The First Fight: Chapter Six

the first fight

Just two chapters left to go until I finish writing “The First Fight” – a mini prequel to Hal. The story follows Hal’s turbulent relationship with Orla, and the full version is available on Wattpad here: https://www.wattpad.com/myworks/145657002-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story

Once finished, the story will be available as bonus material in Hal and the box set of The Duellist series.

 

 Chapter Six: “Chaos:”

 

The sun cast no warmth, its weak light pushing at the dirty pane of glass, the room now sliding into sight. That meant the morning was well advanced and Hal was already late for training. Extending a hand beneath the heap of blankets and furs, she touched Orla’s shoulder, shaking her awake…

…and within seconds found herself pinned to the ground; the fine edge of a knife blade nicking at her throat. Hal stared up at Orla, paralysed with shock. The soldier seemed not even to see her, her sleep-blind eyes wild, her fingers pressed around Hal’s neck.

“Orla!” Her voice came out as a strangled whisper. “Orla! It’s me!”

Orla grunted lightly, still clutching her neck. A thin skein of blood trickled over Hal’s skin, spooling onto the floor.

“Orla!”

The soldier shuddered as if she were being dragged from one reality and into another. Her eyes sharpened and focussed and the knife hit the floor with a metallic ring as she loosened her fingers from Hal’s throat. The duellist breathed out hard in relief.

“Hal?” Orla’s face crumpled with grief as she sank back. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s…” Hal put her fingers to the tiny wound, stemming the pulse of blood. “…it’s alright,” she lied.

“It’s not alright. I could have killed you.” She cradled her head in her arms, her entire body rocking.

Warily, Hal watched until compassion overcame fear and she slipped an arm around Orla’s shoulders. “Orla, what is it? What’s wrong? What happened to you?”

With a low moan, Orla rested her head against Hal’s shoulder. “We’re not to say.”

“What?”

“We’re not to speak of it.”

“Orla…” but she couldn’t frame another word. The soldier had staggered back into her arms: weakened, changed, and now alluding to…what? A crime? An event too awful to be spoken of…something which had drained her of her very self; which had chipped away the hardness and the scorn to reveal the brittle, damaged woman beneath.

She loosened Hal’s embrace and then unlaced her gambeson. Hal stared: horrified, transfixed. A fresh scar ran from Orla’s hip to the base of her ribs: a livid stretch of flesh, butchered and then healed with rough stitches.

Lowering her head, Hal kissed the wound before turning grave eyes on Orla. “What happened?”

“You…can’t speak of it. You can’t tell anyone.” Orla swallowed another sob. Her face was red with weeping and a string of mucus clung to her nostrils.

“Here…” Hal passed her a handkerchief. “Dry your eyes, Orla. Tell me what happened. I have to know.”

Orla blew her nose, sat up and buried her face against her knees. “They were just children,” she said at last, raising her head. Her lips trembled as she spoke. “Just…children. They told us there’d be rebels there, but there weren’t. It was just…”

“Spirits!” Hal stroked Orla’s hair.

“A village. Just a village, like any other. They told us it was a nest. That the rebels would be there, hiding. Armed. They said not to spare them…that it would put an end to their resistance.” She howled with sudden violence, her entire body shaking. “We surrounded it, cut off their escape. Threw in brands onto the thatch of their crofts. Waited.” She raised her face, her cheeks shining wet with tears and her eyes once more fixed on the past. She was no longer with Hal in Colvé. She was back in Yegdan in dry, dusty lands as flames caught and ate at the straw rooftops of a few makeshift huts: as sparks whisked upwards into the dull afternoon sky and children began to scream, running, their hair and clothes aflame. “Oh, Hal!” Orla cupped her hands over her own mouth. “They said it was too late, it had been a mistake. They said that in any case, they were the children of rebels. I rode..as fast as I could…away.” She swallowed. “I couldn’t look, couldn’t stay. I couldn’t bear it.”

“And how…” Hal ventured to speak but the words dried in her throat, her own eyes clouding with tears. She pressed a light finger to the wound on Orla’s side.

“We found them, eventually. We caught up with them…the parents. And I…I wanted to blame them. For leaving the children. Not me, not us. It was their fault…” words tumbled from her lips now. A confused torrent of sounds. She made little sense. Hal understood only of a fight, of great losses to the army and the enemy. The Yegdanians fought with axes, spears and knives. When they’d opened Orla up they left her for dead, to bleed out into the sand and dirt. But the wound had not been so deep and she’d crawled her way out of that nameless ditch. Dragged back to life by her fellow guards, she’d spent months lying on her back, tipping between life and death. And eventually, she’d recovered.

The room felt somehow stale; the air weighted with Orla’s memories. Having cried herself dry, she lay slumped in Hal’s arms. Hal lowered her gently to the floor. “I must go, Orla. Just for a moment, but stay here. Sleep. I’ll be back soon. I promise.”

Orla wrapped her fingers around Hal’s wrist. “Don’t go. Stay with me. Please.”

“Orla, I have to. I’ll race back here to be with you, I promise. You need to rest. Here…” she draped blankets over Orla, wresting free of her grasp. “Sleep,” she said. “Sleep now.”

The soldier’s eyes closed as if consciousness were too much of a burden for her to bear. Dragging on her clothes, boots and greatcoat, Hal slipped outside into the icy, snow-laden city, trudging forwards with her hands buried deep within her coat pockets and her eyes fixed on the slush and mud of the streets; her mind and heart numb.

***

“You’re late.” Beric glared at her from the top of the stairs with indignant eyes. “And you’ve got blood on your face.”

“I have?” She wiped at her skin, staring in dumb surprise at the thin red streak across her palm.

“What’s the matter, Thæc?” someone called over the clash of steel. “Cut yourself shaving?”

A chorus of harsh laughs rippled around the duelling hall. Hal stormed forwards towards the voice. Orla’s reappearance, her tale of horror, the way she’d clung to Hal’s wrist and begged her not to leave…it had left her raw, nervous, on edge. She unsheathed her sword. The laughter dried up.

“Hal!” Beric caught her arm. “I’ve told you before, I’ll not have common brawling in my academy. Leave them,” he added under his breath. “You should know by now that no good’ll come of rising to the bait.”

She bit her lip, staring in blind fury at the small group of men and boys huddled in a corner of the room, quaking with suppressed laughter. And then she relented, lowering her blade.

“You’ll train with me today, Hal,” Beric said, releasing her arm. “I need my duellists intact.”

She nodded, shrugging off her coat and throwing it into a corner.

“And wipe your face, girl. I don’t want blood on the floor.”

Though she duelled, it was with little enthusiasm. She could think of nothing but Orla lying on her floor back in Riverside, and of the gash which someone had opened up in her side. She thought, too, of how Orla – powerful, arrogant Orla – had been so reduced that she had clung to Hal as a drowning woman might cling to driftwood

“For the spirits’ saintly sakes, woman! You’re duelling like you’d never set eyes on a sword before. What’s wrong with you?”

Hal bent to retrieve the blade she’d just dropped, and caught sight of Orla leaning against the doorway to the hall. How long had she been standing there, watching? Unease stabbed and ground away at the base of her stomach as the soldier walked towards her, and her fellow duellists turned to watch.

“Who is she?” Beric hissed.

“A friend.”

“She’s drunk.”

“I can see that.”

Orla listed slightly to one side, surveying the room with a half smile twitching at the edges of her lips, her eyes bright with scorn.

“Get rid of her, Hal,” Beric growled. “Take her out of here. And don’t…” his fingers settled into the flesh of her arm until she winced. “Don’t bring your problems here again.”

“Hal!” Orla reached her, throwing her arms around Hal’s shoulders. “So this is where you’re hiding from me!” Her breath was thick with the reek of alcohol.

“I’m not hiding, Orla. Let’s…let’s take a walk.”

“You said you’d come back.”

“And I will be!”

“It’s been hours.”

Hal glanced back at Beric’s scowling face. “Come on, Orla,” she said quietly.

Gripping the soldier’s arm, she dragged her outside. Orla stumbled as they headed down the steps and once in the street, she tried to kiss Hal.

Hal broke away. “Not here…not now.”

“Why?” Orla slurred. “No one’s watching.”

“You never know.”

“You know, Hal…” Orla pressed Hal against the wall, smothering her with another kiss “…you promised me a fight once.”

“I did?”

“Yes. A real fight. Not this…playacting that you learn here.” She flicked her fingers dismissively in the direction of the duelling hall.

“I’m not sure that now would be the best time.”

“Why. Are you scared?”

“No. But you’ve just recovered from a serious wound. And besides, you’re…”

“I’m what?” Orla exhaled another breath tainted with spirits.

“It doesn’t matter. We can go back to Riverside and talk.”

“No!” Orla yelled suddenly. “No, Hal!” She buried her face against Hal’s shoulder. “I want to go back to the barracks. I’ll teach you how to fight. How to really fight.”

A few faces turned in their direction: curious, amused or disgusted. Orla was broken. The soldier hummed half-remembered refrains from marching songs as she leant against Hal. She laughed to herself and then sobbed, tears freezing to her face. And at times, she dragged the duellist into an embrace, kissing her openly and fiercely. Where once her passion had been tempered, now it ran wild and unchecked. And as they neared the barracks – a solid sandstone block of dormitories, training grounds and armouries – Hal started to sweat with worry.

“Come in,” Orla said, pulling her towards the gate tower.

“I don’t think…”

“I said…come inside!” she snarled, shoving Hal in the back. A pair of barracks’ men pulled open one of the iron barred gates and Hal found herself propelled into a courtyard surrounded on every side by high, pale yellow walls and the tower bolted shut behind her.

She scanned the practice yard. A few soldiers sparred with swords, spears or axes; tilted at sandbags hanging loose from poles or fired arrows at wooden targets. The snow had been cleared to reveal the wet, brown gravel beneath and the place smelt of horses, damp earth and leather. Hal’s breath spooled into patches of vapour before her face. She rubbed her hands together for warmth, and stamped her feet.

“Well, duellist…” Orla slapped her shoulder. “We don’t play with rapiers here. Either a sabre or a broadsword. You choose.”

“Orla,” Hal swallowed, “this is not a good idea. Perhaps when you…”

“When I what?” Orla eyed her unsteadily.

“Sober up.”

The soldier snorted. “You’re worried I’ll beat you even when I’m drunk?”

“No, but…”

“Hal, you’re not leaving here until I’ve had that fight. Here..” she drew a fine hilted broadsword from a stand and thrust it into Hal’s hands. “Take this…and this,” she said, forcing a helmet and visor down over Hal’s head and face.

“Orla…”

“The duellist promised me a fight!” Orla yelled out to all those in the yard. Heads turned; weapons were lowered. Hal’s heart thumped against her chest. To leave now was to lose face, but Orla was in no state to fight. And neither, she felt, was she.

“Brave woman!” a mocking voice called out. They encircled slowly: jeering, jibing, placing bets.

“Orla, why? You’re barely healed!” Hal stared through the visor’s dark mesh at the soldier who slashed at the air with her sword, taking wide strides across the practice ground.

With a smile, Orla slipped on her own visor. “When you’re ready, duellist.” And then, without giving Hal any chance to prepare, she lunged.

Hal blocked, testing the weight of Orla’s sword arm against her own. In spite of her injury, the soldier was strong; her muscles taut and trained. They broke apart to sneers and catcalls.

“Take her, Orla!”

“Stop playing, duellist and fight!”

They crept in ever closer: a mass of bellowing mouths and shaking fists. Frustrated, her anger brewing, Hal attacked…and found her blows blocked again by Orla’s might and muscle.

But, she realised, the soldier was already tiring. Half drunk, half crazed, crushed by the horrors of what she’d seen and heard, by fire and children’s screams and her own grief, Orla’s strength waned; her sword arm shuddering as she held the block. With the lightest of moves, Hal drew away and arced her sword towards Orla’s waist. The soldier leapt back, slipping as she moved, and their audience lapsed into silence. Hal would win this duel: she knew it now. But to humiliate Orla in front of her comrades, in front of the men and women with whom she lived and fought…that she couldn’t do. She lowered her sword.

“Enough, Orla. Enough.”

Orla froze, her sword poised. And then, with a harsh cry, she ran at Hal who twisted with lithe, supple grace out of reach before swinging her blade upwards and into a frenetic volley of blows. Orla was breathing heavily: mistiming, misjudging the angle and sweep of her movements, until at last Hal cut upwards to conclude with the tip of her sword hovering before Orla’s throat.

“Enough,” she said quietly.

The soldier stood, wavering, her weapon sliding lower as she conceded defeat, silence mingling with the snowflakes which fell to land at their feet. With heavy, uneven breaths, Hal tugged off the visor and handed back the sword. She had no wish to stay: no wish to speak to Orla’s broken spirit once more that day. It was too much: it cut her to the quick. It rested like the weight of lead upon her own heart. Turning, she headed for the gates without another word…when a sharp pain cut across the backs of her knees, and she sank onto the sodden earth of the training ground. Orla stood over her, one fist raised, her visor up and her face fixed in fury and despair, her fist hovering just above Hal’s right temple.

Hal stared up at her, unsure of how or whether the day could descend into any further chaos. And then she caught Orla by the wrist and rose.

“Don’t come near me again, Orla. It’s over between us, I swear.” She didn’t look back. She couldn’t: even when Orla howled out her name as she slipped through the gates.

Out on the streets again, the bolts clanged into place behind her and snow soaked the leather of her boots. She shivered, swallowing down bile, tears, fury. She would have extended a hand to Orla; she would have enfolded her in her arms and held her until the soldier’s memories had lost their weight and she could sleep once more without terror. Instead, she’d found relief in violence and drink. That rejection struck Hal like a blow to the body.

A cold whisper of wind tugged at her coat and hair. She hugged herself, walking between the silent rows of houses, putting as much distance as she could between herself and the barracks. But another figure moved up ahead, emerging from behind the side of a warehouse, in a blue cowl and dress sodden with the slush of the road and her dark hair piled high up on her head. Hal cursed and ran.

“You…what are you doing?” her voice shook with suppressed rage as she seized the spy by the shoulder and span her round.

This time there was no fear in the woman’s eyes. Her smile was slow to rise, and insolent. “Your mother’s bidding. It turns out she’s more forgiving than you thought. She’s watching you, Halanya. So go on…threaten me. Do what you will. She’s anxious to hear all about it.”

“Just leave me alone. I thought I made that clear.”

“When things are starting to get so interesting? I don’t think so. The soldier returns from war…makes her way to your door… and then turns her sword against you. But where will this end?” She ran a gloved finger down Hal’s cheek and turned to look back towards the barracks. Hal followed her gaze. Orla was standing at the gates, staring down the street and watching them.

“There,” said the spy, and before Hal could push her away she’d drawn the duellist into a kiss, her lips cold and her breath warm.

“Stay away from me! Please!” Hal broke from her, rubbing her mouth.

“And now you kissed me. I wonder if she saw.” The spy nodded towards the gates. Orla had gone. “Your mother, I think, will be fascinated to hear that you tried to seduce me. But of course, I resisted.”

“Just leave me alone!” Tears clouded her eyes as she ran, until the street became a blur of snow and stone. And behind her, the spy’s laughter rang in peals, like cracked bells.

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: Juliana by Vanda

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Juliana is set in New York in the early years of World War II. Alice (Al Huffman) arrives in the city fresh from the provinces and keen to make her name and fortune on Broadway. Accompanying her are her childhood friends, all of them bright-eyed, naive and full of hope.

The war and city life conspire to strip them of their illusions and to disrupt their lives in ways they could never have imagined. For Al, this entails a journey into self-awareness as she struggles to come to terms with the attraction which she feels for beautiful night club singer Juliana.

This is a novel which throws into relief the extent to which social attitudes have changed in relation to LGBT identities and rights. Al and Juliana live within a society which views same sex relations as a sickness, and in which lesbians and gay men are viewed as ‘sexual psychopaths.’ The degree of prejudice is such that Al has internalised it herself, and refuses to accept that she’s ‘one of them.’ As that position becomes untenable, the reader follows her on an emotional and psychological journey which leads inexorably into Juliana’s arms.

This is a finely written novel, and the characters emerge as complex, nuanced and believably flawed individuals. The portrayal of war time New York is rich but not overburdened in historical detail. My only criticism would be that the story ends somewhat abruptly, and while I think I understand the author’s reasons for this, a little more of a sense of closure would have been welcome. However, I was left in absolutely no doubt that I wanted to read more about Al and Juliana, and to discover whether their relationship flourishes or founders in the next part of the series, Olympus  Nights on the Square.

The First Fight: Chapter Five

the first fight

This chapter is a bit tamer than the previous ones, so I’ve decided to post the whole version on my blog. The rest of the story so far is available on Wattpad: https://www.wattpad.com/myworks/145657002-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story

***

Summer tipped over into autumn, dying out in a squall of storms and dark clouds. Rain lashed the windows of the academy and lightning tore the sky apart, throwing into relief the duelling hall with its racks of swords, its long, bare stone walls and panelled floors and those few remaining duellists who trained until the dusk, Hal amongst them.

One by one they muttered their goodbyes and left until she was alone, the light all but gone, left with the whirr of her rapier as it sliced the air, with the panting of her own breath and the ache in her muscles.

At last Beric emerged from his little room with the smoking wick of a candle, watching her for a few moments before shaking his head. “I believe you’ve got a home to go to.”

“You said yourself – Riverside’s a dangerous place after dark.” She lunged at an imaginary duellist, twisted around and sprang back again.

“I’ll have to lock you in if you’re going to stay for the night.”

With a sigh, she lowered the sword.

“Don’t like giving in, do you Hal?” He grinned, but his eyes carried no mirth.

“Who does?”

“Sometimes you have to…you know. Let things go.”

Beric was sly. She’d learned that by now. For all his rough edges, he was quick to observe how his duellists weathered. A professional interest, perhaps: a troubled mind never fought well. But over the two years she’d known him, she’d discovered that behind his roughness lay genuine concern.

“And what would I need to be letting go of?”

He spread his hands wide and shrugged. “Well something’s eating at you, girl. When you’re not training, you’re moping. Is it your mother?”

With a hiss, she slid her rapier back into the rack and rubbed her hands across her shirt as if trying to clean them. “My mother…whoever she is…is no concern of mine.”

Beric swung open the high oak doors at the far end of the hall, ushering her out onto the steps. “Lying to yourself, Halanya.” He shook his head as she stalked past. “An ugly habit.”

“Prying, Beric,” she called back up the stairs. “An even uglier one.”

The rain had eased but the streets now ran with water and the chill evening air seeped beneath her shirt. She shivered and ran, skidding lightly over wet cobbles as she turned corner after corner, headed for her tiny room so that she could bolt its door against the world and sleep. But somehow, in spite of her exhaustion, Beric’s words still raced around her mind like a dog chasing a rabbit.

It has been two months since Orla left and no word. Not a letter…and Jools and Kris had heard nothing. Was she lying now in a ditch, drained of blood and her dead eyes fixed on those vast skies of which she’d spoken? Had she found a new love out there in the desert lands; was Hal a mere shadow, a distant memory?

I expected more of you. The jibe resurfaced, pricking at her thoughts like a needle. I expected more of you.

She let herself into the cramped chamber, throwing herself down on the bench which now served as both bed and chair.  Hal closed her eyes and willed herself to sleep. But though her body craved it, her mind resisted and she spent a fitful night of scattered dreams, in which she fought Orla on the Circle to jeering crowds, until Orla became Cara who slashed and wounded and finally killed.

The next morning, however, she climbed the stairs to the academy to be greeted by Beric wafting a letter before her face. Sealed with red wax, it had obviously endured a long and difficult journey. The address was blurred, the paper curled limply at its corners and it was specked with dirt.

“Here.” Dangling the missive between thumb and forefinger, he dropped it into her hands. “This came for you.”

“A letter…for me?”

“Aye, lass. And I’ll thank you for reading it in your own time. This isn’t a library.”

She stuffed it into her pocket. “I had noticed.”

“If, that is, you can read. You can, can’t you?” He followed her into the training hall.

“Very funny.”

She duelled all day with the letter crumpled in her pocket. It wasn’t from Franc Hannac, her only friend outside the city – of that she was certain. The address was worded in neat, tight characters, and she’d have recognised Franc’s scrawl immediately. It could, then, only be from Orla. Impatient to read it, she ran the distance from the academy to Riverside, threw herself onto the floor of her chamber and tore it open.

Hal

Forgive me. These last few months, I’ve thought of nothing but you. Your name was on my lips when I woke in the morning to barren rock and dull sky. I saw you in the flames of our campfire before I lay down to sleep. And in my dreams, I was still beside you and we made love time after time.

Hal rubbed nervously at her lips, whispering Orla’s words to herself as she read them.

Now I understand that I wanted you to give me too much, too soon. I realise it, and I’m sorry. But you see, Hal, From the moment I first saw you I knew I had to have you. And not being with you now is like leaving a piece of myself behind. You think me cold, contemptuous of what you do, but that’s the only way I know of masking my true emotions. If you knew what I truly feel you’d be shocked, Hal. I’m afraid for myself at times. The strength of this desire…it overwhelms me.

Hal closed her eyes, resting her head back against the cold, bare wall. Was it possible that Orla had written the truth? That after mere days, she could experience such fierce passion, such need? Of course Hal had dreamed of Orla too…at night her own hands had strayed between her legs at the memory of their love making. And in her own way, she’d longed for Orla’s rough touch. But she’d never woken and called out Orla’s name, or seen the soldier in every passing shadow. Orla’s words worried rather than relieved. Where would such passion end?

My pride was wounded. I couldn’t write. I took your refusal to come with me as a rejection. But it wasn’t, was it Hal? Changes take time, now I understand that. When I return, we’ll talk about it once more. You’re made to be a soldier. You’d love this life.

Hal swallowed hard. Would I?

When I come back, I’ll take you in my arms. I’ll kiss your lips, your face and hair. I’ll…

She read on. Each word carried greater heat. Each word stoked a fire beneath her skin, until she found herself sweating, despite the cold. Orla wrote of all that she would do to Hal when she returned. She wrote in detail and at length, until Hal could bear it no longer. She cast the letter aside, splashed her face with water, lay down on the bench and tried to sleep. But rest wouldn’t come and instead she passed another night of fretful dreams, in which Orla came to her and took her and then left her time after time; her face twisted into that habitual mask of scorn.

It wasn’t the first letter. Now there was one waiting for her at the academy every fortnight, sometimes more often. Beric handed them to her, silent and bemused. Hal was grateful that they were sealed, for each time Orla wrote it seemed her passion had grown more intense, her desperation sharper, her descriptions more explicit. Occasionally, grains of red sand would spill from the parchment when she cracked the seal, and the letter would be stained with dirt as if Orla had written it while lying on the ground beneath those vast desert skies.

And then, one day, they stopped: the torrent of language dried up. The nights had grown colder; the first wisps of snow floating on the air, transformed to slush on the city’s streets…and there were no more letters. At first, Hal thought nothing of it, almost relieved that she no longer had to bear the weight of Orla’s passion. But then a slow, creeping anxiety took over. Where was Orla now? Images of her lover…of her glazed dead eyes and stiffening corpse resurfaced and intermingled with those feverish dreams. Was she lying in a lonely ditch, as Hal had once feared, drained of life and hope? A bitterness formed at the back of Hal’s throat when she thought of that: a regret that she hadn’t been beside Orla in her final hour. Hal shed silent tears and thought of what she’d lost: of what might have been, of the soldier’s hard, longing gaze.

Until one day when the snow was piled so high in the streets of Colvé that carriages could not pass, and people shuffled with their heads down, buried beneath mounds of furs. And in a desperate effort to keep herself warm, Hal either fought or drank wine, draped in blankets and tanned hides. That was the day when someone thumped at the door to her chambers, causing her to leap up in surprise and pull back the bolts with caution, Franc’s dagger gripped behind her back. And into the room Orla almost fell, still dressed in her gambeson and leathers and far thinner, her face far more drawn and pinched and shadowed than Hal ever remembered.

Hal found herself shaking, not with cold but with shock. And as she stood and stared at Orla, the soldier reached for her, threading her arms around Hal and drawing her close. Orla’s hair and face were wet with melted snow, but her lips were dry and cracked. Hal cupped her chin and drew her close, bathing in the soldier’s hot, sour breath before kissing her and drawing her into the room.

But Orla shook her head, her eyes haunted and distant. “No, Hal.” Even her voice had faded, as if she were speaking from the depths of some great cavern or well. “Just…please…just hold me.”

Hal nodded, guiding her to the floor amongst the pelts and blankets. And they lay until the morning in each other’s arms, Orla wracked with tears.

 

Review: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

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I arrived at this novel by a vagarious route. I recently finished Hild by Nicola Griffith in which the last Celtic kingdom of Elmet is a central motif. To my shame I had never heard of Elmet, even though I lived for about two years in Yorkshire (Elmet was located over roughly what would later become the West Riding.) After reading Hild I began to realise just how politically complex 7th century England was. The term Anglo-Saxon is conceptually inaccurate as it implies a dominant, monolithic culture when in fact Angles and Saxons were already fragmented and warring groups. In this context, the idea of a residual Celtic Kingdom in the north of England appears less of an anomaly and more a kind of proof of just how porous British identity always has been.

Anyway, I found the idea of Elmet a fascinating one, and I happened to be at an airport bookshop when I saw Fiona Mozley’s book, read that it had been shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize and immediately went and downloaded it. What I love about this novel is the fact that it plays on that original idea of Elmet as a kind of badlands: a world away from the norms, a place where ancient values and beliefs still frame the way people live and think. Yet at the same time, Mozley repositions that idea in a more recent context: in a Yorkshire scarred by the destruction of mining communities and on the cusp of entering a new, unforgiving reality of hard capitalism and privatisation.

The novel foregrounds a pocket of resistance to such change in the form of Daddy (John Smythe), a prize fighter who brings up his children Kathy and Daniel in the middle of a forest, schooling them in self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. Daddy makes his money through violence – through boxing in illegal fights – while going at any length to protect his family against the threats which encroach upon their little world.

The fascination of this story is not what is said but what is left unsaid. Its impact lies in its ambiguity: in the frayed edges around the tale which Daniel, its narrator, weaves. It gives the novel a mythic, lyrical feel which contributes to the sense of this being a kind of latter day legend, just as Elmet itself became the subject of myth making.

It’s a novel which is at once rooted in a keen sense of geography and history but which at the same time transcends time and space. Mozley’s prose rings with innovation and with imagery which throws into relief the wild, stark, beautiful world which Daniel inhabits. It’s a story of survival and of loss, of the clash of value systems, and of our sense of how the past invades the present. Elmet is also violent territory, and the fact that this violence is muted in Daniel’s narration makes it all the more shocking. Abuse and conflict, the book suggests, are as much a part of our cultural inheritance as the land and traditions which Daddy is so desperate to hand onto his children. This is a book which you carry with you long after you’ve finished. Highly recommended.

The First Fight: Chapter Four

the first fight

I’ll probably be renaming this short story “Orla.” Once completed, it’ll be available as a bonus story for anyone who downloads Hal or the virtual ‘box set’ of the duellist series.

For now, however, it’s very much a work in progress. The full version of this chapter is available on Wattpad here:

https://www.wattpad.com/572282857-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story-chapter-four

And below is a short excerpt from this chapter:

 

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“You can’t escape your own beauty, Hal.” Guiding her to the floor, Orla bent down and kissed her. “It’s in every fibre of your being: in your muscles and your skin. In the way you incline your neck or in the way you walk. It’s written in the creases of your eyes.”

“Stop it!”

Orla gazed down at her with grave, green eyes. “I  mean it.” She straightened up and looked away. “My battalion leaves tonight.”

Something held Hal pinned to the floor, too stunned to move: a deep, sudden, desperate thirst for Orla coupled with the slightest, finest breath of relief. Disturbed, she pulled herself upright. “Where?”

“To Yegdan. To the southern provinces. To fight for the Emperor in his glorious war.” Her voice trailed irony. “To reclaim land for the empire from the desert and citizens from its people. It’s a different world down there, though.” She closed her eyes, fastening back her braids as she remembered. “We sleep beneath vast skies, wake to bird call and the wilderness. It…it helps a woman understand herself, it reveals her to herself, Hal.” She seized Hal’s hands suddenly, squeezing them in her own. “Come with me. We’ll fight together, train, eat, sleep. You’ll be free…free of Colvé, of the court and the city with its prying eyes and wagging tongues.”

Hal bit her lip, working at it nervously. She’d always wanted freedom, it was true. Always dreamed of releasing herself from the limits which life imposed. But was that what Orla was offering her? Would she really let Hal follow her own path and walk away, if she chose to, into those vast nights? And besides, there was nothing about strict military discipline, about the blind following of rules and orders which appealed to Hal.

She let go of Orla’s hands. “I can’t.”

The First Fight: Chapter Three

the first fight

The full version of Chapter Three of The First Fight is now available on Wattpad here:

https://www.wattpad.com/569658971-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story-chapter-three

This is where things hot up a bit which is why it’s not available on the blog. But here’s a short extract:

The tavern acquired a strange harmony, its patrons swaying and singing; shifting and regrouping. This was a world she’d yearned for, she realised. A world beyond rules, with a logic all of its own. Where she could hide amongst the crowds and sink into its shadows.

Orla’s arm pressed against her own; the soldier’s thigh was warm against her leg. She slid a glance over the contours of Orla’s bare arms as they flexed and unflexed when she raised her tankard or wiped froth from her lips. Against the murky light, the soldier carried the grace and strength of a sleek, wild cat. Her skin was tanned and weather-beaten where Hal’s was pale. She was a study in raw power.

“Alright, duellist?” She broke into a sudden smile and Hal turned away, aware of the blush blooming across her throat and chest.

“Yes. Yes, I’m fine.”

“The ale.” Jools nodded solemnly. “Strong stuff.”

“Indeed it is.”

“You…” for once, Orla appeared hesitant. “You perhaps need some air?”

“I…er…perhaps.”

“Come on then, duellist.” Orla was already on her feet, even as Hal stared up at her. The moment that she stepped out of the tavern door, it would be straight into Orla’s arms. Everything would change. She’d witnessed time and again the desire lurking behind Orla’s mask of scorn. And she wanted now, more than anything, the touch of those powerful hands against her skin: the brush of Orla’s lips against her neck. Part of her rang like a chimed bell at the thought of being overpowered by Orla: of surrendering her whole being to the soldier’s embrace. And yet it also stirred a deep-seated fear: an anxiety which would not wash away. She peered down at the table, dragging her nails across its soft wood, aware of Orla’s gaze, of Jools and Kris now also silent and staring. Slowly, she rose.

Orla’s lips flickered with the barest hint of  a smile, as if this were indeed a duel in which she’d just bested Hal. And then she led the way across the tavern, the palm of her hand slick and hot against Hal’s own.

They were outside once more, out in the late evening haze, although the heat had barely relented and a distant rumble of thunder hinted at the onset of a summer storm.

“Come.” Still holding Hal’s hand, Orla headed from the tavern and along the same channel beneath the eaves where they’d shared that first kiss.

“Orla, no.” Hal broke away. “No. Not here.” On the city streets, to the sounds of broken music and human voices? Here, beside a Riverside tavern crammed with cheats and thieves?

Review: Rock and a Hard Place by Andrea Bramhall

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Rock and a Hard Place is a beautifully written romance set against the stunning backdrop of the Patagonian mountains and it’s all about climbing. And as I did quite a bit of climbing in the past (anecdote to follow this review) I decided it was definitely for me.

The premise of the story is brilliant. Rhian Phillips is project leader for a marketing company tasked with producing a reality TV series showcasing a set of climbers (something I would seriously watch!). Jayden Harris, a world-renowned mountaineer, believes she’s put the rocks behind her forever following a devastating accident at Everest base camp. Both women are thrown together under a set of fairly traumatic circumstances. And both of them have issues stemming from their pasts which lead to secrets, insecurities and misunderstandings even as they slowly but surely fall in love with each other.

What I appreciated most about the book was its degree of psychological realism. I really felt that I could understand why both characters might behave as they did, and why they would be wary of each other’s advances. On top of that, the whole scenario of putting a bunch of first class climbers together led to any number of potential flash points, from the objective risks posed by the mountains themselves to some serious ego clashing.

The book was solidly researched, but the technicalities of mountain climbing were subtly woven into the narrative for a reason and never distracted from the main thrust of the story. It was a novel which had me longing for the hills, and at the same time longing for Jayden and Rhian to realise how much they meant to each other. Rock and a Hard Place is published by Ylva and is a finalist in the GCLS awards this year.

***

And now for that anecdote. So as I mentioned, I did quite a bit of climbing in the past, either at the rocks here in the Jura region of Poland, in the Polish Tatras during the winter and in the Alps in the summer. Anyway, our last alpine adventure involved a successful ascent of Mt Blanc du Tacul. On the way back down, my partner took this picture of me peering into a couple of crevasses – for some reason I can’t fathom:P1040693 The day was getting warm and we were absolutely exhausted. You can see behind me in the photo a precariously slanting serac with a number of cracks running through it? It probably should have set a few alarm bells ringing, but to be honest we were too drained to worry.

Anyway, we made it back to our campsite which was at Les Bossons, right at the base of the massif. In the morning, we woke to the buzz of helicopters. And when we climbed out of our tent it became clear that a rescue operation was taking place on the same stretch of glacier where we’d made our descent. Later that day we went into Chamonix to get a coffee and that was when we heard the news. A guide and two climbers had been following the same route up the massif during the early hours of the morning in order to reach the summit of Mt Blanc. A serac had broken off and taken them down into a crevasse. They all died.

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Even now, I find it quite hard to believe. Although we’d been in the mountains on many occasions, the risk never felt so palpable before that moment. Chamonix guides are trained for every eventuality but it’s hard to see how he could have predicted this situation. I guess the serac had melted, then refrozen and the tension on the fracture lines was just too great. Whatever the reason, I kept putting myself in the place of those people as they plummeted to their deaths and realising how close I’d come. I guess, though, it is the wonder and danger of these places which makes us return to them. I’ve been away from the mountains for a couple of years now, but the desire to revisit them only ever gets stronger.