Keeping Time – Chapter Two

The Second Installment of my short story, ‘Keeping Time’.

4th attempt

I woke that night to a chaos of sound and light: the bay and growl of distant thunder followed by a sudden stab of brightness. Undisturbed by the storm, Lid merely dragged a pillow over her head and continued sleeping. I wrapped my arms around her waist, buried my head between her shoulder blades, but she shrugged me off.

As it grew closer, wind tore in ever more violent gusts through Wenbury Woods behind the hostel. There was a splintering crash as the milk bottles I’d left at the door to the warden’s house shed like skittles across the path. And then another atomic level scream ushered in first rain and then hail, thousands of icy bullets pelting the roof and windows.

“Lid!” I whispered.

“Go back to sleep,” she slurred, her voice smothered by the pillow.

“But it’s ripping the hostel apart!”

“We can’t do anything now. Go back to sleep. If there’s damage, I’ll call Nigel in the morning. It’ll be alright.”

I tried to sleep. I tried hard. But nothing could block out the visions of destruction: the windows of the hostel shattered, the moat filling, ground water swelling. And so eventually I pulled on my T-shirt, shorts and slippers and trudged downstairs. Because nothing can catapult the mind into utter vacancy like cheap vodka and 3am T.V.

The warden’s cottage is an old farm building which The Trust had converted into very basic accommodation: a tiny bedroom and bathroom, a kitchen/living room below, and a flight of stairs connecting them that were so steep that I had to feel for the rungs with my feet, clinging to the banister as if navigating the death zone on Everest.

Once downstairs, I opened the fridge to darkness. The storm had knocked out the power. But an obliging flash of lightning revealed the vodka which I seized, opened and swigged. It carried an aftertaste of rancid fire, and I clung to the fridge door, hand pressed to my mouth to keep the vile stuff down, before returning the bottle and scrabbling around the kitchen for my tobacco and lighter.

While I’m not much use at times of panic, I do possess the ability to produce roll-ups under even the most pressing of circumstances. With a reassuring hiss, the Rizla sparked and my cigarette revealed itself in the darkness, like a tiny red eye.

I threw myself back onto the sofa, drawing in smoke each time the thunder roared, releasing it in explosive mouthfuls when lightning struck. And only then did I admit to myself that I could hear something else in the room, and that I had been listening to it ever since I came downstairs. For, during lulls in the storm, when wind briefly whipped the rain in a different direction, I could hear the watch ticking. Which was impossible. Because I’d left it at the hostel.

I remembered deliberately sliding it into a drawer beneath the desk before I’d followed Lid into the kitchen. Something had made me decide that I didn’t want it with me in the cottage. And yet here it was. Somewhere, ticking away and taunting me in the darkness.

The room felt cold and damp, as if the storm had seeped through the walls, wringing the air with its fury. Sitting up, I dragged a blanket around my shoulders, aware of goose pimples rising on my bare arms and legs. Perhaps Lid had found the watch and brought it up here? Perhaps it was lying discarded on the coffee table? But the dying light of my cigarette revealed nothing. I clawed around the sofa, wedging my hand between the cushions, but produced no more than a few stray coins.

The cigarette died – I stubbed it out in the ashtray, sat back down, arms wrapped around my legs and listened intently. There it was – a steady click and grind of cogs. And it seemed not to be coming from any particular place at all, but rather from the air itself, as if the entire room were somehow measuring out time. Unable to bear it any longer, I struggled off the sofa, now desperate for Lid’s warmth and the security of our bed, but froze with one foot on the stairs. Someone was outside – in the storm! I was sure of it. There had been a definite crunch of gravel beneath the sole of a shoe or boot. The footsteps continued, steady, unhurried despite the weather, up the path towards the cottage. Perhaps…perhaps Nigel had come to check on us. Unlikely, but… I crossed over to the window, its deep set panes of glass now awash with rain. The watch continued to whirr, unseen, to tick out the seconds of the storm. I clutched the sill which was wet with condensation, and peered out into the night, just as thunder shook the cottage with such force that the door rattled, its handle shaking violently.

I sucked in my smoke-stale breath and counted: 1, 2…lightning flooded the valley with all the blinding intensity of daylight. If anyone had been out there, I would have seen them. Certain of that fact, partly relieved, I turned once more to head upstairs. And as I went, so did the footsteps – leaving the back door, crunching on the shards of milk bottles, heading back down the path and into the night.

The blanket slipped from my shoulders. I seized, it, hugging it close, blood thudding in my ears and blocking out all other sounds. And then I ran, or rather scrambled, up the stairs on all fours, my shins making painful contact with the wood until I was at the top, in bed, my body twisted around Lid’s like a vine.

“Christ, Helen!” she said, her voice still muffled. “You’re freezing!” Pushing aside the pillow, she sniffed the air. “Have you been smoking?”

“Just one.”

“You might have cleaned your teeth.”

“I know. Sorry.” I buried my head into the small of her back and clung to her as if I were drowning and she were a piece of passing driftwood. And around us, the storm growled and bit and chewed and gnawed at the cottage.




Review – ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue


Warning – contains spoilers!

It’s hard to think of a more ambitious literary project than Room. To address such sensitive issues through the eyes of a five-year-old child is a challenge very few writers could carry off. But Emma Donoghue succeeds, and ultimately Jack proves the best narrator imaginable, as a kind of insider/outsider figure: witness to the crimes perpetrated against himself and his mother without fully understanding them. For Jack, life in Room is normal – it is Outside which is unreal. Consequently, his experience of Room enables him to explore what freedom really means. Once beyond its confines, it is the media, clinicians and society in general which all impose their own expectations on Jack and Ma, limiting them in new ways. And so, in this respect, the story invites us to rethink our attitudes towards imprisonment from a whole new set of angles. As Ma angrily says:

“…the thing is, slavery’s not a new invention. And solitary confinement – did you know, in America we’ve got more than twenty-five thousand prisoners in isolation cells? Some of them for twenty years…As for kids – there’s places where babies lie in orphanages five to a cot with pacifiers taped into heir mouths, kids in prisons, whatever, making carpets till they go blind…People are locked up in all sorts of ways.” (293)

What I took most from the book, however, was its focus on the victims rather than their kidnapper. To be honest, it might be difficult to imagine such an horrific crime were it not for the widely documented precedents of Josef Fritzl or Fred West. In media reports of such cases, the victim is so often obscured – a pale wreck of a human being if they survive, a mere corpse buried in a shallow grave if they don’t. But Donoghue’s book reverses that perception. It is ‘Old Nick’ who becomes the half-seen, shadowy figure lurking behind the scenes of this novel. Ma and Jack are the real focus – their suffering, their developement, and their triumph against the odds. That is what makes Room such a life-affirming story, and ultimately such a compelling read. You want to know that, in spite of experiencing the greatest evil imaginable, it is possible not just to survive, but to flourish. Spoiler: it is.

‘Keeping Time’ – Chapter One

So over the last few weeks I’ve found myself writing a new short story – a ghost story this time – which I’ve decided to post simultaneously on Wattpad and on my blog. This is new territory for me – first person narrative and set in a ‘real-life’ location. Here’s Chapter One.4th attempt


That was the week my watch began to keep time. A week when we thought the roof might cave in: the hostel groaning and creaking like a rheumatic old man as wind bit vicious chunks from seventeenth century tiles and hurled them into the grass. It was a week when the power was plucked out by a sudden thunderbolt…act of god…whatever, which hit overhead cables down in Chenton and plunged us into a series of dark, rain besmattered nights. When the cellars and the games room flooded: playing cards and copies of the Reader’s Digest floating like flotsam around the legs of the pool table. And as the water rose around our feet and dripped through crumbling chinks in a fretted ceiling that Clayre Trust had described as ‘unique to the region,’ my watch ticked into life.

Lidia said I should never have bought the bloody thing in the first place. We’d been down into Chenton the morning before the storm began, mooching through the shit that passes for antiques in the Emporium: tired, chipped dinner services, porcelain dolls with serial killer stares and lame or armless hat stands. But having watched endless repeats of The Antiques Roadshow* when too lazy to turn off the TV, I’d convinced myself that there was a quattrocento triptych waiting there for me somewhere. And when I saw the watch, I was convinced that, if not worth a fortune, it might at least get me back my reserve at auction.

Lying amongst a dusty stack of Edwardian newspapers, it was one of those old time-pieces a man would have worn in his waistcoat pocket, drawing it out ostentatiously on a golden chain. Obviously, the chain was gone and its face was cracked. When I put it to my ear and shook it, I could hear the cogs sliding around inside, loosened with age. It was clearly broken, probably beyond repair. But I could still make out a worn layer of filigree around the rim. Blowing off the dust revealed copperplate Roman numerals and two slim, exquisite arrows which still recorded the time at ten past two.

I thought of its former owner flipping it over in a large, hair-dusted hand, cigar poised as he studied the dial, a glass of port and a copy of The Times on the table beside him. Lid was rifling through an old stack of 1970s Good Housekeeping annuals, too absorbed to notice what I was looking at. Seizing my chance, I slipped downstairs and bought the watch.

An hour later, I slid it sheepishly across the table towards her as we enjoyed an afternoon pint in The Red Lion.

“Oh, Helen, why?” She slumped, despairing, almost knocking over her lager. Nothing like the excited response I’d anticipated.

“But it must be really old!”

“How much?” She raised her head just enough to savage what remained of my enthusiasm with an amber-eyed glare. “How much, Lara fucking Croft?”

“Fifty,” I muttered into my beer.

“Fifty? Helen, that’s almost our weekly housekeeping budget! You just squandered fifty hard-earned quid on a piece of junk?”

“It’s clearly ancient, Lid,” I protested weakly. “I could get it estimated.”

“Helen, I have a pair of knickers which date back to 2001. Perhaps you’d like to get an estimation of them too?”

“You want to put your pants up for auction?”

“Yes, but…that’s not the point. The point is, you just blew our budget on a pile of broken cogs. Which means you’re getting the next round.”


“And the next one.”

Several hours later we swerved our way back up the lane towards the hostel on our bikes, panniers packed with bread and eggs for the next day. The chimney stacks and gabled roof of Clayre Hall – now Clayre Hall Hostel – hove into view over the creases of nearby hills, the sun a blister ready to pop in a heat-heavy August sky. But no mid-week tourists hovered outside the doors on our return in the hope of a bed and our Shropshire renowned ‘better than sex’ breakfast. So Lidia stormed back to the warden’s cottage for a nap, making it very clear that it was a nap she would be taking alone. And I settled in behind the hatch in reception for an afternoon of boredom.

Our office was really no more than a glorified cupboard, panelled in dark, time-stained oak. It was windowless, but the hatch opened onto the stone-flagged porch, and through a door on the other side of that I could see into the Great Hall with its trestles, high, mullioned windows and massive old fireplace. To my right, a door hidden in the panelling fed through to the pantry and beyond that, the kitchen – Lid’s preserve.

Lid is an incredible cook. On our first date, back when we were students, she slammed together what looked like a random selection of leftovers from her fridge, transforming them into the most delicious paella I’d ever eaten. To be fair, it was the only paella I’d ever eaten. The most exotic culinary experience I’d had up to then was a tub of periwinkles on a family holiday to the Isle of Man. And there I was, dining by candlelight with Lid and her Iberian good looks. She’s tall and svelte, with olive toned skin and thick, cropped dark hair. I’m short, mousy-haired and freckled. Her dad’s a Spanish chef, her mother runs a London restaurant. My parents are retired social workers from Sale. It should never have worked. Somehow, twelve years later, it still does.

Pissed off and already bored, I rolled a cigarette and slipped out of the office. A kind of moat runs around the back of Clayre Hall, with the walls of the hostel rising steeply from it on one side and a grassy bank on the other. Crouched down below the bank, praying against the appearance of any stray hostellers, I lit the cig, closed my eyes and inhaled. Tobacco smoke curled, plunged and hit my lungs with a sweet, woody sharpness. For a few seconds I held it in, listening to the distant thrum of traffic on the A49, the desultory bleats of sheep in neighbouring fields. Then, in a single explosive breath, I released the smoke: my brain flooding with nicotine. I swayed slightly, slumping down on the grass with my back to the wall, and looked up to a sky that was brewing and breaking with clouds, only a few scraps of summer blue remaining. The humidity was building, swelling at ground level and rising in wet, suffocating layers, making the air thick, dank and stifling. After a few more drags I stubbed out the cigarette, ground out the ashes beneath the sole of my trainer and went back inside to perform a few circuits of reception on the office chair. And that was when I heard the watch.

It had been shoved into one of the shopping bags which lay, unpacked and crumpled beneath the desk. Ashamed at my extravagance, I’d hoped to wait until Lid had cooled off before googling a few sites to get an idea of its value. Frowning, I tried to tune out the buzz of the fridges next door, the hum of our overheated PC with its furred up fan. The sound was faint, but it was there: a steady flicking through of cogs.

Jumping off the chair, I grabbed the bags, throwing several loaves of bread onto the floor. The watch was lying face down amongst some discarded receipts. I pulled it out and peered at the hands, now certain that they had moved. At the Emporium, they had pointed at ten past two – yes, ten past two. The computer’s monitor told me it was now five. And the watch…it could have been a coincidence, of course. Perhaps the hands had been shaken in transport. But when I put it to my ear, there was a steady, insistent tick and whirr.

A door slammed in one of the dormitories on the floor above. I froze, rested the watch down on the desk and stared through into the Great Hall. Nothing. And the air was still, almost solid – there was no chance of a draft. But still, the hostel was four hundred years old, and full of surprises. Floorboards creaked and settled, there were rustlings in the roof which bats had made their home. Kids on school trips from Birmingham or Leicester were always trying to convince each other they’d heard footsteps pacing the dorms at night, heard whispering or even voices. But Lid and I had lived and worked at Clayre for over a year and not seen or heard a thing. It was just inner-city innocents freaked out by their first experiences of the countryside, we always told each other.

There was a moan of hinges as the entrance door jerked open. I clenched my stomach, held my breath.

“Babe? Babe are you alright?” Lid was peering through the hatch, her hair mussed from sleeping.

“Yes. Yes, fine.”

“Why…why are there loaves of bread on the floor?”

“I was unpacking?”


“Yes. Got…got sidetracked.”

“Ah.” Yawning and rubbing her eyes, she padded into the office in flip-flops, baggy shorts and a vest top. “No hostellers?”

“No one yet.”

“And won’t be. I just flicked the TV on. Big storm on its way.” Perching on the desk, she cupped my face between her hands. “You look pale.”

“I always look pale compared to you.”

“Yes. Pale. British. Anaemic. Only one cure for that.”


She smiled. “Chorizo and chicken casserole, idiot.”

“Almost as good.”


*As I’m not sure if The Antiques Roadshow ever infiltrated other parts of the globe, here’s a brief explanation – basically, it’s a programme fronted by foxy fifty something Fiona Bruce, in which people dig up stuff they’ve found in their attics and get antiques experts to estimate them. This is normally qualifed with the statement ‘I only want to know the value for insurance purposes.’ After this, they’re generally told that what they thought was a long lost Rubens is in fact a fake and only worth ten pounds. At which point, being British, they put a brave face on it and say, ‘well it still has sentimental value.’ Of course, I only know this because my dad watches it 😉


The Firefarer – Links, Maps and an Extract

It’s been a while in the works, but it’s finally available on Amazon!

Amazon UK:

The Firefarer cover

The new version of The Firefarer now also includes maps by Firebound author Rob May :

FF map


And just to whet the appetite, here’s the first chapter:



Muna lay belly-down on the cliff-top, peering over the edge. Far below, the sea slammed against rocks, a few desperate gulls clinging to the surge. Wind whipped her hair across her eyes and cheeks and stung her face with sea-spray.

She sucked in the salt air and imagined herself riding the waves: her body reaching each crest before plunging down and rolling to the ocean floor. Then up again, a snatch of breath and down once more.

Thrilled, she shivered and raised her head, scanning the horizon, the mainland obscured by dark skies. A real storm must be brewing, gathering force; clouds stirred and swelled as if pregnant with rage. And between all that power ˗ between the dark sky and the brooding water ˗ she made out a single, dark speck.

Muna narrowed her eyes, tucking stray locks of hair behind her ears. The shape carried long and low in the water, foam breaking against its sides. At first she thought it must be a whale, but no giant tail fin broke the surface, no jet of spray soared above it like a geyser. She curled frozen fingers across her mouth, stifling a gasp. A boat! Now she made out men heaving against oars, the prow skimming the peak of a wave before crashing back down into the water.

Pushing herself to her feet, Muna dusted dirt and slivers of shale from her dress, glanced once more out to sea and then ran. Bare foot, she leapt over clumps of grass, across sharp-toothed naked rocks, between stunted, gnarly roots of gorse.

A slim flake of slate cracked beneath her and she fell, her ankle twisting as she hit the ground. Cursing, Muna scrabbled to her feet, limping towards the squat stone walls and turf roof of home. Hurling herself against the door she landed, panting, on her knees, her eyes struggling to adjust to the dim interior. Outside, the wind continued its assault on the cottage, tearing at the shutters and moaning through cracks and chinks in the stonework. She slammed the door shut, barring it with a heavy chunk of sea-worn timber.

“Da? Hori?” Muna groped her way forwards, tracing her fingers around the rough edge of the table. No fire glowed in the pit: they must still be sleeping.

“Muna, is that you?” Hori piped rather than spoke, his voice a thin reed.

“Yes. It’s me. Hori get up. Is Da awake?”

She felt along the wall, aiming for the furthest, darkest end of the cottage, aware of a wet, acrid smell rising up from the floor. Da must have been so far into his cups last night he’d not made it outside. Stalling a wave of nausea, she stretched outwards, sensing the rising heat of his sleeping body buried beneath a pile of furs and seal skins.

“Da! We’ve got to leave!” She clamped his shoulder between half-frozen fingers, sensing the solid muscle of his arm tense and then relax as she shook him awake.

“What is it?” His voice was low, gritty and slurred.

“Da, they’re coming. From the mainland. A boat ˗ I saw it!” She plucked at the furs and skins, catching a brief glimpse of his matted hair and weathered, tattooed face. He rolled away, hugging the bedclothes to his chest, his back rising and falling like the great waves outside. Hori now stood beside her, tugging at her tunic. He peered up, his face pinched and frightened, his dark hair sleep-tousled.

“Muna are they coming for me?”

She froze inwardly, as if a skein of ice had coated the underside of her skin. “We won’t let them, Hori.”

Sinking down beside the bed, Hori began to sob in light, throaty sighs. A huge hand slid out from beneath the furs and skins to pat the boy’s head. Sniffing, Hori clambered up, tunnelling through the pile of pelts to cling to his father.

“Da! We have to leave!” Muna shook him harder this time. “The coracle’s on the south shore. We could aim for the Source Isles. Or even for the Pagi.”

“We’re not leaving.” Da’s grainy voice was muffled by the furs. “And if your mother heard you now, she’d weep.”

“She’d want us to live.”

Da sprang up, Hori still clinging to his side like a limpet. Shocked, Muna stepped backwards as her father swung unsteadily out of bed, shaking himself free of his son. He clumsily wrapped an old seal skin around his waist before clutching at the wall for support, his chest and face camouflaged by a maze of tattoos. Then, without another word, he lurched past her towards the table, seized a leather skin of water and tipped the contents over his head.

He stood, shaking, water dripping from his wild black curls, his eyes two glittering slivers of jet set within a swirl of tattoos. “Your mother’d fight to save her home and her family. Even if she were one against a thousand.”

“I’m not my mother.”

“That’s clear enough.”

Hori was now behind her, his thin arms threaded around her waist, his head buried in the small of her back. Dumbstruck with shame and fury she stared at her father. Outside, the wind picked up again, the cottage door rattling and shaking as if it had a life of its own. Da looked away, wiping the water from his face with a trembling hand. He turned back, his eyes tired and haunted.

“I’m sorry.” Slumping down on a bench, he dragged a plate of dried fish and stale bread across the table, stuffing the contents into his mouth. Muna watched, a hot spring of frustration welling within.

“If you’ll not help him, Da, I’ll take him myself.”

Da slammed a palm down on the table. “You’re going nowhere. Neither of you.”

Anger overcame her fear. “If you were so brave Da, we’d still be living on the mainland, not on this wet rock.”

He rose again and she edged backwards, stepping on Hori’s feet. The boy squealed.

“This is the home of your mother’s ancestor’s, girl!” He punctured the air with a thick, dirt-stained finger as he spoke. “And I’ll not hear you defile them.”

“Don’t lie!” She heard her own voice rise to a thin shriek and hated herself for it. “We’re here because you hate the Ahi.”

With a sudden roar, Da slammed a fist into the underside of the table, sending knives, hooks, nets and bottles crashing to the floor. “Liar? You’re calling me a liar?” Clay and fishbone snapped beneath his feet as he staggered towards them.

“Yes. A liar!” Muna no longer feared. The Ahi were coming anyway. She felt strangely distanced from her father’s rage, her brother’s weeping, as if all this were happening to someone else in a different time and place.

Da had almost reached them, his hand drawn back to swipe at her cheek. She felt Hori’s shivers through the coarse wool of her tunic and reached behind her back, taking his arms in her hands. “Mother’d weep to hear you now, Da,” she whispered.

His hand lowered, his shoulders sagging in sudden grief. He stumbled backwards, his massive weight crashing down amongst the tangled mess of nets and hooks. Sitting on the floor of his cottage, Erland Hyr buried his face in huge, hair dusted hands and wept.

Hori slid out from behind Muna and jumped down into Da’s lap, flinging his arms around his father’s thick neck.

“I’ll not let them take you, Hori.” Da was whispering, rocking the boy in his arms. He looked up at Muna then, eyes wet with remorse. “They’ll not take either of you.”

“So run. Now! Before it’s too late.”

She darted around the cottage, gathering supplies for the voyage: seal skins for warmth, a net, some smoked fish. Piling them on the table, she poured the dregs of their fresh water into a single skin. Just enough, she thought, to see them safe to the Source Isles. Erland remained sobbing on the floor, his face pressed into Hori’s shoulder. Hissing in frustration she ignored him and concentrated on the task in hand.

The door shook violently ˗ battered again, she thought, by the wind. Tired hinges creaked and groaned, light creeping in around the edges of the frame. But then, as if carried on the air itself came the rise and fall of voices. She froze, staring at her father whose eyes registered danger for the first time.

“Erland? Open the door!”

That was Taua’s voice. Muna recognised the sharp, insistent tone of her mother’s former friend. “Leave us alone!” she screamed.

“Muna? We want to talk. Open up.”


She caught Hori’s thin wail and then watched, horror stricken, as the blade of an axe splintered the weathered oak of the door. Erland was finally clawing his way back onto his feet, Hori still clinging pathetically to his leg.

“Alright, Taua. You’re frightening the children.” Prising himself free of Hori, he padded across the room, ignoring the falling blows of the axe head as he dragged up the timber bar and hurled it to the floor. The door swung open and he reeled away from the sea-bronzed bodies of five Ahi warriors who now plunged into the cottage.

Taua’s heavy features curled into a sneer of contempt as she laid eyes on Erland. Squat and powerfully built, the image of a hawk tattooed across her face, she stood in dripping tunic and seal-skin leggings, threw back her head and laughed.

“Erland Hyr. You insult your wife’s memory, hiding away on this miserable island.”

Da no longer sobbed or shook. Drawing to his full height, fists clenched into balls, he glared down at Taua. “This is the island of my wife’s ancestors. She’s amongst them now, because of you.”

The sneer dropped from Taua’s face, her black eyes stormy. “She died as she would have wished. In battle, an axe in her hands.”

“You know nothing of how she would have died!” Erland’s voice was thick, grief-stricken. “She would have died at home in her bed, with her children grown and strong. That’s what she told me as she bled out amongst those barbarians, a knife piercing her guts. If you hadn’t fled, you would have heard her.”

Another warrior of the Ahi now crossed the threshold: taller, more powerful even than Da. Silhouetted against the stormy light, he reminded Muna of one of their ancestral statues: solid, impassive and solemn as hewn rock. His head almost scraping the ceiling, he entered to stand alongside Taua.

“Koka knew well what dangers she faced when she led our warriors into that cursed valley.” His voice rolled and sang like the surge of the sea. “And neither you, Erland, nor I, nor Taua could persuade her otherwise. Now she’s gone. But she left us this…gift.”

He knelt on the floor, arms outstretched, preparing to embrace Hori, but the boy flinched and slunk out of reach. With the swift reflexes of a man half his size, the warrior lashed out, seizing Hori by the arm. Screaming, Muna dived for her brother, only to find herself overpowered: her arms seized and gripped from behind.

“Muna Hyr. Your mother had earned her tattoos long before she was your age, girl. You ought to be ashamed.” Taua’s voice was a low growl, hot breath flickering across her ear. Muna struggled. “She never wanted me to fight.”

“You’re fighting now, girl.”

“You made me.”

Teeth chattering with fear, she stared in despair at her father who bore the look of a man who had just woken from a dream.

“Let the children go. You’ll take me instead ˗ a gift, to our ancestors if you will, but leave them.”

“We’ve left you for long enough, Erland.” Taua’s muscular forearm pressed into Muna’s throat as she spoke, causing the girl to splutter and gasp. “While you’ve hidden away on this ghost forsaken island, the fire mountain eats at our land. We’ve seen fields and forests reduced to ash. We need to find new homes for our people. Koka understood that. She sacrificed her own life to help us.”

“My family’s sacrificed enough.”

“Not yet. Not nearly enough.” The Ahi warrior lifted Hori up, turning him for the others to see, the boy’s scrawny legs kicking and thrashing against the air. “The boy’s a Firefarer – we’ve heard enough rumours of his power to believe them true. We’ll take him to the Pagi, we’ll set him against them. And when he’s reduced their barbaric, heathen cities to rubble, we’ll sit him on a throne, place a crown on his head and set an axe between his hands. What father would deny his son such honour?”

Erland paled, his lips tight and white as ice. “One who loves his child.”

He took a step towards Hori but the Ahi surrounded him, the tips of their knives and axes pressed towards his chest. In spite of the pressure of Taua’s arm a long, plaintive wail of despair rose in Muna’s throat. She wrestled against her captor’s sinuous power, clawing at the warrior’s arm, her strength ebbing as she fought for breath.

“Hori! No!” Da’s voice was a distant echo, blending with the pulsing inside her ears and the strange rustling, surging pressures which now filled her head. Her father charged against the Ahi, arms flailing as their knives drove home and pierced his chest, the black spirals of his tattoos obscured with blood. Erland hit the floor, his eyes still trained on his son.

“Da!” Even her own hoarse scream seemed far away. She bit down on Taua’s arm, tasting brine, then sweat, then the salt tang of blood. The warrior shrieked in pain, and at the loosening of her grip Muna slid down onto the floor, crawling, air-starved towards her father. With labouring breaths, his teeth clenched, he lay in a rising pool of his own blood. “Not me, Muna,” he gasped. “Hori!”

Raising her head, the room still aswim, Muna stared at her brother who now swung lifelessly between the Ahi’s hands, his head lolling against his shoulder, a thin string of drool sliding down his cheek. She pulled herself across the stone flags of the cottage towards him, forcing herself up onto her knees, fighting against the dizzying swirl of the room as she dragged herself to her feet. But then Hori’s eyes flickered open, and she knew she was too late.

First came a strange rushing sound, like the sucking of currents into a sea-cove. As it gained in force and volume, the Ahi dropped their weapons, clamping their hands over their ears, their faces charged with horror. Hori’s captor howled in pain, dropping the boy to reveal fresh burn marks staining his palms. The boy’s limp frame unfurled at his feet, jerking in a series of spasms, his dark irises rolling upwards, lids peeled away from the whites of his eyes.

“Muna! Cover your face. Come here, girl.”

She flung herself onto the floor, huddling against Da’s dying form, sensing the life leaking from him. The room was growing hot: a heat so intense that beads of sweat formed upon her cheeks and forehead. The Ahi must be scrabbling to get out: Taua screamed at them to stand firm, but her words were lost against the thunderous, maddening roar which now filled the entire room ˗ the violence of the fire mountain channelled through Hori’s tiny body and released upon the Ahi.

Muna rocked and moaned, eyes screwed shut, palms flat against her face, the air now thick with the sickening reek of smouldering flesh. The Ahi were screaming now, and she knew why. There was no need to look, she had seen it before: their skin would blister, crack and then melt, leaking like wax onto the floor. Desperate but weak, they would claw their way to the door, the light misting in their eyes as the heat consumed sight, sound and sense. She lived this scene at night in her dreams. She saw it when she rose in the morning, lighting the fire in the hearth. It was the reason they had left their home on the mainland to live on this storm-soaked, grim little island. Yes, she had lied to her father. She knew why they lived


It may have been hours before she opened her eyes. But then again, it may have just been minutes: she couldn’t tell. The room had grown silent. It was the wind itself, the real wind which now set the shutters flapping and the door madly slapping against its frame. Beside her, Da moaned and shuddered. He was growing cold against her, his breathing stilted and forced. Her tunic clung to her skin, clammy and thick with his blood. She pushed herself into a sitting position and opened her eyes.

There was little left of the Ahi. Here and there lay a few rags of frayed, singed material, some charred bones, the blackened remnants of axe heads and blades. All the rest had gone, taken by the force of her brother’s fear and rage. And lying amongst the smoking remains of his victims, head resting upon his arms, Hori slept, his eyelashes still wet with tears.

Stiff, fearful, she reached for him, tapping him on the shoulder. “Hori, we have to go.”

He did not wake. He wouldn’t wake for hours. He never did. She scooped him up in her arms, his head lolling against her neck. A sudden gust of wind knocked the door clean open, light flooding the cottage to reveal the cliff tops and sea beyond.

“Take him. There’ll be more of them. Take him far away.” Her father’s voice was the ghost of itself. She turned to see his eyes grow sharp, earnest. “You see what this is, Muna. Control it.”

His mouth leaked blood. He slumped onto his back. Air escaped his lips in a long, forced rattle.


Hori shifted in his sleep, his arms curling around her neck as she crouched beside her father, stretched out a hand and held it over his lips. She drew away, flinching at their coldness.

“Goodbye, Da.” She rose, swaying slightly as she headed for the open door, for the crashing of the waves and the raw air, Hori’s warm weight against her shoulder. There was still a day’s worth of light left, she told herself. Enough time to reach the Source Isles ˗ if the storm didn’t catch her first.


Review – The Loney: Andrew Michael Hurley


It’s quite difficult to pin this book down in terms of genre. On its surface, at least, it appears to offer all the trappings of gothic horror: a dark, damp, semi-abandoned house on the Lancastrian coast called ‘The Moorings.’ A threatening group of wicker man style locals. A bleak, deserted stretch of coastline – the Loney – and an almost obvious contrast between the forces of good and evil. But what is almost always obvious begins to unravel fairly quickly, and what follows surpasses anything like the expectations of a classic gothic narrative.

This is rather a meditation on the nature of faith: on what supports it, and its fragility. Consequently, there are no gore-spattered schlock horror moments. The story is characterised by a chilling menace, the origins of which are never entirely clear until the few final chapters. And even then, the devasating, almost unbearable conclusion  of ‘The Loney’ is delivered with a measure of ambiguity, leaving it to the reader to fill in the gaps: to compensate for the amnesia inherent in the narrator’s account.

It’s a story delivered in prose which is all the more powerful for its level of understatement, for the razor sharp metaphors that Hurley employs, and for an eloquence which at once distances and draws the reader in. In this way, we become both voyeur and participant, aware of how the story is gradually unpegging us from our moorings – that detail can’t be an accident – yet unable to look away. This is Hurley’s debut, and I can’t wait to read more of his work.


Review – Girl Under the Gun #3


Part Three of ‘Girl under the Gun’ by Rob May sees L.J. and Grant leave New York and head for safety in a deviously acquired Ford Mustang. What follows is more great action, involving car chases, treasure hunts and slow burning romance. Lots of dark humour, Bond style repartee and the cliff hanger at the end was pure brilliance. Can’t wait for the next part!


Review – Girl Under the Gun #2


LJ and Grant arrrive in New York just in time to hear her father’s will read. What follows is a wild, high octane adventure set in New York, fighting off potential terrorists on the way, encountering long lost family members and code cracking as they go. And on top of that, there’s the whole smouldering chemistry of will they, won’t they to enjoy. Strongly recommended.