Archive for December, 2016

… we have been going down into the dark … but now at last we are through the darkest days and heading for light again.

Christmas is not a time for light and joy for everyone, and some of us find it very difficult: either because it’s a time of mourning for lost ones, or because that dark really gets to us, as if our own bodies are battling the dark in the long road back to the light of summer.

At this time of year there is plenty of literature around that tells us about the ‘real meaning of Christmas’ (which depends on your individual religious-or-otherwise views), the joy and merriment of Christmas and the miracle of Christmas.

It’s good to be good and joyful and to help others and to make people happy. But not all writing about Christmas is so optimistic. Remember, for example, that ancient story about Persephone going down into the dark — eventually Mercury finds her and leads her back to her mother Circe/Demeter in spring. But all winter Persephone is a prisoner in the dark of death. The joy and rejoicing doesn’t come until she returns in spring.

So I looked at my own writing and realised that I don’t write about happy Christmasses at all. The only Christmas in all of my fiction writing is the one described by Oglive in Book 1 of A Sword, A Star, A Flame, when the rebels use Christmas festivities as a cover to attack the Great House of the Most Holy and Chivalric Order of the Star and burn it and the town of Reolt to the ground. Oglive and Adal manage to escape and ride away across the snow to a new life which turns out to be at least as traumatic as the old one — but this is certainly not a happy Christmas. It’s a time of testing, of fire and struggle.

That Christmas they nearly died, but they survived to fight another year. Christmas is over; now we are through the dark and heading towards the spring again.



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As readers may know, as well as writing Unsuitable stories for relaxation I also write serious stuff for my day job. Long ago I needed to instruct an artist who was drawing pictures for one of my Serious books. The picture was of two knights jousting. So I borrowed a scene from The Retrogradus — the still-in-manuscript book 7 of A Sword, A Star, A Flame.

The series editor was anxious. This was a very detailed description, he said. Had I taken it from somewhere else? Should I be acknowledging someone else’s input? I wondered whether I should break the Awful Truth to him, decided ‘no’, and said sweetly that the only copyright was mine.

Which it is, but wearing a different hat.

Anyway, this is the scene I borrowed for a picture of two knights jousting.

Extract from The Retrogradus: Two Knights Jousting

[Karlot is narrating: this is the second day after she arrived at the Great House of the Most Holy and Chivalric Order of the Star at Reolt. It’s practice time, and she, Jan and Berthol are busy …]

.. .Then a few other Brothers whom I don’t know challenged me, so I unhorsed them. Jan and Berthol armed and fetched their horses and rode a few courses against the other Brothers, and Oglive ran around carrying lances and cheering us on. Then the Constable came up, and the Grand Commander told him rather sharply to leave us alone.

‘Since when have you been in the care of novices, Brother?’ asked the Constable.

‘Since when have you been seeking honour by challenging novices, Brother?’ retorted the Grand Commander. ‘I thought that such are below your notice.’

The Constable turned away impatiently and said to me, ‘Brother, cross a lance with me.’

‘If my lord permits, I shall,’ I said, looking at the Grand Commander.

‘Very well,’ said the Grand Commander, frowning at the Constable.

Oglive helped me back into my helmet. I leapt in to the saddle without using the stirrup. Oglive handed a lance up to me and I rode up the training yard, wheeled to face the Constable, couched my lance and charged as he charged me.

I hit him on the centre of the shield, and he fell off sideways and landed on the ground with a thud. His horse ran on. Some of the other Brothers ran to help him up …

… this joust followed on from an earlier one, which went like this [practice time during Karlot’s first day in the Great House…]

Much as I want to learn, it was a relief when study was over and we were all able to go outside to train. Oglive helped me to arm, and then Jan, Berthol and I had a merry knockabout, first on horseback and then on foot. I’m sorry to say that Oglive was running about between us, picking up discarded lances and handing us fresh ones; I told her not to do it (‘you’ll be trampled!’) but she wouldn’t pay me any attention. She’s so full of excitement at being able to go about the House and take part in things that she’s quite irrepressible.

Then all at once a figure strode across the yard towards us, and I heard Oglive gasp. I looked around and saw the Constable.

He didn’t look at Oglive. He marched straight up to me and said, ‘Brother novice, mount your horse; I challenge you to cross a lance with me.’

Now, this was completely against the practices of the House; he should not have been in the yard with the novices, and he should not have challenged a novice. But the Marshal was not there to rebuke him – he had set out on that raid with his chosen Brothers and novices – and the Grand Commander was not there, and so there was no one to rebuke him (because the Master never comes to the training yard). So I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and went to mount the horse that I had borrowed, as my own is still not fit enough to ride.

He mounted, and we eyed each other up, and then (at a word from Berthol, who had appointed himself referee), we charged each other. I had watched him carefully that morning and noticed how he holds himself on his horse. He has learnt that most knights aim their lances in a certain way and his stance in the saddle is intended to counter that. So I used a different angle and aimed carefully. I gave him a hard blow, but he did not fall; his lance skidded across my shield harmlessly.

So we wheeled our horses and charged again, and I weighed up my blow more carefully, and hit him fair and square, but he did not budge; his lance missed me.

We wheeled again. I eyed him carefully: his position, how he holds his shield, how his horse moves under him. We charged again. This time I hit him lower on the shield – he did not fall, but his horse did, and he went down with it.

Pandemonium! Those who were watching cheered and jumped up and down. Several of my fellow novices ran up to hold my horse’s reins and stirrups. I leapt off lightly; they shook my hands and said, ‘Well done, Brother!’ and clapped me on the back. I unlaced my helmet and took it off to cool myself; Hellmuth and Reinhold hugged me and Hellmuth gave me what he said was the kiss of peace, although it was rather long for a kiss of peace; Jan and Berthol ran up and also gave me the kiss of peace very warmly.

Oglive stood back for a moment, frozen in a dilemma: should she help the Constable or congratulate me? I held out my hand to her and she ran up and kissed my cheek.

Then we both turned to help the Constable up. He was laid on the ground, his left leg trapped under his horse. Some of the novices were trying unsuccessfully to get the horse up, but the horse had fallen on his wrong side and couldn’t rise. Six of us had to lift the horse bodily to pull out the Constable, and then we could roll the horse over so that he could rise. Oglive unlaced the Constable’s helmet and he emerged, his face blackened and angry – someone offered him a drink of water, which he accepted and drank.

 When I saw the finished artist’s image it was a bit of a shock, because of course I know that the two knights were really Karlot (small, dark haired and determined) and Adal (taller and over-confident) and they are both slender, and Karlot is rather undernourished. But of course the artist didn’t know that, so the finished picture had two burly, muscular looking knights … oh well.

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It’s about time that this blog featured some pictures of the characters in The Star, as pictures do exist — so here they are. Appropriately for something set long-ago-and-far-away, these are really old: sketches of Brother Karlot the Chronicler (she’s a woman really) on the left and of Brother Jan and Brother Berthol on the right; originally scanned on to the Atari Mega 4 computer on which the stories were first typed. That, dear reader, will tell you how old the typed version of The Star is — and of course the manuscript is much older that that. So old that the paper is biodegrading!

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Yes, I know that The Star series still has some typos and missing words. To apologise to my readers and to show my gratitude for your patience, I am making (almost) all The Star series free for Christmas weekend (the exception is volume 2, where apparently I’ve already used up all the free offer days for this quarter). So vols 1 and 3 to 6 are free for Saturday, Sunday and Monday!

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When Adelheide started looking at how events might have turned out differently, she quickly discovered that her friends found the process very disorientating. ‘It’s just too ridiculous!’ they cry. ‘That would never have happened!’ There is no way (they say) that Adal the Constable would have turned traitor, and of course Karlot arrived in Our Lady’s Land many years after the Revolt, so she couldn’t have been involved at all. On the other hand, Brother Jan points out that there are a few things in Adelheide’s ‘Retrogradus’ that are disconcertingly true.

Can Adelheide find how the House of the Most Holy and Chivalric Order of the Star could have escaped being burned to the ground by the Great Revolt? She’s still puzzling over it, and she has a suspicion that this ‘stepping back’ game will only get her and her husband and friends back to the same place by a different route.

Meanwhile her pregnancy is making her so ill that her friends are sending her away from Oglive’s country manor where she’s been staying, back to the town of Reolt through the snow on a horse-drawn sleigh, to the comfort of a warm house with trained physicians on hand. As they rush across the snow-covered countryside, she dreams …


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Karlot recalls how she escaped from her incestuous uncle …

Darkness is falling.

From my window I can see the narrow crescent of the new moon on the western horizon, yellow as butter, sharp-pointed as a dagger, symbol of death and doom. Or is it new hope? The dark storm clouds part around it, or her I should say; for isn’t the moon a lovely woman sailing in the night sky as over a dark sea? Or am I raving?

The forest below the fortress is dark. Dark yet welcoming, like a cloak of invisibility, a covering blanket. If I could once get into that forest! The wind blows through the heavy boughs; the needles rustle and call: ‘Charlotte, come!’. Oh, my trees – you are mine no longer. Alas! I must leave you one way or the other, now that my uncle has come.

He has come, all brash assertiveness and loud boasting of his achievements. He has come to thrust me from beside my dying father’s bed. I would not let him drive me away – I faced him in fury, berated him as an unchivalrous man. He retreated. My father died in my arms this afternoon. Alas, what does that mean? That I will never see him alive again? Alas! I can’t conceive of it. He must be alive somewhere, if I could only reach him.

My uncle thrusts himself upon me. I am the heir – but he says he is the heir. ‘Let us settle the business,’ he says. ‘I am a warrior of renown, a fit companion for a young lady.’ Slowly, only slowly did his meaning dawn on me; and when I saw the horror of it, I spat in his face. Marry my uncle? It is a thing forbidden by the Church, by nature, by all that is reasonable and good. What? Would he besmirch his own brother’s name and blood? I spat in his face twice, ran to my room and barred the door. He has shouted and stormed outside but the bar is good and he cannot get in.

He has threatened to starve me out, or force an entry – in both senses of the word, he says. I would vomit at the thought but I have not eaten all day, and drunk little. I look out of the window. It is dark now, except for that arrow-sharp moon. Ah, lady moon, help me!

I fall on my knees and pray: to what, to whom, I do not care. I pray for help, I say, ‘Whoever will help me, I will be theirs. If only I am not his, I will do anything.’

I kneel in silence as my candle burns down. Then I thought – as if the thought came to my mind – I have a brother.

Alas, yes, Rudie, my dear brother, the only man I truly love – I mean, like that. Not as love for a father or even as a brother – he is ten years older than me. He has gone long ago, far away to serve God, to fight in that Order dedicated to poverty and Christ’s service, in Spain against the Moors. He left me only memories of his warm smile and his brotherly kisses and hugs, and all he taught me of arms and his own youthful armour which he gave me with his own hands. It is in my strong chest, deep under my clothes.

I have a brother, a loved one long lost whom I cannot follow, alas! But I can put him over me – I can don his armour and go out, as he went out …

… I have some scissors and a mirror. I make short work of my hair. I pull off my clothes and clothe myself anew. I pack up my journal and pen and ink in a bag to carry around my neck, with a lock of Rudie’s hair, and a ring which was my mother’s. Then I tie sheets together and tie them to the pillar of my bed, throw the end out of the window and climb down.

The horses are kept in a stable in the outer courtyard, where my rope lands me. They know me and are happy to have me move around them. The stable boy sleeps – he’s drunk, as usual. I saddle my horse – he was my father’s warhorse – and lead him out. The outer gate is locked, but I have the key to the postern gate, for until today I was mistress of this place. I let myself out. The night is dark and stormy and no one stirs.

I mount my horse with a nimble leap into the saddle, without using the stirrup, as Rudie taught me. ‘You must be able to mount without the stirrup, Charlotte,’ he said, ‘because in a battle you won’t have time to use the stirrup.’ I have always done what he taught me.

We descend down the track into the all-embracing forest. The needles sigh their welcome, and we enter among them gladly.

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When Adelheide copied out Book Three of The Star (Becoming Karlot), she left out the final part, which describes how the Brothers (and Karlot) of the Most Holy and Chivalric Order of the Star broke with the Pope and how Our Lady’s Land became Protestant. The Order continued as a Catholic Order, but without acknowledging the Pope. As for many years the Brothers had claimed that their only pope was their swords, this didn’t make much difference.

Adelheide says that she left out the last part because it didn’t have much to do with the rest of the Book and it was boring: ‘All theology and preaching’. But I suspect the real reason is that the main character is Adal, rather than her beloved Jan. So I’ve retrieved it from her discard pile, tidied it up and attached it here.

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