#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: 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!”

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?”

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.

Robin and the frost

For Sue Vincent’s #writephoto prompt and for dverse, a poem written in quatrains using the rhyming scheme of one of my favourite poems, Yeats’s When you are old and grey.

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When crisp snaps frost at fall of winter night,

The trees fill with the sound of restless birds

That cannot put into our human words

Their anguish at the fading of the light.

 

For winter creeps the dark boughs and the fields

With slender fingers, knife-sharp, cold as steel,

And snaps the thread of life, winds up the reel,

While some small, tender-beating bird heart yields.

 

I heard you, robin sing, my heart was drawn

To the sweet liquid stream of crystal notes,

As delicate as feather down that floats

on sea-wind—robin, will you see the dawn?

One ending in sight

For the #writephoto challenge. Into the final furlong with my WIP. I’m dreading finishing it. Thanks for another fitting photo, Sue.

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“I never did see one o’ them bird monsters. I watched, every time the tide flowed in and the mists rolled over the trees. I heard ’em though.” Halli looked curiously at Jon. “Where did they go?”

Jon shrugged, his eyes on the green line of hills along the horizon. “Probably with the fish ghosts and all that other crap. Maybe back into the ocean. Maybe we’ll meet one when we take the boat out.”

Halli gave him that look, part scornful, part commiserating. “You think you ken everything, don’t you Jónsi Edvardsson? I told you, I heard ’em an’ I felt their great wings beating, but you can’t see nowt in the mists. You know that.”

“They’ve gone,” he said gently. “I think they were shades calling to the shades in the Mistlands. It’s all gone now. Peaceful.” He gazed across the blue to the distant island. “Like the ocean.”

Halli looked too, and Jon knew she was trying not to cry. “I hope Jussi’s mate, Gieri was with ’em.”

He put his arm round her and drew her close. The wind was cold and salt-sticky. Gulls yelled as they skimmed the waves. “Sure he did. I watched them go.”

Halli laid her head on his shoulder. “I could watch this sky forever. I’d stay here if I thought it was the right place, but that’s where I’m off.” She pointed across the water. “Skies’ll be even brighter over there. We’ll find what we’re looking for in the Heartlands. You too, Jónsi.”

Jon didn’t reply. He was as certain as if a voice was telling his story aloud, that the end of his journey was not the Heartlands. His and Halli’s destinations were not the same. He pulled a lock of hair away from her cheek and kissed away the tear.