That Sad Smile

This piece of creative writing is for the purposes of the Creative Writing Ink writing challenge. With weekly photo prompts and no word limits, this challenge offers a fun, interactive way of encouraging new writers.


A cool, bitter wind swept through the tunnels, whipping back my hair and threatening to extinguish my precious candles. I leant over the flame before me, protective, as I fiddled with the matches I held in my sweaty palms. Lighting them was proving uncannily difficult, for, with every new flame that I placed about the circumference of the small, little cave, the more violently my hands began to shake.

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Credit: Héctor Martínez

At long last, however, the flame leapt greedily from wick to match, and I scurried off around the circle to the next open space, guarding the flame with my hand. Before I could reach my destination, however, another gust of wind swept through the cave and my little flame withered, and then died.

Sighing, I turned back to the nearest candle, heart beating wildly. If I took much longer, I might miss my opportunity altogether. I only had tonight, for this moon would not wait forever. In a few hours, it would dip below the mountain ridges behind the northern plains, and it would be too late. I’d have failed.

A new kind of determination gripped me as I plunged my match into the flame and withdrew it sharply, watching the flame quiver, and then separate in two. I rushed back over to the space along the wall, dipping the flame towards the unlit candle waiting there. Grinning with relief, I then turned to the last, and final space along the wall. With the flame still clinging to the match in my hand, I forced it down and watched as, finally, the last candle was lit.

I got to my feet, looking around at the twelve lights gleaming at me from the edges of the circle. Then I paused, hesitating. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I should just walk out of the cave, leaving my little circle and abandoning my hopes. I’d waited too long for this, though; I couldn’t let it slip past me when I was this close.

I marched resolutely to the entrance of the cave, where I stripped off my shoes and socks, shrugged off my jacket and lifted a hand to let my dark hair fall about my shoulders. I had to do this. It wasn’t a choice anymore. Making sure that my clothes were outside of the ring of candles, I swallowed, let out a long breath, and then scurried back to the centre of the circle.

The stone was cold on my bare feet as I sat there, cross-legged. It was distracting, but I was glad that I’d made them bare; I felt so much closer to the ground now, as if the stone itself was providing me with its own strength. I gritted my teeth, focussing my mind.

I reached out with my thoughts, finding each burning flame and watching it crackle. Then, I wandered further. I left the circle, and then the cave. I carried on right past the labyrinthine tunnels and the moonlit fields beyond. I searched further and further, until I saw her. I opened my eyes.

My mother sat opposite me, eyes wide and mouth smiling. She reached out to me instinctively, but I backed away, grimacing slightly.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured, sitting back immediately. “I- how am I here?” I smiled, but didn’t answer. She was very pretty, with her dark hair and long, curled lashes. That had never quite come through from the photographs. I wondered what she would look like now, if her life hadn’t been halted so abruptly. I supposed there would be flecks of grey in that dark hair now, and lines bordering that smile. The eyes would stay the same, though; she would have the same eyes, and she would have the same smile.

“I miss you,” my mother whispered, her eyes looking rather watery. “Thank you for bringing me here.” I nodded, but I still couldn’t speak. My throat felt strangely constricted. I’d spent so many years writing my mother letters that I could never send, dreaming of speaking to her, or even looking at her, but now, when she was right in front of me, I couldn’t say a word. Something was wrong. It was as if the world knew she shouldn’t be here; whilst she was smiling, her arms slightly outstretched, I couldn’t help from noticing that she was pale and ghostly, her smile tainted by a flicker of sadness.

I was almost glad when a gust of wind blew out half the candles. As their smoke rose into the air, my mother faded, that sad smile disappearing into nothing.

Riverbank Guardian

This is my third attempt at Sammi Cox’s weekly writing challenges! Each weekend, she posts both a word and a picture for writers to attempt either her prose or poetry prompt. This week, the word was “guardian” and the prose challenge was to write a fairy tale story in 150 words or less!


Wandering along the riverbank, the basket of flowers at her side, she smiled to herself. There were monsters in these parts, twisted beasts that liked to leap from the milky waters to drag unsuspecting victims under the surface. There were bat-like creatures that lurked in the trees, too; creatures whose bites would be fatal to a little girl like her. She had nothing to fear, though, for, as she trotted onward, she sang.

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Credit: Sammi Cox

It was a simple tune: a melody that went up and down with each footfall. She knew it as the song of the grotesque, the strange, phantom-like creature that existed only to protect those in need.

Way up above her, a shadow swept along in her wake. It followed her music, answering its call.

Snarling at the monsters as it passed, it knew that it would protect the little girl as if she were its own.

By the Light of the Moon

Here’s another story inspired by the photo prompt challenge run by Creative Writing Ink. I absolutely adore this week’s picture; it’s so beautiful, but at the same time conveys a kind of severity that’s a little scary – maybe that’s why this story takes a darker turn? Enjoy!


The distant crash of waves told Kayla they’d arrived. She didn’t look up, even as her brother parked up the car and slipped wordlessly out into the sunset. If he saw her looking, he’d make some comment about her interfering, and she didn’t want to interfere. She wanted to go home.

Hugging her knees in the back of the car, she chanced a glance out of the window. The square-shouldered shadow of her brother was already moving behind the trees that concealed the path to the water. She watched him hesitate for a moment, and then dip out of sight.

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October 2012

She leant back in her seat, wishing she was anywhere but here. By now, her brother would have joined his friends on the sand, a beer would be shoved into his hands and he would be circling around some innocent – would it be a boy, or another girl, this time? She didn’t want to know. She was just lucky that his friends didn’t know that she was out here, hiding in the dark. Loyal to her brother though they might be, she highly doubted that their loyalty would stretch so far as to refusing to beat up his sister. Any excuse to cause pain, that’s all they wanted.

She kicked the front seat angrily, digging her heel into the soft material. She wanted to be home, snuggled on the sofa with a book or a film. Her brother only dragged her into this because it would look suspicious, otherwise; that was the price of having a twin. Their mother would worry if Kayla didn’t go to all the same parties that Martin did. Well, maybe she should worry. Maybe it was about time.

A sudden scream made Kayla sit up abruptly and reach instinctively for the door handle. She slipped out into the half-light, squinting towards the source of the noise. It hadn’t sounded like it had come from the beach below, but from he heath on the opposite side. She whirled about in the dark, fear clouding all other thoughts. Was there someone else out here with her? She took a couple of steps towards the heath, the mossy grass cloaking her frightened footsteps.

The night was silent now. It was almost as though Kayla had imagined the sound, but she knew she hadn’t. She continued to stumble onward, her feet slipping slightly as her path took her slightly downhill. It was warmer away from the beach, and there were more cars parked down here; she supposed they were her brother’s friends’. She hesitated, looking nervously back over her shoulder. Night had fallen almost entirely now, the stars and moon above her providing only a pale, ghostly light for her to see by. Any number of people could be skulking by those cars, and yet Kayla felt sure that their owners would be down at the beach by now. They wouldn’t want to miss all the fun, she thought bitterly, as she took a few more steps forward.

Then she froze. There was someone stood by one of the cars, but it wasn’t one of her brother’s dumb friends. It was a girl, about her age, with long, dark hair and deep, green eyes. She was watching Kayla from over the top of the large book she held. Then, smiling, she returned to her reading, her eyes flicking furiously across the page.

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Credit: Creative Writing Ink

Kayla swallowed, clearing her throat slightly as she approached the girl.

“Who are you?” she asked rather bluntly, coming to rest on the car besides the girl. She smiled again, but, still, she didn’t speak, and she didn’t put down her book. “Do you know someone down at the beach?” Kayla pressed, looking hard into the girl’s eyes, but she didn’t reply; she only smiled and continued to read.

Kayla’s eyes fell on the cover of the book, taking in its strange symbols and old, crumbing spine. She wondered wildly if the girl even spoke English. Perhaps she was just some innocent tourist who’d wondered too far from one of the nearby campsites.

Kayla had just about decided that it was time for her to go, when the girl moved closer to her, holding up the book for Kayla to see. Her eyes fell on an old photograph of a pretty, dark-haired girl dressed in leotard and tights. Beside the picture, was a cutting from an old newspaper. With a nod from her mysterious companion, Kayla began to read, scanning the headline, which read, Olympian Gymnast found Dead. The article was about sixteen-year-old Jessica Marlin, who had died seven years ago, found beaten and raped at the bottom of a gutter. Kayla remembered hearing about Jessica on the news, although she’d only been small at the time. It had been awful; she’d been one of the country’s high hopes for the upcoming Olympics, but she’d never made it there. Some thug had killed her before she’d gotten the chance. He was in prison now, of course; it hadn’t taken them long to catch him, but that hadn’t brought Jessica back.

Breathing rather heavily now, Kayla looked back at the girl, who was fiddling at something at the front of her coat.

“Do you know what’s happening on the beach tonight?” she demanded, stepping away from the girl slightly. “Do you know what they’re doing?”

The girl merely smiled, undoing her coat to reveal, underneath a thin cardigan, a shining leotard, glinting by the light of the moon. Kayla stumbled backwards, losing her balance and falling to the ground. Her head hit the uneven earth with a horrible smack, causing the world to start spinning out of control. She rolled over, coughing violently and clutching to the ground for support.

By the time the pain had cleared enough for Kayla to open her eyes again, the girl and her book had vanished from the car. Whether they’d ever really been there, Kayla would never know, but, what she did know, as she pulled out her phone and glanced in the direction of the beach, was that she was really, truly scared, and that she had been for a long time now. Swallowing hard, she dialled the number that she should have called nearly a year ago. She bit her lip as the phone began to ring, and then,

“Police, please,” she whispered.

A Jar of Marbles

This 100 word story is for the purposes of The Friday Fictioneers Challenge that runs on a weekly basis. You can read the other entries for the competition by clicking on the blue froggy button at the bottom of this post.


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Credit: Janet Webb

Some people bury their secrets in the past, but not my mother. She buries her secrets in a jar of marbles. She doesn’t know I’ve seen them, and I’m not sure I’ll ever tell her, but up on the windowsill, next to the old candlestick and forgotten paintings she did long ago, sits her jar.

I’d noticed that someone had moved all the marbles round, so I’d stuck my hand inside. I’d seen the old photographs and crumbled drawings. Now, I feel almost ashamed; I feel like I’ve crossed some line somewhere and stumbled upon her soul.

Book Review: “The Lais of Marie de France”

Consisting of twelve short stories, supposedly composed during the late twelfth century, The Lais of Marie de France tells of chivalric knights and Arthurian wonders, an insight into the nature of love, as well as magic. It demonstrates the values of courtly love, a principle that viewed love not only as a suffering, but a social requirement for the nobility. As Marie notes in Equitan, the second of the lais, “how could she [the Lady of the lai] be a true courtly lady, if she had no true love?” (Equitan, 57).

One of the most memorable quotes from all the lais, however, is this: “love is an invisible wound within the body, and, since it has its source in nature, it is a long-lasting ill” (Guigemar, 49). This quote summarises the main content in all the lais, for they describe the practices of love, both true and adulterous, and the pain that they can cause.

In Equitan, a king has an affair with his seneschal’s wife; when they fall in love, they plot to murder the Lady’s husband by boiling him in his too-hot bath water. Comical though this may seem, the brutal descriptions of Equitan and the Lady boiling in the tub, for their plan backfires on them, are far from the comedic.

Bisclavret, delving further into the genre of fantasy, describes how Bisclavret’s wife imprisons him in the form of a werewolf by stealing his clothes. The wolf befriends the king, who treats him as his beloved pet, up until Bisclavret, still transformed, rips his wife’s nose right from her face, and the king thus discovers his true identity.

Considering this, it is fair to argue that the lais of Marie de France are exceptionally varied; this has been one of the problems for translators and critics over the centuries, for the lais were not discovered in one intact document, but pieced together, said to be written by the same author through the analysis of writing style in its original French dialect. In fact, there is no way to be sure that these lais were all written by Marie de France, or whether Marie existed at all; she may be a mythic figure such as Homer, her works, just like his, perhaps being collaborations of writing by multiple authors and poets. Whilst this may deter from the magic of The Lais of Marie de France, it may also add mystery. After all, these are influential tales that have had impacts on our fairytales, folklore, and culture, yet their origin is completely unknown.

Another interesting aspect of the lais comes back to the concept of courtly love. Whilst the renowned knights are admired for their heroic prowess and fighting techniques, they are never fully accepted by, or able to integrate with, society, until they find love. Courtly love was believed to be a requirement of the true knight, or Lady, of course, which meant that marriage was always to be expected. In my view, this is the true message carried by The Lais of Marie de France, and is one that ties the stories together in a way that indicates one sole author: love is a requirement of life, and, without it, one may never gain the wealth or reputation that they seek.

Honestly, I had no knowledge of The Lais of Marie de France before being handed it as part of my university course, and when I discovered that it was a collection of short stories, I was not altogether enthused; I was unfamiliar with this style of reading, and was unsure how to react. In truth, though, this is an incredible read, and I would recommend it to anyone. It deserves more fame and recognition, considering original tales that excite the mind and engage the senses. A reader must, of course, accept the clear misogyny of the time, noting how the majority of the female characters in the lais are referred to only as “the Lady”, but, once you are past this barrier, the true magic of the lais is set free.

Story Starters: A Collection

My biggest problem as a writer has always been sticking to one story after I create the initial opening; it’s too tempting to move onto something new and more exciting! Here’s three story starters, varying in length, that I’ve, at some point, abandoned.

1) This opening story sentence is for the purposes of the writing competition at: Writer’s Digest, with the brief of a maximum word count at 25 words, and the picture prompt seen below.

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A snowy owl swooped low above the forest, invisible against the white trees, and ignorant, for little did it know of the danger lurking there.

2) The flames roared high above them, great waves of smoke towering higher still. They choked and coughed as they ran, ducking and diving around the broken infrastructure that now surrounded them. Time was running out; they were already scorched and burned in more places than they knew, the agony of their wounds occasionally causing them to contort their steps as they raced onwards. Great chunks of wall and ceiling were crashing around them, too, wires dropping down into the fiery mass and sparks exploding from every direction. The reality was that they had entered hell itself, and every runner accepted that fact with a bleak resolution. There was no turning back, and, chances were, there was no escape. Hell had become the endless corridor of fire that they now faced, and they were all too aware of it.

3) The sirens were louder than they should have been. Even before her body crumpled and collapsed onto the pavement, they were there with us, ringing in our minds and pounding in our hearts. Craig was bent over her, muttering to himself and beating the ground with his fist. Little Pete was at his side as usual, waiting for the directions that would never come again. I didn’t need to crouch over her as they did, though, because I knew. In reality, I think we all knew, even before we’d hit her; we’d known even before she’d been lit up in front of my car headlights and Craig had fought to avoid her. There was no use checking her pulse or breathing rate. There was no point, because Kelly Holmes was dead, and we’d killed her. We were murderers.

“We should run,” Craig breathed, turning to face us in the half-dark. “The sirens don’t mean anything. They could be hours away yet.”

“I agree,” Little Pete piped up instantly, not even allowing a breath between Craig’s suggestion and his own sycophantic plea for attention. I shrugged, but I doubted that they could see the slight movement in the darkness. I wasn’t going to run. I didn’t want to run. I was a murderer. I had to stay and face the police, no matter how devastating that would be.

“Dan,” Craig persisted, ignoring Little Pete. “We need to go, now.” I swallowed hard, feeling braver in every new cry of the sirens.

“Then go,” I whispered, looking not at Craig and Little Pete, but at Kelly. She was beautiful even now, her long, dark hair a mess about her shoulders and back, and her slender, ghostly form almost shining in the light from the surrounding street lamps. I’d known her since she was little, from when we’d played together in my back garden. She was dead now. She would never breathe again, never laugh, never smile. She was simply gone.

“Dan, they’ll get you!” Craig whispered, his voice slightly incredulous. I could not look at my best friend, though. He wasn’t like me. He wasn’t feeling this like I was. He felt only fear, whereas I felt only loss, grief and a furious, biting sense of self-hatred. I had done this. “Dan, you know what that means!” Craig persisted, shaking my shoulder now.

“If you want to run, run,” I snapped, looking at Craig at last. “Save yourself. You better hurry up, though. It’s been too long already.” Craig stepped back slightly, confusion edging its way into his fear clouded mind. He looked at Little Pete then, suddenly lost and vulnerable. Pete looked back, and suddenly they were no longer leader and disciple, but two scared boys: criminals.

Without another word, they took off, running in the opposite direction from the houses and sirens beyond them. There were fields not too far off, and after that, the forest. If they made it that far, they were safe. It was said that fugitives and criminals caked the trees themselves, living amongst the branches and leaves on the earthy floor. I used to have nightmares about the place, but for Craig and Little Pete, it had just become the last hope. Maybe, just maybe, they would be okay.

I looked back at Kelly then, and my heart shuddered to a halt, too.

Lost in the Magic

This is a short story from a while ago, inspired from the prompt word: “oils”.

Marie sat alone in the depths of the dusty attic, her legs crossed and hands tucked neatly away inside her lap. A flickering candle stood before her, the only light to half illuminate her pale features. She was no stranger to the grimy beams and forgotten relics of the family attic, though.

When she had come up to the attic for the first time, small and gullible though she had been, Marie had found a collection of toys from when she was younger. She’d entertained herself with dolls and trainsets, until she’d found the one thing that she really loved doing.

It was in front of her now, the candle acting as a paperweight for her masterpiece. She had a paintbrush in her hand and oil paints dripping from the half-lit scrap of paper. Painting was her passion; her world. Through it, she could escape to as many different worlds as she saw fit. Even as her parents raged below her, another argument having broken out, Marie felt safe.

Today, it was a mountainside that she created, green grass contrasting with the icy peaks above. She wished that she was at that mountain now, its wind whistling through her long, auburn hair, and sheep bleating in the distance. That was her paradise, and she longed for it.

Marie painted long into the night; at that moment, she forgot the troubles of her family and the stress she was under. She was free, and she was safe.

The next morning, Marie’s mother woke to find her daughter’s bedroom empty. The house was searched for hours on end, Marie’s brother even daring the dusty depths of the attic twice, but Marie was nowhere to be found.

All that they could find, left on the pillow of the nine-year-old’s bed, was an oil painting, splashes of inky liquid covering the scrap of paper. It was a picture of a beautiful mountain scene, with ice neatly covering the peaks. There was a little girl stood in the foreground of the painting, a candle in her hand, and a smile stretched across her pale features.

Murky Waters

This short story is for the purposes of the writing competition at: Creative Writing Ink.

Murky waters lapped at the ship’s hull, gurgling and bubbling as they were pulled to and fro. That was the only sound that night, that of the waters against the vessel; it was too late for gulls and too isolated for the drunks that would be staggering their way home. The ship stood silent and unrecognised, no one there to question its presence – no one there to question the silence.

On board, the quiet was matched only by the stillness. The crew members sat about their bunks, faces grey and stony. They did not sleep; they did not dare to sleep. They were far too busy listening: listening and waiting for the answer that they so longed for. Each man knew exactly what was happening in the cabin high above him, and each man feared it and desired it to much the same extent. They were caught in their own curiosity, their very skulls aching with the tension that seemed to suffocate the lower decks.

One man let out a low, gravely cough, and the others responded with offended glares and jolts of shock that sent chairs sliding across floorboards. The moment of action calmed once more, and order was restored; most returned to their slightly glazed expressions, whilst others stared fixedly at the ceiling.

High above them, in the luxury of the Captain’s Quarters, Leopold Fielding sat hunched over his desk. Old maps and written documents surrounded him, as he scratched the occasional note into his journal. He did not spare a thought for the men waiting in agonised silence below, though he would not expect them to be asleep at a time like this. He leant back in his chair for a moment, letting his quill go limp in his hand. He had never been a rich man; if he had been, he never would have found his way to the sea in the first place. He would have a house and perhaps a wife to occupy his time. Now though, the power in his hands seemed immense. He slid his glasses from his nose to rub his eyes several times. He didn’t like the power exactly, but he liked the knowledge of it. He was in control; nothing bad had to ever happen to him, because he was in control.

He imagined, for just the most minute second, being tied to a captain as his crew were tied to him. They had promised him their lives for their crimes against him, and now it was his word that would settle their futures. He returned his glasses to his nose and looked back at the map he’d been poring over for the last hour. The likelihood was that all of this stress and all of this worry was meaningless. He was consumed with doubt when the danger could be a mere story. He groaned for what must have been the hundredth time that night.

Since the ancient days, stories had been told of the mythical sea monsters that had haunted the waters off from Italy. Fielding had read and reread the tales of Scylla and Charybdis, monsters prowling every inch of sea within hundreds of miles, leaving no man alive. He could dismiss these myths with very little thought, of course, if it were not for the more recent tales. Strange things happened in those waters: men disappeared, or returned mute and useless, unaware of who they were or where they had come from. Then there were the claims of fishermen, sighting strange tentacles in the water, or superhuman whirlwinds that stirred winds strong enough to pull them in, many miles away, though they were.

Fielding knew his men feared the stories more than anything that they had faced. It was easier for them to be influenced, he supposed, constantly hearing the stories retold around them. As for the Captain himself, he still felt unsure. If he could prove that there were no dangers waiting in the depths for them, then he would become notorious; all those ships that shirked the site, terrified of what could be just beyond their field of sight, would be forced to respect him. He would be powerful, and he would be rich.

It made no sense that there could be some creature of mythical proportions still alive in his world. Those things had never existed to begin with, or else had died out centuries ago. Yet even a forward thinker such as Fielding did have difficulty in denying the reports of the men that had gone missing, or returned injured and confused. He was a man of statistics, and figures such as those surely meant something. He drummed his fingers against the desk, brain racing. The sun would be rising soon, and he would have to have made his decision. It was time.

He stretched, pushing back his chair and getting to his feet. Glancing only once more at the work left behind him, he marched from his cabin and made his way down to the lower decks. The crew was still wide awake, watching him with great apprehension as he opened the first bunk door. He cleared his throat, looking around at their dirty, strained faces.

“As soon as the sun rises,” he called out, “we set sail for Italy.”

He left behind him a silence as stony as the one that had occupied the bunks before his entrance. The crew members looked at one another, all thinking the exact same thing: their time was up. They were all doomed.