In Dark Ages Britain, strong women struggle to protect the forest and their freedoms. Storytelling inspires them to stand up to the greed that’s groping its way in ...
Ursel jumps down from an oak to scare a mother deer away from the hunters. Her uncle beats her with his spear-butt. How dare she defy him? He needs venison to impress his lord the Thane at the feast. She is defending life in the wildwood. Is he entitled to hit her, a free woman?
Hilda the travelling storyteller walks into this fen-edge settlement. ‘Do I carry trouble in my pack? You have plenty of your own! I bring tales to lift you …’
Elder Edith wants the settlement to resolve the conflict with talk, in the old way. To show how the new system keeps women in their place, the Thane leers and threatens rape.
The women must work together – but culture divides them. Privileged Anglo-Saxon colonisers mistrust their Celtic British slaves. Meg longs to become a storyteller, but how can she, a slave, dare? Ploughing and planting give them blisters and backache. They bicker.
As the women gut fish or weave cloth by the peat fire, Hilda tells stories to spark their imaginations. Once there was a place where queens ruled in peace. Invaders galloped into that valley and smashed their way of life ... but one wise woman escaped to keep the old ways alive. Can the young queen find her in the mountains? What visions await her in the Cave of Dreams?
Inspired by these tales, the Headman’s wife must choose: lose her home and children, or her friends? Her husband talks of throwing her out if she sides with the Elder.
Still the women argue. Hilda encourages them to tell their own stories. Listening changes everything! As they support each other, old wounds heal and they learn to value their female friendships.
The Thane and his fighters will be back at full moon to take over their gathering. Together, the women plan to outwit him. They need the healer’s spell-craft to raise mist …
Holding their wings up like feathered arms, the cranes leaped and twirled. Sunset light gleamed through the mist, turning their white wings to gold. They moved with slow grace, each foot-thump lofted by their wing-feathers, uttering eerie calls. They vanished into clammy whiteness as the sun slid below the horizon.
Hilda shivered. They wormed their way back to the boat. Meg poled the punt out through reed beds into open water.
Tomorrow – Hilda’s mind ran ahead – Thane and Headman might kick me out. Without me putting ideas in women’s heads, they can take control. When I’m old, I’ll die alone in a ditch with no apprentice to care for me, and my stories will die with me. So far I’ve walked with bones aching, to find somebody like Meg. She buried her head in her hands. If I go, Meg won’t ever stand in her strength, telling a story in the Great Hall. Her life will dribble away, mucking out pigsties. The light in her eyes will go out like a tallow dip.
‘Meg, they may chuck me out tomorrow.’
‘Because you make people think? Do you ever change the endings? Would you, if it meant you could stay?’
Hilda shook her head slowly. Her chest was empty – no breath came to carry words. ‘I can’t. Even if they kill me, I’ve got to tell the truth of the stories. My bones speak through me.’
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About the Author
When I walk the landscape of my books, I crunch over chalk, slither in clay, squelch on peat. The voices of Hilda the storyteller, Meg the dreamer, Seren the Healer and Oswynne the organiser whisper in my ears, insisting on being heard.
As a storyteller, I like myths where feisty females act assertively, like the ice giantess who skis down a mountain with her wolves to grab herself a husband, because the gods owe her one. I have told stories for groups in museums and schools, at festivals and celebrations, in a freezing fen, a smoky roundhouse, village halls and pubs. At a local eisteddfodd I was awarded the title: Chief Skald of Suffolk, Storytelling.
I love stories where a small act of kindness is rewarded with Mother Nature's astonishing generosity.
When I'm helping parents and babies learn to breastfeed, that resounding response often happens when the little one gazes into her mother's eyes and milk flows. I see it again when that mother turns to the next family and encourages them, and a friendship develops. This is one way to grow communities .
As a Breastfeeding Counsellor, I witness the power of telling our own experiences in supportive groups. When I edited magazines for a breastfeeding charity, I delighted in encouraging mothers to write the story of their breastfeeding journey and share it. Those accounts formed valuable resources for other families. Coordinating international publications for the charity, I facilitated a flow of parenting stories between cultures.
It's not all cooing at babies; part of my work is to support breastfeeding organisations, and stand up for the rights of parents to make their decisions free from commercial exploitation. Companies in our age can behave like thanes and headmen, taking peoples' freedoms while distracting us with bling. I am involved with groups of women who resist. I see how hard it is for us to work together, how class and culture can divide us. What helps? Telling our stories ...!
When I'm not working with parents or telling stories, I walk, or swim outdoors in rivers, lakes and the sea.
I studied History and Social & Political Studies at Cambridge University, UK when we aimed to change the world. Sorry we've been a bit slow. Let's do it now!
I have been drawing ever since I could hold a pencil, decorating the interior of my fathers books until my exasperated parents managed to impress upon me that only 'blank' paper was for drawing on....
I specialise in themes and imagery from folklore and storytelling, making these narratives visible is my passion.
Working with specialist publishers, The History press, creating the cover art for their Folk tales and Ghost tales books has been an enormous pleasure for me and is a continuing project. I have a touring exhibition and now also a book of some of the best covers from the series. I also work with individual storytellers and authors to bring their words to life as illustrations.
I work primarily in watercolour and ink on watercolour paper and mixed media on canvas and board.
I am also available for private client commissions and workshops/talks. contact me at: katherinesoutarillustration.com email@example.com
Table of Contents
Comments on The Swan-Bone Flute
Chapters set in Wellstowe in 598 CE. The storyteller narrates a story-cycle in episodes (set in a different font). She spices her stories with songs, poems, riddles and rhymes.
At the Crossroads; The Queen’s Quest, Alone in a Blizzard; Spear-Butt Spits Blows; Hot Rage; Heal Skin, Catch Soul, Keep the Heart Alive; Nettle, we need you;Goddess Who Flows from the Well-Spring; Blood, Milk and Fear; The Rite of Glory-Dawn, Good health to you, Earth Mother! A Feast in the Glittering Mead Hall; Boss Men, We Ride with Varagan! Juggling with Fire,The Wise Woman and the Queen Make a Bargain; An Elf with Wings and a Talking Adder; How Much Have They Taken? Blisters, Backache and Bickering; Searching for the Mere-Wife; Full Moon Sizzles; One Way to Bring People Together; Who Will Sit on the Carved Chair? Pot Shards; Peonies Trampled in Dirt; The Shattered Hearthstone; A Rush of Wingbeats, A Woman Skied Down the Mountain, Stretch our Wings like Swans of Ice and Fly! Salt in a Wound; Ride a Red Mare; Hoofbeats in the Cave of Dreams, Earth Mother moulded red clay; Pig's in the House! Am I the Sparrowhawk? A Broom Conjured a Blizzard; Patterns in the Dark, Painting Beads: Red, White and Black; The Rooftree of the Settlement;,Fierce and Delicate, Deep and Warm, Dark Goddess Bear; Is that a Packed Lunch? Who Broke the Swan-Bone Flute? Mist Magic; A Voice under Water; The Cranes' Dance, Return of the Queen; Mist Licking his Heels, The Buried Moon, Bogles and Boggarts; Cleansing? I'm Clean Enough! Word-Gifts; Are we People Without Shadows? We are People Without Voices; Pigface and the Cat Girl; Curlews Whirl Round the Barrow; The Rowanberry Dress; The Hedge Beckons; The Elders Deem their Doom; Beltane Fire, The Ugly Worm of the Misty Sandbanks
List of Characters in The Swan-Bone Flute
Author’s Notes: Herbs, Family Planning, Nettles, Three Muds, History and Herstory, Mothering and Parenting, Where do Hilda’s Stories Come From? Shamanism, Did Anglo-Saxons use Talking Sticks?, Religions, and The Moot
Book Club Questions
Get in touch: Workshops, Storytelling, Groups …
Rachel O’Leary … telling a story (bio with photo)
Rachel O’Leary … writing