VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

Check out the prologue here:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue


Maureen Bradshaw was a middle-aged human woman of around average height. She was thin and underweight, like all humans who reached her age. She often wore a sceptical frown, which had become her customary appearance in the media. The frown formed three long age lines across her forehead and made her look worn.

She was a prominent figure in both human and virn news, because she had a unique job that required her involvement in both worlds: Maureen was the official Liaison between humans and the virn, the rulers of Montague 7.

Most humans viewed this as a special, even in some instances an honourable position. They thought there was something prestigious about attending meetings with senior virn figures and giving interviews to the media. As the longest serving Liaison in the history of human-virn relations, Maureen knew just how wrong they were.

Yes, it was true that she had permission to leave Valhalla, the camp the virn had graciously (as it was officially documented) allowed humans to settle, whenever she wished. It was possible for other humans to get that same permission, but the virn had made this a long and difficult process for the average human, so many of them had never seen the world beyond the walls. A handful left the camp illegally every month or so, but they were always rounded up by the virn authorities and dragged back to Valhalla. The escape and recapture would always be widely reported in the virn media, and then a few days of uproar about the breach in virn security would occur before the whole thing would be forgotten about.

It was also true that Maureen got the opportunity to practice her virnin frequently in the presence of real virn, rather than the artificial holo-programs that were used in classrooms. They had pre-set conversations installed on them that became dry rather quickly. Meeting real virn outside of Valhalla had given Maureen a first-hand look at virn life, and how different it was from the life they had granted humans in their so-called generosity.

Those were the parts of her job that Maureen was asked to talk about the most. They were only the barest elements of her work, and if anything, they only served to reinforce her belief that humans were deliberately kept out of Valhalla in order to prevent their integration into virn society. It was not the first time that the Virn Empire had repressed a species to serve their own ends: they had a history of doing so with lesser-developed species, following the conquest of their planets.

This was not something virn history books discussed, but there were plenty who were willing to discuss how they had been treated if the price was right.

Some humans liked to point out that the virn were not exactly what they would consider moral. The virn governing body on Montague 7 did things because those things benefitted their own people. They had created an entirely separate branch of government for humans, led by humans, to shift the responsibility of human affairs off their shoulders. The human government needed the permission of the virn government to do anything or pass any legislation, which meant it achieved very little, but it did what it was intended to do because the human government was there to take the blame.

Maureen reported to the human government, but she did not like to get too involved with it. She knew it was a puppet, and that was a part of her job she greatly disliked.

The absolute worst part of her job, however, was meeting with the virn Controller, who was essentially Maureen’s counterpart. The Controller, a proud virn woman named Zuwrath, had next to no interest in bettering the human position and seemed to take great joy in making Maureen’s life as difficult as possible. Zuwrath refused to budge on most issues, although she expected Maureen to jump through hoops to accommodate her demands. The virn had the upper hand in their relationship and she liked to remind the human of that. All things considered, Zuwrath was perfect for her job.

Whenever Maureen had to deliver Zuwrath’s new demands to the human government – which then moved to put them into action without debate – there was outrage in Valhalla. The human media broadcasted ugly little cartoons of Maureen trying and failing to persuade an anti-human Zuwrath to show a little compassion. The media loved to depict Maureen, and used her image at every opportunity.

Although Zuwrath’s stubbornness was well-known, there had been a few occasions when Maureen had been able to persuade the Controller to do something positive for humans. This was not a case of changing the virn’s mind, because that was impossible: it was about persuading the Controller that a little addition would do a great deal for virn as well as for humans.

Maureen was a symbol of achievement against insurmountable odds (when the media was not out to get her), and that was the kind of role model young humans needed.

Of course, Zuwrath was not the only virn Maureen had a working relationship with. Others could be more reasonable, at least when compared to the Controller. Aside from Zuwrath, the most important were the leaders of the thirty-eight regions on the planet, each the head of a government sector ruling over a part of Montague 7. A handful of them had been nice enough in the past to express their wishes that humans and virn might one day live together in peace, but had also felt concern that it might cause trouble if humans were integrated into their region.

Maureen was used to being told that she was welcome, and that her people were welcome too … just not here. This was at least an acknowledgement that human life was incredibly hard. The harder it got, the more disgruntled humans became – especially the youth, who could cause Maureen a great deal of trouble. When they rebelled, Zuwrath placed harsher demands on the human government, and the average virn man and woman became a little more concerned about the presence of humans on their planet. This meant that human life got harder. It was a vicious cycle that Maureen had been fighting for far longer than the ten years she had spent as Liaison.

She had to believe it was possible for things to change, even if that change took generations. Maureen did not expect to see virn treat humans as their equals in her own lifetime.

The Liaison had heard about the two human teens who had tried to bomb some high-end virn mall, and so she had waited for Zuwrath’s call. It had not been a long wait. Zuwrath had decided against the standard digital communication to summon Maureen, and had instead decided to send two virn officers to Valhalla to fetch her instead. Maureen suspected that their presence was designed to frighten humans into obedience, lest anybody might feel inspired by the two silly children.

They had buzzed her when they had arrived at the gates of the camp, and Maureen had gone to them laughing loudly at their unwillingness to enter. Zuwrath had likely warned them not to: there had been a few incidents in the past when her underlings had gone home and shared the reality of how humans lived with the virn media. The Controller did not need a surge of sympathetic interest in the human cause.

The masked officers escorted Maureen to Zuwrath’s headquarters in an unmarked vehicle. Valhalla was not officially located in any region, but Zuwrath worked in Louch, the region to the north of the camp. There, the Controller busied herself night and day to keep humans contained within their own little world and prevent their involvement in wider virn society. Maureen had stressed to Zuwrath on many occasions that their separation and segregation only served to increase the mutual dislike the two species shared for one another, but Zuwrath did not seem to care. It did not matter whether the average virn held the correct opinion of humans, so long as the virn remained better off.

When Maureen entered Zuwrath’s office, the Controller’s secretary greeted her. He was a young, somewhat jumpy virn on an apprenticeship. His squeaky voice put him at under twenty years of age, and probably still in the early stages of puberty. When it broke, it would no doubt match his scaly hide and narrow eyes far better than the squeak did. The virn life cycle was on average, and based on their own calendar, forty years longer than that of humans – more, when one considered the life expectancy in Valhalla. This meant that virn children enjoyed a long and happy youth and were not officially classed as adults until they reached twenty-five years of age. Puberty did not start until the late teens at the earliest.

Wait here,’ the secretary told her. He entered Zuwrath’s private room to see if she was ready, then came back out a moment later. ‘Take a seat.’

Maureen knew that Zuwrath was more than ready to see her. The Controller just liked to agitate her by making her sit down and wait in the corner of her office every single time she was summoned. Maureen did her best to ignore the Controller’s deliberate manipulation: she had a great deal of practice when it came to Zuwrath.

She counted twenty-three minutes before Zuwrath poked her scaly head around the door of her private room and instructed Maureen to come in. The Liaison obeyed, as politely as she could.

Zuwrath’s office was a large room decorated with spectacular paintings, all by famous virn artists who were now long deceased. It was the Controller’s private art collection, but Maureen had always thought that the paintings, with their elegant swirls, sharp angles, and earthly colours, paled in comparison to Zuwrath herself.

The Controller was tall, a full head and shoulder over Maureen, with wide-set eyes and dry, scaled skin. The colour of her scales – or her armour, as Zuwrath had once referred to them – indicated her family’s racial purity: Zuwrath was from one hundred percent virn stock, and she liked to make sure that everyone around her knew that. There was no interspecies breeding in her ancestry. Her tail stuck out the back of her clothes, long and strong. She was pure enough that she could regrow it if she ever lost it.

She wore clothes of brown and moss green, which matched her scales. Every inch of her body, apart from her tail, head, and neck, was clothed. The body suit zipped up on Zuwrath’s left side and gave her enough freedom that she could swell up if she wanted to threaten or needed to defend herself. The spines down her back always looked sharp, but the thick material she wore protected others from cutting themselves if they touched her. Maureen had never seen Zuwrath in a mask; the Controller was too important to wear one.

Sit down,’ Zuwrath instructed, waving a gloved hand at the chair on the opposite side of her desk. Maureen took the seat as Zuwrath also sat. The Controller straightened a few papers on her desk with an amused smile, because she finally turned her thin yellow eyes on the other woman. ‘Maureen,’ she said, ‘let’s not waste our time here.’

With all due respect, Controller,’ Maureen replied, forcing herself to sound as though she did still have some respect left for the other woman after the long wait, ‘I know what this is about, and it’s a complicated issue. This attempted bombing is only one in a long list of incidents. It’s more than a matter of what’s right and what’s wrong or what can be done in response to this specifically – it all comes down to the human situation.’

The human situation is that your people destroyed your own planet and my people gave some of them a place to settle and –’ Zuwrath screwed up her face in repulsion, her eyes narrowing until only the thin yellow slits of her pupils remained visible, ‘– repopulate.’

And we are starting to repopulate. Which we are grateful for. There are now far too many of us for humans to live comfortably in Valhalla. We need more space, better facilities, access to clean water and –

It sounds like this has happened at a very convenient time.’

Maureen fell silent. There was an awkward pause in which the Liaison and the Controller stared across the table at one another. As always, Maureen was the one who backed down. That was the way all of their standoffs ended; Zuwrath would have been content to sit there and stare at Maureen forever, barely blinking, but Maureen wanted to get to the matter in hand. The virn’s body had a higher tolerance to a lack of food, water, and bathroom facilities than Maureen’s, and her priorities were seemingly to be as difficult as possible.

In addition, Zuwrath knew Maureen too well. She knew that Maureen could not accept violence, because Maureen had personally led a campaign several years previously against the militarisation of human anger. The Liaison had been at the forefront of converting many young humans who had been physically aggressive towards virn to a peaceful form of protest instead.

Yes, they continued to protest, and they still irritated the Controller, but the virn media did not pay that much attention to humans who protested in a reasonable way. That would have put humans in a far too favourable light – but at least it was not negative attention.

You know I didn’t have anything to do with this, Zuwrath. You know it’s a result of how desperate young humans feel. What those two teens could’ve done sickens me. It sickens every good, honest, hard-working human.’

Zuwrath scoffed. ‘Well, I suppose there must be a few around. Ah, it sickens the humans, but your people continue to attack mine nonetheless.’

I’ve told you before, those are not my people.’

They’re human, aren’t they? You’re human. That makes them your people.’

It does not! My people are peaceful. My people don’t behave in ways that are detrimental to human affairs.’

Zuwrath leaned over her desk, her yellow slits boring into Maureen’s pale pupils. ‘Humans are humans,’ she said, as though this was supposed to mean something. ‘When one human attacks us, we must assume that all humans are a threat. Who knows how many sympathisers there are in that camp?’

There are no sympathisers!’ Maureen responded heatedly.

I cannot be certain of that. My media cannot be certain of that. Do you think you can convince the average virn that his or her family would be safe if a family of humans lived next door? Can you swear their children would be safe playing with human children? There have been problems with species integration throughout the history of the great Virn Empire, but you humans are something else. You cannot be trusted.’

The behaviour of an extremely small minority is a response to the way we have been treated over the years. Come on, Zuwrath, you know the virn media was against human from the beginning. Yes, the violence is wrong, and I’ll continue to repeat that until I’m blue in the face. Yes, the loss of both human and virn life is terrible, but –’

The loss of virn life,’ Zuwrath correct her, ‘is an abomination.’

It is. I’m not trying to deny that. I’m trying to get you to see that we’ve been treated as inferior, as second-class, as incompetent, as unintelligent for so long, as … as a species whose rights can be ignored for the benefit of the Empire. From the moment that we arrived, almost fifty years ago, we’ve been treated in that way. That’s why we slave away in factories with poor lighting, inadequate heating, and dangerous machinery, taking minimal breaks, while virn men and women work in clean, healthy environments that respect them and their needs. We need better standards, Zuwrath: we can’t spend as long in the sun as a virn without becoming dehydrated, and we can’t work for as many hours without rest.’

Then perhaps my predecessors fifty years ago were correct in placing you in that camp,’ Zuwrath stated.

Zuwrath, we’re as intelligent and capable as any virn. Our bodies aren’t identical to yours, but that doesn’t make up any lesser than you. Just like the offspring of virn who breed with other species can become tired faster than you, or they can’t grow back their tails, or they have fewer scales … we’re different, but just as valuable.

Inferior species.’

Some of the half-virn, half-bexelm children can store food and water in their bodies for up to a week in case they have to go without,’ Maureen pointed out. ‘That’s not inferior.’

The Controller’s eyes lit up, and she smashed her fist onto her desk before jabbing a long finger at the papers she had fussed over when they had first sat down. ‘You are here to discuss what happened at the shopping mall,’ she reminded Maureen. The Liaison forced herself to keep a straight face, despite her desire to grin: it was an achievement when Zuwrath ended an argument without first proving herself right.

Right, yes, of course. Yes. Well, obviously, we humans are deeply sorry for the upset that this incident has caused.’

And what am I supposed to do when the shoppers start demanding compensation for trauma? These high-class virn think the empire of themselves. If they see an opportunity to sue, they’ll go for it.

Please express our deepest sympathies. We woefully regret the actions of these two humans. However, Zuwrath, I would like to point out that the governors and I feel the situation could have been resolved without either of the humans being killed. If the perpetrators had been virn, well then, some humans might argue they would only have been stunned –’

A shipment of new containers was scheduled to be delivered to Valhalla tomorrow,’ Zuwrath interrupted. She rifled through the papers and pulled one out of the pile, then waved it in front of Maureen’s face. The Liaison saw the receipt for two thousand new containers, which would likely have housed more than ten thousand humans. She knew what Zuwrath was getting at.

We’ve been waiting for those containers for almost five years now,’ she said. ‘There are many families who’ve lived in tents since the first colonists settled here. They’ve been so patient, waiting for their chance to live in a container, where they can be protected from the weather and from thieves and from the spread of disease, and to have their own screens where they can view the news and learn to communicate with virn and better themselves and –

Zuwrath screwed the piece of paper up into a ball and threw it into the bin at the end of her desk. Maureen stopped talking.

They can wait a few more years, then,’ the Controller said.

Zuwrath,’ Maureen said, picking her words carefully, ‘people won’t stand for this. Those you punish for this action have done nothing wrong and have never caused you any strife – but the more humans you upset, the more enemies you’ll create for yourself. Don’t punish every human for this horrendous incident. Don’t place the blame on the heads of the innocent. On children.’

The Controller clicked her tongue and waved a hand at the door. ‘Get out,’ she said. Maureen stood, deliberately raking the wooden legs of her chair against the floor. Zuwrath flinched backwards at the sound, her sensitive hearing alarmed by the sharp noise.

‘One day, Zuwrath. One day you’ll go too far.’

The Controller’s grin almost split her face in two.

‘I said: get out.’

 

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VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

Large, bold fonts flashed the names of the stores across the wide halls of the shopping mall. The text reflected in the shiny windows of those opposite, lighting up the goods that had been carefully set up and placed on display. Some of the stores were decorated with glittering lights, there to catch the attention of the busy shoppers, whose wallets and purses bulged with the potential to splurge on new and fashionable items.

The shopping centre had long, pale walls. Occasional pieces of modern artwork hung in some of the empty spaces. They were each labelled with the name of their creator, mostly students who lived in hope that the shoppers would notice their work and commission a piece for their own homes. The ceilings were high, designed to give the impression of peace and tranquillity; everything was there to encourage the happiness of the shoppers.

Heels clicked on tiled floors, creating a rhythmic pattern just audible above the soft music playing from the speakers high on the walls. The heat in there was astonishing, but it did not seem to bother any of the shoppers. The strutted around without a single concern for the temperature.

This was a place for the super-rich. The shoppers walked around with their noses held in the air, decked to the nines in designer clothes that proudly demonstrated their elitism. They wore dresses with bone collars that had been taken from endangered species (after the natural death of the animal, or so it was claimed). Handmade shoes so intricate that each pair was one of a kind. Fur coats, gloves, and hats; the marks of people who were simply too wealthy to care about the little man – or the whines of those do-gooder campaigners who were on their side.

Their children trailed along behind them, dressed immaculately in clothing that was worth more than the average man’s best suit. Some of them carried pets, which wore studied collars and pretty, unnecessary little items of clothing.

The precious stones worn by the shoppers shone in the bright lights of the mall. They hung on their jewellery and were stuck to the pieces of metal in their piercings. Their noses, ears, and lips bore loops and gems that gave them an air of obscene glamour. The communicators on their wrists were top-of-the-range, the newest designs to come off the market. Wearing anything as outdated as the second-best model would have been disastrous to these people. They flashed their wealth with confidence, bold and unafraid.

Slowly, they drifted from store to store, scrutinising what was on offer in judgemental voices. Store assistants rocked back and forth on their balls of their feet as they begged silently to whatever deity they believe in that they would make enough sales to fill their quota that day. They wore masks covered with the branded logo of their store, so that the shoppers would not have to look at their faces when – or if – they addressed them. It was customary and created a divide between the wealthy shopper and the employee that reinforced their social classes.

Prices were of no concern, which was why they were never displayed openly in the shop windows. If something was good enough for these shoppers, then the price of it was irrelevant.

It was rare to see middle- and lower-class shoppers in that mall. If they did manage to save up substantially, they occasionally went along to splash out, but when they did they clutched their money nervously and left feeling robbed. Heads would turn in their direction as they moved around the mall, undisguised tut tuts following them as they went. They were not encouraged to feel welcome; indeed, their presence was considered suspicious.

Many of the rich shoppers pitied these lower classes for their absurd fussing over the mere matter of price. Why did they bother to visit at all, if they had such a preoccupation with spending money? There were cheaper, outdated malls for their kind in other locations, loud and unclean places that suited them and their kind.

Even more unusual than lower-class shoppers were humans. Human men and women had strange opinions about right and wrong and good and bad, and they were not afraid to let these opinions be known. They had no sense of their place – which was somewhere else, far away from this mall – and made themselves the centre of attention wherever they went. The idea of a human being able to afford anything on offer in this mall was beyond ridiculous.

That was why the young human male and female who entered the shopping centre in the heat of a mid-week afternoon were so curious. They were evidently not wealthy enough to be there; that was obvious from the mud on their shoes to the knots in their hair. Shoppers stepped aside as the two humans approached, or else turned on their heels and went in the opposite direction to avoid walking past the pair altogether.

‘Liz,’ the young man whispered to his partner, a sense of urgency in his voice. ‘I’m not sure about this.’ He was dressed in a tracksuit with a long coat thrown over the top, wrapped tightly around his body. It was at least a couple of sizes too large for him, and he looked lumpy. One of his arms was wrapped around the woman’s shoulders, but she was the one leading him. They walked a short distance inside the mall, past a couple of security guards in masks who turned their heads and watched them go by, as though daring the humans to make a wrong move.

Liz, who had been clutching at her own tightly worn, lumpy jacket, removed her hands from the material for just long enough to pat her partner the back. ‘Ignore them, Jack,’ she said, as her hands found their way back to the jacket. ‘There’s no law against us being here. Besides, this is important. You know why. Nobody here cares. The virn don’t care.’

Jack stopped walking and took several deep breaths. Liz halted less than a second later, and spun immediately to look into his eyes. ‘Yeah,’ he said after a few moments of tense silence, ‘yeah … we have to. We have to.’ It sounded as though he was trying to convince himself more than in agreement with Liz. Jack dragged his eyes away from the piercing stare of his sister and looked around the mall instead, his eyes darting this way and that. Sweat was already forming on his brow at the thought of what was ahead, but that could have been put down to the heat. His hands shook a little as he checked that the coat was still closed. ‘Should we – uh – should we look around, or – or something – then?’

Liz pursed her lips in thought. If she was nervous or uncertain of what they were about to do, then she did not show it. ‘Yes, let’s go deeper inside,’ she said, before she spun around and walked on to scout out a store that interested her. ‘This one,’ she added after a while, pointing to a large store with an almost empty window, save for four handbags that were each seated atop a gold podium.

They headed in that direction, but before they could reach the entrance to the store the two security guards had caught up with them and stood in their way.

Liz puffed out her chest a little and said in her best, yet still somewhat broken, virnin. ‘Can we help you?’

Random security check,’ one of the virn guards answered. ‘Come with us.’

Jack, whose virnin was not as good as his sister’s, looked blankly at Liz. She made no sign that she was concerned, so he did his best to imitate her and plodded along silently behind her, following the two guards into a small room located near the entrance of the mall. The door closed behind them, and the two humans looked up at the masked guards with their best innocent faces.

Jack wanted to scream. The hairs on the back of his neck were making him feel itchy, and he was sure that the sweat on his brow was going to start forming pools of water at his feet at any moment.

One of the guards took off his mask and placed it down on the table. He stepped towards the two humans, and leaned down until he was eye-level with Jack. His sharp scales were too close for comfort, and Jack struggled to remain still under the glare of those thin, yellow eyes. The guard hissed sharply, smirking at Jack’s evident discomfort.

You look a little too hot, human. Not got something to hide, have you?’

Jack turned to Liz, for help more than for a translation.

Your mall’s very hot,’ she told the guard, looking him directly in the eyes as she spoke. There was a moment’s pause. ‘Why have you brought us here?’

Random security check,’ the other guard repeated.

Why? Random, two humans? We’ve got nothing to hide.’

Looks to me like you might have.’

The guard allowed those words to dangle in the air between them for a while. The one staring at Jack briefly flickered his eyes down to his oversized coat, and Jack found that he didn’t have to understand what was being said to know exactly what was going on.

He felt so stupid. Why had he allowed Liz to persuade him that this was something they should do? Why hadn’t they stayed in Valhalla, where they would have been hungry and miserable but safe nonetheless? It was all his sister’s fault: it had been her idea, her plan, she had been the one who had convinced Jack of its necessity. Now they were in serious trouble.

Jack stared into the unblinking eyes of the virn guard and swallowed the lump in his throat. He was sure that the guard would have been able to knock him out in one blow, if he wanted to. Jack was also pretty sure that the guard wanted to. It would be only too easy for the virn to get away with it. Humans, in the mall, causing trouble. Tried to get them to leave politely. Kid was scaring people. Had to do it, really, no other choice. He just wouldn’t comply.

Take off your coats,’ the masked guard said.

Liz shook her head. Jack, ignorant to his meaning, copied her. The guard in front of Jack, noticing that he did not understand the language, clicked his teeth impatiently.

‘Your coat comes off now,’ he told Jack in plain English. He had a thick accent and the words blended together a little. He prodded the young man’s shoulder with a thick finger, the point of his manicured nail digging through the material and into Jack’s skin. ‘Feel less hot then.’

‘No,’ Jack replied, a little bluntly. ‘I – I mean, I’m fine, thanks. I think I – I’d just like to leave.’

He tried to step around the guard, but a whirring sound stopped him in his tracks. He looked around at the other guard and saw that the virn was pointing a blaster at Liz’s face. It was long, thin, and the blue light on the side indicated that it was armed to stun.

Jack looked at Liz and wondered what he was supposed to do now. This was not a part of the plan. She stared at the blaster with one eyebrow raised, as though she was daring the guard to fire. Jack’s guard prodded him in the shoulder again, this time harder.

‘Okay,’ Jack said, seeing no other way out of the situation and wanting desperately to find one. ‘Okay. Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll take it off.’

‘Jack!’ Liz warned him. Jack paused, his hands hovering over the sash of his coat, poised to untie it.

His hesitation encouraged the guard with the blaster to change its settings from stun to kill. The light on the side turned from blue to green.

Defying his sister, Jack pulled the sash loose and let the coat fall down to the floor. He saw a flash before he was overwhelmed by an intense surge of pain in the middle of his chest.

Then it was over.

Not as Young as I Used to be

Wallace stopped and bent over, his hands resting just above his keens. He took deep breaths in and out, trying his best to get his breathing under control. Pippa, who had not expected him to stop, had continued on a little further. She turned herself around and jogged back to him, placing a hand on the top of his spine and rubbing gently.

‘You alright?’ she asked.

‘Yeah,’ Wallace said between breaths, ‘just – let me – get my breath – back.’

Pippa laughed. ‘We haven’t even gone very far. There’s still over four kilometers left. You sure you can handle this?’

‘Course – I can,’ Wallace said, although his voice did not carry the confidence that he had meant his words to have. He pushed himself up until he was standing upright again. ‘I’m just not as young as I used to be.’

‘What? You’re thirty!’

‘Yes,’ said Wallace, ‘but I used to be younger than thirty.’

Pippa looked up the long, winding path that led through the park. ‘Maybe we’ll just do a short run today,’ she mused. ‘You know, to get you back into running. You said yourself, it’s been a while.’

‘No, no, I can do it. Let’s go.’

They set off again, but before long Wallace was slowing down. Pippa reduced her pace and looked sideways at him to see that his face was red and covered in a layer of sweat which shone in the early morning sun. If the way he squeezed his eyes shut over and over was any indicator, then he was in a bit of pain.

‘There’s no shame in starting off slow,’ she said. ‘A minute of running, a minute of walking, it does the trick nicely.’

Wallace nodded and slowed down to a walk. ‘Yeah,’ he agreed, ‘good idea.’

‘You’ll be back to your old fitness in no time. Just don’t let the early days put you off.’

They walked until Wallace caught his breath back and started jogging again. Pippa allowed him to keep the pace, always a footstep behind. He did not overexert himself this time, and it was nice to have the company.

When they got to the cool down, Wallace was clearly tired out, but he looked extremely pleased with himself.

‘Thirty,’ he said, pushing a strand of hair that had fallen into his eyes away behind his ear. ‘Not so bad after all.’

‘You’re not an old man just yet,’ Pippa agreed.

Monday Reflection: Week 12

This week’s going to be a busy one! The 50th Spring Symposium for Byzantine Studies is happening this weekend at the University of Birmingham, and I’m going to be attending, volunteering, and going to the meal on the Sunday night with many of the important speakers. With that in mind, here’s a quick glance over the past week before I begin the new one.

Poetry

bag of memories on Eliot’s Tears

directed on The Dynamics of Groove

Six Minutes and Forty Two Seconds on Creative Writing of a Baltimorean

Stories

The 50 Virus by S C Richmond

Blogs

For a great blog with lots of variety and ongoing projects including stories and poems in the realms of supernatural/fantasy, check out Tales of Ore. Take a look around, it’s a great blog!

I hope you enjoy going through these posts as much as I did. Happy reading! And if you’ve read something worthy of sharing, add a link in the comments below to share it with everyone else!

Bitter Feelings

Martin threw his bag down by the side of the chair and threw himself into it with a huff. He shrugged off his jacket, then picked up the cocktail menu with one eyebrow raised, flicked through it quickly, and tossed it back down onto the table.

Ben and Luke looked at each other across the table. They both knew that Martin would get a pint of something cheap and nasty: he always got a pint of something cheap and nasty. Flicking through the cocktail menu was just one of the many techniques he used to tell the people around him that he was not happy.

They watched as he pulled his wallet out of his pocket, pushed himself out of his chair, and made his way over to the bar. It was silent as he ordered and paid for his drink, snatched it up off the bar and wound his way across the room back to the table. The pint glass was placed down onto the table gently, a couple of centimetres away from a beer mat (if the table got a ring from the glass, that would probably cheer Martin up a bit). He let his weight send him crashing back down into his chair, and drained half of the pint before either of the others could get a word in.

‘Uh, Martin,’ Luke said, when the glass moved far enough away from Martin’s lips that Luke thought he might be willing to answer, ‘what’s up?’

‘Yeah,’ Ben pitched in, not entirely helpfully. ‘Looks like something’s wrong.’

‘Does it?’ Martin asked. Then he put the half-full glass down on the table, and sat staring at them in a silence that both Ben and Luke were certain he was deliberately making uncomfortable.

Nobody liked it when Martin was in a bad mood. He was the sort of person whose misery swept around the room until it infected everyone else, even those who did not interact with him. There was something about the way he moved and his short, blunt sentences that demanded an environment of self-loathing. Ben picked up his own pint to break the tension between them, and pretended to be more interested in his drink than he was.

‘Want to talk about it?’ Luke asked, his voice betraying his hopes that Martin would let his thoughts out and release some of the bitter feelings brewing within him.

‘Nope.’

Luke nodded. ‘Right. Cool.’

Another awkward silence; the people on the table behind Martin fell into their own brooding silence, as the uncomfortable feeling of disdain began to seep out of Martin and into those nearby.

Outside, it started to rain.

‘You know, I think I might have an early night tonight,’ Luke suggested. ‘It was really busy at work today. I’m tired.’

Martin snorted. ‘Yeah. Right. Busy.’ He knew exactly why Luke wanted to get out of there, and it was clear he enjoyed spreading discomfort around. ‘Well, I’m gonna get wasted.’ He stared at Ben, a challenge.

Ben put his glass down and held his hand up to his mouth, faking a yawn. ‘I’m … pretty tired, actually,’ he said without much effort.

At the same moment that Martin’s eyes narrowed, a clap of thunder crashed down outside. Sometimes, it was as though his timing was just too perfect, as though it was more than just the room that he could affect with his powerful negativity.

There was no need for him to tell them that he knew they were trying to leave. That was obvious. The seconds ticked on, until Martin’s face began to soften, but the tension still hummed through the air between them. Luke licked his lips, words dancing on his tongue that he did not dare speak.

Eventually, he said, in a voice utterly devoid of interest, ‘Well, I suppose another pint couldn’t hurt.’

‘Be careful,’ Martin said, sounding dry and bored, ‘it might kill you.’

Throwback Thursday: Howler

A throwback to a short story about a couple who decide to holiday in the middle of the woods, and get more than they bargained for.

There was the sound of something running around outside, followed by a low growl. Lexie lifted her head off the pillow to see if she could make anything out on the other side of the curtains, but it was too dark for her to be sure.

“Can you see anything?” she asked Ed.

“No.”

“Me neither.”

Source: Howler

Monday Reflection: Week 11

Monday again! The weather in Birmingham has improved this past week – I even saw the sun a few times! There’s lots of time to scroll through my reader while I sit lazily in the sunlight. Here are some great picks from throughout the week:

Poetry

I am no tree by Sarita Jay Brady

In the Silence on Poet’s Corner

Stories

Grounded on Tales of Unusual Strangeness

Knaben by David Henson on Spelk

Blogs

Here’s a blog that combines photography with poetry and displays the images in a nice, clear style that’s sure to catch your eye: uptown jack. The poetry is often short and thought provoking. Check it out by clicking the link!

I hope you enjoy going through these posts as much as I did. Happy reading! And if you’ve read something worthy of sharing, add a link in the comments below to share it with everyone else!

You Just Don’t Understand

Emily stared at the menu and sighed. The food sounded delicious, but it was so overpriced. There was no way she could justify paying over the top prices just because her friends were going.

Samantha spotted her gazing at the photo of the brownie in the dessert section and placed a hand on Emily’s arm.

‘Don’t worry about the price,’ she said, ‘I’ll pay for yours.’

Emily smiled, but shook her head. ‘I can’t ask you to do that,’ she said.

‘Sure you can. Nobody needs to know. You can cover the taxi fare – it won’t be that much. Or you can buy me a drink sometime.  Come on, it won’t be the same without you there.’

Emily looked up from the menu and caught Samantha’s eye.

‘Oh, all right,’ she gave in. ‘Thanks. I’ll pay you back, somehow. I promise.’

‘Like I said, don’t worry about it. A great meal out with friends this weekend, and everything will feel better.’

‘Yeah, you’re right.’ Emily paused, looking back down at the menu to mentally make her choices ahead of schedule. Then she said, ‘I’m going to need a new dress, now.’

Samantha laughed. ‘You can’t afford the meal, you can’t afford a new dress,’ she pointed out. Emily grinned.

‘You know, Sam, you just don’t understand.’

‘No,’ said Samantha, ‘I get it.’ She glanced up and down the street, then rubbed her hands together eagerly. ‘Well, no time like the present, is there?’

What’s in a Character’s Name?

How do you go about selecting names for your characters?

In a short story, flash fiction, quick piece of poetry, or example, a name can be just that: a name. It might not even be a full name. Sometimes, the reader will not even learn the name of the character at all.

In longer pieces of writing, such as novels, names are a much more important element. They do not always have to have deep significance, although they could always portray a hint of what their character is like. Think of Remus Lupin from the Harry Potter books, whose first name references Remus and Romulus, who were raised by wolves, and whose surname is a form of the Latin word for “moon”. His name is one big clue to the secret that he is a werewolf.

Names can be a significant part of our characters in other ways, too. Sticking with the Harry Potter theme, let’s think about Albus Dumbledore. It would have made no difference to the story if his name had been Jack Smith, but there’s no denying it would have robbed the character of some of his power. The name alone is designed to impress upon the reader a certain sense of awe about the character – in the same way that calling a character Judas will give the reader a distinct impression.

In the same sense, silly or ridiculous names can distract readers from a serious story. It can be amusing to give a character a quirky name, but think carefully before you do – you may be giving them this name forever, and you do not want a bad name to stick.

It is important, therefore, not to simply pick a character’s name out of a hat at random. It is a careful decision to make, even more so when it is an invented name. Having a list of words and names – real, invented, or both – is always a good idea for an eager writer. Many of these may never amount to anything – but when you find the right name, you will be thankful you took the time to make your decision.

Monday Reflection: Week 10

It’s week 10 of 2017 already, and so far I’ve been very busy, both on this blog and in the *gasp* real world. My next big task is to create an abstract for a 20-minute paper based around my chosen dissertation topic. I’ve got lots of issues with the whole speak-for-20-minutes-about-your-own-research-and-then-defend-it-against-questions thing, but the main issue right now is that I haven’t actually been able to narrow my dissertation topic down all that much.

As a handy distraction from all this academic lark, I turned to my WordPress reader. Here’s what I wanted to share from the past week:

Poetry

Blind Woman on Calliope’s Lyre

Oh on Hockadower

Water Child – A Ghazal on Poet’s Corner (where you might even discover a new form of poem to try)

Stories

The Money Wallet on 200 Word Stories

Blogs

For some regular, daily flash fiction/short stories on you reader, check out Flash 365. It’s always great quality writing, and the art that comes with it will surely catch your attention.

I hope you enjoy going through these posts as much as I did. Happy reading! And if you’ve read something worthy of sharing, add a link in the comments below to share it with everyone else!