Louise Turner has invited me here today (Louise, Thank you!) to talk about After the Ruin. You will, I hope, read it for yourself so I won’t spoil the story. Instead, I’ll say something about what passed through my mind as I was writing. Or, to be more honest, revising. I’m very much a-make-it-up-as-you-go-along sort of writer and the final version of any of my stories has very little in common with the first draft.
Only the genre was fixed before the beginning. In another life, I write non-fiction. This requires huge amounts of research to make sure the facts are not only correct but presented accurately. I write fiction to relax and so I don’t want to do this level of research to tell my story. With my type of fantasy I can mix up all sorts of interesting ideas from different times and places without worrying about anything other than internal consistency. Internal consistency, though, is hugely important. Get the details right and plausible and a reader will easily swallow any amount of impossibility.
That said, it makes imagining things a lot easier when there’s something real to base them on. I was born in the west of Scotland and, although I’ve lived all over the world since, it’s the place my heart goes back to (and so do I, whenever I can). So After the Ruin is set there, though I’ve mixed and muddled the original places around so much that you’d have to know them well – or else know me well – to recognise them.
And the story? Well, again, it helped to have something to base it on. I listen to huge amounts of folk music. Much of this derives from the Child Ballads, a diverse collection of songs that were – and are – part of the oral tradition of Scotland and northern England, and of the descendants of Scottish and English migrants to Canada and the United States. I didn’t want to retell any single ballad or folksong, though ideas and motifs from many found their way into the book. The chapter epigraphs provide hints, and a playlist. As I was revising, I started to associate each of my three main characters with a particular song: for Marwy Ninek, this was The Bonnie House of Airlie; for Assiolo, Tam Lin; and for Te-Meriku, The Unquiet Grave, which is my favourite ballad of all, at least as interpreted by Lau. These songs largely determined the dominant note of their characters and contributed something to their stories.
The Child Ballads aren’t, on the whole, cheerful. But they are beautiful, honed into shape by a process akin to natural selection. They tell of a world filled by melancholy and longing. Betrayal and violence are commonplace; friends become foes; love begins with secrets and ends, like as not, with death. Although they are often set in real places, and sometimes tell of true events, these songs blur the lines between the mundane and the supernatural, making no clear distinction between the two. That’s the mood I want to conjure in my writing: the real world, heightened.
So there you have it: After the Ruin is a fantasy, riffing off the oral tradition, set in an imagined version of the Scottish Islands and Highlands. It takes its tone from the ballads and is, I’ll freely grant, somewhat melancholy. But I hope it is also, at times, beautiful.
Here's an extract, taken from Chapter 6.
In Felluria, Assiolo lies dying of the winter sickness. Marwy Ninek sits, despairing, at his bedside when a stranger knocks at the door...
“Who are you?” Marwy Ninek asked. “The gate is locked against strangers.”
“So too it is. There are many ways to open a locked door but the simplest is to ask for it to be opened.” The woman’s voice lilted like a song, patterned with the rhythms of a foreign tongue. “I asked at the gate, as Assiolo did, and the porter let me in, as he did Assiolo.”
Her words and the manner of her speaking were enough to make Marwy Ninek stare; in such a way had Assiolo spoken, before the winter sickness stole all speech and sense from him. “You know Assiolo? You are of his country?”
“I knew his father, long ago. He was a man unlike all other men.” The stranger put back her hood from her golden hair and stepped across the threshold to stand at the bedside. “I am not here too late? He is still living? ’Twould grieve me sore to know Allocco’s son were dead.”
Marwy Ninek bent over Assiolo, her black hair brushing his cheek. “He lives – but that is my concern, not yours.”
A gentle shake of a lovely head, a white hand reaching out to touch his face. “If Assiolo lives, then that is my concern. I have no hope for the dead, only for the living.” This woman’s eyes were blue as the midsummer sky, her smile bright and lovely as the sun at noontime. “I can heal your love and change one future to another.”
“Once sense is lost, there is no healing from the winter sickness.”
“There are ways, my dear, did he not speak of them?” the stranger whispered. “If Assiolo dies tonight, surely he will go before his time.”
That had been her only thought these seven days. Assiolo was her own, her dear, her very life. All she knew of love and hope and kindness came from him. He was a song among the roses, a promise in the night time, I love you, forever and for always. She clung to his hand and felt its chill against her skin, as if he were dead already.
The woman asked, “How old is he? Two score years?”
“Not even that,” Marwy Ninek answered. She did not turn her gaze from Assiolo, lifting his head to settle it more easily upon his pillow though he was past all thought of ease and comfort.
“Too young then to die and leave you lonely, with empty arms within your empty bed, aching with your memories.”
Marwy Ninek watched Assiolo lying in his sleep beyond sleep, silent and still but for the shallow rising of his chest, the little pulse beating slowly at his neck. The woman touched her arm with fingers warm as summer sunshine. “I can give him back to you, my dear, banishing misfortune for a while. I can give him forty years before the darkness takes him.”
“That cannot be done!”
“Oh, but I can! Forty years I can give to him to make of what he will. Or I can leave you, I can go back into the night, and he will die.”
Marwy Ninek cried out of her anguish, “You must not say such things."
“I can heal him, and I will!”
“It is not kind to say such things when they cannot be true.” Bending over Assiolo, Marwy Ninek cupped his face between her hands and kissed his clay-cold lips.
“All I say is true.” The woman slipped her arm around her shoulders. Her embrace was warm and strong, comfort for the comfortless. Gently, she pulled Marwy Ninek away from Assiolo; gently, she turned her around to face her. “There are ways indeed, my dear. Assiolo would not use them but I will: I’ve life enough to save him. I’ve said three times I can heal him. Each time I spoke truly. The only end is death, and Assiolo is not yet dead.” Staring into her eyes, the stranger whispered, “I can turn back the dark.”
Marwy Ninek clutched at her, finding hope in the depths of those blue eyes when all other hopes had slipped away. “Then do so!”
The woman held her hands and told her, “But there is a price.”
“I will pay any price,” said Marwy Ninek.
“For forty years of a man’s life, the price will be a high one.”
“For a year of this man’s life I would give my own!”
“That is not the price I ask.”
“What do you ask?”
“That tonight we make a bargain, you and I,” the woman answered. “Tonight, I’ll give you what you want if, when next we meet, you will give me what I want.”
“What must I give?”
Red lips curved into a little smile. “That, I shall tell at the right time. That is not now, with his life slipping fast away. An you wish Assiolo to live, you must decide, and quickly. Which will you have, Marwy Ninek: life for your lover, or a dark watch into the morning and then to lie him in the stony ground beyond your walls?”
Marwy Ninek thought once, and she thought twice, she looked down at Assiolo and then she did not think again. “You offer a choice that is no choice at all. I will take your bargain. And if you heal him and give him back to me, then you will have my love and gratitude and friendship all the years I am alive to give them.”
The woman smiled. “It is enough for me that you keep to our bargain. Do that, and he will live. Have I your promise?”
“You have it.”
The golden stranger leaned towards Assiolo. She breathed into his nose, she opened his mouth and spat in it, she kissed him thrice, on his forehead, on his cheek, on his lips. Marwy Ninek saw a touch of brightness ’cross his face but surely that was only the lamp light reflected from the golden hair falling down around him. The woman sat beside him on the bed, taking his hands in hers, and crooned a song, its tune a lullaby sung to a sleeping child but the words were like no lullaby sung in Felluria. Marwy Ninek listened, the hairs pricking on her neck. This lady and her song were full of life but there was no love to mellow it.
What is the price of a man's life? An apple? A sword? A kingdom?
There are many ways to leave a life in ruins. But ruined lives go on, and so, after the ruin, there is love, sweet as roses on a summer's evening. But love is such a little thing, no stronger than a candleflame at noontime. For, after the ruin, Averla, fire made flesh, is hiding in the light. She will use lover against lover, sister against brother, father against son, to build again her kingdom of everlasting flame. Love is not enough to set against her fierce desire. As well seek to turn back the tide with a wall of sand.
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