Writers Workshop – Heather Blackley

Some people seem to have all the creative talents, being both literal and visual, and this to my mind, applies to Heather. 

Plus, Heather is also financially savvy, having opted ‘back in the day’ to study a degree in accountancy, as a way to employment, before honestly declaring that she was rubbish at maths.  But after years of learning about accountancy she realised that her soul wasn’t in it, and she wanted other outlets for the creative ideas she had always yearned to craft.

So, she enrolled on a visual arts degree, which she loved. By year three a course assignment to set up a business idea in the creative arts, saw Heather properly market her love of painting penguins into an internet business. 

The Speckled Penguin is a successful vehicle for selling Heather’s many illustrations of penguins – Emperor, King, Rockhopper, mother and chick groupings and the unusual penguins with genetic mishaps that turn them into albinos, or penguins with speckles, which is where Heather got the title for her business.

But Heather’s creative talents didn’t just feature the visual, she had a desire to write fantasy fiction.   (See what I mean literal and visual.)  And after an illness that prevented her from working, Heather decided that she didn’t just want to sit doing nothing, so she enrolled on the UHI Creative Writing course in Inverness, which she hoped would give structure to her aim of writing a novel one day.

Being a huge admirer of a variety of fantasy writers, from a young age, who each have created their own worlds, such as J RR Tolkien, Robert Jordan, Ann Rice and ‘I am Legend’ writer, Richard Matheson, Heather has created her own fantasy universe.  And she is loving the UHI course and particularly likes the freedom to be as creative as she wants to be. 

Heather also loves graphic novels and comics and is a big fan of The Umbrella Academy, the American superhero series by Gerard Way.  She is also a big fan of ‘Berserk’, the manga mayhem comic books.  This series of violent dark fantasy is widely acclaimed, particularly, for author Kentaro Miura’s detailed artwork, whose emotive drawings prove the adage that a picture speaks a thousand words.   The Japanese word ‘manga’ is a combination of the word ‘ga’ which means drawing and the word ‘man’ which means image for entertaining in broad strokes.

So just like Heather’s talents for combining the visual with the literal.  One of Heather’s short stories is featured on our website.

Hens

The hens let Petillia know that she had a guest, clucking loud enough to cloak the approaching footsteps. They gave her precious seconds to prepare for whomever had decided to disturb her peace and practice the welcoming smile that the local villagers had become accustomed to seeing. After the rap on the door came, she took a couple of seconds more and after letting go of a sigh, she called out, ‘coming pet!’ and made her way to the door. ‘Captain Geza, what a lovely surprise! Come in, my darling, come in.’

The captain nodded curtly to greet her and removed his helm as he entered. He had lost even more hair since she had seen him last, however, it appeared to have migrated south to his chin as accompanying the familiar bushy moustache was the makings of a fine beard. It suits him, she thought, it suits his eyes.

As she went to shut the door, she noticed three young soldiers, mere boys standing at the gate with horses. ‘Are your friends coming in?’

‘No, not today. Two of them are to be disciplined upon returning to the town. They were caught abandoning their posts and sneaking away to the city.’ He stood upright with his helm under one arm and the other folded behind his back. ‘I do not stand for flagrant insubordination.’

‘Of course not. I doubt you would have made captain if you did.’ She shut the door; the hens were still clucking incessantly.

‘As much as I wish to nurture the troubled young, I cannot show favouritism nor weakness. I’m training soldiers; defenders of the peace, not toddlers.’

She smiled and nodded in agreement. ‘Absolutely. Peace is paramount, and we need superior leadership to steer us through.’

Geza’s moustache bristled. ‘But, alas,’ he continued, ‘I appeared to have failed, which is why I’m here. Three of my youngest recruits have disappeared.’

‘Disappeared?’ The word left Petillia’s mouth quicker than she had intended but the concern that accompanied it seemed sincere enough. ‘Captain, please sit yourself down. A nice cup of tea will soothe you.’

He nodded again and sat at her table, placing his helm on the floor as he silently watched her busy herself with two cups at the counter and pouring from the kettle that had been swinging over shallow flames in her fireplace.

‘There you are, my dear,’ she handed a cup to him carefully as if fearing he would break it before sitting down opposite and taking a sip from her own cup, ‘freshly brewed; it hadn’t been on for long before you arrived. Now, Captain, please continue. Three recruits have disappeared?’

‘Unfortunately so. These boys have only been a part of the guard for a year. Each a teenager and each from a troubled home. Alcohol and maternal death destroy young lives before they even begin. They were born within a few weeks of each other and had been petty thieves since they were children; hell, I remember arresting Hipolit when he was seven. When they turned fifteen, it was jail or service.’

‘The poor souls; children like that should be given a chance to be better and functional members of society.’

‘Yes, that’s my thinking as well. But I don’t know where I went wrong with these ones. At least once a month, they sneak off to the city, shack up with harlots, and gamble their money away. I have my suspicions that that’s where they are now, but I have to investigate.’ He blew on the mug and finally took a sip.

‘I understand, sir. Other than Hipolit, who else is missing? Is it Józef and Przybysław, by any chance?’

‘How did you guess.’ Geza rolled his eyes, ‘The expression “thick as thieves” was invented for those three.’ He sighed and took another sip. ‘I must ask, have you seen them, Petillia?’

‘Hmm,’ Petillia took a few moments to feign concern for the three missing menaces. They both sipped at their tea whilst she was thinking and the fire crackling as it was teased by a draft coming from somewhere in the room. Probably from under the bed – it’s always from there. Oh yes, those boys…

‘I did at the beginning of last week,’ she answered eventually. ‘They stopped by as you soldiers sometimes do, just to make sure everything was alright and then went on their

way. They were in high spirits and headed off to the right into the forest. I assumed they were off on patrol.’

‘No, they’ve shirked off to the city. By the Gods, I’ll have their hides when they return.’ She did like it when Geza got cross; his lovely eyes became fierce stern eyes and burned as if flames were behind them.

He took another sip to compose himself. ‘I apologise for that outburst; I try and try with some of these young ones, and it sometimes falls on deaf ears.’

‘It’s the youth of today, my dear. They’re so preoccupied by everything around them that they forget about those in front of them, wanting the best for them. My children were the same.’

‘”Were”, Petillia?’

‘Sadly so.’

‘You’ve never mentioned them before. You’ve been here for two years, and you’ve never said that you had a family. Gods, what happened?’

Her lips tightened. ‘My children and husband were taken by the plague.’

He almost dropped the cup on the table. ‘Not the Eliptid plague?’

‘The very one.’

‘Gods above. You said when you first arrived that you were from Gemielli, but’s only just dawned on me you didn’t say where specifically. You lived through that travesty? How?’

‘Only the Gods know. I’ve never known anything like it. I’ve lived through sickness and outbreaks of horrible flus, but the Eliptid plague was extraordinary. It started with a typical cough and stomach sickness like most illnesses, but it grew into something I’d never seen before. It caused people to the sweat blood and their skin to peel off near the end. Or that could have been what caused the end, I don’t know. Some people survived unblemished, some survived with sores or coughs, some held on a little longer than expected but died after recovering from the initial illness, and the rest didn’t stand a chance.

‘I will never know how I survived; I cared for my husband and children as they wasted away. I even had to push their bodies out of the window onto the street for the body collectors to take away. You see, we lived above our shop, and the officials locked down homes with the plague, so, even though I was well, I couldn’t take them out onto the street to give them a little more dignity.’

Geza dropped his stern façade and reached out to hold her hand, which she squeezed in silent appreciation. ‘I am so sorry, Petillia. Did you get the chance to bury them?’

‘No. There are mass graves just outside the city walls; they would’ve been buried there all apart from each other.’

‘At least they’ll be together in Paradise.’

‘Naryja willing, they will be at peace. There was a service after the plague ended, dedicating the dead to Naryja and asking Damaz to take their souls to the other side. But I just don’t understand why Naryja, the Creator of all, would create something so horrid.’

‘I don’t understand either, Petiliia. They could easily destroy Cath Cheguex, the evil that brings us these plagues.’

‘I suppose, but who are we to question the will of the Gods?’ Her sardonic tone made Geza wryly chuckle.

‘Yes, we are truly at their mercy Petillia.’

Maybe one day they will be at my mercy. Petillia nodded and sipped the last dregs of her tea. She had to be careful with her criticisms of the Gods. The villagers were deeply religious; she had heard that, a few years before her arrival, the grocer’s daughter said something untoward against the Gods after her grandparents were killed during a storm. The poor girl was beaten to death by town fanatics whilst the rest of the villagers watched on, after which, her family was run out of town. She didn’t want to have to run again; she was tired of starting over.

The hens were still clucking loudly outside as the fire crackled. Geza finished the last of tea as well, gently placing the cup on the tea. She quickly stifled a laugh; he was a burly man and she found it funny how dainty he could be.

‘Can I ask something Petillia? I hope you don’t think me too forward.’

‘Of course. Ask away.’

‘Why did you leave Gemielli?’

‘That’s a fair question – it is a far distance from Eliptid to here. The simple answer is that I couldn’t stay in the home that I had with my husband and children. Anywhere I considered settling, I was reminded of Astigus and the pain kept coming back. When I crossed the border into the desert, I felt like I could breathe again. It took me a long time to find peace – I was travelling for nearly three years – but I finally did when I found this lovely cottage.’

‘Well, I’m glad you found your peace. You’re a good person and valuable to the village. Your chickens’ eggs are wonderful. Are you planning on breeding them?’

She perked up. ‘Yes, I am. I’m saving for a rooster and once I have a constant supply of eggs, I’m planning on raising and selling the chicks.’

‘Good, good. There’s nothing like a chicken dinner.’

‘No, there’s not. But don’t say that around the hens I already have – they’ll get scared, and cluck even louder than they already do!’

They both laughed. He is such a lovely man. The complete opposite of his gossiping wife. With the amount of clucking Ivelina does with her friends, she’d make a good hen!

‘Anyway Petillia, I must be away. I have some insubordinates to deal with.’ The captain stood, picked up his helmet and pushed the chair in. ‘Thank you for the tea, it was quite nice. What is the name of it? The next time the merchant is in town; I might buy some.’

‘It’s chamomile and lavender. I’ve always found it be very relaxing, especially when I can’t sleep.’

‘Ivelina might like it. She’s not been sleeping well recently.’

Petillia opened the door for him. ‘Aww, that’s a shame. I know how frustrating it is to lie awake at night. Tell her I’m asking after her and the family.’ The clan of cluckers.

She followed him outside to a crescendo of clucking, the loudest the hens had been for quite a while. She had twelve in total – nine were calmly pecking away at the ground, but the other three were racing around in flurried circles, kicking up dust, feed, and their own loose feathers. It was almost like they were trying to get Geza, or his soldiers’, attention.

‘Oh, will you three stop it? You silly little things!’

She went into the run and picked one of them. It fussed in her arms, trying to flap its wings and peck at her.

‘Something has the hens all riled. Be careful, there might be falcons or hawks around. You don’t want to go losing one these chooks. Do they have names?’

‘They all do. The troublemakers here are Henny, Jenny, and Penny. The same names my father gave his hens when I was growing up. His eggs were always lovely as well.’

‘Your talent with the chooks runs in the family.’ Geza chuckled.

‘Oh, absolutely!’

Geza nodded and put on his helmet. ‘Look after yourself Petillia. I look forward to your eggs soon.’

‘I’ll be along with them in a couple of days. And if I see your missing boys, I’ll let you know. Hopefully they turn up soon.’

‘As do I. Thank you.’

He nodded you last time and marched down the path. He waved as they left and she waved back, with the biggest grin on her face. She held the hen out in front of her, the bird still trying to escape her grasp. She guffawed at its feeble attempts, grasping it tighter.

‘I knew all about you and your friends before you turned up at my door. Knew all about your thefts, your penchant for violence, and your lust. I’ve done the world a favour and no woman will ever have to fear you again. Isn’t that right, my silly little Hipolit?’