I came up with this first chapter for historical fiction set during the Viking invasion of Anglo-Saxon England.
What I want to know is would you like to read more of Hilda’s story? If so, let me know your thoughts and I’ll keep writing it!
Hammer on anvil. The crash of heavy iron striking immobile stone. One blow after another, each one followed by the roar of sparks showering the air. Howling wind from the blacksmith’s bellows. A deafening, pounding rhythm of crash, roar and howl.
Hilda sat up and threw the sealskin cloak from her face as the thundering beat throbbed in her ears. ‘Curse you, Woden Allfather,’ she spat. ‘Can’t you let me sleep?’
She stood in the entrance to her perch and lifted her face to the sky. A dark mass of clouds had gathered, stretching to every horizon. They consumed the sun, tearing its light from the heavens. Only a trickle of dawn’s warmth reached the narrow crevice in the high granite bluffs where Hilda made her hunting den.
If it weren’t for the din of the waves striking the rocks and sending walls of salt spray into the air around her, she might have slept for hours. The gods responded to her hissed profanities with the booming impact of a tidal surge against the broken cliffs below. She felt the tremor in her feet.
I won’t lodge here again. This cave might not be here when I return, if I hear the spirits rightly.
They spoke to her through vibrations in the rock, the sweep of foaming waves and the swirling clouds above. She called it the Otherworld, but it had many names. What did names matter? Spirits had no use for them, so why should she?
It was a whisper which could always be heard by those who chose to listen. Now its voice was loud, shouting an insistent warning in her ears.
‘We’re coming. We’re coming to drag down your walls of rock. We’re coming to drown your houses of stone. Your bones will be crushed to bloody meal beneath our might.’
There was a time and a place to be afraid of spirits and gods. Standing in the doorway to your house in the first coming of light was neither. Hilda was not afraid. She sent a glob of spit into the vast iron sea and smiled. The spirits would claim her, as certain as the coming of night, but not that day. She hadn’t heard it whispered in the wind and the wind didn’t lie.
Even so, she felt anxiety pressing in against her chest. Dreading what came next. The sea was no place for the inhabitants of the middle realm. It was the destroyer of all things and, when the last day dawned, the serpent which slept at its depths would rise up and crush the world in its jaws.
So Hilda had been told. But she had another reason to fear the iron grey waves. The spirits’ voices were strong that day. Their whispers were urgent and cruel.
‘We will destroy it all. Tear it down. Crush it to dust.’
Having retrieved her sealskin cloak and other supplies from the cave, she descended the shattered face of the cliff. There wasn’t much to weigh her down. A light spear, short bow, arrows and flint. There was nothing more she needed for what lay ahead and nothing more she owned to leave behind.
The first step was always the worst. Creeping out over the edge of the world and hoping she didn’t fall. There was nothing to catch her save pounding waves and steadfast rock. If she missed her footing, they would tear her apart and smash her to pulp before the current could carry her out to sea. Another tremor of fear.
I won’t fall today. I haven’t fallen yet and the wind doesn’t lie. Today isn’t my end.
Hilda cut a diagonal path across the bluffs, heading for the exposed sediment of the causeway. Her hands burned with the cold where they gripped wet rock, wind whipping at her exposed fingers. She was barefoot, edging along ridges and narrow ledges on the balls of her feet.
Halfway to the causeway, it happened. She heard it first, a blast of air in her ears and a gasping message.
‘Death. Tearing. Crushing.’
The gust hit her like a hammer blow. It slammed her into the unforgiving rock, ripping open the skin of her forehead where it cracked against the cliff-face. Hilda saw lights flashing before her eyes, darkness closed in around them. Something tugged at her, dragging her out towards the empty air and the jagged crests of the waves below. Snatching at her hair. Shaking an arrow loose from her quiver.
‘Not today,’ she said through gritted teeth, clinging to a sharp fissure in the rock with rigid fingers. There was a hot, damp sensation running down her nose. The sharp taste of blood on her lips. Hilda screwed her eyes closed and felt the sharp stone cut into her fingertips. ‘You won’t take me today.’
‘No, not today.’
The wind’s surrender was a soft murmur as the gale dropped away to the gusting breeze it had been before. Hilda didn’t wait to see if it had subsided for good. The last few hundred yards down were a desparate scramble, made more treacherous by the waves ramming into the cliff’s base and showering her in spray. But she didn’t dare slow down.
She reached the soft earth of the causeway and collapsed onto its surface. Her hands were shaking, the skin ripped and raw from the climb. Holding her hands up over her head, Hilda laughed.
I’m alive, Allfather. Do you see? You couldn’t kill me.
Too breathless to give voice to her defiance, she brandished her torn fingers to the sky. Something caught her eye as her choking laughter faded. A thick, broken branch jutted out from the causeway. The crude pattern carved into its bark was distinctive, familiar. She dragged it out of the wet sand and felt down its length until her fingers found a knotted piece of rope. Broken. Another trap lost to the sea and hours of painstaking labour wasted.
The rest of her search fared little better. Every trap she had laid the morning before was empty or had been dragged away by the malign spirits of the sea. No fish to take home to her people. Of more pressing concern, nothing to put in her already hollow belly. She could feel it cramping as she ran down the causeway, dashing from trap to trap and finding no promise of a meal.
I can’t return tomorrow. Something’s angered the spirits. The storm will fall tomorrow.
Their voices were only a whisper, but Hilda could see their gathering rage. The clouds had darkened to ash grey and the waves lifted with the surging wind. Something dark was coming. A storm or worse. Her mother had told stories of a time when the middle realm was always cold. Tales passed down through the generations of frozen seas and snow in summer.
But the air had been warmer in recent weeks, even more so as banks of cloud rolled in across the sea. Hilda knew what the darkening sky foretold.
‘The flood is coming. We’re coming. Death and ruin.’
A new smell on the sea air. She stopped in her tracks, lowering her body nearer to the causeway’s rippled surface and hoisting her spear. The smell of men, thick and bitter in her nostrils. Unwashed, unashamed; the scent of Believers.
Hilda carried on down the causeway, keeping her body hunched in the hunter’s crouch. Her community had experience with the Believers. They weren’t dangerous unless they chose to be, but there was never any way of telling when that might be. Their god spoke to them with the voice of a man, Hilda had been told. It was a dangerous thing, to hear the words of the spirits clearly. They often led men false.
There were four of them, young monks with rough brown cassocks hoisted up above their knees. Crouched in a semicircle around one of her markers, tampering with the trap below. She should’ve known. Her traps often failed in rough seas, but all of them at once? No, she knew it then for what it was. Theft.
‘Pagan!’ the closest monk shouted as she charged.
Their faces came alive with fear at the sight of her. Scrawny and savage. Dried smears of blood on her face and hands. A short, light spear aimed into their midst. They scrambled back, slipping on the wet sand and tripping over each other. Staring up at her from pale faces contorted in terror.
‘Give it back,’ she said, her voice a feral snarl.
Hilda stood with her feet planted on either side of the trap. Waited for them to hand her the catch they had stolen or beg for their lives. The youngest, a man with a short black beard and close-cropped hair, raised himself into a crouch. Not a warrior’s crouch, though he looked strong enough to wield a sword. The hand he stretched out towards her was empty, palm open.
‘Get back, brother,’ one of his frightened companions said. ‘She’ll run you through, the pagan witch.’
‘She’s no witch, brother.’ Hilda saw fear leave the man’s eyes, replaced by something softer. The warmth of his gaze unsettled her. ‘She’s only a child.’
‘Your coward brother is right. I’ll gut you if you don’t give me my catch,’ she snapped, baring he teeth and taking a tighter grip on the spear.
‘There’s no need,’ the younger monk said, his voice soothing, feet edging closer. ‘We don’t mean you any harm. Come with us.’ His hand reached for hers and Hilda felt blood rush in her ears. ‘A warm bed for the night. Hot food. Would you like to come back to the island?’
His expression was almost pleading. It revolted her. She wanted to jab the sharp point of her spear into his throat, but something held her back. The promise of hot food, a warm bed. What was the alternative? Going hungry in the cold salt marsh and waking to crippling belly cramps the next day.
One of the older monks rallied, inspired by his brother’s courage. He stood behind him and spoke with authority, even if the frightened tremble didn’t leave his voice.
‘Yes, our brother is telling you the truth. We have food and beds enough to spare. Come, sister, accept the Holy Spirit into your heart.’
Hilda took a step nearer to them, reaching for the younger brother’s hand. His expression was unchanged. Brow furrowed in sincere concern. She saw something in the older monk’s eyes. A flash of smug satisfaction. The voice of her inner spirit rose to drown out the whispers of the wind and waves.
‘Thieves! Don’t trust them!’
The young, earnest monk gave her a warm smile as she clasped her hand around his wrist. It remained fixed on his face as she drove the point of her spear into his eye. He gave a scream of agony which pierced her ears and seemed to go on without end. Hilda jumped back into the hunter’s crouch, ready to strike against his brothers. But they didn’t attack. They caught him as he fell, large hands pressed over the mangled ruin of his eye. Blood seeping between his fingers. The three monks dragged him away over the causeway, raising incoherent shouts of fear and alarm.
She trotted over to the long leather bundle they had dropped in their retreat. It was heavier and narrower than she had expected. Not a fish or lobster; she could tell from the weight alone. Unravelling the wet folds, Hilda saw a bright flash of polished steel.
A sword. As far as she knew, none of her people had ever held one. It was a weapon, of course, but how it was wielded and what other use it served she could not fathom. She tucked it into her belt and jogged back towards the mainland. The sawing pain of hunger was back, hacking through her belly, and with it came the whisper of the wind.
‘We’re coming. The tide is coming. The flood is coming. Death and ruin to all men.’