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.

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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 ~

Latest

Just finished my latest commission piece – 90 year old Jocelyn and her cat Jamie.  What a wonderful bond!  If you would like to be considered for a painting commissioned at a competitive price fill in the contact form below.jocelyn