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

Monday, 19 February 2018

The Wolf Banner by Paula Lofting - a review




“1058. This year Alfgar, the earl, was banished; but he soon came in again, with violence, through Gruffudds' aid. And this year came a fleet from Norway: it is tedious to tell how all these matters went.”

 
So wrote a scribe, his opinion preserved for all these long ages since in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. “Tedious to tell”? Not at all, as we revisit C11th Horstede in Sussex and reacquaint ourselves with Wulfhere and his household, who we met in Sons of the Wolf.
Wulfhere is a man tormented by inner demons, suffering from combat stress, his relationship with his pregnant mistress putting implacable strain on his marriage to his wife, Ealdgytha. While his children squabble incessantly, the long running blood feud with his neighbour Helghi bubbles away, despite his lord Harold Godwinson ordering his two Sussex liege men to bury their hatchets, by way of marriage. The one bright ray of sunshine is the impending marriage of his eldest daughter to the Aemund son of his friend Leofnoth… as long as her dalliance with Helghi’s son hasn’t ruined her chances of a fortuitous union, that is.
Meanwhile in the strategically important earldom of Mercia, the elderly Earl Leofric is dying. His son Aelfgar should inherit the earldom but is tainted by his previous exile and subsequent ransacking of Hereford in the company of his ally, Gruffudd of Wales. Will Aelfgar’s hatred of the growing power and influence of the Godwinsons overpower his loyalty to King Edward? What of Aelfgar’s first born son Burgheard? He condemned his father over Hereford, where do his loyalties now lie?
Wolf Banner is a real page turner, through the eyes of the characters we can see the unfolding drama of the C11th. It is extremely well researched as all the threads of the time begin to create the tapestry leading up to inevitable conflict and destruction of this world. The characters are fleshed out and flawed, not one is a perfect hero, each has their weaknesses or will take advantage of others in their pursuit their goals.
Having enjoyed Ms Lofting’s first book of this series it was a joy to return to the C11th. Her storytelling goes from strength to strength. This is an author whose craft is becoming as sharply honed as the blades wielded in the battles she admirably describes.
Words of the time are skilfully entwined in the dialogue making the world all the more real. All life is here; love, desire, hope, distrust, betrayal, war, triumph and achingly painful loss. There is humour in Aemund’s battle with his wife’s aunt Gunhild, as a reader I thoroughly enjoyed the old battleaxe‘s humiliation - well deserved I think! The war of words between Burgheard and his adversary Ragnald in Wulfgar’s hall was coarsely realistic but absolutely enjoyable; I felt like I was there listening to the increasingly ill-tempered debate and trading of insults.
Surely you can tell an author’s worth if you feel emotionally invested in the characters, and you do in The Wolf Banner. I felt sorry for Burgheard, and sympathetic to his growing bitterness but it was good for him to have a storyline to be told, as he is a mere footnote, briefly mentioned in the writings of the time. Another character you feel for his Wulfhere’s youngest son, Tovi. Sacrificed in an attempt to heal the rift between his parents, his dreams trampled and abandoned, I feel he may yet be the one to save his father from his deep and crippling despair.

1058, tedious to tell? To the scribe perhaps but not for our characters in The Wolf Banner; their fates are set on their courses and their tales will continue in The Wolf’s Bane, there is the none-too-small matter of a blood price that requires payment; I can’t wait.

The Wolf Banner is available at Amazon

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Conan the Barbarian - an Appreciation


‘Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyberborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet…’
 - The Nemedian Chronicles, The Phoenix On the Sword 


It feels like I’ve grown up with Conan. Whereas Tolkien offers classic High Fantasy, Conan offered something a bit more earthy and brutal. My introduction came through looking at my elder brother’s Savage Sword of Conan comics when I was nine or ten. I say comic, but this was wholly different from the comics such as the Beano which my friends read. Being one to always pick up a pencil and draw when I was young, I loved the artwork and the depiction of monsters and warriors, not to mention the… well let us just say that I had to be careful reading these comics as my mother didn’t fully approve of the scantily clad women shown within. It seems very funny when I look back at it, all part of growing up!

Savage Sword of Conan Magazine covers

 

If I recall Savage Sword of Conan was a monthly and through it I found that the character and the world of the Hyborian Age was the invention of a Texan writer called Robert E Howard. As well as the comic there was a whole series of novellas and short stories published by Lancer books, written by either Howard himself or by L Sprague le Camp and Lin Carter among others. Each had a glossy cover by such amazing artists such as Frank Franzetta and each tale would draw you in to a world of fast-paced adventure; I was hooked!

Conan paperback

Robert E Howard was a complex and tragic character. He was born in 1906 and committed suicide at the age of 30.  He was the son of a travelling physician and his childhood took him through a variety of boomtowns. It was his mother who inspired him intellectually through her love of literature and poetry and at the age of nine he began to write, the ability to make his way in the world through his writing was his dream. Howard hated the boom-bust nature of the oil towns of the time and the crime that followed in its wake and the tuberculosis that afflicted his mother was a constant cause of concern. He hated the jobs he had to undertake to earn a living and finally quit in 1926 to pursue writing by taking a college course. He submitted stories to the pulp magazine Weird Tales. It took another three years but he finally became a full-time writer at the age of 23. He entered into a correspondence with HP Lovecraft and look set for a comfortable life when the Great Depression struck. It was at this low ebb, whilst travelling the state, he conceived the land of Cimmeria and over the course of nine months he developed the character of Conan and the world of the Hyborian Age. Unknown to him he had invented the whole sword and sorcery genre.

Robert E Howard

Howard became preoccupied in caring for his ailing mother and writing became increasingly difficult. When his mother slipped into a terminal coma he took his own life in 1936. In truth Howard’s Conan writing had been brief and he had lost interest in the character from 1934, preferring to write westerns (two of the later Conan tales, Beyond the Black River and The Treasure of Tranicos, both set in the Pictish Wilderness had a decidedly western feel to them). Yet the research and fragments of unpublished work he had put into his world building, enabled others to pick up the baton to give us the great number of Conan stories that we have today.

So who is Conan? Conan is described as a black haired warrior of the northern land of Cimmeria. As the name suggests he is perhaps Celtic. He is described as having a mane of black hair and eyes of smouldering blue. In stature he is tall and muscular; a born fighter but also possessing intelligence and tactical skill. The various stories have him travelling far and wide over Hyboria, during which he becomes adept at several languages and (most surprising for a barbarian) able to read and write.
Hyboria - Wikipedia - Gnome press by David Kyle



 I always liked the maps reproduced in the books showing the pre-flood Hyboria transposed with the modern. With his love of history Howard purposely used similar names to make the Hyborian world seem plausible.

The genius of the Conan stories is that you can dip in and out at different stages of his career. So you can catch him as a young barbarian still in the vicinity of Cimmeria in The Frost Giant’s Daughter and then read of him as the King of Aquilonia in The Scarlet Citadel (the latter almost gives a blueprint for the future RPG Dungeons & Dragons!)

Of course I couldn’t write of Conan without making mention of the films. I remember the excitement building about the impending film project in the pages of The Savage Sword of Conan. Everyone already had Arnold Schwarzenegger as playing the titular character, indeed the future Associate Producer of the film (Edward Summer) had put his name forward in 1975 after seeing Schwarzenegger in the film Pumping Iron. Schwarzenegger was approached in 1977 and convinced to sign up to the role. However it took five years  until finally  the film Conan the Barbarian was released in 1982.

Conan the Barbarian poster 1982
The Heavy Metal music magazine, Kerrang, reviewed it and called it the "Cinematic equivalent of a Motorhead concert". They weren't wrong; for the time it was quite a violent film I suppose with a degree of nudity. The world of Hyboria was recreated in Spain with an original story using elements of Howard's stories, most notably from A Witch Shall be Born and The Phoenix on the Sword.

The film begins with a chronicler reciting part of the Nemedian passage as above.  Conan is born the son of a blacksmith in Cimmeria. His father forges a mighty sword and tells him  that he must quest for the riddle of steel but his village is raided by an evil wizard and his retinue under a snake banner. His parents are killed and his father's sword taken. The child Conan is led to captivity where he works on the wheel of pain becoming large and muscular after many years pushing it. He is then put in a gladiatorial ring where he proves his worth, receiving weapons training and education. He is freed  and becomes a thief with a Hykrainian archer called Subotai and a female warrior called Valeria.

Conan and Valeria become lovers after they rob a temple of the snake god Set. During the robbery Conan recognises the symbol of Set as the one carried by his parent's killers. While celebrating their newly found fortune they are arrested by city guards and brought before King Osric. The temple of Set has demanded the king deal harshly with the perpetrators. Osric reveals that his own daughter has fallen under the spell of Thulsa Doom, the leader of the cult. He offers wealth beyond measure if the trio liberate her and bring her home. Subotai and Valeria refuse but motivated by his thirst for revenge Conan embarks on his own where he meets a wizard guarding an old burial ground, the chronicler of his tale.
Subotai, Conan and Valeria before King Osric
Attempting to infiltrate Thulsa Doom's mountain of power while disguised as a priest Conan is captured. Interrogated by Thulsa Doom he reveals who he is. Doom tells him the riddle of steel before ordering Conan's crucifixion on the tree of woe. Under the baking sun and surviving the predation of vultures Subotai rescues him. Valeria demands the wizard heal Conan. He says he can summon spirits to effect the healing but they will extract a heavy toll, which Valeria agrees to pay. The wizard works his spell and during the might the spirits attempt to take Conan who has been tethered to the ground. His companions ward them off and Conan is restored to health.
The trio now infiltrate the Mountain of Power during a cannibalistic orgy, during which Thulasa Doom transforms into a snake. Rescuing the daughter of Osric they make good their escape but Doom, back in human form, shoots a snake arrow which kills Valeria, thereby confirming the heavy toll she had to pay for Conan's life.
Thulsa Doom taking snake form.
Valeria's funeral pyre alerts Doom of Conan's whereabouts and he and his retinue, including his high priests Rexor and Thorgrim attack the burial site which Conan, Subotai and the wizard have fortified. During the battle Valeria in spirit form saves Conan and they successfully fend off the attack, killing Thorgim and Rexor. Seeing his men defeated Doom tries to shoot the princess with another of his snake arrows but Subatoi defends her with a shield. Conan recovers his father's sword from his enemies in shards, after it was shattered during the battle. Perhaps this symbolises the riddle of steel, that flesh is stronger.

Back at his temple Doom addresses his followers but Conan confronts him, avoiding the wizard's attempt to control him and beheads Doom with his father's sword. With the cult destroyed Conan sets fire to the temple.

The film ends with an older Conan sat upon a throne, wearing a crown upon a troubled brow.

The sweeping orchestral score by Basil Poledouris is to my mind quite brilliant, with its recurring themes possessing an operatic quality. The soundtrack is now one of my most listened to pieces of music. 
It was through Conan that the acting career of Arnold Schwarzenegger took off. His certainly looked the part, although his physique and movement possibly lacked the "cat-like" agility that Howard described.
The film spawned a sequel  two years later- Conan the Destroyer  - and also a cinematic rendition of the comic book creation of Red Sonja (loosely based on one of Howard's characters). However I feel that the less said about these the better!
Although being 35 years old the effects hold  up very well.

In 2011 a reboot was released with Jason Mamoa (Khal Drogo from Game of Thones) in the titular role. In many ways Mamoa is a superior depiction of Howard's hero. He swings a sword more naturally than Schwarzenegger and has that cat-like agility the character was supposed to possess. You could believe this Conan could climb whereas the original seemed too solid to do so. It promised much with modern CGI and indeed the 2011 Conan the Barbarian is a feast for the eyes, albeit a violent one. However, personally its disappointing and a wasted opportunity, the story completely losing its direction after the death of Conan's father (played by Ron Perlman). Despite Mamoa, Perlman, the superior special effects and strong female characters played by Rose MacGowan and Rachel Nichols, nothing can make up for the disjointed and cliched storyline. It possesses none of the operatic grandeur of the 1982 film.

Jason Mamoa - Conan the Barbarian 2011
Perhaps Conan was the man that Howard wished he could be. Although being a bookish child he took up body building and boxing. However after passing out in the heat whilst working as a surveyor he discovered he had a heart condition. He suffered badly from stress and was riddled with self doubt, despite his commercial success. His mother suffered from TB for decades and his father's work took him away from the family home frequently. It seems that Howard was his mother's primary carer and would explain why he stayed living with his parents, perhaps through a feeling of duty. The one chance of romance was passed by due to his devotion to his mother. Its been suggested that perhaps he had a latent Oedipus Complex but its likely that today he would likely have been diagnosed as being clinically depressed. When his need to care for his mother ended he went to his car shot himself in the head.  Throughout his 160 odd stores of men in control of their own destiny, maybe this was his decision to finish his life on his own terms.
Pulp writer he may have been but personally I owe him a debt of gratitude for the fantastic escapism he has given me over the years. He has received much criticism over the years and been described as a poor imitation of Lovecraft, whereas in truth they both influenced each other. I would argue that his influence in the fantasy genre is equal to Tolkien. Most of all he is a master spinner of fast paced and highly enjoyable yarns. As the horror writer Stephen King noted - "Howard's writing seems so highly charged with energy that it nearly gives off sparks."
Back in 2013 rumours began to circulate that a script was being prepared, based around King Conan and having Schwarzenegger reprise his role. As of yet we are still waiting for what might be...

King Conan - Conan the Barbarian 1982

When I was a fighting-man, the kettle drums they beat;
The people scattered gold-dust before my horse' feet;
But now I am a great king, the people hound my track
With poison in my wine-cup, and daggers at my back.
The Road of Kings

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Philosophising Coincidence


“Ah hello again, I hope I didn’t confuse you too much during our last little chat?”
“When we spoke of the nature of matter? A little, but it got me thinking, as I cogitated our discussion; you said that we reside in a “goldilocks” universe and yet everything is really just energy at different frequencies of vibration?”
“That’s correct and that it may be one of several realities in a multiverse, as exhibited by the double slit experiment and the wave of potentials. “
“You said that there were at least nine parallel universes occupying the same time and space as ours and you also mentioned all these coincidences that make this reality the way it is…”
“Indeed, I remember. Has this thinking led you down a rabbit hole?”
“I’ll say. It just leads deeper and deeper. You said that the moon is just happens to be the same ratio of size and distance to enable us to view a solar eclipse and that it’s gravitational effect keeps our planet tectonically active. Well I did some more research of my own about the moon, and… oh I will come across as literally a lunatic!”
“We are friends, trying to understand our reality. I won’t judge you. Where did this research lead you?”
“It led me to believe that the moon shouldn’t exist.”
“That’s a dramatic conclusion! Why would you say that?”



“It’s too big for one thing. If you look at other planets in our solar system and the comparative size of their satellites you conclude that the moon should be roughly 40 miles in diameter, but Luna is 2000, Its orbit is an almost perfect circle, not elliptical and as it orbits the planet it spins but once so that it always shows its one face to the earth.  It’s old of course roughly 4.5 billion years and so comparable with earth and yet some of the rocks were estimated at being 5.3 billion years.”
“Well we know it’s old due to the cratered surface.”
“The craters yes, some big over 60 miles across and some small less than 15. Yet… all the same depth.
“That’s weird.”
“Yes because the moon has in effect a 20 mile thick titanium shell which acts like ballistic nylon, absorbing the impact and disintegrating the bullet that hits hit.”
“A shell? Is that the correct term?”
 Yes, when space probes have purposely been crashed on its surface the whole body has rung like a bell, suggesting it’s actually hollow.”

“So… where does that lead us. How was it formed by the way?”
“Conventional theory states that a large body crashed into earth when all was molten rock, the result being that Luna broke away to form the moon we see today… the perfect moon and all by sheer coincidence.
“But how can it be hollow and made the way it is, if it’s formed from the same rocks as earth? Hang on. Hollow. A twenty mile thick shell, placed in a near perfect orbit. Anywhere else, that would sound like a spaceship. But if this isn’t the case – and conventional science of course says it isn’t – then it’s all mere coincidence, but…”



 “To quote a famous film – That’s no moon! Ha, ha. Coincidences, yes… the more you look for them, the stranger the universe becomes. I looked into your nine parallel universes and something struck me.”
“Brilliant, I’m loving this philosophising, let me list them so I remember. There’s the Quilted Universe where in an infinite universe every conceivable event happens an infinite number of times but the speed of light prevents us from being aware of them. There’s the Inflationary universe whereby inflation fields collapse to reform anew. There’s the membrane  or Brane universe, whereby the universe exists on a 3 dimensional membrane that coexists with a higher dimensional membranes. Then there’s the Cyclic universe where the membranes collide again and again, causing big bangs. Theres’s also the Landscape universe that relies on the reality of string theory and quantum fluctuations creating a pocket with laws different than that of the surrounding space.  How many is that so far? Five, so four more! My favourites left really. The Quantum, where each diversion creates a new universe. There’s the Ultimate where every mathematically possible universe exists with different sets of physics. The weirdest I’ve left to last; we have the Holographic where the entire universe is formed from two dimensional information projected from the event horizon of a black hole and the Simulated whereby we are part of a vast computer simulation. So then, which theory of the universe do you like the most and how did it help with your investigation into coincidences?”
“Partly holographic, partly simulated, which aligns with the narrow band of electromagnetic spectrum you described during our last conversation.”
“Go on.”
“You know the worlds within worlds idea where solar systems almost mirror the atoms that make our universe. “
“Electrons orbit a nucleus like planets around a sun. Yes it’s like a repeating pattern on different scales.”
“Exactly and then you have a galaxy of suns orbiting the core and an infinite number of galaxies all moving and interacting on a colossal scale. The odd thing is that each galaxy looks like a biological cell, the black hole in the centre, its nucleus.  Simulations of the universe with strings and clusters of galaxies looking remarkably like a brain cells with neurons connecting with one another.”



“Fascinating. So the universe itself is a giant brain? But isn’t the universe expanding?”
“Ha, yes it is, perhaps it mirrors our own conversations. Our minds are opening up!”

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Politics





Remain or Brexit
Polarising rhetoric
Dog whistle, Virtue signal
Narrative or news


Alt-Right or communist
Conservative, socialist
Illiberal or Liberal
Spouting biased views


Social Media, MSM
Privilege, BLM
Ignorant or immigrant
Lighting a short fuse


Patriarchy, feminist
Moderate or Islamist
Republican and Democrat
Striving to enthuse


Global warming heresy
Settled science conspiracy
wankerteri, twitterati
trolling ‘til they bruise


Money talks and bullshit walks
Bankers’ bonus, George Soros
People, Sheeple, pigeonholed
All eager to accuse.

Friday, 9 December 2016

The Hand of Glory



The night had fallen heavily upon the city. The sea fret had rolled up from the bay, reducing the light of the stars and confining the spill of lanterns. The air was cold and thick with it, deadening the sound of the tramping feet of the city’s nightwatch.

Emerging from the cloying darkness, the hooded figure slipped from shadow to shadow. He had chosen this night well. His grin was broad if there had been any to see it showing his teeth white against the burnt cork that blackened his face. Soon he would leave the sanctuary of the darkened slum quarter streets for the wider avenues of the villa district. An alley rat such as he would be fair game to any sentry or bodyguard who happened to espy him. He reached his hand into the folds of his cloak, to check he had the tools of his trade; dagger, crowbar, flints and… his hand felt the cold hand in its claw like posture, the fingers forming a cage into which he would fix the candle.

Hearing footsteps to the left he merged once more into the shadows, willing his breathe to be quiet. He couldn’t afford any mistakes, he had planned this venture for so long and it had cost him, in more ways than money. But it was an investment, he thought, a path to future wealth. He had been warned, it had said so in the Grimoire, the ancient text that outlined each stage.



***

The guard at the gallows had commanded a heavy payment of coin to look the other way as he purloined the felon’s hand from the swinging gibbet. Luckily the crowd that had gathered to watch the murderer’s demise had dispersed. Judging by the insults shouted at the condemned, and lack of mourners, the hanged man had not been a popular figure. He looked up and saw dead man’s face, its eyes betraying the horror of their last moments.

Working quickly, he had sawed through the wrist with his dagger, the blood already congealed and lazily dripping, although he had expired only an hour or so before. He had sung the words to the corpse, as he had worked “From one to another, brother to brother. Hand to hand, a Light in darkness grasped”. The hand would require draining as the blood had gathered from the arm. He quickly wrapped the grim trophy in rags to absorb the blood and slipped it into his bag, sheathing his dagger and concealing it under his cloak. Working quickly, he tied bandages about the stump over which he tied the letter cap, as if the hanged man had long been an amputee. He chanced a glance up at the hanged man’s face. Did he see the ghost of a smile? A glint in the eyes? He blinked and the eyes of the hanged man were as lifeless as before.

He was about to turn away and slip into anonymity but was stopped short when he felt the tip of the guard’s spear tickle his ribs. He looked up in alarm at the grinning soldier.

“Not so fast there, my fine fellow,“ the guard said, the spear point a hair’s breadth from breaking skin. “What would a man such as you be wanting such a thing for? For no good, I’d warrant.”
“That bastard owed me, he stole from me. I swore that I’d cut off his thieving hand. I’m going to feed it to the dogs.”

The sentry’s eyes narrowed, although his stance relaxed a little, he smiled. “Revenge is it? I can relate to that, but what of the bloody mess you’ve made? I have to clean that up before…”

The glint of a proffered gold coin caused the sentry to stop his speech. He snatched it from the man’s hand and tested it in his teeth. It obviously met his approval and he grunted, lowered his spear and signalled for the man to make himself scarce. Which he did, disappearing into the crowds that milled around the city’s market stalls, but only enough to be out of sight. He waited around the periphery of the gallows square, watching as the sentry washed the flagstones with water and covered the area with old straw. In all honesty the observer would have left it at that, if the sentry had not threatened him for more money. Thus it was that he followed the sentry when he was relieved, to the barracks and then followed him to the tavern. Next morning the sentry was found drowned in the river. Witnesses attested that he had drunk heavily that night and had left the tavern worse for wear. That his pockets were empty of coin was proof of it, although no one saw him fall in the river. 

Some money was recouped that night and if questions were asked about a handless corpse, well no face could be fitted to the culprit, although a line had been crossed; a thief had become a murderer. A price had to be paid.

***

The figure staggered into view. It was someone in a hurry, swaying slightly with drink as the sentry once had. The hidden observer read the signs, here was a man eager to get home, attempting stealth as badly as only a drunk can, to avoid the night watch and possible arrest. He was well-to-do from the cut of his clothes, no ale for this one but fine wines. No doubt he would still have coin on him. On any other night such an easy target, already half insensible with drink, would be too tempting to miss, despite the rapier that the man carried. But he had bigger and better targets than robbing a drunk; once more his hand strayed to the trophy he carried.

***

He had wrapped the hand in a shroud, squeezed it and drained it before burying the hand outside the city at a crossroads in an earthenware jar filled with salt, peppers , pigeon grass and saltpetre. Two weeks later, under the light of an August moon he dug up the jar and took it home. He waited until the eastern sky coloured with the coming dawn and as the first rays broke the horizon to herald the summer’s day he smashed the jar, releasing the grim contents as he sang, “From dark to light, from earth to air. A helping hand dug from sand let rich men yield their share.” The hand was pale and shrivelled, its wrist turning black. He worked the stiffened joints and knuckles and tied the fingers with twine so that the hand made a cupping gesture. In the window of his room, as the dog days sun shone strong and hot, he hung the hand to dry and mummify.

***

But such opportunities could not be passed up he decided. Silently he emerged from the shadows behind the staggering man. In mere moments the garrotte was around the neck, the knotted leather cutting deep into the exposed flesh and crushing the windpipe. Hands moved uselessly to try to hook under the cord. More pressure was applied. The victim’s mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. The eyes bulged from the cheeks that turned deathly blue. The struggling ceased and the dead weight was hauled into the fog-clad shadows. Pockets were deftly rifled, rings were prised from fingers. The rapier and its fine scabbard and sword sash of fine leather was taken and slipped over the head and shoulder of the assassin. There was no time to dispose of the corpse, so it was hidden as best as haste allowed. He would be long gone by the time it was discovered after dawn. He slipped away to the grand house he had targeted.

A life taken, and so quickly. He would price his haul from the dead man later. The basketed hilt of the rapier felt ornate and expensive, such a weapon would command a good price, although he always fancied himself as a swordsman. Other alley rats, armed with daggers, would think twice when confronted by him, as the steel rasped thirstily from its scabbard. Better it would be his rather than being left with the corpse; much good it afforded him in the end. He grinned to himself.

Corpses, he had grown accustomed to such things, which reminded him; soon he would affix the candle and light it in its foul holder.

***

The candle; even thinking about its source almost made him retch, but the Grimoire had been unrelenting in the requirements. So it was that while the hand had been curing he embarked on the next stage. By night he went with horse and cart to the burial pit outside of the city.

He saw the recent excavations and set about it with a spade. Recently turned, he was able to make good progress and found the shroud cloaked corpse. The smell was strong and heavy in his nostrils. No other hanged men had been laid to rest in this unconsecrated ground that he knew of, but he had to be sure. He cut the shroud open with his dagger and the stench of a summer’s corpse almost overcame him. With an effort he carried on and lifted his lantern to look closer. There was the leather cap he had affixed to the stump. A morbid curiosity gripped him and he shone the lantern at the dead man’s face. The skin was drawn tight across the face, revealing the grinning maw of teeth between which the tongue protruded. The sightless eyes bulged too pushed put by the gases of putrefaction. The flesh was marbled as every vein and capillary showed beneath the green tinged skin. Appalled he threw the folds of the shroud over the face of the corpse and lifting the torso at the waist he tied a rope around it but as he set the body back down the shroud fell from the face. The head seemed to turn and look at him accusingly and from that decaying throat foul gas rushed out, “Woe.” it seemed to say.

The man jumped back against the wall of the grave and bit the back of his hand in fear, expecting the corpse to rise up from death, but no other words escaped that grinning maw. Dead it was and the soul it once held remained in hell.

With senses regained the man climbed from the pit of horror and hauled the corpse up out from its resting place. He placed it over the back of the cart and, after refilling the grave with its dirt, trundled up into the wooded hills to the old charcoal burners hollow.

There far from prying eyes he rendered the fat from the decaying flesh and cut off locks of the man’s shaggy hair, twining it into a wick. He mixed the fat with died horse manure and sang as he shaped it around the wick, “With locks of hair do I mix, an ever burning candle’s wick, to light my way unseen by all, upon which deepest sleep shall fall.”

The candle made, he threw the remains of the body on the fire. The skull hissed and steamed as it burned. Yet still the sightless eyes followed the man’s movement as they boiled, the mouth fell open as if in laughter, mocking him as he dug a hole to inter whatever remains survived. Come the morning light he would smash that grinning skull to dust. A heavy price was being paid, he felt it, and he knew it. The Grimoire hadn’t lied.


***
He checked up and down the road, listening for footfalls but there were none. He hurried across it and in the cloying darkness he felt along the garden wall of the house he sought. He felt for the ivy that he knew was there and he hauled himself up and over to land on the grass behind. The house loomed ahead through the fog. Turning his back to it he crouched down, hiding behind his cloak. He took out the terrible candle holder and placed the candle on the nail he had hammered through the mummified claw. With shaking hand he took his flint and struck it by the ghastly wick. Softly he spoke the words. “Hand of glory take the flame, hide the bearer from all blame, a light to guide, a light to see. Whilst cloaked in shadows all about me.”



The candle spluttered and the flame took, burning strong and steady with an eerie green tinged light. He held it high and it cast light around him. “Oh hand of glory cast thy light, lead us to our spoils this night.”

The light seemed to focus illuminating the ground before him; he followed the path it made. It led past the windows of the house. He cast a glance at them as he passed but the glass was black. He waved the candle in front of him, but no reflection was shown. He smiled as the path of green light brought him to the door. He held the candle before him and faced the barrier. He recited the spell he had learned.

Open lock, to the dead man’s knock. Fly bolt and bar and band. Nor move, nor swerve, joint, muscle or nerve. At the spell of the dead man’s hand. Sleep, all who sleep. Wake all who wake. But be as the dead for the dead man’s sake.”

He pushed at the door and it swung open, in he walked the light guiding him, showing the fine, polished  mosaic floor.  He passed the ticking clock that stood tall against the wall. He caught his breath when it chimed thrice. He held his breath but all was still, the charm of the Hand of Glory held. Three o’clock, dawn would be a rumour in the sky in two hours and he would need to be away by then. The light guided him to the stairs which he stealthily crept up, wincing at every creak that the wood gave out. On the landing he saw the guard, sat outside his lady’s chamber. The man was sat bolt upright but he didn’t turn to see him. The guard’s eyes were open and yet were unseeing, his sword lay across his knees.

The thief drew the rapier he carried, it felt exquisitely balanced. He bowed mockingly at the guard, as a dueling gentleman would and then slowly pointed the blade at the man’s stomach, he pushed, feeling the flesh yield to its sharp point as the blade bit deep, all the time he watched the guard’s face. It remained expressionless although he saw a tear well in an eye and slowly meander down the man’s cheek. He withdrew the blade, clicked his heels together holding the hilt up to his face he saluted him before returning the blade to the scabbard. He stood before the door of the chamber and opened the door.

He entered the lady’s room.  Candles burned showing the rich red and gold wallpaper and the dressing table that glinted with the gems and precious metals of her jewelry. The eerie green light led him to it. He grabbed the necklaces and rings. Rich he would be rich, no more the alley rat life for him. With a fine sword, fine clothes and wealth, a gentleman he would be. Wealth would buy him ease and respect. He smiled at the hand of glory, damn the price, it was worth it! As he grabbed an ornate necklace of pearls, that rattled as he stuffed them in his satchel, he heard a sigh behind him from the lady’s bed. She was a renowned beauty it was said, he could risk a look.

He held his light above him and advanced on her. Her skin was as exquisite porcelain. Her hair lay on the pillow in tumbling curls, he reached out and wound it around his fingers, she had rose bud lips. He was tempted to steal a kiss from them, but…

He looked down at her elegant long neck. He released her hair his fingertips brushing her smooth neck. Her renown was well founded. With the trappings of wealth he would have a wife such as this. Now what was he? Scum, mere scum, that’s what she would call him. This woman wouldn’t even cast a glance in his direction, oblivious to the grinding poverty her wealth made her immune to. His hand clasped around her neck and squeezed. Downstairs the clock struck five times.

Five o’clock? What was he doing? He withdrew his hand. He hadn’t meant to kill her, but there she lay, with no breathe of life. What had he become? He had enough loot, he had to flee, dawn would be close. He hurried out of the chamber, his satchel caught on the hilt of the enchanted sentry’s sword, it fell on the landing floor with a clatter. He heard the sentry gasp. He wasn’t dead, he had only wounded him! No time, no time, he must flee! He ran down the stairs to the open door. Already there was a ghost of light towards the east. He sprinted across the lawn. The candle still burned, only milk would extinguish it according to the Grimoire. He scrabbled up the wall laden with treasure, keeping hold of the hand of glory. He was atop the wall and risked a look behind. Staggering out of the house, a hand grasped to his wounded side he saw the sentry.

“Alarm! Alarm! Thieves and murder! My lady has been murdered!”

He saw light burst to life in the house as once sleeping servants and retainers were released from their enchanted sleep. He jumped off the wall and cried out in pain as his leg was cut by a sharp stone in the wall. He dropped the hand of glory as he felt his wounded leg crumple beneath him on the cobbled road. He heard a tinkling sound as some rings escaped from his satchel to bounce on the cobbles.  Down the road he heard a clamour and the running and clatter of the nights watch answering the alarm and raising a hue and cry, through the fog he saw the glow of torches. He stood up with an effort and reached down to his leg, feeling the blood that ran. He must go.  What of his lost treasure? Ignore a few rings; he still had necklaces and money in his haul. The Hand would afford him enchanted cover if he stayed in the shadows. But where was it?  He saw the green glow of the candle.  The index finger of the hand pointed at him, as if in accusation. He snatched up the hand and limped across the street just as the nightwatch appeared.

“Sir, look there’s loot on the road,” one voice called. “And blood sir, look a trail of blood,” said another.

With a curse the thief hurried as best he could down into the alley, the glow of torches behind him following his spoor. He turned a corner blindly. He only saw the young woman carrying the two buckets on the yoke when it was too late. He crashed into her.  She screamed as they both fell to the floor.

“You fool! You’ve spilled my milk! What can I sell now?“  she yelled at him in anger.

She could see him? How could she see him? He saw the hand of glory and the extinguished candle, the wisp of smoke curling into the morning air. He tried to stand only to be knocked to the floor by the butt of a musket. He looked up in horror as the night watch trained their guns on him.
“Got you, thief! Murderer! You’ll hang for this night’s work.”

He saw the hand on the ground beside him, its finger pointing at him, accusing.

***



The hang man had done his job. The city was well rid of the infamous practitioner of the dark arts who had robbed and murdered one terrible night. The crowds had hurled insults and curses at the murderer of Lady Greythorn and pelted him with rotten fruit. They had cheered as he was hauled up into the air to his death, his soul consigned to hell. The entertainment over, the crowds had melted away; a hooded figure sidled up to the guard who watched over the gibbet.

“This one owed me. How much for you to look the other way, while I take a memento from this hanged man?”

Monday, 31 October 2016

As easy as Pi?

3.1415926535897932384626433...

They’ve been with me all my life, there at the back of my mind, like dreams that become real. Dreams? Did I say dreams? More like nightmares. You may ridicule me if you wish, call me deluded, it doesn’t matter, I don’t care. I know what I know. You can listen, perhaps take stock, make plans to live your lives to the utmost. You haven’t that long, none of us have, but what you do in this life reverberates across time and space. Fill as many waking moments with things that truly matter. I’m not some new age guru, but I know things that I maybe wish I didn’t…

In the darkest recesses of my mind I remember their first visit when I was a child. Of all those long distant memories it is the one most clear. It was in the first house that I remember living in so I must have been perhaps three or four years old. My parents always kept the landing light on, even when they retired for the night. It was always there reassuring me through the darkest hours. My elder siblings were in rooms further down the hall, but on my side of the house. I remember the layout; my brother’s room next to me and then my sister’s. Opposite, across the hall from us was our parent’s room. I liked my room it was on the corner of the house; I could look out from my window and see the harbour and the wide sea beyond. Back then, over forty years ago now, there were foghorns sounding out, I used to love their mournful wailing. Now I think their voices would be telling of savage rocks and treacherous cliffs, but at the time I found them strangely reassuring, perhaps because of that first time that they came. If ever they stopped…

I can remember it, I was having trouble sleeping but I was listening to the foghorns as I usually did and thinking of the fishing smacks tethered at the quayside and whether the fishermen would brave the seas as the fog rolled in. The horn sounded again but stopped suddenly, mid wail, as the landing light stuttered and went out. All was unnervingly still as if smothered, the moment frozen. My eyes adjusted to the gloom and I saw the spindly figures, as dark as shadows, enter from the hall. I thought their movement comical and went to giggle at my strange visitors but a strange pulsing sound took hold over me. My laughter turned to childhood terror as I realised I could not move as if an invisible force pinned me down. I tried to call out to my parents but no sound came out. The figures stood over me, these strange beings, their eyes huge and so dark. Dark, emotionless and soulless. I felt myself being lifted but knew no more as unconsciousness stole mercifully upon me.

As the dawn broke I woke from the nightmare, the hall light was on as ever, the distant foghorns wailed in the far distance. My voice returned and my mother rushed in. Her touch and kisses assured me, “It was just a bad dream.” Who was I to question her?

We moved from the coast and lived in a new estate on the edge of town. Occasionally I would dream of that night. The spindly men would enter my room and I would always wake with a start, fearful, yet thankful, that the dream had ended. The dream never progressed, that was until I entered puberty and the dreams became more frequent.

I awoke feeling the pressure holding me down onto my bed. I tried to move but was paralysed. There was dreadful pulsing sound that I realised I had heard before. On the periphery of my vision I saw them again, the spindly beings, but they weren’t shadows as my childhood memory described them; these were grey and pallid, their eyes too big for their hairless heads. Their mouths were small and their nose was mere slits. They were humanoid but thoroughly inhuman. A voice inside my head, that was not my own, urged me to be calm. I felt my body being lifted into a warm light and I was somewhere else. No longer in my room, although I couldn’t move my head and barely move my eyes side to side. One of inhuman creatures stood over me it held a device in my face, there was a flash of light and I awoke from the dream, back in my room, more tired than when I went to bed.

And so it was every year from then on but it could never be predicted. They tracked me, I was sure of it. I could be at home, away on holiday in a tent or staying at a friend’s house. Whenever I felt the constricting pressure and heard the infernal throbbing sound I knew I was being visited and each time the light that flashed in my eyes would rob me of memory beyond the initial events, that was until I learned a technique and it was easy as pie, or Pi, as I should really say.

Pi is a magical number. We know it as 3.14.perhaps 3.14159265, yet it goes on and on, up to 1 million digits, perhaps more – maybe 5 trillion. Out of boredom, perhaps a latent nerdiness, I endeavoured to memorise as many as I could. I gained nothing from it, certainly not an enhanced understanding of maths, that was until I discovered it let me hide my consciousness. It’s almost a meditation to me I can see the numbers as I recite them in my mind and use it as a way to hide inside myself and relax.

So it was that I awoke once more, feeling weak, with a vague memory of the throbbing sound and the paralysis. I felt the rising panic that accompanies the morning after these dreams. I began reciting Pi, but far from finding comfort I saw flashes of memory and the further I went into the number chain the more joined up became the recollections, perhaps I should have stopped sooner…

Woken suddenly from sleep, I was encased in an invisible force. I was in a panic, subconsciously I knew what was about to happen. My ears filled with an unpleasant pulsing sound and paralysed I sensed the presence of them. Around 4 feet tall they stood, humanoid, devoid of clothes and seemingly genderless. Their skin was grey, their heads were larger, out of proportion to the rest of their bipedal form. But those large eyes, soulless, emotionless, as black and unforgiving as a shark’s.

A voice, an old voice, one that wasn’t my own urged me to be calm. I felt myself lift, accompanied by these odd beings, as we pass through the ceiling and roof, in a beam which pulsed in time with the hateful sound. Once more I am urged to be calm. We travel up to where the light emanates from, into the ship that hums as if at an accelerated frequency. The light inside is strange making all seem monochromatic. I am on a table, the creatures are around me I attempt to speak, but cannot, I try to move to, tense myself but my body is lifeless. Tubes worm from me, as if I’m being drained. Once more I am urged by one to be calm by one whose eyes hold mine in their lidless stare. How can I be calm? Who are you? What are they doing, why do you keep doing this to me?

“Very well,” the one tells me, in tones that you would use to calm a frightened dog. It’s mouth is as still as mine as it talks to me telepathically. “I will tell you. You won’t remember this anyway. We are gifting you life, although you do not know it. What you know as reality is a facade, it hides the greater truth, as does your history, for if you look hard enough that to which humanity clings to is false, an agreed upon story.”


Gifting you life? How can that be? What do you aliens take from me?

“Aliens? Yes that is what you are programmed to think, yet we are humans far from the future. We are mere servants of ancient aliens, the gods that shaped the earth and our evolution. We have long served them and were gifted their DNA after the great harvest. Throughout our lower form we had selectively bred, keeping bloodlines pure so we could follow their technological path. We evolved yet at the end we are faced with extinction so we travel back in time, to when humanity was its most numerous, to choose certain individuals with which we have no genetic link to help restore us. You are such an individual, through us you live in the far future; an essence of you, at least. All is vibration and energy, we use a mixture of synthetic and organic technology to traverse the stars and dimensions of the multiverse to come back and see our primitive beginnings. I‘ve told you this each time and you will ask me again at our next meeting.”

This cant be true…

“You need your primitive ignorance, to feed the gods. You act surprised yet it shames us to think we are partly descended from you savages, so easily manipulated by our forebears into hate and war. I will take your memories of this and you can grub in the dirt as you ever do.”

Wait, you said something about a great harvest?

“Yes, do you think the gods are altruistic. Cattle you are to them… and us. Stay ignorant.”
It held up the device to my eyes. Deep inside my mind I recited 3.1415926535897932384626433...

The great harvest? Vibration and energy? If the words of the great Serbian-American scientist Nikola Tesla are true then “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.” It all things are energy we have to change the way we are. Change our energy from hate and fear to higher things. If we are in a multiverse we can change; there is a multitude of possibilities. We can deny these creatures their future and build a greater one for ourselves. But we must be quick, the great harvest is coming. I will see if I can find out more, but we must all do this I can feel the pressure on me once more, can feel the rising panic as the paralysing sound throbs and pulses over me. I must stay focused.

3.1415926535897932384626433...