When the fantasy author sits down to work, the tools available are not just pen, pencil, laptop and imagination. Inside the toolbox are a whole host of literary creations that are ready to use ‘off-the-shelf’. There are goblins and orcs (useful for a massed threat). Dragons can be handy for a dramatic set-piece ending. Werewolves, ghosts, ghouls and wraiths flitter about, providing a handy homage to some well-remembered horror yarn. Beneath the mouldy beams of bridges, trolls lurk in the gloom. Meanwhile, giants pound across the wilderness, sending houses and barns rattling like teacups and saucers on an upset table. Never fear: there are also lean, clean otherworldly elves to sort out the mess. If things are getting too dark, a drunken dwarf or two can lighten the mood with some beard-tugging jest.
It’s all rather dull.
For me, one of the fun things about writing imaginative fiction is the opportunity to create something completely new. It feels more satisfying to avoid the well-worn examples above and to find different and unusual creations to populate the world. These creatures are not always so terrible, even though they might give our heroes a hard time. Here for example is a race of forest-dwelling creatures, the mitterlings, who appear in my second novel, Rise of the Homrihan:
Hands and arms were everywhere. Green eyes, round and smooth as acorns glittered behind the leaves and twigs. Hundreds of creatures, about twelve inches tall, ran towards them. They seemed to be made of wood, as though someone had broken up bits of bark and stuck it to their living bodies. The creatures were otherwise naked, and very thin, like living wooden puppets. They were pouring from the upper reaches.
“Mitterlings!” Valderan cried.
“Keep them back!” Roared Siskin, threateningly waving his sword around his ankles. In moments, three or four of the creatures were cut, and fell back. The others scattered away. They formed a circle just beyond the range of Siskin’s weapon, where they bobbed and hissed at him.
Valderan fired once above the pack, and they gasped in horror at the power of his weapon. Some held their hands over their ears. As they flinched away from him, he fired upwards into the branches, accidentally hitting one of the creatures. It fell in a sheer drop, landing on its chin in the space between men and mitterlings. Both pistols were empty now, but Valderan waved them at the creatures aggressively. Small pellets dropped from the hindquarters of one or two.
And then in a later section:
The mitterlings had watched in silence, but now they were starting to shuffle and fidget. Then, one by one, the whole group leapt into action. They rushed around until the females had formed a circle, facing inwards. The males started to climb up the tree so that they were hanging from the creepers that grew around its trunk. Without any sign of command, the females bowed their heads while the males turned theirs towards the oldest of their number. So ancient was this mitterling that the bark on its body had taken on a life of its own. Fronds and branches grew from it, some with green shoots at their tips. Lichen covered its back, though grey tufts of hair stuck out from between the wood. Its eyes gleamed with cunning as it strutted before its pack.
This aged mitterling flung back its head and then slowly started to make a sound. It was a hooting noise, like the call of a collared dove, only deeper and dryer. The other males formed a chorus until there was a great thrum that rose into the trees. Then the females joined, and their note seemed to float above that of the males, making a higher, reedier sound. The song they sang was mysterious, almost a solid presence in the air.
Below, Siskin and Valderan heard it, though they did not know its origin.
“What in the name of the hells is that?” Siskin asked.
“I have no idea, but in these parts, it can’t mean anything good.”
Valderan cocked his pistols. Siskin drew his sword and dagger. They waited, looking round and round. The weird song of the mitterlings went on.
(c) Alastair Savage, 2012