Virginia Creeper


Virginia Creeper

The first time Emily saw the outhouse at the bottom of the rambling, overgrown garden, she was entranced by the colourful foliage bedecking its red brick walls. Her family had only recently moved into this old house and investigating it thoroughly was irresistible to an inquisitive girl of twelve.

‘The one covered in Virginia Creeper?’ Dad asked, glancing over the rim of his teacup when she’d asked about it last night. ‘It was the gardener’s domain years ago. An ancestor of mine was gardener here before the Great War. He was sent to the Western Front and is buried out there in Flanders.’

This was all news to Emily, but interesting all the same. She wondered whether that was the reason Dad had wanted this place so badly, especially as it was very run down and needed a lot of work doing on it. Until now she’d thought Dad wanted the house because it was big, and cheap for the size. Mum was expecting again, and a family of eight would need a lot of bedrooms.

‘If you look inside, you’ll see some really old tools,’ Dad added as an afterthought.

‘Make sure you don’t touch anything,’ Mum warned, bouncing Emily’s youngest brother, Stevie, on her lap before standing to take him up to bed. ‘Tools can be sharp.’

Straight after breakfast, Emily headed out into the early September sunshine, pushing the dismal thought of school next week to the back of her mind. She flipped the latch on the old door and stepped inside.

A young man wearing a flat cap was humming to himself as he hung a variety of rusting rakes along a wall. ‘Hello, Emily love,’ he said. ‘I’d hoped you’d pop in today. ‘Your dad said you might.’

‘He did? When did he tell you that? Who are you, anyway? Are you one of the workmen come to repair all the windows?’

‘I’m your great-great-great-grandad. Now there’s a mouthful for you to get your tongue round. I’m the gardener your dad told you about last night and my name’s George. I’d seen you having a look round yesterday, so I thought I’d best introduce myself next time you came.’

Emily suddenly smiled. ‘But you’re, uh, dead…aren’t you?’ He nodded. ‘So you must be a ghost! I’ve always wanted my very own ghost. Can I come and see you every day…and can I just call you Grandad? And I’d love to know what it’s like to be a ghost. And, if you can remember, can you tell me what it was like in this house before the Great War?’

‘All in good time, Emily. We’ll have some years to talk now we’re acquainted. I can tell you a lot about many things – and yes, just Grandad will do nicely. But please don’t ask about what happened in France the day I died, ’cos I don’t rightly remember after I went over the top.

Emily had no idea what he meant by ‘over the top’, but she’d look it up later on. ‘That’s all right, Grandad. I wouldn’t think anyone would like to remember their own death. We’ll talk about nice things, I promise. So, tell me, what it’s like to stay young-looking forever … and how long have you’ve been talking to my dad … did you know him when a little boy … and why have you grown Virginia Creeper all over the outhouse walls?’

Grandad suddenly laughed. ‘You’re just like your dad was at your age. He couldn’t keep quiet for a moment, either. I’ll answer one of your questions, Emily, but then I need to rest for a while. I grow Virginia Creeper because it reminds me of my beautiful wife – your great-great-great grandma. Her name was Virginia, you see, and she had lovely red hair. So whenever I see the plant at this time of year, I feel she’s still with me.’

Emily felt a sudden lump in her throat. ‘That’s such a sad but very romantic story, Grandad. Thank you for telling me.’

‘Right then,’ Grandad said. ‘I’m very glad to have met you, Emily, but I really need to rest now. Come back to see me tomorrow and we’ll chat some more.’

Emily watched her grandad fade away then hurried back to the house. She’d spend some time searching the Internet for information about the Great War and ‘going over the top’. Then she’d look up all about growing Virginia Creeper. So tomorrow, if Grandad mentioned them, she’d have no need to ask so many questions and tire him out.

But there was one question that continued to pique Emily’s curiosity and she sighed, knowing she wasn’t likely to find the answer on the Internet. Tomorrow, she’d simply have to ask Grandad why he couldn’t meet up with Grandma now that they were both dead.


This is a story I wrote over a year ago as one of the longer ones for my book ‘A Dash of Flash’. 

For anyone who doesn’t know what a flat cap is, here’s an image from Wikipedia with a little bit of information about what one actually is – also from Wikipedia.

Flat cap, side view. Photographed by Heron. Creative Commons
Flat cap, side view. Photographed by Heron. Creative Commons

“A flat cap is a rounded cap with a small stiff brim in front. The hat is also known as a cabbie cap, longshoreman’s cap, cloth cap, scally cap, Wigens cap, ivy cap, derby hat, jeff cap, duffer cap, duckbill cap, driving cap, bicycle cap, Irish cap, Newsboy cap, Crook cap, Joao’s hat, Sixpence, or a Paddy cap. In Scotland it is known as a bunnet, in Wales as a Dai cap, and in New Zealand, as a cheese-cutter.”

“The style can be traced back to the 14th century in Northern England, when it was more likely to be called a “bonnet”, which term was replaced by “cap” before about 1700, except in Scotland, where it continues to be referred to as a ‘bunnet’.”

My husband, who’s as ‘Northern’ as can be, being a Yorkshireman, wouldn’t dream of gardening without his flat cap on his head.


Those Awful Stone Steps


Picking up her long skirts, Matilda climbed the stone steps, alternately cursing her aching knees and muttering unseemly criticisms of her husband. Why he couldn’t be like other men and have his workplace on the ground floor instead of eight storeys up, she couldn’t imagine. And just because he was a wizard didn’t mean she should wait on him hand and foot. Forty-five years she’d had of this, and enough was enough. Had the man no consideration for her age? She’d give him a piece of her mind once she got up there.

‘What can I do for you, my dear?’ Mordo said, frowning as she entered his domain.

Matilda glared at him. ‘You sent for me, remember?’

Mordo still looked perplexed. ‘Then, since you’re here, a small favour, if you will.’

‘Make it quick, I’ve an errand to run. And while I’m at it, we need to get a servant to run up and down those st–’

‘This is my latest potion, my dear,’ Mordo said, cutting her off as he held up a small vial of purple liquid. ‘Anyone who imbibes will look and feel at least fifteen years younger. I tried it on the oldest of my cats and there she is now…’

Matilda gasped at the sight of the small black kitten playing with a ball of red wool. ‘That’s surely not old Nightshade…?’ she said, bending to pick up the tiny creature. ‘She’s nineteen years old, and could hardly walk when I saw her this morning.’

‘The very reason I used her in my experiment, dear wife. Her legs had given up and she was at Death’s door, if truth be told. Now look at her.’

Matilda was duly impressed. ‘I don’t suppose your potion would work on humans, would it…?’

‘I don’t see why not. In fact, that’s exactly why I created it. I’m about to try it on myself and wanted you to observe the transformation – just in case anyone who sees me after today should think me an impostor and not Mordo at all.’

‘You mean you’re about to make yourself look younger and leave me in this rickety state. Not blinkin’ likely!’  Matilda’s drooping bosoms heaved as her indignation soared. ‘If you drink it, then so do I!’

‘Very well. Would you like to be first, or shall I? Or shall we drink together and witness each other regaining at least a smattering of youthfulness?’

Matilda considered the question. If he went first there was the possibility of him not leaving any for her. ‘Divide it into two and we’ll drink together.’

Mordo did as bidden and handed her a glass. ‘Here’s to renewed youth and vigour and the start of an exciting life!’ he yelled, raising his glass and tipping back his head.’

Matilda swallowed her potion down in one and swept her sleeve across her wet lips. ‘Ooh, I don’t like the taste of that! Could do with more sugar, if you ask me and…’

‘You were saying, dearest…?’  Mordo said, as his wife’s glass smashed on the stone floor and he placed his own untouched potion on the table. He congratulated himself as his wife began to shrink, and thought he’d die from laughing as she sprouted black feathers and an orange beak.’

‘There, there, now, my ugly little bird’, he cooed, as he grabbed the squawking crow. ‘My tower is no place for a creature like you. I’ll soon have a prettier songbird installed in your stead…

‘And you, dear Matilda,’ he said as he approached the high tower’s open window, ‘can nest in a place where your voice will be appreciated. I believe there’s a murder of crows nesting in the old oak at the edge of the meadow. And just think, my dear,’ he added as he thrust her out, ‘you’ll never have to climb those awful stone steps again.’



I starting writing this story for a prompt on FFfAW a few months ago. The prompt was provided by Joy Pixley and showed a wooden staircase. Before I’d written more than a few sentences, I realised I needed more than 175 words to make this particular tale work. So I abandoned it and wrote something else, which can be viewed here. Recently, I decided to finish this one off, and as I haven’t had time to write a flash fiction for this week, I’m posting this instead. It weighs in at 646 words.

A Fairy Story


Fairy Ring

‘Where did these come from, Mam?’ Six-year-old Tommy squatted down, pointing at the cluster of little white-capped plants growing along the fence at the back of their garden.

Rose smiled at her son’s puzzled face. ‘They’re toadstools, Tommy, and we find them in lots of places – like fields and woods, and even on people’s lawns.’ She gazed over the fence into the dense forest beyond, wondering yet again whether moving to the Highlands of Scotland had been such a good idea. Tommy already missed his friends in Edinburgh. But her husband’s job in the Forestry Commission had given them no choice.

‘I bet there are plenty of toadstools in there,’ Rose continued, hoisting the child up so he could see over the fence. ‘Lots of fairies and elves, too.’

‘Do fairies like toadstools?’

They love them,’ Rose said, lowering him to the ground. ‘Sometimes they dance amongst them and make them into circles called fairy rings. Doesn’t that sound fun?’

Tommy shrugged. ‘I’ve never seen a fairy ring, so I don’t know.’

‘Well, fairy rings are magical places for the little folk, but if humans step inside them, they could become trapped by fairy magic, and might never get out again.’

‘That’s silly, Mam. Fairies only help people.’

‘And how do you know that?’

‘Because the fairy who visits me when I’m in bed says she’ll take me to a magic place to find new friends, if I want. She knew I was sad about leaving my old ones in Edinburgh without me even telling her!’

Rose stared at her precious son. ‘Tommy, this fairy … what does she look like?’

‘Her name’s Elvira, and I’ve seen her this many times.’ Tommy held out his small hand, fingers splayed. ‘And she looks like you, Mam, except she’s tiny and has wings. They’re really cool!’

Rose’s stomach lurched. That her twin should wheedle her way into Tommy’s affections just to get to her was unbelievable. ‘Tommy, promise me that if Elvira asks you to go with her, you won’t go.’

‘But I’ve promised I’d go tonight… Just for a bit.’

Rose’s mind whirled. ‘Did Elvira say where this magical place was?’

‘I don’t think it’s far because she said we’d be back very soon.’

‘Well, that’s alright, then,’ Rose assured him, her mind working fast.

‘Thanks, Mam!’ Tommy yelled. ‘I can’t wait for tonight.’


The grandfather clock in the hall struck midnight, its chimes rousing Tommy from his sleep. Elvira hovered before him in a halo of fairy light.

‘Ready for an adventure?’ she asked. ‘The fairy folk are gathering.’

Tommy nodded, his excitement mounting.

‘Then close your eyes and don’t open them again until I say so.’

Watching from atop the wardrobe, Rose was on their trail as soon as Elvira waved her wand. Within moments they’d reached a glade in the forest where the fairies were gathering, all dancing around a fairy ring. Perched on a leafy branch, she watched as Tommy joined in. He looked so happy when Elvira led him into the ring and danced with him awhile. But then she darted out, leaving him alone and confused. He tried to follow, but the ring confined him as effectively as prison bars.

Looking pleased with herself, Elvira joined her companions.

Rose fumed, knowing that confrontation was now inevitable. But first, Tommy must be freed. Unseen by the frolicking fairies, she flew into the ring from the opposite side to where they were gathered around Elvira.

‘Why’ve you locked me in here?’ Tommy wailed, mistaking his mother for her twin. ‘I don’t like being on my own.’

No time for explanations, Rose waved her wand and within moments, Tommy was sleeping soundly in his bed.

Rose descended into the middle of the gathering and the crowds shrank back. It was some moments before Elvira realised that silence had fallen. She turned, her expression one of guilt-laden surprise at what she saw. In a panic, she glanced at the fairy ring.

‘Tommy’s in his bed, where he’s supposed to be, Elvira. How you thought you could get away with this is beyond me. And I know what it’s all about – so don’t bother to explain. Mother’s expecting me tomorrow. I contacted her earlier and explained my position.’

Fury blackened Elvira’s face and she shot a bolt of magic at her twin. Rose reeled from the blast, but recovered quickly to return a blast of her own.

As the elder of the twins, Rose was the more powerful: Elvira’s magic could never compete. ‘For your information, Elvira, I don’t want the throne.’ The onlookers gasped. No princess had ever refused the fairy throne. ‘I’ll tell Queen Isadora that myself, tomorrow. You see, sister, my new family is here. If I returned to the Fairy Kingdom without them, I would slowly die. You are very capable of becoming the next queen, Elvira. Our people love you very much…

‘Besides,’ she whispered, ‘when I wave my wand, no one here will remember tonight’s events. They’ll continue to dance around the ring, just as they’ve always done.’

Elvira nodded and smiled sincerely. ‘Thank you, Rose. It seems I acted hastily. I had assumed that after ignoring us for years, you’d just fly back in and claim the throne. I’ve worked hard for our kingdom, and know I can rule wisely as queen.’

‘Then let’s dance to that,’ Rose said, holding out her hands. ‘I haven’t danced round a fairy ring in a long time.’

Rose flew back home, content that all would be well. Assuming her human form, she checked Tommy before climbing into her own bed. Robert was still in a trance-like sleep and she clicked her fingers to break the spell. In a couple of hours, Rob would awaken normally. And tomorrow, they would continue to come to terms with their new home in the Scottish Highlands … after she’d made her case to her illustrious mother.



Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to write a flash fiction for FFfAW this week, so I’m posting this story instead – which is from my book A Dash of Flash. At 988 words, it’s much longer that the usual 175 word maximum for the challenge, but still within the limit for flash fiction (i.e. 1000 words). I enjoyed writing it, too, because I love fairy stories.


To Market, to Market (yet again)…

Old buildings around Market Square

In 1988 – which seems like eons ago now – I signed up for a writing course with The Writers Bureau. At that time I was hoping to pack up teaching soon and concentrate on writing a novel. Well, that didn’t happen, and the writing course went right out the window, but I managed to do the first assignment before school started again in September. Recently, I found the second part of the returned, marked paper. I’ve no idea what happened to parts 1 and 2, but this piece was in yet another old folder. Some of the tutor’s comments were really positive, but a couple, right at the beginning, brought me up short. And I’ve NEVER forgotten her words since! Lol

(I’ll share these at the end with my attempt at photos of her comments.)

The assignment was to write a descriptive passage of a place you know or have visited. There should be lots of people and the place should have a real ‘atmosphere’. The examples given were a football match (yuk!) or other such event, or a crowded shopping centre. So, as we lived in Newark at that time, Newark Market on a Saturday it was. And the assignment was typed using a really antiquated typewriter I’d had for years. We had no fancy computer then, or even a word processor. Well here’s the piece:

To Market, to Market…

To visit the historic town of Newark-on-Trent and not experience the delights of its Market Square would, indeed, be a pity. It is the focal point of shopping in the town, the hubbub of life. Young and old from surrounding villages mingle with townsfolk in search of bargains on the many colourful stalls. Others choose merely to browse, absorbed in the sense of history around them.

The Square is encompassed by four high walls of buildings, interrupted by medieval alleyways and narrow streets, designated traffic free on market days. Glimpses of architectural styles, dating from the Middle Ages to the present day, urge the sensitive mind to create visions of dashing Cavaliers and solemn-faced Roundheads, of stagecoaches at the coaching inns, or Victorian ladies in their crinolines.  The imposing spire of the thirteenth-century church dominates the view on the northern side of the Square. Its clock, with golden hands and face, strikes each hour, a reminder of ever-passing time and twentieth century reality.

The hot August air hangs still and humid; spicy aromas of hot-dogs and fried onions drift from the kiosk on the edge of the Square. Hungry teenagers queue to savour these delights. Crowds of shoppers are jostled along between the stalls with canopies of bright red, white. and yellow. A harassed young mother struggles over the cobbles with her pushchair, laden with plastic carrier bags bulging with shopping. The red-faced infant cries incessantly.

Numerous clothing stalls display a variety of items; the latest ‘Turtle’ motif on socks and sweatshirts attracts many young shoppers. Posters proclaiming ‘Summer Clearance’ and ‘Everything Must Go!’ indicate that summer is nearing its end. Surf Crazy t-shirts won’t sell in the long, cold days of winter.

Seasonal fruits and vegetables are in abundance. Crisp apples and mellow pears, golden plums and purple damsons are arrayed with a selection of vegetables labelled ‘All Local Produce’. More exotic spiky pineapples, pump water melons and juicy oranges and grapes complete the display.

‘Get yer onions for yer barbies’, yells a burly, sun-tanned man with golden chains hanging down his hairy chest.

The flower stalls, too, present an arrangement of summer blooms, the heady scent of pink carnations catching the attention of many a customer. Feathery white gups are interspersed with freesias of blue, chrysanthemums, russet or gold, and lilies of flaming orange or sombre white.

As the church clock strikes four, stallholders begin to pack away. Into the cases co the multi-coloured beach towels and tablecloths of Nottingham lace. The ornate, brown teapot disappears from view, a vacuum cleaner called Henry is returned to his box and customers take their ‘homemade’ pies home for tea.

At last the stalls stand empty, a carpet of litter on the cobbles all that remains to be swept away by the cleaners. Tomorrow is Sunday, when the Square will sleep, only the church bells disturbing the silence. And the gold-faced clock will tick on…

The first thing I saw when I opened the paper was the tutor’s green comments. This is what greeted me right at the beginning: ‘Don’t underline titles’ and ‘First lines are never indented’. Oh dear…

Writing Assignment from 1988

I can honestly say I’ve NEVER indented first lines since – and I always notice when other people do. Nor have I ever underlined titles. It’s funny because in schools, all titles in exercise books or on file paper were ALWAYS underlined. It was also taught that first paragraphs, as any other paragraphs, were indented.

One thing Mrs. Tutor didn’t mention was my appalling ellipsis after the title. I’m surprised she didn’t write ‘NEVER use more than three dots in an ellipsis’ – but she didn’t remark. Perhaps she’d have dealt with that on another occasion, so not to demoralise me further.

Well, after that abysmal start (and typing to make anyone cringe), it got better and I had some very positive remarks like ‘evocative style‘ and ‘lovely description‘. She even left this nice green comment at the end:

Tutor's comment on assignment

The scene I described in my assignment was of late August, 1988. I’m sure you wouldn’t have missed the reference to very ’80s clothing (Turtle motifs).

Today, Newark Market Square looks little different to how I described it in 1988, except that the market is nowhere near as popular or busy as it was years ago. Supermarkets and hypermarkets have made it easy for working people to do all their shopping in one go. From several busy days a week, Newark is now only busy on a Saturday. It’s sad to see, and we keep up our weekly visits there, simply because we love the whole feel of market shopping – and the produce is always fresh.

Another big difference is that the bumpy, uneven cobbles are gone. They were seen as a hazard to old folk, wheelchair users, mothers with pushchairs and so on. They were really old and it’s a shame to see things of historical value destroyed but, I suppose, safety was uppermost on the Council’s mind. In the photos below (from late last September) some of the old cobbles can be seen around the edges of the market and in roads leading off the Square. The walls of historic buildings encompassing the Square look just the same.

The last difference is in the actual stalls. Back in 1988 the stalls stayed up all the time, so traders only had to unload their produce. Now, on non-market days, the Square is empty.The canopies, too, were formerly a variety of colours and patterns. Now, for some reason, they’re all red and white striped.

I wrote a post about Newark Market Place last October (here ) and our son who has his butcher’s shop there. I put lots of photos in it of the Market Square and surrounding streets.

As for writing courses, they’re obviously very good for beginner writers. I never did get round to doing one…

Rainbows, Roses and Raindrops


This is a little story I wrote 20 years ago! I wrote it for some competition at the time for a well known brand of tea here in the UK which uses little Tea Folk as part of its advertising campaigns. (I’d better not name this tea – I don’t want to be accused of advertising!) But I never did anything with it and the other day, I found the manuscript in an old file I’d kept. The paper was all yellow round the edges, reminding me of the way schoolchildren try to make stories and treasure maps look authentic by staining the paper with coffee or tea. Well, I didn’t need to do that. Anyway, I made the characters into gnomes, gave them different names and changed a few details and typed it up.

I love the film Gnomio and Juliet and am quite partial to gnomes. My husband refuses to have any in the garden, so I have to use my imagination. On one occasion, my mischievous daughters, Nicola and Louise, bought a few gnomes and hid them around the flower beds. My husband’s growls as he found each one, were quite hilarious.

So here’s the story:

Rainbows, Roses and Raindrops


One warm and sunny summer’s afternoon, the Garden Gnomes of Greenwich were relaxing in Gerald’’s favourite tea garden. Horace was brewing the tea and Michael was sharing his plans for his next detective story, when a sudden flash and a puff of smoke made them all jump.

Seven pairs of eyes blinked as an odd little man, no bigger than a nearby plant pot, became visible through the smoke. Seven gasps of astonishment caused the little man to wobble precariously on the rock he’d landed on at the edge of Gerald’s delightful fish pond.

‘You’re a leprechaun!’ young Freddie blurted, pointing at the tiny figure.

‘Of course I am!’ the indignant elf snapped in crotchety Irish tones. ‘Sure, isn’t that plain fer all t’ see?’ He brushed down his velvety green jacket and breeches then, holding on to his tiny green cap, he sprang from the rock like a grasshopper before he found himself spluttering with Gerald’s goldfish beneath the lily pads.

‘B…but how did you get here? I mean…er…where did you –?’

‘Do stop burbling Freddie,’ Gerald reprimanded. ‘Remember your manners. That’s no way to greet a guest to our tea garden, no matter how he arrived!’

Samuel, the kindly grandfather gnome, decided it was time to intervene. ‘Won’t you join us for a nice cup of tea, sir? I didn’t catch your name…?’

The leprechaun proudly stroked his shiny, golden beard. ‘Me name’s Leopold,’ he replied, his beady eyes scanning the garden. ‘I’ve followed the rainbow all the way across the Irish Sea t’ this very garden. Me crock o’ gold must be here somewhere. So now I’m going t’ find it!’

Leopold clicked his bony fingers and six garden spades magically appeared, hovering over the beautiful flower beds, ready for work. Gerald’s face turned a ghastly white as he imagined his cherished roses in tatters.

Just then, a mouth-watering aroma of baking wafted across the garden. Leopold’s nose twitched and his tiny tummy gave a loud rumble.

‘My delightful cakes must be ready. Do excuse me.’ Tanya smiled at Leoplod, then rushed off towards the kitchen.

Gerald, tactful as ever, took the opportunity to repeat Samuel’s earlier invitation to Leopold, who now gratefully accepted.

Over a refreshing cup of tea, with a morsel of one of Tanya’s delicious cakes, the little leprechaun even managed a smile. Michael opened his notebook to jot down suggestions for helping Leopold to search for the gold, without spoiling Gerald’s roses, when a few glistening raindrops plopped in the middle of his page.

They scanned the clear, blue sky for the offending cloud, just as another few raindrops tinkled onto Horace’s teapot. A stifled chuckle drew everyone’s attention towards the fish pond, where Cyril was perched, with his fingers in the water. ‘Just my Rainy Day joke,’ he chortled.

Then, as he looked down, Cyril’s face took on a puzzled expression. ‘There’s an odd-looking goldfish in your pond, Gerald. It isn’t swimming about like the others.’

Gerald hurried over to investigate. ‘My goodness!’ he gasped. ‘I see what you mean, Cyril. But…wait a minute. That isn’t a goldfish…but it is gold!’

Later, Leopold stood clutching his crock of gold, his elfish grin stretching from ear to ear.

‘How did your gold get into our pond?’ Freddie asked.

‘Leprechaun magic,’ Leopold replied, tapping the side of his tiny nose.’ Now I’ll be thankin’ yer all an’ making me way home. The cup o’ tea was just what I needed. Following rainbows is thirsty work.’

With another click and a flash, Leopold and his spades vanished.

‘He must be travelling across that rainbow,’ Cyril remarked, pointing up at the sky.

Freddie now looked really perplexed. ‘But rainbows only come after it’s been raining…don’t they? And it hasn’t been raining!’

Everyone looked at Cyril, and laughed.


A Dream of Flight


Dreams about flying seem to be quite common. Perhaps it’s the fact that we humans simply can’t do it without the use of an aeroplane that causes them. We simply envy the birds, and in our dreams we allow our innermost desires to come true. I don’t know, but I’m sure there are people who could explain it! Anyway, here’s a short dream sequence from my book:

Ulf seemed to be flying. He laughed as he glanced at his outstretched arms, a joyful sound that welled up from somewhere deep inside before rushing from his lips to be carried away on the wind. This must be what total freedom felt like. Beside him a flock of starlings swooped and spiralled in their exotic ritual, and he shared their sheer delight of the open skies. Then uncertainty hit, and he squinted into the blindingly blue expanse beyond the hazy, translucent clouds. Why was he flying? Was he now dead, not a solid body at all, but a spirit rising towards heaven? A woman’s voice reached his ears, passing by in its ascent. ‘Do not grieve for me. I am free of the cares of this world now.’

Far to the west the sun was sliding behind the Welsh hills, splashing shades of vermilion and purple haphazardly across the blue. Above the landscape he soared, over fields of grazing cattle, corn ripening with the season’s warmth, and winding blue streams. Soon he was hovering over the edges of a dense forest and instinctively he knew that it was Bruneswald. This beautiful, green land was Mercia: his home.

Then he realised it was not summer at all and he was not home. His mind grew angry and cast the scene away.

This sequence is really a continuation of the post of a couple of weeks ago, To sleep, perchance to dream . . .  In my book, Shadow of the Raven, this dream comes only a few minutes after the last. Eadwulf (Ulf at this stage, and still a thrall/slave) has been seriously concussed, knocked senseless by Bjorn – for his own good, as is revealed in the story. Following the period of concussion he falls in and out of dream-filled sleep. This one takes him to his beloved homeland across the Northern Sea – the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Mercia.

A Viking sacrifice to Odin


Norse mythology tells us that blood sacrifices to placate the gods took place at the key times of year – spring, summer, autumn and mid winter. Some archaeological and documented evidence also supports this. Blood sacfrifices were known as ‘blots’ -the Misumarblot, for example. Though fairly scant, there is evidence to support the idea that human sacrifice took place as well as animal.

Here’s my version of one such ceremony. It’s from my book, Shadow of the Raven. The manner of’ killing the victim I describe was selected from a few different methods I’ve read about. Gruesome stuff! Here it is:

In the sombre, grey light before sunrise, the people of Aros filed from their longhouses and followed their jarl in his flowing white robes. Guided by the fiery luminance of torches borne by a handful of thralls, the column moved in respectful silence along a narrow path that snaked between the cultivated fields and up the gentle slope behind the village. On the crest of the hill stood the sacred grove, a short way from the woodland where Eadwulf had recently collected kindling for winter fires. The ancient oaks loomed dark and ominous against the silvery-grey of the lightening sky and Eadwulf shivered, overcome with sudden foreboding.

The silent train streamed between the outer rings of trees to a clearing within. At its centre a solitary oak towered proudly over its attendants; a truly gigantic tree, the girth of its trunk of such immense proportions. Its lower branches were thick and sturdy, reaching out and dividing into myriad, twisted routeways; its still abundant foliage evidence of the oak’s jealous retention of its leaves long after most forest trees stood denuded and exposed.

The jarl’s small group positioned themselves into the shape of an arrowhead, tapering away from the wide trunk, the single figure of the jarl comprising the arrowhead’s tip. Behind him stood his sons, Bjorn, Ivar and Halfdan, and five of his men formed the rear. Amongst them was the brutal Ulrik.

Ragnar moved three paces forward, and turned to face the oak, his robes shimmering in the torchlight as he raised his arms.

‘O . . . di . . . in,’ he intoned, sinking to his knees. ‘All-Father, lord of wisdom, war and death, mighty god of all gods . . .’ Around the grove the people knelt, lifting their arms to the tree. ‘We are humbled in the shadow of your sacred oak, knowing that you are close. I, Ragnar, priest of the gods, beseech you, Father: hear the voice of your humble servant.’

‘Odin, Odin . . .’ The chanting began, rising to fever pitch before settling to a lilting hum; outstretched arms swayed like meadow grasses in the breeze. People were surely evoking the very presence of their god.

‘The wheel of the seasons has turned and winter will soon be upon us,’ Ragnar’s baritone rang out. ‘We bring our gifts of thanks and ask that you safeguard your people from the hardships of the frozen months. Let them live to serve you.’

A strong, unheralded gust swept the grove, whistling through the oak’s branches. Torches listed wildly and the droning stopped. ‘God of gods, lord of earth and sky, giver and taker of life,’ Ragnar intoned, his hands reaching up to two black shapes, now perched on the thick branch above his head. ‘We are unworthy to look upon your holy companions and avert our eyes in their presence.’

Eadwulf stayed on his knees, not understanding what was happening. He knew that Odin’s ravens, Hugin and Munin – Thought and Memory – were believed to be the god’s eyes and ears; awesome, black birds sent out each dawn to fly over Midgard, gathering information to report to Odin by the evening. But he’d always dismissed such a story as pagan nonsense before.

Ragnar rose and faced the kneeling crowd. ‘To your feet, my people, and witness our offerings to the All-Father, who has given his sign of acceptance.’

The wasted body of Cendred was dragged from the wagon, his wrists bound behind him. Panic and anger surged through Eadwulf and he drew breath to cry out.

‘Do not make a sound,’ Toke hissed. ‘Great insult to Odin if you do.’ His eyes flicked up to the tree’s thick branches. ‘Could be you or me up there next.’

Cendred slumped, seeming resigned to his gruesome end after weeks of imprisonment. His filthy clothes hung limp on his half-starved body; his hair greasy and matted from his bowed head, concealing whatever expression was on his face. At his sides two of Ragnar’s men stood grim-faced, and a few paces behind, Ulrik held a huge, heavy-headed axe. Close by, Bjorn carried a large coil of thick rope.

‘Odin!’ Ragnar shouted. ‘May the lifeblood of our people’s enemy please and strengthen you.’

Cendred was yanked to his feet and the heavy, flat handle of the axe-head crashed down on his skull. Eadwulf recoiled from the sickening crunch of shattering bones as Cendred’s head caved in like a crushed eggshell under the force of Ulrik’s strength.

The lifeless body sprawled on the rotting leaves, his blood soaking into the earth. Bjorn severed the bonds holding Cendred’s arms and rolled him over, rebinding his wrists above his head with one end of rope. The two warriors dragged the corpse beneath a thick branch close to the ravens and Bjorn hurled the loose end of the rope over it. Cendred’s body was hauled up high, where Eadwulf guessed it would stay, dangling by the wrists to feed the crows.

Bright-eyed and motionless, the ravens surveyed all.

Ragnar clutched the sacrificial knife above his head. ‘Odin!’ he yelled. ‘Remember our gifts when winter comes. Let the season be kind, our huntsmen find success, and our people survive!’

The ravens lifted their wings to take flight and the strange, gusting wind raged a second time. The flapping of silken feathers hummed through the grove, then the black shapes soared into the distance to continue their daily tasks for the All-Father.


In this extract, Eadwulf has been a thrall/slave of the Danes for a few months, and is still striving to come to terms with their customs and way of life. This is his first experience of a human sacrifice to Odin, the highest of the gods and father of the great Thor. It takes place in late October – a few days after the horse sacrifice to Thor I described in a recent post – when people have the bleakness of  winter ahead of them.

Aros was in the region of modern-day Aahus.


To Sleep, Perchance To Dream . . .


This week I’ve been following a discussion on The Online Book Club regarding whether or not dream sequences should be used in novels. As with most things, opinions vary greatly. Some people see dreams as a useful method of imparting additional information about a character or events, whereas others proclaim they should be avoided at all cost.

In my novel, Shadow of the Raven, I have one short scene in which my protagonist, Eadwulf – Ulf at this stage in the book – experiences a great tragedy in his life. The dream is a result of events too traumatic for him to bear. Here it is:

Ulf was aboard the Sea Eagle, sailing north towards the beguiling Lofoten Islands. The heavy sail flapped and seabirds wheeled and screeched, guillemots, gulls and kittiwakes amongst them. Waves slapped the hull, sunlight glistened on the blue-grey water and the salty breeze ruffled his hair. Coastward, the green-swathed Norwegian mountains, intersected by steep-sided fjords, almost took his breath away. Colonies of black and white puffins with brightly coloured beaks perched on their nests along the cliffs and cormorants stretched, drying their wings in the sun. A sea-eagle swooped to inspect the ship to which it had given its name before plucking a fish from beneath the brine. Whilst seaward, foam-white sea-horses played on the water’s surface and whiskered seals bobbed. The massive bulk of a silver whale shot great spouts of water high into the air, to cascade down again, rainbow colours of light dancing in their midst.

Somehow Ulf knew he was dreaming; yet he refused to wake up. His mind was cushioned by this sense of peace, taking him to where he wanted so much to be: this place out at sea with Bjorn and his crew, where he was valued, respected for what he was. He inhaled deeply, savouring the aroma of salty air. But the smell gradually lessened, evolving into the sharp tang of spices, mingled with the earthy smells of vegetables.

His eyes shot open . . .

Any opinions regarding the use of dreams in fiction would be very welcome.


Accept our offering, mighty Thor . . .

The sun hung low in the near-cloudless sky, the late afternoon dry and cold with the promise of frost when darkness fell. Winter was nudging her icy nose into people’s lives and they did not relish the prospect. They’d done all in their power to ensure the well-being of the village during the bleak months ahead and hoped their hard work would reap its dividend. All that was needful now was the blessing of the gods. In sombre mood, villagers waited for the ceremony to begin. Continue reading “Accept our offering, mighty Thor . . .”

A dalliance with fantasy

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When night’s dark shadows bow deference to the burgeoning dawn, the dreams will come. She can no more prevent them coming than she can stop the sands of Time from flowing. It has always been thus, since the Beginning.  Her destiny is to know; to remember what has been and envision what has yet to come.

The sweet smell of honeysuckle suffuses the cave and her face assumes the serenity of one accustomed to the way of things. Her consciousness is immersed in colour: a vortex of dazzling hues, entwined in fierce embrace. She waits, motionless, for the tones to unravel, the images to form . . .

Green is first: verdant forest and meadow, rippling in the breath of a soft summer breeze; downy hills rolling to the distant horizon. Blue follows soon: cobalt seas that dance at the touch of golden sunbeams, the sky a vastness of azure splendour.  The woman sighs, humbled by such beauty.

Then red erupts and she gasps, loath to remember. Scarlet hurtles through the valleys and befouls the streams. Women in Roman garb scream in panicked flight from blue-painted warriors intent on their slaughter; mutilated shapes ooze scarlet amidst Andredsweald’s great oaks.

Centuries slip by and scarlet intermittently ebbs and flows. The present races past and the future is suddenly upon her. Black ravens fly, and scarlet is again in full spate.

But honey-gold stands ready.


Some time before I came to my senses and realised that the story of Alfred the Great didn’t lend itself too well to fantasy, I wrote the whole of my now historical fiction novel (Shadow of the Raven) as historical fantasy. The ‘she’ in the scene above is an immortal being – which you’ve probably already gathered. I won’t bore you with her role in the story, but it was a fairly major one.

Imagine how long it took to take out all the fantasy parts. As with the battle scene I posted recently, it’s all still in my deleted file . . .