Flash Fiction: Oh, The Humanity

Drawing of Elizabet by Emily Tupper, age 8

Flash Fiction

A flash fiction response to a challenge issued by Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com.

The assignment, which I gamely accepted, was to mash any two of the following sub-genres together:

Southern Gothic
Cyberpunk
Sword & Sorcery
Femslash
Black Comedy
Picaresque
 

Obviously, this is quite a list to choose from! I did my homework and narrowed it down to Sword & Sorcery and Black Comedy. Then I imposed my own criteria which is to continue writing backstory for my book Tenderfoot.

While I was able to use the swashbuckling sword action component from the one, I’m afraid only the “black” in “black comedy” transferred successfully into the story.

Let me know what you think in the comments. Is there a smidge of offensiveness in the ending comments made by the trolls about humans or do I get token points good only at Chuck E. Cheese for trying?

*****

Once upon a time, among the schists of Dålsland, lived an un-baptized Troll named Elisabet. She was the second to be named Elizabet for the first, her sister, died upon birth. She and her many surviving brothers and sisters grew up in a cave beneath a great granite mountain.

One evening Elizabet was out tending to the animals at the nearby farm when she heard beautiful music coming from the family’s home. Elizabet crept close to listen. It was the most wondrous thing. It touched something inside of her that nights of stomping with her kin deep in the caves did not. There were many beliefs about sharing the land and sea with humans, all of them cautioning against involvement. Elizabet thought long and hard as the melodies of humming fiddle strings echoed in her head. In the end, she slipped on a human skin and set out for music school in Uppsala.

After several years, Elizabet felt she had learned what she could about the fiddle. She tied up her beloved instrument in a cloth bag, thanked her human teachers, and set out for home.

By this time, the human skin fit well. It was Elizabet’s mistake to travel in it at night for when she came to the river near the Ironworks, a troll sprang from beneath the stone bridge. Caught, she continued pretending. To her amazement, he was a beastly thing. Standing tall and broad shouldered with long tangled brown hair, his bulbous nose was overshadowed only by his big sharp teeth when he growled at her. This shocked Elizabet, but not in the way he intended. It was as if she was seeing a troll for the first time, finding it ugly and vulgar. Had her human skin ruined her eyes?

He drew close. “Lo! Do you think you are to cross this bridge? Not without payment, my pretty!”

At a distance of several steps, Elizabet found his stench overwhelming. And yet she was not afraid. This particular troll bore a resemblance to her mother’s kin. “I seek only to return to the  granite mountains of Dålsland. If I play you a folk tune, will that be fair payment?”

The troll scratched his great forearms and thought. “Yes, that will be fair.”

Elizabet gathered her skirts and sat down on the stones that lined the edge of the bridge. She carefully unwrapped her fiddle. Moonlight reflected off the glassy surface of the river as she played her favorite song about a waterfall. The troll sat quietly. When the tune ended, the music of night filled the silence. Elizabet wrapped up her fiddle and stood to cross.

“Wait! I cannot allow you to leave.”

“But what of our deal?” There was something in the way his gargantuan nose twitched that set her to worrying. Had her kind always looked this repulsive? She stepped forward. Distracted, the troll looked behind him. Elizabet saw her chance. She ran. Her thin leather boots slapped against the rough stones as she sprinted across the bridge yet he quickly caught her. In the blink of an eye, he slung her over his shoulder like a bag of turnips.

“Careful! My fiddle!” She cried. Kicking as hard as she could in the frail human skin, she failed to wrest herself from his grip. He carried her down the grassy embankment toward his lair. Elizabet thought as to reveal herself as a troll but the fear of being brought to judgment before the Troll King for living among the humans stopped her. At that moment, the clattering of horse hooves on the bridge startled them both. The troll rolled her off his shoulder into the grasses growing against the arch.

“Keep quiet!” He bounded onto the bridge.

Seeing her chance, Elizabet fled. The hawthorn bushes would provide shelter until she could disappear into the forest. From there, she could drop the skin and her once-hidden knobby troll feet would carry her away. When she reached them safely, she dared to look back.

To her surprise, the horse was gone. In its place on the bridge stood a handsome man. River water streamed from his wet clothes and coal-black hair. Time slowed as he drew back his sword and thrust it into the troll in one powerful motion. He wiped the sword clean on the fallen body then casually rolled it over the side into the river. Staring at where she hid, the stranger called out, “Dear Fiddler, will you play a tune for me?”

Crouched in the thicket of thorns, rivulets of blood ran down Elizabet’s fragile weeping skin. She held still, waiting.

And then he said, “I had hoped…” The swordman’s voice trailed off in the quiet splashing sounds of the river.

Elizabet did not return home until after her son was born. Worried the Troll King would learn of  her human dalliance with the shape-shifting water man, she knew she must protect her mongrel Fae child even as her heart was cleaved in two. She lucked upon a suitable human family who played music. And so it came to pass early one morning, Elizabet placed her beloved baby with coal-black hair side by side with their tow-headed baby and tucked both in. And yet Elizabet couldn’t bear the emptiness of her arms for a moment. She snatched up the tow-headed child and fled in haste, leaving her Changeling safely behind.

Then Elizabet sadly shed her human skin once and for all, burying it with her violin in the forest. At last she arrived home. She lied to her kin, and told grand stories of running with the reindeer up North. Then she revealed the stolen baby. The troll children gathered close. They were so curious, they poked and prodded until the baby scrunched up its pale face and cried. Elizabet shivered deep in her troll heart when one of the children giggled, “Who would want to live with such noise?” to which one mother replied, “Oh, the humanity!”

Flash Fiction: The Backahasten

A scary white horse with fangs

Flash Fiction

A flash fiction response to a challenge issued by Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com. Crime fiction + gun porn = a challenge that pushed me out of my comfort zone.

The Backahasten is a creature borrowed from Scandinavian folklore. It is briefly mentioned in my book Tenderfoot and a featured villain in my next book, Blinded. Marta is the great-grandmother of Jules Jennings from Tenderfoot.

This flash fiction is historical. What that means, dear readers, is that I spent 15 hours researching early 20th century Swedish life, military, and guns (including the translation of Swedish text to English) and 3 hours writing. I tried to make it as accurate as possible. If I got anything wrong, blame the internets. Enjoy! 

*****

There’s something there by the edge of the shore. Through the spindly trees, it looks to be the bloody remains of some unfortunate animal, crushed and torn apart.

I walk down the slope to get a better look. Could it be what I think it is? And then I see something move in the reeds. I freeze. To my disbelief, an enormous white horse emerges from the lake before my very eyes. Water streams off of its larger-than-life body as it climbs onto the shore. Then it looks up at me.

Devil be damned, it’s a fearsome thing. The withers of the horse are easily as high as the top of my head. Wet mane clings to its massive neck which twists forcefully as it shakes itself dry. Bits of dark green lake vegetation stick to its body, as pronounced against the white coat as the brown spot on the right front leg. The wet tail flicks back and forth like a cat preparing to pounce as it lifts hooves larger than a cabbage, each step deliberate, powerful. The creature is so big it’s a wonder the thing can move at all. At twenty meters, the beast opens its mouth to reveal teeth no horse should have. Fangs. Then it advances.

Not quite believing my eyes, I lift the Swedish Mauser 96 rifle and aim it directly at the beast.

A Backahasten.

My blood runs cold. I’d have one shot, maybe two before it made pulp of me too. I check the bolt action. It clicks and slides easily into position. As always, the wooden stock fits comfortably in my hand. I hold my ground, staring down the shiny barrel to the sight. Between hunting and time served for Sweden, the gun is like another limb. This time, it needs to be.

Silently, I curse. I should have known when I spotted the bloody mess of fur and jagged bone down by the water’s edge. It looked identical to the remains of that little girl ten years ago on these same shores, a horrifying scene I would never forget. There was intense mutilation of the girl’s body, as if someone deliberately intended to destroy it. Around what was left, blood pooled in giant hoof prints. This inexplicable death was worse than anything I saw serving conscription in the Vaxholm Coastal Artillery regiment. In the end, we identified Elsa Lindstrom by her shoes. Her killer was never found.

When the police union sent me from the new police academy in Uppsala to Varmland, the other men joked my primary duty would be rounding up lost pigs.

 But then this.

There were no suspects, for whom among us would do such a thing to a child? The only clue came from Marta Karlsdottir, age twelve, a friend of the dead child. She saw Elsa playing with a white horse and described it down to the dark round mark on the front leg. But even if I found said horse, what was I going to do, arrest it? And after a few days, Marta refused to speak further. The child was scared, as she should be. She was a witness to an unsolved crime. Whomever perpetrated this act still walked among us.

There was talk in Varmland. At first, I ignored the village chatter. After a while, I realized the low comments I heard when I entered the blacksmith’s, the sawmill, and the bakery were all the same. Beware the Brook Horse. It will drown you in the lake. Tales of the creature and its prior victims repeatedly endlessly. To my surprise, the child’s death was readily accepted. But one thing caused consternation among the villagers. Why did it stomp little Elsa to death? Why didn’t it drown her like the others? I dismissed the gossip that passed for folklore outright. It was all superstition. And yet, with so little, my only hope was to catch the killer during the next attempt.

Here before me was a matching scene, ten years after the father gathered what was left of his precious child and buried her in the church yard. There was no doubt in my mind, her killer and this horse were one and the same.

 Sunlight glints off the upside down brass disk on the right hand of the stock into my eyes. I shift it, watching. I no longer need to glance at the disk to plan the shot – after all these long years, I still know this rifle better than my own wife’s face. I bet my life on the stamped articles of faith: torped, overslag, the triangular mark above the “2” for a 6.52 millimeter bore. How many hundreds of times had I polished the receiver stamped with the year “1907” or the smaller disc of my dear regiment KA1? The stamp of crowns across the weapon applied by “J.V.” were an oath, an oath of the precision of Swedish-built weapons. This was a fine straight-bolt rifle with no strek, no rust in the bore, and it shot as true as any firearm could. Today, it would have to.

Through the metal sight, I line up the cross between the creature’s ears and eyes. I picture the brass round nose bullet originally destined for a buck when I left to hunt this morning. One shot. The palm holding the smooth walnut stock begins to sweat. I curl a finger around the trigger, waiting.

The beast freezes. Its head swings to the side as if to get a better look at me. The enormity of its jaws is breath-taking. The fangs are hidden now but the look is sinister. With the smallest of movements, I set my sight to the spot between the questioning eye and the flickering ear. I fire.

To my surprise, the beast suddenly rears back and gallops down the slope. And with that, it ducks into a stand of spindly trees, putting obstacles between itself and my bullet. I can barely make it out as it runs. And then I hear the splash. The horse is in the lake.

I lower the rifle to rest the metal buttplate against my foot. The Backahasten sinks quickly beneath the surface of the water. For as long as I stand there, it never resurfaces.

The sun starts to set. At last, I turn to leave.

It’s in the foliage covering the ground on the hill just above that I spy a single blue Forget Me Not. I pluck the delicate flower between first finger and thumb. As I pass the church on the way home to kiss my wife, I stop in the graveyard to leave it with the dead.

*****

Flash Fiction: Breaking In The Boyfriend

Flash Fiction

A flash fiction response to a challenge issued by Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com. This one is in response to “25 Ways To…” Well, if you really want to know, go read it for yourself. It sounds better when Chuck says it.

I used characters from the Tenderfoot world and told untold backstory. Err, you know what I mean. In this flash fic, Jeffrey, Jules’ dad, is by no means the most tortured protagonist ever, but he did receive a nice working-over courtesy of Nick.

*****

Karolina drew close. On the Penrith train platform, she stopped mid-stride to argue with our guest Jeffrey, both of them oblivious to the other passengers. She must have told him the good news. After a minute, they proceeded to the Jaguar. Jeffrey was unable to hide his dismay as Karolina slipped into the passenger seat next to me. I couldn’t help winking. She ignored me.

Things improved upon arrival at Mount Helvellyn. Jeffrey made a peacock display of himself, offering to carry more than half his load of camping gear up the mountain. It was easy to slough most of mine onto him. He blinked a bit as he shouldered it, but he trusted me. We’d see how long that lasted. No doubt he believed the evening held a shag in the Great Outdoors.

It was a pleasant climb. We took our time, following a path that meandered up the emerald green mountainside. There were no trees to speak of, just stone and closely cropped grass. The higher we rose, the better the view to the valley below.

I listened to their small talk. Jeffrey pretended they were alone as he flirted shamelessly. From the quickening of Karolina’s heart to the way she gazed at him, Jeffrey had to be the One. Bedevil me, it would be a long upward march.

After lunch, we splashed in the cold water of a mountain stream. No time like the present to disabuse Jeffrey of how this works. One slippery rock later, I hid my delight under the surface of the water where I landed while dear Jeffrey nursed an accidental kick to the groin. It took Karolina several minutes to determine the chain of events when her back was turned. While one eyebrow rose, my sweet girl acquiesced quickly. We continued. Across the afternoon, we worked our way up to a suitable camp site. Karolina inserted herself between us the entire time.

It would be a long evening.

Jeffrey went off in the wrong direction looking for fresh water. When he returned two hours later, a bit worse for the wear, I was happy to show him the stream one hundred meters in the opposite direction. The campfire was set up by then. After dinner, Karolina went to fetch thick socks against the chill. I surreptitiously slid into her spot under pretext of moving away from the smoke. Not one to miss an opportunity, I stared. Eventually his eyes shifted to meet mine.

“Jeffrey, are you a betting man?”

“Excuse me?”

“How much did you wager on tonight?”

His dirty brow furrowed in disbelief. A leaf was stuck in his hair. It shone luminously green in the reflection of the fire. “Why would I wager on her?”

“I wager this camping trip is not meeting your expectations.”

“Is that so?” His eyes blazed. It would be so easy to push him over.

“Karolina is not like other girls. You need to earn her.”

Jeffrey jumped to his feet and backed away. “You’re crazy, Nicholas!”

“No, I’m serious. If you want to date her, you need my approval.” I, the uncle’s nephew’s brother’s brother. I loved that joke.

A moment passed as he assessed his options. His eyes flickered over the fire toward the tent, resolve hardening around them. He was soft. Did Jeffrey have what it took?

“You get one shot. If you screw it up, that’s it. Or, you can pack your bags now.”

We were still in the silence. Karolina was kind enough to remain in the tent.

“I’m not going anywhere.” He sat down. The fire crackled as the plume of smoke reached to the dark sky.

“It’s settled then.”

Jeffrey held out his hand. I grasped it around the cuts and bruises, applying slightly too much pressure. We shook.

As I stepped away, I said, “You might want to tell her about that kid you killed in high school.”

Flies could have landed in his open mouth.

“How do you know about that? We were just kids playing hockey,” Jeffrey said when he recovered. Remorse flitted across his face.

“It’s one of many things I know about you.” I gestured to the collar of his not-so-white tennis shirt. He might be American but he dressed like the other Oxford twats.

I left him then. Karolina exited the tent, speed in her step. As we passed, I touched her shoulder. I whispered, “I’ll be back in half an hour.” The darkness welcomed me. She paid reparations to Jeffrey with kisses before I looked away.

The next afternoon, we descended the mountain. When we came to the bottom, I made my move. I blocked Jeffrey’s way with one foot. Abruptly, he halted, stumbling a bit as he fought for control on the rocky slope.

“One last thing.”

“What now, Nick?” He used this nickname since I returned to the fire last night. It was mildly irritating. He stood tall as he held my gaze. The swollen bump on his forehead didn’t look as bad as the cut along his hairline crusted over with blood. He refused to give up. He might work out after all.

“I’d like to see you do a handstand. Over there,” I gestured.

To my surprise, he dropped everything: the bedrolls, the wadded up leaky tent, the camping gear. It all fell to the ground so easily. Without hesitation, he skittered down the last paces of rock, jogging to the flat spot in the meadow. Karolina grabbed my arm as she watched. In less than a three-count, Jeffrey swung forward onto his hands. The effort to stay balanced cost him. He stayed upright for a true heartbeat before collapsing, finishing laid out on the grass. This time I let him rest. He’d proved himself.

Karolina ran to his side.

Let him have his prize. Not bad for a third date. It gave me something to look forward to – the fourth. How to decide between river rafting or skydiving?

*****

The view from Mount Helvellyn, 1986.

Tim Ellis’s Featured Author

Battle Park, Chapel Hill, NC

Today Tim Ellis has been kind enough to feature me as an author on his blog timellis.weebly.com. I talk about the various forms of writing I’ve used throughout my life and how this experience applies to the creation of Tenderfoot.

Tim is the author of ten books in multiple genres with a new one, The Flesh Is Weak, due in August. Check out his bio as well, it’s an inspiring story!

Big thanks to Tim for the feature!