The tales of an unapologetic nerd
The following is a companion tale to "Disasters 'n Danger," my current Dungeons and Dragons campaign, which is live-streamed every Monday night on Twitch. This story follows the current struggle of my character "Fable Frost," an Ice Genasi Phoenix Soul Sorcerer. In short, a character who is quite literally both fire and ice. In a recent adventure, a new ability manifested itself as Fable was about to be slain by an enemy, and the phoenix spark within brought her back to life. But, all magic comes at a price. And while the fire has saved her many times over, it has taken as much as it has given. What's more is, Fable herself does not know or understand where this power comes from, or why she is the one to wield it. Now, she can feel its pull more than ever, and she has a choice to make ...
The forest was quiet and still tonight. No creature was disturbed by the extra bodies of the Archivists and their rescued prisoners. Barely a wind rustled the leaves overhead, or tossed fallen plant debris across the small clearing where they’d made their camp.
On any other night, Fable’s own silence would have been a curiosity. She often told stories by the fireside, or listened to Screebers’ mad tales with rapt enthusiasm. But tonight, when all was still, her quiet melancholy blended right in with the exhaustion of her fellow explorers. No one questioned it. No one so much as batted an eye. Nor did anyone ask why she sat so far from the others tonight. No, not from the others … why she sat so far from the fire.
She could still hear it calling … that spark that had ignited within her as had she fought the very trees. As she had struggled to keep herself from shattering and melting and exploding all at once.
As she had died.
Fable looked down at her hands, where she could still see the angry red and purple lines running through them like veins of ore. She had been sure she was dying. Her normally blue flame had turned a strange and unfamiliar crimson, as if tinged with her own blood or … or something. Even now, she could remember the feeling of her skin cracking, the ice breaking around her at every blow until, suddenly, there was nothing of her left. None of Fable Frost, the circus performer. The loving friend. The adventurer.
There was only Fable Frost, the living flame. Consumed by a fire that burst out of her from within, threatening to roast her friends alive and set the entire forest ablaze. And, for the first time, the flame had a voice. Not Fable’s own. Not even one that entirely had words or a proper language … but she could hear it all the same. She could feel it in her head and in her heart as the fire clawed its way through her and gave her its strength, forcing her to live. To fight. To survive. Its voice sounded like fear and the snarling of a caged, feral animal. It sounded like wings and the rushing wind that fanned a massive bonfire, and felt like the moment right before that contained inferno caught itself up on something outside its pit and began to spread.
It sounded like the circus big top burning while its patrons were trapped inside. Like losing control again, and being forced to run and hide and escape. Fable might have been caught in the explosion for mere seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. A lifetime of memories, all crashing down on her at once as she felt the guilt and shame and terror she had tried so hard to leave behind in the circus. But here it was, happening again. She had lost control in her panic, and in her weakness. Only this time, she knew better. The circus had been an accident … the first indication she had any gift with fire at all. It could have happened to anyone, any of the young magicians and performers and freaks still growing into their talents. She had told herself over and over and over in the year since she’d run that it wasn’t her fault. Now she was sure: the fire inside her had a life of its own. And it wanted something.
It wanted her alive.
Fable closed her hands tightly into fists and hugged her knees to her chest, trying to squeeze herself into as small a form as possible. Something so small that, perhaps, her companions would forget about her. Then she could slip away into the darkness, and find another place. Another company. Another family. Again.
Tonight. She would go tonight. She volunteered for the final watch as usual, the pre-dawn cold agreeing with her more than most. She made certain her things were packed and carefully tucked away just inside her tent flaps, out of sight of anyone who might ask questions. And then, after a sufficient but nightmare-plagued sleep, Fable took her place by the dying fire to keep an eye out for trouble, her egg cradled in her lap.
“It’s not that I want to go,” she whispered to the still and quiet shell. “I never want to go. But I never want to be the reason anyone else dies, either.”
Fable could hear Treasure snoring from her shared tent, and she felt a pang guilt stab at her.
“Saraid was right,” she admitted to the egg. “We all chose this. And we choose to keep being here, no matter the dangers. But … but what if the danger isn’t some great monster or someone chasing one of us, it is one of us?” Fable shook her head, a grimace of irony and frustration on her face. “I always worried he’d track me here, if he even survived the fire. Now Treasure’s the one with a bounty on her head, and I’m back where I started. Only this time I’m not running from him, I’m running from myself.”
A log in the dying fire snapped, letting loose a shower of sparks that made Fable jump and turn around, her eyes falling on the innocent collection of embers and spent timber. Only, it no longer looked so innocent. Something was waiting in the flames, poised to strike. Fable cradled the egg closer to her and stood slowly, ready to run. She tried to move her feet, to bend her knees and just move. But she found she couldn’t tear her eyes away. The dance of light and shadow was intoxicating and alluring. She wanted to reach out. To touch it. To be enveloped by it once more, and hear its voice even as it melted her.
“I’m not afraid of you,” she lied, shaking where she stood.
The flame laughed in her head. She could feel it vibrating through her mind and heart and stomach as her hands began to warm and spark in answer.
“Stop it,” Fable growled. “Whatever you’re doing, stop.”
For a moment, the laughter grew, and the fire snaking its way around Fable’s fingertips spread through her arms and all the way up to her shoulders. Panic filled her, and she wanted to scream. To wake the whole camp, to tell them to run, get out, save themselves before she exploded again and couldn’t stop it. But no sooner had the thought crossed her mind than the flames subsided. The laughter went quiet, though the sensation of being watched from all around was still strong. And Fable, catching herself just before she made a sound, let a slow and triumphant smile stretch across her face.
“Interesting,” she murmured. None of the camp stirred, so quiet was her voice, but the flame heard her. It felt her, she knew it did. “You play with my life, but you need me, don’t you? You need something only I have. So then, why don’t you want me to run? You could have me all to yourself, but you went quiet when I was about to scream.”
A different kind of warmth spread through Fable’s body now. Again, it was a jarring sort of communication. The flame had no proper words, at least none that she could understand, and translating it was a bit like watching the mimes at work. And yet, this feeling was familiar. It wasn’t the warmth of fire, but the warmth of family. Of comfort. Of feeling safe with the people around her. Fable knew it well, but she hadn’t felt it this strong since she’d left the circus.
“You need me,” Fable repeated, slower this time as she tried to work out the meaning behind the flame’s unspoken words. “And you think I need them.”
She realized she could move her feet again, and Fable slowly turned to take in the dark and silent camp. But I do need them, she thought to herself miserably. I need them alive. And what’s more is … I’m pretty sure they need me, too. It would still be so easy to run. To hide. To disappear again and not look back, and simply hope they survived. Like she hoped her family, fellow performers, and innocent patrons had survived the circus fire. She could live her whole life hoping and wondering and being afraid to know the answer. Or … Fable squared her shoulders and held her head a little bit higher as she turned to face the remnants of their camp fire. Or, she could take charge of what she did know: she finally had leverage.
“I don’t know what you are,” she said, her voice even and eerily calm, even to her. “And I don’t know why you came to me. I don’t know what you want, where you’re from, or how your magic works around mine. But I know one thing for absolute certain.”
Fable set her egg aside and crouched down right next to the fire pit. She leaned so close to the dying embers and sparks that her entire body felt impossibly hot. And, with a voice that sounded more like hardened ice than Fable had ever heard herself, she growled right into its heart, “I know that if you ever turn me and my body against my family again, you won’t get anything from me. You can consume me alive from the inside out, burn away my frost, and run rampant through my mind like a nightmare, but I won’t help you.”
Fable had never seen an element look afraid. But now, as she glared viciously at every spark that dared fly, she felt as though all of them were shaking in terror. “You want me?” she said. “Then you help me protect them. We’ve got too many games being played right now for me to be an unstable piece on the board. So figure out a way to work with me, not through me. Understand?”
Without waiting for an answer, Fable stretched out one hand and cast a thick blanket of ice over the fire pit, stifling the last of its glow. Satisfied, and still shaking from it all despite her calm and confident tone, Fable went back to sit with her egg in her lap, prepared to wait out the rest of the night’s watch in peace. There would be no running tonight. Only quiet and darkness and the comforting chill of the pre-dawn hours in autumn.
And then a soft whisper, so subtle it might have merely been the wind, found Fable’s ears even as she turned her back on the frozen fire pit. The voice made her shiver and sweat all at once. It sounded both hauntingly sad and dangerously powerful. But now, at least, Fable knew what it wanted. The whisper echoed in her head until morning, and even then it could barely be pushed aside by the waking of her companions and the preparations to set off for the day. In fact, Fable found herself worrying that it might always be there, reminding her. Calling to her. Begging her.
It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I adore Young Adult Fantasy. I am a grown-ass adult woman in my 30's, I run two small businesses and have a full-time job with a specialized skill, I am divorced, and I've buried both of my parents within the space of five years. So, why do I prefer to sink into adventure stories about youthful and chaotic protagonists? Both as a writer and a reader?
There is a sort of spark that comes from losing yourself in a good book, and nowhere is that spark richer and more fulfilling than in YA. That is not to say that I haven't found similar moments of magic and intrigue in adult fiction, or stayed up late into the night reading a cozy mystery or one of Oprah's Book Club choices. But, by and large, my home will always be YA Fantasy. Here's why.
2) The Innocence of Heroes
There's something to be said for following a younger hero or heroine on their journey. They are often written to believe they can do incredible things, things that adults going through the same adventure might be too jaded to accept. Had Harry Potter been in his 30s when Hagrid knocked on the door, he simply would have closed it in the giant's face. And besides, even if he had ended up believing him, chances are Harry would have had a comfortable home life by then. Why would he leave it all just to go learn to be a wizard?
Which leads to an interesting dichotomy in heroes: at what point is risking your health and happiness WORTH the adventure? For a happily married adult with children and a good job, the answer is usually "it isn't." For that reason, we often find adult fantasy heroes who are isolated or alone. Depressed. Stuck in dead-end jobs and finding themselves at a place in their lives where there is no reason NOT to run off on a crazy quest. Nothing is holding them back, so what have they got to lose?
It is because of this mentality that I usually prefer young heroes. Starting your adventure or saving the world when you have your whole life ahead of you is, somehow, more powerful to read. You have everything to lose when you're younger. Your family and friends, your future, your limbs ... By a certain point in adulthood, we're all exhausted and stressed and caffeine dependent, and sometimes life simply could not get worse. Or we're comfortable, solvent, and content with our life path. Either way, there's not the same sort of RISK. You've lived a good life, or you haven't and why not go try and slay a dragon?
Children haven't had the chance to reach that point. They are nothing but untapped potential and, for me, that is a better story. It's a better place to start, and the stakes of any adventure are inherently higher when you could be throwing your whole future away with one mistake. When you're being forced to grow up in the throes of an adventure, rather than in your first post-college job or when you get married and have children.
3) Adventure for Adventure's Sake
Do you remember those good old days when you could pretend a stick was a sword? Or a rock you found in the woods was something more important, like a dragon egg or a portal through time? Well, so often in good YA, our heroes get to make those dreams a reality. Sometimes the world needs to be saved, absolutely. But just as often, the adventure is more localized. The hero in our YA tales is living THEIR adventure, and it's just as powerful to them as a grown man's war would be to adult fantasy.
YA proves time and time again that your adventure doesn't have to be world-changing. Sometimes, adventuring just to try something NEW is worth it! In Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher (a classic that changed my world as a kid) nothing needed to be saved. Jeremy didn't stop a grand dragon war. He didn't save the planet from aliens or change his life all that much by the end. The concept was simple: find egg, hatch dragon, raise dragon. The adventure just happened to be parallel to the things that would have happened in Jeremy's life either way. Things like growing up. Learning to stand up for himself. Taking his own art seriously enough not to let adults crush his spirit. Realizing that love is, sometimes, painful. I could learn those exact same lessons without a dragon by my side, but how much more fun is it to have those lessons partnered with AN INVISIBLE SCALY LIZARD FRIEND?!
Reading simple adventures is good for the soul. It's a reminder that not every hero has to save the world, and they can still be a hero. The weight of the world doesn't have to be on your shoulders for the adventure to matter, or be an important tale worth telling.
4) Shock Value: Hurting or Helping?
Many film critics agree: the invention of the "talkies" slowed the actual art of film down by about a decade. And the same was said of 3D film technology. The realization was this: too many filmmakers focused on the GIMMICK, the cool new toy, instead of the story.
With adult fiction, this is often doubly true. Between shock value, killing off beloved characters "just for the feels" instead of because the story actually demanded it, or slathering it in gratuitous anything (violence, sex, swearing, etc) it's easy to lose the actual thread of the tale. Game of Thrones has grown insanely popular for just that, and I'm not saying it doesn't deserve it. Martin was bold in his choices, and they stuck with people. But when the trend became "shock and awe" in fantasy, writers started to rely on it entirely. We flooded the shelves with unreliable narrators, death and gore just to make you squirm, and horror scenes in books that otherwise should not have had those elements.
YA stories that are strong stand on their own. They don't need shock value, because the authors who write good YA have had to work within the age of the target audience. They can get the same feelings, the same fear, the same tales that really stick with you, only without the crutch of blood and cursing. It's a more difficult balance to manage, in my opinion. How do you make something frightening or twist at the soul, without torture or horror? Well, you get more creative. You up your game. You learn new skills, and you don't hide behind the safety net of HBO shock value. Good romance authors will tell you the same: sometimes, showcasing every sex scene is less exciting than leaving some things to the imagination. Leave people wanting more, not wishing you'd written less.
5) The World is Dark ... Fantasy Doesn't Have to Be
Too often, I see adult readers shaming other adults for enjoying YA Fantasy. And nothing breaks my heart more than to see anyone judging any hobby or pastime that brings a little light these days. The bottom line is this: the world HURTS. My world hurts, all the time. It is dark, and filled with death. It is frightening, and filled with nightmares and anxiety. But fantasy is my escape. And while I may deal with real-world issues, kill off my own characters, or write about tragedy, it's written with the light of hope. Hope that is often lost in many adult fantasies, because the people who read them or write them are jaded.
Not every adult fantasy is the same, of course. And I will never shame those authors for writing what they do, or their readers for enjoying the things they love. But I would ask for the same courtesy in return. How we as artists and consumers of art choose to escape is our choice. I want epic, far-reaching adventure without the threat of a worse ending or a grand tragedy. I want princesses with swords and dragons with hearts of gold, and things that are often deemed "out of place" in a dark or adult fantasy novel. Clichés are comforting, and familiar settings and tropes and things that are often more welcomed in YA circles can ease the fear of diving into a new story. It's not about having them, it's about how you spin them. It's about taking the familiar and making it new and exciting. And that, in my opinion, is much harder to do than to simply hack and slash your way through a Grimdark slaughter or a gritty war.
It's time we start taking YA seriously as an art form. Both as writers, and as readers. Because enjoying a grand adventure or a swashbuckling fairy tale shouldn't have an age limit.
Now let's get out there, and make some magic.
This brand new addition to the Mapweaver family will take place in the winter months leading right up to the start of the first book. It is a cozy little prequel, set in the days before Fox discovers his magic or Lai discovers her past. Fans of the series have often longed to sit back at The Five Sides Inn and Tavern, and simply enjoy a drink or a song by the fire. Now, that is exactly what I have planned for you. Immerse yourself in the warmth and community of Thicca Valley storytelling, and spend Deep Winter with our heroes in the simpler times, before the weight of the world was on their young shoulders.
Official release date is yet to be announced but, in the meantime, please enjoy this first chapter of Deep Winter Tales From The Five Sides.
Chapter One: When The Stories Began
The snows were falling in Thicca Valley. Whispers of a bone-deep chill were creeping into every cabin, slipping beneath the doors and forcing their way through the smallest cracks around the window frames. Wind howled its way through the mountain roads and echoed in the mines like the ghosts of long-dead wolves, filling the air with a bite of ice and foreboding that only Deep Winter could conjure. It shook every pane of glass and battered at every wall, begging to be let inside. Demanding it. Trees and rooftops alike creaked under the weight of the snow, and moaned in harmony with every fresh blizzard that raged through the Highborn Mountains. The sun had disappeared completely, hidden behind a thick blanket of snow clouds, making the days often just as deathly cold as the night. A cold that seeped its way beneath fur cloaks and thick leathers, and infected the dreams of the valley folk.
But in The Five Sides Inn and Tavern, the darkness and the chill were kept actively at bay by the beating heart of community pulsing within its many rooms. It was light and cheerful inside, with hot and blazing fires set in both the massive fire pit in the center of the common room, and the smaller fireplaces set into the stone along one wall or else burning merrily in the kitchen. Even the lanterns hanging overhead and the candles adorning many of the tables did their best to add to the flickering warmth and comfort.
What the fire could not warm, the food and drink could. There was piping hot stew, laden with potatoes and rabbit, poured into tankards like ale and gulped down with an eager joy. There was fresh bread right from the kitchens, brought out steaming on massive wooden boards, butter and jams melting on its crust as easily as ice on a summer’s day. There were hot ciders, spiced and tingling, and sipping broth that tasted of vegetables and the last remnants of the summer harvest. And where the hot drinks could not reach, the flowing wine and fresh ale warmed the souls of the Thiccans, loosening their tongues and bodies and encouraging all manner of dance and song.
Forric Foxglove – called Fox by everyone who knew him – watched it all happen like a ripple in a lake, from the moment the first miners came in before sundown until well into the night when the tavern was filled with music and comradery. He slipped in and out of the crowds with Lai, delivering plates of hot lamb and warm goat milk. Scooping up empty flagons of ale and refilling them before the patrons even noticed they were missing. Dodging in and out of half-drunken singers clambering up on the tables, and barely avoiding getting swept up in a fast-paced country jig that broke out just before midnight. Fox didn’t need to participate in such things himself – watching them was more than enough. And traversing the crowded and chaotic inn without spilling a drop? That was a dance in and of itself, and far more complicated than anything the Thiccans could manage.
Finally, he and his best friend Lai collapsed on opposite benches at an empty table in the corner, their jobs done for a moment as every patron was fed and every cup full to the brim. The two grinned at each other, exhausted but exhilarated.
“Nothing like Deep Winter, is there?” said Lai breathlessly, tucking behind her ear a strand of thick, black curls that had come loose from her braids. “When you could die if you stay outside too long, but we celebrate all night at the tavern.”
“Maybe,” said Fox, “we all just treat every night here like it could be our last.”
Lai raised her own mug of hot cider in a mock toast, and Fox clanged his tankard against hers. “Cheers to danger and Deep Winter, then,” she said, and the pair drank.
Not for the first time, Fox wondered if other fourteen-year-olds were quite so casual about their chances of surviving any one season. Then again, he often wondered if other nations were so aware of their own mortality as Sovesta was, isolated and frozen in the northernmost reaches of the Central Kingdoms. Here, the winter cold dominated the year, and harvest times were sacred. Farmers and miners alike pushed themselves to the brink of exhaustion every day during the working months, taking advantage of springtime thaw and summer sun. But when the brutality of winter finally struck, there was often nothing left to do but wait. Wait for the sun to emerge and melt the ice. Wait for the calves to be born, or the ground to be soft enough to plough once more. Wait for the mountain roads to be safe, and the yearly trading caravan that took all their waresmen and merchants south every winter to return.
And that was when the stories began.
“Do you have anything planned for tonight?” asked Fox, his cider now finished and warming his throat and belly comfortably.
Lai was still sipping her drink, and smirked over the rim of her cup. “Oh I dunno ... seems a bit unfair to the rest of the storytellers, don’t you think? Might take a pass tonight, and let the others have a go.”
“Oh don’t feign modesty now,” said a gangly, wild-haired young man as he brushed past her and squeezed onto the bench beside Fox. Her cousin Picck grinned at Lai, and elbowed Fox playfully as he teased, “You couldn’t stay away from the chance to be the center of attention any more than Fox here would choose to be.”
Lai snorted into her cider, choking back a laugh as Fox chuckled.
“He’s not wrong,” said Fox, and Picck ruffled his hair affectionately.
It was true: just as much as Fox enjoyed bathing in the atmosphere as only an audience member, Lai loved telling her own stories. Or re-telling those that had been played out a hundred times before. Growing up in the tavern, Lai had heard them all. She knew every song before it was finished being written, and caught tales from travelers just passing through town, even if no one else had a chance to meet them. Her father, Borric Blackroot, owned the Five Sides Inn and Tavern, and had always encouraged Lai to participate in the day-to-day of the business. And during Deep Winter, that business was stories.
Now, Lai stretched out her legs along the bench and pressed her back against the stone tavern wall, shivering for a moment before settling in with her warm cider once more. “The crowd seems particularly lively tonight,” she said, gazing out on the joyous patrons. Their laughter filled the air, mingling with the pipe smoke and fire pit haze, and the thick scent of meat and mead. “Not the right sort of evening for a love story.”
“Maybe the Wolves of Thunder?” Picck suggested. “Or one of the old hero tales!”
Fox perked up at this, tearing his own gaze away from the blizzard outside that was trying to batter down the windows. “Tell that one about Halvric the Hunter! It’s always been one of Father’s favorites.”
Lai smiled at him, and Fox knew she understood at once. They’d been best friends for so long that, sometimes, Fox didn’t need to say it: she knew Fox was worried about the caravan.
The caravan. He all at once longed to be out there, on the road with Father and the other waresmen, and also feared that it wouldn’t return. Any number of things could go wrong ... monsters lurking in the dark, avalanches waiting to bury them alive, bandits on the highway, war breaking out amongst the other kingdoms ... there was no end to Fox’s worry. And while he usually managed to keep himself occupied, practicing his own skills with the fur trade to impress Father when he returned each spring, his anxieties sometimes still ran away with him. And so, on nights like tonight, he clung to the hope of a good story. A story worthy enough to pull him out of his own worries and distract him.
A story good enough to distract all of them. Every wife, worried her own husband would not return. Every child worried about their father, or elderly parent worried about their son. The valley community as a whole wondering if, this year, perhaps the caravan would fail. If the trades did not go well, bringing home the goods and coin needed to survive another year, what then?
“Halvric the Hunter,” Lai echoed thoughtfully. “Yes, I think that’s a perfect tale to tell tonight.” She threw back the rest of her cider, slammed her tankard down on the table with a hearty whoop of joy, and clambered up to stand on her bench. “Picck, ring me in!” she said, and her cousin leapt to his own feet at once. He grabbed her empty and abandoned cider mug and began to clang it incessantly against the overhead beam that was within easiest reach of his long arms.
“Hear ye, hear ye!” Picck shouted, the clamor of metal on wood echoing through the tavern and shaking the nearest lanterns where they hung, the noise and leaping shadows sending a stillness rippling through the room. “Gather your drinks and find your seats! For a mighty tale we tell this night!”
Wild cheers erupted as tavern patrons young and old scrambled to find a comfortable place to listen. The air was filled with the scraping of many chairs and table legs, and a slight scuffle broke out in the back corner as two young boys fought over prime spots by the fire. As the shuffling and shifting slowly began to subside, the banging of Picck’s tankard slowed to a more rhythmic beat. More tankards took up the pounding, a great thump, thump, thump of anticipation making the whole of The Five Sides vibrate. Even the winds outside seemed to fall into step with the makeshift music, hammering at the walls and windows in time with the table and tankard drums.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Picck, putting on an air of great showmanship as Lai took several deep, preparatory breaths. “Tonight’s tale is one of hope and action! A story of valiant glory, and honor, and triumph over great evil!”
The excitement in the room swelled like a bubble, threatening to burst at any moment. Fox could feel it, like a warmth even the brightest bonfire could not provide. Every eye was turned their way, gazing expectantly at Lai and Picck, even as Fox tried to make himself as invisible as possible, pressing himself further into the corner where his bench met two stone walls. But he could see everyone, watching them eagerly. Even the stairs that led up to the rented rooms were filled with patrons, sitting with their drinks and waiting. The long bar along the back wall was crowded with children, sitting cross-legged and trying to see over the heads of the taller adults. Tables were re-purposed as chairs, and flecks of drink filled the air like snow with every beat of mug against wood.
“Tonight,” Picck said once more, milking the moment far more than Fox thought was entirely necessary, “we follow the heroic tale of Halvric the Hunter! The man whose arrow saved the world!”
The tavern erupted once more in chaos and cheers, the rhythm of the tankards breaking apart into applause and supportive banging at random, until Lai leapt onto the table top like a performer taking the stage, and quiet began to fall. The innkeeper’s daughter glanced sidelong at Fox, and winked as a knowing smirk crept across her pale face. Then, with a final deep breath and an unspoken promise of adventure that made the very candles shudder with anticipation, Lai began her tale.
Kaitlin Bellamy is a freelance actor, indie author, and all-around nerd. Welcome to her world, adventurer. It's gonna get weird.