The Great Challenge Week 7

This is the story I submitted for Week 7 of The Great Challenge. A 52 week challenge put on by Dean Wesley Smith at WMG Publishing in which I must submit a short story of 2,000 to 15,000 words every week. I will leave this story up until about Friday, then likely take it down and make it available as an eBook on Amazon.

Some of the stories from previous weeks are also available for purchase on Amazon:


It was a tiny brown bear, with a red ribbon tied in a bow around its neck. It fit in her father’s hand, and if he closed his fist it was small enough to disappear. The bear, which she’d named TéTé, was well-loved.

His fur was ragged, rubbed almost bare in some places. His eyes were worn off from little fingers stroking his face over and over. The red ribbon was darkened from the oil of her skin and the dust of day-to-day life. In places, the seam had unraveled and some of the stuffing escaped, but her father had taken out his needle and thread and repaired each hole with expert stitches.

Her father could mend anything, he spent many days sitting and mending sails, he always said a ship was only as good as its sails. And her father’s ship was a good ship. It was a blessed ship.  A ship rumored to be built by Ya-Beresh himself and given to his faithful servant, the most powerful Ruakh-Weaver the Iskan people ever knew.

In fact, her father was such a good servant to Ya-Beresh, that it attracted a lot of attention, the bad kind of attention. Attention from the dark forces of their world that always targeted anyone who fought on Ya-Beresh’s behalf.  That’s why they had to leave their mountain home, and now their home was at sea.

Fei had spent her childhood on her father’s ship, with the large wood boards of the deck under her bare feet. The wind kissing her ears and the ocean spray leaving the taste of salt on her tongue. Alongside her brother she’d learned to scale up the masts and dance across the yards. Her father would stand at the wheel laughing, his bright blue eyes sparkling in the afternoon sun.

Lately though, Fei hadn’t felt like dancing. The wind only made her cry. And the brine on her lips was an irritant.

Her father and brother were powerful Ruakhin, or Wind-Weavers, as non-Iskans called them. Yet, with such a glorious family heritage, Fei was magicless. She was not blessed by Ya-Beresh with the power to bend the wind to her will and use it to sail her father’s ship, or drive off the flocks of migrating birds that wreaked havoc on the rigging if they were allowed to roost.

Little Fei, with fine platinum hair and crystal-blue eyes, had to sit and watch while they worked. Her brother took on more and more responsibilities on the ship, while she became more and more of a nuisance.

Her laughter no longer rang across the deck. She no longer followed her brother around or asked her father to let her ride on his shoulders. Instead, she sat in her father’s cabin, staring out the porthole nestled to the left of the figure head, and she watched the waves and the undulating horizon.

Some days she cried, other days she sat in silence, rubbing TéTé against her cheek.

“TéTé, why can’t I be special like Aither and daddy?”

“Oh, Fei.” Her father’s voice rumbled from the doorway. For weeks he’d watched her withdraw into herself, her bright innocence dimming under a lack of purpose. She had deflated like a set of sails without wind.

“Papa, why didn’t Ya-Beresh give me a gift like yours and Aither’s?” she was embarrassed that her father had found her like this, but now she needed to know. A tear slipped down her cheek, cold and lonely as it hung off her chin.

Her father reached out and his fingers brushed the tear away. His grey-green eyes were full of compassion as he scooped her into his arms and held her against his chest. She pressed an ear against his shoulder and reached up to bury her fingers in his beard.

“Fei, Ya-Beresh didn’t give you a gift like mine and Aither’s because he had a different gift for you.”

“But where is it? Why don’t I have it to use?”

“When you were a small baby, while I was away driving the ogres out of our mountains, an evil shadow, called a Khoet, came into our home. It attacked your mother while she tried to protect you and Aither. Aither used his gift for the first time that day, he cried for Ya-Beresh and a great wind swept through our home and the Khoet fled.”

“I’ve heard this story daddy, but why didn’t I have a gift to use? Maybe I could have saved momma.”

“You’ve never heard the entire story, Fei, you see when that great wind rushed in to scare away the Khoet it whisked you away with it.”

“What do you mean?”

“You were just a little baby, but when you felt that wind tugging on your swaddle you went with it. You rode it up into the air, and all over Chalcedonai. I returned home and thought you dead, devoured by a vile Khos creature.”

Fei knew what Khos was, the dark force of King Cronan that attempted to destroy everything good and right in the world. She shuddered; she’d hate to be devoured by one of its creatures.

“So, what really happened to me? How did you find me?”

“I prayed to Ya-Beresh. I cried out to him about the loss of my wife and child. He said my wife was sleeping until he resurrected his children after the war on Khos was won. However, he said you were alive, and that you were riding on the back of one of his winds.”

Fei’s little heart leapt. She’d done something magical and grand like riding the wind, and not only that, but Ya-Beresh himself had watched her flight.

“Ya-Beresh sent me a small piece of the wind, said I should go to the coast and wait on a certain cliff for three days and three nights. He gave me some other instructions too. I thought them quite strange.”

“What were they?” she felt alive now, with a refreshed interest in life that she hadn’t felt in months.

“He told me to take your momma’s sewing kit and the little teddy bear she had made for you before you were born.”



“What did you do with him?”

“While I waited on the cliff, the waves crashing beneath me and the warm winds rushing off the ocean towards me, I learned to sew. Taking the piece of wind Ya-Beresh gave me I twisted it and threaded a needle with it. Then I used the needle to stitch through each seam on little TéTé.

After three days of working on it, waiting for you, I felt something familiar. The wind you were riding, that was identical to the wind I stitched with, brushed against me. I grabbed hold of one corner. It fought me, I think because you were still scared, and the wind wanted to whisk you away to safety again.

But I didn’t let go and I tethered it to that little bear. I pulled it in, and I stuffed it all inside of little TéTé. Then I put the last stitch into his side to seal the wind inside.”

Fei looked down at her teddy bear. He didn’t feel like he contained a mighty wind. Like a force that had traveled their world, with a baby on its back, was now contained inside along with the stuffing and numerous memories of her childhood.

Her father continued, “When the final breath of wind was sealed inside and I tied the last knot. You reappeared, still in your swaddle. You cried until I cuddled you and gave you some milk.”

Fei’s eyes rounded. She searched her father’s face. The lines in his skin were deep, like the grooves in the wood of the mast. His beard was a tangle of wiry brown and grey whiskers. Her favourite thing about his face, though, were the crow’s feet at either side of his eyes, the memories of all the times he’d laughed and smiled.

“I rode the wind…” she said. “But why can’t I anymore?”

“Because that day, when I sealed that wind in here, Ya-Beresh also sealed in your ability.”


“Because it wasn’t safe. I couldn’t handle losing you again.” His voice sounded tight, and she frowned at the glassy tears perched on his bottom lashes.

“I’m older now, maybe I can try again? Maybe I’ll be able to find my way back to you?”

Her father nodded, but his brow furrowed, and it looked so permanent, like the thought of his little girl flying up into the air where he could never be to protect her, was too much. Ya-Beresh had given her this gift though, her father couldn’t keep her from using it.

“Please daddy,” she placed a hand on his cheek, “I will be careful, and you can teach me about the wind.”

He swallowed and looked away for a breath, a tear escaped and fell into his beard though. His arms wrapped tighter around her. Nodding he turned back to her.

“We will start right now. But you will have to say goodbye to TéTé.”

She looked down at the little bear. “Forever?” she asked.

“Yes, our gifts are wonderful things, but using them means taking risks, it means untying ourselves from security and venturing out in faith.”

            Now tears welled in Fei’s eyes. For years her brother had teased her about carrying the little bear around. Yet here it was the only thing keeping her from flying away into the wild blue sky. She rubbed the velvety red ribbon between her thumb and forefinger. Then with one succinct nod she handed him to her dad.

            Her dad lifted his hand in a familiar gesture, he always did it when he sent a wind to do his bidding. The cabin door shut. Sitting in her father’s lap, with her back against his chest and his arms wrapped around her she watched his deft fingers pull at TéTé’s stitches.

            Her chest tightened and she breathed in small puffs as the threads holding TéTé together unravelled, and his seams parted. Every part of her hummed with energy and excitement. She fidgeted in her father’s lap and closed her eyes intuitively.

            Gasping she felt her breaths become one with the wind and air moving around the cabin. It wasn’t that she heard it, or saw it, but that she felt like it was part of her, a part of her she’d long missed, and it was calling her back. Back to herself.

            Her skin began to tingle, and the tingling sank into her muscles and her bones. A lightness took the place where her solid body had been and, unable to contain her anticipation any longer she leapt from her father’s lap.

            There was no floor when she landed though, instead there was a stream that caught her and swept her into its twirling embrace. Her cheeks flushed, but it was only the sensation of it because her body had dissolved into the wind rushing around her father’s cabin.

            It was the same wind that saved her from the Khoet. It was the same wind that carried her back to her father. And it was the same wind that had lived on in TéTé, keeping her grounded and at home. Safe on her father’s ship.

            Her father…

            She didn’t want to stop dancing, here in the air, without form. It felt good to simply be energy that went where it pleased, with its best friend, the wind, holding her up.

            Her father, though, and the fear in his eyes that she might fly away and never be seen again.

            The wind that TéTé had held for so many years felt her longing, and it swirled in place. She felt something, within the wind, a warmth and a familiarity. She reached for it and felt herself growing heavy again.

            Opening her eyes, she saw her father. Tears were streaming down his face, leaving glistening tracks that got lost in the forest of his whiskers. When she reached out of the wind towards him he’d reached up and caught her.

            She settled back into his lap and placed her hands on either side of his face.

            “Thank you, daddy.” She whispered. Still in awe.

            “What is it like, Fei?”

            “It is how a ship feels when the anchor is hoisted. It is how the sails feel when they are filled with air and pulling us across the sea. It is how the ocean spray feels when it escapes the hold of the wave to splash into a sailor’s face.”

            “Like a ship untethered from the pier after too long in port?” he asked.

            “Yes daddy, exactly like that—untethered.” With a contented sigh she leaned her head against his chest and fell asleep.


Fei panted and spun. She was in a strange place. And she was back to the age she’d been when her father unravelled TéTé, and she began to learn wind-dancing. The air around her was charged with power, swirling with wind and shadows.

The wind howled, calling to her, and it tugged at her when it went past, but no matter how she tried she couldn’t break free to leap from the ground and join it as it danced up into the night and away from the cold rock beneath her feet.

            She gulped and choked on the sob that lodged in her throat.

            “Hello?” she called into the shadowy land. Where had she found herself?

            Then a figure walked out of the shadows. A little boy with golden hair and sky-blue eyes. His skin was pale and he glimmered in the dark. He smiled, his little teeth looked like pearls in a neat line.

            “Hello.” He said.

            “Please, help me. I need to get home but I don’t know how I got here.”

            “You can’t go.”

            “Why not?” she asked. Sweat poured down her face.

            “Because, you have to stay here and play with me.”

            Terror gripped her. She shivered all over, but she couldn’t move her feet. Then she noticed something in his hand. Looking down at it she clenched her fists. It was TéTé, like he had been before her father unravelled his stitches and untethered her.

            Except now, his eyes hadn’t been worn off, or maybe they had been worn off and then replaced with something. Because now where brown fur had been, were two black pits. They stared at her. Instead of wind keeping TéTé stuffed, it was the Vohu-Khos, the Pit, the birthplace of Khos itself.

            She opened her mouth to scream but nothing came out. The little boy laughed at her. His pearly teeth glistened with ravenous hunger.


Fei shot up in bed, drenched in sweat. Her hair was plastered to her forehead and her nightgown clung to her skin. She lunged across her cabin belowdecks on her father’s ship.

            Splashing her face with water, she fought back the urge to vomit into the privy pot. Nausea left by the dream twisted at her stomach. Looking through her porthole, dawn was a thin line of light on the ocean horizon. Her eyes fuzzed and she shifted her focus to her reflection in the glass.

            Her platinum hair was pulled into a long, rope-like twist that ended at the small of her back. She’d grown to Aither’s shoulder height, which meant she was a small woman, but her arms and legs rippled with muscle beneath her tanned skin. Her hands were just as callused as her father’s and brother’s.

            She’d been trained right alongside Aither. They served Ya-Beresh as a family, hunting down Khos-Yth and Khosekim alike. They provided haven and safe passage to anyone oppressed by Khos.

            Sometimes Fei wondered if other eighteen-year-old maidens threw knives and had faced down more monsters than they could remember. But there wasn’t much point in considering it because any other life would feel like a prison next to this one.

            Pulling her hair over her shoulder Fei ran her hands down the length of the twist and she rubbed the red ribbon that held it in place between her thumb and forefinger. Her smile was wistful, recalling the little bear that used to wear it, and what he’d meant to her.

            Then she frowned, but what was that little bear, lost to her long ago, now doing in her dreams? Dressing she pulled on an extra layer; a well-oiled leather cloak lined with sheepskin. She shoved her feet into her boots, it felt cramped with her multiple pairs of wool socks on.

            Once she was out in the crisp dawn air, with the ocean roaring around her and the wind singing to her to come and dance, she’d know what the dream meant. It wasn’t the first dream she’d had where Khos and Rhua (the supernatural power of Ya-Beresh in wind-form) clashed. Always those dreams came as a signal to her, that a great adventure was starting. That someone needed help.

            She pushed down the gnawing feeling that this dream indicated she was the one that would need help.


The Great Challenge Week 6

This is the story I submitted for Week 6 of The Great Challenge. A 52 week challenge put on by Dean Wesley Smith at WMG Publishing in which I must submit a short story of 2,000 to 15,000 words every week. I will leave this story up until about Friday next week, then likely take it down and make it available as an eBook on Amazon.

Some of the stories from previous weeks are also available for purchase on Amazon:

Don’t Feed the Wolves

Green brush, red rock, blue mountains, grey rock, white snow, blue sky. The Colorado mountains in their mysterious, looming wonder. So was the backdrop behind Faith’s homestead.

Her one room cabin stood like a sore thumb sticking out of the landscape. It’s four walls of roughhewn wood were the only thing protecting her from the open range, and the predators that sometimes came down from those mountains.

Freezing winter nights and dry weeks in the summer were always a concern, but those she could face with dignity. It was the evil that lurked in the shadows of towering pines and rocky crags she feared. Her eyes drifted past the woodpile to the lonely cross jutting out of the yard, seemingly placed there at random.

It wasn’t the spot she would have chosen to bury him, but she’d been a slight thing then, fresh from the city without a lick of muscle on her arms. So where his body fell was where his body lay. It took days and every ounce of strength she had to dig the grave. Then it took all her grit to roll his body into the hole.

Her fingers tickled at her chest, searching for the silver crucifix that used to rest there, hanging from a delicate silver chain given to her by her papa. Her papa had been her whole world until an overzealous pioneer swept her off her feet.

That had been her first mistake, marrying a wild man. But he’d been fun, and handsome, and romantic. The romance quickly died when she realized why her father sent her with the warnings he did. Things stopped being fun the day she had to take things into her own hands—and bury a husband.

Faith’s skirt was cinched at the waist with a thick leather belt. A pistol shoved into the belt pressed into the small of her back. Her skirts brushed in the dirt, like a broom sweeping away her tracks as she walked.

Leather boots flopped on her feet, rubbing blisters on top of blisters on the sides of her feet. The bucket she carried swung, the handle squeaking with every step she took. As she walked, she plunged her callused hand, dirt in the cracks of her dry skin, into the dry corn, and then sprinkled the handful on the ground at her feet.

Some of the kernels landed on their wide end, the tips pointing towards the sky, like tiny, lonely golden mountains in the dust. Her chickens bawked and be-kawked and pecked and scratched until there wasn’t one lonely mountain left.

She wished the Colorado mountains could be pecked and scratched into the dust, then the monsters that hid there would be exposed, and the Clergy could annihilate the miserable race once and for all.

With only a few kernels left in it she turned the bucket on its end and shook it out. The chickens danced and fluttered around her skirts.

“Good chickens.” She said.

It was silly and her mother would have scoffed to see her do it, but her mother wasn’t here. Nobody was here, and she needed some semblance of conversation. She turned and walked away from the chickens. All their scratching for corn turned up bugs and worms which they now squabbled over.

Feed the chickens…

She thought of her father’s strange advice. Especially strange because he wasn’t a farmer. He’d never had to work an honest day in his life. He was a Clergy man, and the son of a Clergy man. What did he know about homestead chores?

She walked past the creaking tin windmill that pumped water from the deep well for her. Only a few feet past was a shack, their ‘barn’ Nat had called it. It was a poor excuse for a barn, but the sheep found shelter there in the night.

She grabbed a pitchfork and used it to reach over the fence and knock open the bar that kept the door closed. The sheep bleated at her as the tumbled out of the barn and into their small pasture. She stayed on this side of the fence for morning chores, to avoid them rubbing their filth on her so early in the day. And to avoid the ram, he’d taken to circling behind her and bunting the back of her legs with his thick skull.

She disliked the sheep. Their wool coats she had always imagined were soft and white like clouds, but really they were wiry and greasy and yellowed like the skin on a smoker’s fingers. She’d been offended that the Clergy compared the First Christian’s followers to sheep, but now maybe she shouldn’t think so highly of her own race. They were weak, and stupid. Always going where it wasn’t safe on some outlandish whim.

Look at her, she was out on the Colorado range, stuck there because her husband was dead and she’d no knowledge of even the direction to get home. She was weak and stupid.

She used the pitchfork to heave hay over the fence to the sheep. It was pitiful to call it hay, really it was grass she had pulled one painstaking handful at a time from the fields around her house.

There was a scythe, sharp as all hell, and she could have used it. It was laying not far from her husband’s grave. The blade still had blood stains on it and the wood was drying out from laying in the sun for so long.

She probably could have let the sheep go. Opened the gate to their paddock and chased them out into the wild, to fend for themselves. But she couldn’t forget her father’s words. It was all she had left to cling to.

Feed the sheep…

She propped the pitchfork up against the paddock fence and watched the sheep eating. She counted their dirty tails. They wiggled the dirty little things as they ate. The lambs especially. She frowned, there were only five sheep, there should be six.

Grumbling under her breath, Faith hitched her skirts, and climbed over the paddock fence. She peered in the door of the shack and rolled her eyes. The smell of mud and sheep urine brought tears to her eyes. Turning her head into the fresh breeze she took a deep breath, pausing a moment to savour the sweet aroma of half masticated grass floating up from the sheep, then she ducked into the shack.

The ram had his head stuck in a hole in the wall. They must have knocked or rubbed a board loose and now he’d gotten his head through, but his ears stopped him from backing out. A typical sheep behaviour.

She walked up beside the sheep, thanking the heavens for the thousandth time since Nat died that they hadn’t decided on cattle. Never would she have been strong enough to handle cattle on her own. She grabbed the ram around the neck and tried to push him forward so she could turn his head and get his ears out of the hole.

He started lunging forward so it was like I was trying to wrestle an out-of-control rocking horse. At one point her shoulder was thrown into the wall of the shack and she let go of the ram to step back and yell at him. She kicked at the dirt and stamped her feet. It didn’t change the fact of the matter though, she still needed to get him out.

Rubbing at her shoulder she stepped back and looked at the hole he was caught in. The board came loose at the bottom and was swinging like a pendulum from the top nail every time he jostled it. She grabbed it and pulled until it came free. Throwing it aside she started yanking on the board beside where it had hung. If she made the hole bigger he would be free.

The moment she had the board loose enough that he could have pulled free, the ram threw himself to the side. It broke the board on his left, and because she was successful in pulling the board on his right off the wall. That left a hole of three board widths in the shack.

It was gaping.

It was large enough for a full-grown male sheep to leap through and run off onto the Colorado range.

And that’s exactly what he did.

Faith lunged after him, holding onto the wall of the shack and screaming at him. Tears of fear and desperation and rage pricked at her eyes. It was dumb, but she felt betrayed by the ram. By an animal.

Don’t feed the wolves… her father had said.

He’d put special emphasis on that last piece of advice. He really didn’t want her to have a wolf problem.

She threw the board she was still holding out the hole onto the range and turned to leave the shack. She was greeted by a row of sheep, most of them with grass peeking out of the corners of their mouths, watching her intently.

She snarled at them, and they scattered. Stomping out of the shack she slammed the door shut and made sure the latch was in place. The last thing she needed was to have the ewes and lambs follow the ram.

She reached a hand back and fidgeted with the pistol in her belt, repositioning it so the trigger guard wasn’t digging into her back.

“That stupid sheep just created a whole day’s work, and now I’m going to have wolves on my doorstep in the morning.”

She slammed into the cabin and pulled out her toolbox. Muttering to herself she dragged it towards the door. Touching the pistol at her back once more for reassurance, she left the cabin again to start on the shack. It had to be done before nightfall.

She muttered and cursed all day as she nailed the board into place. She wasn’t tall enough to reach the top of the board, so she had to roll the chopping block into the shack and stand on it. The hammer was heavy, and her forearm ached by the end of the day. The taste of rust coated her tongue from holding nails in her mouth.

She had slivers in both hands and under a fingernail.

Her braid had lost its tie and her hair was unraveling into a knotted mess. Everything smelt like old wool and sheep poop. It felt reassuring to herd the sheep into their newly secured shack, but she still had no peace.

She stood in her yard, with the toolbox in one hand, and the other hand on the small of her back, and she stared out at the range. The sun, a giant orange ball, was setting behind Pike’s Peak, turning the mountains into looming shadows.

A wolf howled in the distance, but it carried through the evening mists and sent a shiver down her neck. With the setting sun, the air quickly cooled. She rubbed at the goose flesh rippling down her arm and shuffled to the cabin as quickly as she could with boots too big and a heavy toolbox in hand.

Letting the toolbox thud to the floor she hurried to close the door. The cabin had one room. There was a large iron cookstove that heated her home. One stretch of wall was lined with a counter made of wood beams, planed and sanded to a level finish.

The walls were natural wood with pictures and tools hanging in haphazard array. She’d been so depressed when she saw the home Nat brought her to, she didn’t put much energy into decorating. And she didn’t have energy to spare as it was, Nat insisted she plant the garden and care for the chickens herself, on top of cooking and mending clothes.

How she allowed herself to be brought so low, she still didn’t know. How her father had allowed her to be brought so low, that she really didn’t know. She could have been a Christian’s bride. Now look at her… No more than a liar’s widow.

She looked out the small window on the cabin’s west side. The cross in the yard cast a long shadow in the evening light, as if it was reaching out to her. Why had she even bothered crafting the shoddy little thing?

Because, despite Nat’s lies, and how he wronged her, she still loved him. Every day she looked at that cross. Not just a symbol of his laying to rest…

Just beyond it, also casting a shadow so it looked like a smudge in the dirt, was the bloody scythe. It was a heavy thing, how she was able to lift it and swing it she didn’t know.

Why she did it, she didn’t know.

That’s a lie, she did know.

“Why did you bring me out here?” She’d yelled at him. Tears ran down her face, leaving tracks in the dust that she couldn’t seem to keep off her skin. For five months they had been there, and for five months she hadn’t felt clean. In that moment she was dirtier than ever, her fingernails were cracked and her hands were blistered. The scythe was heavy in her tired arms, tired from a day spent swinging it back and forth through the grass around their yard.

Cutting feed for their sheep, because it wasn’t wise to let them roam outside the paddock.

“To start our family, to build a community.” He replied, as passionately as she had yelled.

“To build a community with who?” she swung her right arm out wide, “look around Nathaniel, there’s nobody here.

She had been complaining about it for months to him. She was lonely, in her papa’s home there were always visitors. And they lived in the city where she was within walking distance of numerous friends, and carriage ride distance of even more.

He stilled then, hesitant. Like he was going to resume the walking-on-eggshells he’d been doing around her since they arrived. He had a secret, something he was keeping from her, and he desperately hoped she would take it well, but deep down he had known she wouldn’t.

Nat approached her then, reaching out, with hope rising in his eyes. Everything he had secretly dreamed about, hidden behind half-truths so she would fall in love with his dreams too and follow him on the crazy goose-chase.

He took her by the shoulders, his warm hands kneading the tense muscles as he turned her to face Pike’s Peak. “There,” he said, “they are out there, waiting to welcome us, but you have to be open to trusting them.”

Them?” She knew who they were, but why did he want to build a community with them?

“They have knowledge, Faith, and something incredible that people in the cities could never dream of.”

“They’re savages, Nat.”

“No. They are not.” His voice got hard. He clipped each word and his fingers clenched before his hands dropped away and his absence made her shiver.

She turned to look at him. Maybe he didn’t know. He hadn’t grown up with her education. She could explain it to him.

“They’re freaks, Nat. They were genetically engineered to become creatures with the strength and instincts of animals, but the intelligence of humans. They reject the Clergy’s teachings, and they kill anyone that strays into their territory.”

“Those are only half truths, Faith, you don’t know the half of it. You only know what your father wanted you to know, what made him look good.”

“Don’t you dare speak poorly of my papa. I love him.”

“I know you do, but I thought you loved me too.” His eyes flashed, he was manipulating her, into feeling guilty so she’d submit to him as a good bride would. She’d been raised and trained to be a good bride for a nice Christian boy. But he wasn’t a Christian boy, he hadn’t taken that name.

Her papa offered to put him through seminary. Why hadn’t he accepted?

“Tell me then, Nat, since I am so naïve, why don’t you explain it to me?”

“We are a peaceful people, Faith, we just want to be left in our homes to raise our children and praise our God.”

Her stomach dropped. The baby beneath somersaulted and she pressed a hand against her barely showing abdomen. She remembered staring at nothing, her mind slowly digesting what Nat said, and how he said it, and all she wanted to do was vomit it out. Unhear it. Forget it all and go back to being nothing more than a married couple clearing the air.

This wasn’t clearing the air though. This was uncovering a terrible, horrible, disgusting lie that he’d used to trick her into a life that she now couldn’t refuse.

Because she was in the middle of nowhere.

Because she had no idea how to get home.

Because she was carrying his baby…

“You… you’re a canid?” she whispered.

“Half. My mother fell in love with my father, but he died before he could take her back to their home. She told me about it and when I was old enough, I went and found them. They’re good people Faith, trust me.”

Now she wanted to vomit for real. She felt the cords stand out in her neck and so much tension gathered in her face she felt it pulsing at her temples. Her grip tightened on the scythe.

“You lied to me…”

He tried to bring her back to him but she tore away from his grasp and lifted the scythe between them.

“My, my baby…”

“Faith, sweetheart, I love you, and I’m still the man you fell in love with. I’m no different than any other man you’ve known. Look at me, you can’t tell I’m not a human.”

“No!” she yelled at him. Spittle flew from her lips and tears burned her eyes. Then she lifted the scythe and swung with all she had, just as he was taking a step to try and embrace his wife, try to calm her down.

She’d had tantrums since they got married, he’d seen her fury. He’d always quelled it with a tight hug and a kiss on the crown. He never would have believed that his tiny, delicate, city-raised wife was capable of such a reaction.

But then, she never would have believed it either.

She looked down at her hands. Calluses cracked around the edges. When they got really bad blood would cake in the cracks and she’d spiral into a mess that crawled under the bed in the corner and prayed the world would be gone in the morning.

It never was. She was still here. Alone. Alone with her guilt, and alone with her grief.

Something rapped on the door. She froze. Then she heard the familiar and irritating bleat of her ram. There was no way the sheep had been smart enough to not only return home, but also knock on her front door.

She reached a hand back and touched the pistol, to reassure herself of its presence. It was still there. Her other hand flew up to her neck, seeking the comfort of a crucifix. It was no longer there.

There was no comfort for someone like her. No Christian bride would ever kill her husband, even if he was a canid.

It only took a few steps to reach the door. She lifted the latch and kept her weight behind it, so she could slam it shut again if she needed. What was standing outside her door felt like it could be a dream or a nightmare.

She hoped it was a nightmare, one that she had been in for a long time and soon she would wake up to find herself laying beside Nat, not a canid Nat though, in their bedroom at her father’s. Everything was normal, he was excited to claim some of the land on the range to start a farm, put to use his education in restorative farming and provide food for the cities.

Nat’s fake dream, the one that was a lie he shared with her so she’d join him, was a good dream. Too bad it hadn’t been real.

Hopefully this nightmare wasn’t real.

Outside her cabin door stood a man, a tall man who would have needed to duck through the six-foot doorway. He wore a black and orange plaid flannel shirt tucked into blue denim pants. They were worn, and held up with the help of an old leather belt, the end of it so long he had it looped and tucked back through the belt so it didn’t flap around.

Her eyes froze on his face. He had the same breathtaking masculine good-looks that Nat had. His eyes were a warm brown, a shade that invited her to keep looking. His eyelashes were dark and thick, and his jaw was strong. Thick whiskers shaded his cheeks, like he struggled to keep up to them even with a daily shave. Brown hair fell in thick waves over his head and brow.

The masculinity of his strong jaw line was emphasized even more by his wide shoulders, she wondered if he would be able to fit through her door without turning sideways. And his arms were long, of course they were long, he was so tall. She followed his shoulders, to his arms and practically gaped at the size of his hands.

That’s when she noticed he carried something. Well, two somethings. One was a small leather pouch he had tucked under his arm. The other thing, though, was in his hand. It was a rope. She followed its length and he tugged on it and stepped aside.

“Ma’am, is this your ram?”

The deep timber of his voice reminded her of the last six months spent alone, with only chickens and sheep for company.

“Yes, he’s mine.” She said, her gaze fixed on his face again, hardly even glancing at the ram that was twisting his head and bouncing around at the end of the lead. What should she say? What should she do?

She swallowed, what would her papa advise? A lifetime of advice from her beloved papa and her mind was drawing a blank, all it quoted back to her was ‘don’t feed the wolves’. That was silly though, this was obviously a man.

And a very attractive man.

A cool mountain breeze brushed past the man and swirled into her cabin. Her mind turned to the canid community Nat wanted them to join. Was this man one of them? She must have been hesitating too long because he cleared his throat and took a step towards the shack where the small herd was already contained for the night.

“I’ll just put him with the others than.”

“Um, yes please, and then come back here and I will give you something to eat.”

He nodded and smiled. His teeth were so white, and his smile brought a blush to her cheeks. She closed the door and pressed her hands to her face. What about his teeth though, had the canines been slightly longer and sharper? That was a canid thing right?

She hadn’t thought to look that closely.

Why had she offered him food? Because hospitality was part of her training as a Christian’s bride. And because she was lonely.

Shaking it all off she jumped into action, pulling out salted lamb shanks and pickled eggs. She trimmed mold off the cheese and flicked it into the fire. Then she smeared the cheese across the crust left from yesterday’s loaf of bread.

She set it all on the table, almost jumping out of her skin when the kettle whistled at her. Carefully she took down her tea set and prepared a nice green tea, with leaves her mother had sent as a going away gift.

She couldn’t spare sugar for the tea, so she hoped her guest didn’t mind. She had plenty of sheep milk though. She was staring down at her plain wood table, wondering if the fine China was overkill, when he knocked on the door again.

Her hands flew to her face again, and she smoothed them over her hair, realizing with shame that it still hung wild down her back, she hadn’t re-braided it since her altercation with the ram that morning.

She couldn’t leave him waiting for long enough to braid it now though. Straightening her shoulders she stepped up and opened the door. Carefully she stepped back and invited him in, placing herself so he couldn’t see the pistol that hid in her belt.

She watched him duck through the door, his shoulders brushed against the jams, but he didn’t have to twist to get through. He smiled and nodded his head in a ‘thank you ma’am’ gesture when she indicated that he should sit.

She served them both some tea and seated herself across from him. Perhaps he was from the city, maybe her father had hired him to come find her. He was here to save her from this ghastly life and she could go home, have a proper bath and haircut. Get herself a new dress that wasn’t threadbare at the hem, and forget this terrible excursion onto the range.

He set his leather pouch down and only her mother’s many lessons about discretion kept her from nosily peering at it. Instead she filled a plate with food for him and pushed it towards him.

“Might I say a blessing?” he asked.

“Of course.” She replied. She made the cross from her forehead to shoulders and bowed her head.

“Father in heaven, bless this widow and the works of her hands, bless her for her hospitality.”

It was a strange prayer, definitely not something her papa would have prayed. Her mother would have outright disapproved. But perhaps he’d gone to one of the progressive seminaries on the west coast. She watched him eat, wishing to ask if he was a Christian.

She didn’t though. It would be rude for a woman to ask a man his position in society. Instead, she watched him eat, picking at the small piece of cheese and bread she’d taken for herself.

He ate quickly, cleaning every last bit off his plate, and then he lifted the small tea cup in his hand, and it practically disappeared. Gingerly, he placed it to his lips and took a quiet sip.           “Ahh, green tea, I haven’t had this in a long time. What a treat.”

“I am glad that I can share it with you. It’s the least I could do after you returned my ram.”

“That is just the neighborly thing to do.” He said.

Her stomach dropped. Neighborly, so he was from around here. Not hired by her father to track her down and bring her home.

“We are neighbors?” she asked, taking a sip from her own teacup. But she didn’t pause to savor the warm tea.

“Yes, I was walking at the base of the mountains today, taking my dogs out for a run, and they started barking at your ram there. Silly animal had his head stuck in a thicket.”

“Yes, silly animal indeed.” She said, setting her teacup back on its saucer. The silly animal was her though. She’d been so enamored to have company, and handsome company at that.

She looked over at his leather pouch, set on her table, his hand seemed to follow her gaze and he stroked it. His fingers traced the cross stamped in the leather. The empty cross, not a crucifix like she had worn.

Her mouth went dry, and there was no amount of tea that could refresh her. Her eyes shifted to the plate he’d emptied.

Don’t feed the wolves. Her papa had made it very clear. Something began to buzz in her ears, like static, a while later she realized her guest was speaking to her.

“What happened to the baby?”


“Nat said you were expecting.”

“You spoke to my Nat?” she asked. Nat had spoken to them? The deep pit of betrayal in her heart yawned wider. Her stomach rolled. She looked down into her lap, unable to miss the flatness of her stomach, and the emptiness of her arms. Then she stared past the man to the chest in the corner, where all the baby clothes she made still were neatly folded, never touched.

“Yes, he was very excited to be a father.”

She swallowed. “The baby, it came too early, it was blue—”

Then she was sobbing, sitting there with her hands in her lap, tears falling into them. And he only looked at her with those warm brown eyes. They were full of compassion. It was only because he didn’t know. He didn’t know what she was.

But she knew what he was.

Sniffing she lifted her chin and wiped the tears away. Glaring into his face she said, “God took my baby as payment for my husband’s life. Children are a reward from God, I was not deserving.”

His face fell, and his sorrow was tangible. His fingers tightened on his Bible and he spoke. She saw his canines flash when he did. She was watching this time.

“That’s the image of God the Clergy would have you believe so you don’t draw near to Him and learn how merciful and loving He really is.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. How dare he come into her home, and eat her food, and ask after her baby, and presume to give her a theology lesson. She was the daughter of an esteemed Christian, a Clergy member no less.

Reaching behind her back she pulled out the pistol and pointed it at the man. She pulled the hammer back with her thumb and leveled the barrel at him. There was only one bullet in the gun. She only had enough silver for one.

She had no way of knowing if silver would kill a canid, but she had heard that besides beheading it was the only thing that could. Carrying the scythe around hadn’t seemed practical. So, this silver bullet was it. Her crucifix, her salvation against the wolves that lived in the shadow of Pike’s Peak.

“You don’t seem to understand what happened to my husband, canid. I killed him.”

Her guest didn’t flinch. He didn’t even look at the pistol pointed at the space between his eyes. Instead he still gushed compassion all over her with every blink of his eyes and nod of his head.

“Why did you kill him, Faith?”

“Because he was a canid, because he lied to me.”

“But you loved him.”

She choked on a sob. Why was she still crying. Where was the rage she had when she found out what Nat was? Why wasn’t that serving her now to get this savage out of her home?

“Yes, until I knew what he was.”

“I think you loved him even then, I think that’s why you put the cross on his grave.”

“How do you know that cross wasn’t for the baby?”

“Because you buried your baby beneath the tree by the creek. In a pretty place where a grave should be. You couldn’t get Nat that far though, he was too heavy.”

“How do you know these things?” she asked. Her hand shook and she was glad Nat had taught her to never put her finger on the trigger unless she was ready to fire, otherwise she would have already shot her guest. She wasn’t ready to shoot him yet, she needed answers, or something.

She didn’t know what she needed, but maybe this stranger had it.

“I’ve been looking out for you Faith, since Nat stopped coming to see me, I have been checking in on you.”


“Because the Good Shepherd always wants to find His lost sheep.”

“So, I’m the lost sheep in this analogy?”


“What does that make you?”

A corner of his mouth lifted in a half smile, and he tilted his head. She noticed that he never moved his hands, he wanted to appear as benign as possible.

“You know, I’m not sure. Because I’m not the Good Shepherd, but I am someone He has tasked with caring for His sheep.”

“You don’t know anything about God.”

“I know enough. I know He loves you and He wants you to come to Him.”

“He wouldn’t want me, not after what I’ve done.”

“He has forgiveness for everyone.”

“The Clergy would never absolve me.”

“You don’t need absolution from them.”

She wasn’t sure how she did it, because her hands were still shaking so bad, but she laid the hammer of the gun back down and set the weapon on the table. It thudded, dropped the last inch, and made the teacups rattle in their saucers.

She knew why though, because somehow this stranger knew what she needed more than anything. Absolution.

She folded her arms on the table and collapsed into them. Hiding her face from him she wept. What had been worse, the heaviness of bearing the grief alone, or the fear that the first person she saw again would see her crimes and condemn her for them.

“Who was Nat to you?” she asked. Why did this stranger care?

“My uncle was his father.” He said.

This was Nat’s family. Nat was his family. She killed his cousin, he had every right to avenge his cousin’s death. It was his right to demand of her the price for Nat’s life.

She must have said that to him through the sobs because he leaned forward and said, “It’s already been paid, Faith. By Christ himself.”

“You mean the first Christian.” She said. Her papa had told her, there was no Christ, just the first Christian and he taught the others how to be Christians and he gave them the right to carry his name as a sign of commitment to his teachings.

“No I mean the Christ. The one and only Son of God. Who was born as a man and died to save you from this sin, and all your other sins.”

Faith sat up, spread her arms out and said to the stranger, “But why would He do that?”

“Because He loves you.” The stranger said. She froze, dumbfounded and without a response. In her mind she kept asking, but why? She was an awful, vile thing…

“Because, just like you loved that baby that moved in your womb – that baby that you declared an abomination – God, your Creator, loves you.”

She fell into a heap on the table again, sobbing. The stranger picked her up and carried her to the bed. He covered her with the quilts and whispered, “Rest, Faith, I will send my sisters to minister to you, and I will feed your chickens and your sheep.”

He rose to leave, but she stopped him, with a question made jagged by hiccups and a hoarse throat, “but what if you’re just a wolf in sheep’s clothes?”

He chuckled, “then you will have to test the spirits to find the truth.”


This story is dedicated to Shauna, my friend with the ‘sheeps’.

Pilgrim: Cover REveal!!

Pilgrim: Book 1 of the Lodestone Chronicles has been a long time coming. In fact, I was starting to think it would never come together. Oh, me of little faith…

This month Pilgrim will be published and available for purchase! What should you be looking for? Below is the beautiful cover.

The original artwork was completed by Lisa Larose (view her website at

Design and formatting was completed by

This month Pilgrim will be released as an eBook in the Kindle and Kobo stores.

Soon to follow will be Paperback and Audio versions through the Amazon and Audible stores.

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The Toad Queen

This story is inspired by the following beautiful artwork created by:

“Toad Queen” @LisaLaroseArt

A nobody. That is what I was when I first met the Master.

I believed I was a nobody because they told me that. I was not a stealthy cobra, or a regal bird of prey. I was a toad. Warts and all.

Because I believed them, I didn’t even try to appear before the Master when he was selecting a ruler for his Animal Kingdoms. I was sure that the one appointed to oversee the land would be someone much more elegant than I.

The memory made my silk white collar feel too tight. I ran my webbed hand down the red velvet skirts of my favorite dress. I frowned so my eye ridges wrinkled together and one of my warts bumped my golden crown askew.

The Master, he was the first to mention I was a somebody. I found him, tossing stones into the brown waters of my favorite watering hole. I watched him for a while, and I decided he looked quite perplexed.

“Your Excellency seems troubled.” I tried to say as clearly and proper as I could. It came out as a croak, to my dismay.

“I am.” He replied. Not even phased that a lowly Toad had just initiated a conversation with him.

“What troubles you?” his arm paused mid-throw, he looked at me and dropped the stone. I gulped when he crossed the distance between us and seated himself on the log beside me.

He looked down at me with thoughtful brown eyes. “I have spent the last three days watching the best and the brightest of the animal Kingdoms parade themselves before me.”

I croaked in acknowledgement, and then I snatched a mosquito that was looking for a tasty bite of the Master.

“They do love to preen and strut, don’t they?”

He laughed. The Master laughed at a joke I made.

“They do not seem to understand the purpose of a ruler for the Animal Kingdoms.”

“They did not meet your expectations then?”

“Is there not one who would care for their neighbors? Who would seek to maintain order among my creation?”

“How about the owl, he is very wise.”

“Scholars often lack the ability to relate.”

“The deer, she us very sensitive.”

“But easily manipulated.”

“The badger, quite strict, but not a micromanager.”

I snagged a few more flies from around my Master’s head, and I stopped when I saw his intense stare.

“What about you?” He asked.

“What about me?”

“You would make a fine Queen.”

I croaked again, “but I am a nobody.”

“You are not a nobody. You are Emeraldine Quicktongue.”

“You know my name?”

“Of course, you are after all one of my creation.”

“What could I do for you?”

At that point he only winked and jumped from the log. He gestured for me to follow. So I leapt after him.

“You asked me what troubled me. I am troubled that not one has the perspective needed to rule. Not one understands my creation with the clarity you just demonstrated.”

Now I stood on a pedestal in the Hall of the Animal Kingdoms. Before me was a small boy with bloodshot eyes and a snotty nose. His brown hair fell in thick strands across his eyes, with a red cap with a bill like a duck on it sticking out from his brow. He was small, but the same shape as my Master.

On his little legs were trousers of blue cloth that had holes in the knees, with frayed tendrils hanging down. He sniffed and wiped the snot from his nose on his shirt sleeve.

“Who is he?” I asked. Pitying the poor boy that had been herded into the throne room by a crowd of badgers and minks.

“Who?” asked the badger, “don’t you mean what?”

“He looks like a monkey, but he doesn’t smell like any monkey I’ve ever sniffed.” Commented the mink.

“He is a nobody.” Hissed the snake. “be rid of him.”

I narrowed my eyes at the garter snake. He was harmless compared to his cousins but I don’t trust anything that slithers.

“He is a something and he is a somebody.” I stated.

I squinted at him again, and the poor boy seemed to shrink under my gaze. It was laughable, I am but a hands breadth high, and he shrunk beneath my gaze.

“Send him to the owl.” I said. The owl would have an inclination as to who the boy was and where he may have come from.

The boy turned as the badgers snarled and poked at him. He looked so much like the Master, but that was preposterous. The Master was the only one of his kind. I wished I could ask, but the Master was away from his Kingdom and had left me in charge.

What would the Master do in this situation? I’m sure he would agree,  this untidy character before me was a somebody. He would say his name, he always knew everyone’s name.

I croaked, I have been practicing my Master’s language but it still felt awkward. Still in croaks and squeaks I got the question out.

“What are you?”

The young creature turned and looked at her with wide eyes. His small mouth opened and one word came out, “Sonny.”

The mink lost patience and pressed against Sonny’s leg with his paws. When he was gone I turned and looked through the window behind my throne. The sun was setting behind the estate of my master. What was a Sonny? Who was a Sonny?

I knew his name now, but still I didn’t know who he was. I curled my webbed hands into fists and anchored them on my hips. I would have find a way to learn who, or what, a Sonny was.

© 2021 All Rights Reserved J. B. Wagner

Accepted Standards

“What are the planetary radiation levels?”

“20% of the acceptable level Captain. Increasing by 1% every 30 minutes sir.”

That gave me 40 hours to decide a course of action, organize my ship and crew, and execute the plan.

“How far away is our nearest allied ship?”

“25 parsecs sir. Moving at full speed, they would get here in 45 hours.”

Too long. They wouldn’t make it in time to help us before radiation on the planet’s surface reached critical.

After receiving the distress signal, we had made contact to let them know we were on route and they should organize themselves for evacuation.

“Are the colonists ready for evacuation?”

“They estimate they will be in ten hours sir.”

“What is the population?”

“3,000 sir.”

I didn’t need them to do the math. Instantaneous Long-Distance Transport, or ILDT, had been my focus of study at the academy. To use the technology for that many people would take at least 38 hours, that wouldn’t cut it.

Casualties are a part of every rescue mission, that was rule number one of leadership training at the academy. It fell under the heading, “Accepted Standards” in our Rescue Mission Handbook.

So, it was no surprise the shock my crew displayed when I made it clear that any solutions that relied on that ratio were unacceptable.

It was a day when I placed the trust of my crew on the line. I placed my career on the line. All because of something my youngest daughter said to me the prior evening.

An acceptable casualty ratio quoted from our Rescue Mission Handbook is 5% of ship capacity.

I currently had before me a crew of 200, and a colony of 3,000 in need of planetary evacuation. At my disposal was a ship with a capacity of 2,000.

By the book, my acceptable total casualties for this mission were 160 people. 160 living, breathing, hopeful souls. That was well over 75% of my crew.

That didn’t include the ones that I couldn’t fit on the ship. Which would bring my casualties up to 1,200.

I handpicked this crew, many of them students I had tracked from their application to the academy and recruited as soon as they were approved for practical internships.

Some of their parents were my friends, some of them had grown up with my own children. Heck, one of them was my own child. I couldn’t ask them to give up their place on the ship, to save a stranger, could I?

Some of them might not survive our mission as it was, but at this point they believed they had a fighting chance.

My fists tightened on the rail dividing the bridge. It separated my personal workstation, from the bridge crew.

“Who taught you to hold such a high standard?” I remembered the conversation with Telia from the night before.

“You did, dad. You taught us kids that when the Designer entered the void to seal it and save our universe, he did it out of love for us.

“If he loves us that much, who are we to give anything less than our best?”

Our fight about her failed thesis paper was electric. She had challenged the Casualty Ratios dictated by the Medical Officer Handbook they supplied to doctoral students at the academy.

My neck was flushed red. What would my colleagues think of this? What kind of Space Colonization Captain has a daughter that flunked out of the academy?

Why had she chosen such a controversial topic for her thesis? Why had she refused to change it even as her professors argued with her?

Why did she have to be right?

Her simple, albeit naive, worldview was not wrong. The truth remained.

As humans our number one priority should be aligned with that of the Designer.

Our number one priority should always be caring for our neighbours.

That was the truth I wrestled with as my crew communicated the ratios and offered potential solutions.

All of them failed to think outside the box, because the Handbook had provided them an out. It was time for me to correct that error.

“Enough, I don’t want to hear any more solutions that allow less than 100% evacuation and safety for crew and colonists.”

There was silence on the bridge. Fourteen pairs of eyes stared at me, as if I were an alien with three heads.

“But captain. The capacity of our ship is only 2,000.” My first officer argued.

“I understand that Commander. But there are children, and parents, and friends and spouses down there that expect us to not leave their loved ones behind.”

They all turned sidelong glances at their crew mates. Had their captain lost it? Had I, after decades of space travel succumbed to mania?

“What is it that limits our ship to holding only 2,000 people?” I prompted them.

“Food and water supplies.” Someone replied.

“Do we have enough to last us until more ships come to our aid?”

“Yes sir.”

“The Atmospheric Control System, we are only compliant under 2 people per 100 square feet captain.” Somebody else offered.

“That’s system compliance, how many people is it actually capable of keeping alive for the hours it may take additional help to reach us?”

“The system is capable of providing enough oxygen for 2000 average humans for a week. At our present reserves.”

“So, what does that mean if we add an additional 1200 people?”

“We could survive a few days in space.”

“Excellent. ” I said.

“Excuse me captain, but if we have to land to evacuate all those people, our engines can’t break atmosphere with the additional weight.”

“What’s your solution Commander?” I asked.

He looked stunned. Then he recovered.

“We will have to find ways to decrease our weight?”

“Yes. Starting with what contributes the most weight without furthering our objective.”

One of the youngest bridge members, a quiet lad that often hesitated to speak was chewing on his lip.

“Do you have an idea you would like to share ensign?”

“Yes sir.” He said, “if we stripped the ship of anything purely aesthetic, we would increase capacity by 10%.”

“Great, begin a list of parts and components that can be removed.”

My first officer choked. “But Captain, the ship isn’t herself without her appearance.”

I looked him in the eye. “Wrong, Commander, the ship isn’t herself without her crew and her mission.”

“Captain, if I may?” The bridge engineering liaison interjected; his hand raised.

“Yes lieutenant?”

“If we only need to last in orbit until help comes, we do not need our energy cells, and after the engine core they are the heaviest components on the ship.”

I pinched my chin and narrowed my eyes. “Lieutenant, how many energy cells would it take to maintain essential life support in space?”

“25% sir, for 3200 passengers. But we would have to get rid of 90% of them to break atmosphere, sir.”

My eyebrows snapped together. “What else could help us break atmosphere?”

The bridge was silent. Two pilots were arguing in whispers. “Ladies.” I barked to break up the heated discussion. The women were inseparable, pilot and co-pilot since the beginning of their academy flight training.

“We apologize sir.”

“Did you want to share.”

Waters glared at Gilmore. “Sir, Gilmore has suggested that when we reach the upper stratosphere, we jettison the engine core and use the propulsion to clear us from the planet’s orbit.”

I turned to Gilmore, “Is it doable?”

“Yes sir, I am no engineer but by flight theory it would work. It was the way original space explorers launched their ships.”

“Work with engineering to make a plan.”

“Yes sir.”

Again, my first officer was ready to combust. “Sir, we would be a floating derelict.”

“But everyone would be alive Commander.”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “What if the first ship to reach us is hostile instead, sir?”

I gritted my teeth because he was right. There was no point in saving the colonists from the planet just to have them captured by slavers or killed by Guerilla ships once in space.

Commander Grennwich looked like he had the mind to stand insist I was wrong, instead I saw the idea spark on his face. He turned to the Engineering Liaison. “Lieutenant, once the engine is gone, can we keep a few extra energy cells?”

“Probably sir.”

“Enough to power the shields at full strength and operate the dorsal cannon?”

“Yes sir, I believe so.”

“We will work on it together,” he said.

I was still holding my breath, but there was a chance we would make it out of this. I stood back and watched my crew at work. Waters guided the ship down to the planet’s surface while Gilmore consulted with engineering for the launch plan.

Grennwich worked on calculations with the ensigns and Liaison officers. They could have mutinied. They could have considered my new standards unreasonable and refused to comply. Instead, they had risen to the challenge.

“I couldn’t believe it, Telia, they embraced the mission, no matter how unreasonable it seemed compared to the accepted standards.”

“If the mission is worthy, they will every time dad.”

Tears welled in my eyes. “It wasn’t a perfect rescue though. One of the Elders from the colony had a heart attack during take-off.”

Telia’s eyes shone with compassion.

“His daughter told me his last words were, ‘thank the Captain for caring enough to risk it all’.”

“Dad, if you hadn’t cared, if you hadn’t taken that risk, his daughter may not have been able to relay that message to you. There were 1,000 people that would have been left on the planet.”

“I can’t say I completed my mission perfectly though.”

“No, but you can say you cared. And you can say you did your best. That’s all that counts.”

I laughed as tears splashed onto my desk. “When did you get so wise?”

She answered, “After a patient died in my care dad, and I was told I had done everything by the book. But I knew, I was distracted by my own selfish ambitions and I hadn’t been focused on caring for the person in front of me.”

I sobbed. Sobbed that my daughter had learned such a difficult lesson. I smiled through the tears because she dealt with it better than most would. She had chosen to grow, to take responsibility, to focus on the next patient with a new determination.

My crew never looked at me the same after that day. One of my bridge crew submitted his request for transfer, citing that I had acted recklessly. The rest of them, however, looked at me with new respect.

And I saw them with new trust because I knew, they understood the mission, and they embraced it.

This one is for my dad. He gave me my first laptop, on which I wrote my first novel-length story. He always reads my emails and my stories (despite his disinterest in reading) and he always texts me to say he loved it and is proud of me. After my email about connection, he texted me and said his story was about this: “I want to make other people’s stories mine…”

You guys, it is by making other people’s stories our own that we learn to connect.

Comment below and share your story with me. Or email me:

© J. B. Wagner 2021. All Rights Reserved.

A Dragon, a Baby, and a Wizard

Living thousands of miles away from any human being, except an old curmudgeon of a wizard, was not by accident.

So, when the squawks of a human infant reached my ears, I thought I was having a nightmare. They echoed through my cave like a bad melody.

I thought perhaps the wizard was to blame, but his tower remained a silent sentry over the land.

What I found confused me. A female baby, only a pink rosebud in the damp deadfall of the forest, waved her fists at the sky and screamed until she was red in the face.

I tested the air with my flame. I could not sense any strangers, and the wizard would not do this to a helpless. He was endlessly bringing in the hurting. Had he not heard her cries?

Perhaps she was cold. I piled ferns gently around her.

She continued to scream.

She rejected the ferns with a few swift kicks of her tiny feet.

I breathed some warm air at her, careful to be gentle with my molten heat. She screamed harder.

My ears rung with the failure.

Did the light hurt her eyes? Instinct told me an infant dragon would despise the light, perhaps a human would too.

I used the tip of my tail to pick her up. I took her to my cave.

The dark of my cave didn’t help.

She cried more.

Humans needed water to survive, didn’t they? Perhaps she needed water.

 I leapt from my echoing cave and down to a nearby lake. I scooped some water into the hollow of my front paw. When I returned to the cave, I was sure the child’s voice sounded raspy. She needed water.

I poured the water over her face and reveled in three seconds of blissful silence. She screwed up her mouth, eyes, and nose.

When the water ran out, she opened her eyes. A deep sapphire gaze sparkled at me.

Then she glared at me and resumed screaming.

My talons gouged the cave floor. Tracing the line of my jaw with a now jagged talon, I considered what else she might need. I snapped my fingers.

Hunger, she was probably hungry.

I darted from the cave and cast about for something a human might find palatable. I had seen villagers a few mountains away that enjoyed mutton.

Seeing that they ate the beasts anyway years before, I thought they wouldn’t mind if I tested one or two dozen. Turns out humans are possessive of their food sources.

Instead of making the flight to the domestic sheep herds, I scoured the mountainside for a bighorn. When I found one I grabbed it, and shook it until it died, to put it out of its suffering you see.

When I returned to the cave, the child had quieted to whimpers. It was not a relief. Her screaming told me she had life in her, but now I worried she was weakening.

I plopped the sheep carcass beside her. The stench of the unkempt animal must have been offensive to her small nose because it crinkled, and she gagged.

How foolish of me. Humans always cooked their sheep before they ate them. I grabbed the sheep and turned my back on the child. It took only a small spit of fire to singe the hair and cook the muscle. I cracked open the charred hide to expose the delicious meal to the baby.

The gagging sound came back, then the tendons in her neck clenched and her back arched as she screamed again.

I bit back a tear. My scales shifted from their usual tawny bronze to blue and then red. The desperate need to appease this child was infuriating.

As I wracked my brain for a solution, the child quieted. She was shivering; the water clinging to her raven curls.

She was naked, without scales or fur.

Didn’t humans wear synthetic hides?

I delved into the shadows of my cave where I kept my horde.

My talons landed on a beautiful forest-green velvet. The edges singed, reducing it to char cloth in places. A remnant from my first meeting with the wizard. We had both been a lot younger than. I’d tried to introduce myself and got my wings tangled in his drapes.

Wait, would he know how to help a baby? I would have to be careful approaching his tower. He didn’t welcome company, especially not mine.

I wrapped the child in the velvet and left my cliff-side cave.

A dragon was not qualified to care for a human infant.

Copernicus was not a curmudgeon, despite what anyone might say of him. He was, however, tired of people. Such a thing happened when one is a wizard who has seen generations of humans born, grown, and killed by mortality. He had tired of the cycle and chosen solitude and privacy long ago.

Sipping on his pipe, he fixed his gaze on the looming mountain range. Bronze flashed in the sky and he slammed his pipe into its cradle. Wisteria had left him alone since their last chat, but that had been a century ago. He did not need her landing on his tower and shaking dust into everything again.

He climbed stone steps to the top of his tower and grumbled at the cold mountain breeze. The warmth that wafted from Wisteria’s russet wings made him grumble even more.

She was carrying a bundle of familiar green velvet. The tender way she set it down caught him off guard. Even stranger was how she retreated and disappeared into the sky without a word.

The pink fist that poked out turned his grumbling into a groan.

No, not a baby. He was not qualified to take care of a baby.

Yet, despite the pounding of his heart…

Despite the twisting knots in his stomach…

Despite the memories of laughing children that became leaning crosses in a forgotten cemetery…

He bent and picked up the velvet-swaddled infant.

She was weak with hunger and dehydration. Dried tears matted her crow-black curls in a crust against her scalp.

He wiped away an errant tear. Her wobbling lower lip sucked in a gasp. Her small fingers caught his in a decisive grip.

“Let’s get you some goat milk. Nice and warm, right from the udder. What more could a baby and an old wizard ask for?”

I’d never seen the curmudgeon smile before. Caused by an instinctual connection between himself and another of his own kind, perhaps?

I thought of her cries. They were his problem now.

I thought of her sapphire eyes sparkling at me. He could keep them.

I thought of how she caught his finger in her tiny grip. They belonged together.

As they should. What was it to me? I wanted solitude. I’d gone to great lengths to get it.

Really, what more could I ask for?

I was a dragon, after all.

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© J. B. Wagner 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Escape Attempt

            Anticipation tingled across her skin. Her eyes darted across the courtyard and through the shadows. Seeing no one, she slinked down the steps and edged her way around the perimeter, keeping to the shadows. She was nearing what she thought was a gate when a guard stepped out of an alcove and surprised her. Reflexes took over and her staff whacked the man on his crown. He slumped to the ground without a sound and air rushed out of her lungs in a sigh of relief.

            She rushed through the remaining shadows and reached for the handle of the gate she’d found. The lodestone started to beat, as if it had its own heart, and when she looked down it was shining with clear blue light. The subtle scent of wind and frankincense tickled her nose. She twirled, baring her sword and striking out with her staff. She was shocked when the dark figure that had walked up behind her grabbed the staff midway through the strike and wrenched it out of her hand. Her eyes widened, and she moved the saber in between her and the man as her last line of defense.

            “I don’t want to hurt you, just let me go and nobody else has to get hurt.”

            “I can’t let you leave.”

            She recognized the deep timber of his voice. The man moved and she swung her saber. She was shocked when he parried the blow with her staff. She swung again, and once more he deflected the attack with her staff. Growling, she lunged forward again, raining a blur of sword blows upon him. The man was silent as he dodged or parried each attack with ease. Sweat gathered on her brow and she could feel the tug of freedom behind her, on the other side of the door. The man rained a barrage of blows down on her, and she had to rush to deflect each swing of the staff.

            A sob hiccupped in her throat as she realized she couldn’t win. This was no bandit or shepherd boy trying to steal her herd. She was fighting a seasoned warrior who had no intentions of letting her escape. Reality sunk in and she flung herself at the man in one last desperate attempt. He surprised her by taking a step forward, bypassing her sabre and grabbing her by the arm.

            His hand wrapped around her upper arm like a vice. Tears sprung unbidden to her eyes and sobs wracked her body.

            “Please, just let me go, I can’t live here anymore. I can’t breathe inside these walls.”

            “Come with me.”

            “No. You can’t make me.” She struggled against the man, trying to wrench her arm from his grasp. His grip tightened and the pain was great enough to make her drop her saber. He pulled her across the courtyard but she dug her heels in and threw her weight back. The man grunted, picked up her saber and staff in one hand, then threw her over his shoulder with his other hand.

            She lost her breath when her stomach landed on his shoulder. He wrapped an arm around the back of her knees and she could feel the blood rush to her head as her hair swung in time with his steps. Once she had her breath back she renewed her fight. She balled her hands into fists and started pounding on the man’s back.

            “I can’t live in here. I’m dying. They’re suffocating me.” Her words came out in wails. To her surprise the man set her down heavily and grabbed her by the shoulders. He gave her a shake and his grey eyes flashed at her in the dark.

            “Look, I am trying to help you, but you just need to be patient.”

            “Help me? Nobody wants to help me. They have all convinced themselves that I am out to ruin them. I just want to go home.”

© 2019 J.B. Wagner. All Rights Reserved.