Fair Upon the Tor #07 (updates Mondays)

“First,” he said, “Aslaug the Vainglorious has left his lair for the first time for four hundred years. Don’t know why. Don’t know what’s prodded him into action. But he’s up and about, and looking for trouble, I dare say.”

“Aslaug the…?”

“Vainglorious,” said Twit. “A dragon. A fire-drake of the ancient days of yore. Big yellow eyes. Fiery breath. Green and black scales. Great wings, more massive that the sails of the barge that ferries the dead. All that and a ton of bricks.”

Caewen jerked her head back and looked up. “Is he around here?”

“No, no, no. He lives on the other side of the Deepwode. No trouble for us folk at all. Why, he’d be leagues and leagues away.”

“Don’t dragons fly?” said Dapplegrim, his voice a little arch.

“Ahem. But it is very far, and why would he come here? A place swarming with wizards. Seems dangerous, even if you are a dragon. So. If you will? Moving on. Two: the Niberlungr are in a rage because they think a magician has stolen something from them. Don’t know what, but they are going all about the fair stalls looking at lockboxes and chests and suchlike. So, the best guess is that whoever stole the thing, whatever it is, they couldn’t get it out of the chest it was in, so they took the whole chest.” A shrug. “What is inside? Who knows. But if some small hairy folks with long arms and big knotty hands want to look at your lockboxes, it’s best to let them do so. They have their ways of getting back at people who offend them. Third, and most marvellous, the oldest proclaimant of the Third Dynasty is missing and has not arrived for the Moot.” He paused, as if this momentous news should evoke some sort of reaction. Caewen just blinked, unsure what so say. She smiled, trying to look more apologetic than stupid. He continued with a sigh, “The three dynasties? They that have three representatives each on the Broadtable?” He paused. Sounding more exasperated, he said. “Oh dear. You don’t know anything, do you? I ought have taken the full piece of silver.” A deep breath in. “The governing council of the moot is called the Broadtable. They judge disputes, vote on punishments for the guilty and oversee the law of peace that holds here during the moot. There are nine proclaimants total; three proclaimants form the Dynasty of the Sun, three who serve the Night-Queen, and the final three are drawn from all the lesser, sundry parliaments: shadows, stones, waves, winds, wildwoods, that sort of thing. The Grand Old Lady of Embers, who was the representative of the Parliament of Flames has failed to arrive. Now, she could be late, or she could be dead. She’s been on the council a long time, and maybe one of the other lesser parliaments has decided they’d like their turn at having a seat? Such things have happened.”

After a pause, Caewen said, “Is that everything?”

“Is that everything? Is that everything? Look at the size of my sheets of parchment. I’ve told you more than I have written down.”

“Thank you.”

“Ah, but as I always say, don’t thank me, pay me. As you already have, I suppose that makes us even.” He was about to start ringing his bell again when there a tremendous tearing sound arose somewhere down the line of travellers. They all turned to look, startled. Twit visibly jumped. The wagon-cage with the drapery of cloth had trundled some distance down the road, but was still visible over the heads of the crowd. As they watched, it shuddered, then tilted and toppled to the left. Dull black bars of a cage were momentarily visible before they snapped and tore as the blanket fell away. A coiled, scaly shape unbent itself out of the cage and there arose a long, low shriek, like the noise of a bittern, only much louder and angrier.

“Oh dear,” said Twit. “Foolish git. I did wonder if that fellow had the beast locked up right. Looks to be, he did very certainly not have it locked up right.” He squinted. “Moor wurum, I reckon. Ah well.” Turning away from the sudden uproar of screams and panicked yells, he started ringing his cowbell. “Hear all about it! Wizards and magicians slaughtered by rampant moor wurum! As fresh as news can get.” He was walking up the line of travellers, away from the commotion. “Happening at this very moment. Here all about it! Murderous rampage by moor wurum! One silver for the full tale.”

“Come on!” said Caewen. She prodded at Dapple. “Well?”

“You want to get closer to that thing?”

“Yes.” She drew her sword. “Well, no,” she corrected herself, “but someone has to do something.” Her fingers turned slightly damp at the tips. Settling herself higher in the saddle, putting weight onto the stirrups, she tried to feel brave and mostly failed. Well, she thought, I might as well try to look and sound brave. “Yes. Charge. Now.”

“Alright.” They clattered off at a gallop. He shook a snort out of his nose. “It really is going to be a nuisance having to find someone else to buy me hay though. Hur.”

-oOo-

Old Dark Things

Well, it’s done. At about 150k words, Old Dark Things is a dark, folkloric stand-alone fantasy set in Clay-o-the-Green, the same world as The Winter King.

My plan is to run it through Kindle Select for a while to start off with, so that I can make the book available as a free product over at least a couple promotional periods. We’ll see how that goes. If I don’t get a lot of take-up in terms of downloads via Amazon, I’ll withdraw it from Kindle Select (but leave it on the Amazon regular service), and then upload copies here and at Smashwords so that the novel will at least be easy to get hold of.

Either way, I plan to make the novel free using the promotional options via Kindle Select as much as possible. It should be easy to grab the work for free directly from Amazon, one way or another. Once Old Dark Things is up and available I’ll link to it directly, and make public some planned freebee dates. If you miss one window you can then easily grab the next one.

Fair Upon the Tor #06 (updates Mondays)

With oddly jolting, sudden motions he waved a hand at the forest and said, “You came out of the Crow Hall. I saw you. Blimey. That is something. I mean, not many people are willing to walk through there. Herself of the Deathly might take an interest in you.” And then he looked at Dapplegrim and Caewen again, eyeing them up and down a bit, as if suddenly suspicious. “You didn’t, well, you know, come into possession of anything did you? I know it’d be nothing of my business, but it would be news, wouldn’t it? If that were to happen.”

“No,” said Caewen. “I’m afraid we did not.”

“Ah well,” he said, after a moment, “Would have been a good tale. Nonetheless. Nonetheless.” He patted his chest. “Call me Twit.” He waved a hand at them and his face turned into a mock-frown with half-lidded eyes. “Now, now. Don’t ask. I’ll get to that right away. Cause everyone asks. Twit? What sort of name is that? My full and proper name is Twit le de Bird of the family le de Bird. Much as my pappie and grandpappie and great grandpappies all the way back, I am in the gossip business, you see. Utterings. Newsings. Musings. Rumours. Tattles. Drolls. You name ’em, I got ‘im. Tall tales. Short tales. Little squiggly tales with an odd ending that really makes you think. When people say they heard it from a little birdie, they mean me.” He scratched his nose. “Well, half the time they mean me. The other half the time, if they are proper wizards, like this lot, they probably actually were talking to birds. Wizards are like that, aren’t they?”

Despite herself, Caewen found herself taking something of a liking the strange man. She smiled. “I see. Um. Do you have any rumours for sale?”

“Funny you should ask.” He pulled out a bundle of pages tied up with a ribbon. Writ in red-letter chancery, and common blackletter and southron too, in case that is your preference. All the most tantalising news there is. Just one silver penny a sheet.” Each sheet did have three blocks of writing, each in a different lettering. Presumably it was the same news repeated three times.

“Ah,” said Caewen. A hotness of flushing blood ran up her face. A slight awkward knot in her throat developed, and she said, “I don’t know my letters. Sorry.”

“Oh, no, I apologise, myself. I shouldn’t have assumed. I shouldn’t have. Not right to assume such a thing, is it? Now, another option, is that I can just tell you the best bits, quietly, under my breath so to speak. Though you have to promise not to go tattling it all over the place. I have a business to keep up after all.”

“Alright.” Caewen fished around in her purse and pulled out a silver penny. She was still rather well stocked with coins, even this long after her time with the Wisht and the goule-thing.

He looked at the coin, a shine in his eyes, but also he looked somehow conflicted. He started to reach for it, but let his hand fall. “Ah. Blimey, what is to become of me? Look, you seem like a nice lass. Are you a nice lass?”

“I suppose,” said Caewen.

“She’s awful,” said Dapplegrim. “The other day I wanted to eat some cow, and she simply refused to pay for it.”

“There was no one to pay! We can’t just eat a cow when we find one beside the road. You know that.”

“Always with the rules. Don’t eat this. Don’t eat that. Don’t make the stall bigger by knocking down walls. Don’t dig up graves.” Dapplegrim snorted. “No one uses their body when they’re dead. What good is it leaving it to rot? It’s enough to drive me crazy.”

“Well,” said Twit to Caewen, “I’ll take your word for it over his. The thing is, when I ask for a silver, I’m not really asking for a silver. You should come back to me with a price about a quarter of that, and then we argue, and finally, after an enjoyable bout of to-and-fro, we agree on a price about halfway between what I first asked, and what you first offered.” He jabbed a thumb at the crowd on the road. “If you are going to take yourself along with that lot, you best not just hand over whatever price someone asks first. You’ll end up being owned soul-and-flesh inside a day.”

“Oh. Well. Shall I offer four bits of copper or did you want to just take one half silver and some groats?”

“Ah. There’s no fun in it now, is there. Alright. Just hand it over. The half silver and groats will do.” He shook his head. “What my dead old pappie would say, I do not know.” A sigh. “So. Lean in a bit. I’ll tell you the important bits, but quietly.”

They did, Caewen and Dapplegrim leaning down to hear him whisper.

Fair Upon the Tor #05 (updates Mondays)

They rode for an hour, twisting and winding out of the woods. They saw no one else, either in the woods, or back on the road when they found it. The half-dead woman, if she was about, was keeping herself well concealed. No other travellers seemed to have taken the road through the woods at all. As they trotted along the road, Caewen and Dapplegrim discussed things that the woman or the old man had said, but came to no definite conclusions about what any of it may have meant. Dapplegrim recalled vaguely that there were supposed to be three local goddesses who ruled at the Tor, and that one of them might have been concerned with the fallowing and destruction of things, but he could recall little more than that. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been this far south,” he confessed with the roll of his flanks that passed for a shrug.

Above them, the hundreds-upon-hundreds of roosting crows still crowded the woods, and talked to themselves in their cawing voices. Many more were arriving as the sun reclined westward.

It was only when the woods finally broke and the trees fell away on either side that they saw other travellers headed for the moot. It turned out that there was another wider and better used road skirting around the woods from the north. Everyone else coming from that direction seemingly preferred the somewhat longer path that run under open sky. From where Dapplegrim and Caewen were standing, she could see the great main road bending away gently westward and beyond it the river called the Blue Bergander, shining like wet sheet metal under the final afternoon rays. Westward, beyond the river, lurked some hills and fens, fading eventually into the pastels of mixed greys.

Caewen looked up and down the line of travellers that was passing before them from right to left. It was an odd assortment. Most were humanfolk of one creed or another. Some were dressed elaborately and rode horses, or other, stranger beasts, with rich trappings. Others were dressed in nothing more than simple travellers’ clothing and went by foot with heavy packs or bindlesticks. There were weirder sights. A rather overweight man eating blackberries from a bowl was carried past on a chair, held up by four sour-looking hairy boggarts, muzzles fixed into toothy, fixed frowns. A short thin person in head-to toe armour decorated all over with gold dragons came next, riding at the head of a procession of men and women in heavy black robes. A huge woman, something like a giant, Caewen guessed loped past with long strides, her bald pate shining in the late afternoon gold while endless rattling baubles of silver swung all about her frame. Then came a wagon with a large square object on it, draped with a moth-eaten velvet curtain. The holes in the cloth reminded Caewen that she needed to do something about the moths in her own clothing. The infestation in her bags was leaving holes in her woolens.

As the wagon passed, snarling and mewing noises arose from within the cage, and the rotund man who drove the wagon glanced over his shoulder as if he was not fully trusting to the securings under the sheet. On the far side of a wagon rode some folk who were closer to Caewen’s own age, and northerners too. She perked up, paying attention. She might be able to join them perhaps? The thought of someone friendly to talk to made her hopeful. She looked at them with a considering eye. There were two of the dark skinned Forsetti, tall and well built, who looked like they might be brother and sister. Behind them, riding at a small gap, were five or six of the sallow Dearg Modsarie. Both Forsetti and Modsarie traders had passed through Caewen’s village from time-to-time, although Caewen knew little about either folk, past roughly what they looked like and a few generalities of their customs. The Forsetti, she knew from stories, were castaways. They had arrived on the Rainswept Shore centuries ago in a fleet of ragged outriggers from a land of islands no one in the north had ever heard of. They settled in the Forsetti forest because it was empty. Other peoples who had tried to settle the forest had never had much luck, but the Foresetti seemed to fare better. They brought nothing with them on their boats but for stone and wood tools, cloth and foreign seeds, yet learned to smelt iron and work stone quickly enough. Though their language and customs were odd, in most ways they had grown to look much like other northern folk. The Modsarie on the other hand had a much more grim reputation. They worshipped some manner of water god in the lochs and rivers of their homeland, and there were endless rumours of human sacrifices and bloody night-rituals. Caewen looked at them, with more wariness and less interest in trying for friendship. At the head of the Modsarie rode a young, harsh-faced woman, with pinched features and alert eyes. Those riding behind her were probably retainers: they all carried shields with the same chalk-white kelpie on a grey-brown field. Where the Forsetti were probably best described as disinterested in the great war between the goddesses of day and night, the Modsarie were definitely night-worshippers, though and through.

Caewen looked up and down the line of travellers. “I suppose we should join the tide?”

“Hur.”

Dapple was about to step down towards the main road when a clanging cowbell drew both of their glances. There was a man standing a little way from the crossroad. He was dressed in an outfit of red and tan motley, and was currently in the act of loudly clanging a bell. His face wandered somewhere on the road from skinny to scrawny, and a thatch of straw coloured hair escaped all over the place from under a leather skullcap. “Haello there!” he called to them. “Yes, you.” His grin was sort of manic and had an infectious quality.

“He doesn’t look dangerous,” said Caewen.

“Looks are looks,” said Dapplegrim, but they walked over to him all the same.

Fair Upon the Tor #04 (updates Mondays)

“I see.” She looked at the door to the outside. Trees and fallen leaves were visible through the gap. “Are we still in the woods with the crow roosts? Near Sorcery Tor?”

“Crow Hall Woods, yes, yes. What of it?”

“Then Dapple will find me sooner or later.” She turned to the man. “I swear to you I’ll not hurt you, nor try to take you’re little dagger.”

“The Anthame Perilous is no little dagger.” Spittle was forming on his lower lip. “Insult not the ancient power of she who undoes all.”

“Yes, yes. Whatsoever you say. I’m going to go out and sit on a fallen tree or something. Unless you want me to try and make you up something to eat?” she looked around, not wholly convinced that there was anything edible in the place. Certainly, she didn’t feel inclined to start rooting around without the sort of leather gloves pig-farmers use.

“Ah, you mean to poison me then!” he said, accusing. He raised the dagger. “I’ll slit you from gullet to bladder.”

“If that’s how you want it, fine.” She backed away, not willing to turn her back to the old man. He might have been wretchedly old and frail, but that flint dagger had real power in it. It was dangerous, even if the old man was barely able to lift it. When she was at the door, she stepped into the pale sunlight outside, gently closed the door and went to sit on a nearby fallen oak trunk. Sounds of something heavy being moved around came from within the hut. It took the man maybe five minutes or more to move the object about, but finally there was a scraping noise, and a thud as he pushed something heavy up into the door from the inside. Evidently he did not trust his her either.

She sat and whistled to herself for a while, then sang a little, watching two robins play in the leaves and hunt for grubs and spiders. Caewen had somewhat expected the half-dead woman to reappear, but she did not. After a while, bored, she tried calling out Dapplegrim’s name, two or three more times. On the third attempt, she heard him reply. Faint and far away, “Caewen!” came back to her.

“Over here!” she called.

Not long after he appeared–a grey and black dappled shape in the furthest trees, galloping. She waved. “It’s alright. I’m alright.”

When Dapplegrim arrived, he was breathing hard, angry and skittish. He looked her up and down closely, then sniffed at her, as if checking to see if she really was Caewen. “No tricks. It’s me.”

“Ah, but a phantasm or illusory spell would say that, wouldn’t it?”

“Dapple…”

“Hm. Hur. Well you do smell like you. And it is mostly difficult to trick the nose. Smell is too primal.” He paused. “Though the deathly spirit woman has already tricked my nose once, so…” He eyed her suspiciously.

“Sniff all you want you cantankerous old blusterer, I am definitely me.”

“Hm. That is something Caewen would say. For now, I’ll believe that you are you.” He reflected. “And I am probably me too. I’m pretty well sure of that.” He nodded his head towards the cottage. “What was that all about? The old woman grabbed you and then you both just upped and vanished.”

“I suppose it is a part of some old ritual? A test. Although I don’t know if I passed or failed. The old man in the cottage thinks I failed when I chose not to kill him and take the magical wotsit he is protecting.”

“Good choice.” said Dapplegrim. His eyes gleamed a dull red. “Magical wotsits. That sort of thing usually goes badly.”

“I’m not an idiot. But…” here she hesitated. “I was tempted, Dapple. I really was tempted. I could feel it. Hell’s high hall. It was powerful.”

“And–“

“And I walked away. I’m here now talking to you, aren’t I? My old self. Nothing odd here,” she said, indicating a hand towards herself. “Or not any more than usual.” She didn’t give Dapplegrim time to add anything before saying, “There was another thing too. He seemed to be aware of the Winter King. He didn’t know much, I think… it was hard to tell… but the old man was definitely aware of the Winter King. He thought maybe I was an ally of the king.”

“Because of the ice-magic? It’s still lingering around you strongly then? It would make sense, if he mistook the musk of it for the king’s magic.”

“Yes.”

Dapplegrim twitched one ear. He struck a thoughtful pose that looked almost funny. “What does that mean then, I wonder?”

“It means Tamsin may have been right. It means that the Winter King is enough of a growing menace that some magicians are already noticing him, even crazy old hermit magicians. It means there may be a war coming. It means someone might listen to us after all.”

-oOo-

Fair Upon the Tor #03 (updates Mondays)

Several wooden poles had been sunk into the ground to support a sort of overhanging porch of thatch at the front of the house. There was a small table and a single stool. A trencher and cracked old mug sat on the table, some remnants of dried food crusted to the former. There was no telling how long ago that meal had been left out on the table. Caewen carefully pushed at the door with a foot. It creaked a little. “Hello?” she said, half-expecting to smell something dead inside. It seemed like the sort of place where you’d find a body, rotting and forgotten.

It turned out to not smell of rot, but it certainly had a smell. There was a thick, musty body-stink inside. It was unpleasant enough to force Caewen to take small, shallow breaths as she stepped into the space, covering her mouth with a sleeve. A movement and a rustle at the far end of the darkened cottage interior suggesting that someone was still living in the place. “Hello?” she tried again.

“I’m not dead yet,” croaked a voice from the darkness. Fragile wet coughing followed. “You can’t have it. It is mine, and you’ll have to kill me to take it.”

Caewen’s eyes adjusted slowly. The interior was a pigsty, metaphorically speaking. Aside from the clutter of old broken furnishings, the shelves full of rubbish, the dirt over the floor, it seemed that whoever was living here had taken to using one corner of the cottage as a latrine instead of going outside. It was filthy and it smelled worse than any farm dungheap that Caewen had ever chanced past. Cowering in a corner of the room was an ancient man, hair gone except for a few strands, skin like shrivelled greyed paper. His eyes were feverishly bright, though they stared with blind wetness.

“It’s alright,” said Caewen. “I’m not here to take anything. Are you alright?” She winced at the thought of touching anything, but said, all the same, “Can I help?” She desperately hoped he did not ask her to tidy up the place.

“No!” he spat. “Get away from me, you witch! She sent you, I know she did. I’m no fool. You think I’d forget how I came to have it? You think I’d forget the colour of the blood? All that blood. Red and sticky.” He was breathing heavily, rapidly, and Caewen wondered if he was about to suffer a seizure in the heart. “No. No, I say! Get away from me.” He sniffed then and blinked a few manic times. “Wait. What’s that I taste? Ah! Ah ha! You have coldness hanging about you? Are you one of his then? Did she send you, or did the King who is Coldness?”

Caewen paid sudden close attention. Taking care to reign in any tone that might betray how much she wanted the answer, she said, “Him? You mean the Winter King?”

“Oh yes, maybe you are one of his little witches too then? Yes, yes. I see it all now. Oh, such a clever scheme. He sent you no doubt? He wants it for himself. Well, you can tell him I am aware of him. I have seen visions of him. I know he is coming. And you can tell him to go spin on a broom-handle. Oh. Betrayals within betrayals. Ah! I see it all. Treachery. She wants a spy in his camp, no doubt? Oh, you must be so proud and happy. Here, m’lady, have this gift. Oh, no, here, m’lady, have this other gift. Work for me! No, work me me!” He spat on the floor. It was so filthy that a gob of spit hardly made a difference. “You must be right chuffed. Well, look at me, will you! Look what has come to me! I took all her gifts, yes, and look at what I am now! She is laughing. I was proud once. I had power at my feet. But this is her moment now. Life and youth fades, and then she sends someone else to take away what she gave. And so it goes. Forever and forever. One bloodied hand to another.”

She understood then. “You have something that the half-dead lady sent you to take away from someone else. And now you think I want to take it from you?”

He straightened up as tall as he could manage, and drew out a trembling hand. He swayed and trembled so much that he looked as if he might fall over all on his own. “I’m not done yet. I’m not dying yet. I don’t want to die, and you can’t kill me. I slaughtered a hundred supplicants before you were born. I’ll do you for it too.” What he clutched in his bone-thin fingers was a broad flat dagger made of a dark sharp stone. Probably flint, though Caewen couldn’t be sure. Up in the mountains the farmers sometimes found old flint arrowheads in the ploughed fields, and though some said they were arrows of the Awvish Folk, others asserted just as surely that people had made them, a long time before there was steel, before iron, and bronze or copper, long ago. Caewen knew from the visions she had seen of the tribe of the wolves that people had passed through many ages of stone and campfire before they had discovered steel and furnace. The knife he was waving at her was very old. It had been cut from raw stone thousands of years ago, at the very least, and charged with magic. Now that it was out in the open, she could feel the humming song of its power against her skin. It was an object of deep old power.

She could feel the desire grow in her to take it. Her mouth actually started to water, as if she was hungry. She had to stop herself from shaking. An object like that would be a fathomless well, an endless sink to draw power from. With that dagger in her hands, all the small bits of knowledge that she could feel half-swallowed at the back of her brain would emerge bright and full into her mind. She would be a sorceress out of the stories and bogey-tales, no longer some farm-whelp with a few smatterings of mostly useless, mostly accidentally acquired arcane lore rattling around in her memories.

She swallowed hard and pressed her teeth together inside her lips, tensing the muscles in her jaws, her throat. “No,” she said. “I don’t care what that thing is you have. I’ll not murder an old man in cold blood to take it. I will not.”

He stared at her with his wet, blind eyes. “Then you fail her test.”

“I do not care. I will not sink to that.”

His breathing remained ragged, but calmed a little. “She’ll only send another. And another. I’ve fended off so many would-be assassins over the years. I’ve done her bidding, loyally, and been her servant, and at every turn there is a knife waiting.” His words grew quieter. “Others have turned away, too, before you. You’re not the first to turn all goody-me-better. Don’t think you’re special.”

She felt then a bitter wave of sadness for the man. “The half-dead woman gave you an object of old power and then endlessly sent others to take it away?”

“It is the way. If I am not strong enough to hold off contenders, then I am not strong enough to be her faithful servant. If she has a task for me, she must know that I will not fail in it.”

Fair Upon the Tor #02 (updates Mondays)

While Caewen struggled to free herself, the half-alive, half-dead woman leaned closer and narrowed her line of sight, staring hard and direct. The noise of Dapplegrim angrily stomping and yelling was growing faint. Caewen realised that the woods all around her had visibly dimmed too, as if she was now looking at the world through a carved-out hollow of dark glass that suffocated light and sound. The only other bright thing left was the woman who grasped Caewen’s wrist.

When the woman spoke, she did so with two voices superimposed, one atop the other. “Stop your wriggling.” One voice was young and pleasant. The other was harsh, dead-sounding and echoing.

Caewen stopped moving. Her muscles obeyed, as her mind reeled and balked.

“I want to get a look at you. There are those who are talking about you. Paying attention to you. Some of them say they’ve a claim on you even, since the goings-on at the tower of the snow and the apples, they say. Others are very keen to claim you for their nation, whether their claim is rightful or not. I want to have a look at you and see for myself.”

“I’ve no part in any nation,” Caewen said. She tried to twist free but found she could barely move. Frustrated, she added, more sullen, “Unless my little home village is a nation.”

The two voices chimed together, in synchronicity. “No mortal nation. The secret nations. The other nations that lie behind the mortal seeming of the world and are more true and more elemental in their being.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” She found that she was now slowly regaining a little control over her arms and tried to pull away again. Her heat was racing. Sweat was beading on her lips and gathering on her brow. A strong feeling of fear was running up and down her throat with each breath.

“None of that now.” A frown crossed the woman’s face. “I confess I find you wanting. Nothing like what I expected, given the gossip. But perhaps there is more to you than seems? A test is needed.”

The woodland faded still more, until the world became a blank greyness, so that it seemed as if the living earth had died and turned to ash around them. As soon as the colour was gone, the woman let go and said, “Follow.”

Caewen’s wrist hurt as if it had been burned. There were red marks where the fingers had been. She rubbed at it. “Do I have a choice?”

“No.”

The woman who was half-dead and half-alive turned and walked into the blank grey. Caewen held her wrist closer to her chest. She was managing to get a little bit past her initial fear and shock now. Her thoughts were regrouping. Was her wrist hurt? She stretched it. No. The joint was mostly uninjured, although maybe the skin would blister. She looked over her shoulder, desperately hoping she would see Dapplegrim and knowing that she would not. She couldn’t just wander off after some strange entity in the woods, or, wherever it was they were now. She looked around at the impenetrable grey. It wasn’t a fog, she realised. It was an absence. There was nothing here, just emptiness.

She didn’t put a foot forward, but instead said, “I am Caewen of Drossel Village. I give you my name freely and without obligation except for the oldest of trades. I ask your name.”

The woman stopped as if someone had given her a blow on the back of the neck. When she turned around her eyes had a swamp-flame glow of a snarl in them. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to have demanded her name like that. Unless the half-dead woman wanted to break the oldest of the old laws, she would have to answer honestly. Caewen’s time spent with the ice-demon wriggling around inside her skull and thoughts had left all sorts of knowledge behind. Little scraps and bits. Old laws. Old bargains. Small but useful.

“Very well,” said the woman, coolly. “You ask who I am? I am the first of the three, who are one, who are many. I am the blighting, and I am the laying to waste. I am the end of all things, as all things must end. I am the falling to ruin, and the decay, and the rot, and the undoing of all that is and will ever be. I am the first of the three and I am swift as time, and twice as relentless.”

Caewen could barely form words. Finally, she said, “You want me to believe you’re the spirit of death?”

The half-dead woman laughed with two voices. “No. We are not so diffuse, nor so potent, nor so impotent, nor so world-spanning. No. The three who are one who are many are bound to the Hill of the Art. We who are one and three dwell together there, and reign there. We do not stretch our dominion beyond what is allotted to us.”

“Right,” said Caewen. “So, a sort of local spirit of death then?” She folded her arms. “What happens if I refuse to go with you?”

“I will leave you here, in the void where the howling apparitions roam. Past that, I do not know.” A shrug. “Whatever befalls you.”

Some choice. At least if she went with the half-dead woman, there might be a chance for escape later. There was no way to tell if the implacable expression she was looking at was impatient, but Caewen suspected she had to make a decision quickly, all the same. “Very well then,” she said, though she couldn’t quite keep a wisp of anger from her voice. “I will go with you for now.”

A smile formed in return, strange in the way it spread across the living and dead flesh of the face. “If I choose to take you, you will ‘go with me’ in whatever way pleases me, for however long pleases me. Little creature, you have nothing to say in the matter.” She turned away then and proceeded on her way into the blank greyness.

It was only as Caewen took a few hurried steps to catch up that she realised that the half-dead woman had not given her name after all. A shudder. That wasn’t good. Either the spirit was too broken to care about the old laws of the earth, or too powerful to bother with them. That sort of power was the power of a god. Maybe a minor sort of god, but a god nonetheless. One way or the other, this was not encouraging.

They might have walked for moments, or hours, or days. The passage of time did not seem to quite feel real in the thin and pallid gloom. However long it was, at last the woman came to a stop and indicated with a hand, “Here. Your test is here.”

Colours grew in snaking lines, forming trees and branches, leaves and then spreading under their feet, forming into the dirt and humus of the forest floor. As the colours grew in form and solidity, the apparition of the half-dead woman faded in measure, until only a tracery of her image was left, and then nothing.

When the world fully resolved itself, Caewen found herself on a wooded and evening-shallowed slope. The air felt the same degree of coolness as before, and she noticed crows roosting in trees above. They seemed to be watching her. There was no sign of the road that she and Dapplegrim had been on, but she did seem to be standing in the same woodland. As best as she could tell, anyway. How deep into the woods, how distant from the road and Dapplegrim, she could not tell.

Immediately in front of her was a shambling near-ruin of a cottage. The daub of the walls was crumbling. The thatch was rotted to the point of smelling like silage, fermented and faintly alcoholic in tone. Nothing seemed to stir nearby. There was no sign of anyone alive. Caewen looked around, peering into the distant woods. All she could see were trees, ranking themselves away in rows until they became dim brown bars half-hidden by their own foliage and the scattered understory. She called out, “Dapple!”, three times, loudly, but heard nothing. By the third yell, she was feeling alone, afraid and resigned. The half-dead woman wanted her to go into the cottage. There was probably little for it, but to go along with things and see where they led. “Stupid uncanny spirits. Stupid weird powers. Stupid eldritch things.” With a sigh she decided that muttering angrily at the ethereal was not going to do her any good. There was no point in delaying what must come.

Fair Upon the Tor #01 (updates Mondays)

Well, here we are then. I’m going to start posting this as a work-in-progress. I’ll set this up as posts of about a thousand words. This is just a first draft, so the final version may end up quite different. I don’t want to comment too heavily about why I might be choosing to do one thing or another… that might be giving away a little too much of the long-term plot. But, seeing the work develop in a piecemeal way on this blog seems alright. I have also attempted to turn on my comments… I’m not sure if I’ve managed to make the commenting work, but if not, I’ll keep trying until I figure it out. Without too much additional wandering, here is the first thousand or so…

-oOo-

The air was brittle with cold. A stillness held itself coyly in the hollows of the landscape. It clung to the underside of mossy half-fallen trees. It was submerged inside the shadows that lay on the frost-crusted mud and leaves. When the stillness broke, it was under the weight of the barest, lightest sound; a thin young voice raised in song, somewhere down the wooded road.

The hundreds of crows that flocked together to roost in this woodland looked down, peering at the noise below them. They shuffled on their branches and gave out their own low caws and rattles, as if they had needed someone else to break the silence first, before they would dare it.

Caewen was riding her slightly strange, slightly eerie looking horse, Dapplegrim, and she was singing one of the old mountain songs of her family’s village. It had a lot of nonsense words in it. “Lobbardy, lobbardy, luue, the cat went up the flue, lubbardy lo, the cat fell down, and splashed right in the stew. Lobbardy, lobbardy, luue…” and so on.

Dapplegrim was humming along with her, his voice much deeper and much quieter, like a gently distant thunder. When she finished, he said, louder, “Once more!” His sharp teeth showed as he spoke. The strange, skullish cast of his horse-face and the gleaming red of his eyes made for an odd contrast to the otherwise friendly tone, and the way he was swishing his tail about while bobbing his head.

“Alright then,” said Caewen. “Lobbardy, lobbardy, luue…”

They trotted together down the wild road like this, her in the saddle and Dapple singing along hushedly, punctuating the song with occasional, “Hurs!” and “Hurms!” They were winding their way south, and although they had not seen another soul for two days, they were close now to the hill called Sorcery Tor, their destination. As yet, they had not spoken more than a few words concerning what they hoped to achieve once there. Awkward questions hung over the whole attempt. Why would a big muddle of magicians with important matters to discuss even spare the time to listen to a farm girl and her strange horse-creature? What did Caewen and Dapplegrim really have to say about the Winter King anyway? Vague warnings from a dead enchantress? Some rumours. Some whisperings. Maybe no one would listen to them. So, maybe all that really mattered was fulfilling their promise to Tamsin. Maybe that was enough.

Deeper in the woods, they came to a stone bridge and Dapplegrim clattered onto it, his hooves snicking and clicking on the hard surface. Without meaning to, Caewen felt her voice fall silent. Dapplegrim slowed, then stopped. He turned his head to try and get a better view of her out of one eye. “Cae?”

She was looking to their left, at the frozen patchwork of pond and reeds. The shadows were deep here under a canopy of willow. The morning frost had not melted under the day’s wan sun. There had been no sun here to melt it, and there would be none. The canopy was thick enough to keep the light from this hollow until sunset, now only a few hours away. A wind stirred, throwing sparklets of cold half-light through the leaves and darkness. Somewhere, a wren sang a few lonely notes then fell back to silence. Caewen shivered. She felt the coldness as something palpable. This had been a strange new feeling in her ever since her bargaining with the snow-demon. The sensation made her shiver. She felt an urge to simply reach out and take up the chill of the air in her fingers, and draw it to her like a vast sheet of cold hard silk.

“Caewen?” said Dapplegrim again, a note of worry in his voice.

She shook her head. “It’s alright. Keep going. I just–” She breathed out a pent-in tension. “Since the ice-thing was inside my mind. I just–“

“Things will be different.” Dapplegrim started off again, now at a quicker pace. “Magic like that doesn’t leave a person unchanged. It will have left marks inside you. What exactly?” A shake of his mane. “Hur. And for how long? Who knows?”

She closed her arms around herself as if she were standing in a freezing wind. “It’s alright, Dapple. It’s not painful… just, odd.” She cleared her throat. She blinked to clear her vision. There was a slight wetness there. A quick dash of fingers to her eyes. Was she crying? Why would she be crying? Taking a breath she said, “No, it’s just, how can I put it? When I feel the cold now, or come too close to ice or hoar, or even just sleety rain, I have this urge to reach for it, to move it around, pull it and tease it out, like a grandmamma measuring and cutting cloth for a blanket. Or a toddler grabbing at something shiny. It just feels so instinctual. Purely without thought.”

“That’s an odd way to phrase it,” said Dapplegrim. He was not disguising a note of suspicion. “At both ends. Old and young. Grandmother and toddler. Why did you pick those images?”

“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “They just came into my head. But that is how it feels. Like I’m at the beginning of life, and at the end of life, all at once. I can’t shake that sensation. It might even be growing stronger.”

“Well, whatever you are feeling, hur, you must not give into it. That creature’s magic, the ice-weird: its knowledge is still inside you, curling around. If you give into the urge, maybe you could pull and tug at raw coldness and make it into whatever you wanted it to be… magic is like that… it is hard to know exactly what you can do with it until you do it, but you must not. You’ve no wellspring to draw on. No power. Only your own life. If you try to push at the world with magic, the world will push back.” He continued, a little uncomfortable. “And then who would pay for hay in towns or a nice stable? I mean, I could find some other person, but you know. I’ve gotten use to you. A bit.”

She reached forward and scratched him on the neck. “Oh, Dapple. You really do know how to make a person feel treasured.”

“I’m just saying. Hur. It’d be inconvenient to find someone else. That’s all.”

She smiled, and they rode on, into the lingering afternoon light.

The crows in the canopy above seemed to grow more restless. Caewen looked up more than once, wondering.

Dapple pipped up suddenly. “Hey oop there, look. There’s someone on the roadside.”

He was right. It looked as if a traveller had bundled themselves up under a heavy shawl or blanket, and sat down next to the road. They had a long and straight view under the beeches here, so Caewen and Dapple had plenty of time to consider the scene as they neared. The forest on either side was thin with little undergrowth. It didn’t seem like a place for an ambush.

“I suppose it’s a weary traveller,” said Caewen, not sounding very convinced. “Perhaps a sorcerer on their way to the moot?”

“Maybe,” said Dapplegrim. He didn’t elaborate. As they drew closer he started flaring his nostrils, sucking at the air, as if he was trying to draw in the whole of the woods, snorting and snuffling.

“Well?” said Caewen.

“An old woman.” Sniff. “Alone. There’s no one else about.”

“So, maybe a broom-cutter or old woodcutter’s wife?”

Dapple shook his head. “No. Your first guess is closer I think. There is some magic here, but it’s faint. It’s in the air though, stirring about, all the same.”

When they were quite close, Caewen called out in a friendly way. “Hello there. How are you fine afternoon?”

Though the layers of cloth hanging off her were thick, it was still possible to see the bony curve of her spine under fabric. Several dishevelled curls of iron-grey hair hung lump from the wrap that otherwise hid most of her head. A jutting old lip, splodged with age, blue with veins, was visible too, gleaming with a sheen of spit. There was a slight quiver to her. Perhaps she was infirm. After waiting a moment, it was obvious the woman was not going to reply. Instead she just kept rocking where she crouched. Dapplegrim gave out a sound like a low huff. “Well,” he muttered. “Impolite.”

But Caewen frowned, and swinging a leg over the saddle, she got down. “Hush now, you.” Her first couple steps were uncertain and sore. She had been in the saddle since they’d stopped for a midday meal. Besides which, she was still not fully accustomed to long days riding. Muscles twinged with soreness up and down her legs. Taking another, slightly less painful step she said, “Hello there? Are you alright?”

Caewen was close to the woman now. As bent over, reaching out, Caewen dimly heard Dapplegrim raise his voice and yell, “Caewen! Don’t!”

She froze but was too late. The old woman snatched her right hand out at Caewen and took hold. Her fingers felt like steel shrinking as it cools after the forge. Caewen wrenched her hand back but could not pull against the strength. As she tried to tear herself away, the old woman stood up and her age fell from her. The rags and tatters flaked away like bits of old skin from a snake, becoming instead a rich gown of deep crimson and black, decorated with garnets as red and bright as fresh-sprayed blood. The skin that had been wrinkled and patched with age-spots changed too, but this alteration was stranger: the right-side of the her face and body turned young and beautiful, skin flushed with health, eye sparkling. The left side gathered a grey and dead sheen, touched here and there with corpse-blue. The left eye turned milky and lifeless. Her hair on the left seemed somehow more brittle and faintly discoloured. The line between youthful and dead ran like a welt down her forehead, nose and chin, neck, to vanish inside the folds of the dress.

Fair Upon the Tor Drafting

I have made some small headway with Fair Upon the Tor, enough so that I’m considering posting the first draft as I write it… or perhaps, not quite as I write it, but in thousand-word chunks. I think I’m also going to switch comments on. I don’t expect I’ll see much in the way of feedback, although I guess we shall see.

At this point I will aim for the first-draft-in-progress to go live with regular to semi-regular Monday updates. I might even throw in some related illustration work too.

Sort of related to this, sort of unrelated, I discovered Songgu Kwon’s Elf webcomic over the weekend and read it start-to-finish in a couple sittings. It is quite a bizarre tale (in a good way), and wandering, and beautifully illustrated, and also oddly and powerfully character-driven in a way that stories that claim to be character-driven often are not. Well worth checking out, if you haven’t already.

I suppose reading Elf made me reflect on other people who have posted creative works in progress. Given that my plan is to give it all away free anyway, it doesn’t seem all that terrible an idea to post bits of it as I am going. Yes, it may mean that I post something that is unpolished and will need a second or third pass to get it into shape. But, on the other hand, it will also impose a sense of urgency around actually getting the work done… which I think I now need to place on myself, one way or another. There’s a point where feeling exhausted and bleed-out ceases to be a good reason to remain in a state of slow trudging. Sometimes I think the only way to get back into a good pace, is just to start running again.

Is Beauty

camille_pissarro_the_boulevard_montmartre_at_night

 

The Boulevard Montmartre at Night

Camille Pissarro

There is a quote from Pissarro I like. I read it once on one of those little white placards they have in galleries, the small micro-essays that sit beside the painting. Have you ever noticed how people tend to spend more time reading those little placards than looking at the paintings? Others have noticed this too. Some galleries have been removing the cards entirely in an attempt to remove some of the filter between the visitor and the art. Anyway, the quote: The whole of the world is beauty. The art is in the seeing.

I remember reading that and being quite struck by it. It agrees with my own experience of the world. Everything has a beauty in it. Ugly things are not ugly the whole way through. Look at them from another angle and they become radiant, beautiful, enchanting. There are whole swathes of art based on the search by the artist for the beautiful in the overlooked and the mundane, the grotesque, the weird and the frightening.

I am going to attempt some sort of regular update around the writing hereon. I have returned to Fair Upon the Tor, and done some more detailed outlining. I recently discovered Jim Butcher’s writing advice, and although I don’t necessarily want to write books like Butcher’s, some of the advice was interesting enough for me to decide to give it a shot. I already had a rough outline of the story, but I’ve now returned to it and tried more clearly to add a ‘big middle’, as Jim calls it, as well as character tags (features, whether emotional, moral, physical or mental that only belong to this particular character in this story), and traits (words that are only or almost only used in association with this character in the story). I’ve thought a bit about introducing characters using characteristic action (an action that is highly definitive of the character), and I’ve thought about Butcher’s emotion/reaction/plan sequence.

I have also started, very gently, a novel that I’m aiming to be for sale to a traditional publishing house. I’m not sure how easily I’ll be able to flip from one story to the other. Doing that never used to bother me, but, on the other hand, I used to write every day (and did so for years and years), but then ceased writing entirely about six to eight months ago. The reasons why I simply stopped were mixed. I have been reflecting, for a while now, that I have been writing for a long time, twenty years or more, and I have not really got anywhere with it. Surely, if I were any good, if I were going to succeed, then I would have by now? And yet, I keep writing books, and I keep trunking them… I have over a million words worth of various novels on my hard drive and I’m not at all confidant that any of them are very good. I also had a fairly scathing workshop experience at about the same time, as well as being overwhelmed by real life responsibilities and a feeling that I wasn’t living up to my more general life and work duties. It all added up to make me just stop. I stopped writing. Stopped drawing and painting. Stopped working on games. Stopped everything. It’s going to be a process getting back into the swing of things, but I am resolved to do it.

So, as a part of this I am going to attempt to update this blog regularly. I may not have a lot to say, but, at the very least I can still check in and let people know I’m still working at things.