You did that?” gasped Billy Rain.  “And I reckon you chucked your breakfast at the wall an’ all.”

Svetlana Fireblast said nothing, did nothing.  But the porridge on the wall began to shift and crawl.  Billy Rain watched, transfixed, as a message took form.

WHY BRING ME BACK?  I WAS RUNNING AWAY

Billy Rain’s jaw dropped and his knees buckled.

What the hell was he supposed to do now?

blue-eyes-hi

 

 

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The Baron has a visitor

“You will hardly know we are here.”  Lord Holdfast was strutting around the state room as if he owned the place –  My state room, Baron Dumplypump grumbled in his seat at the head of an otherwise empty table.

“But ten thousand men!” he cried, exasperated.  “I have neither the room nor the resources to accommodate –”

Lord Holdfast cut him off with a patronising smirk.  “That has all been taken care of.  We have been commandeering provisions from farms and villages en route and as for the sleeping arrangements, we shall pitch our tents on common land.”

“Then why, prithee, do you need me at all?” Dumplypump blustered, setting his chins awaggle.

“My men need to rest,” Lord Holdfast deigned to perch a slender buttock on the edge of the table, “and your stronghold is ideally situated, being within coo-ee of Fireblast’s territory.  And, since we were passing, I thought the opportunity ripe to pop in and invite you to join us.  What do you say?  Your army joined with mine; Lady Fireblast won’t know what’s hit her!”

The baron performed a good impression of someone mulling it over when, in truth, the idea had already occurred to him.  To join with Holdfast and unite against the scourge of the Eastern Realms!

As always in these situations, it did not pay to appear too keen.

“I think…” he said, as archly as he could, “…that is an excellent idea.  But I do not wish to appear inhospitable.  I shall send casks of ale to your men to bid them welcome.”

“Capital!” Lord Holdfast stood.

“And you shall dine with me this evening, My Lord.”

“You are exceeding generous, Dumplypump.”

“Osterban, please.”

“And I am Terkus.”

The men nodded curtly to each other.  Lord Holdfast clicked his bootheels together and strode out.  Baron Dumplypump let out a girlish giggle.  He rang for Nebbish, his chamberlain.

Having given the servant his orders, the baron slipped into his private chamber.  He drew aside a velvet curtain to reveal a tall looking-glass in an ornate frame.

“My Lady?”

The surface of the mirror seemed to shimmer and a shadowy figure appeared, slender and sinuous and with glowing eyes like emeralds.  Out poured the Baron’s news, his words tumbling over themselves like horses in a stampede.

“Excellent!” said a voice like scraping on the glass.

“And the poison in the ale should be taking effect right about now,” Dumplypump tittered.  “I cannot wait to see Lord Stuckup’s face when he finds himself alone and surrounded by thousands of my men.”

The image in the glass grew as the figure stepped closer.  It took on the shape of Lord Holdfast and an arm reached out and seized what it could find of the baron’s flabby neck.

“Treacherous toad!” Holdfast spat.  The baron choked and spluttered.  Holdfast stepped from the frame and drew his dagger.

“Wait, wait!” Dumplypump cried.  “We can still work together!  We can take that bitch down!”

Holdfast’s nose wrinkled as though the baron had emptied his guts on the flagstones.

“I don’t think so.  You see, this was all a test, my fat, flabby friend; and you failed.  I don’t have ten thousand men; I have barely half a dozen.  Those casks of ale were sent back to your own troops.  A modest bribe to your man Nebbish allowed me access to this room.”

Dumplypump gaped.  “All is lost!” he quailed.  “I’ll get you for this!” he roared as Holdfast shed the cloak that had been his disguise.

“Oh, yes?” Holdfast arched an eyebrow.  “You and whose army?”

castle tower

 

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Disciplinary

“Where were you, Billy Rain?”

“Um…” Billy Rain, newly arrived in the throne room, dipped his head.

“Well?”  Lady Fireblast drummed her fingers on the arm of the Golden Chair, the seat of power in the Eastern realms.

“I – um – overslept, My Lady.”  Billy Rain’s cheeks flushed.  “I heard the cry of the cockerel right enough but happen I went back to sleep again.  It won’t happen again.”  He bowed low, bracing himself for a scolding as searing as dragon’s breath.

“In Billy Rain’s defence, My Lady,” the reedy voice of Wormshank, Lady Fireblast’s monkish advisor piped up, “he was on Late Watch until the very early hours, guarding the castle from – well, My Lady does not need me to list her many foes.”

Lady Fireblast sneered.  Nictitating membrane flickered across her emerald eyes.

“Even so,” she kept her tone even, her words measured, “it is important that we are punctual in all things.  What if you were leading my army to war today, Billy Rain?  Would expect the enemy to wait for you on the battlefield like a jilted date, or would you expect him to make encroachments on our lands without your interference?  I am quite sure the likes of Lord Holdfast and Baron Dumplypump – not to mention the Fiends from the Fjords – would not scruple to take full advantage of your tardiness and then where would we be?  Lying on this very floor with our throats cut, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“My Lady,” Billy Rain cleared his throat.  “I am not a soldier.  I am a blacksmith’s son from a backwater village –”

Lady Fireblast cut him off.  “Spare us the humble beginnings speech, I beg you.  We have all heard it many times.  Grateful though I remain for the rescue of my daughter from the ruffians who accosted her on the High Road, impressed though I still am by your unrivalled swordsmanship and strategic thinking, be warned, Billy Rain the blacksmith’s son: your bluff, roguish charm will only get you so far.  You shall lose a week’s pay and there’s an end to it.”

At her side, a liveried servant banged a gong: Lady Firebrand had spoken.

She rose gracefully from the Chair and stalked from the room; the long train of her iridescent gown shimmered and slithered like a dragon’s tail.

Billy Rain’s eyes met those of Wormshank.  Both men let out a sigh of relief and laughed.

“A week’s pay when I were only half an hour late!”  Billy Rain wailed.

“You got off lightly there, my son,” the monk patted his shoulder.

“Aye, happen I did,” Billy Rain set his jaw.  “I don’t suppose this is a good time to ask for the afternoon off.”

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Quilp’s Quest

“Are you sure you were not followed?”  Professor Quilp’s eyes darted up and down the narrow street before he closed the door, bolting it and turning the hefty key in the lock.

I gave him every assurance that I had stuck to his instructions to the letter, doubling-back, zigzagging my way through the bustling souk, even turning my coat inside out at one point.

He nodded but I could tell he was too agitated, too worked up to be satisfied.

He ushered me into a darkened study; the only illumination came from a green-shaded desk lamp.

“Did you bring it?”  The prof was practically salivating.

“Of course!” I felt in my pockets.  Panic struck me.  I patted myself down while the professor trembled with anticipation.  Then I remembered my coat was inside out!  Seconds later, the item was produced.  Quilp snatched it from me and held it under the lamp.

“What is it?” I had to ask.  To me it looked like a worthless washer of the kind you can buy for a dime a dozen at any hardware store, but the professor was smacking his lips with delight.

“This, my boy, is the next part of the puzzle.  This is the ring from the staff of Amon-Ra.  This ring enables the staff-bearer to direct unfathomable power!”

“Oh.  Cool, I guess.  And where is this staff or Eamon Holmes, or whoever?”

“Amon-Ra,” the professor gave me a sour look.  “The staff is the ultimate prize of our quest.  First, we must translate the markings on this ring.  There’s a man at the British Museum who is mustard at that sort of thing – but he has, alas, been kidnapped and it falls to us to release him from his captors; we are not the only ones interested in acquiring the staff.  Then we must secure transport to Cairo, where a contact awaits with the other half of the map that reveals the location of the sacred daggers we shall need to fight off the demonic, hound-headed sentinels who guard the submerged temple of Bastet, which contains the scroll with the incantations to summon an army of scarab beetles that will devour our rivals and lead us to the Valley of Peril where we must solve the riddles of the Sphinx in order to pass through to the Forbidden Realm.”

He paused for breath.

“Gee, I don’t know, Professor,” I rubbed the back of my neck.  “It sounds like an awful lot of work to me.”

Our eyes met for a moment.  I thought Professor Quilp was going to yell at me or at least tell me how disappointed he was in my attitude.

Instead, he gave me a sad little smile.  He tossed me the flat little hoop.

“You’re right.  I’m far too old for this kind of thing.  Go, boy, into the kitchen.  I think you’ll find that doodad is just the thing for fixing the dripping tap.”

egypt-clipart-clipart-best-egyptian-clip-art-1229_2388

 

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The Refugee

Brother Almo shuffled along the paved walkway.  Even through the soles of his sandals, he could feel the coolness of the stone slabs.  He thrust his hands into the wide sleeves of his habit and, huddled against the breeze, hurried to the front gates.  The caller was pulling the bell rope with mounting impatience – and no wonder at it, thought Brother Almo, on an inhospitable night such as this, I can fully appreciate the desire to be inside and warm.

He pushed back the heavy bolts and lifted the bar that lay across the doors’ centre.  He pulled open the gate and peered into the night.

“Good evening, stranger?” he called, although he could see no one there.

Old fool!  Had he imagined it?  Had he dozed off during his watch and imagined the bell?  Father Krimp would laugh with dismay when he heard about this…

But then –

“Help me,” gasped a small voice from the shadows.  Brother Almo squinted and could just about discern a hooded figure, about three feet tall in the darkness.

The figure sounded weak, struggling for breath.  Brother Almo stepped out just in time to catch the stranger, who collapsed into his arms.

Brother Almo backed over the threshold, pulling the stranger with him.  “Ho!”  he cried.  “What ho, within!”

Minutes later, other members of the order came running, barefoot, pulling on their habits, rubbing their eyes and yawning.

“What is it now?” complained one.

“It’s Almo,” said another, as though that explained everything.

“Brother Almo!” boomed Father Krimp, suddenly arriving and towering over the scene.  “What is the meaning of this brouhaha?”

Brother Almo gestured to the stranger, slumped against the wall, face hidden by a hood.

Father Krimp gestured urgently to the others to keep back.  “Brother Almo,” his voice was low and filled with foreboding, “What.  Have.  You.  Done?”

“I answered a cry for help,” Brother Almo swallowed hard.  “Is it not written that –”

Father Krimp cut him off with an imperious hand.  “It may not be too late.  Turn this – thing – outdoors and pray for your soul!  Do it!”

“But – but –” Brother Almo protested.  “We are bounden to do what is charitable.  We must take in the infirm and the needy.”

Father Krimp shook his head.  “You have brought a stranger within our walls.  At night!  You know of the creatures that infest this area.  You know how they take advantage of the weak and simple-minded, how they take human form and finagle their way into people’s homes.”

Brother Almo scoffed.  “Foolish, superstitious claptrap!”

Father Krimp bristled and drew himself up to his full height.  “You will remove the thing from the premises at once.  If it – he or she – is still there in the morning, then you may take it to our hospice.  You know the rules.”

He turned and marched back indoors.  The other brothers followed, some of them smirking over their shoulders.  Others sent Brother Almo looks of concern.  But they all left him to it, just the same.

Alone with the figure, Brother Almo dithered.  What to do?  If he turfed the stranger out again, the morning might be too late.  But if he disobeyed Father Krimp – if Father Krimp was correct… Brother Almo had let a hellacious creature into the monastery, endangering the lives and immortal souls of everyone in it.

He stooped to peer closely at the refugee.

What am I going to do with you?

monk

 

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An epic begins…

Here is the opening to my epic fantasy, NAVARIN, THUNDER AND SHADE, in which I wander into Game of Thrones and Tolkien territory.  Ish.  I hope you’ll want to read the rest.

 

The wizard was dead by the time they got there. He had put up a good fight; it was the green and purple blasts from his hands that had drawn them to the scene, the deadly flashes lighting up the woods and the evening sky like one of the Duke’s beloved fireworks displays.

Broad inspected the wizard’s assailants – what was left of them – ragtag outlaws sprawled in a ring around the deceased magician. “He killed the lot,” he said, grimacing at the twisted remains. The attackers were contorted and scorched as though they had been hit by forceful fire.

“There’s not a mark on him,” said Shade. “They didn’t get near him. Didn’t get the chance.”

Broad raised a quizzical eyebrow; there was no need to give voice to the question.

“What killed him?” Shade said it for him. “Exhaustion, I’d say. Must have used all his energy fighting off these rascals. He just ran out of life.”

“Poor chap,” said Broad. “I wonder why he just didn’t turn them into frogs or something. Why did he obliterate them?”

“They don’t do that frog thing really,” said Shade. “Perhaps he was protecting something. Something these fellows were after.”

“So it wasn’t a random attack in the forest?”

“You know I don’t believe in random,” said Shade. He gestured to the nearest outlaw corpse. Beneath the grime and tatters glinted the armour and insignia of the Duke’s men. Broad gaped; Shade was always the first to pick up on these things. “Have a look in his poke.”

Broad approached the body and stooped over it, one hand on the hilt of his sword, just in case. The wizard was half-lying on the shapeless sack, his fingers clutching it, bunching the neck. Broad had quite a wrestling match on his hands before he could free the bag and peer inside.

“Nothing.” He sounded disappointed.

“Well, this is a waste of time,” said Shade. “I’d stamp my foot if I could.”

Broad glanced at his strange companion. It was true: Shade was fading fast, was hardly corporeal at all. He was like smoke in the shape of a man, and the smoke was thinning, becoming transparent. Broad could make out the stripes of the tree trunks behind him. “And there’s nothing for you…”

Shade managed to shake his head. “We were too late. He was long gone.”

Too late to save the wizard. Too late for Shade to feed.

Broad sprang up and did a quick tour of the outlaws. He found one slumped against the trunk of an oak, with breath still rasping through a hole where his throat used to be. “Here’s one!” he cried. “He might be enough for a snack.”

Shade floated over as though wafted by a breeze. Broad turned his back and walked off; it made him uncomfortable whenever his companion fed. But we all have to eat.

“Just don’t make that sucking noise,” he pleaded without turning around.

“I don’t suck,” Shade was indignant. He swooped over the dying man.

“Matter of opinion,” Broad muttered. He tried to think of something else while Shade replenished himself. He was being ungenerous; he knew that. If it was not for Shade, Broad would have died many years ago, but would death have been worse than being joined to the weird creature for the rest of his days? Sometimes, Broad thought it might not.

“Hurrah!” cried Shade, turning cartwheels across the clearing. He bounced around, full of vim and vigour until a baleful look from his human companion prompted him to contain himself. He was always the same after a feed, so full of life. “His name was Jolf,” he reported. “He was in the Duke’s guard and was going to ask somebody called Rosahild to marry him. Well, I guess that’s never going to happen.”

“What else? Was he in the know, this Jolf? Why was a pack of guards disguised as outlaws and attacking a wizard?”

Shade shrugged. “Jolf was along to make up the numbers, to add a bit of muscle. He wasn’t party to the finer details.”

Broad surveyed the scene again. Finer details. Absolute bloody shambles, more like, with emphasis on the bloody. The Duke was renowned for, among other things, his hatred of wizardry. Was that behind this attack gone wrong?   Or was that the intended result, the death of the magician? Or was there something else?

“You’re thinking again,” Shade teased. “I can tell. You get that crease in your brow.”

Broad swatted at him and the backs of his fingers came into contact with something like lumpy fog. Shade was always more solid after a feed. He struck a pose.

“Yes, yes, muscles, you said,” said Broad. “Very nice.”

Shade stuck out his tongue. “They won’t last, I know. Not like yours, Mister Carcass of Beef.”

But Broad did not want to be drawn into one of Shade’s bickering matches. He walked away so he could look back at the scene from a distance and try to take it all in as a whole, to picture the way it might have played out. The wizard had been surprised. Surrounded. These two blocked the path in front, those two must have crept up behind. These four must have dropped out of the trees…

“We should get moving,” Shade advised. “While it’s still dark and I’ve got my strength – well, technically speaking, good buddy Jolf’s strength.”

“Shouldn’t we bury them first?” asked Broad. “The wizard at least.”

Shade pulled a face. His features were temporarily those of the late guard Jolf. “Waste of time. Let the wolves have them for supper.”

“Doesn’t seem right,” said Broad. “Doesn’t seem respectful.”

Shade let out a long-suffering sigh. Humans and their ways. “You’re too squeamish about your dead,” he scolded. “They are gone, all gone. What’s left is just meat. Honestly. Let the wolves benefit not the worms.”

“But someone should say something, at least.”

“What? Like don’t come back and haunt us? Don’t get up again? It’s hollow superstition; I keep telling you. Dead is dead is dead.”

A howl, not as far off as Broad would have liked, settled the matter. They would get moving to avoid being an entrée for the banquet that lay waiting for the wolves. Instead, thought Broad, we shall be more of a running buffet.

He paused to retrieve the wizard’s poke and, murmuring apologies, hurried after Shade who, with Jolf’s long strides, was already some distance ahead.

Navarin,+Thunder+and+Shade

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John Leaves Home

John knotted his tie and pushed it up to the top button of his shirt.  He checked the way it looked in the bathroom mirror.  He put on his suit jacket and dusted the shoulders with the back of his fingers.

Not too shabby, he reflected.  Rather smart.  I look like I’m off to a job interview or to make an appearance at court – instead of being off to my doom.

He walked through the bedroom with his shoes hooked on his fingertips.  He padded down the stairs in his socks and slipped into the Brogues.  He stooped to tie the laces and caught his own eye in the mirror in the hall.

This is it, Johnny.  This is the end.

His stomach flipped.  A whole reserve’s worth of butterflies made themselves known.  I’m not ready, he thought.  I’m not ready.

He looked up the stairs.  Perhaps I should go back up.  One last embrace.  One last kiss.  One last goodbye…

No.  Better to be quick and clean.

He took an envelope from his inside pocket and propped it up on the hall table, using the snow globe they had brought back from their honeymoon.  She would be heartbroken but it was inevitable.  And anything was preferable to telling her the truth.

My dreams have always been small, he mused.  Singularly lacking in ambition – that’s what my last appraisal had boiled down to.  Well, wouldn’t you be, if you knew your days were numbered?  Scratch that: we all know our days are numbered but John knew the actual number.

And now there were no days left.

He opened the front door and stood on the step.  A long, black car was waiting at the kerb.

John pulled the door to, careful not to make a sound.  Goodbye, house, he thought sadly.  I could have gone for bigger, a mansion, a palace!  But I was content with you, you modest post-war semi.  We were happy here, the girl of my dreams and I.

One last guilty look at the first floor window.  The curtains were closed; John’s wife slept on.

I had to do it.  There was no other way.  You would never have looked at me otherwise.  And we were happy, weren’t we?  We had a good life?  I have to believe that.  I have to believe I didn’t sell my soul for nothing.

He closed the garden gate behind him.  At this early hour, the street was deserted.  No one will see me go, he realised.

The rear door of the car opened of its own accord.  A definite whiff of brimstone greeted John as he climbed in.

The door closed.  The tint of the windows was too dense to afford John one final look at his marital home as, silently, smoothly, the long, black car glided away.

tinted-window-limo-md

 

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Wicked Queen

The peasants are getting cocky.  They come right up to the castle walls to forage their herbs and fungi.  They use them to lend flavour to the myriad dishes they concoct from the humble turnip.  They have developed quite a cuisine, I’ll say that for them, but you won’t catch me – or my taster – sampling any of their homely fare.  It’s the hygiene, you see.  They’ve never heard of it.

But I can’t have them and their grubby mitts pawing my things.  Not even the black stones of my retreat.  Time was, they wouldn’t come within a league of my domicile and I would have a bit of peace.  Now, they encroach upon my personal space – I need a lot! – as if they’ve never heard of me other than as a figure of legend.

It’s time I flexed my muscles once more.  Remind them who’s boss.

Last week I tried showing myself on the parapet.  There was a full moon and I angled myself so the horns of my headdress would be in silhouette against its pallid splendour.  My high collar was turned up and the jagged edges of my cloak – oh, I looked the part all right.  Three hours I stalked along the battlements, wafting my dragon-headed staff about as though I might smite someone at any second.

Waste of time.  No bugger was out that night.  Oh, they still fear the full moon, all right.  They daren’t traverse the forest when there’s a full moon.  Werewolves and all that nonsense.  Why they have to invent monsters to frighten their children into an early bedtime when I’m right here, I’ll never know!

I’ve been too complacent; I see that now.  It’s been too long since I last put myself about.  So long, I can’t remember the spell for turning someone into a toad.  I’d better look that up in the grimoire before I venture out.  I’m a bit rusty with the staff, if I’m honest.  I’d better get some practice in – I don’t want to put my shoulder out.  You must never show weakness to these people or they start getting ideas.

No, toads and staff-wafting won’t cut it.  I’ll have to go full dragon if I’m to reassert my reputation in these parts.  The peasants are thriving.  More and more of them build their ramshackle shacks closer and closer to my land.  But that’s the thing when you fashion your houses from twigs and dried dung: they burn up a treat.

A quick sortie, a flyover and a few blasts of fire from my nostrils ought to do the trick.

Sometimes you just have to remind people of their place.

maleficent

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New book out now!

My 24th novel has been published this week.  It’s my most complex – it’s certainly the lengthiest! – a fantasy adventure, complete with my sense of humour, of course.

NAVARIN, THUNDER AND SHADE

A young man and his strange companion, a weary warrior out for vengeance, a young girl on the run with a child, and a trio of wizards bent on ruling the world are just some of the characters in this epic fantasy adventure from prolific author William Stafford. Fans can expect his trademark humour as well as plenty of action and originality in this all-new addition to the fantasy genre.

navarin

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Fantasy novel coming soon!

My 24th novel is due to be published soon.  It’s an epic fantasy, a bit of swords-and-sorcery with, I hope, an original slant.  It’s called NAVARIN, THUNDER AND SHADE and it opens as follows:

The wizard was dead by the time they got there. He had put up a good fight; it was the green and purple blasts from his hands that had drawn them to the scene, the deadly flashes lighting up the woods and the evening sky like one of the Duke’s beloved fireworks displays.

Broad inspected the wizard’s assailants – what was left of them – ragtag outlaws sprawled in a ring around the deceased magician. “He killed the lot,” he said, grimacing at the twisted remains. The attackers were contorted and scorched as though they had been hit by forceful fire.

“There’s not a mark on him,” said Shade. “They didn’t get near him. Didn’t get the chance.”

Broad raised a quizzical eyebrow; there was no need to give voice to the question.

“What killed him?” Shade said it for him. “Exhaustion, I’d say. Must have used all his energy fighting off these rascals. He just ran out of life.”

“Poor chap,” said Broad. “I wonder why he just didn’t turn them into frogs or something. Why did he obliterate them?”

“They don’t do that frog thing really,” said Shade. “Perhaps he was protecting something. Something these fellows were after.”

“So it wasn’t a random attack in the forest?”

“You know I don’t believe in random,” said Shade. He gestured to the nearest outlaw corpse. Beneath the grime and tatters glinted the armour and insignia of the Duke’s men. Broad gaped; Shade was always the first to pick up on these things. “Have a look in his poke.”

Broad approached the body and stooped over it, one hand on the hilt of his sword, just in case. The wizard was half-lying on the shapeless sack, his fingers clutching it, bunching the neck. Broad had quite a wrestling match on his hands before he could free the bag and peer inside.

“Nothing.” He sounded disappointed.

“Well, this is a waste of time,” said Shade. “I’d stamp my foot if I could.”

Broad glanced at his strange companion. It was true: Shade was fading fast, was hardly corporeal at all. He was like smoke in the shape of a man, and the smoke was thinning, becoming transparent. Broad could make out the stripes of the tree trunks behind him. “And there’s nothing for you…”

Shade managed to shake his head. “We were too late. He was long gone.”

Too late to save the wizard. Too late for Shade to feed.

Broad sprang up and did a quick tour of the outlaws. He found one slumped against the trunk of an oak, with breath still rasping through a hole where his throat used to be. “Here’s one!” he cried. “He might be enough for a snack.”

Shade floated over as though wafted by a breeze. Broad turned his back and walked off; it made him uncomfortable whenever his companion fed. But we all have to eat.

“Just don’t make that sucking noise,” he pleaded without turning around.

“I don’t suck,” Shade was indignant. He swooped over the dying man.

“Matter of opinion,” Broad muttered. He tried to think of something else while Shade replenished himself. He was being ungenerous; he knew that. If it was not for Shade, Broad would have died many years ago, but would death have been worse than being joined to the weird creature for the rest of his days? Sometimes, Broad thought it might not.

“Hurrah!” cried Shade, turning cartwheels across the clearing. He bounced around, full of vim and vigour until a baleful look from his human companion prompted him to contain himself. He was always the same after a feed, so full of life. “His name was Jolf,” he reported. “He was in the Duke’s guard and was going to ask somebody called Rosahild to marry him. Well, I guess that’s never going to happen.”

“What else? Was he in the know, this Jolf? Why was a pack of guards disguised as outlaws and attacking a wizard?”

Shade shrugged. “Jolf was along to make up the numbers, to add a bit of muscle. He wasn’t party to the finer details.”

Broad surveyed the scene again. Finer details. Absolute bloody shambles, more like, with emphasis on the bloody. The Duke was renowned for, among other things, his hatred of wizardry. Was that behind this attack gone wrong?   Or was that the intended result, the death of the magician? Or was there something else?

“You’re thinking again,” Shade teased. “I can tell. You get that crease in your brow.”

Broad swatted at him and the backs of his fingers came into contact with something like lumpy fog. Shade was always more solid after a feed. He struck a pose.

“Yes, yes, muscles, you said,” said Broad. “Very nice.”

Shade stuck out his tongue. “They won’t last, I know. Not like yours, Mister Carcass of Beef.”

But Broad did not want to be drawn into one of Shade’s bickering matches. He walked away so he could look back at the scene from a distance and try to take it all in as a whole, to picture the way it might have played out. The wizard had been surprised. Surrounded. These two blocked the path in front, those two must have crept up behind. These four must have dropped out of the trees…

“We should get moving,” Shade advised. “While it’s still dark and I’ve got my strength – well, technically speaking, good buddy Jolf’s strength.”

“Shouldn’t we bury them first?” asked Broad. “The wizard at least.”

Shade pulled a face. His features were temporarily those of the late guard Jolf. “Waste of time. Let the wolves have them for supper.”

“Doesn’t seem right,” said Broad. “Doesn’t seem respectful.”

Shade let out a long-suffering sigh. Humans and their ways. “You’re too squeamish about your dead,” he scolded. “They are gone, all gone. What’s left is just meat. Honestly. Let the wolves benefit not the worms.”

“But someone should say something, at least.”

“What? Like don’t come back and haunt us? Don’t get up again? It’s hollow superstition; I keep telling you. Dead is dead is dead.”

A howl, not as far off as Broad would have liked, settled the matter. They would get moving to avoid being an entrée for the banquet that lay waiting for the wolves. Instead, thought Broad, we shall be more of a running buffet.

He paused to retrieve the wizard’s poke and, murmuring apologies, hurried after Shade who, with Jolf’s long strides, was already some distance ahead.

hat

 

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