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The Treasure No Thief Can Steal was first published in issue 53 of Scribble, the spring 2012 edition. Previously it was entered in the Manchester Fiction Prize, but failed to be short listed (there were 1900 entries in 2011, from 45 countries – competition is high as the Manchester Prize offers a whopping 10K prize – the next short story competition they’re running is in 2013 as 2012 is all about poetry (yawn)).
cover artwork by Rebecca West
Below is my story, the comments it received from readers of Scribble, followed by my comments about the magazine and its competition.
I’m tied to a tree, living a nightmare set amongst a panorama of beauty. Over the past week I’ve been dragged up a mountain by my captor, his cruel eyes betraying a desire to which he’s unable to succumb. He needs me as he believes me to be – untouched.
At the thought, I feel a smile creep onto my cracked lips like a forbidden kiss.
‘What’s funny, bitch?’
He’s as nasty as gonad pie, the situation adding some spleen puree to the vile recipe of his personality. He wants me but can’t have me; he hates me but needs me alive. At least I’m enjoying his frustration.
As I stare at him, refusing to answer, he runs his fingers through hair which looks like it belongs above a horse’s arse. The thought makes me smirk.
‘Grin while you can, pretty one,’ he says. ‘What you got coming’s gonna make a mess of your face.’
I’m trying to remain strong, but the callous way he speaks allows reality to scupper the frail ship of hope that’s fighting to keep my sanity buoyant.
I’m going to die.
My captor chuckles, recognising the hurt his words have caused. He’s handsome, but pleasure takes cruelty by the hand and charges across his face, routing any attractiveness.
Feeling tears welling at my eyelids, I stare out over the vista before me, diving through my thoughts like a cerebral sea lion, evading sharks of hopelessness. Concentrating on the view helps my sanity swim for safety.
We’re on the higher slopes of Mount Holne, where the Gordesian Mountains divide to form the borders of Kort Eavenhow, Thirl Mere and Lostwithiel. If you use your imagination, the lay of the mountains to the northwest look like the gargantuan maw of a slain creature. The view is known as The Jaws. This spectacle is said to have inspired a popular myth: the entire Gordesian mountain range was created by a colossal dragon’s fallen body. It fell in a fight with an unnamed god who, thirsty from battle, drank from the sea so deeply that the surrounding lands were revealed.
Sitting here, witnessing this spectacle for the first time, makes the legend seem plausible. Peace gives me a cuddle; there are worse places to die.
My captor moves to sit near me, seemingly disappointed by my regained composure. He eats some salted beef and slurps water, watching me. Hunger wriggles through me like a ravenous worm, gurgling in my gut. I say nothing, but I’m unable to take my eyes from the food. The betrayal of my stare and grumbling stomach gives pleasure and cruelty the opportunity to restart their alliance and begin a fresh assault on his face.
When he’s done eating, he feeds me the few remaining scraps. I’m too hungry not to accept them. I gobble them like a chick in a nest.
He watches me, cocking his head with interest. My eyes mist and I realise I’m hallucinating; he looks like a plucked vulture, basted and stuffed, ready to cook, but his eyes are alive, observing me as though I’m the meal ready for the oven. I wonder what narcotic he’s fed me.
‘Night night,’ he says, brushing my cheek like a lover. I find the touch of his stubbly wing as inviting as herpes, but I can’t move. ‘You’re gonna wake up dead, pretty bitch.’ His voice sounds distant. The embers of my consciousness cool and crumble.
My head feels like it’s been used as an anvil under the hammer of a god. I groan and roll onto my side, forcing my unwilling eyes to open.
The first thing I see is the box. It sits upon a plinth in a shaft of sunlight, beautifully crafted from wood and inlaid with ivory. It might be a trick of the light, or the residue of narcotics in my system, but it looks like a hazy aura is emanating from the object, giving it an auburn glow. At least it’s prettier to look at than a plucked vulture. Figment of the imagination or not, I’m unable to remove my eyes from the box. I stand and approach on trembling legs, fixated.
Up close, the workmanship is even more impressive, every joint invisible. Studying the ivory inlay more carefully, I see an ornate, cobweb-like pattern. As I examine it I realise that words are hidden within the design:
Trickery, trappery, feeding the need
Meat for the beast, drawn by rumour and greed
As I reach forward, transfixed, a guttural growl echoes in the darkness. It brings me to my senses. How did a simple box captivate my attention so fully? Why didn’t I take in my surroundings? And how did I fail to notice the human skulls which litter the floor about my feet?
I’m in the centre of a vast cavern which is illuminated by a pillar of sunlight radiating from a crevice high in the rooftop. It stinks of death. Mountains of bones are piled against one wall, surrounded by a horde of interesting items; swords, parchments, armour and archaic contraptions I can’t begin to fathom. Slowly, with the mental prowess of a startled sheep, I realise where I must be; the heap of bones corresponds with stories of Grimdune, a bestial collector of artefacts and relics. Until now, I assumed the tales to be myth. Butterflies launch an air display in my stomach.
‘What possessed you to bring me here?’ I whisper to my absent captor.
The voice that answers me is as subtle as an earthquake. Something vast moves in the cavern’s shadows. I see two huge eyeballs glint on the edge of the shaft of sunlight. As the creature moves closer, its pupils shrink from distended yellow circles to putrid slits, surrounded by black, rust-flecked irises.
A huge head appears from the shadows, followed by a long neck and colossal shoulders. It’s a dragon, but like none I’ve ever seen depicted in books. It’s covered in a myriad of scales which are the grey of death and interlinked like armour. They rasp against each other as it moves, while its eyes gleam with cunning. I feel an impossible chill exuding from the creature’s body, so intense it burns. As the dragon breathes, black fog pours from its nostrils to the floor, where the vapour gropes around like a living mist in search of souls before dissipating. This must be Grimdune, the purveyor of death.
A spider of dread creeps through my body, attacking my muscles with paralysis. None of the descriptions in the stories I’ve heard could prepare me for the awe I feel. Grimdune delivers a master class in ominous silence, eyeing me like a cat might observe a vole beneath its paw. I just stand there, gawping, unable to move. I see the corners of his mouth twitch, as if trying to understand a smile for the first time in eternity. I feel like he’s toying with me, as though he hopes fear might tenderise my flesh before he bites my head off. Strangely, this annoys me. My legs cease to tremble and I find my voice.
‘Why haven’t you eaten me?’
‘Why do you think?’ As he speaks, the dragon’s dry lips move slowly in front of huge incisors, each of which is bigger than me.
‘Because I’m not pure.’
Twin tongues of black fire erupt from the flared nostrils on Grimdune’s snout as he snorts laughter, so loud it makes my ears ring. ‘Tell me,’ he says, ‘can you detect the sexual exploits of a cow by eating steak?’
I feel stupid. ‘Why then?’
‘I’m intrigued to know what you’re basted in before I bite.’
I look down and see I’m naked and covered in filth. Goo glistens on my skin. Dirt and dust have stuck to the translucent residue, clothing me in grime. I rub at the gloop and find it’s sticky and smells sweet.
I feel confusion tunnelling out of my head with betrayal on its mind, gathering the skin of my brow into the telltale furrows of a frown.
Looking up I see Grimdune studying my expression closely. ‘Where are you?’ he asks, looking through me, addressing someone else. ‘I can smell you, your gluttony, your cowardice. Show yourself.’
I look around and see my captor emerging from the shadows of a crack in the cave wall, proffering something in his right hand as if it will keep the dragon at bay.
‘Falcon,’ Grimdune rasps. ‘I heard you were dead.’
I’m shocked to hear the name – the Falcon has a reputation as a master of thievery and a slick, roguish womaniser, not a vile, illiterate lech. Could the man that kidnapped me really be a thief of such renown? He moves closer with a contrived confidence that I find as believable as a whore’s promise. Clasped between his thumb and forefinger I see a curved, pointed tooth.
‘It helps a thief when he’s thought dead,’ Falcon says.
‘Very true,’ Grimdune tilts his head slightly, observing the trinket Falcon proffers. ‘What is it you think you have?’
‘Plan B.’ Falcon shoots me a wicked glare, filled with hate and a lust he no longer has to keep at bay. ‘It’s the last tooth of the vampires of the Deep Dream Peaks,’ he continues. ‘They cursed you, but we hunted them, killed them. This thing here’s the last bit of them, the only piece not burned or crushed. It keeps you alive.’
‘I am Undead. I have no life to empower.’
I see Falcon’s mask of confidence wavering, his eyes selecting fear as a dancing partner and performing a graceless but energetic jig. To me, it looks ridiculous to see a man standing before such a colossal beast using only a tooth to defend himself.
Falcon licks his lips and says, ‘Give me the box, lizard.’
The corners of Grimdune’s mouth twitch with wrath. He looks like an entire army of crocodiles gathered into one monstrous body with one thing on their conjoined mind – Falcon’s complete annihilation. When he speaks, his voice is surprisingly calm. ‘You meant to thwart me by covering a promiscuous girl in poison and now you’re threatening me with a vampire’s mouldering tooth while voicing petty insults? I would expect more from a man of your reputation. Tell me; the day your parents passed, did you die too?’
‘If you break my mother’s tooth, why should I perish?’
Falcon shakes his head. ‘This ain’t your mother’s tooth.’ I hear his voice trembling. ‘Give me what I want.’
‘And what’s that?’
‘The box. What’s in it.’ Falcon sounds flustered, like his words are wrestling with his tongue. ‘To live forever. The magic that’s in the damned box.’
‘Immortals possess life everlasting, but they’re as fragile as any living thing. Have you fully considered what you ask for? Immortality brings madness for nothing can survive eternity.’
‘Shut up your trickery.’ Falcon is shouting now, his voice shaky. I can’t tell if it’s with fear or rage. ‘Give me what I want.’ Grimdune moves his head back. The mist on his breath thickens, becoming an acrid smoke which belches from his mouth. Falcon drops the tooth on the floor and moves his foot, ready to crush it. ‘Do what I say.’
Grimdune spits a plume of black flame towards the cavern’s roof. ‘Neigen, Ert dwaller,’ he bellows. ‘Neigen.’
Although the words mean nothing to me, Grimdune’s meaning is obvious. Falcon stamps down hard on the tooth. I hear it splinter. He grinds it into the cave floor beneath his boot and looks up, as if expecting to see Grimdune in his death-throws.
Instead, Grimdune is rising on monstrous hind legs, his wings spread to their full extent, the grey membrane stretching between the wing phalanges until it looks almost translucent. They are like the enormous wings of a bat, the patagium torn in places. His head moves up into the shaft of sunlight and I see his huge incisors gradually extend to monstrous proportions, ripping from the grey gums in his upper jaw. Black venom exudes from within the enamel, trickling down the fangs to form poisonous drips that fall from the tooth tips and meet the stone floor of the cave with a hiss and a crackle.
Grimdune delivers Falcon a withering stare. ‘Didn’t think to coat yourself in the poison of holy water, did you?’
Falcon turns to run, but Grimdune lunges with a speed and grace which belie his bulk. His jaws snap shut. Falcon is gone. The dragon hunkers down guardedly, like a predator protecting its kill, enveloped by its wings. There’s a disgusting sucking noise. Then the wings fold back and he turns towards me. On the floor where Falcon had stood, a fresh, gleaming skull has joined the masses.
I watch the dragon for a moment, then say, ‘The box is empty, isn’t it?’
After a moment of contemplation, Grimdune says, ‘As empty as greed allows it to be.’ The dragon moves closer, his eyes playful.
‘You can’t eat me,’ I hear myself say, my voice as calm as cucumber, despite realisation that my extinction is imminent.
‘I can still kill you.’
I’ve got nothing to lose. ‘My name is Lila. I was kidnapped and brought here against my will as a sacrifice.’ I drop to one knee and bow my head. I’ve heard that dragon’s respond well to subservience and I’m damned if I’m just going to stand there and wait to die. I have to try. ‘My captor is gone. My life is yours. I beg you to spare me.’
I feel the cold Grimdune emanates groping at my skin like a defiler. I look up and find his head close – he’s observing me intently. ‘Give me good reason.’
‘I can tell of what I’ve seen here today. I’m pretty. Men will listen.’
‘What benefit is that to me?’
‘It proves the box exists, it confirms the legends.’
‘And then more will come, won’t they Lila?’ Grimdune withdraws into the shadows until I can see only one great eyeball staring at me. ‘I appreciate guile. You’ll find candles beneath a ledge at the back of the cavern, along with furs and a pool of water which is clean enough to drink. Follow the tunnels marked with an insignia of the sun. Go.’
As I walk from the cavern on unsteady legs, wrapped in warm clothing, holding a flickering candle, I realise that the ornate box in Grimdune’s lair will never be empty. It will always be filled with dreams and intrigue. Even I feel an urge to go back and open it, to see if I’m right, to see if it’s empty. But I can ignore it, for now at least. Today the sight of Falcon’s death is too fresh in my mind and my limbs still tremble as adrenaline oozes from my system to be replaced by a partnership of elation and exhaustion. I’m alive and I wish to stay that way for as long as time will allow.
I find a strange thought manifesting itself in my mind – I hope the nightmare, the memory of Falcon’s death, stays strong all my life. I never want to return here, seeking the treasure no thief can steal.
Scribble issue 54 Summer 2012 (incorporating Debut) was released in July. In the Scribble Feedback section, readers vote for their favourite stories and can comment on stories they did and didn’t like. Comments are always encouraged to be helpful, honest and fair.
illustration by Emily Peters
Sadly I didn’t win any dosh as I wasn't voted into the top 3 places overall although editor, David Howarth, did say this:
"The voting was extremely close again with every story in both magazines receiving at least one vote for first place. All the winners are (again) female. Does that signify anything…?"
Below I have listed the comments pertaining to The Treasure No Thief Can Steal. The comments appear in the order they appeared in Scribble Feedback.
Mary Lou W
I voted: ‘The Treasure No Thief Can Steal’ in 1st Place. Chris Fielden’s story is strong on imagery and characterisation. Although I found it a bit wordy, (I prefer tightly written phrasing). However, I got into it, and was delighted when Lila appeased the dragon, Grimdune, and so won her freedom. I actually breathed a sigh of relief!
‘The Treasure No Thief Can Steal’ was imaginative, poetic in places and with not a little schadenfreude in ‘rather you than me’.
I found choosing a third more difficult - nothing sprang out at me on first reading. So I went back and read them again. And then, wow. I discovered ‘The Treasure No Thief Can Steal’ by Chris Fielden. This one was not an immediate pleasure like the other two, but on the second slower read I found the imagery and style of writing totally to my taste. I almost put this one first but have decided to stick to my original instincts, so give this 1 point. I do hope though, to see more of this writers’ work in Scribble/Debut.
First: ‘The Treasure No Thief Can Steal’ by Chris Fielden. Although I feel this should have been a chapter in a book rather than a short story, I cannot ignore the sheer power and ingenuity of the descriptive writing. It leaves me wanting more, so I do hope a book will follow this theme through. And more short stories please from this talented writer.
Most of the stories in this edition were well-written, although I found ‘The Treasure No Thief Can Steal’ very over-written. I don’t however, read fantasy/SF - maybe it’s all like this?
‘The Treasure No Thief Can Steal’ by Chris Fielden takes second place. This held my attention purely by its vivid descriptions and limitless imagination. I was impressed by the way that Lila talked her way out of her perilous situation.
cover artwork by Rebecca West
As you can see, a writer published in Scribble will receive a mixture of comments about their work, some positive, some not. The not so positive comments are often useful, so you can learn from them and improve your work. So you can see a full write up, here are the comments I wrote about the stories that appeared alongside my own in issue 53 of Scribble:
I thought it unfair to vote for my own story, so I’ve voted for other peoples. Do I get a prize for being so honourable? If so, I like money and beer :-)
1st, ‘A Friend Called Elspeth’ - well-written and gripping with believable characters and plot. Excellent.
2nd, ‘Remembering Turtle’ - I like stories to do with the war, and this was well told. The only thing that stopped this coming first for me, was a bit of confusion at the beginning. I couldn’t tell whose voice was telling the story. Might just have been me having a special moment, but I had to re-read the opening section two or three times before I could get my head around it. Aside from that, brilliant. 3rd, ‘In London From Arles’ - I liked the originality of this story and the way it unfolded.
All in all, I’d say this is one of the strongest selections of stories I’ve seen in Scribble to date, with a nice variety of genres. Thanks to all the contributors for taking the time to write such entertaining tales.
Scribble is a quarterly short story magazine, printed in the UK and distributed world-wide. Each month around ten stories are published in the magazine and readers vote for the winner. First prize is £75, second prize is £25 and third prize is £15. Each writer who has a story published receives a complimentary copy of the magazine. If you’re a subscriber, you’ll also receive a £4 voucher off your next subscription. There is a 3,000 word limit on entries, but stories can be of any genre or theme.
Scribble offers an excellent opportunity for new and established writers to have their work published in print. It also has some unique qualities I have yet to find anywhere else in the world of printed short story magazines.