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Banners in the Mist:
a quarterly newsletter delving deep into the past

Hi! I'm Joyce Holt, writer of historical fantasy.

Eventually I'll use this venue to offer sneak peaks of my forthcoming novels. For now, while my career is in the limbo-land of waiting to hear back from agents, I'll devote this quarterly newsletter to glimpses into the past, not necessarily related to my body of work.

Flash Fiction

short-short stories   by Joyce Holt

historical fiction (and sometimes historical-fantasy)
with an occasional dash of folklore retold

April 1, 2017     - - -     Volume 4 Number 2

Disaster in Delft
May 4, 1536

      "Anna, come see!" rang a voice from the attic. "They're trying to fly!"
      Anna wiped a plate and stacked it with the other white-glazed crockery from dinner. "They're not old enough," she called back. "They've just fledged."
      "But they're flapping like--" Another roll of thunder drowned his words.
      Anna hung her apron on a hook and scuttled up the steep stairs to the attic.
      Wim hung half out the dormer window, craning to peer down onto the neighbor's roof.
      Anna wedged in beside him. The east wind whipped her face as she peered. In a chimney-top nest, four large storklings jostled about, wings flailing. "They're afraid of the thunder," Anna told her brother. "When you were little, thunderstorms scared you to tears, too."
      They both clapped hands over their ears at another deafening boom.
      "They need their mama," Wim said. "Where is she?"
      "Out visiting her neighbors, I suppose," Anna said. "Just like ours."
      The angry clouds stabbed a spear of lightning at the wooden steeple of New Church, just two canals away. Both Anna and Wim shrieked at the blast that pounded their ears--and at the sight of flames bursting along the steeple. Storm winds fanned the fire into a blazing fury. In moments, sparks leaped to the next building.
      Anna watched in horror as the fire devoured the steeple and spread across the town of Delft.
      Wim gave a cheer. "Mama Stork! She's coming home for her babies!"
      A great white bird sailed down from the tempest and settled over her lanky brood. The stork's long red beak clacked in alarm as she faced into the spark-laden east wind.

      "She should carry them away one by one," Wim said, "like the mama cat did with her kittens when it flooded."
      Anna shook her head. "They're too big to carry. Too young to fly. They're trapped."
      "She won't fly away and leave them, will she?"
      Anna worried more about their own fate. The firestorm had leaped over one canal. Would it reach their own house?
      She cocked her head. "Listen. It sounds like Mama."
      Wim stretched out the window in the opposite direction. "I see her, down on the street. She's running home! I've never seen her run like that!"
      Anna pulled him inside, thinking fast. "Go get your coat and clogs. I just remembered. Mama said something about visiting Opa at his farm. Hurry!"
      Downstairs, Anna and her mother gathered the family's few treasures while Wim chattered happily about going to grandpa's farm. Anna noticed smudges on her mother's gown, and a burn on her arm. Had she run through the fire to get home to her children?
      As they scurried down the canal-street, Anna snatched one last look up at the chimney-nest. Mama stork had spread her wings to cover her fledglings. Ashes and soot speckled her feathers as she hunkered down to wait out the firestorm, risking her life for her young ones.

the town of Delft after the fire of 1536

See   Banners in the Mist   news article from 1536

Blick von Lauksund auf Trolltinden am Raftsund, Lofoten (1906)
by Themistokles von Eckenbrecher
Transferred from  de.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain

Hero of the Desolate Shore
15th century

      At dawn on the seventh day after the shipwreck, Quim clambered once more up the rocky headland. The winter wind blowing in from the North Sea tasted of salt as it combed its cold dry fingers through his hair. He wedged himself into a crevice to rest, poor shelter from the constant stiff breeze. It dried his sweat, chilling him to the marrow.
      Quim shivered as he gazed out to sea. Billows rolled, grey and silver, nothing like the roaring black mountains that had driven the Golfinho Azul so far north. Yearning for sight of white sails, he saw only the froth of sullen waves. A bleak, hopeless view. None but the foolhardy would set to sea during the season of winter storms.
      A smoke tendril spiraled up from the beach. Three sailors crouched there, huddled against the cold, tending their injuries, muttering curses at the ship's owner, safe at home in warm Lisbon.
      Quim braced himself against the cold and set out again. Quim the cabin boy, hero of the deserted island, had prowled the rough coastline until he found a stream to slake his companions' thirst. He'd gathered what little driftwood had lodged on this desolate shore. He'd braved the horrors of the haunted hillsides where hundreds of monster skulls gaped at his feet.
      Fish heads, he had realized after that first terror. Empty eyes. Mummified flesh stretched tight over bone. Lopped clean off at the gills.
      He had kicked his way through the ugly mounds, climbed to the brow of the headland, and found racks of drying codfish, a treasure worth more than gold to the starving men below.
      Now Quim again surmounted that last stretch, then halted in astonishment. Around the fish racks moved figures, men dressed in coats and cloaks and felt caps.
      Quim whooped and ran to meet the strangers. They were tall and fair-haired, their eyes as icy blue as the sky. Quim babbled greetings, questions, pleas for help until his breath ran out.
      They stood about, staring down at him, silent as stone. Then one spoke, words as sharp as the gravel under-foot.
      Quim shook his head. He tried a few words in Spanish, then in French.
      One of the men spoke back in the stilted tones of Normandy. Quim at last had answers. The storm had driven the Golfinho Azul all the way to the Lofoten Islands off the northern coast of Noruega, where ever-blowing winds served ideally for drying the winter catch of cod. There was a harbor on the next island to the east.
      Quim explained about his companions, and apologized for his theft from the drying racks. "The cod saved our lives," he told the fishermen, and kicked at a fishhead. "They taste much better than they look."
      That fetched a smile from the dour Norueguês.
      Norwegians fetched the stranded Portuguese sailors to their village, and arranged for their passage home in late spring. A decade later, Quim returned with his own ship, bought up all the monster skulls, and began lucrative trade with certain folk in Africa who prized the delicacy of fishhead soup.

Story based on an account related at the Codfish Museum at Lofoten Islands, Norway

Third Knot
tale collected in Rolfstorp, Halland, Sweden

      Rask rowed into the chop of Kattegat, the shallow sea off Sweden's coast. His sloop wallowed low, weighed down by twenty-four bushels of rye. Not a breath of wind stirred to aid him on his way.
      Rask would gladly row all day, clear to the shores of Denmark, with such a sight to feast on as the one perched in the stern.
      The loveliest woman he'd ever seen sat daintily atop her cargo of rye. Skin pure as pearls, eyes the color of evening sky, a brow like seafoam. Silvery hair billowed, though no wind blew. Her gown shimmered with blue-green hues, bright as fish scales.
      Rask's heart beat giddy with delight. He grinned like an idiot, pulled at the oars, ignored one wise corner of his mind. She had promised a fine fare, but had never said how much.
      "Here," the woman said at last. "We've come to my home. Please unload."
      Rask glanced around at the smooth silky billows. No land in sight. "Unload?"
      "Yes. Just toss them overboard."
      That wise corner of his mind shouted warning, but Rask heard none of it over the happy thrumming of his heart. One by one he hoisted the barrels over the sloop's edge to plummet into the depths.
      The woman stood amidships, smiling at Rask. "For your payment, come with me. Take my hand and jump."
      "Fool!" screamed the tiny voice of sense.
      Rask jumped.
      Without even a splash, he found himself, still at the woman's side, in a great hall beneath the sea.
      "Is that you, Daughter?" queried an old man sitting upon a whalebone chair. His eyes stared, blank, sightless.
      "I'm home with the rye, Father," she answered.
      The blind man's nostrils flared. "I smell the blood of a Christian," he grumbled. "Come over here, man. Let me finger wrestle with you."
      The woman whispered to Rask, "Hand over an anchor hook instead of your finger."
      Rask did as told, and barely managed to hang onto the anchor with both hands as the fellow wrenched with a giant's strength. The old man chuckled in defeat. "Not bad, not bad at all. Daughter, pay this fine skipper his due."
      The lovely woman gave Rask a handkerchief in which three knots had been tied. "When you get into a lull," she told him, "you can open one knot. And if you want to go really fast, untie two knots, but never untie the third."
      Rask found himself back in his sloop, handkerchief in hand. A breeze tugged at the sails and soon swept him home where he told the tale to any and all.
      Not long after, he found himself becalmed with a heavy load of wares and an urge to hasten home. Rask untied one knot in the handkerchief.
      The sail filled with wind.
      He opened the second, and the sloop sped so fast it made the water hiss.
      He must have opened the third knot too, for nobody ever saw him again.

"Among the Waves" by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1898

Note about the knot in the folktale above:

This is not the origin of the word "knot" used in measuring nautical miles. That term refers to knots in a rope that was fed out over the stern of a ship for a certain length of time, then reeled in and counted.

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