Author Archives: Steve Hutton

War of Light

For those waiting for the final Raven’s Wand book, War of Light, I’ve posted the first chapter here – enjoy!

War of Light

The Fifth and Final Journey of Albright’s Boat

Chapter One

Prologue

Before

Rain came from nowhere the day she met him – she always remembered that: blue turning to black, then whip-crack lightning and endless liquid orbs spinning down, marrying sky and earth. She always remembered that. . .

Valonia hadn’t slept and her worries were starting to feel more and more real, like they were taking over, the way moss obscures letters on stone. Four days ago, one of her witches had gone missing, and everyone knew the Illuminata was to blame. Now in her late thirties, Valonia’s position as Wildwood’s coven-mother wasn’t just firmly cemented it was hallowed, and locating Peggy, her missing friend, depended on her leadership. And so, she stood warring her inner doubts while planning yet more search parties, under a cloudless July-blue sky as innocent as it was indifferent, that is until he’d walked into the coven and like stage scenery changing, the skies darkened. That was the day Thomas Hobby walked into her life from nowhere and the sky wept lightning, but by the grace of Hethra and Halla he’d not only found Peggy, but rescued her and returned her safe and well, and the thunder and torrential rain seemed like a celebration.

That witch – Peggy Brown – had taken a small party on a gathering to Kendal but they’d been revealed as witches and Peggy had drawn the sheriff’s mob away to give her fellows chance of escape. Despite searching, none of Valonia’s coven could locate Peggy but they could easily guess her fate. And very likely she would have surely completed that journey to Lancaster Gaol and been hanged as everyone feared, if lone, wandering witch Thomas Hobby hadn’t come along, literally from nowhere. Valonia never got the full story of his incredible rescue, and even Peggy was hazy on the details. She always maintained that one moment she was chained in the trundling waggon and next he was there: the guards incapacitated and the chains broken. Everyone agreed it was a miracle, and Hobby always let them think so. And with that wild, summer storm also began an intense romance between the cool coven-mother of fire and ice, and the mysterious yet charismatic Hobby, the vagabond witch without a thunder-sprite even. He came and went but remained a familiar presence around Wildwood.

Almost a year later, on the day he asked her to marry him, he departed the coven to the tune of another July storm, promising he’d return in three days, yet she never saw him again and Valonia went to her grave unmarried and still in love with him. It was raining the day she met him, and it was raining the day he left her forever. The scant year between those two summer storms was the happiest of her life.

For Hobby it was the happiest of his many lives, even if his hard taskmaster disapproved. . .

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

A holy abomination

“Imagine it!” Durrant was finally rounding off, “The prefect weapon, laddie: an abomination so exquisite it is rightfully considered holy!” He finished with a husky rumble of respect and clasped his meaty hands behind his back and stood staring at the plain, black cylinder.

His fifteen minute speech had been impressive, Sawley thought, and delivered in his somewhat theatrical accent sounded prophetic. Yet Sawley Campbell was left feeling more terrified than impressed, and he also stood staring at the black cannister wondering at the nightmare child imprisoned inside it. Beside him, Steward Durrant Mackenzie was breathing hard, not from age, being only fifty-one, but from the occasion. As the silence descended, Sawley knew he ought to say something appropriate, after all, he’d be working here the rest of his life if he was lucky enough to be chosen. Sawley, being neither a youth nor an adult in the way only an eighteen year-old can be, thought the idea of being stationed in a remote Scottish castle as part of an elite household, safeguarding the Illuminata’s most hallowed and deadly weapon was stirring and privileged – and guaranteed to impress no end of girls. But as more drips from the vaulted ceiling splashed onto his neck and the smell of damp stones and the cellar’s echoes trampled his sense, he began to nurture second thoughts. BIG second thoughts. He’d be stationed most of the time at this virtually derelict castle, itself built on a measly spit of land extending into a deep loch surrounded by mountains, in Sutherland, the most extreme north-west corner of Britain, famed for its dire weather and even more dire summer midges. The main castle was comfortable enough, but located five miles away and most of his time would be spent here with ‘Drake’, the holy child-abomination that put the fear of God into every Illuminata bloodline on Earth: every bloodline. Drake was an assassin so totally accurate and infallible that he had gone from a weapon to a peacekeeping global deterrent. No bloodline would dare use him for his fingerprints were too well known. Hence, he remained here in the cellars of this small castle under the Stewards’ guardianship, where his existence alone was enough to ensure his perpetual non-use.

“So, laddie, tell me the year Drake was born,” Durrant tested when Sawley failed to speak.

Now here’s the interview, Sawley quivered, nervous more about passing than failing. “The child was born in 1256, sir.”

“To whom?”

“To the Drake bloodline of France, sir.”

“And when was the child interned?”

Durrant’s voice echoed and water tapped Sawley’s neck like thieving fingers. The black cannister seemed to gather in mass and presence, and Sawley wondered if the child entombed within was listening to him. No, Durrant says he sleeps always, Sawley reassured himself. He can only be awoken by a handler, and that’ll never happen because he could kill anyone anywhere on the globe without even leaving this cellar.

“Laddie?” Durrant hurried.

“Erm, sorry sir, Drake was three years-old when he showed signs of being aware of his power, and in an emergency measure the child was entombed and put to lasting sleep.” As he recited the answers, Sawley stared at the cannister’s hammered, black surface, not wanting to picture the little boy tucked and packed within. They ought to have put the wee bairn down for good, he thought privately.

“And when did Drake arrive at Castle Ardvrek?” Durrant curled his lip in a way that made his glossy moustache bunch impatiently.

“1293, sir, for safekeeping after the English sacked the French port of La Rochelle.”

“And when did Drake last awaken?”

“1393, sir, he was used to kill Sir Thomas Cotton.”

“And how did the bloodlines know Drake was responsible?”

That’s easy, thought Sawley – Drake’s kill technique was so ghastly and unique that the prefect assassin was perfectly obvious. “Sir Thomas was found in his bed chamber by his servants, sir. His entire skin, head to toe, had been bleached clear as glass.”

“As if?”

“As if he’d been confronted by a light so bright that it turned him transparent – sir,” Sawley shivered and the cannister gained a few more tons of presence in his mind.

“And what did I say about the maid’s attempts to feed him?” Durrant leaned closer, ghoulishly amused.

“Sir Thomas Cotton lived two days in a state of grave health, sir. The maid said she could see right through his skin, to his blood and tissues below, sir.”

“Aaaand?” Durrant drew out.

“And she saw his guts squeeze and wriggle like worms, sir, as he was forced his medicine of eggs and brandy.”

“Aaaaaand!” Durrant wanted to hear the best bit.

Sawley gulped. “She saw ‘his turds before they even left his arse’, sir,” he quoted verbatim.

“Huh!” Durrant huffed at the vulgarity he himself had encouraged. “Quite so, quite so. Now, trot yourself back upstairs, laddie, back to captain Forest. He’ll show you the rest of the grounds and castle.” Durrant was already heading to turn out the paraffin lamps.

“And you, sir?”

He looked over his shoulder, indignant. “Why, I’m putting the wee laddie to bed or course,” he said with paternal piety. “Now trot you off I say.”

Dismissed, Sawley headed back to the flight of stone steps.

Durrant circled the cellar, turning the paraffin lamps off one by one, leaving the last one flickering in his hand and taking a final look around. He would return for a last inspection just before nightfall as he always did. Satisfied that all was correct he made to turn and leave Drake in darkness when one of those numerous drops from the ceiling alerted him to something awry down here. He stood still and listened, like the engineer aware of a bad cog in his machine. It came again, one drop that sounded like a dried pea tapping a drum: tapping something hollow. Scowling he turned to locate the sound. A third drop and he’d homed in on it. It was coming from Drake’s cannister. His scowl was joined by a suspicious squint as he approached the cylinder. Perched on its squat column of Hebridean gneiss, the top of Drake’s miniature tomb sat eye-level with him. He stood and waited, fixed on the target like an ambushing tiger in the grass. Another drip splashed down on the cannister. That alone was cause for concern about the state of the masonry, but the drip’s tune was alarmingly wrong. “Hollow?” He now scowled, squinted and pursed his lips at the same time. The fifth drip confirmed what was until just one second ago a total impossibility and a sign that the very world was about to fall apart: Drake’s cannister was empty and the holy abomination was gone.

Sawley was thinking about his parents when he heard the scream. His overly protective mother and father hadn’t wanted him to be a Knight and instead arranged this position for him. It was prestigious enough to garner respect while making sure he’d never pilot a kraken in combat. At first the idea had captivated him, but in the last days, as he’d toured the Ardvrek Estate and got to know the bloodline of Stewards entrusted with guarding Drake, he’d begun to long for the cramped and oily confines of a kraken steam-suit. Durrant’s scream from below reached him just as he grasped the cellar door’s circular iron handle, and he immediately turned and raced back down the steps.

He found Steward Durrant Mackenzie standing with his dropped lantern spluttering on the floor and holding that black cannister in his arms – the one not ten minutes ago he’d proudly told Sawley that no human hand had touched in over six centuries. Thinking this another example of the Steward’s morbid sense of humour, and not wanting this post at all now, Sawley decided to scupper his chances and get out while he could. “Rocking the laddie to sleep, sir?” he grinned stupidly, seeing how Durrant cradled the cannister like a baby.

The large man blinked at him through an expressionless face, as if his shock had blasted his senses back the Stone Age. “He’s gone you stupid, bloody ninny! GONE! GONNNE!” The accusation rang around the chamber in triplicate.

Sawley looked at the cannister then back to Durrant, and then totally destroyed his interview, “Did you see him go, sir?”

Durrant’s disbelief was now joined by incredulity. “Are you as stupid as your father’s gutless, boy!” he screamed. “The bairn didn’t just climb out and toddle away, he was sto –, he was sto –,” The cannister dropped from his arms and Durrant swayed then dropped on top of it.

“Stolen?” Sawley tried helpfully, but Durrant was too busy having a heart attack to answer.

*********************************

Eight days later, on July 1st, the picturesque sands of Gruinard Bay in Ross-Shire, Scotland, were discreetly ringed with soldiers and given over to an Extraordinary Gathering of Illuminata Heads, although the group of eighteen men and four women appeared less extraordinary and more surreal. All of them decked either in black top hats, suits and frock coats, or black dresses, parasols and veils, they paced the expanse of sand like a host of mourners lost on their way to the cemetery, but this was a necessity. Coastal areas like this were ancient neutral zones in Illuminata doctrine, being neither sea nor land and thus subject to no bloodline. Nobody here would kill anyone else, even if they wanted to. Upon closer inspection the men all walked with canes and seemed not only to represent their bloodlines but all be descended from the same stock too: uniformly laughter-less faces, marble-hard eyes and steely hair. The women were little better, except for the young Duchess Olivia Brochet the youngest head of any bloodline in Europe. Coming from a family with a strong penchant for family assassination she was left as family head aged just seventeen. Secretly, nobody expected her to see her 21st birthday.

Yet for all their similarities, in any group of predators there remains a hierarchy. Some are blustery and forceful, others are moody and watchful, some pose as passive to gain trust before striking, others pose as domineering to conceal weakness, and so on. . . Sir Edmund Michaels used his six-foot-six height and senior status to bully the rest, and some played along because it suited their own, more subtle, agenda. He swished his cane in anger, “Blast it! First Krast gets himself killed and decapitates the Illuminata with that infernal cyclotron device, then the tournament disaster at Salisbury last month leaving the bloodlines open to a challenge from American half-breeds! And now Drake is stolen – Good God! Tell me some better news, Rodgers!”

Steward, Oliver Rodgers, was their liaison and chaperone, and at this precise point in time snake-charmer to the vilest bag of serpents ever collected: one way or another the people here controlled the globe and the lives of all on it. “I have the letter here, Sir Michaels,” he waved it regretfully.

The crowd first glared at the now infamous letter and then at one another. If genuine, the letter proved that Drake’s theft was not the doing of one Illuminata bloodline stabbing the rest in the back – not even Americans – but something far, far worse. “Open it, Rodgers,” Michaels ordered.

“Wait!” The voice was incongruous in its youthfulness. Duchess Olivia stepped forwards and unhooked her veil, fighting the boisterous wind and losing a touch of dignity but looking ravishing nonetheless. The face beneath the black netting was beautiful but doomed.

Saucy little filly will be dead by twenty, Michaels thought smugly.

“Rodgers,” she began, still learning to wield power but intoxicated already, “parade the letter for all to see, the seal in particular.”

“Of course, Your Grace.” Rodgers did as was told and made a careful circuit of the gathering holding the letter up for all to see, notably the white seal on the back. It had been found in Drake’s empty cannister and hadn’t been opened yet. Today’s Extraordinary Gathering was here to discover the contents.

It’s genuine! God’s Grace – it is real? A forgery? No – it’s real! These comments and others like them were accompanied by lifted spectacles or monocles, and peering eyes that turned to outraged orbs when the recognition hit home.

“I am afraid,” Rodgers drew out, “that there can be no doubt as to the authenticity. The seal not only bears the forbidden symbol but has been tested.”

“And?” Michaels demanded. “Is it?”

He nodded gravely. “Not wax but fat, tallow. . . from a unicorn no less.”

“Unicorn? Then that means. . .” Novice though she was, Olivia knew not to show fear before these people, but she felt a ghostly threat, formerly extinct, re-enter the world: The Knights Illustria. “Unicorn remains? How did they obtain such a relic?” she wondered. “Why, the very gesture is an insult to the Illuminata coat-of-arms!”

Michaels twitched his cane dismissively, “They could have obtained it from any bloodline treasury! And insult is the whole point, my dear! What we need to focus on is how they have returned without us knowing and how they managed to steal Drake from right under our noses.” At this, all eyes darted towards Rodgers.

But the grim Steward stood tall scenting battle, and wearing kilt and a face sculpted by years of service, he looked more than up to the job. “The House of Stewards,” he began loudly over the wind, “was founded by your bloodlines to your requirements. Drake’s sanctum was crafted and guarded as deemed fit by all of you.” Rodgers set his glare against every face, daring them to further besmirch his Household. “Steward Mackenzie remains yet in his hospital bed,” he went on, “such was his devotion to the Household that the shock of Drake’s theft stunned his heart to momentary stillness and almost killed him!” He raised a testimonial finger with yet more to say, but feeling his face redden he caught his breath, just in case these people decided to stake him to the sands and let the tide drown him: it had been done before. “No bloodline would ever steal the bairn Drake, on this we all agree – hence we are Stewards, not gaolers,” he finished more evenly.

“May I?” Michaels ignored the rebuke and took the letter. “It has not been opened, you say?”

“No – sir,” Rodgers forced. “The seal is quite intact as all can see.”

Michaels stabbed his cane into the sands and held the letter in both hands, while the rest closed in. The wind pushed at bonnets and veils, parasols, top hats and coat-tails, and they all waited for some insight from Michaels while formulating their own private stratagems. “Then I shall open it,” he decided, “are we agreed?”

“Open it,” Dowager Barnes agreed, her voice as restless as the sand.

Michaels checked the old woman’s face but could see nothing behind the black veil other than the glint of crooked teeth. “Very well, after all, that is why we made such long journeys to come here today – I shall open it.” He left a gap, inviting contradiction but nobody accepted, and after a further second’s delay he extracted the letter-opener he’d brought from his coat and slit the envelope, leaving the seal intact. Before looking inside it he returned the letter-opener to his pocket with domineering relish, and then slowly teased the envelope open with further enjoyment, but the wind cut short his act when it instantly flicked the scrap of paper within past his left ear and sent it fluttering to the sands by Olivia’s feet.

“I have it!” she cried and bent for it.

Michaels was hungrier though. “No need.” He almost barged her aside and snatched the note from the sands, and then made them all wait as he dried his sandy fingers on his handkerchief before examining the note.

The young duchess fumed. “How gracious,” she served with acid.

“At your service, Duchess Brochet,” he smiled back. Maybe dead by twenty? He re-evaluated privately. “Now then,” he returned to the note, “our mysterious thief speaks. . .” He opened what he expected to be a ransom or blackmail note, or some other explicit threat, but instead found it was merely a portion of a neatly cut map about four inches square. “Fascinating. . .” he muttered, “our thief is enamoured with games it seems. . .” There wasn’t an eye there that wasn’t pinned on him – and he knew it. He spun out his pleasure, pretending to study the map but in truth making them beg.

“Sir?” Rodgers wasn’t in a gaming mood.

Michaels, chasing control more than comprehension, missed it. “A map,” he scoffed, “’tis a clipped portion of a map, nothing more!”

“Is it where they’ve taken Drake?” Olivia tried to impress.

“I doubt they’d tell us his hiding place, my dear Duchess,” he smirked and held the map out for all to see.

She again fumed, but not for long. Although old and veiled in black, Dowager Barnes saw it first. “The map – it shows here – Gruinard!” Already she was shuffling back.

“Sir,” Rodgers warned, seeing she was right, “drop it!” Overhead, trilling curlews competed with rising panic from the gathering. “Sir – drop it I say!” Even Rodgers was now backing off.

Youthful but cunning, Olivia proved she might live to top the Dowager’s age, “They know we’re here! DRAKE knows we’re here!” She stumbled back as she tried to run but only staggered in her long dress and crashed onto the sand arse-first with a shallow splash.

Michaels enjoyed a split-second of fun at her ungainly flop – plus the flash of her legs – and then a moment of crypt-cold dread when comprehension finally overtook power-play. They know I’m here – they know I hold the map – they –,

That thought remained unfinished as suddenly everyone was blinded by a light so bright that it had weight; it had hunger; it had substance as real as the incoming tide, and it rushed through them all as if riding the wind and its epicentre was fixed on Michaels. If only he’d let Olivia pick up that note. . .

The blast hurled Dowager Barnes onto her back and she too fell beside the young duchess. Incredibly, terror made the pair join hands: quite a feat for sworn rivals.

Michaels felt something like subzero teeth rip through him and then the insatiable brightness turned to black as his eyes were seared and hollowed by acid illumination. The light ate all it could and then vanished in a blink leaving a cloud of agony. Michaels felt his entire body scream with exposure as delicate blood vessels, tissues and organs were dragged into the sunlight and left bleached under a skin now as clear as glass. Even Gruinard’s relatively weak sunlight felt like a furnace.

The effect on the rest was no less horrific – for they had to bear witness. Olivia blinked her vision back and through the blur she saw Michaels still standing there holding the note. Her ears were useless, ringing only with screams, and she joined them when she saw how Michaels now looked like a skinned cadaver dressed in a black suit and top hat. He too was screaming, and she saw how the arteries in his neck pumped in panic like fighting hose pipes, and his tongue gulped in his throat like a toad in a well. She was first up, and after checking her own hands and seeing healthy, normal skin, she fled, leaving the rest. The screams receded and the sands raced by, and after falling again and then tearing off her dainty shoes, she ran barefoot with her dress lifted high. Across the glossy sands she saw a red light flash and play and looked back to see Rodgers had fired a signal flare to summon medics and soldiers from shore, but the tiny scrap of sanity couldn’t stop her feeling like she was just a tiny ant running across a very large target and that Drake’s handler was watching from the clouds, ready to slam a giant boot upon her at whim. So it’s true then, she grappled the thought, the Knights Illuminata’s sworn enemies have returned: the Knights Illustria, and with Drake they could kill whom they wished whenever they wished. Duchess Olivia Brochet decided right there and then to abandon power and riches and step down as family head. Better to live a peasant life than be eaten alive by the light. She sprinted back to shore and an impoverished life, and subsequently to her 21st birthday after all.

“It’s true, merciful God, it’s true!” It was the Dowager. Rodgers tried to help her up but the old woman seemed to cling to the sands like a frightened plaice trying to hide. “Leave me, leave me!” she screamed, “He sees all, Drake sees all!”

Grovelling on the ground won’t make you less of a target, you daft bat! Rodgers wanted to say. “Please, My Lady, we must get back to shore!”

“They’re back, they’re back!” she continued to rant, and Rodgers saw how her upper dentures had fallen out and were hanging netted inside her veil like a skeletal fish. “The Knights Illustria have returned!” She clawed the sands and fought him, “Leave me, leave me!”

“Sod it!” Rodgers cursed, dropped the smoking flare gun, and obeyed and turned to see if there was anything he could do for Michaels instead. He wove through a stampede of senior dignitaries who were charging back to shore at impressive speed for their age. “Sir, sir!” he reached Michaels, who was now blindly crawling over the sand like a wounded crab plucked of legs by gulls.

“Rodgers? Rodgers, I can’t seeeee!” he screamed to the sand. In his hand he still clutched the map, now just a ball of tattered paper. Rodgers took his shoulders, knelt beside him and turned him. As soon as Michaels’ naked face met the sunlight he screamed again in agony and his hands retracted into protective claws over his useless eyes. “Rodgers,” he gulped, speaking through lips as clear as aspic and showing teeth, gums and jawbone, “is it. . . tell me. . .”

Rodgers was already sweeping his coat free to shield him from the sun, like a man become a vampire, and half-expecting him to smoulder and turn to ash. “Forgive me, sir, but yes – it is true,” he said with genuine grief.

Michaels’ eyes rolled in their expanded sockets as white and featureless as snowballs. “Then thank God I cannot see,” he panted, failing, aware and glad of it. “Rodgers, listen!” he suddenly clawed at him and hooked his shirt front. “Listen – The Knights Illustria have returned, swear to me – swear – you won’t let them win!”

“I swear it sir!” he boomed. “On my oath and on my own kin, I swear it!” Rodgers gazed down at the monster in his arms and felt tears of horror, regret and occasion warm his cheeks. “I swear, sir,” he finished gently and took the man’s hand and gripped hard. Michaels gripped back, took a tiny, sharp breath and his body ceased quaking. This is it, Rodgers thought gladly.

“War of Light. . .” Michaels whispered, and then died.

“Aye, sir. . .” Rodgers cried then, for all the Illuminata, for just as witches feared them they in turn feared their ancient nemesis, The Knights Illustria, and Rodgers felt no shame at the lie he’d just told the dying man – victory was not certain at all. Not far away, the envelope skipped brightly over the sand under a playful breeze, scratching to a stop close by and Rodgers could see the white seal of unicorn fat embossed with the symbol of a blazing lantern: The Knights Illustria. He slackened his grip and looked down and saw that the hand he was holding to be virtually skeletal but still clothed in translucent flesh. He stayed that way until first medics and soldiers arrived, while behind, he heard the tide creeping slowly over the sands, hissing softly as it came, once again turning land to sea.

Less Says More

 

This is one of those images that came out totally different to my original idea, which was to draw a non-commercial, scary picture just for the hell of it featuring a cute fairy trapped in a spider’s web and about to be eaten: sometimes I’m just ‘bad’. But you might be wondering what changed; after all it’s a picture of a cute fairy trapped in a spider’s web and about to be eaten, is it not? Well, strictly speaking, no it isn’t. The original image I had in mind was of a child-fairy screeching in terror as the huge and very hairy spider plunges it fangs into her helpless little body (I never said I was a nice guy) but although that would have made a satisfying shock-joke image it would have lacked drama: the fairy gets eaten – end of story. Being someone who loves to draw and write too, it seemed a shame not to draw a picture with a narrative rather than a foregone conclusion, and so the image changed. . . I made the fairy older, to give her more of a fighting chance, and rather than draw the spider already tucking in, I pushed it further into the background, and then to add more impact and suspense I veiled it in a sheet of web, leaving just a pair of probing legs to tantalize (and perhaps revolt) the viewer. Lastly I offered my fairy a slim chance of survival in the shape of her fallen wand illuminated by a shaft of light, and combined with the title ‘Katrina’s Wand’, the question is will she or won’t she reach it in time? I leave that to you, but for fairy fans out there who see Katrina flitting away to fight another day, remember that spiders need to eat too. . . perhaps I ought to draw the reverse picture; of mum spider sobbing in her kitchen surrounded by starving spiderlings. Those blasted fairies!

Relics

relics

 

Spring 2018 sees Raven’s Wand published as a deck of oracle cards, lavishly illustrated with characters from the book and with exclusively written meanings. Today – a closer look at ‘Relics’

If you could have sailed around Britain’s coast two centuries ago, there’s a chance you’d have seen large, flightless, black & white seabirds known as Great Auks. They effectively lived an identical lifestyle to penguins, but by 1844 (according to records) the last one was clubbed to death and eaten. This crime was committed in Iceland – but wait, there is a challenge for the killing of the last Great Auk from the nearby Faroe Islands. Think about it – what kind of accolade is genocide? What person or nation would argue that credit for a certain genocide belongs to them? And here I’m not singling out Iceland or The Faroes, all nations have exterminated one spices or another, and often, many species. The true madness of this is its banality: a species was exterminated – so what – it happens – next. The same sort of thing happened to Britain’s wolves, with the last one being killed in the 17th century according to most sources. ‘Relics’ was drawn with these facts in mind. Look closely and you’ll see not just flesh and blood wolves, but wolves hidden amongst the rocks and trees. Witches hid them there to save the last of them, and to me this is what witchcraft is truly about – respect for living things. I say ‘to me’ because there are many interpretations of what witchcraft is, but one thing’s for sure – it wasn’t a witch that battered that lone Great Auk to death in 1844, but hey – so what – it happens – next.

Destroying Angel

destroying-angel

Spring 2018 sees Raven’s Wand published as a deck of oracle cards, lavishly illustrated with characters from the book and with exclusively written meanings. Week by week, I’ll post my thoughts and comments on the forthcoming cards. This week – ‘Destroying Angel’

Destroying Angel is the first novel in the successor series to Raven’s Wand, and tells the story of Freya Albright’s boat-full of witches that fled Wildwood-coven, but subsequently vanished . . .

I wanted Freya’s story to remain part of the Raven’s Wand world and its Victorian setting, but still to have its own unique feel. Freya and her crew of nine are a tight-knit bunch, and their camaraderie is as often touching as it is earthy and amusing – and it needs to be considering what they face. Paying homage to a favourite of mine, Beowulf, the first story sees a remote northern outpost under siege from a powerful and destructive entity. This creature came not from a dark cave or the depths of an icy lake however, but from the blackness between the stars – in fact it is the blackness between the stars. A tale of isolation, suspense and deception unfolds, as the tiny mining town of Lokk bars the gates, and looks to a rabble of unknown soldiers to protect them from they believe is the Devil himself, but they find other allies too. It’s here that Freya and her crew prove their worth when they’re forced to fight alongside Illuminata mercenaries in an attempt to defeat an entity as old as the universe and as desolate as the vacuum of space.

I had a lot of fun with Destroying Angel, despite its dark tone and (gosh!) a sex scene or two (I told you it was different to Raven’s Wand!) and whereas characters take their turn in the spotlight in Raven’s Wand and its sequels, the focus remains on Freya and her crew throughout this new series. In doing so, I’ve been surprised by just how protective I’ve become of Freya & Co, as if they’re family. When they laugh I laugh with them, and when they’re in danger I’m anxious for them, but they do have a mysterious (and often stern) guide and protector . . . he’s dead, but that doesn’t cramp his style, and while he’s not known for his sense of humour, it’s thanks to him that a certain ‘Clovis’ found a certain door marked ‘Rowan’, and if he hadn’t, well, Raven’s Wand might have had a totally different ending. You’ll have to wait and see . . .

The story of a drawing

independence

2018 sees the release of The Raven’s Wand Oracle Deck, featuring 44 pieces of my Wildwood art. I thought I’d give readers a look at what goes on behind the scenes during the creation of these works . . .

‘Can you draw me a man, but like a tiger?’ I can’t recall the exact wording but that’s how this character, Tiber, came to be. The brief was just that – brief – which suits me fine. And so I set out to draw a ‘tiger man’. At the time I was in the middle of a major commission elsewhere and had to break off for a week to complete this, which really put the pressure on. I kept looking at the clock, knowing I couldn’t afford to run over. I opted for a Siberian tiger, because I knew I wanted snow in the background, and I had great fun inventing Tiber’s little caravan. Despite all of this enjoyment, the pressure racked up. I remember it was January, and storm after storm rolled in, and the electric was on and off, and without light (and my trusty stereo) I can’t work. At one point the electric was off for 36 hours, and still the clock was ticking. I’d also just moved house, and the new place was grim and unwelcoming, and I was itching to get on with some DIY and make the place ‘mine’. So in the end, with all the odds against me, it’s something of a miracle that the image manages to capture the sense of stillness I was lacking when I drew it!

Night & Day

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As I write, the summer solstice isn’t far off (well, for those of us in the northern hemisphere) and although all the celebration around this festival points to light and energy, I personally can’t help but start to think of the darker nights. ‘Tomorrow, the daylight will be a fraction shorter,’ I tell myself. It isn’t as gloomy as it sounds, because on December 21st I always begin to think the opposite; ‘tomorrow there’s a fraction more light!’ I think this even when it’s still dark at 4pm and the weather is locked into days and days of endless rain (I say rain because it seems to snow very little here in the UK anymore).

In honour of the solstice I drew this illustration entitled ‘Night and Day’. The young woman in the picture is of course a witch, but her striking look is only intended for the big day itself, and she won’t get up every morning of the year and spend hours applying her ceremonial face paint. I like to think of the witches I write about as being practical, humble and very down to earth. Drawing faces is challenging but always rewarding – when they come out right – and on occasion I’m lucky enough to work one-to-one with art students. Recently I was working with one GCSE student, strengthening her figure drawing skills, and we moved onto faces and portraits. Rather than draw with a pencil, I broke out the oil paints and chunky brushes and we had fun painting all the blocks of colour that comprise a human face. My own approach has become totally instinctive over the years, and I don’t stop to think consciously about how I go about drawing or painting a face, but with someone sat beside you and watching your every move, you suddenly have to justify every dab of the brush or squeeze of the tube.

I think I surprised my fellow painter when I started adding greens and blues to the flesh tones, and talked of ‘warming colours up and cooling them down’. In fact, hearing it aloud I even surprised myself. There are no such things as ‘black people’ or ‘white people’, and nobody’s skin tone remains the same throughout the day. The way the light plays across a face, or the way surrounding objects influence colour all change what the viewer sees. As we get older our faces change (usually not for the better!) and we accept this without question, but we stubbornly stick to the idea that our skin can only be one colour. As an artist I find this merely amusing, but from a social-political viewpoint it becomes very divisive.

So, when the summer solstice rolls around in a week’s time, remember those miserable sods like myself, who start to brood over the dark nights ahead, and remember it’s not all light and happiness, just as the wider world isn’t black and white – even though things would be simpler if it were. On June 22nd, our witch will scrub away her striking face paint and go back to having skin that is wonderfully but subtly multicoloured, but only if you learn to see it right. . .

Pencils

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Coloured Pencils – handy things to know . . .

All of my Wildwood art is drawn in colour pencil, and for those with an interest in this particular medium here’s an article about getting the best from your pencils.

First I gather the reference photos I’ll need, ones I’ve taken myself or sourced from elsewhere. Then I visualise how I’ll piece them together. I always use Daler Rowney pastel paper. It has a rough side and a smooth side and I always use smooth. Most of the time I’ll use Platinum: a neutral mid-grey shade. It might sound odd drawing on grey paper but I find that drawing with colour pencil on white paper spoils the effect, as the pigment leaves all the tiny dips and depressions in the paper uncovered and you end up with a kind of ‘white noise’ behind the image that breaks up its solidity. But that’s just me – a lot of CP artists like white paper.

Graphite can dirty the colours you lay on top, but to start with I sketch up my image with a 2B pencil, and this can take up to a day as I try out different compositions. Once I’m happy I have a choice – if the colour scheme I’m aiming for is dark then I can draw on top of the graphite (with care) but if it’s bright and breezy then first I’ll ‘dab’ off the graphite drawing with a pencil rubber so that it leaves the faintest of lines. I could of course draw faintly to start with, but that’d mean using a HB or 2H and that can leave ugly scratch marks on the paper. Sometimes I draw out my composition not in graphite but with a colour pencil, that way it’s guaranteed to be absorbed by the overlaying colours. The advantage of this is that there’s no risk of graphite smudging areas of delicate detail, such as a creamy complexion on a child’s face for instance. The down side of sketching with a colour pencil first is that they don’t like being rubbed out! You’re dealing with pigment that’s got oil or wax in, and the rubber can’t always get rid of the lines as it can with graphite – so be warned. If I draw in CP first then invariably I’ll use ‘nougat’ which is a nice subtle brown shade in the Polychromos range.

So now the under-drawing’s ready and the colour work can start. I draw a lot of human characters and they can be tricky, so I always start with the face which is the hardest part. If it goes bad then I scrap the picture and haven’t lost too much time. I use a range of colours, finding they all have their strengths and weaknesses . . .

Polychromos by Faber Castelle keep their point well and have good opacity, great for fine detail.

Prismacolor (American) mix and blend better than any other brand I’ve come across. They are softer, and so not as good for crisp fine detail. Not easy to source in the UK.

Derwent Drawing pencils come in a range of 24 earth/natural colours. They are great for nature studies and their cores are quite wide so good for laying down large areas of expressive colour.

Derwent Coloursoft have a wide core and are like Prismacolor in many ways, but I find them a little ‘chalky’ and so I only have a small range, although some of them I wouldn’t do without – cloud blue and brown-black spring to mind.

Lastly on the subject of pencils, don’t forget to include a good range of grey shades. I’ll often add a hint of grey to skin tones, sandwiched in between other pigments. Relying on colours alone can give an artificial ‘Disney’ look to a scene. So don’t forget the greys. I rely on my range of French Greys a lot.

Accessories: I have a small battery powered rubber that’s very handy if you’ve got to alter a small detail in a crucial place. It’s also great drawing tool in its own right, removing colour rather than laying it down.

Pencil extenders – better than throwing 30% of your pencils in the bin! Don’t know why more people don’t use them . . .

Scalpel – always use one for sharpening pencils and for scratching the finest lines in pigment to draw hair or spider silks etc.

Fixative: I use fix not to protect the drawing, but to get rid of wax-bloom. Once your drawing’s finished you might find it looking ‘dusty’ after a few days and wonder what’s going on. It’s wax-bloom. The oils in the pencils are now seeping to the surface. It’s easy to remove, you can either just fix it to seal it and restore the drawing, or wipe it gently with a soft tissue, and then either fix it or leave it – but the wax might come back. As I tend to work heavy there’s a lot of pigment on my drawings and the bloom can be a problem, so I let them ‘rest’ a few weeks then dust them down and spray them, but never spray too much at any one time as it’ll permanently discolour the drawing!

And lastly – tea, plenty of tea . . .

A Rare Bloom

Flora 150

One of my personal favourite characters from The Dark Raven Chronicles doesn’t take centre stage often and is easily regarded as a support character, although if she were to vanish, then places like Wildwood-coven would dry up and die. Her skills are crucial to Wildwood’s survival and it’s no exaggeration to describe her feats of magic as miraculous, and perhaps even holy.
She cannot make herself invisible, topple mountains, or shoot bolts of lightning from her fingertips, but The Illuminata nevertheless regard her brand of magic as deeply subversive, and toxic to their own agenda. Her powers are so profound, yet so fundamental to everyday life, that she is easily overlooked, but for me, Flora embodies the highest values of witchcraft. What good are lightning-bolts and superpowers if at the end of the day you have nothing to eat? Through the grace of the twins, Hethra and Halla, Flora can summon crops in any soil and any season, and turn barren earth into a productive garden in moments. For an organisation like The Illuminata, that control populations and nations through poverty, this is truly a terrifying prospect. Who would toil in the mills and mines to stave off starvation if they could emulate Flora’s miracle? Nobody. The foundations of Victoria’s Empire would sink into the sand, the pyramid of power would be inverted and the masses set free. All of this a witch like Flora could achieve if her magical skills were shared and spread.
For me, she is a hero of dignity and modesty, neither of which were accidental. Too often, heroes in popular film and fiction win through strength and force, and all too often female heroes have to become like men to achieve their victories. Kolfinnia and Flora take up arms to defend their world, but reluctantly and with consequences, and along the way they may have to take lives. Neither is it accidental that Flora is maimed – who can fail to spot her eye-patch – as when I crafted the character I knew she would be perhaps the most gentle yet most profound of Wildwood’s witches, and because cosmic laws are cruel and ironic, I imagined that she would have faced the greatest violence in her short life, because evil always seeks to undermine the greatest goodness. Flora was half-blinded as a girl, as punishment for being born to a witch. Her mother, Roslind, was taken for correctional-blessing, a civilized way to describe interrogation and capital punishment in The Illuminata’s world. And so Flora’s scars are found both inwardly and outwardly, affecting both flesh and spirit, yet her greatest triumph is to cling to her dignity and humanity despite all that’s been taken from her. As the story unfold, Flora’s skills prove the lifeblood of her coven, and later, when adapting magic to devise new ways of fighting The Illuminata, Flora’s talents veer from growing crops to growing thunder and lightning . . . although it would spoil the surprise if I were to explain how. She might not be a Lycra-clad, kung-fu babe with an attitude (thank Oak!) but Flora packs a punch that can topple empires, and best of all she’s modest about her powers and gentle with it – the rarest of blooms.

Back Doors

Destroying Angel artwork

When I wrote Raven’s Wand, it was simply titled as such. There was no ‘Book I of . . .’ because there wasn’t a book II, let alone a series, but something wonderful happened as I typed chapter after chapter – I found myself getting excited about creativity again for the first time in many years. When I reached the last page I could have typed ‘The End’, but I knew it wasn’t the end. I just wanted to keep writing, and so I teased out the most logical story threads from Raven’s Wand and began weaving them again. The result was Flowers of Fate, and at last I was justified in adding ‘Book II of The Dark Raven Chronicles’. It might come as no surprise that I didn’t stop there . . . by the end of Flowers’ I still wanted to keep writing (lucky readers that you are!) and hence Lion of Evermore was born, and the story arc concluded. The three books grew organically, as a result of my continued desire to build the story rather than being plotted as a trilogy from the outset. Lion of Evermore concludes with the words ‘The End’. But it’s not.

If you like something, why stop? Book IV began to unfold, and this time I knew I couldn’t restart my original characters on a new journey, it just didn’t feel right. They’d told their story. What I needed was a new cast of characters, but from the same stage – witches from Wildwood-coven that we hadn’t met before. The trouble was who would they be and how would I introduce them, after all, how is it they weren’t mentioned before in all the action? The first solution was to find a ‘back door’ in the original book, and I’d had one particular back door in mind from the start. Without spoiling the plot, let me elaborate . . . Wildwood-coven faces attack, and its host of witches flee in a small flotilla comprising three boats. The idea was to rendezvous at a determined point and rally survivors. When it came to making this real in the story, I felt that having all three boats reach their destination safely was too snug and lessened the sense of threat. My solution was to ‘lose’ one of the boats. Two boats reach the rendezvous, while the third boat goes missing, along with her crew. It adds to the drama and sounds more convincing, and even mysterious. I could then get on with writing the rest of Raven’s Wand, but unexpectedly I found this missing boat cropping up in my mind like a stone in my shoe. I kept asking myself, ‘where’s it gone, and what’s happened to her crew, and who were they in relation to Kolfinnia – were they friends, peers, mentors, or rivals even?’ This unanswered question became my back door, and when book IV came along I knew it was time to answer it.

Book IV is entitled ‘Kolfinnia’s Coven’, and it forms a collection of short stories about Kolfinnia as a girl, growing up at Wildwood. It enabled me to greatly expand upon the witches’ world, and their beliefs, traditions, folklore and religion. I had great fun crafting creation myths as well as real life anecdotes from Kolfinnia’s early years, and I was also able to resolve the second problem – how to integrate a new cast of characters, with the original ones from Raven’s Wand. As Kolfinnia’s Coven effectively forms a prequel as well as a collection of tales, I was able to go back and introduce my new players, showing them growing up alongside Kolfinnia, and how they relate to her.

So, meet Freya Albright, as she appears in my illustration. She’s the captain of our missing boat, named ‘Speedwell’, and by the end of Kolfinnia’s Coven, we know her, and some of her crew, very well. Well enough in fact to see her take the helm as the new hero of the Dark Raven Chronicles, and at last we’ll find out what’s become of her and her crew of nine other witches. The result is book V and a different kind of tale to Kolfinnia’s. The focus remains on Freya and her crew throughout, and novels aren’t afraid to end on a cliffhanger. The tone is darker, and I’ve crafted new villains and threats, to break new ground and offer the reader a whole other side to the world of Wildwood. Entitled, ‘The Journey of Albright’s Boat’, Freya’s series begins with ‘Destroying Angel’ and introduces the most disturbing and shocking enemies witchcraft has yet seen, it begins to unfold a cosmology of creatures and demigods that show how magic extends not just beyond a coven or a country, but across the stars and planes of reality, life and death. But there’s still plenty of room for the intimate human dramas, and the warmth that binds a coven (or crew) together through thick and thin. All of this I owe to that back door, inserted casually into Raven’s Wand all those years ago. I never knew then what was waiting behind it, and certainly I never expected to find Freya’s story so intense, humourous, terrifying, and so far-reaching.
I’ll end this blog with the rather electrifying fact that The Dark Raven Chronicles are littered with back doors. Some of them are there on purpose, while others are hidden even from me, but I’ll root them out, and if I find something worth writing on the other side, I’ll take you along for the journey. I promise, this is only the beginning . . .