Following a very tight competition this year in the wake of a record amount of fantastic entries I am very pleased to announce
The Winners of The Battle of the Bards Flash Fiction Writing Contest to be:
Devin Madson for her entry ‘Between Lanterns and Corpses’ (66 points)
Alec for his entry ‘Duty’ (59 points)
Eleanor Frisch for her entry ‘Occupation’ (45 points)
Many congratulations! They will be receiving two dedicated books each (randomly allocated) by the brilliant authors who helped me judging the contest this year. Special Thanks to John Gwynne, Josiah Bancroft, Sebastien de Castell, Nicholas Eames, Miles Cameron and Mark Lawrence for considering the entries and providing much appreciated feedback on the shortlisted pieces, that you can all find below.
Once again thank you very much for taking the time to enter and submitting so many excellent works. Finally, also very many thanks to Pen Astridge for her help with the banners for this competition!
Between Lanterns and Corpses (66 points)
I carried a lantern despite the full moon, not wishing to step upon a dead man’s face or slip in his congealing guts. Mikuzo waited ahead, just like that day beneath the willow tree. Its hanging boughs had protected us from the world, but upon the night-clad battlefield there was no such protection. The chill breeze bit my cheeks and brought rot to my nose.
He was there as I had known he would be, his boots firmly planted upon death.
We each bowed, me gripping tight to the Errant board lest it slide from my hand.
“How is your family?” he said.
“Well. Zuki is to marry in the spring. I have—” I pulled forth the letter from my sash with a shaking hand. “In case I don’t—”
A gentle laugh met this. “It seems we still think alike after all these years.” He took my letter and handed over one of his own. “For if you win upon the morrow.”
I slid the letter into my sash, unable to meet his gaze as we hunted clear ground. Between lanterns and corpses I placed the board, and the pieces he tipped out were carved with his family’s crest. He had never lorded his birth over me.
In silence we set our armies upon the board, just as we would when the sun rose upon a day we could not escape.
“Lead or follow, old friend,” I said, for if I did not I might say something else, something more, something I could not retake.
Almost I laughed. Had I not followed wherever he led? Now we had one last chance to be boys beneath the willow boughs.
He moved first. And there, kneeling amid the dead, I followed.
by Devin Madson
“This story attempts neither too much nor too little. It presents strong contrasts, the friendship between generals at war, the contest on the gaming board verses the carnage all around, the present ruin, the memories of a happier shared past. All this deftly allows a wider world to be drawn into the small space afforded by 300 words, mostly by implication. The writing has a (mostly) restrained feel to it, fitting the nature of the social constraints leading to the contrasts on show. A very good job.”
“Beautifully written, it does everything right, establishing character at its heart and giving a sense of place and plot, all the while wrapping the story with an air of melancholy. Not an easy thing to do in 300 words. And the most important thing, I wanted to read on, to know what happens next.”
“What makes this story work so well is the constant use of contrasts: the peaceful setting of a night with a full moon vs the corpses, the cleanliness of a chill that brings rot to the nose, the cordiality of two long-time opponents. The prose style also suits the tale with its clear style free of either modern sarcasm or antiquated formality. The last line also has just the right punch and what reads as intentionally reversed phrasing to keep us thinking after the story is done: And there, kneeling amid the dead, I followed.“
Sebastien de Castell
“This story impressed me on two fronts. Firstly, how effectively it created the background, the carefully constructed, precise descriptions not only serving to paint a visual image of the surroundings, but throwing light on the characters themselves, allowing just enough insight into their personalities and their past.
Secondly, the complexity of the emotions (respect, sadness, melancholy, self-restrain, at some point even amusement) that the piece managed to transfer through the use of first person, giving genuine depth to the character with just a few words.”
“An excellent story that made near-perfect use of the allowed wordcount to set a scene (bonus points for a non-Eurocentric fantasy) as well as a relationship; 300 words to capture nostalgia, fear, the pervasive stench… bonus points for a really strong title that was actually mirrored in the story. On re-reading for final judging, I was again struck with a desire t know more… character and dialogue were also masterfully handled for such a short piece.“
Duty (59 points)
The prince slumped on the stone bench, lost in thought. From the great hall beyond his chamber’s door floated the mournful notes of a lute, and the prince imagined the gathered nobles and clergy listening rapt as a bard shivered the silence with his song. It was his father’s favorite, a paean to promises kept and duties fulfilled.
The door opened and the steward entered carrying two cloth-wrapped bundles. He bowed to the prince, who sat up straighter.
“My lord,” murmured the steward.
The prince motioned for him to approach. “Frederick,” he said. “Is it time?”
The steward nodded and gently laid his burdens down on a table engraved with a map of the realm. “It is, my lord. You must choose a sword.”
The prince leaned closer. “Show me,” he commanded.
With great reverence the steward unwound one of the bundles, revealing a shimmering white blade. Even from where he sat a few paces away the prince could feel the heat radiating from the gleaming metal.
“Forged in dragonfire and then plunged hissing into a vat of quicksilver. The High Artificer has named this sword Day. He assures me that when it passes through flesh the heat will seal the wound immediately.”
“So no blood will be spilled?”
“That is . . . good. And the other sword?”
“He calls it Night.” The steward carefully unwrapped the second sword, exposing a blade so dark it seemed to drink the light. “And this one was fashioned from shadow itself – it is as cold as the heart of the fallen god. There will be no pain from a blow struck by this sword. Only numbness.”
The prince stared at the two blades for a long moment. “I choose Day.”
The steward sighed. “Then come, my prince. Your executioner awaits.”
“This uses the “twist” device that is commonly employed to lend flash fiction weight, and it does so very well. We think the prince is choosing a weapon to go to war with, and at the last moment understand that he is choosing the instrument of his execution. The description of the two swords gives the author an opportunity to display impressive wordsmithing while exciting us regarding the potential of each weapon and hooking us with which he will choose and why. A very competent piece of flash fiction.”
“This is an excellent, well written little tale, with a great twist. It waits until the very last line, no, the last three words, to subvert my preconceptions and turn what I thought the story was about on its head.”
“I enjoyed the essential twist of this story – which is well suited for flash fiction. As a reader, I’d love to see a heightening of the suspense leading up to it and more of a visual to go with the twist. The opening is familiar (stone bench, great hall, lute music), and I wondered if something more unusual – something that gave just a hint of foreshadowing that there’s more going on – might be worth exploring? Something you can reverse the meaning of at the end to add a punch to the reveal. Lots of potential here for something really tight and effective.“
Sebastien de Castell
“Even on a re-read, this story gripped me, and I think it was mostly the use of dialogue to efficiently engage the reader with only a few words. The dialogue worked; from the first ‘murmur’ of the steward a sense of foreboding and gravity seemed to fill the story. I liked the swords, and the suggestion of a much wider world beyond the story, and I loved the plot twist. What’s not to like?“
Occupation (45 points)
In that moment when the light of dawn first pollutes the darkness, I am ripe. I teeter on that turning point, that precipice between night and day, searching for a mind to occupy. I find one vulnerable, and I plunge.
Whoever he is, he has bitten his fingernails to stubs, and his hands rest on the pages of a book. I’m not surprised. Reading opens the mind a crack so I can seep in. I turn the page, enjoying the feel of paper against skin. Smiling, I find, with a pleasant tickle, that I have a mustache.
To fully occupy, you must learn your host. I read aloud to discover my voice, deep and saturated.
“Insomnia, insatiable lust, sudden shifts in mood or personality, unexplainable knowledge of subjects previously unknown…”
The heading is “Symptoms of Demonic Possession.” That’s not the word I’d use. It conflates residence with ownership.
Probably my host is a warlock. How intriguing. I close the book and consider his desktop, strewn with diagrams and trinkets. I lift a blue-stone pendant to my nostrils. The chain is iron and smells delightfully like blood. The cool, round stone feels seductive in my hand, and its flat side is inscribed with runes. A circle on one of the symbols has been left open, an error obvious to any demon.
I must leave a gift my host covets. It is my way, and this will do. I rummage through the desk drawer, find an awl with a smooth wooden handle, and etch the circle closed.
The pendant sucks in my consciousness. I howl, plummeting, until I reach a place without sound or motion. I’ve made myself into the gift, locked in the stasis of the stone. Here, there is no more night or day or in between.
by Eleanor Frisch
“This entry manages to cram a lot into a small space. It is very well written, with several short, stabby sentences that many writers (myself included) might be tempted to needlessly embellish. It has nice touch of humour that hints at the demon’s frivolous nature, as well as small details (fingernails bitten down to stubs) that left me, like the story’s protagonist, intrigued.”
““Occupation” is a wonderfully-written, devilish vignette. Though the piece is musing, the story does not dawdle, and the scene closes with a satisfying flourish.“
“A beautifully written, intriguing start turned into a clever twist. An entertaining, lovely piece!“
“I enjoyed Occupation from the beginning. I enjoyed the plot twist, reminiscent of a Chesterton story, and the character of the demon was strong and interesting enough to keep me hooked. I also liked the details of the summoner’s desk and the authenticity. The action was well handled and the language was effective. General comment I found on re-reading that one of the things that kicks me out of a story, especially a very short story, and ruins my suspension of disbelief, is an obvious anachronism, either of language or of material culture, while I’m always attracted to a rich dose of descriptive language and material detail. (shrug.) That’s just me.“
Who Stalks the Night (42 points)
“The Tiger will get you,” she said, glaring at them across the campfire.
“The Tiger Who Stalks the Night?” the first bandit said, reciting the full name. “You won’t scare us with that old wives’ tale.”
“I heard the Tiger killed a hundred men,” the second bandit said. “In one day.”
The first bandit waved a hand. “Impossible. Anyway, we work for the magistrate, who works for the governor. No man would dare.”
The prisoner shrugged – one of the few gestures left to her, wrists bound at her back.
“See, even she agrees.”
The second bandit scratched at his beard. “But the Tiger works for the Emperor – may He live forever – not the governor. What if he’s found out?”
“Found out?” His colleague’s look would have curdled goatsmilk. “There’s nothing to find out. We’re collecting tax.”
“Does that always involve tying up taxpayers?”
He turned his sour gaze on her. “Only when they don’t agree to pay.”
“Don’t worry,” the second said. “When Sarge takes his inventory, we’ll work out how much you owe, and then you can be on your way.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” a new voice said. “Not until you tell us what a peddler is doing with *this* rolled in a mouldy old carpet.”
The third bandit – Sarge – stomped into the firelight and shook a sheathed sword under her nose. Gold glinted from the hilt, and flames danced along the curved length of lacquered wood.
Then a hand shot up, cord dangling loose around its wrist, and the sword hissed free.
Two men stood as the third staggered back.
“Hey now, lady, don’t make trouble for yourself. Who do you think you are?”
She rose smoothly to her feet, sword steady in her fighting stance.
“I am the Tiger Who Stalks the Night.”
by James Latimer
“A cracking little story. For me this was a close second. It manages to do a lot of things brilliantly in a short space. It tells a compact, self-contained tale, while at the same time alluding to something bigger and equally as entertaining. The interplay between the characters is amusing and at the same time seamlessly drip-feeds the wider context into the story. And the last line has a great punch to it. Loved this one.”
“This story begins with a promise and ends with a promise kept. I really liked it. You gotta give props when, at the end of a 300 word snippet, the reader is invested enough to exclaim, “Aw shit, you guys are fucked now!” and that’s what this entry manages to do. Though who is saying what can be confusing at times (this could be due to formatting, of course) the writing is very fluid, and the tale is sprinkled with just the right amount of exposition.”
Fickle Fortune (31 points)
The body lay on the floor, arms and legs askew as if he’d dropped where he stood. Which he had, actually. An arrow in the back does that to a person.
I shuffled away from the wall and the window, cutting a wide circle around him. I nearly tripped over my bowl, still boasting my meager breakfast. I reached down, snatched up the chunk of bread, scraped the mold off with my thumbnail and shoved it all in my mouth at once.
The sound of footsteps reached my ears, ringing on the stone floor of the corridor. I’d been in the corridor, once. At night. With a bag over my head and the party end of a sword pressed between my shoulderblades. Still chewing on the bread, I stuck my head around the door, my eyes blinking at the dawn of another day.
While my tongue poked at my teeth, I wished for a tin cup of water. When had my desires become so ordinary? A cup of water. Food without maggots. A night spent without rats chewing on my toes. Just the simple things, really.
I stepped back and pushed the door shut with my foot. Whether a rescue or a revolution, I didn’t feel a particular eagerness to join them. But the footsteps drew closer, and a man entered, a soldier. One I barely recognized.
“My lord?” His eyes widened when he saw me, and he raised a bruised and bleeding hand in sharp salute. “My lord!” he repeated. “We’ve won. You’ll be returned to the palace immediately.”
I raised my own hand, not to mimic his salute, but to wipe the bread crumbs from my mouth. “Well done,” I replied, and wondered how long before their need for a new villain would return me to this cell.
by Quenby Olson
“Another well executed piece of “twist” flash. Again with an imprisoned prince. I guess royalty are people who can truly move swiftly from lows to highs and vice versa, thus making for good twists. This one really does very little plot or story-wise but uses the space freed up by this to build some atmosphere and even pontificate on the human condition a little.”
“Nice quick entry into the story and the voice (with the snarky reference to the arrow in the back.) What would make the story work better for me would be a sense of theme earlier in the story to connect to the last line – something about the world seeming to change but always returning to its base nature?“
Sebastien de Castell
“I loved the voice behind this story, setting up a very practical character with a great sense of humour. Where I felt very slightly let down was the ending. While it befitted the tone of the writing, I kind of hoped it would bring the story to a higher note or give us an unexpected twist. Although I appreciate that given the 300 words limit this might have been an unreasonable wish. Still, it was one of my favourite pieces this year, nice work!”
“A very solid story with a great frame and the solid reality of toast to balance the nice touch of cynicism.“
Best Laid Plans (24 points)
Cave slipped through the crowds, pulling the boy along behind him.
They couldn’t linger.
The streets were dangerous for the hunted.
Cave wore dry blood on his hands like burgundy gloves, sweat making it greasy and difficult for the boy to hold on to.
Before they entered the port town Cave gave the boy instructions.
No eye contact, no talking, no stopping, no nothing until they find Weaver, the one who can help them cross the Divide.
A barrage of sights and sounds filled the boy’s mind with questions he reserved for another time. A safer time, he thought.
People of species and nationalities strange and unknown to the boy filled the streets like river water, the air full of putrescent stink and the sound of trade. They gestured like strange beasts at stall owners, coins winking in the dying sun as they exchanged from one hand to another, their foreign tongues issuing languages as colourful and wild as their clothing. Foul taverns and worse brothels issued sleazy music like beckoning fingers. When the crowds parted he could see in the distance down the dark cobbled streets a complicated arrangement of masts, sails and rigging. It all stood tall, piercing the dying day. He had always wanted to sail the seas and be rid of this wretched pla-
The boy crashed into Cave.
He looked to see what had rooted Cave to the spot. Hanging by the neck from a post above the street was a flayed body turning in the wind, head yanked back like a keen astronomer.
A haze of flies snarled over the hanged man’s flesh, the intricate tattoo’s unmistakable to Cave, which hung from a nail on the post like a forgotten coat.
Cave looked at the boy. Eyes like a starless night.
‘We’ve found Weaver.’
by Mark Gates
“Great use of 300 words, quickly establishing a sense of urgency, a sense of place and also of boyish distraction, even in the most dangerous of times. The two characters are memorable, Cave and the boy, and the last few lines are great. This is one that I would have loved to read more of.”
“The setup moves quickly here and there’s an immediate sense of drama. But it read more as the opening to a novel or longer piece than as a story in and of itself. The reveal that the person they’re looking for is already dead is a classic opening to a spy or fantasy story, but it doesn’t provide a sense of completion. One simple change I’d recommend is to make sure from the opening line that we know the POV is the boy’s rather than Cave’s. As it stood, I thought Cave was the main character until the words “filled the boy’s mind with questions”. “
Sebastien de Castell
““Cave slipped through the crowds, pulling the boy along behind him.” And just with that one, simple sentence I found myself pulled into the story right behind them. The tale quickly turned intriguing, which I enjoyed. Towards the end I started to wonder however whether all those lines describing the setting could have been better spent on the plot or the characters. Having said that I did like the prose a lot (“foul taverns and worse brothels issued sleazy music like beckoning fingers”, “stood tall, piercing the dying day”, “a flayed body turning in the wind, head yanked back like a keen astronomer”, just to mention a few).”
Barter (23 points)
He kept two days in his pocket, along with a soundbox brimming Cymerian thunder and the final, scratched link of the golden bracelet his bridewife had got him. They weren’t long days. The first, the frozen winter solstice on which his bridewife had died. The second, the day Idris Han was born. They felt like any old coins against the rub of his thumb. Thinner, even.
“I’d like to make the trade.”
The grimskolfen’s hollow ran deep beneath the Petulant Hills, a swathe of dark rock dripping white from the Kingswater above it. The grimskolfen herself sat upon a model ziggurat carved into the stone, bearded face wrapped in soiled linens, black rags enshrining her shapely curves. She brought her face low, close to his, her curling iron horns all but grazing his cheeks.
“The deal is off the table,” she said.
He stared into her eyes—distant dying stars encompassed by night—and curled his burnt fingers into fists. He had not survived the Womb of the Sun to turn back now.
“Make the trade,” he managed, lifting the soundbox. “Or the hollow returns to the river.”
The grimskolfen snatched her head back, returned to her sutra position.
“To threaten me is to threaten time itself,” she said.
After a stubborn moment, the grimskolfen’s eyes flashed. She dipped two of her arms into the shallow pool at the base of her throne, turning the water a pale, sickly blue. The thousand tiny mouths on her neck whispered ancient chants as she stirred.
Sighing, the man withdrew the two days from his pocket and tossed them into the water, seeing reflected for the first time the sorrow in his eyes of which his bridewife had spoken with her final breath.
“You look so sad, Idris,” she’d said. “Smile.”
by David Wade
““Barter” hints at a mythology that seems rich and expansive. Idris Han’s tragic bargain gives this piece a much-needed sense of humanity, which makes the fantastical elements feel tangible and accessible.”
“Nice imagery here, especially the thousand mouths on the neck whispering ancient chants. I like the solemn touch to this story and the character’s determination to see his quest through to the end. What I wasn’t entirely clear on was the true cost of this: is he giving up those two days forever in order to see that reflection? What underlying motivation is fulfilled by this trade?“
Sebastien de Castell
Eden Underground (20 points)
Susanna took three things with her to the afterlife: a pocket book, a pair of sunglasses, and a gaping wound in her chest.
The river that spirited her along was impatient, rushing around turns and over drops. It turned out seasickness wasn’t an issue, with no stomach to speak of.
The lid of her coffin kept the water out. It also blocked the scenery, but she hadn’t come for sightseeing. She hadn’t come by choice at all.
The coffin scraped against a shore. She stared at the grain on the lid.
A wiry-haired woman peered over the coffin’s side.
“You need to get up,” she said. “You’re blocking the entrance.”
Susanna didn’t move.
The woman pursed her lips. “For the life of me, I can’t see why you won’t hurry along.”
Susanna thought it had to do with the hole in her chest. The woman shook her head and bustled away.
Susanna felt in the pocket of her tattered uniform and put on the sunglasses. Hazy darkness sharpened into diamonds studding a ceiling, or stars in a night sky—if it could be called night.
Susanna went for a walk.
The tendrils of mist cleared in the day—if it could be called day. The trees had metallic leaves and branches like bones. She sat against a trunk and watched a bird.
“Any spare names?” the bird asked. “I lost mine.”
It was black with a red stripe on its shoulder. She took out her book, a wildlife field guide, and flipped through. Her companion nibbled a fruit.
She glanced up. “You look like a red-winged blackbird.”
The bird twittered. “I am!”
It flew off.
When Susanna got back to the river, her coffin was gone. She turned around and followed the bird.
by Jonah Pollens
“I enjoyed this story, well written and engaging, with a quirky, blackly-humorous tone. It also had my favourite opening line of the competition, drawing me immediately into the tale. It didn’t quite use the 300 words envelope to tell a complete story, but still an entertaining read.”
If It Smells Sweet, It’s Not a Treat (20 points)
Buttermoon mushrooms taste like honey-soaked dates and sell for thrice their weight in gold. The duke can never get enough of them. They also look almost exactly like a sour Hobson Horn, which wouldn’t matter much except those will give you a vicious fever and night terrors for a day and night, until you start the bleeding and foaming, then that’s it for you.
My mother’s debts loom large, and the moneylenders have warned they’ll take the cottage by the first frost unless I pay up. The only way to make any real money in this miserable forest is selling Buttermoons, and the only way anyone with any real money will buy the cursed things is if you’re a registered mushroom-hunter. And of course, the only way you’ll ever get registered is by passing the guild’s test.
That’s how I ended up in the mushroom-hunter guild’s cramped office, with two small golden mushrooms before me and a choice to make.
The right one is smaller and paler. I frown. I’d read the guild’s pamphlet a hundred times, but it’s different, trying to do this on your own. I think back to the grubby parchment the wizened guild officer had lent me. Buttermoons prefer a warmer, sunnier place to grow. Surely that would mean they’d grow a little more robust than their cousin, the Hobson Horn?
The mushroom on the left is smooth, with soft velvety gills. I pick it up, and it smells a little sweet. Like honey? I think to myself.
I pick the left one, and pop it in my mouth. It’s bland, and a little sweet. I swallow it, and relax, until my mouth fills with a bitter sour bite.
by N. M. Fox
“I loved this one. It was so obviously tailored for this competition, and delivered its exposition evenly while weaving in hints (a Duke, a guild, a mother’s debts) of a wider world. The language is simple and straightforward, though the term ‘velvety gills’ lends a nice bit of flourish. This story stuck in my head all day after I’d read it, so hat’s off to the author for that!”
“I like the setup of the difficulty in identifying the right mushroom – the complex art of discerning one subtle detail from another. The end gives a nice shock as well, giving us something of a tragedy (since the narrator’s motivation to help their mother’s debts is one we can support.) What I’d love to have seen is something that connected a flaw in the character to the flawed decision. Has he/she always been too moved by sweetness or beauty? Is there any detail of warning the mother might have given that should have been heeded, but got forgotten in the rush to join the guild?”
Sebastien de Castell
Undead Dance (15 points)
Bubbles in the cauldron grew and popped, splashing the rancid smelling goo all over the grass. Where it plopped stalks and flowers fizzled and turned a charred black.
The little witch, Mia, danced around the pot, throwing in ingredients and avoiding getting splashed. Her squashed straw hat seemed out of place, with its large brim and sunflowers much more suited for blue skies and sun.
Overhead an owl glided by and spotted the glowing cauldron. He swiveled his head, watching the dancing witch with wide eyes. Circling around the owl landed on a tree branch and settled down for the show.
Crumbling a dried stalk, Mia dropped the pieces in the pot and murmured a rhyme.
“Dark and light,
Night and day.
Go and hide,
Wake up now
Time to dance.
Death can’t kill
The liquid in the cauldron bubbled faster and faster, reaching a rapid boil. Then it gave a great cough and released a cloud of green smoke that startled the owl.
Flapping its large wings in alarm it flew away and didn’t look back.
The smoke cleared and the ground in front of a headstone, nestled between two tree roots, began to rumble. Flowers were uprooted and the earth began to shift. A hand appeared and clawed at the ground before a man hoisted himself out of the hole and fell forward. He coughed and struggled to his feet, dusting the dirt off his tuxedo pants. He was tall and had a terrible case of bedhead.
Mia squeaked and rushed forward, falling into his arms. After his initial shock, the man smiled and bent to kiss the tip of her nose under her sunhat. Mia snapped her fingers and low violin music poured from the cauldron. Together they danced until dawn.
by A.E. McAlister
“This one had some humour to it. I enjoyed the energy of the piece, though I’m not generally a fan of songs in stories and to get one in flash fiction surprised me. Some redundancy here that could be tightened to make more room, but fun entry.”
“Some lovely setup here, with things popping, splashing, fizzling, and plopping to create both a description and a feeling. I didn’t quite get a sense of completion from the story – the only change that occurs from our expectations is that the figure emerges wearing a tuxedo and with bedhead. Note that if you end it right at the word “bedhead”, there’s actually more punch than continuing to the end (not saying you shouldn’t have that ending, just that as a reader I wanted some sense of why the end resolved some question from the beginning.)“
Sebastien De Castell
“I liked the urban fantasy feel of this piece, the humour, the spell, and the line ‘death can’t kill true romance’ which had a certain ironical grimdark panache. Also some good use of descriptives. “
The Boy Swallowed by the Sea (15 points)
Long ago when glass was still new, a ship crashed against the shore one dark night. The next day, all the children of the nearby village swam out to the wreck and discovered gold and gems intermingled with the bodies of the drowned. So they collected the treasures by the handful and brought them to their parents, who were pleased by their industrious children.
But there was one gem, an emerald the size of a man’s chest, which was too large to move. Dozens tried, but all failed to dislodge it. So they gave up on the greatest prize in favor of the smaller treasures.
But one boy could not ignore the emerald, and while the other children filled their pockets with coins, he wrestled with the giant gem. And so his father chided him, saying, “Why do you ignore the easy and labor after the hard?”
“The other treasures are just baubles compared to the emerald. It is worth more than a thousand treasures from a thousand ships, and it will be mine,” the boy replied. So while the other families ate well, the boy’s family remained hungry.
Soon the seabed was picked clean, only the emerald remaining with the boy who would not let it go. He struggled and struggled and finally broke it free.
But what the boy did not know was that the emerald was the heart of the sea, the plug keeping the ocean from draining away. With the gem removed, the waters roared down the dark hole and sucked the boy along with them.
Then the roar stopped, and the boy swam back to the light. But the light was green because the waters had pulled the emerald back into place. And so he drowned because he could not let his dream go.
by Matthew Presley
“By opting for fairy-tale mode this piece of flash can exploit the summary nature of that form to tell a fair bit of story in the allotted space. I thought it kept to the fairy-tale vibe nicely and produced an entertaining little morality tale.”
““The Boy Swallowed by the Sea” reads like a contemporary piece of folklore. Its moral themes and simple prose call to mind Gabriel García Márquez.“
“I enjoyed both the strong theme and fairy tale approach to this story. The boy refusing the other gold and gems because he wanted to reach for the biggest and best prize has the virtue that the ultimate moral of the story could really go either way (aiming high is better or being greedy is bad). I wonder if the resolution would be stronger if, when he frees the gem, rather than getting sucked through the hole, he himself ends up trapped at the bottom of the sea as the plug and the gem is now free for others to take? Just a thought.“
Sebastien de Castell
Spring Watch (11 points)
Birds. Always the fucking birds.
Pre-dawn, yet already the budding branches shiver and squawk with horny abundance. Nothing quite like a graveyard tryst to get ‘em in the mood, apparently.
This. This is why springtime grates the most. Hard not to feel lonely when you’re surrounded by such conjugal reminders of what it is to live. To love. Night and day, spring and winter, life and death—and here’s me, stuck in between. Belonging nowhere, welcomed by none. So, yeah. Fuck spring.
‘course, winter has its own miseries—plenty of them, in fact—but they’re nothing compared to spring; when, like a nosy neighbour, the sun starts to raise its head earlier and earlier to better witness my daily torment.
Speaking of nosy neighbours: here they are now, right on time, with their designer coffee-flasks and their poncy cameras. You know who I blame for this shit? Springwatch. Wonder what that Packham bloke would say if he knew these wankers were driving me from my natural habitat? I’m the last of an undying breed, don’tcha know.
Still, I’m damned if I’ll leave before the very brink of sunrise. Risk or no risk.
One of the cheerful little gobshites flaps down from its perch. It hops towards me with post-coital smugness; somewhere above, its mate twitters contentedly.
Hunger twists what’s left of my insides. Then the screams begin. Feathers crumple and hollow bones crunch and the bird-watchers shriek as watery blood soaks my desiccated throat.
The day’s fingers creep closer and the watchers fall silent, beady eyes staring down from amidst the newborn leaves. Across the boneyard, sun flashes on a glass lens, and – there! – a red light blinks.
‘Fuck hiding,’ I gurgle. Black plumage muffles my words, but it doesn’t matter. I’m pretty sure Springwatch has subtitles.
by Demi Harper
“So what we’ve got here is something dead (and bitter about it) lamenting its state of being. My only critique of this would be that it’s somewhat sparse with the details of who or what the POV character is. Personally, I’d have liked a bit more clarification. With that nitpick out of the way, the story is expertly written, with an audacious use of sentence structure and punctuation used to convey the character’s thoughts. It’s got a sharp, cynical humour, and is full of wonderfully conceived lines like ‘post-coital smugness’. Also: F-bombs for the win!”
““Spring Watch” has a fun, brassy voice which pairs nicely with the sinister nature of the scene. The combination of ancient lore and a contemporary setting gives the piece a pleasing sense of menace.“
“Strong voice and an anti-hero whose annoyances at the contrivances of modern life makes them relatable to us. I confess I didn’t quite understand the ending and the reference to subtitles. Is Springwatch an actual TV show that the right audience would recognize? Or is it simply that we should infer from the reference to the title and “Packham” that it’s a well-known show within the world? Again, might be me misreading it, but if not, a touch more clarity on that point would make it easier for the reader to fully appreciate the ending.“
Sebastien de Castell
The Burden (6 points)
The two had fought all through the night, streaking the darkness with displays of their power. The cause of their quarrel was considerably relevant to the preservation of this realm, of that she was sure. But in that moment, as the golden light of day broke over the horizon and the weaker of the two warriors lay dying at her feet, she found it difficult to concern herself with the details.
She knew the end when she saw it. She had been to this place countless times before.
She had stood at the crossroads of destiny, her pen wavering over the page as she committed to the strokes that would snuff the life from her beautiful creations.
This time would be no different.
Through a sheen of tears, she would devour this carefully crafted personality. She would sever the threads of his existence in this world, and it would feel as though she were setting her heart on fire.
As the champion turned his back on the site of the battle, she would write of the final, gasping breaths taken by the fallen in an ink made from her own blood.
Her duty was to capture events as they happened, to disregard the fractures that sorrow carved into her soul for the sake of an accurate record. In many ways, she was Life, but in more important ways she was Death. For that is the burden of a storyteller.
by Mary Cart
“Does this story get bonus points for casting an agonized writer as its POV? You’re damn right it does. It is very skillfully written, using plenty of flowery language without feeling overly verbose. It also manages to tell two stories at once, detailing both an external struggle and an internal one as well.”
“A nice allegory (at least, I think this qualifies as allegory) about the nature of writing – one that is especially apt in an era in which we so often debate not only the wisdom of an author killing off a character, but even their right to do so. I think that latter part might add an interesting dimension to the story – if our narrator had an awareness that others would curse her for writing down the death of a beloved hero.“
Sebastien de Castell
Bad Day (5 points)
Thursday was out to get me. He’d had it in for me for weeks ever since I’d taken that little bauble in Atlanta. But we’re not allowed them anymore are we, leastways us grunts aren’t.
He’d been a shit since the mortals named a day after him but oh did we laugh when the Christians took his day and named it for their own. If he was bad before he was worse now. People suffered, people died and all the while his father turned his blind eye to it all. People stopped believing in him, in us. Thursday couldn’t handle that.
That’s when the rules came down from the high throne. If mortals had abandoned us then we were to abandon them. Not that the rules mattered to Thursday.
Two weeks ago there was an expedition led by Thursday to retrieve something that had been stolen. As usual with him in the lead things went bad quick. In the confusion I helped myself to something I saw as my right, I was putting myself in harm’s way after all. In Thursdays eyes I’d broke the rules, by right it was up to him to distribute the wealth.
Since we’d returned I’d heard whisperings, the Norns had cut my thread and Thursday was coming for me. I wondered if the trinket had been worth it but then remembered the night after night of pleasure it had brought me. Yes it was worth it.
So here I was waiting. I heard him coming from a ways off, he always liked fanfare. As the crowd parted I knew something was wrong. A deathly hush and the air had gone tight. The chariot pulled up, I knew was fucked.
Thursday had come for me and the fucker had brought Wednesday with him.
by Philip Norris
“Plenty of potential in this one but a little loose in execution. I wasn’t entirely clear what was going on. I’m a sucker for Norse stuff, and this felt a touch American Godsy, which is no bad thing. I just wanted it to feel more solid and less summary. A line of dialogue, a visual detail or two. Some of the story would have to go but what stayed would feel more real. Who is the narrator? Loki? I think the main issue here was trying to squeeze too much into 300 words. (also a missed apostrophe!)”
“Loved the use of days here as references for the Norse gods – an especially clever way to address the requirements of the competition. There’s a lot of good setup here, and I’m intrigued by how the conflict between the narrator and Thursday would play out. Though the ending has both a nice upping of the stakes and a clever use of Wednesday, it doesn’t quite feel like we’ve seen the end of the story so much as this being the opening of a slightly longer one. “
Sebastien de Castell
Riptide (302 words, which was the reason why we eventually couldn’t put this through to the shortlist)
He holds her hand. Her skin is soft and cool in his,a little rough along the edges. He stares at her, tries to keep his eyes from watching the implacable sun trundle across the darkening sky. He tries to will a halt to the waning day.
A gentle mist rises up from the sea and wreaths the shore. She turns her head and to him she looks veiled, as a bride. Fitting, he thinks, for tonight she will be married to the sea. Her eyes, once a lively green, are endless pools of dark. Her skin seems almost velvety. She is beautiful, but suddenly strange. He grimaces. She sees his grimace and turns away to stare at the placid waves.
He takes a breath, searches for some kind of calm. Gently, he takes her chin and draws her gaze back to him. He offers her a broken smile. She mirrors one for him.
“What a miserly handful of sand we were given from the hourglass of time. If I had known how little it was, I’d have tried to steal a few grains more.” Her voice is quiet, rough with sorrow. She hesitates. “But true love is not enough to be a cure for all that lies between you and me.”
He nods, resigned. “Every bit of time was a treasure. I won’t regret a moment.” He promises himself his words are true. They had known it was a risk, that her blood might be less human and more fey. They had lost the gamble.
He tries to etch her every feature into his memory, but her form is already melting away. As the bright moon rises her limbs become short, her head round and sleek. His hand recoils from her flipper and she escapes. Lost to the waves and the night.
by Michelle Jacobs
Battle of Myeonyang (1597)
Admiral Yi stared from his cabin at the three hundred wooden castles floating towards him at the day. If the Samurai won, the kingdom of Chosun was finished. The flag snapped in the wind as the horn blew from the Japanese ships. Yi stared back at his homeland, then towards the fleet. He gripped the hilt of his sword.
Yi bellowed. ‘Forward! Make straight for the Japanese ships. Aim cannons!’ he said. The drummers began to beat, as sailors prepared the sails, loosening the masts.
An officer shouted. ‘This is madness Admiral. We can’t possibly attack three hundred of their ships. Twelve won’t stand against them.’ His fear visibly etched onto his face as if a dragon had consumed him. Yi huffed. There was nothing left. His previous predecessor had destroyed his whole fleet in the night before. Now he would do with what he had. A cannonball crashed into the deck, causing Yi and the officer to stumble. The officer tried to retreat, dragging Yi off. Yi shoved him.
The third officer held the deck, cannon fire caused him to stumble, wood splintering into his legs. ‘We can’t stand against them! They are too powerful!’
Yi raised him up, standing relentless, staring at the fluttering flag of Chosun, his home. No matter how many corrupt officials came in his way, he would live to serve his homeland or die trying. Now the fate of Chosun rested on his hands. Yi turned to his officers, the ship creaking and groaning chopping through waves. The soldiers on his ship stood to attention as drums began to beat.
by Neil Sharma
“So, tell me what’s the latest on the prophecy. Have we managed to find the Hero who will turn up to save us from the Overlord of Night‘s oppressive rule?”
“What do you mean, not exactly?”
“We-ell…there might be a slight problem. We think we found 4 potential candidates born on the day of darkness. Or when the solar eclipse happened, as non-soothsayers term it. Unfortunately, one of them passed away as a child. Caught some disease and no doctor was able to cure him. The second one got mugged a few months ago and passed away from the resulting injuries when he tried to fight back. And the third…it looks like she decided to become a lawyer instead. Made a ton-load of cash and emigrated. I don’t think she’s coming back. Final guy seems to have just disappeared. No one knows where he is.”
“You’re telling me that the chosen one is either dead, missing or a lawyer? I thought prophecy was supposed to force them into gaining the necessary skills to take down the Overlord. Otherwise what’s the point of it?”
“That’s the problem with free will nowadays. People don’t always do what they’re supposed to.”
“And we’re sure there’s no one else?”
“Unfortunately not. That’s the thing with prophecies, you can’t just pick some random off the street and pretend they’re the person for the task.”
“Yes we can. Go find some random. We’ll change the wording.”
“Uh…what? We can’t do that! It’s not a job advert!”
“Of course it is. What else do you think a prophecy is?”
by Daniel Sutcliffe
There is a song that river ghosts sing. Eri knew it as a gurgling in the creek where she washed her clothes, wrinkled hands smoothing creased linen. They peeped out at her across clear water, eyes like the pebbles beneath their feet.
Eri kept chickens behind her cottage. Clucking hens wandered and pecked for grain. Sometimes when she tended the garden, she would hear splashes and the indignant scolding of birds. When she went out back, she would find feathers in the mud and ruffled chickens on the roof.
“You silly girls,” she would say. “Come on down, the ghosts don’t mean you any harm.”
So she soothed the hens until they came down to roost. Eri’s chickens gave her eggs, more than she could eat. She brought them to the market and came back with milk and bread, some of which she mixed together in a saucer and set out for the ghosts at night.
River ghosts liked milk and bread. She never found her saucer empty on the doorstep. The ghosts left her little presents from the riverbed – a polished stone that gleamed like day, a tiny green glass bottle. She placed them on a shelf and went back for her broom, to sweep away their webbed tracks.
When winter came, the river turned into a sheet of ice. In the coop, Eri’s hens huddled close for warmth. They cooed at her when she fed them hot mash. Stroking their silky heads, she worried after the ghosts.
At first blush of spring Eri hurried to the river. She took a step on thawing ice, wobbled and fell. Ice broke through and she cried out, falling into the river’s cold embrace. Then dark shapes swam up, reaching to pull her to shore, and Eri smiled through her wasted tears.
by Marcus Chan
“This one’s no good.” The cinderblock of the hotel’s sub-basement muted Maria’s voice.
“We call them guests.” Vincent’s arms dangled lazily atop the housekeeping cart.
“Don’t be smart. You’re just a day hire.”
“I’ll soon make full-timer. Manager asked the agency especially for me.”
“Did you check the register, smart guy? You’d know this one’s leaving tomorrow.”
Maria flipped the bedsheet off the slumbering conventioneer dumped in the cart’s bin and smoothed out her uniform.
“Should I get another?” Vincent asked.
The steel doors at the end of the hall creaked open, belching ichorous smoke.
Maria shook her head uncertainly.
“Anyway,” Vincent squeaked, “the owner should like him. The maids said he perved on them. He’s totally wasted. Won’t nobody notice if he sleeps in and misses check out.”
“Their souls are supposed to marinate. Hookers. Drugs. Gambling. Tastes better if they’ve done more than a night.”
Low rumbling emanated from the open doorway, reverberating through their bodies, beckoning them. They trundled the cart past Maintenance, past Linens, past the boiler room.
The owner waited in the shadows. A black, glistening appendage extended from the depths beyond and ripped off the sheet. A sucker-like tip prodded the unconscious man’s head. Vincent affected a casual smirk.
Hot vapour blasted out of the darkness as the owner groaned. It withdrew from the guest, slapping the sheet down. The appendage swung to Vincent, wrapping around his head and open mouth, sucker planting on his forehead with a squelch.
Maria spun the cart around and whistled, rolling down the hall while the owner pulled Vincent into its suite. His soul would be succulent. Anyone so casual about this service was nicely tenderized already. It would take Vincent maybe a week to recover. That was alright. He was just a day hire.
by Darius Jung
Daystorm and the Knight
Sly Joe examined the haul by starlight. The two men he had guided into the Free Southern State’s Great Desert had struck the mother-lode and no mistake. The desert’s ancient cities gave up their treasure infrequently and begrudgingly — a find this big was unprecedented. Old Sir Humphrey and Kelvin Daystrom hailed from the Central Kingdom, called themselves crypto-historians, whatever the fuck that meant. Said they believed in the old tales about men coming to this world across the stars in ships that sailed in the heavens. They’d hired Joe as their guide because of his vaunted knowledge of the region.
The knight and Daystrom, Joe reflected, farinaceous blue-bloods both, dead now by his hand, which left the artefacts all to himself. They’d fetch a good price in certain quarters. He looked forward to pocketing the proceeds, along with his guide’s fee.
Hell, what did those two fools expect, hooking up with a man who went by the monicker Sly Joe?
Joe had heard all the stories about the arks as he’d grown up, had thrilled to them when he was younger, but he was a man grown now. Time to put that bullshit to one side. Tek, he thought, shaking his head. What kind of a word was that? He picked up one of the objects the two archaeologists had unearthed and turned it over. Words on it, faded but still recognisable as Engerlish, by God!
“ SET TIMER. FRONT TOWARDS ENEMY? “
Was that round thing in the middle meant to be pressed? He poked it and the thing began to make a bleating sound. Startled, he dropped it and stepped away.
Returned and leaned over to see what it did next.
Night turned instantly into brilliant day.
by Dale Harker
My Night is Long, My Night is Wrong
The moon arises, the night begins.
Expunging sleep, from dreaming sins.
Sniff for cattle, the scent so sweet.
Taking flight, off idle feet.
We are alike, my meal and I.
We seek a drink, and a glorious high.
Flocked together, they hit the streets.
Find a club, and cavort to the beats.
Bodies moving, booze and sweat.
Makeup running, her nape is wet.
A man approaches, offers a drink.
She knocks it back, she does not think.
With her companion she departs, still I don’t care.
Once enthralled, I shall have that hare.
From the alley I spring, the man does strike.
I deflect the blow, say I wish not fight.
He punches again, I vacate him to the ground.
Lights blaring in the distance, will take him to the pound.
The bird does swoon, under my spell.
Little does she know, she’s headed for hell.
I take her to my home, a place of darkness and gloom.
My spell starts to wane, she yearns to leave the room.
Undulating my palm, prey wishes to alight.
I focus her neck and take myself a bite.
Screams with pain, the blood flows in.
Groan with lust, it trickles so thin.
With my victim’s collapse, I feel so alive.
This is my curse, it is my prize.
I soar through the sky, in joyous ecstasy.
The city below, all I can see.
My night is grand, my night is long.
Many others, would say it is wrong.
Night can’t endure, my prey must run.
Until next time, for you I shall come.
The coffin I seal, a place to hide.
Until moon’s rise, upon which I will ride.
I close my eyes and drift to sleep.
The day begins, the birds do tweet.
“Although not an honourable mention, I felt that 14 deserved some attention for having been bold enough to use the poem as a form. The use of language was sometimes very good, and of course, with poetry, 300 words can be far more efficient.”