Creative

The Skifter now in paperback

The Skifter now in paperback

The SkifterMy children’s / YA novel The Skifter is now available in paperback on Amazon, as well as Kindle.

“The beast came crunching down in the snow, writhing as it skidded. It stopped two feet short of where he stood waving his bag. The huge teeth were fixed in a snarl. But it was the snarl of death. A long knife, the size of a meat cleaver, trailed from its neck.”

The snow that began on December the sixth brought Birmingham to a halt and sent Scott Raynall out of school early. But deep snow brings out dark things, opening doors into the past and drawing malice, ruin and revenge into the present.

As he learns to skift through England’s darkest years, Scott is caught in an adventure which mingles magic, myth and swordplay, until he must finally confront an enchantress who threatens to unmake time for ever.

For fans of time travel, King Arthur, swordplay, and the middle ages. 11 to adult.

As a bit of background, the Skifter has been on Smashwords for about five years, a brave experiment into the new world of digital publishing. However, it wasn’t until I’d done the work to get it there that I discovered that the US tax office takes an enormous percentage of earnings, and Smashwords doesn’t actually send you any money until there’s quite a hefty royalty in your account.

As a result, the Skifter has languished, unmarketed by me, and largely undiscovered by readers.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I received this by email:

Hello!
My children are fans of your wonderful book, Skifter. We were wondering if there are any hard copies and if so if we could purchase a copy.
Regards
[name supplied]

I could not resist.

The book has gone through a serious re-edit, one map and one plan of the castle have been added, the cover has been redesigned, and the punctuation revised.

If you are desperate to read it but cannot find the requisite currency, please drop me an email at martin.turner@unforgettable.com, and I will see if I can get a PDF to you.

Skifter-banner

The Dress — or why colour workflow matters

So, you’ve seen the coverage covering the internet about a dress which is reputed to be white and gold, or blue and black. People have extremely strong opinions about it. A lot of ‘science’ has been talked about it, or, rather, journalists have approached some scientists and written down some of their remarks. The reality is a lot simpler, and is something that anyone who is serious about taking photographs has had to work with a long time ago.

Essentially, the human eye is a combination of a bio-optical lens and retina, and some highly developed brain functions which interpret it, which works very strongly with short and long-term memory to interpret images correctly. If you look at eye motion studies, you see the way the eye’s (very shallow) focus point darts around something, building up a picture in memory which becomes what you ‘see’.

A camera, by contrast, merely captures whatever falls onto the sensor, be it exposed film or RGB photo-diodes. If you have a digital SLR and you work with RAW files, then the RAW files contain the exact information captured by the sensor.

However.

Even a RAW image isn’t quite as raw as you might imagine. Naturally, no computer image can be ‘seen’ by the naked eye without interpretation — it exists, after all, only as electronic impulses which would normally be interpreted into 1s and 0s. When you ‘see’ a JPEG file, or a TIFF, or a RAW, you are seeing the results of a very sophisticated process of interpretation.

A JPEG or a TIFF has the interpretation ‘baked-in’ — the Red-Green-Blue values translate straight to the screen, which means if the screens colour-space is different from the file’s colour space (more on that in a moment), you will see a colour shift. A RAW image, though, also contains information about white balance, which includes colour temperature and tint.

What is colour temperature?

If you take a black body and heat it to a particular value, you get a particular colour. These values are quite high. Ordinary daylight, the kind emulated by electronic flash, is 5600 K — a temperature you would never normally encounter on Earth. However, because it gives an objective definition, colour temperature (in K) is used to define how reddish or blueish the illuminating light is. In addition to colour temperature, you also get tint shifts — early fluorescent lights, for example, always turned everything green.

Using its automatic settings, your camera should correctly record the right white balance, which is then transferred with the RAW file, and baked into the JPEG. If you’re using a smartphone camera, you will never touch the RAW — the only file you will get is the JPEG.

It should, but, quite often, it doesn’t.

Your eye (bio-optical + brain + memory) is highly adept at adapting to the illuminating light and thus correctly seeing the ‘true’ colour of something. Even so, the golden light of the hour before sunset and after dawn is golden because your eye does not entirely adapt. This is partly because your eye is taking more than a thousand samples a minute as it roves around, building up not only a picture of what you are looking at, but also the other things around it.

The camera only gets one go, and it has to guess, using its memory, what parts are ‘white’ and what parts aren’t. A sophisticated dSLR will have a substantial amount of pre-programmed scenes to help it in this task. A smartphone, no matter how sophisticated, has fewer. Even the best dSLR — I’m thinking of a Nikon D800 — doesn’t get it right all the time, which is why many photographers prefer to shoot in RAW and fix the images in post-processing if the white balance isn’t right.

What kinds of things cause poor white balance?

Essentially, a combination of mixed lighting and difficult to identify surfaces. If you are in a room, and the light is on, and there is also sunlight streaming through the window, you won’t notice anything odd. On the other hand, if you are driving home and the windows are lit, you will see the cheery glow of yellow-orange light. In the room, your eye has correctly assessed all the different kinds of shadows, and used memory to identify the ‘true’ colours of things. Driving home, you see the much bluer than normal light coming from the sky, and the window in a cheerily contrasting yellow-orange, because the colour temperature of incandescent lights is much lower than evening light, and even the modern LEDs are balanced to replicate that.

If you take a picture in a room with mixed lighting, you will see that areas illuminated by sunlight will appear blueish, and areas illuminated by electric light appear yellowish. This is most obvious in the multi-coloured shadows that you get, which can be yellow, blue or even green, depending on what kinds of lights you have, and how strong they are.

The camera has to make a guess at what the ‘correct’ colour temperature is. What it can’t do is assess the entire situation and see the colours ‘correctly’ notwithstanding the predominant light falling on them. The eye gets that right, the camera doesn’t.

You can fix this, if you have the patience, in Lightroom (for shadows), Capture One, or, best of all DxO, which has a mixed lighting feature. You can even mask out layers in Photoshop.

The other problem the camera faces is that it has to guess what white is. Unlike your eye, which knows what colour the curtains are, the camera tries to make an assessment based on predominance. If the entire image appears to the camera to be yellowish, then it will lower its reference colour temperature, in the belief that the room is yellowish because of a yellowish light. In my living room, with its butter coloured wall paper, yellow Flemish sofa and gold Flemish curtains, it’s not likely to get it right. More sophisticated software can guess based on more information — skin tone and sky tone, for example, but it’s never perfect.

What about The Dress?

Some people see The Dress as gold and white, others as black and blue. What’s the truth? The truth is that you can’t possibly tell from that picture which it is. If you load it into Photoshop, you will see very clearly that the colours which appear ‘white’ to some people are blue, and the colours which appear ‘black’ to other people are brown, mud, or gold. The dress is blue and gold, at least, according to the picture.

But — the eye doesn’t like that. Your memory has many dresses stored within it, and also many objects seen in different lights. In direct sunlight, all shadows are blue, but the eye corrects them to the right colour. Why? Because sunlight has a much lower colour temperature than blue sky, but is much stronger. Things appear to be in shadow when the sun’s light does not fall on them directly, but only as reflected through the sky. Your eye is well-used to correcting this, which is why things don’t appear to change colour as they move in and out of shadow, only luminosity.

Lacking reference cues, some people’s eyes light on the ‘white’ of the dress and interpret this in the same way as white in shadow. This causes the eye to interpret the brown part as a rich gold. From that perspective, the dress is then white and gold.

However, the eye is not satisfied with that. It continues to look at the picture, and notes that the colour cues of the other lights in the picture don’t suggest that the dress is in shadow out of doors, but rather is indoors, in low-colour temperature lighting. This means (to your eye) that the ‘white’ area is not white at all, but a much stronger blue than it would appear. In that case, the ‘brown’ must be much bluer as well, which moves it into black.

If you stare at it long enough, you may well see the dress shift from gold and white to black and blue, and back again, as the eye struggles to get the information it wants from the rest of the image.

This is made worse by the fact that the colour in the image is fairly obviously degraded. Fifty years ago your eye wouldn’t have known what to do with that, but in the internet-age we’ve seen enough bad JPEGs for our visual memory to be busy making sense of them.

Solving it with colour workflow

Assuming you actually wanted to represent the colours correctly, for example because you were doing a fashion advertisement, how would you go about this?

With some difficulty. Every step of the way is fraught with colour danger.

However, this is how it’s done.

First, before you shoot the picture, you shoot a Grey Card — not just any grey card, but a specially printed and frequently replaced card which is a known value of grey. If you have the time, you actually then set the camera’s white balance to that. If the lighting changes, you shoot the grey card again.

Actually, there’s a step before that, which is to get rid of all mixed lighting, or, if that’s not possible, to put gels on your lights so that all the lights balance. On a photo-shoot, you’ll quite often see blue gels over lights to match blue sky, or blue gels over incandescent lamps to match the colour of the studio lights. Additionally, studio lights are usually sufficiently powerful to overpower indoor lighting, and are colour balanced to match outdoor light.

Second, you shoot in RAW, and when you come to process the images, you first set the white balance using your image of the grey card, and then apply that same balance to all images, irrespective of what the camera recorded.

You are still not out of the woods. When you come to view the images, you need to view them on a colour calibrated monitor capable of displaying the colour space they are saved in. Colour space? That’s an electronic description of what the screen and other devices are to interpret the values, because each different kind of device has different kinds of colour its good at displaying. Photographers might prefer to shoot in ProPhoto, but the screen likes to show things in sRGB. You just have to bear this in mind, and have the profiles set up correctly. Calibrating the monitor, though, is something you need a measuring device for. X-Rite makes the one I use, and I calibrate my monitor and my printer fairly regularly. Not only do you have to calibrate the monitor, but you have to calibrate it for the light in the room you are in. Again, your measuring device will do this if you specify it, but, if you turn the light on (unless it’s daylight balanced) you’ll need to recalibrate, or use a different, saved, calibration.

You are still not out of the woods. If you want to send the image to a friend, just give up on the idea of colour fidelity. Unless their monitor is also colour calibrated, they will see whatever their combination of monitor and viewing conditions think they should see, which definitely won’t be what you’re seeing. Worse, if they view it on a mobile phone, the colour gamut which the phone can display may be very small, or the colours over saturated, or too bright, or too dark.

If you want to print it to your laser or inkjet printer, you need to calibrate them first. The same device should do this. I you’re sending out to be printed for a leaflet or magazine, or (even worse) a billboard, then you are unlikely to get an opportunity to do a proper calibration of their output (though, if you’re clever, you might calibrate from a previous document you did with them). If you also want to use your photo on TV, then that’s a different calibration again.

Print is particularly difficult because it’s done in Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black dots, rather than in Red, Green, Blue luminous pixels. The computer will handle the conversion, but it’s never exact, and CMYK print will always look duller than on your screen. Acclimatising yourself by looking at a previous piece of print and the photos used in it on screen is still the best way to get over this — let your eye, with its vastly superior processing power, do the work.

Even then, the viewing conditions may still skew the colour for you.

All this is what is known as Colour Workflow, and it’s bread and butter for anyone involved in photography, graphic design or print.

Back to the The Dress

Needless to say, absolutely none of that work was done for The Dress. For a start, it’s mixed lighting. Then, the exposure is fairly well off, but you can’t tell if the image is over or under-exposed. The camera’s software has worked hard to interpret the RAW RGB and put it into a JPEG, but this just makes things worse, as a JPEG file compresses the image using its own guesses about the image. Finally, the image has been viewed on millions of smartphones and other devices, of which only a handful will be calibrated. Turn the brightness up, it’s going to look more like gold and white, turn the brightness down, it’s more blue and black. If you’ve spent a lot of time looking at images, you’ll see two things: first, the real colour of the image is blue and brown, and, second, the real colour of the dress could be pretty much anything, since the possibility of a tint shift means it could actually be yellow and orange, or green and mauve.

And finally

For reasons which I generally only understand for the five minutes after I’ve just read the technical articles explaining it, digital cameras just don’t capture mauve or purple at all well, usually shifting them across to blue.

One thing only is certain: the makers of that dress are going to be getting a lot more sales.

Do bad books make better legends?

I’m watching the Three Musketeers on BBC1, and I can’t help reflecting on the fact that this is a story which has improved through time with multiple reworkings, some of them involving cartoon dogs, and others steampunk airships. There have been some pretty rough versions, but, by and large, every ten years there’s a new Three Musketeers, and it’s almost always watchable. The BBC is doing very well to get it into a second series, particularly with the departure of the Cardinal Richelieu for his new role as a Time Lord, but it’s by no means the first never-ending-series to come from the Musketeers stable.

The funny thing is, the book is really, really boring. I’ve read it twice, once in English, and once in French. Apart from an increased awareness of soupçon and its derivatives, I didn’t get a great deal out of it either time. Nonetheless, Dumas did rather well out of it, with sequels Twenty Years After (you can see where that one is going) and Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, usually translated in part as ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’, which is set ten years after the Three Musketeers.

One of the book’s problems is that it’s an awful lot easier to do a compelling sword fight on television than it is in a book, and the other is that the TV and film versions have successively honed the story into something much tighter (at least some of the time) than Dumas did.

The Three Musketeers is not the only book to have benefited from dramatic reinterpretation. Mark Twain was in no doubt about his disdain for The Last of the Mohicans, as he sets out in J Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Excesses. Someone pointed out to me that many of the literary excesses that Twain took offense at are not actually in the original, and have benefited from exaggeration. Nonetheless, anyone who has seen any of the film or TV versions of The Last of the Mohicans will be disappointed by the book, which is long-winded, meandering, over-written, and nowhere near as seminal as reputation would make it.

I can’t work out which I dislike more: The Last of the Mohicans or The Three Musketeers. What I can say is that I absolutely love the Daniel Day Lewis film version, even though the surviving Mohican is a different character from in the book. Mohicans went through a number of evolutions in its film and TV versions, and the most recent film was based as much on the plots of the earlier films as it was on the book. It’s harder to trace the provenance of the Musketeers, but successive versions have reworked the book and clearly learned from each other.

Two bad books, two steadily improving series of film and TV versions.

Now, what about The Hobbit? One of the top ten selling works of fiction of all time, it is, in my opinion, one of the most perfectly written children’s books in English. As such, it’s quite different from the Lord of the Rings, which, although greater in scope and majestic in conception, and an even bigger seller than the Hobbit, is full of plot holes. I quite enjoyed the film version of the Lord of the Rings, and absolutely detested the trilogy of the Hobbit. I mean no disrespect to Sylvester McCoy, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage or Martin Freeman, nor even to Peter Jackson. My problem is that the Hobbit lives so powerfully in my imagination that any film would have had to get the tenor of the book exactly right to make it enjoyable for me. The Lord of the Rings films got the tenor of the book pretty much right. The Hobbit films retained the tenor of the Lord of the Rings, and thus missed the deft humour of the original.

Ursula K LeGuin was deeply disappointed by a cable TV version of A Wizard of Earthsea. Having seen it, and also the Studio Ghibli version, I understand why. Again, a near perfect book whose TV and film versions do it no justice.

This is by no means scientific (and why should it be?), but I’m beginning to think bad book -> great film goes hand in hand with great book -> bad film. But not quite. It’s the books which have been progressively reworked that end up being magnificent in film. There are lots of bad books which made bad films.

What interests me in all of this is that the process of reworking is surely similar to the reworking we see in legend and myth. We can track urban myths round the internet and see how they evolve. With Greek myth, progressively reworked through extant plays, we can also follow the development of extensive, multi-stranded myth.

Since the Renaissance, authorial ownership of story has been a crucial part of the work of writing. It’s enshrined in copyright and, today, even in trademarked characters. I sense that we have lost the reteller’s art. Copyright is no bad thing, but in an ever-increasingly connected world, I think the time has come for a movement of collaborative storytelling. These things are beginning in corners of the internet. Some of it has grown out of role-playing-games, and the results, such as the famously dreadful Eye of Argon, are sometimes laughably bad. However, the same is true for legendary stories: some of the less known King Arthur stories lack even the strength of narrative jokes. Nonetheless, these movements have to come from somewhere.

I look forward to seeing what these movements may bring.

Chapter Twelve – the final chapter

Chapter Twelve – the final chapter

12 Days — a chapter by chapter tale by Martin Turner Sedan, Fiedel, Geoffrey and Seline looked at each other in the visible darkness. A whisper passed down the line of people on the stairs, erupting into a murmur, and then shouts among the people outside.

They waited. There was no further sound, and now it was far too dark to see anything beyond the vaguest shadows through the heliographoscope.

“Sixteen kilometres,” said Sedan, “judging by the time between the flash and rumble. That is ten of your miles. And that is a powerful cannon. You heard how the projectile arrived before the gun’s report.”

“Why are they not firing again?”, said Fiedel.

“In all probability that was their first ranging shot, but they have realised that it is too dark to see well where it landed. In the morning, at first light, if they really mean to attack us, they will fire that shot again and watch more carefully. Then they will fire a shorter shot, which will fall too short. A calculation follows, and then they know exactly how far we are, and can continue to hit us.”

“Is there nothing we can do?”, said Seline.

“Not unless we can move the village, or attack the cannon. But there’s is no cannon here to shoot back,” replied Sedan.

“But who is they?” asked Geoffrey. “Who would fire a cannon at a defenceless English village.”

“I think I have the answer to that,” said Seline. Shes struck a match, lighting the candle which Fiedel had left behind the evening before. Then she pulled out the tiny note which Huw had sent, and read the message aloud:
“‘Robbers. Mountain. Village. Danger. Something strange’. Huw sent it by pigeon. I only got it right before you came into the inn, Professor.”

“It’s that murderous Lomax and Bart!”, said Geoffrey. “Quickly, back to the constable’s house, and we will grill it out of them.”

The constable met them in the street as they hurried back. Some of the crowd had dispersed as people went off to do the things they do when they think their lives, or worse, their property, are threatened. More had joined than had left, though, and when they came up to the constable, supporting Derek on his shoulder, they filled the street.

“What’s this, constable?”, said Geoffrey. “Why is this man injured?”

Then the constable explained that Bart and Lomax were gone — released by some unknown assailant who must also be loose in the village.

The crowd murmured.

Geoffrey turned to face them.

“Now, listen you people,” he said. They were well used to his voice of authority, but for once they were less inclined to believe it.
“Listen, or what?”, called a voice.
“Yeah, what are you going to do?”, called another.
“Now, listen —” began Geoffrey again, but the murmur of the crowd was already drowning him out.
Sedan plucked his arm. “Monsieur, if I may—?”
“By all means,” said Geoffrey.

Sedan jumped up on a stone block close to hand. The lights of the village were mainly behind him, though there was just enough for them to see his face. His cloak billowed, and, in the dusk, his semi-silhouette cut an imposing shape.

“People of Bidforst,” he began. “I am Sedan, as some of you know. I am not a spy, as some of you have thought, nor have I ever been. But I was an officer in the army of Napoleon, and I have fought many battles.

“It seems now clear that robbers from the mountain intend to attack our village. We do not know why. We have no clue why men whom we have never harmed should wish us ill. But we have all seen the shell that was fired into the woods over the river, and I assure you that, when the morning has come, we will see many more shells.

“I, Sedan, hero of a hundred fights, will tell you that we are able to defend this village, and to keep our families and our homes, but only if we have the resolve to do so. You have heard, no doubt, of Napoléon Bonaparte, emperor of France and England’s greatest ally against Spain. In those wars your people and my people fought side by side for the good of all. Now I tell you that Bonaparte was strong because he was courageous. We must be without fear, since those who fear are lost.

The murmuring crowd had fallen completely still.

“We have some time to make preparations, but not a great amount. For myself, I would begin the preparations at this instant. But I know in my heart that each one of you secretly longs to go to your home, to warn your families, to hide your valuables, to bolt your doors. It is not wrong to wish to do this, but if each of us thinks only of his own, then all of us will fall.

“Therefore, let each one now go to his home, and make whatever preparations he must — but I counsel you, do not trust to doors or bolts, which will be broken down, nor to burying your treasures, since that which is buried can be dug up again, nor to sending your loved ones away, since their flight will expose them to even greater dangers. Rather, let each man trust when the time comes to his fellow man, and to the preparations we make together. Go to your homes, but meet us again at the village hall at eight hours this evening. Bring with you what weapons you can find, be they swords or clubs or sharpened axes, or even the poles from broom handles.”

He paused.

There was a moment’s silence, and then everyone began talking at once.

“But what about —” began one voice, above the din.

“Non!”, declaimed Sedan, drawing himself up to his full height, and unsheathing his sword. “Non! There is no time for questions. Go now, and do not fail in your return!”

The crowd remained for one moment, like the hanging of a pall of smoke, and then it dispersed, as into the wind.

“Jolly good, old chap,” said Geoffrey, patting Sedan on the back as he climbed down.

“Quickly now,” said Sedan. We four must return to the inn. We will draw also on the Alexis and the Gordon, and someone must fetch Doctor Maurice.”

“And Michael,” said Seline.

“Michael?”, said Sedan. “Who is that?”

“The man with the dagotyper — who went on the mountain with the others.”

“Ah, yes. He can also come. He can record this for posterity if he wishes.”

They met again in the inn a few minutes later. The tap-room was full of people. Some had no particular preparations they wished to make at home, others were too mazed by the whole affair to take in what they were supposed to be doing, and some had yet to grasp (largely those who had been at the inn for some time) the true import of the situation.

“There’s no point trying to talk here,” said Seline. “Here, you, Claudine, shut up the bar and make everyone coffee. They’ll need sobering up tonight. Come on all of you, you can come up to my room.”

Seline’s room was on the top floor, up a rickety staircase which did not connect to the guest rooms. It was a large, low chamber which went from the front of the inn almost to the back, and in it were many strange and remarkable things.

She turned up the gas-lights. Michael would have loved to have spent an hour just looking at the wooden elephants, the Tibetan bowls, the African masks, the Chinese silks, and the strange miniatures of people dancing, far away. But there was no time.

She sat them down at a long, low table. It was rustic made, but, by the colour of the wood and the polish, it was old and had been seldom used.

“We must make the village impregnable,” began Professor Fiedel excitedly. He had been considering the defence of the village ever since he saw the cannon through the heliographoscope. Like almost every other English village, it had no walls (else it would have been a town), but he felt that if the garden walls and the rears of barns and houses could be somehow linked, a reasonable defence might be made. “All we need to do is erect barriers — perhaps twelve feet — in the gaps between the houses. Then we man these barriers, and the village cannot be taken.”

“Alexis,” said Michael, “you have that thing — you know, the thing with the electricalish lever and the blue flash. You could surround the village with that.”

“Big poles,” said Geoffrey. “If we get people to stand around the walls with big poles, they can stave off the attackers, like when you push a boat off the river-bank.”

Sedan shook his head.

“No, no, no,” he said. “If the robbers mean to attack the village, they must come down and overrun it with men — that is true — but if they are repulsed, they will return to firing their cannon. The village cannot withstand that cannon fire. Many will die, houses will burn.”

“It didn’t seem all that bad to me,” said Geoffrey. “I mean, it made a pretty mess of some of those trees, and I’d agree it would do some damage to someone’s roof, or to the church tower, but you’d be pretty unlucky to be hit by a cannon ball, wouldn’t you?”

Sedan shook his head again.

“That is because for their ranging shot they fired an inert projectile. They will do the same thing for their second shot, and their third. But after that, they will fire explosives. You have not seen explosive shells, I feel?”

Geoffrey shook his head.

“I’ve seen them,” said Fiedel. “In the War Museum in Winchester.”

“You have not seen them explode,” said Sedan.

Fiedel shook his head.

“When a shell explodes, it blasts everything around it. Walls collapse, people are blown to pieces, roofs fall. The things it blasts themselves blast further outward. Every shard of glass becomes a flying dagger. Every stone becomes a hurled hammer. In — let me think — in twenty shells, this village will be rubble, and only a handful of people will be in it still able to stand and fight.”

“Then what are we to do?”, said Seline.

“Warfare is based on deception, and it is based on understanding your enemy,” said Sedan. “We do not fully understand our enemy, but I would gamble that there is something here that he wants. If that thing is in the village, he will not at first wish to risk destroying what he seeks. Rather, he will first use the cannon to threaten. If threats do not deliver what he desires, he will use it to open up a path of easy attack. Only if the village cannot be entered, or the battle is turning against him, will he use it for destruction. This understanding of our enemy is crucial to our plan. To fight successfully, we must not give the impression that we cannot be attacked, but rather make a way which is so inviting that he will wish to attack us there. In this way, we deceive him. If we can bring all his men into the village, and surround them, and so defeat them, he will not wish to fire at his own men. Not unless he believes that all is lost. That is also why, once we have won, if we have won, we must offer him terms that make his surrender worthwhile. Otherwise, if all his men are dead or captured, in his fury he will turn that cannon to our annihilation. ”

The others looked at him.

Then Seline went to a cabinet at the far end of the room, underneath a wall hanging from the Ottomans, and brought back a map of the village.

“There, what can you do with that?”

And so, they began to plan.

During the night, two things happened. The robbers, with Black Hand Nigel at their head, made their way down the mountain road until they were in sight of the village. Just ten men were left behind with the cannon on the mountain — ten men and one telescope, to be precise, thought it was only a small, hand-held telescope, not a great instrument like the heliographoscope. The other ninety, carrying an enormous red canvas sheet and a huge pole which took two men to lift, settled in a hollow of the land just beyond the village. And two of their number went to spy out the territory.

Their report surprised Black Hand Nigel. The villagers were busy. Working through the night, they had blocked off all the decent entrances to the village. There were carts chained together in front of the main entrance, which was the road to the mountain, and a great haywain overturned and wedged between two houses at the Stratford road, to the east. To the west they had roped together two smaller carts. The road over the bridge had been blocked with old furniture. The villagers had also taken thought to their own defence. They were armed with scythes, mattocks, bill-hooks, axes, hatchets, long, make-shift spears, and some of them who looked like they might know how to use them with swords. The front way was the most heavily defended. There were twenty men on that barricade. The Stratford road had fifteen. The bridge had just five, but five could easily hold that bridge against a hundred. Only the Worcester road, to the west, was guarded sparsely. Just three men seemed to be on duty there, and two of them were youths who looked like they might cut and run at any moment.

Black Hand Nigel smiled at the news. There would be a deal more fun extorting what he wanted from villagers who thought they could defend themselves.

Sedan leaned quietly over the barricade at the front at the sun rose. It was a bright, clear morning. He remembered the morning before many other battles. He, too, smiled.

Brian, who stood beside him, did not smile. His fingers clenched and unclenched nervously on this hilt of his sword.
“What if I’m not brave?”, he said out loud.

“Pphht. You are brave,” said Sedan. “You stand here, ready to fight, even though you have never fought in your life before. That is bravery.”

“But I’m scared,” said Brian.

“Of course. You would be a fool not to be. But, when the time comes, think only of your enemy. Think only of the critical blow. You must kill him, or else he kills you. At that time, fear vanishes. You will see.”

Brian swallowed. Sedan’s advice made him only more nervous.

As day dawned, Nigel’s men raised up their great red canvas sheet on the pole, and they waved it to the west three times.

In answer, the cannoneers on the mountain repeated their shot of the night before, this time marking clearly where it landed. The villagers cowered as the shell whistled over their heads, splintering trees on the other side of the river.

“That is once,” said Sedan.

They waited. After what seemed an age, the cannon fired again. This time the whistling shell embedded itself in the ground a hundred yards in front of the last farm building to the north.

“That is twice,” he said.

They waited again. Sedan had told them all to cover themselves for the third shell. He did well to do so. It came whistling through the air as before, striking the old mill. But this time there was an enormous flash of light, a deafening roar, and huge sections of the mill flew in every direction. The whole of the west wall came crashing down, tipping the Heliographoscope onto the cold earth below. It burst into a hundred pieces, which went flying through the air.

“That is the third time,” muttered Sedan.

Then Nigel’s men charged. A group of them charged straight at the front gate. They were met by a hail of bricks, stones, roof-tiles, old pots and pans, and by one bottle with a flaming rag wrapped round it which burst into a pool of fire as it hit the ground. Two of the robbers were caught in it, and they rolled over and over trying to put out the flames. One of them crawled away. The other lay still.

A far larger group — fifty or more — ran swiftly and silently for the Worcester Road barricade. Nigel had guessed that they were keeping that one light so that they could send out a horseman galloping for the garrison at Worcester. It would be five hours before anyone got back from there, and he did not need to worry: they would be done long before that, one way or the other.

That group found that the walls of the houses at the west side had already been damaged by the explosion. The small carts had been overturned by the flying debris, and the guards were nowhere to be seen. So much the better. Pushing the carts to one side, they ran into the village, ready to cut down anyone who challenged them, and then take on the men manning the front barricade. There would be a brief fight, then they would bring down the barricade and Nigel’s men at the front would join them.

Every ground floor window was shuttered and barred against them, and every door was closed. No matter — no door would stand up to them for long once the village was in their hands. But the emptiness of the street and the lack of resistance was eerie. On the upper floors, they noticed as they went, hurrying but not quite running, that all the windows were open.

Suddenly, ahead of them, they ran into a hail of missiles. At first them put their hands over their heads to push through, but two pools of fire which erupted in front of them from well-thrown bottles of paraffin put a stop to that. They halted for a moment. Then, behind them, another hail of missiles. There was a space — a very narrow space — where they stood for a moment where the missiles did not seem to reach them. Their they pressed against each other. The missiles fell silent.

For no particular reason that they could make out, they seemed to be standing on a carpet of old tins, chains and pieces of metal, held together by copper wire. But there was no time to think about that:

Ahead of them, while they had been busy cowering from the aerial attack, a line of men appeared. Twenty, maybe twenty five, holding sharpened stakes. Then, behind them, cutting off escape, twenty men appeared also in a long line. For a moment they quailed, but only a moment. They could overrun either line without difficulty. Their captain, Black Hand Duke, jumped onto the stone block where Sedan had stood the night before.

“Ready, men!”, he bellowed.

At that moment a voice from behind shouted “NOW!”

Suddenly, the air around him was electric. Men screamed and fell. There was a flash of blue light. Stumbling, someone fell onto Black Hand Duke, and, grabbing hold of him, pulled him down as well.

The electricalish shock which they received was far greater than the one which had been given up at the castle. Alexis had been all night building an enormous condenser. It had taken twenty minutes to fully charge, with the Mechcart’s little stove running at full tilt and all of the electricalish cells pouring their energy into it. He had had to keep the stove going ever since then, because the makeshift condenser leaked constantly. But the effect, once he pressed down the contacts, was magnificent.

Villagers pressed in and secured the robbers with chains, ropes, the old village stocks which had not been used for sixty years, and sacks tightly bound over their heads and shoulders.

They cheered: it was an astonishing victory, taking out more than half of the Black Hand Gang’s force at a stroke.

But their cheer was short-lived. There was a whistling overhead, and they saw a shell explode straight into the beloved church tower. Ancient stones — stones which might have stayed there until the end of time — came flying through the air. One man was knocked to the ground, and felt a sharp pain and looked to find his right arm hanging at a horrible angle, the bone snapped in two.

“Arretez!”, bellowed Sedan from the front barricade. “You, robber, we wish to parley.”

He was a man of extraordinary courage. Without waiting to see if Black Hand Nigel would accept his terms, he leaped down from the barricade. Brian — not sure why he did it — leaped after him.

“Ah, très bien,” said Sedan. “Very great courage. But, now, we walk slowly with our arms wide out, palms front. This is a dangerous moment.”

“You, what do you want?”, said Nigel. “Can’t you see I’m busy conquering your village?”

“Conquering? I have fifty of your men prisoners inside, taken in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye. Inside my barricade I have ten horsemen. They are ready to ride and cut down your miserable men, hunting them until they fall down and beg for mercy. I have one hundred angry villagers who will see you torn in two before giving you an inch. You will never conquer this village.”

“Conquer, pulverise, it’s all the same to me. You see that gun, up there on that long hill that leads out from the mountain? I give it one more signal, and it will start to fire. Again, and again, and again. I’ve only told it to fire one shot at a time for now. That’s been enough, just to give you a taste of what’s coming. But as soon as I send the big signal, it starts, and it doesn’t stop until everything is rubble and ashes. What do you think about that?”

“I think you are very foolish,” said Sedan. Nigel made as to draw his sword, but he slowed when Brian stepped up, hand on his own hilt.

“Call me that again—” said Nigel.

“You clearly want something, otherwise you would not be here. Otherwise you would not have sent your men into danger in the village, you would already have smashed it to smithereens. So you are not going to pulverise it. Tell me what it is that you want, perhaps I can help you.”

A man behind Nigel, whose face was swathed in a scarf, stepped up. Slowly he unwound the scarf. It was Lomax.

“We want all the plans that Alexis Brand and Gordon Munroe made from the top of the mountain. Give us those, and we will leave you in peace.”

“Very well, I will ask,” said Sedan. “Brian, go back to the barrier, and ask Mr Munroe and Mr Brand if they are willing to trade their plans for the safety of the village.”

Brian went back at a run — he was glad to be away from the robbers, with their matted black hair, grizzled faces and strange markings on the sides of their faces and on their arms.

He came back a minute later.

“They say they can’t give you the plans, because they were stolen last night.”

“Pah,” said Lomax, spitting. “Do not try to deceive me. The plans that were stolen last night were only those that were made before the expedition. Tell them to bring me the real plans, the plans from the mountain summit. For those, the village is safe. If they refuse, we destroy, and then extract them from their dead fingers among the rubble. Do not imagine that we jest.”

Brian went back at a run.

A minute later he came back a second time.

“They say they cannot give you the plans.”

“Then all of you die!”, said Lomax. “I have spent a hundred thousand of the Emperor of Spain’s doubloons. I will not be thwarted now.”

Brian went off at a run to the barricade again. There was some gesturing this time, and some shouting, and eventually Gordon and Alexis came back with him. Both of them wore swords openly — borrowed from Sedan’s collection — and they wore stiff leather jerkins.

Alexis looked long and hard into Lomax’s eyes before he spoke.

“You — I know you now. You were that man who claimed to be a journalist who took such an interest in all our doings last year. You interviewed us several times for your paper, but no story appeared. So, you were a spy after all.”

“I am a servant of my king,” said Lomax, bowing. “I am honoured to do him honour.”

“A likely story,” said Alexis, sneering, “most likely you do it only for the money.”

Lomax bridled, but Nigel stepped between them.

“Be that all as it may, there’s just one question which we have to settle now. Are you giving us the plans, or are we destroying the village.”

“We cannot give you the plans”, said Gordon.

“Cannot?”, said Lomax. “Will not!”

“We cannot give you the plans,” said Gordon, “and I want you to listen to me very carefully while I say this, because we never climbed the summit of the mountain.”

“Such a stupid lie,” said Lomax. “If you will lie, at least lie properly. You insult my intelligence. I watched your fireworks on the mountain top. You were there, and if you were there, then you made your plans and charts and measurements and markings. There is no doubt about it.”

“We were not there,” said Gordon. “I cannot entirely satisfactorily explain to you what did happen, but the fireworks were let off by the man Huw, who I believe you have met.”

“Huw? Huw?”, said Lomax. “That old fool, the mad man from the mountain, with his prattle about his sacred purpose. Do not make me furious. Give me those plans right away, or we pound the village until you come to your sense!”

“We cannot give you the plans, because we have no plans to give.”

“ENOUGH!”, shouted Lomax.

Black Hand Nigel snarled, and he signalled in the air.

With a huge sweeping movement behind him, the flag-men began to wave their flags.

In an instant Gordon and Alexis drew their swords, as did Sedan and Brian. Nigel and Lomax drew theirs, and robbers rushed up to support them.

High and far away, they saw the flash of the gun.

The people in the village saw it too. It meant that the parley had failed. They were going to be broken and smashed and exploded and pulverised. It was the end of their village, the end of their lives. Some broke down openly and wept. Others leaped down from the barricade to join the fight. Michael was at the front of them, with Geoffrey a little way behind. Horace and Edward were there with bill hooks, and the constable came up with his police truncheon in one hand, and a nasty looking knife which he had once confiscated from a burglar.

Seline did none of these things. She hid for a moment under an archway while the shell landed. It hit the bridge — the ancient Roman bridge, which had withstood so much time — breaking the centre of its span and hurling those who had been guarding it into the Avon.
Then she ran to the dovecot, and, taking the last pigeon which had been born on the mountain, she wrote a note for Huw: “All now lost. Save us.” She let the bird go fluttering into the air. It flew confused for a few seconds, disoriented by the explosions that had been around it. Then, on giddy wings, it picked up its direction, flying straight out along the mountain road, over the heads of the fighting robbers and villagers, over the red flag, straight towards the mountain.

Huw had watched the flashes and heard the bangs with growing concern. He had not understood the previous day what the gun was doing — he had never seen such a gun firing in anger, and he did not mark the way the dead shell had fallen on the trees over the river. But the explosion at the mill had made everything clear to him. He hoped — believed — that the villagers would be able to defeat the robbers. He trusted Seline a great deal, and believed that she would find a way. But when the cannon began to fire again, he was filled with doubt.

In the mean time, full battle was joined.

“We must get the flag,” bawled Sedan. “Nothing else matters. Only the flag can end the firing.” But his words were largely lost as a wave of shouting villagers reached him.

Brian found himself face to face with Lomax. He had never fought with a sword before, only a stick in pretend fights. He waved the weapon in front of him. Lomax laughed, long and loud, before stepping in to finish him off, which would be the work of a moment. But that laughter was too long: Horace head-butted him from the side, sending him rolling over and over.

Sedan faced Black Hand Nigel. Nigel had a huge cutlass in his hand, and, as he squared up to Sedan, he pulled something else from inside his jerkin: it was a pistol. Instantly Sedan was on the attack. Nigel had no time to point the pistol. He was parrying for his life under a whirlwind of blows, the like of which he had never before conceived or heard. Sedan’s blade was everywhere, cutting from above, thrusting from below, sending his own blade spinning this way and that. He dropped the pistol and tried to wield his cutlass with both hands, the back of his neck dripping with fear as Sedan’s blade, one handed, seemed to press him right back whenever Sedan desired, at other times seeming to melt away. Nigel was not just on the back foot now — he was running — he was running away as fast as his legs would carry him. Sedan was after him, and he would have caught him and killed him, except that he turned to take the flag.

Then his face filled with horror, and he let out a long, low wail.

In the attack, one of the villagers had come out with one of the bottles filled with paraffin with a lighted rag wrapped around them. Not wanting to injure any of his own side, he had hurled it long and high, at the two men who were right at the back — the two men who were guarding the flag. They split when they saw it coming, and the bottle exploded in a pool of flame right on top of the canvas.

By the time Sedan reached it, it was burning so hot that there was no way he could get near it. He cast around in desperation for any sign of water with which to extinguish it. But there was nothing. He screamed again.

The robbers were now in complete disarray — they were fleeing this way and that. The battle was won — the battle was won, but the village was doomed.

“Back to the village everyone,” he yelled. Get buckets, water, do everything you can to put out the flames as the shells land. Maybe we still save something.”

And so it was that Black Hand Nigel, Lomax, and a handful of others  were able to go running back along the mountain path. Nigel laughed as he went. He had got nothing for all his pains, and, likely as not, the militia would be out the next day combing the mountain for the Black Hand Gang. That would be the end of them, no doubt, though he would escape easily himself. But the village was doomed. Done for. Nothing could stop that cannon now. Even if they could fly, they could do nothing against it.

Shells rained on the village, smashing beautiful houses, hurling flame from roof to roof, turning what was one of the most picturesque places in England into the site of a disaster. The cannoneers were not quick about reloading: they had had little practice, but the steady shell after shell, every three or four minutes, was undoing in a morning what forty generations had built up with so much love, and with so much pain.

Many shells had fallen by the time the pigeon reached Huw. He almost did not need to read the note: he knew what Seline would be saying. It was now up to him, only up to him.

He stood looking down. The promontory was very much in the path of the avalanche, if the avalanche were called. With all the extra snow they had had in the coldest winter for many, many years, the avalanche would sweep away the cannon, and go miles across the plain. They would see the last clouds of snow drifting towards the village. But there was no time to call the avalanche. He could be at the Drum in twenty minutes — that was another five or six of those shells. To call the avalanche might take two hours — an hour, maybe, because Angharad had already loosened much of the rocks and snow, and it was teetering already. By that time there wouldn’t really be anything left of Bidforst. Poor Seline was down there, and she was depending on him.

It really was for him now to do what he had always known that he one day would do.

Very gently, he woke Angharad. She had been sleeping beside him, right there on the top of the mountain. Neither of them was bothered by the cold, or by time, or by any of those things that mortals fear or long for.

He kissed her gently on the forehead.

“‘Bye Bye, Angharad, my love. When this is over, go and find Seline. You stay with her, now. Stay with her. I love you always.”

And then, taking a gigantic leap, he jumped off the summit, rolling  down the steep slope below. As he went, he pulled rocks from the slopes and cliffs beside him, and set them rolling too. He was coming up fast now on the place where Angharad’s avalanche had failed. He set his legs going faster, now partly rolling, partly running, partly tumbling along as he went.

The snow was all around him: if he had to go, this was the way he wanted to go. He was moving now faster than he had ever moved, deeper in the mountain’s secret life than he had ever been. He was one with the mountain as never before — then he reached the dip and rise which had foiled the first avalanche. He felt himself slowing — he redoubled his efforts.

And then:

Suddenly he was flying off the edge into clear blue sky. Rock, snow, ice, boulders, and great clouds and balls which mixed them all together flew after him. There was a great crashing roar. The sides of the mountain were moving with him.

From the village Seline watched through tears as she saw the cloud of snow begin. The tears were in part for the village, which already lay ruined around her. But much more they were for Huw. He had long ago told her about the Drum, and about calling the avalanche, and how long that would take, and he had told her about the other way, the way of last result, where he must become the avalanche. But even he, he thought, would not survive that. He would be buried beneath a tonne of snow, without air — he needed air to breathe — without any hope of rescue. He had told her that, if he ever had in the darkest desperation to do it, that he hoped he went quickly.

She watched, and the tears came streaming down her face.

The cannoneers heard the rumble and roar from the behind them, but they paid no attention. They were much too far and much too low to be worried about the mountain. They had had a bit of a bet on about whether or not the firing of the cannon might trigger a snow fall, but, even if it did, it would be miles away behind them.

They were wrong.

The enormous tide of snow behind them crashed down the mountain as if it were on wings. The pent up energy gathered force after force after force, picking up speed as its weight increased.

“Watch out—” began one as the tide came over the last crest. But that was all he, or any of them, ever said. The snow swept them off the cliff, crushing them beneath and burying them in thirty feet of white and grey and black.

And that was the end of them.

The snow did not reach to the village, or anywhere near it, which had always been Huw’s great fear. But it blocked the pass completely, and it stayed blocked until the late spring. Lomax, Nigel and the others found themselves caught between the village and the mountain with nowhere to go. Some said they were seen, with a small man who carried a white stick, making their way along the Stratford Road, but that is all hearsay.

It was almost dark by the time they made the village safe. Fires were put out, falling rubble was carefully removed. Three men, a woman and a child had been killed in the terrible explosions. Not many, you may think, but a disaster of unheralded proportions in a community of just four hundred souls. Many more were injured. The Mechcart was completely destroyed. Alexis looked at it ruefully in the fading light, before snorting, and turning on his heel:
“A cart running on electricality. It was a stupid idea anyway. Who would countenance such a thing?”

Alexis took the events very hard. He knew full well that none of it would have happened if it were not for him. Sedan and Fiedel explained to him many times that it was Lomax and the robbers who were guilty, but he did not regain his old confidence for many months, and perhaps he never regained his old swagger.

Angharad appeared the next morning in Seline’s room, and she stayed there for many weeks. What they said to each other, no-one ever knew.

Neither Gordon nor Alexis nor Michael felt it was appropriate to leave the village in its time of need. Michael’s pictures did appear in the Winchester Gazette, though Mr Zeiss did not consider there was sufficient proof that he had shot the pictures on a mountain to award him the prize.

It was February by the time they felt ready to move on. A vast army of builders had arrived with consignments of stone from Winchester, and Chester, and Manchester, and every other place where Alexis’s money could find them. They rebuilt the bridge, and they rebuilt many of the buildings, and, for no reason that anyone could understand, they rebuilt the old mill. Alexis was very secretive about the mill, until, one day, he invited almost all of the village to a marquee he had had erected there.

The marquee surrounded the mill, so that it stuck out of the top of it. But there was something funny about the roof. It was a sort of dome, with a strange slit in it.

“Friends”, he began, when everyone had had their fill of food and drink. They really were friends now. “Friends, in many ways we owe our lives to so many people, but, in honour of you all, I wish to present to the whole village, but especially to Professor Fiedel, who did so much to save the day, a very special gift.”

Then he pulled a string, and the whole side of the mill came away on a great hinge, as if it were a door. Inside, in shining brass and bronze, was the most magnificent astronomical telescope, built into an observatory the like of which has not been seen outside of the royal observatory at Eastleigh. Fiedel felt all of this strength leaving him, as it had done so many weeks before, but this time he was able to stand and make a speech.

Alexis presented Sedan with an entire case of swords, from Japan, and China, and Toledo, and Paris, and Leeuwaarden, and Vienna, and from all the finest sword makers in the rest of the world.

“And now, I believe that someone else has an announcement to make,” he said.

“Indeed,” said Michael, standing up and taking Seline by the hand. He led her up to the platform. She smiled, but nervously. They had grown to be close friends, but she had no inkling of what was to come.

“Seline,” said Michael, “I want to ask you to marry me.”

There was widespread applause.

“Well,” she said, “don’t you think I’m a little old for you?”

He looked at her in wonderment.

“What’s a couple of years?”, he said.

“More than a couple of years,” she replied. “But if you’re set on it, I think you should ask my father.”

“Who’s your father?”, said Michael, looking around to see if there was someone he had not met.

There was someone standing in the entrance to the marquee. An enormous bulk. Someone they had not seen for a long time.

“That’s right.” Said Seline. “Who’s my father,” and she gestured to the entrance.

Ever head turned, every eye focused.

“DA!”, yelled Angharad in ecstatic joy, and she ran over to where Huw stood, smiling as never before.

“That’s right,” said Seline. “Who’s my father.” But she wasn’t saying ‘Who’, but ‘Huw’, which, as you recall from the beginning of this tale, she pronounced in exactly the same way.

There was more applause, and much astonishment. Nobody in the village had ever guessed.

“Oh, you can have her,” said Huw from the entrance. He spoke softly, but his voice filled the place. “She’s nothing but trouble, mind you. Not like my little Angharad.”

“So, how old actually are you?”, said Michael, a few minutes later, when they were on their own.

“A bit more than six hundred years, if you must know. Though didn’t you know it’s rude to ask a lady her age? After Angharad’s Ma died, Huw went into a sort of a decline. Then he met my mother, who was a mortal woman. He was ever so sad when she passed on, though they’d had a good run together. I’m part mortal myself, which is why I’ve grown up more quickly than Angharad. But, let me say, you’re not thinking of taking me away from the village, are you? Because I won’t be having that.”

There are only two further things to tell. It was on the day of the party that Brian finally gave Claudine Sedan’s gifts. She was very red faced when he gave them to her, and threw her arms round him. Then she steadied herself, and said:

“What’s that for then, Brian? Does it mean what I think it means?”
Brian smiled.

“It’s a going away present, really. A goodbye gift. I’ve got a job working with Alexis, as his personal dagotyper. Michael’s shown me all the things, and Alexis has given me my own Zeiss.”

“And are you going to take me with you?”

“No, Claudine. This is goodbye.”

Claudine was very quiet for the rest of that day.

As for Derek — is it not true that some, as they say, have all the luck? His part in the plot was never discovered. Alexis and Gordon gave him many handsome gifts, and the most splendid references possible. He is even now plying his trade in Winchester, where all dark deeds begin.

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