Flash Fiction: Body and Heart

Work has been stressing me out, so I felt like writing about healing.

 

Body and Heart

by Heidi C. Vlach

In her fifteen years of massage therapy, Carly had met some remarkable patients. This lion, though, was something else.

Animals are animals, people always told her. Can’t change their nature. Can’t control their urges. Let down your guard and you’re as good as dead. Yet, this lion was on his third session of laying still and letting Carly sink her fingers into his musky, sand-coloured fur, down into the stress-bound muscle underneath until it released and went smooth.

Thank you, the lion told her afterward, as was his custom. He shook out his mane and yawned; Carly was mesmerized by those ivory fangs until they vanished back into his mouth, and then she caught herself and smiled.
It was her job to help, she replied. Was he sleeping better?
Much better, yes.
Good. He still had that therapist appointment?
Tomorrow morning.
And how about that terrible foot wound?
Rumbling a laugh, the lion lifted his forepaw to once again show Carly the bandage strip — still there between his massive toes, the smiling cartoon mice still afixed even though the thorn puncture must have been thoroughly healed by now.
He hadn’t thought one little thorn could change his life, the lion said. He had never considered seeking help, from mice or humans or anything else. But he was glad all this happened.

As a medical professional, Carly could say the same.

——–

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Flash fiction: Growing Pain

I asked Twitter to choose a story prompt, and this time the winner was a magical plant. Works for me! I’m starting seeds for my own garden right now, so I’m definitely in a plant mood.

Growing Pain

by Heidi C. Vlach

She was drifting toward the brink of sleep when the mandrake’s voice came again.

“Hey. Hey! Human!

No rest for the well-intentioned. Florence dragged upward from the night’s embrace, yanking her robe about herself as she stalked back to her greenhouse room, back into the smell of newly laid boards and paint.

Inside its rune-painted ceramic pot was the young mandrake sprout: draped with silver moonlight, its stem stiff and its spade-shaped leaves held high. Florence didn’t have to see its face to know what its pout looked like.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I’m too dry.”

Rubbing her aching eyes, Florence muttered, “You can’t be, I just watered you yesterday.”

“I’m the one with roots, and I’m telling you they’re dry.”

“This couldn’t wait until morning?”

“I might wither before morning!”

The plant was being dramatic: Florence had practically memorized the Beginners’ Guide to Magical Botany and she knew mandrakes were as tenacious as any garden weed. But she was going to humour it. She crossed the room on bare, silent feet and she pushed a finger into the mandrake’s soil.

“Feels damp to me. You aren’t confusing dryness for something else, are you? Mildew? Rot? Maybe regret for being so difficult with me?”

Its beady eyes flashed in the dark. “Mandrakes know more about mandrakes than apprentice humans ever will. Now, hurry up and water me. With fresh river water — I don’t want that chlorinated filth you put into your own body.”

“Honestly, this late at—”

“Do it,” the mandrake said, “or I’ll scream.”

And Florence didn’t want that, now did she? She left the greenhouse, sighing through her teeth, grabbing the empty water pail along the way. And she promised herself again that she wouldn’t rest — literally, if need be — until she was a plant mage.

 


 

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Flash Fiction: Some Like Bones

I was looking at other people’s cute dogs on Twitter before writing this.

Some Like Bones

by Heidi C. Vlach

What the dragon couldn’t figure out was why humans insisted on running from him. He bore the magic of Everytongue; he spoke words that perfectly matched human chattering; why, then, did they flee even when he uttered words of peace?

After some thought, the dragon asked one of the misshapen wolves guarding a human town — dogs, they were called. This dog hackled and growled at first, but melted into tail wagging once the dragon spoke a bark-like greeting and allowed his scales to be sniffed.

“I thought humans were friendly,” the dragon asked. “Why do they run from me?”

The dog tilted his head. “Humans are friends! Dragon is friend. Why …” He harrumphed and scratched at his floppy ear with a back paw. “I don’t know. Ask humans.”

“I’ve tried that,” the dragon repeated.

“Oh.” The dog continued thinking, only briefly distracted by a passing fly. Eventually, he decided, “You need to be a good boy.”

It sounded simple enough, this riddle. The dragon asked, “How does a creature be a good boy?”

The dog opened his mouth in a wide grin. “I can show you!”

It turned out to be an absurd practice, full of grovelling, tail-wagging and biting back his fire. But after some weeks of practice, the dragon got it right.

——

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Flash Fiction: Grow In The Dark

This scene came to me while I was thinking about human beings figuring out, through historical trial and error, which mushrooms and fungi are edible. I can only imagine the process would be even more, uh, exciting in a magical world.

 

Grow In The Dark

by Heidi C. Vlach

This was putting him behind schedule, thought the delivery boy. He held his tongue and ducked under yet more stiff bundles of dried herbs, holding his pocket cloth over his mouth to defer all the dust. When an elderly woman of great repute — such as this Madam Korozie des Florelle — invited one inside for tea, there was no polite option but to accept.

And so he followed the Madam through her cluttered storage closet of a home. All of the furniture was old, and some of it antique. Books and other treasures stood in off-kilter piles. The Madam herself was unknowable under her layers of skirts, cloaks and wraps, though he could definitely discern a hunched back and tawny skin spattered dark with age spots.

They talked about the recent rainstorm, of all innocuous things. He agreed, politely. And he sat under the stares of polished skulls and painted sigils, taking larger sips of his odd-flavoured tea until he was sure he liked it.

The Madam’s smile began to worry him, though. Knowing even for an elder, with her night-dark eyes pinched delighted at the corners.

The delivery boy was trying to muster another banal statements about the town aquifer, when the Madam cut in asking if he knew who she was.

Sick of the lump in his throat, he replied yes, he did. She was the first Grand Magus to ever dissent with the King.

Her gaze changed mercurially; he was holding the gaze of a rook, a wildcat, the heart of the whole enormous world. And, she said?

And what? What was he supposed to think of someone risen and fallen while he was still yet to be born? The delivery boy set down his suddenly flavourless cup and said that he was not present when she was Magus, good Madam. He tried not to pass judgement on such things.

Smart boy, she said on a flick of a laugh. Tell her the truth, though: what did he know about Madam Kororzie?

And, as was polite, he answered the lady’s question. Madam Korozie des Florelle was the first female foreigner ever to become a Grand Magus. She developed many of the standard healing spells still used to this day. She disagreed with the kingdom engaging in a war not theirs. And, the delivery boy added on a spur of drunken fear, the good Madam now foraged wild herbs for a living.

A harsher flick of laughter from the Madam, a shaking within her fabric coccoon. Just gathering herbs, she cried? A dotty old woman picking some bits and pieces for her dinner? No, dear boy, she said as she pushed herself up from the table — and she stopped to spear her gaze into him again. What was his name, again?

She had never asked for it. He was Santis Fowlue of Dunmore, he said, that dull name that was plain and sad and his.

Santis, the Madam confirmed.

Her accent leaned hard on the second syllable, which was wrong but at least interesting.

Well, Santis, she went on, she had been keeping busy since her Magus days. She focused on mycosis, the study of mushrooms and the many ways they could enhance a person’s magic. They could also poison a body and kill them quicker than a wink, the Madam gravely added — but anything on this earth worth doing was risky. Had he also heard of the dragonstooth toadstool?

Madam Korozie was shuffling now to a dust-coated cabinet, removing something that Santis couldn’t see past her hunched, cloaked back. It was still unclear whether he ought to be here; he tamped down his nerves and said no, ma’am.

If he had, she added, it would mostly be stories of fools trying to earn riches.

He was sorry, ma’am, but he hadn’t.

She hummed. She was at the hearth now, bending over one of the pots Santis had assumed to be simmering dinner. The dragonstooth toadstool, the Madam told him, was said to have sprouted from a shed tear from one of the gods. That fact had been translated ten times forward and back. Left out to go rusty in the rains of time. But if it was true, and if the toadstool could be picked, it could raise some brave human to their fullest potential.

Madam Korozie was still bent, working with the pot’s contents. Scraping echoed up into her chimney while Santis shifted in his groaning old kitchen chair.

So, Santis ventured, did she find it?

The Madam laughed. Not a flick of a laugh but the whole mirthful thing, the sound of a wise woman who understood the entire joke.

Santis shouldn’t have come here, he tried to suppose. He was already behind pace on his afternoon assignment. But in this strange, cosy home, he asked his elder, so, ah. It was worth the search, then?

Madam Korozie turned and approached him, a shuffling mound with smile-cornered eyes and a teaspoon held before her. A teaspoon full of meat broth — no, it was a magic potion. No meat made a liquid that deeply coloured, like saffron except oilier.

The Madam held the spoon out at Santis between her trembling, expert fingers. Held it out like a mere sip of soup and she said, why don’t you tell me?

——-

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Flash fiction: Come Flying Forth

I’m going to try something. Since long-form fiction has been a struggle for me the last few years, I’ll be focusing for a while on posting short, experimental flash fiction. That method helped me build strength as a younger writer, so hey, maybe it’ll help me now.

Without further chatter, here’s a story for today. I asked Twitter what my prompt should be and the answer was (unsurprisingly) dragons.

 

Come Flying Forth

by Heidi C. Vlach

Each morning, the dragons emerged from their cave. Flying on wings so nimble they never did collide, flying out in a rush of glinting scales and fiery eyes. They were every colour and size imaginable, those thousands of dragons; they were a kaleidoscope made liquid to pour upward and fill the sky.

The humans, frightened though they were, turned their faces up toward each morning dragon flight. They murmured in their throats, they pointed at the turbulent flock. Generations passed and, in the footnotes of time, some humans crept closer to the cave. They listened to roared words until understanding began. They left food offerings — including the ripe, fragrant fruit that dragons did covet.

“Why do you fly like that?” asked a brave youth one year. “Why do you always emerge together?”

The dragon addressed — a dog-sized example of her kind, lavender-coloured, licking mango juice from her snout — replied, “Because we can.”

“That’s all?”

“We fly. We are one. What else is there?”

When other humans arrived, the youth told them. Those humans told others. The wisdom spread.

Because we can. Because the dragons were all different, all fierce and vividly alive, but under their myriad colours they were tied together by same hearts.

It took more years, but the humans held a walk. An event for all, a pouring of humans down the same street, the colours of their faces and clothing making another kaleidoscope. All together.

Popular as it was, more walks were scheduled. More and more frequently until the dragons came to watch, perching on roofs and by roadsides, watching the human masses with a dancing fire in their eyes.

And when a dragon gifted them with fruit — a small, lavender dragon dragging a tooth-punctured watermelon to lay at the king’s feet — that was when the times of joy began.

—–

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed the story, please share it with your friends.

 


A magical new novel

It’s been two years since I published my last book — and a rough two years, where my mental health and employment status have both been patchy. But hey, I’m feeling okay again and think it’s time for me to write another novel.

Choosing which novel to write hasn’t been easy. Another short story collection? Another Story of Aligare? More in the Tinder Stricken universe? I don’t have enough sales numbers to decisively point at one of those. It’s hard to say which readers my stories are reaching. But when I tell friends and acquaintances about the ideas I’m kicking around, I’ve gotten a warm response to one story concept in particular — Wyndren’s story.

wyndrendesignconcept

Some sketch-and-digital concept art of Wyndren Pendergast. I’m still figuring out what exactly she looks like.

The working title is To Know Arcanely. It’s set on modern-day Earth where Bigfoot, Nessie and all manner of legendary creatures are real: they’re lost souls who accidentally came to Earth from their own magical dimension. Main character Wyndren is a faerie/dragon hybrid who crossed the dimensions while still in her egg, and she was found and raised by human scientists who study cryptids (more properly called Arcanians).

This upbringing leaves Wyndren stuck between worlds. She’s fond of humans but definitely not one of them. She assists with cryptobiological research, and studies the many fascinating types of human language, and runs a popular aesthetic blog, and through it all she longs to know where she comes from and what her Arcanian parent races are like. Visceral “seeking” needs like this are often what brings Arcanians to Earth in the first place — but how can Wyndren know why she’s here, when she came before she even hatched?

arcanelypaintconcept

Some more concept art. Wyndren lives in the human world and can only imagine what Arcania is like.

Accompanied by her best friend Holly — a dryad bonded to a potted bonsai tree — Wyndren begins travelling through cities and towns. If she meets new people and learns enough about Arcanian kind, maybe she’ll track down her own purpose.

And this is a first for me: To Know Arcanely might be a trilogy of novels. Wyndren has multiple societies to explore and she could easily find more than she bargains for! I’m focusing on one satisfying book for the moment, but I have ideas for Books 2 and 3. We’ll see.

Thoughts? Share in the comments!


Why do dragons have hoards?

One of the more enduring ideas of Western-style dragons is that they hoard things. Gold and treasure, most typically. It’s a mental image I have from childhood, where I read The Hobbit in 4th grade and attempted to redraw the cover art of Smaug coiled around his mountainous heap of gold.

I had this paperback version. Wrote an extremely simplistic book report about it.

This is the cover variant I read, and it’s the first mental image I have when anyone talks about The Hobbit.

 

More recently, Smaug’s hoard was brought grandly to life in the Hobbit movies, where the coins in Smaug’s hoard were painstakingly computer animated to spill across his scales. Fans are trying to estimate the worth of Smaug’s hoard, and it seems like no one can agree on the dollar value except to say that it’s astronomically high.

Why did this traditional idea of gold piles come about, though? Why do dragons hoard treasure?

In a basic historical sense, dragons were found alongside gold. Or, at least, that’s what our ancestors would have assumed when they dug up precious minerals and ended up finding dinosaur fossils. We’re a species compelled by stories, so people would have made up stories about these ancient, reptile-like beasts who were always found deep in the earth, near gold.

It’s logical enough that dragon hoards are meant to represent greed. Western dragons are classically portrayed as greedy beings of pure evil. They’re thought to have hoards just because that’s what dragons do: dragons simply sit on their treasure and revel their ownership of it, as opposed to a rich human who could use their wealth to build things, provide for the poor, or otherwise improve society.

Feel free to insert a joke about the 1%, Donald Trump, or similar.

Feel free to insert a joke about the 1%, Donald Trump, or similar.

 

In stories where a dragon hoards treasure, that treasure can doubles as a reward for the human hero. Anyone brave enough to slay the evil beast can claim its hoard as their own — although Norse and Germanic stories often specify that a dragon’s treasure is cursed, dooming any human tempted to be as greedy as the dragon. Maybe the curse would be dispelled by giving the gold away to needy people, or similar acts of charity? That would make narrative sense.

Okay, so the greed metaphor works when dragons are depicted as evil monsters. What about more benevolent dragons, though? More recent fantasy stories acknowledge that dragons are interesting creatures and they might make good allies to humans — so why then would a dragon covet gold and treasure? What motivation would they have to collect it?

I grew up watching The Flight of Dragons, in which dragons need a soft bedding material that can’t be accidentally set on fire. Gold serves this purpose well.

Flight_of_Dragons_17

Other franchises suggest that dragons are just fond of shiny, pretty objects, or they like the idea of owning valuables to impress others with. And why not? That’s why we humans wear pretty jewelry or expensive watches. It’s why we consider a golden crown to be headgear for an important, royal person. It’s not such a stretch to think that other intelligent beings would feel the same way about rare, precious metals.

 

I tend to think that lifespan is a factor, too. Dragons are generally imagined as long-lived beings, able to watch human dynasties come and go like the tides. They have more than enough time to build up a collection of money and valuables. Maybe dragons want savings for the same reason human beings want savings: to look after themselves and their loved ones in the inevitable hard times to come. Whereas short-lived creatures wouldn’t be as concerned about what the world will be like 50 years from now. I’ve never made this idea explicit in my Stories of Aligare, but the dragon-like korvi people have the longest lifespans of the three peoplekinds and they’re also most interested in the earth’s mineral riches, and they’re most likely to have a stash of metals and gems in their homes just in case. That’s not a coincidence.

Peregrine liked to think he could endure a little work. He had tempered himself in the mines, hauling rock until his body balked at the thought of more, until he felt like spent ashes all over and he still needed to cross the plains home. Fyrian hadn’t intended his sky-child korvi to break rock, but they did it anyhow. Someone needed to provide.

     -Remedy (A Story of Aligare), Chapter 9

And the whole reason I wrote the Serpents of Sky collection was to spin lots of different dragon scenarios. Dragons guarding gold to save humans from their own greed. Dragons who physically manifest the concepts of greed and chaos and destruction. Dragons whose close-guarded treasures let them bend time and space. Even a dragon whose precious stash is just cream and sugar to put in their coffee.

In short, there are lots of reasons dragons might hoard gold. It’s one of many traits we can get creative with, and reinterpret as we see fit. If you haven’t seen the Unusual Dragon Hoards artworks by Iguanamouth, I highly suggest taking a look — it’s a cute series where dragons sit possessively on piles of stuffed animals, spoons, comic books and other unexpected treasures. Golden hoards are just one more way for dragons to capture our imaginations.


A reading from Tinder Stricken (and some updates)

First thing: Tinder Stricken is now available in print-on-demand paperback form. The books are 6 inches wide by 9 inches high, a wide, thin book that’s easier to hold open than the pocket-sized bricks Stories of Aligare novels. You can buy a copy from my Createspace storefront or from Amazon proper.

tinderstrickenfin_1750-by-2500

Not sure I’ll ever get tired of sticking this cover art into my blog posts.

 

Second thing: All of my works are now available from Openbooks.com. It’s a new ebook site that features pay-what-you-want pricing, not necessarily paid up front — so you can read an book before deciding how much to pay for it. It’s a model I like for its inclusivity. Don’t have a lot of money and don’t want to waste it on a book you might hate? No problem!

Openbooks also allows sharing ebook files — so that you can share with your friends the same way you’d lend them your purchased paper books. I encourage sharing! Piracy worries are, if you ask me, an excessively neurotic fear of the inevitable.

 

The titular thing: I’ve recorded myself reading an excerpt of Tinder Stricken! Sort of like a casual book-reading event that everyone in the world can attend. Here’s Chapter 1 (and I hope to do some more chapters later):

Got thoughts on any of the above things? Share in the comments!


The phoenix has landed! Tinder Stricken now on sale

Launch day has come and gone. Which means that my Nepal-inspired story full of phoenixes, magic and other surprises can be purchased and read by you — yes, you!

 

tinderstrickenpng_availablenow

At the moment, Tinder Stricken is only available in ebook form through Amazon and Smashwords. That’ll change as I get the ebook ont other retailers, as well as do the formatting work for the Createspace paperback version. Check back here in a few days: I’ll update this blogsite as Tinder Stricken gets more buying options.


The definition of “person” in a human-free story

Hobsyllwin and Kume (artwork by Ciruelo)

Hobsyllwin and Kume (artwork by Ciruelo)

Fantasy and sci-fi stories aren’t limited to human characters. With a little thought and effort, an author can give intelligence, emotion and personality to just about anything we can imagine — animal, vegetable, mineral, or abstract concepts. Dragons and cat-people are actually fairly tame choices, if you think about it.

But fantasy/sci-fi brings up some weak points in our languages — such as the distinction of what, exactly, a “person” is. Is it an accurate term for xenomorphs and magical creatures? Would a non-human individual even identify with the human word “person”?

Oh, there are ways around the issue. We can refer to intelligent non-humans as “beings” or “individuals”. Characters can talk about “this one” or “that one”. And a story can just call characters by their names, species and formal titles, without ever speaking broadly about persons or people.

But why avoid it? If we can’t question the nature of personhood in genres full of faeries and aliens, where can we question it?

colourfulpeople2Language-wise, it’s a tricky issue. Here on real-life Earth, Homo sapiens hasn’t met any other clearly defined intelligent races yet, so we usually only need to talk about ourselves. The human connotation of “person” is usually a moot point. We do, however, see it surface occasionally in the news — such as in medical definitions of consciousness, or as part of the movement to grant personhood rights to whales and dolphins. (That link actually makes some interesting points about the nature of personhood, so I highly recommend reading it.)

This question seems to get mixed responses in the anthropomorphic/furry circles I’ve experienced. Some fans feel that “person” is a term too strongly tied to the human species. Furry literature sometimes uses “fur” to identify an intelligent being — so that an anthropomorphic fox character talks about this fur, somefur, everyfur or anyfur. It’s a striking way to remind the reader that there are no humans here, as well as give the characters a sense of their own vocabulary and culture.

Myself? I think “person” can be used to describe any being comparable to a human in intelligence or complexity. “Person” and “people” are commonly used words in my Stories of Aligare, where the three races call each other “peoplekind” instead of “species”.

Peregrine and Tillian

Here’s TwilightSaint‘s art again!

That was a partly reactionary choice, I have to admit. Anthropomorphic characters are is often marketed — and perceived by the general public — as vapid children’s entertainment. I’ve long been frustrated with people assuming that my stories aren’t about humans, therefore they must be about cartoon mascots for preschoolers. Awww, look at the little animal people! No, my characters are just people.

But word roots also factored into my choice. In the English language, “person” didn’t originally specify a human at all. Quoth the dictionary:

ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French persone, from Latin persona ‘actor’s mask, character in a play,’ later ‘human being.’

Roman_masks

Tragedy and Comedy masks, depicted in a 2nd century Roman mosiac.

Throughout human history, masks have represented a wide variety of beings — humans, animals, mythological beings and gods. And hey, that brings us back to the idea that when we open our minds, anything and anyone can be a significant, meaningful character. Fantasy and sci-fi have the power to really explore that.

So that’s why I like to classify intelligent, fictional beings by the same “person” term I’d use for myself. That term can help a seemingly simple creature serve us up some food for thought.