Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Petty Kings, Part 3

I'll have to admit to a bit of a cop-out in the third installment of my Saxon chronicle, because this is a flashback in the life of a character we've already met.  In this format, I can play around a bit with presentation and pacing in a way that I maybe couldn't in a novel - but hopefully the writing will be good enough that people don't mind.  Oh, and on that's in the unedited, Nano format, so please don't be too critical at this stage...


'Times was hard back then. The harvests were forever being washed out by the rains, and near everyone went hungry. Incurable diseases of a hundred different types stalked the land. Orphans like you were many, children of lost parents, and it was said by some that the ghosts of those who passed still walk the broadland marshes at night, seeking those they knew in life.'

A couple of the girls screamed as Mrs Faber reached out for them with chubby fingers, and the sound broke the spell of the story she was telling. One of the youngest boys, a long-haired urchin with eyes that gleamed like jewels in the half-light, moved closer rather than further away.

'Tell us about the Mercians,' he said.

'The Mercians?' Mrs Faber replied. 'Simon a'Hawthorne, only you could want to hear about the Mercians when at any moment, the fearful fen denizens could sweep out of the meres and drag us all back to the peat bogs to have us for supper.'

The orphans of Ely gathered here in the late afternoons and the baker's wife told them stories. Almost all of the stories involved times of hardship and hunger, though Mrs Faber herself didn't seem to have been too badly afflicted by the world. A jovially rotund woman, she leaned down towards them from her place on the hearthside stool, her hearty features dusted liberally with flour.

As well as her stories and a spot in the warmest place in town, Mrs Faber was also good for crusts that had stayed too long in the oven. The orphans didn't mind. They knew that if they chewed long enough, almost anything would eventually become soft enough to swallow.

'The Mercian kings had ruled here for a generation, but a hundred years before, the Angles had ruled themselves. The Mercians had their own kings, sure, but they were little men, and we don't care to remember their names. The, we had our own royal family stretching back five hundred years. Can you imagine that? They were called the Wuffingas.'

One of the girls raised her hand. 'Do their ghosts stalk the fens, Mrs Faber?'

'They probably have better things to do, being kings and all,' Mrs Faber said, adjusting her apron. 'Of course, they never had all the luxuries that we have now. Your spot by the fire here was probably better than all the houses they had back then.'

'What happened to the Mercians?' Simon asked, keen to hear more before Mrs Faber lost her way or her gruff, ill-tempered husband came through and dumped them back out onto the streets.

'The stories about the real kings had spread, and we weren't going to take it any more, were we? So the Angle men rose up, killed the little kings and we took back control of our own destiny once again.'

The time of the Wuffingas had ended. All family lines rise and fall, and Simon's had been no different. The unremarkable sixth of eight children, only half of whom eventually survived to adulthood, he had been barely eight years old when his mother succumbed to pneumonia during a harsh winter. His father, always a sickly man, had collapsed and died working the fields two years before.

'Who decided who the new king was?' Simon asked.

The baker's wife fixed him with a steely stare. 'Kings are ordained by God, aren't they?'

'But how does God know which man to choose?'

'Simon a'Hawthorne, don't you go getting any silly ideas about kings, now, or I shan't be talking about them any more. Of course God knows which man to choose, and he always picks the best, doesn't he?'

Mr Faber's voice boomed from a back room, making several of the less-hardy children jump.

'That King Eadwald was a bloody silly bugger,' he said. 'Taxes and more taxes. I'm glad Coenwulf had his hands cut off.'

'Enough, you,' his wife said, her voice becoming suddenly venomous.

'Who was Eadwald?' A number of small voices chorused. 'And who was Coenwulf?'

'Eadwald was an Angle king before you lot was born,' the baker's wife said, 'and the Mercians treated him terribly. Just be thankful that you din't have to see what they did to him when they came here.'

'They poked his eyes out and stuck them on the walls,' the baker said cheerfully, 'so he could always watch where you were going.'

The girls shuddered; the boys laughed nervously. Simon only listened.

'Those bloody kids are in here every day,' the baker boomed, pouring water on the fire to cool the oven so it could be cleaned before morning.

'They're just leaving.  Out, out now,' the baker's wife chided, slipping a crust into every pair of hands.

Simon was the last to leave. He remained in the doorway long after the footsteps of the other children had died away.

'Did they really poke the king's eyes out and put them on the wall?' he asked.

'Not just his eyes,' Mrs Faber said, busying herself with tidying the tiny space that the orphans had all been sitting in. When she looked back at Simon, he hadn't moved. His eyes glowed against his tiny silhouette.

'Why would they do that to a king?'

Mrs Faber shrugged. 'One man's king isn't necessarily the same as another's, is it?'

'So eventually they all end up stalking the marshes, then?'

Mrs Faber watched him carefully. 'Nothing scares you, Simon, does it?'

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Petty Kings, Part 2

The arrow came from a shadow between buildings on his right hand side and pierced the skin between the king's chest and shoulder. Æthelstan's yell of pain and the shift in his weight caused his horse to rear and dance. The heavy longsword slipped from the king's grasp, clattering to the floor, and only sheer willpower kept him in his saddle. Weaponless, his arm hanging limply by his side, the king clung on with his one usable hand and forced his horse in the direction of the second archer, who was frantically trying to pull a shortsword from a leather scabbard.

In desperation, Æthelstan dived off his horse, hitting his assailant in the midriff and knocking him to the ground. Before the Mercian could react, the king smashed the gloved fist from his good arm again and again into the man's face. Æthelstan waited until two full blows after the man had gone limp before he finally rolled away and stood upright. As the anger and excitement subsided, the pain in his shoulder spread rapidly through his body, settling eventually in his knees and shins. He began to shake violently, and only remained on his feet at all because he was able to lean against a nearby hovel. He cursed Leoric with his next ragged breath, knowing as he did so that he was actually cursing his own failure to notice the second archer. When he was done swearing, the King reached down to the arrow still protruding from his flesh and snapped it off halfway down the shaft.

When the darkness left his vision, the king stepped back out into the square, where his horse stood quietly, awaiting his return. He glanced around, fearful of further ambush, but when he saw no-one else, he quickly retrieved his sword and pulled at his horse's saddle to bring it back towards him. The beast looked huge from below, and the leather loop attached to the saddle to help him mount sat as high as his chest. With no small difficulty, Æthelstan eventually managed to regain his seat and fell exhausted across the beast's back.

The king had no way of knowing whether his bannermen had entered the village, or stayed upon the ridge to await his return. They would have seen Leoric head off into the smoke before him and perhaps assumed that they were intending to scout ahead and return – though Simon was unheralded for his sharp mind, being more clever than many would suspect, and Æthelstan felt sure that his most cautious captain would have at least sent some troops to provide support. If only he could know for sure.

In the distance, the smoke was drifting, like heavy curtains opening and closing upon the sky. The screams he had heard while travelling had died away. The burning smell that he had found so prevalent atop the ridge he barely noticed now. The wind seemed to be carrying him, rather than fighting against him. Even the pain seemed to be lessening, and the king felt his mind wandering, as if all of this were happening to someone else, far away. He resisted the desire to close his eyes, even for a moment, knowing that to do so might very well mean the end for him. When the desire got too great, he tapped the remains of the wooden splinter in his chest, and the pain woke him up again instantly.

The stallion trotted through the village, and without the presence of mind to direct him in any way, Æthelstan allowed him to dictate the route. He glanced around as he went, hoping for a glimpse of Leoric or one of his bannermen, but there was no-one in sight. To his right, there was a deep drainage ditch filled with reeds. Their willowy heads bowed in the breeze, reminding the king of the monks from Elmham, who came out in the winter snows to offer alms to the poor. The king fully embraced the idea of a Holy Father, but the bishops themselves troubled him; their silence was deathly, their eyes always watching, and no man escaped the all-seeing gaze of heaven.

Thoughts of heaven raised Æthelstan again. He may have been wounded, but he was not ready for the grave yet. He gritted his teeth and rode onward, and as he did so, he began to see shapes forming in the mist. Men on horses, carrying banners. Men with swords. Other men, falling before them. He recognised the banners. They were his own sigil, the red lion atop a shield split twixt yellow and black. The sounds of war came to him again, and then his heart leapt as he saw Simon, leading the column, stabbing at a fleeing Mercian soldier with his longsword. The battle was surely won.

Reinvigorated, the king kicked at the sides of his horse, wrenched at the reins and galloped towards his troops. When he was within range, he opened his mouth and called for his captain, only for his mouth to suddenly fill with blood.

He felt as if an arm had reached down and plucked him from the saddle at the same time as a great crushing weight fell upon his chest. He was thrown from his horse, tumbling end over end until he came to rest in the water at the bottom of the ditch, only the upper half of his torso protruding from the reeds. Æthelstan tried to look down, but his eyes weren't able to focus, and so he reached down with his left hand, and found the broken shaft of the pike that pierced him cleanly through the chest.

The king's head rested on the mossy turf next to the water, and his fading vision registered a man looking down into the dyke. His eyes were dark, and he was wearing black quilted armour that stretched as far as his knees. The two exchanged gazes briefly, and then the man tossed the remains of the broken pike down into the ditch. He turned as if to walk away, but then his eyes rested on something by his feet, and he knelt down, seeming to stop briefly and study something. He laughed, and kicked the object, which also ended up in the ditch with Æthelstan, though behind his head, where he couldn't see it. Then the man turned away, took the reins of the king's own horse, vaulted into the saddle in a single easy movement and made his escape along the path to the west.

The king lay there for a while, waiting for a friendly face to call down or for death to take him. Instead, time passed and left nothing in its stead. The ditch muffled all sounds and Æthelstan had no voice to call out or strength in his arms to pull himself clear. He knew better than most that a king was just a man, albeit one who oft grew stronger in order to carry the burden of his responsibilities. He did not fear death, but to lie here unheralded, to eventually be finished off by cold or wild animals or to drown in the dirty water running off the fields was more than he could bear. Tears collected in the corners of his eyes, and to stave them off, he thought of his magnificent wife, already too many years gone from the world, lost bringing the final boy into it. He thought of his daughter, Beca, who had acquired her mother's soft features and womanly figure, and how he had hoped to see her married soon. Finally, he thought of his eldest son Feralaed, and whether he would have the strength to be a king.

'Well,' a familiar voice said out of nowhere. 'Well, well.'

'Who's there?' called the king, though his voice barely registered.

 'Father, you seem to have lost something.' The crown of reeds from Æthelstan's head dropped in front of his eyes, and the king realised that this had been what the black-armoured stranger had kicked into the ditch after he had fallen.

'Leoric,' the king croaked, 'is that you?'

'Ironic,' Leoric said, sitting down on the bank next to the king with his knees pulled up to his chest. 'You wait behind so you can avoid the fight, and still end up lying in a ditch with a pike through your chest.'

The king tried to look up at Leoric. His son took off his helmet and the flaxen coils of his hair spilled out beneath, the colour of burnished copper. That, Æthelstan thought, was definitely a gift from his mother. He wondered if his long-dead wife would come to collect him when his time was done, and whether he would have to wait long. When he breathed, his chest rattled horribly, and he had to spit out another mouthful of blood.

'That does look like a nasty wound,' Leoric observed.

'Listen to me, Leoric,' the king said. 'You must... must return home. Take the crown to him...swear fealty...hold the kingdom together.'

 'Ah yes, gentle Feralaed,' Leoric said, picking a flower that was growing nearby and holding it up close to his face for inspection. 'Feralaed, who is the answer to all our problems, and who will rule us magnanimously from his bedchamber at the top of our tallest tower.'

'Boy, you must do this. It's important. The men...need someone to follow. Blood is blood.'

'And blood will out,' Leoric said, echoing the phrase the king had used a hundred times before. He crushed the flower between his fingers and cast it aside.

'You can a part,' the king wheezed, his strength failing. 'You are still a prince. Lead his his general.'

'But my ways are unbecoming of a prince, are they not?'

The king gritted his teeth as a wave of pain swept over him. 'Be the dagger at his side. Do the things that he cannot.'

'There are many things sweet Feralaed can't do,' Leoric observed. 'Have the courage to follow his convictions, for one.'

' you mean?'

'Feralaed will learn to respect power,' Leoric spat. 'You know that power can never truly be given, it has to be taken. His blood is no more righteous than mine, and I will rule this land in his stead.'

'The Mercians are clever,' the king cried despairingly. 'They will exploit you...your weaknesses, if you turn on one another like dogs.'

'Don't worry,' Leoric said. 'My brother has never had the balls for a fight. I'm sure he'll see reason quickly, and I'll make sure that his dungeon is suitably accommodating.'

'Beca...' the king said.

'Will have her husband,' Leoric retorted. 'Someone of little influence, far away, who will never darken my door with his shadow. And as for 'Weard, if I ever see him again, I'll hang the little shit from my ramparts. I know that that at least will make you happy.'

The king's eyes closed, and he lay his head upon the ground, defeated.

'And now, father, I must away. There is much to be established, in my new kingdom. You'll forgive me for this, but if the men find you they'll take you to the druids, and the druids can do some very strange things. You should be a grave man, but your strength is true, and I can't take any chances.'

The king looked past Leoric as his son placed a hand on his head, pushing him down and holding him under the water. Æthelstan forgave him, even as the filthy water seeped into his weakened lungs. As the bubbles ceased, the last thing he saw was the eyes of his faithful captain, Simon, as he reached the edge of the ditch high above.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

International Award Winner!

I'm thrilled to announce that I've won the SMHAFF International Writing Award 2014! All of the shortlisted entries can be found in the festival's excellent e-book, which can be downloaded for free here.

Find out more about the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival here.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Petty Kings, Part 1

I've been a bit lacking in inspiration lately, but I recently dredged up and edited the start to an old Nano project from a year or two ago and thought I would share it with you. I'm fascinated by the time of the Heptarchy - the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that eventually joined together to form England - and I've always wanted to write historical fiction, though it would most likely end up being historical fiction with a few supernatural elements, because it's more fun that way! If people are interested, there's a lot more of it written, so I could always post more of it for your enjoyment. 


Twin plumes of smoke rose over the ridge in the sodden countryside, and the smell of burning thatch filled the air. Two pairs of horses' hooves thudded to the top of the ridge and surveyed the burning village in the distance.

'Bandits,' Æthelstan said.

'This should be sport,' his younger companion replied.

The older man gripped the reins tightly and patted his horse's flank. 'We should hold for Simon and the others.'

The younger man raised a quizzical eyebrow and snorted, sounding not unlike his horse as he did so. 'If we're lucky, the fires will still be burning when they arrive.'

'Your urge to fight without numbers at your side disturbs me, Leoric. The place for a bandit is at the end of a noose. Fight them in the open and even the lowliest man may score a lucky strike.' Æthelstan reached up to his head, righting a thin crown of twisted reeds that was knotted through his thick dark hair. 'If you cannot pick your battles, the crows will come for you soonest.'

'The crows come for everyone in time, father. I find it hardest to know numbers when I'm not close enough to count my enemies.'

'Watch your tongue, boy,' Æthelstan replied. 'I was young once, and I know that rush of blood. But for now, stay your strike if you would win your fight.'

'As you say,' Leoric shrugged. His son's indifference infuriated Æthelstan. So arbitrary were Leoric's ways that he could just as easily slay a fallen enemy or cuff him around the ears and walk away laughing. It wasn't just that that frustrated him, though. Æthelstan was sweating from a hard ride, but Leoric looked as though he was taking his horse out for a morning trot.

'Your ways are unbecoming of a prince,' Æthelstan warned.

'But becoming of a king-to-be.' Leoric turned his horse and looked his father directly in the eye. The boy pulled his sword from his scabbard with a whisper, and assumed a fighting stance. Despite himself, the king smiled. Now, his son looked every inch a man. His limbs were long, and his balance was more sure than any other man in Æthelstan's personal guard.

'Remember, you're still not too old for me to give you a thrashing,' Æthelstan said.

'A foolish thing to say to a man with a sword,' Leoric grinned.

'Aye,' Æthelstan agreed. 'But you are not a man yet, much less a king. Your brother is first in line.'

Æthelstan watched the flush of anger spread across his son's face, as he had known it would. 'My brother,' Leoric said, laughing bitterly. 'Feralaed is a coward and a queer. You're so willing to defend his place in the line, but where is he while his kingdom burns? Why does he not put aside his chains and his finery and ride alongside us?'

'A king uses more than a sword to defend his kingdom,' the older man said. 'And while you know a lot about war, you would do well to learn about tactics, stewardship, and diplomacy.'

The prince sneered, and the heavy longsword in his hand sliced the air before him. 'Show me the words that can stop a blade.'

'Whether you like it or not, boy, blood is blood, and blood will out. One day, Feralaed will rule the Angles, and your knee will bend to him as an example to every other man in the kingdom.'  Hoofbeats sounded in the far distance behind them, and Æthelstan added, 'That assumes you're still alive to see his coronation.'

The younger man glanced at the column of men in the distance, their family crest leading at the front, and muttered something that Æthelstan did not hear. Then he turned his horse in the direction of the village and said loudly, 'Enough of this. I'll not stand idle while you watch bandits raze our land.'

'Stop, you damned fool,' Æthelstan said, but Leoric would not be deterred. Sword still in his fist, the prince let out a war cry and began galloping towards the village. After a few seconds, he became lost in the smoke and mist below.

It was the king's turn to curse under his breath. Simon and the rest of his militia were less than a mile away and they were approaching swiftly, but Leoric would reach the village in less time than it took them to get to the ridge. Against any lone enemy, Æthelstan knew that Leoric could hold his own, but inexperience might see him ride against multiple enemies at once, and he could not allow his son to die so ignobly. He pulled at the reins, kicked his horse forward and raced downwards into the billowing clouds.

As he made his way across the boggy marsh, the king realised quickly that sprinting the entire distance to the village would be impossible even for a master horseman. At any moment and without warning, the ground gave way to knee-high banks or sudden dips where rainwater had collected deep enough to drown a man who fell from his steed. There was no way to identify the route that Leoric had taken; the ground was far too wet to hold footprints. The mud sucked at the hooves of his horse and with every step they took, they seemed to sink deeper into the mire. Æthelstan wished again and again that he had waited for his retinue before advancing. If he turned back now, they might pass within ten arm lengths of him without ever knowing he was here. An image of Leoric lying somewhere on the field, too badly injured to cry out, spurred him onward.

After a minute or two, the stubbornness of the terrain gave way to a winding trail that moved ahead and to the right. Æthelstan followed it, hoping that his son had found it and done likewise. He thundered onwards, until a shadow reared up out of the smoke ahead.

'Father!' Leoric called.

'You bloody idiot,' the king said, pulling up alongside him. 'If it wasn't for the memory of your late mother, I'd damn well kill you myself!'

Leoric ignored him. 'Father! These aren't bandits! They're Mercians!'

'What?' Æthelstan roared. Leoric pointed to a house framed with fire in the distance. A man lay on the floor in front of the open doorway, dead from a blow to the head. The attackers had clearly encountered resistance. True enough, the king saw the dead soldier's tabard, a yellow cross on a sky-blue background; the bannermark of his rival and enemy, Coenwulf of Mercia.

'This is not a raid,' Æthelstan said. 'It's a declaration of war.'

Leoric looked at him grimly. 'War or no war, nooses will still serve them.'

'The noose is too good for these bastards.'

The king drew his sword and moved round the side of the house where the smoke was thickest. He heard a rumble over his shoulder and then Leoric was past him, his black mare heading for the inn to the west. Æthelstan spurred his horse onward.

The king broke through into clean air in enough time to see Leoric hurtling towards a small group of Mercians backed against the wall of the inn. The one closest to him reacted most swiftly and readied an arrow, but Leoric was quicker still, hacking a wide hole into the man's chest. Æthelstan followed up, but before he could get close enough to join the fight, Leoric had already cut the other two down.

'Not bad,' Leoric said, after a brief pause to catch his breath.

'A good start,' the king said. 'My bannermen will be here soon. We should try to meet up with them.'

'More waiting, father? I thought the battle might stir that old blood of yours a bit. But you disappoint me, yet again.'

Æthelstan looked at his son, and his anger grew. 'Enough then. I've chased you halfway across the kingdom so you get the joy of horsewhipping a few bandits, and a chance to hone your skills in relative safety in preparation for the day you lead an army. If you want to waste that chance, let it rest on your own neck. I'll not throw my life away for you.'

Leoric circled his horse, then growled and disappeared into the smoke once again.

The king shook his head and started back the way that he had come. If his bannermen had travelled the same path that he had, they would advance on the village at any time. The land sloped downhill, so he decided to move around the other side of the inn, hoping that it would give him a better view of the scene before him. A number of pitch-soaked hay bales were smouldering against the side of the building, raindrops hissing around them. The king moved carefully around them and out into a square with the stone walls of a small well in the centre.

A gust of chill wind lanced the king as his horse moved slowly into the square. A number of bodies lay on the path that led beyond to the hovels in the distance. Blue-clad soldiers made up only a handful of their number. The villagers had paid a far greater toll. Women and children, the elderly, all had been served equally in this bloody melee. Some people had been cut down from behind, their backs and legs slashed. More still lay face down beyond them, their bodies raked with arrows. Only the fletchings stirred, moving slowly with the breeze.

So complete had been the stillness that even the smallest movement in the most peripheral of vision drew the eye. That, and the fact that Æthelstan had not survived a dozen battles in his lifetime by not following his instincts. It was indeed the smallest movement, but he leaned to one side nonetheless and the arrow which would have struck him in the chest glanced off the leather padding on his shoulder.

Æthelstan's horse wasn't the swiftest in his stable, but it made up in sheer vigour what it lacked in speed. A single leap carried it three-quarters of the distance across the square, and the king's longsword did the rest. The archer was cleaved from right shoulder to left hip with a single swing, and both halves of him fell away, soaking the ground with cruor.

So gratified was he with the ferocity of his strike that the king never saw the second arrow coming.