Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Forgotten


Unseen, she had watched them; her daughter and the twins, her grandchildren, unaware of her presence. Watched as the children played in the park and pleasantries were exchanged between her daughter and other parents by the swings. Not long ago it had been her chatting with likeminded parents as her daughter had scampered around with her friends.

 A lifetime ago now, she sighed, as the autumn breeze scattered yellowed leaves about her. She yearned to talk with her daughter, to play with her grandchildren. What had they argued about? It all seemed so trivial and yet it had led her to this juncture. One of the children looked over and spotted her, smiling as if in recognition, the child called out, causing the daughter to look up from her conversation. No, not like this. She backed away between the trees, disappearing between the trunks retracing her steps.

Everyday had seemed the same since the event that tied her to this routine of secretively watching her daughter and children leave their house. The twins would be going to school very soon and these park visits become a memory just like her own, with her daughter. She sighed again causing a passerby to look her way in puzzled questioning. You wouldn’t wish to know, she said to herself. The man gathered his scarf around his neck with a shiver and hurried on.

She found herself drawn to the crematorium graveyard, sweeping along familiar steps, once seen through a blur of tears, until she was before the headstone that marked where her husband’s ashes lay. Her hand traced, unfeeling, the words inscribed, his name, date of birth and of death, so long ago now, beloved husband and father. She wished she could cry, wished she could wash the stone with her tears, but it was to no avail. She saw that the flowers had been replaced, her daughter visited here regularly. No such visits for her. Why? She remembered then.  The drinking, the self-pity, the arguments, the hospital visits, the betrayal of broken promises that she had made. The final straw the drinking while supposedly watching the twins, it had all proven too much. No, no more visits for her.

She would have lingered there, yearning for a glimpse of her husband’s ghost, perhaps he would have offered a path to redemption for her? But he was long gone, leaving her, bereft in self-imposed solitude, walking the same streets, day after day.

A feeling suddenly came over her, she needed to get home.

She hurried along back to her flat, very fast for the old woman she was the ache in her hips and back a mere memory, the urgency to get home was all consuming. She could hear them banging at her door, the wood beginning to splinter. As the door gave way she rushed past them, over the piled post behind. She could hear them gasping in shock, hands clasped to mouths. She rushed to the room, darkened by the curtains still drawn. She scurried over the empty bottles of spirits that littered the floor to the form that lay on the sofa. She implored herself to rise, to get up and face those that entered her home, without invitation. But the dried and drawn face just smiled its endless smile.

The invaders spoke behind her, their voices muffled by masks.

“God, the smell! Poor woman, forgotten and ignored, how long has she been dead, do you think?”

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

The Witch Wood

The rain tonight was incessant, it poured from the heavens upon the canopy of trees above, the leaves offering no shelter from the deluge, while all the while the wind whipped the tree tops above, the branches creaking and cracking in protest. Beneath the branches the young man struggled, his face betraying the misery he felt. His coat had long since yielded to the ingress of water; his clothes were now heavy and sodden. His feet were wet and cold as he slid along the muddy track in his leaking shoes. The once clear path was now more like a stream, while treacherous tree roots seeming to attempt to trip him.
He cursed his own stupidity. He could have taken up the offer of his friend’s couch, could be warm and dry, his hand clutching another warming glass of scotch… the one he had refused as he wished to get back to the family home. “I’m only staying five or so miles away”, he had said, “And I can take a short cut through Witch Woods.”
“Are you sure,” his old friend had said. “It looks a bit wild out there and you know what that wood is like in the dark.”
“Come on,” he had joked. “We were kids back when we scared ourselves with those stories, and I can remember the way through them… its mainly downhill. If I stick to the old charcoal burner’s path I’ll be ok. If not the old crone will have me!” he had laughed.
His old friend had laughed too, if be it in an unconvincing way, again offering his couch, but he had refused, recounting how he had promised his elderly mother to be back at the old family home that night.
So here he now was deep in the Witch Woods, the path seemed to wind more than the map he carried in his childhood memories, and the old ruined charcoal burner’s cottage, by which he could get his bearings had still not appeared. And still the rain fell, the wind seeming to crest the ridge behind him in the tree tops, searching for him, chasing him. Just for a moment he had a tinge of a boyhood fear, he looked up and behind himself into the darkness, his feet still taking him forward. As he peered up the rain splashed on his face, he heard the crack and groan of wood above, his eyes widened as in the shadows he discerned the weight of timber falling towards him. He jumped to the side as the falling tree smashed into the ground where he had just been.
As for him, he had leapt into the unknown and the ground fell away from beneath him. He landed awkwardly on the slippery slope, gravity taking him as he tumbled over and over, unable to stop his mad descent, the brambles tearing his skin and the tree roots digging into his back. He came to a stop in a hollow, the wind was still howling as if it was following up above, he heard more snapping, more splintering of the trees above as the wind screeched, within it he heard a woman’s voice screaming curses.
The man gave a yelp then, as old nightmares resurfaced, he stood up ignoring the painful bruises, his side covered in slimy mud from his slippery fall. He gave no thought to get back to the old charcoal burner’s track, he could only think of the noise of crashing trees behind him now given form by his fear, he scrambled up the other side of the hollow as branches and brambles whipped his face and then he was running, dodging tree trunks in the gloom, roots tried to trip him; all the while the wind was screaming in triumph, as trees fell behind him, an invisible hand reaching to grab him.
He was aware of the distinctive smell of wood smoke and suddenly there was a cottage ahead of him, its overgrown front garden barely distinct from the forest it stood in. He ran up the steps and pounded on the door, the door opened an old woman peered out at him, her eyes seemed to recognise him... and perhaps the dark thing that pursued him.
“In! Quickly!” she said, slamming the door behind him.
He was shaking and sobbing, his eyes shut, as he heard the dark apparition outside rattle the door and then pass over the roof of the cottage as the wind carried on its way.
“You poor thing, you’re soaked to the skin,” the old lady cooed, "Warm yourself by the fire, it’s not a night to be out in, that winds bringing everything down.”
He opened his eyes, the room was dimly lit by a few stubby candles and a blazing fire, he staggered to the hearth as he shivered from terror and the cold, mumbling his apologies for his bedraggled state and the muddy footprints his feet left on the flagstone floor. He slumped into a fireside chair of smooth polished white wood.
He willed the warmth to seep into his bones as the fire crackled and hissed. He looked up into the gloom where the old woman watched him. “I’m so sorry to impose on you, like this.”
“Oh it’s no imposition, my dear.” Her voice had a melodic quality like birdsong. “You just sit and try to get warm now.”
He looked at the fire, as the flames danced like tiny sprites and turned back to the woman, there she was unmoved from before, her eyes deep-set in her gnarled old face, twinkling in the firelight.
“I expect,” he said, indicating the candles, “That the wind has brought down the electricity lines; it’s a good thing you have candles, while the power is out.”
She smiled, “Candles, yes…”
“I used to live hereabouts, a few years ago. I didn’t know this house was here,” he said wearily, the fire twisting and writhing before his heavy lidded eyes.
“Did you not? Perhaps you have just forgotten?” she replied.
“Perhaps I don’t remember, I haven’t been here for ten years, and my memory of the path was somewhat lacking in detail.” he said yawning, his eyes shut momentarily, his mind wandering, walking the woods in the summer with his friend, stumbling across the charcoal burner’s ruined cottage. He opened his eyes, forcing himself awake, as he shivered. “I’m so sorry, I almost drifted off. I never knew someone lived here in the woods. Have you lived here long?”
“The years go by and sometimes people forget”, she replied. “Don’t worry; you sleep if you need to. The fire is burning, as you see, and you are cold and wet.”
He nodded as he shivered again, he looked at the fire burning merrily and yet the warmth didn’t seem to reach him, he closed his eyes, just to rest them, for a little while.
“Yes you’ve just forgotten… ”, she said in her sing song voice.
In his mind’s eye he was there in the old charcoal burner’s cottage, a roofless, tumbledown, single story building, a hovel, long since abandoned. He was there with his friend, sat inside it on a summer’s afternoon telling stories to each other, the sounds of the forest all around.
“The young often do…” the distant voice said, as woodpeckers hammered in the distance.
His friend was telling him the tale, a true one he had said, of the charcoal burner who was greedy and despite warnings had cut down the oldest and biggest tree in the woods, the one with the bark on its trunk shaped like an old woman’s face.
“The old, however, we don’t forget and I’ve always been here…”
In felling the tree from which the woods were named the charcoal burner unleashed a furious, vengeful spirit upon him; his hovel was destroyed and the man was never seen again.
“I remember you…” she chuckled, like crows in the treetops. “You and your friend, here in this very place...”
Icy fingers crawled up his spine and shivering, he opening his eyes, looking at the empty, dark fireplace, the rain dripped down his face making him look up at the trees crowding over the roofless ruin. He stood up, confused and fearful as the wind howled and screeched above. He looked at the chair, the chair made of bleached bones; and he knew whose bones they once were.
He shook his head, turned tail and ran from the ruined cottage, heedless of the rain, heedless of the tree roots, down the old track as the trees groaned and the wind cackled above.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Spear Havoc 1066 - Alternative Histories by C R May




1066AD – a date enshrined in every history of England, all because of a battle that took place on Senlac ridge on 14th October.

History is written by the victors, we inherit their narrative.  Having always had an interest in the so-called “Dark Ages”, it always struck me as odd that English history didn’t seem to really get going until William the Conqueror took to the throne.  All the kings of Anglo-Saxon England were footnotes, with the exception of Alfred the Great of course. Growing up in the 1970s we still has access to atlases  with maps still swathed in pink, and history books still full of imperial pomposity. The conquest was the beginning of British greatness according to these texts.

But things had changed, even as a child I could see through those old books. The empire itself had been founded on conquest and oppression abroad and poverty and industrial pollution at home. By the 70s decolonisation was all but complete, on the news there was industrial strife, the troubles in Northern Ireland rumbled on with no end in sight, shop shelves had sugar shortages and black outs seemed common place.   Mind you, saying that the music was great… apart from Boney M and the Smurfs of course.

To believe those old history books Anglo-Saxon society had got as far as it could possibly go and the imposition of Norman overlords was ultimately a good thing. The upper echelons of the pre-conquest society was primitive. The conquering Normans brought order and modernity, in societal structure, architecture and warfare.Their victory at Hastings was nearly guaranteed, with their use of cavalry, foot soldiers and archers. How could the Anglo Saxons hope to compete with their archaic shieldwall tactics? Those stupid Anglo-Saxon Fyrdmen - enticed to their doom by William’s reigned retreats! But then you ask yourself; what if their discipline had held, what would have happened then?

In Spear Havoc 1066 – Alternative Histories, Norse historic fiction author par excellence C R May explores several intriguing differing outcomes to our historical reality. Each alternative is presented as a short story, followed by an afterword exploring the author’s reasoning. Each is perfectly feasible and, for those of us who hold with the theory of an infinite multiverse, may very well exist on different timelines.

Thus the author invites us to ponder the differing outcomes that could quite easily have occurred; what if Harald Hardrada had been killed prior to his campaign with Tostig Godwinsson?  How untroubled would the succession have been, if Edward the Exile hadn’t mysteriously died on arrival in England? What if the Confessor had died a year earlier before the sundering of the Godwinssons?

These are a few among twelve possibilities and, as any reader of Mr May’s will already attest, each is well described the author’s prose capturing the excitement of battle and the cut and thrust of political rivalries. Refreshingly, the author doesn’t just present us with Harold good, William bad scenarios, instead we have family rivalry and dynastic ambitions from many quarters; the realpolitik of the time. For the casual reader, or student of the conquest period, I would heartily recommend getting this book as it expands understanding of the world of Harold and William, beyond the historical narrative we all know.

It’s heartening to think that somewhere in the multiverse there maybe a present as framed in the tale of Tostig the Peace Weaver. What present is that you ask? I encourage you to get this book and find out!

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

A Light Bulb Moment


To me the new lights seemed harsh. First they installed them along the street, replacing the warm orange sodium glow of the old ones with a bluish glare. More energy efficient we were told, with less of the light pollution overspill  that was spoiling the view of the stars. So as it was with energy saving lightbulbs, hand and head torches, the replacement of traditional incandescent bulbs with LEDs continued apace throughout the town. All good, yes?  I’m not so sure.

 It seemed the correct, environmentally thing to do. Yet still the light is harsh, and almost physically hurtful to my eyes. The light is always intense under its glare, yet creates shadowed areas of darkness between them.  Avoiding pedestrians stepping out of the shadows and into the road in winter, whilst I’m driving, has become somewhat of a seasonal sport.

All artificial light is about mimicking the sun of course, illuminating the hours of darkness within the narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum in which we reside, extending our activity from mere daylight hours. I did some research; LEDs -light emitting diodes - bathe us in wakefulness inducing blue light, as the sun does. Other sources emit blue light too, such as phones and computers etc. which is why we are encouraged into having a down time from our devices prior to sleep. Blue light has a short wave length and can damage the photoreceptors in the eye; it is why we wear sun glasses in summer. Unlike the sun and incandescent bulbs however LEDs do not emit long wave length red light. Red light has health benefits, stimulating the retina to repair blue light damage, penetrating the skin and stimulating the production of mitochondrial ATP; crucial for providing energy in every cell of the body.

It’s not surprising that we have evolved to rely on the sun, that the ill effects of blue light can be countered by the benefits of the red. That’s the nature of real light and the universe in general; all seems perfectly balanced. But LED illumination isn’t natural and I suspect isn’t “real” light either.

Now it might be my prejudice against LED light but to me its the natural world that shows it for what it is – a synthetic light. Whilst walking the dog through an area of the park, the LED shone from the light from amid the branches of a silver birch. The light on the ground was shown for what it was, the leaves breaking it up into its digital components of lines. LEDs are here to stay, but do I like them? No I don't. As to whether they actually cause real harm biologically, we are all an experimental work in progress.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

The Raven and the Cross (Erik Haraldsson 2) by C R May - A review



In The Raven & The Cross, Erik Bloodaxe returns in suitable rampaging style. Previously we followed him extinguish opposition, in the shape of his brothers, to claim the kingship of Norway only to have it snatched away by the machinations of King Aethelstan of England and bequeathed to Erik’s Christian half-brother, Hakon.
Erik isn’t going to sit back and accept such a fate, he has loyal Hirdsmen, a wife and sons, and most crucially of all – the destiny to be a king five times over, as foretold to him by a seer. But how?
He has found sanctuary in Denmark with his brother-in-law, Gorm and joins him on campaign against the Swedes. However Eric has an appetite for fame-wealth and he knows, somehow, he will be a king again, as do others.  Athelstan offers Erik the kingdom of Northumbria in England but Erik suspects this offer is merely to keep him in check and ensure he doesn’t threaten Hakon’s throne. It would also make him the king of England’s puppet. 
Instead the Jarldom of the Orkneys offers great opportunity for wealth and plunder. Since the weakening of dynasties during a terrible war, in which Aethelstan successfully defeated an alliance of Dublin Norse and Strathclyde Britons, a power vacuum exists that can be exploited. The Orkneys are perfected situated on the sea lanes for a Viking Sea King to ply his trade and build his reputation.
Erik’s exploits will take him from Dublin to Portugal, but despite King Aethelstan’s heirs styling themselves as Kings of all the English, and carrying imperial ambition for the whole of Britain; Northumbrian separatism ensures that the Erik may still be king there , but on his own terms. Such a move would require accepting Christianity, but Erik is nothing but a pragmatist, and he needs to be accepted as king by both Norsemen and Anglo-Danish Northumbrians (both of Berncia and Deira). The king of Wessex may have other ideas however…
As readers we have been well served by Mr May of late. The Raven and the Cross is the second of the Eric Haraldsson series  to be released in 2018 – 2 books in one year – that’s dedication;  especially when it’s plain to see the meticulous research that has gone into these books. C R May has fleshed out Erik’s life from scant sources, but has been able to explore and expand on events mentioned in the saga of the Blóðøx and bring them to life.


The Norns Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld under the world oak Yggdrasil. Illustration, 1882 by Ludwig Burger via wikipedia

As ever with this author’s masterly word-craft we are treated to a wonderful recreation of the Viking world, with all its customs and beliefs and bloody brutal glory. The tapestry of Erik’s life is skilfully woven, as if it were by the very Norns themselves. There is action on land and sea with Erik the energetic warrior he ever was, so much so that the book speeds along; you daren’t put it down. The previous book dealt with Erik and his headlong rush to win his father’s throne with the blade of his axe – Jomal; however the experience of losing his throne through politics has made an altogether different Erik than the one driven by tempestuous youth.
Erik is a brave and ruthless warrior, unforgiving of disloyalty; yet the loss of long trusted hirdsmen, either by death or age catching up with them, has made a wiser, more philosophical individual. He can win a kingdom but now he’s learning how to actually be a king and the requirements of statecraft. A warrior may build a fearsome reputation, but a great king constructs a legacy.
It’s clear that the author lives and breathes this world, his love of the period shines through. For those of us who have enjoyed the work of CR May there’s a nice little easter egg hidden within the pages of The Raven and The Cross linking this series to previous ones he’s written. Book two of a trilogy this may be but it can still stand alone on its own terms. We all need to start somewhere and if you haven’t read any of CR May’s books before, I would happily recommend that this be the one to begin with; but you wouldn’t want to deny yourselves others, would you? So stand with Erik Blóðøx and hear Jomal’s deadly wail. “Óðinn owns you all!”


Image from cgtrader.com



The Raven and The Cross is available from Amazon

Thursday, 13 September 2018

The Brand New Normal - For Sam.





So this is the brand new normal, a hole in my heart and soul.

I’m bereft since you left; disbelieving, that you suddenly had to go.

Where once I complained when you shouted, now I just miss your bark.

And that you’re no longer hogging the sofa, and claiming the comfy part.

You’re not there in the middle of the doorway, underfoot, refusing to budge.

Nor there when the fridge door opens, at mealtimes I don't feel your nudge.

You’re no longer leaning against my legs, with your head and ears to smooth.

No more are you insisting that you lick mine, sat on me so I can’t move.

Of course you knew all this made my life sweeter,

with just the touch of your cold wet nose.

So this is the brand new normal, I’ll get used to it, I suppose.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Bloodaxe (Erik Haraldsson Book 1) by C R May - A review



“Tell me about King Erik, Your Grace.”

The archbishop blew the froth from his ale and peered across the rim, chuckling softly as he took a sip. “Bloodaxe?”

Under Harald Fairhair Norway has been unified, but the question of succession casted a shadow over the great king’s twilight rule. He wants Erik to be his heir for high kingship, but Harald has fathered many sons, all kings in their own right, each eager for the spoils the great king’s death will bring.

I’ve always had a fascination with the character of Erik Bloodaxe, the last Viking king of an independent Northumbria, if only for his descriptive name. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Jorvik Viking museum you may well have bought the T-Shirt or perhaps the mug, such as I have!
 

When I heard that C R May was embarking on telling his Erik’s saga I knew I would be in for a spectacular ride aboard a dragon prowed longship; and what a ride this is. Those familiar with Mr May’s (in my opinion) unrivalled word-craft in bringing this historical period to life, will have an inkling of what to expect, and for those new to his work, you will be in for a real treat and wonder why you haven’t read his work before. You can taste the salt tang of spray as you pull oar on Erik’s Skei, feel the fear and pride as your sea king disembarks first,  to lead his hird to a bloody and glorious victory, amid hoarse shouts of blóðøx.

It is the author’s great skill that he is able to put flesh on the bones of a few lines of Norse literature and create a wealth of believable characters, which the reader becomes utterly invested in.  Mr May invites his reader to suspend their disbelief in the fantastic with such subtlety that the presence of a lycanthropic monster, or the earthly manifestation of a god, is accepted without question. This is the heroic world where tales are told in the mead hall and monstrous shapes summoned by skalds in the shadows of flickering flames. Odin, the All-Father, does love his poetry, after all.

"When one-eyed wandering poets ask you to honour their wishes Erik, it's usually a good idea to do so... Particularly if they haven't aged a day in twenty winters."
 
 
 

Yet just when you think the tale is told, that a kingdom is won and Erik’s tapestry is woven, such is the fate of men that the three sisters of wyrd pick at loose threads, their shears poised to cut the warp and weft of heroes, and bring all crashing down in ruination and death in the world of Midgard. For, as Erik has concentrated on the Nor’way, foreign kings have conspired to weave patterns of their own.

But Erik has a destiny, told him by a warlock of the far north, and will snatch the threads of his life from the blades of the hags of fate, which fortunately for us means there will be an Erik Haraldsson Book 2. Form the shieldwall, raise the standard, Blóðøx! Blóðøx!

This is historical fiction as it’s meant to be written, absolutely top notch stuff from a writer at the peak of his craft.
 
Bloodaxe is available at Amazon