Saturday, 22 November 2014

I want to tell you of beautiful things

I want to tell you of beautiful things

like how the leaves on the cherry trees hang in the autumn air as if they've been pasted on to the sky

or the way she jumps in puddles with both red gum boots.

The days are colder now that we're nearing winter but in the morning the sun hits the treetops and I think

we'll go to the park today. She goes so high on the climbing frame

I get scared but I don't let her know.

s'like flying

she says on the swings

i can kick the clouds with my red boots.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The well at the end of the world

The river went deeper than Brim's head, and wider than he could swim. Mam had taught him in the shallows when he grew big enough to collect the water by himself. The river mud felt squidgy between his toes, and little dark fish darted away from his thrashing feet as he churned up the silt and gravel at the bottom. 

In the hot months, clouds of insects hung above the brown water. The shallows became a dry bed of river-pebbles with mud in-between and lank green grass. During the cold months, the river was a roaring black streak against the hoar-frost spikes that coated the bank. At all times it stretched out beyond sight on either side of the well-trodden path from the cottage. The river, the dead forest and the endless cliffs - all three were boundaries that marked the edge of the world. 

That morning, the well was dry.  Brim put his whole weight on the pump handle, swinging his feet free from the ground, but not a drop came from the spout, only a horrible sucking gurgle from far below.

'Oh leave off, Brim...' Mam called from the cottage door. 'Take the buckets and run to the river instead.'

 It was hot. The tall grass moved listlessly in the light breeze and his feet thudded on the dusty path. It would be cooler at the river. He could fill the buckets first and go for a swim after. He could swim first and wait for the water to settle before dipping the buckets into the water. There would be fish to guddle for, and maybe a dragonfly. 

The last bit of the path crossed the ghost track. He jumped over the marker and touched the post for luck. Now he was definitely going to catch a fish, he felt sure of it; something was different about today. Just a few more steps and he'd be at the river.

But the river was gone. The hollowed out scoop of the land where the river had been was there, but nothing else. He shaded his eyes and squinted at the emptiness. No, it wasn't all empty. The fish were the same colour as the dried out mud. They looked like the stone fish he had dug up out of the endless cliffs - grey, shrunken, and dead.

He ran all the way back to the cottage, the chains that held the empty buckets jangling fiercely.

***

As Brim clambered into bed that night he could hear the wind batter around the cottage. The outer door creaked on its hinges with the force of the storm, but the shutters on the windows were strong, and the blankets stopped any dust from blowing through the cracks. Really bad storms were rare, maybe two or three a year, but it was best to be prepared. This one had whipped up just after he'd got back from the river. He had seen it coming over the dead forest - a grey cloud that swarmed like insects, growing larger as it neared the endless cliffs.

He was used to the wind. Sometimes he would crawl to the edge of the cliffs and lie on his stomach, stretching his hand over the side to push against the updraught. If he closed his eyes it was like he was flying. Scraps of bark or dead leaves would be tugged from his hands and whisked away into the nothingness. He watched them fall and wondered what was at the bottom.

Every year since he could remember, the winds had been increasing. The cliff was crumbling away, and with each inch that it vanished, the nothingness crept closer to the cottage. The winds that came from the cliffs were strong and cold and clean - they dried the clothes on the line and blew the dust from the roof, and sang Brim to sleep as he lay on the other side of the wall.

The winds that came from the dead forest brought dust that settled on the garden, turning everything grey, and making Mam and Brim cough if they breathed it in. Sometimes the two winds met each other overhead, and then there was nothing to do but sit in the house until it passed.

***

It was quiet when Brim woke. Mam was still sleeping in the bed opposite, the sheet tangled around her legs. He pulled the blanket away from the bottom of the door and slid the bolts back. Sunlight and warmth poured into the dark cottage from outside. He curled his toes back from the pile of dust that fell over the threshold. His boots were right by the door and he shoved his feet inside. As an afterthought he grabbed the broom from the cupboard and carefully swept the chalky dust away from the door, covering his mouth with the sleeve of his pajamas.

After he'd finished sweeping the area around the door he stopped to rest. The dust from the dead forest covered the area around the house, sitting in clumps on top of the tarp draped over the vegetable patch and piled up in little heaps and drifts on the other side of the fence. Everything was very still. When he glanced over at the dead forest he could see the haze spreading out from the trees, tendrils reaching towards the cottage. He shivered, despite the heat.

'Work before breakfast?' Mam joined him, putting an arm around his shoulders and pulling him close for a hug.

He pointed at the dead forest, 'I don't think we've got time for breakfast - look.'

She squinted at the haze, putting up her hand to shield her eyes. 'Nah, it'll be fine. Them old ghosts won't bother us in this sunlight.'

'But...'

She clapped him on the shoulder, ' Come on - there's blueberry pancakes.'

***

After breakfast they both began the regular garden clear-up. All the dust had to be swept up and taken outside of the garden boundary. Normally they would take it as far as the dead forest, but with the ghosts so close they just tipped it in a heap on the other side of the fence.

Brim swept the area around the well. This wasn't strictly in the garden boundary, but it was safest to keep the well clean too - even if it had run dry.

He heard a noise from inside the well, under the heavy wooden boards. The pump came up through the middle of the boards, which meant that the water that wasn't there now never had to be exposed to the dust. The noise came again. It sounded like something knocking on the side of the metal pipe that ran right down to the water level. He looked over to where Mam was adding more dust to the heap, and walked across to the well-cover. It was still securely fastened and the padlock on it was strong.

Bang, bang, bang! BANG.

He jumped back. Even Mam had heard that.

'You OK?'

'There's something in the well!' he shouted back.

'Water -- I hope.'

Mam fetched the key from inside the cottage. When they hauled the boards off the stone base the knocking stopped. They both gazed down the dark hole in silence.

'Some help would be nice.' The voice was old and cross. Brim peered over the side of the well. He could see some sort of hunched-over figure clutching onto the pipe.

***

Brim sat on the bed, hands clasped round his knees.  Mam was fussing over the old lady; draping her in blankets and offering her hot soup.

'Is there anything else I can get you?'

The old lady shook her head, and let her eyes wander all over the inside of the cottage: looking at the faded labels on the seed drawers, the battered pans hung up by the stove, and the trapdoor leading down to the food store. Finally she turned her gaze to Brim. He raised his chin slightly and tried to out stare her. She raised one arm from out of the bundle of blankets and crooked a finger at him. Brim glanced at Mam. She nodded, and he reluctantly unfolded his legs from the bed and slumped over to the stove.

'You have a strong young man for a son. Looks a mite sulky though.'

Mam looked up from stirring the soup, 'We don't...we don't get many visitors. He's just shy.'

'Hmph.' said the visitor, looking Brim up and down as if she could see right through to where his heart thudded in his rib-cage, as if it was a frightened bird trapped under the tarp. 'More like we don't get ANY visitors. Who are you? Mam - why did you let her in? She could be from the forest for all we know.'

Mam shushed Brim and sent him down to the food store to fetch the wheat crackers for sprinkling on the soup.

The old lady chuckled to herself. 'I like this one. He'll do.'

'But don't let it go to your head, mind,' she continued,raising her voice. 'I'm only choosing you because I got no one else.'

Mam shoved a bowl of soup and a spoon into the old lady's lap. 'Boy's got a point. Eat.' She stood between Brim and the visitor, arms folded, still holding the soup ladle. 'I've given you food and shelter, and that's all I've a mind to give you until you explain. What were you doing in our well? And what's all this talk of choosing?'

The old lady nodded her head appreciatively, 'That's good soup. Any more?' She rattled her spoon against the side of the empty bowl.

Brim, helping himself from the pot, curved a protective arm around his soup and shook his head quickly.

Mam brandished the ladle at him, and glared at the visitor. 'Brim, give her your bowl.'

'Aw, but...'

'Don't argue.' She poked the lady with the ladle. 'Talk. Now. Or I open that door, push you out, and let the ghosts get you.'

The visitor cackled again. 'Ghosts! Is that what you call them? Them's not ghosts, dearie me, no. Them's memories.' The spoon clattered in another empty bowl. 'Soup finished? Got anything else?'

***

[tbc]

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

international translation day

The 30th of September is International Translation Day. It's also the feast day of St Jerome, who translated the Bible and is the patron saint of translators. I thought I would honour this by reading a translated book, which also happens to be one that has been sitting on my TBR pile for quite some time. I've chosen The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal in 1974. The original title was Sommerboken.

Thomas Teal has translated at least four of Jansson's works into English, and has even won awards for doing so (2009, Best Translated Book Award; 2011, Bernard Shaw Prize for translation from the Swedish). So it shouldn't really be surprising that his work is described in the Acknowledgements as a 'flawless translation'. I just thought it was odd that they went out of their way to add the 'flawless', as I've never seen that before. It's usually just a standard 'Translated by ...' or sometimes, 'Translated by ... and ...'

Publishing digressions aside - and without intending to disparage the work of Teal -  can any translation be described as 'flawless'? Surely something is always lost when words are picked apart, analysed and set down again in a foreign tongue. Perhaps you could argue that something is gained too - the perspective of a different culture, or the clarity that comes with hindsight, when a work is translated many years after being written. Whatever comes of this give and take, the words are not the same as those set down by the author. This is why we have Definitive Editions, either where the author can approve the translation as as accurate as possible, or where a panel of subject experts (in the case of classic works of fiction) can agree that the meaning has been  conveyed accurately.

Returning to the book I've chosen, my copy is a modern paperback, published by Sort Of Books in 2003. It's a slim book, not even two hundred pages long. The front cover has a colour photograph of an island, which is the actual island in the book: flat, rocky and covered with pine trees. Prior to the text there is a black and white photograph of the 'real' Sophia and Grandmother - looking at each other, oblivious to (or ignoring) the photographer, absorbed in their own world.

And there you have the main characters of the novel. Others may come and go - the father is always napping, or appears as Sophia is on the edge of sleep to add more wood to the stove. The mother is dead, and this is why Sophia and her father have returned to the island for the summer. This is a book about many things, but to me this is a book about being a child, and about seeing the world the way a child does. It's as if someone has cut a window into the past and through it I can feel the wind from the sea whipping onto my face. And because this is Tove Jansson, each word has an isolated beauty to it - a feeling of realness that makes you feel that, yes, this is how it is.

The rain during the summer nights that dries up in the morning, swimming in icy cold water on a hot day, the way the seaweed looks when it's floating, the ground under pine trees being 'shiny with brown needles'...these are all things that make me think of childhood holidays Up North (always Up North, even when sometimes it really should have been Out West or Away East) with aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents - a sort of organised chaos that is quite different to the world inhabited by Sophia and Grandmother (but not so different from the world of the Moomins).

I can't write about Tove Jansson without mentioning the Moomins, and I don't need to - bits of them are scattered throughout The Summer Book, which is Jansson's first book for adults. There is a bit where Sophia imagines that 'all their luggage floated out in the river of moonlight' that brings to mind The Moomins and The Great Flood (written in 1945 and only translated into English in 2005) or the flood in Moominsummer Madness. Driftwood and bones and bits of ship are found along the shore, just as in Finn Family Moomintroll when the Moomins and friends are shipwrecked on the Island of the Hattifatteners. Grandmother even makes bark boats while sitting on the veranda, just like Moominmamma does.

There is no plot. Nothing much happens, apart from the sort of ordinary things that make up each day. Grandmother loses her false teeth, Sophia is still scared of swimming in deep water, Berenice is scared of everything. There is moss that mustn't be walked upon, the magic forest, and visitors to hide from. Grandmother and Sophia talk about Hell, and Venice sinking, and the Latin names of plants. It's about love, for people and places, and about seeing the beauty in sea-weathered tree roots and blades of grass. It's the story of a summer spent on an island by the sea - a window cut into a different world.

Bibliography: The Summer Book, Tove Jansson; Sort Of Books, 2003
Thomas Teal -  http://www.nybooks.com/books/authors/thomas-teal
International Translation Day -  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Translation_Day

Thursday, 11 September 2014

blog link-up, beautiful people, villains





So this is September's BP link-up, and it's question time for a villain. For this one, I have chosen Mirren Jones, also known as Doctor Mirren Scott, who is a villain to half of my main characters. She's not your typical 'villain' - but Dee, Kay, Zed, Abe and Ade would disagree...

1. What is their motive?
Creating a strong society and protecting her family.
2. What do they want, and what are they prepared to do to get it?
She wants her family to be together, happy and healthy. To do this, she is prepared to: kidnap and isolate children, work for an organisation with somewhat dodgy aims and morals, destroy a way of life because she doesn't understand it, and then possibly commit an act of terrorism.
3. How do they deal with conflict?
Not violently. With words and conversation - when that doesn't work, then she sends someone else to deal with it. Probably violently, but she doesn't ask, and doesn't want to know.
4. Describe their current place of residence.
It's a two-level house in Residential Sector 3 of Garden City. Bedrooms upstairs, kitchen and washroom on the ground floor. The kitchen is large, and has a stove that heats the house and the water, as well as being used for cooking. At the back of the house there is a plot of land used for growing food, and the front door leads out onto the bridge over the canal.
5. If they were writing this story, how would it end?
She'd be living in Garden City with her husband and two children, continuing her work at the hospital, and would be able to keep her collection of Outsider objects on display. Her husband would be able to keep working on the new train line, and Garden City would become an Exchange rather than a Terminus.
6. What habits, speech patterns, etc. are unique to them?
She's very precise, and quite self-effacing, in a way. She'll gesture with her graphite stylus while she's working, or use it to scratch an itch, which leaves marks that her husband Ander will wipe away with his thumb.
7. How do they show love? What do they like to do with/for people they love?
She kisses her daughters on the top of the head in the morning before they go off to school. She likes to give people little bundles of flowers that she's grown around the outside of her vegetable patch. Even though she doesn't like cooking, she discovered Ander's favourite food and will cook it for him sometimes (it's a spicy tomato soup with pickles and sour cream).
8. Do they have any pets?
No. No one in the Cities has pets. Here is Mirren when faced with a dog: "The dog is with him too – a large bitch with a brindle coat and ears that come to a point. Before coming Outside I’d only ever seen a dog in the testing facility, and before that, only in books. I suppose out here they are useful for hunting and guarding. Garm seems to have the animal well-trained, but it still makes me nervous."
9. Where would they go to relax/think?
Her garden. Mirren loves gardening - she has to grow most of the vegetables that they eat, but she also grows flowers just because she loves them. For appearances sake they are 'useful' flowers too - such as dill flowers, lavender, or marigolds.
10. What is their weapon of choice? 
She doesn't use violence as a rule, but she threw a chair at someone once. Also, I reckon she'd be pretty comfortable with swinging a garden spade if she felt threatened.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

[Glory Brats] today is not a Drill Day

The corridors were empty. Sparrow liked them like that. She dawdled along, hearing her shoes squeak on the polished floor. She had as long as she liked. Well, until the start of Fifth Hour anyway. Nurse wasn’t expecting anyone else from Class Four, and Teacher wouldn’t know how long the testing was going to take. Sometimes it was very quick and sometimes it took all of a class hour. Sparrow looked down at the shiny green badge that Nurse had given her. ‘Here you go dear,’ she’d said.  ‘Won’t your mum be pleased!’

It felt heavy on her shoulder strap next to her blue and red badges. Now Fin couldn’t tease her and Esk would have to stop calling her names. Not that she cared what Esk said anyway. Boys were stupid.

The alarm went off, echoing through the empty corridors. Sparrow checked the clock. It wasn’t nearly time for the end of Fourth Hour. Not for ages yet. The door across from her opened, and Class Three filed out, followed by their teacher. Down the corridor, Class One and Class Two were doing the same. Some of the kids in Class One were crying, but they were only babies really. She looked around for Tekla, but the Entry Class door stayed shut.

‘You. You’re not supposed to be here.’ The teacher from Class Three was cross. She wasn’t the one Sparrow remembered, but had come new from Central just this term. ‘Why aren’t you with your Class? Go there immediately.’

Sparrow pointed to her badge. ‘I had to go to Medical for my Testing. I got Green, look.’

‘Sparrow, Sparrow Jones!’ Teacher was calling from the head of the Class Five line. She could see Fin making urgent hand signs to her from behind Teacher’s back. She joined the end of the line, behind Lark. ‘Look, Nurse gave me my Green,’ she said.

Fin wriggled out of line and put her head close to Sparrow’s ear. ‘It can’t be a drill, we’re not supposed to have a drill today. It isn’t a Drill Day.’

‘Fiony Carr! Sparrow Jones!’ Teacher called out, without turning around and without stopping like she normally did. ‘You are not contributing to an orderly line. AN ORDERLY LINE…’

IS A SAFE LINE, the rest of Class Four finished for her. Sparrow didn’t know how Teacher always knew it was them without turning round. Drills took place at least twice a term. The alarm would go off and Teacher would say, ‘Children, this is a Drill. Please line up at the door.’ And then they would file out of the classroom and down the corridor to the stairs. They’d go right down the stairs to the basement. The bunker was in the basement, off bounds unless it was a Drill Day. That didn’t stop anyone though. Sparrow had touched the bunker door three and a half times already. Fin said the last time didn’t properly count because she got caught on the way back.

The bunker door was made of metal, and thicker than the span of Sparrow’s hand, even when she splayed her fingers out and stretched them as far as they’d go. Inside they had more stairs to go down, thirty six steps that she counted every time. Counted into herself, because a noisy line was not an orderly line, and an orderly line was a safe line – and you had to be extra ‘specially safe on Drill Days. Sparrow didn’t know what you had to be on days when you had a drill and it wasn’t a Drill Day, but she counted all the steps just to be sure.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

blog link-up, beautiful people, questions

This is a link-up to notebook-sisters blog:



The character we are getting to know in this interview is Hester Bliss.

1) What does your character regret the most in their life?
That she is forgetting what her mother was like. 

 2) What is your character's happiest memory? Most sorrowful memory?
Happiest - sitting in her mother's lap and being taught how to hold and thread a needle. Sorrowful - when her mother was taken away.

3) What majorly gets on your character’s nerves?
Mess. And messy people. Hester likes things to be neat and tidy.

4) Do they act differently when they're around people as opposed to being alone? If so, how?
Yes - she likes being alone and is happiest when there is no one else around. When there are people she prefers to blend into the background. She is striving to behave better and to not look so startled when people speak to her.

5) What are their beliefs and superstitions? 
She believes that mending clothes while they are being worn will bring sorrow, and also that new-born babies should never first be dressed in something new-made or new-bought.

6) What are their catchphrases, or things they say frequently?
Hester doesn't speak. Ever. But if she did it would be something like 'a place for everything and everything in its place.'

7) Would they be more prone to facing fears or running from them?
Definitely running from them! Although this is not always possible, particularly when Mr Corbie disappears and leaves her to manage the business.

8) Do they have a good self image?
No - she thinks she is too shy and awkward, and is a constant trial to Mrs Grimble. She is often told she is too skinny, or that she's 'a funny wee thing.'

9) Do they turn to people when they're upset, or do they isolate themselves?
She isolates herself. When she is upset she would rather go into the garden or up into the attics to be alone. Grief is a very private thing for her.

10) If they were standing next to you would it make you laugh or cry?
Probably neither, because both would distress Hester. I'd settle for making eye-contact.


Thursday, 10 July 2014

[Glory Brats] Dr Mirren Scott

[Again, this is stuff that might not be in the actual story, but is trying to get a feel of the world and the people who live there]

I leave the city the same way everyone else does: by train. Board at the Terminus, and sit back as the train pulls slowly through the Residential and Industrial areas, gathering speed as we pass through the farmlands.  At the edge of the forest, the train enters a tunnel, the trees cleared back from the entrance.  Somewhere in the middle of the tunnel, the train stops. A light flashes from the tunnel wall, and the carriage door is unlocked. I leave the train, stepping carefully across the tracks and entering the doorway under the blue light. There are concrete steps, a metal encased door. In the bare room beyond, someone checks my Vacc. Papers are up to date, ticks my name on a checklist. Takes my ID tag and stores it on a hook on the wall. Enters the time and date into the register, paper only – don’t want Central to find out. I sign my name and am waved through into the holding room to wait for the other members of the party to go through the same procedure.

 Guards are essential of course: City Law only extends as far as, well, the cities. There’s a new rep. from Depot/Supply, a rep. from City Council, and the returning rep. from Medical: me. I know Warden Smith from D/S, he’s the one responsible for Sector 3 distribution. Nice guy, lets my daughter Tekla punch in the numbers on the call screen to fetch the supply crates through. I hope he sticks with the team – the last guy they sent from D/S cracked and wouldn’t leave the train. Had to go on all the way to Exchange and got sent back with 50 credits docked from his wage chitty and a black mark on his file. At least, that’s the gossip. I don’t know the CC rep. but she nods at me anyway, a brisk official recognition. Probably already read my file.

We have to climb up more concrete steps, the guards at the head of the party. When we finally get to the top there’s another metal door to be unbolted, another bare room beyond – a bunker really, protecting the entrance from the outside world…and from the Outsiders. Shouldn’t call them that – Lallanders is the correct term, itself a corruption of Lowlanders, which is mostly inaccurate now that everywhere here is considered high ground, but it’s stuck.

Once we’re outside, the four guards split up: two ahead, two behind. The first settlement isn’t too far from the train tunnel, but the half hour walk over marshy scrubland makes the journey seem much longer than it actually is. The Lallanders know the correct route to follow, and have sturdy horses that allow them to cover the same ground quickly. Maybe in time we’ll reach some arrangement with them.

The first thing I see as we approach the settlement is the scavenged barbed wire fence surrounding the perimeter. It’s patched in places with strips of metal track that look like they’ve come from the old airfield nearby. As usual, Garm meets us outside the fence. I haven’t yet figured out if Garm is his first or his family name. I don’t even know if they have family names. The dog is with him too – a large bitch with a brindle coat and ears that come to a point. Before coming outside I’d only ever seen a dog in the testing facility, and before that, only in books. I suppose out here they are useful for hunting and guarding. Garm seems to have the animal well-trained, but it still makes me nervous. I can see two others from the settlement hanging back. There’s a woman, about a head taller than Garm, and a skinny boy in an ill-fitting jerkin, who looks to be the same age as my Sparrow.

Garm calls them over and introduces them. “This is Bett, my wife, and our boy Sol.”

***
(some months later)

Bett comes out of the house to watch me work. She tells me I should relax more. I laugh. “But this is relaxing.” I wave at the scenery with my graphite stylus. “No one else around, hardly any buildings. Do you know how rare that is?”

She shrugs and heads back to the house. “Gets lonely sometimes.”

I pause, considering. From what she’s told me, apart from monthly trips (sometimes less) to the trading hub, the only people she sees are her husband and son, with maybe the occasional tracker or hunter staying the night. I shift in my seat, rub my stiff neck with my free hand. Maybe a break would be good. No one else is here – Garm and Sol are out back fixing the windmill blades with Warden. Dockery and the guards are walking the train line – some Central business we’re not allowed to know about.  I close my folder; crease my eyes against the sun. There is complete silence.

Bett reappears. “Just got some water boiling.  Want a cuppa?” She hesitates.  “You…you can come inside, if you’d like?” She rushes the last words out as if she’s scared of what I’ll think.

 None of us have spoken about entering their house, partly feeling it would be an invasion of privacy and partly because of the infection risks. When it rains, we shelter in the newbuild hut by the fence. But now she’s brought it up of her own accord, and invited me in. I look over at the house that is built of wood, scavenged metal and covered over with grass.

I nod, and smile quickly, not wanting to offend her. My vaccs are all up to date, and I can get a jag when I'm back in the city. No one will notice, not with my job. 

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

[Northspell 9] the princess runs away

The Northman - Jokul, she told herself - helped Oska to pack the boxes onto a small wooden cart. Irena watched as the pair of them dismantled the stall, folded the rugs and stored it all on top of the boxes. Jokul drew a small leather bag from his tunic and counted the contents. "Oska, mind the cart better than you minded the stall. I need to pay the merkfee on our goods. Pray they don't take too much of our profit."

 Oska shook out the final, dustiest rug, sending grit and bits of straw over Irena. She blinked her stinging eyes and lunged forward. "You did that on purpose."

 He pushed her away easily,  flung the rug over the cart, and began to fix it to the sides. She tried again, "You should apologise."

He laughed, and continued working. Frustrated, she stared down at the ground, thinking of all the things she would do once she was back in the palace.

 "That's her. That's the girl!"

Oska stopped working. Irena looked up. The guard had come back, but this time he had a woman with him. She was tall, and dressed in the city fashion, with her cloak pinned to one shoulder, covering the front of her dress as well as the back.

"That's the girl that stole from me.' The woman nodded at the guard. 'Just reached out and took it, cool as you please. I wasn't going to say, but..." she rubbed the fingers of one hand together in front of the guard's face. He handed her a coin, which she tied to the string around her neck with a satisfied look.

"I didn't..." Irena started to say, but her mouth went dry as she saw the guard reach for the knife at his belt.

She turned and ran. She pushed her way through the crowds of people, hearing angry voices raised behind her, but she didn't stop. She just kept pushing and moving forwards until the crowds thinned and she could run again. The angry voices were farther away now, but still she ran. She ran until the street widened, and the big bridge that lead out of the city was before her. Three guards manned the checkpoint to let people in and out of the city. A queue of people, carts and donkeys blocked the way, and it moved painfully slowly. She skidded to a halt.

The buildings on either side had lines of archways facing onto the street at ground level, providing shade and cool air for the open rooms beyond. Every so often there was a stall selling sweet spiced tea - the vendors competing with each other for customers by praising their own wares loudly, and decrying those of their neighbour's.

Plenty of children were in the queue - the smaller ones playing in the street during the long wait, the older ones carrying baskets, or minding a cart while their parents sipped tea. Some of them weaved in and out of the queue as if they were playing some game, following each other and laughing. The end girl stumbled into Irena, and clutched at her to steady herself.

"Oops. Sorry." She ran to catch up with the others, calling after them to wait. Irena watched as they clustered around a merchant trying to join the queue. He shifted his grasp, jostling the delicate cages full of birds. He tried to shoo the children away with his free hand, but they clamoured around him, demanding to see the birds. The birds, frightened by the noise, flapped against the woven sticks of the cages. One of the children whistled, and they all ran away, leaving a cage unfastened and the birds stretching their wings into the sky.

The people in the queue and under the arches pointed and stared at the birds flying away, as the birdman tried to stop the last few of his feathered wares from escaping. One of the guards from the bridge chased after the children. Irena began to walk back towards the city but was stopped by the sight of the guard from the market talking to people in the queue. A few of them nodded, and looked around as if they were searching for someone. She hid behind a cart filled with tall clay pots and scanned the street. Two guards still at the bridge, now standing with their spears crossed. One guard returning to his post unsuccessful at catching the children. The guard from the market walking towards the birdman. He'd have to pass Irena to get to him. She edged around the side of the cart, crouching down by the wheels as the guard went by.

"Hey, get away from there!" The owner of the cart appeared, shaking his fist. The guard looked around. Irena backed away from the cart and started running again. This time she turned off the main road, into an alley that smelt of fish, cluttered with barrels and stacks of shallow boxes. Wooden signs shaped like different types of fish swung above the doorways. She dodged the boxes as she ran, finding it easier to run on the sandy-coloured ground than it had been on the cobbles. The people in the doorways stopped talking as she ran by, but didn't call out to the guard, and one even seemed to be sympathetic, moving a barrel out of the way for her. She dropped down behind a stack of boxes to catch her breath, peering around the edge to see if the guard was still following.

An argument had started, and one of the barrels had tipped over, spilling a mess of salty water, fish-heads and small bones across the ground in front of the guard. He started to pick his way through it, putting a hand over his nose and mouth against the smell, but shook his head in disgust and turned back.

She sank back against the wall, and steadied her shaking legs. The smell from the fallen barrel was moving down the alley, and she wrinkled her nose as she got to her feet. She walked to where the alley merged into a small square with a well in the centre. The girl who had bumped into her was sitting on the wall around the well. She jumped off when she saw Irena.

"You're a good runner. Almost as good as me." She stepped forward and smiled at someone standing behind Irena, who felt a hand slip into her pocket. She tried to spin around but the girl was holding her wrists, "Hold still! Arkel's just getting the dibs I put there earlier. There..." The girl let Irena go, and rushed past her to tussle with the boy.

"Get off, Gia...ugh!" Gia held her prize high and danced around the well. Arkel followed, trying to grab it back, but failing. He pushed her off, snatched up the money pouch and scrambled up the wall of the square, finding footholds easily with his bare feet. He sat on the low roof and swung his legs, throwing the pouch up and down.

Gia scowled up at him from the dust, then broke into sudden laughter. She looked over at Irena, "I meant it about the running."

"You're thieves!" said Irena.

"The very best..." said Arkel, flicking a coin from the pouch into her lap.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

[Northspell 8] the princess gets caught

She tried to crawl away un-noticed, but the boy spotted her and called out. The man grabbed at her coat and pulled her to her feet.“And what were you doing under there?’

“Sleeping,” Irena said, truthfully.

“I saw her before.” The boy said, “She stole a fig from that lady’s stall.” He pointed.

The man’s eyes narrowed. He pushed back Irena’s torn sleeves. Her fingers were still purple from the berries. He held them up to show the boy, “Looks like you were telling the truth, boy.”

The boy scowled.  “She’s a little thief!” 

The man held tightly to Irena’s wrist, “Did you eat those berries?”

She tore at his grip with the fingers of her free hand, but to no avail. She nodded.

He held out his other hand, “Pay.”

She looked at him blankly. “I was hungry.”

“You and a thousand other souls in this city…that doesn't make it right to take what you have not earned. Did your parents not teach you this?”

 His raised voice attracted the attention of a guard patrolling the market place. Irena opened her mouth to call for assistance, but the man calmly covered her mouth with his hand and held her still.

“Any trouble here, Northman?”

“No, no trouble…just some nuisance sister-children.”

The guard looked from Irena to the boy and back again. He let out a short laugh, "This girl is related to you, Northman?"

The man shrugged his shoulders. The boy looked like he wanted to say something, but closed his mouth again.Irena wriggled her shoulders but couldn't move. She shifted her head so she could breathe better.

 The guard crouched down to her level and looked at her hair, touched the braiding on her coat. He tugged her hand from her pocket and frowned to himself at the stains.He looked up at the man, and then stood up, stretching his arms out, “If I ever see your girl ‘sister-child’ around here again I’ll have her hand for a thieving Northrat, understand, Northman?”

The man nodded, and walked away, dragging Irena with him. She twisted and pulled but still couldn't get away. The man waited until the guard had gone, and then took his hand away.

"You told an untruth!" she said. 

The man ignored her, and looked over at the boy. "Oska, clear the stall away."

"Yes, Atta Jokul..." Oska turned away and began to pack things into crates.

"I'm not your sister-child. And I'm not a thief!" Irena said.

The man held her hand up in front of her face, "Girl child, did you not hear what the gardman said? They would cut off your hand if they knew you had stolen."

Her eyes widened, and she jerked her hand back as if he was going to cut it off right there and then. "They wouldn't!"

Oska thumped a box down at her feet and grinned unpleasantly. "I saw them do it once. They do it over there - " he pointed to the centre of the square where there was a raised stone platform. "So everyone can see..."

"Hold your peace, Oska."

"I'm not a thief." she said sullenly.


[Argh, so much horrible in this bit, but I'm just going to post it so I can move on. Lots of adverbs doing the place of showing here, but will sort that later. Really would 'preciate some feedback here to store up for draft #2.]

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Glory Brats: fragment

Sparrow stuck her head outside the tent door. The air smelt of damp grass and wet canvas. She could only just make out the shapes of the other tents in the field. A bird hooted from the tree-line and she drew her head back inside quickly. 'Coast's clear.'

As Sparrow re-laced the door, Fiony turned her torch on, shining it in Minnow's eyes.

'Hey, watch it...'

'Sorry!' Fiony giggled and stuck the torch upright in her tin camping mug, padding it out with her facecloth. She angled it away from the other two girls.

Minnow sat up in her sleeping bag and hugged her arms around her knees. She watched Sparrow pad over to the third mat and shuffle back into her own bag.

Sparrow's feet were warm, in her two pairs of socks with her pajama bottoms tucked in under the top pair. She had a jumper on too. It felt odd, and bulky, but it was cold at night, and she'd promised mum.

Fiony cleared her throat. 'Are we going to get started or what?' She tossed a bag of chews in her hand, up and down.

Sparrow stretched out her arm to grab her rucksack. She rummaged around for a bit and pulled out a small packet of sweets. Minnow produced a slab of foil-wrapped chocolate from her wash-bag. Sparrow stared. 'How'd you get that past old sharp-eyes?'

Min looked smug. 'She never even checked my wash-bag. She asked me if I'd got it, and I held it up and she said Good, Next please...!'

'Shhh!' Sparrow shushed the other two through her own giggles.

'I hid mine up my sleeve...' Fiony put a chew in her mouth and offered the bag around, 'They're orange flavour.'

Min snapped the chocolate into three bits, 'Here, don't get the crumbs on your pillow case or we're done for.'

Sparrow's sweets were all the same size, but different colours. She picked out all the purple ones, 'I like the blackcurrant best.'

Fiony swallowed, and licked chocolate off her fingers. 'Let's tell scary stories. I know one that really happened. It happened when my cousin's class were camping here.'

Min burrowed further down  into her sleeping bag and pulled the hood over her head. 'I don't like scary stuff.'

Fiony looked across at Sparrow. Sparrow shrugged. The thin walls of the tent sucked in and out in the wind. Rain spattered against the canvas. Fiony sighed dramatically. 'That poor boy...'

'What poor boy?' Minn's voice, filled with suspicion, came from under the blanket.

'My cousin told me about him. It was a coupla years back now. You know how we don't camp near the trees?'

Sparrow nodded.

'Well back then the camping field was much closer to the forest...and it was the tent nearest the trees, that this boy was sleeping in. It was after lights out, and they were all talking, like we are now, except this boy didn't want to, so he hid in his sleeping bag...'

The lump that was Min shuffled, and gave something like a snort. 'You're making this up.'

'Am not. I told you, it was my cousin's year. Anyway, he fell asleep, and only woke up when he heard the tent door flapping in the wind.'

Sparrow tried not to, she really tried, but couldn't help looking over at the front of the tent. The door was still laced up.

'He looked over at the other two sleeping bags, but they were empty...and all torn up, like someone had slashed at them with a knife. He got his torch and crept to the tent door. The feeble light just reached to the tree-line, where he saw one of his friends being dragged along the grass by something invisible...'

'If it was invisible how could he see it?'

'Shut it, Sparks - he saw the FRIEND being dragged. So, he saw his friend dragged into the trees and decided he had to go after him.'

Sparrow rolled her eyes, 'What an idiot.'

Fiony blew through her nostrils, and looked at Min, now wide-eyed and white-knuckled,  'ANYWAY, he pulled on his gumboots and followed the trail through the wet grass, and ducked under the fence into the forest, but there was no sign of anyone...only a sort of ditch in the ground that led right into the middle of the trees. He thought, well at least I'll be able to follow it back, so he went further and further into the woods. Still no sign of his friends. It started to rain, and he thought he'd head back to the camp, when his torch showed a building just ahead. He remembered that it was a long way to the edge of the trees, and the rain might not last long, so he thought he would shelter in the building. It was made of concrete, and sort of sunk into the ground. It looked like no one had been there in years. There wasn't a door or anything, so he just walked right in, crunching dried leaves and twigs under his feet . By this point his torch batteries were going...and by the last bit of flickering light he just saw that at the back of the room there was a...' Fiony stopped to check that her audience was still listening, '...a load of rubbish, all piled up, like bits of sticks and stuff. So he sat down in the dark to wait until morning.'

'S'not the only thing that's a load of rubbish...'

'You're a load of rubbish, Sparrow Jones.'

'Well you're full of --'

'Shut up, Sparrow, I want to know what happens...' Min pleaded. Fiony stopped glaring at Sparrow.

'He musta fallen asleep, cos when he woke up, the sun was shining straight in through the doorway. He stood up, and the twigs crunched again, 'cept now he was able to see that they weren't twigs but...bones...' Fiony paused again, pleased that even Sparrow was listening now. 'He looked to the back of the room, and the pile of rubbish wasn't rubbish, but human skeletons, all piled up one on top of the other, their clothes slowly rotting and hanging off the bones. And on the very top of the pile, he saw two skeletons that had pajamas...'

'That's sick.' Sparrow punched at her pillow.

'Well it's true! My cousin said...'

'Your cousin's a liar. My dad said they planted the trees to make the air better, that's all. All the cities have them. Why should just this forest have ruins and stupid skeletons in it?'

'Dare you to go into it then.'

'Fine.'

'Dare you to go into it now.'

Sparrow turned round in her sleeping bag and shut her eyes, 'Don't be stupid.'

Friday, 4 April 2014

[Northspell 7] the princess discovers the market

Irena was woken by the rat-tat-tattering of wooden wheels over cobbles. She opened her eyes to see a line of brightly painted wagons and carts trundling past. Every part of her body ached, her head most of all, and the colours swam before her eyes. She leaned back against the wall and watched the carts go by, not really seeing them. People walked alongside the wagons, some carrying baskets, others with bundles of fabric balanced on their heads. The clothes they wore were like their wagons - a clash of colours and patterns. Children were everywhere - some dangling their legs off the backs of the carts, others running to catch up. They were noisy, calling out to each other in a strange dialect.

'Hey!'

Irena closed her eyes again. She wished she could close her ears too.

'Hey, you!'

Something landed in her lap and she knocked the back of her head against the wall in surprise. It was a bread roll with some kind of seeds on top. A boy in the last cart sat back, laughing, and bit into a roll of his own, his jaws moving up and down.

The top of the roll was too hard, so she bit from the underside, tearing away at the softer dough with her teeth until only the crusty, seed-studded top was left. She broke it into bits and ate the pieces slowly, letting them soften in her mouth before swallowing. When it was finished she looked up at the now quiet street. A few children crouched down to rake in the hollows between the cobbles, hunched over, protecting their finds: little beads or sometimes a carved wooden toggle. They were not like the children she had seen running by the wagons. Their clothing was plain, and they did not shout or laugh.

The door beside her was wrenched open, and the children scattered like the beads they had been collecting. A guard stuck his head out and looked up and down the street. He glanced down at Irena and raised his arm.

'Get moving.'

So he could see her. The boy had been able to see her too - and well enough to aim the roll he had thrown. She pushed herself unsteadily to her feet, swallowing down the fluttery feeling in her stomach with the last taste of the bread.

'You deaf? I said get moving.' 

She grasped at his arm. 'But I...'

He batted her away with as little effort as a horse flicking its tail. She tumbled backwards into the road.

'Gutter rats like you make the place look untidy, see?' He brushed imaginary dirt off his tunic with a dismissive hand and folded his arms impressively, waiting for her to leave.

Thief, Northwitch, gutter rat...she had been called so many different names since leaving her rooms. Irena Marie Imaldi tilted her chin upwards and turned away. There would be a different way in, and nicer guards who would see her for what she was. She looked down at her dirty feet in her even dirtier slippers, the bedraggled hem of her nightgown, and her crumpled coat. The silk on her left slipper had worn through and she could feel the cobbles through the hole.

Something small hit her back, then her legs. She whirled round, but the guard had shut the solid door again. A stone pinged off her cheek, making her skin smart with the pain. She rubbed at the spot where it hurt.

'Shove OFF, new girl.'

She held a hand up against the sun and looked for the owner of the voice. Children crouched in the shadows of the alley where they had hidden from the guard. A boy stood up, bunching his fists.

'You threw stones at me!' Irena raised her voice in indignation. He was only a little boy, after all, much smaller than she was.

He drew back his arm and threw another stone. This one hit her coat and slid off harmlessly, but another followed, and another. They advanced on her now, whooping as she raised her arms to protect her head, and giving chase as she stumbled away. Eventually there was a lull in the noise, and their stones fell short of the mark. She rounded on them, their arms linked across the width of the street like a barrier. The little boy stepped forward, more confident in his bare feet than she was in her worn slippers.

'This is our patch. Go find your own.'

***
She followed the cobbles as they cut a meandering path through the smaller streets and dirt-paved alleys, always hugging close to the high palace wall. The enclosing walls of the street were sometimes pierced by an open gate way, offering a glimpse of an inner courtyard festooned with clothing drying in the sun. Women leaned out of upper windows, chatting to other women at other windows just across the street, raising their voices above the clamour below. Hugging her coat around her body, Irena pushed her way through the crowds, feeling them push back against her and jostle her from side to side. Once, she came up against a man with a barrow, piled high with clay bricks. He pushed his way down the street, scattering those in his way. She jumped to the side and the barrow birled past, as she stood close against the brightly painted wall, gulping down air to catch her breath. The crowds rolled back into place and the street was full again.

This time the cobbles betrayed her, leading her away from the safety of the white-plastered palace wall. They led her through blocks of houses stacked like toy bricks one on top of the other, the street getting narrower as the houses grew higher, until they almost met at the top. Strings of washing spanned the narrow distance, although they hung limply in the shade, dripping onto the heads of passers-by.

The walls here were covered in flaking layers of paint, one colour overlapping the next. Crudely painted slogans scrawled over every surface: above doorways, and across the wooden shutters. They fought for space, overwhelming older slogans that were still faintly visible under the new paint.

The buildings on either side finally met overhead in a stone archway. The space underneath was packed with people, some sitting on old rugs or bits of matting, and some crouched on the bare cobbles. They stretched out their hands to those walking past, and Irena pulled away from their touch, her feet tripping on the uneven surface. She followed the general surge of the crowd and stumbled into a large open square, flooded with sunlight.

The square was filled with tables, laid out in straggly rows, and loaded with all manner of things, from bowls stacked three apiece to sacks full to brimming with smooth shelled nuts. Where there wasn't a table, stuff was simply spread on the ground instead, filling every available space that wasn't needed for the passage of people. Irena wandered in and out of the tables, unnoticed. She saw fragrant-scented, pale yellow apples laid out in trays, fluttering song birds caught in thin woven baskets, and bite-sized, fragile looking fruits the colour of a bruise. She remembered they tasted grainy, but sweet, and picked one up as she walked past. Juice ran down her chin as she bit into it, and she wiped it away with the heel of her hand.

The things on other tables were not familiar: wooden barrels with copper-coloured fish hanging over them, thick smoke slowly turning the flesh dark. Branches that blossomed into vibrant orange flowers with a warm, spicy smell, and tiny powder-blue berries that blushed purple when touched.

A boy slumped behind the table, eyes half-closed against the sun. Every so often he would sit upright, look around and sink back down again, stretching his mouth in a yawn. His breathing slowed. Irena edged closer, looking with envy at the soft blankets covering the crates he was sitting on. She wasn't used to standing all the time. He didn't wake as she sat down on the cool cobbles and rested against the blanket. She took the bowl of berries from the table and sat with it cradled in her lap. The skin of the berries slipped away under the pressure of her fingers, staining them pink. She licked them, but it wouldn't come off. The berries burst between her teeth, one by one, until the whole bowl was gone. She sat the bowl back on the table and shut her eyes.

The sweetness of the fruit and the heat of the sun made her sleepy, and the noise from the square faded away. She curled up under the table, shaded from the sun and out of the reach of passers-by.

THUMP. The table above her shuddered and she opened her eyes. Someone was shouting, and someone else was yelling, but she didn't listen. She was about to crawl out from underneath the table and away from it all when the words suddenly made sense in her head.

"...ate all those berries!"

The boy was trying to speak but the man had grasped him by the back of his shirt and it was like the words were being shaken out of him.

"But I didn't, I did not, I..."

"Don't deny it, Oska. I leave you in charge and you eat my best stock and take a nap. You'll get the thrashing you deserve, whether you're kin or no."

Irena hid under the table and listened as the yells turned into muffled sobs. She clenched her hands so hard that her nails left marks on her berry-stained hands.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Hester Bliss: such a pretty little garden

Hester sat quietly on the wooden bench by the infirmary door. Her feet dangled uncomfortably, and she kept catching her legs mid-swing and then keeping herself very still. She tried holding her breath, but that just made even more noise when she finally had to let it out. The opposite wall was plain, just dusty coloured plaster right from the ceiling down to the flagstones, stretching out to either side. She heard footsteps, and looked down at the ground, trying to make herself as small as possible. Two shoes stopped at the bench: silver buckles and soft, mouse-grey leather, just peeping out from underneath blue skirts. She felt a cool hand on her forehead.

'Are you quite well, child?'

Hester nodded without raising her head. The hand on her forehead slipped down to brush her cheek, and the other hand cupped her chin and tilted it up. She saw a tall lady, with fair hair tucked under a plain linen cap, secured by a neat strip of blue ribbon twisted into a rosette. Hester admired this, and tried to avoid the lady's eyes. Her chin was released.

'You're not one of the pupils that I know. What is your name?'

Panicked, Hester drew back against the wall. She looked around for Miss Bell, or even Tildy. She could see that the lady with the blue ribbon was wondering why she didn't answer. She lowered her eyes to the beautiful grey shoes, and wished that the floor would swallow her up.

'Well, child? Come now, don't be shy.'

With relief, Hester saw Tildy bustle out of the infirmary, drying her hands on her apron. She bobbed a curtsey when she saw the tall lady.

'Beg pardon mam, tis not that she's shy. She can't talk. Won't talk. Mounts to same thing, f'you ask me...'

The lady looked down on her with pity in her eyes. Hester stared at the wall. She heard Tildy repeat, in lowered tones, what Miss Bell had told her about the strange little girl who didn't speak. Tildy liked to talk, and that suited Hester very well. Tildy talked about anything, to anyone, and sang when she wasn't talking. She had a sharp nose and scrubbed-looking cheeks, and curly hair that escaped from under her cap. When she was angry she would slap Hester, but was sorry for it after, and sometimes gave her a strip of dried apple peel by way of apology.

'Hester...Hester! 'sakes girl, don't ee sit there in a maze...work to be done, and you to be doing it.' Tildy gave her a shake, but not a rough one, and Hester didn't mind it.

The infirmary wasn't large, just a few empty beds against the walls, and a few woven baskets for the babies. Hester thought they looked like large nests, all padded out with wool blankets. Only one child was in the infirmary - a new Foundling baby, who was tiny, the smallest  baby Hester had ever seen, and he didn't do much but squall fitfully. He wasn't squalling now. Hester took the broom from beside the fireplace and began sweeping the room the way Tildy had shown her - long, slow strokes from the edges of the room back to the fireplace, where the sweepings could be burnt. The broom was taller than she was, heavy, and the rough wood of the handle hurt her hands. She propped it against the wall and ran to take a peep at the baby.

He was very still, and very quiet. Hester put a hand into the basket to touch his cheek. It was cold. Desperate, she picked him up, blanket and all, and ran to the fireplace. She knelt on the warm hearthstone and carefully cradled the baby in her arms. If Tildy were here she would sing to the baby, would sing lullabies like she sometimes did, picking the babies up and playing with them, even though Miss Bell didn't approve. But Hester couldn't sing, couldn't even call for help. She held the little, cold baby close and tried to make him warm again.
***
Tildy didn't scold, not even with Hester's dress all covered in dust and ashes from the fire. She was very gentle, and took the baby from Hester, handing him to Miss Bell with a shake of her head. Then she turned back to Hester and firmly pulled her to her feet. She led her over to the water pump and cleaned the tear stains from her face with the corner of her apron.

'Come now, don't ee cry, such a big girl as you. Anyone could see a little mite like that wouldn't thrive no matter what...'

Tildy brushed the marks out of Hester's dress. 'Now put that cap straight and come with me.' Taking Hester's hand, she led her out into the old carriage square and under the archway into the grounds. It had been cool inside, with the old, thick walls, but outside it was summer, and the grass was growing long in the pasture. The older boys had cut a pathway with scythes at the edge of the enclosure, and underfoot it was springy with moss and tiny blue creeping flowers. At the end of the pasture there was a high brick wall, with a door in it. Tildy pulled on a rope that hung down from a hole at the top of the door, and it opened. The rope was too high for Hester to reach.

Inside it was all laid out like a piece of printed cotton - like the dress Tildy wore on her day off, with swirls of colour and flowers. There was a tree in the centre, and flowers around the edges. It was warmer in here than in the pasture - the walls kept the breeze out. It was such a pretty little garden that Hester almost forgot why they were here, until Tildy took her forward to look at the little wooden plaques surrounding the tree.
***
One of the eldest boys dug the hole, wiping his sleeve across his forehead in the heat. Tildy placed the little body in the ground, and Mr Grimble read something from a book that Hester didn't understand. She looked at the flowers in the garden and felt the warmth from the sun on the back of her neck, and meanwhile the boy shovelled earth and patted the small mound flat with the back of the spade. Hester placed a straggly bunch of the little blue flowers on top, and walked back through the pasture with Tildy.


Thursday, 6 February 2014

Hester Bliss: dark corners

Peregrine was anxious to leave the tailor's shop in a hurry - he had to get back to the printing workshop before he was missed. Printer's devils didn't get a break to eat their meagre bit of dinner - the journeymen kicked off to the chop house to smoke and drink, locking the younger boys in the shop. Peregrine had wriggled out of a half open window to bring the news about Adelaide. He hopped from foot to foot while Hester dampened the fire, picked up a shawl and muffler, and carefully locked up the front office.

It was cold outside, and the pair of them had their thick cloth mufflers wrapped right around the lower half of their faces. They walked in silence, keeping their heads down and hands tucked inside their sleeves. Peregrine sometimes ran ahead a little to make sure of the way, hanging back for Hester to catch up. Night was falling, and the Leerie-men could be seen trudging along, spark box dangling from one hand and glimmer pole over the other shoulder. Some of them also carried cudgels swinging from their belts. It was well known that the dippers, crackers, corner-boys and other criminals held a grudge against the men who went around lighting the streets of the city.

Dark corners could still be found, however, off every main thoroughfare - places where the tops of the buildings loomed up into the sky blocking even the light of the moon, twisting wynds that turned back in on themselves, and staircases that seemed to descend into the very depths. Peregrine ducked into one of these, and Hester followed, after a cautious glance over her shoulder. The flight of steps cut straight through the layers of the city, down to the river docks. They didn't go quite that far however, but turned into a little slip of a street, near the bottom, where the doors opened onto a long damp alley that jostled the back of the warehouses.

Peregrine counted doors silently, until he stopped at one that had a dirty sheet of paper nailed to it. He knew what it said, having set the type himself that very morning.

KINCHIN FER HIRE. ALL AGES. GOOD FER CHIMBLEY SWEEPS, TRAPPERS N DIPPERS.
Sara Twil - 8 yr * Addy Burd - 6 yr * Tom Brit - 7 yr * Jos Lun - 12 yr * Ana Park - 9 yr


 He remembered every badly-spelled word, not daring to deviate from the hand-written scrawl that came from the fist of the customer. He had already been fearful of what would happen if he was caught working the press. The man had pushed into the shop early, before the journeymen had clocked in for the day, and insisted that Peregrine do the job for him there and then. He'd followed the boy up to the case-room and leaned back against the setting rack, arms folded. Hands trembling, Peregrine had taken a sheet of paper from the discard box, set the type and inked up the rollers. He'd just pulled the first proof away when the man had snatched it from his hands and clumped downstairs. There had been just enough time for him to clear everything away before the shop-bell rang again as the journeymen arrived.

He felt a sharp elbow in his side and saw Hester looking at him. He nodded meaningfully at the door, pressed something into her hand, and ran back the way they'd come. Hester glanced down at the knife he'd given her, although she'd guessed by the shape of it. It had a slim blade, used for cutting the strings that held the paper stacks together.

 Hopefully she wouldn't have to use it.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Glory Brats: We were children playing in the sun who did not know the meaning of the clouds

Sparrow Jones was eight years old when the war started. She didn't take much notice.

The Jones family lived in Residential Sector 3, on the outskirts of Garden City. It was a good house - one of the newest in the city, not that that was saying much. New-er than the rest anyway. On the day the war started, the house was empty apart from Sparrow and her younger sister. Sparrow was sitting on her parents' bed, brushing her hair with purpose, carefully dividing it into two bunches and making each one equal before braiding the wispy brown strands. She poked her tongue between her teeth in concentration and picked two matching coloured bands from the drawer.

Tekla wandered into the bedroom still in her nightie, hair sticking up at all angles, and rubbing sleep from her eyes.

Sparrow made a face, 'Tekla -I told you to get ready!' She slid off the bed with a bump.

Tekla stretched her face into a yawn, 'Musta fell asleep again...'

Sparrow seized her little sister by the shoulders and turned her in the direction of the hall. 'Agh. Why do I even...ugh. Just do as you're told in school, OK?'

Sunlight spilled into the hallway through the large glass pane above the stairs. Sparrow marched Tekla along the hall and into their shared bedroom. She pushed the younger girl in the direction of the cupboard, 'Go on, get your vest and knickers. I'll get your new school stuff.'

Tekla shook her head, 'It never came.'

Sparrow stopped, half-way out the door,'What? But they always come, for all the new entry class.'

'Nup, not this time. Heard mum say Ela three doors along hadn't got hers neither.' Tekla grabbed her underwear from the basket and held them up, 'These do?'

'Uh huh...' Sparrow nodded, frowning. Uniforms always got delivered. New for entry class, then every other year after that. 'Have to be my old uniform then. Mum might not have sent it to Clearing yet. Now, get those things on. And get a clean shirt from the pile.'

Sparrow's old uniform was on the bottom shelf of the hall cupboard, neatly folded. She shook the black pinafore out, frowned at it critically, and then crouched on the rug to remove the brightly-coloured metal pin-badges from the shoulder strap.They clinked together heavily as she weighed them up in her hand. Blue for new, red for bled, green for clean, white for fight... Maybe she'd get a green this term.

'Do I get my first badge today?' Tekla asked, putting her arms up in all the wrong places as Sparrow tried to drop the pinafore over her head. Sparrow's only answer was to tug the pinafore down so it hung properly. Tekla wriggled as the belt buckle was tightened. 'Spar..ROW! Do I get my blue badge today?'

Sparrow sighed and dragged the brush through Tekla's short hair, 'Yes. Like everyone else. Since.....forever. C'mon, downstairs. Now.'

The kitchen was warmed by the heat from the big stove. Two plates and cups sat on the scrubbed wooden table, waiting. Sparrow kicked the wash-room door open. 'Go on. You first.' She sat down at the table and chewed the thick slice of bread and butter thoughtfully, washing it down with the milk. Breakfast finished, she knocked on the wash-room door and leaned against the door post. 'You better be done now. Don't want to be late first day of Entry...'

When no answer came, she pushed the door open slowly. Tekla was sitting hunched up on the tiled floor, trying not to cry and twisting her face with the effort. Sparrow crouched down next to her. 'Everyone feels the same. It's not meant to be scary you know...'

'..m'not scared...'

Sparrow tried a different tack: 'Pick that towel up, Tickles - Mum put it out fresh last night.'

Tekla uncurled herself and held out the towel with a miserable sniff. 'Mum should be here...'

Sparrow gave her little sister a hug and put the towel back on the hook. 'She will be, I bet she's just got stuck coming back from work. C'mon, hurry up and eat your breakfast.'

Saturday, 25 January 2014

[Northspell fragment] sleeping

Asa was snoring in the bottom bunk. Berit burrowed her head under the blanket. It was scratchy, but warm.

'Ugh, Ber....stop hogging the cover...' her elder sister Frith pulled the top blanket away and wrapped herself up in it.

Shivering, Berit aimed a kick at her sister. A howl came from the other end of the bed and someone tugged hard on Berit's foot. Inge's face hovered above Berit.

'What did you do that for!' 

Berit made a face and pushed her back to the end of the bed. Below, Asa continued to snore. Inge bounced up and down on Berit's legs. 'I wasn't doing anything and you kicked me for nothing and then you pushed me...'

Sighing, Berit felt for the edge of the bed. Her hand batted at the smooth wood and then fell away into space. Pulling her legs out of the reach of Inge, she slowly lowered herself over the side, feeling with her bare feet for the wooden floorboards. 

Inge stopped bouncing, ' Where are you going?'

'To get some peace.'

Curling her toes against the cold, she pulled away the rough sacking that covered the lower bunk. Asa lay on his back, mouth open, and Erdan was bunched up at the other end of the bed, fast asleep, his dark hair falling over his eyes. Berit reached out and pinched the fleshy part of Asa's nose between her finger and thumb.

'One, two, three....' she counted under her breath. On the fourth count, Asa's eyes opened and he let out a gasp of air. Berit smiled and drew her hand away. His eyes flickered shut again, and his breathing became clearer. 

'Oh thank the ancestors for that...' Frith drawled from the darkness, as Berit swung herself back up onto the bed. She took the under blanket as a peace offering from Frith, and Inge burrowed into a nest of her own making at the other end of the bed.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

[Northspell 6] the princess explores the gardens

The chickens wandered around the courtyard, pecking at the grassy bits between the stones and fluffing their feathers in the dust. Irena crouched down and poked the scrawny plants with curious fingers. The chickens, wary at first, soon got used to her. The first one, the one that she thought of as her own because she had discovered it, would now almost tolerate her awkward attempts to stroke it, as she coaxed it back under the arches.

'Come on birdie...'

She grubbed up a few of the weeds with her fingers and held them out in front of the chicken, moving her hands back and forth as the chicken turned its head this way and that. Frustrated, she dropped the weeds back on the ground, and grabbed at the chicken's tail, almost overbalancing in the process. It let out a frightened squawk, flapping its wings in her face.

Undeterred, she pulled the chicken gradually backwards and scooped her free hand underneath, avoiding the scrabbling claws. As she released the tail feathers, the chicken made a frantic escape attempt, but Irena's grasp was determined. She clamped a hand firmly over its back and held it under her coat.

'Just stay still...' She wasn't sure herself quite why she wanted the bird, only that it was something alive, and undemanding. Underneath the soft feathers it felt tough and wiry, but also fragile - as though if she held too tightly it would break. She loosened her grip, and the chicken, sensing weakness, tried to flap away. She curved her arm around it, feeling the brush of feathers against her wrist, and the comforting warmth from its body through her coat.

The kitchen door burst open. A tall girl in a grey dress ran out into the courtyard and looked around. She bent down, and seized the nearest chicken by the tail feathers. In one swift movement she had grabbed the legs of the chicken in one hand and the neck with the other; the chicken lay limp in her hands.

Eyes wide, Irena instinctively pulled her chicken closer, hiding it in the folds of her coat and half turning her body as if to protect it. The chicken gave a muffled squawk and tried to fluff its feathers.

The older girl looked straight at Irena. "Wh...where did you come from? Hey...come back!"

Irena didn't know why the girl could see her now. She only knew that she needed to get as far away as possible from the bird-killing girl. She ran along a sort of brick tunnel that had light wells cut into the roof. In the distance she could hear the other girl yelling, 'Well, I hope they catch you, chicken-thief!'

This was the second time today she'd been called a thief. They just didn't understand. They were only lower servants after all, and couldn't be expected to know who she was.

The tunnel stopped abruptly, and she ran into sunlight. She'd never been in this part of the gardens before. Tall dark trees were planted in regimented lines, stretching into the distance. The terraces were marked by low white walls and divided by steps that descended to a long rectangular pool. The water glittered fiercely in the hot sun. The shadows cast by the trees striped the ground in yellow and black. It was cool where the shadows fell, and Irena sank onto the dusty ground, resting her back against one of the walls. She cradled the chicken in her arms. It continued to cluck in an outraged manner that reminded her of nurse, when nurse was being particularly energetic in her scolding.

'You sound like nurse, birdie.' Her mouth crinkled into a slow smile as she pictured nurse, covered in feathers. She started stroking the chicken again, running her hand along its feathers, and it settled down into her lap. 'I wonder what nurse is doing right now...'

She closed her eyes, her arm still curved possessively around the chicken. The day was so hot, and she hadn't had anything to eat. She could look for Etta afterwards, and then Etta would call for the Bath-Mistress, and bring water, and towels. And then someone would bring food...and then....and then...

The loud cackling of the chicken jolted her out of her sleep. She pushed it off her lap and looked up into the shocked face of a palace guard. He prodded at her with the staff end of his spear.

'Ow! That hurt...stop it!'

She batted out at the spear with her right arm, and rolled away to the side. The chicken had flapped to the top of the low wall, and she snatched it up into her arms.

The guard stepped back, horror evident in his face. 'What are you...some kind of Northwitch spy as well as a chicken-thief?' His eyes narrowed, 'I should take you straight to Lord Alaric...'

'I'm not a thief!' Her voice sounded shrill, and she angrily blinked away the tears in her eyes. 'I'm...' She swallowed down the lump in her throat and tilted her chin defiantly, 'I'm Princess Irena Imaldi...and....and I'm so glad that you can see me...'

The guard started to laugh, and then stopped, frowning, 'Hey, why couldn't I see you earlier? Tell me that, eh, Northwitch?' He moved forward, stretching out a hand to grab her arm.

Irena evaded him easily, as he stumbled forward. The chicken began cackling again, and she held it at arm's length, having to shout over the noise, 'I don't know...I don't know! I woke up this morning and I was invisible, and there was another girl who looked like me, and now I don't know how to get back to my rooms!'

His face cleared, and he drew his arm back, nodding slowly. 'Better get you back to your rooms then, Princess.'

She felt relief wash over her. At last, someone believed her. 'I will see that you are mentioned favourably in the reports.'

'Very kind of you, Princess.' He mumbled, tugging his tunic straight. 'Uh...this way?'

They walked through the formal gardens, under the tall trees, until they reached a door set far back into the thickness of the wall. It was a chalky blue, and contrasted strongly with the pale, creamy plaster of the wall. Irena hesitated. She'd never seen this door before, and it looked more worn than the palace doors she knew, although the carvings were very fine, twisting over the wood in the shape of a living tree. The guard noticed her reluctance, and held her arm tightly.

'Just through here, Princess, and you'll be back in your rooms in no time, but you can't take that chicken with you now...'

She tried to pull away, but he was far too strong for her. He dashed the chicken from her arms and wrenched the door open a little. The faithless chicken, unharmed, fluffed its feathers and wandered away.

'Don't struggle now, Princess, there's a good girl.'

Furious, she ignored him, and tugged and twisted in an effort to get away, 'You lied! You said you'd take me back!' His grip, although not painful, was firm, and she had no hope of escaping.

Something like sympathy appeared on his face, 'For your own good, girlie...if I took you there it'd only be more trouble. You should tell your family to mind you better.' He opened the door fully and pushed her through it, gently but firmly. 'You go on home now,' he said, his voice cut off by the door shutting, with Irena on the other side. She made a feeble attempt to bash her fists against the wood, but her strength gave out, and she turned around with a despairing cry and slid to the ground. She saw a cobbled street, and a painted wall, and then everything went black.