Sanctuary – #writephoto

sanctuary

The icy wind swirled around the woods, slashing at Asha’s bare skin like a hundred serrated knives. She pulled her threadbare shawl tighter around her shoulders. It was a clear night, her path moonlit through the creaking trees, but in the distance, wraithlike clouds were gathering, and with them, the threat of snow. She knew that if it fell, she would not last the night. She was struggling as it was; her body tremored against the biting cold, her breath was harsh and ragged, her fingers and chapped lips were turning blue. Every step was a stumble as she caught her sandalled feet on frozen twigs and slippery stones. She had barely eaten anything in the last week. If she didn’t find shelter soon, she would be dead – snow or no snow.

Asha spared a moment to glance behind her. As always, there was nobody there, but she was still fearful that she would see a furious mob pursuing her, baying for her blood. A “witch” they had called her: a disgusting, dangerous, malicious sorceress born to curse their families and eat their children. Asha was only sixteen years of age herself, but nobody listened to her pleas and protestations; not even her own family. She winced remembering the hatred burning in her father’s eyes, the quivering fear of her little brother, the disappointment etched on her mother’s face. As if she’d deliberately wilted her father’s crops after she tended to them. As if she’d meant to kill their neighbour’s goat after petting her. As if she’d intended to strike the miller’s daughter down with a life-threatening fever. It seemed that almost everything or everyone she came in contact with was inexplicably suffering. Cursed, maybe, but a witch? How could she be, if she had no control over what was happening?

Some of the townsfolk, the neighbours she had known all her life, wanted her tortured, or even dead. In fear for her life and the safety of her family, Asha fled her hometown in the dead of night, with the few provisions she could carry. She’d heard that there was a place of sanctuary for people like her, at the other side of the forest. They were only rumours, stories, and she had no idea if there was any modicum of truth behind them. Nor did she know where she was going, blindly blundering through the densely-packed trees in deepest winter. Daylight hours were short and frostbite threatened every night. At last, the woods were thinning, and Asha was convinced that she was nearly there. If she could find the monolith, maybe, just maybe, she would survive.

As the first few snowflakes sliced her cheek on the breeze, Asha saw a structure appearing in the last vestiges of moonlight. She shuffled over, barely any energy left in her aching legs. It was a roughly-hewn column of stone, about her height, with crudely carved swan-shaped symbols near its base. At its top was a small aperture, decorated with a cast-iron framework, which housed a partially-melted candle. Asha let out a shuddering breath, a cloud of vapour billowing in front of her weary eyes. She had become well-practiced in lighting fires over the past week; she pulled two pieces of flint from her pouch, and, with trembling fingers, struck them against each other. With one spark the wick caught, and the candle burned with a glow as invaluable to Asha as the sun itself. Now, all she had to do was wait.

Asha stirred. She had fallen asleep at the base of the monolith. The candle was still burning weakly, flickering above her head. The snow was falling hard and fast, sticking to the trunks and branches of the dimly-lit trees. Asha was partly submerged in a snowdrift, drenched through, and completely numb. She was probably hours away from freezing to death. But something had woken her. There, emerging from the darkness, were hooded, spectral figures – about two dozen. Their cloak-like clothing was made of a lightweight, pale-coloured material unfamiliar to Asha. Each individual was carrying a small candle in their gloved hands. They left no footprints in the snow, gliding gracefully over the ground. She struggled to her feet as the figure at the front approached her, holding, not a candle, but a bundle of furs.

“We saw your beacon, child. Worry no more. We will offer you sanctuary.”

She had a soft, pleasing voice that warmed Asha’s frozen frame. The hooded woman draped the furs gently over Asha’s shoulders, her fragile knees nearly buckling.

“Your Sisters will take care of you,” the woman whispered, “Will you come with us?”

She took the dying candle from the monolith and handed it to Asha. The young girl felt the faint heat spread from her palms, up her shivering arms and throughout her whole body like wildfire. She almost dropped the candle in surprise. Could it be… magic? How else could one tiny candle warm her like a raging fire? Perhaps then these people, the Sisterhood, could explain what was happening to her… At the very least, she trusted them to understand her, and keep her safe from those who would see her killed. Something in her gut told her that this was where she belonged.

“Yes, yes I will,” she croaked.

The woman smiled. She took Asha’s hand in hers and led the nervous girl into the wooded blackness, surrounded by her Sisters, towards the answers she desperately sought.

Emma H, age 27, 05/02/2018


This short story was written for Sue Vincent’s “Shrine” #writephoto prompt. If you’d like to take part or read other entries, you can click on the link below:

Thursday photo prompt – Shrine #writephoto

I struggled a bit more with the photo this week, but I quite like the way my imagination took me in the end 🙂 I welcome any thoughts or suggestions. Thanks to Sue for the prompt!

Advertisements

Changed – #writephoto

woodland

That was where we lost her.

Right there, in the woodlands a mile from our town. It was a swelteringly hot summer day. One of those days where the viscous heat suffocates you like a fleece, where the sunlight melts between the gaps in the trees, where that heady earthy scent sweetens the air. It was the perfect day for a picnic. We headed through the woods along the main trail, to the lush green meadow, where we spread our tartan picnic blanket – right on the fringes of the trees, so that we could easily escape the heat for the cooling swathe of shade. The kids were in their element, running, shouting, playing. Benjamin was teaching Ella how to play football, her stubby little 3-year-old legs chasing after her older brother, giggling.

“Don’t go too far!” I remember saying, as they raced off toward the woods.

“Oh don’t mind them. They’re having fun!” my husband said, “More prosecco?”

I turned away from my kids, and smiled at him.

“Oh go on then. One more.”

I held out my plastic flute for a top-up. The golden bubbles glittered in the bright sunshine.

“I can’t believe we’re the only ones out here on such a beautiful day,” I mused, taking a sip of fizz and admiring our countryside surroundings. Everything blazed emerald, white butterflies flitting between the delicate wildflowers. The sky was a brilliant blue, cloudless.

“I’m glad,” my husband grinned, and kissed me on the cheek. “It’s like we’re the only people in the world who matter.”

Unfortunately, my son interrupted our happy reverie.

“Can I have a biscuit yet?” Benjamin huffed, ball scooped up in his arms.

“Not until you’ve finished your apple,” I insisted. He scowled.

“But I don’t like apple.”

“Ah come on Lou. The biscuits will melt if we don’t eat them soon. I think we can relax the rules for one afternoon.”

My husband stretched and reclined on the soft grass, sun beaming down. His nose was already turning bright red.

I reluctantly fished around in the cool bag for the chocolate biscuits and handed one to Ben.

“Eat it quick, or you’ll get mushy chocolate everywhere,” I ordered, swivelling round to keep my face out of the sun.

Despite the heat, I felt a sudden icy coldness in the pit of my stomach.

“Where is she?”

The meadow was empty. Ella had disappeared.

“Where is Ella?” I said, panicked, voice tinged with new urgency. My husband sat up promptly, scanning the field in every direction.

“I’m sure she’s just wandered into the edge of the woods; she can’t be far. Come on.”

I grabbed Ben’s hand and we hurried to the place where I last saw her playing. As my husband had prophesised, I spotted one of her butterfly hair clips heading into the trees.

“Ella! Ella where are you!?” I shouted, my voice echoing back to me.

“Mummy!” I heard. Her voice was faint, scared. Somehow she had already wandered far, completely out-of-sight.

“Don’t move, Ella! Mummy and Daddy are coming!”

Without hesitating, my hand gripping Ben’s tightly, we headed towards the sound of Ella’s voice. I called for her repeatedly, but every time she shouted back, her voice seemed to be even more distant, more desperate. The woods were becoming denser and darker with every step. It was deathly quiet; even the crows on the boughs had stopped their cawing. The trees stood tall and intimidating. My heart was hammering in my chest, palms sweaty, veins flooded with ice. And then, we could hear her no more.

“Ella? Ella!”

We were greeted with eerie silence. My stomach lurched. I dropped Ben’s hand and blundered through the bushes, frantically batting back branches, mouth dry. I couldn’t stop crying her name. My distressed eyes looked in every direction for a glimpse of her light blonde hair. In moments, I realised I was alone, my husband and son left in my wake. The depth of the woods was infested with shadows, not a single ray of sun breaching the thick canopy. I shivered. The hairs on the back of my neck were tingling, forged by a growing sensation that I was being watched. A few rustlings in the undergrowth. A squirrel? A rat? A fox perhaps? But nothing emerged from the foliage.

Just as I was about to give up hope and double-back to my husband and call the police, I stumbled out into a small clearing. Standing, statuesque, in the middle of the dusty glade, was Ella.

She appeared unhurt. But she wasn’t crying. She didn’t seem lost or scared. She wasn’t screaming my name in panic. When she saw me, she didn’t come running over, wailing and clinging to my leg like a limpet, like I had expected. She simply stared back into my eyes, mute and sullen. It was not the reaction of a terrified three-year-old child. I held out my hand to her.

“Come here, Ella, sweetheart. Come to Mummy.”

She shuffled over to me like a tiny zombie, dour-faced, almost like she was reluctant to be near me. I gathered her up in my arms, cradled like a baby. She let out a small grunt of protest, but didn’t say a word. I carried her back the way I had come, following the trail I’d thrashed through the trees. Eventually, the woods started to thin, and pools of dappled sunlight broke through the leaves. The warmth was welcoming, but I couldn’t ignore the growing feeling of unease gnawing in my stomach.

Finally, I came back to the meadow, where my husband and son were standing haplessly on the picnic blanket, my husband on the phone, brow furrowed, sweat dripping down his burnt nose. I could see the huge relief in his eyes the moment he saw us.

“Oh thank God!”

He and Benjamin came running up. He kissed Ella’s forehead and stroked her silky blonde hair.

“Don’t ever do that again,” he whispered to her. Ella said nothing at all, limp in my arms. She did not even smile.

 

Of course, the police turned up; my husband had phoned them when I’d run off. We told them what had happened in brief, and they tried to coax Ella into retracing her steps, but she remained silent.

“She’s not usually so quiet,” my husband chuckled, ruffling her hair, “She must still be scared of the big dark woods! I’m sure she’ll be right as rain in no time.”

I looked at my daughter, saw her usually ruddy cheeks now ashen grey, her sparkling bright blue eyes now dim and sunken. I could not share in my husband’s blind optimism.

 

And so it continued, through the years. My baby girl, once a bundle of joy and laughter, a chatterbox, sociable and playful, became withdrawn and refused to spend time with her friends. Once loving and affectionate, now distant and indifferent, even towards her own family. And always mute. She never said another word after her experience in the woods. My husband was worried, Ben, a mixture of concerned and annoyed, but I was simply heartbroken. I felt as though I had failed her. We took her to a child psychologist, who diagnosed her with trauma; we took her to a child therapist, but the treatment was unsuccessful. Truth be told though, I have a feeling that more sinister forces are at work.

People don’t talk much about the faery folk much anymore. They’re just myth, the subject of bedtime stories to entertain the kids… or sometimes scare them. Until recently I didn’t know many of the tales myself. But I do know that I was being watched in those woods, and I know that the Ella I found there is not my daughter. What if it was the faery folk who lured Ella into their woodland and carried her away? What if they stole my daughter and took her to their world? What if the girl who came back with us is a faery substitute… a changeling?

Of course, neither my husband nor Ben, now a pre-teen, want to have anything to do with my “nonsense theories”. The more I try to convince them, the more they think I’ve gone mad, or that I’m traumatised too, or worse, that I’m a paranoid alcoholic. Their disbelief hurts me, and I can feel myself losing them too. My husband and I argue daily; Ben scarcely speaks to me. But I’ve done my research. I have read dozens and dozens of stories about faeries, about changelings, and, most importantly, how to identify them. So if the tales are accurate, I know that all I need is some fire…

My husband would never let me attempt anything so dangerous in our house, and he’s been watching me like a hawk recently. Besides, I would not want to risk hurting him or Ben. So I will have to smuggle this Ella puppet, this imposter, back to the woods from whence she came. I will demand the release and return of my beloved daughter from the faeries. And if they refuse… I shall light a bonfire. The fear of burning to death shall surely cause the changeling to speak and reveal her true identity, just like the folklore promises. If not, I will throw her on the flames and watch her skin crackle and her white blonde hair frazzle until the faeries relent.

Either way, I will get my Ella back.

 

Emma H, age 27, 29/01/2018

 


This one turned out longer than expected! “Changed” was written for Sue Vincent’s “Woodland” #writephoto prompt challenge. To take part or find out more, you can follow the link here:

Thursday photo prompt – Woodland #writephoto

I originally planned to make this a story of a missing child without the fantasy/supernatural element, but I couldn’t help myself 😀 Thanks to Sue for the lovely photo 🙂

Fantasy – A Tanka

fantasy

 

Heroes and villains,

Fantasies and legends penned

From my mind to yours;

Who needs reality when

You have imagination?

 

Emma H, age 27, 24/01/2018

 


Tanka written for Colleen’s Weekly Poetry Challenge: “Myth” & “Write” (synonyms only!). To take part in the challenge, please follow the link below:

Colleen’s Weekly #Tanka Tuesday #Poetry Challenge No. 68, “Myth & Write,” #SynonymsOnly

 

The Pool of Miracles – #writephoto

distant

Ylva stopped and drew a sharp intake of breath. She had finally found it.

It had taken a 6-week trek through unforgiving terrain to get here. In truth, she never thought she would make it. The last villager who left in search of the Pool had never returned. But Ylva possessed an unparalleled determination that had driven her forwards, even as the wolf pack hunted her through the dark forest, even as she traversed the precariously frozen river, even as the raging blizzard chilled her through to the bone and confined her to a small cave for over a week. She had overcome it all. When the snowstorm had subsided, she had set off again at the first signs of a thaw, knowing that she had no more time to waste. And now, her effort and unquenchable willpower had been rewarded.

Before Ylva lay a vast grassy plain, part-dressed in the last vestiges of recent snow. In the distance, the Black Forest clung to the foot of majestic, ivory-tipped mountains, whose peaks grazed the steely, snow-laden skies. The fabled Dragon Mountains… She could still remember her mother’s bedtime stories. Above, the weak winter sun tried in vain to burst through the velveteen swathes of thick cloud. Not ten metres away from Ylva were five unusual stones of varying heights, perched on the edge of a glassy pool. It was all just as the witch had shown her. At first glance, anyone would assume that it was just a large puddle of meltwater. But this was no mere puddle.

Ylva lay her spear carefully on the ground and ventured a little closer, bracing against the chill wind that whipped across the unprotected grassland. She placed her hand on the nearest stone. It was almost as tall as she was, flecked with lichen and moss, wet, cracked and misshapen. The other stones, she noticed, were all smaller, darker, and seemingly older. Perhaps once they had been as tall as the rock beside her, but had succumbed to the elements. Her gaze turned to the Pool. In spite of the wind, its surface was remarkably still, not a single ripple disturbing its tranquility. It reflected the swirling grey skies with improbable perfection, such that it appeared as real and clear as the sky itself. Ylva watched as a loose leaf drifted into view and floated down towards the Pool; upon contact with its surface, the leaf vanished before Ylva’s eyes, quicker than a blink. Her heart skipped a beat. This was undoubtedly the pool she sought: the Pool of Miracles.

———

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

The elderly woman glared at Ylva with piercing eyes, as though questioning her very soul.

Ylva was resolute. All she could think of was her sick, emaciated mother lying on her deathbed, feverish and drenched in cold sweat. The earnest apologies of the village healers, who had tried all their methods and medicines but were unable cure her. The looks of pity from her friends and neighbours. Her mother had raised her alone, teaching Ylva to be proud and independent and strong. The very least she could do was find a way to save her mother from the sickness that was consuming her. And so she found herself here, in the cabin of the village witch doctor. It was her last hope.

“Absolutely,” she replied, returning the woman’s stare.

Satisfied, the witch doctor turned to take a powdered root from the shelf behind her, and threw it onto the fire. It roared and blazed in a spectrum of vivid colour. Awestruck, Ylva saw the image of a pool of water deep in the flames.

“It is known as the Pool of Miracles,” the woman said, in hushed tones, “Because it mirrors the Heavens in all their glory. It has the power to grant one’s deepest desire. If you wish it to heal your mother, it shall do so.”

Ylva nodded, eyes fixed on the image in the fire pit.

“But miracles are not given for free. The Gods will demand a great sacrifice from you in order to work their magic.”

“What sacrifice?” Ylva whispered back, a tremor in her voice.

“That I do not know. The Gods only know. But if your contract with the Gods is not fulfilled, I can assure you that the punishment is far more petrifying than the sacrifice demanded. Many foolhardy men with fear and selfishness in their hearts have entered the Pool and have failed the Gods. Failed themselves.”

Ylva gulped. She had never much trusted magic nor been devoutly faithful to the Gods. But the thought of her mother continuing to suffer was unbearable, and her recovery was the only thing that mattered to her. She could not think of anything that she would not sacrifice.

“I will not fail.”

The witch eyed her with a mixture of admiration and scepticism.

“Then go, seek the mirror of the Heavens that you have envisaged in the flames, flanked by the five stones. It is a month’s journey due East. Keep the highest peaks of the Dragon Mountains always in your eyeline. I wish you good fortune.”

Ylva did not tell anyone else of her quest; she knew they would not let her leave. She gathered her warmest furs, survival tools and provisions, weapons for hunting, her trusty spear, and a small quantity of food. She bade her sleeping mother goodbye with a tender kiss on her fevered forehead. Then she slipped away into the black night.

———

Ylva’s toes teetered over the brink of the Pool of Miracles as she shivered in the icy wind, hair flailing in knotty tendrils. Her heart beat a tattoo in her chest, her knees were trembling. Her brain raced through every fear she had ever had, the impending possibility of death or worse. The weight of her mortality pushed her feet firmly into the muddy bank, urging her not to jump. She almost buckled, were it not for a faint sound issuing from the distant mountains, which echoed down the valley. A sound like a roar. Visions of dragons filled her head, pictures her imagination had once painted whilst listening to her mother weaving her bedtime tales. Ylva felt a pang in her heart. Her mother had taken care of her single-handedly for twenty years. Now, it was time for Ylva to return the favour.

So she took a deep breath, and leapt.

 

Emma H, age 27, 23/01/2018

 


This short story has been written for Sue Vincent’s #writephoto “distant” prompt. It is one of my favourite photos so far. If you’d like to take part or find out more about Sue’s challenge, you can follow the link below:

Thursday photo prompt – Distant #writephoto

This photo could have spawned many stories, and I’m happy with the tale that eventually emerged! I toyed with the possibility of having closure in the ending, but instead opted to leave it open to the reader’s interpretation and/or to allow me to possibly continue the story in the future. Please comment and give me your thoughts! 🙂

The Lookout – #writephoto

lookout

Colyn trudged over the rocky outcrop towards the Lookout, hands jammed in pockets and head bowed against the wailing coastal winds. The sea looked bleak and lifeless, mirroring the dull skies. Hardly a scintillating view to entertain him over the next few hours.

“About time too.”

The watchman on duty eyed Colyn as he entered the cold stone hut. Colyn shrugged.

“If you’re late again, I have no doubt the Commander will have something to say about it. Perhaps he’ll double your hours.”

Continue reading

Stolen – #writephoto

sight

Jasperine collapsed against the tall stone wall, panting hard. She wanted to keep running, but her burning lungs needed some time to snatch at air, her aching limbs a moment to relax. Otherwise she would never make it.

As her breath steadied, she gently patted her inside jacket pocket, reassured by the firm lump she felt there. But as a flock of startled birds flapped, squawking, into the sky not far away, her relief shattered into fear. Her pursuer was approaching.

Jas perched on her tip-toes to peer through a watch-hole bored in the thick wall behind her. The small opening looked out over the expansive empty field she had traversed not long before. Her only route home was back in that direction, where she would be in plain sight and horribly exposed. The coast appeared to be clear, but for how long? Adalbert was surprisingly fast for a troll of his size; once he got up to speed, with his large strides, he could easily outpace her. And she did not want to be within reach of his spiked truncheon.

Continue reading

On Vacation – #writephoto

sails

Gilbert the gremlin was grumpy. The setting sun streaming through the tiny window lit his sullen face, exasperated eyes, frustrated frown. Quite frankly, Gilbert had had enough.

“The most important job in the world” the advertisement had boasted, “Invaluable to Effaeria and all of its peoples.” Set hours, no night shifts, great pay, in a beautiful and tranquil setting. He had been over-the-moon when his application was successful and he was granted the role. What Gilbert hadn’t accounted for was the miniscule workspace, the crippling boredom, and the abysmal loneliness. Three hundred years to the day he had dutifully and diligently worked in this tiny windmill, but where was his anniversary celebration? Where were his uncaring employers? Where oh where was the gratitude?

Continue reading