I don’t usually make a habit of posting my stories here, especially unpublished ones, but this morning a challenge came up I just couldn’t resist. An intriguing, and cormorant-free tweet from @SimonGuy64 (otherwise known as Simon Spanton, Deputy Publishing Director of Gollancz) prompted a spontaneous competition between RJ Barker (@debutdrmng) and myself: the challenge, to write a subflash story based on the tweet by the end of the day. Mr. Barker, as you all must already know, is the antler-sporting harbinger of the apocalypse made flesh, and must be defeated at all costs. A fact he will cheerfully admit. (Yes, he will.)
And here is my own effort, just finished, warts and all, featuring some of the world built for “Starfish and Apples”:
And then they took the tree’s skull and they nailed it to the prow of their barge. The ghost of the cleansing fire burned deep in its sockets as the survivors capered in the night, drunk on their hope of victory.
“It’s not over,” warned Abe. His eyes swam red with reflected flame. “If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that the forest endures no matter what.”
“Oh, cheer up you old fart.” Jack clapped Abe so hard on his shoulder the old man almost lost grip of his pole.
Abe grimaced, trying to regain control of the barge. It lumbered through the smoke-shrouded water like some over-laden beast of burden, it’s top bristling with windmill sails, spouts to collect rainwater and crooked chimneys for over a dozen stoves: everything required for an existence led out of reach of the carnivorous trees.
“I tell you it’s not over,” Abe repeated.
The burning tree had staggered into the water in a great cloud of steam. At first Jack and the others had been terrified, believing the barge was under attack, but as the giant fell and thrashed in the water, their confidence grew. Against Abe’s advice they waded out and jabbed at the smouldering wreck, urging each other on until they had hacked away their grisly trophy to hang upon the prow.
“Now we shall be the hunters!” Jack had declared, and Abe had known better than to argue. “No more will the forest steal our children and kill our people!”
Jack took a long swig from his flask of fermented root-juice. The sour tang cut through the fumes billowing around them. “The forest is burning, it’s been burning for weeks. Soon the land will be ours again.”
Abe grunted. What did this youngster know about the land? He’d never even set foot on it. On water was the safest place. The only safe place.
On both sides of the riverbank, the embers of the all-consuming fire glowed blood-red. The survivors had stripped to only the damp cloth masks about their faces, and they swayed and laughed and shouted in the heat-gleam.
Abe scowled at the tree skull leering down at him from the prow. “We should have coins,” he muttered.
“What?” Jack’s gaze lingered on young Molly as she dervished upon the deck.
“For its eyes.”
“You’re crazy, old timer.” Jack was no longer listening, if he ever had: he was gone, whirled away. The others made space and clapped and stomped as he and Molly linked hands and spun across the deck, each taking turns to teeter perilously over the water.
Abe sighed. Let them dance. Perhaps Jack was right. Perhaps the long reign of the claw trees was finally over.
He stared at the lithe figures prancing in the firelight and shook his head. God, he felt old. Old and irrelevant. These youngsters, these survivors, born after the forest rose up and swallowed the world, all they knew was life on the river, of gutting hard-won fish, of navigating the root-choked waterways, of keeping away from the forest that only wanted to reach out and snatch them. If their hopes proved true and the forest had truly been defeated, what sort of world would they build from its ashes?
Once they had listened to his stories. Of the old world. As children they had sat in a ring around his feet as he told tales of men who had walked on the Moon, of glowing screens that showed truth and lies, of birds of metal that could circle the Earth…but nowadays they had stories of their own: credible, more relevant. Tales of Arna Strongheart, who strode into the forest and created a glade of his own. Leil the Smith, who had tried and failed to plough the forest under. And now tales of Verun the Quick, the Firestarter, who managed to kindle a flame so strong not even the slime that flowed in the claw trees veins could resist it.
Yes. He was old. He belonged to another world, one long gone. Its remnants could now only be glimpsed through the drifting smoke: distant skeletons of iron-scaffold, dripping shattered concrete.
Able felt a tug on his arm. It was Molly. Her face gleamed with sweat, and she was coughing from the smoke. But behind her mask he could tell she was smiling.
“Grandad. What are you doing here all alone?”
“We need to keep the boat moving.”
“No we don’t. Not anymore.” The tug on his arm became more insistent. He realized the others had stopped dancing and were gathering around him. “Tell us again. The tales about the cities. The cars. The towers that scraped the sky.”
Abe grumbled, but something within him warmed. He lay aside the pole.
“Tell us about the old world,” Jack said. “So that we can build it again.”
“Yes,” the others echoed. “Tell us.”
They sat in a semi-circle around him and he spoke again the old stories. Of the roads that spanned entire continents and the wheeled vehicles that crossed them faster than a bird could fly, of rooms filled entirely with books that held more stories and knowledge than one person could ever read in a lifetime, and of a world before the forest, a world where humans were masters of their own fate. “More!” they cried, and so he carried on even though his voice grew hoarse and every other word was a stifled cough.
He did not even notice when, sometime later as the rising sun ignited the clouds like a new-lit conflagration, the barge nudged against the shore and at last came to a stop.
A little too on the purple side? And yes, I know “dervished” is not a real verb. Until now.