Welcome to the Story Laboratory! This is where I share drafts from various prompts and writing challenges, fish for feedback, and then head back to the drawing board with everything I learn in the comments.
Put on your goggles and lab coats. It’s going to be messy! Tell me what you really think. Be as mean or as nice as you like, I’ve got thick skin (and an even thicker skull!)
“Children of the Veil” by S.C. Jensen
They had been hiking into the coastal forest for a week when they finally found the Fjording. Gar was the first to see the slash of shimmering air above them. Up, up, up. Her guts writhed like eels in her belly and she pointed.
The young girl shielded her eyes to look. She stared into the air where it swirled and churned near the treetops. “What now?”
Gar watched the eddies of air above them, thick and swirling the way fresh water pours into a salty sea. Ambivalence, hopeful and heartsick, tugged at her. The old sea-hag had never seen a Fjording like this before, so far from the summoning rings.
Perhaps that’s why the Sealers had overlooked it as they scoured the land, closing all the paths into the Vale. In their haste, they had missed a scarce handful. Gar could taste them when the wind was right, the doorways. She hung onto the familiar scent, even as the Fjordings faded from her memory. She had known someday the girl would come. Now that the time was nigh, the old witch wondered if she was ready.
“I’ll have to call it.”
“Can you do that?” The girl eyed Gar warily.
“It has been so long.” Excitement pulsed through Gar’s limbs, electrifying. The eels danced. “I am not young anymore.”
“What do you need?” The girl dropped her bag and dug her hands inside. Her swollen belly bulged between her knees. “I’ll start a fire.”
“You should rest, Liv.” A young man spoke from the shadows amid the trees. “I’ll start the fire.”
Liv’s lips tightened but she allowed Silvan to lead her to a patch of mossy ground between the surrounding evergreens. “I could manage.”
“You don’t need to while I’m here,” he said. “It’s my child, too.”
“If it survives long enough to open its eyes in this world, it will be.” Liv drew up her spine and pushed out her engorged breasts like a fertility statue. Gar’s lips curled in spite of herself. “Until then it is mine alone.”
The girl had spirit all right.
Silvan’s eyebrows knit together as if Liv had stitched them with bait line. He busied himself with collecting twigs like fish-bones from the forest floor. “With luck, it will not be this world that our child first sees.”
“It’s not luck that we need, boy,” Gar said. “Build me that fire. I will gather the stones.”
Liv sat in silence for a time while Gar and Silvan worked. She rubbed her belly in a large circular motion and rocked on her hipbones with the rhythm of a woman whose time was coming near. “Maya Gar, have you ever done this before?”
“I’m no amateur.” The old hag gripped a stone the size of her head with puff-jointed fingers. Pain seared her tendons, but she rolled it awkwardly into the clearing.
Silvan’s face flickered orange as tiny flames licked at his fish-bone kindling. His eyes remained dark, though, the corners pulled tight by a frown that got eaten up at his cheekbones and never made it to his mouth. “For someone like her?”
Gar dropped the stone and let it settle next to another of similar size and enclosed the summoning circle around Silvan and the fire. “You mean a Valeling.”
The sea-hag stretched her crooked back and relished the fluid rushing and popping between her bones. She had started down this path forty years earlier and each year hung off her body like a weights on a fishnet, dragging her down. When the Sealers had come to their island back then, Gar had thought the old ways were finished. But old Maya Ula trained her in secret, as if the Sealers weren’t shutting up all the doorways to the Vale, as if they weren’t hunting down anyone with a talent for opening the Fjordings and bridging the gap between worlds—
“You know what I mean.” Silvan’s dark eyes peered at Gar through the growing flames. Then they wavered toward Liv and her grotesquely distended abdomen. Motherhood looked like a mistake of nature on her tiny frame.
“How old are you, Elivia?” Gar sucked her teeth. “How many years since you came over from the Vale?”
The girl clenched her jaw so hard the tendons on her neck stuck out like anchor ropes. Beads of sweat glistened on her brown forehead. She took a deep breath and answered, “Fourteen.”
“And you, Silvan?”
“I am not from the Vale.”
Gar squinted at him and he flinched.
“Sixteen,” he said.
“Precocious youth.” The old hag cackled and both children tensed. “And great fortune for all of us that you are.”
“How is this good fortune?” Silvan’s features hardened into golden stone in the firelight, carved by shadows. “They would kill her if they knew. They would kill our baby.”
“But they don’t know. I have protected her.” Maya Gar, the sea hag, tossed an herb bundle into the fire Silvan built. The flames hissed and flickered green and blue before settling back into their warmer hues. But the smoke that issued from the pyre stayed blue. It’s sweetness fell heavily upon the trio. Liv closed her eyes. “And I will continue to protect all of you until I die.”
Maya Gar reached up toward the stars, now winking at her from the blackness above. The horizon still bore the purplish-red colour of a woman’s swollen labia as the sun set itself upon a sea they could not see. She inhaled deeply of the herbal fumes and stroked the sky with her arthritic hands, like an ancient lover.
She almost missed the catch. Her fingers snagged upon an invisible zipper in the air above them, exactly centred upon the summoning circle and the fire they had built. Gar closed her eyes and felt that little snag once more, the tiny nub, a hardening of the air, to be caressed. She stroke downwards, tugging the invisible flesh, warming the hidden core of the Vale with her ancient hands.
Then she pulled, and—
“Oh my gods,” Liv gasped abruptly. “I can see it!”
“The waters! Liv, are you ready? Are you certain?” Silvan’s voice rushed forward like those waves, the tug of the Vale poured through him.
“She will be fine.” Maya Gar spread the Fjording with her palms. Heat radiated from the Vale, down her arms, and into her heart. It has been so long!
“Go!” Silvan urged. “Go now, before it closes. This is what we must do!”
“But—” Liv balked, seeing the slit for what it was. The old woman stretched between the fire and the sky, but to Liv, who may never see this land again, the distance seemed much further.
“Go, child.” The energy of the Fjording shook Maya Gar’s body like a thousand electric eels. “This is your last chance. This is my last chance to help…”
“Elivia, now!” Silvan pulled the swollen child off her haunches and lifted her toward the opening in the sky. “Stand on my shoulders. You must save our child.”
Liv stretched herself toward the Vale like a flower to the sun. Maya Gar and Silvan pushed her upwards. Away. Safe.
“My child,” Liv said, and disappeared.
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