Excerpt from Fair Helen by Andrew Greig, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Fair Helen

by Andrew Greig

Fair Helen by Andrew Greig X
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2015, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2016, 260 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea

O gin I were where Helen lies!
Night and day on me she cries;
O that I were where Helen lies,
On fair Kirkconnel Lea.

Curst be the mind that thought the thought,
Curst be the hand that fired the shot,
When in my airms burd Helen dropt,
Wha died for sake of me.

I lighted down, my sword did draw,
I hacked him in pieces sma,
I hacked him in pieces sma,
For her that died for me.

O Helen fair, beyond compare!
I'll make a garland of thy hair,
To bind my heart for evermair,
Until the day I die.

O gin I were where Helen lies!
Night and day on me she cries;
And I am weary of the skies
Of fair Kirkconnel Lea.

"Ane doolie sessoun . . ."

These winter morns are bitter cold and the draughts unstoppable under the roof of Hawthornden. My breath puffs clouds as I scrape clear the garret window, ice slivers melt under yellowed fingernails.

Yet today I am snug as a bug on a dug. I have donned shirts, a shift, my disreputable jerkin, two nethergarments. A quilted bunnet sits cosy on my head. A hefty plaid borrowed from Drummond is happed round my shoulders, and falls clear to the floor. What remains of my right hand is warm in wool, as are my feet and scrawny thrapple.

Even the hot wine I fetched all the way up from the kitchens has remnants of warmth.

In my green days, when morns were cold and the world much awry, I would scurry about trying to keep warm and right it. I complained bitterly (if silently) at the injustice of it all. Now I shrug and don more clothing—resignation, or wisdom?

Having little time left for either, I sit amid so many layers and furs I am more bear than man. The weather—sleet driven out of the North. The past—ever-present. I look down at it from this high, enwrapped place, and note how readily my living breath fogs the view even as I contemplate how to begin.

Ane doolie sessoun to ane carefull dyte
Suld correspond and be equivalent . . .

Or as we say in present days, now the Kingdoms are united and the Court gone south, "A dismal season to a woe-filled work should correspond and be equivalent." Ah, Robert Henrysoun, what a falling off is here!

I lean forward to wipe the glass with the back of my good fist, before at last commencing the story that is not mine yet remains the only story of my life.

PEEL TOWER

I had not seen Adam Fleming since his mother's wedding. He had been silent and inward then, remote across the crowded hall. Tall, slim and agile, in his black cloak of grieving for his father, tallow hair cut straight across in the new Embra style, dagger in embroidered pouch, he had been every inch the young Borders gallant.

Now as I stepped onto the battlement of the peel tower, my dearest friend stood mouth agape with muddy britches, un-matched slippers, his shirt stained and torn. Short sword stuck skew-whiff in his belt, he was bouncing and catching an old cork tennis ball as though his life depended on it.

And he was right, I concede now to the bleary pane, the scratching quill. It probably did.

He looked up at me. His eyes flickered over the laddie who had showed me up. He bounced the ball off the bale-fire cage, caught it, swayed a little. So it is true, I thought. Not yet noon and drink taken.

"It is Harry Langton, sir," the boy said uncertainly.

"No doubt, no doubt." Adam kept stotting and catching the ball. In our university days tennez royale had been all the rage, along with the speaking of French to mask our uncouth mother tongues. He had been effortlessly good with racquet, rapier and small pipes, while I was a dogged trier.

From Fair Helen, by Andrew Greig. Copyright © 2015 by David Starkey. Reprinted by permission of Quercus, a Hachette company.

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