Alex Peilober-Richardson was stolen by fairies, and the changeling left in her place has tried her best to assimilate since. She has been telling stories since she could talk and illustrating them since she could hold a pencil. She primarily writes speculative fiction but has been known to dabble in literary, with a focus on characters who ask too many questions. Her submission is taken from a fantasy novel about a girl on a quest to save her sister, which questions the simplicity of fairy tales and explores the impact of late-stage capitalism upon the environment.
An extract from the beginning of a novel; Rowan has left her village and travelled to the giant’s-skull city of Goligothia, searching for someone who can help her on her quest.
Rowan was waved through the jawbones of the giant and into the streets beyond.
Some sort of market was in full swing. It was unbearably loud, a rush of activity and music, deafening after the quiet of the woods. Someone behind her was waved in by the guard and pushed forward, and she nearly lost her footing. A scowl sprung to her lips, but the assailant had already vanished into the heaving crowd. No sense in chasing a shadow.
Now she was in the middle of it all, invisible within a sea of people, as unknown and mysterious and ordinary as any other passing stranger. Her mind clung to the name in the letter left by Clay; Lantern Keeper. All she needed to do was find the stall that sold lanterns and information, and be on her way. Quick and easy. It was this comfort, at the foremost of her thoughts, that propelled her through the crowd.
The first thing to hit her was the smell. There was food, yes, warm scents of roasting meat and baking bread, making her stomach growl and her nostrils burn. At least one stall was selling perfumes strong enough to make her eyes water, and another billowing purple-blue-grey incense that did battle with the clouds above. Beneath that, the hot stink of people and animals, sweat and shit that clung to passersby like beggar-children. Rowan wrinkled her nose before schooling her expression. If the Old Tales had taught her anything, it would not do to offend.
But then there were people yelling at her from the safety of their stalls, and this resolution grew difficult to uphold. They haggled and bartered and crowed at each other, each touting wares that promised to be better than the last.
‘Fresh fish! Herring, haddock, salmon of knowledge, mermaid, nixie—all fresh this morning!’
‘Poisons for sale,’ a snake-eyed woman smiled at Rowan. ‘Curare for your enemies, nightshade for your lovers, hemlock for your family. Come buy.’
‘Hearts, young miss, hearts! Roasted, minced, sliced, fried, whole! Fresh and beating! Young hearts, old hearts, hearts in love and broken! Trade yours in and get two in return!’
Rowan walked by each one, caught between revulsion and fascination. If she had the luxury of time, she would have liked to wander the market with the fresh, wide eyes it deserved, visiting each stall, bartering her belongings, getting what she wanted while losing what she had. But time was not her ally.
The most she could do was pause by a food stall, exchanging a handful of berries—the final gift from her village’s boundary—for a small loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese. Both were wrapped in a scrap of colourful cloth by a creature swaddled in dripping weeds. It had strange webbed fingers and matted hair that hid its face and it made no attempt at conversation. The only sound it made was heavy, humid breathing from half-flooded lungs. Rowan nodded her thanks, holding her breath and counting to ten in her head as she walked away to keep herself from looking back; a trick she learnt from the Old Tales. Whether it worked or not she didn’t know. But the drowned thing stayed safe behind its stall, and Rowan strode on.
By nightfall, she was exhausted and angry. The city was a maze of caverns where buildings were honeycombed into the bone, worm gnawed wooden pillars propping up an immense molar transformed into a tavern. Rowan avoided the cavity, stepping around the sickly light and sounds of merrymaking seeping from the open doors.
Night descended upon Goligotha with the same hurried frenzy as every other activity in the city; night-lamps were brought out to light the way, great flaming braziers propped up in every corner manned by creatures with dimly glowing eyes and too many teeth, roasting meats that had the suggestion of rats but the faces of children. She was offered a haunch but refused through gritted teeth.
Rowan cast her eyes upon the inhabitants of the city, watching their ways, cautious and curious. The darkness settling over the city drew stranger breeds of people, some unknown, others that Rowan thought she recognised perhaps from a dream. Solitary, tall entities that were only vaguely person-shaped, wrapped from head to toe in dusty cloth. A group of moon-pale creatures that murmured to each other as she passed, staring after with vacant eyes; shimmering, slight things that moved as if underwater, reaching out towards Rowan with gossamer fingertips. Creatures who could have been hewn from the very earth itself, conversing with each other in a language that sounded like the crumbling of cliff faces. And others like Rowan, human or human-shaped, some clad in strange garments dyed colours Rowan thought impossible to dye, others wearing the pelts and hides of unfortunate creatures long slain, some in shining armour that Rowan had only seen in the illustrations to accompany the Old Tales. Some seemed to wear nothing aside from bright paint, and Rowan made a point of avoiding their wild eyes.
She passed stall after stall, her frustration growing with each step. Stalls that sold bottles stuffed with storms, localised lightning striking against flimsy glass; another selling gently glowing runestones that twisted in on themselves, spinning into oblivion as she walked by; yet another selling flowers that were carved from crystal; a stall laden with weapons unlike any she’d ever seen, great axes and swords and helms the size of cauldrons; more food, vast vats of stew that gleamed with all the dancing colours of a warped rainbow… But not one that sold lanterns, despite the presence of night-lamps at every window, stowed beneath every stall.
Rowan came to a stop by a sluggish fountain and fought the urge to scream. This was hopeless. Those inhabitants who weren’t ignoring her outright now looked at her with curiosity, which only fanned the flames of her temper. Curiosity could be dangerous in a place like this. It was easier to find someone when you were no one.
One of the wispy creatures smiled her way, and Rowan felt her anger ebb, replaced by a contentedness unlike anything she had felt before. It coaxed her into relaxation, seeped into her bones and warmed them with a drowsy sweetness. Her lips curved upwards without her permission, into something that felt almost genuine. Rowan used to practise smiling at her reflection in the still waters of the village well, peering into the depths to see a strange face smiling back. She was convinced that if she learnt how to smile correctly, the people in the village wouldn’t be scared of her, or stare after her with mistrustful eyes, or murmur words of disgust when they thought she couldn’t hear. If she could just work out how to smile, perhaps she’d learn to like the face smiling back. The creature’s smile made her think of that well, of the fear that her reflection would one day work out how to crawl out of its watery prison and replace her. Perhaps they’d like the reflection better. It seemed to know how to smile—
A hand closed over her shoulder, large fingertips digging into her flesh and dragging her out of whatever reverie she had fallen into. To her horror, she realised she was surrounded by the ethereal beasts, who all stared at the creature holding Rowan with moon-pale eyes, baleful and outraged. She was only a stumbling footstep away from tumbling into the fountain’s depths. A voice rang out like a landslide.
‘This one is not for you. Leave her be.’
The misty creatures dispersed like smoke on the wind, the one to first smile at Rowan lingering for a scant moment longer. Now Rowan could see that smile for what it truly was—the slavering, ravenous grin of a predator denied its meal. She felt sick, and then angry. The hand of her saviour loosened enough for her to turn. One of the rock-creatures from earlier offered her a smile that she had no interest in returning.
‘Are you alright, miss? Looks like they nearly had you.’
‘I’m fine.’ She could hear bitterness seeping into her tone, hated how ungrateful it made her sound. She forced the words out between her teeth. ‘Thank you.’
‘It’s no problem. Can’t stand those things.’ Fingers formed from crumbling earth and rock loosened and dropped from her shoulder entirely, leaving smudges of blue chalk in their wake. She could move, now, watching the living pile of rock and rubble shift and glance over her head towards the rest of the market with quartz eyes. From the form alone she knew them to be a troll, recognising them from a fading description in one of the Old Tales. The troll in that story was violent and quite literally bloodthirsty, and nothing at all like this one. Rowan felt a twinge of disappointment, and then a great deal of awkwardness. She had never been rescued from anything before. How was this supposed to go? She gave an awkward little bow that immediately drew the troll’s attention and they raised their immense hands, veined through with thin lines of opal.
‘Ah, uh, you don’t have to—Please don’t do that.’
Rowan felt her face glow with fresh humiliation. This was awful. She straightened up with enough speed to jar her neck painfully, taking a slow breath to steel herself.
‘My apologies. I’m not… Not often in the practise of being saved.’
This, finally, appeared to be the right response. The troll’s face split in another smile, and it laughed with the sound of rocks scraping together.
‘I can tell.’
End of extract.
Alex can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org