The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 15 – Leaving and Dreaming

There was still smoke drifting from a few chimneys when they left. Rivermouth, for the first time in centuries, was empty.

She had been up most of the night, gathering what supplies they had that could fit in their three old canvas packs. Food stuffs and tools first. Then clothes – the warmest furs and cloaks they had. Next, Lyca gathered the things she couldn’t bear to leave behind. An old brass flute Mavis had given her. A belt hatchet, for whatever good it might do. The musty hare-paw charm that had once been her mother’s. That morning, she and Geoffrey had gathered their bags, Lyca’s alder crutch, and made their way to the ice to meet with the others.

It was strangely quiet with so many people gathered together. Very few spoke, other than quips about the weather or the necessary precautions. Most were stone-faced and quietly packing their families onto the huge sleds that stood waiting as the Riverfolk fed their moose and tightened harness straps.

Her leg was still far from healed. Each step brought a stab of hot pain that seemed to shoot from her thigh to her heart, and the wrappings were still coming off soiled and stinking. Yet, this day was better than the last, and that was a good thing.

The five massive sleds stood like strange, sloped huts on the ice. Lyca saw that smoke was spitting from slender chimneys in their roofs, which meant there must be stoves on the inside. She spotted Old Crewe leaning against the nearest sled and limped over.

“Morning to you,” she said.

“To you as well,” he replied. “It is good or bad?”

“Sad.”

“Aye, that it is.”

Within the hour they had pulled away from Rivermouth. The cabins, the trading post, the stead all stood still as stones and empty as air. No axes splitting wood. No doors slamming shut with the wind. No voices, no songs, no secrets. Through driving snow and blistering wind they dredged on throughout the day. Men and women, bayfolk and riverfolk alike made turns walking and resting in the sleds. It took two people to guide the three pairs of moose hauling each sled, and more were needed to walk ahead and prod the ice with poles in search of weaknesses or holes. Lyca had been forced to remain inside with the old and the sick – those who were too weak or in too much pain to walk beside the sleds.

She felt guilty for not helping lead with the others, but otherwise she didn’t mind it in the sled. She sat with Geoffrey and Old Crewe and Missus Bekka, listening to the elders’ tales from wayback about people long gone and deeds that had mostly been forgotten. Below them, the great wooden skis slid on, grinding across edges of ice and swishing over pools of fresh-fallen snow. As the day wore on, Lyca kept pulling back the flap of the sled door to see where they were. By late morning they passed Quartz Cove, which seemed as empty and quiet as Rivermouth now was. The tiny stove crackled away. Fuelled by wet sticks and turpentine, fat and old rope. Between tales the silence became broken by Sherylyn’s whimpers. Every time the sled hit an upthrust ice pan she would moan with pain. Lyca wasn’t sure whether the older woman was awake or asleep half the time. Either way, she feared Sherylyn would soon join her husband in death.

The sun had just begun to dip as they approached Passer’s Point, and a team was sent to converse with the Lightkeeper about the happenings of the last few days. Lyca chewed her fingers with anticipation but was relieved to hear of Jamie and Mavis’ passing through. The word from the Lightkeeper was that the two men had nearly drowned in their attempt to reach the stead, and that Jamie had nearly been lost to the water. However, it seemed that they had left the stead in good spirits, if under prepared. She couldn’t lose hope now. Hope was all they had. Stranger still was that a message had been intended for Old Crewe from the High Keeper of Lhorrenhelm, but the Lightkeeper didn’t know what it was. Old Crewe didn’t speak of it, which Lyca thought was odd.

From Passer’s Point they cut straight across the ice to the western shore. The decision to do so had taken much contemplation, and no shortage of unkind words between Gerrik Hull and Mr Straulk. In the end, though, the old merchant gave in. They would be in the lee of the western cliffs, and the ice near to shore would be more solid there.

On through the evening and into the dark the great moose plowed, over the ice edges sharp as axes and snow drifts high as a man’s waist at times. The travellers supped on a thin broth that contained some oily trace of fish and wherein floated the sparse remains of a withered root or two. The Lightkeeper had spared them a small bag of salt, which helped. His stores were not entirely low, but he refused to part with more than the salt, insisting that his purpose was to maintain those who lost their way. There were always those who lost their way.

The first night, Lyca’s sleep came in fits. She would drift off slowly into some lofty dream, only to be awoken moments later by a jolt of the sled, or a voice crying out in the night. Once, she woke in a tearful mess, convinced beyond reason that they had broken through the ice and were all going to drown, but Missus Bekka brought her back to her senses with a swift slap on the cheek.

“Your leg will not bear your burden – let your wits do the walking.”

“But we’re drowning,” she muttered, breathless. To her surprise, the old woman laughed and patted her gingerly on the shoulder.

“Dear Lyca, we will not drown.”

“Aye,” came a deep voice from the flap of the sled door. Tiny, coming in from the cold to swap with another traveller. “We won’t drown. You’d freeze before any water got in yer lungs.”

That first night seemed to last forever. More dreams came and went. She was in a field, surrounded by the skeletal remains of houses. She was stabbing a giant lynx, over and over, blood splattering in her eyes. She was swaying atop a wall of stone, as an angry sea boiled a hundred feet below.

Daybreak brought some sense of relief. Missus Bekka assured her she must have been in a fever, as she had been mumbling and rolling about in her sleep. Lyca changed her wrappings and found that while they were still dirty, the smell was less strong now. Someone announced that they were in the shadow of the western cliffs and Lyca limped her way to the flap to look outside. The sight that met her was astonishing – a sheer face, reaching to dizzying heights and decorated in a forest of thousands of crystal clear icicles. A frozen waterfall. As the bleak winter sun crept higher and let a few blades of light through the black clouds, rainbows shot from the cliff face like flames. Her eyes watered as orbs of perfect blue, silver, red and violet shivered in the morning air. A moment later it was gone, and the ice became cold and still once again.

The day moved on as the one before had done, with the grinding, shuffling pace of their five-sled caravan. Once, near midday, a riverfolk boy in his teens came to check on Sherylyn and spent more than enough time confirming that Lyca was indeed well.

“The boy fancies you,” said Old Crewe with a devilish grin.

“The boy is too young to know what’s good for him. He didn’t smell my rags this morning,” she joked. “Still, I had been that young when Mavis first came knocking on Mother’s door.”

“Do you remember much about your mother?” he asked. “I knew never my own.”

“My mother…” she stopped for a moment, to think. “My father died when I was young, before squirt here was born,” she said, ruffling Geoffrey’s hair. “My mother was a strong woman. Hands like talons. When she’d be fletching I’d watch her fingers moving, zipping off vanes from feather, yanking twine so tight you’d think it’d cut through her skin. She used to say Father called her ‘hide hands’ when they first met.” She laughed. “Hide hands, can you imagine!”

“He must’ve got some tellings off from her for that,” Old Crewe chuckled.

“I’ll bet he did. She could be soft when she wanted to be, though. Hands like leather, but they were gentler than water.”

“I don’t remember,” Geoffrey said, his eyes welling up.

“Shush now,” Lyca said. She pulled him close. “Momma loved you, squirt. She’d be so proud of you.”

Nightfall came with whispers of torchlight along the eastern shore, but Tiny assured them it was too dark and blurred by snow to see anything for sure. It was probably hunters.

“What if it’s the men? Mavis and Jamie?” she prodded. “What if they got trapped, or injured?” Tiny only shook his head at that.

“They’d be farther south by now. And besides, it’s too many lights to be them, if it’s torches we’re all squintin’ at.”

“How many?” asked the riverfolk teen, now resting inside.

“Two dozen or more, I reckon,” he said, and squeezed his huge frame through the door and back into the freezing night. “Cursin’ wind,” Lyca heard a voice outside say.

Hours dragged on and the walking kept switching with the resting, the resting with the walking. Lyca dozed off, more deeply than the night before, and it was some time before she woke again.

“Beggin’ pardon,” Old Crewe said, sitting back down in his nest of furs and blankets. “Fire nearly went out. Had to tend to the stove.”

“Don’t beg any pardons, I’m glad you didn’t let us shiver. Bad dreams and such, y’know.”

“No more’n usual,” the old man said. Lyca had been dreaming again. Not of ghost towns or monsters but of her mother. Old Crewe must have seen something of it in her face. “Something botherin’ you?”

“It’s nothing, really,” she said. Old Crewe’s pondering expression made her want to tell all, though. The old mapmaker had been kind. There was a long pause.

“My mother,” Lyca started. “I lied to you, Mister Crewe, about Momma.” It wasn’t easy. “My father was dead long before I could remember him. Crushed under the weight of some tree felled by a careless young woodsman he was teaching. Happened just a couple of years after I was born. Momma was all I knew growing up. And Geoffrey… he doesn’t know.” She looked over at the young boy, who was snoring lightly in his sleep.

Old Crewe leaned in as far as his bent back would allow. “Doesn’t know what, Lyca?”

“Geoffrey’s not my true brother.” The words came out tasting sour. “Geoffrey’s father was a stranger. Some… man. My mother and him met when I was young. I never even knew who he was. I only knew he was the reason Momma would take a trip to Quartz Cove once a week for a summer. Must have been some miner, I suppose.”

Old Crewe’s mouth was in a frown, but his eyes were kind. “What became of him?” he asked.

“I don’t know, for sure. He disappeared a few months before Geoffrey was born. I didn’t care. I didn’t know him anyways. All I wanted was a little brother or a sister. But the day he was born, that’s when Momma…” Remembering was poison. “That’s when she died.”

“Lyca, Lyca,” the old man said quietly. “You must miss her very much.”

“I do.”

It was quiet for a long time. Lyca listened to the little fire crackling, and occasionally a moose snorted out in the dark. It was perhaps an hour before the mapmaker spoke again.

“Beggin’ pardon again, Lyca. You weren’t the only one who lied.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, confused.

“My hometown isn’t Greepetown, like I told you before.”

“Really?”

“No, not hardly. Didn’t you think it strange, that of all these riverfolk, none seemed to recognize me?”

She had thought it was strange, but she hadn’t given it much thought. “Yes, now that you mention it, I did notice that. Then where are you from, Mister Crewe?”

Old Crewe looked around the tent quietly, listening carefully to the sounds of snores and Sherylyn’s soft whimpering. “I’ll tell you all about that sometime soon, when there are fewer ears around.”

Lyca thought of something. “And the letter that the lightkeeper mentioned, do you know what that was about?”

“I have an idea,” he said, nodding solemnly. “But it’s best you get some sleep. Ask again when we reach the capitol, and I’ll tell you all I know. If anybody’s earned that much, it’s you.” The old man closed his eyes and the sled went silent.

But Lyca didn’t sleep. Her mind was alive with thoughts of the strange dreams, and of her mother. She pulled her brother’s blanket a little tighter to keep out the cold and leaned back in her furs, waiting for the sun to rise.

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Thoughts on a Sunday morning

It’s almost noon, and I’m sitting outside with my coffee. Cars are driving by, there are ducks flying, and it’s one of the warmest days we’ve had this year so far. I really enjoy slow, lazy mornings like this one.

I figured since I’m not really doing anything productive, I’ll make a little update here about what I’m working at right now.

I posted yesterday about my new collection of poems that I’m editing and finishing, but I’ve got some other stuff in the works as well. I’ve been making an effort to post more chapters of my fantasy novel The Keeping of the Light lately, and with good reason: I’ve written more chapters. I’d been on somewhat of a hiatus from the novel since early last year, and have been focusing on other things. That changed a couple of weeks ago when I started reading over my progress so far.

When I stopped writing last year, my plan was to take a short break from the project to decide a direction for one of the main characters. However, a short break became a long break and that long break turned into a year.

Coming back to the project after all this time, and reading my work up until now, the direction is clear. Honestly I can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out.

Now, I’m posting at least a chapter a day until I’m up to my current progress, and then i can finally start posting the new chapters. I’m really looking forward to seeing things how things turn out from here.

On top of that, I’m also prepping another book review, something I’ve only done once so far. Keep an eye out for that.

And hey, look at that: my coffee is gone. Damn. Should I grab my computer and get to work? Should I get another cup? Maybe I should just sit here for another hour and read for a while.

While I’m trying to decide what to do with my day, I hope you enjoy yours, wherever you happen to be.

Happy writing.

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 14 – Lhorrenhelm

Jamie closed his eyes tight against the world and bit his tongue so hard he tasted blood. Gods, why did I have to look down? The rope around his chest seemed tight enough to squeeze the life out of him. He panicked and let go with one hand – tugging at the rope. He had to loosen it. He couldn’t breathe.

“Jamie!” Mavis said, above him and to his right. “Take a deep breath – slow. That’s it. You’re alright. You’re alright aren’t you?”

“Yah,” he managed, finally opening his eyes again. “I’m good. Lost my footing for a second.”

“We’ll rest when we reach the ledge,” Mavis said, “won’t be much longer, I think. Just take your time and don’t look down.”

“Think of fire, Jamie,” said Hektor from below. “Fire and hot stew and warm beer – that’s what’s over this cliff. Think about your friend. Lyca, right?”

Jamie nodded. “I’m good. Let’s keep going.” He focused as hard as he could on the rock face before him and Mavis’ choice of hand and foot holds above. We’re almost there, he thought. Finally.

It was seven days ago that they had been forced to flee to the west shore. Seven days since the grinning man and Shalsa and their band of tarred raiders had driven them off with spears and arrows, taking their only source of food. Or was it eight days? It was hard to remember. Jamie tried to count the meals he had eaten since – it was the best way to keep track of time. Each day they ate a ration chunk of swile meat – smaller than the palm of a man’s hand, and raw – and a bit of tack. The tack had run out three days ago, and Jamie was sure they had eaten tack four days in a row. No, it was five. Five days with tack, three with just meat. Eight days since their escape. Or is it nine?

Jamie had come to think of it as an escape but that was wrong too – they had been allowed to run. Forced to run. He remembered the spears and arrows singing through the air after them and Shalsa’s crazed taunting. The laughter. That horrible, amused laughter of the grinning man and his devils.

The message was still a mystery to Jamie and the others. The Oyen is with us? The nightmare only became more confusing when they opened the bag that had been given to them. Jamie emptied the contents into his hand, finding thirty-six bronze rings, many stained with dried blood. These people were murderers.

Now, it seemed, the nightmare was coming to an end. According to Hektor’s memory and Jamie and Mavis’ rough estimation, they should reach the capitol before sundown. The sky had brightened, the sunlight was stronger. If it would stop snowing for a damned minute, they might be able to see open sky. To their right, a sheer face of ice, toothed at the top by fangs of ancient frozen stone, ghostly in the clouds above. To their left, the Further faded into open ocean, and ice was spreading, breaking into pieces and being swept out along the shore by the ever-westerly winds. In their face and below their hands and feet lay the great stone cliff that they were climbing. Thirty feet up – maybe forty – the safety of the plateau waited, where the lands and city of Lhorrenhelm were nestled between the Western Ridge and the sea. Jamie dared not guess how many feet the fall was to the ground below.

The journey since fleeing to the western shore had been a treacherous one. On the eastern side, the Further sloped gently under the steep cliffs, leaving a belt of forest along the water’s edge. Here, the cliffs plummeted all the way down to the shore. No trees, no paths, just stretches of rocky till that threatened to give way to a slide into the water at each step. To cross the ice again was suicide – facing the raiders again would be certain death, and the closer they got to open ocean, the more erratic the ice conditions became. What should have been a few days hike had become a struggle to survive.

Twenty feet was all that remained until they were on level ground again. Jamie thought of the warmth of hot hearths and soup, stew, beer and strong, sweet wine. He could almost taste it. The thought excited him, but it came with an aftershock of guilt every time. Lyca, Geoffrey, the Straulks, the sisters… all those faces of home that were rationing out kelp and months-old root and scraps of meat at every meal. They would not have those luxuries for quite some time now.

By now no ships were moving in the bay. The journey back to Rivermouth would have to be by sled. The capitol had to have some tamers with moose or reindeer to spare. They had coin, but Jamie didn’t know whether it would be enough. He’d only ever traded a few coppers for traps in the past, and had no idea what a sled would cost, let alone beasts to haul it. Everything the people of their village had, or admitted to having, was in a tiny purse in his pack. Jamie didn’t want to lose it all on a bad bargain.

Ten feet above him, Mavis let out a cry. Jamie locked onto the rock face as tightly as possible – bracing his body against the shock when the line would go tight…

But then Mavis cried out again, and again. He shouted and whooped and started to laugh. He wasn’t falling – he was there!

“It’s beautiful!” he gasped. His voice was hoarse with cold and hunger. “It’s the most fucking beautiful field of snow I ever saw! Oh, Jamie-boy you’ll die when you see it!”

“Soon enough…” Jamie shouted back.

“Quit yer gabberin’ and help us up, Hunter!” said Hektor from below.

Hand over hand, foot over foot, Jamie made his way up, aided by Mavis pulling slowly from a few feet up, and then…

White! Everything was white. Blinding white. He was on the edge of the plateau, which stretched on and on for acres, rolling with gentle, low hills and specked here and there with brown where dead vegetable stalks jutted from beneath the snow. In the distance, Jamie could see buildings, towers, lights, and the brightest light of them all, shining like a red-and-orange star stop the highest lightkeeper’s tower in the north.

“Boys!” Jamie said, as Hektor climbed to his feet beside him. “We’re here.”

“You lead the way, lad,” Hektor puffed, slapping his hands together to get the blood flowing in his fingers. “But let’s get these ropes off first, yah?”

“Yah,” said Jamie, weakly. “To hell with these ropes.”

Beneath their feet the snow crunched and squeaked and their breaths drifted lazily around their heads in puffs of steam. It was colder up here, with no shelter from the wind, but their walking kept them warm, and the growing lights ahead of them kept them marching on. Hours later they were among huts, and then houses, and the buildings grew and grew. More and more were made of stone and they could feel the path beneath their feet harden from the spongy, half-frozen mud to slush-covered cobble.

Doors opened on either side as people looked out, astonished, at the strangers who had just wandered into their streets from the snowfield. A few greeted them, cautiously, but most stood behind their doors, and a few made it clear that they were armed. People were shouting to one another. Somebody was waving a torch in their faces…

Mavis was the first to fall. He tripped in his own feet and toppled in seemingly slow-motion to the snow. At first, he struggled, but then gave up and lay unmoving.

Hektor was next. They put his arms behind his back but didn’t get the fight they expected when he slumped lazily to his knees and closed his eyes – he was sleeping, knelt on the ground.

There were more around Jamie now, shouting something… why were they being so damned loud? And why did they all look so alarmed? He just wanted to sleep. And some food maybe… and…

“Help us?” he murmured, as a hand closed around his arm. There was a bronze ring on its finger. They all had bronze rings, these people. Jamie felt his knees buckle as they kicked him from behind and he collapsed in the road, face down with a mouthful of dirty snow.

“Whalesong” and other poems

Yesterday I found myself looking through old notebooks and found scribblings of old poems I was working on throughout the last few years. After spending so much time away from them, it was exciting revisiting those notes with a new perspective. I’ve been going through them casually, rereading and rewriting, and I’m looking forward to having a new batch of poems to release soon.

The first of these is “Whalesong”, posted last night. I haven’t had a chance to set up the link from my “poems” page yet, but that should come soon. Maybe I’ll group these new/old poems together in a collection of sorts. We’ll see.

It’s been interesting so far, coming back to those notes after such a long time. I feel disconnected from them, but perhaps also have a better understanding than I did when I started scribbling them out. It’s hard to explain, but it’s an interesting experience. I usually write poems very quickly, in a day or so, but I’m liking the results so far. Hopefully you do as well.

Happy writing.

Whalesong (a poem)

needles scraping bone,
heel and sole.

sliding cold inside your boots
you bear the weight of all you love,
while inches underneath
the giant gods of other worlds relay
their shepard songs.

empty aqua loneliness.

they disappear,
soaring softly into darkness and
sinking,

willing,

deeper than the sky is wide.

their dreams are of a solid state;
the breath that leaves their backs a
force of nature,

strong enough to rent the field on which you stand that now,
to us,
seems still as stone.

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 13 – Riverfolk and Raiders

Lyca woke with a start. Her dreams had been wild and she had barely slept, but she realized now that things were okay. Okay? I must be going mad. Mavis and Jamie gone… Locke dead… Sherylyn dying… and Geoffrey, well…

Among all that had gone wrong, Geoffrey did seem to be pulling through. The day that the riverfolk arrived – the day of the attack – Lyca and Sherylyn had been rushed to the Straulks’ home and tended to as much as could be done. When she finally convinced them to let her return home she had arrived to find Geoffrey sitting at the table with Shenya Wyndhill, spooning out two big bowls of crow soup and patiently waiting for her to return. His fever seemed to be gone. Shenya told Lyca that as soon as he had heard what happened he climbed out of bed and insisted on going to see her. My little hero.

She busied herself changing the wrappings on her leg. The rags needed to be replaced every morning where the lynx had clawed through her flesh to keep the blood poison from spreading. At first her bandages stank of pus and rot, but each day the wound healed a little, and she grew stronger. There would be a gnarly scar, for sure – the beast had sliced damn near down to the bone. Lyca was certain she’d never run again. At least I can walk.

Geoffrey was still asleep, nestled in his pile of blankets and whistling through his nose. The fire crackled quietly, and Lyca eased carefully into her clothes to sit for a while. It seems so peaceful now. Even the snow is beautiful. Outside the stained, milky window the frozen stream by her cabin lay glistening like strands of silver in the weak morning glow. An icicle chimed as it fell from the eave. She wished she could stay there for good, listening to the world by the heat of the stove. Bugger it all, she thought angrily, and rose to prepare for the council.

The day the riverfolk arrived something came over the town – a sense of urgency. It had been too long without word from the capitol, and two of their own young men had traipsed off into the further to seek for answers, but finally Rivermouth’s eyes were open to the danger that crept toward them. The riverfolk were kind enough, but hard. They had journeyed three days from Greepetown after admitting defeat to winter and had suffered losses on the way. A young boy had succumbed to the cold on the second night, and a newborn babe had been snatched from her mother’s arms by a starving kreehawk. Their leader was Gerrik Hull, a hunter who had led the group south to find refuge. Not all of their people had come, though. Gerrik explained that half the town had refused to leave their homes. “You’ll lead us to our deaths, Hull,” his wife’s brother had told him. Her name was Hellyn.

Lyca woke Geoffrey with a gentle shake. “There’s hot water in the pot,” she told him, “put in a scoop of sap and drink up. I’ll get us some food when I’m back, okay?”

The boy’s face was still deathly thin, but his wide brown eyes were brighter now. His skin had lost the yellow hue and he spoke with more strength than before. He slept often but ate well. “Okay. Will you be quick, sissy?”

“As quick as I can, squirt.” She pinched his nose.

The front room of Straulk’s trading shop had been cleared out to make room. The shelves had all been pushed against the walls, and the two slender tables that served as Mr Straulk’s counter had been set end to end. There weren’t enough chairs and stools so most stood around, looking nervous. Lyca took notice of the Greepetown woman who had lost her baby, sitting near one end of the table. Her face was gaunt – eyes blank. Sherylyn was absent – her wounds were too grievous, and Lyca wondered whether she would survive.

“There’s a brave lass,” announced Tiny when she came in. He was a quarter man taller than most, strong as a bull and with a belly that sagged beyond the limits of his belt. “Grab y’self a seat now and get off that leg.” The big man dragged back a remaining stool and ushered her in.

“Your wound – how is it?” asked Gerrik.

“Better, much. I really can’t thank you enough.”

“Yah, she’s a tough one, our Lyca,” said Shenya. Her voice was kind as ever, but her eyes were filled with worry. Lyca could only guess how she was dealing with her sister’s near fatal encounter with the lynx.

A few more came in after she sat down. Most of them riverfolk, whose names she did not know, but also came Felicia’s Aunt Bekka, and lastly Alek and Maya, with their twins.

“Aye,” said Mr Straulk. “Should we get on with this business, then?” A murmur of agreement was heard around the room.

“These are times of grave danger, none can deny.” said Old Crewe, who sat with his withered hands resting on the table’s edge. “Our friends to the north here present us with an option. One that we didn’t have before.”

“And a burden.” Straulk’s voice was low, but loud enough that everyone could hear. Lyca’s cheeks burned with sudden anger.

“We did not wish to bring hardship to your town, mister merchant.” It was Gerrik, from the end of the table.

“Anyone to think that would be a fool,” said Susan. Mr Straulk glared at her.

“Regardless, the choice we make today will almost certainly decide the fates of many.” Old Crewe looked around at the faces in the room. “But there are questions that need be answered first.”

“Aye,” muttered a few. The room was quiet for a moment.

“Your people, Gerrik, have lived on the Whitewater for years.” said Lyca. “You don’t rely on aid as we do. Why is it that this winter is different from any other?”

The riverfolk leader started to speak but held back. There’s something else, Lyca thought, something else he doesn’t want to say. It was his wife who spoke instead.

“Our people have put strain on you all, it’s plain,” said Hellyn, “but you must understand that we had no choice but leave Greepetown. The winds were fierce, food might not have lasted us. That much we could have suffered out as usual, like you say but…” She paused, glancing at Gerrik for a second. “But then we heard about the raiders.”

“Hellyn, those are just rumours.”

“Are they?” said another of the Riverfolk – a dark haired boy in his teens. “That man you found, though…”

Mr Straulk looked unsettled. “What’s this news? And why is this the first we’ve heard of it.?”

“Only rumours,” Gerrik said weakly. “We never saw them, not with our own eyes. It may not be true.”

“The man saw them with his own eyes. Surely that’s enough? If you didn’t believe it why would you agree to leave?” Hellyn pressed him.

“I’d rather not take chances when it comes to my family, you know that. But still, it’s hearsay.”

An explanation would be appreciated, I think,” said Tiny.

Gerrik spoke slowly and carefully. This is no tale he wants to tell. “I was returning from a hunt. Empty-handed. I was in earshot of the rapids when I heard something… strange. I thought it might be a moose, or maybe a stray keywing come down from the highlands. So I got closer and there was blood on the snow. No small amount of blood.” He glanced around at the waiting faces. “It was a trapper. Lost, weary. He had taken an arrow to the gut. He was talking madness, sick from blood poison. My first thought was he must have fallen on his own shaft.”

“Tell them what you told us,” said Hellyn.

Straulk’s impatience was overflowing. “You’d best not be hiding something important, Hull. You’re a guest here, remember that.” He’s so suspicious, thought Lyca. Mavis is so much like him.

“The poor sod had lost a lot of blood,” Gerrik said. “He might have even been dream-walking at that point. He was on the edge of death. When the poison gets in your blood you see strange things, everybody knows that.”

“He was attacked,” the brown-haired youth said. “By a band of raiders.”

“He thought he’d been attacked.” People were muttering now. The air tightened.

“How many men?” Tiny’s red face was strained with worry. “Hull, if there’s raiders attacking innocent people we need to know. I need to protect me and mine.”

“That’s why I wanted to tell you all, at once. I want to be clear that I’m not sure whether what this fellow said was true or not, but…” he struggled for words.

“But it convinced you. Some part of you, at least.” Lyca spoke up.

“Aye,” said Gerrik. “The part that loves my kin.” He turned to Tiny. “He said it was men and women. I don’t know how many, but a small group, at least. Men and women in tarred leather, armed with spears and bows.”

“When was this?” Shenya’s face was pale.

“Five days before we left Greepetown. We tried to gather as many as possible, but not everybody believed the tale. We dared not linger longer than that.” Gerrik looked to Mr Straulk. “Had I any reason to believe this man’s tale completely, I would have told you immediately. I didn’t want to spread panic.”

“You believed it enough to flee your home!” The merchant was visibly angry. “You believed it enough to leave half your people behind to escape and run to our land!”

“The cold, the conditions… We couldn’t risk adding the chance of violence-”

“My brother and wedsister are dead and dying, and you drag raiders here!?” Straulk burst, spraying spittle through the air.

ENOUGH!” boomed Tiny, slamming a club fist onto the table. “Seat yourself or I will, Straulk. Best you remember that if not for these people Sherylyn would be dead and cold already.”

The merchant shrank, and when he spoke again he did so quietly. “If not for Lyca, Sherylyn would be dead. Not for some river man.” He sent a final glare across the table at Gerrik and left, letting his own door slam shut behind him.

“Mr Straulk is still in grief. We all are. Don’t let him make you think you’re not welcome here.” Lyca said.

“Thank you,” said Hellyn. Her husband was silent.

“We have yet to decide,” Old Crewe wavered. “Do we stay, or do we go?”

There was a silence that seemed to last forever. The townsfolk had waited long enough to have council, and none of them had wanted the time to come. Even with what the riverfolk had brought, they would not have enough supplies for everyone to last out the winter. There was a chance that help would come, but many had little hope for Jamie and Mavis. A large portion considered them dead, including Mavis’ own father.

They had agreed without question – but with hesitation from the merchant – that Gerrik and his people would be welcome to stay, and with that agreement they knew there would come a dreaded crossroads. None had spoken aloud of it but finally feeble Old Crewe was the one to say it. Stay or go.

“It’s harsh to hear it so plainly.” Thom said, from Shenya’s side.

“True,” said the mapmaker, “but the answer is clear to me. We will not last the winter here.”

“Mavis and Jamie will bring help as soon as they reach Lhorrenhelm,” Lyca said.

“Given they survive,” said Maya. “And who’s to say the capitol will send help? From what I can tell, they’ve abandoned us.”

“What of Sherylyn?” Shenya asked the table. “If we take the journey she won’t make it. There’s no way she’s fit to travel, right Susan?”

Susan shook her head. “The beast’s claws are foul. Sherylyn’s cuts are festering now as bad as ever. And the fever… Helena says she can’t get it to stop.”

“She will have comfort on our sleds,” Gerrik said. “We can wrap her in furs and tend to her along the way. The rest of us will take turns sleeping and leading the moose.”

“And keeping watch,” added Hellyn.

“I’ll not sleep,” said Tiny, “not with this talk of raiders. I’d rather slip through the ice like a swile than be speared like one.”

“Speak not of such things, child,” said Missus Bekka. Her husband and son had both drowned years ago, before Felicia came into her care. “Use your fear, don’t bend to it. We’ll all have enough of it to face soon.” Tiny said no word but nodded respectfully.

“Have we decided?” asked Maya, rising. “Shall we gather our things? I say Aye.”

“Aye,” said her husband. “Aye,” said Old Crewe, and Shenya and Thom. “Aye,” said Tiny, and Missus Bekka. Slowly, the room came to it’s decision, although Lyca thought that here and there she heard a “nay” from the crowd.

“Aye,” she said, and stood from her stool. She winced as the raw flesh around her wound tightened. I must be strong, she thought. We must all be strong. Like Geoffrey.

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 12 – The Grinning Man

The trio, led by Mavis, crept warily on through the night. Guided by the light of their flickering torches, they stepped precariously from pan to pan as the never-ending field of ice before them shifting with the movement of the water beneath. Inches lay between them and the icy depths of the Further.

This is madness, Jamie thought to himself as the white surface creaked and groaned. Once already he had fallen into the winter water and was not eager to do so again – especially being so far from shore and any hope of lighting a fire.

“We ought to look for holes, I say,” said Mavis, “where they come up to the surface to breathe.”

“Aye,” agreed Hektor from the back of the line.

“Any sign of the other lights, Hektor?” Jamie asked over his shoulder.

“None,” replied the older man, who was spying around with his eyeglass. “And lets keep it that way. No man has good reason to be on the ice at this time of night unless they are as starved as we are.”

“Perhaps they’ve succeeded in their hunt and returned home?” said Mavis.

“I doubt,” Jamie said. “There are no settlements on the West shore other than Birchbanks, and that is miles to the North of here. Lhorrenhelm is farther south.”

“I agree with Jamie. They would not have gone back this fast. Their torches should still be visible.” Hektor took another cautious look along the facing shoreline. “Nothing but black.”

“They must have camped for the night, then.”

“I hope so, Mave,” said Jamie. “I have a really bad feeling about meeting strangers out here in the dark. Especially those which douse their torches.”

They crept on, using their makeshift spears to test the sturdiness of each ice pan before walking onto it. Hektor started a low chant, half singing and half humming the words to himself as they moved on with their hunt:

            “The night is cold and winter long,
            and winds of western wilds sweep,
            but my fire is warm and whisky strong,
            and I must fight away the sleep.

            The trapper’s trail o’er hill and field,
            goes silently across the land.
            From traps I plea that none will steal
            the fruits of labours of my hand.

            Now come ye back just one last time,
            to northern reaches through the snow.
            But the greatest treasures I shall find
            are paths that lead my feet back home.

            The trapper’s trail o’er valley wide,
            leads restless men all to their catch,
            but wander not too long my friend…”

Hektor’s song trailed off. Something else had caught his attention. “Did ye hear that, lads?” he said, after a moment’s pause. The other two stopped.

“What?” Mavis and Jamie asked in unison.

“Shhh!” Hektor hissed, holding up his torch to silence silence them. “Listen.”

The trio held their breath. Jamie strained his ears hard, hearing nothing but the gentle whispering of drifting snow and his own heartbeat – which had grown faster and louder.

“I don’t hear…” he started, but then stopped. He could hear a faint noise, like the gentle stirring of water. Looking at his feet, his mind suddenly sprang into action. It’s coming from beneath us! He dropped to his knees and pressed his ear hard onto the ice.

“What in Aer’s name are you doing?” Mavis asked in disbelief.

“Bubbles,” he answered slowly. Sure enough, he could hear bubbles thudding softly against the underside of the ice pan, gathering together to form a pocket of air. “Something below us is moving!”

“Ha-ho!” Hektor heaved a hoarse laugh of excitement. “Mavis, quick – watch the edge of the ice!”

Mavis sprang into action. Readying his spear and raising his torch, he stared hard at the thin seam of water surrounding the ice on which they stood.

“There!” he said, aiming his spear at the westernmost edge of the ice. A gargling bunch of bubbles was squeezing up between the ice. Then, they stopped.

“It’s not coming to the surface?” Jamie groaned with disappointment, getting back to his feet. Mavis looked heartbroken. However, Hektor had not lost his spirit.

“What are you waiting for?” he pressed to his younger companions. “Follow them, lads!” follow the air! The beast will have to come to the surface to breathe soon!”

Jamie and Mavis came to their senses immediately. Raising their torches high to spread the light, the three men hurried onto the next ice pan just in time to see more bubbles appear at its far edge. Mavis paused as the ice shifted slightly under the sudden weight.

“Don’t stop, Hunter!” Hektor said hurriedly. “We cannot lose sight of the trail.”

“Run!” Jamie shouted, now feeling the intensity of the hunger in his stomach.

Mavis lead them onward. They scrambled and leapt from pan to pan, barely keeping up with the stream of bubbles that was emerging before them. They ran with torches held on high, ever westward, keeping balance with their modest spears. Once, Hektor slipped, but Jamie yanked him ahead before he could fall backwards into the briny abyss. After what felt like hours they came to a skidding halt on a huge pan of ice. It was rough and uneven, and looked like a small floating island made of smaller pieces frozen together. In a depression at the center of the ice drift was a large hole, smooth around the edges and roughly six feet across. Bubbles erupted furiously from it.

“This is it,” Jamie croaked as they hid behind a mound of snow.

“Ready your spears.” Hektor whispered.

“And keep your torches high,” Mavis added, “it might blind the creature and confuse it. We need all the surprise we can get.” The bubbling stopped, and they all help their breath.

After a second of silence something emerged slowly from the center of the ice hole. A massive head – like that of a short-snouted, whiskered bear – rose out of the water. It sniffed and snorted, spraying icy mist from its nostrils. It had large, black eyes and slick fur that was pale grey. It gazed curiously at the flickering torchlight for a heartbeat, and then disappeared below the water in a splash. The swile had gone.

“No…” Hektor groaned. Mavis swore and threw down his spear. Jamie got to his feet and kicked at the mound of snow they had hidden behind.

It moved.

The three men jumped back as cracks form in the snow crust covered the mound. Jamie had thought it was ice but no – it was moving. It was alive! A rumbling groaning snort was erupting and steam was rising as the enormous swile before them shivered sheets of glazed frost from its back.

Mavis scrambled to grab up his spear as the other two men lurched at the animal, pressing with all their weight to puncture the thick skin of the water beast, now writhing before them. Mavis stabbed now too, and blood was running onto the ice sheet. The animal fought, but its life was over. Hektor drew back and gave a final stab at the back of the creature’s neck and the deed was done. A head the size of a man’s torso fell limply to the ice – tusks and all.

“Shit,” Jamie said, grinning with disbelief. Hektor roared with triumphant laughter.

“Behold, the mighty Hunter!” he sang, and pounded Mavis on the back. They rapped spears together and cheered and Mavis knelt down to start cutting off slabs of meat. They wouldn’t be able to take it all back to the shore – there was too much. But now they had food, real food. Mavis had loaded two chunks of warm black flesh into Jamie’s pack when around them, torches suddenly flared into life.

“The hell – who’s there!?” Hektor shouted, raising his spear.

“Show yourselves!” Jamie said, following suit. A muffled, amused sort of laughter echoed back to them in response.

“I offer you our most sincere gratitude,” came a man’s voice, calm and cold. “For this feast you have provided.” Mavis stood up, brandishing his knife and baring his teeth.

“You will leave us,” he blared at the faceless taunter, hidden behind tattered scarf and blackened hood, “this beast is ours. We’ve earned it!” More cruel laughter. More torches lit up. Jamie was trying to count them now. Nine. Twelve. Sixteen. More and more faces lit up, all wrapped in scarves and wearing coats of dark leather, greasy and tattered. Nineteen. They carried short spears with long, evil blades and their eyes glinted with something that seemed like hunger. Twenty-four. Twenty-five.

“Mavis,” Jamie said, hushed, “look around.” But his friend was shaking with anger.

“We will leave you this beast now,” Hektor said, slowly but with commanding tone. “We will go-”

“No!” Mavis was livid. He waved his knife in the air. “YOU will leave now. Leave us be!” Hektor put a hand on his shoulder.

“We will go now, to hunt elsewhere.”

“Mavis, Listen. Let’s do what Hektor says, let’s go now.” Jamie could hear his own voice shaking, with anger but stronger was the fear. The crowd gathering around them was blocking the way they had come. The would have to run for it but… He peered back over his shoulder at the Western Ridge looming over them, outlined by pale blue moonlight.

“Go?” The cruel voice sifted through the drifting snow to them. “That is fair. We do not wish to do harm. But tell me – where will you go?” The half circle of figures moved closer. Each had a spear – some had bows. “Where do you call home?”

“We come from the capitol,” Hektor announced with some convincing authority. “We will move southward to hunt, out of your territory. Take this meat, consider it a token of peace.” Jamie could see that Hektor was gripping his spear tightly – preparing to throw it if need be.

“The capitol?” The man pulled down his scarf and spat onto the ice. He smiled, revealing yellow, jagged teeth. “Ah, so you are scampering away to the great city of the north,” he said mockingly. “Tell me, hunter-men,” he raised his own spear, “where does your allegiance lay? To Lhorrenhelm? To the High Keeper?”

“Aye,” said Hektor, “to the High Keeper.” Jamie held his breath. He hoped Hektor knew what he was talking about.

This seemed to satisfy the grinning man. He slid a tongue across his crusted lips and paused for a moment. “It seems you have found yourselves in a state of happy consequences, my hunter-men.”

“What?” asked a rasping voice from one of the other figures. This one sounded like a woman. “Just let them run off?” She pulled her scarf down as well, revealing a face smeared with tar and littered with iron rings. “These swine?”

“Not empty-handed, Shalsa,” said the grinning man. He turned back to the trio standing before the dead swile. “You will deliver us a message, hunter-men. You will leave this beast and you will take our message to the capitol. To the High Keeper. You will do this.” He offered his ugly smile again. The woman named Shalsa did not look pleased.

“This one had best leave his spear on the ground, as well,” she said, pointing a jagged blade at Hektor. “His voice is smooth but his eyes say ‘kill, kill.’ The capitol does not send hunters this far north in winter. They came for us, not swiles.”

“Now, now, Shalsa. These ones have value to us, not like the last.” He pulled a small cloth bag from a pocket.

“What is your message?” Jamie asked, eyeing the bag.

“This,” said the grinning man, swinging it back and forth. “Take this directly to your High Keeper. I want you to lay it at her miserable feet and tell her this: The Oyen is with us.” He tossed the bag to Jamie’s feet. “Hear me, scruff? The Oyen is with us. Can you handle that?”

Jamie nodded, terrified, and picked it up.

“And now,” the man said, walking backwards to where his comrades stood, “you run.”

The trio started backing away, slowly.

“He said, RUN!” shrieked Shalsa, and at that second six spears flew through the air, stabbing into the ground at their feet. The three men tore off, scrambling as fast as they could across the ice as more spears and arrows grazed threateningly close by them. The slipped and fell, climbed to their feet and ran and fell over and over again, and all the while they could hear the crowd’s laughter and Shalsa’s shouts of “RUN, SWINE, RUN! RUN!”

They didn’t stop until they collapsed onto the rocky western shore, gasping for breath and wincing at the pain in their feet and lungs. They spent the night there, nestled uncomfortably among the boulders and watching the torches burning a mile away out on the ice. Jamie was fitful, waking up every few minutes and staring off into the night, expecting to see toothy grins and tar-stained faces laughing in the darkness. In those moments where Jamie was awake he could see Hektor staring stone-faced at the torchlight.

The night was long and cold.

Deep Sleep (originally published on creepypasta.com)

I need to get back to digging soon.

My son is digging now, god bless him. He thinks I’m asleep, but that’s not going to happen. I haven’t slept easy for the last year. And now… now I don’t sleep at all.

It was about a year and a half ago that we moved. Karen got the RN position at the local clinic and I had been laid off from work at the greenhouses for a few months. We were getting low on money. Debt up to our necks. Tuition fees. Bills. We had no choice.

We packed up everything we could, sold what we couldn’t afford to move, and left our home of 14 years behind us. Our boy, Liam, was away at university at the time. I don’t think he understood how tight things were getting for us. I hope not. We didn’t need him worrying about all of that.

Right away we settled into the place. Karen was working 11 hour shifts at the clinic, on call 24/7. I started making money however I could. Yard work, some minor carpentry. After a couple months I got in with a roofing crew and by then we were doing okay. Started paying off the bills. Started getting our lives back in order.

That’s when it started happening.

Karen always had the nightmares. She told me how even as a little girl she would be afraid to go to bed… afraid to close her eyes for very long. I can remember when we first started dating back in high school, the first night we slept together she woke up screaming in the middle of the night. I’d never seen somebody so afraid. Most people tend to grow out of those things when they get older. The occasional bad dream isn’t that abnormal, but for me, adulthood means now I hardly dream at all. For Karen, the dreams never went away. She’d wake up almost every night in a sweat, shaking and out of breath. About three years after our marriage she finally took the doctor’s advice and went on a sleeping aid. They didn’t stop completely, but with the pills she could get through every other night with at least a few hours of good sleep. That’s what she told me, at least.

It was always the same. She’d wake up with a jump, breathing fast and wiping tears out of her eyes. “I was falling again,” she’d say, “just falling down and down.” I’d hold her for a bit, we’d shake it off and go back to sleep. It was normal for us, just one of those things you deal with as a couple. I never thought it would get so bad.

We’d both had a long day. Karen had just got home from the clinic and I’d finished up work on the Thompsons’ roof with the boys about an hour before she got back. I had the grill going when she walked up the front steps. It was the hottest day of that summer. Thirty-six degrees in the shade. Isn’t it funny, the stupid little things you remember? We ate porkchops for supper. Talked to Liam on the phone. Had a cold shower and watched some TV before going upstairs to bed.

I woke up, expecting to hear Karen’s rapid breathing and gasp of shock, but everything was quiet. Peaceful. Something was off, though. Something didn’t feel right. I don’t know if you have a significant other in your life, but when you share a bed with somebody for a long time you get real used to it. There’s a certain sense you have of that person lying next to you. I realized then what it was that felt so off. I couldn’t feel Karen next to me.

Then the strangest thing happened: I felt her hit the bed.

She screamed, louder and more afraid than I’d heard her in years. By the time I got my senses together enough to hold on to her to try and calm her down, she was completely soaked in sweat. When I pulled the bed sheets off her, Karen’s skin was cold to the touch and she wouldn’t stop crying. I had never felt so helpless, holding onto her and trying to talk her out of it. “It’s okay,” I told her, “you’re okay.” All the while, the bed was still shaking from when she had landed on the mattress.

After a long time, she did fall back to sleep. I laid awake, thinking. What happened hadn’t made any sense. I was sure that this time – and as far as I knew, for the first time – Karen really had been falling in her sleep.

After thinking it over for what felt like hours, I convinced myself of how it all went down. She must have been sleepwalking and fell on the bed just after I woke up. That would explain why she hit the bed so hard, and maybe when she had been walking around, she had bumped into something and that’s why I had woken up at that moment. I never woke up before Karen, not before this one time.

I laid there until morning trying to believe the explanation I had come up with, but two things wouldn’t allow me to be convinced. Karen never sleepwalked, and even if she had been that night, how did she get under the sheets so fast after falling into bed?

I remember being completely out of it the next day, after getting hardly any sleep and having the incident heavy on my mind. I didn’t say anything to Karen about it, but I could tell she knew something was up. That night when we went to bed, I didn’t fall asleep as quickly as I usually did. I lay there next to her, feeling the sheets move with her breathing, hearing the rain pattering over the deck outside.

That night, she didn’t even wake up, and after a few hours, I went to sleep.

It didn’t happen again the rest of the week. The week after that, she had a couple of nightmares, but nothing out of the ordinary, just what we had grown used to over the years. Another week passed by, and I stopped worrying about it. We carried on with our lives. Liam came home to visit for a few days between the end of his summer job and the start of the new semester. Things were good.

A week after Labor Day, it happened again. This time it was worse.

At four in the morning I woke up to Karen screaming and shaking around, but again, something was off. Her screams were shrill, frantic, but her voice sounded muffled. Again, I couldn’t feel her lying next to me, and I started crawling around, pulling up the sheets and feeling around for her with no luck. In my freshly-woken state, it took me a moment to realize what was happening. Karen’s screams were coming from underneath the bed.

With the lights on and my senses back I got her out from under there in a few seconds, but she was in rough shape. By the time I got her calmed down, she was still shivering like hell, cold and sweaty. I wanted to take her to the clinic, but she wouldn’t go, she just wouldn’t.

We sat there all night, leaning up against the bed, holding on to each other with the lights turned on. When I started to come down from the shock, I told Karen I was scared. She told me that she was too.

With my wife’s new sleepwalking problem, sleep started becoming hard to come by. Most nights I’d end up lying awake until sunrise, unable to keep my eyes shut. Karen would tell me there was nothing to worry about, but of course, I couldn’t believe her.

Not more than two weeks had passed when it happened the next time. Just like before, Karen would end up under the bed in a complete state of shock. I could do nothing but get her out of there as fast as possible and try to calm her down. In November it happened twice. Still, she refused to go see the doctor. The end of November is when I decided to set up the camera.

I didn’t tell Karen about it at first because I knew she wouldn’t allow it. She was determined to try and forget about the incidents, but I couldn’t. It felt too strange to write off as a sudden case of sleepwalking, and if that’s all it was, at least then I’d know for sure.

I borrowed a trail cam from one of the boys in the roofing crew. They’d use it for hunting during the fall. Basically, you set the thing up and if it detects motion, an infrared camera takes a snapshot of whatever’s going on. It works in total dark, and will take a picture every five seconds as long as there is movement. If Karen was sleepwalking, I’d have to catch it with this thing.

I hid it in my work bag, which I kept on my dresser in the bedroom. Each night before bed, while Karen was in the bathroom taking her makeup off, I’d turn on the trail cam and set it up so that the lens pointed out of the open end of the bag. For weeks I’d set up that damned thing every night and nothing happened. Karen would have her usual nightmares, but nothing like what had happened before. Every morning I’d check the photos and find nothing but a few shots of us rolling over in bed, or the occasional time one of us went to the bathroom. Nothing. I started wondering why I was doing this but during Christmas break Karen had another incident, and this time the camera was ready.

Liam was home for Christmas and we’d all been over to a friends’ place for a visit and drinks. Around midnight we got back home and said goodnight to one another before heading upstairs to our bedrooms. I turned on the trail cam, not really expecting anything. At that point it had just become habit.

I jumped out of bed as soon as I heard Karen’s screams. I turned on the light and rushed back to the bed, ready to reach in and pull her out, my heart pounding in my chest. I got down on my hands and knees but realized after a moment that she wasn’t there. The space under the bed was empty.

That’s when Liam came into the room. His face was a mixture of confusion and shock. He said “Dad, what’s going on?” I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t think.

I realized then that Karen’s screaming was coming from outside the bedroom, she sounded like she was downstairs somewhere. I darted out of the room and ran down the hall, down the stairs with Liam following close behind. We found her lying in the middle of the kitchen floor, clutching her bloody left arm to her chest. She was sobbing, screaming in terror and unable to get up off the floor. When I went to her I saw the bone jutting out of her forearm. Instinct kicked in. I picked her up in my arms, Liam grabbed the keys and together we got her into the truck and were rushing up the clinic steps in under ten minutes.

The rest of the night was hectic. After checking out her arm, the doctor got us on the ambulance to the city. Liam rode in the back with his mom, I followed them in the truck. Longest goddamned four-hour drive of my life. At the hospital they fixed her arm, and found three broken ribs as well, all on her left side. The verdict was pretty clear – she must have fallen while sleepwalking. But even the doctor at the hospital had to agree with me that it was an awful lot of damage for such a simple fall. His reasoning? He said she must have climbed up on the kitchen counter and jumped off.

Liam had so many questions. I didn’t know what to tell him, so I told him the lie we’d been telling ourselves for the last half a year. “Your mom’s been sleepwalking a lot lately,” I told him. “Don’t worry, we’ve got it under control,” I told him.

I didn’t look at the photos until after he’d gone back for the winter semester. I didn’t want to look at them, even then. I was scared to.

There were twenty pictures taken that night. Three of Karen walking in the room and getting into bed. Two of me and Karen rolling over. Twelve of Liam and I in the bedroom until we ran out. There were three pictures from before I woke up that scared the living hell out of me, and those are why I told Karen about the trail cam.

The first picture showed me and Karen lying side by side in bed, blankets up to our chins, peacefully sleeping. The next showed us in the exact same positions, me on my right side, Karen on her left, but she appeared to be floating about a foot above the bed. In the next picture, she was gone. I realized then what I had been too unnerved to notice at the time of the incident – the place we found Karen in the kitchen is directly below our bed upstairs.

She wasn’t happy when I told her I’d been spying on us for months. Karen doesn’t get mad often, but when she does it’s not something you want to be around for. Finally, though, I convinced her to look at the pictures. She cried for hours, and I with her.

We took no chances after that. From that day on Karen and I slept in shifts, each staying awake to watch the other. That was our promise to one another. I’m not sure I ever really slept, though. I was too afraid Karen would fall asleep as well, and then without me watching, it would happen again. I had a fear that I refused to voice to Karen, that I was too afraid to even think to myself about for more than a moment. Karen had somehow fallen through a whole story of our house and broken a few bones. We also had a basement below that level. If the fall to the kitchen floor ten feet below had broken her arm, what would a twenty-foot fall do? The basement floor was solid, unfinished concrete. Even now, after all that’s happened, I can’t think about that.

We kept it up, sleeping in turns. I would watch Karen for the first four hours, and then she would watch me. We lived like that for eight months. Constantly tired, constantly afraid. We stopped going out, stopped talking to people. I don’t know how many times I damn near fell off the edge of somebody’s roof from exhaustion. I don’t know how Karen kept it up. She was always the stronger one. We promised to one another that we’d get through it, that this thing wouldn’t destroy us. God, what I wouldn’t give to go back and change things. But it’s too late for that. I failed her. It’s all my fault.

It was almost two thirty in the morning. There were only about five minutes left before the alarm would go off and we’d switch places. Karen would get up and I’d lie down. It was warm. It was quiet. She was lying on her left side, like she always did, breathing softly. I remember thinking that, from my angle, it looked like she was smiling. My back was aching, and I leaned back against the headboard for just a moment to rest it. I closed my eyes and let myself relax for the first time in a long time.

Karen’s alarm woke me, and she wasn’t there. This time, I couldn’t hear her screaming. I called out to her, but she didn’t answer.

She wasn’t under the bed, and she wasn’t downstairs in the kitchen. I ran all through the house, screaming, yelling out to her, praying that I’d turn a corner and there she’d be, just coming back from getting a glass of water or using the bathroom. She wasn’t anywhere in the first or second story of the house, and that left only one place to look.

I opened the basement door, and went down. Karen wasn’t there, either.

For a few seconds, I felt relief. Just a few seconds. After that, I fell to the floor and lost myself. I lay on that cold, concrete floor in tears. All the exhaustion and emotion that had built up in me over those eight long months just took over, and I couldn’t get up. In my hysteria I imagined her down there somewhere under the ground, still screaming and shaking in fear from her falling nightmare. A few times I even thought I could hear her. The next morning the clinic called the house asking about Karen. “She’s gone,” I told them, “I lost her.” I don’t know how long I spent walking around in the house, calling out her name before I finally decided what needed to be done. I went out to the shed, the sunlight blinding me, and grabbed the sledgehammer and pickaxe.

The cops came to the house. The sheriff and deputy both came to check things out after Karen hadn’t shown up for work and I suppose what I told the receptionist must have given them a bit of a scare. They asked me what I was doing all covered in dirt and dust and I told them just what I was doing. “Looking for Karen,” I told them. Now, I get it. They thought I killed her. That’s why they asked to come in. That’s why they wanted me to show them around the house.

I showed them every room, every corner, every closet. I showed them the pictures from the trail cam. I took them to the basement and showed them my work. It had taken me nearly the entire day to break through the concrete and get it cleared away. By the time they showed up, I’d dug down about two feet into the soil. It’s really rocky here, so it takes a long time to make any progress. I asked them If they would help me out for a while. Sheriff agreed to help me while deputy went to make a phone call. After a while he came back too. For a bit they just watched me dig, but then they joined in too.

I don’t know what they expected, but whatever it was, they didn’t get it. They asked me a few times where Karen was, and I told them I didn’t know. How could I possibly explain it to them? How could they ever understand?

It broke my heart when Liam showed up at the house. Deputy had called him. He’d left the city as soon as he could, and made the drive home in three hours. He asked me what was going on, and how could I lie to him again? How could I look my boy in the eye and tell him everything was okay? Everything came out. I told him about how the nightmares his mother had been having had gotten worse, and about how she kept falling and falling. At first, I know he thought I was crazy, but now I’m not so sure. He was there that night she broke her arm. He knows that whatever’s happening to us is not normal. Even the cops haven’t accused me of madness yet.

He asked me for a shovel, and started digging as well. That was yesterday. After a while, the cops left. I asked them If they’d come back to help again in the morning, and they did. Now that there’re four of us, the work is going much quicker. The cops keep asking me where Karen is, and I keep telling them she has to be down there somewhere. It’s not the answer they’re looking for, but it’s the best I have.

At noon today, the deputy himself stopped digging and held up a hand for us to listen. I don’t know what it is, but we can hear sounds coming from below. Somewhere deeper down, something is making noise. If you hold still with your hand to the ground, you can feel the rocks shaking from time to time. We kept digging.  At the time, the hole was about seven feet deep, so we set up a ladder to help with climbing in and out for breaks.

At six o’clock we turned over a rock the size of the kitchen table, and lying underneath it, as shiny and clean as the day I bought it, was Karen’s engagement ring. We kept digging. The ground is different down there. The earth is darker. Metallic, almost. The noises are getting louder. Sometimes, they sound like voices.

It must have been just before ten when they told me to come upstairs and lie down. I didn’t want to, I wanted to keep helping, but Liam made me promise. I won’t go breaking promises to my family again. I won’t.

I need to get back to digging soon. It’s been a few hours, and I think I can hear the sheriff shouting from downstairs. Maybe they’ve found something else. Maybe she’s still alive. Maybe.

Horrible, Nasty Things

I’m quite happy at the moment, all thanks to short fiction. I’m feeling very inspired.

I’ve spent the last couple of months revisiting some short fiction works from my past (most of which were prescribed reading during school days) and have more inspired than usual to write some short stories. When I write short stories, I almost always write horror.

I don’t know what it is about short horror fiction but it’s really quite the formula for atmosphere. Those fleeting glimpses of a larger story draw you in and open your mind to possibilities and… end. They leave you after a handful of pages with so many unanswered questions, so many possible explanations and backstories lingering in your mind. It’s totally intoxicating.

My little journey in rediscovery started with HP Lovecraft via the delightful “HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast” and rereadings of works like Dagon and The Outsider. Other works that I dug up from assigned readings included WW Jacobs’ The Monkeys Paw and Will F Jacobs’ Side Bet and… was every short story I read in school authored by somebody called Jacobs?

I’m getting off track. The point is, short fiction is fun. Horror is fun. Short horror is fantastic. Since publishing my last horror piece “Deep Sleep” online, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring what I can do with my own short stories. I’ve got so many ideas I want to try out I’ve actually started plotting them out ahead of time, which is something I never do.

I’m not exactly sure what my intent was with this post, but I’m in the writing mood and wanted to share some thoughts before I get started.

There’s a thunderstorm going on outside my window right now, and the lightning is flashing on the trees outside. Time to get to work.

Happy writing, ghoulies.

Finding the (right) time to write

Our environment influences us, no doubt. It changes our mood, our attention span and our train of thought. I’ve come to find (without too much surprise) that it has a direct influence on my writing.

I’ve spoken before about atmosphere and writing – with respect to music and background noise in particular. But location isn’t the only thing that changes the way we write. For me, time of day is extremely important. Depending on whether or not I can see the sun shining, how long it’s been since I’ve slept, the knowledge of what’s going on in the outside world… all of those things can play a role. In my experience it really depends on the type of material I’m writing, but knowing the right time to write can be just as important as finding the correct place. Let’s start at the beginning.

Morning.

Mornings are damn productive. Get up and go. My preferred method? Empty stomach, lots of coffee, empty cafe. For some reason I do my best long prose writing in the mornings. This is when my novels get a boost. It’s a great time for brainstorming and even better for a high word count in a short amount of time. Mornings seem to be a great time to express a lot of emotion and thought without over thinking things. It’s easy to get into a flow. My favorite time of day for poetry.

Afternoon.

This is prime dialogue time. I’ve had my coffee, I’ve had something to eat. People are moving, talking, commuting all around. This is when I can really focus on word choice and character building, making conversation-writing a dream. In the morning I let my imagination run wild with ideas, and in the afternoon it all comes together. Not a good time for poetry, I’ve found. Stream of consciousness is much more predictable (and less interesting). I love writing fantasy in the afternoons, as this is when I do my best technical thinking and problem solving.

Evening.

For me, this is the least productive time of day. In the evenings I enjoy reading other people’s works, watching movies, listening to music. It’s nearly impossible for me to focus on my own writing in the evening, unless I’m especially inspired or have found the perfect location. This is when my mind is on other things.

Late night.

This, my friends, is where the horror happens. After-dark writing produces an atmosphere that I just can’t seem to tap into at other times of the day. Emotions are easy to unlock, settings become much more vivid in my mind and – perhaps most importantly – I’m tired. This is when the thoughts that come at the end of a long day – thoughts that we tend to push out of our minds in the lighter hours – start to creep into full view. If I dim the lights and turn my back to an open door and start typing, I can really unsettle myself at times. When I start glancing over my shoulder and double checking to make sure the door is locked, now I’m in prime terror territory. Poems and short stories thrive here.

Of course, this is just my experience. You may find that your right times for writing are totally different. Whatever the case, try out different things. If you’re stuck in a rut or running out of ideas, leave it for later. Get up early the next morning and try again. Have a go after supper. If that’s not your thing, wait until the lights go out and try again. Style is a tricky beast to master, but experimentation will help you figure it out. And if it doesn’t work? Try again later.

Happy writing.