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I'm experimenting with the voice of my first ever other-world fantasy. What do you think? Is it too difficult to read? Does it feel too storybook? Should I tone it down a bit? 

You can let me know what you think using the form below.

Whisper Witch

By John B. Olson

Old Man Moon peeped out his oozy perch in the spit-spatter nighttime sky. His lonesome eye, all stoked up with icy fires, looked down a bountiful blessing on his chosen own. The Hart Brand were a thankful folk. All gathered together round the unlit festival pyre, they heaped bone-felt gratitude into the arms of their beloved Firestarter.

Aunta Am had seen them safely through another year of tolerable ease and plenty. The desert plains had filled to the full their treasure troves of hart root and lash and stagnut and spiny grist. Their flocks had grown by four in twenty, and this year’s caravan of traders from Shield City had brought more wagons than ever before in the history of the desert tribes.

That very night, five new brands would receive the flamereadings that would mark their transition from bitty child to full-branded adult. Ashe was first of the fresh-branded five. Her brand mark still pained her arm with remembered heat, but she wore her bandage with bare-shouldered pride. She was full Hart Brand now. In a few more blinks she’d stand before her aunt and pour out her life question to the flames. She was so full up with the flutters, she was like to burst open and spill all her waters into the ever-thirsty sands.

The crowd fell to full silence. Even their caravan guests left off their wispy whispers and looked their respectful gaze up to the stage at Center’s center. Then, arms raised to the watchful stars, Aunta Am sang out the ancient chants, the blessings of hope and happiness and tribe. Old speak washed over Ashe like the winter rains, pulling her in, hugging her to the bosom of her people.

The ting-tangling jangle of magic thrummed through Ashe’s bones as Aunta Am took hold to the Firestarter wand and aimed it at the pyre. Ashe could feel the old powers rising, the expectation boiling up from deep in the downs of her soul. Silky soft silence stretched out like the desert sands, stealing away her wind.

And then a soul-searing flash exploded the festival pyre to flame. 

A shudder passed through the tribe. The collective gasps of a six score and twelve strong. Then the crowd was shouting. Hugging and laughing and singing themselves into the thump-thumpa-thump of the celebration dance.

A body poked his head up out of the masses and turned himself full round to spy out Ashe’s hiding place.

Ashe wasn’t big for a full-branded woman, but even so she ducked herself down behind the cook tables and spidered her way to the shadows of the flamereading tent. She wasn’t looking to hide from Shep in the particular. Her life question just needed more thinking. If Aunta Am interpreted the flames against her, Ashe might never be allowed to leave the village. Then what would she do? Pair with Shep and plop out tall babies like a doe-legged coney?

She tried to settle her head, but her heart was too danced up to the drums to think out a straight line. The direction of her life question was full thought out. She’d worried on it for moons. But how should she ask it? The how of a thing was always of more portent than the what. But this what in the particular was too heavy by far. How could a body’s whole life fit into such a tiny question?

Ashe looked out across the dancing throng and found Shep’s head and shoulders wading their  way over to her. It was too late for hiding now. He’d already set eyes to her.

“Ashe!” His tall voice boomed out over the top of the boiling dancers. “I been searching the sands for you.” He wove his way through the selvedge of the crowd and shook himself free of the little band of girl-nins trailing in his wake.

“La, Shep! I’m full glad you’re here,” Ashe put some happy behind her words. “Aunta Am will be here in a blink, but I can’t keep the question still in my head.”

The giant brand blinked and tilted his head like a bitty sandsquit puzzling out the first winter rain. “Ashe, I… Ever since we were bitties, I always knew you were—”

“This is my one life question,” Ashe pushed into his words. “It’s too heavy to lift on my own. I need your help.”

“Just ask about your one true love.” Sanna peeped out from behind Shep with her rolly-round, one-year-older-and-wiser eyes. “That’s what body else does.”

“That’s what I asked.” Shep’s eyes took on a sly look for the tiniest little twink and then dawned to full sun brightness. “Firestarter said you and me were futured to be—”

“You know I don’t care about that stuff.” Ashe stoked some extra fire into her words. “Not the same as body else. My heart’s more empty than last season’s dilly gourds. Besides… I’ll soon be off to Water University. I need to ask about the outside world, but I don’t know enough outsideness to make up a passable good question.”

“That’s not true!” Shep stepped hard into her space. “Your heart’s not empty. I’ll fight anyone says so, even you!” He grabbed up her bitty hands in his great grindstone paws and stared down at her with fresh-stoked eyes. “Ashe, you’re the biggest heart I know. That’s the thing—that’s one of the things I like about you most.”

“Big and empty are two separate matters.” Ashe pulled away to search the crowd again. Where was Sandlark? She’d promised to shepherd Shep till after the flamereading, but soon as she’d set eyes to all those Shield officers in their flashy-flash caravan uniforms, her head had gone full to seed.

“Shep, I—”

A wall of dancers opened like tent flaps to reveal Aunta Am, just as calm and still as the crowd was wild.

“Na-weila, Ashe-nin.”

Ashe felt the weight of the Firestarter’s voice deep in the downs of her soul. “Na-weila, Aunta Am.” She bowed low, suddenly bittied by the moment of the moment. This was it. The firereading ceremony had begun.

“Ba-Shep. Sa-Sanna. Heartsong-nin…” Her aunt looked to the others, dismissing each with a solemn nod. Then she fixed her full gaze on Ashe. “Ashe-nin, this is your heart to seek the wisdom of the flame?”

Ashe bowed again. “This is my right as a fresh-branded woman.”

The Firestarter glided over to the flamereading tent and pulled back the heavy dust flaps.

Ashe ducked beneath the entrance and pushed into the smoke-filled dims. The eight-sided flame room was empty save for a lonesome fire ring at full center. A bed of neglected coals painted the creosote-crusted walls with the blush of dying sun. Head still bowed low, she stood at the minors of the ring and waited until the Firestarter had seated herself at the chief. Then, at a nod, she settled herself into the yielding slipsand.

“Ashe-nin, you are no longer daughter but sister. I name you Sa-Ashe of the Hart Brand. You are entitled to one life question. What guidance do you seek from the flames?”

“Aunta Am…” She held her leader’s gaze until she could see past the Firestarter to the gentle aunt who had raised her for twelve of her sixteen years. “Aunta Am, you know I love you. And you know I love the tribe. All I’ve ever wanted was to prosper our people, not just for a season, but for all the bitties and grand-bitties and all their bitties for ever time.”

Aunta Am’s nod was heavy with flamereading ceremony, but her eyes twinked out their approval and pride.

“I’ve talked to sands of Shield traders,” Ashe continued, “and they all talk the same talk. The Water Wizards been pouring out sands of waterweave cloth. Sands and sands. They’ve magicked up giant carders and spinners and weavelooms that spit out the weavework all by themselves, without the need for folk-help at all. Their weavework is so fine a body can scarce see the threads. Even Ma-Hartska’s finest weave isn’t the like. And all those water-magicked weavelooms work sands faster than even Ma-Dunethrush in the days of her prime.

“And they’ve poured out so much weavework that the prices have dropped to nothing south of Spire City. South bodies only want waterweave now. The traders can’t sell roughspun for nothing.”

“Ashe,” Aunta Am put the scold to her voice, but her eyes were still full proud. “Sa-Ashe, all this outworld news is full interesting to be sure, but it’s hardly a life question for the flames.”

“Please, Aunta. I’m coming to the point full soon,” Ashe poured out the words faster now. “You know I’m no good for spinning or weaving or even tending the fires. My head’s too sandstormy. It always gets away from me. I can’t help it. It’s always racing off and back and searching side to side. I don’t mean to, but I just get lost in the hurry of it. I’m just—”

“Chut!” Her aunt lifted a trouble’s-soon-a-coming hand. “Sa-Ashe, you know full well how much your feather weave has helped the tribe. I am not a sandlark. Enough with this mating dance. Come to your question, please.”

“Yes, Firestarter.” Ashe breathed in the calm air and tried to catch hold to the words racing round and round her head. “Aunta Am, if I was to join the Water University down south, just think what thoughts I could bring back to the tribe. I could learn the trick to waterweaving. We could take back the trade. We’ve got sands of wool and—”

“You want to leave the village?” Gone was the Firestarter. The eyes frowning out at her now were full Aunta Am.

“Not for ever and always. I’ll come back soon as soon. Once I’m finished with the learning and seeing, I’ll fetch every water-wizardy trick back to the tribe.”

“And what of Shep?” Aunta Am said his name like an accusation.

Ashe looked down at the silent coals. “Shep is tall and strong and tolerable nice to be sure. All the girls have the thirsty eyes for him. But I’m not like him. His head isn’t all hungry and wild. He’s good at village life. He’s good at everything he sets his hand to, but you know I—”

“Ashe-nin,” her aunt’s Ma-Amethyst voice. “Shep knows his own mind. He’s been full brand for full on a year and hasn’t set his mind to anyone else. If he can abide your peculiar ways, it doesn’t matter what the other brands think. You’re right special all to yourself, and the both of you will make a right special match.”

“But I don’t match Shep. And he’s not a right match for me. He’d be much happier with one of the other brands. And I know for a certain there are plenty as would be overjoyed to have him.”

“Perhaps we should consult the flames?” Aunta Am lifted the shard of bone that served as the tribe’s wand. “We only see the top of the sand. The future sees everything that burrows beneath: the liferoot as well as the blighter.”

“Aunta Am, please…” Ashe looked out her heart in full desperation. “My one life question is this: if I go off to Water University, will you and the tribe still accept me back?”

“I see…” Aunta Am sighed out her motherly wind and breathed in the ceremony formals. “This is the one question of your heart?” Her eyes tore at Ashe’s chest, but the fresh brand held tight to her purpose.

“As I live to serve my brand.” She nodded to smooth away the worries gathering behind her aunt’s eyes. “I love you, Aunta Am.”

“I know that, Child. As I love you. As I shall always love you.”

Aunta Am put her will to the wand, and Ashe could feel the magic gathering and building, pulling at the threads of her mind. A soft blue flame appeared a hand-span above the coals. Her aunt peered deep into the flickering light and let loose with a hissy gasp.

Ashe leaned in closer, but all she could see was what she suspected her aunt also saw: the flickers and shadows of her own hopes and fears.

When her aunt finally looked up from the flames, her eyes looked tired and dried out with sorrow. “Beautiful child, you have ever been blessing and joy. You are Hart Brand true. We will always be your people, and you will always be our vexing but beautiful child. Whether you stay with the village or travel the sands to the ends of the earth, whether you return in a morrow or a year or never at all, we will always be in your heart and you will always be ours.”

“Thank you….” Ashe could barely find her voice. “And this is what the flames told you?”

“This is what my heart tells me. And this is what yours would tell you too if you only stilled a few bits to listen.”

“And this is how the flames work? They help you still yourself enough to see your own heart?”

Aunta Am smiled out her misty magical Firestarter smile. “I believe you’ve already used your one life question, Sa-Ashe.”

Ashe hugged her hands to her chest and bowed in acceptance. “Na-weila, Aunta Am.”

“You should tell him soon,” her aunt spoke in a slipsoft voice. “He deserves to hear it from you.”

Ashe nodded. “I’ll tell him. Again, for the twenty-twentieth time. But the listening is up to him.”

“Na-weila, beautiful child.” Her aunt pressed her lips to a smile, but her eyes were already sands away.

Ashe circled round the fire for a quick hug and then pushed out into the wide open night sky. She was finally free. The stars twinked and twined as she blinked the smoke-burn from her eyes. Dance-happy voices rose up all around her, celebrating her new freedom as she celebrated theirs. How could a body already miss the folks that were still right there all around her?

She shook off the burdensome thought and tried to put the happy back into her eyes. The festival was in full abandon now. A few caravan traders had joined the dancing throng, but their staff-stiff guards marched about the edges, sneaking bits of dancing when they thought their officers wouldn’t see.

Three of the younger nin had cornered a pretty-faced guard and were trying to seduce him out into the throng, but he kept to his training even as his eyes gobbled them down like pastie pies.

“Long flamereading.” Shep’s tall voice put the jump to her spine.

Ashe sucked in a breath of calm before turning herself round to face the giant brand. “Where’s your bitty tribe? I like to not recognized you without them nipping at your tails.”

Shep grinned like a caught-out bitty. “I told them I’d dance with the first body as could get a Shield soldier to dance.”

Ashe couldn’t help laughing. Shep was a good brand, one of the tribe’s truest treasures. He was going to make some body very happy.

“Ashe, I… Now that you’re full brand, I want to talk about—”

“Not here.” She caught him up by the arm and led him away from the festival lights. They walked through the deserted village, seeking out the silence of the inner dunes. And the longer they walked, the harder the silence was to break.

“Ashe…” Shep whispered her name when they finally reached the open desert. “Ever since we was bitty bits, I always looked to you as someone full special.”

“As I you,” she jumped into the middle of his words. “But I need to tell you my life question first.”

“Did you ask about me? I asked about you, and the Firestarter said—”

“I’m leaving the village.” Her words stampeded out each on top of the other. “That’s not just what the flames say, it’s what my heart says. I want to join the Water University. If they won’t have me, I’ll put my mind to learning the city. I’ll dig up the secrets of waterweave if I can, but even if I can’t, I’ll take a different lesson. My head’s hungry for all kinds of other such.”

“Then I’ll go with you.” Shep took hold to her shoulders and stepped in close. Too close.

“Ba-Shep, the tribe needs you here.” Ashe took his hands gently and eased them back to their own space. “You’re the tribe’s truest treasure. But I’m not like you. I don’t fit here. I don’t fit anywhere. Even Sandlark scratches her head at my nonsense. I especially don’t fit with someone as true and useful as you. I know you think we match, but a match has to go both ways. My head’s not put on like normal folk. I might not have a match anywhere in this world. But I don’t mind. I’d rather live life alone than live life a lie.”

“I don’t mind either.” Shep gulped down a Shep-sized piece of air. “We don’t have to pair. I can go with you as brother-sister. We can go as guard and tribe.”

“That makes me full happy to hear you say it. It really does. But your place is with the tribe. Settle on one of the brands as follows you around. Find a match to make you full happy. That’s something I could never do for you. I know this is hard to hear, but you’d never be able to make me full happy either. My head would always be hungry for the more you could never give.”

The way he looked at her, she could tell he thought her full crazed. And maybe she was. But that was one more reason they didn’t match. Aunta Am was right. If she didn’t tell the hard truth of it now, he’d feel the pain of it even harder later.

A lout shriek floated out over the dunes. Not just one voice, but hundreds of voices all piled up on on top of the other. They were coming from village center.

Ashe stared into the distant lights, but her head couldn’t find the sense of it. The screams were sharper now, more frantic. This wasn’t part of the dance.

“Stay here!” Shep took her tight by the arms and planted her down firm in the sand. “Hide! Don’t come out till I say. If the Waters are attacking, the Shields will need help.”

“The Waters?” She grabbed after him, but he was already running. “Shep, wait! It’s the Shields!” She chased after him, but he was too tall fast. “Shep, think on it!” she called after him. “The Shield caravan is too big for trade! Shep!”

She kept running even though she knew it was too late. The Shields had swords and spears, and Shep didn’t even have his knife. None of the folk did. It was festival night, and the Shields knew it. They’d been coming to festival since forever time.

The closer she got to Center, the more the shouts turned to wails. It was too late for fighting help. She left off running and skulked her way from tent to tent until she could peep into the clearing.

A group of Shield guards had already fought Shep to the ground. The other soldiers had surrounded her people into circles of two- and three-score villagers each. The caravan hadn’t come to steal wool or spiny grist. They’d come to steal folk.

Ashe ducked back into the shadows of the tent and tried to think out a plan, but her heart was still fixed on the clearing. Scattered all about the groups, spotted by blots of inky shadow, were the unmoving bodies of her people.

Copyright © 2018 John B. Olson. All rights reserved.