Review: Just Jorie by Robin Alexander

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So before I review Just Jorie, I’d just like to say that this was a story which broke my audio book virginity, if you can forgive the expression. I haven’t listened to audio books before, simply because for whatever reason Amazon Audible wasn’t available in Poland until recently. And now I’ve tried one, I’m absolutely hooked – it means I can fit more books into my week without even trying!

But anyway, onto the book itself. Just Jorrie is the sweet and engaging tale of two women who find true love for the first time at forty (or thereabouts). It’s mostly set in New Orleans and focuses on Jorie (Marjorie Andolini) and Lena Vaughan, who find themselves thrown together by chance while waiting for a plane home. They decide to make the journey back by car together, and end up discovering out a lot more about each other than they’d bargained for.

Lena is forty, a high flying businesswoman who for some reason never seems able to meet the right guy. Jorie works for her family’s car parts company and is out and comfortable with her identity as a lesbian. Ostensibly worlds apart, they both begin to realise that each might be the other’s ‘one’: that certain somebody who’ll bring magic, love and security into their lives.

For Lena, this means a late-in-life examination of her own sexuality. For Jorie, it comes with plenty of concerns: is Lena just toying with her? Is it possible that someone with Lena’s background could fall for her? And that’s without taking into account the helpful ‘advice’ which comes their way and threatens to rock the boat, courtesy of various friends and family members.

The key note of the story is its humour. Avoid reading or listening to this book in public, because you will laugh. A lot. The dialogue is fast, sharp and witty and the characterisation is just perfect – especially when it comes to the Andolini household, and Jorie’s crazy Aunt and Gramps who never hold back. And I loved how easy it was to relate to all the characters and the situations they found themselves in.

Put simply, Just Jorie is a beautifully written, upbeat romantic comedy. And I can definitely recommend the audio version, narrated by Lisa Cordileone, who brings all the characters to life.

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Leda: An Extract

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When Hal goes bad, she goes really bad. Here’s an extract from my latest book, Leda – Part Three of The Duellist Trilogy. 

Tipping the Balance

This bloodsucking leech of a world which just seemed to keep taking until Hal had no more left to give…it had finally thrown something back. Leda was the break of sun through storm clouds; she was flower petals mingling with the sand and heat of the desert. She had returned.

Hal held Leda at arm’s length, unable to speak, taking in the girl’s outlandish clothes ˗ the shirt and trousers twice her size, besmirched with mud and torn to rags. Her ill-fitting boots and the heavy sheepskin draped over her shoulders. Her wild curls were plastered to her face with rain and sweat and dirt. She was thin: half-starved, Hal guessed, and pale with exhaustion. And somehow aged, as if in weeks she’d witnessed years. Unwilling to let the girl go again, Hal drew her closer, squeezing her so hard that Leda yelped.

“Where have you been?”

“If I told you, Hal, you might not believe me. I’ll write you another book some day. It all seems more like a story than the truth.”

Hal read the suffering in Leda’s face, the lines of worry etched into her skin. “A tale to frighten children with?”

Leda looked away. “Something like that.” She gnawed on her lower lip and shivered. “My saviour, Oræl,” she said.

Drawing from Hal’s embrace, she threw an arm around the shoulders of her companion: auburn haired and golden eyed, strong and long of limb, her face freckled, weather-worn and honest. Hal warmed to her immediately.”Is it true?” she asked. “Did you save her?”

“We saved each other,” Oræl said. Hal detected a crofter’s accent, thick and melodic. She observed, too, how Oræl leaned towards Leda, as if drawn to her on an invisible thread.

There was a snapping of undergrowth, a pummelling of the ground, as Roc’s army marched outwards and onto the moors. Leda gripped Oræl’s hand in fear.

“Don’t worry, Leda. That’s the rest of us. Magda is here and Jools, and…”

“Mother?” Leda asked, the breath catching in her throat.

Hal shook her head, guilt and loss stealing up on her in equal measure. “Leda, your mother is Josen’s prisoner.”

“What?”

“It was my fault. We argued and…”

“Well, well, well…the moors do deliver up their treasures!” Jools jumped down from her horse, her voice sharp with surprise. Hal closed her eyes in frustration.

“Leda, from which well of hope did you spring?” Jools grinned, swinging Leda around. “Sometimes it’s like all your birthdays rolled into one, ain’t it, Hal?” She caught Hal’s eye and winked. “Well cheer up for the spirits’ sakes! Something good’s happened for a change.

“She doesn’t know yet,” said Hal.

“What doesn’t she know?”

Hal hissed with irritation. “Leda,” she began gently.

“We’ve already heard, Hal. We passed through Lake End and they told us everything. We were headed for Hannac, but…” her voice trailed away, her eyes deepening with sorrow. “Now Dal Reniac needs us. I’ll talk to Castor, I’ll do anything to stop him.”

“Well, what do you know?” Jools said, elbowing Hal in the ribs. “That’s exactly where we’re headed too, isn’t it, Hal?”

Hal winced. “My dead are at Hannac.”

“But it’s the living in Dal Reniac who need us now, Hal.” Magda, pushed her way through  the throngs of soldiers. Word of Leda’s return was greeted with cheers and shouts as the news carried through the ranks. Magda embraced Leda warmly, kissing her on her forehead.

“Hal, you can’t help Hannac now. I know how desperately you must want to get back there,” Leda said. “I want that too, believe me. But we have a duty to the city. And to Edæc.”

Magda threw Hal a confused look. “But my brother’s probably dead, Leda.”

“No! At Lake End they said he fled to Dal Reniac before Castor had reached Hannac.”

Relief flooded Magda’s face. “Spirits, may it be the truth,” she whispered. A snort of contempt from the older of the two prisoners cut through her prayer.

“So these are Castor’s spies?” Jools turned her gaze on Davic and his companion, still held at knife point by Roc’s men. “Hal, they’re all yours.”

Reluctantly, Hal shifted her gaze from Leda to Davic. “It seems odd, doesn’t it?” she asked. “We hear so many reports of Hannac destroyed, of all its people put to the sword or burnt alive. And yet here you are, Davic. Wandering the moors at will.”

“I escaped, Hal,” Davic gasped. “It was awful. I ran, and…they were screaming. People running, Castor’s guards everywhere, blood…” spit flecked his lips.

“Yes. So I imagine. Every hour of every day and night.”

“He’s lying!” Leda cried. “We heard them talking before you arrived. They were speaking about you, Hal, and of the thieves…and of what Davic had done at Hannac.”

“Well is that so?” Hal wetted her lips with her tongue. She’d never trusted the boy. He’d always had a tendency to whine, to blame others for his own weaknesses, to gossip and gloat over the tenants’ misfortunes. She’d tolerated him for Luc’s sake. “And just what is it that you did at Hannac, Davic? Perhaps your friend here can enlighten us. I don’t remember seeing him before.” She slipped her sword from her belt, waving it an inch from the spy’s face. “You’re a Berasé man, perhaps?”

He watched her for a moment, a thin smile creeping across his dark, unshaven cheeks, his eyes fuelled with hatred. And then he hawked hard and spat in her face.

After all those nights spent dreaming of murder and revenge, after the days of riding, hollowed out and lost, she surprised herself with her restraint, dragging the back of her sleeve across her cheek. But then, she realised that for the first time in days she had power. She was in control. And she was prepared to take her time.

“Your friend doesn’t seem to like me, Davic,” she said. “I wonder why?”

“It’s true what I said, Hal! I met him on the moors. I was wandering for days. My Da killed, and Arec and all of them.” He broke into pitiful sobs. “It was hell.”

“I’m sure. Tie them both to that tree over there.”

As Davic and the older man were dragged to a thick oak tree on the fringe of the forest, Magda laid a hand on Hal’s arm. “Hal,” she warned. “We’re no better than they are if we…”

“I know what I’m doing,” she growled, hit by a sudden flash of anger. “And you’d do the same in my place. Jools, give me your knife.”

“With pleasure.”

She was wrong of course, and Magda was right. She knew it in the very fibre of her being. What she wanted to do now would break her apart. It would send her spiralling, plummeting away from herself, from all the rules she had ever consciously clung to. And yet she couldn’t stop herself. Something had snapped within her back at Roc’s fortress. She couldn’t hold herself back. The world had demanded too much for her to care about restraint anymore.

Hal crouched in front of the two men, now bound to the broad trunk of the oak, Davic whimpering and crying, the older man still capable of contempt, his eyes hard and fixed on the point of Jools’ knife which she waved before his face.

“So who are you, Sir? I like to put a name to a man I’m about to hurt.”

His lips tightened to thin, white lines. She considered him for a few moments, balancing the knife on the tips of her fingers, rotating it over and over. And then she drove it hard into his left shoulder. There was a collective gasp, punctured by a few ugly cheers. Magda dived forwards to stop her, but Roc and Cesary held her back.

“Bastard born bitch of a whore.” He spat the words out at her in his pain, sweat beading his brow, blood blotting the worsted of his jacket and fanning out beneath his armpit and across his chest.

“Well he’s right about the first part,” said Jools helpfully, peering over Hal’s shoulder.

Hal threw her a look of disgust. “Now, Sir, no more speculating on my birth, my character or my occupation. We’re here to talk about you. And what you were doing wandering the moors with Davic.”

“Kayetan!” Davic suddenly screamed. “His name’s Kayetan!”

“Good. That’s good. Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“Don’t utter another word, fool!” Kayetan gasped, his face draining of colour.

“Davic,” leaving the knife buried in Kayetan’s shoulder, she twisted round to face the Hannac boy. Leda stood just to the left of the oak. The girl’s face was bereft of emotion, her grey eyes cold and impassive. Something told Hal to stop: to pull out the knife, to patch Kayetan up, to leave him to heal and Davic to his guilt. To stop this vile, bloody performance before more damage was done. But she couldn’t. The anger, the sorrow, the fracture to her spirit: it all ran too deep.

“Davic,” she said again.

He was a crumpled, weeping mess. A hot trickle of urine leaked out onto the grass between his legs, steaming as it hit the cold earth.

“I want you to watch what I’m about to do to Kayetan,” she continued.

“No!” He moaned.

“Watch him!” She seized the boy’s hair, twisting his head around until he could not help but look at the older man. “Because I’m going to do it to you too…”

Davic’s breathing grew feverish and ragged, his sweat coated her hand.

“…unless you answer all my questions. For the sake of your father who was ˗ I assume he’s now dead ˗ an honourable man, I’ll give you a chance. But tell me, what really did happen at Hannac?”

“I ran,” he said, but this time there was no conviction in his voice. “I escaped.”

“But Leda says otherwise. And with all the best will in the world, Davic, I trust her far, far more than I ever trusted you.”

“I…ran.”

“No you didn’t.” She curled her fingers around the handle of Jools’ knife. And then she twisted, Kayetan screaming as the blade ground through gristle, tendons and muscle.

“I think he’d rather you told the truth actually, Davic. Isn’t that right, Kayetan?”

“You monstrous traitor.” Kayetan was breathing hard through his nose, his jaw clenched in a bid to stop himself from howling in agony.

“Now I’m certain that he doesn’t like me.” She turned back to Davic. “I don’t blame him. I’ve been there myself, you see. I know how he feels. At first, you think that the torture will stop…eventually. When you realise that’s not about to happen, you start thinking about death, and what a relief it would be.”

Kayetan seemed to be fighting a battle with consciousness, his eyes rolling in their sockets, his breathing feverish.

“I don’t think he’s quite there…yet,” Hal said. “When you realise that they won’t even grant you that mercy, you wonder if you can bring yourself to beg. For death, I mean. It’s an awful thing. It takes you apart piece by little piece, until you forget who you really are. I don’t think you ever truly recover.”

Leda was still there, hovering behind Davic, her expression one of crafted ice. Hal immediately regretted the confession.

“But look,” she said. “I don’t want us to get that far. So for the spirits’ sakes!” She grabbed his hair again and shouted into his face. “Tell me what happened!”

He twitched and spasmed, his body now jerking beyond his control. He closed his eyes. “Arec let him in,” he said at last.

“So it was all Arec’s fault?”

“No! He thought…he though Castor would respect the ancient laws of hosts.”

She rocked back on her heels. Arec ˗ he would have done that, the trusting fool. He would have seen Castor as another Diodiné: a firm, fair respecter of tradition. “And then what?” she asked quietly.

“Castor and his men…they murdered, slaughtered, burnt…all of them.” Bending over in his bonds, he heaved and retched, vomiting into a patch of leaves. Ready to throw up herself, she backed away, rose and turned.

Still caught between Roc and his son, Magda shook her head. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Whatever it takes.”

Hal twisted back round and peered down at Davic. “So they all died, did they? All of them? Your father, Arec, Elis, the tenants, their children?”

He nodded, a few strings of drool flecking his lips and chin.

“Except for you.”

“He betrayed the Crofter, you stupid cow!” Kayetan suddenly brayed.

“What?”

“He betrayed the Crofter from here to hell and back.”

“No!” Davic gasped.

“You told them Edæc had run?” She dropped back down to face him. “Did you?”

There was a silence, broken only by the angry mutterings of Roc’s men. And then Davic screamed, “Yes!”

“Why?”

“I thought it would save us if I told them Edæc was gone.”

Before she even realised what was happening, Leda had slapped Davic hard across the face. “How could you? Davic, we were children together ˗ all of us. We were friends!”

“He was never one of us!” Davic rasped, ducking from her blows. “He was always yours!”

“Leda!” Hal seized Leda’s wrists, drawing her close until the struggle had left her, until she had exhausted herself.

“Didn’t make any difference, anyway.” Kayetan’s laughter was a hoarse rattle of phlegm. “Fabiac and Gric handed him over to Castor once he reached Dal Reniac. He screamed for you, Leda Nérac, when they strung him up. Screamed and yelled your name, he did, thinking you were dead. Wept like a babe.”

She tensed in Hal’s arms. And then she fled, ripping from her grasp, running down into the forest. Without a word, Oræl turned and followed her.

“And you too.” Kayetan fixed his leer on Magda. “You’re Brighthair, aren’t you?”

Magda had wrested free of Roc and Cesary; was prowling with soft, dangerous steps towards him, her revulsion at Hal’s cruelty now giving way to abject, undisguised horror. “They hung him?”

“Aye. With a placard around his neck: ‘Lord Crofter.'” His laughter was like a rook’s harsh caw. “You’ll see him before you reach Dal Reniac. In fact, you’ll probably smell him before you see him by now, I’d expect.”

Magda ran, bowling into Hal who pushed her back. “Magda, don’t. We need him alive,” Hal yelled, but Magda had already forged past her, dragging the knife from Kayetan’s shoulder. His eyes rounded in fear as he saw his own death before it hit him, as she plunged the dagger deep into his chest. Blood bubbled out between his lips and he flailed helplessly against the ropes. And then he sank, the life moaning out of him as Magda stepped away, staring at her own hands and shaking, her face twisted with torment. Hal reached for her but she staggered from her grasp and disappeared amongst the troops.

“Well,” Hal breathed. “It looks as if it’s just you and me now, Davic. So you really had better start giving me more. What are Castor’s intentions in Dal Reniac?”

Davic swivelled around, unable to look away from Kayetan’s corpse; at the way the dead man’s head lolled on his neck like a ball on a string, his body folded in upon itself. Then he looked at Hal. “He’ll bend it to his will,” he said, his voice now strangely sober, the tone of a man who’d witnessed so much terror that he’d been purged of all fear. “Or he’ll break it.”

“I see. So Gric and Fabiac let him in?”

“They opened the gates to him, yes.”

“And if he’s so certain of his power, why send spies like yourself back outside the city?”

“Because…Hal, did you mean it? Will you let me go?”

“I always say what I mean, boy.” She was tired suddenly, so tired of all this pain, this cruelty, of the damage she’d inflicted on others and upon herself.

“An army’s coming.”

“Well of course an army’s coming, boy!” Roc sounded incredulous. “My army!”

“No!” Davic panted. “From the east. Another one. When he heard of it he…Castor…he decided to send out scouts everywhere.”

“She’s done it!” Jools suddenly screeched, performing a mad little dance. “Oh my darling! Oh my princess! She’s a diamond, a little beauty! Oh! Oh, Kris! Oh, you’re a genius, mate!”

“Jools!” Hal turned to her, shaking her head. “Please!”

“Don’t kill me! Please, Hal!” Davic begged again.

“Shut up! Shut your lying, betraying mouth, Davic!” She pulled the knife from Kayetan’s chest, her hands now slippery with blood and raised it before the boy’s face. He closed his eyes, whispering to himself in prayer. And then she brought the blade down hard against the ropes. When he opened his eyes, he was free.

“Listen to me, Davic.” Before he could scrabble to his feet, she’d grabbed him by the back of his neck and forced him to his knees, his face hovering an inch from Kayetan’s slumped body. “You see what I did? You see what Brighthair did?”

He nodded, snivelling and sobbing, his entire body heaving. “I’m going to give you a horse. I’ll even give you an escort, just so I know you’ve made it to the gates of Dal Reniac. And once you’re in, I want you to deliver this message back to your Master, back to Castor.”

He shifted beneath her grasp but she held him down, pressing the knife to his neck. “Tell Castor that I’ll do the same thing to him. Look at him, so that you remember every detail. Can you do that?”

He nodded again.

“Good. Now get up.”

He was on his feet, his face flushed, his eyes red.

“And go.” She was so exhausted that she could barely stand herself. “Go!” She pushed him towards a pair of guards. “Follow him. Make sure he gets there,” she said.

“He won’t tell Castor.” Jools bent to retrieve her knife, wiping it on a rag.

“Once he’s inside Dal Reniac, he’ll have no choice. They’ll find him.”

“I never knew you had it in you…” the thief said, jabbing her thumb at Kayetan’s mutilated body, her eyes glittering with what might have been admiration.

Hal felt sick. “Neither did I,” she whispered, heading for the forest. “Leda!” She yelled out into the trees, but there was no reply. “Leda!”

Had she lost her again? Desperate, she scrambled down the bank: running, clinging to branches for balance.

“She’s here!” Oræl’s voice filtered back up to her through the woodland. Hal ran, slipped, cursed and ran again, spying at last the two women as they clung to each other ˗ Leda shaking, her knuckles white where she gripped Oræl’s shoulders. Over Leda’s head, Oræl stared at Hal with a look which almost bordered on fear. Hal glanced down at her hands, still running crimson with Kayetan’s blood. Bending over, she plucked some leaves from the ground and wiped them across her palms. The crofter backed away, leaving Leda alone amongst the trees.

“What have you done?” She turned to Hal, drawing her hands across her face, her lips twisted with shock and disgust.

“What do you mean?”

“Hal, you just tortured a man. You tied him to a tree and you…that wasn’t defending yourself or fighting in battle. That was sadistic. It was…oh, I haven’t words!”

“Leda…Edæc’s dead!”

“I know he’s dead! I know that. I feel it with my entire body. But will your butchery bring him back to me?”

“Butchery?”

“Yes! Let’s call it by its real name. Let’s not pretend. What makes us different from Castor, Hal, is that we don’t torture or kill others just because we have the power to do so. And the minute we do…as Magda said, we’re no better than they are!”

“Magda…who just drove her knife through a man’s heart out of revenge?”

“She was finishing what you’d started. What would my mother have said, Hal?”

“Oh…” flooded with shame, she turned away, unable to look at Leda. “You play your cards so well.”

“This isn’t a game and I’m not holding any cards. What would she have thought?”

She was so weary, her spirit so weighted down now. Hal leant against a tree, her back to its bark and slowly worked her way down until she was sitting amongst the roots. “She’d not recognise me,” she said at last. “These days, Leda, I barely recognise myself.”

Her face swollen from crying, Leda stared at her for a long time. The fog had lifted, but rain had taken its place ˗ light, gentle, as if the sky itself were weeping. With a long, mournful sigh, Leda flung herself down onto the wet earth beside Hal. “I still see you, Hal Hannac,” she said at last. ‘You’re still there. Just try to do what you do best. Defend us with your sword if you have to, take the fight to Castor. But please, no more torture. No more cruelty.”

Hal rested the back of her head against the tree, rain dusting her face.

“Hal, I know…I understand what tips the balance between man and monster, I feel it so well. It would take so little to turn me into my father.”

“What?” Shocked out of her stupor, Hal turned to look at Leda. “What did you say?”

“I understand,” Leda said. “I could kill every one of them now, for Edæc’s sake. I could have stood and watched you rip out Davic’s heart. I come this close every single day.” She held her thumb and forefinger up to the air. “My fear over what you’re becoming…it’s my own fear. It’s fear for myself.”

Hal shook her head. “What are you talking about, Leda? You’re the purest thing living in this rotten world.”

“No, I’m not. And you see it…you and my mother. I know that you do. You see my father every time you look at me.”

“Your father? Oh, Leda!” Hal slipped an arm around the girl’s shoulders, pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. “You’re not Bruno Nérac’s daughter,” she said.

Leda stiffened. “Am I not? Whose daughter am I, if not his?”

“You’re mine.” Hal drew her closer. “You’re my daughter, Leda. You always have been. And you always will be.”

“Spirits!”

She felt the girl break again, her body racked with sobs as they sat beneath the tree, rain washing away the blood.

Review of “Building Love” by M E Tudor

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A sweet romance about real people finding real love.

Following the sudden death of her father, Patricia McNeal goes off the rails, taking drugs, partying and ending up pregnant at eighteen. Her mother Mandy, also coming to terms with the death of her husband, embarks on a new life and opens a B&B.

Enter Theresa Garland, working for her father’s construction company, who is tasked with turning Mandy’s dream into a reality. There’s a definite spark between Theresa and Patty, but it takes a great deal of soul searching and bitter experience before they can acknowledge it. And even then, both girls seem to be victims of their own pasts: of circumstances which it’s hard to keep secret in a small town.

What I liked about the book is just how easy it was to relate to the main characters. Both Theresa and Patty are strong, stubborn, beautiful women who’ve been dealt a poor hand in life and learn to make the best of it. And you find yourself really rooting for them in their search for love, family and security. The perfect summer read.

The First Fight: Final Chapter – Breaking the Rules

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So this short story (a prequel to Hal) is now complete and available to read on Wattpad while I edit it. Here’s a link to the last chapter:

https://www.wattpad.com/myworks/145657002/write/585247438

 

And here’s an excerpt:

Chapter Eight: Breaking the Rules

“You’ve only got yourself to blame, Hal.”

Hal cast mournful eyes on Marc.

 “I told you to be wary of Cara,” he said, dropping a summons to the palace into her hands.

“Yes, Marc.” She stared at the scroll, unwilling to break the seal. “So you did.”

Marc sat down on the bench beside her, slid his fingers beneath her chin and tilted her face to the light. “Ooh.” He scrunched up his brow. “A split lip is going to play right into her hands.”

“Yes, I think you’ve made your point.”

She drew away. If she still appeared tender and bruised from the fight with Orla, he could have no idea how raw she felt inside. It were as if she’d been hollowed out with a knife: her core cut clean away. Orla was gone; gone forever. And the impending threat of disgrace and exile was enough to drive her out of her mind.

With a long, throaty sigh, she unravelled the parchment and read aloud:

“At the behest of Lady Cara Thæc, the palace summons Halanya X, duellist and former imperial ward, to answer for her actions in bringing shame upon the court. May she present herself at midday on…Blah, blah, blah.” Hal rolled the scroll back up, leant against the wall, closed her eyes and tapped her forehead with the parchment.  “What can they do?” she asked at last. “Kick me out?” She turned to look at Marc.

“Well…” he stroked his chin. “That is one option. The others include…”

“Wait!” She raised a hand. “I don’t even want to hear it.” Grabbing her coat, she jumped to her feet. “Let’s just get this over with, shall we?”

 

Review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimar McBride

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This was quite the most challenging work of fiction that I’ve read for a long time: a novel which is brutal in its honesty and honest in its presentation of brutality. It shocks, it disturbs, it confounds and it never, ever spares the reader.

I guess, on one level, this might be Eimar McBride giving her literary forebears the finger. After all, the narrative which unfolds is couched in fluid, stream of consciousness monologue – a nod perhaps to the ‘Penelope’ chapter of Ulysses and to Joyce’s male centric Bildungsroman A Portrait of the Artist. But the nameless protagonist of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is no worldly-wise, self-satisfied Molly Bloom, and the focus of this book is fully on female sexuality. And if McBride’s work offers any kind of release, it is not in an affirmative portrayal of that sexuality. In fact, it stems from a gradual process of disintegration: from the girl slowly stripping herself of all she is and of all that is expected of her.

This is fundamentally the story of the destruction of a sensitive, intelligent child. Her mother – a devout, almost fanatical Catholic – never truly succeeds in engaging with her daughter in a meaningful way and seems to almost wilfully refuse to understand her. Sexually assaulted at the age of thirteen by her uncle, the protagonist is left with serious psychological scars and can only find an outlet for her pain in degrading, sexual encounters. At the same time, she positions herself between the world and the one person she ever really loves – her brother – who has suffered a brain tumour.

The girl is constantly perceived by others; objectified in so many different ways. Yet her monologue reveals the extent to which she is internally fragmented and incapable of sustaining a coherent sense of her own identity. It’s a hard and at times excruciating read. But it takes the reader places few other books dare: into another human being’s tormented psyche.

 

The First Fight: Chapter Seven

the first fight

The full version of Chapter Seven of The First Fight is now available on Wattpad. As this was one of the steamier episodes, I can only publish an extract here. Final chapter next week.

https://www.wattpad.com/583034434-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story-chapter-seven

Chapter Seven (excerpt)

Early spring and the first thaws saw water cascading from gutters and rooftops; slabs of snow thudding to the ground and splintering to be trodden beneath passing boots into a grimy mush. The river rose: there was talk of flooding, and Hal wondered whether to seek refuge in the academy. But she had grown to love her little refuge too dearly. And eventually the Col sank back in upon itself, as if it had stirred briefly like a restless animal and was now lying back down to sleep.

She sought to push thoughts of Orla far from her mind; rarely visiting The Emperor in case their paths crossed. A part of her still yearned for the soldier’s embrace, but she couldn’t allow herself to be swept up again in all that fury; all that rage and pain. Hal felt for Orla; for the wounds to her mind and body which the desert had inflicted. And, the duellist told herself, she would have done all she could to help heal those wounds. But Orla had seemed intent on turning her own anger against Hal. And that was more than she could bear.

So Hal channelled her own energies into duelling, surprising herself and Beric: delighting those who crowded into the arena to watch her fight, her fame spreading as word leaked out of the courtier who’d exchanged wealth and privilege for a rapier and the duelling circle. Until one evening, when the sun had almost bled out and the streets were rich with shadow. And someone rapped hard three times on her door.

Weary after a day of training, Hal hauled herself up off the bench and padded barefoot across the floorboards, easing aside the door.

She stared into green eyes and cursed. “I thought I said it was over between us.”

Orla had regained some of the muscle she’d lost after Yegdan. She was dressed not in gambeson and leathers, but in linen shirt and canvas breeches; greatcoat and boots. And her gaze was cool, not crazed, as she leant against the door frame with her hands in her pockets, her lips sealed and fine and her face unreadable. Hal shivered.

“I suppose I owe you an apology,” Orla said.

“You suppose?”

“Yes. And I’d rather not deliver it out here in the street.”

“I’m not sure I want to hear it anyway,” Hal said, closing the door.

The soldier wedged her boot between frame and threshold. “Just give me a chance.”

Resting her head against the hard, damp oak, Hal sighed. “You set out to hurt me.”

“I didn’t! I didn’t know what I was doing. I was injured; torn apart. I’m better now. I’m whole again.”

“Are you?”

Orla paused and turned to look back up the street, chewing on her lower lip. “Yes,” she said after a few moments. “I am.”

Hal sucked in her cheeks, deliberating. She had the strength to kick Orla’s foot out of the way, slam the door in her face and bolt it fast. But part of her had tensed under Orla’s gaze. Part of her wanted her lover back; the woman who had drawn her on with hard words, who’d made love to her in the street, whose body had curved into her own. With a groan, she pulled open the door. Orla’s smile was brief and tight as she pushed past Hal and into the room.

“Still living in this dump, then?”

“And where else would I be?” Hal asked, closing and locking the door.

“Well, I’d have thought…with all your renown…I heard you’re drawing in the spectators.”

“But it’s a mere performance,” Hal said through gritted teeth. “Isn’t it?”

They stared at each other, the silence prickling Hal’s skin. And then Orla lowered her head.

“I am truly sorry,” she said at last. “After…after all that happened…down there in the south. I wasn’t myself. I … came loose for a while. I fell apart.”

“And now you’re back?”

When Orla raised her head, Hal saw that her eyes were glistening. “I’ve stitched up the holes,” the soldier said.

“I see.” Hal folded her arms across her chest, sinking back into herself, unable to look back at Orla. The soldier stood and she stood, as if waiting, hovering on a mountain ledge or cliff, daring each other to jump.

“Hal, I missed you. I understand why you walked away…”

“You hurt me, Orla! You humiliated me; and yourself.”

“I was at a loss! I needed you, but my mind was a wild place. I had such thoughts, Hal…such dreams after….after it all. Just the thought of sleeping filled me with dread. My dreams were full of horrors.” A single tear spilled, inching down her cheek. She trembled. And without thinking, Hal took her in her arms. Against herself, against her own will, she revelled in the heat of Orla’s body; in the hint of sinew and muscle beneath her fingertips, in the brush of Orla’s lips against her ear.

“I’m sorry. I truly am.”

Hal framed Orla’s face between her hands. “Don’t hurt me again, Orla.”

“I won’t.” Orla spoke through a kiss. “I promise.”

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.