#writephoto: Epilogue

This is for Sue Vincent’s #writephoto prompt. Another part of the story, a sort of epilogue. I really must get on with writing it and stop paddling around the edges!

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The house is a fine one, fitting for the rich demesne it represents. William le Maréchal built the original manor house, a single storey affair, as was the style in those days. Despite having gained the hand of Richard de Clare’s daughter Isabel in marriage, he was not granted the title of Earl of Pembroke. The title went to Richard’s grandsons; the old King Henry had seen to that. Out of the friendship he bore Richard de Clare, he had protected his lands and his daughter from the vultures. And le Maréchal’s sons would be the last of his line; Evienne would see to that.

William refused to live in the castle of Pembroke as long as he was deprived of the title that went with it. He built the manor house on the banks of the river Wye where he could look upon the imposing walls of the castle and admire his possession. On his death, one after the other, his five sons held the title Earl of Pembroke. All died violent or unexplained deaths. All died childless. His five daughters though had a wealth of children, all daughters. Evienne’s laughter could be heard ringing through the woods of the river bank at each new birth.

Two hundred years after William’s death, the house has been improved and enlarged. It belongs to the descendants of Isabel’s eldest daughter now, as do all the Pembroke lands. In a room overlooking the kitchen garden, a child plays with a puppy. The puppy is a gazehound, pure black except for her neat white feet. Her name is Whitefoot. The child’s name is Aline and her hair is the colour of red gold. She has finished her Latin and Greek lessons and in a little while her mathematics tutor will arrive.

In this house, the daughters are taught the same arts and sciences as the sons. The daughters marry men who respect and value them, and for the most part they are accomplished and fulfilled. It is part of the bargain, her mother told her once. Many, many years ago, one of their ancestors was eaten by a serpent because he wanted to marry his daughter to a man who was as ignorant as a pig in a sty. The serpent vowed to come back and eat up any lord of the manor who treated his daughters with less respect than his sons. Or some such tale, she’d said with a smile.

“And if you are shown respect, you must be worthy of it,” she had added.

It had always seemed a fair request to Aline, which is what she tells her eldest brother Amaury when he says it is unwomanly to want to know as much as a man.

“Stick to embroidery and strumming your lute. No man will make an offer for a woman who gets above herself.”

“And what does it mean to be manly then, brother?” she asks him. “To know Latin and Greek, to study Euclid, trigonometry and astronomy?”

Amaury is a brute, there’s no getting away from it; to inherit his father’s title is all that matters to him. He is a dullard and both Milo and Geoffrey are quicker and more advanced than he is. He frowns and his voice is low and menacing.

“Knowledge is a man’s prerogative. But a man who cannot rely on his own strength and skill at arms is no man at all.”

“So a man must be fearless, is that it? And wield a sword well?” He nods, his eyes narrowed, looking for a trap. “And you would dare to wade into the river and summon up the Guivre?”

“I’m not a fool!” he scoffs.

“So, you wouldn’t dare. I would though. Does that make me as fearless as a man?”

“It makes you a fool.”

“And you a coward.”

Amaury’s face pales with the insult. Milo looks up from his book and glances at Geoffrey. “We’ll come and watch.”

 

There is a bend in the river where a pool has formed, overhung with willows and thick with sedge. Aline knows the place well, how the water in the pool is always still as a mirror even on a windy day, where the clouds float and other things that she does not see in the sky. She hitches her kirtle up to her knees and fastens it with her belt. She leaves her shoes on the bank and wades into the cold water in her stockings.

“Take care,” Geoffrey says.

“We’ll come if you need help,” Milo says.

Amaury plunges into the water and grabs Aline by the arm. “Get out of here,” he snarls. “I’ll not have a girl make a mockery of me.”

Aline turns back to the bank, and a grin, quickly stifled, flashes across Milo’s face. They watch as Amaury, twelve years of manhood, wades into the pool, his drawn sword held clear of the water. He shouts, some senseless words of summoning that serve only to give voice to his fear. He stops, ceases his splashing and shouting, listens. He lowers his eyes, searching beneath the still surface of the water and screams. A child’s scream of terror.

Milo and Geoffrey start, their toes dipped in the water of the shallows, unsure. Aline watches the water, not her brother and his flailing limbs as he scrambles to the bank. She sees a graceful pale shadow slide like a wraith or a swan beneath the mirror. She listens and hears the bright tinkle of a woman’s laughter.

There is no Guivre except in the minds of the ignorant and fearful. The Guivre has gone, released into the past by a good man who kept his word. Grow strong and wise and deserving of trust. And Remember.

She turns to Geoffrey who has reached for her hand, her eyes full of white samite and her ears of long dead laughter.

“What was it?” he whispers.

“A mother,” she replies as tears bud in the corner of her eyes.

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#writephoto: Una One-Eye

I’m into the last pages of the last polish of volume one of my new epic Norse-Celtic historical fantasy saga. Sue’s photo obviously takes me to winter in Vænnland. This bit for the Thursday Photo Prompt isn’t the actual text, but a scene from the story.

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The little red horse was lost to sight among the dense tree trunks of the Jötunnskögr. Hakki’s cries of wonderment at each flash of bird-colour, each flicker of sunlight on a glittering icicle had faded into the distance. Una trudged through the snow, scarcely noticing the thickening silence, her thoughts too full of the thrall’s strange unsettling behaviour. She wanted to trust him, needed to feel that she was not alone with her baby brother to protect from the fishmen.

Fiachra was right when he said they had no choice but to flee. Bjarni, unnatural son and brother, would not hesitate to tell the Guardians that his sister and small brother were trollkarls. The thrall too. He had always hated Fiachra for being all that he was not, even though he was not a free man, and Bjarni had the right to beat him and kill him if he so desired. That was not the question. What troubled Una was why Fiachra was so keen to save her and Hakki from discovery. It would have been so much easier for him to take the horse and make for the coast and freedom. Why did he burden himself with a one-eyed girl and a child of three springs?

She shivered. A cloud must have passed over the sun. Suddenly, the forest was even darker than before. Una looked about uneasily, aware at last of the utter silence, the deepening cold, the choking, tense sensation of withheld breath, and the inevitability of approaching danger. A tree branch trembled and shed its burden of snow. Beneath her feet, Una felt the rumbling of the earth. A breeze, sharp and cutting brought the salt smell of the distant sea, and with the roar of snapping tree trunks, the ground before her erupted in a fountain of earth, snow and broken branches. A mass, a whale, a long ship with its oars and serpentine prow, surged from the earth and she was drenched in sea water.

Sea beast!

They had found her, tracked her along the underground waterways, into the roots of the mountain. The eye that wasn’t there throbbed, and power filled her from the soles of her feet to the tips of her fingers. An eyeless head swung round, drawn to her body heat, and opened a circular maw where curved teeth spiralled out of sight into the darkness of the sinewy throat. Swallowing her terror, she raised a hand.

Do it, Una!

In her head, Hakki’s voice commanded, and her features twisted into a desperate resolve. With a cry, she threw the sapphire fire that boiled inside her at the swaying head.

 

Microfiction #writephoto: Ys

This short piece, for Sue Vincent’s Thursday Photo Prompt, is based on one of my (not yet published) novels.

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Una stood with her back to the house, the low, familiar house that was just a cluster of deeper shadows in the night. Before her lay the path to the village, silver pale in the light of the new moon, and it was empty. If Agnarr’s cow had had a heifer, her father would no doubt be feasting with his cousin. She would not be able to bar the door until he returned.

Westward, where the village lay, the path wound out of sight beyond the oak copse that clustered darkly, silent except for the faint whoosh of the wings of hunting owls. To the east, it petered out among the dunes of the estuary. Una shivered and clutched her shawl tighter. The ocean heaved restlessly and she listened awhile to the insistent crash and hiss of the waves. Movement at the edge of her limited vision made her turn her head sharply. Her one eye saw only shifting shadows, but the eye that wasn’t there, in the empty socket behind the eye band, saw sea beasts crawl up the strand and lie, their bulk dull and dark even beneath the moon, waiting.

She held her breath, felt the tingling in the lost eye, and the tide drew back, hissing through millions and millions of pebbles, foaming through shells, swirling about rocks, receding, shrinking until the rocks became crags, and she saw that they were not crags at all.

Look, Una. The voice from her dreams, the Valdur general from so long ago, whispered urgently. Look at what was lost.

As she watched, the rocky columns straightened, smooth as marble, veined with fire. Palaces and gardens took shape in the pools left by the tide, fountains and cloisters. Una stared, and the eye throbbed. She did not even have names for such things.

This is what you must help restore, Una. Bring back what the Guardians destroyed.

“No,” she murmured, shaking her head and putting a hand over the empty eye, “this cannot be. This is heresy.”

Not heresy. This is your world. The lost world of Ys.

In the Hall of the Mountain King

Bernadette at Haddon Musings asked if I would like to post a short excerpt from one of the Tales from the Northlands, so I will. This piece is from In the Hall of the Mountain King. Jussi, youngest son of a fisherman  despairs of marrying Solveig, the blacksmith’s daughter.

Jussi knew perfectly well that he had been foolish to set his heart on Solveig. Her father, the blacksmith, was hoping for a rich son-in-law. But Jussi was counting on Mundi Iron-Hands’ indulgence—that he would never marry off his daughter without her consent. Jussi had always hoped that Solveig liked him enough to insist with her father. But he could never tell with her. He knew she liked him, but she liked other things too. Things Jussi couldn’t give her.

He’d taken his black humour with him to meet Solveig, knew she’d have taken the cows up to the high pasture, out of sight of the blacksmith, his forge and her nosy brothers. He needed to hear her say she would have him whatever fate his father had reserved for him, just to see the light in her eyes and know that she saw deeper than the callouses on his hands and the tears in his kyrtill. He had caught up with her and the red cows but she wouldn’t sit and talk. She was often like that though, always on the move, picking daft flowers or watching the way an amber bead glinted in the sun.

“A fisherman? Don’t make me laugh. You’re a nice boy, Jussi, but you’ll never be more than a poor man, and your wife will spend her life in the stink of fish guts. Her clothes will never be free of the smell, and nor will her husband.

“Is that all you care about? How things smell?” Jussi had asked angrily.

Solveig had laughed, that infuriating, silvery laugh that made the hair at the back of his neck stand on end. “I care about how things smell, and how they look and how they taste. I care about the touch of fine linen against my skin and thick furs to wrap me up warm in winter.” She had spun round, her short cloak flying about her like a banner and revealing the tight corn-coloured plaits wound round her head. “I care about having combs for my hair and necklaces of amber and garnets.” Her face was suddenly serious. “But most of all I care about having a man who will look after me and stay with me, and not leave me a widow with bairns to feed and a cold bed to cry in.”

“But I wouldn’t leave you!” Jussi’s indignation had spilled out on the verge of anger.

“And how many fishermen are swallowed up by the sea? And how many raiders never come home to hear the songs of their exploits?”

“I’d be careful, I’d never take risks.”

Solveig had looked at him with sadness welling up in her eyes. She had reached out and taken his hands in hers. “But you would, because you would have no choice. A fisherman’s life is hard. He must go where the fish shoal. Even when the sea is wild and the winter cold bites, his bairns will need feeding. I won’t love a man to lose him, Jussi. I want to keep him for always.”

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If you’d like to read what happens to Jussi and Solveig, Tales from the Northlands is available at

Amazon.com

Amazon.co.uk

at only 99c/p. A steal 🙂

WIP excerpt: Ys

This is a bit from the second volume of Ys. Who knows when the first one will be published, but I have hopes for it. This extract features Una’s younger sister, Hildr, one of my favourite characters. Hildr is eleven years old and I love her.

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The night was cold, but even if the skin she’d been given had been a bear skin or a wolf skin, and not an ox skin stiff with age, Hildr would not have slept. Her face hurt where Dan had hit her, and she felt her teeth with her tongue. Nothing loose, but the blow had split her lip and she was parched with thirst. The outlaw camp was never completely still. They had horses somewhere close, and they kept watch all night, changing at regular hours. The fire burned low and there was little enough light to see by, but she peered into the darkness until she saw movement where there was none, and pinpoints of light like stars floating beneath the trees. She tried to imagine her father, because it was impossible to think of her mother. She imagined him coming back home, furious because he hadn’t found Hakki. She refused to follow that other, dark path, of Haldan bringing Una and Hakki home, and the inevitable consequences.

He can’t have found Hakki and Una because the Guardians’d kill ’em if he brought ’em back. He don’t know that, don’t even know the Guardians don’t care if Una’s a trollwife an’ Hakki’s a trollkarl. Father thinks they’ll listen to reason.

She imagined him going to the village and telling the Guardians that the thrall must have taken Una and Hakki both back to his country in the south. The Guardians would let her mother and Gudrun go free then, because they weren’t trollwives, were they? Tears ran down her cheeks as the illusion shattered, like a pebble thrown into still water. Even she, clutching at the only hope she had, could not believe such a load of pig shit. Her father would come back and the Guardians would sling him in the barn with Mother and Gudrun and then…and then…She knew what came after but shook her head back and forth to stop the image from forming, bit her lip until it bled so the pain would shatter it, like a pebble in a water reflection.

In the dead time of the night, she heard a shuffle, a stealthy step close at hand. She hunched her knees up to her chest and wished she had her fists free, or a knife, but lasses didn’t carry knives and in any case, she had hardly had time to pack, had she? The shuffling was close, close enough, she thought, to feel the movement of air, and she heard breathing, slow and measured. A hand was laid on her shoulder, and she kicked out with both feet. The contact hurt her toes, but she had the pleasure of hearing a grunt of pain.

“Little bitch,” a voice muttered, the odd, lilting accents of Brynki the outlander.

Is it clever to scream?

She held her breath and the outlaw clapped one hand over her mouth; the other flicked a knife blade before her eyes.

“See this? If you don’t want it in your throat you’ll hold your noise. An’ if you want to see your dad again, you’ll come quiet an’ take your chance with Brynki.”

Bite? Go quiet?

She let out her breath and nodded. Brynki lowered the knife. He slid the blade behind the knot and cut the rope. Rubbing her wrists, she rolled out from beneath the skin. This was what she had hoped for. It was so exactly what she had hoped she feared she was dreaming it, that her longing had been so strong it had shaped a vision. But Brynki was moving beyond the fireglow and signalling to her to follow. She could do that, vision or not, and quieter than him too, for all he was an outlaw and used to creeping about unheard and unseen. He stopped beneath the thicket at the edge of the camp. She crept close and listened, her heart pounding with excitement.

“Wait here,” he whispered. “I’ve got business to do first.”

She didn’t need to be told what the business was. She’d have done the same. But she wanted to see. The sentry, she couldn’t tell which one it was, stood with his back to a tree trunk, a bow propped up next to him. The other two lay wrapped in bear skins beneath a wattle shelter. Hildr kept her eyes on the sentry. He’d get that one first, she reckoned. That’s what she’d do anyway. There was no sound. Wherever Brynki was, he was being quiet about it. The sentry stretched and took a couple of paces towards the glowing embers of the fire. He bent down and stretched out his hands to warm them. His face bent into the faint light and she recognized the thin face and dark hair of Dan, noticing with satisfaction that the bite mark on his cheek was puffy and swollen. After a moment, he straightened up and turned back to the edge of the campsite. She heard the unmistakable sound of pissing, cut short abruptly. She strained her ears. Bracken sighed as something heavy was laid down in it. Her gaze cut to the shelter. A shadow slipped beneath the skin awning. There was a swift movement, an arm pulled back, once, twice, and the shadow slipped outside again.

Brynki skirted the fire and strode across to where Hildr was watching.

“Come on. Let’s go. There’s another two fuckers in this band and they’ll be back any time.”

“Wait. I just want to have a look.” Hildr jerked her chin in the direction of the bracken where Dan was lying.

Brynki hesitated then nodded. “Quick.”

Quick and clever.

Hildr scampered across the clearing then slowed at the edge. The bracken round the first tree was flattened and as she moved cautiously into the trees where the shadow was dense and motionless, she saw the tip of a boot. Then the second, leggings tied with leather thongs, a rucked kyrtill, a gambeson, torn and patched, and flooded with black blood. Dan’s face was tilted back, staring sightlessly into the forest behind and overhead. The vein in his throat had stopped pumping and he was quite still. Hildr looked quickly over her shoulder. Brynki was standing watching, hands on hips. She bent and snatched the knife from his belt and slipped it inside her sleeve.

“Seen enough?” Brynki asked when she returned.

She nodded. “ Where are we going?”

“North. That’s where Mundi went, but a day out from your midden of a village, he said he reckoned he’d head west. So that’s what we’ll do.”

Hildr swallowed. Quick and clever. “But Mundi didn’t come back. I heard you say.”

Brynki shrugged. “So? Mebbe he didn’t find him. But you will. Mundi said all your kin are touched with trolldom. You’ll find him, all right. Leastways, you’d better do.” Brynki untied a length of rope from round his waist. “Hold out your hands. I’d be a fool to trust you not to run, an’ I don’t want to end up like Dan either.”

Quick and clever.

“Let me go for a piss first.”

“By the Allvaldr’s fishy ballocks! You do it there. No getting out of my sight.”

Hildr slunk behind the tree and lifted her skirts. When she’d done, she slipped the knife into the drawstring of her linen knickers.

“Finished?”

Obediently, she held out her hands and Brynki tied them together. He held the other end of the rope and jerked it. “That way.”

North is where Father is, and this sheep’s ballocks of an outlaw don’t want to give me to the Guardians. Walk, Hildr but keep your eyes and your ears open. When you get your chance, use the knife. Quick and clever.

The Burnt Man

This is a scene from Abomination which just about fits Sacha Black’s writing prompt: Burnt Edges.

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The man with the single, raging red eye and half his face burned away pointed, and the ramshackle barrier of upturned sofas and bed frames burst into flame. Maria Dolores screamed and covered her face, as tribesmen leapt into action, whooping with the pent up excitement of years of captivity, imprisoned by the biting cold and the devastation beyond the fragile walls of the mall.

Knives and bludgeons flailed, cutting down anyone stupid or slow enough to be hanging around in their path—stray children, the last of the old folks. Maria Dolores ripped the holy medal from around her neck and flung it with a stream of high-pitched invective into the flames. There was no hope now. Humanity had fled and He had come to take its place.

Abomination: excerpt

Tomorrow is launch day for my publisher, Finch Books, and Abomination will be available for purchase from the Finch Books website. This is the last excerpt before the big day.

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“On that pallet over there. A few big cans of beans left. Bring one.”

“Have you all forgotten how to speak, as well as how to wash?” Carla snapped.

“Mostly. Yes.”

Carla staggered over with the ten-kilo can of white navy beans to where Kat was opening a much smaller can of frankfurters. She opened the beans and together they tipped the contents into a stew pot of dubious cleanliness. The sausages followed.

“How many is this for?” Carla asked. She had seen at least a dozen men and boys and nearly twice as many women.

“All of us.”

“Then those sausages won’t go very far.”

“Just for the men.”

“I might have guessed,” Carla sighed. “I suppose we ought to be grateful to get a few beans.”

The girl heaved a world-weary sigh. “If they leave any.”

Carla was about to ask why they let themselves be pushed about by a bunch of macho brutes who thought they were living in the Middle Ages when she took a good look at the girl. Carla had taken her for a skinny kid, but a closer inspection revealed the bony shoulders, scrawny breasts and haggard look of a woman, but under-developed and emaciated. Like Tully, Carla was beginning to put together a picture of their new environment.

“There’s not much to eat, is there?”

Kat just looked around. The warehouse was three-quarters empty. “You see much?”

“Can’t you get food somewhere else? Find another supermarket, I mean.”

Kat sighed. “This is Flay territory. Other places like this are in some other tribe’s territory. Not enough warriors left to fight over food.”

“What about hunting?”

Kat forced a wry smile. “Hunt what? Rats? Crows? Drax?”

“Drax?”

“Big dogs.”

“Why not, if that’s all there is?”

“Rats and crows eat corpses, drink poisoned water. Drax eat rats and crows and corpses. They are all sick, rotten. If we eat them, we become like drax. Drax used to be dogs.”

This was the longest speech Carla had heard from Kat. It had been a real physical effort for her, as if she had to drag the words from her memory, as if they were so rarely used they had almost been forgotten. Carla asked one last question, though she dreaded the reply.

“So, what will happen when the food runs out?”

Kat’s expression was dull and hopeless and she did not reply. She didn’t need to.

Carla bit her lip, trying to hang onto the strange, obscene ideas that darted like cockroaches in and out of the shadowy places in her mind.