I am very pleased to announce that the judges have come to a decision and I can now reveal
The Winner of The Wheel of Osheim Writing Contest to be:
William Hiles for his entry The Architect.
With the overall high standard of the entries I would also like to give a special mention to the runners up:
First runner up: Wes S., The Last Job
Second runner up: Guy O’Harrison, Always On
Once again thank you very much for taking the time to enter and submitting so many excellent works.
Special thanks to the brilliant judges panel: Peter Newman, T.o. Munro, John Gwynne, David Jackson, Sarah Chorn and Mark Lawrence for considering the entries and providing much appreciated feedback on the shortlisted pieces, that you can all find below. – Agnes
The Architect (57 points)
Dr. Watkins gazed down at the young soldier through blood-shot eyes. He felt himself moving within; two halves on a rough sea, weaving on the drop, stuttering on the rise.
“The arm’s fractured,” he said, slurred and not caring, far beyond any notions of conceit.
“Oh God Jesus no!” The boy struggled to rise from the crude operating table. Two orderlies held the him by the shoulders. Another pried his mouth open and poured brandy, then poured some on the wound. The boy’s eyes rolled, showed only whites. Bloodied fingers forced a Minie ball between his crooked teeth.
Dr. Watkins took a pull of the brandy, forced stillness on a trembling soul, and began to saw.
The boy thrashed and cried in an unknown tongue, though the meaning was clear enough, until he fainted.
An orderly branded the ragged stump, the tent filling with the stench of burnt pork.
Dr. Watkins nodded, swallowed strength from the bottle, waiting for the next one.
Toward night, after the guns had grown silent and cool, after the sun had set like a bloody egg behind Seminary Ridge, Dr. Watkins stood beyond the shadow puppets that flitted on the tent walls and faced a lifeless edifice. Farmer’s arms and shopkeeper’s legs. Hands, coarse from hard living, hands soft on a child’s face; lover’s fingers; killer’s fist.
He stood as an architect, knowing that more work would be done, and this knowing was a thing to stop the world.
He turned in the darkness and walked.
Life or death….
He prayed for tears.
He searched for a merciful bullet.
by William Hiles
There is some sexy use of language going on here and those words are doing a lot of heavy lifting as well as being beautiful. I particularly liked the line ‘He felt himself moving within; two halves on a rough sea, weaving on the drop, stuttering on the rise.’ and the description of the different body parts. Oh and this bit: ‘…this knowing was a thing to stop the world.’ Moody, dark, classy, love it!
This entry grew on me more and more with each re-read. At first I saw the story – a simple tale of brutal surgery by an exhausted battlefield surgeon – no MASH style comic turns like Hawkeye and Trapper John in Korea. Then I saw the writing, so many lovely lines I could quote half the story and still not have picked out all my favourites. Deft prose that conjures three dimensional images from two dimensional words, to convey an utter exhaustion of body and spirit. Then there was the edifice, outside the tent – the butcher’s pile of severed limbs – built by this saw-bones architect. The description of that dead flesh with its lost promise was for me reminiscent of lines from Gray’s Elegy or MacDonell’s “England Their England.”
So, this one won me over with excellent near-poetic description. The prose has a certain grandeur to it, and although the ‘futility of war’ is perhaps an over-explored topic the segue from one amputation to the mountain resulting from the fruits of his labour is a powerful way to show it. Well done.
Well-written and immersive. For me it’s the prose that makes this stand out. Some beautiful lines – “He felt himself moving within; two halves on a rough sea, weaving on the drop, stuttering on the rise.” And “forced stillness on a trembling soul,” The horror of war is vividly portrayed, with some haunting imagery that stayed with me a long time after I’d finished reading. For me this was the clear winner.
Powerful, moving and memorable. The beauty of the prose casts a light glow over the piece rendering the horrors of suffering even more striking.
This one did just about everything right for me. Extremely polished prose, some brilliant, evocative phrasing, great character and just the right amount of worldbuilding. All packed into a scant 271 words. What struck me about it is that, typically you see these kinds of “horrors of war” stories told from the perspective of soldiers doing terrible things, or doctors undoing the terrible things soldiers have done and lamenting the darker side of human nature. Here we have something of a hybrid — a doctor who is much less sanguine about the “good” he’s doing, and who wonders if perhaps he’s not just as terrible a monster as any other. Human nature is reduced to its most fundamental aspect: the dude’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, and then he’s got to figure out how to live with it.
At the same time everything was working brilliantly, though, there was something keeping me at arm’s length from the piece. I can’t put my finger on exactly what. I kept looking for some element of narrative closure in it — something at the end to lead me back to the beginning. The last line felt oddly out of place, there being some metaphorical weight to “a merciful bullet” that didn’t seem to carry through the rest of the piece as well as it possibly could have. In the end, I think I might have preferred the piece to either end on “he searched for tears” or carry just one or two lines beyond “a merciful bullet.” It’s hard to say exactly what bugged me about this … and it’s very possibly just one of those taste things.
Any criticisms aside, though, it was a fine story that will stick with me for a very long time. And, really, what more can you ask of a great piece of flash?
The Last Job (49 points)
The job was supposed to be simple.
When someone wanted an item that didn’t belong to them, our contact found us. This time was no different. Get in, grab the item, get out. Some rich peacock’s estate, no surprises. We didn’t ask what the item was. Some call that stupidity, we call it discretion.
We don’t ask questions.
Now, running through the woods in the middle of the fucking night, my heart about to explode in my chest, I’m starting to regret that particular business decision.
The hounds bayed wildly somewhere behind us, a cacophony that had grown closer over the hours they’d tracked us. We’d had no rest, no water, but we couldn’t stop. People like us don’t go to jail.
We won’t be remembered in death.
I glanced to the hulking silhouette of the man I’d spent the last decade with, his moonlit features as familiar as my own. I tried to speak, but the words got lost and I was on my knees in the snow. How had that happened?
A crunch as he lowered before me. He was silent, and just stared at me. As he always did. When I’d met him, I’d hated that stare. The ocean of patience in his eyes, as if he would wait forever for my words.
I’ve grown to love him for it.
I took a ragged breath. “Not gonna make it out of this one, are we?”
His grin was an ivory tear in the dark. “Nope.”
I stared at the man I loved, my partner in more than crime. Rivulets wove down my cheeks, and I had no words.
He leaned forward and kissed me gently. “I know.”
“We had a good life.”
He set the package between us. We didn’t open it.
We don’t ask questions.
by Wes S.
I liked this one. We have an action scene that is telling us a lot about the characters and their relationships at the same time. Probably the best thing I can say is that it convinced me that there was a history here and that this was just one part of a much longer story. I really liked the fact that they don’t open the package too.
Everybody loves a good rogue – from Robin Hood to Locke Lamora. This pair of honourable thieves, partners in more than crime, drew me in with the desperation of their plight and the depth of their affection. The terse prose captures the breathless nature of their flight, short lines. “People like us don’t go to jail.” “I was on my knees in the snow. How had that happened.” Then there are the closing lines as they sit beside the stolen artefact – the truth of character illuminated by the imminence of death – “We didn’t open it. We don’t ask questions.”
This one tells a whole story in 300 words, not easy to do, and in an engaging way – scene, plot, character, context, it’s all in there, and emotion, too. Well-crafted, economical, and well-written, with some flashes of lovely prose – “The ocean of patience in his eyes.”
300 words are generally inadequate to make me care about characters or what happens to them. Let alone to make me feel upset with the writer for letting them come to a hopeless end and not telling me what was in the box!
A job well done.
This piece managed to do successfully what so many other pieces struggled to pull off. It packed a good amount of worldbuilding in with some solid characterization and some great voice. We get to eavesdrop on the final moments in a pair of lives that we can believe existed beyond the page in a world that gets fleshed out as much between the lines as in them. “People like us don’t go to jail” tells you a lot about a lot of things. Spare, economic prose that punches well above its weight class. Really well-crafted stuff.
My only reservation is that, as well-crafted as it is, I find on reflection that I don’t really have much more to say about it. Some stories grab me in a way that lasts, in a way that sticks in my memory and somehow insists on frequent recollection. This one seemed to slip under that radar in an odd way. It does everything right … but it doesn’t hit me as especially memorable or moving. In part, this may be because I’ve seen a lot of stories about the end of charismatic rogues, and this one doesn’t do anything in particular that sets it apart. And, to be fair, I’m not sure it really could in only 300 words.
All said, though, it’s a fun story. The only reason it didn’t rank higher for me is because it had some really stiff competition.
Always On (46 points)
My first life ended when a loose connection in the CO2 condenser in my flight suit blew me out of the sky. Back then it took three months for a new body to come online. I woke up and my last memory was the shrill suit alarm telling me I was going to die. Technology has come a long way since then. Now, if you can afford it, you have all four of your legally sanctioned bodies on ice. That way you can wake up a couple of hours after your last death.
My second life ended when a roof collapsed during a caving expedition. I wasn’t hurt but there was no way out. After making sure my consciousness updated, I slit my throat and woke up at the Vita-Gen compound, still shivering from the memory of that cold cave water.
My third life ended during a street robbery. The robber ripped my wet wired comms unit from my neck and I bled out on the street in front of my apartment building. Luckily the whole thing was caught on the patrolling Drone-Cam so I sued the robber. He forfeited his current life and I got a free replacement.
My fourth life ended because I got bored and entered a drug taking endurance competition. I lasted six days until eventually my liver failed. I came third and the prize money got paid to my next life.
Now I’m on my fifth and final life. This is it. Consciousness upload turned off. I can’t afford a new body on the black market and no country with extension laws will give me a visa. Even walking down the street is a thrill ride now because I know I have to make it count.
I feel more alive now than I ever have.
by Guy O’Harrison
This was an unusual entry, the one that – for me – most challenged the form. It was neither really a short story nor – as some entries were – a single scene in a life. But it was clever and well written. When you consider how many thousands of words are given over to world building info-dumps in some books, this piece conjures up a whole sci-fi future in a few short paragraphs. It also builds the character of the narrator, a man so bored with this tension free resurrection that he gambles away a whole life in a competition. It reminds me of those millionaire footballers for whom money loses all meaning and they gamble fortunes without a second thought. If resurrection was so accessible how cheap would we think life was? A point that the story returns to in its final line, only when death is certain does life have its true value.
While I prize economy in the stories that I read, every word punching above its weight, I also prize stories that make you think, that drop a pebble in your imagination whose ripples last long after the story is finished. For me this was such a piece, a piece of flash fiction on which to build a novel, a piece about a character and a world of which I most wanted to know more.
Great story built around an excellent concept, I found this fun and engaging, with a pleasant flow to the prose. A fantastic example of ‘storyteller’ writing, it made time disappear for me as the story sucked me in.
This was an interesting one for me. It’s the kind of story that lives or dies on the novelty of its idea, I think, and for me, the idea didn’t hit me as anything really novel. (I read a LOT of science fiction.) I kept waiting for it to do something unexpected, something ironic … something to skewer the video-game logic of its own premise. I left off a touch disappointed by what felt like an Outer Limits style twist at the ending, thinking to myself “But there are so many possibilities!” And that, I think, is why it didn’t work as well for me. My own imagination outran the story. It’s not exactly a fair objection … but it is what it is.
Technically, it’s a fine read. Some good voice to the narration, though I thought it did get a little bogged down in summary. The nihilism of the character comes through great, though, and there’s a ton of worldbuilding behind the page that works in a way that’s hard to pull off in flash. What didn’t quite click with me was a solid sense of conflict. It didn’t immediately answer that brutal “Why should I care?” question that every story must in its first few lines (apart from the novelty of its idea, of course) and as I read along, I got the uncomfortable sense that the character didn’t really care, either … right up until the end. And that’s where it sort of seemed to me that the real story should begin.
My personal biases aside, though, it’s a nifty idea told with a memorable voice. I’m pretty picky and crotchety, but I can definitely see why it should score so highly.
Champion (40 points)
“You saved me,” the girl says. Shivers. Looks at me with fearful eyes.
“It was nothing,” I say. “Any true knight would have fought for you. Justice must be served.”
I sag against a tree, slither to the forest floor in a heap of clanking plates and shuddering flesh. Here, far from the noise of the judicial arena, the noise rings stark, bitter. Blood runs swiftly from the rent in the mail beneath my arm. The judge’s man was better than I thought, hurt me bad before I cut him down. His death wasn’t deserved, no more than hers would have been. Pointless.
I cough scarlet dew over my gauntlet.
“You always stand for me,” the girl whispers. A tiny thing, a fragile thing. I don’t understand, but then, I don’t even know her. I remember so little.
“Couldn’t let you burn,” I croak. Taste the blood in my mouth. “Your accusers… liars and bastards. No such thing as witchcraft.”
“No such thing,” she whispers. I can’t focus. Everything dims. The midday sun darkens, everything grows hazy.
She helps me remove my armour. Unclasps the straps like she knows the way around a suit of harness. Fingers move expertly, deft, sure. Icy fingers brush my wound.
The thread of my life grows taught, frays. A distant memory comes. Same feeling on another day. Same girl stroking at rent flesh. Her fingers trace the scars of bygone death. Big wound in my chest. Another in my gut. Wonder how I ever survived them… Don’t even remember taking them…
I wake to darkness. Wood panels on all sides. A box. Somebody draws back the lid. The moon sits high in the sky.
“Come,” she says. “More fools seek to have me burned.”
I rise. Justice must be served.
by Ed McDonald
This is great! We get a set up, characters and a twist all in three hundred words. Perfect flash material. The writing is good too, lean and not telling too much with lines like: ‘I cough scarlet dew over my gauntlet’ raising it up.
A knight duelling to save a damsel in distress? – but Ivanhoe this most definitely is not. At first it seems we have just another well written tragic hero, a death scene that would befit The Magnificent Seven as our wounded champion coughs “scarlet dew” over his gauntlet. There are other lines and images that grabbed me like “The thread of my life grows taught, frays.” But the twist is well laid with subtle clues about old scars and hands too used to unbuckling armour such that only the amnesiac revenant at the tale’s centre fails to see what is going on.
I loved this one. It takes the fantasy trope of Knightly chivalry and has fun with it. A great twist at the end that had me thinking about what might have happened before and after. The prose is good, though I felt the use of short/one word sentences didn’t add to the read. I’ve read this style before and I like it, but within a 300-word story it felt a little stuttery and tripped me out of the tale a few times.
I loved how this piece started off with a soft, gentle scene, which then turned darker and darker still, gradually shifting into something unexpected. At times, especially around the middle of the story, I enjoyed the short sentences. They sounded as though each of them stood for a ragged breath, a weakening heartbeat, a final kick of consciousness. After a while however they became a little too monotone and it felt like they a little weakened what could have been an even more powerful ending. Having said that it was still one of my favourite entries. Not to mention that any piece of fiction that in 300 words manages to lure me into expecting something and then spins around to surprise has my approval.
This one offers up a nice twist at the end, and sets up that twist nicely with a few apparent throw-away lines earlier on (e.g. “Wonder how I ever survived them…”). My one disappointment is that, to me, the twist is the most interesting part. A lot of the stories we’ve seen revolve around a protagonist’s final moments (and, in fairness, there does seem to be something about these moments that lend themselves to the flash format), and a lot of fantasy in general revolves around the noble knight. I’d have liked to have seen the twist resonate a little more through the rest of the piece, and to have felt a little more dissonance and darkness in the earlier parts.
The girl, in particular, felt oddly undeveloped to me. I’d have liked to see their relationship hinted at a bit more, and seen perhaps a little more of the reason why he was motivated (in his own mind) to fight for her. The true reasons become clear after the twist, but it seemed like there would have had to be some rationalization for him if he didn’t know what was really going on. This wouldn’t be easy to do, walking that fine line between fleshing things out and blowing the twist. And it’s even harder to do in only 300 words.
All in all, though, it’s a well written piece with a memorable twist. It’s easy to throw stones, but much, much harder to pull of a story of this caliber.
The Divine Wind (29 points)
She strips the linen off the shikifuton, moving on to the pillowcase. Wet. It is all she can do to run out of the room and give voice to her silent agony.
Instead, she folds the futon, takes the linen and puts it to wash. And then, she walks out steadily into the spring sun to see Takashi.
He stands in the courtyard with the fallen cherry blossoms, a small smile on his face.
“Aiko, I was waiting for you!”
“My apologies. I was caught up in my chores. What can I do for you, Takashi-San?”
“Could you please send this postcard out when you can?” He hands her a postcard with some money.
Her mouth blurts the words out, “But I have no change.”
He waves her off with the familiar twinkle, “That’s okay. You can keep the money. I am bribing you not to forget.”
“I won’t”, she smiles hesitantly at this old young man and moves closer, to hold his hands. And they stand motionless in the sunlight.
The other girls come clattering out, holding flowers. Aiko and Takashi move apart and he bows to her.
“Thank you, Aiko.” He says formally, “till we meet again”
“Till we meet again, my firefly.” She lapses into the familiar rhythm.
And he walks away from her into the rest of his life.
The plane takes off and dips its wings in salute – once, twice, three times. Aiko’s friends wave their boughs of flowers at the rapidly disappearing speck.
And then she reads the postcard addressed to his parents. A single sentence like a solitary ship adrift in the vast sea of unspoken words.
“I meet death on my terms.”
And she walks back into the dormitories – back to his tear soaked pillowcase.
by Shruti G
This was my personal favorite out of the whole batch. I thought it was brilliantly understated, and had a nice circularity to it, starting and ending on the same note with the wet pillow, though with some interesting misdirection in that. What really made it work for me, though, was the enormous density of meaning in that simple line, “I am bribing you not to forget.” I don’t know exactly what the relationship is between Aiko and Takashi, but it almost doesn’t matter. What matters is that she is now the bearer of his small legacy, regardless of what she does with that postcard.
The only place where I worry that the story might fail is in being a touch too subtle. If you weren’t a big WW2 history buff, or otherwise didn’t make the connection with the title, I don’t know if the story would really work. And yet … I hesitate to say it should be made more obvious, because when it does work, it works very, very well, and I think making it more obvious would detract from that.
The Brother’s Hands (28 points)
Julian went upstairs to where he imagined Raoul would be. It was dark in the room, much the same as Julian remembered—dusty floors, dim corners thick with cobwebs and memories. It had been their master’s once, during another life. Julian paused in the doorway and waited. Raoul was seated in the window, looking out at the groves, plucking at the strings of his lute. The tune came, note by soft note, a winding progression like dancers’ footsteps as they twined about each other. The balmy breeze from the window carried the notes to Julian’s ears, and he felt his eyes burn. He had heard this before, but it had been years before. The man who had played it was now a ghost.
He stepped inside, the floor creaking under foot. Raoul played for a few seconds and then fell silent. His face was in shadow, just the outline of his brow and nose limned by the twilight outside.
“You still play,” Julian said. Raoul nodded, holding up a hand and looking at it. It was much like Julian’s—callused, hard, scar-covered.
“I do.” Raoul looked up at Julian, eyes glittering in the dark. “Music’s the only beautiful thing I’ve ever made with these hands, you know.”
Julian thought of everything that had happened since he’d returned. The death, the glowing pendant, the unholy green fire. The new brothers somewhere in the complex, he hoped resting and fed. There were too many questions. At a loss for words, Julian crossed the room, his tread heavy on the old wooden boards. He rested a hand on Raoul’s shoulder. They both looked out back into the gardens, over the twisted branches of the orange trees, and the glimmering of the sea beyond.
It was not enough, but it would do, for now.
by M.G. Floyd
This was one of my favourites. We get a nice sense of relationship here, and of place. I believe that Raoul and Julian know each other and that they have history. My only criticism is that the penultimate paragraph’s references several things I have no hook. I think it would be stronger to snip out the first half of it and start with the ‘At a loss for words…’. I loved the image at the end of the para though, with the brothers looking out to the sea together. Lovely.
I very well written piece that felt as if it had been sliced out of something larger. Gentle and well observed. It makes you want to read more.
Life, Love and Death
Someone once said Death is the betrayer of a virtuous life. It explains why I’ve lived so long. I am not a good woman.
As I lean back on my throne I see the bodies, smell the blood, hear the cries of those who called themselves heroes and now whimper for their mothers. What’s worse, there’s no one left to shut them up.
My eyes are drawn to the window, beyond it black smoke billows into the sky, carrying with it the sounds of hundreds of acts of violence committed against the innocents who didn’t have the sense to get out when they should. Idiots. They’ll blame me for that too.
Finally, my attention is drawn to the man in front of me with his sad smile. He stares with those dark caramel eyes and, for a moment, I lose myself in their depths. His blood-spattered face, heaving chest and lithe body remind me of better times. When I captured him, a lowly human, I had no idea how he’d not only satisfy me physically, but fill the gap where my heart used to be.
‘Quite a battle my love.’
I nod. Even now I find his masculinity intoxicating, I can smell his sweat, I beckon him closer and run a finger across his blood-stained cheek. He grins briefly.
‘Tir na nÓg needs peace. So do my people.’
I sigh. Relinquishing power is a new sensation.
I tear my eyes from his, focus on his sword buried deep in my chest.
‘I’m sorry. Your tyranny had to end,’ he whispers though there’s no one left to hear.
His eyes widen as I drive my dagger into his heart and he collapses on top of me.
‘I’m sorry too.’ And I mean it.
Apparently death betrays love, as well as life.
by Phil Parker
I liked how this entry throws the reader in at the climax of the action like the end of the battle in John Borman’s Excalibur (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1p49F-qcstw) and still manages to fill in the backstory of its two protagonists.
It is told with some sharply observed lines – including the opening three sentences and “the cries of those who called themselves heroes and now whimper for their mothers.” I was particularly struck by the mournful “Relinquishing power is a new sensation.”
The story compresses quite a few twists into its 300 words describing a single scene. There are the mortal enemies who were once lovers, the heroine who we discover has been defeated, the victor who also dies.
This then best demonstrates the third characteristic (for me) of good story telling, – it must surprise.
The infuriating incident of the dog in the night-time
Cold seeped through his rags. A dampness that suckled at what warmth remained. He shifted. One hand pushing at the wet stones, flailing feet working to ease him into a position against the wall.
“Been freezing most of my life,” he gurgled, blood adding punctuation in staccato spatters. “Death don’t look to be much different.”
The dog spared him a look and continued examining whatever it found so interesting under its rear leg.
“Supposed to care, you little shit,” the beggar chuckled, a wet sound that broke off into pained hacking. “Oh hell, that hurts,” he wheezed, clutching tighter at the ragged hole the knife had left in his side.
“Supposed to be a faithful friend,” he accused in a voice that was more gasps than anything else “Every beggar’s got to have a dog. You don’t look like you could care less. An’ I shared that sausage with you this morning. I should’ve got a fucking cat.”
The dog had the grace to look guilty, whining once, and licking its nose before looking away at some sound in the night.
“C’mere, dog.” One hand patted the ground and then reached to stroke the damp fur. “You listen, dog. I want you to find the fat bastard, once I’m done. Don’t take no risks now. No point you getting hurt. You find him an’ wait til he’s sleeping or something, and you find what he took from me. You find that whisky and you piss in it.” The laughter came sudden, forcing itself up from his belly and past the pain that sought to smother it as he clutched at his side. It grew weaker, sputtered, and died.
Alone in the night, the dog nosed a hand that lay limp and cold. It licked it twice, turned, and padded away.
by Graham Austin-King
Death scenes seem to fit well into 300 words and (like entry 56) this charts one man’s exit from life with just a solitary companion/witness. However, there is a comedic touch that we didn’t see in many entries, along with a cynical spin on all those other faithful hound stories – like Greyfriars Bobby or any Lassie film. It’s an entertaining little story with some nice lines “blood adding punctuation in staccato sputters” that manages to be quite different.
For me the prose instantly elevated this story “he gurgled, blood adding punctuation in staccato spatters.” I found the story entertaining and well-written, this was the only one that made me chuckle. It stood out in my group as clear shortlist material.
A lot of people speak of a veil between life and death. A curtain which separates the solid from the spiritual. That’s not the way I see it, I know there isn’t one.
I’ve always had a different perspective on things, even as a kid. In fact, most people thought I was the strangest kid alive. And perhaps I was since I’ve never met another like me before. You see, the world that I observe through my eyes is different from the one you see through yours. When I walk around and go about my business normally everything is fine, but if I really concentrate that’s when things start to get interesting. The colour sort of fades away until the world resembles an old photograph. And the longer I go without blinking the sharper the shadows become. There is no curtain, no veil. The shadows surround us; we live and breathe them. And there are other things there too.
Not just people either. I once spent a good minute playing with my dead dog until the need to blink was too strong and the colour came back. When I blink the colour snaps back like an elastic, and for that I’m grateful because there are scary things out there, some things I wish I had never seen. But once it’s gone, I allow myself to forget the horrors that sit beside us, the creatures that grin maliciously as we go about our lives. And I can forget how their hollowed eyes look straight at me sometimes, like they know that I know. Or at least I could forget before. I blink but it’s like the elastic has snapped and the colour won’t come back.
They’re staring right at me.
This story conjured up the creepiness of seeing what others don’t see – what others can’t see. The scary impact reminded me of Bruce Willis’s “The Sixth Sense” or the Doctor Who story “Don’t Blink”. The narrator’s light conversational tone drew me in to what seemed at first a harmless quirk. But the story bites hard at the end, and in a few short lines the writing captures the panic of the protagonist who suddenly finds themselves trapped in a nightmare they had been playing with.
I enjoyed this one, especially the concept. Reminded me of something in-between Constantine and The Sixth Sense. The prose had a nice flow to it, with a palpable build of tension in the last few lines. Overall the story felt more ‘tell’ than ‘show,’ which I think stopped it from ranking more highly in the top ten.
The King’s Executioner
The room is small and dry; not filled with the drip-drip-drip of water one might expect. A high table rests against one wall, the wood polished but worn under an assortment of tools. In the center a scarred chair stained near black with blood, bile and worse. A naked man is seated there, held in place with iron and leather.
“Are you going to kill me?” The man asks through mushy lips. Having every other tooth broken will do that. He peers with one good eye at the executioners’ blade hanging on the wall behind me. A heavy bit of steel I spend too much time putting an edge on. She’s an ugly old bitch, but she’ll part a head clean off with a single stroke after a bit of care. I take a certain pride in my work, as any craftsman might, and it is a craft, truly.
“What is a life, but one more thing a King can demand of you?” I ask in return. “To use or dispose as he wishes. I should know because when a King decides to discard you like a brimming chamber pot, I’m the man he sends you to. Every one sent to me fears that blade; fears death. No matter if queen or whore births them, they all beg me for that blade before it’s done though. Until then, they all cry and carry on though. Some of them worse than you if you could believe it. The gentry are the worst; too soft. But then I am sure I don’t have to tell you do I?” I smile at him with genuine warmth. His good eye smolders like a hot coal. “During your tenure as monarch you sent me your fair share of Duke’s and Earl’s didn’t you?”
by Shaunn M.W.
I found this a very atmospheric piece with many eye catching lines
“… stained near black with blood, bile and worse”
..mushy lips. Having every other tooth broken will do that”
“… a king decides to discard you like a brimming chamber pot.”
“No matter if queen or whore births them, they all beg for that blade before it’s done!”
“His good eye smolders like a hot coal”
There are no wasted words, with sentences doing double service – the man has a good eye, we are left to imagine the untold fate of his other eye. It has that essential quality of economy, painting – or perhaps conjuring – a rich scene with a few deft strokes of the pen/keyboard.
And then there is the pleasing twist in the ending which bookends with the double meaning in the title – a man who serves the king or a man who executes the king?
It sets a gruesome scene nicely and ends with a twist revealing the lop-sided ambiguity of the title. Perhaps some of the pontificating and gory detail could have made way for a little more substance, but it’s a good piece.
Life’s shit, and then you die
‘LIFE’S SHIT, AND THEN YOU DIE’. That’s what’s carved on granny’s gravestone. Dear, sweet old granny. I miss her.
She’s not actually dead yet, just . . . organised; but she will be soon. Dead, I mean.
Not like me.
I stare morosely at the headstone: ‘Life’s shit, and then you die’. Not entirely true, in my experience. My life rocked: my girlfriend was hot, my school grades weren’t too dreadful, and my weekend job was . . . eh. On second thoughts, the less said about that the better.
Whatever. Life was good. Life was fun. Life was MINE.
Death, on the other hand, is a fucking drag. I kick the loose dirt beside the grave. I feel myself scowling.
(Then again, I’m always scowling these days. That’s DIY embalming for you.)
So I scowl, and I kick, and I grumble. Or at least I would grumble if I still possessed a functioning set of vocal chords. As it is, a pathetically hoarse sort of moan is the best I can manage. It harmonises nicely with the cold wind that shivers the crispy orange leaves like a sigh.
(I’m assuming the wind is cold. I can’t actually feel it, you understand.)
Above me one, then two, then thousands of tiny, irritating birds strike up a chorus. My shoulders slump. Bedtime. I moan one last time before sitting down and rolling sullenly into the empty grave.
Don’t worry, granny. I’ll keep it warm for you. I lie on the familiar bed of damp earth, absently reaching up to brush a rogue maggot away from the twin holes that puncture my crusty jugular. Then, hands tucked behind my head, I stare at the lightening sky far, far above.
Life’s great. Death’s shit.
And undeath’s even shitter.
His hands were cold.
The sky above him was an uneven grey, like God had taken a piece of charcoal and dragged it, staggering, across the clouds.
God. That drunk.
He climbed further up the fellside, though his feet slid on the scree that more than once threatened to wash him away over the edge, and his arms ached their complaint. Another fifty feet or so. There was the cave, the place sacred to the aes sídhe, where the halls echoed to the laughter and strange singing of the fairy folk – the place his father and grandfather had warned him never to go. “For there,” his grandfather had said, “men have no dominion, and those who venture within never return.”
But he scorned such superstition. His father and grandfather were foolish and ignorant, like most of their people – fearful of the imprecations of priests and other madmen. He was not like them. He, who had seen the cities of the lost, and wandered through the mansions of Cain, and heard the whispered sorrows of the maidens of Baal – he did not fear to go where other men would not. For something like his destiny waited for him there, something more precious than life itself; and besides, he thought, as he clambered the last few feet to the cave’s entrance, he was owed – owed a debt so terrible and all-encompassing that even God Himself would not stand in the way of his collecting it.
He squinted in the darkness. The darkness stared back. There was a smell like death.
“Hello?” he called, and the sound dropped to the floor like a stone. There was no echo. “I’ve come – alone, as requested. I’ve come for my wife.”
by Jonathan Mills
This was well written, with some nice imagery and some nifty turns of phrase. I liked the idea of a man who scorns superstition nevertheless seeking it out. The beginning of the story hints at a sort of magical realism I dig. I was looking forward to the MC having his moment of revelation as he connected with the old beliefs of his father and grandfather.
Where it didn’t work is in a sudden overload of worldbuilding and backstory. Right at the end, we suddenly shift from the somber, introspective tone of the beginning and its implied magical realism to a stark confrontation with fairies that are, apparently, very real, and somehow connected somehow to this dude’s loss of his wife. How he lost her isn’t mentioned, but seems sort of necessary. Moreover, it feels weird that this was apparently his driving motivation this whole time, but he never gave it any thought until he delivered that last line. It reads more like the introduction to a longer story than a complete, cohesive flash piece. There’s too much suddenly introduced and left unresolved at the end to be satisfying to me.
We stood before the door, our small band of warriors without weapons or armor. Only our wits would keep us alive in there. We knew of many who had entered into this dangerous contest of wills only to emerge scarred for life. Others did not survive it.
Every woman among us had fought this battle and come through the fire. Something inside us kept us coming back, a need to win the contest as strong as any hunger. So once again we found ourselves about to open a door, wondering if we would find heaven or hell. There were certainly devils beyond those panels of worn wood. Some we would recognize, others would surprise us with their strange actions.
“Are you sure we are ready for this? It has not been long since our last battle.”
I turn to find them all watching me, waiting for some words of comfort and guidance. I took a moment to look each of them in the eyes before I spoke.
“My friends, sisters, we were created to win this fight. Neither man nor devil will best us in the end. Only a man true in spirit will be able to join us in battle and remain standing after. Each small death makes us stronger than before. Steel your backbones, stand proud, and stay true to your hearts and spirits.”
As one we took a deep breath, the sheer volume of heaving bosoms enough to intimidate most men. I turned around to lead them into battle, hearing a voice from behind me.
“They take this speed dating thing way too seriously.”
by Becca Calloway
Flash fiction can do a lot of different things. Some tell a story in a few words, some punch you in the gut, others make you reflective. This one made me smirk. The key here is in the punchline, which transforms the scene from cliche to comedy. Does anyone else imagine O Fortuna playing as they begin to charge or is that just me?
It was the afternoon when they returned for him.
The groundwork had been laid over the preceding days, so while their arrival was expected, S’Eth still had some concerns over what he’d signed up for. What was this truly going to cost him? But he’d distracted himself by spending his morning harvesting honey that would be needed for the honeycomb ice-cream he’d hoped to make later. It was such small pleasures in life that had kept him going in recent dark times, and reminded him of happier days. It reminded him of Mara.
Life on the farm had been hard since Mara’s passing. In truth it had been hard for a number of years. From the beginning of their relationship he’d known he would lose her, but experiencing the march of time as it took its relentless toll on her body had torn his heart in a way he could never have imagined. Their time together would forever make the pain worthwhile, but the farm had been her love, not his. S’Eth wanted to move, needed to move, to see and to experience, but the heart has a powerful hold, so when Mara asked him to stay there was only to be one answer.
Since she had gone the urge to move on was slowly returning, but S’Eth was not yet ready to bid his farewells. His father would have scorned him for showing such human sentimentality and decried the death of elven reasoning! His father though was not here. Nor were there any elfs here to reason with. There were only humans and their technology. A technology that Mara had always encouraged him to embrace, but when you have such little time together, why would you want any distractions?
Now was different.
Now the broadband installers had arrived.
This had some really nice emotional touches, and I enjoyed the theme of an immortal man facing the loss of his mortal loved ones and the ever-changing march of progress. This is a well worn idea, but the story dwelt in enough personal details that it didn’t need any great uniqueness in its concept to keep me interested. The uniqueness of S’Eth’s experience did that on its own.
Where I didn’t work as well for me was in the way that a lot of entries didn’t work for me. It tried to pack a little too much fantasy worldbuilding into too small a space, and perhaps as a consequence that worldbuilding felt a bit canned and unoriginal. Did S’Eth really have to be and elf for the story to work? Or is this just unnecessary baggage? I would have been content not knowing why S’Eth was immortal (or at least very long lived.) The point was not what he was, but rather his loss.
The twist at the end was cute, but maybe not as well-integrated into the plot as it could have been. The idea of adapting to new technology, as well as adapting to loss of the familiar, is compatible with the idea of losing a loved one, but I think I would have liked this to be something that was more a part of his relationship with Mara from the start.
This one had quite a few nice touches, but felt a bit scattered, with too much trying to fit its way into the word count. The wrong-footing at the end was fun and could have worked better with a more focused text.