The Winners of the 2016 Crimson Cloak short story writing competition, along with a selection of the best runners-up, are presented here in a compilation volume entitled THE RIDER.
Writers were asked to write a story of 1500-3000 words based around a stock picture showing a hooded rider in a fantasy landscape. The standard was so high that judging proved very difficult: in fact, first prize was a tie between talented writers Dawn McCracken and Ricky German. Third prize was won by David A. Jones, after a tiebreak involving authors James Bruce and Denna Holm.
Buy this book to read the cream of the crop.
You can read the Best of the Rest here.
Victims of Vanity, Ricky German JOINT FIRST PRIZE
The Crimson Crown, Dawn McCracken JOINT FIRST PRIZE
Of Malice and Magic, David A. Jones THIRD PRIZE
The Good Exile’s Grub, by James Bruce
Spirit Ride, Denna Holm
The Awakening, Nikki Broadwell
What You Wish For, Keith and Jess Flaherty
Ruby’s Return, Rosalyn Kelly
The Switch, Debbie Proulx
Tor Donnach, D.J. Reid
Gray Riders, Rick Stepp-Bolling
Lady Shalamaine, Veronica Taylor
Tineria, Paul Thurston
The picture used for this competition.
SPIRIT RIDE by Denna Holm
Astrid Miller pulled her old Chevy into the Reservation, their shaman her last hope. For nearly a year she’d been searching for someone with a connection to the spirit world to help her. Most people laughed. Others tried to take advantage. A few accepted her story as true, almost ashamed when they couldn’t help her.
How did a person, even one with real physic gifts, find a way to converse with Death? Not an action, but the entity itself.
She sat behind the wheel for a good ten minutes trying to build her courage for one last try, half surprised when no one on the Reservation bothered her. Old and young alike, the people ignored her. Astrid had been told by a woman in town to drive out to a small Indian Reservation and ask to speak to a shaman named Achak. She opened the door, cringing when it squeaked, though no one paid any attention.
The woman at the library had told her to try first at a gift shop, and so she went inside, in awe of the many Native American artifacts found there. Beautiful arrowheads, pottery, quilts and blankets, some old, some new, though it was easy to see the old and new had been created using the same methods. Traditions hadn’t been forgotten here. She also found furs and hides. “Beautiful,” she whispered.
“May I help you find something?” a woman said from behind her.
Astrid turned, finding a middle-aged woman with long black hair, gray just beginning to peek through. She had a round face and kind eyes, slender in build and dressed in more modern clothes: jeans, t-shirt and boots. No makeup.
“Um, I’m trying to find a shaman by the name of Achak. I was wondering if you could help me. It’s important.”
Her face immediately closed off, the dark brown eyes not quite so warm. “Why would you need to speak with our grandfather?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were related. The woman at the library said I should ask for Achak at this store.” She swallowed noisily, growing more nervous by the second. A young man entered through a back door, making her feel even more unsure. He stared at her for a few seconds, his own round face unreadable. Then he spoke to the woman in a language she couldn’t understand. Astrid picked up the name Achak in her reply, but that was all. She waited, trying hard not to bite at her already ragged fingernails.
After they finished speaking, the young man turned to Astrid, also dressed in jeans and a modern, western-cut blue shirt, his long black hair pulled back in a low ponytail. “Why do you wish to speak with Grandfather?”
She took a deep breath, feeling frustrated. “You won’t believe me.”
“My two-year-old daughter was swiped right out of my arms by . . . Death.” She frowned, trying to remember the words that had rushed through her head during the unthinkable action. “I think it might have been one of Death’s minions.”
“Do you know why she was taken?” the woman asked, her tone soft, kind, not judgmental.
Astrid hung her head in shame. She suspected the reason, but couldn’t say for sure. “No, not really.”
The young man and woman looked at each other, the woman nodding once. The man turned back to Astrid. “If I take you to Grandfather and you lie, as you just lied to us, he won’t help you. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” she whispered, her face and neck heating up.
“Can you ride?” he asked.
“Uh, a horse?”
“Yeah, a little.”
“Then come, I’ll take you to see him.” She started to follow, but he stopped and leaned over enough to look her in the eye. “You should bring a gift.”
Astrid looked over at the woman. “What kind of gift?”
She reached behind her counter and pulled out a small package. “Grandfather enjoys his pipe in the evening. Tobacco would be appreciated.”
“How much?” Astrid asked, reaching into her pocket.
“Pay me if you come back,” the woman said, her face completely serious.
Astrid swallowed again, whispering, “Okay.” She accepted the small package and then followed the young man outside their back door. Two bay horses were already saddled, tied to a hitching post, like they had been expecting her. Her guide picked up a bridle, slipping the bit into the first horse’s mouth, then he handed the reins to Astrid.
She swung up, wondering how they had known she would come today. Astrid hadn’t told anyone her exact plans, not even the woman at the library.
It had been years since Astrid last rode a horse, her butt and legs sore by the time they rode into a small clearing. For a moment, she felt lost in time, a single old teepee set up beneath the towering evergreens, old stained hides covering it. In front of the teepee was a small fire, one old man sitting on the ground in front of it, an old blanket pulled around his thin shoulders. He didn’t look up as they rode in. Didn’t acknowledge her.
Her guide motioned for her to dismount and then he took her reins, tying both horses to a limb. After retrieving her tobacco from the saddle bag, she followed him to the fire, not sure what to do. The young man squatted down beside the old man, not bothering to introduce her.
Astrid took a moment to look around, the beauty of the place somehow working to calm her frazzled nerves. Birds could be heard singing in the bushes, the sun warm on her face. How could anything be wrong under such a peaceful setting? She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then walked to the old man’s side and set the tobacco on a stone next to him. “I’ve brought you a gift.” She felt stupid when he didn’t look up, ignoring her offer. Not sure what to do, Astrid moved to the other side of the fire and sat down, her head bowed.
A half hour passed before the old man spoke. She couldn’t understand and had to wait for her guide to translate.
“Grandfather wishes to know exactly how your daughter was taken?”
She froze, her heart racing. Astrid felt sure they wouldn’t use cell phones up here in the mountains, so how had he known? “Where I live, we need to take a ferry to do any heavy shopping. Tia and I usually sit in the car on the way over. It’s only a fifteen-minute ride. I don’t know why, but this one time we decided to stand by the railing. I noticed a cloud of dark smoke over the water headed in our direction.” She frowned, remembering, seeing it in her mind’s eye. “It seemed to get denser the closer it came to us. I didn’t really get scared until I realized the wind should have been blowing it in the opposite direction.” She hesitated, closing her eyes, wanting to chase the memory away.
Grandfather looked up, his round face so wrinkled she could barely see his eyes. They were like two glittering jewels behind the folded flesh, but somehow, he could still see straight into her soul. He spoke, and she waited for the young man to translate.
“Why did Death send one of his minions for your daughter?” Her guide looked at her in a way that reminded Astrid not to lie.
Her eyes burned with unshed tears, knowing now that she could never put that horrible day behind her. “I was sixteen. My parents left for a weekend, leaving me at home alone. I g-got into their liquor cabinet and then decided to g-go for a drive. I didn’t see the boy playing in the street until it was too late. I only felt a bump when the wheels went over him. I was so drunk that I didn’t even stop.” She dropped her eyes to the fire, unable to look the old man in the eye. “I didn’t realize until I watched the news the next day that I’d killed him. I washed the blood off the car and wheels, but he’d been so small it hadn’t done any serious damage. Right in the middle of the day. I can’t believe no one saw what happened.” Astrid allowed the tears to fall, but the old man’s face never changed.
“No one saw your daughter taken either, did they?” the young man asked. Astrid shook her head, too ashamed to look up.
“Are you ready to make amends, child?”
Startled, Astrid looked up, sure the question had been inside her head. The old man was looking toward the fire, not her, so who asked? “I’m ready,” she replied. “Anything to save Tia.”
The old man held his arm out for the young man to help him stand. He looked so old and fragile, but Astrid felt great strength inside him, more than she’d felt in all the others she’d approached for help. She followed him to the other side of the teepee, finding a hole dug into the ground, more hides covering it. The old man reached down for a rusted cup sitting beside the hole and held it out to her.
“Drink,” he said.
She didn’t hesitate, downing the bitter liquid with one swallow. Her stomach rolled, though she managed to keep it down.
“Don’t come out until you get your answer,” her guide said softly. “Meditate on what you have done . . . and on what you would like done.”
Astrid nodded, crawling into the deep hole, the area barely big enough to hold two people. In the center were piles of hot stones, the air hard to breathe. A flap dropped over the opening, her world made impossibly dark. Careful of the stones, Astrid took a seat, dipping water out of a bucket and dumping it over them. She waited in the steamy air.
The bitter drink turned sour in her stomach, spreading out through her body. Astrid leaned over and puked, but it didn’t help this sickness. Her very soul wounded. She scooted away from the stinky pile, her body swaying in the impossibly hot, humid air. Sweat caused her clothes to cling like a second skin.
Hours passed, or minutes, she couldn’t tell. Astrid thought about the little boy she’d killed. She thought about her own sweet daughter paying for her mother’s past sins. She begged Death to give her daughter a chance, even though the boy she’d killed would never get his.
“Please!” Astrid cried. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Let me take Tia’s place. I’m the guilty one, not her!”
The cover over the hole was opened, though the air remained hot. With a heavy heart, Astrid crawled over to the opening and climbed out, surprised to find the teepee gone. Surprised to find everything changed. Had it been that long, she thought, finding night had fallen, the stars and moon hidden behind dark, angry clouds. Only one horse stood in the small clearing, a brown and white paint with glowing red eyes, no saddle, and only a thin piece of leather for a bridle. It stood beside a huge log, as though offering her a mounting block, a strong wind blowing through its long mane and tail.
Astrid didn’t allow herself to question the strange scene. She walked over to the log, finding a robe with a hood. “For me?” she asked the horse. It nodded. Astrid slipped her arms into it, pulling the hood over her head. Then she climbed up on the log and swung her leg over the horse’s back. It immediately began to run, her hands gripped tight in its mane, only she couldn’t hear its hooves hitting the ground, only a heavy silence.
There was no real sense of time passing. No sounds, no sights, only a gray fog, the air hot, though dry now, not humid. Astrid kept her eyes closed through most of the ride, the swirling fog making her feel dizzy. She didn’t open them until the horse stopped. Astrid gasped at the haunting scene below. A deep valley surrounded by rugged snow-tipped mountains. A glassy lake sat to the right of a castle with a single tower pointing toward the sky. Near the lake’s bank, a man hung from a single gallows, but when she shifted her gaze to the right, Astrid found a whole field full of dead: some hanged, some mounted on stakes, others torn apart. Moving above them, through them, were more of the same type of creature that had taken Tia, a shadowed form with sharp claws peeking through a worn robe. A robe like her own.
A light sprang to life high up in the single tower. “I need to go there,” Astrid whispered. “Tia will be there.”
The trail was too steep for the horse, so she climbed down, almost sliding over the edge herself in the slippery shale. At the bottom, Astrid remained close to the lake’s shore, afraid of the many minions floating above the field of corpses. She crossed an old wooden bridge over a moat, her heart racing when she noticed more creatures in the water below. Nothing would stop her from trying to reach Tia. She didn’t care about her own life, not now.
Astrid pushed open the heavy wooden door, not surprised to find it unlocked. Inside, she found the interior almost empty, just a few oil paintings decorating the rock walls, most of battle scenes, anguished faces, pain and death. She walked to the stairway, sensing this is where she needed to go. Astrid climbed and climbed and climbed, feeling certain she should have reached the top ages ago. Hours passed and still she climbed, resting when her legs grew wobbly or she lost her breath, then climbing again.
“God help me, please!” she cried out.
After what felt an eternity, she reached the top, and stood in front of another door. Head cocked, she studied it, the door familiar. Fear tightened her guts, but she pushed through it, hoping to find Tia on the other side? Would she find her daughter still alive, or already dead? Dead like those out in the field, their hearts ripped out.
Astrid pushed the door open, finding her old bedroom, the one she had at sixteen. Confused, she walked through and shut the door behind her, shaking her head. “I don’t understand?” she cried out, thinking it had all been for nothing. “Where’s Tia?”
“Astrid, are you home, sweetie. We’re back.” Her mother’s voice. It couldn’t be. Her mother lived in a nursing home, her father already dead. The door opened. “Hey, sweetie, you okay? I thought you were going over to Cathy’s today.”
Astrid stared into her dresser mirror, shocked to find her younger self looking back. She turned to face her mother, her hands shaking. “M-mom, I need to tell you and Dad something important.”
Her mother stepped closer, her face concerned. “Of course, honey, what is it?”
“Call Dad up first.”
“Paul, can you come up here?” her mother called, taking a seat on Astrid’s bed, patting the spread beside her. “Come here, sweetheart, take a seat. You’re scaring me.”
Astrid allowed her mother to fold her up in her arms. She breathed in deep her mother’s special scent, feeling safe again, safer than she’d felt in years. She waited until her dad’s familiar face came into view to tell them what she’d done, both of her parents dead silent for several long minutes. “We should call the police,” Astrid said, head hung in shame.
“Are you sure no one saw?” her dad asked, staring at her mother rather than Astrid. “Is the car damaged?”
Astrid felt her heart seize, not sure where they were going with this. “No one saw me, and I washed the car. But that’s not the point, Dad. I killed that little boy. I should be punished.”
He started to pace, slowly shaking his head. “No, I’m not gonna let you ruin your life over one mistake. You’ve learned your lesson, right, honey? You won’t ever drink and drive again. In fact, you shouldn’t ever drink again, period. We’ll get rid of all the alcohol in the house.”
“Your dad’s right, sweetheart. They’ll send you to prison for years. It won’t matter if you didn’t mean to.”
Astrid stood, backing away from them, horror in her eyes. She ran downstairs and picked up the phone, dialing the police herself. Her parents didn’t argue when they arrived, her mother softly crying as they led her to a patrol car in handcuffs. At that moment, Astrid felt a heavy burden lift from her heart, her memory of a future life slowly fading. A forgotten dream.
She spent ten years in prison. It hadn’t been easy, but Astrid knew she deserved it. Her dad died suddenly from a heart attack a few years before she was set to get out, Astrid sorry she couldn’t say goodbye first. Her mother started to have memory problems soon after. Alzheimer, they said.
Five years after her release, Astrid met a man who seemed very familiar to her, though she could never figure out why. They’d never met, he lived on an island, the only access through a ferry. They married a year later and were expecting their first child, a girl she planned to name Tia.
Sitting by a small fire, a ragged blanket pulled over his boney shoulders, the old shaman smiled. He reached for the small package of tobacco, taking his time to fill the pipe. It pleased him that the white woman had corrected her past mistake. She’d found her courage and done the right thing. Because of it, she would meet her daughter again. His next guest would be more difficult, his pride likely to get in the way….