I’d like to say everything has sorted itself out, writing-wise, since my last post but I can’t, because it hasn’t. I’m in no part closer to finding the spark missing from my manuscript. Something has changed, however, as a result of a couple of helpful, sensible conversations – thank you, Jane and Colin. I am worrying about the whole thing less and that is, I hope, the beginning of progress. Even though I’m not sure when, or even if, I’ll start writing again, not worrying about not being able to write feels like a burden has been lifted. Not writing now doesn’t change the fact that those books I have written are out in the world.
Anyway, today is the solstice. The winter solstice in these parts, and a grey, wet rainy day it was too. Nominally we get about seven hours of daylight but it was so dreich it never really brightened. It’s still raining. But, from tomorrow, the days will be getting longer.
In life, of course, one is stuck with the weather as it happens. In fiction, one can select it to fit the mood and the need of the book. No need for rain or dull halflight if clean, clear cold seems preferable. Here’s a crisp, dry midwinter’s night from After the Ruin (commercial plug: I see that AtR is being heavily discounted right now on Amazon UK; I’m not sure how long the offer will last). The extract is taken from the turning point of the story, when hoped-for ends turn into unlooked-for beginnings:
Midwinter. The king walked through the wood, snow on the branches, frost on the trees. The darkness parted itself around him, the splinters of frost shining bright as the stars in the sky. He walked in silence through the night and left no mark upon the snow. Tonight, as he walked out of the wild wood into the world, there were no boundaries between a dream and waking.
The king stood between the earth and sky. When he spoke, the world fell quiet to listen. “If you are there, show yourself.” The meadows were full of shapes and shadows. Light and lovely as the falling snow, the liùthion danced around him, existing only at the edge of vision, in the world and out of it. Their dance span and wove its patterns across the meadows as snowflakes span across the sky but the king was the still centre, the fixed point, more solid than any flesh, more real than any dream. The world was ever changing but he endured forever and for always.
His voice was the gentle cold of falling snow. “Come out of the dark.” He held his hand out to a darker shadow beneath the shadows of a bone-bare tree.
The piper stepped from beneath a birken tree, its pale branches hung all about with ice, bleak and beautiful as hope. “Only in borderlands can we meet, between your lands and mine.”
“Are you come to beg an apple?” The words rang out into the night, the clear cold of broken ice skimming across a frozen loch.
“I cannot eat that fruit, beneath this sky or the other.”
The king raised his hand. The music died away to a memory of sweetness and loss, the liùthion were gone; nothing was left to break the emptiness of snow and frost. All that remained was the wind upon the meadows, the soft and silent fall of snow upon the night.
The piper shivered in the silence and the cold, because he was afraid, as he had never before been afraid, even on that longest day when the sun burned fierce and still above him.
The king bowed his head. His cloak was ragged and his feet bare but there were stars tangled in his hair. His voice was the wind rattling the birken tree. “As you desire. I do not take the unwilling. But, if you did not come to eat, why come here at midwinter when I cross the water to walk in the wild wood?”
“You know all the ways of all the men that ever walked beneath the sky. You know why I came to you.”
The piper held out his hands. The king took them in his own, cold hands and turned the palms face up that he might study them.
“Ask and I will answer.” The king’s voice was the snap of twigs upon a winter’s night. “But think before you speak: remember that I make no promises, I offer no hope, I grant no boons and I make no bargains. What I am, I am.”
The piper let out a long breath. His life hung before him, white mist in the black night. He asked, “What is left to me?”
“You live and breathe, you walk beneath the sun and moon.”
“Why can I not come to my rest? The dead are dead. All else that lived to the long day’s evening found peace in Ohmorah. But I? I lost my way, my hope, my name and still it is not enough!”
“For all things there is a price. That is the one you pay, piper from the gates of morning.”
“I saw the rowan die; I saw the sun stand still at noontime, a red moon rising and fiery dancers setting the very wind to flame.” The piper looked up into the king’s pale face but could not meet his gaze and shut his eyes against it. Behind the blackness of closed eyes, he saw a flicker of sunlight across the green leaves of a rowan tree, a fall of golden hair. He heard a well-remembered song, rich and sweet as honeycomb on midsummer’s day. He closed his mind against the memory and cried out, “After fire burned and water drowned, I made a balance this side of the sunset. All that I did that day was necessary.”
The answer came back quick and hard. “Who are you to judge necessity? A balance made along the edge of a sword is no balance at all.”
The piper’s face twisted with anger or regret. “The lives and deaths of those in the waking world are no concern of yours!”
“You came to me to ask your questions, and I have answered. The truth is all I have to offer you.”
“Then there is no hope left to me.”
“You live and breathe, you walk upon the earth. All this is left to you and it must be enough.”
“It is but half a life, walking across the years towards an unkind death.”
“Yours is the only hand that shaped your fate.” The king bent his head to study the hands he still held within his own. “You chose, and know the penalty of choice.”
The piper snatched back his hands. He was never good to look upon but now he wore the face of a monster: hate sat on his brow and shame upon his cheek. He cried out, his anger spilling like steam from a boiling pot, “Allodola found peace, the Liùthion found love and Allocco is dead! I would trade all my freedom and my choices for any of these three.”
The king said only, “Yet, even now, you seek to shape the future to one of your own choosing.” His face was quiet and still, free from anger, and from love.
The piper bowed his head, his anger gone, his sorrow left to him. He thought and he remembered, and he said, “An I do not, all I have done before I did in vain. One choice leads on to others, and there never is an end.”
“Death is the end of all things beneath your sky, piper from the gates of morning.” The king turned away and his ragged cloak swung around him on the wind of the world and the wind not of the world. “Enough and more than enough of words. I am to my dancing and all who choose may join me.”
He spread wide his hands. The sky around him was jewelled with starlight; the wind and the land and the empty air filled again with music and shadows. He danced and the kindred of the borderlands danced with him in the long night, and there were no boundaries between a dream and waking.
The piper watched, and let old memories rise through the years to the surface of his mind. Here and now, he knew how much he had feared and how greatly he had failed. Above his head, the winter trees, white and clean as last year’s bones, stretched out their branches to the stars. A long, long while passed by before he turned away, limping back into the shadows towards the company of men.