Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Strength





(a writing prompt from Trifecta)



The young man sat uncomfortably on the statue’s plinth, back turned to the god who glared down stonily on the disobedience of youth.    He was strong, and naked except for a brief white cloth around his waist and he was staring ahead of him at the door that led into the uncertain night.

The young woman entered silent-footed and stooped to pick up the discarded robe from the floor, a maiden’s robe of silk,  and held it in both her hands.

“Pyrrha,” she said.

He smiled.  “Not my name,”

“Pyrrha,” she said, challenging.   “You’re going away.  He’s taking you away.”

The young man nodded.   “Not taking.  My choice.   Been hiding too long.   There’s a war.”

She narrowed her eyes, and her voice conveyed that to him though he did not look up.

“There is always a war,” she said.  “Always.   Always men willing to kill for money, or honour, or the sheer love of killing.”

“Or glory,” said the youth whose name was not Pyrrha.   And she knew that she had lost him.

“You’ll die,”

“Who doesn’t,” he said, “This war…  Everywhere.   Forever.”  He gestured with his hands, a broad encompassing gesture and he stood up as he did.   The woman glanced from  him to the stone god behind him and found the stone wanting.   Just as she did.

“Death in battle is not glorious my love,” she whispered, “this stranger has lied to you, told you it is an opportunity for immortality, but it will fit you only for the raven’s banquet.”

He was still looking at the door ahead of him.  Staring at worlds unknown and horizons undreamed.  Battles raging.   Then he turned to her suddenly and pulled her to him.   Their kiss was hot as the pyre of a dead hope.

“Remember me,”

She touched her stomach gently.  “We will,”   But he was still too much the boy to hear and he turned and walked away into the future, and into the past and into legend.


A continuation, honestly, of High Priestess and Magus and Hermit though it may not seem so at first glance.  Lucas is tricky.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Journey



(image courtesy of sxc.hu purveyors of fine photography)

ECSTASY (noun)
3: trance; especially : a mystic or prophetic trance
(a writing prompt from Trifecta)

The pain is everywhere now.   The cords are tight around my arms and my legs, the long cuts on my back from the scourge weep blood, but the pain is no longer confined to arms, or legs, or cuts.   I am pain, a fire from head to toe flaring with every beat of my heart... or the drum... and the beat is fast, too fast.    The fire is outside me too, at the edge of the clearing, wood from the ash tree, flames crackling and eager.   The fire in my body longs to be reunited with the fire outside me and if I was not bound I would rush into its heart and be devoured.   The woman I love watches, eyes fearful, brave enough not to comfort me.   I endure.

This is not my first journey on behalf of the people.  Since I found my gift in the Summer of Fevers I have journeyed often when there was need.   To find the will of the gods and the other beings who moved unseen in the woods and hills and mountains.  Unseen by most, but I could see them.     The heart drum beats faster and faster and I am sure I will burst if it does not stop.   The bonds cut into me again as I stretch and strain to free myself and...

My body remains bound, my soul flies free, into the fire, into flaming ecstasy, the world burns away and I rise with the smoke and I see... I see...

I see the ceiling of my apartment as I awake suddenly.  I’m shaking all over, my arms and legs hurt.   Light from window opposite my bed makes my eyes water, it’s too damned bright.    I stagger from the bed and drain a bottle of water, and try to recall the details... something about fire, and winter and... people?   The details fade like always, a dream on waking.   A memory of a woman’s voice.

Come home.

Then that too is gone.



High Priestess


A writing prompt from 
and


The city at night was a fever dream with rain-glossed sidewalks reflecting constellations of neon, a gaudy zodiac in every direction, with desperation in the ascendant.    The night came early, though not as early as the rain, and the commuters who had no choice but to pass through these streets did so at a fast pace, heads down, avoiding eye contact with the predators and the hopeless who scavenged on this urban reef.    This month’s fad was fluorescent tattoos on face and hands, shining devils and skulls and hardcore skin art gleaming in every shadow and doorway.   Last month it was scarification and tooth filing.   Every passing season dragged the denizens of this night city further from the likenesses of their uptown neighbours, fast-forward evolution turning the outcasts into something other on the outside, reflecting the changes that the world had carved into their souls a long time ago.

Xam sat cross legged in her alcove just off the main strip, soldering iron in hand,  tongue between her teeth, her latest project on a board across her lap, frankensteining two incompatible devices into one impossible number-cruncher whose sale would pay off a debt or two and maybe keep her alive till the next debt came due.   She ignored the passing foot traffic just beyond the black and white border of her  alcove, she paid her dues to Bosey and Jake and they kept the sharks away from her. 

“I love to see an artist at work,”

Xam looked up at the sound of the familiar Scots accent and wrinkled her nose.  The man standing in the rain was dripping wet, hands in the pocket of his overcoat, greying hair plastered to his face.

“Lucas,”

“I need an oracle, Samantha,”

“No work without payment.  Not anymore.  Certainly not for you.”

Lucas smiled a thin smile.  “Already made.   Gudrun’s free.  Feel free to check, eh?”

Xam narrowed her eyes suspiciously then turned her attention inward… sinking…  seeking… struggling for contact with one of her other selves, far distant in Context.

Green grass, blue skies, rich thick forest, cool grass beneath her bare feet.   She was  taller, healthier as Gudrun, and though her limbs chafed from the manacles she’d recently worn she was strong and exultant.   The distant village was in flames, the evil becoming ash.

Xam looked into Lucas’ eyes.  “Your doing?”

He held up sooty fingers.  “I need an oracle.”

“Alright.”  She lay aside her project and reached into her pocket pulling out a bundle of stolen credit cards, colourful designs, each one different.   A thief’s tarot.  She began to shuffle and breathed slowly.

“What’s the question,” she muttered slapping down one card after another.   Sunlit desert road.  Interlocking circles.  Speeding car.

“Will you help me fight a battle?”

She stopped dealing and looked up.  “The answer’s no, Lucas.  No.”

Lucas grinned his mirthless insufferable grin.

“Is that so, Samantha?” he said and nodded his head downward.  “And what do the cards say?”

Xam looked down and read.   Bastard, she thought.



*
A continuation of Magus and Hermit, though knowledge of that piece is not required

Sunday, 21 April 2013

"At the Sign of the White Hart" - Modern fantasy serial





Kadogan glared at the head of the brownies.  "What ever happened to being paid with a saucer of milk?" He demanded.
"It's the going rate, your lordship." Gavin Brown didn't look apologetic.  "£100 per week for the shop, £100 per week for the garden, and you get a full Brownie job - no messing, no corners cut, just good service.  And that's preferential rate for elfen, your lordship.  I'd charge double for a standard job."


Lyssa Medana, a good friend and author of the frankly magnificent modern fantasy novel The Forgotten Village has just started a new serial on her blog.   At the Sign of the White Hart deals with the trials, tribulations and complications that arise when a mortal woman goes into business with an immortal Elfen and they set up a mystical supplies shop in York.      It's a great read that will be compiled for sale when complete but is now completely free to read, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Vigil of the Thorn



“It was not the thorn bending to the honeysuckles, 
but the honeysuckles embracing the thorn.”
(a writing prompt from Write on Edge)
and Hope and Old 
(a writing prompt from Studio 30+)





The old man was dead, and he was still turning the world upside down.   If Mother Wytlaf had been the sort to curse she would have cursed his name and his memory and his ancestors, she would have cursed his flesh and his bone and all his posterity.   She’d have cursed him three times three, standing, sitting and lying, with spittle and piss and blood, in song and shadow and silence.

Not being the sort to curse she stood instead on the banks of the river watching as the small narrow boat drifted downstream, fire already catching in the oil soaked cloth and straw that surrounded the old man’s body.

A warrior’s funeral he had asked for.  Here in the high valley of the moon where no weapon could come and no blood shed save for life and healing.  He’d asked for a warrior’s funeral and her maidens had pleaded for his request to be granted.

Those same maidens stood by her on the riverbank too, tears in their eyes reflecting the reds and orange of the old man’s final journey, the moon invisible in the dark sky above them it being her time of hiding.

How fitting, thought Mother Wytlaf, that the moon will not lend her presence to this travesty.    How fitting that now it was only the blazing light of the old man’s corpse that illuminated the scene.  After all he’d remade everything else in his image hadn’t he?

He’d arrived one whole moon earlier, and the sky silver had been hiding that night too.   Old he was and failing, with old wounds on his body and bitter humour on his lips.    He was dying, he told Mother Wytlaf, and had sought out the high valley of the moon to pass his final days in peace and comfort.

That was his right, the right of any who came seeking succour and who did so in peace.   She had welcomed him and set her maidens to tend him, to ease the pain of his old injuries, to soothe him in his last days, and to hear his stories.

And oh, he could tell stories.  He told them of his strange birth, and the trial of his childhood as he was smuggled from mountain to woodland to deep caverns, to high crags.   He told them of his master at arms and the ordeals he faced to earn the runes of war etched on his forearms.   He told them of his loves both won and lost.  His maidens listened as they tended him, and laughed and wept in turn.   And he told them of the war.   He told them of the war still raging beyond the world they knew, beyond the mist in the far fields and plains and woodlands and mountains.

And they listened.

He told them of the warriors striving to keep back the darkness, of the innocents falling before the foe.   He told them of the hopelessness and the need for healing and wisdom.

And they listened.

And as the old man burned, Mother Wytlaf knew his words burned too in the hearts and souls of her maidens.

When the vigil was done and the fires burned out, Mother Wytlaf knew, the maidens would gather their things and don their deep blue cloaks, and they would depart the high valley of the moon forever.

She wished she had it in her to curse the old man, but a sister owed her brother the peace he never knew in life, and she held her tongue.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Cold Artistry




colour3: complexion tint:  a : the tint characteristic of good health  b : blush
(a writing prompt from Trifecta)

They took him at wordpoint (the gun was not visible but had been mentioned) into the basement.    It was cold and well lit and there were shelves on which the usual basement detritus lurked dustily.  In the centre of the floor was a gurney on which lay a dead body.   That did not shock him, he had seen too many of them for the simple truth of meat-hood to bother him.  Guns bothered him and he was trembling.

“Do your thing,” said the unsmiling man who’d led him there.

“Yes, of course.”  He looked at the body.   She must have been beautiful in life, but death’s alchemy made all gold into base metal in time.   “Photograph?  From before?”

“Here,”

“Thank you,” he said.   He put it on the gurney by her head, and opened his case.

He massaged the dry skin of her eyelids to loosen them, make them close more naturally, rubbed dry lips with Vaseline until cracks vanished.    He took up a stiff brush and foundation cream and began to work.

He took pride in this.  His cosmetics could not cover enough to remove grief, but they painted over truth well enough.     A sponge and crème blush for the cheeks, a very subtle lip colour applied  delicately.   This took the most time, it’s hard to make cold lips look real, and any imperfection in art here stands out.    Eyeliner and mascara then, necessary to give the eyes definition or they would get lost in the unmoving matte landscape.  He worked precisely and carefully and blotted away excess with a dry white tissue.

He stepped back then and looked, nodded in satisfaction.

“What now?” he said, nervous breath in the cold air.

“We take you home,” said the gunman, “with enough money to erase your memory.”

A whisper then, soft and paper dry from the heart of the room.

“Has anyone got a mirror,”

The artist kept his eyes on the gunman.   “It had better be a lot of money,” he said.


Saturday, 13 April 2013

Dream come true



“It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” ― Paulo CoelhoAlchemist
(A 33 word writing prompt from Trifecta)



Life was certainly interesting now, I thought, trembling in my brand new flesh, feeling the world for the first time.  I looked down at my sleeping creator dreading my dissolution when he woke

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Arid Conjuration


When the days are endless dreary, and the nights are long and dry,
And the shape of what you have is dark, unclear,
It’s there beyond the eye of mind and hiding, God knows why,
And never to be finished, that’s the fear
When you yearn to walk the path again, to blaze a brand new trail
But your feet upon the way are stuck and mired
When each moment is a torment, in despair that you will fail
And you want to walk the path but you’re so tired

Each second that is passing, it will never come again
And every word unwritten is  a crime
There’s lives that need their telling, in their triumph and their pain
Each moment’s silence spends their precious time
The doors seem to be closing, and the light is failing fast
And the pallid desert’s barren on the screen
But I’ll walk the path, I’ll walk it, till the desert I have passed
And all the things that could be, all have been.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Abandoned Beauty



(a writing prompt from Write on Edge)

“He’s on his way, I’ve seen him through the eyes of owls.  Young and full of vigour,” Her voice was self-satisfied, with just a hint of lewd appreciation.


“So romantic,” came the reply in gentle delicate tones of wistful contentment

“Romance be damned,” the third voice was a menacing rumble, “it’s the story that draws him.  Always the story.”

The three of them waited in an upper room, looking out of the window into the wooded valley below.   The house was glorious once, but that was before it had been abandoned to the elements and to time, before moss and vines grew over its surface and the burrowing creatures dug into its rocky foundations, before the rain and wind of countless years wore away the paint and etched age into the face of the building.    

The three of them wore the shapes, more or less, of women.

“We should try to stop him of course,” said the first of them, “Should I…?”

“No,” sighed the second, “let me.  Poor boy.”   She relaxed out of her vanishing body and the valley forest pulsed in response.

“She’ll botch it,” growled the third.       They watched as the canopy of trees quivered far below and a few moments later the one who had vanished returned.   She was ragged and glaring now, her green clothing tattered and torn.

“Clever boy,” she said, and she’d lost the wistfulness,  “My vines and stinging plants engulfed him.  He sprayed me with chemicals and withered me.”  She spat on the floor.  It steamed.

“My wolves will end him,” said the first of them.  Her eyes gleamed orange and she was gone.   Below there was howling and shouting and chasing and…

She was back suddenly, clutching herself and leaking blood.

“Revolvers,” she growled, “and he’s a bloody good shot.”

“Useless,” boomed the third of them and the sky darkened as she vanished.   “Leave.  Him.  To.  Me.”    The last four words were thunder crashes, and lightning stabbed the valley shattering trees and stone where they struck.

The other two looked at each other and waited.

“He’s good,” said the one in tattered green.

“He’s the one,” said the wolf-eyed woman.

Suddenly the third of them was back, pale and furious.

“He’s a pain in the backside,” she said, “And he’s tough.  Made it to the steps.”

They all peered out of the window and looked down.  Far below a young hero staggered up the long flight of stairs leading to the house.   He was injured and soaked and a little scorched, but undaunted.

They sighed and moved further in, resting on a balcony overlooking the grand hall below.  In the centre of the hall was a bed and on the bed a maiden lay, pale and golden haired and untouched by time.

The young man thrust open the mossy doors and staggered into the room.   He paused as he took in the beauty of the maiden sleeping in the mansion lost to time, but he only paused for a second.   And then, his strength renewed he strode forward and bent over her to kiss her flawless skin.

“They always get the story wrong,” the first grumbled as the maiden’s eyes flickered open.

“Such a shame,” agreed the second.   The maiden wrapped her arms around his shoulders and opened her mouth wide, revealing twin rows of pearl white fangs.  The young man screamed as she bit down.

“The sacrifice of the heroic king,” said the third, nodding, “has to be the strongest, the cleverest, the finest.   And they’re the only ones that make it through, who make it past the flora, and the fauna and my merry weather.”     

In the chamber below the maiden sat up and stretched, her gown soaked scarlet, her lips dripping gore.     She waved at the three faerie who had guarded her, and they waved back grinning.

Job done.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Princes and Peashooters

I went on a tour of the City Varieties theatre in Leeds today.   It's not a large venue, nor is it particularly grand, but it does have quite a history.     Its first incarnation was as a singing room above the Swan Inn.  Singing rooms were an innovation that encouraged people to stay longer in the inns you see; people would turn up and sing, and listen to other singers, and consequently they'd stay longer and buy more drinks.   Over the next hundred years or so they became so popular that the entertainment part of it grew and grew, and in the mid 1800s the Swan Inn was replaced by the music hall which was rebuilt as a theatre where the entertainment was much more of a focus.      This wasn't a high-brow place though, in fact music halls were forbidden from putting on plays (must keep Shakespeare dignified you see and out of the hands of the commoners) and so they focussed on songs, comedians and variety acts all put on for the benefit of working class audiences who felt free to heckle, harass, bombard and (hopefully) occasionally applaud the artistes.

The City Varieties is not, as I mentioned earlier, a large venue.  Today it seats about four hundred people in relatively spacious comfort.   In its original incarnation the same space housed about two thousand complete with balconies where people stood four or five deep, leaning over the rows in front and craning their necks to see the small and sloping stage.   The balconies, I learned today, were not even supported from below, just held up by rods fixed to the ceiling.    This particular touch of structural genius wasn't even known to the owners until the refurbishments a few years ago.   Needless to say the balconies are no longer used for the audience.

The tour guide, Grace, really knew her stuff and brought the history of the venue alive.   Particularly entertaining were her accounts of some of the acts that had played there over the years.   Charlie Chaplin performed there in the 1890s as part of the "Lancashire Clog Boys" for instance, before his journey into the west.    Lillie Langtry was a regular artiste, a renowned Victorian beauty and performer.   The then Prince of Wales was quite enamoured of her but of course it wasn't the done thing for someone of his standing to attend such a low class venue... so the staff of the theatre used to discreetly smuggle him into the place after the show had started, via unused corridors and into the box nearest the stage where the curtains were already drawn, so he could watch Lillie perform.  Afterward he would be smuggled out again before the show as a whole finished and depart for the nearby Harewood Hall where he could lodge with his noble cousins and resume his princely duties.     Later he awarded the City Varieties the right to display his royal crest though whether this was as a thanks for the good times he'd had there, or a bribe to keep quiet it's hard to say.   If it was the latter, well, it didn't work.

"Discretion if you please"

During the first World War the City Varieties, like many music halls throughout the country, became the venue for a method of recruitment that was a masterpiece of psychological manipulation if not the most ethical method.    Vesta Tilly a female artiste known for her male impersonation would lead an evening of rousing patriotic songs during which the bar kept the audience well plied with beer.   When spirits were high she'd invite the young men on stage to join in the singing, all very uplifting and jingoistic and inspiring nationalistic pride and fervour, with the audience cheering and applauding and joining in.... and then the young men on stage would be handed documents to sign... and the next week they'd be in the army and on their way to the trenches.     You have to applaud the thought that went into that sinister little performance if not the morality of it.
Vesta Tilley


On a lighter note I learned of a creative use for peashooters.   When music hall attendance started to flag during the 1920s and 1930s with the rise of cinema and radio the shows began to entice audiences in with nude displays.    The laws at the time were quite strict and nudity was allowed only in an artistic context.    After all, nude statues and paintings are art, right?   So shows began to incorporate naked tableaux that were perfectly legal as long as the ladies on stage did not move.  If they moved it became obscene and the theatre could be prosecuted.      With a typically human approach to regulations and restrictions however the owners tried to find ways to push that boundary a little and managed to inject a little movement into the shows by introducing elements such as having one of the naked artistes sitting or standing on a wheeled trolley that could be moved across the stage, or having moments where the lights went out entirely and the performers would move to a new position before the lights came up again.   It must have been like a very slow X Rated stop motion animation.        We were told that one visitor to the theatre had confessed to the tour guide that he and his friends attended these shows when he was a young man and they used to use pea-shooters to fire at the naked ladies on stage to try to get them to move, or that they would try to get a spot by the stage and all blow in unison in the hope of moving some of the feathery fans that obscured some of the more... artistic... parts of the display.    How successful the attempts were we were not informed, but I imagine it helped them pass a happy hour.

The theatre has been open continuously since the 1850s, staying open through both world wars and in fact only closed for refurbishment for the first time in 2009, reopening in 2011.   The refurbishment removed the grime and dillapidation of a century and a half of constant use and it's now redecorated in the same style that it was in its heyday of 1900 or so - clean and airy with tasteful floral decorations on the roof and gold leaf highlights here and there.    It's still a cosy little theatre, not grand but welcoming, and full of character and history, and true to its roots it hosts shows that you would not often find in grander places - comedians and circus shows, pantomimes and experimental theatre.   It's a great little place and if you find yourself in the neighbourhood it's well worth a visit.


Monday, 1 April 2013

Cellar Door

(A writing prompt from Write on the Edge)

Monsters live in cellars.    All children know this.    It's true of most cellars, but it is particularly true of cellars in old houses, cellars with uneven stone stairs and lighting that works only intermittently; cellars with odd corners and more than one room, and cobwebs piled up so thickly in the corners they look like ghosts' furniture or albino shadows.  Those cellars are always the haunt of monsters and they should not be carelessly explored except for the dullest of purposes and certainly not alone.

Cellar doors therefore are important.   Cellar doors are the boundary between one world and another, the world of television and electric light and games consoles on one side, and shadows and whispers and things moving out of sight and dusty smells  that come and go of their own accord on the other.    Boundaries are special.   Boundaries with sturdy locks are both special and sensible.

My cellar door was everything it should have been.  I crept up to it often, the smell of the house changing near it, an old smell of not-quite-damp and not-quite-clean that made my skin crawl.   It looked perfect, thick and sturdy, chunky and old and blocky.   The paint was old and cracked and had come off in places so you could see the layers of different colours like geological strata - gloss green, sickly yellow, off-white, faux-wood brown.    It was like a scarred face, and never looked the same twice.   The hinges were clunky iron  things that could withstand sledgehammer blows.   I was glad about that.

I'd press my ears to the wood and listen.   At times I was sure that I could hear movement beyond it.   Footsteps.   The hint of voices whispering -too quiet for me to be sure, far too quiet to make out words.  I'd lay awake at night and wonder what on earth they could talk about beyond the cellar door.

I didn't tell my parents.  They were practical and sensible and they would have dismissed my thoughts as mere imagination.    When they caught me with my ear pressed to the cellar door I was told not to waste my time, and not to go exploring by myself as it was dangerous.    They were probably worried about me falling, or breaking something, or any number of mundane accidents.   But I knew it was far more dangerous than that, and I was never really tempted to open the cellar door.

Until... 

Until one day when I was absolutely sure I heard a voice.  Not a whisper or a hint, but an actual voice.   A girl's voice, and she was singing.   My heart pounded in mingled panic and exhilaration.    I listened, enraptured for several minutes and then it simply stopped, and before I could do anything foolish my mother called me to eat and I left the door, and the song behind me.

After dinner though I crept back and pressed my ear against the scarred paint and closed my eyes, willing myself to hear the mysterious song from beyond one more time.  
And it was there.  It was faint but there.   And I knew that I could not ignore it any more, knew that in every life there comes a moment when the unknown must be faced.    I had never even tried to open the cellar door before, not once.   But now, with the song still faintly sounding from beyond, and heedless of the consequences I touched the iron handle.  It was cold, and it was solid and it was real, and I knew there would be no going back.
Holding my breath I turned the handle and the cellar door opened.   I did not look back at the safe, normal, secure world I knew.  I stepped through the door and into the house above in search of songs and a strange new world of sunlight and mystery.

Lucksmith - done

It took a few false starts but finally, finally I've finished the short story I've been working on.   I remembered the advice I was given "Start as close to the end as possible" and ditched all the preamble and exposition and cut straight to the key scene that was at the heart of the story.

I'm frustrated that it took me so long to recall that, but once I found the right starting point everything flowed just as it should.     Next time I'll remember that lesson earlier (I hope) and spare myself a few days worth of rewrites.