Friday 4 January 2013

#FridayFlash - The Supplicant

The shrine to Beseda lay deep in the bowels of the Underground City. It could only be reached by a twisting staircase that cut its way through layers of black and grey rock, a staircase frequently blocked by the sheer number of supplicants trying to enter or leave the shrine. Its lack of natural light made time irrelevant in the Underground City, and traffic to the shrine was almost constant. However, Arabella determined that many of the slum dwellers would be packed into taverns and other drinking dens on the Feast of Rogues. As a result, the staircase to the shrine was mercifully quiet as she picked her way down the steps towards the hallowed doors.

She slipped between the iron gates and padded along the hallway towards the inner sanctum. There were no guards, for everyone guarded the shrine in their own way, and the priests were more fierce than anyone the City could appoint. Arabella clutched her meagre offering and bit her lip - would it be enough? She hoped that sincerity would hold more weight than quantity when it came to matters of supplication.

Arabella ducked under the low beam and stepped inside the shrine. Priests sat in alcoves set into the walls of the circular room, bent over scrolls or tablets. Only one looked up as she entered, and after passing a disinterested gaze over her, he returned to his work. Arabella took that as an invitation to enter fully, and she ventured further into the shrine. The centre of the room was dominated by a tall statue of a slender woman, arms held aloft as her owl wings curved around her body for either protection or modesty - the priests could not decide. Two long, elegant feathers formed eyebrows, and talons tipped her fingers and toes. A range of offerings occupied the plinth at her feet, with prayers written in either childish handwriting or simple pictures.

Arabella knelt before the giant statue of Beseda, the owl princess deity of vulnerable women and legal affairs. She placed her bedraggled bunch of liberated nightblooms on the plinth and bowed her head. She kept her voice low so as not to disturb the priests in their work, or indeed to provide them with new subjects for idle gossip.

“Lady Beseda, I need your help. I know I don’t come often but that’s ‘cause I don’t like to bother you none. But right now I can’t do much more on my own. I tried to be good, see, I tried to do what I were told, and I tried to always take each beatin’ with a smile in my heart, but it ain’t no good.”

Her fingers strayed to the array of bruises on her left arm, fresh purple flowers amid blooms of dull brown and vicious yellow. The words that accompanied each blow were like daggers to the heart, imprinted on her mind like hieroglyphs of pain.

“I never wanted to marry him in the first place but Mama said I had to leave, give her more food for the rest o’ the family. She knows he hits me, but she says I must deserve it.”

A stray tear escaped and slid down Arabella’s cheek, tracing the faint shadow of an old bruise usually hidden by her curtain of hair. Her husband didn’t hit her face any more; he wouldn’t be able to sell her to the men at the tavern if she looked damaged.

“I know what he’s got planned for me, and I don’t want no part of it. I’ve only got a few days until my cycle ends, and then…”

Arabella sniffed back another tear. She closed her eyes and continued her prayer to Beseda inside her head. The priests, recognising true need, left the weeping young woman alone in the shrine. However, Arabella was not quite alone. Something soft brushed her face, and she opened her eyes to see a long white feather, spotted with black, lying on the plinth on top of her bunch of nightblooms. Better yet, a small glass vial stood beside the feather.

Arabella snatched up the gifts and threw her arms around the legs of the statue. She smothered the cold stone with kisses, and her words of gratitude tumbled out in a rush. She slipped the vial and the feather into her pockets and bolted out of the shrine, almost colliding with the priests in her hurry to leave.

The young woman thought of the gifts as she scrambled up the twisting staircase, the flaming torches throwing flickering shadows across the walls. She smiled; everyone knew that owl tears were poisonous. The vial contained either release or retribution, depending on how she used it.

“And the feather will take the sting away,” she sang as she climbed.

Praise be to Beseda…

* * *

This story is set in the Underground City, part of the universe for my dark fantasy/horror novella, The Necromancer's Apprentice. Two of the other stories so far are The Vault of Lost Voices, and The Fishwives.

Thursday 3 January 2013

[Book Review] Outlaw

Anyone who knows me will know that I have a fondness for Westerns, and those written by Matthew Pizzolato are no exception. I welcomed him over to the Blunt Pencil back in October for an interview in which Matt discusses the challenges of marketing Westerns, so to help with that marketing, I want to put up my review for his latest novella, Outlaw.

Outlaw tells the story of the bad boy outlaw, Wesley Quaid, who rides into the sleepy town of Leeville, Kansas, in the hope that he can lie low in an effort to escape his reputation in Texas. You can't keep a good outlaw down, and soon Quaid is checking out the bank with the intention of pulling a heist. Things don't go according to plan since he gets his eye on the pretty bank clerk, Colleen, and soon he's struggling with his feelings for her, as well as becoming embroiled in a turf war with the hot-headed son of the local ranch owner. If that's not enough, he's also been made deputy marshal, he's got a thing with the hot woman who runs the saloon, and he's being tailed by a shadowy assassin named Sabrina...

I give you that much of the plot as an indication of how fast-paced this novella is. Pizzolato's writing is tight and the narrative unfurls at a swift pace, with plenty going on to make this an action-packed story. Casting an outlaw as your hero takes a lot of guts, and Quaid is more of a likeable rogue than a vicious bad guy. He'll give as good as he gets, but he doesn't pick fights with people unless he needs to. The setting feels plausible, and at no point did I feel like I'd been thrown out of the story. I would have liked to have seen more character development, as well as a little more back story for Sabrina, but hey, that's what other novellas are for, right?

Outlaw is a quick but tight read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I'll be looking forward to more of Wesley Quaid's adventures.

Four blunt pencils out of five!

You can buy it for the Kindle from Amazon US or Amazon UK, and it's also available in paperback.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

So, 2013, we meet at last...

I asked the question on Twitter a few days ago about whether or not I should restrict myself to talking about writing, design and so on, or whether people would like to see more posts that express me as a person. I'm not very good at talking about myself on my blog, but I can't help thinking that solely featuring posts about writing, or arty things, may be a little 'dry'. A few people asked me to do both, so I figured now was as good a time as any to do a more 'personal' post, as I discuss how the holidays have gone!

It's been wonderful to have time off work, time that I've been able to spend relaxing (something with which I often have some difficulty), and doing work for my PhD (on which I've fallen behind a bit of late). I don't often feel that I have the time to sit and unwind, since I always have a lot of things I should be doing instead of relaxing. I also had a very good Christmas, receiving books that are both useful and interesting (Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies, a Boris Karloff biography, and a book on the English Civil War), DVDs, and Nintendo DS games that should keep me out of mischief. I even found time to do a spot of baking, producing one of my now infamous chocolate orange loaf cakes and a collection of ninjabread men for Christmas Day.

What are ninjabread men, I hear you ask. Well, they're gingerbread men made using my ninja cookie cutters! I had a lot of fun decorating them with icing pens as well, and I've included some photos below. Cool, aren't they?

The ninjabread men before...


Close up!

They were also incredibly delicious and I'll no doubt make them again in future. I have some dinosaur cutters that I want to try so you never know, I might feature a gingersaurus or something within the next few months.

For New Year, I originally went to my best friend's house party but a killer headache (and a problem with my shoulder that makes it painful to breathe) forced me home early, so I saw in the New Year with my parents. I was also my family's First Foot for the year, which is a somewhat archaic tradition that we follow in order to welcome the new year. In Scottish and Northern English folklore, the First Foot is whoever is first to enter the house in the new year, bringing with them good fortune (allegedly). First-footers must leave the house before midnight, and return after midnight, bringing with them a collection of 'gifts'. In our house, it's a silver coin (to symbolise prosperity), a piece of food (to ensure continuing food), a box of matches (to bring warmth) and a drink (usually whisky though I've been known to toast the new year with cranberry juice. First footers are supposed to be tall, dark-haired men, but I've done it before, and I'm doing it again. Other countries, or even parts of the UK, have different traditions, but that's how we do things at Castle Sedgwick.

I posted last week about looking back over 2012, and looking forward over 2013, and I did say my main goals were related to fiction projects, my PhD and things at work. Having said all of that, I also decided to make some creative resolutions, and I've decided that my goals for the year are to;
  • Read and review at least one fiction book every month,
  • Go to the cinema and review at least one film every month,
  • Write 100 words every day,
  • Produce an image of some form every day.
It may sound like a lot to work through, but I've been reading more than a book a month for 2012 anyway so it is simply continuing that work, and writing a hundred words, be it on an existing project or just as a vignette, shouldn't be too difficult as again, I've been doing it anyway. Producing an image, be it a drawing or a photo, should be easy as I pretty much did that anyway for the latter half of 2012! As far as the cinema goes, it largely depends on what is released, but I let my cinema blog fall by the wayside last year, and I'd like to feature more content on it. Being a film academic should be incentive enough but I'm hoping to have more free time after April to make producing content a little easier.

So now I've said all about you?