Writer's retreat

Writer's retreat

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Frost Place, New Hampshire USA

We're currently on holiday touring the East coast of the US. I've been posting about our travels on Tales of a Kitchen Herbwife. One of the accidental places we visited was the Robert Frost Museum and Poetry Centre in Franconia. This is my tribute to the poet.

The Frost Place
Your woods I walked today
Red apples shimmering in the sun
Birch and fir tall sentinels
Maple and alder lining the ground with red and gold.

Fat raindrops fell glistening from branches
White stoles wrapped themselves around mountains
As we sat on your porch
Edged with purple aster
Four years of your life laid out within the modest home.

You found it too cold to grow
In dark, New Hampshire winters
Forty four acres not enough
To feed your growing family

You thought to farm
Bur your successful pen brought better fruit
Sat beside the fire
Writing of bending birch
Discarded apples on trees
Your arms and shoulders aching from their picking.

Yet you knew your fields
Sweet whispers of scythes
Penned for your posterity
You left the hay to make itself
Hopeful of summer's heat

As we stood
Grateful for sun,
A welcome respite from torrential rain
Allowing us to walk in your woods
Share in your works
Drinking the colours of fall
Amidst white mountains.

11.15am 3/10/11.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Last cry for summer

I don't know where the summer months have gone. As I sit outside after work preparing home-grown runner beans for dinner, I ponder on time when I should have been writing, but instead I'm weeding or picking or preparing things for winter.

None of my creative work appears to progress and there is little new to offer. There was one poem entered for the annual poetry competition. The ajudicator passed it by saying there was too much detail and I'd left a spelling mistake in the submission. It was enough to make me crawl away and hide except the previous Saturday I read three poems at "Herbfest's got talent".

As I read the distant healing poem, the room was still.

"I don't think they breathed," Chris told me afterwards, "they seemed mesmerised." Maybe they were or maybe the poem has its own power.

Below is the competition poem. I sat under the apple tree and simply wrote what I saw for the hour I had free. I spent the following days honing words and rhythmn until it flowed to my satisfaction. The first verse has been lifted away - another moon contemplation which didn't really sit with the sunny day.

What do you think?

Chosen by rooks
Is your soil strewn with cherries?
Red skins ripped by mawkish marauders
Does your wooden bench hide strawberries?
Wild morsels of crimson sweetness
Garnets and rubies of an alpine range

Do you crunch apples underfoot?
Hard shards pressed into softness
Do you notice morsels lost amidst abundance?
Should you mourn when hundreds swell above you?
Contentedly modulating green within the canopy.

More green from pea pods where pristine petals fall
Their clusters call to bees
Following unseen flight lines to coat their fuzz with pollen
Nectar-driven pilots buzzing from yellow poppy to red woundwort
They drowned in cherries too
Humming their love song to the tree until blossoms fell

Have you noticed redbreast feeding fledgling?
Nurtured still on cherry’s bough
Carefully flitting from branch to chair to roof
Bright watching for strangers
Until he darts deep into darkness
To feed his sitting hen amidst forgotten trimmers
Their former nest forsaken for a safer space

Will you watch the white-tailed bumble rest?
Her bed of bean leaf crowned with scarlet flowers
Perhaps vermillion drops of currant catch your eye
Hanging above swollen gooseberry globes
Or yellow stars of agrimony and St John
Draw your delighted gaze on this bright day.

Such starlit gold along with silver moon
Bejewelled planting
Guarded by oak and fir
Serenaded by blackbird, robin, wren
Chosen by rooks
Let rue offer you such grace as can be gained
Within my summer garden.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Novel writing: hints and tips

Like every writer, I have several stories on the go at any one time. Some sit around for years until I feel inspired to take them up again, others live with me either from day to day or week to week.

In my writing group we have a novel sub-group which meets every other week in a local pub where we read out our latest chapter or part-chapter to our peers. One of the group is transferring her novel into a radio play, so we all get a chance to play with the characters and interact with the story. It’s great fun and gets us all laughing.

I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve already had two of my novels published by Loveyoudivine. You can see all the covers here with accompanying blurbs. I’m now exposing “Gofannon” to the Pub Clubbers and they’ve raised a lot of useful pointers showing how to improve it. My biggest problem is making the time to do the revisions!

This weekend I’ve been putting together my various stories about my shapeshifting cat people just to see how many words I’ve already written and how much more I’d need to write before revising and submitting. I’ve posted a single story on Literotica if you’d like to see what the characters are like. It’s a stand alone story, not central to the plot, but don’t read it if you’re averse to adult content! I’m waiting to see if they upload another story about the cats submitted yesterday which is part of the main book. (You can find it here.)

Trying to shape a novel brought me back to the novel writing workshop Sue Johnson put on for Solihull Writers Workshop at the beginning of May. Sue is a lovely person and a gentle and inspiring speaker. The advice she gave was sensible and sounded achievable, although she had us all gasping when she told us she had forty pieces of work out seeking placement at any one time.

I guess the difference is that she’s a full time writer, with a long track record of successful article writing and poetry publications and has just landed her first romance novel contract called Indigo Dreams with Samhain Publishing. She attributed her success to knowing her characters inside out, so she could describe the leading male as a “Rum truffle” (apparently the publisher use this as a test for all aspiring authors!) and was clear about her marketing potential through Facebook, blogging, twitter and workshops.

Sue said there were five main reasons why novels fail.
1. Insufficient conflict – conflict needs to be in place right at the beginning.
2. The characters are not gripping or convincing e.g. a TSTL heroine (too stupid to live!)
3. Settings are unbelievable – this can be rectified by having pictures or recordings of the place you have in mind and you must engage all the reader’s senses to take them to that setting and keep them there!
4. Unconvincing dialogue – all dialogue must be gripping and must move the action on. Don’t include every word, summarise and remove slower scenes.
5. Insufficient use of senses – must include colours and smells within the action.

A plot emerges from the motivation of the characters but must have enough conflicts within the story. A friend of mine likened a plot to a journey, but there must be threats and points of learning along the way.

My problem has always been that I don’t plot a novel before I start. I usually play with the characters – often with a writing partner online and let the characters decided their own stories by their interactions together. This is really good for understanding your characters, but can make deciding on the beginning, purpose and ending of the story really complex. One of these days I shall be disciplined and plot my story first!

I can understand what Sue means about conflict. I have a very gentle story I’ve played with on my own for a couple of years but apart from the characters heading towards a significant argument, they spend most of their time preparing food and looking after animals which really doesn’t help the story along!

Sue recommended conflicts should be included on three levels. Most stories are actually based on fairy tales and myths. She cited that twelve novels in the top two hundred best sellers are built on the fairy tale structure. James Bond is an example of a mythic plot.

If these structures are followed, you can see that conflicts come in threes.
1. The character’s battle with one aspect of themselves
2. The character’s battle with someone else
3. The character’s battle with some aspect of the environment e.g. weather/disease – something which causes a problem thereby isolating them.

If you are working with things happening in threes, foreshadow, but don’t let things happen immediately. If you have two false alarms, it heightens the tension.

The numbers three and seven are the most popular numbers in all cultures. If you are engaged in persuasive writing, emphasise the point three times.

Sue told us that Jane Austen included a plot twist every six or seven pages, which keeps her readers surprised and wanting to know what happens next. She said you need to have background information available about each character to ensure you keep everything consistent.

There is nothing more disconcerting in a story if you have decided to change the name of a character half way through but forget to make sure all the changes have been made in your word processor.

We had this problem in The Strongest Magick. The hero’s name originally was Agravaine, but his nickname used throughout the book just didn’t fit, so my collaborator came up with an older form of the name, Agryffan, so the nickname , Gryff , made more sense. I cannot tell you the hassle it was to go through the entire text and ensure everything had been changed correctly. You cannot trust a word substitution programme!

When you’re plotting a novel, Sue suggested you should decide the opening and the ending and twenty key scenes. These can be developed into chapters on a postcard. Chapter lengths should be varied. Cliff-hangers are good because they keep the pages turning. You need to have enough happening, possibly with events set in threes.

Prologues should be not too long and punchy. Use them to give an overview. The purpose is to give an idea of what has happened before providing any foreshadowing needed.

Similarly, an epilogue should sort everything out, but to achieve all this, the reader must care about the characters.

If you are writing heterosexual stories, Sue said the male and female parts of the novel should be developed equally. The same could be said if you’re writing about same sex couples – i.e. each partner has to be developed to the same extent. You can’t be captivated by Lavonia and have Count Leverhulme remain a cardboard cut-out.

What does he like for breakfast? How did he get the scar on his little finger? Why does he always groan when he hears Beethoven’s 5th Symphony played yet cannot stop drumming the opening sequence on any surface with which he comes into contact?
Sue suggested writers should not plot too tightly. It was more important to get to the end of your novel before tinkering. Don’t worry about perfection; get the bones of ideas down.

An interesting point Sue brought up which publishers are requiring to a much greater extent than before is what is the author prepared to do to promote their book? Sue recommended such things as building websites, offering promotional material, writing competitions, offering workshops, reading in libraries and all the social networking sites. To those can be added giving readings, attending conferences and book fairs.

All these examples are possibly less trouble if you are living and writing in a niche market. It would be much easier for me to write books on herbs or healing because I know where the gaps are and who might be interested and the subject matter is one which can be discussed over the dinner table with friends. It’s more challenging if you write for “adult” markets and can’t publicise your work perhaps as much as you’d like for fear of alienating family, friends or even losing your job!

Sue told us that most publishing contracts for novels often include the need for another novel within twelve months. If you follow her advice to have a minimum of forty pieces of work submitted at any one time, this can be made up of short and long versions of the same short story, articles, poetry, flash fiction, competitions etc. She advised us to have a database tracking system so we knew what was happening to any one piece of work at all times.

When submitting a novel, Sue advised getting the synopsis as good as you can get it, making sure you look at the publisher’s website as well as the Writers and Artist’s Yearbook. It is also advisable to ensure the first two pages have NO mistakes on them. If they do, no-one will read any further.

A one page synopsis can almost be considered as a blurb (the writing on the cover back page). You must make sure the synopsis includes the ending – a publisher does not appreciate surprises!

Publishers will often have blogs giving their pet hates. It is worth reading these so you don’t fall foul of such formatting issues as not having the first paragraph indented but making sure you indent all subsequent paragraphs. Sometimes publishers have enquiry forms and these should be downloaded and completed.

The workshop left me with lots of ideas and hopefully some new skills. Sue told us there is a market for everything. We should go for what inspires us and keep going until we get a result, at the same time looking for every opportunity you can find to promote yourself.

Now I have to follow her advice and push myself into action!

Thursday, 9 June 2011


It can be difficult to come up with an original idea when you're writing to a given theme. The subject of storm seemed to bring out everyone's darkest fears of death and destruction. I count mine as a true story from 1995, when my Oregonian friend and I were playing with the story of a Celtic healer. While Chris held a meeting in our front room, I sat in the lounge and imagined the story's finale as the thunder rolled around the garden in front of me. It was a very surreal experience.


“Come in, come in. Looks like you made it just in time.” David welcomed his two fellow Beaver leaders into the house and took them through to the front room.

“Would you like some tea?” Janet hovered in the doorway, trying to be hospitable, but wanting to keep her distance from this planning meeting for the next term. Her suggestions for ten weeks of tree projects had not gone down well. Five year old boys were not interested in trees, she was told. They needed more interesting topics to hold their attention.

David took the drinks through into the front room from the kitchen leaving Janet to occupy herself in the lounge. The children were upstairs asleep. Normally she would sit and watch television but the large screen was blank and she felt no desire to pick up her knitting needles and concentrate on yet another Thomas pattern.

Janet stared out into the darkening garden. Even with the French window wide open, there seemed to be no air. Black clouds hung low, hugging the top of the apple tree while thunder rolled in the distance. A single blackbird called an alarm from the top of the neighbour’s fir tree, but there was no sight of the other garden dwellers.

“They must all be hiding in the hedges,” Janet thought, as she caught sight of a slender forsythia branch swaying in the stillness. A robin or bluetit must have landed on it briefly before seeking shelter amongst the green hawthorn.

Sheet lightning danced across the clouds, the flashes mesmerising her. She waited, counting silently for the thunder to crash overhead. Nine seconds before the sky cracked. It was almost overhead. Sudden sounds on the concrete slabs heralded raindrops as the storm arrived, bringing with it swirling air currents which ruffled the curtains.

“Should I shut the French window?” Janet wondered, but she was tied to her chair by her terror of the storm. Her fingers gripped the armrests as her mind took her back to another time, another storm where summer rain lashed the bracken around a large stone dwelling.

It had been a disastrous year. Savage frosts burned the fruit blossom. Spring planting was difficult with many fields of seeds rotting where they were sown because of incessant rain.

“The God is angry with us,” people muttered. “No sun will shine until the land is nourished with blood. No crops and we’ll all die this winter.”

“Have you seen the Laird?” Ygraine asked, passing through the kitchen in search of her aged husband. Many decades had passed since they accepted the clan leader’s torcs. Ygraine’s once raven tresses were streaked with grey and Angus’ gleaming golden mane was now as white as snow on winter hillsides.

“I saw him walking down towards the stones before the storm broke. He took the knife with him.”

Ygraine whirled towards the speaker, a dour man with grizzled hair who was hanging pots and pans on their hooks in the wide oak beams. “What do you mean he took the knife?”

“He said it was time and you were not to worry.”

An anguished scream tore from her throat as she flung open the thick wooden door and ran out into windswept moorland.

“Angus, Angus, where are you?” but her words were lost to the thunder as she ran along the narrow track leading to the ancient stone circle. She stumbled many times in the darkness, but as she reached the brow of the hill a sudden flash of lightning lit up the fateful scene below her.

Angus was kneeling behind the altar stone, the sacrificial knife held high in front of him. His long white hair stuck to his clothes, drenched by pouring rain.

“No!” screamed Ygraine, but even as her cry echoed around the glen, she saw Angus plunge the knife into his chest and a tell-tale stain began to seep across his white shirt as he slumped forward onto the ground.

She flew down the track, throwing herself to her knees and cradling his body in her arms.

“Why you?” she sobbed, wiping the rain from his face.

“The king must give himself for the land,” he whispered. “I’m old and tired, Grainne. I want to go home. Better now, herein this sacred space, than a living death inside stone walls.”

Her sobs gave way to heart-wrenching cries as his body went limp and the spark died within his eyes. It was there they found her, their children and the rest of the clan. Tenderly they took him from her, laying his body on a horse drawn bier, their sons supporting her, their daughters arms wrapped around each other as they slowly followed along the track.

As the Laird’s blood seeped into the soil, the wind dropped. Against a departing wall of clouds the emerging sun threw a double arc of rainbows across the sky. The man leading the horse stopped at the top of the hill, the bier suddenly alive with colours.

“You’ve done enough,” he spoke to the corpse. “We’ve hope again.”

The front door slammed, dragging Janet back from her reverie.

“Storm’s gone now,” David said, closing the French window and drawing the curtains. “We managed to get everything sorted. Do you want some tea?”

Janet looked at him, wondering if the tears she felt running down her face were really there or just stray raindrops blown in through the open window. How could she tell him what she’d witnessed?

“I’ll make it,” she said getting up from her chair just as he put the light on. “It was an amazing storm.”

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Jessica and the Bear

At Solihull Writers Workshop next Wednesday, the theme of the evening is a piece of science fiction writing. I'm not very interested in space ships and aliens, so I'm taking a piece of fantasy along with me in the hope it will provide a small diversion.


“Grandpa, how long have you had a bear living in the garden?”

Jack Robbins put down the runner beans he was planting in large pots in the greenhouse and regarded his granddaughter, Jessica, carefully. The fair-haired nine year old was not given to telling fairy stories.

“I didn’t know we had a bear living in the garden. “

“I saw him last night when I was getting a drink of water from the kitchen. I looked out of the window towards Stow church and saw him in between the plum tree blossom and the apple tree.”

“What was he doing?”

“Nothing at first. He was just a large, black shape until he rose up on his hind legs. It was definitely a bear. He was covered in long, black fur apart from his belly, which was cream. He must have seen me because I heard him growl. It was very frightening, so I put the light off and went to bed.”

“Why didn’t you call me?”

“You were out in the barn. I knew if I told someone, they’d just say I was making it up, but I’m not. I’ve found his tracks. Come and look.”

Jessica led him to the flattened grass at the base of the Victoria plum tree, then walked slowly across the lawn to the flower border.

“Can you see his prints? He must be very big. He left me a bunch of violets.” She held the fragrant bundle up to her face and breathed in the scent.

Jack shook his head. He had to admit there was something in the grass, but his brain could not accept there were bear tracks leading out of his garden. Bears didn’t live in the Cotswolds; wolves, maybe, when the hills were wooded before the Bronze Age, but not now in the 21st century and no animal left a bunch of violets as a gift.

“I shouldn’t worry about him, Jess,” he said gruffly. “Let me know if you see him again.” And he went back to finish planting beans.

Jessica did see him again, but not until she was a young woman, busy with her life in the city.

“Do you think I dreamed him?” Jess asked her friend, Mark, one day when they were sitting outside one of the small cafes they liked to frequent after work. She trusted Mark. He didn’t make fun of her when she talked about the strange things she’d seen and done as a child. The bear was not the only creature to enter her world. There was also the black unicorn she saw regularly in the bottom field when she was growing up.

Mark shrugged, “It doesn’t really matter whether you were awake or asleep, he came to you and you remember him.” He took another swallow of his drink. “They say bears help you to know yourself and give you strength to trust your intuition. Maybe he came to show you how to be wild and free?”

Suddenly the wind got up and Jess shivered, pulling her cardigan around her shoulders.

“There is maybe one more thing.” He paused, pointing to black clouds travelling across the sky, a brilliant window of sunlight streaming through their midst. “You said the bear had two colours, black and cream?”

Jess nodded.

“Maybe there is also balance to be considered. Male and female, tamed and free; there are so many things your bear could bring you.”

“Shall I see him again?”

Mark grew still, as if listening for the answer in the wind rustling leaves and stray paper along the pavement.

“I think he will come to you again. If you have courage, go with him and learn more.”

A few weeks later, Jess drove to the farm to visit her grandparents, travelling through fading, evening light. As she turned into the village, roads were wet, the sky lit by lightning rods and echoes of thunder.

“Shut the hens up for me, will you?” said her grandfather as she opened the car door. “I meant to do it earlier, but it was raining too hard and I shrink if I get wet these days.”

Jess found her boots out of the back of the car and with the ancient straw egg basket on her arm; she went up to the rickyard to fasten the henhouse door.

It was dark, the only light coming from an ancient railway lamp at the top of the drive. She could smell moisture left by the departing storm. All around her the sky crackled with electricity before being broken apart by the thunder cracks rolling overhead. Diligently, she opened the slats into the nesting boxes, searching through warm hay for fresh eggs, placing her bounty in the curved base of the basket.

When she could find no more, she made her way back to the gate, stopping for a moment to rest the basket on the sharp stone commers on the wall. She looked over to the horizon, watching another burst of lightning cross the clouds. Just as the brilliance faded, she thought she saw the familiar shape of a bear standing in the field across the road.

When she looked again, a man stood on the roadside near a young ash tree just on the edge of the lamplight. He was tall with soft, black hair framing an aquiline face. His nose was long and his lips, thick and sensuous. It was hard to judge his age. His large frame and broad shoulders spoke of maturity and strength. He smiled, his eyes crinkling as if amused by Jess’ considered gaze.

“Do you always rob your hens so late in the evening?” His voice was deep, yet soft, as if carried on the disappearing storm. Despite his sudden appearance, Jess did not feel threatened. She had the uncanny feeling she had seen him before.

“Not usually, my grandmother collects them when she feeds the hens at lunchtime, but she’s not been well.”

“Would you bring me a dozen tomorrow when you come to tea?”

“You’re Arthur Britton?” Jess held out her hand in greeting. Her grandfather mentioned they were invited to visit the next door neighbour over the weekend. “Glad to meet you.”

She felt warm, rough leather grip her palm and when she looked down; she could have sworn her hand was covered by a bear’s paw.

“We’ve met before, Jessica,” he said, his grip firm as he looked deep into her blue eyes. “You were only a child then, but I knew you would remember me."

As his hand fall back to his side, Jess saw a bunch of violets left on her palm. Without thinking, she brought the fragrant blossoms to her nose, savouring the subtle scent.

When she looked up again, he was gone, with no sound of departing footsteps along the road.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Maid and the Blacksmith : a story for Beltane

When the lilac buds thickened, the girl knew it would soon be time for the maypole dancing. The men would go to the woods and cut a straight ash pole, planting it firmly in the earth on the village green. Then they would take ribbons, red and white, blood and energy to symbolise the union of the Goddess and the God, so the earth would be blessed and the land would bear fruit in due season.

Every year the girl saw the maypole being cut and watched young men and women dancing the whirling dances on the green. She knew when the sun faded, the dancers went off to the wood, the boys with flushed faces from too much ale, the girls giggling and apprehensive. Men and women would follow along hidden pathways, for everyone wished to honour the union of the God and goddess with their own Great Rite.

No-one minded when the children came, for Beltane children were blessed. They would see light at Imbolc, Brigit's festival, when the world was still dark and quiet, but the sun was born again. These children would be called Robinson, for they were the offspring of Robin Goodfellow and many were the maids who thought to share the Great Rite with a faery lover that night.

The girl grew and it worried her that she should soon be joining her fellows around the maypole. Who would take her into the woods when the day grew cold? Who would keep her warm and light the fire in her belly? She could not know and the thought turned her stomach cold. What of the Sidhe, the faery folk? What if one of them took her? It was said that those who loved the faery folk wasted away from their desires. What could she do to escape from such a fate?

The years rolled on and the girl grew thin. She thought if she did not eat, she could delay the time of her womanhood. The wise woman saw what she was about and came to her one day when she toiled in the fields. She asked the girl to describe her fears, but the girl refused. But the wise woman saw what she did and was not alarmed. She gave the girl's mother herbs to put in her milk and soon the girl found that she was hungry again. She ate as a normal child would and she grew and blossomed. The day came when she saw her first blood and knew it would soon be time to take her place at the maypole.

But the wise woman saw everything and spoke with the village elders. The girl was not chosen for the maypole dance, not that year, nor the next, or the next, until she thought it strange all her companions had danced the ribbon dance. She watched them go laughing into the wood, returning with a new light in their eyes and a softness to their look. She wondered what it would be like to lie under the stars and feel the God enter her.

At last she went to the wise woman and asked why she could not join the ribbon dance and the wise woman told her to go to the blacksmith and ask him. So the girl went to the blacksmith at his forge and asked if she could join the ribbon dance that year.

The place was filled with the heat of the fire and steam from the water barrel where the blacksmith cooled his irons. The blacksmith looked at the girl and asked her to pick up his smallest anvil. She tugged and she pulled but she could not lift it.

"Go away," he told her. "Come back when you are stronger then perhaps you may dance the ribbon dance."

The girl was very angry she should be asked to perform such a task. She went to the wise woman and complained. The wise woman smiled and gave her strange herbs to eat and told her to swim every day in the village pond once the sun went down.

So every night when the sun had set and the light had gone from the land, the girl went down to the pond and took off all her clothes and swam in the pond as the wise woman had told her.

Now the pond was next to the smithy and the blacksmith was always late at his work. For not only did he shoe horses and cast ploughshares and other tools, he also made magical tools for those who wished to use them, for the blacksmith was beloved of Herne and cared for his people. As he heated and hammered and shaped the iron, he saw the girl swimming in the water and he smiled.

All through the summer, the girl swam in the pond. When winter came, still she swam even though ice covered the water. The blacksmith used to break it for her before she came down to swim.

Then came spring. Flowers bloomed and the hedgerows grew green again. The girl returned to the blacksmith's forge and asked to try lifting the anvil again. The blacksmith pointed to the corner of the forge and the girl went and tugged and pulled but still she could not lift it.

Then the blacksmith came behind her, silently, for though he was a big man, he could move like a cat in the night. He put his arms under her arms and around the anvil and lifted it clear from the ground.

The girl was astonished, but the blacksmith merely smiled and nodded and from his apron pocket he pulled a red ribbon.

"Tie this on the maypole," he said, "and you shall dance the ribbon dance."

On 1st May they hoisted the ash pole and bedecked it with the red and white ribbons. The girls were dressed in their finest clothes, their hair crowned in wreathes of green and flowers like the May Queens they were. Round and about and in and out they weaved the ribbons with the men and boys until there were no ribbon lengths left to weave, then they turned and danced the other way. Again and again they danced until all were tired and thirsty and thankful to sit down to the feast in honour of the marriage of the Lord and Lady.

Long did they feast and drink until the sun went down. One by one, couples began to wander together into the wood. No-one asked the girl to go with them and she was left sitting at the tables, feeling old and foolish and wishing she had never worried about the ribbon dances.

As she stared at the table top, a shadow crossed the boards. She looked up into the face of the blacksmith. He held out his hand and looked towards the wood and she knew the time had come to set aside her girlhood and become a woman.

It was cool amongst the trees. All around her the girl could hear whispers and giggles from behind bramble patches and fallen logs. The blacksmith led her deep into the wood, past oak trees and lime trees until they reached the place where a yew tree grew. Underneath the green branches was a mossy bank to lie upon and here the blacksmith led her.

"This is the tree of passage," the blacksmith said, "from this life into the next. Tonight you will set aside your girlhood and join the womenfolk. If the Goddess wills, in time you will become a mother as She does this night."

The girl looked at him, her fear showing on her face, but he took her tenderly and held her gently and whispered many sweet words as he laid her down and prepared her for what must be. This was the blacksmith's role, to offer Great Rite to those whose time had come. Skilled he was too and pleasure he brought with him. The girl hardly noticed pain as he lit the fire within her and made her what she must become - a woman.

Afterwards, she lay smiling in his arms and her eyes grew soft as he pushed tendrils of hair from off her face and kissed her.

As the days passed, the sun grew hot and the land was fertile and the people gathered in the harvest. The girl knew she had indeed been blessed, but she said nothing, visiting the wise woman, who kept her secret.

Leaves fell and winter came, the woman's belly swelling with new life. Often she would go and sit by the blacksmith's forge and watch him as he worked. He saw how she quickened and he smiled. When she slept at night, he built a cradle from the yew tree wood where they had joined in the love of the Lord and Lady.

When Imbolc came, the child was born. The blacksmith took him and showed him to the village, acknowledging his son and his wife. The woman lay and suckled her babe. She knew her fear was gone and a new life stretched before her.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The Holly and the Ivy Part 5

Colin sat on his bed turning the horn dagger over and over in his hands. Outside his window, snow fell in thick white clumps, adding to the blanket already covering hills and valley.

Granny’s words reverberated in his head.

“Take this knife, Colin. You will need it to make your offering when snow comes. Go back to the King Holly behind the chapel and make a single cut so the blood drips down on the snow. Red on white.

“It’s our way, you see. Our way to show our life connects to our land. Our lifeblood, vibrant while the earth sleeps.

“The King’s chosen you this year. Don’t be scared. Means he has something for you, something special. You’ll know what it is once you’ve offered your gift.

“Don’t forget the knife. It’s very old. Some say it came from the antler of the first white stag. Take good care of it.

“When you’re done, go to the chapel. Angie will be waiting for you.

Colin examined the dagger more closely. It was a single piece of yellow bone, with a carved hilt and finely tapering blade. He knew it would be sharp enough when the time came. He wondered how many others had done this, sitting alone with the dagger, waiting for the right time to begin.

When he looked up at the window, the snow had stopped. Shafts of sunlight were making ice crystals dance on the hilltop. Better go now, before it got dark; before he lost his nerve.

He pushed the dagger into his trouser pocket, blade first. Then he flung open his bedroom door and thundered down the stairs. His green jacket was hanging on its peg in the porch. He pulled it on, grabbing his hat and gloves from the wire basket by the back door. His boots were nowhere to be seen.

Sighing, he sorted through the heap of footwear left by his brothers and sisters until he found his own. They were all off sledging with the other village kids, but Colin hadn’t felt like joining them. Maybe he would tomorrow when this was all over.

As he knelt on the step to lace up his boots, he noticed a dried leaf beside his foot. It must have blown in from the back garden where the oak tree stood.

“Ackerleys must live near oak trees.” Colin heard his grandfather’s voice. “That’s what Ackerley means – oak meadow. We’re all oaks in our own way.”

Colin picked up the leaf and slipped it into the pocket with the dagger. Five minutes later he was trudging up the field behind his house towards the path which led to the chapel.

“Colin’s gone. I saw him leave.” Maggie rushed into the vicarage with her news. She stopped short when she saw Granny and Emily standing either side of Anthea as the vicar’s wife breathed through a painful contraction.

“Go and get Zeb,” Granny told her. “Tell him to take the Landrover up to the chapel in an hour’s time. Don’t want to spook the lad. You get up there now and start the fire going. Heat up some water. He’ll need a hot drink when it’s all over.”

“Isn’t that what you should be doing?” Maggie grinned at the three women. “Where’s the vicar?”

“Out playing in the snow, where he should be. Henry will fetch him when the time comes. He’d only be in the way.” Granny rubbed Andrea’s back as she began to walk around the kitchen.

“Good luck, love.” Maggie kissed the young woman then quietly made her exit.

It was sheltered in the hollow where the chapel stood. It was as if the snow absorbed all sound. No wind, no birdsong, only the soft flow of water from the holy spring into the well house.

Colin trudged through the drift by the side of the chapel towards the King Holly, brushing the powder snow off his brown trousers. Same colour as the oak leaf, he thought idly as the leaf drifted from his pocket onto the ground. His jacket was green like the holly tree bark, a vivid vibrancy in the snowy landscape.

He pulled off his gloves and stuffed them inside his jacket. He’d need them later and he didn’t want to lose them. His hand shook as he pulled out the dagger. He didn’t like knives, ever since he’d picked up his father’s penknife as a small child and sliced his hand open.

He remembered how easy it had been. How the blood flowed from his palm onto the ground beside the oak tree. How his mother screamed, making him drop the knife, so the cut hurt and his own frightened cries filled the air. There was still a small white scar on his right palm.

“So you offered yourself to the oak and now you come to me to take my place, eh, young Allon?”

“What!” Colin staggered backwards, dropping the dagger on the ground.

An old man, dressed in rich garments woven with holly leaves and berries leaned heavily against the trunk of the holly tree. Though his words were stern, his eyes shone with mischief.

“Who are you?” Colin’s eyes were fixed on the man, hardly noticing the blood dripping from his left middle finger, caught by the dagger as it fell.

“Don’t you recognise me, Allon? I admit the tables were turned when we met at mid-summer, I was the young man then and you looked as if a breath of wind would carry you away. Now the wheel has moved and it is my turn to offer you the crown.”

The old man walked towards him, holding out a woven wreath of leaves which he placed on Colin’s head. Though the shape of the leaves had been holly-like in the old King’s hands, as soon as they touched the boy, they transformed into oak leaves with a light green hue as if newly unfurled from leaf-buds.

“Rule wisely, Allon. We shall meet again soon.”

The old man turned, as if to walk back towards the holly tree, but with each step he took, the colours of his clothes faded until he became transparent, disappearing into the tree; leaving Colin alone.

The boy blinked, suddenly noticing his bleeding finger and sucking it furiously. He reached out a hand to retrieve the dagger and put it safely away in his pocket, but the sight which met his eyes made him stagger backwards until he reached the safety of the chapel wall. He felt the solid stone against his back and let his breathing return to normal.

Where the horn dagger fell, a white stag now stood, his four pronged antlers almost brushing the lower branches of the holly tree. His coat shone against the green of the tree; against the bank of snow, he was invisible except for his deep brown eyes and black, curling lashes. He turned his head towards Colin then began to walk through the snows in the direction of the wood.

Colin stood mesmerised for several long moments, but when the stag stopped again on the edge of the trees, he quickly got to his feet and followed.

The stag’s gait was slow and steady, walking along the ancient woodland rides as if he knew them. The broad canopy above captured most of the fallen snow; leaving the leaf mould floor brown and crisp. Colin imagined all the creatures living in this place, from tiny dormice to burly badger, turning in their sleeping chambers, unconsciously aware of the white stag passing through his ancient domain.

The stag led Colin deeper into the wood than he’d ever been before. Lime trees, oaks, hazel and ash stood in regimented lines as if planted here for a reason. Holly bushes were everywhere, long thin tendrils hanging almost to the ground like a huge festive curtain. They climbed up a small rise, then the stag leaped across a ditch, leaving Colin to slither downwards and then clamber back up again.

When he reached the top, he could see the remains of a robbed out wall, trees pushing from underneath like the remains of an ancient hedge – hawthorn, black thorn, spindle trees, elder; all dark and leafless. A flash of white caught his eye.

When he turned, the stag was standing in the midst of row upon row of gnarled tree trunks. Some were toppled, covered with ivy and lichen, but most were still erect, their thickness proclaiming their great age. Snow covered everything like a soft white cloak on the upper portion of each branch.

“Where am I?” Colin wondered to himself. This wasn’t part of the wood, there was too much light. All the tall trees were behind them. This section was deliberately kept clear. Why.

As he watched, he felt a gentle breeze on his face and saw the grass underneath the trees turn the bright green of springtime. Suddenly, the tree were bursting into blossom – pink, blushing apple, huge white snowflakes of pear and the delicate white of cherry.

“It’s an orchard!” Colin cried. “An orchard inside the wood!”

In the blink of an eye, the light changed again. Now the trees were covered with fruit, all different shapes, sizes and colours. Colin thought he saw brown, cowled figures walking between the trees, gathering fruit into baskets, then taking it to a huge press in the corner of the orchard to turn into juice, which was poured into barrels. The barrels were then loaded onto a cart and driven away with much singing until the music died away and the orchard returned to its winter slumber.

“You need someone to take care of the trees,” Colin said to the stag. “I could do that. Even if I only worked until mid-summer when my time is up, I could prune and clear away the brambles and make the orchard wall secure again.

“Is that what you want of me?”

The white stag walked towards him until his nose was so close he could feel warm puffs of breath on his face. The boy reached out to touch the white brow but his fingers felt nothing. He toppled forward into the snow and lay still.

As the moon rose in a cloudless, frosty sky, a frantic search party from the village finally found him. The warmth from his body had melted the snow around him and his clothes were covered with different sized oak leaves.

“Is he breathing?”

Maggie’s terrified words slipped from her as Anvil and Zeb gently rolled the boy onto his back.

“He’s alive. Bring the blankets. Let’s get him on the stretcher and back home.”

An hour later, a dazed Colin was sitting by a blazing fire in the vicarage parlour sipping hot broth; guarded by his mother who refused to let anyone ask him any questions.

“He’ll speak when he’s good and ready, not before.”

One by one, she shooed everyone out, all except Anvil, who sat in the opposite chair staring into the fire.

“I have to say, I’m grateful to you, Anvil, you and Zeb, for finding my boy.”

“It weren’t so bad, once we found the trail. He followed the white stag into the Abbot’s Orchard. I saw it standing over him until we arrived. He wasn’t harmed, but he will be changed. He’s Allon now.”

Lizzie Ackerley gasped. “There’s not been an Allon in the village…

“…since Granny Blackwell’s great-great-grandmother’s grandmother was a child.” Granny completed the sentence as she pushed the parlour door shut with a quiet click. “That’s when Earl William forsook the orchard. Refused to tend it after his son was killed by an oak tree. Promised to transport anyone who so much as picked an apple. Elders thought it best to leave it hid. No point in causing more misery. Things were bad enough back then.”

“Now the stag thinks otherwise and who are we to gainsay him.”

“That’s not all,” Granny said, resting her hand lightly on Anvil’s shoulder. “Didn’t you hear the baby cry? I think you’d better come upstairs to meet our future.”

Twelve months later, the Abbot’s Orchard was host to a very different scene. Stone walls topped with hedges lined the perimeter. Two huge oak gates secured the entrance and a roaring bonfire warmed the pressing corner where most of the village were gathered drinking mulled cider from the orchard’s first harvest for over two hundred years.

It was Colin, now employed as the orchard’s official Keeper, who led the others in the ancient Wassail.

The winter sun’s arising
The deer are running free
With holly berries red as blood
A- wassailing go we.

The king he is a hunting gone
To catch the spotted deer
He rode amongst the forest trees
That stood both tall and bare
The winter sun’s arising etc.

The king he spied a milk white stag
Mid holly hanging low
“Stay here,” he said, “and hold my horse,”
“I hunt this stag alone.
The winter sun’s arising etc.

The king approached the noble beast
His knife held in his hand
To take the stag’s own life he sought
Spill blood upon the ground
The winter sun’s arising etc.

“Come close, come close, O worthy King”
The stag began to cry
“My life I give this Solstice Eve
“My eyes will close this day”
The winter sun’s arising etc.

“For in green holly’s warm embrace
“My blood alone is red
“And ever more my life will run
“Like holly berries shed.”
The winter sun’s arising etc.

“Now tell your churchmen, tell them true
This land is sacred now
“A forester must tend the trees
And cut the holly boughs”
The winter sun’s arising etc.

The king he slew the milk white stag
Red blood upon the snow
They bore him home to feast and dance
Mid holly hanging low
The winter sun’s arising etc.

The king he told the Holy Man
The forest should be shriven
The Abbot had the holding now
Of lands so freely given
The winter sun’s arising etc.

The Abbot called his treasurer
“Count up my gold, “said he
“For I would build a forest fence
“Around the trees so green.”
The winter sun’s arising etc.

Then came the men with stones and picks
The boundary walls to build
A forest wild to tame and tend
Wherein the stag was killed
The winter sun’s arising etc.

The Abbot built a garden
Within the forest walls
With apples, pears and hazelnuts
To bring us all good cheer.
The winter sun’s arising etc.

Here’s health unto the Abbot
Our king we toast all round
A toast unto the milk white stag
With blood upon the ground.
The winter sun’s arising etc.

Monday, 3 January 2011

The Holly and the Ivy Part 4

“He’s very young,” Granny said, clutching Colin’s handkerchief with both hands.

“No younger than I was the first year I was chosen.”

Anvil picked an apple from Granny’s fruit bowl and took a large bite.

“Yes, but you’d been working at the forge for two years by then. You had muscle and bone twice his size. Granny Blackwell never had a moment’s concern about you. She said you could lose two armfuls of blood and never notice.”

Anvil chuckled. “She did, did she, the old bat.” Then his face softened. “She lost sight of some things in her later years, did Granny. It’s not about how much you lose, but what you see that matters.”

Granny let the handkerchief slip onto the table in a crumpled heap.

“What did you see, then, Greg?”

“I never told no-one, not even Granny. She didn’t like not knowing. Nearly cost me Anvil when she told Blake I wasn’t fit to lead, but he must have seen something in me when he took me as apprentice.”

“I’m sorry,” Granny got up to clear away the dinner plates. “I shouldn’t pry into what isn’t my business.”

“Oh, but it is, Amy. What I saw was the Crone, the Calliech herself. She was wearing a pure white woollen cloak, her face almost hidden by the deep hood. There was so much snow up by the chapel that winter she was completely camouflaged.

“I didn’t notice her until after I made my offering. The wind blew one of the ivy tendrils away from the chapel wall and suddenly I could see her. I swear I was so terrified, I could hardly raise my eyes to look on her.

“She said nothing, but her smile… Oh her smile warmed me more than any day spent at my forge. I knew then, whatever happened, it would be as they willed. I knew it would all come right – the circle, the village. She gave me hope again.”

Granny stood very still, her voice hardly more than a whisper. “What has that to do with me?”

“She wore your face.”

Granny almost dropped the plates on the table and sank down on a chair. “She wore my face?”

“Not as you were then. It was just before you became Madron. Henry was about six months old. She looked as you look, well not quite now, maybe twenty years from now, but I knew it was you.”

“So you knew I would be Crone.”

“Yes. I didn’t dare tell you in case the telling would undo the truth. Now I can.”

“Thank you.” Granny leaned over and dropped a soft kiss on his cheek. “And now the whelp goes to seek the Holly King. “

“Let’s hope the Crone is as kind to him as she was to me.”


“He can’t be chosen, he just can’t!” Jack bellowed, his arms gripped firmly by Zeb and Andy as he attempted to launch himself at Anvil in the small kitchen of the village hall.

“It’s not my decision, Jack.”

“You’re our Anvil. You can change things. Let Peter go, you saw the holly prick him. There was blood on his finger.”

“He wasn’t the first, Jack. You know the lore. It has to be first blood. Colin’s handkerchief was covered this morning. You saw it the same time as I did. If that weren’t enough, he went to the King Holly by instinct and the King chose him.

“If we didn’t believe it, he’s bled three times this afternoon just from attaching the leaves to the wreaths he’s been working on. Madron’s confirmed it as well as Granny. He has to go.”

Jack sagged against the two other men. “He’s not ready. He’s not even made his knife yet. He doesn’t like cutting things. I’ve seen him faint at the sight of blood.”

“So why hasn’t he fainted today?” Zeb asked quietly. “He’s not worried. You heard him; he’s been singing to himself and whistling all afternoon as if he hasn’t a care in the world. I’ve never seen him so happy other than when he’s planting saplings in the wood. You have to let him go.”

“It’s not as if he’ll do it today. There’s time until snow falls. You never know, maybe we won’t have snow this year.” Andy tried to reassure the anxious father but Anvil shook his head.

“Snow’s coming soon. I’ve seen it. It’ll be deep too. “

“What about Andrea? If it snows along Borough’s Pike she might not be able to get to the hospital in time. Do you think we should send her to stay with Zeb’s Emily in town?”

“You worry worse than my husband, Uncle Andrew.” The young woman in question eased herself onto a stool next to the sink. “We’ve got it all planned. Simon’s offered to stockpile supplies at the Manor for the entire village and there’ll be plenty of milk from his herd. If it snows that badly, the milk tanker won’t be able to get through, so we can have it. No point in wasting anything.”

“But what if you go into labour? I heard Granny say you’ll likely be on time. What do we do then? Call the helicopter? “

“I hope it doesn’t come to that, Uncle Andrew, really I don’t. Emily will be here for the solstice anyway and I’m sure she’ll look after me if anything does happen. How many babies has she delivered now, Zeb?”

Zeb smiled, he was very proud of his elder daughter who managed one of the delivery suites in the local hospital. “Three hundred and sixty it was, last time she told me; that’s not including her two.”

“Well then,“ Andrea beamed at them all. “I’m sure I couldn’t be in safer hands, so stop worrying!”

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Holly and the Ivy Part 3

When Saturday arrived the village was shrouded in a blanket of fog. The holly gatherers met at Anvil’s forge, relishing the warmth of the fire before they set out. Some seemed subdued as if the fog pressed down on them, while others laughed and joked as if nothing were amiss.

“Everyone got their basket?” Anvil asked before they set off. There was a general chorus of agreement, so he ushered them outside, pulling the main door to the workshop closed behind them to deter visitors.

As they set off along the road, their boots rang against the hard surface; a welcome sound when the group leaders could not be seen by those at the back.

“Keep together now, lads. We’re going to take the track to the west copse from Bowsen Lane once we get up to the water trough. I don’t want anyone getting lost.”

“You think you’re the only one who knows their way around the woodland?” called a voice from the middle of the group.

“No, Jack Ackerley, I don’t, but I don’t relish explaining to your Lizzie why you or Colin aren’t home for dinner on time because you mistook Lawsons Oak for the Laurel Tree down on Hollowbarn Rise.”

Jack laughed loudly. “You tell that to our Lizzie and you’ll likely get the dinner thrown at you, Anvil or no. “

“Seems a terrible waste of good stew.”

“How’d you know we’re having stew for dinner?” Colin asked, fighting with his basket straps which threatened to strangle him rather than hang neatly from his neck.

“I gave your Ma the rabbits, that’s why.” Anvil came up beside the young lad, taking the basket from him and untwisted the straps so they could pass easily over his head and lie as they should.

A gap in the stone wall on the roadside loomed to their right. The leaders turned onto the Bowsen Path and started to walk uphill. Their boots squelched in mud and several of the men nearly slipped as their feet slid from under them.

As they reached the brow of the hill, a smaller path took them left into the woodland. At first they passed large bramble bushes covered in frost damaged leaves, a few young elders and holly lining the route, before taller trees –hawthorn, crabapple and hazel appeared out of the mist.

“Not far now,” Anvil said to Colin. “When we reach the first lime trunks we turn left and start down to the clearing where the best holly berries grow.”

Colin made no answer. The fog seemed to have entered his brain and he couldn’t think clearly. He knew every inch of the wood. His father was gamekeeper for the Earl of Landreich, who owned most of the village and thousands of acres nearby. Colin had been coming here ever since he could walk, but he wasn’t interested in the birds they bred for shooting or keeping the vermin down. Colin loved the trees.

When he was very young, he told his siblings the trees talked to him, but when they laughed at him, he learned to keep his thoughts to himself. It didn’t stop him from spending time in the woods and learning woodland skills along with all the other village children. It was these skills which had enabled him to join the Anvil’s Wood Folk at such an early age. His nineteenth birthday wasn’t for another two months. Most men were twenty one or older before they were accepted. Some never joined at all, moving away from the village or preferring the mental challenges of the Bridge Club.

Suddenly, Colin’s foot caught in a low-growing briar and he sprawled onto the damp carpet of dead brown leaves. When he picked himself up, there was no sign of the other men. Colin knew he should follow them to the clearing by the six-trunked lime tree, but something turned his footsteps to the right instead of the left and he found himself going back up the hill and over into the hidden fold where the sacred well and the chapel nestled.

Behind the chapel stood an ancient holly tree, covered in bright red berries.

“I don’t know why Anvil’s taken everyone to gather holly down in the copse, there are more than enough here,” he murmured holding his hand out to touch the smooth bark of the trunk. “You don’t mind, do you?” he said, looking up through the branches to the mist laden sky.

An hour later, Anvil’s group were gathering together at the edge of the wood.

“Anyone seen Colin?” his father asked. The men all shook their heads. Each man had only thoughts of gathering the holly leaves and berries once they reached the clearing, wondering if this were the year they would be chosen. Only Colin’s father finally realised his son was nowhere to be seen.

“Don’t panic, Jack. He’ll be somewhere close by. It’s not as if he can come to any harm.” Anvil laid a reassuring hand on the other man’s arm. “Let’s walk on and see if we come across him on the way back.”

Sure enough, as they reached the Bowsen Path, Colin was walking down the hill towards them, whistling cheerfully.

“Where have you been?”

“Look at all the holly I’ve got!” the boy exclaimed, holding his basket out for his father and the other men to admire.

“Where did you get this?” Anvil’s question was quietly asked, but suddenly the whole group was silent, waiting for Colin’s answer.

“I fell over soon after we entered the wood and when I got up, you’d all gone. I remembered the holly tree behind the chapel was laden with berries this year, so I went there.”

“You cut leaves from the chapel tree?”

The boy stepped back, hugging his basket to him defensively. “I didn’t cut them, I broke them off with my hands. I don’t have a knife, remember? I did ask and the tree didn’t seem to mind.”

Anvil caught sight of a blood smeared handkerchief poking out from Colin’s trouser pocket. He pulled it out and presented it to the boy.

“Is this yours?”


“It’s stained with blood.”

Colin sighed. “I know. Ma’s going to be cross. She gave it me clean this morning. She always says blood stains are the devil to get out once it’s set. I was going to wash it in the well, but I thought I’d better not. The holly prickles were something fierce on the lower branches. They weren’t so bad once I’d climbed up higher.”

“This is your blood?”

“Yes.” Colin tried to retrieve his handkerchief, but Anvil tucked it away inside his coat.

“I’ll keep it for now. We’ll see how you get on this afternoon.”

Anvil turned and walked briskly after the rest of the group, most of whom were already on the road back to the village.

“Why didn’t you stay with us,” Jack hissed .

“I told you. I picked some beautiful holly. I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”

“You shouldn’t have picked from that tree. It’s the King Tree. It’s where you go if you’re chosen.”

“Not now, Jack.” Anvil’s voice cut through the fog like an arrow through butter.

“See what happens this afternoon.”

Colin frowned. He opened his mouth to ask a question, then shut it again as he could see from the look on his father’s face he’d get no answers.

Why did old people have to make everything so complicated!