Many of you know about my novels (otherwise, why are you here?! ;), featuring my snarky, protagonist Jesse. However, you may not know that I also write short fiction. I was thinking of compiling my short stories some day, making a whole collection for my fans to enjoy, but here is the rub: Would you guys READ that? Neil Gaiman often jokes about how no one buys or reads short fiction--funny considering he's a pretty successful short story writer! Ditto for Stevie King.
So here are my questions: Do you enjoy short stories? Do you buy short story collections? And if yes, do you prefer collections that focus mainly on ONE character (i.e. linked short stories) or collections with a variety of short stories about different characters or worlds?
You might be thinking--I don't know, Kory! It depends on the story! It depends on the writer! Touche!
So this is the part where I share a short story with you to give you a better idea of what I'm talking about. Here's a 6 1/2 page short story for you to enjoy. I wrote it while listening to “Seven Devils” by Florence and the Machine. (Don’t you love that song?!?) and it turned out to be some kind of demonic fairytale—heh.
Without further ado:
Holy water cannot help you now
A thousand armies cannot keep me out
I don’t want your money
I don’t want your crown
See I've come to burn your kingdom down
—Florence and the Machine
Six dead brothers held vigil at my beside. Wake, they commanded. Wake and avenge us.
My pale body glowed in the gray light before dawn. There was no birdsong, no crackling fire on the hearth. The smoke from an extinguished candle flame rose as silent as a hawk circling in the sky. I did not have a heartbeat, my chest a perfect mimicry of the stillness. The cold hands folded over my chest a replication of winter lying in wait.
I thought of the queen in her castle. I would see its ancient, scarred walls if only I turned my head an inch to the left and gazed out the gaping arched window. But I could not turn my head. I was not alive.
How can I take vengeance against her? I asked my brothers. I have no life inside me. Our enemy saw to that.
My eldest brother, Ronan, stepped forward. Light from the window cut across his cheek, revealing skin much paler than it had ever been in life, devoid of flowing blood and the complexion it lent to the living. His hair was no longer crow-feather black, a gift from our mother to all of her children. Now it was the color of hemlock blossoms. His eyes glowed like embers, and when he turned his gaze just so, they gleamed like a jackal’s in the torchlight.
Yet in all other ways he was the same.
I met the eyes of each of my brothers in turn and found them to be filled with the same hellfire. Each changed, yet the same, boys I’d known all my life.
You are dead now and will be again before the day is done. We come with the sunrise and leave with the sunset. In the hours between we will serve you. But say you do not seek vengeance and we will leave you cold in your bed, sister.
I did want vengeance.
But even without a beating heart, I knew no wish granted came without its price.
Would I pay that price?
For my father, hounded like a mule in the fields, and then whipped to death when the Earth could yield no more grain. For my mother, who starved to death with a child at her breast, who scraped her meager portions onto the plates of her seven children. Vengeance for the infant who also starved without her.
And if not for the cruel queen on her alabaster throne, who was to blame for the loss of each brother? They were demons now, but had been flesh and blood once.
Ronan and Lux had been slain in her war for more land. Jax, Christian, and Jaden had been imprisoned for false crimes, beaten, and then hanged. One year before my own death, almost to the day, Kaleb was slain before my eyes, his throat slit by her knights, dogs as cruel as she.
I watched the blood pour from his throat onto the earth while each took his turn upon my back. When they were finished with me, I was too weak and cold to carry his body home. I buried him beneath the tree’s black limbs and said my father’s prayers.
If our starvation had not driven us to seek that tree, perhaps Kaleb would still live. It was foolish to risk what little I had left to lose. Hope is a luxury and I was no longer a careless child. Yet my mother’s stories had always held power over me, and the story of The Crone Tree was no different.
If a sacrifice is made, a wish is granted.
Here Kaleb stood at the foot of my bed as if I had not placed him in the dirt myself. His throat still bore the coarse line of the knight’s blade.
You wanted vengeance, Ronan said. He clasped one of my hands in his and turned my chin with the other so that I could not dwell upon Kaleb’s face. His fingers smelled of sulfur. So that too had changed.
We are your army. You need only accept us.
Over his shoulder, framed in the open window, stood the great castle, its barbed spires gray in the coming dawn.
I met Ronan’s eyes. I want vengeance.
Fire spread from his palm into mine, through his hand into my cupped cheek. I cried out, trying to pull away from the flames.
Do not fear the hunger, my brothers said. It is the only way to move through life.
Then the pain of living was upon me.
My muscles filled with the fire of life. A pulse stronger than any heart song coursed in my limbs.
I placed my bare feet on the gritty stone and saw the world anew. In life, I had despaired of this room: its drab appearance, the curtains darkened with dirt, and the tapestries fraying at their edges. It had been a great house when my father brought his new bride here long ago. It was no more.
I thought nothing of these things now. I had only one desire. One concern.
We must go to the castle, I said.
We went straight away. We donned no armor. I did not even stop to slip on the worn goat-skinned boots sitting by the door. I walked out into the morning, placing one bare foot after another onto the snow.
My hair, so carefully braided in life, hung long and wild. It blew back in the breeze, as worthy a war banner as any we had.
Minutes after dawn, we came upon her first knights. I could see by the look in their eyes, I was much changed. Perhaps I looked like my brothers now: pale-skinned with black orbs burning. Yet I knew my hair had not paled. I could see the black locks blowing about my face in the current of a northern wind.
It wasn’t until Kaleb reached up and tore a squat man from his saddle, hissing into his face, that I recognized the soldier as one who had killed him. Now his throat was ripped open by my brother’s own teeth. I found satisfaction in the wet, sucking sound the wound made as the man choked on his own blood. He coughed, his eyes fluttering, and then he moved no more. His heart pumped what was left of him out onto the snow.
Lux, Jax, and Jaden slayed the others as swiftly as a cat might snap a mouse’s neck. We mounted their horses. At first the beasts refused us, rearing high on their hindquarters. Ronan murmured soft words, his hand on their necks and they went still beneath us, not moving again until we kicked them forward. The wild smell of their fur soothed me, though I had not ridden a horse since I was a very small child.
We reached the outer walls an hour after sunrise.
Guards manned the gate that would allow us to pass through the stone wall into the castle. My brothers caught and killed each, while I remained on my mount, waiting. Horrid hunger churned in my guts.
The gleeful way my brothers chased each man reminded me of happier times, of the pheasants that used to haunt the back fields behind our home. We would crouch low in the high honey-grass for hours until we heard the soft cooing. Then we would leap up, hands curling into claws. The squawks and falling feathers made me squeal with delight.
Though this game, as with the pheasants, ended too soon.
Send us all you have, my queen, I called up to the archers on the high wall. We are waiting.
The arrows flew true. One tore through my right shoulder, but I felt no pain. No fear. Only that persistent hunger like a stone in the hollow of my throat.
We tolerated this until it seemed all arrows were spent. Then Lux stood apart from us and raised his arms up, palms out as if he intended to catch an arrow. When he was alive, he had caught rain like this, pulling me from my bed in the dead of night, out into the wildest storms. We would cup our hands and drink all that we could catch, before putting out buckets to collect the rest. And as they filled, we would hold our arms out and spin and spin and spin.
We had each been happy once.
Until she took that from us also.
A great torrent of wind shot forth from Lux and sailed high over the wall. The archers were blown back, some tumbling like leaves to the moat below.
No more arrows came.
By noon, she sent the priests. They stood in their thick robes, talismans clutched in their hands. They chanted words I did not understand. Frustrated, Jax and Jaden at last climbed the stones. Like twin lizards they slithered up the rockface and reached the uppermost wall where the priests stood spouting their incantations. All four howled on the way down, their robes flapping like kites in a gale about them.
Jax and Jaden opened the gate.
More soldiers met us in the courtyard. My brothers dispatched them as easily as one chases a barn cat from its supper dish. Only Ronan stayed by my side as the blood colored the courtyard. A quick movement in my side vision drew my eye.
A woman in gold silks yanked a small child back as if I’d burned her with my gaze alone. She was no older than I, yet her body was strong, full of life. Her child looked as enchanting as lilac blossoms after a spring rain. Neither had starved a day in their life. They’d never known hunger.
Do you want them? Ronan asked, he tensed beside me. They were complicit to our suffering.
I wanted to hold the child. I wanted to cut a lock of hair from her head and keep it. But I had not been a demon as long as my brother. And my hate had but one object.
I steered the horse away. We did not come for them.
The courtyard gave way to the garden. Though I had never seen her with my own eyes, I knew the queen the moment she appeared. I dismounted, handing Ronan the reins.
Before I reached her, Christian killed all her guards with a flex of his fist. Her long red silks splayed like blood around her in the snow.
What do you want? she asked. Her eyes were the color of a pond. She looked from me to Ronan as if unsure who to address. I do not think a man would have had the same dilemma. Anything you desire in the whole world, it is mine to give.
I want your life, I said.
My six brothers came to stand beside me, forming a semi-circle around the queen.
I walked toward her, crushing snow beneath my bare feet. I took her in my arms as tenderly as one might take one’s beloved. I placed a hand on her cheek.
Please, she said. Crystalline tears pooled in the corners of her eyes.
Seven devils all around you. Seven devils in your house. See I was dead when I woke up this morning.
And I’ll be dead before the day is done. But before the sun sets on this world, I will feed this hunger.
And I’ll be dead before the day is done. But before the sun sets on this world, I will feed this hunger.
I did not choose to be queen, she cried, her lip quivering pitifully.
Just as I did not choose poverty, I said, twining my pale fingers up in her hair. Maybe I would have my golden lock after all.
What would you have me do?
Your power was a gift and no gift is free.
I consumed her then. Heart and soul.
Her heart was bitter. Her soul sweet cream. Full of her, I knew a satiation I’d never known in life. I was whole.
My brothers stood waiting.
We are avenged, I said, licking blood from my fingers.
Ronan smiled, his teeth as sharp and bloodstained as my own. We are avenged.
A bluebird flew through the great windows high above, swept a curtsey through the cathedral and landed on a candelabra gone cold. The queen, now as light as her silks, slipped from my grip to the snow.
We walked west from the castle without ceremony. The snow had already begun to glow orange with sunset before I saw the great tree, black and gnarled before us. My brothers stopped, knelt as if addressing a queen.
I did not.
A woman, her skin as black as the tree bark, stepped from the thick shadows cast by its branches.
You have your vengeance, she said though her voice was unlike any voice I’d heard before. It was the voice of a cat or a crow. Are you satisfied?
Yes, I said, kneeling at last, knowing her for who she was, and the power she’d granted me.
I am not. My enemies live.
I looked up from the snow to see her standing before me, her breasts bare, chest heaving.
You have a clear mind and strong heart, Vendetta. Would you serve me?
I turned to my brothers to find they were my brothers no longer. Instead, behind her in the great tree’s branches were six birds. A crow. A heron. A hawk. An owl. A blue jay. And a black swan.
The heron had Ronan’s eyes.
But I was alone now, in body and in choice. And I understood that.
Sunset had bled into twilight, and now twilight gave itself over to the night. I was to die before the day was done.
You will live until my vengeance is served, and all the world shall know your name until I am avenged. Will you serve me, Vendetta?
I thought of each brother I had loved and lost. A mother and father too. Which is nothing to say of my own life and dignity.
Then I thought of the queen’s tears on my lips as I devoured her. The taste of her blood as I cleaned my nails with my teeth. I had been given a gift and no gift came without its price.
Yes, I said. I will walk the earth until you have enemies no longer.
She threw back her head and laughed, a deep riotous roar, and all six birds took flight into the starry sky.
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That's it for this story! Don't forget to answer my questions!