Emberfall was shortlisted for the Audrey Daybrook Short Story Prize (Round 3, 2019).
I kick the side of my griffin-mount, and he responds with a gentle, spiralled descent to the autumnal forest below. My fingers, clutching desperately to his neck-feathers, feel icy in the roaring wind. We corkscrew at the last second before crashing into the loam forest floor, and I hit the ground running. Ahead of me, the goblin encampment is startled. A small one screams the alarm, and the others scramble to fetch their weapons. I have the initiative, and smirk to myself. I clench my fist, and the heavens darken. The cloud cover begins to stir, circling above my unsuspecting foes. I relax my fist, revealing a solitary ember resting in my palm.
The world is still and silent. I blow the ember like a kiss, and it flutters towards the group. They watch as it approaches, mesmerised. It hangs above the nose of the leader for an agonising second, and then gently lands on the crooked bridge of his face. From the sky, a pillar of fire drops. The encampment, and the surrounding hectare of forest fracture into blackened ash, and are then further incinerated into dust in the blink of an eye. I laugh, and march through the sputtering fire that licks the forest floor.
I look up. The bitter smell of coffee wafts up from the mug that has just been deposited by the waiter. A young lady sits across from me. She has a birthmark under her eyebrow and bright hazel eyes. She notices me looking at her, and smiles. There is a noticeable gap between her two front teeth. She isn’t ashamed. She reaches out and touches my arm lightly.
“Is everything okay?” She asks.
“Of course sweetheart.” I look down at my coffee again. The froth is shaped like a fern, and it’s only now that I hear the bubble of conversation enveloping me. Two businesswomen are discussing a presentation and laughing. A baby dozes in the arms of a grandparent. The lady across from me is excited about the future, she is showing me pictures of a white cake on her phone.
“Ready to give up yet?” asks the adventurer with a laugh. We are nestled in a rocky crevasse that shields us from the blizzard that billows overhead. He is a hulking mammoth-man, unflinching and trustworthy. I shake my head, and he grins until his eyes vanish behind his cheekbones. We continue up the mountain pass, shoulders brushing against the crevasse wall for protection from the storm.
Higher up, a clan of frost-bitten goblins has also taken refuge from the winds. Again, I call on the spell Emberfall. The skies are rent with fire, and the mountain face melts from the magical fury. The blue goblins, however, withstand the attack. Just barely. I fall to my knees, exhausted. The adventurer shakes his head at me. “Ready to give up yet?” He asks. I flick a few coins in his direction, and the fighting continues.
I’m sitting on a picnic blanket. The young lady has cut her hair much shorter. She wears an enormous wide-brimmed hat. Her expression is of exasperation. I feel a wetness on my leg, and look down to see a crawling baby sucking on my shinbone. He gurgles. The sky is cloudless, and the air is humid. Insects hum around the garden. From the picnic basket, the lady withdraws a bottle for the child. I hold him in the crook of my arm, and feed Charlie. He guzzles from the bottle greedily.
My flesh screams with pain as the goblin chieftain sinks his teeth into my forearm and rends the flesh from the bone. His warriors chuckle in delight at my anguish. Tongues of fire dance across the blades of the goblins. Their skin is freshly cracked basalt that hides veins of magma just below the skin. The adventurer is unconscious beside me, rasping for air through a punctured lung. I call down Emberfall once again, but the goblins are not incinerated. They laugh viciously, and continue their attack. I chug bottle after bottle of expensive elixir.
The lady now has a streak of grey through her hair. She is still young enough to hide it, but she’s chosen not to. She sits beside me in bed, reading Austin through spectacles. She turns to me. She has been crying.
“Charlie’s having troubles at school,” she says. “He’s getting harassed by older boys at lunch.” I heave myself out of bed, and creep down the hall to his bedroom. The door is slightly ajar. I peer inside the room. Charlie has fallen asleep at his desk. His homework books are half-completed, splayed out before him: spilling from his unconscious mind.
The townspeople gathered around me fawn desperately for my attention. The village women glance admiringly as I strut to the town center. There are shouts of jubilation from the local men, who declare me a hero. The adventurer, a few paces behind, shouts out my praises to those who are gathered. At the edge of the crowd I spot a fledgling hero, wounded from battle. The simple chainmail that signals him as a beginner has been torn from his body, and bloody wounds leak from the gaps in his armour. He approaches admiringly, and I flick him a few coins out of pity. I wait for the response.
Charlie2004 has added you as a friend.