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.

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.

The Roaring Girls – some thoughts on women in historical fiction

Aphra_Behn
Aphra Behn, sketch from a lost portrait 

Isn’t it reassuring to know that all those heroines of historical fiction, who found that they just weren’t maternal, or meek, or submissive enough – that they identified themselves more strongly as masculine, that they cut their hair, or wore breeches, or climbed trees – they were all sweet, frilly girlies, really: because with the right man, you can get better! 

Five hundred years ago – three hundred, two hundred years ago – women weren’t allowed to identify with masculine gender stereotypes. We conformed, to the Gospel according to St Paul; we learned in all subjection, we were respectful, we covered our hair and our bodies as we were taught, or we paid the price of social ostracism.

You know the old chestnut of the girl who dresses as a boy to follow her soldier lover to war and bring him home safe? Don’t get many of them in the 17th century. In fact, there are very few examples of a woman who enlists as a soldier during the English Civil Wars – maybe that’s because women were following the drum anyway, in the guise of camp followers, or maybe it’s because until the creation of the New Model Army in 1645 no one was looking, or maybe it’s because many 17th century women were more than capable of fighting the good fight in skirts, viz. Lady Derby, Brilliana Harley, Elizabeth Lilburne, I’ll stop now but I could keep going all night. The 17th century highwaywoman Moll Frith lived and dressed as a woman – as attested by her nickname, Cutpurse Moll – and anecdote reports that at one point she robbed Thomas Fairfax, shot him in the arm and killed two of his horses. Which must have pleased him no end…s

(An aside: Dr Mark Stoyle has done some recent fascinating work into the female soldier of the civil war period, covered in a recent Guardian article)

But it’s not really till the 18th century that we start to see the “mannish” woman appear – Kit Ross, who followed her man into Marlborough’s Army and then decided that she quite liked the Army life and lived as a soldier for the better part of ten years, serving in two different units undiscovered; Anne Bonney and Mary Read, that pair of unglamorous pirate captains, who were as fierce and merciless as any of their masculine counterparts – what’s interesting is that most of the 18th century women who disguised themselves as men disguised themselves successfully, and lived within close male communities undiscovered – or undeclared – for long periods, but that they also were considered as equals of their male counterparts. Kit Ross was officially pensioned off, despite the discovery of her gender; Anne Bonney and Mary Read were sentenced to an equal punishment to their male counterpart, Calico Jack Rackham.

So, you know, there are hundreds of years of history of women living successfully as men, competing with men, existing forcefully in a male-dominated society. Succeeding, on their own terms, against men. (If piracy is your thing, obviously.) Being acknowledged as comrades and peers, by men. Women in Restoration England were running their own businesses, their own coffee-shops, although they weren’t permitting female customers in those hotbeds of political discourse and dissent. Women in 1649 were presenting petitions to Parliament saying…”Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood?”

And now, four hundred years later, we’re still seeing this denied in mainstream historical fiction.
The tomboyish heroine, that old romantic favourite, who’s not satisfied by a life of conventionally girlish pleasures, and who finds freedom and self-expression as an equal in masculine company – she changes, of course, when she meets the right man. (He “makes” her a woman, as often as not. *shudders*)

All those strong women, who lived and worked and loved as women in their own right, who ran businesses and ships and companies of soldiers in their own right – they just needed a man, to make them want to give up their independence and be hobbled by skirts again?
Seriously?

I was talking to Kim Wright from the arts programme Art2Art on Swindon 105.5 FM a while ago (just thought I’d drop that one right there, me on the radio, not swearing, not once. Hardly. Much. At all) – he had the idea that this sudden gender conventionality in fiction was a reaction against women’s freedoms in World War 2, where women were suddenly doing men’s work, men’s equals, threatening established masculine domains, and the womenfolk had to be groomed a little into getting back into their boxes after the war. And, you know, perhaps the reason for the popularity of that aggressively masculine, Chandleresque stuff was that a lot of women were comfortable within those boxes, too.

And that’s fine, if that’s what works for you, but it’s not right for everyone. We’re still promoting the idea of binary genders – of girlie girls and butch men – and pushing the myth that if you are not a pink princess, or a brave hero, you can’t have romance, you can’t have adventure, you can’t be successful. That to be atypical, in fiction, makes a character a curio, a freakshow. There was a Paul Verhoeven film called “Flesh + Blood” in which Rutger Hauer’s mercenary band contained, amongst others, two sniggering and not always very kind best mates, who were rough and tough, who always had each other’s backs, who were a pair of loutish young gentlemen always spoiling for a fight.
At the end of the film one of them is killed and you realise, by the response of the other, that these two testosterone-fuelled hooligans were a deeply loving and long-established couple.
And it’s not relevant to the plot, it’s just a throwaway scene where actually, these two brawling roughs are seen to have a capacity for deep emotion – but it’s two men who are in love with each other.

Does that matter? Yes. They’re a pair of aggressive street bravos who’ve systematically gone through life as their own two-person gang, and now all of a sudden one of them is alone, and we see a vulnerable, frightened side to him.
Does it matter that it’s two men? No. Or it shouldn’t. As Het Babbitt points out to Hapless Russell in “A Wilderness of Sin”, “There is, in my opinion, an insufficiency of people loving each other in this world, dear. As if it were something to be ashamed of.”

Takes all sorts to make a world, as they say in Lancashire, but if you’re going to write, the world is at your fingertips. Women, and men, in history fought hard to live outside convention, knowing they faced exposure, ridicule, social ostracism, even death, for disclosing themselves. And they still do, we have not yet come so far.

We owe it to readers to write those men and women back into historical fiction, not as plaster saints or  wayward sinners, but as real, rounded human beings. Just lke us.

But Is It Authentic?

A sort of conflation of ideas whizzing about today.

A conversation about 17th century re-enactment over on Facebook – about being too authentic, becoming intimidating, becoming contemptuous of those who don’t count stitches, or who use wool-blend fabrics. Now for myself, as an author, I consider re-enactment as research for my writing and vice versa. Thomazine’s snapped stay-bone in Imperfect Enjoyment – I’ve done that. (I still have the scar, too: I had to wear the things for the rest of the day, and it didn’t half bleed.)

I haven’t belted anyone in the face with the guard of my sword, but I have considered it. I digress.

And I admit it: I’m one of the stitch-counters. And what I find is increasingly it fills me with a horrible inertia. I have linen to make s new jacket, but I need silks to embroider it. Embroidery silks aren’t good enough: I need silk thread. I need metal spangles. I need – I need – I need.

And till I have, I do nothing.

Actually, I made a conscious decision with my polychrome coif, and my spangled jacket – not to make them period-correct, but to make them touchable, holdable. Hundreds of pounds worth of metal spangles on a jacket, and I’m going to let strangers pick it up, stroke it, hold it up, try it on? Or keep washing my coif after a couple of hundred grubby little fingers have stroked the ladybird or opened the peapods? But that’s what they’re for – to be touched and delighted in, not just admired from a distance. That was what the originals were for: to be worn and used and to give pleasure to their wearer as well as the people who saw them.

It’s the same with my new wardrobe: I want wool, I want silk, I want…I want to not start till I have all the things, rather than to use things I have that are not quite right.

My first thought in the authenticity debate was that it’s necessary, because what’s it for, otherwise? But I’m not sure now. I think it’s more the desire of the moth for the star, than a desirable outcome. I think I could spend my whole life not wanting to do better, but wanting to do nothing. Waiting for the perfect set of circumstances – all the aces, metaphorically, in my hand – before the time is right to do anything at all.

And then you get to be dead, and all the time is used up, and it’s never happened. That book half-written in your head but never started, that jacket you loved…all gone.

Carpe diem.

Putting Your Trust In Princes

“No,” Russell says, very firmly. “I will not countenance it.”
Hollie sniffs. “Oh, straighten your face. Call it a starburst, if you like, instead of an arsehole.”
The marred lieutenant closes his eyes and looks pained. “I will not countenance it. I am not – it is not funny!”
“Why do you care? Do you carry ’em?” Hollie wants to know, and then says nothing, very smugly.

Luce is trying not to laugh, not very successfully.
See, it’s a bit like this. They had colours, previous. Quite inconspicuous colours, they were, a rather discreet shade of madder-red quartered with a white cross on a black background: several previous careful owners. It was possibly His Majesty’s musketeers at Marston Moor that finished them altogether – that, or the red mare’s habit of pivoting in circles on her own axis, at a point when the said colours were underneath her. (So, to be fair, was Lucey. Not one of his better days.) Or, possibly, the dog’s tendency to sleep on them. Whichever. By the end of the Yorkshire campaign, Hollie’s colours were in rags.
And then Hollie decided –
“I did not decide!” he says indignantly, “Henrietta decided I should have summat a bit more befitting!”

So Het decided to make something that was more befitting to her husband’s status as a respectable senior officer.

“That wench wants her sight tested, she thinks you’re respectable,” Captain Venning – whose own troop colours are an unremarkable blue and bear neither the form of a fish nor a pie, to Hollie’s disgust – mutters darkly.

They began life as Het’s best company silk skirt, a garment she has possessed since her girlish youth. Hollie is prepared to be indignant about the sacrifice of the said garment, until Luce points out that anything that fitted her in her girlish youth is unlikely to be a comfortable fit after two years of marriage, a daughter, and provisioning the bottomless likes of one Colonel H. T. Babbitt.
“Are you suggesting that my wife has increased?” Hollie says, and Luce raises his eyebrows.
“She’s my auntie, sir. Ihave known her some time. And, well, you are known to be a good solid trencherman, when the mood is on you. She was ever possessed of a competitive streak.”
“I dunno where he puts it all,” Venning mutters, not quite under his breath, “he never seems to get no fatter.”

It’s a sunburst. It’s a black sunburst, a black sun with spiralling black arms, on that silvery birch-green background.

“You’d have to be some kind o’ special to have an arsehole looked like that!” – Venning’s determined to make the best of it, and Hollie is determined that having found a device that will give alarm and distress to the more proper members of his company he’s sticking to it.
Russell won’t even look at it if he can help it, which is going to make following it into battle awkward. Luce giggles every time he looks at it.

“Lot o’ work she put into that,” Hollie says smugly, and there is a shy tenderness in the way his hand lingers over the silk.

But a motto? That’s going to be difficult.
Baiser mon cul, is Hollie’s suggestion.
Luce favours Classical allusion, if they must -Contritionem praecidit superbia. Arrogance goes before contrition – pride before a fall.

But in the end they go with Russell’s preference, as much as to shut him up as anything else.

Put not your trust in princes.

Meet the White Devil

A little something from the new book – something of a departure for me, a light time-slip romance with a playwriting 17th century hero – Pen Corder, aka the White Devil.

He did not recognise himself, painted and jewelled like a trollop – his hair braided up and tucked under a sinister black velvet hat, a great glass pearl teardrop dangling from his ear.
He did not much care for the shading on his cheekbones and about his eyes, that he thought made him look more angular and more feline than was strictly human. He looked like a minor demon, he thought, and couldn’t quite stop himself from glancing over his shoulder lest the ghosts of his poor mortified parents should appear there at the sight of their only son mincing on a stage in an ill-fitting white satin doublet.

He could not do it. Every single word had seeped out of his head, and he could not remember a line of it. Mayhem poked his head round the door. “Decus et dolor,” he said – the boy spoke theatre-slang like a professional, the product no doubt of a misspent youth poking actresses. “Kate says five minutes?”

Pen took the awful hat off, forgot his hair was braided, and ran a shaking hand through it. “Tell her I’m sick,” he said.
“So was she. Out of the window, God be thanked, or Orietta would’ve ended being poisoned in her underlinen.”
“I have forgotten the words!”

“So just go and scowl. You’re the villain, aren’t you? Five minutes.”

He could not do it. The door closed behind Mayhem, and outside he could hear a murmurous swelling of voices.
Oh God, they actually had an audience.
He couldn’t do it.
He couldn’t not do it, for they depended on him.
Pen clapped the disreputable hat back on his head and scowled at his horrible black-eyed, red-lipped reflection. “Decus et dolor,” he said to himself, swallowed hard, and stepped out into the unknown.