Ice

Her heart was still sore from the words Arbek, her stepfather had spoken. “Go,” he had said with a dismissive wave. “Find us some food or don’t bother coming back here. Useless girls have no place at my hearth.”

And so Svarna fled from him with down cast eyes and white knuckles, taking the cumbersome fishing baskets with her across the wide open spaces of the steppes. She walked rapidly with a swinging gait that clearly said she wanted to put distance between herself and the small turf and wood dwelling that she and the others called home. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know where she was headed. She just needed some space and room to breathe and some time to think about what had gone wrong. Out in the open she could do just that. There was no one waiting for the opportunity to criticize her there. She touched the turquoise necklace about her throat, the one her mother had made for her on the dark nights of winter, each bead carved by hand and wondered about the hold Arbek had over her. Why did her normally loving mother remain silent when her new husband harangued and scolded her? Why did she not speak up? Surely their bond could not have been extinguished so easily?

Her breathing eventually became ragged as much from the rising altitude as from the punishing pace she had set herself at the start. But that had obviously served its purpose. Now her more immediate issues were the regrouping of her energies and thoughts so that she could come up with a workable plan of action that would enable her to bring back food for her family. A grassy hillock to the right of her seemed suitable enough for the purpose and she was so tired anyway that when she reached it she did not care much about the tussocks of grass that stuck in her back or the ants that nipped peevishly at her skin. As the clouds scudded by heedless of her sorrows she turned her attention to her failures over the previous weeks. She’d spent most of that time fishing the series of small lakes beyond the forest since they were closer to home and a lot more sheltered. Mostly she’d come back empty handed. But regardless of what Arbek said, that could have been for any number of reasons. Anyone with any sense knew that the gods could take away their blessing from a hunter just as easily as they gave it and that sometimes waters can sour naturally. Otters could have contributed to the problem too, especially if a large enough family moved into an area. Either way she knew she could not afford to come home with nothing again. She must bring home food if it was the last thing she did. Her life depended on it.

So this time she settled on venturing north towards the creaking towers of ice that would one day, many thousands of years into the future be called glaciers by the people who would inhabit these lands. There she would find the mighty salmon that lived in the gentian blue river that issued forth from the glacier itself. Her father had taken her there once, many moons ago. He had told her that they were looking for a medicine man who lived there and that if they could find him he might be able to heal her seizures. They never did find him and for many years afterwards Svarna felt that her father had just been amusing her with his silly game until news reached her of the deaths of two tribesmen. They’d been crushed by falling ice whilst out looking for the very same medicine man. It was then that she realised that it had been no game. The glacier was indeed dangerous and her father must have had good reason to take her there. She would do well to remember that today, she told herself.

After another hour of climbing and walking her efforts bought her within sight of her destination. By that time the twine and willow fishing baskets she carried were starting to chafe her scrawny shoulders, so she paused briefly in the shadow of the ice sheet to balance them. Perhaps it was this seemingly minor action that caused what happened next or maybe it was the increasing warmth of the day. But whatever the case, without any warning whatsoever a great slab of ice sheared off and plunged into a rocky outcrop a mere hundred metres away. The sound was ear splitting. Instinctively she fled, eyes flashing in terror and baskets forgotten; only coming to a stop when she reached the safety of the outer ice field. There she cowered listening to the ricochets bouncing off the nearby cliffs and the smaller pieces that were continuing to break free in the aftermath. Some fell into the river. Some hit the ground below and were turned to powder in an instant. Eventually all was quiet. Her heart slowed and her breathing returned to normal. Then she remembered the baskets. To return without fish would be bad enough but to destroy the only means they had to catch any in the future would be inexcusable. It was this thought alone that gave her the courage to retrace her steps.

They were quite intact actually and when she discovered this, she felt better. She turned them over and over, inspecting them for damage, reattaching the food scraps that she had bought for bait. When she had done this to her satisfaction she gazed up at the cliff the ice had fallen from and saw something that truly horrified her. There was a man up there staring at her from within the ice flow. She stifled a scream and dropped one of the baskets. They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually she realised he was entombed within the ice, so she moved forward for a better look.

The expression on his face was easily discernible. Although neutral, she imagined it to be kindly. Quite possibly he had brought her luck, she thought – after all the baskets were miraculously undamaged and she herself was not dead. She leaned forward and touched his icy prison, whispering a thank you that could only have been heard by mice.

But she needed to hurry. Daylight did not last long in the upper regions of the northern hemisphere. In just a few short hours the light would falter and night would swiftly follow. There would be no fishing to be done then. With this in mind, she made her way over to the river where she identified a likely spot and dropped one of the baited baskets in. She repeated these actions with the other two at different intervals then stood for what seemed like hours holding onto the rough twine she’d attached to each of them. It was a boring task so not surprisingly her thoughts began to wander. She thought of the ice man and what his life might have been like and where he had come from. She speculated about how he had come to end up locked within the glacier and of how long he might have been trapped. These thoughts triggered a distant memory of a time when her family had lived somewhere warmer. Then she had found another type of ice – but very tiny pieces and globular in shape. This ice was not cold though and neither was it white or blue like the ice that came from the glacier. This warm ice was a deep orangey yellow and yet clear at the same time. It also had the power to capture living things just as the glacier had done. She had found ants inside it, spiders and even a lizard on one occasion. She wondered what would happen if the ice ever melted. Would the things captured like this come to life again once more? Or would they stay inanimate? Who could say? There was much about the world that she did not know yet.

Suddenly there was a loud creak and the overhang Svarna was standing on collapsed, plunging her into the water. The air left her lungs in one explosive gasp. She couldn’t swim so naturally she went under. Panic brought her up again, all thrashing limbs and terror. She sank once more but for longer this time. Without knowing how, she propelled herself up again to the surface. She coughed and spluttered, gagged and sobbed. She cried out to the wilderness, to the gods and her ancestors, ‘somebody save me! I’m dying!’ Her body was under siege from both within and without. The sub zero water seared her flesh. It filled her nose and mouth. She couldn’t think any more. Her mind was too consumed by terror. She battled to breathe, she battled to live. She battled in vain to reach the bank. For several agonising minutes she struggled on valiantly, becoming progressively weaker as time went on. Eventually she was spending more time beneath the surface than she was on top. Her movements grew ever more feeble until finally her blue face sank beneath the surface for one last time, her hair fanning out like the tentacles of a golden anemone as she faded from this life.

Morning arrived and for the moment everything on and around the glacier was still. A solitary black wisp of smoke drifted above it carrying with it the smell of freshly cooked fish. It had not travelled far. Beneath the ice sheet that had revealed the iceman to Svarna the day before, a camp fire flickered brightly in its efforts consume the damp spruce wood someone had so hastily flung across it. Beside it stood a basket of fish. They were substantial in size and fresh too; in fact some were still flopping about. One of them was already cooked. It steamed on a wooden slab, sending its tantalising aroma into the nostrils of a sleeping girl. She stirred beneath the enormous bison fur blinking twice. Abruptly she sat up, confused.

She had died, her mind protested. How could she still be alive?

The water had swallowed her up and she had sunk to the bottom.

Svarna wrestled with this contradiction until she spotted the fish waiting to be eaten. She devoured it quickly and then sat licking her fingers considering this also.

If she could feel hunger then she definitely wasn’t dead. So someone must have pulled her out and revived her. But who? She called out over and over half expecting someone to come running. Maybe her mother or her brother perhaps…but no one did. She was all alone except for the ice man who stared out at her from his chilly abode. She stumbled towards him lifting up her hand to touch the turquoise beads around her neck as she often did whenever she was upset. But before she even had time to complete that familiar gesture her hand froze in the realisation that her actions were pointless because there in front of her, the beads were slung not around her neck, but around the iceman’s, resting comfortably on the hair of his chest.

Once she got over the shock of what that meant she bravely reached out again. “Thank you,” she said to him, running her fingers across the ice. His only reply was silence and a frozen stare but it was the warmest gesture she had known in many months so she marked it well in her heart.

There was a pronounced dampness in the valley that night of the type that heralds the onset of autumn. It soaked the grass and big grey boulders and the bodies lying scattered in the bog.

The hills above were silent. Barely a reed moved. Even the spiders had ceased their nocturnal spinning as though vaguely aware there were things out there, waiting.

A raven was the first to come forward; his shaggy throat and feathers fluttering as he swooped down through the gathering mist to investigate. His senses guided him in an unerring path, to a man who had received a cleaving slash to the mid-section, so deep you could see his liver; gleaming, naked and exposed. The ghoulish bird settled down upon him and after some tugging and pulling ripped out a beak sized, dripping morsel. A quick gulp and it was gone so he delved for another and another, turning his beak from black to red.

In the bushes and ferns, those that watched trembled – but not with trepidation, because the raven had proved to them that the humans were no longer worthy of fear. They trembled with excitement, because they knew there was a great feast ahead – an opportunity to boost their chances of survival. One by one they rushed forward to join him, wide eyed and nostrils flaring, determined not to miss out. They yelped and snapped at each other, twisting and crunching, their teeth biting through gristle and solid bone.

Instinctively they knew to build up their fat reserves and that protein was needed in order to grow a coat thick enough to keep out the cold. Millions of years of environmental conditioning had shaped them, imprinting this awareness on their primitive psyche over each subsequent generation.

It didn’t matter that they belonged to differing species or that some were just beginning their lives while others were almost at an end. All they knew was that in just a matter of weeks, or maybe even less, that a Northerly wind would sweep down from the Arctic Circle blanketing the valley in a layer of snow that could and often did last for months. Anything that helped them and their clans prepare for the inevitable had got to be worth fighting for. Life was everything to the living.

Dawn approached as they filled their growling stomachs to capacity; just a mere glimmering above the mountainous horizon. It was from that direction that the great golden eagle came, gliding softly on extended wings over an army of pine trees and firs. Invisible thermals carried her, over the shallow lake with its shores of granite and across the valley till she reached the hill on the opposite side. From high up between the clouds and earth she looked down and saw something interesting, half hidden in the thickness of the purple heather.

But scavengers were closing in. With a triumphant cry, she started to descend, wings pressed tightly to her sides giving her the shape of a Bronze Age arrowhead. Within fifty or so feet of her target she levelled off and a heartbeat later sunk her talons deep into an outstretched thigh. The corpse shuddered and twitched and with scream that echoed all the way to the Taiga River the young woman sat up waving her arms about so hysterically that the raptor flew away in shock.

black champagne

If you love gritty crime noir novels with well developed characters then you will love this book. Frankson delves deep when it comes to uncovering what makes the personalities in the story tick. He pulls no punches either. For example, the lead (McCambridge) is many things. We see vulgarness in him, deceit, duplicitousness and a distinct lack of empathy. On the face of it he is a deeply unlikeable character. There is a lot more to him than that though. From the start we see he is a tortured man, with all the signs of a deep seated personality disorder with numerous vulnerabilities that he, for the most part, succeeds in hiding from others. This makes him much easier to relate to, since we all have our own quirks and our dark sides that manage to slip through the veneer we project for the outside world to see. This stripping back of the characters makes it feel like a very personal read. Raw is the word I would use to describe it.

The dialogue itself is forceful and accompanied by an even stronger narrative, so it’s probably not the kind of story to snuggle up with whilst supping cocoa. In fact you’ll probably need a shot or three of tequila and a side order of nails to chew on.
Frankson knows how to paint a scene for the reader without being too directive, which is not an easy skill to master. The only negatives in my opinion are that it could have done with a bit more editing to catch the odd awkwardly worded or repetitive phrase. Aside from that the story is pacy and exciting and in my view a highly recommended read.

51-wvWgsRSL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX324_SY324_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA346_SH20_OU02_

In the shadow of a huge stone barrier that separates their world from the land of Faerie, the inhabitants of the little town of Wall go about their business just as we all do in the world that we inhabit. One such incident of ‘business’ is that of the young lad Tristan falling in love with arrogant Victoria who is in his opinion the most beautiful girl in Wall – quite possibly the entire world. To win her heart he promises to do anything she wishes so she sets him the task of retrieving a star that falls from the heavens as they are speaking.

Although he knows it has fallen into the land of Faerie that lies on the other side of the barrier which incidentally only has one access point guarded night and day by the townsmen of Wall, he goes anyway, determined to win her affections at any cost.

These few paragraphs set the scene for us;

The events that follow transpired many years ago. Queen Victoria was on the throne of England, but she was not yet the black-clad Widow of Windsor: she had apples in her cheeks and a spring in her step, and Lord Melbourne often had cause to upbraid, gently, the young queen for her flightiness. She was, as yet, unmarried, though she was very much in love.

Mr Charles Dickens was serialising his novelOliver Twist; Mr Draper had just taken the first photograph of the moon, freezing her face on cold paper; Mr Morse had recently announced a way of transmitting messages down metal wires.

Had you mentioned magic or Faerie to any of them they would have smiled at you disdainfully, except, perhaps for Mr Dickens, at the time a young man and beardless. He would have looked at you wistfully. ~ taken from ‘Stardust’ by Neil Gaiman.

Stardust is a fairytale for adults. The romance and highly imaginative element of it combine to make it a book you won’t want to leave easily. Gaiman weaves a breathtaking spell upon his readers with his way of wording and beautiful prose. There is an archaicness to his narrative that takes you somewhere far, far away just through its tone alone. It made me comfortable and turned me into an inquisitive child again wanting to know more and willing to abandon all logic in the process. That being said this is a well balanced book. Although full of quests, unicorns, witches and such like it has enough grounding in contemporary sensibility to save it from straying into the realms of the ridiculous. In essence you can pretend to be a kid again with all the wonderment that brings whilst retaining some sense of adulthood.

A stunning modern fairytale and a firm favourite for me.

Waiting

This poem is about three girls waiting for the return of their menfolk from the Civil War and was inspired by the above scene from the movie Cold Mountain.

Three girls in Gordon’s meadow,

Arm in arm across the bridge.

Gather may from every hedgerow,

From our ancient acreage

I lean back at Parnel’s wishing well,

With sun light in my hair.

They hold me by the shoulder,

To see whose face is there ~

New Book

So as you may already know, due to recent developments I’ve no publisher and for all intents and purposes I’m riding by the seat of my pants. But I want to let you in on a secret, just a small one – I quite like this situation. I like to do things my own way and under my own steam. And steaming ahead is exactly what I’ve been doing folks! In fact I’ve more than one new book on the way and the old books will be revised and republished just as soon as I can get round to it.

So here’s a little about my new novel; a historical fiction from the Glens of Antrim. It’s based on the life story of certain Thomas McCartney, a 19th century hedgerow teacher who taught in the picturesque town of Whitehead and the surrounding areas. I’ve painted the front cover myself in acrylic on canvas. So you may find that and the first unedited chapter below. Don’t be shy in giving me feedback. I’d love to hear from you no matter who you are. So be brave and fill in that contact form won’t you? Best wishes to you all. Sam x

cover

Prologue

Time is hard to measure in dreams. It could have been several hours or several days since we had first gone down to the Misty Burn to mess about as children do near the old fir tree locals call The Sentry. The wise old evergreen watched us, nodding and shedding its pine needles quietly. In front of it we built our dam using stones and other debris we wrested from the river.

Many years have passed since I dreamt that dream but when I think on it Martha I can still feel the water lapping at my ankles like a multitude of kitten’s tongues supping eagerly at a saucer of milk, only much colder than that. It felt real. It feels real; even though it’s just a memory of a dream dusted off and brought out into the light.

I can see it as clear as day in fact…

In that far off world my mind created, dappled sunlight filtered through the quivering leaves, beaming down on our mud caked shoes lying forgotten on the bank. Inside them, were the socks our mother made on the long winter nights, her needles gleaming in the firelight as they moved faster and faster beneath our somnolent gaze.

“It’s more than they deserve,” our stepfather Lyle would say on such nights, his eyes flitting fractiously between our mother and our outstretched forms playing marbles on the rug. I can see his face now, ruddy, robust and rather striking but always there was something implacable in his eyes, something that told me we would always be found wanting.

He had many unfortunate sayings. The one I personally hated most was,

“Bold boys have no need of kindness, Kaitlin. What they need is discipline and a firm hand.” It was meant to sound authoritative, fatherly even but when it fell upon my ears it filled me with the knowledge that we were but a grain of sand lodged within the cold shell of him, an irritation that could never be purged; an annoyance beyond all imagining. That feeling was mutual. We were locked in our endless battles day and night, year upon year, with no way to escape. We confused each other, wasted so much time. For instance, he had no understanding of what it meant when we used the socks Mother made us to catch tadpoles and turned them into mits when making snowballs. Our ‘naughtiness’ offended him. Later it would enrage him. But for now this story is about the dream I had then and those endlessly darned socks…the rest will make its own way I believe, if we let it.

So down by the Burn I had started to feel that we were soon going to have need of those socks since it was mid afternoon and the air already had a distinctly chilly edge to it. My brother Robert did not seem to pay it any mind though. On slippery bedrock his smaller feet were splayed out in confidence. In his left hand he held a dripping rock and with the other he gestured animatedly at whatever it was that had caught his attention somewhere at the top of the Sentry. It turned out to be a Jay.

As he stared I watched his fascination grow, his long dark lashes fluttering rapidly, the colour growing high in his cheeks like twin sunsets in an autumn sky. In low whispers we speculated about the Passerine and where it had stumbled upon the acorn protruding either side of its beak. We guessed it had to be somewhere near the sheep bridge where the oak trees shivered and brambles grew and the stones roundabout were covered in a thick green velvet moss. Squirrels often stockpiled them there for such times when food was scarce but the odd one was sometimes forgotten or lost in which case it usually became a baby oak or a meal for some other favoured creature. The latter must have happened in this case.

The bird was proud of its prize. He took it to his untidy nest of roots, horse hair and fibres, built in the most precarious of places where his mate waited patiently for her champions return with eyes of shining black. But Robert could not content himself with just this fleeting glimpse of her. He wanted far more than that. He stumbled forward hoping for a better view, then slipped, twisting sideways, dropping the heavy flint beside his chalk white feet sending splinters of it far and wide. Most flew into the rushing water to become precursors of what would one day be sand. The remainder rolled a few feet more gathering momentum till it crashed and demolished a small portion of our afternoon work. With the dam thus compromised the river did the rest.

“Ye daft ejit,” I cried, hurrying over to him. I helped him up and tilted his chin roughly this way and that to check for damage. “Ye almost smashed ye heid in. An’ luk at the state of the dam.”

Water was pouring through the gaps, making wider and wider holes. Logs were dislodged and sticks floated away. He ignored my rebukes and inspected a flapping hole in his trousers. They were beyond repair. We would catch it for that. I told him so.

“Faither ul have ye beat,” I warned.

“He’s nae faither o’ mine,” he snapped.

I decided to say nothing. I could see he was vexed. His jaw still throbbed as he splashed his way over to the trees crinkled girth and looked up sharply no doubt thinking that the bird must be gone by now. But he was wrong.

“There! Do ye see it?” he whispered to me. “The cock bird jus went in an’ fed her agaen. I’ll wager she’s sittin’ on a clutch of eggs.”

But I had no interest in any of that. His words had triggered something strange, something I didn’t expect; a memory or perhaps a premonition. I drew a halting breath and held on to it for several seconds before releasing it and following him over to the tree. Beneath its twisted boughs the deep foreboding continued to grow, spreading like the foulest of moulds. Something was going to happen, I knew it. Something far worse than just the hole in Robert’s trousers or the broken dam. The thought of what it could be chilled me. It was hard to move, hard to breathe. My limbs grew stiff and clumsy. Was the cold I felt actually fear? Or was the fear I felt actually cold?

When you’re a child such things can be difficult to tell. I remember asking myself in the midst of the dream why it should have been fear that I was feeling. After all it was no different than all the other times we had collected eggs as far as I could see and we had done so a great many times. From the moment we were old enough to go out and play in the fields of Glenwherry, Robert and I had collected eggs from the surrounding hedgerows and fields. It was a common pastime for country boys and so was the tree climbing that tended to go hand in hand with it. Yet on this occasion my passion had fled for no apparent reason that I could see.

“Let her be Rabbie. We’ve a dam to fix.”

I hoped that he would listen to me but already he was grasping my shoulders in his eagerness to ascend.

“It’ll only taek a minat.”

Desperately I searched for a reason why he shouldn’t go.

“It’s too high. It’s no safe,” I said.

He looked at me curiously and gave a little laugh.

“Chicken.”

I sighed.

“Come awn then. But see an’ grip taet whaen ye reach the tawp,” I linked my hands for him and braced myself in readiness for his weight.

He scrabbled around and hauled himself up to the lowest branch, puffing and grimacing. From there he planned his advancement to the next.

“Ye look more a feared than me,” he called down.

“See an’ mind what ye’re doin’ instead ae runnin’ off at the mouth like a gulpin,” I retorted.

He laughed at me and bared his lily white bottom.

“Kiss mae erse.”

“Enough of yer cheek! It’ll not be so funny whaen Lyle thrashes it later,” I yelled and threw a handful of sharp gravel with the intention of stinging his buttocks. Hastily he pulled up his breaches and continued his ascent wearing what was admittedly a much happier expression than before.

The climb was challenging enough. But with a little ingenuity and a fair bit of skill (all learnt from me I might add) he reached his destination without incident. At that point I felt all my fears had been for nought. All was safe. Nothing had gone wrong. Then as Robert gently placed the eggs in his cap, I felt something weighty drop into my hands, something unexpected and strangely out of place. For a few seconds I stared dumbly at the axe with its blade curved like a crescent moon. Slowly I turned it around and around. Then I remembered…

Robert was dead or was supposed to be at least. I had killed him twenty years ago.

I called out to him, my voice jagged like the thorns of a sloe bush.

“Robert!”

There was a muffled reply but I couldn’t make it out. The ghost child was too busy figuring out how he was going to descend without breaking the eggs.

“I’m sorry Robert.”

“What? Why are ye sorry? What are ye gan’ on aboot doon thar?”

I had no answers for him, only a terrible compunction. The tree had to come down, even though he – Robert, was still in it. That was the way it was supposed to be.

It bit into the wood with ease, splitting the bark from the cambium. Not surprisingly when he realised what was happening, my younger sibling let out a startled shriek.

“Wayit!” he pleaded, doing his best to get down before the tree was felled. The tears were streaming down both our faces. Mine mingled with sweat as I hacked at the lengthy trunk, Robert’s made it harder for him to see and therefore harder to descend. On the fourth branch from the bottom he lost his grip and hung for several seconds by one hand frantically trying to claw his way back up.

“Heyelp Tommy, please!”

But I couldn’t. All I could do was sob and continue my instinctive chopping like it was the only pastime in the world worth living for – even when Robert lost his hold and fell to the ground with a sickening crack. With the last swing I bowed my head, not caring at all if the falling fir wiped me out also. An elongated creak heralded the ensuing crash and then the old Sentry hit the other side of the Misty Burn sending a cloud of dust and frightened birds into the air. All was still except for the blood in my veins. It hurtled at great velocity, surging and pounding through me as I hurried over to face what I had done. Seeing him was excruciating. I scooped him up and held him to me, my head just grazing his chest. My eyes were squeezed painfully shut, from them tears fell heavy as silver. When they were spent I opened my eyes only to discover that the river was now gone and that we were in a house, in a room of green, with tall stems of bamboo scattered across wallpaper and a rickety unmade bed of brass pushed up against the wall. I recognised it as our old room.

“Rabbie, if only I knew then what I know now” I mumbled to the wasted body. “I could have saved you. But it’s too late.”

Then the slap of sea water commanded that I should wake.

I obeyed with a gasp and coughed hard, glancing about me. Where was I? And why was it so dark and cold?

The roar of the elements remained close so I listened in the darkness to them waiting for answers to come to me. Just when I thought my sanity had fled a flash of lightening illuminated my surroundings. I digested what I’d seen in those split seconds, the meaning of the rock all around me, the rain and the thick woollen blanket. So this was home. This was my cave. There were no duck down pillows here or gently glowing embers to keep me warm. But somehow it felt full of belonging. It was all mine, this place of my own. Here, I answered to none.