Monday, 30 April 2012

Through the Initiation.


I’d been worried about the landing, but it was easy, the cloak did most of it for me. I wondered if Sylvester had made them give me one that would. It’s supposed to take a while to learn to fly with a cloak, but Malaika would already have done it, so it’d be odd if I was here and couldn’t.

When I landed on the meadow, I found I’d still got at least an hour until the last of the Seekers arrived, plus more for the time to get them fed and sorted out. So I decided to take a walk around. It was far, far away, but also just a touch freak, to be on the streets of the city. I knew the map of it from the Encyclopaedia and I could recognise the buildings; either from the illustrations or from having seen them in the DIVs.

It isn’t the same as walking around a place you really know, though. That was still tres ok. A real lol. I could feel the cobbles under my feet, I could smell fresh bread when I went past a bakery, and there was sunlight warm on one side of my face. Alright, not all good. I could smell they’d had draftbeasts walking through too, by what they’d left on the cobbles. Cho gruse.
I felt a bit hungry and bought a snack from a stall near the market. I must have looked a bit fuffy. I was fumbling with the coins and trying not to grin, ‘cos I was still very wai wai from, well, everything. Flying, being here, being Malaika. I’d lost track of the time until I saw Aki and Daniel walking along the street ahead of me. I was going to run up and catch them, but then I caught the body language and the look on her face and thought nooooo girl, don’t. The last thing Aki’d want just then was someone butting in and spoiling the moment.

I followed them at a careful sort of distance ‘til we got back to the Meadows. There were a lot more people they knew there and they unglued from each other a little, so I joined them, sort of pretending I couldn’t see they were together. I think Dan would’ve been embarrassed if I’d said anything. I went along with them to the meadows where the Initiations take place and we sat on the bank and waited for the rest of the seniors. It was nice sitting out in the sun. The weather here was like Dad says it used to be.


The river banks had got higher and steeper as we went further down. There were only occasional buildings along the way, right until we reached the city itself; bastles by the looks of them. Bastles litter Northumberland. The teacher who first introduced us to them said the word came from Bastille, and they could be thought of as fortified barns. I knew the history of the Borders and I knew what was going on when people needed to fortify their barns. Not reassuring. The river at the city looked very much like it does at Newcastle, minus the bridges. There was a turreted wall, and I could see a castle about where the Keep is on the north side. The river was bridged, but by a medieval looking affair with houses built along it. There was a wooden section in the centre which looked as though it could be raised to let tall ships through.

It didn’t have the grace of either the Tyne or Millennium bridges, and it wasn’t my city, but it did look attractive; I had to admit. The whole place looked pleasant; much cleaner than a real mediaeval city would have been, I’m sure, and well put together. Green roofs everywhere. McGregor woke up by himself, well before anyone thought to shake him, and steered the boat up to the Quayside, where we got off at a floating jetty. My mind was on how clean the water was when a face popped out of it, winked at me and then dived back down. I don’t think I needed to see the scaly tail to know it was a mermaid. I wasn’t the only one to see it, but it hardly raised much more than a few eyebrows and grins. For the others, the city itself was the main attraction.

Somebody’s set designers had done good work here. Tudor-looking buildings with roof gardens mostly. The streets were narrow, cobbled, but smooth to walk on, and the vehicles that travelled along them were being pulled by… I had to look again. Whatever those things were, they weren’t Shire horses. Or any others, for that matter. I don’t know much about horses, but I was sure horses didn’t have six legs. Where had he nicked those from?

I couldn’t imagine he'd spent much time working out the ecology or biology of a place like this. He’d just have written it for effect. I wondered if I’d see many other six-legged things and how the joint was supposed to work, but decided it didn’t really matter. Here was a city of a few thousand people who carted things around with six-legged beasts. Why should I worry? Apart from the smell of the dung small kids were scraping off the roads…

There was something, though, that stuck in my head. The population… I didn’t have time to follow it through, however. We were shuffled into an inn on the other side of the road and settled on benches at tables to eat, which, I had to admit, was just what I needed to do. There’d been water and more of the rooibos stuff to drink on the boat, but not so much as a sandwich by way of food.

More dwarfs served us. Miya told me they were called Duergars. I knew that one; it’s a Northumbrian term, but I wouldn’t have expected it from him. I suppose it is some sort of tribute to my persistence over the last fourteen years, but I was feeling a lot more ignorant than even I’d expected. Surely, I should have recognised some of the people I’d met so far today. In truth, some did look familiar. I was sure I’d seen the Scot and the Northern Irishman before somewhere. But it was only a whisper of recognition in the back of my head. Maybe something like the nanyware was blocking those memories.

The food was good. Simply cooked, but tasty- done by someone who knew about umami; vegetarian, with some kind of large bean that looked similar to a chickpea; though not one I could recognise and name. The portion size seemed in line with the Food Laws. Had to wonder if that was coincidence or something imposed on them. We'd have eaten more at the time it was written.

It was eaten from heavy wooden plates with heavy metal knives and forks that looked handforged.
I couldn’t begrudge them the attention to detail. This place had a feeling of … I don’t know if the word would be authenticity or plausibility.

For example, after eating I had to go out to use a toilet. Yeah, I know. It was only afterwards I wondered why. What I found reminded me of Japan. They were squatters, similar to the ones
you’d find at a train station, though with the hole at the other, more sensible end. And not the computerised things that need to teach you how they work, obviously. I’d just entered a stall when I noticed a large toad squatting on a ledge. It looked me in the eye and said, “Used one of these before, have you?”

It sounded like Ian Dury. I love the man’s music, but it wasn’t a voice I wanted in the bog with me.

“Nah, didn’t think so. Haven’t met a talking toad either, have you?" It didn’t wait for an answer, but squinted at me and went on. “Some people can drop the trolleys and strides as far as the knees and plop their claggy in safety, but I’d lose ‘em completely if I was you.”

I just wanted a slash. I was about to ask the toad if it couldn’t just go away – where else is embarrassment if not all in your mind, after all – when it launched off again.

“You’re gunna ask me if I wouldn’t be happier out in the wild, aren’t you? The old ‘born free’ stuff, eh? Well there are many less eloquent of my brethren out there who are currently enjoying the right to be eaten alive by herons – a fate that doesn’t even leave time for scaring the crap out of you. Very fast is herons. While I, on the other hand, spends my days in comfort and safety, courtesy o’ my silver tongue, nothing more to worry about than the odd pongy dump. Easy street, I calls it.”

Okay. In terms of talking animals, not very Disney, but the point is, while I’d have settled for a sign on the wall, I didn’t find anything unbelievable or even strange about the talking toad. I wondered where the voice came from. Surely Ian Dury was dead at the time of the books; he wouldn’t have been a reference that most kids would have understood.
There was even some graffiti on the wall of the toilet. I read it as I peed.

‘Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.’
‘The avalanche has already started; it’s too late for the pebbles to vote.’
‘Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.’

More literary than the stuff I normally see in toilets, but it made this place more real than your
average shopping centre. I tipped sawdust down the squatter instead of flushing it. That couldn't
have been his idea. He wouldn't have gone near a composting bog and they weren't common back in the aughts. I washed my hands and dried them on something that looked like a sheep’s fleece, then went back to the others.

After the meal I could have done with a nap, but we were walked on up the hill towards the castle and beyond. Most of the buildings were houses and the people Duergars. The occasional human stood at least head and shoulders higher than them. The Duergar houses were incredibly small; if they had rats, they’d be hunchbacked. It took me a while to realise they were built tall – lots of storeys that is – as they didn’t go up far. They looked quite modern in having their gardens on the roofs.

We were the only ones dressed in ordinary clothes. The other humans wore either light-grey clothing that looked to be modelled on judo-gi, or darker-grey versions of the same thing, often with cloaks. Footwear was some sort of moccasin. I noticed the older ones were in the darker clothing, and only they wore the cloaks. I asked Miya if there was any significance to this.

“Yeah, the younger ones are Apprentices, the older ones are Seniors. They teach and stuff. The ones wearing the cloaks can fly. Hey, can you see the sleeves on the dark tops have sort of embroidery on them? Yeah? Well that shows what level of senior they are. I don’t know what the signs mean yet, but we’ll be told when we pass our Initiation”.

I caught a quick look at a couple of passing seniors and could tell her, “They’re kanji, Japanese writing. One mark is a number and another is some sort of level marker. The guy back there had one and low on his sleeve and the girl had one and middle.”

“You read Japanese?" I was quite surprised she believed it so quickly. When I was thirteen, I’d have guessed BS if I’d heard a statement like that.
“No, it’s difficult to learn, but I know a few of the simple characters.”
She didn’t ask me how I’d learned, being busy telling the other girl from the boat this news, which was as well. I didn’t want to have to think my way around telling the truth. I knew those characters because they’re used as part of the names of Japanese primary, middle and secondary schools. And I knew that, because I worked in one. I didn’t know exactly what would happen if I acted out of character, but Sylvester wouldn’t like it, that I was sure of; so I’d try to avoid it.

After a while we reached the north gate to the city walls and went through. The cobbles ended here and the road was now a dirt track that headed off in the direction of a forest about a kilometre away. Before that I could see a large meadow, with cows grazing. We walked into the centre of it, in the direction of a small crowd of people milling around.


I looked for Brendan in the first few groups of Seekers, but didn’t see him. Everyone else was looking as much as I was. It made sense. Book One says most of the Seekers were relatives of people already in The Land, so some were checking if their younger brothers or sisters or whatever had arrived. There wasn't a big crowd, but I suppose people had other things to do.
As it happened, I spotted him in the last group to get there. Ben Elliott looked really cute at 11 when he started playing Brendan in the DIVs. I do sort of like him now. Sara thinks he’s mecha hunky, ‘cos he’s well spartaned, but he’s a bit too tougho for me.

Once they had arrived, everything started to get sorted out. Senior Niall was there then so it could, of course. He’d come with the same group as Brendan, natch.
We herded the Seekers into the centre of the Dip and all of the Mages spread in a circle around them; linking hands to get the spacing right. The Initiation started without any ceremony; there was just a sound like a drum beating. I knew what it was, ‘cos it’s explained in Book One – the heartbeats of the Mages as their energies start to link for the Initiation. It started sort of raggy, then built and built into not like just noise, but something you could dance to. Then all the Mages raised their hands, palms towards the Seekers. Senior Niall chanted, but his voice echoed out over the group. It soaked into my head and stopped any other thoughts. I felt warmth spreading down my arms to my hands.
Then, for some time, I was just a part of the circle. The chanting filled my head and my heartbeat started to echo with it. I noticed when the blue light started to flow from my hands, snaking over to the Seekers like smoke and touching their heads, but it wasn’t freak or like something to get excited over. It was just what was happening.


After all the talk of the Initiation, I’d expected some grand show. As it happened, we got herded into a small, amphitheatre-shaped dip in the meadow, close to a stream. The dark- clothed Mages formed a ring around us, and things started with a drum beating.

I had a second after the drum started to realise it had begun, another to think this was lacking in showmanship, and then the chanting started. Things got vague pretty quickly after this, but I thought there was one voice chanting at first, amplified somehow so it filled the area. Then the sky grew dark until I couldn’t see anything. I felt warm and comfortable, but, thinking back, I don’t remember being able to feel my body at all.

Something, a pressure, started up in the centre of my head and I knew someone was going to touch me. The pressure intensified. Then something touched my head and the pressure became a colour, without ever stopping being a pressure. Purple started to flow behind my eyes. First, a purple pond with ripples moving across it, then, the surface of a purple soup, slowly boiling. Then dark blue took over. This colour-feeling continued all the way down my body, covering the entire spectrum.

I know this is a lousy description of what happened, but it would take a poet, a doctor or a mystic to do a better job, and even they might be stretched to explain what having your crotch feel red means.

Then there was nothing at all, a blackness like a sky without stars, an emptiness like a hole in your heart, a feeling time had gone away on holiday. It stayed like that for some short… interval? I was aware of it, even though there wasn’t anything to be aware of. Then my consciousness called time on me.
Again. This was already happening a lot here. I didn’t know who’d get off on this kind of detail, but I’d be ready to suggest they knock it on the head as just too bleeding painful to be fun.


It was freak! I mean, beyond mecha. I mean… I don’t know any way to talk about it! The only parts I can describe are the bits that were in front of my eyes. What happened inside my head…!
I saw the things that I knew I would. It’s like it says in Book One, ‘The Energies reached round in a circle, uniting the Mages through their third eyes - a point in the middle of their foreheads. Then it spread from their hands to form a spider’s web of blue ight, each node a Seeker.
Seekers often asked about that light, as they never saw it. New Mages often disputed about the light, never agreeing. Elders, if pressed, might say it was like deep sky-blue, but different. One famous Mage had described it as the shade of a giving heart, another like the colour of Miles Davies playing saxophone. Well-meaning attempts to explain, perhaps, but … Kayley said it best when she said Mages perceived magic, not light, so the colour of magic could never be described to those looking for the vocabulary of light.

Along those indescribable lines of living magic flowed a pulse of energy, touching each Seeker, entering and opening them.’
That’s what it says it is, but that doesn’t tell you what it’s like being inside it. Brendan lit up like some kind of rainbow, glowing from violet down to fire-engine red. He just sat down and then fell over slowly, lights shining out of him.

Then it was suddenly done. Everyone just went slack. It wasn’t like we woke up or anything. It was more like the world had stopped for a while and then it started again. Then I saw them. About five kids. The only ones standing. They hadn’t an iddy about what was going on around them and I knew; nothing had happened for them. I felt so sad for them. What had just happened to me was something I couldn’t put into words, but I knew I’d had an experience and I knew they hadn’t. They hadn’t felt anything. They’d stood in the middle of a field and watched others going weirdly around them.

The others were either sitting on the ground, holding their heads and looking a bit sick, or flat out on the floor, like Brendan, unconscious. The seniors around the circle were all looking the way I felt. Duergars moved amongst us and the kids sitting on the grass. They gave out cups of what must have been chia. I didn’t notice the taste of it even; maybe it was the same stuff I’d drunk that morning. It had the same effect though. I felt instantly better, clear in my head and just not getting over something freak any more.
‘Two,’ murmured Aki, ‘Did you see them?’
‘What?’ was all I could croak.
‘A boy down there in front of you and a girl just over there,’ she said, pointing. ‘Both had the light.’
When I looked again the Duergars were carrying them on stretchers towards Senior Niall. Brendan would wake up and meet Jess for the first time. That was the start of their rivalry. It wasn’t sorted out even by Book Six. I’d so much love to know how it all ends!


I woke up lying on a stretcher. Someone offered me a cup and I drank it down. Same stuff they’d given us after coming through the Gate. Same sort of effect too, though I didn’t feel like getting up from the stretcher just yet.
“Feeling rough?" That Irishman again. I couldn’t do much more than nod to him. “Don’t worry; the effect will wear off soon. Drink lots of chia and you’ll feel better. When you can walk, just say, and Debaa here will show you the way to the carriages.”
He patted me on the shoulder and went off. I wondered if someone could maybe just carry me to a bed, but as I drank I repaired quickly. Within a minute I was able to stand up. On another stretcher was a young girl. She looked like she’d just vomited her toenails, but was coming back into focus fast. Another familiar face, but I couldn’t place her either.

I looked around. Most of the crowd had gone. It dawned on me we were the only ones who’d passed out. I felt embarrassed, some kind of wimp, too whacked out to remember this was just in the script.

The girl, on the other hand, looked well pleased.
“Did they see the Light?" she demanded of the Duergar.
“Hem." The creature replied, nodding. I took that for a yes. She didn’t air-punch, but the look on her face told me I’d been wrong. Whatever had happened to us she was in favour of. I must have looked confused. Well, I should’ve done, I was. She looked at me, saw this, and twisted a lip.

“You don’t know what just happened, do you?" she demanded. They say a picture paints a thousand words. Well, the look on her face was doing a novella on how my incomprehension equalled idiocy. I think I’m nice to teenage girls when I teach them, even when they don’t really deserve it. I’d only been doing it for a year and a half, but I’d taught enough to know most of them feel the same way. I’m not a bad bloke, but I don’t take this kind of behaviour.

“No," I told her back, “but then I’m not some up-herself little cow standing in a field with her mates, am I? Moo.”
Okay, I know, as a line, it stank. And it wasn’t the best way to handle the situation, I know, right? But come up with a better response yourself when your head has just come apart at the seams. It did the job for me. I nodded to the dwarf and we started to walk away. I heard fuming noises behind me, so I guessed it’d done the job for her too. Crude, perhaps, but I thought that’d gone well enough. Perhaps I’d edit it out of the AfterBook, though probably I’d just delete that anyway.


I could see from where I stood that something went wrong with the conversation between Brendan and Jess. They should’ve talked for a while where they stood and then gone off together, arguing. Somehow he’d finished the whole thing in only seconds and was going off by himself. How could he not know the way it was supposed to go? Well, it really didn’t matter much, I supposed. Those who hadn’t passed would go back to their Gates and the other world. The rest of us would go to the feast, then bed. I’d wake up back in my real world tomorrow. Maybe it was because I was emptied after the Initiation, but I felt like I’d won second prize.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Book Review Walker by Jane Alexander

I like the fact that the author tells you most of this is based on her studies of shamanism. I don't honestly care, though. This is a work of fantasy that I'd got for my 12-year-old daughter and then decided to read while she was off on a school trip. I really like that this is a world of magic that owes nothing to JK Rowling or anyone else. I love the fairie folk and the fact that they'd spit in your eye then punch a hole in the wall right through you. There are a huge list of creatures that fascinate in this. The imagination is excellent. And that's before you get to the characters. Good, strong and very real people populate the book and keep you reading to the end. The settings, though, are really what impress me most. I swear that Neil Gaiman will be jealous of the idea of the plastic hell.
Hunter is a teenage American boy who finds out after his parents die that he is a shaman. He goes to stay with his grandmother in the UK and begins to find out that the world is not nearly the way he thought it was. He is led by a young girl, Rowan, to meet with his spirit animal and to survive attempts to kill him.
The book is very suitable for teens, but I'm 53 and enjoyed it too. You can find it here.

Dear Finns

It's Iron Sky, isn't it? Since I posted about it and how much I want to see it, I've had a lot of page views from Finland. I WWOOFed there two years ago with Martti Gronfers and love the place. We've had Finnish friends here in UAE who've now moved on, love them still.
Initially, I was attracted to the news of a SF film made independently in Finland. Then I read more about the project and decided I loved every part of it. If anyone out there has seen it, I'd love to know if it comes up to expectations. Come on people.There's an awful lot of love in this post.

Book Review Die a Dry Death - Greta Van De Rol

Beautifully realised account of a true story. The story of the wreck of the Dutch ship, the Batavia, is a true one. Ms Van de Rol has clearly researched not only widely, but very well to be able to retell it as she does. It's not just that the clothing and equipment used are correct, but that the atitudes of the people are of their time. Social differences are so important as to be defining, torture is regarded as a way to the truth, the fact that one of the main characters does not believe in Hell makes his actions justifiable to himself and (in a way) comprehensible to his fellows - he was clearly in a pact with the devil that he didn't believe in. The characters in the book are skillfully writtten and brilliantly concieved. Each one is consistently themselves, so, while they only do what they (historically) did, their motivations for their actions convince. All are fully rounded, with a full ration of human contradiction, though. The villain, Cornelisz, is a cold-blooded manipulator, who never kills another, but has no trouble in getting others to do it for him. He insists on seducing the Lady Lucretia rather than forcing her, however. She, in turn, beds with him to save her life, but suffers guilt over the fact that his love making stirs her more than her husband's ever did. Every part of this book worked for me perfectly, especially the ending, which is Ms Van de Rol's own convincing speculation on events which history does not record.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Iron Sky

I haven't seen this film. I probably won't get the chance to. I am already convinced that's my loss. Iron Sky is a comedy about a gang of Nazis who escaped to the Moon at the end of WW2 using anti-gravity technology. They decide to invade the Earth when President Sarah Palin restarts the space programme and lands another tin box on the Moon right by the base.
It's made by Finns (this is a purely good thing), was made on a church mouse budget - I really think they had to pass round the hat to raise the cash for it - and they seem to have used imagination rather than cash.
You can find the trailer here and can petition to have it shown in your area here.
If you do get to see it, please don't forget to tell me how it was.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Moving down the river

There was a small settlement at the river, where a stone bridge crossed over, with a jetty on the downstream side. I couldn’t see much of the settlement, as it was walled, with crenelated and clearly well-maintained walls. A pele tower of lichened stones stood higher than the other buildings and looked out over the farm houses and fields outside.
Again, it looked like Northumberland, a land fought in and over for years until the Union of the Crowns, except our towers are ancient ruins. As someone taken, by the age of nine, to just about everything the Romans and the Reivers had made, I wondered what would make that wall a necessary expense.
We walked to the jetty where some small wooden boats were tied up and waiting for us. The boats were made of overlapping wood planks, rather than plywood, and looked solid. The seniors sorted us, kids and adults, to each boat. I was in the one with the Scot, a wild-haired, wild-bearded, bloodshot-eyed guy who might have been mid-thirties, hard to tell with that beard. He’d the look of an amiable character, but one you wouldn’t cross if you met in a pub, not unless you were desperate for a head-butt.
He untied the boat and pushed it off. I looked at the sail, still furled, and then at the little flag on top of it. It wasn’t so much as twitching; there wasn’t a breath of wind, so I dismissed the idea of sailing. I wondered how we were going to get downriver, and thought we must be going to drift, when the Scot lifted a hand to the mast.
“Hoist,” he ordered, and the sail did, all by itself. Still no wind, but it didn’t bother him. “Mind the boom there, eh,” he said, and blew a kiss lightly at the mast. The sail filled as though a breeze had just come up, the boom swung around and the boat started moving smoothly through the water. I heard a few wows from the other passengers, but, when I looked around, I saw the other boats were the same; sails gently filled by a wind that wasn’t disturbing a hair on my head. Why be surprised? This was meant to be a world where magic worked, after all.
“Okay now lads and lassies. My name is McGregor. You may address me as Senior McGregor, if you’re feeling polite, or just Senior if you’re feeling lazy. There are those who refer to me as Jock, but you are not yet among them, so don’t make the mistake o’ trying that, okay? Now, one way and another I had a bit of a night last night, y’know? So, what I really want to do just the now, is to get my head down and grab a few zees, right? Keep it down to a low scream and wake me up when we get to the city, okay?”
Then he curled himself up on the seat at the back of the boat and went instantly to sleep – the snores were genuine and a dead give-away. The rudder seemed gripped by some invisible hand and kept the boat aimed neatly down the centre of the river. There wasn’t much more to say or do about all that, so I turned my attention to my fellow passengers.
I was sitting third in line next to one of the two girls in our boat. From her face I guessed her to be about thirteen. Her hair was in tight corn rows and she had the same looks as a couple of Ethiopian girls I had studied with on my uni course. She had that lean, East-African build, and a face that belonged on Sade’s baby sister. I was about to introduce myself when one of the boys in front of us turned around.
He looked at me, nodded and then dropped me from his world while he turned his attention to the girl. “Hi, er, do you speak English?” The ice on the reply, “Yes”, would have slowed most blokes, but he didn’t seem bothered. “So, er, what part of Africa are you from then, eh?”
You could tell she considered her reply, from the way she leaned forward, elbows on her knees, her head cocked slightly to one side before saying, “Have you heard of the bit called Kingston-upon-Thames?” The boy was now obviously groping for reverse gear, but didn’t make it in time.
“I speak English, better than you do, but I don’t want to speak it with you, savvy?” she said and then, for good measure, turned to me and added, “And you can bugger off too.”
Well, I’d been about to go for polite conversation, rather than a proposal of marriage, but gratuitous insults from imaginary people get up my nose, even without me having a headache. I fixed her with my own best steely glare.
“I checked on the way down and you do have a good arse, but since it’s only sitting on a bench next to mine I don’t think it gives you any right to be rude. If you aren’t floating back this way tomorrow, you can start thinking you’re somebody, till then you can take that attitude and stuff it.”
Two things struck me about these words as they came out of my mouth. The first was the accent was Belfast, rather than Geordie. Not that I minded exactly - I think the Belfast accent has a fine ring, like someone working metal on an anvil, but it wasn’t mine.
Maybe because of that came the second realisation; it had come out as harder and a lot more aggressive than I’d have liked. I wasn’t exactly trying for diplomacy much, but that was boorish.
The rest of the boat was obviously listening for how she’d reply. From the look on her face though, something in there had bitten and there wasn’t going to be any come-back. Her eyes dropped to her lap and she looked a bit cowed.
A feeling of guilt about snapping at a little girl was coming over me when she looked back up and said, “Sorry, that wasn’t called for, was it? I’m a bit… well it’s all a bit much to… y’know. Erm…”
I stuck out a hand. “Let’s start that bit over, eh? I’m … Brendan, pleased to meet you.’ I shrugged. ‘I snapped a bit as well, didn’t I?”
She grinned and took the hand. “Miya. You from Ireland?”
“Belfast, sort of,” I told her, and then threw in my mate Eamonn’s old line, “We used to make the best terrorists in the world; then they started making ‘em cheaper in the third world. What can yeh do?” She was unsure whether to be shocked or amused; the reaction Eamonn always used to get too, so I nodded at the boy who’d started this. “How about you?”
“Oh, I’m Lewis. Hi.”
The ice was only half-broken, so I elected myself host and got everyone else to introduce themselves too. The others were all from the South of England. I’m a Northerner, a Great Northerner and very, very Northern, so that didn’t look like a good start. He wouldn’t have written many good parts for Tynesiders, I knew, but he couldn’t stand Scousers or Mancs much either. I asked if anyone knew what’d happen next.
As it turned out, a few of them did; bits of it at least. Some had relatives who had been through this before. There wasn’t, well, there couldn’t be, anyone on the boat who knew less about this world and how it worked than me. I spent just about all the rest of the boat ride listening, or politely faking it, as each chipped in their information and opinions on different people they knew the names of, training we’d get etc. etc. All providing, of course, we passed this Initiation test.
Part of me wanted to be making notes of all this, otherwise I’d forget it; but it didn’t really matter. I’d only be here for the day, after all.
That didn’t happen in Book One. Where is that supposed to have come from?

We all noticed the laddie on the way down to the boats. If he had dandruff, you could probably use it as an ingredient in a spell (not one for an aphrodisiac, ‘cos some things have limits, but ye know what I mean) - it was that obvious he was a Mage. I did my usual trick of ‘falling asleep’ on the trip down and listened in to the crack. I threw a wee bit of forgetfulness at them so they wouldn’t mind me much.
Usually the girls are quite a mature bunch and the boys are just a spotty crowd o’ wee scunners. No their fault, of course, they are just wee laddies, but I often feel like dipping them in the river headfirst for a bit. Who was it said it’s lovely to hear the sound of children at play, just so long as you’re no close enough to hear what they’re saying? Sound man.
Anyway, young Earle wasn’t like that. With my eyes closed I would’ve been hard pressed to tell ye how old he was. I mean, his voice hadn’t broken yet, so the noise was young, but the questions and the way he managed the others just wasn’t an eleven year old, ye ken? I wanted to write that crack about the good arse on the back o’ my hand. There was bound to be a time I could use it. Great line from a kid with a cat feather sticking up behind him, looking like the tail on something annoyed. 

Monday, 16 April 2012

Book review Olives by Alexander McNabb

I attended a workshop that McNabb presented at the Dubai Literature Festival where he said he'd self-published Olives after being turned down by over 80 agents. What a crowd of pillocks they were. This is an incredibly well written book. The hero doesn't know what is the truth of his situation until the very last page and you won't either. The writing is very high level, the knowledge of the Middle East and the political situation very detailed. I've visited Jordan as a tourist and recognised places, scenes and bits of atmosphere that he describes, so know that he does all of that well.
I believed this book. Everything in it convinced me. The Arabs were like the ones I work with, those charming folk who can be so easy to like and so hard to understand. The characters were all real people to me, their motivations often confusing, but always credible. This is a book that I'll be lending to friends and nagging them to read. They'll thank me for it, though, I know they will.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Book Review - The Case of the Vanishing Heart.

This is a review of a fellow Sand member's book, now published on Smashwords at:
I'd have to admit that when I read the first chapter, I wasn't too impressed. Competently written, but something that had been done before and better. I was thinking of writing back to the author suggesting that she really needed to come up with some angle that would grab the reader. Something novel, something I hadn’t seen before. Then I read chapter two and realised that she’d more than beaten me to that punch. The first chapter was a knock off of a Raymond Chandler type private detective, but not PV Tkach’s. Her character is Persephone and the detective, Jersey, is Persephone’s. She’s writing the characters that just appeared in her head and, while she’s an ok writer and gets much better during the course of this book, she isn’t going to win any prizes.
PV Tkach, however, has a huge range and could probably write the scotch out of Chandler's hand. Chapter two didn’t just give me a clue that this was a more interesting piece of writing than I thought, it grabbed me, wrung me out and made sure I wouldn’t stop reading until I’d found out what was happening here.
Chapter three took me back to Jersey and his secretary Pearl. By now, however, I was fascinated to see not only how their story was going, but how it reflected what was happening in Persephone’s life. It just got better and better. I got involved with Persephone, really felt for her, her kids and her conflict with her ex-husband and I got involved with Jersey and Pearl, really wanting them to solve this case and pay the rent.
This is a remarkable story in its own right, but also a revealing look at the writing process and how the author reacts with their own work. It becomes a vehicle for Persephone’s own liberation as solutions to her problems start to boil out of the invention of Jersey’s world.
I can’t recommend this highly enough. It’s a startling cross-genre piece whose separate parts do so much more than just complement each other. I wouldn’t normally read this kind of women’s fiction, though I have read a lot of Chandler. After finishing it, I’m still not sure that I’d read so much women’s fiction, though I will if Tkach writes it.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Possible revision.

My stuff is up on, or at least a sample from the start of the book is. The lowest marks I get from there are always for structure and pace, with people often telling me that it jumps around from character to character too much. I've previously looked at it and thought that I didn't know how to change this and still make it work for myself, so done nothing. Today, however, I looked at it again and thought I'd just change it round an bit and see how it worked. Surprisingly for me, though probably not for those who've been telling me that, it works well and I haven't lost the things that I thought I would by the edit. I'm posting the newer version below on the off-chance of getting some comments back about it.

My name is Gaia, and this document my testimony of the Last Days and the Resurrection to come.
You will not find me in these pages. This is the story of Grandfather and those he saved. The tale is told in their voices, and so of them you will meet many. One might say a legion.
What was for them an adventure was, for my family, the beginning of our history. So this is, in many ways, an indispensable part of my story and that the reason why I must introduce myself. My achievements are not modest; still, I do but continue the Great Work of saving and converting which Grandfather and my parents began.
Ours is an uncommon chronicling, as we are an uncommon family, so I will commend to you the words of Sir Francis Bacon, who wrote, in The Advancement of Learning:
 “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties”.
For those who tell you this tale did not know all of its twists, and what they knew, they did not always tell clearly. Moreover, I am my Grandfather’s grandchild, and we spin stories as spiders do webs.
McLeod watched as the two settled back onto the couches and were helped into helmets. Despite himself, he felt unease on seeing his daughter’s face covered by the visor. It made her look an insect-headed alien, and, in some way he couldn’t have explained, made the sticking-out wisp of her brown hair look stolen. The techs jacked them both to the central unit and reclined the couches to the horizontal.
Then the guy beside him spoke.
A hushed voice, not whispering, but as if at a bedroom door and not wanting to disturb the occupant.
More respect than that bloody suit showed.
“Here we go.” The tech tapped his touch-screen and both reclining figures took small, sharp in-breaths, followed by soft sighs.
Like her falling asleep.
The tension McLeod hadn’t been aware of holding released as both bodies relaxed.
“Well then Mr. McLeod, that’s about it for now. The first stage will take about fifteen to twenty minutes for her, perhaps a few more for him, then they’ll have their day. She’ll be back with you in…” He wiggled a hand in a ‘more-or-less’ gesture, “…fifty minutes to an hour. She might have a bit of jet-lag, because of the time difference.”
“It’s that unsure, is it?”
“It’s case by case. We’ve usually found kids are quicker to connect, so we’ll probably have to hold her back a few minutes while he catches up. The compression is set for a half hour, though, that part’s certain. Once we’ve got them both logged in, we’d be able to do this again in about thirty seconds. And the commercial version will compress much more than this, of course.” He grinned, “No one wants to wait for as long as half an hour to live a day nowadays, eh?”
“Was it like this with the others?”
“Well, not the characters, no.” His eyes glanced back at some memory, while his mouth twisted to suggest a tangled situation. “They all took a minimum of a weekend. Some of them two. But those had to be much more detailed readings, being as we don’t have them available real-time, like this. But we’ve all been in there, and for us, yeah, I suppose, pretty much like this. You’ll have to try it yourself some time.”
“Not really my thing; having my mind read and all.”
“Oh, take my word for it, it’s a blast in there, you’d love it. You’ve read the books, I take it?”
“The first two as bed-time stories. After that she read them herself, and I got all the details over the table at meals.”
“Yeah, mine’s nine and we’re at that stage with her too. Well, there’s nothing much more to see here, erm, would you like a coffee or something while you’re waiting?”
“Aye, that’d be grand.”
They left the room. Another tech watched, impatient, ‘till they’d exited, immediately changed the compression factor on both screens, initiated the simulation, and then left as well, his mind on something stronger than coffee. The two on the couches slumbered on, unsupervised, save by the machine.
A watcher might have noticed the girl’s touch-screen reading flicker, and, like a malevolent stagehand removing a vital prop, the character assignment figure change from 1001 to 321. But you are the only watcher, dear reader, and your observation does not collapse any wave form. It will not change the story back.
For, in that moment, history altered. No, please don’t think that melodramatic. I’ve thought about it very, very carefully, and that statement isn’t exaggeration at all.

Day One
It was night. For some reason, I’d been expecting a storm, but, although very dark, it was warm and pleasant. I was standing near the top of a vertigo-inducing set of stairs. Somewhere outside; in a city with traffic noise. Somewhere with stone walls, cobbled streets and perhaps a faint smell of after-the-pub-piss. I had a moment of thinking I knew this place before the memory clicked and I realized it was the Dog Leap Stairs, going down to the Quayside. Newcastle? Was that right? Was it supposed to start here, or was that just because it was me doing the crossing?
Someone touched my arm, and I got an impression of there being several other people with me. The one nearest ushered me on towards the stairs and started a low chanting. Something about the rhythm made it sound familiar, but I couldn’t place where I’d heard it before.
It lasted for only a moment, seconds at the most, but there was an odd sense of the tone persisting after the voice had stopped.  Something like a finger round the top of a wineglass, but right at the edge of hearing. Then the scene straight in front of me broke, pixelated and flowed away, like watching sand fall through an egg-timer from above. Someone walked into that warp in the air, melted and swirled to nothing.
The hand touched me on the arm again, urging me forward. A voice, a man’s, the accent Northern Irish, said, “Don’t worry, just walk straight into the Gate, you’ll be grand.” I didn’t understand why, but I believed him and walked on before thinking, of course I’d be alright, how could anything here hurt me?
As my foot touched the edge of the swirl, it broke up and flowed away. That wasn’t just what I saw; it was exactly how it felt. I’d have pulled back with the shock, but I had no time. Before I could do anything, I’d become a million grains of Adam, flowing and falling, but somehow doing it straight forward. I'd have screamed, but my throat had gone. Then my mind fell away and there was nothingness.
The grains of sand crashed back into each other and somehow became me again. An improvement on being nothing, yes, but not an experience I could enjoy. My skin was trying to crawl off my body and my stomach up my throat. Both feelings went quickly, but I didn’t feel good. Some aspects of verisimilitude could easily be cut, to my way of thinking.
I was now standing in daylight on a grassy hill. Somewhere off in the distance was the glint of early morning sunlight on water. I tottered forward to where a Scot was saying to come and sit down. There were others, adults and kids, coming out of the thin air behind me. No one crashed into anyone else, but everyone had the same kind of bedsprings-recovering-from-an-orgy look to them.
I flopped down on the grass, propped myself up on an elbow and thought, 'Oh,________'.Ah, the ____ nannyware. I couldn't even think a good curse. The grass, anyway, felt good; it felt real. Really grassy grass stalks tickled and gently prickled at my hands and the back of my neck. There was a smell in the air of full summer. I was preparing to lie down on that real grass and feel even better, when something offered me a drink.
It was a dwarf. There’d have to be some here, though, wouldn’t there? Pun completely intentional, but it’d be a minimum. This one was about a metre tall with muscles like a small wrestler. Clean-shaven, and dressed more like a coffee-shop waiter in charcoal grey than an extra from Lord of the Rings, it… he, held the tray towards me and mumbled, “Dringim.”
I took a cup and sipped at it. The taste was a lot like rooibos, which I drink to escape endless cups of green tea, but the effect was incredible; I was instantly clear in the head. It was obvious everyone else around was feeling the same. There were a few ‘wows’- but not ‘like wow’s’, which the kids all say now. A small thing, but it registered as a neat touch. You hear it everywhere; the kids in Kyoto were ‘like-wowing’ before I left, but we never used the expression back then.
A last figure flowed out from the thin air of the Gate; outlined on this side by standing stones covered in runes. It became a tall, lean, dark-haired man, dressed all in black- jeans, shirt and some kind of trench coat. His collar was open and he looked as if he hadn’t shaved or slept, except perhaps in the clothes, for a few days. His eyes were bloodshot, with bags and black circles beneath them. Looked like he'd escaped from the lead role in a Hollywood blockbuster. He blinked, shook his head as if to clear it, and picked up a cup with a mutter of “Thanks, Gava.”
He took a long swig from the cup, and I swear the red in his eyes faded away while he was drinking. When he lowered the cup and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, the stubble was still on his face and the creases still in his clothes, but the signs of exhaustion had vanished. He gave a sigh and a healthy sounding belch and said, “Ah, better.” It was the voice from the other side of the gate.
He moved in front of the bodies sprawled on the grass and addressed us.
“Seekers. Welcome to the Land. I know the first Crossing is not a pleasant thing, but we have to press on. From here we must walk to the river. Then we’ll take boats to get us to the City of Black River Bridge. There you’ll undergo your Initiation - the Ceremony of Opening.” He paused and looked around at us.
“For some of you, that’ll mark the end of your stay here,” That was said seriously enough to make it sound like bad news. “While for others it’ll mean the beginning of your training.” That somehow didn’t sound as if anything more cheerful was in store. “To all, I wish you well, I wish you well. Now please,” he gestured, “To your feet. The walk to the river will take about two hours. You’ll be so kind as to follow the Mages.”
There was a thing about him; what he said, you did. This guy was a lot like Uncle Steve - a leader; you could read it in every line of him.  Not a violent man, at a guess, but one who was very confident in his own abilities and both used to giving orders and having them followed.
I stood up and realized I reached only as tall as the middle of his chest. Before I had time to think he was some kind of a giant, I noticed a boy standing slightly to one side of him. The boy couldn’t have been more than twelve, more likely eleven. He was the same size as me; possibly a little taller. I was eleven years old again.
Take my word for it, when I say it’s the sort of thing that can ruin your day, I’m not joking at all. I’d known it was going to happen, yes, but as a fact like something I’d read in the Zeppelin's  in-flight magazine. You know the thing, 90% of Dubai’s buildings have been green-roofed, oh isn’t that interesting? It’s very different to feel it in your suddenly-much-smaller bones. I worked hard and managed a 'Damn' - a  whispered one. It wasn't nearly enough.

Hah! Believe me sonny, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The walk down to the river did take about two hours. No one was wearing a watch, which we did then and I do now, and yes, I knew better than to expect Tatches tattooed onto wrists. Even now, in Japan, that’s more a Tokyo or Osaka thing, oddly not popular in Kyoto. But no one had a mobile even, which kids of this age would have had, so I could only guess from the height of the sun.
The track was a dirt pathway through countryside that reminded me of Northumberland, out near Hexham. Rolling hills, clumps of trees, cattle or something like them in small groups. A blue sky with cotton wool clouds like the lid on a chocolate box. The weather was like late May or early June when I was a kid; more like late March nowadays.
Between the flowers and the butterflies the meadows looked as though someone’d got bored of green and used the rest of the rainbow to over-paint every scrap of it. Walking past caused clouds of Persian miniatures (well, they weren’t cabbage whites) to lift and ground - so many the fields looked like landing strips for magic carpets. The air was country clean and fresh and there were none of the modern British summer’s palette of burned browns.
I spotted some Sweet Cicely on the way down and snacked on seeds from it. Delicious. Uncle Steve had taught me about it and nettles and dandelion leaves when I was a kid. My flat-mates had appreciated the knowledge during the Year Without Summer. Even with the rationing, damn near all we could get by way of greens was what we found growing wild. All before the Swiss dumped the salt, and the Vertical Farms and the People’s Supermarkets with their vegetable factories started up, of course.
No one talked much on the way. For myself, I was uncomfortably aware of being a kid again and not sure how to speak to the others. Most of the kids seemed overawed by what had happened to them. They couldn’t know each other, so’d be unsure how to start conversations. They probably also still felt a bit sick; I did. Though what was I thinking, they just hadn’t been given any lines to say, had they?
The Mages, the adults, were at the very front and very back of the group, and their body language said they were watching, not just strolling. I overheard a conversation between one of the taller boys and a Mage, where the boy asked why we didn’t fly or go on runners to the city. The reply, in a very dry Yorkshire accent, was none of us could fly yet and no one was going to risk us falling off runners. That conversation stopped there, but it did prompt a girl to ask how would we fly when we learned, on broomsticks?
“Oh, no my lovely, never have anything to do with broomsticks for flying.” This was from a slightly older, well-upholstered Welsh woman. “Tried that when I first came here, I did. Witches never rode broomsticks without they stuffed a couple of nice soft cushions down the backs of their knickers first. I’ll never be persuaded otherwise, see. Barely walk, I could after, and that was only ten miles as the crow flies too. And balance on that thin bit of stick? Tuh, Old wives’ tale about flying on broomsticks, in my opinion. You stick to cloaks my lovely, and your bum will thank you, see?”
The tall Irishman, grinned at this and asked, “Didn’t young Richard say if you just used the broom part, you could do things on a broom that made it far superior to a cloak? A comfortable seat, your hands free? Surfing the sky, I think he called it.”
“Don’t you start me on the wit and wisdom of the amazing Tricky Dicky Banister, Niall Ferguson. Bristles up the backside is the least of the things I wish for that young man. Still cleaning spirit voices out of my toilet after his last clever scheme I am”. She sniffed in disdain. “Pass an Initiation he may well have done, but he’s every inch a fool and terrible tall for his age that boy. And there’s not a Mage in the Land can argue the point with me neither.”
“Argue with you Megs?’ said the Yorkshireman. ‘There’s not a Mage in the land as'd dare. All too keen on waking up same shape as they went to bed the night afore.”
The last of the Mages, a lean, muscular-looking woman with a mild Jamaican accent, tutted at this last. “An’ I will ask you to stop the scandalous remarks about my friend in the presence of all these minors Jacob. It is not seemly to suggest she can or will witch them into small creatures if they back answer her, however true it might be.”
That, give or take a snort of laughter from Megs, more or less put an end to talk from the Seekers. The Mages settled back into walking silently and we went on like that. I did see something in the Irishman’s eyes as he looked at the Jamaican and thought… but no. They were characters, weren’t they? There couldn’t be anything going on there.
I had a feeling that whole scene was deliberate, though. He’d been getting at someone when he wrote it, making some kind of point, but I couldn’t think who or how. I wondered if this was his first chapter, or just a way it’d start for someone coming in like me. This might have been the way he introduced his protagonists. If so, it read like an old joke, a bad old joke – there was an Irish man, a Welsh woman and a… - without a punch line. Confusing if, like me, you didn’t know what was going on. I’d have stopped reading by now. I’d have wanted something more than this. But then, I wouldn’t have cracked the cover in the first place.
Twenty minutes later, both Niall and the Jamaican stopped to look at some birds flying towards us from the distance. They were big and an odd shape.
She looked a question at him. “You think?”
“Unusual to see them so far over,” he nodded, “Best check”.
She reached into a bag slung over her shoulder and pulled what looked like a crystal ball from it. I saw the ball fog as she peered into it, eyes narrowed to slits.
“How many, Niall?”
“Four here. What formation?”
“Standard V.”
“I’m missing the point; it’ll be the leader.”
Without another word, and still gazing intently into the crystal, she reached out her other hand. A ball of electric blue light formed in it. Then she turned to the birds, her eyes leaving the fogged ball in one hand just as the light ball left the other. I’d say she threw it, but it didn’t move like an ordinary throw – there was no rise and fall. It went through the air like a ruled line, dark blue on sky blue, and exploded by the first of the odd-shaped birds, which squawked and dropped like a drunken sycamore seed – falling and twisting, but incapable of doing it elegantly.
Everyone went over to where it lay, motionless, on the ground. The Yorkshireman kicked the obvious corpse onto its back with a toe and grunted, “Ridden.” It was statement rather than question, but the Jamaican nodded confirmation.
“Shielded. The crystal couldn’t see it.”
The thing he had kicked had wings with a span of over two metres, but the body of a cat. It was oddly and massively muscled over the shoulders, but otherwise next door’s ginger tom with eagle wings. Until you looked at the face. That belonged to something that’d chew through your chest and then rip your heart out through the hole. This thing didn’t go in for saucers of milk and tickles behind the ears.
“What is that?” someone asked.
“Chimereagle.” The reply meant nothing to me or the kid who’d asked.
“They’re always half eagle and half something else, depending on local environment. This one had been sent to spy on us.”
The kids all looked at each other, eyes wide with excitement or fear. The adults, I noticed, did the same, though their expressions were of guarded puzzlement. Then the Yorkshireman shrugged.
“Nowt more to do with this, is there?”
He looked at us and nodded his head to one side.
“Walk on.”
I picked up a feather that had fallen from the thing. It was perfect; barbules locking into each other and a pattern of cat camouflage making it look pretty. What had its owner been coming to do? The thought occurred that this world had teeth in it. I worked up a 'damn' much easier this time. I stuck the feather in my back pocket and fell in with the rest.


I’m sure, if you’re a dance teacher, or something of the kind, you can look at any random person and take a guess at their potential as a dancer. Even a fairly quick look would show if they had natural poise, or grace in their movements, ennit? Bottom line, of course, is you could teach them something. But as you watched them, you’d know if this one might ever be great, or’d only just learn to tell the difference between their left and right foot, that sort of thing. Same for anything else you know well; you know what to look for, ennit?
It’s both similar and different for us, see. A Mage can spot someone who has Potential  just by looking at them, in the Land or out of it. Those who haven’t - well you can’t teach them anything, try as you might.
Explaining how we know is a different matter though, ennit? It’s like saying, ‘She’s the one in the pink dress’, to someone who’s colour-blind, see? Potential doesn’t have a colour, any more than colour has a smell, but a Mage knows it’s there. It's not auras neither, though I can see auras. It's what we do and you don't.
So I can tell you we could all ‘see’ young Brendan had massive Potential, but I can’t tell you what it was that told us. I’d have put money on him being one of the Chosen of the Land, but no one would’ve taken the bet. They could all see it too.
Strange to be back in the Land, it was. I’d been away for about a month and I suppose I’d got used to the other world. Coming back was like opening a cupboard of memories I hadn’t looked in for a while. Some of the things in there I’d nearly forgotten I had. Didn’t really notice till we got to the boats and I had to call up the sails, but I felt that way a few times over the next few days. Can’t recall ever feeling like that before.
Sharp, he is, Jake. The Seekers would go for that line about spying, but the rest of us knew better. You want to spy, you send a familiar. Sent to attack us, those beasts were. Take a pride leader and you get the rest of the pride, see, with chimereagles. What he goes for, they go for too. Far more dangerous to the mage if a familiar gets hurt – hospitalise someone, you can if you kill their familiar, while you only give ‘em a bad headache if you drop the beast they’re riding - and much harder to organise a large group. My Morgan, see, flies as a sparrow, fights as a wildcat and spies as a mouse. Niall’s Satsuki flies and fights as an eagle, spies as a housecat. Even getting them to travel together is hard, ennit?
Sloppy attempt, whatever it was designed to do. He must have put it together in a desperate hurry. We know chimereagles only come from places where there were big magic battles in the last war. Fallout, ennit? And they are all on his side of the island now. They were bound to look odd flying in Duergar lands. Now what would prompt that?

I woke up in a bed. I’d expected something more dramatic. The Seekers would come to the Land through a Gate and I thought I’d be a Seeker. I couldn’t remember what Silvester had said, but it looked like I was already there. Something felt bad though. I had a bit of a headache and a cramping pain in my stomach. I had to pull back the bedclothes before I could see what it was. Blood on my pyjamas, down between my legs. Yada.
I knew what it was, of course, even though it was the first time. Auntie ‘Lexie had told me all about it, and Dad had been getting me books and stuff about it for just forever – to help me prepare. My friend Sara had already had hers and all the girls had been talking about it, you’d guess, innit? Didn’t mean it wasn’t just mecha gruse. It was. Well, for a second.
Then I thought I could tell Dad and he’d let me have the party he’d promised for it. He’d said it was a change I should celebrate. I think he read that line in a book. Then, of course, I realized Dad wasn’t here, I was well off the range of a GPS tracker, and I couldn’t have a party until I got back. Which made me wonder.
A girl couldn’t get into the Land until she’d started her periods. Everyone knows that. So maybe this wasn’t real, and they’d just given me one to make me feel like I was ready, even though I knew I really wasn’t. And (far, far away ikky) even if this was my first time, it wouldn’t be hers. It’s tres freak to feel you’re having someone else’s period, believe me if that’s never happened to you before, and my day was about to go glom when a Duergar came in through the door.
I nearly leapt out of bed and danced around the room! This wasn’t like watching them on a DIV. This was real. Right there in the room with me, carrying a tray. She looked me up and down (mostly up of course) and saw the bloodstains. She nodded and said, “Ah. Me thingim allsame. Me bringim this one for Mma. Makim you better mor. You go cleanim youseleva en dringim thisfella.” She nodded at a door and passed me a cup of something. I got up and sort of hobbled to the door, trying not to let my legs touch. Yada. Big, big ya.
You had to slide the door to the bathroom. I remembered and didn’t try to push it.  The bathroom looked just like the ones you see in the DIVs. There was a big, deep, circular tub made of wood, set into the floor, full nearly to the brim with steaming hot water.
I knew you had to scoop water out of the bath and wash yourself first, so started to strip off the pyjamas. I jumped when I saw the dark skinned woman out of the corner of my eye, but sussed I was looking into a big, steamed-up mirror. Then I nearly squealed. I was Malaika! 
There’s a line in Book One where someone asks if Malaika is good-looking, and the answer is she’s too busy being gorgeous to have time left for just good. And there she was looking back at me. From the steamy mirror. With no clothes on.
I really had to look away. I mean, Malaika is tres, tres hot, with a bod to just die for or from, but I was like staring at it. I felt myself blushing hotter than the bath water. It would take a while to get used to that being me. I took just a small peek again and thought, ‘Oh I wish!’
I could get used to it. I could suffer that.
I mean, I have got brown hair and brown eyes and when Dad tells me I am going to be a stunner at sixteen and he’s going to buy a club to keep boys away he always sounds like he means it. That’s my dad though. He once told a friend of mine he was really Tony Blair, and he’d escaped from prison by digging a tunnel with a bent teaspoon.
We didn’t completely believe him, but that was ‘cos we didn’t know who it was. We had to go wiki the name up on a pokkecom to read the history and find out Blair was still in prison. Well, we were only eight at the time. What did we know?
Anyway, the point is; it isn’t impossible I could look nearly as hot when I’m older. But that nearly would be just like Earth to Moon near, not Earth to Sun near. Sort of comparatively nearer than Sara could get, ‘cos she’s blonde, but not close enough to whisper in an ear kind of close. I’ll never pwn boys.
I grabbed a towel and covered myself a bit and took another look at my new face. I pushed a strand of hair back behind my ear and grinned and just … Like wow.
I had a drink from the cup before starting to wash and the effect was like magic. (Duh!) The headache and cramp just vanished. The stuff must have been chia, but it tasted like the milky tea Dad always makes for me. I still wasn’t keen on getting into the bath after washing – I didn’t think the bleeding had stopped too and just didn’t want to lay there in it. Far, far away gruse – so I towelled myself dry and went back to the bedroom.
The Duergar had gone out, but there was underwear and a set of loose, dark grey cotton pants and a top laid out on the bed. Apart from a sanitary pad, it was all senior Mage clothing. I had a feeling I had to get ready for something formal going on.
Then it came to me. I was being dimmy this morning. Naturally, the Seekers would be coming and I’d have to go and take part in the Opening. All this would have to start with Brendan going through his Initiation, even if I wasn’t doing one. Of course, he’d pass and the Light of the Chosen’d shine from him, but it all needed to happen so Senior Niall would know he was capable of great things. I dressed as quickly as I could.

Good. She’s accepted who she is. Maybe this time things will work out as I want them to.

Getting to the hall from my bedroom was a piece of good luck. I turned the right way down a corridor, went down some stairs and through a door that lead into the Main Hall. Adults and kids sat at tables, eating and chatting. I went to a serving table and helped myself to a bowl of muesli, some kind of red fish and some chia, then looked for somewhere to sit.
“Lai! Hey, over here!” Oops, Aki, Malaika’s best friend in the Land. How was I going to carry this one off?
I sat down beside her and she looked me in the eye. “Ah yes, Gramma said it was so. Sorry to tell you friend, but it shows. Drink lots of her special chia and don’t bite off any heads, some of them never use shampoo and they will taste foul.”
The accent was dead right and it was just like being with Eriko Yamamoto. I nearly asked for an autograph.
I grinned and sat down next to her. “We have to go to the ceremony today, innit?” I asked, “What time should we set off?” I thought this was a bright thing to say, ‘cos I wasn’t sure how I’d get there by myself.
“Ah, that’s so, eh?” replied Aki, carefully looking at anything in the room except me. “I do have a small favour to ask of you there. Nothing that will be too much for my very best friend in the universe to understand, of course, but I have agreed to go with someone else.” She gave me a quick look that had triumph in it, and I guessed. Well, I’ve read all of the books is one thing, and I’m a girl is another. It could only be one person.
“Yes, but keep it quiet please. We are going to set off early and walk part of the way there. He thinks we are going to pick medicinal herbs, but I have no such plan.”
My eyes must have widened, ‘cos she tapped me on the nose.
“Talking child! Talking! Well, mostly talking. He may be the cutest thing here, but he has a terrible problem with commitment. He is going to say some important things today, though he does not know this yet.”
She gave me a look asking if it really was okay with me, so I told her, “Tres, tres okay.” That only got me a puzzled look. Stupid! The books never use modern teenspeak. She wouldn’t know that expression.
“I mean, no problem.”
That was something Malaika says all of the time, though only olds like my dad ever say that now. I ate and Aki sort of drifted away into thought, so nothing much was said through the rest of breakfast. I made some mental notes. Some things I say, people here wouldn’t. Some things I knew, ‘cos they happened in the later books, people here couldn’t. Lots to remember.
No one knows how things turned out between Aki and Daniel, and if they ever got over the row, ‘cos the last book never got written. I think they would, but Alistair Cameron always said there’d be surprises at the end of the story, and he wasn’t going for a happily-ever-after kind of finish.
Though, with me only being here for today, I wasn’t going to be around for the argument and couldn’t change things much anyway. Mind, I was a bit impressed to know they got together on the day Brendan entered the Land. That isn’t written down anywhere and I’d thought it was much later. When I finished my breakfast, I put the bowl away, wished Aki a good day, and headed out.

There was a large cloak room just before the front door of East Gard’s Hall. The two long walls had lines of hooks with cloaks on them.  I found a hook with Malaika’s name and picked up the cloak.
I knew about this bit and was half looking forward to it - half afraid I’d wee myself. I put on the cloak and fastened it with the shiny brass clasp. It slightly hugged my shoulders when wrapped around me, but I could throw it over my back and get it out of the way. Tell the truth, I wanted a mirror, to see how it looked on, ‘cos Malaika looks serious good in a cloak, but there wasn’t one around.
I walked out through the door. It was like the DIVs.  There was a gravel driveway going to a gate in the distance, with gardens on either side. I knew people did drive up that gravel, in carriages pulled by draft beasts or riding on runners, but I was going to use it for my runway, just like I’d seen Malaika do. I wondered about flying wearing a sanitary pad. Maybe I should be using tampons? No one tells you that sort of thing, do they?
It’s lucky there’s a long bit about this in Book One, where Brendan and the other Apprentices are taught to fly - you don’t see it in the DIV though. I was still quite little when Dad read it to me, and I can remember practising take-offs in my bedroom with a towel over my shoulders.
Well, no one was watching, so… I re-slung the cloak and held it out like bat wings. It wrapped neatly around my arms and gripped them, like it was holding them up. It was much longer than my arms, but the end part still stuck out like there was something underneath it. I walked forward to let it billow out behind me and then ran, flapping, just like I did when I was little. You see some of them just sort of leap and take off in the DIVs, but I wasn’t ready for that yet, so I took a long run-up.
I was feeling far gone harpic, but suddenly the cloak took over the flapping and I was struggling to run fast enough. I think I might have shrieked when the ground fell away from me, but the cloak just kept on doing the flying, flapping my arms for me. In less than a second, I seemed to be higher than the trees. Two seconds later I knew for surely, ‘cos I was at the end of the driveway and was flying over them.
It still felt a bit low, so I just thought about going faster and the cloak flapped harder. I angled myself steeper and shot up into the sky. It tells you in Book One that East Gard is at the top of a steep-sided valley on the road to the coast. Well, in a few seconds, I was high enough to see that. I was heading north, with the road running west and east below me. The cloak felt to be stuck to my back and down my legs as far as my ankles and was holding all of my body up. I felt like I was lying on some enormous swing fastened tight to the sky, and falling out of the sky was no chance; I was far away secure. I stopped pumping my arms for a minute and did a gliding turn. And there was the city, with its wall and castle. There was the river, with the bridge and boats.
I can’t describe the feeling that filled me then. It was like last year when Sara and me went on a roller coaster. We squealed and screamed all the way through the ride; not ‘cos we were scared, but just ‘cos we were so excited. I squealed and screamed again now and pumped myself higher and higher into the air, then swooped down and up again until I looped overhead in a circle. Then I corkscrewed down towards the ground, pulling out into another rising glide.
I don’t know how long I flew. I was a bird, I was just pure flight, and I was strong. The cloak was doing all the work. It lifted me up into the sky with just me thinking about moving my arms, but when I pulled hard I felt myself rocket through the air. And when I glided… I could just close my eyes and feel the wind against my hands, knowing the littlest movement of my fingers would send me swooping in a great circle.
The world was beneath me and I was above all of it. I could see forever and there was nowhere I couldn’t go. I felt… I felt…there’s no words for what I felt.
I got up above a cloud and wanted to just fly all day exploring the top of the clouds. I think I would’ve done too, ‘cept I flew over a gap in the clouds and saw the city again. Black River Bridge! I knew what it looked like from Jack Hughes’ illustrations in the Encyclopaedia of The Land, and I couldn’t wait to walk on its streets for real. And I’d get to meet Senior Ferguson, my favourite character in all of the books, more even than Brendan Earle really. I just had to go there!