I’d like to introduce to you all the lovely Emma Newman. I’m delighted to be hosting one of her wonderful Split Worlds stories on the run-up to the release of the first novel set in this marvellously realised world, “Between Two Thorns”. You can find Emma at her website, or on twitter: @emapocalyptic . Park your peepers below on this week’s tale, which I can assure you is a dark delight and do look out for that first novel of three, landing in March. Now over to the lovely lady herself. Take it away, Emma!
In 2013 the marvellous Angry Robot books will be publishing three Split Worlds novels, the first is out in March and called “Between Two Thorns”. This story is part of a crazy thing I decided to do before I got the book deal and was forging ahead with the project on my own: releasing a new story every week for a year and a day, hosted on a different site every time, all set in the Split Worlds. I wanted to give readers a taste of my kind of urban fantasy and have the opportunity to build in secrets and extra tit-bits for those people who, like me, love the tiny details. It’s also been a major part of my world-building work alongside writing the novels.
This is the forty-fifth tale in the year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds. http://www.splitworlds.com If you would like me to read it to you instead, you can listen here. https://soundcloud.com/ejnewman/the-lesson You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here. http://www.splitworlds.com/stories/ You can also sign up to get the stories delivered to your inbox, one per week for a year and a day.
Bri sat at the table, his legs swinging under the chair and his palms slippery with sweat. The nail was in front of him, its dull sheen making him tremble with guilt. Grandpa had left it there deliberately, to show he knew what he’d done. Bri tried to swallow. He was in for a whipping.
Grandpa came in but his belt wasn’t in his hand. Bri took that as a good sign.
“Where’d that come from?” Grandpa pointed at the nail.
“The smithy.” Bri thought his voice sounded like someone else’s.
“And how could you buy that with no coppers of your own?”
Bri looked down into his lap.
“Your chair were broke, I-”
“I got plenty of nails in the old fence outside.”
“They’re all rusty. I wanted to get you a good one.”
His grandpa’s face was like the fell at the top of the moor; old and craggy with deep crevasses and tufts of hair sprouting from them like gorse. Bri searched it like he did a cloudy sky. Would there be thunder? Or only soft rain?
“Bri…” Grandpa’s sigh was like the sun coming out. No whipping today! “There’s two reasons we don’t steal from the Smithy. What are they?”
“Cos we need ‘im?”
“That’s one. He makes all the tools, all the nails that hold this house together, that hold the plough together. He holds the village together, see?”
“And what’s the other reason?”
Bri shrugged. “Cos he can hit hard?”
Grandpa half coughed, half chuckled. “He can at that. But that’s not the reason we respect him and his sons. Don’t you know what his great-great-great-grandfather did?” When he shook his head, Grandpa leaned over the corner of the table until Bri could smell the heather in his hair. “He caught the Devil and nailed him to the wall of his forge.”
His whisper sent a thrill through Bri’s chest. “He did?”
“That he did. The Devil was stealing daughters from the village. He took the baker’s daughter, then the butcher’s daughter and then he went for the Blacksmith’s daughter, who was the fairest of the lot. But the ‘smith grabbed him and hammered a nail through his hands so they couldn’t be used for evil. And the Devil brayed at him like a donkey for three days and three nights but the ‘smith didn’t let ‘im go. Then at dawn on the fourth day, the Devil swore he would never harm those the ‘smith cares for if he let him go. And it were a proper oath, Bri, bound in blood and sworn in the sight of God. And the ‘smithy let him go and the Devil was ne’er seen again in these here parts.”
Bri jumped when Grandpa slapped the table top.
“So, what you doing now boy?” When Bri didn’t reply fast enough, Grandpa cuffed him round the ear. “You’re taking that nail back and you’re telling that ‘smith what you did and you’re sayin’ sorry.”
Bri’s bottom lip trembled. He reckoned the blacksmith would break him in two; the man’s arms were thicker than his body. But Grandpa put the nail in his hand, propelled him to the door and pushed him out into the mud before he could plead for an alternative punishment.
It had been raining for over a week and the mud sucked at his boots as he walked through the village, leaking through their many holes and chilling his toes. He passed the baker and the smell of his wares made his stomach cramp with hunger. He wondered if he’d ever eat another crust of bread again.
The smithy was at the top of the hill, hewn out of an outcropping of rock; part cave, part stone building. He could hear the hammering already, his heart outpacing the blacksmith’s strikes by the time he got to the door.
“‘Lo Bri.” The blacksmith smiled at him. Bri could see the anvil, but the light from the doorway soon surrendered to the darkness of the forge until all he could see was the glow of the fire. It was like standing at the entrance to hell.
Unable to speak, Bri held out his hand, exposing the stolen nail.
The blacksmith rested his hammer. “That’s one of mine. I don’t remember selling that to you.”
Bri shook so much the nail tumbled onto the floor. “I’m sorry. Grandpa’s chair broke and… and I didn’t have a copper and-”
The blacksmith put the piece of iron he was working back in the fire and came over. Bri cowered, expecting a crack across his head, but instead saw the ‘smiths huge fingers pluck the nail from the dirt. “Scared I’ll nail you to my wall?”
Bri nodded. “S-sorry I took it.”
“It’s worth a lot less than a copper, you could buy a bag of ’em for that. Here, you keep it for your Grandpa. He’s a good man.”
Bri closed his fingers around it. The threat of a beating now gone, he searched the interior for any sign of the Devil.
“He told you then?” The blacksmith wiped sweat from his forehead and left a smudge in the grime.
“Did your grandpa really nail the Devil to the wall?”
“No.” The ‘smith smiled and Bri’s shoulders dropped with disappointment. “It weren’t the Devil.”
Bri peered up at him. “He nailed a man there?”
The blacksmith’s smile was dangerous as he beckoned Bri further in. “I’ll show you.”
It was so warm inside, the air so thick, it didn’t feel like he was in the village any more. The blacksmith led him to the far back of the forge, where the wall wasn’t made of hewn stone but the rock of the hillside. He picked up a lantern and held it up, casting its glow over a patch of rock that sparkled. Silently, he traced the outline of rock that looked like gold, until Bri realised it was the shape of a very tall and thin man, stretching his arms up with his hands crossed above his head. A stout nail was still there, the one his grandpa had told him nailed the devil’s hands to the wall.
“Who was it, if it weren’t old Nick?”
“There’s no such thing as the Devil,” the blacksmith said. “The church men made that up, same time they made up God.”
“There’s only man and nature,” the ‘smith carried on, ignoring Bri’s shock. “And since we learned to work the metal we’ve been warring with nature as well as each other. No, it weren’t the devil my ancestor nailed there.” He looked down at Bri, his face made terrifying by the fall of the lantern light. “It were somethin’ worse.”
Bri had stopped breathing, he didn’t realise until his lungs started to burn. He blew out the stale air in a burst and sucked in a deep breath as the blacksmith laughed. Maybe the ‘smith was the Devil!
He ran, bursting out of the forge and throwing himself down the hill as fast as his legs could go. He didn’t stop until he got back home and locked the door behind him. Grandpa was by the fire and Bri felt silly. Pretending he hadn’t just feared for his soul, he put the nail on the table. “I said sorry an’ he gave it me for you. If you want it.”
Grandpa’s craggy eyebrows twitched. “Good lad. I hope you learned a lesson.”
Bri nodded. He’d learned it was best to steal from the baker.
Thanks for hosting, Ren!
A pleasure! Please folks, go and hunt down Emma through those links and get to know her. You won’t regret it!