#writephoto: Battle

For Sue Vincent’s Thursday Photo Prompt. Evocative of the scenery of my latest WIP.

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Röskva stood on the rath wall and gazed to where the dark northern hills met the dark sky, and the storm that embraced both hills and sky. For three days they had heard the rolling of thunder and watched spears of lightning tearing the grey billows, but the storm had come no closer.

Cian came to join her, his jaw clenched, apprehensive and angry, but not fearful. His father had brought this upon them, and although he could find no justification for it, Cian was yet his son.

“Are they come yet?”

The question was short, terse. He asked Röskva because she had the sight and might know, but he would rather have asked anyone else.

“The air is full of agitation, and I have seen lightning running along sword blades. The sea is high and I can hear waves crashing on cliffs. Whatever has come out of them is hiding from me.”

“It must be them,” he murmured. “And you can see no army? No swarm of fishmen?”

“If I could, I would have told you,” she replied coolly. “Your father has his invincible warriors, what have you to worry about?”

“How he got them is what worries me. No good can come of such a deed.”

Röskva looked at him with a hint of disdain. These people would commit the most heinous crimes and wring their hands afterwards because it offended someone’s sense of propriety.

“No good came to your sister, that is certain. But if he feels no twinge of conscience, why should you?”

Cian turned to her and his expression was so full of pain that Röskva felt ashamed of herself.

“What Delbáeth did to his own daughter was unnatural, and it has produced only monsters. If these are the weapons he and Morc are using against one another, the fishman will have done the same to Ceara, and that is a thought I cannot live with.”

The lightning continued to flicker on the hills, lighting the galloping horse and the rider flogging it up the cliff track to the gates.

“This is when we learn the worst,” Cian said, a wild light almost of pleasure in his eyes, as he leapt down the wooden stair, shouting to the watch to open up the gates

Writephoto: Swan women

An excerpt from my latest WIP, because it’s swans. Not Fionnual, Conn, Aodh and Fiachra, but the swan women from the story of Midir and Étaín. For Sue Vincent’s Thursday photo prompt.

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They stowed their belongings beneath the sleeping bench in the guest hall, and Höfmund offered to show Oisín the wonders of Utgard.

“There’s a while before the night meal. We’ve time to walk around the walls and watch the sun go down on the lake. It stretches due west and the setting sun turns it to gold.”

He led the way to the wooden stair that climbed to the stone wall and the walkway along it. Oisín followed reluctantly. The lake was unnervingly familiar, reminding him of the dark side of the man who had been his friend, the madness of the bard and his unceasing search for something he could not have. It reminded him too much of himself. Höfmund stretched out a hand and pointed, his finger moving in a slow arc from east to west.

“All of this is the land of the Ettings, lakes, mountains, forests and pastures. It’s good land, even if winter comes earlier here than at Thrymheimr and lasts longer.”

The last rays of the sun slipped beneath a bank of cloud hanging low along the horizon and flooded the lake water with golden light. It was beautiful, but fleeting. They watched until the sun declined and the cloud thickened. The gold faded, sunk beneath the surface of the lake, and the landscape darkened. Water birds called as they settled for the night, a melancholy sound. In the last moments, before dusk deepened to night, the air vibrated with the beating of wings, broad powerful wings, and the dim light was full of the ghostly forms of swans circling, flying lower then landing with noisy splashing on the lake in the shelter of the sedge.

Oisín felt no surprise; he had recognised the place, though he thought he had left it behind in another world. Despite the sadness that crept into his bones, sadness for the swan women, for Caer Ibormeith, and her haunting, and also for himself, hope brushed his face, feather-soft and he heard once more the sweet voices of women singing.

“Do they have a story, these swans?” he asked Höfmund, half expecting he would say, there are no swans. Höfmund raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“Them there? I reckon they’re just swans. There’s no stories about them among the Ettings that I know of. No doubt the men of Asgard would say they’re the swan women who gather up the souls of dead warriors.” He shrugged. “I don’t see no battlefield here though.”

Höfmund saw a flock of swans, nothing more magical or sinister. Perhaps that’s all they were. As the last of the light faded, so did the swans and their imagined singing.

#writephoto: Unquiet bones

Just finished my WIP and as usual, Sue’s photo for the #writephoto prompt fits the theme perfectly.

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Cecilia stopped out of breath at the crossroads. The place held no terror for her, but she was close to her time and the child would hear them calling as clearly as she did. She looked across the valley, the town huddled along the beck, out of sight, but the column of smoke from the mill chimney rose straight and black, a finger pointing at the indifferent sky.

The place held no terror for her, but it was full of a restless sadness. The quarry that was not a quarry gaped. She felt the pattering of footsteps beneath the earth, heard the scrape of clawed fingers on stone. He had never listened, never wanted to know. Perhaps he would not have cared anyway. His kind rarely did.

She sighed and turned back. Soon it would come. There is a time for everything, seasons, births, reckonings. She looked at the spire and the turrets that poked in their absurd monstrosity above the tree line. He had thought to build a mansion for himself and his heirs. He had built it on bones of the unquiet dead. She winced as the child stirred, and the wind blew cold. The saddest part was that when the flames came, he would not understand why.

#writephoto: Stone

For Sue Vincent’s photo prompt.

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Once the ring of stones had been unbroken. The stones had been one, created to act as one, perform the same function for the same people. But times changed, the people scattered, their beliefs fragmented. For centuries the stones held firm, bound by thousands of years of tradition until one broke away, taking retribution with her.

The lapping of flames and the screams of the dying, the crying of children, the pouring of blood into the grass tore her from her roots. She would no longer be bound to the deep earth but would appear and disappear, never resting, never looked for and never remaining. She appeared after tragedies, wars, preventable catastrophes, and she brought fire, flood, storm and vengeance.

She brought fire to the big house on the hill, and for a while, she could be seen through the charred timbers and broken walls, standing gaunt and black on the ridge overlooking the town. When she left, the prints of her stony, fiery steps remained, and no crops, no plants, no bramble weeds ever disturbed the sacred ground of her passing.

#writephoto: Running

For Sue Vincent’s weekly challenge.

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The virus spread and multiplied, gobbling corpuscles and sucking them dry. The dead went unburied and the vultures began to reappear. We fled the black tide, leaving population centres behind, preferring the prospect of starvation surrounded by the beauty of returning nature to the vain hope of salvation, a vaccine, or simply a cache of food if we stayed in the city.

We had found our way north, taking back roads, travelling as stealthily as we could, and our food had almost run out. It was high summer. Perhaps we would learn what we had forgotten, how to fend for ourselves, or perhaps we would find a deserted dwelling and brave the possibly lurking virus spores to look for supplies.

We drove off the road, hid the car in the bushes and watched the sunset. Never had the silence been so profound. The black cloud that had enveloped the earth and smothered the sky for the last two weeks, hung low and menacing as ever, but a crack had appeared above the line of hills, and last stream of light lit up the lake below like liquid gold.

It was a sign, we thought. The virus is faltering, perhaps dying back with no new hosts to feed upon. You stood, your face aglow, mouth open to shout out your new-found hope, when suddenly your face paled. You grabbed my arm and pulled me down out of sight. But not before the eyes that had opened in the cloud had seen us, and the crack of light on the horizon curled up in a broad grin.

#writephoto: Reunited

A not very hopeful story for Sue Vincent’s photo prompt. I could have written a bit of the WIP, the photo fits (as usual!) but don’t want to give the entire story away.

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The land had been forested once long ago, too long ago for anyone to remember, too long ago for anyone to believe in it. Forest was a myth, fabulous, like the stories of the beasts that lived there. I can see a vestige of it from here, though the light is never bright any more. I can see two tufts facing one another across an arm of the ocean, tiny remnants of woodland, not even very old, orphaned children of the great forests.

The world is almost all ocean now and the land piled a million high with people in boxes, like bees in a hive, but their industry is driving them further and further from a thriving community and closer to the precipice. Even the sun can’t find the energy to light and warm. Without the warmth, without the song of the birds in their leaves, the last trees are dying. I see them shrink day by day, the water creeping closer and closer to their roots as it rises, and in the flabby breeze, I hear their voices, so I know what will happen.

I watch because someone has to record it, even though it will be the saddest sight of all. One morning or evening soon, beneath the dull red glare of the dying sun, the last memories of the forest separated by water will rush in a cascade of earth, roots and shed leaves, to join their sister and brother trees in the icy grave of the ocean.

#writephoto: The Seeing

For Sue Vincent’s photo prompt, a scene from a finished WIP that is now back on the drawing board. Since Sue painted Sabh’s portrait I had to write a bit of that particular story.

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Sabh took the silver bowl outside into the starlight and into it poured water from the well. The summer sky was shot with stars that blinked on and off behind the drifting clouds. She listened. No sound came from within the house; the baby slept and her mother too. The serving women watched, murmuring among themselves perhaps but low as a lullaby.

There was no moon, little enough light, but what there was fell upon the water in the bowl. Sabh held it still and waited, watching the water swirl, full of silver clouds, fuller and fuller until the surface was smooth and bright as a mirror. She whispered words, more for her own comfort than because she believed they had any value, and dipped a yew rod lightly, reverently, into the water.

She held her breath as the ripples cleared and an image rose from the bowl’s depths, a woman’s face, skin moon-pale and framed in hair red as autumn leaves. The face smiled and her hair floated free, filling the bowl, bright, fiery, and it was no longer hair, but flames. In the silence of the birth night, Sabh heard the clash of swords, the cries of men dying and the terrified whinnying of horses.

The woman’s face frowned in sorrow and tears budded in her eyes. The flames crackled, faded and died. Silence fell again and the woman’s eyes were two stars shining in the silver surface of a mirror. The meaning was clear, and Sabh would not tell it to her sister-wife. She would not dash Mór’s happiness on this day of her daughter’s birth.

The water became plain well water with two stars reflected in its innocent surface. She would tell the seeing as a lucky one. The baby would be a great queen, and she would find a great king for husband. Sabh would tell only happiness. She poured the water onto the ground and returned to the house where a new born baby crowned in red fuzz slept peacefully on her mother’s breast.

End of the beginning

On a tangent from the WIP for Sue Vincent’s #writephoto challenge. I know, the stars aren’t out yet, I’m anticipating.

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The hills were white with a dusting of snow and the air was crisp and clear. Overhead, the sky was full of stars.

“You’d never see a sight like that in London,” Jon said.

Holly didn’t need to look up; she had the shape of the stars printed on the back of her eyes.

“Why d’you think I came back?”

The muscles of Jon’s jaw twitched as he mastered the deep feeling of hurt. “I thought maybe, it might have been, you know, like because…”

Holly smiled and the tip of her nose turned up, inviting him to kiss it. “Because o’ you? Is that what you’re trying to spit out?”

He forced himself to look at her, into the eyes he knew would be full of gentle mockery. She had never been taken in by his self-importance, always cut him down to size. He wished…he wished…

Holly took his face in her hands and drew him close, so close he could feel the hot whisper of her breath. “O’ course it was, you daft mullock.”

Then she kissed him, and apart from the two of them, in all the universe, there were only stars.

#writephoto: Hart

For Sue Vincent’s #writephoto challenge.

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“Hush,” Halli commanded. “They’re close.”

Jon peered out from the safe place into the mist, at first seeing nothing but the shifting clouds that were not clouds of water vapour. The breeze changed and blew a ragged gap in the obscurity. Silhouetted against the pale mist, a hart raised his head, nervously testing the wind. He sniffed, his ears twisted this way then that, sensing no immediate, definite danger, but Jon knew what was not far behind, creeping with the stealth of hunters. Halli grabbed his arm before he could call out a warning.

They’ll hear, she mouthed silently.

He tried to aim his thoughts at the animal but didn’t know how. The images of the half-men and half-dogs tracking them through the unseen forest flickered in his head, the panting of half-hound tongues and half-men grunting scattered his attempts. It was Hrolf who gave the alarm, a sharp volley of dog words, snapped and chopped, and the hart bounded away. Silence rolled back and Jon strained to hear the excited sound of the hunt that would mean their pursuers also had heard Hrolf’s call.

Gone. Leaper gone. Safe. Men-dogs far being.

He relaxed. The safe place was still safe.

#writephoto: Borderlands

An excerpt from my WIP, illustrated by Sue Vincent’s #writephoto prompt.

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The year was turning quicker now and dry leaves lay in deep drifts beneath the trees. They were brown, dull mainly, but just occasionally, Jon caught a glimpse of russet as if the unseen sun caught at a memory. The eye could see further in the Borderlands, see clearer, but there was a sense of oppression, of fear.

They had crept past the village and seen the big house in the centre where the boys were being taught the stories that made heroes of children. They were taught how to obey, how to wield a sword, but most of all they were taught that they were nothing, worthless unless they were chosen. It should become the ambition of every one of them to be the sacrificial offering, if not this Ebbtide, then the next. For three years, from the ages of eight until ten, they would be gathered together at the spring equinox and the autumn, and the name of the chosen child would be called out.

“That was Jussi’s village,” Halli said as they left it behind in its silence. She stared at each of the houses that huddled together yet apart, and wondered if his parents still thought about him. They wouldn’t be among those who took food and comfort to the refugees in the mists. For them, Jussi died the day he was taken to the borderline with his wooden sword strapped to his waist.

“This place was rotten before ever Ed got here,” Jon said. He looked up through the thinning leaves at the pale light that passed for sky. Birds darted among the tree trunks and he even heard their gentle autumn piping, but there were no sounds of human activity. Were they so oppressed by their stupid laws and customs they had stopped speaking to one another?

Then he caught sight of movement at the edge of the village, where the strips of cultivated land ended and the forest began. Men, holding dogs on leashes. Broad, stocky men with a strange rolling gait. Then one of the dogs reared up on its hind legs, raised its muzzle to the wind and began to howl.

Hrolf had already turned off the path and into the deeper forest.

Jónsi being quick. Hare-quick.

Halli followed without asking why. Jon cast a last glance over his shoulder before he plunged after the hound. The dog was still on its hind legs and it was running in awkward ungainly strides in his direction.