Babbitt, horses, Lucey, new books, Russell, Yorkshire

Rosie and Tyburn. Luce and Rosa. Meet Russell’s Doubting Thomas….

“Got a surprise for you, Hapless,” Hollie said smugly.
Percey had groomed the bay horse till its coat gleamed like a dark conker. He’d even acquired some chalk from God knows where and he’d whitened the gelding’s stockings. There were times when you had to wonder about Mattie Percey’s previous career in a stable-yard in Essex. Just how honestly he might have come by certain skills. That lad was a better painter than Lely.
What he hadn’t done was improved the big horse’s temper, and it came out of the line rearing, ears pinned against its skull. Mattie had his hand gripping the bit-ring, trying to keep the horse’s head down, and even so the bay nearly had him off his feet.
It was a bloody fine horse, though. Big-built, not one of your lightweight sprinters like Luce Pettitt’s spindly witless Rosa: backside like a gable end and a proud arch to its thickly-muscled neck that hinted that someone might have been a little behindhand with the shears to its gelding. That was a beast that’d go all day chasing Malignants and come in at the end of it dancing. It was the sort of mount any junior cavalry officer with any dreams of a future career in the Army might covet, provided a man could train some sense into its thick head. Plenty of staying-power, plenty of fire and dash, though possibly a bit light on good humour. Hollie closed one eye and looked at the bay horse consideringly where it ramped and curvetted like some maniac heraldic emblem.
“What d’you reckon to him, then?” he said, and looked at the scarred lieutenant, expecting to see gratitude and pleasure on that cold, half-lovely face.
Instead the lad was white to the lips, the great scar on his cheek standing out a most unlovely purple, and his eyes were as mad as the bay horse’s.
“Is – thish – intended to be meant in humour?” he said stiffly, and his voice had that funny slur it had when the ragged muscle in his cheek had gone stiff as wood, like it did when he was tired or ungovernable. Or drunk. That was still always a clear and present possibility.
Hollie shook his head, thinking he must have misheard, or Russell must have misheard, because –
“All right, ain’t he?” Percey said happily, still being jerked around like a rag doll by the beast’s flinging head, but as cheerfully good-humoured as ever he was even when his arm was being yanked from its socket by an unwanted cavalry remount. “Want to take him out, Hap- uh, Lieutenant Russell? Take a bit of the ginger out of his heels?”
“I. Should. Rather. Be. Dead,” Russell said, through gritted teeth. Flung his own head up, looking not unlike the bay horse, and glared fiercely at Hollie, and Hollie would have sworn to it the lieutenant’s dark eyes were brimming with wholly incomprehensible tears. “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”
“What?” Hollie said blankly, and Russell snarled at him, actually snarled, baring his teeth like a dog.
“The Book of Proverb. Ss.” He bit off the last consonant with a hissing, furious sibilance, and then hit himself in the temple with the heel of his hand. “Shir.”
And then wheeled about and was gone, shoving Luce rudely out of the way, storming back to the house. “What,” Hollie said again, shook himself, “what the bloody hell was that all about?”
“What on earth did you say to him – oh, sir, that was not well done!”
There were times when Luce didn’t half remind Hollie of Het. Well, Hollie’s wife was his cornet’s father’s little sister, it wasn’t so much of a surprise, but even so. That hurt, shocked, disappointed look was pure Het, an expression she reserved for when he did something completely stupid. What, precisely, he’d done this time, he did not quite know, save that he was still trying to make things all right for a lad who was as tricksy to handle as a barrel of rotten gunpowder, and he didn’t know from day’s end to day’s end what mood he was going to be on the receiving end of. Like walking on eggshells, if eggshells were volatile, suspicious, and prone to soothing their tempers by getting fiercely rat-arsed.
“What wasn’t?” he said warily. “What, seriously, sir? You did not mean to be – um – funny?”
“No, of course I bloody didn’t!”
Luce gave a great sigh. “Ah, God. So you – you know – did you look at the beast? Other than, um, you know – professionally?”
“What -” With one final jerk of the bit, Mattie had the bay horse with all four feet on the ground. It was still a handsome beast. It was just – odd-looking. Three white feet, and a great lopsided white blaze to its face. One blue eye, and one, slightly manic, brown one.
A perfectly sound, sturdy, fine cavalry mount, who just happened to look both ugly and irregular. It was a bloody good horse, sound in wind and limb, beautifully put together, a mount a man could rely on – could be proud of. But now Luce came to mention it, the brute did look a bit like it had been sewn together from bits of at least two other horses. Good ones, but -.
And that had been a coincidence.
“Ah,” said Hollie.

The Smoke of Her Burning. October 2015.

disability, Edgehill, free stories,, ponderations, Russell, Thomazine. writing

About Face – thoughts on disability in fiction

Too often in fiction we like to see characters with a disability as “brave” or “tragic” – something that can be mended, or magicked away, or ignored, or overcome. Sweet, and gender-neutral, and slightly romantic, but broken: a thing not quite right, that can be made “right” – and socially acceptable – by an external agency, under the right circumstances. Because that’s the point of fiction, isn’t it? We can edit out the things we don’t want to know about, airbrush over the horrid bits, especially in historical fiction.

Well, I’ve been reading a lot lately about the soldiers in the first World War who suffered facial disfigurement, and the reconstructive surgery they were (and weren’t) offered. It’s been an ongoing battle in my head, around Thankful Russell, hence the research around facial disfigurement. Because it’s so hard not to slip into romantic hero mould and have him just lightly damaged but noble, like a sort of 1640s Heathcliff – dark and brooding and, well, Ross Poldark. After all, he’s handsome, right, our Russell? Fair and elegant and rather stunning from the right side – he can’t be too disfigured, not so it shows: that’s not how it works in books, he’s got to be just a little bit enigmatically damaged.

And he ain’t. The stories of those young men in the early twentieth century were heartbreaking – young men who’d lost their beauty by shrapnel, by machine gun, by fire, and who came home to find their sweethearts turning away, or that nurses didn’t want to remove their bandages because they didn’t want to see underneath. Their children cried to see them. Many of them turned to drink, many committed suicide because they were –
“..not meek and biddable, He was not grateful. He was sullen-mute and his cheek was an agony for most of his waking hours, itching and burning and throbbing. He whimpered and sobbed through most nights. He was barely worth the pennies Parliament paid for his care.” ( -A Cloak of Zeal)

I used to work with a man, some years ago, whose face had been badly burned in an incident at his old workplace and who had ended up having to be redeployed because he could not bear to be looked at. He’d grown a beard, which was possibly not one of his better ideas, because it had grown in patchy and fair over the scars. (He was rather gorgeous, actually, with or without the scars, but he wouldn’t have believed me if I’d told him.)

I had a really interesting review of the short story in which Russell meets the lady who will eventually become his wife (which is called “Si Tu Dois Partir” and it’s available in the anthology “Steel and Lace” HERE) in which it was described as the story of two less physically-fortunate people who manage to find a touching and meaningful love. I get that, I get that absolutely, but why on earth should the fact of Russell’s scarred face preclude him from romance?  Imagine a hero who isn’t sure if he can still kiss a woman, who slurs his words when he’s tired, who’s not prepared to meekly put up with being stared at by the curious and patronised by the great and the good. Imagine a man with a conspicuous facial disfigurement who’s still got a sexual identity, who is bloody good at his job, and who, every now and again, falls off the wagon when the strain of conforming to everybody else’s normal is too much for him.

Thankful Russell’s not pretty, not any more. Get used to it.

Babbitt, Fairfax, Gray,, Lucey, new books, Russell

The Smoke of Her Burning – and a bargain!

To celebrate Yorkshire Day, an exclusive cover reveal of the new book, The Smoke of Her Burning, set in Selby 1644. And to celebrate the cover reveal, the first three books in the series will remain at 99p each till the end of August! – help yourself here.

I hope there’s a good explanation for this, Colonel Babbitt,” Fairfax said, with a sigh. 
“No,” said Hollie honestly, “but there is an explanation.” 

There’s a lot of miles between Essex and Cheshire…. 

…and newly-promoted Colonel Hollie Babbitt is cursing the most recent additions to his company, for every step of them. 

A scarred lieutenant with a death wish, and they don’t call him Hapless for nothing. 
Captain Drew Venning. And his dog. 
Captain Penitence Chedglow, last seen smashing up the inside of Worcester Cathedral in an excess of godly zeal, and his new companion in bigotry, the silent but violent Webb. 
The mysterious Trooper Gray, a one-man insurrection. 

Forced to leave a posting to Cromwell’s Eastern Association as a result of some more than usually scatter-brained chivalric meddling by the posh poet Lucey Pettitt, Hollie finds himself up to the elbows in freezing mud at Nantwich, mired in intrigue and insubordination. 

When Hollie’s old nemesis Prince Rupert relieves the siege at Newark, freeing up a cavalry force to hammer Fairfax’s garrisons in Yorkshire, it looks as if the gallant Parliamentarian defenders will be overwhelmed in the North. But after a fierce attack is repulsed, the Northern Royalists retreat to their foothold at Selby, with its vital strategic command of both the Ouse and the road to York. 

It will be hard. It will surely be bloody. But Hollie’s rebel rabble may be the difference between victory and defeat for Parliament in the North.

new books, Russell, Thomazine. writing

If you like it, put a vote on it – A Broom At The Masthead preview….

He sniffed surreptitiously at the lustrous collar of his court suit.
It smelt, faintly, of stale rosewater and tobacco and sea-coal fumes, with an acrid note of sweat, and a slight overlay of wine. Under that was the strange, fugitive scent of silk, of tar and the sea and the spices of the hold of an East Indiaman – although that was possibly in his imagination, for he had never set foot on a ship bound for anywhere more exotic than the Low Countries.
He’d been told, in no uncertain terms, that he’d shirked long enough. That an officer of some seniority, even a supply officer of no great military significance or birth – General Monck had been very specific on that last, and Russell could still hear his commander’s round rural Devonshire accent in the memory of it – it was his duty to present himself at court, and pay his loyal respects to His Majesty, on the glorious event of his restoration to the throne after eleven years of misery under the Commonwealth.
And then Monck had glowered, and narrowed his little bull’s eyes, pouched in sagging red flesh. “You’ll do the pretty, Major Russell, for all ye were a damnable Roundhead.”
The which Major Thankful Russell could not argue, for with a name like Thankful, he could scarcely deny his staunch Puritan upbringing, and having almost had himself executed as a political subversive, he had to admire General Monck’s perspicacity.
But. He had thought that after twenty years of keeping his head down, of being a ferociously good supply officer of no great military significance or birth, of waking and sleeping lists and requisitions and logistics – after a life of ruthless and selfless service, he might not, actually, be forced to show his face at court against his will. Monck said it was a matter of respect. Russell was a god-damned administrator, a jumped-up pen-pusher, who the hell did he think he was, in his arrogance, to refuse to present his respects to His Majesty in person?
They forgot, you see. They saw this neat, slightly austere, mouse-haired gentleman in his forty-second year, tall and a little stiff in the shoulders as a result of stooping over his requisition lists these last years. Short-haired, where preposterously curled wigs were the fashion, and so they called him Old Crophead, for his old Parliament leanings and his present lack of vanity. Not given to excess, of any nature, but a most prim and sober and respectable senior officer, the sight of whose scarred face could be relied upon to damp the high spirits of any gathering.
They forgot that twenty years ago he had been a firebrand, and a rebel. He looked cold and implacable, but how else might a man look, who had taken the thrust of the shattered butt of a pike through his cheek in the early years of the civil wars?
And so it had been a matter of duty, and a direct order, that Russell should present himself at court. Well, he had. He remembered little of it. He had, admittedly, fortified himself with perhaps more wine than he ought to have: anything to stop the shaking of his hands, his absolute bone-deep horror of being so conspicuously displayed in a public place. More than that, though, it had just been dull. Nothing happened. Lots of nothing happened. Just a lot of people talking a lot of nothing in a big room, that smelt of stale bodies and tallow and too much scent. He didn’t remember being presented to the King, though he supposed he must have, or Monck would have made him go back. Smiling politely at everyone, because he didn’t have a clue who was sleeping with whom, male or female, and it did not do to cut the reigning favourite, or the court wit. Being called Bosola, which he did not understand, but which had been kindly explained to him some months later by a friend who had read such old-fashioned tragedies that it referred to a most notorious court malcontent and bird of ill omen, in a play.
Being told, by a gaggle of cackling, bewigged striplings, that if one gilded a turd, it remained, regardless, a turd.
Suggesting to the Earl of Rochester that if he passed such remarks in Russell’s hearing again, Russell would take Rochester’s ungodly ape and insert it where the Lord’s grace did not shine.
(Russell had known poets, in his time. The men he knew would have hesitated to scrawl such doggerel as Rochester wrote, on the wall of a troop latrine. He was not impressed by a seventeen-year-old libertine. And he meant it about the monkey.)
He’d stayed close to the wall, mostly, trembling, with the small of his back against the moulded plaster, taking some comfort from that cool strength. Holding to his duty, because that was what he did, what he had done since he was seventeen, and first a young officer. Feeling like an impostor, in his charcoal-grey lutestring silk, with a jacket that was so short and tight it barely covered his arse, and great billowing shirt-sleeves hanging from under the shrunken sleeves. Festooned with ribbon, like a damnable maypole, with a cravat that trailed in his supper if he was not cautious how he sat. Ribbons and lace and high-heeled shoes, which made him mince like a girl, and he could not and would not grow one of those ashy smears of moustache, even if his scarred face would allow it.
He had been a little drunk, and a lot nervous, and his teeth had been chattering on the rim of his delicate Venetian glass goblet even before he’d seen a face he knew, however vaguely: the chubby, deceptively amiable countenance of Charles Fairmantle, a distant Buckinghamshire neighbour. Member of Parliament now, he thought. Couldn’t remember, and did not care, overly much. Fairmantle was a toady and a lecher, and a hanger-on to the peripheries of Rochester’s lewd cohort, and the touch of his pudgy hand made a sweat of sheer repulsion break out on Russell’s top lip, as if a warm slug had crawled over his skin.
They exchanged idle pleasantries, or at the least, Fairmantle made idle pleasantry and Russell stared blankly at him for the most part. And then,
“Accept my condolences, Major. A bad business. A bad business, indeed. You must be devastated.”
“Oh. Indeed. Which condolences?”
The pudgy hand on his sleeve, solicitous, leaving a faint, damp print on the glimmering silk.
“I am so sorry, sir. I had assumed you knew. Your sister, major. God rest her, she – Four Ashes was burned, not three months ago, and poor Mistress Coventry with it.” Fairmantle shook his head. “I am sorry. I had not meant – I had not known – sir, you turn positively pale -“
And Russell, who had hated his sister, and not set eyes on her in the better part of ten years, had bitten clean through the rim of his goblet in his shock nonetheless.
He thought that had been the moment when he had decided to come back to Buckinghamshire for good and all, though it had taken him a few months of despair and penny-pinching and soul-searching to work out how he might rebuild the house at Four Ashes.
And then a further few months of despair and soul-searching when he realised that there was only one woman he’d have entertained as mistress there, and that she was as utterly, irrevocably not for him as the moon for the moth.
Possibly he ought to have mentioned that fact to Thomazine Babbitt, for she was under no such doubts at all, as it turned out. There had only ever been one man for Thomazine, and the Lord be praised, it turned out it had always been Russell. It seemed she’d considered him her especial property since she was three years old. It might have saved him some considerable distress if she’d thought to tell him, though, he thought wryly.
Well. He smoothed the charcoal silk again, absently.
He’d thought to do her honour on their wedding day, and wear his finest.
Well, she was marrying a plain gentleman, not a courtier. He’d given all that up, along with his commission, just under a year ago. He was no man’s but his own.
– And hers, of course. Always hers.
He took a deep breath, and pulled on the plain, decent, pewter-grey wool waistcoat with the plain silver buttons, and the plain, old-fashioned, straight-fitting coat that went with it.
“At least the lass will recognise you,” he told himself, smiling wanly at his reflection in the mirror.
Ruffled a hand through his hair – grown to his shoulders, now, and no longer so indeterminately mouse as it had been when he’d worn it close-cropped, but streaked fair and dark as a field of wheat when the wind blows through it. She liked it so, worn long, and straight.
He was scarred, and worn, and weary, and his head hurt when the wind was in the north.
All that was true.
But Thomazine loved him. And further than that, he did not care.  
If you liked the first chapter of A Broom At the Masthead, vote for it HERE
Gray, Lucey, new books, Russell, writing

Selby – a poll, please!

I have a certain situation, in Selby, and your opinion would be much valued.

Luce, Gray, and Russell, inside the barricades. Doing deeds of daring nefariety, if that is a word, which Hollie is going to go mental about when he finds out, but there it is.

(“You did WHAT!! If you get your damn’ fool self killed Lucifer your bloody auntie will never sleep with me again!”)

Luce – nice young man, earnest, principled.
Gray – no principles at all but likes Luce and wouldn’t want to make him sad
Russell – stark mad most of the time and nothing to lose, but essentially a decent young man

So…. having been helped by a Royalist sentry, how would you feel, as a reader, if either Russell or Gray cut the sentry’s throat?

Babbitt, Fairfax, Het, history, new books, ponderations, Russell, writing

Babylon is Fallen, to Rise No More

Well, the good news is, I’ve finished the new book.
The bad news is, it is not “Babylon’s Downfall” – it’s part one of the road to Marston Moor, it’s the battle at Selby in 1643, and it’s called “The Smoke of Her Burning”.

I should like to say, worry not, I am not turning into George R R Martin (tha knows nuthin‘, Hollie Babbitt)

But I’m not sure that I’m not.

I can honestly say no one comes back from the dead, mind, but there is a Walk of Shame, all the way from Essex to Yorkshire. Instead of the Wall I have the Ouse. I have in-fighting Babbitts, disfigured heroes (yes, Russell’s back!) stern heroines, and there may even be one or two scenes of Het Babbitt without her stays on.

Game o’ thrones, my lily-white backside, as Rosie would have it.
Bloody game o’ commonwealths, more like it.

Babbitt, new books, Russell, spoiler, writing

Babylon’s Downfall – an excerpt from the new novel

 1644 – and here we are, knee-deep in Yorkshire, after the battle of Marston Moor. Having mislaid Thankful Russell, briefly, but….

The scarred lieutenant was such a distinctive figure, though, tall and straight and stiff as a sword-blade, all the time. He never slouched. He never relaxed. 
He was wearing an tawny silk sash, a bright, barely-faded one, and his hair was so fair it was almost white, and he wore it long and tied back, and you couldn’t miss the bugger, even from the back. Pacing – not walking, pacing, on his dignity, managing to look like a man who was braced to receive blows even when he was just picking his way gingerly across the whins a quarter-mile distant. 
There was little less dignified than a cavalry officer sprinting in riding boots, but it was often said of Hollie Babbitt that he had no dignity anyway, and so he sped up. Careful of outflung hands and upturned faces, with the dew wet on open eyes and open wounds – of the just cause and impediment of battle, of spent shot and dead horses. “Russell.” 
The lieutenant didn’t look his way. Almost under Hollie’s feet there was a groan, and he shot sideways like a startled partridge, and then Russell looked his way, and came hobbling across. Still stiff and straight and upright, but limping like a man who’d been on his feet all night and who had the blisters to show for it. “Sir.”
“Hapless…what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Some of the corpses looked better than Russell. He stopped, and looked up with his mouth open, and blinked, and then said, “I don’t know.” Thought about a second, and then said again, sounding surprised, “I don’t know.”
The wounded man at his feet groaned again, a horrible, graveyard noise, and Russell yelled, “And you can shut up, as well!” And then sat down abruptly in the ditch and burst into tears.
Hollie’s first reaction was that he was going to laugh, and that he couldn’t stop himself. His next, thank God, was to sit in the wet moss between Russell and the casualty – whose side? Buggered if he knew, a lad with his leg broke, badly broke, under a dead horse – and what with the wounded trooper whimpering on one side and Russell whimpering on the other, he wasn’t sure where to put his sympathies first.
“Right,” he said firmly, because he was the senior officer here, and that meant he was in charge. “I know who youare, Russell. No introductions necessary. Who’s your mate?”
The wounded man was crying, now, a sort of desperate, relieved, sobbing, as if he had been afraid alone and now he had other living men about him and he could let go, a little. “You’re not dying, old son,” Hollie said over his shoulder. “Not on my watch you’re not. Hapless, have you been preaching at this poor bugger or something? What have I told you about saving souls when you’re on duty?” 
And Russell looked up, blinking, affronted, and swiped the back of his hand under his nose like a little boy. Which did nothing for his dignity, especially since it was the hand with the armoured bridle-gauntlet on, and it hurt. “I – you – he said – “ and then stopped, and frowned, and looked at Hollie out of the corner of his eye. “I see. You are teasing me.” 
Hollie nodded, and stood up, and put his hand on the lieutenant’s shoulder. “Aye. I’m teasing you. Blow your nose, and let’s get this poor sod out from under.” 
There were two of them, and the hurt trooper – and he was on the wrong side, he was one of Widdrington’s horse, and Hollie sat back on his heels and whistled through his teeth at that, knowing how close Widdrington’s men had been to Rupert’s troops – was starting to run a fever, after a night on the moor, and was neither use nor ornament. He did know who he was, though. His name was Will Bailey and he was Northumbrian-born and he was twenty-six and he wanted his wife, very badly. 
Now you can do a bit of praying, if you like, Hapless,” Hollie said grimly. 
Bailey’s horse had stiffened, in the night. “How are you going to –“ Russell began, and Hollie cut him off. “Faith, sir. If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove. Faith, and a musket butt, and you are going to pull like a bastard, lad. I got a bad wrist. You, on the other hand, are fit as a butcher’s dog. Now stand to, and on my command, heave like hell.” 
Bailey screamed like a rabbit, and even with the leverage of a musket-butt under the dead beast it was only possible to rock the horse’s bulk a finger’s breadth or more, and it was barely enough to drag the trooper a few inches. “Do it again,” Hollie said, panting, and Russell was sobbing again, because it was horrible, it was undignified and agonising and Bailey had pissed himself in his pain – 
It took forever. It probably didn’t, but it felt like it did. Bailey was out cold and bleeding badly, and Russell was all but useless, gone beyond shock into a shaking numbness. “He’s going to lose that leg,” Hollie said, because it needed to be said, while the Royalist trooper was unconscious. “If he’s lucky, he’ll go home. Better off with one good leg and a peg ‘un than dead in a ditch.” 
The scarred lieutenant was staring at his bloodstained hands. “I walked out to – to see if I might be of help.” He blinked, without his gaze shifting the once. “There are so many dead men. Colonel.” 
“Hollie. I can’t be arsed with colonel.”  

“Dead men. Everywhere. Dead, and dying, and hurt, and –“ And still not looking away, still looking at his blood-sticky hands. “I killed one of them. Colonel.” 
“Me. I thought I could. I’m not sure I can. It was horrible. And what if –“  
“What if he wasn’t dead? What if he’s just lying there? With a hole in his belly – and the worms crawling in, and the –“  
“Russell.” He shook the lad, not hard, just hard enough to stop him, because thinking like that did nobody any favours. “You killed someone. Aye. You did. You’re a soldier. That’s your job. What the hell did you think, Hapless, you’d do a bit of smiting and the Lord would bear the buggers off in a fiery chariot?” 
And it was hard to tell with Russell, but his level brows drew sharply together, as if he was shocked, and anything that that shocked him out of that mad spiral of blame was good. “I – “ he lifted a shoulder in a tiny shrug. “Suppose I did. Rather.” 
“Well, that was a bit bloody stupid, wasn’t it? Hey!” Hollie could hear voices. He raised a hand. Looked down at Bailey’s limp, broken form. “Got a live one over here, lads!” He looked at Russell. Russell looked back, quite level, and quite sane.

“He’s one of ours,” Russell said coolly. “Be so good as to take him to our –“ his voice broke a little, “to Witcombe. I imagine he will be able to attend to Trooper Bailey’s hurts somewhat quicker than awaiting the attentions of the Army’s own surgeons. He has the less to deal with. Witcombe,” he said again, and they hoisted Bailey’s body onto a makeshift hurdle, “of Babbitt’s company. And should he wake – should he be afraid – tell him – tell him that Lieutenant Russell is praying for him.” His voice cracked, and he got up and fled, abruptly.

“Bloody funny lad, that one,” the soldier on the head end of the hurdle said, shaking his head. Looked down at Bailey. “You reckon he’s going to make it?”
Hollie shrugged. “Bloody will if Hapless has got anything to do with it.”