Clever&WTF’s Best New Writer of 2020!

Welcome, Fantasy Nerds! You may remember that we announced a writing contest for “Clever&WTF’s Best New Writer of 2020”. We are ready to announce our winner! Congratulations to Katie Tomasko!!! You can read her fabulous, contest-winning story below:

The Nameless

Four days it had been, she realized, as the sun crested over the horizon, already burning off what coolness was left of the night. Searing hot, for four days, with hardly enough food for her son let alone herself. Whatever they had she gave to him, forced on him when he fussed and clamped his jaw shut. She’d not have him starve in the desert now, not after all this.

The river was what they needed, where they were headed. Her squinted eyes strained to make sense of the road. It wasn’t much of a road; she was lucky a caravan was ahead of her by a few days. If not for their relatively fresh tracks in the blazing red sand, she’d have been lost. Then it wouldn’t have mattered how much water they had left, and how her son would only scream instead of eat. She didn’t blame him, not after what he’d lived through, the horrors they had both seen. She could hardly stomach a meal herself most days. 

He was asleep now, wrapped tight around her like a snake. His little body was thin; she felt his tired little bones as her hands clung to his back. Four days. His thick mass of curly hair burrowed into her neck and she heard him whine. The river should be close. Bukiat will be close.

She wracked her brain to remember the maps her parents always had, marked with trade routes and landmarks. Bukiat was plunked right in the center of a ring of mountains, the river its gate. It seemed the safest place, a haven forged by the moons just for her and her son. It wasn’t that far from Haned, more or less directly south. The only thing that made the journey longer was the river itself and the mountains, which served as impassible sentries barring them from the city that would save their lives.

Haned’s own small river was far behind her, which she’d foolishly avoided when they first set out. So many caravans and militia men clung to its banks she had feared they would be spotted. She figured now they were south-west of the river, more west than she would have liked to be. Now, there was nothing between them and Bukiat’s river but sand. If she strayed too far west they would end up lost in the Dreshemot. But she could still see the ghosts of the mountains at her left; that comforted her. 

Just get to the river, she pushed herself. Don’t even worry how to cross it, just get him there. Get him there.

“Four days, should take us… four days,” she sighed to him as she trudged along through the sand. It was more arduous than running through water. “If we keep the mountains in sight we won’t be off track. It shouldn’t be far. Gods, I pray it isn’t far.”

Her child wriggled in her arms, and she feared him waking. Difficult as it was to carry a boy of six through the desert, it was far easier than having to drag him by his wrist while he cried or worse, sat in the sand and screamed. When that happened she would have no choice but to wait for him to fall asleep again. She’d thought teaching and feeding him at home had been difficult. 

“Surely I’m being tested,” she muttered, but shamed herself for it. This was her son, her boy. He deserved to be difficult, considering their circumstances. He deserved all the time to scream and cry in the world. And he deserved a mother who could carry him to the place where he might not have to cry anymore.

Five days more passed. The mountains stayed with them, though they seemed hazier than before. She had taken care to follow the caravan tracks, as they were clear ahead of her. Heading closer to the mountains may leave her lost in the mountains, rather than the sand. The caravan assured her someone else was out here. The day before she more or less forgot about reaching Bukiat, and prayed only that they reach these people who so expertly navigated these sand seas. They were nearly out of water now. Whatever she had went to him.

Futile as all might have seemed, something like hope blossomed in her heart as she carried her son along on her back. Her shawl was draped over him, shielding him from the heat. He hated it, she knew that, but she’d already let him tear his shirt off. She’d not have him cooking on her back in this wretched sun. He understood that when she explained it to him and suffered through having the shawl cling to his sweaty skin.

He was awake now, seeming peaceful, although she still felt the discomfort tangled in his little arms and hands as he scratched them against her skin. He was humming to himself, rubbing his face on her shoulder. The heat was bad for him, the lack of food and water, the lack of proper sleep. Being away from his home was bad. What he had seen was horrific and she could only imagine the toll it was taking on him. He was so delicate, so young. The sun in his eyes could ruin his entire day, and now it beat ceaselessly down, trying hard to kill them. She wouldn’t let anyone try that again.

Among the thick heat waves rising from the sand she spotted something, prayed it wasn’t her tired mind, and focused her eyes on it. A shimmer, and it could very well have been the sands. They shimmered as much as the waters. Still, she prayed this was water. And by the grace of the gods, it was. 

The damned river, their saving grace. Those mountains and this river, which curled protectively around the city, and would do the same for them. This land would protect them, it would be safe there. She could have cried, had the sun not drained every ounce of fluid from her. Even still, she wouldn’t have let herself cry. This was not a crying matter.

There was something else in the distance, quickly growing larger as she approached it. A carriage, broken down in the sands but not old by any means. One of its wheels had cracked in half. No one was around it, and the tracks gave out after the wreck. The caravan she’d been following, the only thing that led her here, they were gone. It wasn’t losing the tracks she was worried about. She could see the river, after all, and the caravan passengers’ footprints. Still, standing out in the open, with this carriage in pieces beside her, she felt afraid. She feared bandits, animals. That would be a crying matter, once the fight was over. 

“Oh-ay!” someone called out.

Her head snapped up from inspecting the broken carriage to see a figure ahead, waving at her. There were others with it, three more from what her exhausted, dry eyes could tell. This figure jogged over to her, stopping a few feet short when he took in her dire state. His brow drew together in concern as he stared uselessly at the image before him. A woman, tired and sweating, looking like hell, with someone draped over her back, and all alone. 

“Are you alright?” the man asked, holding cautious hands out to her. He feared whoever was under her shawl was dead. 

She found she couldn’t even speak as she opened her mouth and the skin of her lips split, the taste of blood pouring onto her tongue. All at once she felt the fatigue of the past nine days. She fell to her knees. 

The man scrambled to help, grabbing her elbows and catching her son before he slipped off her back. With a wave of his hand, the three others joined him. One put a water skin to her lips, another lifted the child off her.

The boy started shrieking, terrified, clinging to his mother for dear life as she clung back. She shook her head, took him in her arms and pressed him close to her heart. The man with the water skin held it out again, and she gave it to her son. He fussed and fought, pushing it away and burying his face in her hair. 

“Gods, she looks half-dead,” the woman who’d tried to take him away gasped. 

“Well, surely, we’ve got to bring them along. Leave her here and she’ll be fully dead.” the man with the water skin said. 

The first man knelt before her. He was kind looking, she thought, with deep brown eyes nearly the same color as his skin. Black braids framed his round face, which was still twisted with concern as he smiled. “We are headed to Bukiat,” he told her. “We’re bringing you. There’s no worries, eh?” he said with a nod, and she nodded back. “Alright,” he said softly, helping her to her feet. 

 …

A week passed, perhaps more. She’d lost track after the fifth day in the sands, trying to discern the days now was laughable. Bukiat was a bustling city for its size, she wondered how anyone kept track of anything. Certainly, Haned was an even more booming metropolis, but she’d never lived in the bustling parts. People of more means lived quite literally high above the merchant and farming districts, higher still above the poor districts. Now she sat in the dirt on the outskirts of the city, among the poor and the caravans and the orphans. It was far from the moderate luxury she’d been raised with, but it could very well have been her own kingdom for all she cared. Her son certainly seemed to prefer it to their noble home.

The people who’d brought them to the city had left, leaving her to her own devices, but it wasn’t that difficult. On the outskirts, no one bothered you much. There were eyes and whispers at the newcomers, this strange woman by herself with a fidgety son, but at least they weren’t beating her and threatening her child. 

There was a little courtyard of sorts, filled with those who had no homes. It was bordered by clay houses the same color as the soil and mountains. Families lived on blankets and under ramshackle tents. There was an all-new array of sounds and smells as people hung laundry or cooked over small open fires. A few children ran about, snatching clothes away from the lines and swinging on the low branches of a dead tree. 

She had taken up under a small tent her caravan friends were lovely enough to build for her. Some rope and a sheet were all it was, and she was eternally grateful for it. Her son had stopped hiding now, which she took positively. Instead of being curled in her lap with his face under her shawl he sat against the wall of one house, diligently watching everything that happened. His green, almond eyes darted around, taking in the colors and sounds, nearly overwhelmed by it. Soon enough he would be. Then he’d lay down, shut his eyes and cover his ears, searching for sleep.

It was when he slept that she would walk around the corner to be sick. Some illness had overcome her. She feared the worst as she braced herself against the corner of an old clay hut. There were plenty of sick people here, so no one paid her any mind or even thought to stop and help. Her stomach lurched again and she spat into the dirt. At the same time, she was starving. She felt she could swallow the whole of the market district and still not be satisfied. With a hand clutched to her stomach she had a terrible thought. A trembling shudder escaped her as she fell back against the wall. She’d been sick like this once before, it felt very much the same. For a moment she prayed it not be true, but even then, she could feel the child growing in her belly.

You can read her bio for more info about Katie, and where to find her on social media:

I am a 22-year-old game design student with dreams of heading big projects that are chock full of moving and memorable storytelling. While game design is my current path, I’m writing the entire time. I have two novels I’m currently working on, one fantasy and the other historical fiction. The first story I ever tried to write was a ghost story when I was 12 (I got pretty far!) My mother is a self-published romance author on Amazon and it would seem I inherited her passion for telling stories. Until I manage to publish my first story, I plan to use art in my career to create dynamic characters for video games. I really just want to create something that holds meaning for me, but also touches other people.

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/katiedoodles237/

Portfolio: https://ktomasko.myportfolio.com

We hope you enjoyed Katie’s story as much as we did! If you liked it, give her some love in the comments below. 

Thanks for reading!

Clever and WTF

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