#writephoto: The Stone

For Sue Vincent’s #writephoto challenge. Gothic again.

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He thought he had got rid of the unsightly obstruction, hadn’t thought about the stone once since the house was built. He had had far too much on his mind since then to worry about where the thing had gone. There had been the fire, and the winter wind had been full of voices. The winter had lasted longer than usual that year; the cold had bit deeper. Misery lurked in heaps of rags at the corner of every street.

He had not wanted the deaths. Why did they not understand that it was not in his interest to kill off his workforce, and if an arrangement could have been found that avoided deaths he would have accepted it? But it hadn’t been possible. How could it have been? In a mill there are always workers, and in a fire, there are always those who can’t get out in time.

The house had never been easy. Stones and paint have no souls, no hearts. There is nothing in the construction of a building that can bear a grudge. And yet, and yet, the house had never been easy. Cecilia had encouraged it, nurtured the grudge. She was part of it, born with rancour in her blood. He should never have married her.

But he had, and she had brought his nemesis into the heart of his household, his castle. She had called back the stone, the vengeful mother, and he could see it from his bedroom window. Even though the curtains were drawn, even though the winter night was shut outside, he could feel the stone eyes blazing. He could smell the scorching of plush velvet, hear the small crickle crackle sounds of a blaze at its beginning.

The sounds of running feet and shouts of alarm came to him, but they seemed far away, too far to be of any help. The door to his bedroom was locked. He could try to break it down but all the other doors would be locked too. The casements wouldn’t open; the glass, he had tried already, wouldn’t break.

Flames now, frank and open, no more pretence that something had been left to catch in the kitchen, a scalding iron, a batch of bread. Red and roaring they raced up the plush, that dripped to the ground in a cascade of flame, baring the window glass, revealing the night sky, and silhouetted against the stars, the Stone.

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#writephoto: Cappamore

I’m trying to let go of this story, but Sue’s photograph won’t let me. For her Thursday photo prompt.

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Cappamore. It was tumbled down long ago because the heart had gone out of it. No one lived there after Aoife died, after her murderer died, after the old animosities and tragic misunderstandings had been put to rest. Isobel saw to that. She remembered it only as the place where her mother had wandered like a wraith after Richard died, unable to come to terms with her loss. Isobel didn’t remember her father, no more than she remembered her brother who died too, both in the lake, both at Cappamore. But she felt his warmth and the passion of her parent’s love in the stones, in the air.

Her husband had wanted to claim the place for his own once Aoife was dead, but Isobel refused him it. She was the heir, not him. Sometimes she wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to let him set up a household in the old keep, let him swagger along the banks of the lake, let the lake see to him. Because it would have done, of that she had no doubt. But finally, she decided that the revenge fate had arranged for him was sweeter, slower, more devastating than death for one so full of his own importance as William.

Isobel had borne him ten children, five girls, five boys, and the boys she had cut out of her heart as soon as they were weaned. They were too like their father, antipathetic and arrogant, but with the violent nature of his detested father. None of them produced an heir, none kept a wife, three died young, violently and needlessly, and the other two were childless poltroons. The girls had daughters, lots of daughters, and at each new granddaughter, she had laughed. All of it, a lifetime’s manoeuvring, ambition, judicious changing of sides, had garnered a wealth of lands and titles for William, yet nothing he had done would prevent his name dying with him. Isobel, daughter of a Norman earl and an Irish princess would inherit it all, and she would pass it all on to her daughters.

She savoured William’s despair. After all he had done to get his hands on her father’s lands, titles, to usurp his place in history, he would see it all revert to Richard’s granddaughters. He would leave no more trace than a dying ripple on the surface of the lake. Isobel watched as he was forced to accept the inevitable, the gnawing anger and frustration that spoilt his every pleasure, turned every taste to bitter bile in his mouth. She knew the part he had played in her father’s death, and when he lay dying, she whispered as much in his ear, and placed on his soul the curse the Guivre had cried out in her sorrow.

On his deathbed, she described to him how she was having Cappamore pulled down, stone by stone. Later, she would have the lake filled in too, but not yet, she said. She let him watch in the water mirror as all the ghosts were put to rest, all except one, the ghost that would never be still, the ghost he recognised, all in white samite dressed and her hair golden as ripe barley in the morning. His eyes widened with terror as she stepped from the lake; Isobel made sure he saw. He turned to her, his old man’s watery eyes pleading. He tried to call out, but who could he ask to protect him from a ghost? Was his great castle not protection enough?

She forced him to watch as the woman left the lake and left the mountains, walking the hills and forests, drawing closer. The she sent away the servants and let the woman in white into William’s bedchamber. She closed the door behind her, letting the woman take her revenge alone.

 

All is at peace now. The lake gone, the ghosts still, but the wind still murmurs the lovers’ names. All three.

#writephoto: The stones remember

Okay, WIP calls. For Sue’s Thursday Photo prompt.

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The beck still flows as it has always done, quieter now that the mill has gone, quieter now that the ghosts have gone, but the water that is always different and always the same remembers. The stones remember and the wind and the great- great- great- grandchildren of the crows remember, the trees that bend, bowed but not broken, on the rocky hillside all know the story and will never forget.

Hawisa watches over this melancholy place and soothes the chattering bones. I have seen her face in the running water, strong, solemn and wise, and at night, those who dare, whose consciences are clear can see her weaving her dance of flame among the russet leaves of autumn, leading fox and deer and weasel and redbreast to the place where it all began and ended.

The beck still flows about the foot of the stone, and the February dance wreathes its mossy bulk in flames. Hawisa, wise and silent as stone opens her hand. Will she let it go, the soul that writhes in her palm?

She contemplates the mouth that opens and closes, still demanding even after all these years, and her fingers close about it again, stifling its piping. The bones cease their chattering clattering and lie still. The crows take up the clatter in their voices and their wings and fly. The russet creatures slip away until only I am left to see the woman stone turn her face to the town in the valley and say a silent, no.

#writephoto: Empires

For Sue Vincent’s #writephoto challenge. It just so happens that this photograph fits my new WIP like a glove. This is not an excerpt, but a taster.

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Jessop told them to use the stone from the quarry. He was damned if he was going to pay to ship stone from elsewhere when he had perfectly good building materials on his own land. The foreman tried to explain that it wasn’t a quarry, that he’d never get local men to dig stone out of that hillside. So Jessop fired the local labourers and hired immigrants, half-starved men who would work for a meal a day.

The skeletal workforce dug and hewed and dragged the millstone grit up the hill to the site, through the winter when east wind blew bitter across the moors and the wind from the north brought snow. If he lost a few labourers there were plenty more. A whole country full of them, he snarled when a delegation of Quakers reproached him on the subject.

He had to bring in masons from the south. None of the northern folk would touch the stone and the work dragged. It was autumn before the house was finished, the dressed stone shining pale gold in the late sun, and Jessop, mill owner, builder of empires and mansions fit for emperors installed his family and servants in the Hall. On that first golden evening, he stood beneath the chestnuts of the alley, thumbs stuck into the pockets of his ample waistcoat and looked down on the valley town with its smoke and smells and thought himself a king.

Later, when the house was quiet, when the last scullery maid had stumbled into her attic bed, and the butler had locked every door and window tight, the quarry that wasn’t a quarry sighed a dark sigh, and through its dark entrance, the starved and the crippled, men, women and children of Jessop’s broken army of labourers and mill workers drifted into the dark. Their feet made no sound as they followed the passage in the hill that was not a quarry, that passed beneath the foundations of Jessop’s new house, and opened with a sigh into the deepest of the cellars.

 

Pale and gaunt with smouldering fire in their dead eyes they drifted, silent as falling snow up the stone stairs to the cellar door. The only door in the house without a lock.

#writephoto: Home

Finished the rewrite. It’s in the lap of the gods now. Sue’s photo prompt is as apposite as ever.

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All has changed since Richard ordered the castle built on the promontory, but is that not always the way? Nothing except the salmon stays still in the current of a rushing river. Men build and other men pull down. Men make sons so they too may die in the same way as their fathers. She did not expect to see the tower as she remembers it, that it is now only a tumble of stones is not too hard to bear. But what digs deep into her heart like a flung javelin is the loneliness.

She remembers feeling the same loneliness at Dún Ailinne when the king and his company left with their banners and their feasting, to return to more comfortable houses where wives and children awaited them, a roaring fire in the hearth and hounds to greet them. The ancient seat of kings was a sorrowful place, ignored and abandoned unless a coronation required the dust to be chased outside, wall hangings shaken out, the mouse and bat droppings swept from the great table. When the ceremony was over, the dust returned and the solemn loneliness.

This is different. This was home, the castle built by the first of the Northmen for his wife and queen. There used to be love within these stone walls and the laughter of children, and if there were also tears, is that just not part of every story? She places a hand on the ruined sill where the wind from the sea blows and the rain blows. All gone. Even their names.

Another hand covers hers. She turns her head, away from the sadness of the lonely ruin, and his eyes are smiling, gentle and grey as ever. They know more than names, have lived more than love. She links her arm with his and they go back to join the wind blowing, the gulls crying, beyond laughter and sorrow.

#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.

#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!”

ed, masculine almost, her face and throat firmly defined, imperious. Her mouth was op

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 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?”

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.

WIP finished!!!

And another one hits the ‘finished’ pile. I wrote the last line of my YA coming-of-age fantasy yesterday morning and read it through again to see what it sounded like. There were 60k words on the clock on November 1 so I set myself the NaNoWriMo task of finishing it. I reckoned another 25k should do it. It’s at 84K so I wasn’t far out. Perhaps the second draft will add some more; it usually does.

I feel drained now and pleased I got that first scene to run and run until I got a book out of it. If anyone clued up about Anglo-Saxon England and Yorkshire folk would like to give it a once over for clangers, just let me know.

Back to Victorian Gothic horror now…