Dear readers, tonight we print an interview with a member of the supporting cast of a fantasy novel. The interview was conducted on his home fantasy world by native crones, and discusses the protagonist and the Good Company, swords and sorcery, and the ashen.

Igmar blinked.  “Where am I?”

“The island has no name. Though, some call it Coal.” He squinted as two figures swam into focus before him. The one who had spoken was a withered crone, all crows’ feet and brown teeth; the other, a girl of about eight winters, sat wide-eyed, clasping a doll.

“How did I get here” he asked, frowning.

“Storm.” the crone said, as though it were as natural an occurrence as another dawn. “Drink your tea.”

Igmar looked down at the steaming mug beside him. He raised it, sniffed and was about to take a sip when he paused.

“Who are you?”

“Heggerty.” said the crone. “Welcome to our abode. This here is—”

“Belitha!” shot the girl, enthusiastically, her small feet kicking, making her chair wriggle and creak. The crone smiled fondly then turned her eyes upon him once more.

“Now you know our names, and since you’re our guest, tell us of yourself?”

“Guest?” he repeated absently, rubbing his head and staring down at the tea in his hand. He took a sip. Strangely bitter and sweet at once; quenching his thirst to leave him parched once more. He took another and sank back into his chair. After a weary sigh, his words seemed to drift unbidden from his mouth.

“My name is Igmar. I recall no storm… perhaps a boat…” he searched his weathered boots for an answer, before giving up. “Anyway, I’ll need to get back soon.”

“Back where?” Heggerty asked.

“Back to the wilds, of course. The north. The sea is no place for me. I’ve duties to uphold.”

“The wilds are vast—compared to our small island, at least. Might you be more specific?”

“I roam. I’ve no home. If I were to name my origin, I suppose I’d say Warinkel. You’ll not have heard of it.”

“We know of it.” she said, surprising him. But just then his gaze was drawn to the doll Belitha was caressing. An uneasiness grew within him.

“What’s that you’ve got there?”

“A doll.” she said, turning it until Igmar looked upon his own likeness. Bald head; large, hooked nose; long, dark beard, streaked with as much grey as black; a missing ear; small, black ashen eyes.

“What’s that for?”

“Just a souvenir.” Belitha said, sweetly. “For my collection. I hope you don’t mind.”

Igmar was about to say that he did mind. That he minded more than he could reasonably explain. But just then the crone broke in, as if reading his thoughts.

“You’re not the first ashen we’ve met. One of your kind caused us great distress, in fact.”

Igmar swallowed, something in her tone threatened.

“Well, we’re not all bad. I mean, yes we’ve got a certain reputation, but in the Good Company, you’ll find only the best.”

“The Good Company?” asked Heggerty, leaning forward intensely. The girl’s head too, had jerked upwards at the name.

“You’ve heard of it?” Igmar said, frowning.

“You wouldn’t happen to know an ashen by the name of Balagir, would you?”

“Why, yes! Balagir. A perfect example of a good ashen. He did well by the company. Got us some good smoke. Miss the lad.” He looked up, hopefully. “He came by this way?”

But the gazes he met did not calm him.

“A good ashen, you say?” Heggerty said, darkly. “He’s a thief. He stole from us. Caused the death of one of his crew as a result. After we had made him our guest and shared our tea!”

Igmar swallowed. “I said he was good. Not perfect. Look, I’m sure there was a reason for—”

“For stealing? For betraying our trust? Damn near broke the girl’s heart he did, taking her dolls like that.”

Igmar took an awkward sip of tea and set his mug down, even as Belitha’s lip trembled at the memory.

“Well, I can only apologise on his behalf.” Igmar said, uncomfortably. “I assure you, there were no such antics in the Good Company. Not on my watch. I can only assume he had dire reason to do so.” The tension in the room had become unbearable and he shifted, summoning an excuse to leave. But just then the crone’s expression softened.

“You’ll have to excuse me. So few visitors do we get. I would not wish to drive you off. It just touched a nerve, that’s all. Let us move on. Water under the bridge. I’m sure, back when he was in the wilds, he was a better man. Here have some more tea.”

“Thanks, but I really must be—”

“I insist.” she said, filling his mug and passing it him.

“Erm, just one more then. Thank you. You really are quite hospitable. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to steal…” his words trailed off as he felt their anticipation. They were watching the mug. Watching as he raised it to his lips and drank once more. Then they relaxed. Heggerty smiled and the tension seemed to seep from the room.

“The Good Company.” she prompted, leaning back. “What can you tell us about it.”

“Well, I’m the leader. At least, I have been for many years. I wasn’t always, of course. No. Who knows how far back it dates. None can recall. When I joined there were two who had been there a while, but even they could not recall the beginning. High turnover, you see. On account of all the… well, death. Or abandonment. Not all who depart, die. Take Balagir, for example, he… err. Well, you know all about him, I suppose.” he said, eyeing the tea with suspicion, yet unable to refrain from taking another sip. “Anyway, since we are always but four in number, we seem to come and go. Balagir was with me but a short time, yet he played his part well, ever since Hader…” he trailed off.

“Yes?” Heggerty prompted.

Igmar shook himself from somewhere far away, suppressing a shudder. “Raf Hader, an Idris. He’d been with me a while. Sad to see him go, it was.” When he did not elaborate, the crone and the girl were at least polite enough not to belabour the point.

“And the others? You said you were always four.”

“Ah yes, Freya. Short tempered lass, good in a tight spot though. Once Balagir left, and Rych lost his mind—irritable fellow—things just fell apart.”

“You say you’ve been at the helm for a long time. How long exactly?” Heggerty asked.

“Hard to say… You know something of the ashen? Of our fires?”

“I’ve heard of them. There was one here once, I believe. Gone now, of course. Took most of the island with it, hence the name. Left something unsavoury in its wake, too.”

“I see. Well, the fires—or hubs, as we call them—have a way of distorting time. And you know that the ashen are immortal? Until they are killed, that is. So, you see, things have gotten rather blurry… It does seem a long time ago since I joined up, many have come and gone since. Too many… I can’t tell you more than that.”

“Why the Good Company?” the girl asked, rocking back and forth excitedly. “Were you good?”

“We… try to be.” Igmar said, distantly. “Ashen are a volatile lot. It’s the smoke, you see. Makes us competitive. I’ve seen many a good man go bad. Not many come back the other way.”

“And now you’re alone.” Heggerty said, thoughtfully.

“So, it appears. But I’ll regroup when I get back north. The Good Company has been through worse. You don’t happen to know if there’s a ship sailing soon?”

“A ship? No, sadly, no ships. Not until the next storm washes one in.”

“You can stay with us! He can stay with us, can’t he Heggerty?”

“I don’t see why not.” she said, revealing a disturbing smile. “We could do with some help. Almost out of firewood, in fact.”

“That’s very kind.” Igmar said, looking to the door, wondering if their words were true and he really was trapped here for the while. If he had to wait for another ship, he did not wish to offend his sole companions.

“I can show you my other dolls.” the girl said, eagerly. “Do you want to see?”

“You have more?”

“Oh yes! Many. All who come.”

“Save your friend’s, of course.”

“I see.” Igmar said, understanding now why Balagir had stolen from them. Suddenly feeling confined, he stood. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll just take some air first.”

The girl frowned and pushed the doll down onto her lap. Igmar’s knees folded and he fell back into his chair. Slowly, his eyes widened in alarm.

“We’re not done yet.” Heggerty said, reaching for the pot. “Not by a long way. Would you like some more tea?”

CF Welburn was born in the year of Star Wars, in the birth town of Charles Darwin. He caught the fantasy bug as a child at the top of a faraway tree, in a hole in the ground and through a snowy wardrobe. He left Shropshire to study literature, travel the lands and seek his fortune. He settled in Madrid, where he teaches English and art, whilst scratching his imagination onto parchment.

You can find Igmar on the pages of The Ashen Levels.

Keep an eye out for our special mid-week SPFBO interviews! Join us next week to hear from a sorceress, a mage of Spirit and Fire, and world similar to our ancient Rome. Please follow the site by email (bottom-right) to be notified when the next interview is posted.