Welcome. Here you can read an extract from my new fantasy novel, Graynelore.
AGAINST THE GRAYNE
I was going against my close kin, going against my grayne. There is no greater sin. I was about to ride out on them. Had I gone quite mad? Had I lost my head, or had I lost my heart, perhaps? For certain, this was not love. Something far worse… was I enamoured? A man does not take a fatal poison of his own free will.
I was for turning my hobby-horse away from my home, and away from Dingly Dell. Poor Dandy, she was already trail-weary and wanting only her due respite. Yet she did not protest, beyond a tempered snort, when I lead her off her pasture. I could try to tell you I was distracted by a mob of crying black birds that appeared, and flew continually across my line of vision and would not cease their infernal, bickering until I took heed of them. I could tell you this for a fancy; one of them as good as spoke to me – if in its own peculiar bird-like fashion. (I know, my friend… there is little sense to be had here.) It would be better to tell you that Wolfrid, my Headman and elder-cousin, seeing something of my intention, came after me and tried to dissuade me.
‘Is this a jest, Rogrig?’ he asked. ‘Where are you at?’ Wolfrid was uncertain as yet. His fingers toyed with his beard. Maybe he thought I was after some local sport of my own; with a tryst to keep, or a blackmail to deliver perhaps, coins to levee from a neighbour and him not included in the purse. He took his best guess. ‘What are you making of this, Norda Elfwych? I recognised your – what was it? – your interest in her, upon the Riding…’ He was a shrewd man and a quick wit, when sober. Yet not even he could fetch up the truth from such a meagre portion. ‘She is a Graynelord’s concubine. A Pledge made and delivered. She will be whoring for her surname this very night.’
I wanted to protest in anger, to defend her honour, only I knew Wolfrid was only speaking as he found. I could only stumble foolishly for an answer.
‘I… I…’ I put empty hot air in the way of words.
‘What is this, cousin? I see nothing to your advantage here. Does she have you beguiled? Is that it, are you in love?’
‘Perhaps,’ I said, merely to deflect the conversation. ‘Perhaps I am.’
‘Perhaps? For the fortunes! The man says perhaps! You are taking to the road alone for a… for a perhaps?’
‘She is… I am… there is something between us. Something has happened,’ I said, clumsily.
‘Explain yourself, Rogrig. Make some sense, if you would! You will remember I am the Headman of your house…’ I hoped this last remark was not so much a threat, as a gentle reminder. In all my life, from the very day of my father’s bloody slaughter, when Wolfrid had become Headman, he had not once used his household rank as leverage. Did my current actions disturb him so?
‘I fear I am at a loss. I cannot explain it,’ I said, plainly enough. ‘Nor can I stay here and do nothing.’
‘Then, what…? What are you telling me?’ said Wolfrid. ‘I am trying to listen…’
‘In all honesty I do not know. There is something to be done… I must try to find the others. I must do it.’
‘For fuck’s sake, what others…? What is to be done?’ He asked, his anger slowly rising now, clearly frustrated by my vague retort.
‘For fuck’s sake indeed…’ I said. ‘Oh, I wish it was that simple. I really do. And I wish I knew. Norda is…’ My hesitation was prolonged.
‘She is what?’ Wolfrid demanded.
‘She is… touched. She is… fey.’
‘What?’ Incredulous now, Wolfrid began to laugh. ‘You are saying what? This woman is a… is a bloody faerie! She is a throwback… Is that it? You’ll have her strung from a gibbet, next! Listen to me, she is an Elfwych. It is in her name. Nothing more! You have been listening to too many fireside Beggar Bards. Old wives tittle-tattle. And be aware Rogrig, you have been spouting madness ever since you lopped off that young girl’s head upon the killing fields. Take heed, and let it go. She got in the way of your sword. Make that an end to it. I will grant you she was something of a beauty. Just do not lose your way now because you missed out on a piece of cat’s tail… however precious.’
I was already shaking my head.
‘No, that is not it, cousin,’ I said. ‘I must go. I must find them…’ If I could not explain my actions to myself, how could I possibly explain them to my kin?
‘But where will you go?’ he asked.
I could not bring myself to say I was going to follow blindly after a murder of common crows. There was a more obvious answer. The shadow-tongues, the unspoken voices had left me with a name…
‘I am leaving the South March. I am travelling to Wycken,’ I said. ‘I am going to Wycken-in-the-Mire, for the Winter Festival… for the Faerie Riding.’
‘And this is it, then – the Wycken Mire! This is your answer?’ Wolfrid looked at me coldly, still wanting a better truth, something he could believe in.
I nodded, brusquely. ‘I will travel the trade roads… to the town.’
‘Towns—! What does any Wishard of the South March know of such places? Rogrig, you know as well as I, Wycken is a tinker’s town built of wooden sticks upon a shift of mud.’ He spoke, as if I was already lost and he could see only the broken man. ‘And there is not a certain path across the mire that surrounds it, except for those born to it; those petty traders with stinking bog-moss in their blood. The town could not be better protected nor defended if it had its own standing army.’
I turned my back on him. I made to mount Dandelion, took up the reigns. Wolfrid put his hand gently upon my shoulder as if to stop me. I did not recoil, though perhaps I had expected a blade.
‘You will not be turned from this foolishness, cousin? He asked. ‘Not for your kin, your blood? Not even for your true, heart’s meat…?’
I knew well enough what he was saying. I shrugged his hand away, before he could say any more. I took to my hobby-horse. Used the spur to move her on…
‘I fear I will not,’ I called back to him. ‘Forgive me for it. Tell Notyet… Tell her…’ Only my mouth stood empty. There were no words left to say.
‘Forgiveness will not save you, Rogrig,’ said Wolfrid, ‘if you ride out alone this day…’
I gave him no answer.
INTO THE MIRE
I heard again the voices of the old-wives calling to me out of my own past. ‘Mind how you go there, child! Keep off the bloody bog-moss. It swallows grown men whole! It sucks down full-laden fell horses, carts and all! It will leave us no sign to remember you by…’
Would I have listened? Would I indeed!
How do you find the mire? Let me tell you, my friend. In truth, you do not. The mire finds you. My travels took me north and east. But the mire has no constant geography. No certain edge about it. Rather, it comes, and it goes. It insinuates itself upon the land. It creeps upon you, lurks patiently in wait. It conceals itself behind an ever changing mask; of pelting rain; of meadow mist; of winter fog or blinding snow. It eats up the very path upon which you tread. It steals upon you and hides the weathered trail. In the darkest night it beckons you in, lures, with the light of the jack o’ lantern.
Indeed, this was already a fool’s journey, and I, Rogrig, the greater fool, no doubt, for seeking it out.
As the fortunes would have it, I did not travel quite alone, though I had to look again to the sky for the first of my companions. Aye, to the birds, to that same crowd of black birds – the crows – who, it seems, had taken it upon themselves to be my shadow on this foolhardy adventure. They flew so high they appeared to wheel among the clouds. Pointing the way with the direction of their flight, their vigil keeping my path constant, though it was Dandy’s sure footing that held me to the trail.
Fair praise where it is due, without both of my guides I would have quickly been lost. I could neither lead the way through the mire, nor follow the shifting signs.
My third companion was less expected. It appeared I was being deliberately followed. There was a lone rider at my back, clumsily copying my steps, keeping his distance, yet making no secret of his intentions. When the wind brought his scent to me I recognised it at once as belonging to Edbur-the-Widdle, Wolfrid’s son. (I told you Wolfrid was a shrewd man.) Was the youth sent to keep an eye out for me? Was he to be a second right arm, or perhaps his father’s spy? Time would tell.
I might have called out to the gangly youth, bid him join my party openly. I liked the lad well enough. Only, upon Graynelore, it is best to leave well alone, to keep to your own business once it is settled upon: he to his and I to mine. There is ever a cunning knife eager to make its mark, an owner looking to his own advantage. And there are just as many mistakes made; intentions misconstrued, not worth dying for.
Oh, for the freedom of the open fells of the South March! For clear skies and green pastures! How I hated to be closed about with sopping mists and murk. The bog-moss trails (if they were trails at all) were but a trick to the eye. They lead nowhere. Each tempting curve of the path, each broken sod, was nothing but a lure and a dead end. Or else a dizzying circle, a devil of a dance that left this traveller disorientated, with no sense of here or there. And the trodden path was hardly as broad as a single hoof; each sure-footed step poor Dandy took was hard found before it was placed. It was a slow and wearisome trial.
I should have stayed constantly alert, not given up my guard to a flight of birds. I should have held off my breathy cusses, fought the drowsy man.
I should have turned an ear and listened out for the real threat of approaching strangers.
That they came upon me at all was a lucky meet. Then again, upon Graynelore, a man rides his luck when it presents itself. They: a gang of scavenging horse-thieves, or the like, and come hot blooded. I: a seasoned fighting-man but caught unwary and alone. (Edbur, by chance or design, was too far distant or unawares to be taken into account.) Poor Dandelion broke their path, and to their surprise took the full weight of the leading horse almost head on. The iron spike upon her headdress – meant for a unicorn’s horn – was driven hard through the animal’s neck. It seems it pierced both the horse and the rider equally. Flesh was split apart. Bones broke. Hot blood spurted. As the horse fell – still skewered – we were brought down with it, rolled under its thrashing hooves. Instinct alone held me to the saddle. It took Dandy’s quick wit and stolid presence to save us, as the second and third horses ploughed into the melee. Men cursed, lifted their swords and swung in search of a target. But they were swinging blindly and at an adversary they were not yet certain of.
‘Is this bastard truly a man upon a horse…?’
‘Aye, aye… or some foul beast… some crude monster?’
Their reticence, their wary attack, was my good fortune; for it was not the time to stand and make a fight. Dandelion tore herself free of the dying animal. She shied, turned herself about, found her footing and, with my eager encouragement, bolted, took off at the gallop. Edbur was his own man; the circumstance dictates the action; I left him behind to make his own fate, as he left me to make mine. (And if I am – among all else – a coward when there is no need of a hero. Truly, who is not?)
If it had been an easier trail and firmer ground my escape would have been certain. But flight is not a game to play upon the bog-moss, nor is pursuit for that matter. The remaining riders – perhaps as many as three or four together – judged they had found themselves an easy prey after all, and came after me. More fool them; their larger, heavier horses, were less suited to the uncertain ground even than poor Dandy. The chase was soon done with.
I did not have to make a fight of it. The bog-moss caught us all out. It found my pursuers first; and I, soon after. It held us apart. I heard the anguished cries of both the men and – more cruelly – their horses, as it took hold of them. They thrashed their limbs about, beating at the sodden earth in a vain hope of gaining a firm purchase and winning their freedom; only hastening their imprisonment. The men’s pitiful wails, their horses’ desperate whinnies, broke the silence of that failing day, and afterwards, long into the night, coming weaker with every report until, almost at the break of dawn, they were finally extinguished.
In truth, I fared no better than my enemy, and was as quickly stuck fast. Only I stayed quite still, and calmed poor, Dandy’s fright with gentle words, when instinctively she would have struck out in want of her freedom. My subtle actions greatly slowed our descent into the mire; though I feared there was nothing else to be done.
Once the bog-moss has you it will not easily let you go again. It grasps at your feet. It claws at the legs of your fell-horse until it finds its hold, and then it binds itself there, in a grip that is unrelenting. It envelops, devours, ingests, it holds your still living body in a tomb of stinking mud until the last breath is drawn out. Then, forever more, it sucks at your slowly decaying corpse until nothing remains… and the captive and the mire are one and the same.
So it was, and I would surely have met my own death there, without a rescue.
I might have expected Edbur to come to me, only it was not him who found me out. In fact, I was so close to an endless sleep, I did not see the arms that lifted me from the mire. I only knew their immense strength as they bore my weight and pulled me free, as they lead poor Dandy by the reign and guided her to the safety of a sure path. I might have wondered how my rescuer kept their footing. Why they did not succumb to the deadly grip of the bog-moss. Inside my head I heard their soothing whispers, in a shadow-tongue, anxious to calm my fears, if outwardly my ears caught no natural sounds. What I saw, fleetingly, was this; a tall figure, draped in meadow mist… she was dark skinned… she was lithe… for a moment silhouetted against the coming dawn sky. Then, suddenly broken apart, a dozen fragments or more, like birds in flight…
No. Not like… but certainly, birds in flight.
GRAYNELORE, published by HarperVoyager in paperback and ebook.