I’ve been guest blogging over at Charles Stross‘s blog, a writer with so many rockets to his name I joke about buying him a Tracy Island set. I did a three part piece In defence of Traditional (Eurocentric Quasi-Medieval) Fantasy which sparked some… lively discussion in the comments. I also talked about my writing process, and of course my YA Dark Age adventure, Shieldwall: Barbarians! (UK, Amazon-free Epub), which I originally wrote for my son. Frankly, I’m a bit brain dead, so you’ll pardon me if I hit you with the first chapter of my book…
by M Harold Page
AD 451, south coast of Roman Britain
A spear whirred past the ear of Hengest, son of King Fredulf of the Jutes. It thwacked into the door of his father’s mead hall.
Warriors appeared out of the shadows and charged across the moonlit courtyard towards Hengest. They came on in silence except for the sound of laboured breathing and the clink of mail.
Hengest stepped behind one of the posts holding up the porch roof and yelled, “We’re under attack!”
More weapons sailed through the night air.
The post was too thin to provide any cover. Hengest dodged sideways and drew his sword. He tripped, glimpsed the doorkeeper sprawled dead, then threw himself into a forward roll.
Spears and axes swished past and stuck in the hall’s thick wooden wall.
Clutching his sword, Hengest came to his feet and ran for it. The nearest buildings were just black shapes in the dark. He’d spent the last five of his seventeen years in exile as a hostage, but he still recognised the soft glow of the smithy’s doorway – the nearest place to find a shield with which to defend himself.
A spear tore his cloak. Another missed his toes and stuck in the ground. He jumped over it and sprinted on.
From behind, he heard the five hundred Jutish men in the mead hall chanting, “Bride! Bride!” He was supposed to be fetching his older sister to her wedding; a man’s job and his chance to show that he was a proper Jute and not some milksop raised by Romans. Instead, he was fleeing from murderous strangers. Worse, none of his father’s men had heard his warning.
Pulse pounding in his ears, boots squelching in the mud, Hengest zigzagged across the courtyard.
Ahead, the coals of the smithy’s hearth glowed red from the day’s work. Hengest ducked into the shelter. The warm fug of charcoal and sweat wrapped itself around him. There was no sign of the smith. He would be in the hall with the others.
Behind him, men cheered and light flared. Now he could see the forge with its anvils and neat racks of tools and the weapons propped against the wall waiting for repair. He grabbed a battered shield.
His big sister’s scream carried from the direction of the women’s quarters. It had to be her – only Tova could scream so loud and not actually sound scared.
Hengest cursed himself. The attackers hadn’t come to kill him. They were here to kidnap his sister, who was famous for her beauty, if not her good temper.
He turned back to the courtyard.
The calls for the bride had stopped. Flames licked from the roof of the Jutish mead hall. The firelight flickered on spears, swords, axes, and iron helmets.
More than one hundred of the enemy warriors jostled around the main door. The hall was so big that they looked like ants attacking a loaf of bread. However, they were blocking the easiest escape route from the burning building. There would be more warriors at the back door – that was how Hengest’s father would have done it. Further off, the Jutish fort’s gates gaped. Dead guards lay scattered around the courtyard.
The sweat broke out on Hengest’s brow. They hadn’t just come to steal Tova. They were here to wipe out King Fredulf and all his tribe of Jutes. True to his bargain with the Romans, his father had guarded the shores of Britannia. Time and again, he led his Jutes against other less tamed German tribes from beyond the Empire. The Geats, Danes, Frisians and Franks – to name a few – all had cause to curse King Fredulf of the Jutes. The old warrior king had destroyed dozens of raiding parties. These must be the survivors banded together for revenge.
Hengest looked this way and that. What should he do? What could he do? He’d proved himself a swordsman at his homecoming feast when some of the other warriors had insisted on sparring with him. But plunging into that mass of enemy warriors would be like putting his hand in the fire. He just couldn’t do it.
The hall doors burst open. Some of his father’s warriors set about hacking a path to safety. Warriors bellowed, weapons clashed. The hundreds of Jutes crammed into the hall could only come out three at a time, but his father had never lost a fight.
Hengest gave a sigh of relief. The men in the hall could look after themselves.
Tova screamed again, this time from the direction of the gate. Hengest spotted her in the firelight, struggling with two enemy warriors. There were rips in her over-gown. Blood spattered her face and arms.
Hengest’s heart leapt into his mouth.
Tova twisted and loose braids of her long blond hair whipped around like angry snakes. She didn’t look wounded. The blood must be somebody else’s. She wasn’t going to let them take her without a fight, and nor was Hengest.
Hengest slipped out of the smithy. The enemy at the hall door had their backs to him. The clash of weapons and cries of “Woden!” told him that the Jutes were still trying to fight their way out. Keeping to the shadows, he worked his way towards his sister.
Tova wrenched an arm free. A blade reflected the firelight. She had got hold of a seax – the single-edged knife all German warriors carried. One of her captors staggered back, blood spraying from his throat. He tripped over a dead guard and lay twitching on the ground.
A tall warrior in an old Roman cavalry helmet strode up. He slammed the edge of his shield into Tova’s hand. The seax fell. It landed point down in the mud, next to the man she’d killed. The surviving captor punched her in the belly. She doubled over. He threw her over his shoulder and set off out of the gate into the night.
The tall warrior turned back towards the fight by the doors, but stopped with his visor facing Hengest. The light from the burning hall made the eye-holes look like black pits, but Hengest knew he had been spotted.
The warrior’s laughter boomed loud enough to be heard over the fighting. He swaggered towards Hengest. Behind his shield, he wore a shirt of lamellar. Made from laced-together iron scales, it could stop almost any weapon. It was the kind of sophisticated armour only available inside the Roman Empire. These attackers weren’t barbarian cousins from the far north after all. They were like King Fredulf’s Jutes, German warriors settled inside the Empire to defend it. They were supposed to be on the same side.
Hengest lifted his shield so he could just see over the top of it. The big wooden disk covered him from knee to shoulder, but only as long as he could keep the other man from levering it out of the way. He raised his sword and remembered that warriors were supposed to taunt each other. “Fine war gear. Did you win it at dice?” he cried, trying to sound brave.
The warrior laughed again and stepped closer. “Short and broad. You must be Hengest Atheling.”
Hengest edged out of reach. The warrior knew who he was and that he was an atheling, the son of a German king. He couldn’t have come from very far away. “I do not recall my father inviting Badiocassium Saxons to my sister’s wedding,” he said, guessing.
“Very good.” The warrior took another step closer. “I am Widigast Deathdealer, War Chief to King Osric of the Badiocassium Saxons. Your father refused to submit to my king. Now he will lose both son and daughter, along with all his men, and other German chieftains will think twice before defying my king.”
Hengest’s mouth went dry. Widigast Deathdealer! There was no way he was going to beat this famous warrior. He retreated a little further. His foot bumped against the smithy wall. “You should not have told me your name,” he said, playing for time. “Now Jutish warriors will roast meat on the embers of Osric’s hall.”
“Perhaps, but you will not be with them.” Widigast raised his sword. “Give my greetings to your brothers in Valhalla, boy.” He stepped into reach. “That is, if they let Romans like you past the portal.”
Hengest remembered Old Childeric’s advice; “When things look hopeless, lad, keep it simple and do it right. You’re faster than Thunor’s Hammer, so just maybe…”
Hengest aimed a cut at the Saxon’s head. As he attacked, he leapt forward to give the sword power, and used his shield to protect his arm.
Widigast parried with his shield, and cut low.
Hengest sensed the blade swishing towards his unprotected stomach. He lowered his shield to block, and whirled his sword around at the other side of Widigast’s head.
The blade struck the old Roman helmet. It glanced off in a shower of sparks.
At the same time, there was a thock! and Hengest’s hip burned with agony. Widigast’s sword had cut through the rim of his shield, missed its target and sliced into Hengest’s hip bone.
With a roar of pain, Hengest hacked down at the Saxon’s sword arm. Widigast’s iron vambrace held, but the impact knocked his arm off to the side, taking his weapon with it.
Hengest let his own sword bounce on Widigast’s armour. He slashed up under the visor…
…and suddenly, Widigast had no head.
Widigast’s body spurted blood, then crashed to the ground next to the fallen head. The eyes blinked twice, then became still except for the reflected flicker of firelight.
With a crash, a patch of the mead hall’s great roof caved in. Embers floated up like runaway stars. The Saxons cheered. The sounds of fighting grew frantic.
Hengest’s face was wet. He tasted something metallic and realised what it was. Now his arms and legs turned to water, and he felt sick. His sword and shield felt too heavy to lift. He let them trail by his side and tried to steady himself. He’d spent years training for this moment, but this was his first real fight.
Tova’s scream carried from far away in the direction of the beach. The scream cut off, as if some Saxon had put his hand over her mouth.
The flames from the roof rose higher into the night sky, and the fighting grew louder. His father and the other Jutes were still trapped in the burning hall. It was entirely made of timber. If they could not hack their way free soon, then the fire would take almost everybody he knew.
Meanwhile, Tova was vanishing into the night.
He could try to help his father or his sister, but not both.
Hengest looked this way and that, unable to decide. Blood dripped down his left leg and his hip began to throb.