Ash and Cinders: Then and Now

This post is a follow up on this one, where I compare my writing from November of 2017 to something I wrote this month.

On July 29th, 2016, I published In the Caverns of the Rock Lord on The Mythlings. Weeks later, I attempted (and failed) to write a novel expanding on the material (I called it Ash and Cinders) and giving some characters more backstory and more going on before and after the narrative of the short story. I worked on it on and off up to January of 2018. Around November of 2017, I wrote a quick prologue that you’ll see below.

The reason I mention this is because as of April 5th, 2018, I have begun a challenge to rewrite my attempt at a novel–at least up to the point where the original short story, linked above, ends. The contrast between what was written in November of 2017 and April of 2018 is startling, and I believe worth a look.

Special thanks should go to my good friends Amber Richard and Quinn Castine as well as my Mother, my sister Rachel, my friend and mentor Ron Jones, and my girlfriend Kira, all of whom I have spent the past few months inundating with feedback over and over again–especially since November, where I began a concerted effort to improve my prose. Almost half a year later, here are the results so far.

 

ASH AND CINDERS – Chapter One – CIRCA NOVEMBER, 2017

She darted into a sitting position in her bed. Azoc, her younger brother, nudged her awake like child prodding a snake with a stick. “Cinder?” he rasped, “Cinder, wake up. You shouldn’t have nightmares on your birthday.”

Cinder had almost forgotten her birthday. She didn’t celebrate it often anymore. Three years ago, their Father had married Phira and had a son, Benn. Two years ago, their father had died. Last year, Phira had taken control of management of their father’s inn, which usually consisted of ordering Cinder and Azoc around while she drank with her friends. She didn’t see the point in celebrating birthdays when there wasn’t much left for her to celebrate.  

“I wanted to wish you a happy birthday. But I didn’t want to shout. Benn’s still asleep.”

Cinder giggled. “You think I care if you wake him up?” She rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “He’s Phira’s son. If he wakes up, she’ll take care of him. He’s her son.”

“He’s father’s son, too,” Azoc said. “He’s like me.”

Cinder went wide-eyed. Deliberately, she sat up in bed and put a hand on her brother’s shoulder. Her eyes glinted. “No,” she said, holding him by the shoulder with one hand while wagging a finger in his face. With the other. “Not like you. Never like you.”

“But why–”

“I want you to promise me you won’t compare yourself to anything related to Phira ever again.”  

“But why–?”

“Just do it.”

Azoc raised his right hand and rolled his eyes. “All right. I promise.” He looked at the hand that held his shoulder.

Azoc glanced at the leaves that banded around around Cinder’s forearm. Their hue darkened to a deeper shade as if a shadow had spread across them and Azoc knitted his brows. “Why does that always happen?” he asked. Azoc had inherited more of his father’s humanity than his Mother’s abilities as a Nymph.

“Mother used to say the leaves get older as you do. Remember how her leaves were fragile and stiff? She was getting old.”

Azoc shook his head. “I wish I could remember her face.”

Cinder hugged him. “Me too.” I remember the leaves. She had promised to remember leaves. She had glimpsed the men who had used her mother for firewood as they fled. She did not remember what they looked like. But she remembered her mother, whose foliage was orange and dead in a pile next to her body, ready to be used as kindling. She vowed she would remember the leaves, at least. Even when she could recall nothing else, she would remember the leaves.

Cinder rose and donned a pair of trousers and a shirt, and two crept out the bedroom door and stalked through the inn.

It was a large structure, consisting of a main building and lounging porch, with two long wings that extended out and back on either side. It was constructed of logs, cut and laced on a high stone foundation.

Cinder and Azoc wound through the wings, past mostly-empty guests rooms. Occasionally she heard a muffled snore from behind closed doors. She winced at every creak and crack the floorboards made as she made her way down the steps toward the common room. In the early morning there was only the light came from the sun filtering through the windows.  

At one point, Azoc had knocked his hip against a chair, causing a too-loud shriek that tied Cinder’s jaw shut with anticipation. She tensed, preparing for Phira; or perhaps Benn’s crying. But nothing came, so the two crept silently over to the door. Cinder was just thinking about what fun it would be to go see Orym and hear all his new tales from his latest venture into the Ever Changing Land. Cinder had her hand on the door handle when—

“Did I tell you that you could leave?” Phira’s shrill voice rang from behind them. There was a rasp to it—a hiss; as she struggled not to wake patrons that Cinder could distantly hear snoring. Or worse: wake the baby. “Cinder! Azoc! Get back here!”

A pang of anger tightened in Cinder’s chest. She turned around, forcing her lips wide in what she hoped was a convincing smile. “I wasn’t leaving,” she lied. “I’m still in here, aren’t I?” I was just checking to see…um…”

“We were checking to see if the doors were creaking,” Azoc finished for her.  

Phira squinted at them, as if gauging their intention. “You two were sneaking about,” she said. “It’s too early for you to two to be up and about. Besides, whenever I ask for help tending to the inn, you’re all complaints. You expect me to believe you do it over your own volition?”

Ask for help? Cinder thought. Help implied that you’re doing work in the first place. But she held her tongue and tightened her jaw.  

When neither of them spoke, Phira continued. “Are you two trying to tell me you’d like to contribute to running the establishment your father left me.”

It’s not like you were his wife or anything, Cinder thought. It’s not like you didn’t know you were marrying an innkeeper with an innkeeper’s responsibilities. But what she spoke amounted to, “I…I’d rather—”

Phira deflated with a heavy sigh that stopped Cinder in mid-sentence. “I try with you, Cinder. I really try. Why do you always feel the need to make things difficult. I can put you to work if you’d really like me to.”

She did not deign to answer that. For half a dozen heartbeats, neither dared to speak; until Cinder broke the silence like a stone thrown through a window. “Don’t treat me like a child.”

Phira’s voice went sickly-sweet. “You can’t expect people to indulge you in your little games just because you’re too young to know better—”

“She knows better than you,” Azoc said, indignantly.  

Phira’s brow cut into a V shape, and her frown was a horseshoe. “You, young man, will hold your tongue. This doesn’t concern you—and keep your voice down. You’ll wake the baby!”

“If you’re afraid we’ll wake him, then just let us leave and we’ll make our noise somewhere else,” Cinder said.

Phira shook her head pinched the corners of her eyes. “I’m not having this conversation. Return to your beds. It’s just past sunrise, and I don’t have the strength to argue with you this early in the morning. You can still sleep before the day’s work.”

Cinder was too old for naps, but she was too young to argue. “Fine,” she spat.

“Watch your tone,” Phira growled. “And you will address me with yes, ma’am or yes, mother.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said and then hated herself for saying it. She and Azoc had just started their defeated climb up the stairs when the double-doored entrance creaked. Cinder’s heart nearly scampered out of her chest, and there came a gravelly, “Ha-ha!” From the other side of the door. Orym Tar burst in, his faded gray cloak a crescent behind him. His black tangle of straw he called a beard was streaked with white and nearly reached his waist. His laugh hoarse and rusted. He carried bottles on his belt that were filled with smoke and ash and dust that clinked together when he walked. “A pint of your finest ale, m’lady!” He said to Phira, “Or sweeter still, bring out the whole barrel! Har!”

He looked up the staircase to Cinder and Azoc. “And how do you fare, children?” he asked. He waved them down from the steps. “Come, come, let’s have a look at you.” The two rushed down the steps to meet him. He ruffled Azoc’s hair and made some small comment about how big he was getting and when he held a hand out for Cinder to shake, she hugged him instead.

Phira having yet to get over her initial shock, stood still, mouth open, watching the scene unfold before her. “A happy ten-and-seventh, Cinder,” he said.

“Thank you, Orym.” She mimicked a curtsie.  

Phira, having come to her senses (most likely from Cinder’s horrid attempt at curtsieing), blurted, “What business do you have entering my inn this early, you doddering old fool?”

Cinder swore she saw a smirk beneath Orym’s gigantic beard. “Old fool? Are you dumb, or do you just lack respect for your elders—and if that’s the case, you set a poor example for these two to respect you. That aside, I hear a crying babe that needs be tended to, and I see no one better qualified to take care of him than the gaping woman in front of me!”

Phira matched Orym’s stare for half a heartbeat. She opened her mouth to speak, closed it, opened it again, raising a finger this time, but then stomped off toward Benn’s room looking quite embarassed.  

“Orym?” Cinder said.

“Cinder?”

“Thank you.”

“No need to thank me. I figured you two might like to see me before today’s presentation down by the center river. I’m sorry it had to come on your birthday, Cinder.”  

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t know? Haven’t you been outside today?” Orym smacked the heel of his palm to his forehead. “What am I saying? Of course you haven’t. It’s hardly even sunrise! Listen, the Center River is turning to ice every other minute. The forest is going from winter-cold to summer-hot. It’s the Ever Changing Land. It’s creeping back into Tull. Surely you know what that means.”

She knew. The Wizard is coming. “Thavian.”

Orym nodded. “He will be here hours henceforth to Still Tull and collect his reward.” Belatedly he added, “The ale I requested was not wholly in jest.”

ASH AND CINDERS – CHAPTER ONE – AS OF MAY, 2018

Cinder is roused from sleep by the crackle of straw. It sounds like a fire, but Cinder knows better. Phira would never do that.

That means there’s someone tramping over the straw. She bites her lip, hoping it is not her. She can’t see who it is yet. The attic is a maze of cobwebs and boxes. She sits by the only window streaming in light.

Phira is an old woman. She took in Cinder and Myle in after their parents died. She has guarded Cinder and her brother’s treatment closely.

It is summer, and Cinder can see her breath misting in front of her face. She shivers, reaches for a blanket that is not there.

The crackling is closer, now. “Who’s there?” she calls.

“Happy seventeenth, Cinder,” Myle whispers from the other side of the attic. Cinder is not aware she had been holding her breath. Myle must’ve heard her sigh, because he asks, “Is something wrong?”

“I thought you were Phira,” she explains.

“Nope,” says Myle.

“Come here, idiot,” Cinder laughs.

“Don’t wake the baby!” Myle says, wincing at the creak of floorboards as he pads toward Cinder. “Benn’s room is right below us.” He leaps into her arms, as if he’s falling back from a ledge.

“Happy birthday, Cinder. I got you a present.” He hands her a stick.

She exhales her surprise. Her breath mists in the freezing summertime air. “Mother never taught you the woodenlore but…I don’t know. I figured you could try it? Can’t get much worse than the last time, right?”

“She can’t stick us in the attic again,” Cinder laughs. The last time she had tried to tether herself to the woodlore she tore a hole in the house. She remembers what mother told her of the craft, There are many things you must pay attention to. Be careful not to do too much at once. A juggler who takes on too many eggs is like to break one on his head.

But this stick–this small stick–now she can start small. Reshaping the haft until she has a handle on things.

“I know it’s not much.” Myle rubs the back of his neck. He’s only thirteen. Too young to know what he’s given her. “But I hope it–”

Cinder catches him in an embrace, holds him tight, savors the smell of him. Like old soap and dust, she thinks. She wonders if her time in the attic has made her smell this way too.

“Cinder,” Myle says, “You can let go now.”

“No I can’t. You’re freezing.” The words mist as she speaks them.

“You can’t help that.”

Cinder flexes her fingers. They’re both half-breeds. Only she inherited her Mother’s abilities. Only she has the abnormal tolerance for cold that she tells herself over and over again she doesn’t deserve. Her hold on Myle tightens, and when she exhales, goosebumps shiver up her back.

“What are you doing?” Myle asks.

“You deserve some warmth,” Cinder explains. She feels the heels of Myle’s hands digging into her shoulders. Pushing away. “Cinder, no. You need to keep it. Don’t be foolish–”

He breaks her hold, staggers three steps and lands heavily on his back.

Cinder winces. Myle does not dare to move. For three heartbeats the world is still. Her brother watches the ceiling and she watches her brother, hoping against hope.

Beneath the attic floorboards, a baby is crying. Cinder curses. Then below her, another voice echoes that curse. “Myle,” Cinder rasps. “Hide!”

“I can’t–”

“Hide, stupid!” Her brother is only thirteen. He doesn’t know what kind of danger he’s in. Cinder mouths for him to go, and something in her expression compels her.

Footsteps stomp-stomp-stomp up the steps to the attic. Then they stop. Cinder sees the shadows under the door, hears a deep breath on the other side.

“Which one of you,” the voice says, sickly-sweet with an edge, barely sheathed,  “Would like to explain who woke my baby?”

Cinder doesn’t speak. She’s too focused on controlling her breath. It isn’t helped when a key clicks into the lock, turns. The baby is still crying.

The door groans open. Phira’s cane is the first to enter. Cinder knows its knock. That gnarled, knotted scrap of wood, leather corded where it hooks into a handle. Phira’s footsteps are a whisper compared to the cane, almost gliding across the floorboard. “You know I hate it when you’re silent,” Phira says. Her gums smack with every word.

She sees Phira’s long, hobbling shadow from around a stack of boxes. The baby is still crying.

Her cane is the first bit of her to creep around the boxes, gripped tight in a leathery hand with veins like the cords of leather wrapped around the stick it grips. The baby is still crying.

The rest of Phira hobbles forth. Cinder never found her frightening at first. She looks a grandmotherly figure, and is fond of baking tarts for children who are not Cinder or Myle. Her face looks like a bowl of mashed potatoes. It is hard to discern any emotion from that lump of loose flesh. Her voice doesn’t help.

“Cinder. Dear.” She is either patient or angry. Cinder isn’t sure. Phira’s beady old eyes don’t tell her much more. The baby is still crying. “Did you wake the baby?”

“I…I…” She makes the mistake of looking at the cane, sees veiny old hands wringing the grip. Her throat ties itself in knots. “I…I…”

“You, you, you,” Phira blubbers in mockery. There’s a sea of saliva in her mouth spewing spittle. “All you talk about is you! It’s a simple question. Yes or no. There is no I to this.”

Cinder hangs her head. Her breath is misting. It’s summertime. The baby is still crying. “Yes.”

“That’s not true!” Myle says from behind his shelter of boxes. He leaps over them, pounding hard on the floorboard. Cinder cringes.

Myle squares himself between Phira and Cinder. He’s too young to notice how she wrings her cane. Too young to know the patterns yet. Too young to know there’s no such thing as heroes.

The mass of wrinkles that is Phira’s face has distorted, but Cinder’s not sure what it’s trying to say.

“Myle,” Phira says, stroking his cheek. Cinder shudders when she touches him. Her breath mists in the air. The baby is crying. “Did you wake Benn? Did you make him cry?” She pulls her cane back an inch, knuckles bone-white around it.

“I won’t let you hurt my sister,” he says.

“What is it with you children and yes or no answers? It’s only one word! Pick one!” Phira snaps.

“Fine,” Myle says, “You’re right, Phira.”

“You’ll address me as Mother,” Phira says, gums smacking.

“I will?” Myle asks. Cinder feels him smiling the way only a mischievous teenage boy can.

“You must.”

Must I?”

Cinder watches Phira’s hand crawling down the haft of her cane, fingers spindly as a spider. She grips the haft.

Cinder reaches for the woodenlore inside her. I have a stick of my own now, she thinks. But because it is new and because she knows Phira’s better, the tether’s she’s gathered in her mind reach for that. Invisible threads of things she can do branch up and down its haft.

She hates the cane.

Hates how it’s crooked.

Hates the wooden gnarled knuckles.

Hates how it cracks against the floorboards.

She hates it so much that she tries to pull it from Phira’s hand. But she doesn’t want to touch it, doesn’t want to knock it back, or against the boxes, or pull it anywhere near Myle, so she pulls it everywhere, at once.

The cane shatters to splinters. Not in an explosive way. For a moment, the pieces hang in the air, hovering over where Phira had held it as she stares, aghast as it crumples to the floor.

There is a moment of stunned silence. Phira looked from the cane to Cinder, back and forth and back and forth. Her breath is misting.

The baby is silent, beneath the floorboards they hear: “Yes, that’ll do. That’ll certainly do.”

There differences are forgotten, the three dash down the steps that squeal and scream at every foot that presses down on them. Ragged and panting, leaving Phira behind, the siblings burst into Benn’s room.

Orym Tar sits in a rocking chair, watching the baby. He curls his waistlong beard around his index finger, careful not to disturb the bottles of ash and smoke tied to his belt that clink softly together as he walks. He sees the children and puts a finger to his lips.

“The baby is sleeping,” he whispers. “And we must away.”

“Where?”

“The old woman is waking with the summertime cold. You know what that means, don’t you?”

Cinder knows. The Wizard is coming. “Thavian.”

Orym nods. “I’ve fetched him. He’ll be here in an hour. We’ve got to convene in the market square.”  

“Why stop for us?” Myle asks the old man.

Orym shrugs. “I haven’t seen you two in years. I thought I’d escort you myself.” They can hear Phira stomping down the steps. Orym’s mustaches twitch when he smiles. “Follow me quickly,” he says. “Oh, and happy birthday, Cinder.”

Author: Connor M. Perry

From an early age, I learned how to divide by four. See, two minutes after I was born, I discovered three other newborns hot on my heels. I was a quadruplet. And I needed to learn to how to share. Everything. At an early age, I took to writing so that I could have something unsharable. I began writing small stories online for my own enjoyment, and gradually moved to more ambitious ideas. I've been running my blog The Mythlings for two years now, publishing a new installment every Friday. I've enjoyed creating different worlds, characters and relationships in my stories. I currently live in Worcester, MA with my girlfriend, two cats, and a collection of swords.

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