Willow's Way by Cheryl Headford Genre: YA Fantasy, LGBTQ
Cale always told Tay that fairy tales were dark. But they always have happy endings, right?
Taylor Preston is a normal sixteen-year-old whose biggest worries are his GCSE exams. He’s right in the middle of them, but he has a summer of fun with his parents to look forward to after. Or not.
Despite their promise to spend the summer focusing on their one and only son, Tay’s parents, Local Authority specialist foster carers, take on one more special case.
Willow’s arrival throws more than Tay’s summer into chaos. Suddenly, his best friend is possessed by a demon, his parents aren’t his parents after all, and he’s literally living a nightmare in a fairy tale world that as dark as anything Cale ever warned him about. All he has is Willow and a burning desire to save his friend before he succumbs to the demon and Willow kills him.
“Hello, sweet thing.” Tay jumped and turned toward the sound of the voice. A strange creature was peeping at them from the undergrowth of the forest that surrounded them. It was about three feet high and roughly human in appearance, other than that it was stick thin, knobbly and distinctly tree–like. It inched forward, a smile on its woody face. Behind it, Tay could just make out other shapes lurking in the shadows. Occasionally, sunlight glinted on an eye, making it seem to glow.
Tay was entirely spooked and crouched protectively over Cale, searching the forest floor for something he could use as a weapon. As he turned his head, movement caught his eye, and he glanced over his shoulder to see more of the stick creatures creeping toward them.
“Stay back,” he growled, trying to keep his voice steady. “Get away from us.”
“Don’t be afraid, pretty thing,” the creature said. Its voice was like the creak and whisper of a tree in the wind. “We won’t hurt you. We just want to look…to touch your softness.”
“Pretty things. Pretty things.” The whisper came from the other creatures that now surrounded them.
“Stay away,” Tay shouted.
By now, Cale had dragged himself to his knees, and they huddled together, trying to keep all the creatures in their sights.
Tay jumped when something touched his hair, and spun to find one of the creatures at his shoulder with its woody fingers combing through his hair. “Pretty,” it crooned. “Fire.”
“Fire,” the others echoed. “Touch the fire.” They all moved forward, emboldened that their fellow creature had not been consumed by the fire, presumably meaning Tay’s bright, fiery-red hair.
“Get off.” Tay lifted the stick man, tugging the fingers from his hair, and literally threw him away from them. The creature hissed, and the sound was repeated around the closing circle. To Tay’s horror, the expression on the woody faces turned from curiosity to animosity, and a dozen little mouths opened to show rows of razor-sharp fangs.
“Oh shit,” Cale said softly, then stood up, pulling Tay up with him. “Don’t worry,” he whispered, “I’ll protect you.” Tay almost laughed until Cale whirled, catching the nearest stick creature with his booted foot, sending it flying back to knock over three more. He then whirled again, sweeping two others off their feet. The creatures snarled and hissed, trying to bite his foot, but his boots were too thick for their teeth, as sharp as they were, to make any impression at all.
One enterprising imp leapt at Cale, whose sweeping arm caught it before he could reach the throat for which it aimed, and although it sank its teeth in, the thick layers of wool coat and jacket protected him. He was then able to use the swinging stick as a weapon against the others, which he did, protecting both himself and Tay until the creatures, including the one he’d been swinging in his hand, fell back licking their wounds.
“Nice work,” Tay said breathlessly.
“Hmm. I’m not going to be able to fight them all if they come at us together, though. There are more than there were when it started.”
As he spoke, Tay realised he was right. The number of stick-men had more than doubled, and there were more skulking out of the trees to join the little crowd, who whispered and rustled and watched Tay and Cale with glowing eyes and bared teeth. During the fight, the two friends had moved to the centre of the clearing and now stood back to back in the middle of a ring of stick-men. They weren’t moving forward, but they seemed to be waiting for something.
“Well, at least we’re together, mate. Last man standing, huh?”
Tay grinned at the reference to the games they used to play. Whether they were cowboys or ninjas, wizards or warriors, they were always the last men standing, facing the last battle with their guns, wands, or swords in their hands. In their games, they always triumphed. Today, it seemed they were about to fight their last battle.
“It was good knowing you.”
“Yeah. At least I’m not going to turn into a demon now.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Not saying it won’t make it go away.”
Tay gave an ironic huff. “No, but―” He broke off, his eyes flying wide. “Shit, now we know what they’re waiting for.”
Dozens of the little creatures had materialised out of the trees, surrounding Cale and Tay with a ring four deep. The ring now split to let something else into the circle. It was a creature similar to the stick-men, only three times as big and much bulkier. The teeth, though, were just the same, if bigger and probably sharper.
Cheryl was born into a poor mining family in the South Wales Valleys. Until she was 16, the toilet was at the bottom of the garden and the bath hung on the wall. Her refrigerator was a stone slab in the pantry and there was a black lead fireplace in the kitchen. They look lovely in a museum but aren’t so much fun to clean.
Cheryl has always been a storyteller. As a child, she’d make up stories for her nieces, nephews and cousin and they’d explore the imaginary worlds she created, in play.
Later in life, Cheryl became the storyteller for a re enactment group who travelled widely, giving a taste of life in the Iron Age. As well as having an opportunity to run around hitting people with a sword, she had an opportunity to tell stories of all kinds, sometimes of her own making, to all kinds of people. The criticism was sometimes harsh, especially from the children, but the reward enormous.
It was here she began to appreciate the power of stories and the primal need to hear them. In ancient times, the wandering bard was the only source of news, and the storyteller the heart of the village, keeping the lore and the magic alive. Although much of the magic has been lost, the stories still provide a link to the part of us that still wants to believe that it’s still there, somewhere.
In present times, Cheryl lives in a terraced house in the valleys with her son, dog, bearded dragon and three cats. Her daughter has deserted her for the big city, but they’re still close. She’s never been happier since she was made redundant and is able to devote herself entirely to her twin loves of writing and art, with a healthy smattering of magic and mayhem
I have been a fan of fantasy almost all my life, starting with my mother reading me fairy tales and moving on to authors like Piers Antony then David Eddings and Tolkien to my obsession with Terry Pratchett.
The huge scope of fantasy draws me as a reader and a writer. It’s limited only by imagination. Characters can be placed in any situation, given any characteristics you want and inhabit any world you can create. The way characters think, feel, react and handle situations are the same because people are people no matter what situation you put them into, but their surroundings can be anything you want.
Secret dreams of the authors can be worked out through their characters. Do you want to fly? No problem. Do you want to turn your enemies into frogs? That’s possible. Do you want to walk through fields of flowers full of tiny fairies, to woods steeped in mystery and trees that talk to you? Do you want to meet a mermaid? Talk to a dragon? See a ghost? All of these are possible.
Despite all of this I have never taken the plunge into full fantasy, although I have dipped my toe with a contemporary fairy tale Draven’s Gate published with NineStar Press. That was the stepping stone for me to jump in with both feet, and Willow’s Way was born. Even then, I started in a contemporary setting before leaping through the looking glass into a world where panthers fly and shadows take form, where cities are built on sleeping dragons and a fairy prince learns to fly.
To authors, if you’ve never tried fantasy, give it a try, it’s such a freeing experience. Even if you don’t take it all the way, write a short and let your imagination have free range. To readers, give it a chance, find a world that fits your fantasies and let your mind fly free.
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