Only yesterday I did the second of a series of presentations to the Year 7 and Year 8 students at my school about how and why I write. I was pleased to see some older ones joining in, as the 10 novels I have written as GLENN STUART are aimed at 12-16 year olds.
With the talk finished, the floor opened up for questions. Questions which really stretched me.
One student asked what I found the most useful tool for writing – inspiration or practise. This is close to my heart, as I do feel strongly that the story should come first, then the labour. It is a labour, however, which improves the more you do it. So, a mix of the two.
I told them how I came to write ‘Cold Hell in Darley Dene’, the story my mum had told me about an experience in the War; next, ‘The Well of Constant Despair’, how on Alderney I’d stumbled upon a very beautiful and tranquil place, hidden from everyone. A little brook meandered through it, and I wondered…what if…
I am always doing this. My imagination tends to simply EXPLODE. I was on holiday recently, staying in a house that had a locked door to some hidden basement rooms. Soon I had conjured up an entire story based upon a young couple visiting the village, being stared at by the old men who wondered why the couple showed such an unhealthy interest in the hidden rooms.
My next novel. Perhaps.
Or, it could be something else.
As soon as I finish a book, I start another. With hardly any break at all. As I write this new work, I am also editing the previous one. So, it is a constant conveyor belt of creativity.
Well, I’m thinking…as it is so close to Christmas, why not offer up a small taster from Varangian, my novel of Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, invader of England and full-time good egg? I’m giving here Chapter 24, in the hope that you will be wooed into reading more. And, perhaps even writing a review? I’m willing, you see, to give FREE copies of Varangian, either e-books or paperbacks, in return fro a review. So, lift your glass, don your specs, and get in touch. firstname.lastname@example.org. And thanks. And now, here is the extract…enjoy!
Andreas slept in the tiny hut, wrapped in furs. He had woken once or twice and each time the girl had tended to him, feeding him hot soup or washing his brow. The young Byzantine fluctuated between burning fever and extreme shivering.
Each time Hardrada poked his head through the door to catch a glimpse, the girl ushered him out again. He had seen the deathly pallor on the young man’s skin and didn’t like what he saw. It was the mask of death, a thing encountered many times on the faces of wounded men after battle. As they lay in the dank earth, the cuts from axe blows or sword thrusts, the way the wounds sucked and oozed, as if they themselves were living things. The way the flesh turned to pale stone, then became a sickly wax. He had seen it and he did not know of any man who had lived after that cast came over their flesh.
He sensed the girl at his shoulder and he turned. She was drying her hands on an old cloth. “He is very sick,” she said, not looking into the Viking’s eyes. “If you hadn’t helped him he would already be dead.”
“He was cold, I warmed him. That is all.”
“Well, without you he would be in their Christian heaven right now.” She tossed the cloth away. “I’m going to make us something to eat.”
She frowned, then a slight, bemused smile. “Because we are hungry! We need to—”
“I meant, why did you help us? You tell me I kept Andreas alive but without you, both of us would be dead. And yet you screamed when you first saw us? What was that, a call to the others? Fear? What?”
She shook her head, offered no answer as her eyes seemed to glaze over. “Is that his name, Andreas? That’s really quite beautiful, don’t you think?”
It was Hardrada’s turn to frown, “Oh, yes, like an angel’s.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking,” she gave a little skip, then clapped her hands together. For a moment she looked like a little girl and Hardrada had to laugh, his biting sarcasm lost on her. A curious mix of innocent young girl, naive in her dealings with others, yet supremely confident in her environment. She eked out some sort of life amongst the woods, far from prying eyes and she thrived on it.
“I have to ask you,” he said. “You mentioned a war band and that you are one of them …” He swept his hand over the small encampment with its leather-sided tent, the pots and pans strewn here and there, an animal skin pegged out to dry. “This is their camp too?”
She bit her lip, looked back to the tent for a moment, then shook her head. “They sometimes pass this way, but not often.”
He didn’t understand that. A woman, as beautiful as she, living out here in the wilds, left all alone. Who were these men that they did not come and visit her? And who was she that was able to keep them away? Warriors, men skilled in death, why would they choose to leave her alone? There was something not quite right in any of this.
“I married a Roman,” she said, by way of explanation, possibly sensing his unasked questions. “He left me riches, a fine house, servants. I gave it all away to live my life here, as my mother had.”
“Your mother? I don’t understand.”
“Why should you?” She shrugged then stooped down to pick up a pot. He watched her as she went to fetch an animal skin filled with water. She poured most of it into the pot and settled it down on the makeshift brazier above the flames of the camp-fire. She threw in some herbs. “My mother was a soothsayer.”
A tiny chill ran down his spine. “A sorceress?”
She gave a small laugh, gathered up some vegetables and began to slice them into crude chunks, plopping each one into the water. “That is what the war band believe. Who am I to tell them otherwise? Such knowledge keeps me safe from them.”
“Because they believe you to be one also, a sorceress?” Hardrada blew out his cheeks. “We must give thanks for their stupidity. Or blindness.”
“They are not stupid, and certainly not blind. Simply mistaken. My mother was renowned for her knowledge of herbal lore. Everyone came to her when they were ill or had some malady that they could not shift. Then one day, a young soldier was brought to her, dying from his wounds. No matter how hard she tried, she could not save him. He died, right there.” She pointed to a small clearing of bare earth a few steps away. “Hence my scream. Memories, all of them painful. Nothing ever grows there, not since his life blood seeped out and soaked into the soil.”
“Men die all the time from their wounds. I should know, I’ve seen it often enough.”
She shook her head. “No, this was like no other death. He was a nobleman’s son, high-ranking, and they don’t die like that. Alone, in the cold, damp earth. So they killed her. My mother. His companions ran her through with their swords. I watched them, tried to stop them. But what could I do, a mere girl against such brutes. The commander, he was the cruellest of all. He seemed to enjoy my suffering.” Her slicing of the vegetables became much more violent, the heavy knife in her hand chopping through the various ingredients for the soup, like they were the skulls of the men who had killed her mother. “It was only after she lay there, dead on the ground, that it happened.”
Hardrada held his breath. Something about her, the way she had changed, made her seem capable of violence. Looking back to the dreadful deed, her eyes narrowed and glazed over, it was almost as if she had returned to that moment. Her voice was hard, controlled, but with an edge to it that had not been there before. It made his heart freeze. “What happened?” he managed.
“The soldier, the boy. He sat up, completely healed.”
It took him a moment to react. He heard the words but not the meaning behind them. The way she spoke, her face, all made him feel very uneasy. “What do you mean? You said he was dead.”
“So he was. My mother placed the herbs into his wounds, said the words, laid her hands upon his body, then he died. At least, I thought he had died. Everyone else too. But he hadn’t. He sat up, blinked a few times and grinned.” She looked at the Viking with eyes filled with tears. “Now, you understand why they don’t come?” Her eyes, now as black as coals, bore into him. “My mother had brought him back from the dead.”
The day had already turned cold by the time Hardrada stood on the opposite side of the ford. The girl had given him a packed satchel bag, some concoction of herbs which she said would heal any wound, and a map. He had studied it before his departure and it seemed clear enough. A path through the treacherous mountains would cut down his travel time to the northern border by at least a day. With good weather he should make the camp of the Varangians this time tomorrow. Andreas, still not fit to travel, would stay behind and Hardrada could pick him up on the return. At first he had been reluctant but images of Zoe and his two friends’ death at the hands of the detestable Orphano, loomed large in his mind, and he acquiesced.
He saw her watching him from a little way off. He raised his hand and took the first step into the icy water. He sucked in his breath sharply, the water stabbed like knives into his flesh, colder than he remembered. It must be snowing up in the mountains, a thought that did not improve his mood, but he gritted his teeth and made his way across the river to the opposite bank, the water rarely reaching above his knees.
He turned again as he stepped up onto the bank. The girl had gone, disappearing amongst the trees like a ghost. He shivered but not from the cold and pulled the fur around his shoulders. All that talk of sorcery and raising the dead, it didn’t sit well with him. Never a superstitious man, Hardrada had nevertheless met witches in his own country. Usually old and misshapen, he had dismissed their arts as the stuff of nonsense although he was always wary of them, never asked them questions or sought out their help in any way. Perhaps there was something in what they did; he simply did not want to think about it.
Along the river edge, he came across his sword and scabbard where he had left them. Without a pause, he buckled the belt around his waist, hefted the blade in his hand. It was good to have it back; it reassured him, made him feel safe. Then, he turned and scrambled over the bank and into the broken ground and sparse tree line that had been their camp. The ashes from the fire were grey, cold and dead. The pot with the peas was also there, most of the peas now gone. Someone had been here, cooked by this fire, made themselves comfortable.
Sure enough, as he investigated further, he came across the unmistakable signs of habitation. The slight impression in the earth, footprints, and over by the trees, defecation.
A horse whinnied.
Whoever had made themselves at home in this place was no thief. The horses were tethered in a little glade and once again, he saw the remains of oats on the ground. The visitor had fed the animals, cared for them. Not the actions of someone selfish and unconcerned. A friend? But who? Hardrada chewed at his lip, his suspicions growing. He saddled up his horse, attached the saddlebags and blanket, tied the reins of the other to his own, then lifted himself onto his horse’s back. Andreas’s mount snorted loudly and Hardrada led it out of the glade and set his course on the pathway that ran alongside the river.
He glanced over to where the girl had her own encampment but he could see no signs of either her or her tent. It was as if the whole lot had been swallowed up by the forest over there. If he did not already know it existed, no evidence remained now. No wonder she could eke out her life undisturbed. Perhaps it had nothing to do with sorcery after all. She was simply unknown to anyone. That must be the logical explanation.
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