#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.

#writephoto: Up the leafy lane

Getting in early with this one for Sue Vincent’s Thursday photo prompt. Nor sure what it’s about, but does it matter?

It doesn’t fit with the WIP — signposts weren’t invented then.

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I’m sure this is the place. I remember the path that wound its way first through cultivated farmland then abandoned fields and young woodland. There was perhaps less unworked land then, and the trees were slender saplings. Now nature has marched into the fields, and hazel and birch grow where barley was once sown.

The path winds higher, and trees arch overhead. This I remember too. The crossroads was at the top of this hill where the trees thinned, and in the valley beyond, ordered fields took over again from the abandon. I hold my breath as the lane curves to the crest. Beyond the screen of trees is the sky and below it, the place I have been looking for. Blood pounds in my ears. I stop, take a deep breath and silence falls. Such a small sound, my footsteps, is enough to mask all the tiny sounds of nature in this quiet. I listen and gradually the songs of thrush and robin fill in the gaps, a woodpecker cackles, something scuffles through last year’s leaves.

My breathing returns to normal, I walk the last few yards, forcing myself not to run. Round the oak tree that spreads vaulting boughs across the lane, the sky bursts through the leafy shade. And beneath the sky, the signpost, the crossroads, hands pointing back to the place where I was born, onward to the town that is the hub of this country, right to a farming hamlet, and left…There is no left.

There was once a crossroads here, and now there is only a junction with a lane that leads nowhere. Yet I remember the path that led down into the valley, into the rising sun. At the bottom lay a river that meandered through willows and alders, and no one ever went there. No one. Only the fox after the mallards and moorhens, and the shy deer to drink. No sign points that way now. No path remains through the tall grasses, salsify and ladysmock. I leave the lane, stand at the place where it lay and listen. The sound of running water comes to me. I hear a deer bark, and in the next breath, I hear your happy laughter. My feet move into the swaying green, finding the lost path. Lost to the world, perhaps, but not to me.

#writephoto: What Lorcan said

A tale within a tale for Sue Vincent’s #writephoto writing prompt.

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“And the stone giant in a fury brought down his axe on the rascally Findbjörn, but he had slipped away and the axe only split the rock in two.”

The guide beamed at the group of school children, expecting to see similar expressions of delight on their faces. Instead they looked at one another and shuffled their feet. Gillie eventually spoke for them all.

“Then what? Stories don’t end like that. What happened to Findbjörn and the stone giant?”

“They went home for their tea,” Jason piped up from the back.

“Nah, they had football.” Ahmed cackled and there was more shuffling and a few guffaws.

Mrs Wilson looked at the guide with amusement, enjoying his confusion. He’d been a pain ever since he’d picked them up from the coach park. Dry as dust and boring as hell.

“G’wan then,” Lisa said. “Finish it.”

“There isn’t any more to the story,” the guide said sharply. “It’s just a legend, not history. It never happened.”

“I know the story.” It was the new boy, Lorcan who spoke. The other kids called him a Gypo, or Tinker if they were being friendly, but gave him grudging admiration because he was good at football and had lovely black curly hair.

“Tell us then,” Jason said, and all eyes fixed on Lorcan.

“Findbjörn stopped running when he got to the forest. Over there.” He pointed. “The giant pulled his axe out of the crack to swing for him again, but he’d split the rock right down to the centre of the earth where it’s molten rock, red and fiery. He’d disturbed the salamanders that live down there and they poured out, roaring like banshees, poured all over the stone giant and wrapped him up in their long tails and long necks until he glowed as red as they were. Then they dragged him down with them to the centre of the earth and the crack closed.”

Lorcan paused and the children looked at him expectantly.

“But it’s open now,” Lisa said. They all looked at the split rock and the shuffling began again. They hung on Lorcan’s words, spellbound.

“Because Findbjörn wouldn’t leave it alone. The salamanders grow jewels. They grow diamonds from raindrops and bits of stars, emeralds from new green leaves, and sapphires from bits of the sky. Where they live at the centre of the earth it’s full of ’em. They eat ’em and spit out the pips. That’s what miners dig out.”


Lorcan nodded. “Jewel pips. But Findbjörn wanted some real gems, the big fat brilliant ones that the salamanders grow in the fire at the centre of the earth. So he got a pickaxe and he tried to open up the crack again.” He paused again. They were all listening, waiting for the dreadful end they could half-imagine. Even the guide. “The salamanders heard and at first they were angry. Then one of the salamanders looked around the fire orchards and noticed that they were low on rubies. So they raced up to the surface of the earth, quick as greyhounds, and they opened up the crack again, and grabbed Findbjörn.”

“To grow rubies?” Ahmed asked uneasily.

“They wrapped their long tails and long necks around Findbjörn and dragged him down back down with them and they didn’t let go until he glowed red as the inside of a fire, and until each drop of his blood had grown into a ruby.”

Gilly asked the question that was bothering all of them now. “So why’s the crack open again?”

Lorcan shrugged and looked at the guide. “It’s just a legend,” he said. “It’s not true. But they say that the crack opens when the salamanders need a bit of sky to grow sapphires, or because they’ve run out of emeralds or diamonds.”

“Or rubies,” Ahmed said and shuffled a few steps backwards.

There was a silence, the wind scattered dead leaves about and they watched as some of them blew over the lip of the cleft and disappeared inside. Mrs Wilson shivered and wrapped her arms about herself. She looked at the sky, then at her watch. “I think it’s time to be getting back to the coach.”

It wasn’t and they all knew, but nobody felt like hanging about any longer. Nobody except the guide. Perhaps because he didn’t believe in fairy stories, or because he had heard, as the children had done, the distant sound of salamanders singing, he went back to the Giant’s Axe-Blow, much later when the centre was closed. Just to have a closer look, he told himself. And if he did, that would explain why he was never seen again.

#writephoto: Once upon a time in the Shire

For Sue Vincent’s Thursday writing prompt. I couldn’t take this picture seriously.

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“This is naff. I told you it would be.” Em looks around critically at the Hobbit-sized cottages half-buried beneath heaps of unseasonal flowers, at the windy, white pebbly paths, giant toadstools and Ye Olde Inne. “Where’d they hide the Black Riders? Underneath the nasturtiums?”

“Let’s go back to town and get pierced,” Jo says. “They sell studs in the souvenir shoppe. I want a Hobbit’s foot. What about you?”

Em grimaces. “Itchy. I wouldn’t mind a complete Orc facial though.”

“I think that can be arranged.” The voice is deep and hollow and comes from a point behind and about a yard above them. They turn and look up into a charred face with eyes of an unsettling red. “The studio is just across the village green.”

Em looks at Jo who looks at the character draped in darkness. Where his gigantic shadow falls across the flower beds, pansies and sunflowers wilt. She turns back to Em. “You up for it?”

Em nods. She asks the shadowy character, “Can you do nose rings with hidden writing inside?”

“What do you want it to say?”

Em thinks for a moment. “If you can read this, your breath must be toxic.”

The charred lips curl back in a grin. “Easy peasy.”


Behind the bar in Ye Olde Inne, an aged gentleman with a long grey beard shakes his head sadly and pushes a double whisky to the shifty-looking individual standing at the counter.

“And they wonder why the place is overrun with Orcs. He wants locking up. Somebody should see to it.”

“I know just the man for the job,” the shifty-looking individual says, throwing back his drink. “Well, half-man. I’ll be needing a few magic accoutrements though.”


“Magic swords, cloaks of invisibility, loaves and fishes, the usual.”

The old gentleman sighs. “I’ll have everything ready by this evening. Can you make it permanent this time— no resurrections, transformations or coming back as a bit coin scammer?”

“Don’t worry. I’m sick of wearing this stinking outfit and answering to that thick name. I’m supposed to be a king, you know, with palaces and servants.”

“Well, get rid of His Nibbs and maybe the script writers will give you a different role.” The old gentleman pours himself a shot and raises his glass. “Here’s to Aragorn.”

“Cheers, Gandalf. Don’t go provoking that Balrog downstairs while I’m gone.”

The old gentleman laughs. “You think I’m stoopid, or something?”

Strider/Aragorn smiles. You’ll be laughing on the other side of your face in a day or two. I’ve seen what’s in the script.

In the piercing studio, another couple of Orcs are being prepared to join the latest cohort, and the shadowy character is preparing for victory. Unfortunately for him, he hasn’t read the latest script changes either.



#writephoto: Inferno

Sue Vincent’s #writephoto image this week invites a story in the same vein as last week’s. More of the same nastiness maybe.

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He came from the little town in the valley, owned most of it, not farming stock at all. We never liked the little braggart who swaggered around as if he was royalty. That was before the fire. He didn’t swagger much afterwards, kept a low profile, not that the masters were ever called to account, whatever they’d done. He kept the place locked up, ringed the park with a high stone wall, bristling with broken glass, like a prehistoric serpent. He had a wife, though she never went out, a pale-faced wraith of a woman. No children. Not that he owned to anyway.

We always said he’d come to a bad end, after the fire, the first one. Nearly two hundred died when the mill went up, mainly women and kiddies. Slept under the looms at night, too exhausted to crawl home after sixteen hours of work and get themselves back again for a six o’clock start. Well, they’ll crawl no more, God rest their poor souls.

We knew he should never have built there, on that hill, and if he’d asked, maybe somebody would have told him why. But he never asked owt of the likes of us. More fool him. We knew there was summat up when we saw the big gates open. Not much, not wide enough to let a carriage through, just a little, as if someone had crept in and out and not bothered closing the gates behind him.

It was the end of the afternoon before a group of us got together and decided to have a look. There wasn’t much to see, but when we got close, we heard it right enough. The roof was gone but the fire was still roaring, curling through the empty window frames, lapping around the sills, eating the stone away. Must have been burning all night. Small wonder we never saw the flames. They were black as pitch.

#writephoto: The rose at the heart

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


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.