My Beautiful Prison – #writephoto

mybeautifulprison

I love it here. It’s my favourite spot in the entire garden. The way the sunlight gleams on the roof of the marble temple like a giant pearl; the weeping branches of the silver birch sashaying in the summer breeze; the immaculate lawn and bushy foliage dazzling in every imaginable shade of green. The gardens are my sanctuary: a place of peace and serenity when family frustrations are overwhelming. And yet, the tall palatial walls encircling every inch of the garden remind me that, in reality, these gardens are just a pretty part of my lifelong prison.

Seventeen years and I have still never seen the outside world nor met a single person other than my family and our staff. Father says that the real world is “no place for a princess”, but I don’t pay attention to his clichés. I don’t need to be mollycoddled any longer. Mind you, I see him so rarely these days, he probably thinks that I’m still five years old. Mother, on the other hand, tries to be a little more honest. “We want to protect you from people who wouldn’t understand. Fools who would judge you on appearance rather than your beautiful personality.” So, essentially, they want to keep me away from potential bullies and their abuse. But surely I am old enough and strong enough now to deal with whatever insults come my way. I have come to terms with the way I look. After all, I have had these scars all my life…

I don’t remember the fire at all. I was less than two years old. Father once briefly described the way the nursery was ablaze, flames raging from floor to ceiling, my little wooden cot wreathing me in fire and smoke. Mother doesn’t like to speak of it much. She usually breaks down in tears at the merest mention. It was my father who saved me, burning himself as he charged into the room and bundled me out into the cool night air. It was a miracle that I survived, or so the doctors said. My father’s advisors called it arson, blamed his political enemies and revolutionaries. But however it started, ever since that day I have been cursed with these grotesque scars all over my body; shiny, raw pink blotches and bumps and blisters, skin melted and twisted beyond recognition. My speech is impaired because of my swollen lips, and my hair grows in uneven clumps. By any standard of beauty, I am downright ugly.

So my parents have kept me locked up here for all these years, away from prying and judgmental eyes, never once glimpsing the world beyond the palace grounds. I have been a prisoner in my own home, with only our servers and cooks and gardeners to keep me company, if pitying looks and platitudes can be considered company. I have no friends… In fact, I have never met another living soul my own age. The weight of loneliness can be suffocating, like an invasive fog clouding my mind with misery. Some days I can barely bring myself to get out of bed. Mother thinks that it’s my self-esteem, that I’m too disgusted by my own ugliness to cope. She can’t comprehend that there can be more important things in life than looks.

And then, just last night, I heard them talking about me.

“What shall we do with her?”

“What can we do with her?”

“She’ll be eighteen soon, how will she ever manage?”

Like I’m a burden, an animal even. They don’t think I can rule the country, as if my visual affliction somehow impedes my intelligence or my leadership or my decision-making skills. They are just as shallow as these so-called bullies lurking outside the palace walls. That’s when I realised that my incarceration isn’t about protecting me at all. Mother and Father are ashamed of me. A monster as their legacy. A gargoyle with the family name. The only thing they are trying to protect is their own fragile reputation. And that is more upsetting than any abuse or slur I could ever face.

So once more I’ve retreated to the gardens, where the abundance of life keeps me company even though I am alone. It’s the perfect place to think. I like to get lost in the bountiful flowers and climb the aged trees and watch the birds swoop and flit and dance in the skies and wish I had wings to join them. But most of all, I like to come to the temple. I call it the temple because “mausoleum” sounds too sombre and macabre. I visit here as often as I can, because the presence of my twin brother is the best company and comfort of all. I wonder if he misses me as much as I miss him. I have practically no memory of him and yet I still miss him. I know that my parents miss him too, and it haunts them every day, particularly Father. He could not save us both from the nursery furnace and the fire claimed his son’s life. Here, beneath this shining marble dome, he has been laid to rest.

I often think about how things would have been different if he had survived. In my favourite spot, I dream about our conversations and games and adventures… even arguments! The loss of his life claimed many others, in different ways. Here I am, wasting mine away in my beautiful prison. I think it’s finally time for me to escape. How else will I make friends? Learn about the kingdom I’m supposed to govern? How else will I fall in love and have a family of my own?

Where is the good in surviving if I neglect to live?

The grand oak overhangs the wall on the south side. Easily climbable.

Brother, this is for you. For both of us.

Emma H, age 27, 13/02/2018


New short story penned for Sue Vincent’s “Sanctuary” – #writephoto prompt. To take part or take a look at other entries, you can follow the link below:

Thursday photo prompt – Sanctuary #writephoto

I’m not sure if I pulled off this story quite how I’d intended, I think it may be lacking the emotional kick! Perhaps I would have been better off writing in the third person rather than the first… but I gave it a go. Please feel free to leave comments! And thanks to Sue for the photo prompt 🙂

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!

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! 🙂

Murder Most Fowl – #writephoto

crow

 

Mavis Perkins had always believed in omens.

 

Anything and everything she saw was a portent. That black cat crossing the pavement ahead of her? A sign that her washing machine would soon break down. Butterfly flying in through the window? She must be due a tenner in the lottery. Three magpies perching on the roof of No. 8? Well, then they would soon be expecting a beautiful, bouncing, baby girl.

I saw her one Monday morning watering the hanging baskets by her front door when I was late for work. She gave me a wave and motioned to a stark black bird sitting solemnly in the budding tree between our front gardens.

“See that crow? Omen of death, that is. You best watch yerself, Nigel.”

“I will do Mavis, will do.”

I jumped into my car and reversed off the driveway. As I pulled away, I saw Mavis eyeing the visiting bird with a mixture of fear and apprehension.

 

Every day that week I saw the statuesque crow in the tree, when I left for work in the morning and returning home in the evening. It was odd for sure, but I left it in peace. But as the week progressed, Mavis Perkins became increasingly agitated. She would spy on the bird between the gaps her kitchen blinds. She would play loud noises on her phone in the hope of scaring it off. I even saw her combing her lawn for four-leafed clovers to try to ward off any deathly bad luck. One evening, she came charging out of her house with a broom and shoved it up into the branches.

“Be gone you foul creature!” she huffed, jabbing her broom furiously. “Shoo! Shoo!”

But the crow remained ever still, ever silent, watching her intently.

 

At the weekend, I decided to wash my car despite the somewhat gloomy weather. I paused beneath the leafless tree and the crow cocked his head towards me, staring with his intelligent beady eyes. I nodded curtly to him; he cawed quietly and ruffled his feathers in response. It was the first time I’d seen him move all week.

Ten minutes later, Mavis emerged from her house, car keys jingling in her hands. I saw her glance suspiciously at our avian neighbour.

“Morning Nigel,” she trilled.

“Morning Mavis,” I replied dutifully, “Off out?”

“Just popping to the shops, I’m out of catfood,” she said simply, shooting the crow another wary look.

She got into her little white Fiat and started the engine. To my surprise, the crow took flight with a loud caw like a battle cry. Within moments, more of the birds began to appear on the street. Twenty, then thirty of them swarming in the air. Mavis drove off down the road, oblivious, pursued by the plague of crows. Shrieking, they launched themselves towards the Fiat’s windscreen. I watched in horror and awe as Mavis put her foot down in shock, accelerated, swerved across the road and veered headfirst into the lamppost outside No. 8.

The murder of crows scattered into the grey sky. Death had come for Mavis in the fowl-est way.

 

But then, I guess she should’ve seen it coming.

 

Emma H, age 27, 17/01/2018

 


Written for Sue Vincent’s #writephoto “Crow” prompt. To check out the challenge, you can follow the link here:

Thursday photo prompt – Crow #writephoto

For my first #writephoto entry of the year, I opted for a bit of dark humour. I’m not sure how successful I’ve been, but many thanks to Sue for the great prompt 🙂

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.”

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Tradition – #writephoto

fading

I wandered along the puddle-drenched promenade, head bowed against the bitter coastal breeze, hands jammed firmly in my coat pockets. It was a late winter afternoon and the weather had chopped and changed all day. The last rain shower had chased off the seaside strollers, so I was alone, save for the squawk of a buffeted seagull out at sea.

I sat on a damp bench and gazed out at the horizon. The fading sun was attempting to break through the shapeshifting clouds, sunbeams shining spotlights on patches of the rough grey sea.

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Into Darkness – #writephoto

twilight

 

Tabitha gazed out over the land. Darkness was descending, painting the valley in a palette of smudged grey-blues and faint iridescence. The navy silhouettes of ghostly trees breached an eerie fog that had rolled in with the twilight. Tabitha knew that this was no natural fog; its milky thickness and defined shape indicated the presence of magic, there to conceal all manner of Dark deeds. She felt her skin prickle and fingertips tingle anticipatively.

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