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Blood & Fire - chap 1 (revision 2)

by shepline 

Posted: 08 October 2006
Word Count: 2762
Summary: This the the edited version of the new chapter 1 (there are about six of these sections in part one: Lost - or the old chapter one - if that makes sense!) Does it engage you more?
Related Works: Blood & Fire - chap 1 (revised) • Blood & Fire - Chapter One: Lost • Blood & Fire - Chapter One: Lost (part 2) • Blood & Fire: #1 Lost (part 3) • Blood & Fire: #1 Lost (part 4) • 

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Chapter 1

Helen slides the rucksack off her shoulders, swinging it wearily down amongst the basalt rocks scattered across the grey sand. Pulling her water bottle from a side pocket she quenches her thirst with cold, fresh, mountain water. She looks back, down across the valley. The Jökulsárglfur canyon stretches out towards the horizon like a dark stain on the landscape.

She looks about her. Standing and taking in breath, or sitting on rocks looking down, exhausted, at their packs, are her companions and new friends. For a moment her gaze is locked with Alice, who, worn-out but happy, grins. Helen shrugs, and frowns in return. Helen looks away, and sees Andy, sitting on a rock, taking in long, measured breaths, and breathing out with rhythm. He looks out towards the horizon, composing himself for the next part of the hike.

Helen looks towards Finnur. The tall, athletic, Icelandic guide, grins broadly as he approaches her, offering Helen a mjölkurtex. She reaches out gladly for a slab of the thick, square biscuit, and bites through the hard texture to its milky taste. She takes a step back and perches on a rock, allowing herself these minutes to relax. Her eyes follow the line of the ridge to the peak that fades into thick, grey cloud – the summit that she now knows she will not reach.

“How many years have you come to try and climb this…?” Finnur asks her.

She smiles wryly. “Three. First year I was too young, last, not enough time. And now, the weather!”

Helen’s attention drifts back up the mountain, her gaze full of longing. She is unable to hide her disappointment. One day, she dreams. One day, the summit, she promises herself.

Ben crosses the oak floorboards of his bedroom, packing another couple of thermal tops into his rucksack. Preoccupied, he keeps glancing over at his desk, and his computer, surrounded by paperwork. Stirred by the need to try something, he settles at his desk and reaches for the mouse. Clicking through some screens intently he suddenly stops. Cursing his stupidity for forgetting such salient facts, he reaches for a weighty text book. Thumbing quickly through the pages, and running his fingers down columns of figures, he scrawls notes on scraps of paper.

Tapping numbers into his calculator he pieces together the sums, he reaches again for his computer and inputs his findings. Finally, Ben sits back in his chair and watches, content, as his mathematical model integrates the data, and maps out the new picture. He has repeated this process with differing variations more times than he can remember, and yet – he stares as the colours are plotted onto the outline of Iceland – it is as mesmerising as ever.

There. Ben sits forward suddenly. He watches intently as the computer redraws the temperature and precipitation fields and plots them against seasonal variations in population. There in amongst shades of green and blue that he can recognise as the Central Highlands, he sees patches of orange and red.

The trail climbs gradually up the side of the ridge. To either side, rocks change in colour; grey giving way to earthy browns and hues of red and green. The weather is grey and foreboding as it closes in around Helen and her party. Downheartened, now that the summit is behind her, she stoops on dreaming of their rendezvous with the bus – and of a warm shower – and bathe in a hot pool.

The fine mist hastens seamlessly into heavy drizzle. Helen pulls her waterproofs on over her trousers and her hood around her ears. Looking up, she catches Andy looking at her, and manages to give him one last enthusiastic grin, water dripping from her fringe.

Pausing for a moment at the apex of the ridge, Helen waits with Andy whilst Finnur discusses with Aðli, his fellow guide, the best way ahead. They come to a decision and again the party sets off again, taking a narrow path down the far side of the ridge through thickening rain and lowering cloud. Visibility diminishes with every step. With a wall of rock to one side, and a chasm of nothingness to the other, Helen takes careful steps.

Ben curses his computer. He scratches out a hurried calculation, and notes down new numbers. Cross-referencing the accuracy of these, he pages through his book.

A phone rings. Ben grabs his mobile.

“Hanna, hi,” he responds. As he listens, his gaze slowly crosses the the room to the pile of clothes and gear half-packed in his rucksack, “No it’s cool. I’m all packed. Tomorrow morning, yah…”

Still listening, offering sporadic words, he pulls himself away from the computer, and crosses his room again, drops the occasional item half-heartedly into his rucksack.

“How’s work?” Ben glances across at his computer, “it’s going good. Think I might have found a get-around for a nasty fudge that accounts for flux corrections. If so then I might have to change my thesis.”

Ben sinks back into his chair, reaching for his mouse; his mind, as ever, exploring further possibilities. He taps in the last few figures, and clicks through activate the drawing of a new model, “Sorry – you getting this?”

He sits back in his chair, watching again the beauty of the computer processing his model. “How’s your book?” His question is pure politeness for his mind is set on the vexed question of anthropogenic aerosols. He responds to conversation with skilfully feigned responses, and scribbles down more numbers.

Finnur passes between his group as they descend through worsening conditions. At each person, or pair, he reiterates his instructions to keep one behind the other, and not to rush. He looks back down the line, to where just metres away, leading trek, Aðli is already a hazy image in the gloom. The others follow in single file or in pairs, with subdued and muted conversation. Finnur allows Andy To pass before falling into line with Helen.

“The weather’s bad. It’s the thing about this country,” Finnur laughs, “It can be sunshine one minute, and the next – the fieriest storm you’ve ever seen.”

Helen nods. She knows this. She glances round to look up the mountain, but it is lost in fog. Returning to the path, she falls in behind Finnur, following in his footsteps and being careful to always keep him in view.

The wind howls through fog, low and mournful it is a collage of voices in the gloom. For a moment Helen thinks she hears her name. She pulls back her hood to try and make out the words. There it is again; clearly a name. She lingers for a moment on the path peering out into the gloom, certain that she can see a figure.

“Hello!” she calls, “Who’s there?”

The fine rain stings her face, and begins to run round the back of her neck, and the wind calls her again. She pulls her hood up again, and angrily pushes up the toggles, cursing her stupidity. She strides on, and then stops again.

“Finnur?” She can’t see him. She moves forwards, quickly now, trying to catch up, “Finnur!” she calls again.

Ben sorts through his tickets, an envelope of money, and his passport. He gathers them together, pushing them into the pocket of a smaller rucksack. Moonlight filters in through the window, bleached in the lamplight. Ben stands again in front of his computer, staring at the incomplete calculation represented by a map of colours and shades plotted to the graph. The flickering light from the monitor hypnotises his eyes. He frowns, idly dragging the cursor across the screen, shutting down the applications, and killing tonight’s work.

He turns and looks towards his bed in the small room under the eves of the old, timber framed house. Reaching over to grab alarm clock, he sets the alarm for five in the morning.

Alone, Helen shivers. Grey mist cuts out the light from the gully. She pulls her jacket closer round her, swigging down a mouthful of water, and chews on a couple of dried dates. She stares out into the fog and stinging rain. Again, she calls out. Her voice warbles with her desperation.

Sitting up sharply in bed, Ben breathes fast, “Helen—” he allows himself to say. Visions and echoes of his dream flash fast through his mind.

He gulps down breath, collapsing back onto his pillow, staring up at the ceiling. Ben sees his sister sitting alone on the hillside huddled for warmth in the cold Icelandic night. He turns over, curling his legs up and squeezes his eyes shut tight. He sees himself sitting in a cold, grey corridor, a cup of luke-warm coffee in a clammy plastic cup in his hands. He looks down the length of the corridor in each direction as nursing staff move like blurs through the hospital, exchanging words with doctors, speaking to the public, giving details to duty policemen. A cacophony of noise echoes down the emotionless halls. A voice. His head turns. Ben sees his his father, red in eyes, and cheeks still damp with tears.

Ben fights the visions, tossing and turning in his bed. He sees his sister – Helen – lying motionless against a rock.

Ben turns uneasily in his sleep.

Hanna Katla pushes her blonde hair behind her ear. She glances at the arrivals board, and then returns to her magazine, attempting to read the article in front of her. Her eye’s see words that her mind doesn’t recognise. Her brain considers other thoughts. What is she going to tell him?

Flight FI460 descends over the the lava-formed coast of Iceland. Within the cabin the warning lights chime out the instruction to refasten seatbelts. Ben closes his book, and slips it into the top of his rucksack stowed beneath his feet. He smiles wistfully, removing the headphones from his ears. Unplugging them from the armrest he wraps the lead up round the ear pieces. He leans back against the cabin wall, and looks out the window. Streaks of mauve blur past his field of vision – lupins amongst the lava.

Hanna Katla paces the clean beech floors, pensive and full of trepidation, stopping occasionally to look up at the arrival boards as they flash up details. She fiddles with her hair. Frowning, she approaches the glass, looking through into baggage reclaim. She smiles. Ben steps off the escalator as it delivers him down onto the ground floor. He sees her, his cousin, on the far side of the glass. Smiling, he waves to her.

Hanna lifts her hand but cannot bring herself to wave back. How can she tell her cousin that in the time that it has taken him to fly from England to Iceland, that his sister – she turns away from the window. Stepping across the floor of the airport Hanna walks amongst the thronging mass of people. The cacophony of conversation echoes through her ears, growing louder and louder and drives out her own thoughts.

She steps through the motions; greeting her cousin at the arrivals gate and telling him the awful, tragic truth. Now, they sit opposite one another in the small café at Keflavik airport, mugs of steaming chocolate in front of them. Hanna Katla reaches across the table, taking her cousin’s hand.

“I – I don’t believe it.”

“We don’t know for sure.” She smiles kindly, “Helen – she could be okay.”

Ben looks up, his eyes shot with tears. He swallows back pain, “Got to phone dad—” he pulls away, fingering the keypad of his mobile.

Hanna Katla, breathing in the sweet smell of chocolate, sips her drink. She sighs, as she watches her cousin pacing the far side of the room, talking into his phone.

A helicopter swoops low across a ravine. On the ground mountain rescuers search the hillside. Finnur stands at the base of the hill watching the next shift scour the hillside. Alongside him Aðli is climbing down from the guide’s van with thermos flask and mugs. He hands a mug to Finnur.

“Nothing?” Finnur shakes his head, “I’ve been back up to Hrútfell, searched the track – searched off the track. Nothing.”

“It’s a good sign, maybe?”

“Maybe.” Finnur shrugs, “She obviously found shelter, and she’s fit, but—”

All the way back across town from the airport into the suburbs of Reykjavik Ben sits alongside Hanna Katla in the passenger seat of his cousin’s truck. He sees nothing. He hears nothing. Finding herself with the need to talk, Hanna attempts to broach conversation.

She cuts herself short – not for the first time – giving up on a sentence once again. She glances to her side. Her cousin looks terrible, about as bad – no worse – as she feels. This is not how she planned the day.

She slams on the brakes, pulling the vehicle to the edge of the road. Ben starts, jolted back into the here and now. Turning his head towards his cousin he sees Hanna clutching at the wheel, head bowed, fighting tears.

“Hanna?” Ben speaks tentatively, pronouncing her name slowly.

Hanna pushes back her head, sniffs, and wipes the tears away determinably, “I’m okay. I just – I was thinking – what I had planned tonight, and for when we were to meet up with Helen the day after tomorrow.”

“We still might.” Ben speaks before realising the hopelessness of the statement. Hanna Katla shakes her head.

“No.” She breathes in, clearing her upset from the forefront of her senses, “Come on. My Dad will be back by now.”

She puts the car in gear, signals, and with a last look in the mirror, pulls away.

Ben climbs into his bed in the small guestroom on the basement floor of his aunt and uncle’s Reykjavik house. He lies against the pillows staring back across the room at the atmospheric black and white photograph of the volcano at Leirhnijú with steam rising across black craggy ridges. The picture has hung in this room for as long as he can remember, and he can remember how as a child he would arrive here for the annual summer holiday and gaze upon this picture. Today is no different.

Alongside is the second single bed – the bed his sister usually sleeps in. Helen. A vision of her face flashes through his mind. She’s looking back at him across a valley with a waterfall, before turning and bounding off up the path at the pace of gazelle. Helen. So good in the mountains – how can she have come to be lost this easily? She can’t be dead. She mustn’t be dead. The inevitability of the situation argues with his mind, scientific fact and probability throwing out human optimism.

Ben pulls a copy of Iceland Review from the bedside cabinet. Opening it at a random article his eyes attempt to focus on the words. A story about Icelandic Bar Talk – and he’s there in Blikki’s with Helen and Hanna Katla sharing tales from their university lives and catching up on news over glasses of Egils beer.

But he’s not at Blikki’s, and Helen is not with him. He is lying in his bed in his uncle’s house thinking of his sister out there, alone in the highlands, either fighting for her survival or … already dead.

He replaces the magazine on the bedside cabinet and slowly lets his fingers throw the switch on the lamp. The room sinks into Icelandic summer darkness – a washed-out colourless light. Lying on his side he curls his legs up, squeezes his eyes shut and tries to sleep.

An hour later, he turns in the bed, tugging at the covers, desperately counting sheep, willing himself to sleep. He tries to empty his mind of the thoughts and associations pressing on his mind. Every time he is close to succeeding a nagging preoccupation brings the awfulness of the day’s events crashing headlong into his thoughts.

Ben listens. The sounds of silence at the dead of night echo loudly in his mind. A clock ticks from a shelf above his head. In the stillness of the hour, each second counted out reverberates through his mind like footsteps on a wooden floor. Hot water pipes gurgle and clatter from within walls. The sound of traffic, or voices across the street, he can hear as if he was lying out on the street itself. He dives his head into the pillow praying for some sleep to take away his thoughts.

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Comments by other Members

Account Closed at 16:08 on 23 October 2006  Report this post
Hi, I'm new here and this is the first thing I've reviewed on here, so feel free to ignore any comments you don't like!

I really like the way you frequently switch between different characters' p.o.v.s, it kept my attention.

I also love the way you imply that the first section was all just Ben's dream (at this point I started to think - oh, that old trick, how unoriginal). Then we find out that the part about Helen wasn't a dream after all. So, there are a few good twists in a short space.

I'm not sure how it makes me feel to start a story with such a tragic, upsetting episode, but then I'm into more upbeat stuff (but that's just me!).

Just one technical thing - this sentence doesn't seem to make much sense:
Standing and taking in breath, or sitting on rocks looking down, exhausted, at their packs, are her companions and new friends.

shepline at 22:17 on 23 October 2006  Report this post
Hi Sarah,

Welcome, and thanks for choosing my story to review first. That's got make one feel special hasn't it... :-)

I really like the way you frequently switch between different characters' p.o.v.s, it kept my attention.

Finally, another peson to get the fast flicking scene's - I was beginning to think that I might have exhausted my readership. But this is very encouraging.

Can I ask what it was exactly that made you think that all of the first section was Ben's dream? There are bits of it that are Ben's dream, but mostly it is actually what's happening to Helen - so maybe there's something I need to work on there to make that clearer. Not that I'm entirely sure if it's undesirable to have some readers picking up on slightly different takes of it.

Just one technical thing - this sentence doesn't seem to make much sense:

Standing and taking in breath, or sitting on rocks looking down, exhausted, at their packs, are her companions and new friends.

Good call on that one. Yeah it is a bit confused. Thanks for pointing it out - hopefully there aren't too many like that...

Now, where's your novel so I can repay the favour?

Thanks again,


nr at 19:14 on 25 October 2006  Report this post
Hi Shep, I've finally managed to take a look at this and also a done a quick skim of the earliest version of Chapter 1. This is definitely better than the original - particularly in avoiding confusingly rapid shifts of perspective. You give the reader more help too by explaining a bit more who is who. The style is tighter as well. So altogether I think you have made substantial improvements.

I know you are wedded to the filmic alternating perspective and the use of the present tense I think you should help the reader even more especially at the beginning of the book. So instead of just saying 'Ben' the first time I think you should say 'Helen's brother Ben'. You could also make clear that he's still wherever he is - 'X miles away in Y Helen's brother Ben...


Sorry, I accidentally posted this unfinished. I was going to say - make it clear immediately that Ben will be flying to Iceland. You know the story so well you can't see how confusing it might be to a first time reader. The same point applies to the introduction of Hanna Katla. Make sure we know who she is and where she is as soon as she's mentioned. I'm afraid this involves more telling than showing but that's better than showing that confuses and I think the form you've chosen makes it necessary.

The form is a very challenging one for any reader so you have to be absolutely rigorous about giving essential information.

I'll come back to this when I can if you want some analysis of style.

You have definitely improved the text a lot.


shepline at 21:15 on 25 October 2006  Report this post
Thanks Naomi!

It's good to see I'm improving! :-)

I know you are wedded to the filmic alternating perspective and the use of the present tense

I think that I've finally realised taht whilst the 'original' style of the book had grown out of that filmic/screenplay style for it to work as a novel I could still get that feeling whilst giving the reader a bit of an easier time with less chopping and changing.

I'll try and see if I can help out the reader a little more like you suggest... ;-)



Eek! Just seen your additional comment - though my reply still makes sense in reply to all instead of just some of it...

Luisa at 20:15 on 17 November 2006  Report this post
Hello. Every version of this I read is more gripping - I really think you have made improvements here, yet again. I found it easier to get a grasp on what was going on, but at the same time you left a lot of questions unanswered and successfully created intrigue.

The pace feels quicker, too, which I personally prefer.

Your writing is as atmospheric as ever - that hasn't changed since the first draft, from what I remember.

I'm with Naomi on possibly easing your reader in even more.

On a nitpicky level, this sentence stood out for me as sounding weird:
Her cousin looks terrible, about as bad – no worse – as she feels.
I think you might have to change that to stop the jarring of 'worse as she feels' (which is how I read it!)

I hope this helps.

See you soon on LJ!


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