no ordinary swan


An excerpt from THE HERO, OR, THE KNIGHT WITH THE SWAN. Prince Lukas, the Black Knight, has just slain a cockatrice after a terrible battle.

Lukas scrambled up from the snow and ran across the knoll. He slid to a stop in front of a high drift of snow that had a big impression at the top. Digging with his hands, Lukas pushed aside the snow and blocks of ice. He pulled out of the snow a black and bedraggled creature, still as stone. “Oh, Pooka,” whispered Lukas.

The eagle lay on his lap. Its feathers were all bent and ruffled. He stroked them, trying to smooth them back into place. The eagle stirred. It opened one eye. “You’re alive!” exclaimed Lukas.

The Pooka closed its eye again. “Not for lack of trying,” it said wanly.

Even so, Lukas smiled. He stood, holding the Pooka, and carried it back to where he had left the saddle and their gear. All around him statues came to life. Horses’ hooves thudded to the ground. Men finished their cries, cutting them short with astonishment. Voices asked with bewilderment what had happened, recognizing each other, each wondering what had happened to the monster they had been sent to kill.

The dead cockatrice lay on the knoll for all to see. A small crowd of knights had gathered around it. Lukas walked out to them, going right up to the cockatrice. “It is I who killed this monster,” he said.

“How were you not turned to stone?” asked one.

The Black Knight held up his shield and all could see the mirror inside. “Because I did not look directly into its eyes. Go, return to your court and Lord Cadigar. Tell him that the danger that threatened his court is no longer.”

“Will you not return with us to celebrate your victory?” asked another. He was young, like Lukas.

But the Black Knight shook his head. “No. I have miles yet to go. There are more fell monsters, and no time to waste.”

As the company of knights rode away, Lukas rejoined the Pooka. It had once more taken the form of a horse. Lukas saddled it, repacking his saddle bags. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.

The Pooka may have wanted to run, but it could only walk away from the den of the dead cockatrice. Its walked with its head down, its nose nearly dropping to touch the snow. Lukas dismounted when the Pooka stumbled. He walked alongside it, one hand resting on the Pooka’s shoulder.

The forest had awoken from the cockatrice’s spell. Animals that had been frozen by the cockatrice’s stony glare staggered through the snow. A bear passed them, but it paid them no heed, intent to find its own den to return to a more comfortable sleep. Ahead of them something white fluttered in the snow. When they came closer to it, Lukas saw that it was a swan, large and majestic.

“That’s odd. Is there water near here, do you think?” asked Lukas.

The swan swung its graceful neck, rolling its eyes at the knight. Lukas had begun to lead the Pooka away, but stopped. There was something about the swan’s eyes. They were human eyes.

“Hello Swan,” said Lukas. He approached it slowly. “You are no ordinary swan.”

The swan shook its head. It flapped its wings, struggling to step away from Lukas. He saw an arrow shaft at the base of the swan’s left wing. Fresh blood stained its white plumage and dripped onto the snow. “Wait, let me help you,” said Lukas. The swan fell onto its side, panting.

“We have to help it,” Lukas said, looking up at the Pooka.

“We don’t have to,” it said, its voice weary.

“But I will,” said Lukas. Neither the Pooka nor the swan protested as Lukas withdrew the arrow and bound the swan’s wound. He lifted the swan onto the back of the Pooka. With one hand steadying the swan, Lukas and the Pooka continued through the forest, taking the enchanted swan with them.

Photo: Two swans in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

To tournament!

Today is my viva. For fun, I’m listening to the playlist I made for my Pooka novels — which were loosely inspired from my Ph.D. research. I’m going into the Viva with black owls with yellow eyes — the Pooka, surely, is going to help me with the task ahead.

This song is about the Pooka, of course. Commonly in the form of a black horse, but don’t forget to look for its gold eyes…

Off I go!

Caught between worlds

It’s my fifth Fourth of July overseas. This one comes as I’ve thought about my visa and possibly-most-likely moving back to the U.S. in 2014. The good thing about the Affordable Care Act being ruled constitutional is that that it will be put into effect in 2014, and I will not be denied health coverage for any of my pre-existing conditions (and I have a few) if/when I move back.

It’s strange, thinking about moving back. It isn’t what I’d expected to be doing after my PhD, but it that doesn’t mean it has to be a bad thing. Regardless of where I move to, I’ll be closer in time and space to several friends and my family. The Internet, especially email and Skype, is a godsend, but a part of me actually looks forward to being able to strengthen those relationships by being physically nearer, present.

Even as I think these thoughts, I walk home from work via the sea, take a walk up part of the coastal path, looking back over my current home and being struck by the beauty of the fading light on the waves, on the sailboats in the bay, of this town. I’m not going anywhere yet. I want to live intentionally, here, now, not taking for granted my remaining year and a bit here.

In another way I am also caught between worlds: with my writing. Sometime during June I got derailed from editing The Faerie King and in a month I am supposed to start novel planning for the new Orion. Already the characters and world of Orion are waking from their long sleep. The statement ‘It’s always easier to edit than to write’ is false: for me, the act of creating, of writing, is the most enjoyable part of writing a novel. Editing is sticky. Especially when I have no idea how to make it better, only that something needs doing. It comes as no surprise, to me at least, that I am eager to turn my mind to something else, to something new, to creating Orion.

Should I try to edit The Faerie King again during July? How can I motivate myself to stick with it?

Favourite things

A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Castle:

Though, considering the setting, perhaps would have more aptly been titled, A Midwinter Night’s Dream? Temperature: 53 F/12 C (‘Feels Like’ 48 F/9 C); misty, drizzly, rainy; 20mph NNE wind, with 35mph gusts. Yes, this is Scotland in summer.

Even so, the play was thoroughly enjoyable. As a medieval fairyologist, I do tend to be annoyed with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because it was Shakespeare who made fairies small and gave them names like Cobweb and Peasblossom, but I can’t help but love Puck. (He is related to the Pooka, after all.) Puck was wonderful and camp and Scottish and played the violin. The picture above was taken just before Oberon (far right) woke Titania (on the steps with Bottom) and removed the love spell that had made her fall in love with a mortal (and a donkey).

Tomorrow I am going to see Romeo & Juliet performed by the same actors, in the same setting. With any luck it will be less wet, but at least I will be prepared!

Now, to Edit

Last year I wrote a novel in June; the year before that, in July. But this year I am not doing JuNoWriMo — instead, I will be editing a novel.

Before Kelly came to visit, we agreed that we would swap novels: I would read and comment on EDGEWOOD and she would do the same with THE FAERIE KING. She finished reading my novel over the weekend; I have the manuscriipt here, now, with both of our handwriting scrawled over the text and in the margins.

Today has been one of those days of having to force myself to sit down and work, despite wanting to work — both for my thesis and for my novel. But sit down I have and I’ve gone through Chapter One.

For all four of the Pooka novels that I wrote during various WriMos, it took me approximately three days to write a chapter. I shall attempt the same policy for editing the ten chapters of THE FAERIE KING. Yes, I know I’m starting a bit late, but I didn’t want to be editing while Kelly was here. Now that play time is over, it’s back to work for me…

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to indicate my progress during an EdMo because I have no daily-increasing word count to include at the end of my blog posts. Any suggestions?

In the meantime, here’s my favourite excerpt from today:

In time long past, the Ten Kingdoms were full of strange beasts and magic. The dragons were mighty and powerful, their wings could block out the sun and their tails wrapped around the earth. Nothing like the small, wingless dragons we have now. Gnomes lived under trees and dwarves in ancient castles. This was a time of enchantresses in the woods and when the earth shook under the feet of giants. This was a very long time ago – so very long, in fact, that truly faeries did traffic between this world and theirs, and the King of Faerie himself was known to hunt in mortal forests.

You laugh, Sir Richard? The Land of Faerie, called Elfame in ancient texts, is no laughing matter. I have spent many days in Her Majesty’s royal archives and have travelled to several other libraries in the Ten Kingdoms, reading and gathering knowledge for this story. All the ancient authors whom we scholars and tale tellers revere speak of this land of twilight, where the very trees are made of crystal, and where faeries immortal dwell. Do not laugh, but listen. This is a tale for our queen.

The White Deer

Opening line: ‘If you should walk and wind and wander far enough on one of those afternoons in April when smoke goes down instead of up, and near-by things sound far away and far things near, you are more than likely to come at last to the enchanted forest that lies between the Moonstone Mines and Centaurs Mountain.’

King Clode has three sons, Thag, Gallow, and Jorn. Princes Thag and Gallow are mighty huntsmen like their father, but Jorn is quieter, loves song and plays the harp. One day while hunting in the enchanted forest which borders their land, they come in pursuit of a white deer, swift as light and as lovely to look upon as a waterfall in sunshine. But all is not what it seems in the enchanted forest. What appears to be a deer is not a deer; what appears to be a princess may not be a princess. Each of the princes is set a perilous task to win the hand and break the enchantment on the princess who has a memory of trees and fields and a memory of nothing more. But is that the only enchantment that needs breaking?

The White Deer by James Thurber is one of those delightful new fairy tales that I will add to my list of ‘further reading’ or books that have helped influence the Pooka novels. I’ve been aware of The White Deer for quite some time now, but books by James Thurber are difficult to find. Despite his fame and success in the early part of the 20th century, he isn’t as well known now. I’ve only read Fables of our time (a satirical and witty collection of fables reminiscent of Aesop or Kipling) and The Wonderful O (in which a pirate bans the letter O from an island he’s invaded), both of which are good examples of Thurber’s wit and way with words. I wasn’t going to buy any books on my trip south, even though I know I would come tantalizingly close to lots of book stores. It was while Chris and I were wandering around the market in Cambridge that I saw The White Deer. I gasped and snatched it up: it’s been out of print, I’ve been wanting to read it for ages, it was only £1.25. I felt no regret breaking my moratorium on purchasing new books.

The White Deer is partly satirical as well, at least in the sense that it is conscious that it is a fairy tale and comments on both the genre and its place in it. But that isn’t to say that The White Deer doesn’t also respect its genre; it does. Moreso than the previous two works I’ve read by Thurber, The White Deer demonstrates effortless wordplay. This would be an excellent little story to read aloud. ‘Delight’ is simply the best term to describe the experience of reading this book. Nope, no regrets at all.

50,000 words

At 50,077 words I finished my NaNoWriMo novel THE HERO, or THE KNIGHT WITH THE SWAN.

An excerpt:

“Is that my ward, Mellayne? Who ran away at the beginning of summer? Why, whatever has gotten into you? You used to be such a quiet child,” said the queen. She snapped her fingers. Mellayne gasped and one hand clutched her throat. She bent over, making choking noises.

“Your quarrel is not with Mellayne! Let her be!” commanded Lukas.

Instantly Mellayne stopped choking, but no sound came out of her mouth when she opened it. She leaned against his back, trembling, and gave a great sob.

“No,” said the Queen of Marschon. “My quarrel is with you.”

“Then come down and face me yourself!” shouted Lukas. The Pooka danced, its hooves ringing with his words. “Come, unless you are too much a coward!”

“I am not afraid of you, little knight,” answered the queen. She disappeared into a whirl of smoke and landed in front of him. The Queen of Marschon held a sword. “Now who is the coward?” she asked. “Will you dismount, as an honorable knight should?”

Mellayne tried to hold him back, but Lukas dismounted. He drew his sword, the one given to him by the Mistress of the Night. They started to circle each other. “I will fight you, false traitor, for you have enslaved my people,” he said.

Did Lukas defeat the Queen of Marschon? Did he survive his battle with the basilisk? Well, you will just have to find out.

This month was not without its ups and downs. This was perhaps the most difficult WriMo I’ve had. I was so busy that often my creative well was dry that when I sat down to write I couldn’t come up with anything. My stats page reflects this:

But I still won, because after a few days of resting the creative well would be refilled, and I would write up a storm.

A few more stats:

This is my sixth NaNoWriMo and my ninth WriMo since 2003. Since 2009, I have written four novels. More importantly to me, I have successfully written a four-book series, with interesting and different characters and stories in each. I’m quite pleased, if I may say so myself.

Now, something just as exciting in my point of view: because I finished NaNoWriMo today, and because tomorrow is a university holiday, I am taking the rest of the week OFF. Sleep, glorious sleep!

Quick update

Hello all.

Thanksgiving on Saturday was a success. I will post pictures later, when I have time. This is just a quick update to say that I love turkey and food, that it’s Advent already, and that I’ve begun the final chapter of my novel and, quite possibly, the series.

I have mixed feelings about this. I am so ready for November to be over. And yet, I am sad about saying good-bye to the Pooka. I suppose it isn’t good-bye really, as I still have to revise the four novels…

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are still 4582 words left to write, and three days to write them in. Can I do it? I think so.

Word count: 45,418

The beginning of it all

Yesterday one of the cornerstones of modern science-fiction passed away. Anne McCaffrey died in her home in Ireland following a stroke at the age of 85. There is not a fan of science fiction or fantasy that I know who did not fall in love with the dragons of Pern or explore the bounds of telepathy with the Rowan or the Ship Who Sang.

Although I loved dragons and science fiction long before I read anything by Anne McCaffrey, it was she who first revealed to me that these things that I loved could be found in books. I remember receiving Dragonsong for Christmas when I was twelve, sitting in the upstairs bedroom (‘my’ room) in the Old House, reading it late into the night. It was one of the few books that as soon as I finished it, I read it again. She awoke my thirst for reading science fiction and fantasy, and also, for writing it. My very first ‘novel’ (that shall never see the light of day) shamelessly borrowed from Pern (and Xena and the NBC miniseries Merlin, but let’s not go there). Although I can point to Peter S. Beagle for my deep love of the high medieval period and the Pooka, to Piers Anthony for my weird way of mixing Greek myths with fairy tales, and to Robin McKinley and Mercedes Lackey for examples of strong, amazing princesses, it was Anne McCaffrey who started it all.

Thank you, Anne. May you rest in peace.

For Writing Wednesday I feel I ought to post an excerpt that has dragons in it, but unfortunately, Uncle Urian the dragon was left behind in Chapter Two. Instead, meet my newest protagonist:

With a start, the swan flapped its wings and was gone into the trees. The Pooka reared in surprise as Lukas drew his sword. “Swan!” he cried. The Pooka turned, leaving the road to chase after the swan. Ahead of them they could see the flash of white hopping and flapping its wings through the underbrush, half-running, half-flying. Suddenly the swan was lost in a flurry of white wings and necks. The Pooka slid to a halt in front a flock of swans, all silently swarming around one swan, rubbing their heads and necks together.

“Swan?” asked Lukas, dismounting.

Out of nowhere a branch swung at his head. Lukas ducked. The Pooka sidled out of the way. When he looked up the branch was swinging back at him, so he stepped aside and grabbed it. The branch struggled against his grip, and it was then that he saw that it was held by a maiden, a young lady dressed in the fine clothes of minor nobility.

“Who are you? Why are you attacking me?” asked Lukas.

The woman, whose skin was nearly as fair as the swans and her hair pale besides, scowled at him. The color was high in her cheeks. Her eyes were pale blue — the same color as the swan’s eyes, he noticed. Without speaking, she pointed angrily at him, at his sword, and then at the flock of swans. Lukas followed each point until he was staring at the swans, unable to make out which one had been his travel companion for the past several months. The swans had settled enough for Lukas to count them. There were six swans.

“What?” asked the knight.

The Pooka whuffed through its nostrils. “Perhaps she thought you were hunting the swan,” it said.

The maiden’s eyes grew wide and round at the Pooka, but still she said nothing. She nodded once.


Last night, after a rather long writing session in which I wrote 3000 words, I finished Chapter Five. I have now written half of my novel. Huzzah!

And may I present to you, the Pooka:

A black shadow leapt onto the bed. When Lukas did not first acknowledge it, the small creature pounced on his feet, its claws pricking him through the covers. “Agh!” exclaimed Lukas, jerking his feet away. The black cat chased after them, attacking his feet even as they moved.

The cat stopped only when Lukas threw a pillow at it. Leaping over the pillow, the cat sat down gracefully. It proceeded to wash its face, winking its golden eyes. “Well?” asked the Pooka.

“There is a monster in the forest,” said Lukas. “Time and again Lord Cadigar has sent knights out after it, but they have never returned. The game has left his parks. Save for me, there have been no other travellers. They do not know what kind of creature it is, but they fear it.”

 The cat began licking its shoulder. “It is as I suspected,” said the Pooka.

“I told them I would ride out to meet it.”

The Pooka did not answer. The cat lifted its leg, moving on from its stomach. “Pooka!” Lukas tossed another pillow at the indecent cat.

“I heard you,” sniffed the Pooka. It turned itself in circles on the pillow before lying down. “They asked you about the gryphon and the chimera. I know. I was there.”

I’m fairly certain that the Pooka is the reason I keep writing these novels…

Word count: 25355