The Winter Festival – Harmatia Short

Howell was singing loudly in the front-room as Rufus stepped into the house, the snow clinging to his raven hair.

 

“Sweet boughs of Holly
to make the lord jolly,
And ivy all over the ’ouse!

Spiced mead and wine
And roast ’oney-swine
And a kiss when the sun goes down!

Season of ends, is just the beginning
And in spring will rise up the sun
So, sew your seeds now,
while you all be merry,
And at harvest a baby will come!”

 

“What are you singing?” Rufus demanded, stamping his feet as he unfastened his sodden cloak. Howell looked over his shoulder with a large smile. He was decorating the threshold with wreaths of holy, mistletoe and ivy.

“Tis an ol’ spell, Love,” Howell said, “for a warm Winter Festival.”

“Sounds more like a sex song in disguise.”

“Aye, well, you would think that.” Howell leant forward and accepted a quick kiss from Rufus, brushing the snow out of his hair. “But the Winter Festival means more to us down ‘ere than it does to you fancy folk from the Capital.”

“Is that right?”

“Tis. Our traditions are old and sacred.”

“And dirty songs are part of that?”

“Nothin’ dirty about love-makin’. Well,” Howell pulled off, “success?”

“Success.” Rufus held up his bag, pulling it open to let Howell expect the contents. “I managed to get all the ingredients. And I deserve high praise, because it was no easy feat.”

Howell picked through the food, running his hand over the packages of meat and game. “Aye,” he said, softly. “This’ll be a feast.”

“You know there are only going to be three of us, don’t you?” Rufus let Howell take the bag. “This is a ludicrous amount of food.”

“Tis a week of celebration, and the season of uninvited guests—the food won’t last, I promise.” Howell patted Rufus’s stomach. “Maybe we can fatten you up for the colder months to come.”

Rufus huffed, but didn’t say anything as something small and fast came shooting down the stairs toward him.

“Papa!”

Joshua flung himself from half-way up, and Rufus almost had a small heart-attack as he dove to catch the six year old. “Oof!”

Joshua squealed with delight, wrapping small, strong arms around Rufus’s neck. “Papa!” he gabbled. “There’s a troop passing—can we go? I want to see them!”

“A troop?”

“Actors,” Howell clarified. “Puttin’ on the Seven Days.”

“They’re performing here?”

“Nay—down the valley, in Tromoth.”

“Can we go?” Joshua begged, and Rufus tensed, hesitating. Joshua sensed his uncertainty immediately. “Please!” He wrapped his fingers into Rufus’s collar and looked him deeply in the eye. “Please!”

Rufus felt something unnatural tugging inside of him. Joshua had reached into his head and was forcefully trying to shove his uncertainty away, and draw out Rufus’s never-ending desire to please his brother. Rufus frowned. “Joshua,” he scolded, “I’ve told you not to use your powers like that.”

Joshua’s presence in his head snapped back out, and his brother blinked rapidly. “Sorry,” he said, and Rufus wondered whether he’d done it intentionally or not.

“I told him we’d talk about it with you,” Howell said gently, still holding the bag of food.

“I suppose you want to go?” Rufus didn’t intend it to come out as snappish as it did.

“Tis the season of story-tellin’, and the lad’s not seen any of the Seven Nights.”

“I’m not sure those performances are appropriate for a six year old.”

“He won’t pay mind to the parts which don’t mean anythin’ to him. An’ I only propose we go to see the first one—they’re performin’ one each for every day of the festival, startin’ tomorrow.”

Rufus slowly put Joshua down. “Take my bag to the pantry,” he said.

Joshua obeyed without a word, apparently keen to show what a well-behaved a good boy he was. Rufus waited until he’d left the room.

“Tromoth is a proper town,” he said.

“Aye, ’tis—but not so big I imagine there’ll be Magi frequentin’ the ol’ harbour theatre, especially not to see drunkards in costumes tryin’ to remember their lines.” Howell crossed the room and pulled Rufus’s hands clear from where he’d started to run them up through his hair. “Tis a fishin’ town, Love. Not fancy enough for your types.”

“They’re not my types.”

“Nay,” Howell chuckled, “I suppose not.” He cupped Rufus’s face. “The lad’s got a real longin’ for it.”

“He deserves to go,” Rufus agreed. “Perhaps you can take him. Alone.”

“I’m loath to leave you, Love.”

Rufus groaned. “Is it worth the risk?”

“The performance, no? But to be free for a night, Rufus—to unshackle you from ’idin’, I’d like that.”

“I’d like it too. But—”

“I know.” Howell pulled Rufus’s hand up his mouth and kissed it. “I’d rather you safe.”

 

*

 

It snowed all through the night, covering the ground in a thick, perfect blanket. Rufus cut a path from the door through with magic, so that Howell and Joshua could get the horse to the road. Joshua’s hair—dyed freshly black—peeked out from under layers and layers of clothing. They were always wary of winter colds and fevers, with his lungs.

“Have you got money for an inn?” Rufus asked. “Just in case the snow starts up again and you can’t make it back by tonight?”

“Aye—your Papa’s a worrier, isn’t he?” Howell kissed Joshua’s temple as the boy giggled. “Yes, Love, we’ve everythin’ we need and more. I’ll be spoilin’ the lad rotten.”

Rufus’s heart swelled, and he leaned up and squeezed Joshua’s arm. “You behave now. And have a good time.”

Joshua nodded. “I will, Papa.”

Rufus stood and watched them ride away, until the white landscape swallowed them up.

 

*

 

He spent the majority of the afternoon preparing the food for the next few days. He’d bought several books for both Joshua and Howell—as ‘story exchanges’ was one of the key traditions of the season—and bound them together with ribbon.

Howell had already seen to most of the decorations, but Rufus quickly found himself outside, gathering more material, until it felt like there was more of the garden indoors than out.

When he was finished, he practised his fiddle, read, attempted to take a nap, read a little more, played more fiddle, and finally abandoned all hope of distracting himself and went outside.

Darkness had descended quickly, the day hours shortening, as Athea’s reign won over the sky. It was bitingly cold; as Rufus trudged through the snow, his magic gathered to him, fighting off the worst of the chill. He walked down the path along the back of the house, toward the sparse woodland. Perhaps he could make snow sculptures. With a little magic he was sure he could crystalize them into ice, as clean and beautiful as diamond. There had always been ice sculptures at the Winter Festival in Harmatia—huge displays, each more intricate and wonderful than the last.

Don’t think about Harmatia! He forced the thought from his mind, but it was wistfully replaced by another…The smell of spiced soup rising from the kitchen to his small, crooked bedroom in their house above the tailor’s shop. Was there snow in the capital? Were his parents clearing the streets today, as he had cleared the path? How would they be celebrating the first day of the Festival? Would they go to one of dozen theatres in the city? Would they go to an ale-house, or tavern to hear a story-teller? What books would they exchange?

The longing for home struck him so hard he almost doubled over. Rufus gasped, arms clenching tight around his chest. Home. He could see it so clearly. The shop. His bedroom. His parents sat together in the kitchen.

And that wasn’t it, because he couldn’t stop the images of castle either—bedecked in light, hundreds of candles filling the feasting hall, decorated in green and red and white with huge wreaths. And his friends—Zachary, Marcel, Emeric…

Jionathan.

The spell was immediately broken. The longing for home gave way to something sharper, and more familiar.

What did it matter if the castle was dressed and beautiful? It was an empty promise. His ‘friends’ had betrayed him, he’d been divided from his parents and Jionat was gone. Forever.  Not home. Not anymore. Never again.

Something cold and wet touched his cheek, pulling him from his thoughts. He blinked, and looked up. It was snowing again. Rufus sighed and glanced back up the path he’d come. Distantly he could see the house, a dark speck against a royal blue sky. He didn’t want to return yet, and so he slowly lowered himself to the ground and watched the silent descent of snow across an untouched world.

*

He wasn’t expecting to see fire-light as he approached the house, an hour later, soaked and cold to the bone. The back door opened and Joshua came charging out. Howell followed with a lantern in his hand.

“There you are, Love! You ‘ad us worried!”

Rufus was thrown off as Joshua caught him around the legs, almost sending him toppling back into the snow. “What are you two doing back so early? I thought you wouldn’t be home for another few hours or so.”

Joshua didn’t reply, his face buried in Rufus’s waist.

“Oh well,” Howell said, shrugging, “we got ‘alf-way through the first performance, and this one suddenly announced it was time to go.”

“Didn’t you enjoy it, Joshua?”

Joshua pulled away only so far as to be able to look up at Rufus. There was something shrewd about his expression, an intelligence beyond his age. “I wanted to go home,” he said, simply, and he hugged Rufus again.

Oh. Rufus felt a lump forming in his throat, and had to swallow down the wash of emotion that welled up inside. Oh. That’s right.

It was stupid, how his little brother could come to the answer before Rufus did—how he could solve the problem so simply. Rufus had longed for home, and Joshua had brought it. Rufus felt that cold, hard sadness in him melt away just a little more.

“Come on now,” Howell said, smiling knowingly, “’ow’s about you two get inside before we let the whole winter in. I think I might have a good story to share instead, fit for weather!”

“That sounds perfect,” Rufus said, and stooping down he picked Joshua up, and stepped into the threshold, into Howell’s waiting arms.



 

Wishing you all a beautiful Winter Festival of your own. May the holidays be full of friendship, love and beautiful stories.

The Silver Cloak

 

There was something silver glittering in the forest. It twinkled in the corner of Sorcha’s eye, as inviting as a fishhook.

Monsters hide behind pretty masks, they said, but Sorcha couldn’t look away.

The silver thing rippled. It was a cloak of light, shifting weightlessly in the air. It would be so soft against her skin, Sorcha knew, so breezy and cool, like chiffon woven from secrets.

Monsters hide behind pretty masks, but the cloak was the loveliest thing Sorcha had ever seen.

The silver fabric rippled lazily, it’s trimming burning with an intricate weave of sunlit thread, as thin as spider-web. It was tailored for a God. Never-mind the scratchy woollen shawl around her shoulders, if Sorcha were to wrap that cloak around herself, she’d become the shimmering night sky itself, a constellation of stars.

Monsters hide behind pretty masks, but Sorcha stepped off the path, mind clouded by a green haze of envious desire.

At the corners of the cloak, translucent figures floated on dragonfly wings. They were sprites—small and fantastical, born from the first touch of sunlight on morning dew. Sorcha crept like a huntress, watching as they plucked the winter mist and spun it with dainty hands, weaving it into the beautiful cloak.

Monsters hide behind pretty masks, but the sprites were so small, as fragile as insects, unaware of Sorcha’s watchful eyes.

And so, carefully—so very carefully—Sorcha reached out, and caught the closest sprite in her hand. One squeeze, and the body broke apart like a dried leaf, leaving a glistening stain of gold across her palm.

The second sprite’s scream was like a blackbird’s call, but with shimmering fingers, Sorcha silenced it, and the silver cloak drifted down into her waiting arms.

She threw it around her shoulders and its gleaming aspect transformed her instantly. Her dun brown hair shifted into a cascade of autumnal chestnut, her black eyes deepened into pools of night, and her pockmarked skin become as fresh, and lovely as new snow.  She was a Queen, in a cloak of secrets, mist, and stars.

I guess it’s true, Sorcha thought, admiring her reflection in her gold-stained hands. Monsters do hide behind pretty masks.




This piece of flash-fiction was written for one of my classes. We were told we could write about anything, but the story had be 365 Words, one for each day of the year. As someone who struggles to write short work, this was an interesting and enjoyable challenge for me.

I wrote a couple of 365 Word Stories, but this was my favourite. The traditional fairy tale structure lends itself to flash-fiction—a simple story, with strong imagery, ending with a conclusive lesson. The Victorians did a fine job of tailoring fairy tales to be about how good women should behave—dishing out punishments for ‘transgressions’ like confetti at a wedding. As such ‘fairy tale endings’ are often quite transparent. Justice served, goodness rewarded, evil vanquished. It’s so ingrained, not even I expected Sorcha to win, until she did.

It made the whole thing deliciously vicious, and rather than modern…I feel like I’ve ended up telling a very old story instead. One that was never sanitized. One that ought to be remembered.

Good News, Everyone!

So for all those who weren’t able to catch my announcement on Facebook the other day, here is the run-down!

Book 3 & 4 of The Harmatia Cycle

Yes, you saw that right. After much deliberation, I have decided to split the third installment of The Harmatia Cycle into two books. This decision came when I found the book was getting far too big, and that I was having to cut important parts out. The story demanded to be two books in order to be told properly, and so I have obliged. Book 3 will be released this year, all being well, with Book 4 coming shortly after. Titles and covers will appear a few months before release.

The Prequel No-One Asked For

Another discovery I made whilst writing Book ¾, was that there was an empty space in the back-story of how everything came to pass. As such, I am going to be writing a short novella following Torin Merle and Eliane of the Delphi, and the events that transpired between them before Rufus’s birth. This will not be necessary reading for anyone who wants to finish the series, but will add an extra layer for those readers who love a big fantasy world!

The Scene Re-Write

I have also been working on a short scene which will be released soon. This is a section from Blood of the Delphi, but told from another character’s point of view. The short-story follows Marcel during Zachary’s illness in book 2, giving an insight into the character dynamics as seen by Zachary’s more observant, clear-minded and fiercely loyal second in command. I wrote this as part of a writing exercise, but thought my readers may enjoy this insight during a time that wasn’t covered by the book. This will be released soon (on what platform, I haven’t decided), but you can sign up to my newsletter to get a FREE copy before anyone else.

Thank you everyone for your support, and I hope you’ll all stick with me as we finish the Harmatia Cycle adventure together!

Blood of the Delphi – COVER REVEAL

 

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“Praise Harmatia, it is a city of gold and light. Praise it until it crumbles to dust.”

Rufus Merle is a wanted man. After twelve years on the run, raising the infant Prince Joshua, the last of the Delphi line now stands in grave peril. Sick, friendless and out of places to hide, Rufus and Joshua are hunted by dangerous alchemists, a deranged assassin, and a powerful faerie goddess, who will do everything in her power to turn Rufus into a living weapon.

With the net closing around them, and the sparks of unrest and rebellion igniting across the Kingdom, Arlen Zachary is forced to question his own allegiance between the Crown, and the people he swore to protect. As the gods play their hands, and the ancient Sidhe prepare to settle a century old feud, Harmatia trembles under the tyrannical rule of a King, whose only commitment is to the dead.

Add it now on Goodreads

**~KINDLE RELEASE: THE SONS OF THESTIAN! ~**

Front Cover, High Res

The Prince Jionathan is plagued by visions of death. With the King on his death-bed, and the tyrannical Queen in power, the Kingdom of Harmatia lies in peril. Fleeing the city in fear of his life, Jionathan is shadowed by Rufus Merle, a young, secretive magi tasked with bringing him home. Now, with the help of a fearsome sidhe warrior named Fae, they must traverse a dangerous faerie-wood together. Against bandits, faeries and cursed priestesses, these unlikely friends travel a path fraught with danger, not least from the blood-thirsty Night Patrol and the dark conspiracy that shrouds them.

***WORLD PREMIERE*** Sons of Thestian by M.E. Vaughan – BOOK COVER

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Art by the amazing Peter Brockhammer.

BACK COPY – Prince Jionathan is plagued by visions of death. With the king on his deathbed, and the tyrannical queen in power, the Kingdom of Harmatia lies in peril. Fleeing the city in fear of his life, Jionathan is shadowed by Rufus Merle, a young, secretive magi tasked with bringing him home.

Now, with the help of a fearsome sidhe warrior named Fae, they traverse a dangerous faerie-wood together. Against bandits, faeries and cursed priestesses, these unlikely friends travel a path fraught with danger and a dark conspiracy that shrouds them.

For more on The Harmatia Cycle Books, check out the website at: www.harmatiacycle.com
Like the facebook page at – https://www.facebook.com/Madeleine.E.Vaughan 

Celebration of the Damned

Winner of the 2012 ‘Stories Space’ Short story competition, Celebration of the Damned is based in the same world as the Harmatia Cycle, in the land of ‘Isnydea’ in ‘Kathra’. To find out more about the world check out the Harmatia Cycle website at www.harmatiacycle.com.

It was the dancing which eventually drove him to the lonely corner of the square, black eyes glinting in the fire-light, teeth set hard into his lip. The late spring snow had smothered the whole mountain but in the village it had been cleared, the icy touch held at bay by all the movement, the life and excitement.

A wedding. The idea of love in such a society, where criminals ruled and the people lived in fear, was a strange one at best. And yet they were only human – the bride and groom’s young merriment rekindling a hopeful flame in withered, disparaging villagers, like a light on the horizon of a great depression. Of course, Valbour had seen it before. It was the very reason he had shackled himself in the confines of shadows, his muscles twitching under the strain of his spiking heartbeat. He felt both hot and cold in an instant, his blood thick and boiling like a pounding river. It did not help that Cyryl had left him.

The celebration was reaching its peak – voices were colliding through the air, brash, drunk and merry so that Valbour had to cover his ears, his head thundering. He pressed his palms so hard against his skull he could almost hear it cracking. His muscles, as they always did, ached and strained against the movement – it often happened on cold days like this. The mutation throughout his body made him inhumanly strong, made his eyes sharper, and above all made him capable of hearing everything.

The beat of the drum, each screeching strum of the strings and worse; the heartbeats, pulsing like millions of droplets of rain, thundering over him until his shoulders shook and, despite the pain, he pressed harder. Every instinct in his body screamed that he knew what to do, what he had been trained to do. But he could see Cyryl’s face in his mind, that patient, disappointed expression – Valbour had agreed to control himself, had agreed to learn. He had agreed because, finally, there had been no drink, no drug, no action he could take to soothe the maddening burning in his veins anymore.

The bride was beautiful; young, fresh-faced, and long haired, with lashes that stroked her cheeks when she blinked, and full lips, cherry red; the only sign on her innocent face that beneath it she was sensuous, desirable to the touch, ready for it.

In contrast he was tall with gangly legs, but he had strong shoulders, a full head of straw coloured hair and eyes like a summer sky, pure as heaven. As they danced, Valbour saw the careful touches they shared between them, the prelude to their wedding night. They played one another, tested with each stroke, each lingering hand, each stray glance and smile. The music grew to a feverish frenzy, hazy and riotous as they danced, she in her mother’s wedding dress, and he in the villagers’ finest. Theirs was the world for the taking. They were happy. Valbour dropped his hands from his ears.

The ferocious spray of blood spattered across his face as he threw the body around with one final, easy blow, listening to the satisfactory splintering of the bone. Cries of fright echoed through the village and they set his every step, drove him to his reaper-like dance. He could hear his companions laughing behind him, could hear their encouragement; never too loud though, because no man wished to distract Marek from his work. From his art.

Screams. Oh, it was beautiful. Not because he liked it, it reverberated through his ears and set his head reeling, but because he understood it. He understood the sticky, warm blanket that coated his hands. He could feel his victims lungs expanding as he crushed the ribs with his bare fingers – so fragile. The bride was crying, shrieking even as her father held her back.

– That’s right old man, keep her away, because I’ll show her what a real man can do if you don’t, I’ll give her her wedding night.

The groom spluttered; his was a slow death. That’s what the Masters wanted, and Marek did as he was told. Yes, kill him slowly; after all there was an example to be set

 – You see what happens when you don’t pay your dues? What? Did you think we wouldn’t notice? Did you think we would let such a thing go? No, we waited, we waited until you had grown complacent. Now you will remember. You will remember to whom you owe your life. You will remember who your Masters are.

And Marek was laughing now, laughing so hard he could feel it cracking through his skull as the groom’s bones surrendered to the gentle pressure and caved in. Oh. It was glorious.

When Marek threw the body into the sea for the sharks to enjoy, he looked at the boy for the first time, purged now of the violent frenzy. The groom was his age and weedy, he had probably been banished to this icy hell for stealing bread, or less. Marek threw the body as was ordered, and watched, bemused and fascinated as the bride followed willingly, leaping after her damned lover. And Marek wondered, for the first time, that dangerous, terrible thought… – why did they have to die?

His eyes focused as he spotted his prey in an instant, skulking unnoticed through the crowd, it’s long, gangly arms clawed and thin like the withered branches of a dying tree. It reared its ugly head, teeth bared, and sprang all at once into the watching crowd. But it did not reach the bride’s throat. Valbour’s hands might crush a man’s ribs, but his legs could carry him great a distances, silent and swift. He dragged the struggling Striga out from the square and deep into the forest until they were far from prying eyes. And then, with his blood burning white hot and stomach reeling with that trained sick excitement, he ripped its shrieking corpse to pieces.

That’s right. Once he had been Marek – the trained hound of the Masters, bred to do their bidding, his imposed strength and senses a constant agony that could only be relieved by death. Yes. Once he had been Marek.

Now he was Valbour, a monster hunter, and Cyryl had promised that eventually the pain would ease, and he would grow used to his strength. Eventually he would come to understand his new freedom, after a lifetime of slavery.

But for now Valbour stayed with the Striga carcass and waited for Cyryl to find him. Because as long as he still hungered for blood, there was no place for him amongst the celebrations of the damned.