Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Elemental - Guest Post by Prue Batten

Being a writer is at best for most of us, a part-time job. Really, it’s true. Let’s be honest. We’d love it to be full-time but the reality is that for all of us, life intervenes. It might be that the dogs need walking, a family member needs to be cared for, or we have doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping to be done, or maybe the lawns need mowing or the toilet needs cleaning!

Or – we have to go to work. To the job that pays the bulk of the bills.

At least that’s what happens in my life.

I’m a writer to be sure. I’ve written six books and last year won a silver medal for fantasy in the USA. I currently have two books as finalists in another USA award and that’s affirming. The books, bless them, have had their share of success on Amazon globally, ranking in Top 100 Paid in various categories over the years. Last week, a new historical fiction was published  (Book Two of The Gisborne Saga – Gisborne: Book of Knights). And in between life’s demands, I’m working on shorts for a hist.fict anthology published by the popular Inkslingers UK group.

But I have another life – a real life.


 My husband and I have a working farm and that requires its own dedication. Here in Australia it’s winter, and where I live it’s a very dry winter – half the rain we had last year. So with pregnant ewes due to drop in a month, we’re feeding out to our woollie ladies every day. We have to get the girls into the yards regularly for drenching, mineral blocks need to be put out and the girls need to be moved to fresh paddocks every second day. Whilst I may not be helping my husband every day, I keep the home fires burning – literally. When we have the shearers here for crutching (two or three times a year) or shearing (once a year), I provide all the food they need, and if we’re low on labour, I help pen up and move sheep from yards to paddocks as they finish each mob.

We have gardens too and I adore my gardens. I like the rhythmic cycle of the seasons – walking out into the garden in the depths of winter and seeing the lush growth of the hoop petticoat daffodils, freesias heavy with promise, buds swelling on the trees and my broadbeans rocketing towards the heavens! And my infant fig tree – already promising to give me more than the 42 figs from last year. It’s reassuring that in a fickle world, something is so regular – spring follows winter, summer follows spring and so on.

I write hist.fict based in the medieval era and hist.fantasy which has loose roots in the Middle Ages and it’s quite odd how my farming and gardening life has contributed to the ‘feel’ of the era. Despite mechanisation of farming, there are things one can’t get away from. The heat, the cold, the touch of wool, the smell of smoke in the hair and on clothes, the feel of a horse under saddle, horse sweat, sheep dung, hay, the sound of creaking leather, stars at night, dew, frost, wind, blazing sunshine – birth, blood and death. I can hold barley heads in my hand or roll them between stones to see flour emerge. I can feel the joy of harvest, the tiredness of hard day’s work when every part of the body screams with pain, exactly the kinds of things my protagonists feel every medieval day. I get to see life at its most elemental and I have to say that it’s all there in my books.

Once someone said of my writing that it was 'in 3D and surround sound ... in the very best way.' It’s precisely all aspects of my life that have made it so, even farming. What a blessing!

Part of the first chapter of Gisborne: Book of Knights

‘Good morrow, good fellow,’ quoth Sir Guy;
‘Good morrow, good felow,’ quoth hee,
‘Methinkes by this bow thou beares in thy hand,
A good archer thou seems to be.’ Child Ballad #118

‘And when a person seeks the viridity of virtue, the Devil tells him that he does not know what he is doing, and teaches him that he can set his own law for himself.’ Hildegard von Bingen. 1166

Chapter One


The bells for Prime began to ring in the far-off chapel of Saint Julien in Cazenay and I had still not slept. I sat by the small window, a plain aperture, my hands cradling my rambunctious son’s chemise. I should have mended it before the candle burned to a stub but had been less than diligent and so I set it aside as William muttered in his sleep. But then the rhythm of his contented breath crept around the room and I offered a quick prayer for my son and his father – I would not offend my beloved Brother John of Saint Agatha’s at Moncrieff by giving up on God entirely.

Oh Guy, where are you? Already your son grows and does not know his father. He holds out his arms to Peter and Ulric and throws kisses upon them but not upon you.

There had been no word of Gisborne for an age and I shrank a little with each passing hour until I realised such behaviour ill-fitted a felon with a price on her head, and so I sharpened my wits and my manner and resolved to become someone on whom Gisborne could rely. We were two outlaws, he and I – destined to wander far from England’s shores in order to live and the pity of it, the goddamned shame, was that we might not live, let alone wander, together.

When the news finally came, it shook me the way autumn gales shake the last of the fruit from the trees. Word came sneaking to us along the labyrinthine intelligence channels Gisborne had created and it was short and pointed.

With the royal alaunts snapping hard on his heels, he had been forced to seek sanctuary in York and by the rules of sanctuary he had then to be tried by an ecclesiastical court. Almost exactly what my loyal and most dear friend, Ulric, had forecast months before.

Such an event as this – the trial of the King’s man– took time to organise and Ulric leaped to horse to make the journey back to England.

‘I would not see him stand alone, Ysabel. He shall know that we are at his shoulder.’

He left in a welter of pebbles.


*

Horse’s hooves rang like a warning as St. Julien’s bells faded and I stood, my fingers biting the stone sill hard.

Ulric, my brother-in-arms.

I knew it was he because my heart warmed and chilled all in one. I thought to run to him even though I could imagine his exhaustion and his travel-pocked face, because I wanted to ask him. I needed to know. And yet fear held me back. Quite simply I was unable to articulate a very simple question.

So I watched him from the window, paralysed by my own insecurity. Watched the shadows as he led his horse to the barn, Peter lighting his way, the torch flaring as they settled the animal and moved to their sleeping quarters.

As dawn slid across the sky in the wake of my friend’s arrival, I prayed that today we would surely find out if Gisborne was alive. I had only to stiffen my spine to hear it from Ulric’s mouth.

William sighed as he rolled over, his eyes opening and immediately searching for me in the shadowy room.

‘I’m here, William. Always here.’

There was no early morning smile, merely intense scrutiny as if he dared me to prove that I would always be there. And then he held out his arms.

‘You’re a heavy boy, now.’ I picked him up. ‘And a little wet, I think.’

I laid him on my bed and changed him in the pewter light of the early hours, washing him with water that Biddy had infused with calendula and vervain. His clothes lay in a chest with dried lavender and he always smelled fresh and clean, unlike some of the village children who had the taint of the garderobe about their little legs. He played with the wooden horse Peter had carved, chanting ‘Ounthee, Ounthee, Ounthee!’ and making trotting motions.

Dressed, he demanded to be placed on the floor and swiftly made his way to the door by supporting himself on pieces of furniture. No quite walking, not far away, each step he made was a practice for the real thing.

‘Gwenny, Gwenny!’ he yelled, not the least concerned the bells for Prime had only just opened the eyes of this transient family.

‘William, stop!’ I growled. ‘You are too loud.’

He looked at me with his father’s eyes, a cool appraisal, and I sighed as he turned back to the door, rattling the latch.

‘Gwenny, Gwenny!’

‘William, enough!’

It was not often I took that tone with him and I swept the startled child up in my arms. But anxiety bit at every part of me, shortening my patience, making me angry at the world.

‘You are naughty and will wait now. And you will play quietly.’ I glared at him – furious eyes meeting wide, dark blue ones. ‘Obey me, William.’

I put him on the floor and he continued staring, weighing me up, and then reached for the remains of a chess set we had found in the house. He took the knight and his beloved wooden rouncey, or ‘Ounthee’ as it was known, and began to tell himself a story in that secret language only he could understand.

I took the moment to stir the fire and strip my gown and chemise, rubbing down with the remains of William’s water, fumbling with the cloth, tangling my lacings as I tried to pull them tight. My gown echoed the unremarkable colour of the grey dawn outside but the difference was that its colour would remain ordinary whereas the cloud would burn off to an intense late winter blue. It was a long time since I had seen rain, I reflected, as it had been a long time since I had seen tears blot the surface of my gowns.

Is that what happens when you lose the half of you that makes a breath worthwhile?

I looked at William and shook my head. No. I breathed for him, of course.

But…

‘Everything I do, I do for you and for William.’

Gisborne’s echo plagued me incessantly, never easing. It forecast so much that was intolerable and I longed for it to stop.

A light tap at the door presaged Gwen’s enquiring face, breaking the litany. ‘Did you hear the horse, my lady?’

I nodded but said nothing and if I thought on it, I would say my prescient little Gwenny could see my heart leaping about inside my chest.

‘Shall I feed him?’ She held out her arms and William launched himself at her knees, rouncey and knight grasped firmly.

‘Yes, take him, he is full of himself today.’

‘And when isn’t he, madame?’ She tickled him. ‘But we don’t mind, Wills, do we? You keep us happy.’

‘You keep us happy.’

It was true. His innocence, his joy, the seriousness that occasionally manifested in his play; it was like watching a puppy and hoping it would not grow to bare its teeth and snap. I walked quickly in their wake, heading toward Fate.

At the table, I took a mug of watered Occitán wine and sucked deep. ‘I heard the horse, Peter.’

‘Ulric’s dead tired, my lady, and just collapsed on his bed for a quick shut-eye.’ Gwenny’s betrothed grinned as he chewed. ‘By the saints, I tell you he can snore.’


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5 comments:

JO said...

Ah ... Australian droughts ... I was in northern NSW in 2005, and everything was brown, reservoirs less than half full, and the farming family I stayed with out every day checking sheep and cattle, worrying about how much food they'd have to buy in when there was no grass left at all.

Dennis Hamley said...

Prue, your life sounds amazing. As another writer of medieval novels, my Joslin de Lays, I really admire your chapter from Gisborne. You've really caught a medieval idiom which stays clear and understandable to the modern reader. This, I've always found, is a difficult tightrope to tread. And I see what you mean about the closeness of muck and nature giving an insight in the middle ages. I wish I'd had a bit more of it!

madwippitt said...

Yes, echoing Dennis - sounds like an amazing life. And a full-time busy one around which to fit in writing too. Love the sound of this excerpt!

Jan Ruth said...

Interesting post Prue, what a busy bee indeed. I've just read the first book in the Gisborne series; a must for historical lovers, wonderfully rich writing.

julia jones said...

I love what you say about the 'realness' of outdoor life. That's how I feel about sailing.