#writephoto: A Victorian birthday party

For Sue Vincent’s Thursday photo prompt. Not seasonal or even peaceful, but it fits rather well with (you guessed) a scene I’ve reached in my latest WIP.

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The dessert was a monument of whipped cream and custards, sponge soaked in sherry and dripping with cherries and plums preserved in brandy. The confection was more or less square, with a perron, turrets and towers at its four corners, doors in chocolate, and windows in angelica sliced so fine as to be transparent. It tottered over the glasses and candelabras, glistening with sweetness, and raising gasps of admiration from the guests.

“For you, Cecilia.”

After copious eating and drinking, her husband’s complexion was several shades redder than usual and his dark humour had mellowed into complacent pride in his achievements. He pointed to the gilded sugar-iced inscription over the chocolate doors.

“Fairfax Hall. Do you recognise it?”

Holdsworth guffawed, his mouth opening wide enough to swallow turrets and towers. “I should think she would! It’s all there, a masterpiece!”

Cecilia looked at the quivering thing and her throat filled with bile. She swallowed back the nausea and smiled at her husband. “You have made me something from a fairy tale.”

Holdsworth led the applause and Jessop glowed. He called for the champagne and amid screeches of terror from the ladies, opened a bottle of demi-sec, pouring Cecilia the first coupe. She turned her face from his to the portrait above the fireplace, and raised her glass.

“To Hawisa.” The hubbub died and a faintly bemused silence fell. “My ancestor,” she pursued. “The first Fairfax of all. Fairfax was her by-name, it means fair haired.” She smiled at the company and raised the glass to her lips.

All eyes turned to the painting. The subject had none of the soft boneless nature that generally portrayed femininity. Her clothes were simple homespun, not satin and silk draped archly to cover voluptuous naked curves. Her outstretched arm was strongly muscled, masculine almost, her face and throat firmly defined, imperious. Her mouth was open in a most unfeminine act of haranguing or rallying.

The women’s eyes narrowed, no doubt comparing the features of the barbaric savage to their own white and fully-fleshed limbs. The men too found nothing to ogle in the portrait, nothing worth looking at at all. Even the horses, if the shadowy background really was horses in movement, were too confused and unformed to be admired. Only the dogs, war dogs with heavy jaws and heavy collars drew the eye. One at either hand of the masculine warrior-woman, they gazed solemnly out of the painting, and in their eyes was a warning.

Elizabeth Jane turned her back on the uncouth image. “Your ancestor looks more like a working girl than a lady of the nobility.”

“I assure you she was a powerful lady of her times, owning all of these hills as far north as Skipton, Holderness on the east coast and Castle Bytham in the south. She was greatly loved and admired.”

Elizabeth Jane looked at her with incredulity. “She was a great benefactress perhaps?”

Cecilia smiled, a smile that showed her small, white teeth. “She led a rebellion of poor Saxon farmers against their Norman overlords.”

#writephoto: Cyningsmere

An extract from the first draft of a WIP. For Sue Vincent’s #writephoto. Sue obviously knows this world well.

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It was evening when the little river narrowed as it approached its source, its course rapid, leaping exuberantly between rocks, singing to itself between the climbing valley sides. They were climbing too, hills cloaked in the slender trunks of birch and rowan. Halli hurried. It was as though she sensed the sunset and was afraid she might miss it. Trees ran along the ridge of the valley, but the forest had thinned and the trees were low and twisted.

When they reached the top, the sky was revealed and even Jon drew in his breath with admiration. Deep pink light covered the sky in a glowing veil. There were no clouds, but he knew there would never be any stars that the eye could see. Halli gave a tiny cry of wonder and turned about on herself, head flung back, taking in the great circle of the horizon. Jon pointed to a mirror-like expanse between the hills, as pink as the sky and as bright.

“Cyningsmere.”

The slopes around the lake were bare of trees and to the south and west, Jon could just about make out the irregular hillocks of hayricks and the pale stripes of harvested land. Here and there, the stripes were dark—peas, beans and vetch, he guessed, still to be picked. Halli was right, it was a sizeable settlement and perhaps they would need labourers. Halli sighed.

“How can the folk here be so mawkish when there’s skies like this to look on?”

“They probably think it’s full of those ghost birds and whales waiting to drop on them and rip their livers out.” He grinned but Halli frowned.

“They’re mebbe right. Have you ever been to the Tidelands then, Jónsi Edvardsson? You’d know what the tide brings in?”

Jon was on the point of spluttering with indignant laughter, but Jónsi stopped him. “You’re right, I haven’t seen the Tidelands, but I have seen the Mistlands, and I know that the race of giant warriors is just a bunch of terrified kids.”

Halli was silent. Jon felt her fear that instead of the Heartlands, all that lay beyond the Tidelands might be just another despotic regime with its own brand of illusions created to keep a boundary of mirrors in place. Hrolf chimed in with his dog wisdom.

All mens fearing be. All mens clouds in eyes having.

Jon reached for Halli’s hand. “The problem’s the darkness, all these mists. I don’t know how you can get rid of them, but these bogey men they’re supposed to be full of, they’re just a bit too convenient. It’s where the fear grows.”

Halli thought about it. “Aye, happen you’re right. It’s easy to frighten folk with terrors they can’t see. There’s enough real ones it doesn’t take much to imagine summat worse. Harder to believe in summat better that nobody’s ever seen. Do you think it’s there, Jónsi?”

“The Heartlands? I don’t know. The people are as shifty as the light here. Some of them must have a lot to hide. Maybe there is something they don’t want us to know about. Something better.”

Halli gazed across the evening to the pink glow that was Cyningsmere. “Let’s go then. Your father’s down there in the cyning’s great house. That’s where your path leads.”

“What about you?”

She didn’t turn, didn’t let him see her face. “I’ll keep on until I find where I’m going.”

Jon had let the question out that he had been keeping to himself. It had become a burden and he wanted to share it. Halli always knew the answers. He couldn’t believe she wouldn’t know how he was to take his father home, find his own way home and not leave her. His journey was a circle, he knew that, but Halli, he had somehow thought would be sharing it.

“I don’t want you to…I want to go with you.” It sounded lame and pathetic and he knew what she would say.

“Who ever gets what he wants?”

#writephoto: No choice

For Sue Vincent’s #writephoto challenge. More WIP…

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Dónal had a message for his brother, the blind seer. He had received word that the grey foreigner who had stolen his birthright was bringing over his eldest son, a Sasanach son and warrior with battle glory to his name, to set him up as chief in a caiseal over Santry way. This was surely the son he intended as his heir, not the wee boy barely weaned he had by Aoife. Dónal had never intended to let his sister’s son grow beyond infancy, but this was a bitter blow. A man and a warrior is much harder to do away with than an infant. Once behind the walls of his caiseal, the young Northman would be as hard to winkle out as any of his kin. Dónal vowed to stop him ever crossing the threshold.

“I have a job for you, brother.”

Énna did not move. He crouched, his back to Dónal, the spring before his feet, bubbling into the stone. Dónal despised and feared his brother’s power but he did not doubt its efficacity. He kicked him. Not hard. Just enough to remind him that he could.

“I said, I need you to do something for me.”

Énna turned his head slowly. He was not wearing the band that usually covered the scars and Dónal felt the hairs at the back of his neck stand on end. He had seen blinded men often enough, but this was his own handiwork and he took it as a provocation that Énna did not hide the mutilation.

“What?”

One word, and even that was slurred. Énna was slipping away. He would be no loss. Not once he had performed this one last service.

“The gall’s kinsman is on a ship. I want him drowned.”

“Is that all?” The words came out slowly. His teeth were pink-rimmed with scraps of berry skin.

Dónal shivered. “I am pleased you think it such a small feat. Find him and sink his ship.”

Énna turned away again, his unseeing eyes fixed on something no one could see. “And if I say no?”

“You know the answer, little brother. The gall’s son, or your own. And your black-haired wife too, why not? Choose.”

When Énna raised his head the empty orbits raged red and fiery, and in their flames, Dónal thought he saw their father’s face, and it was laughing.

#writephoto: Guivre

Another scene from the end of the story. For Sue Vincent’s #writephoto challenge, which for me is turning into a storyboard for my WIP.

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He hears Aoife screaming to him to come back. It is too late, she says. No revenge will bring back Gileabard. He doesn’t listen, can’t. His ears are full of the child’s screaming, and his eyes see nothing but green coils draped in white. Not revenge. It is a past of false promises, false happiness that he will kill.

She knew what would happen as soon as she saw him wading into the water. As if a sword could protect him. Guivre, she heard him shout, scream, and the water boiled. He lies now on the bank, his face lily-white, his soft grey eyes blank, staring at something she cannot see. She rips the left leg of his chausses with the sword and reveals the wound—two red staring eyes, rage and despair.

He doesn’t fight. She can see from his eyes that he is leaving, following a call, or simply slipping into gentler waters. She doesn’t understand. She has never known what he promised, or what promises he had broken. All she knows is that it is over. She picks up his sword and stands on the lake’s edge. She shouts to the Guivre to show herself, but the lake is calm now; even the ripples have died.

A sigh. She turns and catches sight of the wisp of breath that is Riseárd’s last. The sword, glowing cold and green, squirms in her hand, and with a cry she drops it in the water, watching through the first of her tears as its coils slither out of sight into the depths. She turns to the lily-white face, stiller even than the lake water, and the world is filled with emptiness.

#writephoto: First home

Sue is keeping up with the writing of this story very well. Another scene from current WIP for the #writephoto prompt.

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As Raymond FitzGerald predicted, there has been no more fighting since the start of winter. Riseárd shares some of le Gros’ contempt for armies that go home once the weather turns and expect that their enemies do the same. She could have told him the reason if he’d asked, but not since the time of the Three Queens have men asked their womenfolk for advice about warfare, and they have never forgiven them for the peace they made.

The winter is hard. The beasts still have to be taken out to pasture whatever the weather, and the daily household tasks of milking, milling, carding, weaving are more difficult than in the summer. Just keeping warm is hard enough in some houses. How many men would willingly see their wives and children go cold and hungry? The Northmen don’t understand this because they have slaves to do the work and their unfree tenants whose lives are not their own.

She doesn’t complain that the tide of the war is at its lowest. She has Riseárd with her to watch her belly rounding and ripening. Together, from Dún Ailinne, they watch the outer walls rise around the hilltop, and within the walls, the keep where they will live, where, Aoife hopes, their first child will be born.

“This one will be a son,” Riseárd says. “I was promised I would marry a queen and she would give me sons.”

Aoife smiles. “And what else were you promised? That the entire herd of black cows would calf twice in the same year? A boat to fly across the waves to Tír na nÓg?”

He looks bemused. “Black cows have never been in my dreams, but I will have sons.” The frown smooths from his brow and he smiles. “And you, my fiery Eve, will give me them.”

She looks beyond him, through the narrow doorway at the falling snow. The baby will be born at the end of May. Riseárd will have gone back to his war before then, and their caiseal will be finished. Will that make her a queen? Not by her lights. Not while her king leaves her behind when he goes to war. Beyond the snow is the new year, a new life. She will show him what it means to be a queen.

#Three Line Tales: Reflections

So many photo prompts these days seem to reflect my WIP. This one is for Sonya’s three line tale prompt.

photo by Sam Loyd via Unsplash

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The lake is still and peaceful beneath the summer sky speckled with stars, but she is not looking at the sky.

In the shallows, the water mirror, she searches for his face, the fiery-haired face with soft grey eyes, but the mirror is full of stars.

A tear disturbs the image, and stars rock in the ripples until she nets them up, silvery fish, and at last she sees the face, with hair of grey stone, his eyes closed and blind.

#writephoto: The rose at the heart

Well, this one obviously follows on from last week’s image. Thanks Sue 🙂

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A sound breaks the hush of the chapel and Aoife is dragged out of her reverie. Her hand reaches out to the red rose protectively as she feels the air vibrate, murmur, like flowing water. The sun breaks through the cloud and pours through the rose window inundating Riseárd’s image with soft colours. She blinks in the bright light that fills with lilies. She hold her breath and the lilies group, bunch, form a loose bouquet that is at once the face and the flowing hair of a woman.

A tear slides down her cheek and she brushes it away, quickly before the ghost woman sees. She faces her defiantly, her fingers curled around the stem of the rose. Even now, she rages, the woman, if she is truly a woman, dares to impose herself, after all she has done, the intrigue and the deaths. The face turns and Aoife is caught in the blue gaze of her eyes and the shimmer of brimming tears.

Forgive. I loved him too.

The world shatters into sharp, elusive pieces. Nothing will ever be the same, love, children, gone, like thistledown in the wind. Yet Aoife cannot find it in herself to hate the pale woman. The vision blurs, behind a veil of tears, until all that is left, vibrant and glowing is the thorny red rose on Riseárd’s breast.