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Monthly Short Story Winner: Portal Fantasy

We’ve been getting such good feedback for the short stories our members have submitted in our Monthly Short Story Competition that we have decided to post them on the main site at a rate of one a week. Today we will be looking at the winner from our May 2014 contest.

In May we had a go at portal fantasy. For no obvious reason it’s not trendy at the moment and besides Cat Valente’s Fairyland books I can’t remember any new publications in the last months.

The Journey Begins by Daniel Lieske

No matter if it’s Narnia, Oz, Wonderland, London below, Faerie or Un Lun Dun: It’s (usually) about someone from our world who finds a door/portal/way into another, fantastical word. Most of the time this world is in great peril and the quite normal boy/girl has to save it. (Of course the contestants were free to twist this trope as much as they wanted to.)

Rules:

1. This can be prose or a poem.
2. Must be portal fantasy.
3. Prose must be 500-1500 words long.
4. Poetry must be 100-500 words long.
5. You will be disqualified if you exceed the limits, full stop. That’s why they’re called limits.
6. Your entry can’t be published somewhere else.
7. This is a writing contest, not a “I wrote something like this ten years ago” contest. So if you pick an already existing piece of your work, I’d like it to have a major overhaul/edit. Work for it. 😉
8. Please add your story’s word count and, if you have one, your Twitter handle.

This month’s winning story was “Song and Dance” by ladygreen! Ladygreen also won the April 2014 writing contest, so if you like this story, be sure to check that one out too. Congratulations again, ladygreen! 🙂

You can find the other entries from this month here. You can also get updates on our monthly contests on Twitter by following @ffwritingcomp. And now on with the story!

– – –

“Song and Dance”
by ladygreeen

Great-gran Abella said we came from the water; that once, my family’s ancestors swam the oceans and rivers. It was why, even thousands of turns later, the land felt so uncomfortable. It was a feeling we all had, like wearing someone else’s clothing – tight and wrong in all the most important places. Father never got used to it, so eventually he went back to the water. At least, this is what Great-gran told us. I liked to think that Father had gone somewhere happy, somewhere that fit. But Mother…well, she was closed to such things. It’s sad, but I don’t even remember his face.

The water was full of dark secrets. Great-gran whispered them to me and my sister on the sly, sharing forgotten family lore. Mother said that Gilana was too old to believe in nonsense and yelled at her for listening. The scolding wasn’t necessary; I knew Gilana was beginning to lose interest, only pretending to believe. Thankfully, being the youngest, I was still allowed some freedoms. After all, I was eleven turns and Great-gran said eleven was the perfect age for believing.

My favorite stories were about the Ahn. In some of Great-gran’s tales they were terrifying, with gnashing teeth and bulging eyes and transparent skin – horrible monsters that would snatch me up if I stayed in the water too long. In others they were beautiful, with sapphire eyes and pearly skin and musical voices. No one saw them anymore; they always stayed hidden. Great-gran said they used to show themselves, guiding fishing ships by song.

I was thinking of this the morning Great-gran took me and Gilana out to the lake to dig for clams. More than anything, I wanted to hear that music.

“Will they sing today?” I asked, shielding my eyes against the bright rippling water. The lake was huge; a wide, flat mirror that stretched out for miles before touching a distant craggy horizon.

Great-gran tied her skirt up high between her legs and waded into the water. Her skin shone bronze in the sun, only the faintest of creases hinting at her age. “If we dance well enough. Come.” She swept her arms in an arc, twisting her body. The water shimmered gold and pink around her.

Gilana strode into the water. I watched her as she approached Great-gran, wondering if she cared anymore about why we were really here. I had seen the belief dying in her eyes; each day there was a little less.

“Nadya!” Gilana called, cupping her hands so that her voice reached the shore. “Come on!”

I tied up my skirt and followed my sister, bouncing on my heels to catch up.

“Now we begin,” Great-gran said.

She ran her palms over the surface of the water as if smoothing out wrinkles on a bed sheet, and then raised her arms to the sky, beginning a familiar dance. We mimicked her, each sweep of our arms bringing us deeper into the water. Beckoning. That’s what Great-gran called it. Once a pass we came and beckoned with Great-gran and told Mother we were digging for clams. In truth, ever since Father had left, we had been trying to call him back.

We danced in silence until the sun finally poked out from behind the pockmarked moon and sent slanting rays of heat to beat upon our heads. Steam rose from the lake in great billows and I began to sweat.

Gilana abruptly stopped dancing, letting her arms fall like dead weight. “Great-gran, can we go back now?” she asked. “It’s too hot.”

Great-gran didn’t answer. She kept dancing.

“We haven’t found Father yet,” I whispered, bringing my arm forward and trying to sweep it as gracefully as Great-gran. “Keep beckoning. You’ll ruin it.”

Gilana sighed and rolled her eyes. She turned so Great-gran couldn’t see her. “Nadya, Father’s not out here,” she said in a low voice. “We just do this for her; you know that, right?” She flicked her eyes back over her shoulder.

I froze, my arms hanging midair. “Don’t say that.”

She shrugged. “I’m going back. You coming?”

“He’s here.”

“He’s dead.”

I felt a rush of heat. Dropping my arms, I shoved a wave of water at her.

Spluttering, Gilana wiped her face. “It’s true,” she hissed. “I’m going now Great-gran,” she said in a louder voice and then turned to leave.

I watched her for a moment and then yelled. “It’s not! It’s not true!” She ignored me, bobbing back to shore.

“It doesn’t matter,” Great-gran said, sliding to my side.

“You let her go,” I accused, wanting someone to blame for my sister’s change. It wasn’t so very long ago when Gilana would stay out here for hours, dancing, believing.

Great-gran shook her head. “It was time for her to go. She has too much of your mother inside. But you….” She poked me. “You have your father’s blood. One day he will come. Perhaps today, perhaps not. Come, let us dance.”

A fierce longing ignited in my chest. A fuzzy image of Father came to mind and I heard a distant laugh, rich and throaty and deep. I began to dance again. The sun climbed higher and higher and when my muscles began to burn and I thought I could do no more, Great-gran stopped and dropped her arms.

“Look,” she said, pointing at the water.

It was spinning in a slow circle. I stepped back, but Great-gran’s hand shot out and she gripped my arm with surprising strength.

“No, you must stay.”

The water churned and a dark circle bloomed from the center of the swirl. I struggled to ground my heels into the silt, leaning against the sudden current, but a hard impact on my back sent me lurching. I clutched at Great-gran, but she was falling too. The black center of the whirlpool roared open, sucked us down and sent us tumbling. I flipped, losing all sense of up or down, the rush of water thundering in my ears. The swirling, screaming madness finally stopped and I found myself standing, alone and shivering, in the middle of the lake.

“Great-gran?”

The familiar shoreline of lakeside houses was gone. The distant mountains were gone. The bright blue afternoon sky was gone. There was…nothing; just an endless stretch of still water, reflecting a deep red sky. It looked as if everything was bleeding. I blinked and rubbed my eyes, as if that would change it back. When I looked again, the skies were still red and I was surrounded. Stone boulders now dotted the water, their pale rounded forms rising like the hunched backs of a hundred men.

A high pitched keening rang out, undulating across the lake. It was joined by others and soon a chorus of cascading notes filled the air. The stones righted themselves and stood up.

They were men.

No.

I blinked. Human.

No.

Ahn!

They rounded on me as one and I shrank down in the water, letting the water cover half my face. There was nowhere to go.

When Great-gran stepped forward, I cried out in relief. “I’m here!” I rose up and waved.

She came to me, reaching out her hand. “Nadya,” she said in a deep, unfamiliar voice.

Startled, I jumped back. Great-gran reached out a long finger, stopping a few inches short of touching me.

“Ahnist,” said the hundred Ahn as one.

They were tall and pale as parchment. A thousand sapphire eyes glittered and I dipped back down in the water.

“I want to go home now,” I whispered.

Great-gran nodded. “I know.” Her voice was like a man’s.

I realized that she had been standing with them, was still standing with them. I turned round and round, searching for a way out. They were all staring with those bulging blue eyes, everywhere. Quick as a fish, Great-gran reached and grasped my arm, clamping down so hard that I cried out. Her eyes burned a bright blue, as if lit from within. This was not my Great-gran Abella. This was something else – something terrible.

The thing that was not Great-gran grinned, revealing a gummy row of pointy fish teeth. “I will take you home now.”

I tried to pull away, yanked with all of my strength, but the grip on my arm was like iron.

“Weren’t you looking for me, calling me?” Her face slid off, the flesh dripping like melting ice. Bulging blue eyes looked out from a new face that was familiar, and yet…

“F-father?”

“I will take you home now,” he repeated, flashing another gummy grin.

“But where is Great-gran?” I searched the pale faces. They began to sing again, the high notes rolling up and up, until my ears hurt. This is what they sound like; this is their music. I had finally heard the song of the Ahn. When Father dragged me beneath the surface, all I could think of was my sister, safe and dry and unbelieving on the shore.

– – –

Congratulations again to ladygreen! If you’d like to enter our monthly writing contest, check out our forum for my information. Happy writing! 🙂

Title image by Daniel Lieske.

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