About the Author
Greg Coles is a graduate student studying English and rhetoric at Penn State University, where he also teaches first-year composition. He loves writing, music, baking, and occasionally hanging out the doors of moving vehicles in other countries.
Nancy Gray lives in South Carolina with her husband and daughter. She graduated from the University of South Carolina with a BA in media arts and an English cognate. She started out as a graphic designer and then changed professions when she realized that writing was her calling. Her short story "Marrow" appeared in Deep Space Terror, and her stories "Hemophobia" and "Sleep Like the Dead" appeared in the New Bedlam Project.
J. M. (Joseph) Lee is a novelist, writing mentor, illustrator, and graphic designer with a background in linguistics and film. As a writer, he finds the most rewarding stories in fusion genre, from nostalgic historical fantasies to gritty sci-fi westerns. On the side, he enjoys dabbling in experimental short fiction and drinking a lot of coffee. He is represented by Erzsi Deak/Hen&ink Literary Studio.
Esther Palmer is the author of two young adult novels, The Alezia Chronicles, currently available on Amazon.com. Her whole life has been about reading and writing. She has always been drawn to fantasy and the way it gives you a new perspective on the world.
Read an Excerpt
The second sun had reached its height, and Parra needed to hurry. It was no longer safe to be in the fields after the third sun had set. He Parra knelt down over the turblaroots and sang. Though it hadn’t rained, the soil looked wet. At first the ground didn’t move at all, and Parra was tempted to jam his hands into the mahogany dirt and dig like he had done as a child, when he would follow his father around their fields. As always when he felt such a temptation, he recalled his father’s long-ago laughter and chided himself. Instead, he touched his fingers gently against the soil and sang: “Si Anonna, si Anonna, nyeahteetee, nyeahteetee.”
The soil stirred slightly. Parra saw dirt on his wrist, but he couldn’t be sure whether the earth itself had moved or whether he had leaned into it. He sang again: “Si Anonna, si Anonna, nyeahtoomoh, nyeahtoomoh.” The soil swirled with a sudden, silent magic. Parra kept his fingers still and eyes shut while he continued to sing the ancient Podling hymn to Anonna, Thra’s soil spirit. The dirt spiraled deeper until it had made a hole almost two feet deep. An enormous turblaroot waited at the bottom.
Parra leaned into the deep hole, wobbling fitfully on the edge as he snatched at the turblaroot. Then, with a muffled Yip! Parra fell in. He tumbled downward, whacking at the sides of the hole all the way, until he landed in a heap at the bottom. He flipped himself over clumsily, and the hole smoothed itself back to its pristine dignity.
“Very well,” Parra said, wiping himself off. As he brushed the dirt away, it flew to the walls of the hole like specks of iron to a magnet. He picked up the turblaroot that he had been reaching for and dropped it in his basket. It looked delicious.
A dim jingling distracted Parra from his admiration of the root. With many oomphs and several almost theres, he climbed out of the hole and peeked over the tall stalks at the road that bordered his family’s field. A lone Gelfling warrior marched confidently down the road.
Next to a Skeksis or one of the Mystics, the Gelfling warrior would have appeared tiny. Yet to a Podling like Parra, the Gelfling was a titan. He was young with dark brown hair down to his shoulders. Beneath his softly sloping forehead, his black eyes were locked on an unknown destination. Gelfling warriors had come to Parra’s village before to discuss trade routes or their pledges of mutual protection with the Podlings. Normally they wore simple leather armor. But this Gelfling wore armor like Parra had never seen before. Two ornate silver blades shaped like lightning bolts shot down from the sides of his helmet. His breastplate was a glossy black studded with oval turquoise stones and gold squares. Beneath his armor, he wore a black robe embroidered in purple with elegant geometric designs. Parra was more impressed by the Gelfling’s martial flair than fearful of his unusual attire; if anything, the Gelfling seemed more vain than vicious.
“Sir! Mr. Gelfling, sir!” Parra grabbed his basket and bowled along the ground toward the stranger. The warrior plants flattened as Parra moved across them.
Parra, chest out and chin forward, popped out from the field on to the road in front of the Gelfling. He dropped the turblaroot at his feet and stood at attention. “Mr. Gelfling, sir! I am Parra, a Podling from the village of Greggan, the son of Orritch, a warrior whose legend I’m sure you know—he is quite respected in Greggan, and I can only imagine his fame has traveled.”
The Gelfling laughed. Parra did not move; he kept his knees straight, his hands cupped loosely at his side, and his mouth strong and serious. He wanted to show this Gelfling that he too was a warrior.
The Gelfling cleared his throat and stood up straight. “Yes, Orritch, of course. Very famous. Fought in the expedition to the north, no?”
“The east, in fact,” Parra said proudly.
“Ah, yes. The expedition to the east, tough fighting then—only the bravest of the Podlings were involved.”
“What is your name?” Parra asked.
The Gelfling put his hand on Parra’s shoulder. “I am Kairn, a Gelfling of the Spriton clan. Where’s your village, Parra?”
“Just over that hill. I insist you stay with us. We Podlings are great friends of the Gelfling and are renowned for our hospitality.”
“I am still two days from my home village of Hallis. If it is not an imposition, then please, show me the legendary hospitality of the Podlings of Greggan.”
Parra picked up his turblaroot and dropped it back into his basket, which was tightly woven with blue and black strands. “My basket matches your armor, Kairn!” he said with a smile.
It is good to have another warrior here at last, Parra thought. His countrymen were lazy. They couldn’t swing a bola or manage a sword. They just wanted to sit by the fire drinking ale, playing music, savoring freshly roasted turblaroots, dancing, smiling, and forgetting. They didn’t have the hardy streak that he and Kairn had. He could see it in the proud, stern expression Kairn wore, the same face Parra always thought he wore.
Of course, technically speaking, Parra was not a warrior, but that was merely because he had not been given the opportunity yet: the Podlings had few enemies to fight. Parra was confident, however, that when the day came, he would be ready.
“I’ve never seen a Podling with fields like this, Parra,” Kairn said while surveying the land Parra worked.
Parra knew exactly what he meant. Most Podling fields were a mess—a group of rollasnaps here, a cluster of pomintinas trees there, inexplicable holes dotting the soil, baskets piled high nowhere in particular. His fields were an endless sequence of perfect squares, forty feet by forty feet apiece. Each field held a different crop, which Parra identified to Kairn as they walked toward the village.
He pointed toward some tight bushes with golden bulbs that were spaced at exact intervals in parallel rows. “See there? Those are rollasnaps. They are delicious with Nebrie milk, and they’re always in season. And over there—” Parra pointed at small green plants standing in a neat grid punctuated occasionally by precisely circular holes “—those are the best turblaroots you’ll ever taste. Just wait till tonight!” He shook his basket excitedly and looked over at some high-canopied trees drooping at the bough from the weight of enormous purple fruits. “Those are pomintinas trees. We used to stand on each other’s shoulders, six Podlings high, to pick their fruit—that is, until we learned the song.”
“The song?” Kairn asked.
“Well, yes, the hymn to Anonna, which Thra obeys. We sing it and the fruit rains down. Would you like to see?”
“They do look delicious. I think I could grab one myself if you don’t mind.”
Parra looked at the branches and then back at Kairn. The lowest branch was twice his height, but he didn’t want to deny his new friend. “Please, go ahead,” he said.
Kairn put down his sword and helmet and rushed at the tree. He leaped high, but his outstretched arm could not even graze the bottom of the fruit. He tried again, then again.
Parra smiled politely. “They look delicious, don’t they?”
Furtively wiping away his sweat, Kairn agreed. “It’s a shame I have been walking so long today. I nearly have it, but my legs are so tired.” He took off his armor. Dressed only in his robe, which was fastened tightly at his waist with a leather belt, he took a longer running start and jumped. With both arms extended, he soared through the air but never came close to reaching the pomintinas. He landed facedown in the field’s humid soil. Parra looked away out of respect, but he couldn’t help but notice Kairn’s frown and muddy robe.
Parra handed Kairn his armor. “The branches are very high during this season, Kairn. Please, allow me. Si Anonna, si Anonna, paminoorah, paminoorahsee.”
The leaves hummed and the boughs trembled. Kairn looked at the precarious fruit in wordless wonder.
“Paminoorah, paminoorahsee, shendeemoh, shendeemoh.” The shaking boughs dropped lower and lower.
“Watch out!” Parra lunged forward to grab Kairn, who had wandered beneath the branches. But he was too late—the tree yielded to the song and rained its fruit on their heads. Even after the fruit had knocked them to the ground, the tree’s bounty wouldn’t cease. Ripe, purple pomintinas pounded down on the pair relentlessly as they rolled away to safety.
Parra crossed his small hands and looked at the ground in front of him. He feared how this proud warrior might react to being defeated by a fruit tree. He glanced up just in time to see a piece of fruit tossed by Kairn bounce off his hands. Kairn held pomintinas in both hands and smiled at him. “Hungry?” he asked. “I’m eating two.”
Parra crunched into his pomintinas. Once they had finished eating, Kairn and Parra gathered the fruit into Parra’s basket and made a pact not to share their embarrassment with the village.
Once they reached Greggan, the Podlings poured out of their homes to meet the visitor. Orritch emerged from the center of the crowd. A lumpy Podling with squishy cheeks and bright eyes, he did not look like the warrior Parra claimed he was. He was dressed in a simple brown frock, like the other villagers, though his did appear newer. “Stranger, welcome to Greggan. I am Orritch, though I am sure I need no introduction. And what is your name?”
Kairn knelt before Orritch. Now at equal height with the Podling, he said, “I am Kairn, a Gelfling of the Spriton clan. I am honored to be your guest.”
Orritch bellowed in laughter and slapped Kairn on the back. “Rise, Kairn. Tonight, we shall have a banquet in your honor, but for now, clean yourself up! If I didn’t know better, I would think you were rolling around in the mud under a pomintinas monsoon!”
Kairn had never attended a Podling banquet. He was thus unprepared for the cacophony of clanking dishes and the hurricane of heavy aromas. He was equally unprepared for the dancers who spun around the room, bumping into each other and knocking over the steaming cauldrons that were scattered haphazardly around the floor.
He’d heard the music before. A Podling minstrel had once come to Hallis many trines ago and played at a feast. Still, he had never heard so much of it. In one corner, two old Podlings played wooden flutes; the jig from the first player’s flute twirled around the other’s solemn march. Elsewhere, two drummers pounded away while dancers stomped in circles to their rhythms. Atop a table, two young Podlings picked at long, stringed instruments whose dreamy tunes calmed Kairn.
As they crossed the banquet hall, Parra grabbed every Podling’s arm, anxious to introduce them to Kairn. The Podlings, who had been so eager to meet Kairn when he arrived in the village that morning, didn’t have a moment to spare for him, as they were consumed by the banquet. Kairn tried hard not to mind, and Parra seemed not to notice.
Between introductions, Parra attempted to explain the name and meaning of each new item they passed, but he spoke too fast for Kairn to make out much of anything. Either the flutes the Podlings played or the tassels that hung from their sleeves were called dalamoys, and either Parra’s cousin or his childhood tutor was named Alay. He also heard that the dinner would have been something that sounded like razmizz with a nebrina demi-glaze, but the Nebrie couldn’t be milked today. The connection between the two events was never made clear, but Parra apologized deeply and so Kairn forgave excessively, if confusedly.
Parra was handsome for a Podling. He had an earthy skin tone and thick auburn hair that jumped in every direction, the fashion for Podlings at the time. His brown teardrop eyes dominated his face, which was relatively sharp in comparison to those of the doughy Podlings. Standing at attention in the road in his dirty Podling farmer clothes, he had looked ridiculous to Kairn, but Kairn felt now that he had underestimated Parra. He was different from other Podlings; he had a hunger that a banquet couldn’t satisfy.
Parra and Kairn eventually reached the head table, which was raised high above the floor and nestled close to the dark clay wall. Parra explained that the head table, which he called a mizzenmens, was a great honor for guests and a Podling tradition that he believed dated back to before they had even learned the song to harvest turblaroots. Orritch and his wife were seated already—they were the only members of the banquet who were. Instead of sitting to eat, the other Podlings dipped wooden ladles into a giant vat of a boiling soup and gulped a mouthful down with a grin before they returned to the dance floor. Their first several steps were leaps and hops while grabbing their throats. The Podlings always seemed surprised by the soup’s temperature, as if they expected it to cool in the few moments between gulps.
Kairn could see that Orritch hated being one of the few Podlings seated at the banquet. His eyes ricocheted around the room, catching each laugh, each fall, each new dish. Kairn insisted that Orritch rise and join the other Podlings, but only Orritch’s preeminent manners could compete with his love of drinking, carousing, and dancing. “Absolutely not. What could any Podling enjoy more than to show the famous hospitality of Greggan to a Gelfling warrior like you?”
Orritch’s wife sat serenely at the table. In every conversation, her head would turn mechanically to face the speaker, and she would offer her exceedingly composed smile. Kairn could not decide if this habit indicated tranquility or vacuity. In any case, she was the only Podling whom Kairn had ever considered beautiful. She had aged gracefully, and her face’s smooth curves glided into each other harmoniously. Her straight red hair, though not as long as a female Gelfling’s, touched the top of her back.
Orritch jumped when he noticed Kairn looking at his wife. “My manners! You haven’t met my pride and joy yet. You know, Kairn, the little Podlings in the village always come up to me and say, ‘Lord Orritch’—they call me Lord, you see—‘tell us a war story! Tell us about the expeditions to the north.’ Then I have to correct them and tell them that the fighting in the north was greatly exaggerated and the real fighting was done in the east. You don’t hear enough about the expedition to the east, I say—I don’t need to tell you that, of course! But in any case, then they clamor for a story about the fighting done in the east, and I have to tell them, ‘Boys, the greatest fight of my life was not in the east. No, the greatest fight in my life was getting this one to fall in love with me.’”
He squeezed his wife, whose smile grew slightly more warm. “This beauty is Falavam, which means ‘thank you’ in our language, but I always say that I should be the one thanking her.”
Kairn bowed. “I am honored, Falavam.” She bowed in return but remained silent.
At that moment, a parade of Podling servers waddled in from the kitchen. Some carried red or blue pots on their heads; others were hidden behind tall stacks of dishes. One strong Podling held an enormous jar of wine in each hand. The tabletop, which had been bare except for a few cups, was suddenly transformed into a feast fit for the Castle of the Crystal. Dishes and bowls, chalices and cups, knives and spoons, were all placed before the four diners of the mizzenmens. One by one, the jolly servers lifted the lids of the pots and steam flooded out. Kairn had never tried Podling food before, but from a mix of curiosity and good breeding, he accepted everything. Soon his bowls were filled with shimmering soups, his chalice with wine, his plates with turblaroots and vegetables, and his cups with ale and a pale milk.
Orritch struggled to eat as slowly as he could. It wasn’t natural for him, but he wanted to appear dignified before his distinguished Gelfling guest. “Kairn, tell me about your journey. Where have you been? Where are you going?”
Kairn straightened in his chair and assumed his soldierly bearing. “I have been on a trine’s journey, traveling all of Thra.”
Parra almost dropped his soup, which he had been guzzling directly from the bowl. “All of Thra! Where have you been?”
“I visited most of the Gelfling clans. It was the last step in my education as a warrior. I had to learn all of Thra, so I could protect Her. I have slept in the wilderness, spent nights in the desert, and tamed a wild Landstrider.” Kairn paused to enjoy their amazement. “Would you like to hear the story of this scar?” He rolled up his sleeve and pointed to a long scar up his arm. Parra, who had hardly ever left Greggan, was struck dumb and nodded at the visitor. “I was sailing with a band of Sifa Gelfling on the Silver Sea. They were fishermen, but that day, we were out to catch some Thrakars.”
“Thrakars? The sea monsters? Those are real?” Parra asked.
“They’re real, and they’re ferocious!” Kairn answered. Parra shuddered. “They have long, narrow mouths with hidden teeth that don’t appear until their jaws decide to snap. They have hard scales, harder than a boulder in the Valley of Stones, and their whole body is a cold purple. They dwell deep at the bottom of the sea, but when they’re hungry, they come straight to the surface. Through the water, you can see just their angry, yellow eyes coming closer, and closer, and closer, faster, and faster, and faster.”
Kairn could tell that Parra’s family loved the thrill of vicarious terror. He paused before resuming his story: “A storm came, one of those sudden, terrible storms you’d only find on the Silver Sea. I had climbed to the top of the ship’s mast to free a rope that had been caught, but on my way down, two Thrakars banged hard against the ship, and I flew off the mast. I nearly fell overboard, but I grabbed on to a fishing spear that was hanging over the edge of the ship. I climbed back into the ship and the tip of the spear sliced into my arm on my way up. I spilled a lot of blood in the sea that day, but the Thrakars paid for each drop dearly. It’s okay, Parra, you can touch the scar.”
Orritch left the table to find the other Podling leaders, pulling them by their arms away from their wives and their tankards of ale. They were all reluctant to sit still during such a great banquet, but Orritch pledged on his ancestors’ souls that they would want to hear what Kairn had to say. The table soon became crowded with the tiny Podling noblemen, joyful and gray.
“Tell us another tale from your travels, Kairn,” Orritch pleaded. “Brother Podlings, Kairn just told us about hunting Thrakars with Sifa Gelfling on the Silver Sea.”
“Who are Sifa Gelfling?” one Podling nobleman asked.
Orritch squinted disdainfully at him. “I’m sorry, Kairn. You don’t have to answer that. Many of these Podlings haven’t traveled much.”