Friday, January 10, 2014

Terrible Minds Flash Fiction Challenge: The Jackdaw's Wire & Lessons Learned

Like many avid readers and reviewers I've always wanted to be a writer. I've started many a manuscript that've gone unfinished due to countless unimportant reasons. But my New Year's Resolution this year is a simple one. Write, and finish what you start. So with that in mind when I stumbled across a Flash Fiction Challenge at Chuck Wendig's excellent blog, I decided to get cracking. The resulting story, for good or ill is posted below. Read it if you like, or move on. I'm posting it as a way of making myself accountable and maybe inspiring other wannabe writers in the pursuit of their dreams. After the piece, I'm going to talk a little about the challenges and lessons I found in the exercise.

The Jackdaw’s Wire

The feathers of the initiate’s mask made Nico’s nose twitch and he bit the inside of his cheek hard to murder a sneeze. The pain and blood were a small sacrifice for success, for career, for family. And for a thief like Nico, it was a price he’d pay with a smile.

The Jackdaws had recruited him six months ago and despite his fear he’d accepted. Not because of the security and wealth that came with becoming one of the killers who ruled the shadows of the kingdom, but because of her. Sena, the girl who’d found him, his bride if he accomplished this one task.

“The only way to be one of us is to be family. Birth and marriage are the only doors,” she’d said. 

After years of living off of whatever he could beg or steal, Nico had leapt at the chance. He’d been lucky; most orphans of the Burning hadn’t survived. They’d starved or were executed for the larceny life in the gutter required.

Only charity saved Nico from sharing that fate the first year. A priest of the Chained God had offered crusts of bread and later a home in the very temple that Nico now watched. He’d been tempted to accept, but the other urchins had warned him off. Priests buggered young boys like him, evading the vows that forbid them a woman’s bed, they’d said. He’d stopped taking the bread not long after, and learned to avoid the soft spoken man with the birthmark like a bloody hand print across his cheek. Life in the gutters had taught him that nothing was free. Even theft had a price; you just didn’t know when the bill would come due.

Nico settled the rough hood of his gray robe to shadow his face and watched. The evening traffic at the temple entrance was light, the smoke from the braziers at the entrance adding to the tickling in his nose. Novices, their robes indistinguishable from his disguise, trickled inside in knots of three and four. Slipping inside should be simple enough. Not wanting to waste time, Nico stepped out from the alley, skirting the next group of novices.

It had been easy to gain entrance, and only slightly more difficult to gain access to the cell that the high priest called home. Years of living so as to attract no notice as he picked pockets and cut purses had served him well. The sole obstacle was the lock on the cell door, the only one he’d seen. His lessons had paid off. Even using the tools he’d crafted with bits of stolen wire, Nico had tickled the door open in less than a minute. Waiting in the dark was the hardest part.

He remembered the instructions Sena had whispered into his ear, copper curls brushing his cheek as she tied the feathered mask into place. Enter the Chained God’s Temple, kill the high priest, and bring back a gift worthy of my hand. He’d accomplished the first, only the difficult part remained. The cell was austere and impoverished as expected, despite all rumors to the contrary. The chained priests sought forgiveness through service, like their god who’d been banished from the heavens for his crimes against creation. A proper gift would be difficult to obtain and, denied a weapon, there were only so many ways Nico could end a life given his slight frame.

From his hiding place, Nico considered the picks, but discarded them immediately. A well placed jab to an eye might do the trick but would be too risky. If he failed, any alarm would see him swing. Nico removed his stolen robe, gathered the belt between his hands and waited, his decision made.

The metallic clunk of the lock pebbled his flesh, turning the warm cell frigid. It was time to earn a home and a family, the first he’d had since the Burning. He closed his eyes and pictured Sena’s face, her twinkling eyes and the constellation of freckles that sprayed across her nose. He could do this; he could buy his future with the life of this priest. It was the only coin he had.

The priest was a big man, muscles gone soft. His head was shaved. A dusting of silver stubble had grown in and his bald spot shone in the light of the candle he carried. Nico lunged, looping the belt over the priest’s wide neck and pulled hard. The candle tumbled, guttering as it fell. The makeshift garrote cut off the screams, but the priest struggled mightily. Nico rode him to the floor, yanking the belt like reins. Something was wrong. The priest must have gotten a hand underneath the belt. He dropped the belt and grabbed the mark of office all chained priests wore. The links of rough iron wire bit into his palms as he twisted it, cinching the chain tight. It wasn’t long before the struggling was over. Iron bit deeper than cloth, blood coated his palms when he stood.

The man’s face was a livid purple in the dim light. His bulging eyes were clouded with bloody spider webs. Nico didn’t know why the priest needed to die. Initiates were not permitted the luxury of questions. He didn’t look powerful or dangerous, let alone evil. Perhaps the Jackdaws knew his sins as well as his god had. Had he been a killer, like Nico or was his crime more sinister? Did it matter? Dead was dead. Then he noticed the birthmark, a spread palm across the dead man’s face.

Weeping, Nico knelt and pried the sinner’s chain from the swollen flesh of the priest’s neck.  A bridal gift, he thought. Closing the staring eyes he offered a silent curse to the Chained God. 
This man promised me a home and a family when I was a child. I hope you’re denied heaven for eternity for making him keep it.

The main thing this challenge taught me was the difficulty inherent in the word count. I'm far more wordy than I realized and trying to balance character, plot, and world building was incredibly difficult. I also discovered that I may have been better off going with a more modern setting, when an alternate take on the same story came to me in a flash as I was writing the last paragraph. My default tends to be fantasy but I might be better suited to consider other angles. But I definitely got a lot of practice pruning sentences to shove as much story into as little space as possible. All in all, I finished the piece in a few hours and that feels incredibly good. Feel free to leave a comment below. If you loved it, or hated it doesn't matter. But I'd love to hear why.


  1. I enjoyed some of your turn of phrase in this piece; the murdering of the sneeze, theft having a price but not knowing when the bill would come due, the priest's life being used as coinage for a better life. Some of the phrasing reminds me of Mark Lawrence, which you should take as a high praise, as big a fan of his prose as I am.

    The Chained God bit threw me off a little, but simply because that's a major player in the Malazan series which I'm freshly off of.

    You know I'm not a big short story guy because I have a hard time getting a feel for a setting with such small amounts of verbiage, so I'll leave commentary on the setting to someone who can better express their view on that topic.

  2. Nick,

    I wasn't aware of the Malazan connection. In fact, that was a last minute addition when I realized I hadn't tied the wire reference from the random title in very well.

    But the other bit about Mark Lawrence, that made my damn night.

    Thanks for reading.

  3. I enjoyed your story. Especially the setting and pace. Every bit was believable. Unlike nick, however, I didn't like the turns of phrase. I found them distracting. Following the story wasn't an issue, but on a few of those turns, I had to reread those sentences to make sure I understood. It slowed down the narrative slightly. When I reread the story in its entirety, everything was just fine.
    Take my comments as you will. They are not meant to discourage, but to encourage you next week.

    1. Mark,

      Thanks for stopping by and reading. I'm still working on finding that consistency of voice that I imagine will make certain phrasings seem less jarring. But as you've noted, I haven't got there just yet.

      I'm really looking forward to this week's challenge.

  4. I really enjoyed the setting of this piece like Mark - the idea of chained Gods and priests provoke an evocative image. Intriguing storyline as well. I'm glad he felt remorse for the priest, but instead of going straight to weeping, I think a more subtle display of sorrow would have been more gripping - maybe even relating back to the last sentence of your first paragraph?

    But overall, good piece - it's a world I'd continue to visit :)

    1. Hi! I nominated you for the Liebster Award. It’s an award given out to promote new blogs. You got my vote because I thought your recent flash fiction was great. Check it out at

    2. AJ-

      Thanks for your comments. In retrospect, I agree the sudden weeping would have benefited from a more subtle approach but word count restraints made that harder than I'd anticipated. I may just revisit this setting and character another time.

  5. I enjoyed this, and I thought the symmetry was well played. Some of the flash fiction pieces have felt more description than story, but I think your's avoided that quite well.

    I did feel the start was a little info-dumpy, and had to push on through it. Other than that, it was really good. You character's voice pulled me right in.

    1. Sian,

      I appreciate the feedback. I was worried about the info dumping in the beginning but couldn't see a way clear in such little space. I was definitely trying to insert a decent amount of plot, rather than leaving things open ended and nebulous which is so common in flash. Thanks again for picking up what I was putting down.

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