On May 27th, 2021 I was lucky enough to be one of the authors featured on CamCat Books’ panel Writing Debut YA at the PW US Book Show. It was such a surreal and wonderful experience chatting with these amazing women, learning more about their worlds, and how they wrote their inspiring female leads. If you have a cup of tea ready, watch the full thing below and enjoy the show!
Also, if you look really closely, you can see a sneak peak of my book cover for Contest of Queens!
For your second cup of tea, check out these two wonderful authors:
The Lady or the Lion
He sunk his teeth into her heart and she let him.
As crown princess of Marghazar, Durkhanai Miangul will do anything to protect her people and her land. When her grandfather, the Badshah, is blamed for a deadly assault on the summit of neighboring leaders, the tribes call for his head. To assuage cries for war, the Badshah opens Marghazar’s gates to foreigners for the first time in centuries, in a sign of good faith. His family has three months to prove their innocence, or they will all have war.
As Durkhanai races to solve who really orchestrated the attack, ambassadors from the neighboring tribal districts arrive at court, each with their own intentions for negotiations, each with their own plans for advantage. When a mysterious illness spreads through the villages and the imperialists push hard on her borders, Durkhanai must dig deep to become more than just a beloved princess—she must become a queen.
To distract Durkhanai from it all is Asfandyar Afridi, the wry ambassador who tells her outright he is a spy, yet acts as though he is her friend—or maybe even something more.
If Nor can’t spin gold, she can always spin lies.
When seventeen-year-old Nor rescues a captured faerie in the woods, he gifts her with a magical golden thread she can use to summon him for a favor. Instead, Nor uses it for a con—to convince villagers to buy straw that can be transformed into gold. Her trick works a little too well, attracting the suspicion of Prince Casper, who hates nobody more than a liar. Intent on punishing Nor, he demands that she spin a room of straw into gold and as her reward, he will marry her. Should she refuse or fail, the consequences will be dire. Desperate for help, Nor summons the faerie’s aid, launching a complicated dance as she must navigate between her growing feelings for both the prince and faerie boy and who she herself wishes to become.
Something a little harsher. Mild violence warning. A short story about escapism.
This will likely be my last short story published here for a while. I have three incredible writing projects I’m so so excited about working on this year and between those and my day job- I don’t see myself having time for much more. But I hope you’ve enjoyed them. If you want more, please check out my short stories from previous months, and in the meantime, save a space on your bookshelf for my upcoming novel: Contest of Queens!
A Griffin stood before her. The sleek feathered head, wings, and talons of an eagle merging seamlessly to the silky haunches and tail of a lion. It towered over her, head high. A Queen surveying her subject. The sunlight shone like gold on its fur, and shimmered across iridescent feathers. Its eyes held an ancient knowing of one who has understood their power for as long as a mountain has known its height.
Without thinking, she sunk into a deep, reverential bow. Pain bloomed down her left side as she bent forward. Her breath caught, she squeezed her eyes tight shut, and focused on the creature before her. She watched the breeze playfully ruffle feather and fur, watched the creature’s long tail flick ever so slightly. Minute adjustments and shifted posture gave life to this creature of legend. With every breath, the goddess became mortal.
The Griffin inclined its head slightly and clicked its beak. Hesitantly, she approached. Each step soundless, weightless. She slowly bridged the distance between them; its great eye watching her all the while. She was now close enough to count the barbs along individual feather vanes. Each snowy white feather crowned in soot black. A loaded quill awaiting parchment.
She raised a hand, the Griffin bowed its head, and she placed her palm against its cheek. Her nails were decidedly intact, her wrists purposefully unblemished. Tan on black on white. Eyes level, she saw the turn of the Earth within its iris, saw the depth of the night sky within its pupil. Gently, she stroked its cheek. The Griffin closed its eyes and made a contented sound deep in its throat. A dove’s coo harmonized with a kitten’s purr. She smiled, wincing only slightly as her lips pulled taut and cracked.
Her eyes slid down its neck to rest on the space between its wing joints. Again, the Griffin beckoned, shifting its head. She tentatively traced her palm down the line her eyes had drawn. Then, her body unnaturally light, lifted herself upward and settled in between the wing joints. She could almost feel the warmth against her thigh and the feathers slipping between her fingers as she sought a handhold among the rachides.
She inhaled. Warm notes of hay, chestnuts, and pine resin danced in her mind, fighting back the scent of mildew and gasoline.
A sudden metallic crash rang in her ears and resonated within her skull, rattling her bones.The screech of something monstrous. She buried her face in the Griffin’s neck. Her eyes squeezed shut. Through the reverberation, she could hear the gentle cooing echo in the creature’s throat. The soft sound drowned out the dying crash. Heavy footsteps followed, but had no place where they were headed.
Emboldened, she sat upright and applied the slightest pressure through her knees. As though awaiting this command, the Griffin tossed its majestic head, flicked its tail, and set off at a gallop. The approaching footsteps became the pounding of paw and talon.
Three great strides and the creature launched itself into the unknown.
The field slipped away from them as they rose higher towards the heavens. She was the fulcrum, and the world spun beneath her. All life now orbiting her place on the Griffin’s back. Air currents swirled around her, cooling her feverish brow. She stretched her arms to either side, embracing the light, and was almost able to ignore the dull ache spanning the length of her ribs.
She felt a bubble of laughter building in her chest. Light and playful it burst forth and danced around the clouded realm. The anticipated windswept laughter hit her ears with hollow dissonance. Losing its substance as it fell from her lips, the marrow sucked from a bone. A dry, rasping husk of joy.
Still she looked higher. Clouds enveloped and released them. They soared above meadows of mist. Fluffy white mountains and milky valleys stretched away below; all edged in a golden glow.
“Alright girly, get up,” a harsh voice scraped from coarse throat. Its notes flew at her. The words chased her as she spurred the Griffin forward. She glanced behind them, her breath caught in her throat as she glimpsed the sinuous shape emerging from the gathering clouds. Ruby eyes gleaming, scales glistening, it stalked her on the wind.
She bent low over the Griffin’s neck and urged the creature onwards. Great wings beating on either side of her, matching and masking the sharp, swift flashes of pain blossoming within her like fireworks.
The clouds darkened, billowing up to meet her. Shadows corrupted the valleys of light. A patch of sun remained high above her. She pleaded the Griffin higher. Arms outstretched, pain devoured her as she reached her fingers towards the sun.
Then her wrists were wrenched behind her. Manacles materialized and she felt the hard back of a chair along her spine. Her last patch of light snuffed out. Shadows rose up to consume them as down, down they fell. Wings became paper thin and useless. Hands and talons grasped at nothing. The Griffin screamed. Eagle cry blended with lion roar. The crashing of thunder merged with howling winds. The scream exploded in the void, echoing through the darkness, struggling for purchase in the abyss, growing softer and weaker, until finally, dying in a girl’s whimper.
Slowly, her eyes opened.
A man stood before her. She glared up at him through swollen eyelids. Breathing heavily through gritted teeth and cracked ribs, her vision swam. Blood smeared his knuckles. He dragged a forearm under his nose and spat near her foot. For a moment, she caught sight of the gleaming red eyes of a serpent. The inked beast twisted around his wrist.
A lighthearted story to start the year off the right way. This is about one of those moments in history that gives me the giggles every time I think about it, and I just hope I did it enough justice that it gives you the giggles too. So the timeline has been tweaked a little to make the story more condensed, and I took some artistic liberties, but the events are accurate. Two young girls did manage to fool Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, esteemed author of Sherlock Holmes, (as well as many many other people) with photographs of ‘real’ fairies. Like my other stories, this one pairs well with a cup of tea- may I suggest something floral? Chamomile, perhaps?
Cottingley, England. 1920
“The state you’re in!” Elsie’s mother’s voice crashed into the girls as they came into view, making them stop short at the parlor door. She rose from her seat at the window and strode towards them. Her stern posture somewhat ruined by the dimples flickering in her cheeks.
Frances, Elsie’s younger cousin, looked down guiltily at their bare feet, grass and mud clinging to their soles, and winced at the inches of sopping hem above their ankles.
“Where have you been? We have a visitor arriving soon.” Elsie’s mother cushioned the word visitor as though it were a precious vase. Elsie clutched her sketchbook tightly and glanced at Frances.
“We were visiting the fairies.” Frances said sweetly, exchanging a knowing look with Elsie and stifling a grin. The dimples in Elsie’s mother’s cheeks deepened and all hints of severity smoothed out with an indulgent smile.
Elsie’s father snapped his newspaper from where he sat on the settee. He did not look up, but Elsie could see the lines deepen on his forehead, and heard a distinctive short, sharp sniff.
“Did you see any today?” Elsie’s mother asked.
“Yeah, loads!” Frances replied, absently scratching one foot with the toes of the other.
Seeing an opportunity, Elsie added, “If father allowed us to use his camera again, we could have taken some more pictures to show you.” She sighed delicately, though loud enough to carry over her father’s paper barricade. He did not respond, but sat now too still for one supposedly reading.
“Never mind that,” her mother said with a wave. “Hurry and change into something dry, and put some shoes on. Elsie, help Frances fix her ribbon will you? And clean up that muck. You look like you’ve been living in the woods.”
Before the girls could obey, a crunching of gravel, the knocking on and creaking of the front door, and the purposeful footfalls of a man with an appointment made them scurry behind Elsie’s mother. There was a murmuring just beyond the parlor entranceway.
A servant appeared and announced, “Ma’am, the theosophist, Mr. Edward Garner is here.”
With a panicked and slightly exasperated look at Elsie, her mother removed a leaf from her daughter’s hair and said, “Send him in.”
The servant bowed, stepped aside, and gestured for their guest to enter.
The shine of his shoes entered first. The man followed. He wore a dark suit, white shirt, and an understated dark tie. His seams had been pressed, and his tailor- most likely- well paid for his diligence. His hair was white, and his salt and pepper goatee was trimmed neatly. He stood in the doorway with the air of a man used to speaking from podiums. Surveying the parlor, he caught sight of the nature-tumbled girls, opened his palms by his sides, and beamed.
“And this must be Miss Elsie and Frances Griffiths,” he said. The girls said nothing, they simply stared.
“The very same,” Elsie’s mother nodded and shot a look at Elsie that compelled her to step forward.
“I’m Elsie, sir, and this is my cousin, Frances.”
Frances took a half step forward. Mr. Gardner beamed wider still and shook each of their hands in turn. He did not appear to notice their grubby nails and mud smeared palms.
“Marvelous!” he exclaimed. “I’ve been so looking forward to meeting the girls who discovered fairies!” He bounced slightly on the balls of his feet and wrung his hands excitedly.
Frances giggled, “Our fairies?”
“Yes indeed little Miss, you and your cousin have made a breakthrough of religious proportion. To think that you have done what many have tried and failed to do; captured fairies on film! And it’s not just me who wants to see them, I have been sent by my dear friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He entrusted me to determine whether these photographs are to be believed.” He inflated visibly at the mention of his friend and looked around expectantly.
The girls exchanged a glance. Elsie felt her cheeks flush and her stomach flutter. “Sir Arthu… you mean…” she began.
“The great author of Sherlock Holmes, naturally.” Mr. Gardner supplied, standing taller.
“He wants to see our fairies too?” Frances asked incredulously.
“That he does, that he does. He has even sent you each a camera to use as a thank you for documenting these elusive creatures.”
The two girls were speechless. Mr. Gardner appeared to take it as a sign of awe and gratitude. Elsie’s father finally lowered his paper.
“Arthur Wright,” he said to Mr. Gardner by way of introduction. Mr. Gardner shook his offered hand. “How did you hear about the girls’ photographs?” Arthur asked.
“Dear, I told you,” Elsie’s mother hurried to explain, “I shared them at the Theosophical Society’s lecture in Bradford last year. Mr. Gardner saw them and…”
“Became captivated by them!” Mr. Gardner finished merrily. “Now,” he turned to the girls, “if I may, where can I see the fairies?”
Elsie shifted her sketchbook slightly behind her and looked away. Frances scratched her foot again absentmindedly and said, “Well, the thing is, sir, you can’t.” The words were pulled from her slowly by the steady gaze of the eager theosophist.
Mr. Gardner looked like a balloon that had just met a pin and began to deflate before their eyes. “I ca-” he began.
“Because they don’t show themselves to adults… especially men.” Elsie cut him off, giving Frances’ hand a squeeze.
A silence echoed around them as Mr. Gardner visibly fought with his disappointment.
“Ah! Of course!” He said finally, re-inflating. “I should have guessed. Much like the myth of the Unicorn. Yes, very similar. I suppose it follows. Quite right. Say no more! That’s what the cameras are for after all. I will… well you two go and find the fairies, and I will…”
“Would you like a cup of tea Mr. Gardner?” Elsie’s mother offered. “And maybe some biscuits while you wait?”
Mr. Gardner beamed. It was settled. The girls were each given a new camera and set off towards the beck, a small stream in the woods at the back of the property. Mr. Gardner remained inside with Mr. and Mrs. Wright as the latter suggested. The former skeptic, Mr. Wright was only too eager to insist that he had believed, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in the photographs from the moment he saw them.
Elsie and Frances, feet still wet from earlier, carried their cameras and a pouch filled with secrets into the woods.
“Isn’t it wonderful to have Sherlock Holmes investigate our fairies?” Frances whispered. “What if he finds out they’re fake?”
“What if he doesn’t?” Elsie whispered even quieter, her eyes sparkled.
It had drizzled all morning and tiny pearls of rain glistened from leaves and petals across the garden. As the girls passed through the trees, their pace slowed to one of reverence. Their hands fell to their sides to caress the still-damp leaves in their path. Moss absorbed their footfalls. Their steady breathing mingled and became lost in the breeze flickering through the trees. Sunlight shone in dappled patterns around them, illuminating their eyelashes and dancing through their hair. The beck giggled away to their right, guiding their course.
Theirs was a place of whispers.
Standing stone still, moss creeping up their heels, the girls paused with hands held. The sounds of the woods floated around them. A robin’s song rippled from a nearby branch. It did not take much imagination to believe that this was a realm for fairies.
The girls set to work. Elsie, with an artist’s eye, selected the perfect location. Frances readied one of the cameras and passed Elsie the small pouch. Elsie carefully retrieved a few hatpins and her latest creation: a delicate dancing figure with dragonfly wings, her arms outstretched and toes pointed, carefully cut from paper. Admiring the way the sunlight shimmered through the thin paper, she began positioning the tiny figure among the leaves and secured it with a hatpin. She stood back to regard the effect with her head tilted, readjusted the hatpin, and considered it again. It was a while before she was satisfied.
“Ok, now Frances, you stand there and look as though this fairy is flying towards you… hang on, let me fix your ribbon.”
The shutter clicked and clicked again. The paper coming to life with each picture captured. Finally, as though completing a ritual, the girls took their little paper muses to the beck and watched them float away. One got caught briefly in an eddy and Elsie swore she heard it laughing.
Once the film had been developed, the girls showed their pictures to Mr. Gardner triumphantly. He was speechless for a time and appeared to be blurred around the edges, such was his excitement.
“Marvelous!” he exclaimed. “Oh I can just hear my dear friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle now, I’ll show him the photographs and ask, ‘Is this mere imagination?’ and he will laugh that laugh of his and reply, ‘How often is imagination the mother of truth?’” Mr. Gardner chuckled to himself, then, seeing the blank look on the girls’ faces, added, “Just a little Sherlock Holmes joke for you.”
They smiled weakly.
A few months passed after Mr. Gardner’s visit. Elsie was reading to Frances by the fire. A shriek shattered the tranquil moment and Elsie’s mother ran into the room holding a magazine and a crumpled letter to her breast.
“Girls! My darling girls! It’s your fairies! Sir Arthur- he’s written an article! Sent us a copy. In a magazine! Apparently it has already sold out. They’re having to reprint. Can you believe? You! You two have brought the discovery of fairies to the world!” She paused for breath, face glowing and letter still clutched tightly in her fist. She thrust the magazine at Elsie who accepted it in stunned silence.
“Arthur!” Elsie’s mother shrieked. “Arthur, you must see this!” and she vanished from the room as quickly as she had come.
The two girls looked at each other and Elsie slowly opened the magazine. There were their photographs in the middle of an eight page article boldly titled: The Evidence for Fairies. Their names had been changed, but their faces were very much still clearly in the photographs.
Elsie quickly scanned the article and read the caption under the picture of Frances and the leaping fairy out loud, “‘The fairy is leaping up from leaves below and hovering for a moment. It had done so three or four times. Rising a little higher than before, Alice’ – that’s you Frances- ‘thought it would touch her face and involuntarily tossed her head back.’ He then says, ‘A girl of fifteen is old enough to be a good witness, and her flight and the clear detail of her memory point to a real experience.’”
She put a hand to her mouth as Frances snatched the magazine from her to read it herself.
“But…” Frances said finally, “he’s a detective!”
“No, he just writes about one.” Elsie said quietly.
“But he should be cleverer because he writes about one.”
“Maybe…” Elsie scanned the article again, her fingers brushing the image of the leaping fairy. “Maybe he just wants to believe they’re real?”
“Oh.” Frances scratched the top of one foot with the other, thinking. “Well… well now we really can’t tell him the truth.” she said.
I have always been somewhat obsessed with King Henry VIII and his wives. It is such a fascinating period in history and it really is amazing how one man’s desire for a male heir changed the course of a country’s history and even their religion. I fell in love with this period in time mostly through Philippa Gregory’s novels and have always thought that Anne of Cleves, though only married to Henry for six months, won (if it can be considered a contest). She doesn’t get much fanfair, and we don’t have nearly as much information about her as we do of say Anne Boleyn, but she ended up outliving Henry and all of his previous and later wives. She lived out her days known as, “The King’s Beloved Sister,” and according to record, never actually had to consummate the marriage. What. A. Queen. So here’s a little story about the beginning of their end.
It is said a portrait is worth a thousand words. A thousand words. Is a thousand words enough to define a person? To capture their true essence and reveal the inner workings of their soul? Is a thousand words enough with which to fall in love? Surely the number should be higher? The portraits required should be numerous? And what a responsibility to hang on the artist. The stress of the job must burn one out before they are halfway to four and twenty. But the King of England was in need of another wife, so Anne’s picture was painted, packed, and shipped to the English Monarch.
Portraits of both Anne and her sister had been requested, as the King enjoyed options, and a simple alliance of families was all that was needed. Portrait-sitting was a tiresome activity and Anne had enjoyed making faces at her sister behind the artists’ back to pass the time. She had studied her likeness in her reflection and compared it to the finished portrait. Sure, the oil imitation held a shadow of her smile, and hinted at the crinkle around her eyes, but it really only captured a single facet of who she was. Tipping and angling her face in her looking glass, she shifted through a myriad of Annes. Each singular and unique until another expression took its place. She could only hope, as she inspected her oil likeness for signs of variation, that the artist captured the Anne that would be most pleasing to the King.
When his portrait arrived, she could not help but wonder which versions had been omitted in favor of the captured colossus presented to her household. While her portrait had been sent as a question, his had been sent as a statement. It declared: “Here is your husband.” In preparation, she curtseyed with head bowed under the portrait’s cold eye when she passed it in the hall.
Her portrait was selected, and her sister brushed an expression of excitement on her own features for Anne’s benefit. Just like her painting, she was packed up and shipped to England. Her stomach rolling, breath shallow, and palms clammy, she did what she was bid without complaint.
Maybe Painted Anne had been just as nervous? After all, she had been locked in the dark and propelled across bumpy roads and a tumultuous sea only to be unwrapped in a foreign land and gawked at by foreign people. Although, Painted Anne’s duty had been simple: accurately represent the real Anne of Cleves. She did not have to worry about pleasing the King, adopting the English customs, or learning to speak their tongue. She did not even have to consider what it meant to be the fourth wife of a King who changed his country’s religion for a divorce. A King who, when that was not enough, relieved his second wife’s neck of the burden of her head. No, Painted Anne could sit quietly and let events fall as they may. Not a single crease to blemish her smooth brow.
Meanwhile, the Real Anne tore through several kerchiefs during her shipment. Twisting and knotting her worries into the embroidered fabric until the stitched monogram warped beyond recognition. She had no way to prepare for what was expected of her, and no frame of reference to guide her. Her first betrothal had never amounted to anything more than a few sweet verses of proclaimed love she still kept within the pages of her bible. But, when given the choice between herself and her sister, the King had chosen her. Surely that was promising? Was it possible to love someone from their portrait?
She was unpacked in an English tower. Her things put in their proper place while she floated about, unsure where to land. The English spoke quickly and took her silence for agreement– or at least for a lack of protest.
Finally, they seated her in a chair by the window. The courtyard below was a flurry of activity as a number of small dogs took it in turns to attack a tethered bull. The men and women around her cheered and clapped as the little dog darted at the poor beast. Coin changed hands, goblets were refilled, and a new dog was introduced to the fray. Anne mirrored the reactions of those around her. She fell into their rhythm and made sure to smile at those who made eye contact with her.
A knock at the door interrupted the spectacle. Her companions exchanged knowing looks and eyed her with excitement. She rose. The door opened. A drunk in a thread-bare cloak stumbled in.
“Happy New Year,” he slurred in broken German; the first words she had understood all afternoon.
“A gift from the King of England,” he said, a roguish glint in his eye. She stood very still and he lunged at her. Clasping her tightly and smothering her mouth with his, he forced a small token into her fist as he drew back. His eyes were hungry and he looked at her expectantly.
She tasted the remnants of stale ale and onions on her lips, felt the blood rush to her cheeks, and heard a ringing in her ears. The room turned to look at her. Dozens of eyes alive with Schadenfreude fixed upon her flushed face and wet lips. The bull bellowed in the courtyard below. Still the drunk waited. She squeezed the token in her hand as though to reduce it to dust. Breathing sharply through her nose, she felt a smile lift the corners of her eggshell mouth.
“My thanks to his majesty,” she responded in barely a whisper. As though moving through mud, she lowered herself in a curtsey, then sank into her seat. She forced her gaze to return to the bull baiting below.
His next attempts at conversation were lost to her ears. The drunk’s blundered German, rather than setting her at ease, opened an ache for home within her heart so profound it was all she could do to remain upright, eyes fixed on the bull. The little dogs nipped and yipped at the stoic creature far below. It snorted and lowered its deadly horns in a challenge.
After a time, the drunk retreated. The door clicked shut and the room was silent but for the sounds from the courtyard below. No one approached the painted figure in the window.
A knock came again. She turned, dreading a similar visitor. The door opened and the drunk reappeared, transformed. As if by magic, he now was adorned with jewels and wore a coat of deep purple velvet. A man heralded his entrance and Anne picked out the words, “His Majesty, the King of England, King Henry the Eighth.”
The room erupted in applause, and the King beamed with arms outstretched. Anne hurried to clap with the others, all the while feeling a pit form in her stomach. From far below, the bull bellowed again. It strained against its rope as the dogs circled closer, teeth bared. The crowd jeered.
She caught the King’s eye and noticed a deep crease upon his royal brow as he regarded her. Piecing her smile back together, she received her fiancé warmly. This time, determined to show that his presence thrilled rather than offended. That his breath was sweet, his German fluent, and his touch welcome. He explained the rules of bull-baiting to her as though to a child, and he ensured she was presented with a fine selection of sweetmeats. All the while, the same thought ran through her mind: The royal painter is a liar.
This is a Fairy Tale written in a style to match (think Grimm Brothers rather than Disney). I’ve always loved fairy tales; loved the originals, loved the retellings, loved the animated versions. There’s such a beautiful magic that fairy tales evoke and the suspension of disbelief allows for wonderous things to occur (unless you’re the “um actually…” type). This is the first of nine fairy tales nestled in my fairy tale treasury: The Rose Petal Princess and other fairy tales. Read more about this treasury here: https://jordanhbartlett.com/fairytales/ Cover image designed by Ashley Banbury, @ashtreehouse on Instagram
Long ago and far away, there lived a Queen. She lived in a magnificent palace and ruled over her realm with compassion and grace. Her people loved her, and she loved them in return. She was happy in every way but one: in her heart, she longed for a daughter.
Every night before she went to bed, she would dance beneath the stars in a courtyard scattered with rose petals. As she danced, she would wish for a little girl that she could love and care for; a little girl she could dance with and hold in her arms. The Queen’s feet would fly and her skirts would twirl as she spun through the petals alone.
One evening, as she twisted and turned with her arms outstretched, her bare foot trod on a lone thorn among the rose petals. She cried out and fell to the ground. A shimmering tear slipped down her cheek and landed on the bloodied petals at her feet.
All at once, the wind picked up and rushed through the starlit courtyard. The air filled with perfume as the petals swirled around the frightened Queen. She covered her face with her hands as the wind became a gale and the soft petals, now razor sharp, cut at her skin.
When the wind finally stopped and she lowered her hands, the Queen gasped at what she saw. Spread across the middle of the courtyard like a mosaic, hundreds of petals had spiraled to form a rose. A young girl stood in the center.
“Hello mother,” the girl said. “I’ve waited so long to dance with you.”
The girl helped the stunned Queen to her feet and hugged her. Then mother and daughter began to dance under the stars. Their feet flew and their skirts twirled as they spun through the petals, laughing all the while.
The Queen was finally happy because her heart was full. The realm rejoiced to watch the little rose petal Princess grow to be as beautiful and graceful as her mother. Every night, the Queen and the Princess danced together under the stars. Their movements were always in perfect harmony, and word of their skill spread across the land.
On the night before the Princess’ sixteenth birthday, a comet cut across the sky and many of the stars in its path went dark. The palace was quiet; all those within held their breath. Guards lined the entrance hall, waiting. No one knew what this strange omen meant, or what future it foretold.
As the clock struck twelve, a loud crash rattled the front door in its frame. The Queen held the Princess’ hand tightly from the top of the stairs as the sound came again. At the third crash, the door burst open. A monster made of darkness emerged from the shadowy night. Its two gleaming red eyes scanned the room, its sharp yellow teeth flashed as it grinned up at the Queen and her daughter.
The monster lifted one black finger and pointed it at the guards. At its command, an army of people, long dead and somehow impossibly alive, crawled into the hall. With black eyes and cruel smiles, they swarmed into the palace and cut down all those who stood in their path. The monster of darkness laughed in the chaos and addressed the Queen.
“Light-footed Queen,” it said, “you and your petal will dance for us one last time.”
The Queen squeezed the Princess’ hand tighter. As the undead creatures crept closer, the two women began to dance.
Their feet flew, their arms twisted, and their bodies spun. Moonlight illuminated their limbs, leaving a bright trail following behind each movement. The creatures stopped, stunned by the spectacle. Then, with a subtle nod to her mother, the Princess began to dance faster. The Queen seamlessly increased her own tempo to match.
Delicate pointed feet became like hardened steel, bended arms became slashing blades. Their bodies becoming living weapons, they fought through the crowd of monsters. Heels crashed into decaying flesh. Fists cracked through brittle bone. They danced in perfect unison. Two edges of the same blade.
They fought through the night. Never faltering, never missing a beat, the rhythm of battle hammered out with each landed blow. Too quick to catch, the enemy struggled to lay even a finger on them.
As the sun rose and light shone through the palace windows, the Queen lowered her arms. The Princess mirrored her posture. The monster of darkness had vanished, leaving an entrance hall filled with the bodies of fallen foes.
They had won.
While the realm celebrated the vanquishing of such evil from their borders, the Queen and the Princess began to prepare for its return. They trained their people to dance like weapons, and every night they looked up from their rose-strewn courtyard to the starlit sky.
This story comes from a place much closer to home than my previous one and is one that has always captured my imagination. I’m not usually one for ghost stories, but there’s something special about the ghosts in your back yard. Below is a short story about the Ghost Bride that resides in the Banff Springs Hotel. Cover image courtesy of: https://www.avenuecalgary.com/city-life/the-ghosts-of-fairmont-banff-springs/ all other photographs were taken by yours truly.
Wispy clouds shroud the peak of Mount Rundle, creating a veil over the mountain’s cliff face. The scene is framed beautifully in the large, arched picture windows of the ballroom. Snow dusts the stonework and sparkles like diamonds in the noon day sun. White clouds, white snow, white dress.
I can hear the guests settling and the important players getting into position. Today has been orchestrated down to the last dust mote and we all move about like clockwork dancers. Standing still in front of the frosted glass, I allow my mind to go blank as my maid of honor adjusts a seam here, settles a pleat there. Last to donn is the veil.
She has been nattering away to me for the past twenty minutes, but I tuned her out after the third time she mentioned the correct pace at which to walk down the aisle.
“Not too fast, savor the moment, dear, but not too slow, we don’t want Aunt Daphne falling asleep”
Sage piece of advice, although one only requiring a single mention.
Breathe in, breathe out.
If only this second, this day, this feeling could last forever.
I shut my eyes as though to capture the moment; to place it in a snow globe where the only thing to change is the way the little snowflakes fall. The window of the castle becomes the glass dome and I see myself, now tiny and static, in the hands of a little girl. My white dress shines through the little window as she shakes the scene again and again. Snowflakes drift around the turrets and land peacefully in the grounds. She could place me on her nightstand and I would look out of the castle window forever. But already I can feel the seconds ticking by. Sand in an unforgiving hourglass. My traitorous heart counting down life’s beats.
The veil is lifted and settles around my shoulders. I glimpse my reflection in the glass. A pale, ghostly reflection of the girl I will never be again. The sheer, delicate fabric floats down over my face. Now the mountain and I have something in common.
Such a simple garment, an ephemeral piece of fabric. Yet it marks a divide. The next time it is lifted, I shall have a different name. A different identity. Wife. No longer a Miss but a Ms. Somehow I expected the veil to be heavier because of this, but it is as light as gossamer. It floats about me like Rundle’s cloud.
Finally, and all too soon, I am ready. The women in my orbit now step into formation. In single file, they pass beneath the crystal chandelier- did they not pause to look up even once?– to the top of the marble staircase.
Candlelight flickers and casts warm shadows on the wall as the ladies descend. For a moment, I am convinced the cheery light belongs to tiny fairies lining the edge of the smooth marble steps. Members of the Seelie Court awaiting their Queen to descend and marry their King.
I take a few more steps to the top of the staircase and feel a snag. My train, much longer than I had requested, caught for a moment on an uneven section of floor. A tug and it is free, another moment comes and goes too quickly.
One step, then another.
I see my father waiting for me at the base of the stairs. His face, aglow with candlelight and pride, shines like a lighthouse on a dark night. He will guide me to the harbour of my husband. Husband. How strange that word sounds in my ears now. I suppose soon it will sound as common as a sigh.
Left foot, right foot.
I feel the fabric of my gown slide down each step just a moment behind my footfalls. A pure white shadow keeping pace. The music floats towards me from the room below, and I feel the strings reverberate in my heart.
Suddenly, the light from the candles is all too much. I can feel their heat intensify. Their warm glow becomes an oppressive inferno. All at once the moments speed up and rush past me out of control.
My father’s face contorts in horror. He races to reach me, but is running through molasses. My bridesmaids turn and shriek, but can do nothing more than stare. Their eyes wide, flames reflected within. I have become a being of light. Pain licks up my limbs. My train, a phoenix’s tail.
I claw at the dress to rip myself free. Charred lace and silk comes off in my hands, but still I am bound within this nightmare chrysalis. The steps beneath my feet rearrange and disappear from where I had left them. I feel myself teeter, my arms flail for purchase as I stumble blindly into the void. The veil ignites next and my vision becomes a kaleidoscope of searing, flickering light.
Then I am falling, tumbling, crashing to the cold marble below. A fallen star snuffed out. I don’t recall landing. I don’t recall who extinguished the fire. I don’t even recall if I concluded my life’s story with a final word, or where exactly my last breath fell. But I do remember, all at once, the pain stopped. My breath stopped. Everything just… stopped.
Now, my dress shines the purest white. Forever perfect, untouched by the ravages of time. My train never catches on uneven sections of floor. I have the leisure to look up and admire the crystal chandelier for as long as I wish. For time is all I have. I peer out of my snow globe and watch the snowflakes fall in different patterns around me; watch the people scurry to and fro in different patterns around me; watch the sun rise and set and the moon follow suit around me. My moment is frozen, now and forever. On the edge of Miss and Ms. My veil is ever-unlifted. As unchanging as the mountain my window overlooks; something else we have in common.
I’ve watched a century’s worth of brides become wives within these walls. Some even descend my staircase. There is a handrail now, and most will avoid using open flames. I expect I’ll be here to watch a century’s more walk down the aisle. The least I can do is smooth their trains and settle their veils; I try not to take it personally when they shudder at my touch. Since the flames, I’ve not been able to warm myself. If I’m feeling bold, I will walk beside them a ways. I see their brows furrow and some turn sharply if I hover too near. I don’t mean to unnerve them on their special day, but a bit of unease might make them cautious. Accidents happen. And I know I would have liked someone beside me at the end. I never walk them to their groom. I do not even stay to watch as he turns to greet her. For that is their journey to make, not mine.
Pictures taken by me on November 11, 2020 during one of many visits to the Banff Springs Hotel
This short story was inspired by the song Anne Bonny by Karliene and the subsequent research I did about the Villainous, Infamous, Pirate Queen. For those who don’t know, Anne Bonny is one of the most famous female pirates of all time. Her brutal final words to her lover are what drew me to her story. I wanted to play with that final moment and this was the result. I took some artistic liberties, but for the most part the events are as they were reported to have happened. Enjoy!
The light sea breeze brushed a tendril of auburn hair from her face and danced in the sails. An old nursemaid caressing the cheek of a beloved ward. Anne smiled and reveled in the sensation. The wind was laced with the brine of distant seas. The smell was ingrained in her being like the salt water that thrummed through her veins in blood’s stead.
Sparkling like jewels more brilliant than any her crew had seized, the morning sunlight coruscated from the ruffled surface of the ocean. The soft sound of waves lapping against the hull of the William more familiar to her than her own heartbeat. A lone gull heralded the dawn somewhere off the Jamaican coast.
Anne stood at the helm, hand resting idly on the wheel, surveying the sea. Her home, her realm, her Queendom. A throne not passively won, and not easily kept. Her crown, a more practical tricorne hat, perched atop her flaming locks that cascaded free and defiant down her back. There had been a time when she had hidden her hair and bound her chest. Women could not be pirates, afterall. But a Queen could change the rules, so a Queen she had become.
The deck was still. Her men were sleeping off a night of drink below. Their recent haul yet another excuse to fill then promptly empty the rum stores. An ebb and flow as inevitable as the tides themselves.
A creak and the sound of soft footfalls brought her from her reverie. Mary Read, a Queen in her own right, had risen early. She too had avoided the deep cups the men had been so eager to fill the night before.
Anne watched Mary make her way up the steps from the deck below. The women acknowledged each other with a slight nod of the head. Mary had long since replaced Jack as Anne’s right hand man. Not that Jack had noticed his demotion. The two stood silently looking out, not to shore, but out to the horizon.
Anne felt the life within her stir and placed a hand to her swollen belly. Mary looked at her and smiled. “Let’s hope she’s a fighter,” she said softly.
“Aye,” Anne agreed. “Lord knows the world has enough pretty fools.”
Silence settled around them again.
“The men should be up by now,” Mary observed dryly.
“They should,” Anne said. “And more’s their sorrow the longer they’re not.”
The sun flashed brightly as it rose higher above the horizon. Anne lifted a palm to shield her eyes. Momentarily blinded, she blinked and lowered her hand. As if by magic, the mast of a lone sloop now emerged from the light; it rounded the point and entered the bay. Bow aimed like an arrow towards the William. In one fluid motion, Anne swept the spyglass from her belt and peered at the apparition.
The sloop silently slipped towards their ship. Encircled in a brass frame, Anne saw a crew of uniformed officials running about the deck, a man she recognized as Captain Jonathan Barnet shouted orders from the helm.
Her eyes returned to her own ship and she looked about the empty deck. Her mind flew to the cots of drunken pirates below. As one, the two women split and ran down the steps on either side of the wheel, shouting all the while.
“Up! Up! Ye squiffy dogs!”
“All hands! All hands on deck!”
The sounds from below were sudden but slow.
Too slow, Anne thought bitterly. She and Mary shared a knowing look and rushed to retrieve swords and pistols. Their anchor was tucked in the ocean floor below like a child in its cradle, the sails hung limply in the still air. The men moved like wax dripping down a tallow candle. Some half dressed, most with rum on their breath.
And still the sloop sailed closer.
“Damn it,” Mary cursed, loading her pistol with shaking hands.
In the calm before the storm, the two women clasped hands. Half a handful of men blundered about them, struggling to get to their positions. From the corner of her eye, Anne saw Jack, her Jack, the infamous Calico Jack, trip over a lead line and vomit bodily over the side.
Then the storm hit.
Anne lost Mary’s hand in the sudden crash of metal on wood. Masts splintered, sails ripped and were torn free of their eyelets and rigging. The William was at the mercy of the sloop’s cannon fire, while its own cannons sat useless. Screams and groans filled her ears. The sharp scent of gunpowder stung her nostrils. She felt the polished wood pommel of her pistol, warm as though alive in her palm, and fired. Satisfied briefly as a body fell at the end of her shot, she dove for cover to reload.
Anne and Mary fought like two edges of the same blade. A lone sword in the ambush. They stood as their ship’s last defence, and held their ground viciously. Though it felt like an eternity, the battle was fought and lost in a matter of minutes. Anne only dropped her weapon when cold steel touched her throat. Warm blood trickled from cheek to chin. Her lip had split. She winced as wounds she had not felt began to make themselves known. Mary struggled in the arms of an officer until a blow to the side forced her to her knees. Men littered the deck like discarded rum bottles and had been just as useful. Many, she noticed, had fled below deck, if they had surfaced at all.
Captain Barnet stepped slowly and purposefully around the captured crew. His hand on the hilt of a sword he had not unsheathed. He surveyed the scene with the look of a man who had just stepped off the docks and into something foul. Sneering, he came to a stop before Calico Jack. Jack’s namesake clothing was torn and stained. Blood and worse streaked the calico material.
“You and your crew are to be hanged until dead,” Captain Barnet intoned, bored. “By order of Governor Nicholas Lawes.”
Anne looked about her helplessly. Her hand instinctively curled around her belly. A defiant kick came from within and she gasped. “Mercy!” she cried, struggling against her captor to stand and address the Captain. “I plead the belly!”
“Aye! As do I.” Came Mary’s voice from where she still crouched; her face pressed against the boards. The two women exchanged a grim smile. Life within securing life without.
Captain Barnet nodded slowly and gave orders for the prisoners to be bound and led to the untouched sloop. The William now a broken shell of its former glory.
The pirates were forced into the sloop’s hold, some still trying to shake off their drunken haze. Anne and Mary were pulled aside to be separated from their doomed crewmen. Jack looked around blearily, hands bound in front, and sought Anne out. He spotted her and came alive with motion. Before the officers could stop him, he rushed over and clasped her hands in his.
“Think of me, my love,” he croaked. His breath a concoction of old rum and bile. Anne wrinkled her nose and regarded him coldly. The colossus she had left her husband, home, and land for. Now, the deflated husk of a captain. The black mark stained him. She could almost see the hangman’s noose about his neck.
“Had you fought like a man,” she said, her voice a deadly whisper, “you wouldn’t be about to die like a dog.”
He was wrenched from her, but she had already turned from him before he disappeared below.
She felt a smaller hand clasp hers. Mary stood beside her. Their eyes met, then their gaze shifted. They looked not towards shore, but out to the horizon. A sudden gust of wind flew through Anne’s hair and threw her tricorne to the deck. An officer bent, picked it up, and with a cruel grin, tossed it into the sea. It floated for a second, whirled in an eddie, then disappeared below the waves.