International Poetry Day – Pettitt’s back….

In some papers attached to the archives of Babbitt’s Company of Horse, the following doggerel was discovered. It has been annotated in at least two different hands and appears to have been made into a paper dart at some point judging by the folds.

On A Patched Face (An Homage To General Fairfax)

(Fromage’d be better. I reckon. Least you can eat fromage – H.)

Some plain men say ‘tis out of fashion
Whilst living ‘neath a rustic roof
To have for unmarked skin a passion
And stand out for their beauty’s truth                                                          
Yet others say ‘tis finer far
To have a most distinctive flaw
A pimple, say, or else a scar (didn’t know you fancied HIM? – H.)
To bow the neck to Nature’s law
But I say this: tis each man’s choice
To mark a different thing the higher
A well-placed freckle or melting voice
A fine fat bum, or neat attire (JESUS LUCIFER WHAT?? - H.)

For this is true, as my name's Lucey,
Beggars cannot be too choosy.

A different author has attempted to edit this at some later point, presumably during the Interregnum period due to the nature of the comments which reflect a distinctly Puritan perspective, being neither complimentary to poets nor flattering to their morals.

Rebel Remounts #3 – The Unnameable Returns (aka Blossom)

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So today’s rebel remount is Blossom – aka, for most of two books, The Stupid Brown Horse. Now, this is the first time any of the sixth (!!!) Uncivil Wars books has seen the light of day, and it’s quite long. But it’s set after Marston Moor, after Hollie’s beloved Tyburn has been invalided out of the Northern Horse, and it’s the first time he’s set eyes on his family in almost a year. (Thomazine is just two, at this point. You can see how this is going to pan out for him.)

Oh God but he was lame, he trotted with the tip of his off fore barely grazing the grass so that he lurched rather than the old smooth flow of water flowing downhill –

But he was still Tib, and his head came up and his ears swivelled towards Hollie with the same fierce joy as if he had four sound legs instead of a great ugly puckered scar torn across his chest and all the muscle under it in rags.

Hollie slid off the brown horse’s back and his black pearl limped those last strides to bury his head in the breast of his master’s coat. (And Hollie wept, not silently and not beautifully, but there was no one here under the shifting underwater golden light of the willow trees to know, save for the ungainly brown horse from the Yorkshire campaign.)

Tib grew bored. Someone – a number of someones, possibly – had made a pet of the black stallion, and after he had lipped Hollie’s hair with the evident satisfaction of someone who had found a thing that had been missing, he turned his back and limped away. It was not a dismissal. It was, if you liked, a confirmation. Here you are, and the world is as it should be.

Tib was steel and shadow, but the stupid brown horse stood apologetically with the tips of its ears almost touching with the earnestness of its concern, looking like a clod of earth. It wasn’t even a proper colour. It was a murky, messy, indeterminate brown.

He whistled Tyburn, and the black horse came about in a great slow circle. He’d have simply pivoted on his quarters, once. Hollie had something in his eye again. He must be touching the beast, patting and smoothing and straightening, he must be reminding his hands of the feel of a solid shoulder and the sleek of muscle and the long cobweb-drift of a mane –

“Daddy!”

A scream like a mortar-shell overhead, and he automatically stiffened, catching the horse’s head because Tib was a battle-horse, he was made to react with fire and fury to every unexpected thing, and Hollie was suddenly cold as his tiny precious firstborn went thundering under the stallion’s feet.

And that lethal battle-hardened engine of fire and fury jerked a little, but more in a sort of indulgent disapproval, and then shook his head and touched his muzzle to Thomazine’s tangled bright hair.

Exactly as he had done to Hollie. Here you are, too, and the world is as it should be twice over.

There was something stuck in his throat that refused to be swallowed away, looking at his little daughter whose arms barely reached around the stallion’s chest but who was hugging him for all she was worth. (Possibly she should prefer the society of other gently-born children. Possibly she ought to have a cap on decently and not to be covered in grass-stains and horse-slobber. Possibly she would have to be somebody else’s daughter to be any different.) “Daddy, then, does not get a hug?” he said dryly, and she managed to extract one arm and bury her face in the top of his boots, and Tyburn rumbled grumpily and limped sideways so that he was leaning against both of them.

“Who that, daddy?” Thomazine murmured. Typical of Thomazine that she considered the stupid brown horse a who, rather than a what, and he grinned into Tib’s mane for Tib was his dear and his only and the stupid brown horse was –

“Brought me from Yorkshire. Had to make do, lass.”

“What’s his name?”

The stupid brown horse did not have a name. It was too much like admitting the stupid brown horse would be staying. He turned his clumsy head towards Thomazine, stupid ears swivelling with an eagerness to please that was almost painful. “He hasn’t got one, love. He’s not mine.”

“Whose horse, daddy?” – and with a mercurial change of subject that dizzied him, “Where Uncle Lucey, daddy? Apple come home? Daddy bring Zee present?”

He had a forlorn hope that she would cease asking questions, for she barely seemed to pause for breath between them – no, nor did she wait for answers, which was a relief, for then she released both him and Tyburn and flitted over to the brown horse. “Daddy, hot!” she said accusingly over her shoulder, and before he could stop her she started to unbuckle his harness.

Every. Single. Buckle. Of every single strap, so far up as she could reach, presumably having watched Mattie Percey unharness the family’s riding-horses. And once she had dismantled the bridle – left him with his forelock looped up under the cockeyed browband, and the grassy bit pulled through his mouth – and dragged his saddle off sideways by one stirrup, the stupid brown horse stood there as naked as a foal. “You done that, daddy,” Thomazine said, glowering at him with her arms full of loose sweaty leather. “He’s hot.”

The brown horse blinked at them both, his head turning from one to another.

It crossed Hollie’s mind for the first time that the brown horse was, perhaps, not stupid. Not precisely stupid, then. Timid, maybe, and confused, and missing his own place and his own people – that he would never see again, that he had been taken from untimely without knowing for what reason or to what place.

Not bright, obviously. Not like Tyburn. He would never replace Tib. Nobody would ever replace Tib.

Very warily, the brown horse who was possibly not stupid, stretched out his neck and gave himself a little shake. Thomazine grabbed a fistful of grass and held it out.

(Hollie, in nine months with the beast, had never petted it. Never given it titbits, or troubled himself to find the places where it liked to be scratched, or given it any more than the attention he gave to his sword or his carbine or his harness. Something mean in him curled up a little and squirmed at the recognition of his neglect.)

“Nice horse, daddy,” she said happily. “Zee keep him? Please?”

She was attempting, now, to rub a patch of sweat from where the saddle had been, with a twist of wet grass. If she had been one of his troopers he’d have pointed out that she wasn’t trying to get a spot of rust off a blade, and it was only by God’s grace that she had not been kicked from here to Colchester. Tib’s tolerance would not have extended so far. Not even for Thomazine. Most of the horses Hollie knew would have put her on her back by now, had she scrubbed them so.

The brown horse stood like a table, with the tips of his ears pointed together and his brow earnestly furrowed. He was not at his ease. He was stiff and uncomfortable and all four of his ungainly legs were braced for flight, and yet he stood and let this strange small person scour him as if he were the kitchen floor.

The brown horse was worse-made than Russell’s Doubting Thomas. Thomas only looked on the surface as if he had been cobbled together from three other beasts. The brown horse was swaybacked, ewe-necked, over at the knee –

“Job,” he said, for the patience of the beast, and his arm tightened around Tib’s neck I still love you the best –

“No, daddy,” Thomazine said, and the brown horse looked at her out of the tail of his eye. Not menacingly, but shyly – am I done?– and Hollie’s little daughter slapped the horse’s shoulder like an ostler born to have him stand over.

Very carefully, the brown horse walked away from them. Tyburn jerked his head up in a fractional affront, and then dismissed a badly-made gelding as below his entire masculine contempt and ambled off in the opposite direction, nosing the grass. Keeping a wary eye on the brown horse all the while, mind, just in case.

The spring grass was coming in. There were still patches of winter mud between the trees in the orchard.

Hollie wished, briefly and passionately, that Luce Pettitt was with him. (This time tomorrow, likely, after his mother had gone over him with a nit-comb and bewailed the state of his linen.) Russell would ha’ been better than nothing, though he’d have had to explain the joke three times to the marred lad. Slowly and ponderously, the brown horse lowered himself into the darkest, boggiest patch of sloppy mud and squirmed on his back, wallowing in the wan sunlight, the pale flash of his underparts bright as a guinea. Looked like a fat unhorsed officer in a buffcoat, trying to roll himself back to dignity, and God knows they’d seen enough of them throughout Yorkshire. “Goring,” Hollie suggested, thinking of that unprincipled Malignant bastard, last seen flat on the cobbles at Wakefield and cursing in all directions.

No, daddy! A nice name!” She straightened her thin little shoulders, stuck two fingers in her mouth and whistled wetly. (Her mother was going to kill him when she got good at it, he thought wryly. The child hadn’t learned that trick by herself.) The brown horse upended himself, gave himself a thoroughgoing shake, and then came up at a lollop. “Flower,” Thomazine said, “Flower, daddy? Pretty horse.”

“A weed more like, wench. Some great raking thing that grows out of cracks where you don’t want it.”

“Daddy!”

“Blossom,” Hollie said, with his tongue firmly in his cheek. “The leaves are just on the trees, look, so it will be apple blossom time soon. What do you think to Blossom?”

“Blossom,” she said, testing the word, “Blossom.” And then a great smile spread over her fox-pointed, freckled face, “Zee’s horse, daddy! To keep? Promise?”

“Aye,” Hollie said, and he hefted her up by the waist. First time he had set his hands on the child in more than a year and he had forgot, almost, how fragile she looked and how solid she felt. All arms and legs, like a little harvestman spider.

She sat on the brown horse’s muddy back looking straight ahead of her with her hands clutching his mane and her grubby skirts kilted up around her knees, and neither of them looked as embarrassed as propriety would dictate they ought to.

“You might have to let me borrow him, lass,” he said, and she gave him a stern look.

Look after him, daddy.”

“I know,” he said meekly, “I’ll try and remember.” He clicked his tongue and the brown horse – Blossom, who was no longer nameless, but who had a name and a place and a little girl who loved him for his kindness when her father had not – ambled into a walk. “Come on, then. Your mother’s waiting on us.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rebel Remounts #2 – meet Doubting Thomas

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An excerpt from The Smoke Of Her Burning, in which Hollie thinks he’s doing Russell a favour and if you observe the painting above of the horse Cehero by Johann Georg de Hamilton, you can see why the scarred boy might have taken offence…

“Got a surprise for you, Hapless,” Hollie said smugly.
Percey had groomed the bay horse till its coat gleamed like a dark conker. He’d even acquired some chalk from God knows where and he’d whitened the gelding’s stockings. There were times when you had to wonder about Mattie Percey’s previous career in a stable-yard in Essex. Just how honestly he might have come by certain skills. That lad was a better painter than Lely.
What he hadn’t done was improved the big horse’s temper, and it came out of the line rearing, ears pinned against its skull. Mattie had his hand gripping the bit-ring, trying to keep the horse’s head down, and even so the bay nearly had him off his feet.
It was a bloody fine horse, though. Big-built, not one of your lightweight sprinters like Luce Pettitt’s spindly witless Rosa: backside like a gable end and a proud arch to its thickly-muscled neck that hinted that someone might have been a little behindhand with the shears to its gelding. That was a beast that’d go all day chasing Malignants and come in at the end of it dancing. It was the sort of mount any junior cavalry officer with any dreams of a future career in the Army might covet, provided a man could train some sense into its thick head. Plenty of staying-power, plenty of fire and dash, though possibly a bit light on good humour. Hollie closed one eye and looked at the bay horse consideringly where it ramped and curvetted like some maniac heraldic emblem.
“What d’you reckon to him, then?” he said, and looked at the scarred lieutenant, expecting to see gratitude and pleasure on that cold, half-lovely face.
Instead the lad was white to the lips, the great scar on his cheek standing out a most unlovely purple, and his eyes were as mad as the bay horse’s.
“Is – thish – intended to be meant in humour?” he said stiffly, and his voice had that funny slur it had when the ragged muscle in his cheek had gone stiff as wood, like it did when he was tired or ungovernable. Or drunk. That was still always a clear and present possibility.
Hollie shook his head, thinking he must have misheard, or Russell must have misheard, because –
“All right, ain’t he?” Percey said happily, still being jerked around like a rag doll by the beast’s flinging head, but as cheerfully good-humoured as ever he was even when his arm was being yanked from its socket by an unwanted cavalry remount. “Want to take him out, Hap- uh, Lieutenant Russell? Take a bit of the ginger out of his heels?”
“I. Should. Rather. Be. Dead,” Russell said, through gritted teeth. Flung his own head up, looking not unlike the bay horse, and glared fiercely at Hollie, and Hollie would have sworn to it the lieutenant’s dark eyes were brimming with wholly incomprehensible tears. “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”
“What?” Hollie said blankly, and Russell snarled at him, actually snarled, baring his teeth like a dog.
“The Book of Proverb. Ss.” He bit off the last consonant with a hissing, furious sibilance, and then hit himself in the temple with the heel of his hand. “Shir.”
And then wheeled about and was gone, shoving Luce rudely out of the way, storming back to the house. “What,” Hollie said again, shook himself, “what the bloody hell was that all about?”
“What on earth did you say to him – oh, sir, that was not well done!”
There were times when Luce didn’t half remind Hollie of Het. Well, Hollie’s wife was his cornet’s father’s little sister, it wasn’t so much of a surprise, but even so. That hurt, shocked, disappointed look was pure Het, an expression she reserved for when he did something completely stupid. What, precisely, he’d done this time, he did not quite know, save that he was still trying to make things all right for a lad who was as tricksy to handle as a barrel of rotten gunpowder, and he didn’t know from day’s end to day’s end what mood he was going to be on the receiving end of. Like walking on eggshells, if eggshells were volatile, suspicious, and prone to soothing their tempers by getting fiercely rat-arsed.
“What wasn’t?” he said warily. “What, seriously, sir? You did not mean to be – um – funny?”
“No, of course I bloody didn’t!”
Luce gave a great sigh. “Ah, God. So you – you know – did you look at the beast? Other than, um, you know – professionally?”
“What -” With one final jerk of the bit, Mattie had the bay horse with all four feet on the ground. It was still a handsome beast. It was just – odd-looking. Three white feet, and a great lopsided white blaze to its face. One blue eye, and one, slightly manic, brown one.
A perfectly sound, sturdy, fine cavalry mount, who just happened to look both ugly and irregular. It was a bloody good horse, sound in wind and limb, beautifully put together, a mount a man could rely on – could be proud of. But now Luce came to mention it, the brute did look a bit like it had been sewn together from bits of at least two other horses. Good ones, but -.
And that had been a coincidence.
“Ah,” said Hollie.

Behold, A Black Horse

 

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Yes, I know I have been significantly MIA for – well, a year, basically. There has been writing done, there is a new Uncivil Wars book on its way, the third Russells mystery is all but done, and there will be another Russells novel in the autumn.

In the meantime, I was chatting on Twitter last night about horses. I thought it was overdue that I introduced you to the bridle side of the rebel rabble. (I can’t believe it’s six years since the world met Doubting Thomas, so I’ll re-share that again in a day or so.)

First, though, meet Tyburn, in a previously unpublished short story. Hollie’s first acquaintance with the colt who was to become his best friend and at times, and quite well deservedly, the only friend he did have…

Amsterdam, 1633

“You can’t keep this up, Red.”

Hollie scooped his tangled hair out of his eyes with one hand and squinted up at his spotless sidekick. “I bloody well can, lad. And you can stop there and watch, if you don’t believe me.”

He probably would, too, knowing Rackhay. He was a lovely lad, was Nathaniel. Loyal, generous to a fault, good-hearted. Shame he knew bugger-all about pain. Nat thought pain was the immediacy of having a wound searched, or a bone broken; not when you woke up every morning and just for a few heartbeats looked at the dawn with a sense of expectancy before you remembered there was no bloody point, none whatever. And you couldn’t not go on, because you didn’t know how to stop; all you could do was to keep putting one foot in front of the other and stop it hurting the best way you could. He remembered at Dessau Bridge – the first real battle he’d fought in – remembered afterwards, in the pale spring sunshine, sitting in the grass with a white-faced lad not much older than he was. Talking to the lad about the spring sowing, like Hollie had known anything about farming more than the bits they mentioned in the Bible, while the lad tried to hold his guts from spilling in the churned grass. The lad had asked Hollie to cut his throat in the end. Wallenstein’s camp surgeon had took one look at the wound and agreed.

He wondered what Nat would say if Hollie asked him to perform the same service.

You might not be able to see any of Hollie’s internal arrangements, but it didn’t mean there wasn’t a hole where half his heart had been cut away and buried in a neat, respectable grave in Amsterdam. And that was a remarkably lucid thought for someone who’d been drinking solidly for two weeks, and that probably meant he was getting sober and that would not do at all.

No,” Nat said, correctly interpreting the sudden gleam in his friend’s eye. “That’s enough, Red.”

“No, it isn’t, Nathaniel. It isn’t nearly enough.”

“Fine.” And Nat had leaned across the table, snatched the bottle of geneva and necked it, straight. Shuddered. “Christ, Babbitt, that stuff’s like oil of vitriol.”

Hollie shrugged. “She’d not want me on the cheap stuff. I owe her that, at least.”

Rackhay screwed his face up. “Jesus, Babbitt. That’s – well,” he looked round the dingy inn with an expression of astonished disgust, “or have they barred you from the Cat as well these days?”

And without thinking, without any conscious decision on his part at all, Hollie was half across the table with his sword drawn, bottles crashing to the floor, bench overturned. And the worst of it was that Nat didn’t care, he’d just looked down his patrician nose at Hollie – as if he was a mildly annoying insect – and disarmed him, most ungently.

“You’re going to get yourself killed,” he said coldly. “You think that’s what she’d want, to see you dead in a gutter?”

Not much Hollie could say to that, face down on a not very clean table with his arm twisted up his back. Other than – she’s dead, she don’t get a say in it. That’s sort of the point, isn’t it? She’s dead. She doesn’t get to tell me anything. That’s what dead means.

“Get up,” Nat said, still in that same cold, furious voice. “I’ll not put up with this. If you think the best way to honour your wife’s memory is by getting yourself killed, I’ve got more respect for her than that –“

The badly-scoured wood under his cheek was sticky. On the other hand, it might have been his cheek. Nat leaned, harder, on his twisted arm till Hollie felt the muscle creak but  he didn’t actually care. Not any more.

“Get off me, Nathaniel.”

“Or what? The state you’re in at the minute, I could snap you like a twig –“

He closed his eyes, went limp in Nat’s grip. Waited till his friend’s fingers loosened from hard enough to bruise to just damned uncomfortable, then wrenched himself free, not caring what tore in the process – rounded on Nat panting and shaking with a blinding rage. “Don’t you dare talk of my wife –“

And then he was blinded not by fury but by a flat-handed slap across the face that made his eyes water, and after that Hollie was lost to everything but the fierce joy of battle. Nat still had the advantage of weight – sleek, cream-fed bastard that he was. Neither of them, however, had the advantage of the massive bravo who provided the protection in this dockside tavern. He had a vague impression of Nat adjusting his cuffs and easing his way out of the bully’s grip. Hollie didn’t do urbane excuses – never apologise, never explain – and so the next thing he knew he was flat on his back in a stinking gutter with most of the breath knocked out of him and the world spinning in a way that owed regrettably little to a quantity of cheap geneva.

“Well I reckon that’s somewhere else you just got barred from, Red,” Nat said beside him, his voice shaking with laughter.

Hollie rolled over and shook his head, touching a hand to his bloody nose and spattering blood across the rotten cabbage leaves and fish heads. Stifling a wild desire of his own to laugh. “By Christ, I must be rough, then,” he said thickly – spat a further mouthful of blood into the gutter, ran his tongue across his teeth. All still there, which was something of an astonishment. The wind off the sea was very cold, very fresh, even in spite of the piles of debris from the market that surrounded them.

“You look better for a bit of fresh air,” Nat said. (He sounded like her. Oh, Christ, he sounded like her. If he told Hollie he’d feel better if he put a clean shirt on -)

He got to his feet – the fresh air had gone to his head, that or he was dizzy with want of food, but he couldn’t stand another bloody second with well-meaning Nathaniel, not without wanting to hit him again. Picked an wet onion skin off his sleeve with dignity, and dropped it on the cobbles at Nat’s feet. “I’m going for a walk. Don’t bother coming with me.”

Though not sure where he was going, for where he went she went with him. Or the lack of her went with him, and the great gap of not-knowing that went with it, for he had not been there, not at the last. (They had said. All along. Not good enough for her, they said, Let her down, they said. Rackety, they said. Unreliable. And he had, and he was, and she had died while he was outside the city walls of Nuremberg and he had no idea if she had wanted him or cursed him at the last because she was gone, she was dead, she was rotting in the ground and there was no more Margriete and no more light in the world, and God was a liar -)

He didn’t think he had the stomach for the sea, not to float on it and certainly not to drown in it. No, if Hollie was going to court extinction – and he wasn’t still sure that he wasn’t – he’d take it at the point of a blade like a soldier, thank you. Up through De Walletje – no, thank you, ladies, he wasn’t interested, and they’d have to be hard up to look at him in his current state – and on past the fish market. Without looking, he knew he’d reached the fish market, and once he’d finished puking into the Amstel he felt better. It put the whores off, at least, though. Onto Kalverstraat. Was it the spring market so soon? It had no right to be spring – the world had no right to keep on turning without Griete in it . It should stay frozen winter forever. He could hear the beasts – squealing and trampling in their pens in the marketplace, poor bastards –

– and that was no cow.

They were bidding on a thin, shaggy black colt, all legs and hair. Frightened out of its life, and wearing a heavy bridle with a cruel curb that tore blood and foam from the corners of its mouth – for God’s sake, you stupid butterboxes, the beast’s barely old enough to be broke, and you have him bridled with that? – lashing out with lethal forefeet at anyone stupid enough to come within range. There was a collective groan from the greedy, angry knot of fleshmongers gathered around the wild colt, and a sudden outburst of shouting – another scatter of shod hoofbeats on cobbles and a squeal of pain and distress –

One of the butchers was down, his thigh broken, apparently, by a well-aimed kick from the colt.

All those avid red faces, waving, stabbing fingers, making Hollie feel queasy. The black colt was scared nearly witless, panicked to madness by the crowd. “Bread and fucking circuses,” he said, aloud, in English, and was rewarded by a blank look from the nearest man. Switched to his slow, clumsy Dutch. “What is this? What happens here?”

“The horse is for meat, mijnheer. Unless -?”

Me?”

The man shrugged. “The beast is useless for anything else. Incurably vicious, as you see. It has killed a man already, they say –“

And he probably bloody well deserved it, if he’d been beating the horse anything like the pig-nosed butcher currently taking a whip to its flanks. Blood and froth dripping from that cruel bit. Under the tossed, tangled black mane, the white roll of a dark eye. Not mad, not vicious. Just scared beyond reason, and hurting, and laying about him the best way he could to make it stop.

Between the two of them, maybe, they could make an understanding. Or they could kill each other in the trying, which was likewise a consummation devoutly to be wished.

“Mine, sirs.” He pitched his voice to carry. “What d’you want for the beast?”

Someone snatched at his arm. Nat. Who else would it be? As if Nat  Rackhay would think him capable of managing his own affairs without being tailed by his nursemaid. “Red, will you just listen to yourself – pull yourself together, man – you can’t afford to keep a horse in town, and you certainly don’t want that one.”

Hollie smiled, that sweet blank smile that he reserved for the times when he heard what had been said to him and he was being polite but it had gone in one ear and out the other without the words having touched the sides.

“I might as well be speaking bloody Welsh, mightn’t I?” Nat said irritably.

“Surely.” He reached into his doublet, weighed his purse ostentatiously. That had been what she’d wanted, wasn’t it? She’d left him a sufficiency of gold to kit himself out according to his commission. She’d been bloody proud of his commission. (And hadn’t the neighbours been outraged by that, that boy of eighteen with his forty year-old wife. Overlooking that that boy of eighteen had been a captain of horse by twenty, and not a penniless, beardless youth any more.)  His shoulders jerked though he wasn’t sure if he must laugh or cry.

The colt screamed again in fear, shrilly, going straight up on its hind legs, and the crowd scattered again.

Hollie put his shoulder to the nearest well-upholstered back and gave the man a shove. Who turned round, found himself almost nose to nose with a dangerous-looking ruffian with a well-used backsword hanging at his side, and did some shoving of his own – backwards. That much closer to the black colt, and Hollie bit his tongue because there was no use swearing at this lot in English and that was the language he cursed in most fluently. Close enough to see where the tender skin at the corners of the colt’s mouth was torn and bleeding – ripped to pieces by that vicious bridle some time previous, by the white scars on the black velvet muzzle – more white scars on chest and flanks and legs, where the horse had been most cruelly whipped. No wonder the beast was ungovernable. Hollie had been, too.

He drew his sword. Just behind him, he heard Nat groan. “The bridle,” he said, and he hated that his voice was shaking but he was just about furious enough to gut the butcher on the end of that rein. “Take it off, if you please.”

Mijnheer, this is a dangerous beast, not loose in the street, if you please –“

“Then get me a – “ he had to stop, because he was so bloody mad he couldn’t even remember the word – “rope.” Oh, what the hell. “Five gold pieces, sir, for the horse. I’ll not want the harness.” He’d done this before. In another life, up on the moors in Lancashire, with the little black Fell ponies that were half this size and a hundred times more biddable, looping the length of rope into a makeshift halter, singing half-under his breath and God knows Hollie Babbitt’s singing would have frightened most people out of their wits but the colt was exhausted, shaking with it, and Hollie considered himself lucky to have only been bitten by the end of it.

And yes, he was aware that he’d spoiled their nasty little afternoon’s sport, but they could go and find a bear to bait or something. There were mutterings at the back of the crowd and no doubt with his Judas hair they’d be calling him a witch just on the edge of his hearing, making the signs against the Evil Eye, though there was no witchcraft in it. Common sense, and a spark of what decency he had left, maybe. Someone moved, suddenly, in the crowd, and Hollie turned just in time as the colt reared again, squealing in panic. If he hadn’t moved the horse’s shod hoof would have clipped his temple and he’d be dead on the cobbles with his head caved in. Instead the black colt had only – only! – slashed his shoulder, and it hurt like fire and he was buggered if he was going to let on. Sick with the pain of it, and thank God for his pause by the fish market because he had nothing in his belly to be sick with and he could just stand there grim and dizzy hanging onto the colt’s head until it passed.

“That bloody horse will end up killing you,” Nat said, quite calmly, and Hollie glanced at him. And then away, back to the shuddering black flanks where the sweat was drying rank and sticky-streaked.

“But you say that like I should care, owd lad?”

The cruel bridle hit the cobbles with a wet clink. Both Hollie and the colt looked at it with mutual disfavour. Somewhere under this mass of hair there was a good Friesland horse – an entire one, if his glimpse when the colt had reared was anything to go by – not such a bad bargain after all, Griete, if I can bring him round. No malice. No viciousness. Just fear, and pain, and misery. How soon one should know another.

“And how do you plan to stable the beast?”

“Oh, shog off, Nathaniel, and don’t be so bloody reasonable. I’ll find something.”

He knew he couldn’t keep the horse within the city. He hadn’t lived in Amsterdam for seven years without noticing the deficiency of accommodation for the common run of horse. Fine. He’d move. He’d go out of the city – it wouldn’t kill him – find himself lodgings in one of the farms outside – he wasn’t city-bred, he’d be useful to someone, and there was nothing to stay him in the city itself now –

“The animal doesn’t even have a name, Red. What d’you plan – Supper? Sausage?”

The black colt had likely never heard a man laugh before and Hollie thought he was somewhat out of practice himself. It hurt, too. Once he’d got the colt down from bouncing about on its hind legs like some kind of demented stork, he thought the pair of them would have to learn how to do any number of things together, that most civilised men took for granted.

It was like to be bloody hard work. But there. It was something.

********

It was near dusk when Nat finished his supper in the farmhouse six miles outside the city. Smiled at the goodwife, who carried on looking at him as if he was slightly touched in the head, and went out to the yard carrying a covered plate of bread and good cheese. He wasn’t sure he wasn’t slightly touched in the head, to be doing this.

The black colt was stabled and fed. Better than some of the quarters they’d enjoyed on campaign, he thought ruefully. A thick bed of straw lined the floor.

“Red?”

The colt lifted its head and looked up at Nat, ears flicking.

It hadn’t let them close enough to groom it. It still looked like it had slept in a ditch on campaign, all its ribs showed through its rough coat, and its ears were so suspiciously pricked that the tips of them all but touched. It had not, however, kicked its way through the stall, and Hollie Babbitt was bitten and somewhat bruised but despite all Nat’s suggestions to the contrary stubbornly unkilled.

In the gold evening light, sprawled full length in the straw, the redhead was stretched out sound asleep, his head pillowed on his doublet. There was blood on the shoulder of his shirt, bis breathing was easy, and he was relaxed, still. (He had not touched a drink in six hours. A coiled something in Nat’s belly that might have called itself fear, if that wasn’t too womanish a sentiment, uncurled itself.) The horse snuffed his new master’s hair warily and then turned away, apparently satisfied.

Nat wasn’t aware he’d been holding his breath, but he let it out in a great sigh anyway.

They’d be fine. The pair of them. They’d both be just fine. Give them time to heal, and enough work to keep the Devil from idle hands and hooves, and they’d come out the other side.

Pair of crazy bastards both. They deserved each other.

Of Ephemera, And Death, and Jumble Sales

– which sounds an unpromising combination – but hearken.

We were dropping some things off today at a jumble sale. (Yes, Akela, I will man a stall next time *slinks away apologetically*) The joy of delivering things is you get to see the goodies. Mum – who is the demon knitter, in sobriety, even if she makes up in zeal with what she lacks in accessories – found a lovely box full of knitting needles of all shapes and sizes.

Accompanying it was a bag with a half-finished pullover. Sadly the wool was beautiful, but unbranded, and there wasn’t enough knitting to work out what it was going to be.

And in the box, under the stitch holders and the counters and the needle caps and all the ephemera of a lifetime of knitting, there were seven or eight beautiful crochet hooks – engraved, tiny, delicate, shapely crochet hooks, sized to craft butterfly wings and carved with flowers and curlicues.

It was the collection of someone who had spent a lifetime making things – probably of the vintage we don’t see any more, of crochet doilies and tray cloths and itchy knit mittens. A bygone era. And, I think, a bygone knitter, who had laid down her needles one day on a half-finished pullover and never picked them up again. A competent craftswoman, judging by the variety of accessories and sizes and their assorted ages.

I hope someone is going to buy that jumper and finish it and love it.

I think someone owes it to that unknown craftswoman, who collected her needles and tools from the engraved iron days of her girlhood through enamel and shiny smooth grey metal and space-age plastic, to the day she finally set it down unfinished.

And now I just need to learn to crochet….

 

All Manner of Things Shall Be Well

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So if anybody is wondering I am still alive, still writing, still re-enacting, still making things.

To be fair, at the end of last year and the beginning of this year I had lost my mojo more than a little. The lupus was crappy, I had too many things to do and not enough time to do them in, and – you know that thing where you go it’s never going to get any better and life is going to be a horrible chaos forever? – or that may just be something that the children of alcoholics do, we didn’t cause it and we can’t cure it but before God we’re gonna try like hell to control AALLLL THE THINGS…..

And so I stopped. I stopped writing for about a month, I stopped being a fabric fiend, I stopped planting things and I think probably for a few days right about the depths of midwinter I stopped being hopeful about anything at all.

Well, midwinter passes. (Do I think it’s seasonal? Damn’ right I do.) Things start to thaw out, and the world turns. I read a book, the other day.

That actually is a thing. I read a whole book. That’s not something I’ve wanted to do for months. (I’m currently reading the new Shardlake book and finding it bloody tough going, but it seems from the Amazon reviews that I’m not alone in that, so I may curl up with the much livelier “In This House of Brede” as a lovely comfort read instead. And really, Mr Shardlake, if a book about a woman becoming a nun in the 1960s is more exciting than your current adventure, you want to give yourself a stern talking to…)

I practice gratitude. The two nesting blackbirds currently under my window. Big hugs from my boys (the big one and the little one) The cats – all the cats, even the hideously noisy Obelix aka the Tank, who is built like a Jack Russell Terrier and likes to share the love while you’re having a wee. Sunlight, and growing things, and the ability to create, again.

I’m excited about re-enactment again. I’m excited about textiles again – my lovely man has built me a two-beam loom, I mean, how much better a present can you get than a Roman two-beam loom scratch built? – I’m excited about weaving and Roman cooking and I’m starting to get a little bit excited about writing again.

I’m back, I think. Maybe not all the way back but some of the way back….

 

 

 

 

 

In Praise of the Plain Russet-Coated Captain (or, Why Historical Fiction Needs Anti-Heroes)

I was reading a review of a Bernard Cornwell novel this morning and once again I am inspired to set fingers to keyboard (around the cat, who is demanding cuddles with menaces)

Once again, you see, I cannot do the dashing white knight on his trusty steed thing.

Sharpe. Let’s take Sharpe. (Please, someone, let’s take Sharpe.)

You know when you open a certain genre of book, or a book by a certain author, pretty much to the last semi-colon what you’re going to get. You’re going to get an infallible hero, who may be wrong-footed but never fail. He will come good in the end – he will get the girl, kill the baddies, and save the entire planet. Laughing in the face of doom, and clearing tall buildings with one bound.
And, you know, that’s kind of nice. It’s all soft and comforting and cosy. No nasty surprises.

But history is full of nasty surprises.
After the battle of Naseby, the godly Army of Parliament hunted down and massacred over a hundred Royalist camp followers for the unpardonable sin of speaking their own native Welsh language, and therefore being suspected of being either whores, witches, or dangerous Irishwomen.
After the siege of Bolton, the Royalists massacred anything between eighty and two thousand people, both soldiers and inhabitants including women, making it reputedly the worst massacre on English soil.
That’s not nice stuff. On either side.

My Babbitt is anything but indestructible. He spends most of the books wrong-footed, miserable, irritated, wishing he was anywhere else but tagging on the back of the Army of Parliament. Periodically taking a pasting and then, being middle-aged, hurting. Not being irresistible to the fairer sex, even if he wanted to be. Missing his wife and wanting his supper, mostly, and wondering when he’s next going to get paid. And how he’s going to manage to run a troop till Parliament gets round to paying them.
A superhero, he is not. (He had a cape when he was seventeen, bought for the express purpose of impressing his first wife, but he never got the trick of not catching his sword hilt in its swirliness and Margriete told him he looked a tit in it, so he never really took to cape-wearing after that.)

Hollie’s a decent man, fighting a war he doesn’t want for a cause that’s shafted him fairly thoroughly, and committed to it for the sake of six troop of horse who expect him to stand their corner because he’s the only bugger stupid enough to open his big mouth in company.
Luce is a ditherer, a dreamer and a romantic. Luce is a nice boy who ought not to be let out of the house without directions. (Luce is not, bless him, officer material. But you work with what you got.)

Russell – well, Russell’s a bipolar functioning alcoholic with anger management issues, and certainly not someone you want to be on the wrong side of.

The Army of Parliament had a bad habit of not winning glorious victories. Powick Bridge – lash-up. Edgehill – no-score draw. Naseby – not the finest moment in Parliamentarian history, gentlemen. No glittering triumphs. No moral high ground.

No heroes. No villains.

Ordinary men – and women – on both sides, people of honour and principle, as well as ruffians and rogues: people fighting to defend their freedom of conscience, or just to stay alive from one week to the next. People not too dissimilar to me and you, standing up for what they thought was fair. A good cause, fought by good men, badly.
Now I ask you. Sharpe and his like – men of honour, or principle? Sexy, maybe, if you like that kind of thing. Love ’em and leave ’em, almost certainly. Daring and gallant and swashbuckling, probably.

Believable – maybe not.
Surprising, amusing, appealing, poignant, gripping – almost certainly not.

So, meh. More people read the adventures of Sharpe et al, knowing what they’re getting, than read the misadventures of one plain russet-coated captain of horse circa 1643, where believe me, they do not.
Be nice if millions of people read the Babbitt books. I’d like it. (He’d like it, the smart-mouthed Lancashire bugger. Be thrilled to bits, he would. In a sort of not-admitting it kind of way.) But…. Would I rather write books that make people laugh out loud on public transport, and three chapters later make them cry?
Where people tell me off because it can’t end like that?
(Google Burford, 1649, and work it out.)

Ah, hell, yeah, I would. Because Hollie Babbitt is real. He’s all the lads in 17th century history whose names never made it into the books, the ones that did their duty and stood their ground, that weren’t glamorous or poetic or noble or well-connected. He is what he is and God willing, the lad will remain a joy and a sweary, scruffy, appealing maverick from now until the end of the Civil Wars.

As you were, gentlemen.

The Road North – a ghost story

It occurred to me, rather suddenly, that the Eve of All Hallows and Edgehill fight were not so very far apart. Luce Pettitt – being twenty, and knowing it all, as twenty year-old men often do – doesn’t believe in ghosts. He’s a rational young man. 

But in October 1644, he might be about to reconsider that opinion….

It was October, and the mists curled up like woodsmoke from the sodden ground, and the nights drew in cold and cheerless in the Vale of York.

They were, however, a company who had been together in some guise or other these three years and more, and they could scratch cheer on a bare rock if need arose. There was a fire, and there was a jug of ale, and when you got more than three soldiers together on a dark night you had a choice of talk: horses, battles, women, or –

“Ghosts,” Colonel Hollie Babbitt said, and the corner of his mouth twitched without humour. “I don’t talk of what I’ve seen, gentlemen. Or rather, heard, but not seen…. ”

– Drew Venning’s dog, under the table, shifted uncomfortably. Tinners didn’t like this talk, where voices grew strange and ominous

Luce Pettitt rolled his eyes. “Oh, not this story agsin…..”

“What? If you’d ha’ been there, instead of under some lass’s skirt, you’d not be half so cocky! I heard what I heard, and I saw what I saw, and that I will hold to till my dying day. ”

“No faces,” Luce said. ” You said. ”

“No faces. A company of lads, marching north. And no faces under their helmets.”

” How d’you see ’em, then? If there was no -”

” Oh fuck off, ” Hollie growled, “taking the piss, think you’re a bloody hard nut, I tell you what, you wouldn’t be talking so big if you’d seen -”

” Or not seen, what with the lack of faces, ” Luce murmured, and someone cackled. Hollie growled again. “Smart-arse. No, it didn’t bother me, Lucifer. Decent enough drilled lads they was, from what I could hear, and a sergeant not unlike your man Cullis at the heel of it giving them holy hell on. Whoever they were when they were living, gentlemen, they were trained soldiers from head to heel just like me and you -” his eyes rested on Luce, off duty with his coat unbuttoned and his hair a bed-tangle, ” maybe more professional than some of us, Cornet Pettitt. Who was it this time, Margaret or Elizabeth?”

“Sarah,” Luce said, and yawned. ” – For variety’s sake. ”

“Jesus Christ I despair. No, the idea of a company of soldiers at their duty don’t trouble my sleep, so long as their duty takes them up the North road and not under my window at stupid o’clock in the morning. Wiser to be scared of the living than of the dead, if you ask me. ”

“Meaning the wench you’re married to?” Drew Venning murmured, and the colonel looked at him sidelong.

Especially the wench I’m married to. When a ghost can see to getting your tap stopped, captain, I’ll start paying heed to the buggers. Until then I reckon you can keep your bogey-tales. And with that, gentlemen, I’ll bid you a good evening.” He stood up and stretched, and then kicked the fire up again. “Bunch of old women. Don’t frighten yourselves.”
And with that, he was gone, swirling his cloak about himself into the darkness.

Lieutenant Russell, who had said nothing throughout this exchange, sniffed as the door closed and curled his lip. “Superstitious nonsense, fit for credulous fools.”

“You could just say bollocks, Hapless. It’s quicker. ”

“Kiss my arse, Cornet Pettitt.”

They were off duty. They could talk to each other how they liked, off duty. Most of the company were aware of the odd, careful new friendship between the officers of its company. “Do you not believe in ghosts, then?”

“I fear nothing from dead men, ” the lieutenant said cheerfully, with his mad slanted grin. “Only the ghosts in my head trouble me. They never leave by sunrise. But the past never really dies, does it?”

” Huh? ” – it had been a long day, and Luce Pettitt had spent most of it trying to direct idiots using nothing but a yard of silk whilst mounted on a shatterbrained mare, and he was tired. And then he remembered why particularly they spoke of ghosts and dark fancy – because in a week, it would be the Feast of All Hallows, the night when the dead came back to watch the living.

And two years ago this day, or thereabouts, the lieutenant had lost his beauty and a good deal of his wits at the great battle at Edgehill. And Luce – who was still, mostly, beautiful, and who retained most of his common sense – thought that it must indeed cast a long shadow. And possibly why his friend was odder, and spikier, than was customary even for him, this night.

It did not make him any the more comfortable company, but then most of the company was minded to be bleak. It was late autumn, it was cold, it was wet, it was miserable, the better part of them were boys out of Essex and Suffolk and they missed their homes. And the bloody war went on.

It had ever been thus. York had been a city when the legions had marched into Britain – oh, and some of them had marched out. That was one of the stories they told around the fires at night. (And scared the shit out of Hollie Babbitt, who would rather die than admit it. But the Ninth. Who had never gone home to Hispania. Whose nailed boots had gone thump thump thumping into the mists at York, and had never come back. Swallowed up by the dark and the mists. You heard them, they said, sometimes. Their hobnails ringing on the cobbles, their sergeant barking out the orders to march out –
But you never saw them. You heard them. A company of foot, making ready to march North into Scotland. That was the bit that had rattled Hollie, alone in the dark: the thought of being advanced on and overtaken on the road by a company of foot who was not there. )

“I am not good company, this night,” Russell said, sounding sad about it. ” I think – were I to stay and drink with you – it would not end. ”

“Prettily?” Luce suggested , and the lieutenant dipped his head.

I am not like to end prettily, Pettitt. I am minded to brood, I think. Tonight. I think it best that it is done sober. And alone.” And then, not being much in the way of a dissembler even when honesty did him no credit, he corrected himself. “Best done sober…but probably won’t be.”

” I’m not cleaning up after you, ” Luce said, and meant it. “If you must puke, open the window. And Hapless?”

The marred boy stopped with one arm in the sleeve of his coat.

“Leave it open, if you’re minded to be sicky, eh?”

It was, Luce thought, a night for seeing unquiet souls by. And how it would be, if you did – if they were sad, or angry, or pitiful – if they knew they were spirits, even, or if they were simply outside and afraid and wondering why you could not see them or hear them or talk to them: greedy for what you had enjoyed, being living, and yet set aside from it for all eternity.

“It’s a horrible thought,” he said, and the young blue-bonneted ensign passing by him at the time jumped about three feet in the air.

There was little supernatural about Connell, and Luce knew the lad by sight. He mostly looked terrified, presently. “Don’t tell me you’ve seen a ghost as well,” he said, ” what with Rosie being annoyingly mysterious about it, and bloody Russell stalking about being slightly more alarming than the dead people -”
The lad shook his head, bemused.

“Sit down and have a drink and don’t tell me about it, then. Particularly if it was the Ninth Legion with no faces under their helmets. I hate that story. ”

“Hwhat?”

” No faces. Colonel Rosie reckons -”

Connell shook his head blankly. “But that iss folly, how could they keep their helmets on without heads?”

– the boy was a Highlander, Luce reminded himself. Hence the heathen superstition and the sibilance. “No faces, I said. Do keep up. Heads with nothing on the front of them.”

“Then hwhat-?”

” Dead people in tunics marching about, Ensign Connell. Lots of them. It’s not normal, sir. ”

“It iss perfectly normal where I come from,” the lad said – and grinned, as if it was funny, “- we haff the Second Sight, on the islands, it is pairfectly commonplace, that off which you speak.”

“Oh. Oh, I thought you were – you know, the Highlands -”

Connell’s level black brows raised, no more than a fingernail’s width, but his point was made. “Sorry,” Luce said feebly.

” My grandmother. She had the Sight, now. She told my father he would be drown’t in the sea and so he wass, in the great storms, and he not even in his boat in the water but drawn up for repairs on the beach, and a great wave came up from the deep.waters and took him -” the ensign’s voice had dropped to a low croon and all the hairs stood up on Luce’s neck, “- but I, she said, I was not born to die in water, I.wass born restless in my mother’s belly and here I am, rootless yet. She said I wass born with the wanderlust on me and I should not rest easy till I had my own plot of earth and maybe not even then, hm?” And then he laughed, a sudden boy’s giggle. “This is not a cheerful thing to speak of, with the mist coming in under the door and the wind making unchancy noises in the chimney! ”

“Let’s stop,” Luce said, with enthusiasm. ” How’s your arm? ”

“Marvellous, I thank you,” Connell said, and rolled his shirt sleeve back obligingly to show the great purple patchwork where the medics had pieced him back together, after the great battle at Hessay Moor. “Ass good ass new. A pox on Malignant gunnery, I say…I shall be wagging my flag ass bravely ass ever, soon, and kiss my arse to His Majesty.”

“I’m glad.” – and Luce meant it, for it had been touch and go for the young ensign, and after those first hectic days when any man who could wield a bone-saw un a straight line had been hard at it, he had not seen the ensign. (The Scots commander, my lord Leven, and Hollie Babbitt, having served together in Europe and sometimes on the same side, preferred not to be in the same place at the same time.) “You must be very new healed, though?”

The ensign nodded ardently. “I am, so. I am like a new man.”

“Well, much though I hate to sound like an old graybeard – or your mother, for that matter – as a medical officer, even a very junior one, I would commend that you get in out of the night air. Falling-damps are not healthy, especially in a weakened state.” He closed his eyes, the better to.remember the most modern scientific theory about bad airs.

“Quite,” a much more familiar voice said, ” God knows what I’m doing stood here in it.- Lucey, who are you talking to? ”

“Ensign Connell, from Leven’s company – you remember, the young man who had his arm brake by shot at midsummer, and then the wound was poisoned and we had it all to.do again? Do you remember – well, really, Hollie, what are you doing here, for that matter? ”

All muffled up in his scruffy old cloak, Hollie shoved mist-damp hair out of his eyes and grinned ruefully. “I remembered the date. The boy Hapless tooled up clasping a bottle of brandy like it was a long-lost girlfriend, and I counted on me fingers and rearranged the duty rota. What I don’t want is our bright lad out tomorrow with a hangover and a fierce desire for attitude adjustments, if you get me. So he’s got his hands full taking out a sentry patrol that’s jumping at shadows – on grounds that idle hands are the Devil’s playground – and I’ve come to get you before you get bored without the company and start likewise.”

” Don’t be ridiculous, ” Luce sniffed. “I’m not that much of a child. Ensign Connell was very impressed by my expertise.”

” Connell, ” Hollie said, very carefully, after a brief pause, “has been dead a week. He died before we left York, brat. I should know – they borrowed the old bastard to preach over him. I don’t know who you been prosing on to, but it weren’t Connell. ”

Luce stared at him, a cold ripple running down his spine. “But it was, Hollie. He showed me his arm. I’d know my own handiwork anywhere. He was the first man I’d worked on – really had to fight for, I mean. He can’t be dead! His arm – it was healing, it had healed, beautifully, he would have had the full use of his fingers sgain – he can’t be, I saw him! He was looking forward to taking up his old post again!”

Hollie gave him a smile that was oddly shy. “Aye. And maybe that’s why he came, then. It wasn’t his arm that took him, brat. God knows what it was. He just never woke up. Maybe he knew it mattered – he mattered – that it would trouble you, if you thought it was summat you could have done. ” And ducked his head, and muttered, “I used to dream of Margriete. Sometimes. After she died. Or she came to me. Dunno. But that she was all right, that I hadn’t- ”

“Yes.” Of course. It explained why Hollie was quite so casual about ghosts, then. He had his own. Of course. But of all men, he understood, and did not laugh, or cross his fingers.

“Come on, then, brat. I’m not so bothered about running into dead men walking. I’m more bothered about the live ones, who’ve still got half a watch to cause havoc tonight if they’ve a mind to.” He put his hand out, and touched Luce’s shoulder gently. “He’ll be all right, Luce. If you were worried. I don’t reckon as he’ll want for company, you know?”

They could have been talking about Thankful Russell. They were not, of course. Both of them knew that. “No,” Luce said, and swung his cloak over his shoulders. ” No, I imagine they can always find a space for a keen officer. Wherever he comes from. “

The Alchemy Of Memory – remembering Diana

I had meant to write a blog post all about the way music entwines itself with my writing, mostly inappropriately and unhelpfully.

And instead I received news that I lost a dear friend, and one of the longest-standing and fiercest fans of my books. So I’m going to write about Diana instead.

She’d fallen in love with Thankful For His Deliverance Russell a couple of years ago, in the days when he was no more than a rather prissy young lieutenant in the New Model Army, and she loved seeing how he grew up through the books into a mostly-competent officer in his own right. I was just reading back over our messages on Facebook and she really did love that boy. She particularly loved – and shaped – the awkwardness and the kindness and the desire of his early courtship with Thomazine, when he wasn’t sure most of the time if he was coming, going or been, and how far it was appropriate to do any of them with his old commander’s daughter. She’d been there, she knew whereof she spoke, and she wasn’t backwards in telling me when I’d got it right. (She wasn’t always tactful about it either, I might add. If I got it wrong, I got it very wrong.)

I think Diana was probably about as delighted as both Russell and Thomazine when they finally got together. I sent her the first draft of the novella Entertaining Angels and she messaged me at some ridiculous hour in the morning to tell me that she’d just finished it, she was in tears and that the ending was Just. Right. He deserved his happy ending, she said. What next?

So I said, the usual pro forma is they get married and they live happily ever after.

Well, she said, I wouldn’t believe it, not with those two – Zee wouldn’t just put up with his funny moods and she won’t be shy in telling him either. And if he spends the rest of his career overlooking sheep in Buckinghamshire he’ll be bored to tears within the month. So it’s never going to be happy ever after, because those two are far too lively to disappear into domestic obscurity peacefully.

Had it not been for Diana, Major Russell would have been very lovely and very chilly and very proper, and he probably wouldn’t have been very much different from the literary ice-maidens who throng the pages of romance having their drawers melted by the Right Girl. And as it is, there was a Diana, and he became wry and very aware of the difference in their ages and rather embarrassed about being quite so keen on what he would tactfully call country matters, and Thomazine became fiercely protective of her darling (what scar?) and most enthusiastic about knowing all about the aforesaid country matters so often as she might contrive.

Like the Velveteen Rabbit, Thankful and Thomazine Russell know sometimes you have to get hurt before you can become real, and they are more real because Diana loved both of them.  I’m sad that she won’t be around to review the second one. I’m more sad that she won’t be muttering about the cover art and cheering the release. She’d have liked that he will be carrying on adventuring well into his sixties, with his other half continuing to pester him for sexual favours despite the fact that technically he’s supposed to be brooding and disfigured and all that. She’d have been delighted that there will be fat blonde Russell-babies and a horrible little black dog and a number of indispensable horses.

 An Abiding Fire is your book, duck-lady.

In The Dark – guest post from Linda Stratmann

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Sharing a taste for the Victorian gothic and the spine-shivering stories of M.R. James, Linda Stratmann is my guest to talk about the world of the spiritualists – the world of the heroine of her mystery series, Mina Scarletti…

In the 1870s, the decade in which I have set my Mina Scarletti mysteries, spirit mediums were a popular diversion. Hardly any serious investigation had been made into their claims, and the field was open for charlatans to make a living and sometimes a fortune, out of the curiosity and grief of others.

The spiritualist movement of the nineteenth century began in 1848 with a game played by two bored sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, aged 12 and 15 in Hydesville New York. They created bumping and tapping noises using an apple on a string or cracking their toe joints, and claimed that they were in touch with spirits. The sisters became a sensation and began to give séances before large audiences. It wasn’t long before other people suddenly discovered that they too had mediumistic powers.

By the early 1850s spiritualism had arrived in the UK as an exciting novelty and party entertainment. Rappings and knockings conveyed important messages on the subjects of love and money. The fickle Victorian public was always looking for something new, however, and the next craze was for table tipping. This was rather more dramatic than bumps and bangs since the tables around which the visitors sat seemed to take on a life of their own, trembling, tilting and even rising up into the air. Spirits, who seemed to be crouching underneath the tables usually in the vicinity of the medium’s foot, would also convey messages by knocking the table legs.

This new diversion became so popular that the celebrated physicist Michael Faraday subjected the animated furniture to rigorous testing, and established that the lifelike motion was caused by unconscious movements of the sitters. On occasions when tables actually rose into the air it was thought that they had been given a little lift with artfully concealed wires and the help of an accomplice.

As the years passed, interest waned, and the public was hungry for new excitement. The time was ripe for the arrival from America of 22-year-old Daniel Dunglas Home in 1855. Home was a talented clairvoyant and medium whose speciality of levitation soon brought him fame, and he was deluged with gifts and given free accommodation. Importantly, Home knew that knockings and tappings just weren’t enough any more. His sitters wanted visual stimulus; they wanted to see the ghosts. For these effects it was essential that séances were conducted in near darkness. Home produced glowing spirit hands and looming faces that his clients recognised as lost loved ones. His reputation was severely dented however, when an elderly widow took him to court in 1868 after he had induced her to make over her considerable fortune to him. The court ordered him to return the money and he decided to continue his career abroad. There was however, no lack of mediums willing to take up the luminous mantle.

The ultimate in ghostly appearances was the full body manifestation and was a particular speciality of the female medium. She would retire to a cabinet or behind a curtain, and the sitters would then be encouraged into the lusty singing of hymns. The purpose of the singing was supposedly to reassure onlookers of the religious purity of the proceedings. Its actual purpose was to mask the sound of the medium changing her costume. She would emerge, radiant in the draperies she had previously concealed under her voluminous skirts, diaphanous fabric that glowed in the dark due to an application of oil of phosphorus. Sitters were easily deluded into believing that they had seen a spirit dressed in gorgeous robes. There was an important warning however. Under no circumstances should anyone attempt to light the gas lamps, or take hold of the figure. The divine creature, it was explained, was actually composed of material drawn from the medium’s body. She might speak, even take tea with the sitters, or offer kisses to the gentlemen, but any excessive light or attempt to take hold of the figure could cause the spectral material to rush back into the medium’s body so fast that she would die. When sceptics who were determined to expose imposture did try to grasp the apparition, they found it to be all too solid and the medium very much alive.

The professions of medium and stage magician were not far different and before long special equipment was being manufactured for the production of supposedly supernatural effects. In 1864, American brothers Ira and William Davenport toured Britain with a sophisticated new act. They had a specially constructed cabinet, and were securely tied up inside together with some musical instruments, which were heard to play and even seen to fly through the air.

A watchmaker called John Maskelyne saw the Davenports’ performance and felt sure that with the aid of a trick cabinet he could easily duplicate their act. He was so successful that he went on to become a highly celebrated stage illusionist.

Most scientists were skeptical of psychical phenomena and did not wish to involve themselves in investigating them, but there were a few who embarked on serious studies. These early investigators felt that there was a possibility that they were seeing evidence of a wholly new branch of science, something that would one day be validated and accepted. The thrill of potential discovery could well have made them a little too eager to believe what they were unable to prove. Those mediums who later admitted that they had defrauded the public said that scientists, with their enquiring minds and keenness to understand phenomena, were the easiest subjects to dupe. In1882 the Society for Psychical Research, which included both believers and sceptics, was formed ‘to conduct scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models.’ It still exists today.

It is tempting to think that the Victorians were gullible, but they were looking for certainty in an uncertain environment. The eye is easily deceived in darkness, and they had no means of recording events, relying instead on memories of fleeting glimpses, unable even if they dared to try, to cast a rapid bright light on the proceedings. The Victorian dark séance did not survive the invention of the pocket torch.

Linda can be found at her website www.lindastratmann.com

and you can buy her books here –

Mr Scarletti’s Ghost (Mina Scarletti Mystery Book 1

Mr Scarletti’s Ghost

The Royal Ghost (Mina Scarletti Mystery Book 2)

The Royal Ghost

An Unquiet Ghost (Mina Scarletti Mystery Book 3)

An Unquiet Ghost