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.

#writephoto: Tidelands

For Sue Vincent’s #writephoto prompt.

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Rags of mist scattered, and a crow bird landed in a heap of ragged feathers at the edge of the clearing. Jon picked up a stone and aimed at the bird. Hrolf growled and Halli looked bemused.

“What’s the maggot pie done to you? It’s half-blind and ancient.”

“They’re bad luck when they’re on their own,” he replied sheepishly but he lowered his hand all the same.

Wise. Bird knows.

“Does it know how to get out of here? Oh, I forgot. Birds can fly, can’t they?”

The magpie tilted its head on one side and opened its beak. It clacked its tongue in a series of hoarse calls, the familiar unmusical utterings of all magpies, but the images that fluttered behind Jon’s eyes made him blink at their brightness. How long was it since he had seen colours, real colours dense enough to draw a finger through and paint with? Blues shading from blue-black through turquoise to the palest of china blues streaked across his vision, pink-purple-violet cupped in tender green, haloed in gold and nasturtium orange. The bird tilted its head the other way. A milky eye peered at him.

Jónsi be listening.

Hrolf was watching him, his ears slightly raised. The bird’s tongue clacked again and he saw waves, a rolling green swell. His vision skimmed the wavetips, and a shoreline grew on the horizon, a forest fringe, hills, but before them rose a line of black cliffs, where the vision broke like impotent waves. The bird sight fluttered again and again, each time repulsed. Jon’s heart sank.

“It’s there. Just over the horizon. But I can’t reach it. It won’t let me in.”

In a rage, he threw the stone across the clearing and into the barely seen trees that huddled about its edge. In the silence that followed the rustle of its flight through the dripping leaves, they all heard the plop of a stone hitting distant water, the slap of a wave against rock.

Halli got to her feet and looked down at Jon with the expression she wore when he had done something particularly stupid.

“If we’re looking for the ocean, we could try that way.”

The magpie gathered its ragged feathers together, leapt into flight and beat its way into the mist. Hrolf barked. Jon knew he was laughing.

#writephoto: On the borderline

I wrote this piece in prevision of a scene that’s coming up in the WIP and then got bogged down in the writing of it and never got round to posting.

For Sue Vincent’s #writephoto prompt

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Halli slumped against the trunk of a birch tree, among the golden pennies of its fallen leaves. The breeze was chill at evening now and the sun set early. Jon shuddered at the idea of being stuck in this place, that was as much a limbo as the Mistlands, when the winter came and the real cold set in. Halli picked up a handful of birch leaves and shredded them moodily.

“We can’t stop here and we can’t go back. They said… the stories said…everybody said this was a good place if you could get in. Well, we got in…”

“I know, and it’s as big a pile of shite as the place we got run out of.” Jon meant what he said, but somehow, he wasn’t as pessimistic as Halli. “The stories are just a bunch of lies that chiefs like Ragnar and my dad encourage because it suits them. But what if one of the stories is true? I mean, they all believe in the Mistlands and the Ebbtide combat. Both sides respect the outcome, beat it into the kids that their lives depend on them following the rules to the letter, the sacrifice and all that. But they don’t talk much about the Heartlands do they?” He turned to Jussi. “Have you ever even seen the Tidelands?” Jussi shook his head. “Do they tell you it’s full of bogey men to stop you going to have a look?”

“They don’t talk about it. The Tidelands is just the edge of the ocean. Why would anybody want to go there? And the Heartlands is just a story. Nobody believes it’s really there.”

“See?” Jon was triumphant.

Halli threw the shredded leaves on the ground. “See what?”

“If they don’t spread stories about the Tidelands and the Heartlands, it’s because they want people to forget they’re there.” He gazed across the darkening valley to the west, wondering how far the forest stretched, how far until the trees ended at crashing cliffs and the heaving ocean, wondering how far from the cliffs across the waves lay the Heartlands and the end of his journey.

As he watched, a cloud rose from the forest eaves and swirled through the red light of the sunset like ink in a glass of bloody water. Even at such a distance the shrill bird-cries were audible. The flock of birds swirled, a tatterered black cloak, darkening the sky, a cloud that swirled about itself then streaked away westwards, towards the ocean. He watched until he could see no more, until the cloud became a smut on the bright backcloth of evening and dropped beneath the horizon, heading out to sea.

“The birds know. They’re going to the Heartlands,” he murmured. “If they can, so can we.”

 

 

#writephoto: No going back

This is a sketch from my next WIP. For Sue Vincent’s #writephoto challenge.

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They scrambled to the top of the hill, and stopped, chests heaving, trying to get their breath back. The tree cover was sparse, rowan and birch and spindly oak trees, and overhead the sky lay, dark and heavy. Jon felt the weight of the dark sky and the pressure of the dark earth, the forest that was black and grey but never green, and the wind that sang in a colourless voice through the bracken.

He gazed out over the treetops to where the place lay where they would be safe. Safe from what, he wasn’t sure, but they had four legs, sometimes two, faces with narrow eyes, but sometimes the grimacing muzzles of dogs that had never been.

Halli recovered from the climb first and was was about to plunge down the hill and back into the forest when something made Jon grab her arm. “Wait,” he whispered. The silence thickened; he couldn’t breath.

Halli looked about in alarm then gasped, “The sky. It’s broken.”

Overhead the grey was as compact as ever, darkening to slate at the far horizon, slate the treetops that moved sluggishly in the wind, but away over the forest, the cloud and mist was torn and through the rent, a golden cascade of sunlight fell in pillars of brilliance.

“What is it?” Halli murmured, her eyes open wide as pools. “What’s happening? Is it the end of the world?”

“It’s the sun,” Jon said, and for the first time since he had burst out of the dark tree tunnel, he smiled.

#writephoto: Vibes

This is for Sue Vincent’s Thursday photo prompt.

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Usually, when you visit an old house with the prospect of buying it, you like to know its history. Betty stood on the landing beneath a grimy fanlight that transformed sunlight into thundercloud, looked at the doors grinning on either side of the long, dusty corridor, with their promise of secrets to be uncovered, and she shivered.

Usually, she would have been poking about in the empty rooms, throwing open windows and imagining, planning, projecting. She knew, without even looking, that these windows were not meant to open, the hush in these rooms was the silence of locked drawers.

Usually, she would have been full of questions about who, how long, and why. The silence dared her to stir the dust. She backed away. This time, she decided, she didn’t want to know.