WREN & WOOD: OAK MOON tells the tale of misfit adventurers Dreolan, a raggedy wizard, and his shillelagh-wielding beloved Cuilleen, who cling to the edge between civilized and wild, religion and magic, starvation and survival, by accepting dangerous and preternatural employment. This short story takes place in a re-imagined Dark Age where gnomes, gods and ancient magic co-exist with the Christian church, monasteries and angels. Length: 6,600 words.
WREN & WOOD: OAK MOON won the 2009 Andrew Britton Short Story Competition held in memory of the New York Times best-selling thriller author of The American, The Assassin, The Invisible, and The Exile.
If you’d like to read a little before you download, here’s an excerpt …
WREN & WOOD: OAK MOON
By J. L. Hilton
Oak be strong, he prayed, inching his body along the branch. Sap be thick. Hold this, your child, and keep me safe.
The tree swayed in the wind and his stomach lurched. Legs clamped tight against the bark, Dreolan felt himself sweating, despite the cold. He took the golden knife from his clenched teeth and applied it to a clump of mistletoe. The waxy berries gleamed like pearls in the moonlight. Sprigs of the parasitic plant fell into a linen cloth stretched over the holly below.
If there were anyone near enough to bother looking, and if it had been day instead of night, they could have said his eyes were the color of mistletoe, golden green. Something like a wolf’s eyes, some people might even say. Himself, he knew well his eyes were nothing like a wolf’s, but that’s a tale for another moon.
Finished with his task, Dreolan retreated back to the tree trunk and climbed down, which went faster than going up, truth be told, and maybe too fast at that. He snagged his cloak and heard the fabric rend as he dropped to the ground.
“Show mercy, Quercus,” he said to the tree, using its Latin name. “I wear more stitches than cloth, of late.”
As he thrust a hand through the new hole, a very unoakish voice replied, “It’s wearing rope ’round your neck, you’ll be, poacher.”
By equal parts instinct and luck, Dreolan dodged a staff that swooshed at him from the dark, but caught it in his hand with a stinging slap.
“Have I offended you, friend? Let me make amends,” Dreolan said pleasantly, as if he’d just met his assailant in a tavern, and not while trespassing on the private lands of Lord Carrick.
“My lord is a good Christian and will not abide witchery,” the man growled, jerking his head toward the linen cloth.
“If he is a Christian, Carricksman, then he should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto the Devil that which is the Devil’s,” Dreolan suggested. “Neither the good and merciful lord of this wood, nor the Lord of the heavens, will have any use for witchweed.”
“So, you cavort with the foul creatures of the devil, do you?” The man – Lord Carrick’s gamekeeper, he was – pushed Dreolan against the tree trunk and pressed his staff against Dreolan’s neck. Dreolan pressed back to keep the man from choking him, but only barely so.
“Well, no, not typically,” Dreolan answered. “Just the once. But I was convinced that succubus was entirely human up until the point when – glug!“ His hand slipped and the staff crushed his throat.
“We’ll hang, burn and drown you!” the man roared at Dreolan, his voice carrying through the crisp winter night. “Thrice dead is all undone. And you’ll not be coming back to haunt us!”
There was nothing funny about that, but Dreolan smiled. He worked his thin fingers between the staff and his skin, so he could gasp out, “Where have you been, mo chroi ?”
“What’s that you say?” The man squinted at him. “Are you loony?”
Then a phantom materialized from the wintry wood. Lord Carrick’s servant saw it and leaped back, letting Dreolan go and making the sign of the cross. Next, he made a very large pile of unconsciousness, having been knocked on the head with the knob of a blackthorn stick.
“I like my women the way I like my drink,” Dreolan said. “Strong… and armed with a shillelagh.”
“I waited,” said the shadow with a woman’s voice. “To see if you might talk your way out of it.”
“An té nach mbíonn láidir ní folláir dó bheith glic,” Dreolan quoted the proverb. “A man who’s not strong needs be cunning.”
“But then he had to go and get murderous on you.” Pulling back the hood of her cloak, she revealed that she was not a phantom at all, but a very real woman in her midthirties. She made a tsk tsk sound with her tongue and teeth, and prodded the heap of gamekeeper with the toe of her boot. “The godscursed eejit.”
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