I’ve spent the last few weeks getting ready for QWC’s Year of the Novel with Venero Armanno. I’m really excited about doing it even though I had a lot of trouble deciding which novel I want to write while doing the program and have decided to do two.
I’m going to write another book in the world of The Planet Whisperer, called Memory for Loan. I have about 20000 words of this novel written but got stuck when I couldn’t decide if it was going to be second or third in the series. That will influence how I write the characters from No Evil Star—what they’ve done and what they’ve yet to do. This book has significant links to No Evil Star (which is finished and waiting for major edits to be done) but no obvious links to The Planet Whisperer (it’s linked to No Evil Star too). It makes sense to put Memory for Loan second so that No Evil Star, with its links to both books, can tie up all the pieces of the over-arching plot.
I’m also going to write a novella set in an entirely different world. It’s full of wizards and levels of powers. The levels of powers and what skills a wizard had at each level was really fun to work out, but what I’ve written is really disjointed. I haven’t settled on one major character so it’s all over the place.
I’ve also spent some time going through Dragon God—again. I think it’s better now, and ready to be sent to a professional editor. I’ll find one I think I can trust over the next week or so, and also put some feelers out for a cover artist. I know what I want for the cover but I’m not skilled enough to achieve it. Everything I do looks amateurish… time to call a professional.
Once those things are done, I can move forward with publishing. Because this is my first attempt at self-publishing, I haven’t put a deadline on it, so I don’t know what sort of release date I’m looking at. I suspect once I have it edited and with a cover, everything will move very quickly. I still have to decide if I’m going to publish in print format as well. I’d like to—it’s easy enough even if it does take time to organise.
It might be time to find a marketing assistant too!
I’ve enrolled in Queensland Writers’ Centre’s Year of the Novel. I mentioned it to friends and a couple of them said, ‘You already know how to write a novel: you’re published.’ That doesn’t mean I don’t still have a lot to learn.
I’ve been trying to choose what novel I’ll write during the five months of the course. I think I’ll do one I’ve called Memory for Loan. I’ve been sitting on this novel for a long time, primarily because I haven’t nutted out the plot properly. Every time I look at it, I can’t work out how to relate it to other books written in the same world.
The main character is a significant secondary character in another novel I’ve already written (but haven’t edited properly), but this book could go either before or after that one. Every time I look at it, I get a bit closer to something that’s comfortable, but I haven’t reached it yet. Hopefully this course will make it happen.
I’m also hoping to write a novella during the course. I have nearly 25000 words written on a novella I’ve tentatively called Contact but I put it aside because it wasn’t working. I’ve recently done a scene map and worked out what’s wrong: I don’t know whose story it is. There are three major plot lines and three major protagonists. The villain is the same through all the plot lines, but none of the protagonists stand out. I need to decide whose story it is and delete all those scenes that deviate. That could be my side project while I’m working on Memory for Loan. The cut scenes might be another novella in that world.
As if that isn’t enough to keep me busy for the next six months, I’ve almost finished edits on Dragon God. I want to get it ready for publication and self-publish. I’ve been procrastinating because I’ve never self-published before and it’s a bit daunting. Next steps: polish the blurb, get it professionally edited, get a cover made for it. I’ll get there—eventually.
Today pulled down what I thought was an empty notebook to collate my notes for a new story. In the back of the book I found a map I’d drawn when I was writing The Courage to Love.
I travelled to the Degilbo (Queensland, Australia) area to visit my cousin, whose family had lived there since the 1920s. They had a wealth of information to share with me, and old maps to pour over. We chose a likely spot to have been selected as late as 1919 and drove around the area. The land we chose as David’s and Bernard’s plots is still owned by the descendants of the original selectors of that land.
Degilbo township was declining by 1920 but there were still shops there in the 1930s. The land around is still farming land today, with an active social community.
I also found some notes I made about the area. Much of the information I gleaned didn’t make it to the book, but it gave me great background of the area and allowed me to visualise what David and Bernard would have been confronted with when they arrived. There's an excerpt below.
David and Bernard’s story:
Bernard is the only one who understands David when he returns home from war. He also needs David to help him face each day. David needs to learn that love is worth any risk, even death. If he ever wants to taste happiness, he must find the courage to love.
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Sequel to Between Love and Honor
In 1915, after his beloved Carl died from a vicious beating, David Harrison enlisted in the Army and went to war. He returns home to find a world seemingly unchanged, while he will never be the same. At Mrs. Gill’s boarding house, he meets Bernard Donnelly, a young man suffering the aftereffects of his own war experiences. David finds himself increasingly attracted to Bernard, but that terrifies him. He blames himself for Carl’s horrific death and fears he isn’t strong enough to lose another love to violence.
Bernard needs David to help him face each day and find a way they can be together without stigma—and without putting them in legal and physical danger—but David clings to his idea that the only way to keep a lover safe is not to have one. His fears threaten to destroy everything, unless he learns that sometimes the risk is worth it and finds the courage to love.
Brisbane, July 1919
THE westerlies began early this year. The icy winter wind cut straight through my clothes. I tugged my collar closer around my face, shoved my gloved hands into the pockets of my overcoat, and stared at the weathered headstone. The words carved into the pale granite were now dark and legible. The southern side of the stone held a slight greenish tinge, the beginnings of moss growth, but someone had been caring for Carl. The grass around the grave was neatly trimmed, and there was a small bowl of fresh camellias beside the headstone.
We could not say good-bye.
My heart is broken.
“It still is, Carl,” I whispered. “Every day.”
Eventually, my shivering became so extreme I had to leave. I looked up at a sky tinged orange and pink and knew if I didn’t run, I’d miss the last tram into the city.
MOTHER’S shrill voice started before I finished unbuttoning my coat. “Where have you been, David? Dinner’s been ready for over an hour. You know what time to be home.” The diminutive woman who ruled my every waking moment when I was at home came into the front hall. She had pulled her graying hair back into her usual severe bun, her thin lips were pinched in disapproval, and her gray eyes glared accusingly as I turned from hanging my coat on the coat stand. “Well?”
“I was just walking around, Mother.”
“Mrs. Edwards and Esther came for afternoon tea. I expected you to be home.”
I stifled the sigh that wanted to escape, but judging by the frown on Mother’s face, I probably didn’t hide my relief very well. The excuses I’d once used dried on my tongue. I would no longer pretend to be someone I wasn’t. After Carl, I’d not get drawn or trapped into marrying a woman my mother chose. Or any woman.
“Did you go to the Post Office and get your job back?”
I couldn’t control the sigh this time. I had gone in there in the morning, and nothing had changed. The checkered tiles still muted footsteps from the doors to the counter. The polished oak counter and stair railings gleamed in the light as they had before. The large room still smelled of old paper, ink, and furniture polish. The only difference was the new faces behind the counter. And me. I was different too, but no one understood that, least of all my mother. I didn’t want to go back to the Post Office, but I wanted to stay in this house even less.
“I begin on Monday.”
Her consideration of me changed, and I suppressed a cringe, standing taller, my back rigid, knowing what she’d say next.
“Good, then you’ll be able to pay more board.” She returned to the living room and sat among the threadbare spotlessness of worn carpets and upholstery. A small fire burned in the grate, lending a homey feel to the one room my mother spent time in. She positioned her feet precisely together, as a lady should, and picked up her mending. “Your dinner is in the oven.”
Dried-out cottage pie and wrinkled, woody carrots, burned on the tips, sat forlornly on an enameled plate in the hot side of the wood-fired oven. I sat at the scarred kitchen table and shoveled the food into my mouth, chewing and swallowing without tasting anything. I didn’t care what my mother served. Everything here tasted better than what I’d eaten the last four years. If I never saw bully beef, tinned peaches, or golden syrup again, it would be too soon.
When I finished, I placed my plate in the tub of water sitting in the sink and stared at the dim reflection of myself in the grubby window. I shuffled my feet against the gritty, sticky floor, then went up the stairs to my room, grateful every day that it was positioned directly over the kitchen and its warmth.
I pulled my suitcase from the top of the wardrobe, sneezed at the dust that came down with it, and packed as many of my clothes and books as would fit. I put the filled suitcase back on top of the wardrobe, hung my pants, coat, and shirt over a chair, crawled into my narrow bed, and stared at the stained ceiling.
I woke in the dark hours before dawn to screams echoing in my room and, from what I knew from her complaints after other nightmares, the thump of my mother’s shoe hitting the other side of the wall above my head. I rose and dressed, then went down the back stairs. Within five minutes, I was free of the house and headed for the river.
OUR glade was unchanged except for the cigarette ends that littered the flattened grass in the middle. The white paper-ends, left by careless smokers, glowed dully in the predawn light. I crawled under the drooping leaves of the willow and leaned against the trunk. I closed my eyes as I remembered the times I’d spent there with Carl, holding his warm body against mine, before the ugliness of our world exploded.
I woke reaching for my rifle, only to have my fingers bump against roots and dew-damp mulch. Murmured voices faded downriver as their unseen owners meandered along the nearby path. I stared through the fractured canopy above me until my breathing settled and my heart rate calmed. When I was sure I was in the glade and not at war, and that no one waited to shoot me, I crawled out of the dimness, brushed myself off, and walked along the riverbank toward Mrs. Gill’s in New Farm.
The house had suffered while I’d been away. The paint looked dull. Sections on the western side had begun to peel and flake away. Dirt clouded the louvered windows that formed the top half of the closed-in wraparound verandas on both the ground floor and the floor above. A small gum tree sprouted in the drooping gutter at the corner of the corrugated iron roof. The front gate needed oiling—the hinges caught and screeched as I pushed it open and closed. The grass beside the path needed cutting, while the flower beds on either side of the short set of stairs to the front door still flourished amid a tangle of weeds, though not much but azaleas were in bloom. The roses, planted in round mounds of mulch leading the way from the gate to the stairs, had been pruned and were beginning to shoot. Over to the side of the front yard, between the house and the fence, a scraggly Geraldton Wax leaned away from the wind, its purple geometrically arranged flowers whipped to a frenzy against the fence dividing this yard from the one next door.
I took the front stairs two at a time, as I always had, only remembering when I reached the landing, there was nothing worth running toward anymore. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door. I hoped Mrs. Gill remembered me and that she had a room to spare.
“Mr. Harrison, you’re back!” Mrs. Gill pulled me into the entry and enveloped me in a lavender-scented hug. Then she pushed me away and fussed with the position of a bowl of camellias on the side table. They were the same color as the flowers at Carl’s grave. “Come on in and tell me when you got back.”
I followed the bustling woman down the long hallway—past the doors to the dining room and parlor, the stairs to the upper level, and the short hallway that led to boarders’ rooms and the downstairs bathroom—to the back of the house and stepped down the single step into the warm kitchen.
There were only good memories in this room. Mrs. Gill’s stove was the same model as my mother’s, but where my mother’s was dull black and smoked from its poorly cleaned flue, Mrs. Gill’s shone from Stove Black and produced a sweet, clean warmth that immediately soothed me. Mrs. Gill tapped the back of one of the wooden chairs as she passed. “Sit, sit, Mr. Harrison.”
She dragged a heavy kettle from the back right corner of the stove to the left, directly above the fire. I looked around the room as I sat. The scrubbed wooden table top was the same, but the large basket that usually contained fruit was gone. The potato sack hanging on the back of the open pantry door was half-full. On the floor in the pantry was a bucket filled with turnips and cabbages. The icebox in the corner of the room didn’t sweat as it usually did when freshly stocked with ice but appeared to be the same temperature as the rest of the room. The stone floor gleamed, clean and smooth in the early morning light that streamed in through the windows over the stove.
Outside, in the backyard, the vegetable patch brought memories of lazy Sunday afternoons in my room, laughing as Carl, naked and flushed from our loving, leaned out the window and tried to scare the crows from the corn. Tall stalks of corn and trellised beans waved in the breeze, but appeared neglected, overgrown with weeds, like a remnant of a better life that would never be seen again. The tall jacaranda tree in the back corner appeared unchanged, and provided shade over nearly half the yard. In front of the vegetable garden, over to the side of the privy, white sheets flapped in the breeze on lines strung across the yard from the small washhouse.
“I’ll make us a nice cup of tea, and you can tell me all that you’ve been doing since you came back and what you have planned now.” Mrs. Gill pulled down cups and saucers from the dresser against the wall facing the sink.
I sat and breathed deeply for the first time in what felt like months. Everyone else wanted to know about the war. They asked if I’d had fun in France and how many French women I’d met. They told me I must be “so proud to have served King and country” and be pleased to have driven the Huns back. I’m glad Mrs. Gill didn’t.
“So how are you settling back in, Mr. Harrison? Several of our young men from here never returned.” She cleared her throat. “But you’d know more about that than I would, I expect.” She placed a cup of steaming tea in front of me and pushed the sugar over. “We lost nearly half our chickens in a storm a few months ago, so it’s going to be difficult to keep eggs on the table until new ones arrive, but I’m sure we’ll manage, dear. We always do.” She sat and, pulling the saucer, drew her teacup toward her.
I flinched at the rattled china-scrape across the table.
Mrs. Gill added milk to her tea, picked up a teaspoon, and stirred it as she stared at the swirling liquid. “I suppose you’ve found better accommodations since you returned?”
“Actually, no, Mrs. Gill. I’ve been staying with my mother, but I was wondering if my old room was available.” My speech was as I had rehearsed, but my throat felt scratchy, like I wanted to cough or vomit. I had no idea what I’d do if Mrs. Gill had rented my room to someone else. The only thing I knew for sure was I couldn’t spend another night under my mother’s roof.
“Oh.” Mrs. Gill looked up at me, her faded blue eyes showing an endearing combination of surprise, pleasure, and dismay. “Actually, it’s not available, Mr. Harrison. I put Mr. Donnelly in your old room, on account of it being at the back of the house and quieter.”
I nodded and tried to smile, but my stomach churned. I twisted my fingers together in my lap, my nerves stretched so tight I thought I would start screaming and never stop.
“I expect you’re looking for a quiet room as well.” She considered me carefully for several seconds. I was relieved that she seemed to instinctively understand. “With so many motor cars around lately, all the front rooms will be too noisy for you. You could have Mr. George’s old room if you wanted.” After making this statement, Mrs. Gill jumped up, grabbed a cloth, and wiped the table down, then refilled my cup, even though I’d barely taken two sips from it.
“It’s not taken?” My heart pounded and I closed my eyes against the image of Carl, in pain, his eyes crying out his love for me even as he breathed his last. I didn’t know if I could go back into that room, yet part of me couldn’t stay away.
“No.” Mrs. Gill hesitated. “Some gentlemen don’t like the thought that someone died there, but you and Mr. George were such close friends, I thought you wouldn’t mind.”
The alternative was my mother’s. I’d rather be somewhere Carl had been. “I start back at the Post Office on Monday. Would I be able to move in today and pay the board after I receive my first wage?”
Mrs. Gill beamed at me. “Of course, dear. You didn’t bring anything with you?” She looked around the kitchen as if expecting to see a suitcase materialize even though we both knew I hadn’t arrived with anything. Mrs. Gill reached over and patted my arm. “It’s good to have you back, Mr. Harrison.”
I smiled at her. “And it’s good to be back, Mrs. Gill.”
For the first time since the ship had landed back in Australia, I meant those words.
I RETURNED to my mother’s house in the afternoon. Today was her library afternoon, in which she met several like-minded matrons at the local library and they discussed in hushed whispers the state of the neighborhood. It was cowardly, but I didn’t want to face her. I’d had enough of people screaming at me, and if I had to listen to one more of her tirades, I would say something irrevocable. As much as I no longer wanted to live with her, she was my mother, and I needed to treat her with as much respect as I was able to. Unfortunately, that meant behaving like the basest coward and running away.
I left a note on the kitchen table, collected my suitcase, and shoved the front door key under the door as I left.
CARL’S room felt like me: it looked the same, but it was empty. The washstand still held the same fluted blue-and-white basin and jug, but his brushes and shaving gear were gone. I laid out my toiletries precisely but on the opposite side of the basin from where he’d always stored his. After hanging my clothes in the single wardrobe, I pushed them to the left, leaving enough room for as many again beside them. Then I positioned the suitcase on its side on top of the wardrobe. I stared at the bed, but didn’t touch it. His bed had always been narrower than mine, so I’d never slept in it. If I closed my eyes, I could see Carl as he was the last time I saw him, belly swollen, bones broken, tears streaming down his face.
I didn’t close my eyes.
Mrs. Gill let me take one of the brocade wing-back chairs from the downstairs sitting room. I positioned it near the window, facing out so I could sit and look at the garden, with the branches of the jacaranda tree gracefully protecting the corner of the vegetable garden from the midday sun. I kept it at an angle so I could also see the door. On the floor beside the chair, I placed a sturdy branch that had fallen from the gum tree in the neighbor’s yard.
At dinner that night, I met the other boarders. I remembered one from my previous time there, but the other two were new. I forgot their names before I’d finished shaking their hands. They took their places at the dining table, leaving one place setting unclaimed. They sat silently and avoided looking at each other, a stark contrast to the noisy conversation that had heralded their arrival. The two other dining tables were bare of place settings. I went to the kitchen.
“Mrs. Gill, is there anything I can help you with?” I asked as I walked into the room.
A crash greeted me, and I looked over to see a tall, thin young man, with a head of unruly mahogany curls, crouched over a smashed plate. He frantically scooped scattered food onto the largest piece of plate. As I watched, blood bloomed on his hand, and I rushed over to him.
“Mr. Harrison, don’t.”
“You’ve cut yourself,” I murmured as I reached for the young man’s hand. “Let me see.”
I wasn’t sure exactly what happened next. One moment I crouched next to the injured man, the next I lay sprawled on the floor with food splattered over me and the young man curled into a whimpering ball, pressed against the wall beside the stove. His trousers rode up his ankles as he curled in on himself, but I could see the fabric gathering under his belt, a testament to recently lost weight.
“Mr. Harrison, come away now.”
I looked up to see Mrs. Gill standing on the far side of the table, concern etching wrinkles into her forehead.
“Come now, Mr. Harrison, I’ll put your dinner in the dining room with the others.” She loaded a large wooden tray with plates of steaming food and left. I glanced at the man on the floor, and I felt torn between doing as Mrs. Gill instructed and helping the man.
The whimpers had stopped, but the man hadn’t moved, his face resolutely hidden from me. I determined to ask Mrs. Gill about him after dinner, then went to eat my meal.
By the time I’d finished eating, I’d decided I would ask Mrs. Gill if I could eat in the kitchen from then on. Anything would be better than the uncomfortable silences alternating with generalized complaints against society that had accompanied my meal in the dining room.
“THAT’S Mr. Donnelly.” Mrs. Gill efficiently dried plates and put them in a stack with a clack. “I mentioned him this morning.”
“He was in the war, Mr. Harrison.” Mrs. Gill turned to stare at me. “I’m sure you know the kinds of things he might have experienced.”
Shell shock. I’d seen it before. Good soldiers, even great soldiers, started to sob and not stop, even when the medics came to carry them out. Others experienced flashbacks so bad they went on rampages and shot everything that moved. Hell, I’d even experienced some of that myself. I still had nightmares.
“How long has he been with you?”
“Only a couple of months. He just needs things quiet for a while, I think.”
Hence giving him the back bedroom. I placed my hand on her shoulder. “You’re a good woman, Mrs. Gill.”
I call this stage The Last Stage but that’s optimistic. It’s the last stage of the process but that doesn’t mean the MS is now perfect. Stage 4 is proofreading.
During this stage I read through the MS from beginning to end, often aloud. Reading aloud lets me become a reader again and helps me avoid reading what I expect to be there, rather than what’s actually there. This includes things like missing commas—or extra commas. I look for all types of errors when I’m reading this stage. Some basic errors I’ve found myself make over and over again:
Sometimes, during the proofreading stage, I’ll notice things in structure or characterisation that don’t feel right for the story. I put a note next to them and go back and check them later. If I allow myself to get distracted from the process, I miss important things.
That’s the four stages of editing I do with my work. Once I’ve done that, the work is ready for critique partners and beta readers. Often my critique partners have seen the story as it’s been developed. I only show them the finished product if I’ve made extensive changes to the structure and/or characterisations. That happened with Warrior Pledge where one plot line was removed completely, and the characters that were the major characters in the first version became secondary characters. That meant point of view changed throughout, scenes were deleted and new scenes were written. It became a completely new (and much better) story.
After this week, the completed edited version of The Gingerbread House will be posted to the Free Stories page on my website. The older versions will be removed from that page, but will still be available in the blog archives.
The third stage of editing a story is looking at characterisation. I leave this part until third because I often make a lot of changes to the characters and their reactions to various things. There’s no point in changing how a character reacts to a specific plot point if I’m going to remove that plot point from the story during a structural edit, so characterisation goes after structure.
This is the section where I have to go back to my character profiles and check that the characters’ GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict) is clear throughout and the growth towards the goals is clear. I look at how characters are behaving, the way they speak to each other and what they think while they’re doing it. My focus includes:
The two right hand columns of my scene map provide the template to analyse character development. Mapping that along with the structure ensures the characters grow and change as the story develops.
As I go through the structural edit, I might think of things I need to check with the characterisation. I write them in the scene map rather than trying to fix everything at once and losing track of what I’m trying to achieve with the structure.
I’ll work through the character notes as they stand at the end of the structural edit, and make the changes noted. Then I’ll map the character profiles, particularly the GMC into the scene map and check the manuscript again. With really short stories, I can do all this in one pass. Often though, this part of the editing will require more than one pass through the document. With a lengthy manuscript, I might need to do a separate editing pass for each focus (eg, one pass for voice, one for personality glitches, one for interactions, one [or more] for individual GMC).
Throughout the entire editing process, I’m also watching for proofreading errors, spelling mistakes, grammatical glitches, homonyms, etc. I correct those as I go through the MS with the aim that the final stage of editing—proofreading—will be fairly quick. Even with all the passes through the MS, I still pick up errors in the last stage, so I make sure never to ignore the proofreading stage.
My day job has finally settled enough that I don't need to work all evening and all weekend anymore. To celebrate, here's the next instalment of The Gingerbread House:
Tristan passed the next day pouring over his spell books, frantically writing notes that would be used to create a new spell that would free Hansel and Gretel and trap Mistress Osborne forever. He didn’t think either Andrew or Hansel noticed he was still in the house.
Andrew baked all day. He made gingerbread, ginger cake, ginger biscuits, even a ginger and chilli stirfry. Hansel spent most of the day groaning in ecstasy while he ate gingerbread and breathed deeply of the heady ginger fragrance throughout the cottage.
After lunch, the stirfry having dragged Tristan away from his books, Tristan gasped. Andrew looked over from the table where he rolled another batch of gingerbread.
“That’s the key,” said Tristan as he stared at the latest batch of gingerbread men. “We need to finish cladding the house.”
Andrew frowned at him. “What’s the point? Both Hansel and Gretel know they can get as much gingerbread as they want if they just come inside.”
“They do, yes,” said Tristan with a grin. “Mistress Osborne doesn’t know anything about it, and I’ll be Gretel doesn’t tell her about the gingerbread either. She won’t want the mistress to know there’s an alternative source tempting her gremlins away.
“How can she not know? Won’t Gretel tell her all about how we trapped Hansel?”
“She won’t mention the gingerbread,” said Hansel from his prone position amongst his cushions. “That’s our secret weapon.”
“Exactly,” enthused Tristan. “So, when Mistress Osborne arrives and sees the house completely covered in gingerbread—”
“Minus the bits we ate,” interrupted Hansel.
“—minus the bits you ate, she’ll go completely mental.” Tristan clapped his hands together. “She’ll storm in here, flinging spells around all over the place, and won’t notice what’s really happening.”
“Yes!” Hansel jumped out of the cushions. “She won’t know what’s going on until it’s too late.”
Tristan and Hansel grinned at each other.
“What will be going on?” asked Andrew into the triumphant silence.
“Er…,” said Hansel.
“Um,” said Tristan.
Andrew sighed as he placed another tray of gingerbread on the table. As he slid it farther onto the table, the other trays lifted to make room for it. Within seconds the hovering tower of trays stabilised.
“Why is it so important that the house be covered in gingerbread?”
Tristan smiled again, back on secure footing. “She uses gingerbread to control Hansel and Gretel. If she thinks they’ve found an alternative source, she’ll want to destroy it.”
“What’s stopping her from just burning the house down?”
“She’ll want to make sure whoever is making the gingerbread can’t start over somewhere else.”
“That would be a given if she burns the house and us with it.”
Tristan scowled at Andrew. His fatalistic, simplistic attitude wasn’t helping. “She won’t burn the house down until she knows that’s all it would take to stop us. To be sure of that, she’ll have to come inside and assess the situation.”
“You seem pretty confident that she’ll actually want to know who’s doing it, rather than just kill us.”
“I’ve worked with her for four years. She needs to know what causes everything because that’s the only way she can make sure she controls it. Destroying the house would only be a temporary measure, and she’d be losing a potential source of gingerbread with which to control the gremlins. She’ll storm in here and try to intimidate you, then browbeat you into offering to support her.” Tristan leaned back in his seat, triumph bubbling through him. “It won’t even occur to her that you might say ‘no’, particularly as coercion spells are her forte. And there’s a pretty good chance she’ll totally forget that her magic won’t work inside this cottage.”
I missed last week's post because I was tied up with my day job all weekend, so this week, you have a bumper issue of the story--double what I've been posting.
Remember, if you've missed any part of the story, you can find it on my website on the Free Stories page.
It wasn’t long before the tingling in Tristan’s hands stopped and he could finally move. He staggered over to help Andrew onto his feet.
“How’s your head?” he asked as he gently probed Andrew’s skull. “You hit it pretty hard when you fell.”
Andrew brushed him off. “I’m fine.” He reeled, tripped over his own feet and made a lucky landing on one of the chairs. “Fuck. What did she hit me with?”
“Petrification spell. It’s a gremlin specialty. They’ve probably been practising it since they learned to walk.” He glanced at Hansel as he spoke but the gremlin was still staring, fuming at the door his sister walked through. He nibbled on gingerbread, each bite cutting into the scowl on his face so that his expression swung comically from anger to ecstasy with each piece. “We got one of them,” he said, although one was as useless as none.
“Does that mean you can break the spells and escape?” Andrew filled a glass with water from the ever-present jug on the table and drank as if he’d been in a desert for years.
Tristan spun his glass around, the rocking of glass on wood loud in the silence. “No. I can’t even weaken it.”
Andrew’s shoulders slumped. “So everything we did was useless.” He glared at the cage. “Can he use his powers?”
“No, that’s holding. He’s as helpless as any human in there.”
“And just as useless.” Andrew’s glass clattered against the table as he slammed it down. “We might as well let him go, then.”
Tristan leaned forward, his elbows on the table, and buried his face in his hands. “We can’t.” He peered at Andrew through his fingers. “Gremlins have terrible tempers. If we release him, he’ll attack and there’s nothing I can do to protect us.”
“Won’t your Mistress’s spells stop him hurting you? Doesn’t she control the house?”
“We broke the rules when we captured him. The house will still provide for us but it won’t protect us from him anymore since we wronged him.”
Andrew stood, his chair clattering to the floor behind him. “So what was the point of all that? You still can’t get out and you’ve lost whatever protection you had. And we have to keep him prisoner.”
A low growl emanated from the cage and Tristan and Andrew swung to find Hansel glaring at them. His arms were shoved through the bars, fingers extended, reaching for them. His chest bumped against the bars and fizzing light arced through the room. Hansel jumped back with a howl.
“You bastard. Just you wait until I get out. You’ll fry!”
“What was that?” Andrew’s voice was filled with awe. Or perhaps that was fear.
“Lightning spell. Gremlins don’t like it.” As he spoke Hansel batted at his shoulders. When he finished, his shirt had two vertical black burns, exactly where he’d touched the bars.
“Holy shit. It burned him.”
“Don’t worry. It won’t hurt either of us: it’s specifically designed for gremlins.”
“I get that they’re nasty buggers but why would anyone design spells that only work on gremlins. Apart from the whole wanting-to-fry-you thing, he seems nice enough.”
As Andrew spoke, Hansel’s face morphed from a bad-tempered scowl to an ingratiating smile. “That’s exactly right,” he simpered. “I know we haven’t always treated Master Tristan well, but Mistress Osborne pinches us dreadfully when we’re kind to him.” The simper turned into a whine.
Tristan rolled his eyes. The gremlins might be as bound to the mistress as he was, but he knew they enjoyed their work. He broke off a large piece of gingerbread and tossed it to Hansel. The gremlin caught it deftly as it sailed between the bars, sat and began eating ravenously.
“Shouldn’t you give him something a bit healthier to eat?” asked Andrew.
“Gingerbread is the best thing for them. It has all the nutrients they need to maintain good health. That’s one of the reasons Mistress Osborne rations them. With every bite, they grow stronger; she doesn’t want either of them in a position to overwhelm her if her hold over them fails.”
“Why feed him so much then? Isn’t he going to be stronger than ever when he finally gets out of the cage.”
“The way I see it is he’s stuck there for the duration. It wouldn’t matter if we starved him, once he left the cage, I still couldn’t fight against his type of magic. The only way to truly control gremlins is through blood magic and I won’t do that. Whatever happens afterwards, the least we can do is make his stay as comfortable as possible.” As he spoke, Tristan gestured. Inside the cage, there appeared a small white bed piled high with fat cushions and fluffy quilts. A matching nightstand popped up beside it, with several books piled on top. In one corner of the cage, a deep enamel bath materialised with a pile of soft towels beside it. In the middle of the cage a small firepit sputtered to life, along with a small table and chair. On the other side of the nightstand, an overstuffed armchair with a fluffy throw appeared with a soft pop.
Hansel looked around the space and cried out with delight. He surged to his feet and took a flying leap at the bed. He bounced once onto the cushions then burrowed his way underneath. The sounds of joy that burst from the moving mound made Tristan smile.
Andrew watched Hansel’s antics with the cushions for a while, a smile growing, then he turned back to Tristan. “What’s going to happen when Gretel gets back with the mistress?”
Tristan waved his hand one last time and the remaining gingerbread in front of them disappeared and reappeared on Hansel’s little table. The gremlin squealed and shot out of the cushions. He landed neatly on his feet, like a master gymnast, and raced to the table.
“Mistress Osborne won’t come here, regardless of any argument Gretel puts forward.” At Andrew’s confused look, he continued. “Her magic is the same type as mine. Once she enters this house, we’ll be on equal footing. She’ll have lost her advantage. She won’t take the chance that I’ve become stronger than her, and she won’t risk the chance that the gremlins will support me and turn against her.”
“Would they do that?”
Tristan shrugged. “Possibly, if I could guarantee that Mistress Osborne’s hold over them would be broken.” He leaned against the table, his hip close to Andrew’s shoulder. He wanted to slide closer, but held his position. If Andrew was interested, he could move.
“Will Gretel return on her own?” asked Andrew, sitting back in his seat, putting more space between them.
Tristan released a tiny sigh of disappointment, then dragged his mind back to the topic. “Of course. Hansel is her brother. Her magic is halved without him. The mistress will insist on it too. She wants access to their full powers.”
Andrew stood and surveyed Hansel who was now lounging against the cushions on his bed, the bowl of gingerbread beside him, reading a book. “If you have both of them, could you break free?” he asked on a whisper.
Did Andrew and Tristan manage to trap Hansel and Gretel in the cage, or are they exposed and helpless? Find out in the next instalment of The Gingerbread House.
Tristan watched in horror as the Hansel and Gretel flung out their spells toward him and Andrew. He’d hoped they wouldn’t notice Andrew at all and be captured in the cage as it fell, but nothing went the way they planned.
Andrew lay motionless on the floor, perhaps alive, perhaps dead, Tristan couldn’t tell from where he stood. His feet were stuck to the floor and every muscle in his body frozen solid. He could breathe, but shallowly, as if there was a vice squeezing his chest. He could blink, but not swallow. A dribbled of saliva trickled and cooled on its way down his chin.
In front of him, securely in the cage, paced Hansel. Gretel, after her one disastrous attempt at freeing her brother, was at the table, stuffing her face with gingerbread. She tore each piece roughly off the slab, dipped it in the icing glaze, then stuffed it into her mouth with the rest of the half-masticated sweet.
“Gretel! Get over here and let me out,” yelled Hansel.
Gretel shook her head. “Can’t.”
“He has no power over us. Of course you can.”
“He’s not doing anything to us,” Gretel said through a mouthful of food. “He’s controlling the cage. Inside this house. His domain, his power.”
Stinging tingles attacked Tristan’s fingertips. About bloody time. The urge to move rippled through him but he contained it. He wanted to be fully in charge of his faculties before he let Gretel see the spell was wearing off. He flicked a look at Andrew, still in his back, his arms raised, hands cupped as thought the rope had just then been let go. As he watched one of Andrew’s fingers twitched. Tristan wanted to yell at him, tell him to stay still, but he still couldn’t even swallow. The movement stopped and Tristan breathed a long, soft sigh of relief.
“You have to do something,” said Hansel, his high voice taking on a whinging quality Tristan only heard in the best houses.
Gretel glanced at Tristan as she shoved more gingerbread into her mouth, then began to fill her pockets. When she could fit no more into the folds of her skirts, she lifted a large slab of gingerbread from the table and took it over to Hansel in the cage. As she slipped the gingerbread between the bars, she said, “I’ll go back and get the mistress. She’ll be able to release you.”
“You’re leaving? What about these two? What about ME?”
“You said yourself they have no power over us.” She gestured at the gingerbread Hansel was already eating. “That’ll keep you from getting hungry before we get back.” Gretel rummaged in her bundled skirt and popped another piece of gingerbread in her mouth, then she waved and sauntered out the door.
Tristan noted that she went around the cage on the opposite side to where Andrew was laying, his arms now by his sides.
I'm finally past the less-interesting boring middle part of the story. It won't always be boring--I'll edit it and increase the tension through there. Today, we're building toward the climax. The gremlins have arrived at the cottage, but Thomas and Andrew need to get them inside or it will have been a wasted effort.
Whistling woke Andrew from a restless nap in front of the fire. He opened his eyes at the call of a voice.
“Hansel! Stop eating it. We’ll never find out way back.”
There was a muffled choking sound. “Look! Gretel, come and look at this!”
Andrew rose and tugged on his clothes. He met Thomas at the door.
“Where did it come from?” Gretel’s voice was filled with awe.
“I don’t know, but it won’t last long.”
“Do you think we should? What if it’s a trap?”
“Who’s trap?” Disdain filled Hansel’s voice. “He has not power over us, not while he’s trapped here by her.”
Within seconds, the sounds of gingerbread breaking off and quiet crunching, and louder moans of delight, filled the darkened room. Thomas reached for the door handle.
“Wait,” Andrew whispered. “You stay here.” Andrew sidled in front of Thomas. “I’m not a wizard, so even if they run this time, they’ll dismiss me.”
Thomas caught his arm. “No. you have no defences against them.”
“Nor do you. Your magic doesn’t work on them.”
“Inside this house, it does,” said Thomas as he opened the door and slipped outside.
“They’re not inside, you idiot,” Andrew said as the door closed in front of him. He rushed to the window and peered through a gap in the curtains. One of the gremlins broke a piece of windowsill of and chomped on it. A look of pure bliss flooded his features. Andrew felt a grim satisfaction wash through him. His gingerbread really was that good.
“Well, well.” Thomas’s dry voice drew Andrew’s attention. Thomas stood a few feet from the door, feet planted firmly on the stone path, arms crossed over his wide chest. “You’re eating my house.”
“It’s gingerbread!” replied Hansel through a mouthful of crumbs.
“Do you like gingerbread so much you’re willing to eat all that stale stuff?”
“Stale?” Gretel paused with a chunk of icing lacework in front of her open mouth.
“Of course. It’s been there for days. The fresh batch is inside. As soon as it’s cool, I’m going to put it on the door and ice it with a scene of forest creatures.” Thomas sounded so reasonable, Andrew almost believed him.
“It’s still warm?” Gretel swung to Hansel. “Hansel, it’s still warm!”
Hansel shoved the last chunk of windowsill into his mouth and darted over to Gretel and Thomas. “Bring it here. We’ll eat it first, then the rest of this.” He swept his arm around, indicating the cottage.
“The trays are too hot. I can’t move them until they cool.” Thomas turned back to the house. As he walked away from them, he said, “Come in and get it if you want it that much.”
Andrew continued watching through the curtain just long enough to see Hansel and Gretel stare at each other, then he rushed to the rope in the corner. He unwound the rope from the hook in the wall and took the weight of the cage Thomas had built in his shoulders and thighs.
Thomas entered the house and walked directly to the Aga. He kept his eyes lowered, not acknowledging Andrew at all.
Andrew leaned back as much as he could, his muscles shaking at the strain. Above the door, the cage swayed. Would the gremlins take the bait? He couldn’t see out the window from where he was. They could have left completely and he and Thomas would have to wait until they came again.
Thomas turned from the Aga, a mug of tea in his hand. He stared steadily at the open doorway. The corner of his mouth tugged in a suppressed smile.
Worrying about how my character was reacting to every little thing stopped my writing, so I decided to ignore Thomas’s character profile for the time being and just continue writing. I know I need both characters to show more emotion, but that's a difficult thing for me to do at the same time I'm making up a story. I'll come back later and layer the emotion in.
Last week, Andrew and Thomas were on the verge of making a plan to capture the gremlins. Let’s see what they came up with.
Then just as quickly, it died. “There’s no way we’ll be able to do it, whatever you have in mind.”
“You’re very fatalistic, aren’t you?” Andrew settled back in his seat at the table. “I’d have thought with your skill level—”
“They never come into the house, and I can’t go outside while they’re there. Do you think I’m going to stand at the door and hand out cookies like some trick or treat monster?”
Andrew shook his head. “Thomas, Thomas, Thomas. You really need to stop blindly following the rules.” He jumped up and flung open the front door.
A narrow path meandered between two fields of wildflower-dotted grasses. A warm breeze wafted across the landscape, wriggling the grass and flowers and making the leaves in the trees tinkle and jangle. The path petered out between two tall, narrow pines and disappeared into the undergrowth. The mystery of it tugged at Andrew and he had to suppress the urge to skip down the lane and see where it led. Instead he took five large steps outside and turned back to look at the house.
The low-set cottage sat in the small clearing as if it has grown up from the ground. Ivy covered the southern wall except where the windows sat, and stopped neatly at the corner, exposing the pale stone wall across the front. The door was thick wooden planks, secured by leather hinges that looked new. The gutters surrounding the tiled roof was simple and functional but Andrew easily imagined what it would look like in white and green lacework.
“The roof tiles would look amazing with scalloped edges, graduating from pale gray to forest green. I could do olive and blue-gray lacework with white tips, like snow, along the gutters. The walls could have a cream glaze. Rose pink and white windowsills and shutters would add sweetness. I could build a low fence across the front, and cover it in flowers, all the colors of the rainbow.” As he talked his way through his plans, Andrew wandered around the house, mentally estimating measurements and calculating how much gingerbread he’d need. When he stopped, he was back at the front door. Thomas stood in the doorway, waiting for him.
“It’s going to be a big job and take some time, but as long as you have enough ingredients, it’s doable.”
Thomas scowled at him for a few moments before pursing his lips and sighing. “The house responds to my needs. If I need four cups of flour, there’ll be four cups of flour in the bin. If I need ten, that’s how much there’ll be.”
Andrew grinned. The quicker they got started, the quicker he would get out of here and be able to buy his bakery. He rubbed his hands together. “Let’s get started.”
E E Montgomery
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