Free Fiction: Who Pays The Piper

To celebrate this Friday’s crease in the year (Hallowe’en, for those using the Gregorian calendar), here’s a slightly creepy short story I wrote over ten years ago. This blog post will be archived after a week.


I am the travelling minstrel. No-one knows where I came from; no-one knows who I am. My accent is untraceable in each of the six languages I speak fluently, and when I sing a rhyme for my audience my voice is as sweet as my smile.

I have crossed and re-crossed many borders, under many guises, but I have no passport other than my craft. Minstrelsy earns my bread, provides my lodgings, feeds my ever-thirsty throat with wine.

I play for king and serf alike – no man do I judge simply by his station. Often those who have nothing to spare will offer me what little they can, where a lord or an earl would expect at least a little in return; and to each of these people I sing a different song. It is true, they say that whoever pays the piper may call the tune, and sometimes cash can be outbid.

But I am very vain; I crave appreciation, even if it is only from the scullery-boy who turns the spit.

Although my knapsack is small and tattered – for I have owned it for many years, and its age is starting to show – I have never lost a thing from it, neither by theft nor accident. It holds my mandolin, my three pipes, a couple of small medicine bottles.

And much, much more.

I arrived outside the town during the first days of spring, down from the high mountain pass and across the wide patchwork fields, a ragged, unwashed stranger with, I suppose, a lean look on my face.

South of the mountains I’d heard of this place as I played for some drunks in a tavern, bawdy songs to revel in – and I went from the warmth of the miller’s wife’s bed in the early morning, three days walk in the sleet of a German winter, to arrive on market day with the town walls grey in the early light and the huge wooden gates wide open.

With the traders and huxters I slipped inside and made my way along the back streets where the rats watched me pass, bold whiskers twitching, sleek and plump with strong teeth. The town was like every other I knew at that time, bad sanitation in all but the smartest quarter, heaps of refuse decomposing in the gutters and snot-nosed brats staring as I passed.

Who is this bright stranger, filthy as a tinker, who walks our streets unashamed?

I played for those children in the back streets and handed them nuts to chew instead of their fingernails, played my pipes and joined their games of tag, and they loved me.

In the market square I gathered a small audience before me and performed my most ingenious and amusing odes, pausing now and again for a quick tumble or acrobatic feat then bursting into song once more.

Applause was mine, and coins, and I saw in their eyes the admiration of my skill which pleases me more than anything else. I bowed low, and thanked them with the promise of a repeat performance, and began to explore the market with a couple of barefoot children in tow. I bought some food and shared it with the children as I walked through town with them, chatting and singing simple songs.

At our backs I could hear rustlings in the rubbish heaps as the vermin peeped out to listen too. By Jove, that place was plagued! I saw the rats scuttle from stall to stall, more than a score of them, and the bells around my ankles jangled as I walked and scared them ahead of me.

I served my apprenticeship charming the trees and rocks of the forest, the ever-changing waters of mountain streams, wild beasts more wild at heart than I.The Sorceror of Trois-Frères, Ariège, France, by Henri Breuil. Image at

In return I learned the songs they sing, unknowable and fey, and adapted them to my limits.

Children know what they mean.

At the end of market day I found the liveliest tavern and sat in the corner, watching everyone around me. A plump barmaid with long Saxon braids brought my beer and sausage with a smile and a cheeky wink. Soon I was chatting with the locals like I lived amongst them already, and when night came I turned in with those broad arms around me and her soft rump to keep me warm.

I found myself in front of the Burgesses’ Council performing songs both ribald and romantic, plucking the strings of my mandolin, huffing merrily on my wooden pipes – they produce the most mellow notes of my three pipes, although not the most delicious.

The Burgesses were pleased. One sat tapping his foot, keeping time with a long pointed shoe, and a few of them laughed at my buffoonery, so that when I pronounced my plan they were willing to grant me anything, they thought it was another jest.

They nodded and laughed and sent me on my way.

At noon the next day I stood in the square and took out my small metal pipes. The music they make has a sharp fluted edge and it cuts through the ears of those listening, cuts through the bricks in the walls and up to the high buzzing heaven of insects.

I played through the back streets alone, empty of people, and a heaving, struggling flow of small bodies followed me eagerly down to the river. I touched their tiny rodent hearts with my song and the waters curled up in their lungs.

And the townsfolk clapped and cheered, they laughed and brought me drinks in the tavern that night, they slapped me on the back and the barmaids kissed my face.

But not a penny did they pay me.

Oh, they were clever, those folk, but not as clever as I. Awaking an hour before cock crow, I craned my head out of the tavern window to watch the town sleeping under a cloudless sky, then made my way down to the street.

The cobbles were damp with morning dew and my breath misted in the air as I sat on the step and opened my bag to take out my third set of pipes. They are white, very nearly, with dirt-engrained rings around the fingerholes and a mouthpiece polished with wear. Old, these pipes, but beautiful, their contours naturally moulded to come easy to the hands.

And such sweet music! The angels themselves never heard such delights!

Notes low and pure came forth from my playing as I wended my way through the alleys, charming the hearts of those who could hear it, drawing them out of their houses in their nightshirts to skip down the streets behind me while everyone slept. Not a sound did we make save the music and the slap of little bare feet on the cobbles, a hushed rustling of excited breath as the sun broke free of the horizon and we crossed the bridge over the river.

The fields around us lay wrapped in thin mists as I coaxed my small friends with my music, the ancient bone pipes fulfilling their magical purpose. The children, they say, disappeared without a trace.

And so did I.

Times have changed since then, and my skills have adapted to cope.

It seems odd that people still talk of my exploits; sometimes I allow myself a smug little smile when playing my songs outside glass-fronted buildings as hundreds of people rush by. The chink of coins in my cap is as slow as time’s heartbeat and few people stop for this poor ragged stranger who busks in the echoing malls, the tunes from his panpipes a little off-key and more than a little unknown.

But sitting cross-legged, I catch a child’s glance, and I know the magic’s still there. My third set of pipes has yellowed with age but the notes are still hauntingly clear, and joyful laughter tumbles from my knapsack each time I reach from them.

(c) Lee McAulay 1997-2014

(The illustration is of The Sorceror of Trois-Frères, Ariège, France, by Henri Breuil. Image at, an online resource for the study of Palaeolithic European, Russian and Australian Archaeology)

The Woman, Unfolding

Whenever I read a discussion of the need for ambience in writing, in my head I have a picture of a woman undressing – only she isn’t removing corsets and clothing. Wooden slats and packing-crates, hinged and nimble, unfold until she’s there in her shift, in a home of her own surroundings.

The woman’s unfolding.

I have the feeling I’ve seen this in a film or an animation. It isn’t Seraphine or MicMacs. But it’s close. (If you know what I mean, let me know in the comments, please).

This image of the wooden woman unfolding, almost like a beachcomber’s hut, the house by the sea in David Copperfield, the shack with a boaten roof – I can’t place it, and likewise I can’t shift it.

Peggoty's Cottage, Holme-next-the-sea, Norfolk. Photo (c) Wendy Long

Peggoty’s Cottage, Holme-next-the-sea, Norfolk. Photo (c) Wendy Long

A homeless (?) bag lady who carries her armour on her back, it’s no less effective when turned into a fort.

She unfolds her armour to mend it.

She unfolds her armour to permit us entry.

She unfolds her armour to let herself breathe, and expand, and remember what freedom is like.

Some have compared the need for ambience for writing to a space in the woods, or Rheims cathedral.

It’s finding a place we know we won’t be disturbed, that enables us to enter the liminal state of creation, fast or slow, deep or shallow.

My earliest space of my own was an oak so broad it hid me from the house – and thus from chores and homework.

When I was older, I made a den out of old doors and scrap wood. Under trees, in the lee of an old stone wall, lit by candlelight, with incense burning and food I’d bought with my own money, there I made fantastic adornments from shells and sea-torn rope and coins crushed by trains; there I kept my railway lamps and interesting bits of wood.

But the places I write now – the places other people identify as where they write, whether that be in the home, in the studio, or like me, anywhere you can – those places all have the same underlying quality – sanctuary.

It isn’t the sanctuary of cloisters, nor of other cells. It’s a quality we bring to the place – or rather, bring out in the place.

The woman unfolding.

Watch an embroiderer at work, or a quilter, and you’ll see the woman unfolding. She settles into the space and unpacks her tools and materials, the silks and cottons and needles and fabric, the pattern held in her head or on paper, the stretcher frame made to be handheld and portable. By the time she’s placed all her accoutrements around her the statement is clear: look, I’m busy, don’t interrupt, this is important.

Writing is unusual in that it doesn’t actually take much space.

Writing takes only a pencil, and paper. Chalkmarks on slate. Toes in wet sand on that beach where the boat-roofed house sits.

The only thing I can think of that takes less space is song – all song needs is air, and a voice.

But what we do when we set up a workspace, or create a ritual, is make for ourselves that sanctuary.

The preparation is all we need, and then:

“I am in my writing-chair, and therefore I am writing”.

The space needs to be somewhere we won’t be disturbed, that’s all. Whether that’s in a café, or on a boat, or a studio or a house or while travelling, the sense of controlling access to your space is what’s needed. It doesn’t need to be a physical space – it can be a mental space, a sanctuary of the mind, created with ritual and awaiting the arrival of magic.

Music on – headphones attached, earbuds inserted – and coffee placed in front of me like a shield against the other people in my local coffee-house – I’ve paid to be here, in this space – my work in front of me like a reason – look, I’m busy, don’t interrupt, this is important.

And as I write I become the woman, unfolding.

Last Sunrise Before Winter

Sunrise 101

Since the weather turned towards autumn and the nights creep over the land of daylight, I have more energy for writing.

In summer the garden’s siren call of silence lures me out, to sit with tea and watch the bees amongst the oregano flowers and purple chive blossoms, the sweetness of the sun’s warmth still captured in the stones beneath my feet.

But after the autumnal equinox the light fades early. The sun rises later than I do. My window looks out on glowing skies for a brief month until they, too, submit to darkness.

I’ve made good progress on this novel. Starting with a blank page again, I’m stitching together another tapestry of words, building another cathedral.

The work is stronger than when I originally drafted the story a year ago. Since then I’ve written and published SHADOWBOX, and the month-long series of posts on this blog to herald the novel’s arrival. I’ve learned about my own writing habits a little more – and learned not to ignore the patterns within those habits.

One of those patterns is the ebb and flow of energy I have for writing.

Another is the time I spend outdoors, another the demands of a Day Job, yet another the quality of sleep made simple by long hours of darkness*.

I’m learning to own my writing habits as much as my style and work with them, not fight ‘em.

Winter’s coming. And the nights are painted bright with story.

*Not as long, nor as dark, as further north. But in December we only have 7 hours of daylight.

Published in: on October 15, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Finally, progress

Finally, progress has been achieved on the current novel. It’s been tricky.

A lot of things weren’t working. Many of these have been ditched.

Some of them have been parked in Scrivener to be resurrected in one of the follow-up novels I plan to write next year, or the year after, and having those elements in the storyline of the current novel just made the whole thing hard to follow.

And if I found it hard to follow – when I know what’s meant to be going on – I’m sure any reader would find it damn near impossible.

Rule #1: Do not cheese off your reader(s).

More next week. TTFN.

Published in: on October 8, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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We have wordcount!

Just a brief post this week to say: we have wordcount!

The WIP is undergoing a complete overhaul and in the process has gathered another few thousand words. I’ve come to accept that these things don’t grow on trees, and only I can do this.

For inspiration, I was reminded of posterity – or at least a potential future Me looking back at all this kerfuffle.

What would Future Me say to Current Me?

“Get your finger out, lady, and make sure it brings the other nine with it onto the keyboard. You have work to do!”

On another note, how’s this for posterity?

past horizons - the wonderful rubbish of the gilf kebir desert provided inspiration for The English Patient

(The picture links to “The ‘wonderful rubbish’ of the Gilf Kebir desert”, an article on Past Horizons. More fascinating pictures can be found at the marvellous image database belonging to the Frobenius Institute, Germany, named after and founded by German ethnographer Leo Frobenius).



Published in: on October 1, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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My WIP has a blip

Those of you who follow this blog may have noticed: I have not been posting about my writing output lately.Why must edits be so easy to put off?

There is a reason for this.

My current work-in-progress is seriously dicky.

Not so ill-disposed that I’m plotting the death of a novel like the one I abandoned back in April. Just a little… awkward.

Needs a bit of work.

Actually, needs more work than Guedelon Castle.

First off, I realised I was telling the wrong story. The thrust of the novel follows one character through a series of trials and tribulations to a solution which directly leads to a couple of other novels I have planned for later in the series, and I need to make this novel work in her favour because it sets up the route to those two sequels.

However, right now the main focus seems to be on the other character, who just trundles along having her own catastrophes and disasters, none of which will lead to a follow-up novel* (or even two).

So while I have my requisite 70,000 words – that’s the point at which I usually consider my first draft complete – those 70K words are not all working in service to the story.

And they must.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve a wheen of work to do on this novel before it’s fit for publication. This will probably take me up to Yuletide, but if I’m lucky I might sort it by Hallowe’en.

And at that point it will be a true Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together from the ripest parts and hopefully able to stalk off into the world on its own…

* There is a parallel story behind this one, which I had planned to write in October-December this year. Ain’t happening. Yet. Egad, I so prefer writing to editing!


Published in: on September 24, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Fabulous Places: Salt, Castle and Lake

I’ve been wordy for a while. It’s time I took a back seat and shared with you some fabulous places.


“Mankind has inhabited the Arctic landscape for ten thousand years. Arctic nomads wandered with the ice, taking advantage of available resources from coastal areas and a mountainous countryside. Their concern for and close relationship to nature means that archaeologists are able to find few remnants of their culture.” – from the Salt website

Salt - an Arctic beach hut“For thousands of years people have followed the movement of animals and the seasonal rhythms in the Arctic landscape. Footprints are few. SALT is inspired by and moves in that same Arctic landscape with care and respect.”


“In the heart of Puisaye, in Yonne, Burgundy, a team of fifty people have taken on an extraordinary feat: to build a castle using the same techniques and materials used in the Middle Ages.

“Guédelon is a field of experimental archaeology – a kind of open-air laboratory.

“The aim is to recreate … the construction processes that might have existed on an early 13th century building site. Unlike traditional archaeology, which is concerned with cataloguing, excavating and analysing an existing structure, experimental archaeology puts this process into reverse. A structure is built from start to finish in order to obtain, following experiments and observations, a set of conclusive results.

“Guédelon is a back-to-front archaeological dig.”



“Dive into the mysterious world of farmers, fishermen, and brass founders of the Stone Age 6000 years ago, and be a witness to the lifestyle of the Bronze Age 3000 years ago.”

“Lake dwellings, known as pole or pile dwellings, have been in existence at the shores of all large lakes in the Prealps, Switzerland, Italy, France, and Germany. Lake dwellings have also been discovered at some lakes in Italy, Austria, Latvia, Lithuania, Spain, at the Laibacher Moor, and the Federsee Moor in Upper Swabia. According to the latest data, this era constitutes the life form of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age between approximately 4300 BC and 800 BCE.”

Many years ago a friend and I visited a temporary museum in Switzerland where the curators had built stilt-houses out over the lake.

A family of boar were penned up in one building, little stripy piglets (boarlets? boarings?) suckling their massive bristly mother. Strange sheep, surprisingly clear-eyed and mischievous, with wide curving horns and tight fleece, almost daring us to race up the nearest Alp.

Archery, metalsmithing, skinning and tanning, weaving, presented in separate huts with guides to help you try for yourself.

The trip was memorable for many reasons, not least the bottle of Bronze Age style beer we bought with our last few Swiss Francs and drank as we dipped our naked, travel-weary feet into the clear lake waters.

That night we slept in the railway station in Bern, awaiting our morning departure for Calais and the ferry home, the last of our funds depleted but a wealth of memories in their stead.


Every Witch Needs A Garden

Since I was a teenager, I’ve created food from the wild.The sage beneath the sage

When I settled down in my thirties, I took up allotment gardening with the fervour of a vegetarian who loves vegetables, as well as one who needed the exercise. Even a small allotment garden provides more food than one hungry veggie can cope with, so out came the jam jars again.

I’ve made jam since I was a child.

Memories abound of standing in a gentle Scots rain while midges irritated under my plastic mac, and the odour of wet blackcurrants. The delight does not end there, of course, because once you’ve picked enough you go indoors to dry off, have a cup of tea and then top-n-tail the little blighters.

I don’t even like blackcurrants.

Since I moved to my current home, I’ve had an allotment which I gave up for being way too large. Who needs to eat spuds every day? Especially when there’s beans to be had, and tomatoes and garlic and onions? And as anyone who’s ever had an allotment will tell you, runner beans and courgettes become a public menace.

Anyhow, circumstances conspired. I’ve turned the back garden into a food hole. And I add to that bounty with Nature’s resources, when appropriate.

My early gardening attempts are lost in the mists of time and that same Scots rain that brought out the midges amongst the blackcurrants.


Perhaps, like my early writings, I should view them as seedlings which failed to prosper, but taught me the value of perseverance, learning and persistence.

Published in: on September 10, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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I Can Haz Steamjunk!

Bargain of the 21st Century!

My local charity shop had this on sale for a tenner. Steampunk! Retro! Eee!

TypewriterI learned to type on a machine much, much older than this one. See there, the crest on the right-hand side?

Typewriter Crest

“By Appointment, Typewriter Manufacturers to the late King George.”

(That’s probably George VI of stammering fame, the father of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.)

My first typewriter, by contrast, was an ancient Underwood. More likely produced under Victoria than Elizabeth. One of those magnificent, gnarly machines that weighed a ton and bristled with polished chrome levers.

As a family we somehow managed to pick up a couple more at jumble sales, along with a fearsome Allen scythe I wouldn’t go near. I remember a powder-blue Olivetti compact, and a slim grey machine found in a skip.

Vintage Typewriter with caseRemarkable how the old skills came back, though. Feeding the ribbon correctly through the guides. Setting – and releasing – the tabs.

Only one problem with this little beauty, though.

No bell.

I think I’ll have to get the Imperial screwdriver set out and see if I can’t find the problem. If I don’t, I’ll have to keep typing until

my words

fall off

the end

of the paper…

Published in: on September 3, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Messages To The Future

Recently I had a look through my old posts on this blog and came across some surprises.

I’d forgotten about The Thrill of Being Published, and how I got caught up with Diversions.

And how many of the 7 places to find ebooks without selling your soul have endured these last three years?

Three years.

Seems a lot longer. I’m working on a ten-year plan, with a five year plan to add a bit of an impetus in the short term.

My aim, as I’ve said before, is a body of work. And with that in mind, I found some interesting echoes in books I’ve read recently.

After the push to get Shadowbox out, I wanted to kick back and relax. Refill the well. So I picked up a couple of favourite stories for re-reading, authors I admire, who have a body of work with which I’m very familiar.

The first of these was Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley.

He’s known more for Brave New World, but Crome Yellow was his first novel. I was surprised to find, buried in his story of a dinner party in 1921, the seed of his later fame and the major premise of Brave New World: the notion that in future societies, babies would be raised in glass jars. (I was also surprised to find Crome Yellow at Project Gutenberg, but hey, it’s 2014).

The other story was The Stress Of Her Regard by Tim Powers.

A complex novel, two inches thick in mass-market paperback, the book heaves with elements of his later works: the Romantic poets Byron and Shelley, supernatural beings of stone (most prominent in his much later novel Declare), vampires as in Bury Me Among The Graves.Helen Campbell, first wireless operator of National League for Women's Service, USA, May 1917

Finding elements of later stories within early ones is a good sign of a body of work. There’s an essential core of ideas which filter through each writer’s storytelling, as clear as a writer’s voice, as indicative as the “fist” of a telegraph operator tapping Morse code down a signal wire.

Messages to the future.

P.S. Here’s Margaret Atwood’s essay on Aldous Huxley, “Everybody is happy now“, on the Guardian from 2007.

Published in: on August 27, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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