#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.

 

#Three Line Tales: Yuletide

This short story is for Sonya’s photo prompt. It ties in well with the block buster Norse-type saga I’m just polishing up.

photo by Patrick Wittke via Unsplash

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When the little girl had filled the mangers in the cow barn, she ran outside to look at the horses in the field behind the longhouse, especially the stocky, sturdy pony with a sprinkling of snow on his chestnut coat.

She felt a pang, as she always did, that the pony had to be outside in the snow while the cows were warm in the barn, and would have liked to bring him in, just for a while, but if she’d said as much, her father would have shrugged and reminded her it would soon be Yule.

She couldn’t know, but the stirrings of compassion when she looked into the gentle eyes of the little horse, were the same as a child might feel a thousand years hence, if she were to look into the eyes of what was to be the meat supply for the festive season.

 

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 🙂

It’s here!

The technical glitch is sorted and Tales from the Northlands is up and running. It’s a 99c/p volume so it won’t break the bank, and if you enjoy stories, you’re in for a treat, because no one could tell stories better than the Norsemen, and though I’m not a Norseman, you might be able to forget that when you’re reading them.

tftn

Just to repeat myself, this is what they’re all about..

These five short stories are set in the Northlands: a modern Swedish department store, the windswept east coast of Anglo-Saxon England, and the fjords of Viking Sverige.

A rickety wooden escalator carries a child from his safe, comfortable world of department store Christmas glitter to the midnight zone inhabited by legendary nightmares.

On the windswept east coast of Northumbria, a Saxon thegn avenges his murdered chief by selling his village to the sea wolves, and a ruthless war leader prepares for battle, gloating over the blood dream sent him by the wicce.

In Viking Sverige, Jussi and Solveig plan a future juggling bride price, parental expectations and the knarr they have yet to acquire, but their future falls beneath the shadow of the mountain.

Antar seems like the answer to Inna’s dream of escaping the bleak steading on the fjord, but her father and his chosen son-in-law have other ideas.

What links these tales is the North Sea that beats the coast, brings the cold and the long ships, laps the winter nights in snow, when the wind howls stories of trolls and giants. It brings the herring, the sea mews and the grey seals, and it joins a people with the same vision of the world—harsh, vivid and full of magic.

 

You can get Tales from the Northlands here

Amazon.com

Amazon.UK

And there are, of course, free copies in exchange for a review. Though if Regency romance is your thing in historical fiction, these stories might not be for you.

Microfiction: Serpents

A longer bit of microfiction, a mingling of Norse and Celtic myth, to go with this rather splendid painting by N. Roerich

N._Roerich_-_Ready_for_the_Campaign_(The_Varangian_Sea)_-_Google_Art_Project

In the blue pink dawn, the ships bucked against the tide, strung out along the strand beyond the reefs. A dozen longships waited for the enchantment to lift, for the waves to let them pass. A dozen captains waited for the spell to break and let them drive their dragon-headed craft onto the yielding sand, to leap, yelling their war cries, into the shallows. The crossing had been long, the storms many and terrifying, and now, at the end, the magicians of the mist-bound isle held them at bay with a cowardly enchantment.
The men cursed, tired of the oars, tired of pacing the tiny space of a bucking deck. They wanted to stretch their limbs, to feel the earth firm beneath their feet, thirsting like their weapons for blood. The war rage was upon them, and not a few had already plunged to their deaths, unable to wait longer.
Release came when the first ray of the new sun struck the black reefs. The mist lifted, the fierce tide turned suddenly, and the longships shot forward, deadly arrows aimed at the island’s heart. The crews roared in their bloodlust, boated the oars and raised their bucklers, gripping the ships’ sides ready to leap into the churning waters.
But the prow of each ship reared up like a frightened horse as the jagged rocks stirred and rose out of the furious waves. In the backwash the ships tossed and rolled from side to side. The dark mass looped between them and the shore; sunlight glinted on scales festooned with limpets and violet mussels. A huge head tore free of the water and swayed above them, tossing salt water and splitting the air with a bellow louder than the loudest thunder. A maw opened big enough to swallow the greatest longship ever built.
Jörmundgandr, they murmured, and clung to their amulets as the sea serpent smashed their ships to matchwood.

Valhalla

Painting by Edward Robert Hughes, a Pre-Raphaelite painter who chose a rather diaphanous vision of the job of the Valkyries.

The_Valkyrie's_Vigil

The father, the ring master, watches with pride
The butchery on the battlefield.
His daughters, casqued and armed,
Winged mounts snorting in the chill high air,
Watch as he does, with practiced eye,
The dead and dying and the yet to die.
He points here and there,
Casually selecting the noble deaths,
Disregarding the agony of less honourable wounds.
White robed, white mounted they swoop,
And gather up their prizes from the bloody ground,
Carry their hacked and dripping burdens back to bliss.
Valhalla.
Awakened eyes, prize-winning wounds healed,
Warriors gape at the monumental feasting,
The endless benches of bearded heroes,
Eating and drinking,
Belching and vomiting
Their way to forgetfulness and eternity.
Their white robes soaked in red blood,
Hands gore slippery,
The women lead their mounts away,
To cleanse the snow white coats of human misery,
To wash their hands and wash their hands and wash,
But never the din of battle fades away,
Nor the screams of the dying,
The grieving of widows and orphans,
Mothers and lovers.
The white women wash their hands in silence
And glance down at the empty beds in dark houses,
At the hay uncut in the meadows,
The unploughed fields,
And turn deaf ears to the sound a child’s empty belly makes.
The sound of roistering covers the keening,
And beer dribbled down drunken chins
Is the nearest the noble warriors come
To weeping tears.

When editing means murdering beautiful words

When you revise a story you inevitably end up discarding sections to the greater good of the whole. Sometimes, often, these sections are dearly beloveds and it breaks our hearts to see them go.
This is a section I’ve snipped out of my WIP and I can’t resign myself to consigning it to the bin.

After_the_storm_-_blue

Finna dreams of the Rök

Many fathoms beneath the waves, the Beast roared and hurled itself against the rocky walls of its prison, sending gouts of steam high into the ink-black sky. On the coast road to Silverfoss, foot soldiers, mere farmboys and fishermen, cringed, fearing the weight of the sky, the towering seas and the soulless raging from the ocean’s depths. But their taskmasters urged them on, careless of the unfettered elements, the torrential rain slicking off their shagreen garments, no more aware of the cold than deep water fish.
“It’s those fuckin’ odd-eyed fiends doin’ this,” Jussi Bjornsson said, looking fearfully out across the heaving water. “’T’ain’t natural, the sea chuckin’ itself about like that!”
His lined fisherman’s face was pale beneath the weathering, and his worries were not so much about the sea, but about his children left behind and how his wife would feed them. Frodi Four-Fingers nodded sagely. They had never been friends, not when they were simple neighbours, but now, with their world rushing towards its end, they stuck together like brothers. Frodi clutched his pike tighter and spat in the direction of the ocean. The wind caught his spittle and flicked it back into his flying hair. His thoughts were for his sons hauling a siege engine, and the youngest who was already dead—an exhausted stumble and down he’d gone, under the wheels of the great wooden tower.
“You’d think they were stirring up the sea beasts against us—they’ve stirred up everything else! Crops die, beasts sicken, fish won’t shoal—even the bairns are born dead. What’s left to us, Jussi, lad?”
Jussi opened his mouth to reply as a whiplash caught him across the shoulders. His pack took the force of the blow and he cried out more in fear than in pain.
“Move,” the voice hissed from above. Mounted on a massive black horse, the Dyrbörn loomed over the men, his heavy cowl casting his face in deep shadow. Only the eyes reflected a dull light, flat and pale, like the eyes of a dead fish. “You want your land back? Then work for it, idlers!”
The two men scuttled to catch up with the rest of their troop, bowed beneath the weight of their weapons and their packs full of parts for the construction of a catapult. They dared a glance at one another, and each saw fear in the other’s eyes. Before them lay the splendid borg of Silverfoss, where the Svartur trollkarls plotted and feasted, and let the land go to rack and ruin. Behind them, driving them on, were the Dyrbörn, Guardians in the common tongue, shrouded in their garb of strange, rough-grained leather. Their faces, only dimly glimpsed within the shadows of deep cowls, left an impression of sea carrion, of fleshy gills and inhuman teeth.
Above the thunder of the waves and the roar of the storm, the men were aware of a third power, a dark, evil presence that the sea barely contained. They knew it for the Beast, though the word never left their lips, and only their hatred of the Svartur trollkarls who had beggared them was greater than their horror of the creatures from the sea, and the terror that lurked beneath it.
Frodi spat again in disgust and despair, and hoisted his lumpy pack higher on his shoulder. With Jussi at his side, he fixed his eyes on the tall spires and towers of Silverfoss and let hatred take command. Hatred of the trollkarls who lived surrounded by wealth and riches while his children lived on kelp and the slimy dead things the ocean tossed up. He let it boil in his blood, dark and hopeless, until even his dead boy was forgotten.

#

In their watchtowers and along their battlements, the Valdur looked on as the Dyrbörn and their army of Vænnlanders swarmed down on Silverfoss from the north. The city faced the ocean, and at its back, a broad plain rose to a high ridge lit by the dying light of day and the flickering lightning of the coming storm. Sigmarr watched, his scarred soldier’s face blank and unruffled as the darkness clotted along the ridge of the nearest hills. Soon Vænnland would be no more—the Valdur seerlore would hurl the sea from its bed, draw the fire from the deeps, and the very bones of the earth would shake. The sea would cover Vænnland’s broken back, and the crawling sea fiends would be washed away. And with them would die everything Sigmarr held dear—that was the price.
The forest was already gone. Thousand-year-old oaks and yews had been hacked down; the earth lay bleeding. Here and there, a solitary tree stood, stark and black, burnt to a charred post. On the spikes that had once borne green leaves and been called branches, pendulous fruits swayed in the wind from the sea. Traitors. Rebels. Fathers who wanted only to return to their families. All dead. Hanged. Examples for the rest. Even at such a distance the stench of death reached the city. Sigmarr’s heart went out to his people, mislead and enthralled by the Dyrbörn, the Children of the Beast.
“How long?” Sigmarr’s closest thegn, Ageirr lowered the spyglass and turned to his general.
Sigmarr’s face was lined with worry and compassion. “How long before they attack? Or how long before we end it all?”
Ageirr swallowed hard. “Is there really no other way?”
Sigmarr placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder. It was a hand roughened with calluses, strong and firm. It was a hand like his face, criss-crossed with white scars against the tan of his skin. A soldier’s hand. “We could kill them all, Vænnlanders and Dyrbörn. The sea fiends have iron and steel and an army thousands strong, but we have seerlore.”
“So—”
Sigmarr shook his head wearily. “Would you have us rule over a charnel house? A dead world of ash and bare rock? The Dyrbörn will not rest until they have freed the Beast. As long as there is Valdur seerlore in the world they will try to harness it to that purpose. That is why they were created.”
Ageirr worshiped Sigmarr, but the bitterness of the words dashed the last of his hopes. “Would that we had crushed the vermin as soon as they crawled ashore!”
Sigmarr grasped his thegn’s shoulder. “Whatever stayed the hand of the Council—pity or pride—makes no matter now. Ragnarök, the destruction of the world and the skapariar who made it, is the only way to put the Valdur seerlore out of their reach.”
“Will nothing survive the Rök?”
“A little. Enough.” Sigmarr smiled suddenly and his lined face was transformed. “One day a child will be born from the line of Valdur and all the craft, all the wisdom, all the seerlore of the Valdur will pass into his tiny fists. When he grows, he will crush the sea slugs of Dyrbörn and fetter the Beast forever. He will raise up from the ocean the world we are about to destroy, and it will live again.”
Ageirr forced a grin. “So, there is hope, in a baby not yet born.”
Sigmarr nodded. “Hope. For the world to come, yes.”
But he was thinking of the present world, of his own wife and his own children, and tears crept into the corners of his eyes, one blue as the sky, the other, brown as a bird’s wing.