Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Story Snippets: Dawn Bringer (The Star Clock Chronicles #1) by E.J. Kitchens

While I'm working on my next Magic Collectors novel, I decided to finish and publish a collection of shorter steampunk stories I wrote a couple of years ago. They are fun, adventure-filled stories perfect for short reads. Here's a snippet from book 1 of The Star Clock Chronicles, which I hope to release in a few months.

The Star Clock Chronicles

In a world where building a clock is treason and moon and sun are myths, three airship captains and a reformed pirate fight for freedom and truth … and a glimpse of the stars.

Dawn Bringer

Chapter 1
No sun ever rose, no moon ever waxed or waned, no stars ever danced a rhythmic pattern across the night sky. Only faerie crystals brightening and dimming according to one man’s will signaled dawn and dusk, month and season. Long ago, the faerie queen Morgan Unseelie cast a veil between heaven and earth, obscuring all heaven’s lights, for the pleasure and power of a mortal man, who then fashioned himself the Rí Am, the Time King. From all other mortals, she took away knowledge of time and direction and skill of navigation. Man was dependent on the Rí Am’s automaton navigators and fell into the myth that it was the faerie queen, through the Rí Am’s intercession, who gave them the sky crystals in the veil for light and the automatons for travel and trade. For this, the queen was hailed as the Giver of Light, a goddess. And that was a greater offense to some than the Rí Am’s cruelty. Those few who kept the true faith—belief in the celestial lights and their Maker—called themselves Sky Keepers and refused to pay homage to the queen and her time king, often at great cost. Some Sky Keepers prayed for the faerie veil to fall, others merely for a way to circumvent the Rí Am’s control. But neither expected the storm of change approaching them.

    Bertram Orren was bone weary, but then so was everyone else on the island of Sheffield-on-the-Sea. After spending the wee hours going out in a rough sea as far as they could to salvage what they could of the crew and cargo of the airship Dawn Bringer, even the Time Keeper patrols were heading to bed for the few hours remaining until dawn.

    At least, that was what Bertram was counting on. The Time Keepers might not be mourning the loss of most of the ordered food supplies, but everyone on the island not on the Rí Am’s pay was. Something had to be done about the root cause of the impending food shortage, and it was his night to do so. The Rí Am’s fish quota was so high, the island of fishermen had to rely on crops—and it was easier to do something about the faerie than it was the Rí Am.

    Hoisting his gunnysack over his shoulder, Bertram dragged himself over a low rock wall—a warning more than a barrier—and plodded up the forested hillside. About thirty feet in, he pulled a large ball of twine from his sack and tied one end of the twine to a rowan tree so the faeries couldn’t move it. He arranged the ball in its special holster on his belt so it could unwind with ease as he walked, then continued on, walking fast. He had to make it to an area he hadn’t already searched before his time and energy gave out.

    Not that he would know his time was running short before it was too late. He depended on the Time Keepers to signal the start and end of each school day, and the loudest stomach among his students for the lunch hour. But for roaming forbidden, faerie-infested woods? When the sky crystals brightened. His jaw clenched. One day that would change. But as for knowing when his energy would give out… He stumbled over a fallen limb he’d missed during a prolonged blink and rubbed his eyes as encouragement for them to stay open.

    “Wait! Please!” A woman’s voice.

    A sudden spike in heart rate did the trick, however. Bertram froze.

    Further up the hill, a light held by a dark little figure dodged between trees on a sure path to the ruins at the summit.

    Bertram counted to ten, slowly. So the will-o’-the-wisps were trying the damsel-in-distress tactic now too, were they? Tired of pretending to be lost little children to lure you after them?

    When the light disappeared, followed by another pleading cry, he continued on, skirting more to the right than he’d originally planned. Would a will-o’-the-wisps be seen far or near to the faerie mound? 

    About twenty feet later, his heart rate spiked again, this time thanks to the broken glass that nearly went through his boot sole. With a sense of foreboding, Bertram raised his lantern. Broken branches, shards of glass, a busted lantern, the twisted metal of an Escaper, an escape vehicle for an airship. No bodies.

    With a curse, Bertram dashed back through the woods, his twine thankfully reeling itself back in, until he reached the spot where he’d heard the cry, then plunged up the hill.

    “Wait! Don’t follow that light,” he shouted.

    The trees thinned, replaced by jutting rocks as he hit the old path winding up to the ruins of an ancient tower. Was it bad of him to wish the woman wounded? Just enough so she wasn’t too far ahead of him. 
    Rain began pelting him, the wind rising for another storm. He rounded a curve of the hill. About twenty feet ahead, a woman half-jogged, half-staggered after the faerie light. He winced as she stumbled next to a rocky precipice.

    “Stop! I’ll help you!” But his cries were drowned out by a crack of thunder.

    The will-o’-the-wisp’s light disappeared, as did the woman, but her scream lingered.

    “Lady!” he cried.
    Lightning flashed to his left. Bertram darted right. Into nothing.

    “Darn, darn, darn.” Bertram pushed into a seated position on the damp rock. This was not how he’d hoped to find a faerie mound. He didn’t have to look up to know the opening he’d fallen through was no longer there. It’d been created by a will-o’-the-wisps in solid rock and was now solid rock again.
Blasted faerie. He wrinkled his nose. Even if he ever escaped, he’d probably never lose that sickeningly sweet, nectar-like odor the creatures favored. At least, it was stale here. Not an active faerie mound then. Not what he needed to find, but it was a safer place to be.

    “You really must work on your vocabulary, sir.”

    Bertram startled and glanced around. About ten feet away, leaning against a tree stump that looked suspiciously as if it wanted to be believed a pile of ancient ruins, was the woman he’d failed to save from this fate. She was very pale, except where blood darkened her brow. Her hair, tangled and loose, was at odds with her dress: the smart, tailored skirt and jacket over a corset and blouse of an airship officer. Not surprisingly, a revolver and knife decorated her belt. Pain might currently be adding a few years to her age, but she looked about thirty. Either way, the age looked well on her. She held his lantern, miraculously still lit, close to her chest, seemingly as possessive of its warmth as its light.

    “You really must work on your hearing as well as your vocabulary, it seems.” She flinched as she shifted. He noted the flash of light against the metal of a PullLine gauntlet strapped about one arm, the one not cradled to her chest. So that was how she’d gotten his lantern—using the PullLine. 

    Bertram’s heart twisted at her pain, but he didn’t think it best to express sympathy. He forced a surly tone. “Really, Miss—”

    “It’s Captain, and you should’ve said, ‘Ca-tas-tro-phe!’ It has more syllables in which to express your rage.”

    Bertram tamed a smile and pulled his gunnysack into his lap. Thank heavens he’d packed his medical kit. “The repetition stresses the idea just fine.”

    “Mayhap, but it’s pretentious of a poacher to use such mild exclamations.”

    “I am not a poacher.” Bertram pulled out his water canteen and the medical kit and staggered up, wincing. Bruised but not broken, as the saying went.

    “Oh, really?” She gave his sack a significant look as he handed her the canteen.

    “If you’re angling for a brace of pheasants, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.” Helping her lean forward, he draped his jacket about her shoulders. “I don’t share.” He knelt beside her and doused a cloth with antiseptic.

    “I suspected a selfish nature.” She hissed as Bertram gently wiped the blood from her temple.

    “Which hurt needs attention, do you think?” he asked.

    She indicated her head and arm, and he gently worked her torn, bloodied jacket down her arms and off. 
“There’s nothing to do about the ribs but wait it out, I fancy,” she said as he slid his jacket back over her shoulders.

    Agreeing, he quickly cleaned the gash on her head and arm, noting that her arm was going to need more work than her head: a tight bandage for a sprained wrist and stitching for a gash on her forearm.

    He retrieved the needle and thread from the medical kit but paused before sterilizing them, studying the woman’s dreadfully pale face and closed eyes. He’d have to approach this delicately. “Catastrophe, catastrophe, ca-tas-tro-phe!”

    She cracked one eye open, noted the implements in his hand, then shut her eye again, her mouth forming a hard line. “I’m impressed, sir. You’re a fast learner.”

    “There’s no one like a hardened smuggler to teach one foul language.”

    The woman’s eyes opened wide in alarm, her gaze raking over his outfit. Searching for the Time Keeper insignia, no doubt. He gave her a roguish grin, and she relaxed back against the ruins with a tired smile. The smile quickly flattened as he handed her a flask of brandy and indicated he was about to begin stitching her arm.

    “Marianna Bowditch, captain of the Dawn Bringer, I presume?”

    “At your service.” She sipped the brandy. “You’re a receiver of smuggled goods then? Almost as nefarious as a poacher.” She gritted her teeth but held still as he worked. He had to give her credit for toughness. Not that he should be surprised. The Bowditch captains weren’t known for softness. They weren’t real smugglers, in truth, but honest captains brave enough to carry goods for the Sky Keepers, those fighting in big and small ways against the Rí Am and his Time Keepers. Many, but not all, of the Sky Keepers still believed in the Maker and his Word, and had hope that there was a sun and stars beyond the Crystal Veil that formed their sky.

    “Bertram Orren,” he answered, “local schoolmaster and unofficial doc … and nephew to the first mate of your brother Davy’s airship.” And because of his relationship to one of the Bowditch crew, he helped arrange for the smuggling of needed goods the Time Keepers didn’t want them to have, as well as the transport of legal goods.

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