Monday 24 December 2012

The Angels Dancing in the Sun

Happy Christmas, happy holidays to all of you.   May the next year bring you all good things.  To celebrate the season, here's an extract from my medieval fantasy 'Dark Angels', in which the young hero Wolf fulfills a promise to meet his friend Nest, daughter of a Norman lord and a Welsh princess, at the top of the watch tower of the castle La Motte Rouge at daybreak on Christmas morning, in the hope of seeing angels dancing in the sunrise.  Wolf has bad news for Nest, and danger is all about them - but - it's still Christmas...

FAR across the snow-filled valley the sky was changing from blue to the palest apricot.  Wolf hurried, slipping and stumbling.  When he reached the door at the bottom of the tower, it was ajar, and clods of snow had been stamped off on the dark floor just inside.  The ladder ran up into the gloom.  He climbed steadily, rung after rung, till his head and shoulders emerged into the chilly little room at the top of the tower.  Snow had gusted through the open windows and doorway, and coated the boards with white powder.

"Look out," said Nest quietly.  "It's slippery."
"You remembered!"
"So did you!"
They beamed at each other.
 "I wasn't sure you would, " said Nest, "but I came in case."
 ... She picked up a cloth bundle tied with knots. "Here - this is for you. Take it!"

Mystified, Wolf untied the knots.  Out fell a long-sleeved tunic.  A linen shirt.  Warm, tight-fitting hose for his legs.  And a fine woollen cloak lined with rabbit-fur.  They were new.  Nest must have been making them for weeks.  He looked up at her, speechless.

"Merry Christmas," she said gruffly.
"I can't believe you did this," he said in a hoarse voice.  "Thank you."  He looked at the clothes again, fingering the cloth.  "Nest - I came to tell you -"

A gleam of pink light touched her face. "No!" she pleaded.  "Don't tell me yet.  Remember why we came? Look, the sun's nearly up!"

Wolf swept snow from the rail.  They leaned on it, looking east.  Every moment, the colour in the sky grew stronger.  A vast cloud stood high over Crow Moor.  It flushed rose and peach and gold and began to brighten beyond colour, into pure light.  Out of nowhere a small wind ruffled their faces.

Christus natus est!  Christ is born! Far below their feet a cock crowed, wild and shrill.  A goblet of fire too bright to look at rose over the rim of the world. Fields and woods leaped to life. Rays of light struck across the valley, and the snow-crusted edge of the rail where they leaned turned all to diamonds.

A lump came into Wolf's throat.  Poised here on the tower, high above the world, his hard decisions and troubles seemed tiny and unimportant.

Nest grabbed his hand.  "Oh Wolf," she breathed.  "Look."

Above the joyful blazing disc of the sun, the sky was hammered silver.  White sparks appeared in it, like morning stars.  Wolf squinted between the bars of his fingers.  Far, far away, leaving streaks and curls of fire, the angels danced like a flock of birds before the sun, their immeasurably distant wings flashing.

Dark Angels by Katherine Langrish, HarperCollins

US edition: The Shadow Hunt, HarperCollins

Happy Christmas to you all!

Picture credits:  

Sunrise over Boldron fields  by Andy Waddington, Wikimedia Commons
Angels dancing in the sun by Giovanni di Paolo (Musee Conde), Wikimedia Commons

Friday 21 December 2012

Folklore Snippets: Stealing Cream

Stealing Cream for Butter
From Scandinavian Folklore, ed William Craigie 1896

Here’s a Norse version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, in which we learn about theft, greed, and the power of multiplication, and in which a young person learns to follow instructions carefully or rue the consequences…

There was once a woman in Stödov on Helge-neas, who practised witchcraft.  She had the custom, when she was about to make butter, of saying, “A spoonful of cream from every one in the county”; and in this way she always got her churn quite full of cream.  One day it happened that she had an errand into town, just when they were about to churn, and said to the maid, “You can churn when I am away, but before you begin you must say, ‘A spoonful of cream form every one in the county’; I shall take care then that plenty of cream will come to you.”  She then went away, and the maid began to churn but when she came to say the words that the witch had taught her, she thought that a spoonful from every one was so very little, so she said, “a pint of cream from every one in the county.”

Now she got cream, and that in plenty.  The churn was filled, and the cream still continued to come, till at last the kitchen was half full of cream. When the woman returned home, the girl stood bailing the cream out at the kitchen door, and the witch was very angry that the maid had gone beyond her orders and asked for a pint instead of a spoonful, for now every one could easily see that cream had been stolen from them.  After this the girl never got leave to make the butter by herself.

Picture credit: Study for Woman Churning Butter, Jean-Francois Millet, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Wikimedia Commons

Friday 14 December 2012

Rich and Poor

The Rich and the Poor

A tale of Peig Mhóron from the Great Blasket
 Taken from ‘The Western Island’ by Robin Flower, Clarendon Press 1944

I said, “Some say… if all the money in the world were divided up among all the people, all could live easily and there would be neither rich nor poor.”

“Don’t believe them, Bláheen; for that plan was tried once, and we all know what came of it. 

It was this way. There was a good king once.  The people liked him well, but they liked the queen, his wife, even better.  For all she wished at all times was to keep the poor people up. And she was always complaining, asking why it was that the poor people didn’t get fair play to lift them out of their poverty.  One day she spoke to the king, “I hope, O king,” she said, “that you will do something for me and give the poor people fair play.”  “Very well, my queen,” said he, “you shall have your desire.” She was very pleased then but perhaps she wasn’t so pleased afterwards.  The king made proclamation that certain things should be done, that everyone should be put in a good way and be able to manage for himself.

It wasn’t long till the poor people were getting in a good way, and in a few years they wouldn’t be at the trouble to buy or sell anything.  And one day it came to pass that there wasn’t a potato to be bought in the market. When it was dinner time, and they sat to table, the queen saw no potatoes coming. “What’s this?” she said.  “Isn’t there a potato for my dinner today?”  “Well if you haven’t got a potato,” said the king, “you have your will.  You wouldn’t be satisfied till the poor got fair play, and now, when they have their own way, they don’t trouble to do anything for you and me. You ought to be satisfied.”  “O if that’s the way of it,” said the queen, “You’ll have to put a stop to this work.  I must have potatoes for my dinner.”  So the king had to rein in the poor again, and bring them under subjection.  And then the queen was satisfied.”

Peig rose from her stool on the floor and, “Well Bláheen,” she said, “We’ve been a long time talking, and people will be saying of me that I do nothing but sit and tell tales, and it’s time you were going home to your dinner.

“It is,” I answered, and we went to the door and looked out.  The sun was going down into the western sea, and its rays struck across on to the mainland.  Away up on the side of Sliabh an Iolair, above Dunquin, a cataract could be seen flashing white in the light of the evening sun.

“Do you see that fall?” she said. “It was in a house below that fall I lived when I was a girl, till it was time for me to go into service. And I was married at seventeen.  You wouldn’t see anywhere a merrier girl than I was till that time, for it is youth that has the light foot and the happy heart.  But since the time I was married I have never known a day that I was entirely happy.  My husband was a sick man most of his days, and then he died and left me, and I brought up my children to read and write, and there never were children with cleverer heads for their books; but there was no place for them in Ireland, and they have all gone to America but one, and soon he too will be gone, and I shall be alone in the end of my life.  But it is God’s will and the way of the world, and we must not complain.” And she threw her shawl over her head and turned back into the darkening house.

Picture credit: Sliabh an Iolair (Mount Eagle) from the Great Blasket Island, by gerrym  26 Mar 2010, courtesy of the website Mountain Views