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The Birth of a Novel - Proverbs and Destiny 10 -The cord around the neck

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1where hope dares front cover smallIt's been a while since I've had time to write in the blog. Publishing was within sight: a proof print copy of Where Hope Dares landed on my doormat and I was ready for the final read-through. The bombshell came when a reader kindly doing an ARC read for review brought up concerns. There were things he didn't understand that I thought I'd explained. Was it him or me? I sent a copy to another reader to confirm or dispel the problem. The second reader agreed with some of the first readers concerns but also cam eup with suggestions for a new way forward. I couldn't see how I could implement the necessary changes in the time I had before release date: the cord was well and truly round my baby's neck.

Fortunately, unlike childbirth, I could delay the birth of the novel until I'd given it much-needed thought. New ideas jostled for attention, but I couldn't see how to move forward with them. Finally, one idea began to form and slowly gelled. I've begun the research necessary to make the idea work and every question I answer raises more. Where does Colchicum Alpinicus grow? What is the Catholic belief in the Second Coming? How do you cross the High Atlas Mountains? How did the inhabitant of Los Angeles survive after the flooding? These questions have no apparent connection, yet all are relevent to my tale in some way. I'm becoming quite excited about the story's new direction and, although it may well be the end of 2015 before it's ready for publication, I'd like to share the possible new beginning. It will change as edits continue to hone and improve it, but this a flavour of what's to come.

 

Knowledge is power, and he who has power over knowledge has power over power – Anon

 

Chapter One

 

Abe put a hand on his mule’s neck: the beast threw up his head, the white of his eye bright, a sure sign something had spooked him. ‘Hold up, Moses. Quiet, boy.’ Moses’ nostrils expanded and quivered, blowing soft, nervous breath on his master’s wrist: his long ears went back, flat to his mane. ‘Yes, I smell it too.’ He hauled the reluctant mule forward, and his own nostrils twitched in sympathy; a damp smell of burning clung to the air.

The track wound along the bottom of the narrow gorge, among the sparse trees at the river’s edge. Where were the people, the children? Moses snorted again, hanging back. ‘I know, boy. I know.’ The breeze blowing down the gorge brought with it the sickly-sweet scent of death. Whatever had happened here, he was too late to administer the last rites.

He rounded the last bend in the track. Here, the gorge widened enough to allow the land to be cultivated and a small village had sprung up amid the trees: he stopped, heart in mouth. The cottage before him lay in ruins, smoke still wisping from the windows. A body of a woman lay at the foot of a tree. He drew closer, tying Moses to a branch. The mule yanked at his tether. ‘Steady, old boy. It’s okay.’

He crossed himself hastily and bent to the still figure: she lay curled on her side, a small knife protruding from her belly. She’d been dead a day, maybe less. Moses snorted again and let out a strangled squeal, wild eyed and terrified. Cold fingers crept up his spine as his eyes were drawn inexorably where Moses looked, up into the tree to which he’d tethered the mule. Above them was a child, a small girl: her dress, once a pale blue, was black with blood, her dark curls framed her face in matted locks, her head hung forward on her chest and her thin arms were outstretched. Through her hands, wooden spikes pinned her to the tree’s branches and through her heart was a wooden stake; a crucifixion, a cruel parody of his Christian beliefs.

‘Holy Mary…’ He forced himself to look at her, to see the dark stain caking the insides of her legs, and the blood that had run from her wounds: she’d been raped, and had been alive when they hung her from this tree. His breath came in harsh bursts and he raised his eyes to the heavens, his fists clenched. ‘My God, why hast thou forsaken her?’

He turned away, blind with tears and puked his guts in the road. He wiped a sleeve across his eyes and mouth, and untied Moses and hobbled him, letting him graze a short distance away, then he climbed the tree to take down the dead child. Cradling her in his arms, he laid the little girl by the woman. He remembered them from a previous visit. They were mother and daughter, and it was clear from the woman’s position, from the tracks of crusted tears across her cheeks, that she’d taken her own life.

He tried to remember the words for the dead, his voice barely able to speak them. ‘O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of good things, and Giver of life: come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every sin, and save our souls.’ He crossed himself again, drawing some comfort from the action and the words. He had interceded on their behalf and God would save their immortal souls.

He rubbed his head, just behind his ear, and turned a full circle to take in the scene around him. Other cottages lay in ruins. The remains of a sheep, roasted whole and picked clean, showed the attackers had feasted well before they left. They’d been confident enough in their strength not to worry about being caught.

‘Velik’s been here, Moses, or his men have. Only his people would delight in such evil.’ But the Northmen lived far to the north. They shouldn’t be here… the high mountain passes should have stopped them, had stopped them in the past. ‘But why have they risked such a long, hazardous journey across the mountains. Could they have found out? This child… did they think she was the one? Is that why they crucified her?’

The voice of reason answered him. ‘If they know about the child, they’d know it would be a boy they’re looking for, Brother Abraham.’

A boy… did the brethren know that for certain? Had Velik discovered something they knew nothing of? Roald’s more beneficent influence was waning, his contacts and his own travels to Deep Haven told him that much: Velik’s evil was winning the eternal fight, and his spies could be anywhere. They could be watching him even now. He trudged further into the village, knowing all too well what he’d find. All the houses were burned and the charred bodies inside them showed no sign of a fight. They’d been attacked at night, killed in their beds, apart from the one woman who’d killed herself with her own kitchen knife, and the one child hung up as a macabre warning.

A warning… of course. Velik was showing him he knew his secret, taunting him. ‘Sweet Jesus… Guddaa Mana! This could have been Jalene and Kiya. Or M’Gouna.’

M’Gouna, the small town in the Valley of the Roses, was a way further on, to the south west. If the Northmen were going that way they had a head start and would be there long before he could warn the villagers. Guddaa Mana, the remote upland village he’d left this morning, lay to the east, back the way he’d come. He hadn’t passed the attackers on the road so, unless they’d taken a shorter route over the mountainous terrain, he should reach Kiya’s village in time. ‘We have to warn them, Moses. We’re heading back to Guddaa Mana.’ He unhobbled the mule and tugged on his rope. ‘Come on, you stubborn brute. Hurry, if you don’t want us both to be roasted alive.’ The overladen mule protested noisily, but followed him as he hurried back along the track.

A mile further and he knew he wouldn’t make it in time on foot. He was old, even for a Keeper, older than any of his friends at Guudda Mana could guess, and the road to Guddaa Mana was hard and tortuous as it climbed back and forth like a serpent through the twisting gorge and on high into the mountains. He stroked his stubby grey beard, in thought. If he left the track once clear of the gorge, and headed directly for higher ground, he could take a short cut. It would be harder, steeper going but would shave miles off his journey: there was no time to worry about being seen above the tree line and, if he dumped his packs, he could ride where it wasn’t too steep for Moses to carry him. The sheer walls of the gorge dropped away as the road climbed. He transferred essential supplies to his backpack and unloaded Moses, hiding his remaining worldly goods beneath scrubby undergrowth. Hauling the mule closer to a fallen log, he climbed onto the animal’s narrow back and urged him up the rock-strewn hillside.

 

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