Snake Eyes

Future archaeologists may use this image of a cowboy to speculate that the 1800s USA was a nomadic, pastoral culture

The assassin led his worn-out mule into Old Akkolade and the sheriff watched him come. He was perched up on the jailhouse roof, hanging his elbow over the crumbling brick parapet and mincing a cigar butt between his tobacco-stained teeth. The deputies lounging around him winced in the fierce sunlight and swatted blood-fattened flies from their sweating brows.

‘First thing y’all should know ’bout Kid Bonn,’ the sheriff said, keeping his eyes on the dust-whipped high street and growling to catch their attention, ‘He’s the sorta fella who don’t look much. He’s a puss to look at, but this tomcat got fangs. Y’all best remember that.’

His deputies gave a chorus of thirsty croaks to show they heard. Every one of them was too caught up in his own discomfort of dread to offer any more coherent response. They were in a collective state of corpse-like repose, hoping to put off the moment when their cracked and blistered hands would reach for the baking metal of their rifles, brought to a skillet-hot temperature by the midday sun.

‘Y’all hear me? He ain’t no puss.’

Now they bobbed their heads in unison as his cool green eyes fixed them one by one. The sheriff couldn’t see their eyes, only hat brims, bristle chins and Winchesters, but he knew they wouldn’t dare meet his gaze anyway. Snake Eyes was a viper. Look him in those almost-yellow lights and you’d be hypnotised, put down for the long sleep with a lead pillow to rest on. So folks said.

Continue reading “Snake Eyes”

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Hermit Isle ~ 111 words ~

Island

He watched the tide recede, leaving streaks of green kelp exposed as the steel grey waves peeled back from the sand. Sadness and relief mingled in his mind, knowing the parting mist of dawn might bring pilgrims across the headland, dreading the interruption they would visit on his sanctuary. At least, he thought. The tide will return to leave me alone again, and the people will return when the waves part to bare the sands once more. As he could bear neither being utterly at peace nor suffering interruptions without intermission.

While he chose solitude to be his burden, it was a blessing he could only shift off with reluctance.

A Yard of Steel

Knight

Brenn watched the enemy fill the fields across the brook. Their numbers seemed vast, impossibly numerous even from such a distance. He knew, with a familiar chill of fear, that their numbers would only swell the closer they came. To be trapped amongst the oncoming horde, fending off blows on all sides… It was enough to turn his stomach and cause him to doubt the noble purpose which brought him there.

Am I really about to stake my whole life on nothing more than a promise? he wondered. And whose promise? A bishop, a man who never touched iron nor spilled blood in his life. 

Further doubt was forestalled by a ripple passing through the ranks of armoured men around him. Men shuffled around under the weight of plate and mail to look over Brenn’s shoulder. He turned and saw the king nudging his horse between the disorderly ranks of his vanguard.

Continue reading “A Yard of Steel”

The Forgotten Kingdom #1

Prester_John

‘Pero da Covilha, I demand satisfaction!’

Pero felt his gut clench. There was only one man he had offended gravely enough to demand a fight. Such a man as no one but a feral dog would agree to duel him.

But what choice did he have?

Already mutters spread through the market square as people turned from the stalls, searching for the source of the challenge. He was hard enough to miss, a great tower of muscle with flowing auburn hair. The challenge’s recipient proved more difficult to locate.

‘Who did he say?’ they whispered. ‘Pero da where?’

Did nobody recognise his name? Pero had thought a squire of the king himself might deserve some fame, but no…

‘That’s him, I’m sure of it. Alvaro Cavalero, the Lance of Lisbon.’

‘What’s he doing, calling out some nobody?’

‘Rip him apart, Alvaro! He’s here!’

Continue reading “The Forgotten Kingdom #1”

Saxon Story / Housecarl (full story)

Hastings

The great edit, update and compile process continues with Saxon Story!

Chapter 1

Breya let the armful of empty tankards she had been carrying clatter down onto the scuffed oak work surface at the back of the mead hall. With thick, calloused hands she straightened out the creases on her bright woolen skirts.

This is bad business if ever I saw it. Whoever he is, I’ll serve him quick and see him out the door before blood is spilled.

The housecarl stood in the doorway, letting the brittle wooden boards slam closed behind him. His eyes roamed through the crowd of patrons. Grizzled men old and young bundled beneath hooded cloaks and thick tunics let the clamor of a few moments before lull into silence.

Their harsh, pockmarked faces stared up at the newcomer. They wore expressions which were sufficiently hostile to convey a sense that he was not welcome, without inviting open violence.

No fighting. God, let there be no fighting today. It’s me who’ll have to wash their blood from the walls and fetch in fresh rushes.

This was the crucial moment. If the bearded housecarl with the shield across his back and sword on his hip saw the emblem of a rival house or the face of a man with whom he had a blood feud, all shades of hell would break loose.

Come inside, stranger. I’ll settle you by the fire, Breya called.

Her voice was as mellow and inviting as a flagon of warm ale. It had been known to melt the frowns from the faces of harder men than he who stood in the doorway. The housecarl was satisfied anyway, seeing no enemies among the throng.

He gave a reassuring nod to the hall’s occupants and moved carefully between them. A clumsy foot stepping on the wrong toe would be another reason for blood to fly. One old hand, a farmer with a brood of grandchildren to thank the Lord for and who had seen his share of wars, stepped into the warrior’s path.

No blood. Not today.

What news is there from the king, housecarl?‘ he asked.

What king?

Breya gasped. It was a treasonous, ungodly thing to say. The fact that it was one of King Harold’s own household knights who had said it made the words all the more appalling. She quite forgot her task of guiding him to his stool and stood in dumb, open-mouthed astonishment. Harold Godwinson, King of England by the grace of God.

What’s that, lord? the farmer asked. Isn’t there a king in England no more?

Aye, there is, the housecarl replied, giving a feral sneer as he pushed past the old man and dropped onto a stool at the fireside. But he’s no English king, and no king of mine.

The old hand shook his weathered head and shuffled back to his table. His friends immediately set their brows together and began to raise a hum of concerned muttering. Breya leaned over the housecarl’s shoulder and placed a warm flagon in his hand.

Leave it be. She told herself. You don’t know him. This isn’t your concern. Hold your tongue and keep your head.

Has their been a battle, sir?‘ she asked. Curiosity, the bane of all honest folk.

He looked up at her. Except he did not. His eyes stared past her to something a hundred leagues away which haunted the core of his soul.

There’s been a battle, aye. Harold’s killed and we’re all to serve a Norman king now. So fetch me a platter of pie and I’ll be on my way.

A lie. Let it be a lie. I won’t believe it.

But there was no deceit in the housecarl’s cold eyes. Only sorrow and grim resignation.

Where will you go? Breya asked.

Wherever there’s work for a sword and coin to pay for it. I’m a man without a master now, and that’s hardly a man at all.

Chapter 2

It was the sound which all feared to hear. The tolling of the bells could mean many things, none of them good. They signaled death in the parish. Plague. War. Countless other catastrophes.

When men heard them without prior warning, it always meant the same thing. They should leave whatever work occupied them, gather their wives and children, and barricade themselves inside their homes.

There it is, the housecarl bellowed from his seat by the fire. Scurry away, church mice. Your master has come and your maker isn’t far behind.’

His words were accompanied by brassy clangs which echoed through the rafters of the mead hall. Patrons upturned stools and benches in their haste to rise.

What’s happening? Where should I go? To the church? No, it won’t be safe there.

There was a great exodus moving towards the narrow doorway, which soon became a bottleneck as men tried to force their way through it two at a time. Fists flew and curses crackled in the muggy air of the tavern.

Only two figures did not stir. The first was the housecarl, who continued to sip at his ale and watch the commotion with cruel amusement curling at the corner of his mouth. The other was Breya. She remained rooted by fear and uncertainty at the warrior’s shoulder.

‘Aren’t you going to run, little church mouse? the housecarl asked.

‘I’ve nowhere to go.‘ she replied.

He looked up at her, his wide jaw set in something which could have been pity or concern. Then he twisted his neck and spat into the glowing red embers of the hearth. Any worries he had harbored for her safety flew away in that glob of spittle, now hissing on the bright coals.

Nobody to care for the lowly serving girl, eh? Aye, that’s a shame. Come closer and we’ll pass our last moments in lovers’ bliss.

The housecarl wrapped a strong arm cased in iron links around Breya’s waist and drew her with efficient force onto his lap. She shrieked in shock, provoking a loud guffaw to erupt from behind his dark beard.

Keep his tongue moving. She warned herself. Keep him talking and his lips parted.

Why are these our last moments?‘ she cried.

Those bells signal the coming of our new masters, and they’re no friends of Saxons,‘ the housecarl looked at Breya’s long braid of straw-colored hair as he spoke. They don’t care for a Norseman’s orphan brood either.

If we’re going to die then you shouldn’t handle me like this. You’ll go to Hell for it. It’s against the Lord’s commandments.

To her surprise, the threat seemed to work. The housecarl clapped his hands on her hips and lifted her onto her feet like she was little heavier than a bale of hay. He tossed his bark-brown hair and chuckled.

Will I go to Hell then? Is that what your Lord plans for me?

His words chilled Breya more than the thought of the strange invaders arriving in her village. He had called the Father your Lord. She could not believe that he was a man without faith, such a person could not exist.

Please,‘ she said. Don’t say such things.

Her pleading was interrupted by a great commotion outside the mead hall. An animal was shrieking and snorting in anger. The wall of the tavern thundered as something thrashed against it and a man cried out in alarm.

What is it?Breya asked.

No mind, they’ll just be stealing my horse.

She looked at the housecarl and felt bitterness kindle inside her. She wondered how he could so easily accept death. He was one of the king’s chosen men, she should have been safe with him.

God’s vengeance be upon your head, godless fiend.

If you have a horse then take me away. Save me from the Normans if they’re so wicked.

The housecarl rose and bent low to catch Breya’s ashen blue gaze with his. His eyes were blacker than smoke and carried the intense but faraway stare of a man who had seen twice his share of death.

Aye, they’re wicked enough to fill every circle of hell. If you could only have seen the glee with which they butchered noble King Harold and his bonny knights.

His gaze was severe and unflinching, but a twitch in the corner of his mouth told Breya that he mocked her. Before she was able to catch herself, the fire in her chest roared up and she slapped him across the cheek with the heel of her palm.

He did not flinch. The housecarl simply sucked in a deep breath, bent his knees and in a swift, fluid movement swung Breya up onto his shoulder like a sack of barley. She had no choice but to hang limp while he lumbered through the empty hall.

A rasp of metal and the sound of running feet announced that they had reached the doorway. In a moment, harsh sunlight was in her eyes and Breya found that she was perched on the back of a tangle-maned pony with a broad back and thick haunches.

There you are, my fierce church mouse,‘ the housecarl declared. Now which direction will we be escaping in?

Chapter 3

The housecarl reined in his steaming pony on the summit of a low hillock surrounded by muddy fields of tilled earth. As he and Breya dismounted, they heard the peaceful gurgle of an ambling brook on the far side of the mound. The man removed his helmet and set it on the saddle-horn.

Look there, lass,‘ the housecarl said. That’ll be your new lord come to take possession of his lands.

They had already traveled some leagues from the hamlet where Breya had been born. An unwanted burden left on a herdsman’s daughter by a marauding Norseman. Outside the mead hall where she had worked her elbows raw atoning for the sins of her father, a man in shining armor gestured here and there from atop a proud black mare.

Even as men-at-arms and lowborn knights battered in the doors of Saxon hovels, Norman serfs with bows across their backs set about marking a great square on the village common with lengths of white-dyed rope.

What are those men doing? Breya asked.

Her eyes were wide and appalled, having just born witness to the stable world she was brought up in spun around on its head. Everything in her life had fallen apart in what seemed like mere moments since the housecarl had brought news of King Harold’s defeat.

But the emerald hills and ancient trees of the landscape were unchanged by conquest. She clung to them like a drowning sailor to length of timber.

They’re preparing to build your new lord’s keep,‘ the Saxon warrior replied. Why don’t you run down and ask whether he wants your whorehouse built beside his kennel or the soldiers’ barracks?

Boiling rage rumbled in the pit of Breya’s stomach. The housecarl had every right to call her bastard-born and a frightened church mouse. He had done so already. But she was no man’s dog or whore.

Aren’t we going to ride on before someone sees us?‘ she asked.

Breya had to concentrate all of her willpower on keeping her tongue civil. However vulgar the brute was, his sword was all that kept her from the suffering now being inflicted on her neighbors. She clenched her fists and dug sharp fingernails into her palms.

Is that how it is?‘ the housecarl asked. Aye, you’ll be my wench and I’ll take you away on my horse, for a night or two. After that it’ll be you alone and me on my way. I’m married to this steel, He patted the scabbard at his hip as he spoke. And none other.

She could not help it, try as she might to resist the fury of the Norse heart which thundered in her chest. Breya snatched up the housecarl’s heavy iron helm and cracked its smooth, rounded top against the side of his skull.

I’ll not be your wench, she spat.

The bearded warrior looked surprised, perhaps even amused for a moment. Then his legs went soft as lard and his eyes rolled up in his head. The links of his mail coat rattled as his tall body met the hard earth with a crash like a felled oak.

His mind’s been shaken loose, but he should awaken soon. If he doesn’t, I’ll be damned to eternal torment for his murder.

Breya hauled her tired body up into the saddle and kicked her heels into the pony’s flanks. They were soon throwing up great clods of earth as they cantered through the wild meadows bordering the stream. The beast’s thick neck and powerful body heaved beneath her, saliva forming a thick lather where the bridle bit the corners of its mouth.

If she had been thinking calmer thoughts, she might have wondered where she was going. The path she followed led only away, and that was no true bearing at all.

Chapter 4

The housecarl sat up sharply with the thick odor of blood and screams of dying men still whirling about him. He had dreamed he was on the field at Hastings, but in sleep his legs had not been swift enough to carry him away from the butchers’ work.

With a hand hard-calloused from a life of the sword, the warrior felt along the pounding side of his head. His fingers came away damp with crimson blood. The serving girl had battered him to sleep and now he would see neither her nor his horse again.

Curse you, wench. If I catch sight of you again I’ll –

A soft neighing from the other side of the hill’s summit sent his hand reaching towards the scabbard at his belt. As though an apparition in some bard’s tall tale, Breya entered the clearing on the back of the pony. Her straw-colored braid swinging across her back and his sword gleaming in her hand.

That’s no kitchen knife you’re holding, church mouse,‘ the housecarl warned.

I’m no church mouse, villain,‘ she retorted. I came back to see if you were alive. Now that I know I’m not damned by your murder, I’ll carry on my journey.

Get away, wench,‘ the man hissed.

But his sharp eyes were not fixed on her. His face was turned towards a great figure emerging from the gloom beneath the trees. It was the shape of a man atop a horse, but both were so entirely covered in burnished armor that he could not tell where mount ended and rider began.

The knight dipped his lance towards the figure hunched on the ground and looked about him. Breya saw the housecarl’s eyes were welling with unspoken horror and fear. She wondered what he had seen on the field at Hastings to put him in such terror of the foreign lord.

What devilry is this?‘ the knight asked in halting Saxon, the words thickened by his Norman tongue. A warrior on his knees and a maiden on a horse?

Breya saw her chance. This was a sight no man ever thought to see, and the confusion it provoked might be her only shield.

We’re mummers, my lord. Would you care to see our play?

She dipped the housecarl’s sword in a half-mocking salute. Both men turned towards her with narrowed-eyed suspicion.

For a woman to take up a sword she must be possessed of the devil,‘ the knight said in a severe tone.

Throwing all caution to the wind, Breya kicked her pony towards the housecarl. She made a limp cut with the sword and its edge rang against the iron links across his breast.

Come, lord, she called in her best aristocratic sneer, affecting the knight’s French accent as best she could. Will you surrender or shall I come again?

Charge me once more, wench, and I’ll take your skin for a cloak, the housecarl snarled, only half his fury for show.

Breya led her mount forwards again. This time she left the sword raised and, as she passed the Saxon warrior, slipped from the saddle and delivered a kick to his rump. He turned on her with murder in his eyes.

The Norman lord began howling with laughter, clapping one iron gauntlet against his mailed thigh. His leg swung forward in imitation of her kick and Breya swept into a low curtsy. Behind her, the housecarl’s face twitched and he looked between them in angry confusion.

Well-played, mummers, the knight said. But I shan’t have wenches with swords around my men. They’ve seen enough devilry these last days –

And caused enough,‘ the housecarl muttered under his breath.

Be on your way and take the Lord’s blessings with you,‘ the Norman finished

He spurred his horse down the slope and Breya sighed. She was safe again. She heard a heavy boot squelch in the mud behind her. The housecarl’s mailed fist slammed into the back of Breya’s head and her vision turned black.

Chapter 5

Breya’s world had been reduced to a cave barely large enough to crouch in. It was a crack in the rock, a cramped crevice into which the housecarl had thrust her to keep the rain away. It might have been a kind gesture if she were not bound at the wrists with coarse rope.

So until he decided to release her, she occupied a narrow place between the smoke seeping into the cave from the warrior’s campfire and the damp rising up through the porous rock. If Breya lifted her head, she would cough. If she laid it down to sleep, a pool of brackish water would be her pillow.

Are you ready to let me go now?‘ she called.

Dark ferns stretched their slender fingers down across the mouth of the cave blocking any light from entering and preventing her from seeing without, but she knew he was there. She heard his heavy breaths and the ominous grind of a whetstone caressing the edge of his blade.

His only reply was to match a throaty grunt with a scratch of hard stone against sharp iron.

Don’t you have a wife you should be going to? Breya asked.

The grinding stopped, leaving her in silence. When the housecarl broke the quiet, he spoke with a tremble of amusement in his voice.

Aye, I have a wife. The king ordered me to take one. She had… He paused as though unsure of what to say. She had red hair, or was it brown? She had some hair, I’m certain of that.

He doesn’t know? What sort of villain forgets his own wife?

Is she dead?

Aye, most likely.He sighed and made a clucking sound. ‘There are worse fates than death, little church mouse. I can only hope she experienced at least one of them before the end.’

The rough scrape of whetstone on blade began again. Breya thought that there must be nothing left of the sword but a hairpin after the amount of time the warrior had spent sharpening it.

You don’t know if she’s dead?‘ she asked.

‘Aye. Well, I left the battle and rode north so fast I forgot to check on her. I’ll hardly set my own neck in a noose for some wench I never wanted to wed. Likely she found her way into the tent of some Norman lord, or onto the end of his sword.

A bark of laughter shot between the ferns and into Breya’s den. She bared her teeth in silence.

Come out of your hole, church mouse, and I’ll show you a taste of the times we’re living in.

What games has he planned for me now?

With a heavy weight of dread settling on Breya’s heart, she wriggled her way out of the cave. When she emerged she was surprised to find the housecarl standing on the very edge of the cliff on top of which they had camped.

She would have considered pushing him off if she had not been distracted by the sight in front of her. A ribbon of dusky red lay across the horizon beneath a thick blanket of pouring rain.

It was the glow of many thousands of fires smoldering across the landscape. Every town, village and hamlet in the north had been set alight. Here and there were dotted individual beacons of light where a barn or farmhouse was being consumed by hungry flames.

And great clouds of sparks and glowing cinders danced with the wind. Yellow, orange and ruby red. It was such an awesome, beautiful sight that Breya felt delight creeping into her heart. Her whole world was being fed into the inferno, and her only thoughts were of what would come next.

Welcome,‘ the housecarl bellowed into the night. To the Kingdom of England.

Chapter 6

It was the darkest hour of the night, when the stars seemed to be drawing ever further away into the black void of the nocturnal sky. Breya was tired to the very marrow of her bones, but she could not sleep.

Her eyes were open wide, taking in the orange hue which still stained the horizon. Fires burned on across the landscape, but the swirling dance of their embers no longer held any magic for her.

Instead, her mind turned to the future which now lay like the blank pages of an unwritten manuscript before her. She was free to make any choice she wished, lead any life she fancied and have whatever she desired.

Rumbling snores rose from beneath the thick bristles of the housecarl’s beard. It would have been an easy thing to slip a knife between his ribs while he slept. But Breya did not know if she wanted him dead.

The whole world had been purged by fire and she was being born into a new kingdom. Was the fierce warrior lying beside her what she wanted, she wondered. Did the firelight tint his brow red as a warning? Or was it meant to beckon her closer?

She leaned towards him, staring at the closed lids of his eyes as though trying to see past them. If she could look into his eyes, and really look, she might be able to see something of his soul. Was the man behind the sword, the armor and the vulgar tongue a good man?

Something pulled Breya back from the wandering path her mind had taken. A midnight-black eye stared back at her.

Chapter 7

She cannot know, she has no way of knowing. Unless I was talking in my sleep.

But the way she keeps staring, not even breaking her gaze for a second. She must know. If I try not to think of it she might not guess. But how can I? Every waking moment is filled with memories from the battlefield.

Arrows spinning down from the sky like leaves in autumn, the blinding glare of sunlight reflected on armour, the screams of dying men and horses.

There, I can see it. She has a glimmer in her eye, a crystal of suspicion beginning to form.

She can see me, standing by my fair King Harold’s side. How can she know? She does. She sees the Normans overrun us, we have to retreat, but the king will not give an inch. Very well, I’ll kill him to save our lives. My sword will find his heart and then we can escape this butchery.

Why are they not running? Why do they stand around his corpse and wait to die? A dead man can show them no gratitude. I will not wait for a foreign lance to open my breast. If they wish to die then let them.

But the smell of the blood is too powerful for me to bear. I would turn back if it would save those proud warriors and their fair king from this slaughter. But it is too late and the smell of blood is already thick around me.

Do you know?

Do I know what? she asks.

Relief, warm and soothing like a flagon of mulled wine on a crisp winter morning.

Do you know it’s rude to watch a man sleep? Aye, unless you care to join me?

She is disgusted by my words. But she does not know. All the revulsion in the world couldn’t be sweeter as long as she never knows.

Chapter 8

Well, what do we do now? Breya asked.

Now? the housecarl said through a mouthful of stale black bread. Now we eat.

Yes, but after that? We’ve run, we’ve escaped the worst of it, what do we do now?

A spark came into the man’s eye. It was not a pleasant glimmer, but a hint of wicked mirth.

Don’t even dare say it, you mongrel.

We could lie here on this hill until our bones turn to dust, holding each other in a sweet embrace,‘ he said, with a wink.

Do you even believe it any more? You look tired. Like a man going through an old routine because it’s familiar. I would put you out of your misery, if I had the strength.

Breya spat, not at him because she knew it would only amuse the man, but onto the fresh green grass at his feet. The truth was that she did not have the energy for irritation or hate. She was exhausted from sleepless nights. Worn by days spent in the saddle. Her patience had been tested by the warrior’s endless jesting.

Lets go home then, back to the valleys so we can see what’s happening there. Things might have returned to normal,‘ she offered.

Normal?‘ the housecarl asked. There is no normal. This land has just been conquered. If you’re expecting to walk back into your old life then you’re mistaken, lass.

She sat and thought about what he had said. Even if he was wrong, she had no desire to go back to serving mead in a stinking alehouse, feeling the calloused hands of farmers groping at her as she toiled.

Well, what about a new life then?

The glimmering cruelty came back into the housecarl’s eyes.

Will we be married then, lass? Aye, you could make an honest man of me. We’ll live in a hovel, till muddy fields, rut like pigs and have a brood of twenty strong sons. We’ll drown the girls of course, no need for them.

I’ll throttle him. Who cares if he’s stronger? One of these days I’ll put my hands round his neck and crush the worthless life out of him.

Hold your tongue still for once, ‘ she hissed. Do you think these Normans brought gold with them, to keep inside their castles?

Oh aye, gold and trinkets of all sorts. Fine silver crosses and candlesticks so the Lord knows they love him as well I’ll wager. And they’ll have half the wealth of England strapped to their saddlebags as plunder.

Then why don’t we take it? Breya asked.

At last, she saw the old spark of life come back into his edges. He was the sharp sword. The honed edge. Peace blunted him. What he needed, what he desired, was danger. Adventure. She would give it to him.

Chapter 9

The lord’s pavilion was alive with the sound of pipe and drum. The smells of roasting boar and stag. The orange glow of fire and candle spreading warmth and good cheer throughout. Men-at-arms in elaborate surcoats jostled on long benches beside stout bowmen in boiled leather jerkins. All stood to applaud their commander and host as he took his high seat.

‘We have defeated the Saxon king!’ he cried out over the merry hubbub, firelight shining golden on his steel mail. ‘We have conquered this land and now, after much suffering and privation, we may enjoy the fruits of our victory!’

It seemed as though he would say more. His aristocratic chin lifted slightly and the perfectly manicured beard bobbed in a prelude to speech. But before another rousing cry could wash over the revellers, the heavy tent flap behind him was lifted, showing a brief glimpse of gathering darkness beyond.

‘Fruits, did ye say?’ a grating voice asked.

The scowling housecarl’s arrival was met with a rasp of steel as a hundred blades were drawn. Armoured figures dashed to their lord’s side, shining armour and flashes of orange candlelight on polished swords.

Before cold, sharpened steel could meet Anglo-Saxon flesh, a harsh sound ripped through the air. It was a sputtering, trumpet-like sigh of wind escaping the housecarl’s backside. He folded scarred hands across his mouth, gasped and began to caper about as though trying to waft the smell away.

‘It seems I’ve had too much fruit already,’ he said in a tone of mock embarrassment. ‘It’s making cider in me belly.’

In a moment, as the joke sank in, the pavilion erupted into a clamouring din of laughter. Fists hammered table tops and the lord waved his hand over his wrinkled nose, smiling wryly at his closest companions.

At the back of the feasting tent, Breya wriggled on her belly beneath the low awning. She looked up to see the housecarl scampering about the floor like a mongrel, begging scraps from the lord’s table. The Normans cheered at his antics and stamped their feet.

She dashed forwards to a pile of baggage, keeping her body hunched, and began rifling through the saddlebags in search of treasure.

You’re an ugly bastard and a brute, housecarl, but thank God you have no shame.

Chapter 10

A heart-stopping crack tore through the quiet woodland air. Breya toppled down from her seat, as if the earth had dropped away beneath her. As she tumbled towards the decaying leaves and roots of the forest track, Breya saw the housecarl dive clear. Hard ground slammed into her side and she felt the air being hammered out of her chest.

‘Hell and damn it!’ the housecarl shouted as his heavy frame landed with nimble ease on his steady feet. ‘How’s that for bad luck?’

Breya staggered upright and looked at what he was showing her, one hand massaging her bruised ribs. The wheel of their wain had snapped, broken clean through. A number of its rough-hewn spokes lay in splinters at her feet.

‘You were running the nag too hard,’ she said, unsurprised and keen not to show her pain. ‘This wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t so careless.’

The old mare tossed its head as if in agreement, glad that blame had not been laid at its hooves. But the housecarl rounded on Breya, white-hot fury in his eyes. His tight lips drew up in a snarl and his arms shook.

‘Wench, don’t you put this on me.

They were interrupted, their attention drawn in opposite directions. Breya started as something clattered against the side of the wain. A silver cross tipped out from beneath the canvas covering and stuck in the dark Saxon mulch. Words had been etched on its face in gaudy, scrolling script. William, Duke of Normandy. It read in the Frankish tongue. King of England.

A second clamour through the trees, the thunder of heavy hooves against root and earth. The housecarl squinted into the forest gloom, backing away towards the trees. Breya stepped forwards, cursing herself as she did. 

What in God’s name am I doing? 

She grabbed his hand in her thick, strong fingers and shook his arm.

Where are you going, warrior?‘ she demanded. Those are English treasures, for English churches. The Normans robbed them from goodly people and we’ll give them back. Will you run again? Will you turn coward again, king-killer?

Something more terrible than the man’s anger, more horrifying than the sound of Norman knights hunting them down. She saw a tear prick the corner of the bearded warrior’s eye. He shook his head, as if to drive out fear, and turned his face skywards. A scarred hand rose and drew the hood of his cloak up over his matted hair, throwing his features into shadow.

Where was the blustering housecarl? The brute, the braggart? He had disappeared just as soon as he arrived at her tavern. A new man stood before her. Tall and proud.A Saxon warrior.

‘I’ll not have Harald’s spirit see what’s to be done now,’ he whispered, and then turned back to face Breya. ‘I’ll not suffer Norman hands to grasp English coin, nor Frankish boots on Saxon soil.’ He drew his sword and stepped out into the middle of the track. ‘Take the treasure away, as much of it as you can carry. See it goes to those that need it. Aye, and leave me here. But take one more thing with you. Take my name to tell our people.’

‘Your name, housecarl?’

‘You know me by that name, but I’m Robin before my Lord and my king.’

‘Robin?’

Aye, Robin who wears the hood. Robin that fears to show his face. Go. Now!

Ripper (full story)

Battersea bridge

Ripper parts 1-9; edited, updated and condensed for your greater enjoyment!

Chapter 1

Jed knew everything about the woman. He had been watching over her for almost four months and it felt as though they had been friends since childhood. He knew that she must think he was her guardian angel. One day, he did not know when, Jed would summon enough courage to speak to her.

Every night she stood beneath the same hanging lantern, bathed in a halo of warm amber light. Every night Jed watched her from the shadows, her figure perfectly silhouetted against the waters of the river as they glimmered in the moonlight.

He knew it was not right that she was oblivious to her saviour’s identity. On several nights he had seen her being robbed and beaten by crooks or manhandled by the local constables. He had immediately done all that he could to save her life, praying feverishly for Him not to take her so soon. She had not died yet.

I’ll protect you, my sweetness.

But now a new threat was drawing near. It came beneath a wide-rimmed hat and heavy overcoat, lingering in the shadows at the edge of the circle of light. Jed prepared his mind for the prayer he would soon be offering, but there was no need. The woman turned towards the stranger, laughed shrilly at something he said and threw her arms around his neck.

‘Just business, no need to worry,’ Jed muttered, using his sleeve to stifle a cough.

The pair began to trade fleeting kisses and he felt blood rush to his cheeks. He was not angry or jealous, merely embarrassed to be witnessing such a private exchange.

A rough leather shoe clapped against the hard cobblestones behind him. The sound was faint but it carried clearly to Jed’s ears. He began to turn as the sharp thing bit into his neck. It dragged across and a wave of warmth spread down his chest. A red mist hung in the air. Jed tried to ask what was happening but found he could not speak. He crumpled to the ground.

The crimson blush of life drained out of Jed’s face, replaced with the ashen pallor of death.

Chapter 2

Jack pressed his lips to the rim of the rough flagon, took a small mouthful and grimaced. He had never thought a pint of ale could become stale, but that was exactly how the beer tasted. It had the hard, sour taste of bread long since made inedible. Something dark floated on top of the cloudy brew and Jack hoped it was only a head of wheat.

He was surrounded by the low hubbub of tens of voices talking at once. The tavern was dark and musty, smelling like a damp cellar. This was unsurprising considering that they were one floor underground and only separated from the muddy bank of the Thames by a few feet of stone and brick. Black mould clung to the wooden beams holding up the ground floor.

‘Are you drinking that, mate?’ someone asked from over Jack’s shoulder.

‘You have it.’

He turned and pressed the vile drink into the grimy hands of an elderly man with hops and pieces of bread sticking out of his tangled grey beard. Jack shuddered as the wretched man’s hand touched his.

Wretched filth. Some people ought to be thrown in the river and given a good cleaning up.

Every rational part of his mind was pleading with him to leave the tavern. The men who frequented riverside drinking holes were all either vicious or desperate, sometimes both, and the very air was polluting his body.

‘But I have to stay,’ Jack said to himself.

‘What’s that, love?’

A heavy figure pressed itself between Jack and the crowd. He saw a maroon dress almost bursting at the seams where it had been tightly laced over an expansive bosom. A pair of gaudily painted red cheeks wobbled as the woman pressed her pink lips into a wet pout.

‘I wasn’t talking to you, I’m sorry,’ Jack replied.

‘Well, who were you talking to then?’

‘Nobody, you shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t be here with these men.’ He tried to move away from the whore and backed into a group of men. She tottered after him.

‘Tell me your name, love. Why shouldn’t I be ‘ere?’

Jack leaned closer to the woman and a heady waft of perfume stung his nostrils. He whispered in her ear.

‘These men are all evil. I’m going to kill them.’

Chapter 3

Constable Matthews was standing alone on the high stone bank of the Thames. Except that he was not alone. Inside the city it was hard to ever find somewhere truly isolated. There was a hum of noise drifting out of the taverns behind him and tired yellow light glowed in the windows of warehouse offices.

Scribes and sailors alike would be getting little sleep that night, the one hastily finishing the accounts of the day and the rest drinking away whatever demons haunted them. This was to say nothing of the rats. In London you were never far from a rat.

Bugger rats, they’re not the only vermin in this ‘ere city. 

The constable was seeking out a different sort of vermin that black night. He lingered as a portly phantom in navy blue coat and helmet under the dark void beneath the shattered street lamp. The smooth cobbles at his feet were still tarnished by the maroon blemish of spilled and dried blood.

‘Good evening, constable.’

Matthews looked up from the old stain and saw a familiar face. The constable’s mind was an impeccably kept and ordered repository of all the names and faces which frequented his beat. It was a catalogue of local knowledge which could have put the national library of any state to shame, if they were in the habit of keeping such records.

Even as his beady eyes watched the fellow pass him by, Matthews was running through everything that he knew of the man.

Last name Smithly. Dockyard labourer by trade. No family. Hang on, a widowed sister in Portsmouth. Whore. No church or creed to speak of and frequents the Steady Berth. Villain, most likely, but not proven.

The latter was one of the seedier tumbledown places where criminals of all sorts gathered to conspire and gloat.

‘Stay out of trouble, Smithly,’ Matthews called to the labourer’s retreating back.

It was not long before another regular passed him at his lonely vigil.

Chandler, no association with trade or ship-building. A well-to-do bachelor with apartments in Kensington. Old Anglican stock and patron of some of the less wretched but still morally corrupt alehouses of the docklands. Braggart and womaniser, but no villain.

‘God give you good evening, Constable Matthews,’ the man called with a tip of his hat.

‘Good evening to you also. Be sure I don’t see any of Tapper’s girls sporting sore bruises tomorrow or I’ll be coming for words with you.’

The gentleman straightened his back, turned his chin up at the constable and hurried away with aristocratic aloofness. Those two were not the only men Matthews saw during his watch, but they were of the most note. A career criminal and an entitled philanderer, prime suspects indeed.

His vigil beneath the broken lamp had a determined purpose to it. Experience had taught Matthews much. He had learned that a nation’s worst persons congregated in its ports and the vilest excesses therein were carried on by its docks.

He also knew that men who sung hymns and toiled at honest labour beneath the sun’s glow would rob, fight and worse when the moon was high. But the most important piece of experience he had earned was the realization that a killer’s footsteps always brought him back to the scene of his crime, willingly or not, and invariably on the evening after it was done.

One of the men who passed him that night had wielded the razor in the dark, opened a woman’s throat and painted the cobblestones red.

Chapter 4

Master Jeply ripped his loaded quill across the page with a final, furious flourish. It was the end of a very long day during which absolutely nothing had gone well.

All’s well as ends well, as the saying goes, and it’s over now. For a night, at least.

The labourers had unloaded the wrong cargo, his assistant had been late opening the warehouse and just when he thought nothing worse could happen, there was the prior day’s account.

He believed without any shred of doubt that one or all of the accounts men were at the bottle. There was no other way they could have produced such a document, filled with more errors than truths. It almost seemed to him that the brittle pages reeked of gin.

‘Well blast it all!’ Master Jeply cursed.

He was a devout man, a Christian man, but even the strictest believer could be driven to curse like a devil.

Things would not improve on his way home, Master Jeply thought as he packed away his work in a battered leather satchel. He would have to walk some distance down the wharf to make the journey. That meant passing women of debauched profession and men of poor repute.

Ugly, tormented souls to fill an ugly, tormented city. Not for long though. Soon it will be long walks in the countryside and a comfortable retirement. Dorset or Norfolk, I wonder?

If England were still a godly nation, such people would all be hanged, he mused. The thought tickled his mind and a cynical smile curled the corner of his tight lips. There was another gentleman who shared his beliefs.

He had seen the agent of darkness sneaking along the wharf some nights before, a glittering blade in his shadowed hand. The assassin had crept upon an unsuspecting agent of the devil and cut her down beneath the swinging streetlamp.

‘What a sight that was,’ Master Jeply muttered as he stepped out of his office onto the cobbles of the waterfront. ‘Praise be to God.’

‘You saw nothing,’ a voice breathed from the shadows.

Master Jeply wanted to agree. He wanted to take the stranger in a brother’s embrace and tell him of their common convictions. He wanted to swear that he would carry the truth locked in his breast until his dying day.

There were many things he wanted to say and do, but he had no opportunity to act on his desires. His throat was open, letting his words seep out into the air as nothing more than ragged breaths. The lifeblood which had sustained him since birth now blossomed down the front of his starched white shirt.

Chapter 5

‘This isn’t right.’

Constable Matthews muttered the words as he stood over the warehouse master’s lifeless corpse, following them with a violent curse.

He could understand waking to find a prostitute lying beneath a broken lamp, her throat cut by some dockside cur. He could understand the boy Jed, who so liked to stalk the ladies of the night, having his neck slit by a jealous lover.

But Master Jeply had been an honest, hard-working and god-fearing man. Far from indulging in pleasures of the flesh, he had treated the harbour women and tavern patrons like diseased mongrels, never letting even a breath of their wickedness touch his pure soul.

‘Who, then? Who kills a whore, a peeping tom and a Christian?’

There was no answer readily apparent. Years of walking his beat by the docks had given Constable Matthews a wealth of experience, but it had also dragged him deeper into the routine until habit overcame intelligence.

As far as his mind was concerned, philanderers killed prostitutes, lovers murdered peeping toms and nobody had cause to harm a godly man.

Damn the confounded absurdity of it. Who kills a godly man? 

Watching from the shadows beside the warehouse, Jack’s sharp eyes caught every twitch of frustration on the constable’s furrowed brow.

Routine made for a fine constable, but a poor detective. And habit was the best friend of a dockside ripper. Jack stepped out of the shadows, fingering the razor blade in his pocket.

‘Good morrow, Constable Matthews,’ he called. ‘Bloody business that.’

The lawman’s hard gaze searched Jack’s face for a moment, no doubt drawing everything he knew about him from the dusty shelves of his mind. Jack wondered what bright nuggets of information lay there.

A good man. An honest man. Perhaps even a godly man. No killer, good old Jack.

‘Good morning to you,’ the constable said. ‘See anything strange the past few nights?’

‘Not a peep, constable. You know I’m not one for going out after dark.’

Chapter 6

The judge sat high above the accused on a towering dais of polished mahogany. His front was guarded by the ornately carved royal coat of arms, an insistent reminder that his word was the Queen’s law.

If this ornamented threat was not enough, the plush red robes billowing around his body and powered wig on his head were a powerful symbol that, in this court at least, a man was judged by his betters.

Next to this mountain of imperial authority, be it in the lowly Southwark Crown Court which sat only a short distance from Whitechapel, the two accused men seemed as small as ants.

Constable Matthews did not feel much larger. A fifteen minute walk had brought him there, but he felt many miles away from the familiar stomping ground of his dockside beat.

And now the full weight of English Law, which stretched from London to Calcutta, Montreal to Sydney, was about to fall on his head and crush him beneath the judge’s black-polished heel.

‘Constable, would you kindly tell me why these two men are standing before me?’ the judge asked, his tone every bit as severe as the expression on his sharp face. ‘Why are they charged with the same crime but not as accessories? Why have you provided no evidence of their guilt?’

Matthews felt naked without his navy blue uniform and helmet. He wished he had not worn a simple grey suit, but he could not have known his actions would be called into question.

If I close my eyes, will I be back on my beat? Will I have been dreaming this? Bugger it all. 

The prosecutor caught his desperate glance and shrugged his shoulders. That was how it was going to be, it seemed. Matthews would never have brought charges against the two men if the prosecutor had not been leaning on him.

‘Smithly and Chandler are the most likely suspects in these murders, and-‘

He broke off his explanation. Surely that reed-thin, wavering voice could not be his, Matthews thought. It was nothing like the proud constable’s bellow which usually echoed across the waterfront.

The judge’s paunchy hand crashed into the top of the dais in front of him, making Matthews jump. Both prisoners lowered their gaze.

‘You make a mockery of this court, constable, and the Crown it represents. Are you seriously asking us to investigate this crime for you?’

He was interrupted by the sound of frantic steps rattling down the hallway outside. To Matthews’ relief, they drew ever closer, promising him salvation.

Flood or fire, I don’t mind. So long as it gets me out from under that pompous devil’s stare.

The courtroom doors flew open to reveal a red-faced constable’s clerk in a black shirt streaked with sweat. Like a vicious snake preparing to pounce, the judge rose to deliver a verbal assault against the intruder.

‘Begging pardon, Your Honour. There’s been murder in Whitechapel, near the docks.’ the clerk gasped.

Constable Matthews felt his vigour return. He would serve his penance with the judge later. Now there was a killer to catch.

‘Who was it, man?’ he demanded of the clerk. ‘Who was killed?’

‘So many of them, sir. It’s a bloodbath, a massacre. A whole room of people near wiped out at the Black Flagon. Men hacked to ribbons, women with their throats cut, blood-‘

The clerk doubled over and began to retch. At the far end of the courtroom, the judge’s dais seemed to shrink as he held a perfumed handkerchief over his mouth and nose. Smithly’s rat-like face was twitching. Many of his villainous friends frequented the Flagon, Matthews remembered. Even the philanderer and abuser, Chandler, had turned somewhat pale. Perhaps he had a favoured mistress or two there.

Either way, that was two suspects crossed off the list, and more bodies piling up with every passing day.

Chapter 7

It really is a bloodbath.

Constable Matthews had travelled up by cab from Southwark Crown Court fully expecting to discover the clerk was exaggerating. You simply did not find massacres happening in the heart of London. It was absolutely unheard of.

But here he was, standing near up to his ankles in the gore strewn across the Black Flagon’s floor. There were smears of drying black blood running up the walls and in loose splashes on the roof beams. It was like the backroom of a slaughterhouse, men and women sprawled underfoot like pigs waiting for the butcher’s block.

He could see clearly enough how the thing had been done. A short wooden bar lay by the door where it had been used to seal the exit. Matthews had passed a woman, plump and with an expansive bosom, resting in a bloody heap against the wall of the alley outside. No doubt she was a witness, swiftly silenced.

Then the killer had moved through the tavern proper. He had begun with the gambling men, who still had playing cards and dice clasped in their rigid, cold fingers. Then he had forged a path of slit throats and hacked limbs through the evening crowd.

But that’s not right. It’s impossible.

The place must have been packed. Even the sharpest blade would have become thick with blood, useless. Then the patrons would surely have defended themselves. Beneath hair matted with gore and faces twisted in shock or agony, Matthews recognised hard men who would not hesitate to crack a man’s skull to save their own skins.

So this is no ordinary killer. Some demon, perhaps? Folly. Keep a straight head, damn it.

A pair of boots rapped the flagstones and another constable entered the tavern. He was not a man Matthews knew, and he remembered every face he met. The man was tall, unsurprisingly, and had an added briskness to his step which marked him out as someone who had seen military service.

‘The Commissioner wants this kept quiet,’ the stranger said. ‘He wants no word getting out of what happened inside.’

Matthews’ brow furrowed and he felt a vein pulse in his temple.

‘How does the Commissioner expect me to investigate this crime then?’

‘You can mention the whore outside, nothing else. There’s this as well.’

The constable handed Matthews a folded note, turned on his heels and marched out of the tavern. His gaze did not even chance on the corpses sprawled around them as his boots clipped the stone floor. Matthews heard a cab door slam closed and the clop of hooves on the cobblestones outside.

He unfolded the note and read.

         ‘Dear Constable Matthews,

          I am a great admirer of your work, and hear that you are investigating some of                 mine.

          Meet me under the broken lamp tonight, 9.00pm.

          Yours Faithfully,

          Jack.’

Chapter 8

Matthews stood on the Thames quayside and breathed in the night air. The stench coming off the river was foul, so thick in his nostrils that he could almost taste the raw sewage and refuse floating on the surface. He gagged.

There would be no more Constable Matthews, the riverside bobby. The judge had come through on his threat that afternoon and seen him stripped of his uniform, dismissed from the London constabulary.

Heavy boots tapped the cobblestones behind him and Matthews turned. The lamp above his head was broken so it was not until the person was within arm’s reach that he could see their face.

What caught his attention first though were the bright silver buttons reflecting points of moonlight on his navy blue overcoat. It was the constable, the one who had handed him the note earlier that day.

Could it be? How could a constable commit such ungodly crimes?

Matthews nodded to the man and he did the same, but neither one of them spoke. His hand slowly reached for the stout wooden truncheon stuffed into his belt.

But he was interrupted by the arrival of another man, one he recognised. It was a clerk from one of the trading companies, a studious and timid man.

A third arrived, this one unknown to him. He had the burly figure of a labourer, but a keen intelligence in his sharp black eyes.

More men came to join the group, from all manner of backgrounds. There were dockhands, overseers and academics. Some had grey hairs on their head and others had yet to grow their first stubble. A few were in rags, a couple in top hats.

Matthews felt the hand which gripped his truncheon grow cold and clammy. He could not hope to fight so many men if they intended him harm. But he still needed to know which was the murderer.

‘Which of you men is Jack?’ Matthews asked, fighting back a stammer.

‘I’m Jack,’ the constable replied.

Damn. That complicated things.

The labourer spoke up. ‘Me, I’m Jack.’

‘I’d be Jack.’

‘I. I’m Jack.’

Thirty or more voices spoke the name that Matthews dreaded to hear. As they said it, his mind turned back to the bodies in the Black Flagon, heaped together and mired in blood. He heard the sound of thirty or more sharpened razors snapping open.

Chapter 9

What happened?

Matthews remembered the sharp glare of moonlight on the edge of thirty or more drawn razors. The taste of London smog, smoke and dust thick in his mouth. He’d seen grimy grey water spreading out as he fell towards its surface, or else it had fallen towards him.

Where? 

Whether he standing, lying or still falling he didn’t know. He could feel the whole of his world spin around and stay deathly still all at the same time. His eyes were not opening, and that was a concern, but Matthews felt relaxed in spite of it.

It’s like sleeping. Or waking from a long sleep. Am I dying? Am I dead?

He groped towards his chest and his movements were sluggish in spite of his desperation. One finger met with coarse fabric and found it damp. Relief washed over Matthews with the realisation that he was bleeding. It answered some of his questions and at least the doubt was gone.

Now he did open his eyes, groping through the clouded darkness for some sign of light or life. An object swam towards him, a crumbled deck sprouting a decayed mast of brackish timber. Matthews tried to breathe sweet, crisp night air and inhaled foul Thames water. It burned in his lungs, but brought with it a certain peace.

So that’s where I ended up. It isn’t so bad. What was I afraid of? Constable Matthews, retiring from his beat.

Light shone blinding in his eyes.

Son Of Sparta #4

IMG_4151

Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”

We formed ranks across the widest street, a line of spears ten deep and fifty across. Not every Spartan had answered Lycurgus’ summons. Our numbers were few, our enemies many and our fear was overwhelming.

I am sure you have heard of the Spartans. These days every poet tells of our bravery and strength. Things were different in my youth. We were weak. We were afraid. The Messenians had come to take our land.

Hold this line.” Lycurgus said, standing at the right of the first rank. “Brace your shields, guard the man to your left and strike hard with your spears.”

A ripple passed through our ranks as men shifted in response to his commands. I saw Ligeia standing among some other Spartan women on the rooftops overlooking the street. They had stripped the roofs almost bare and each held a heavy tile in her hand.

My eyes were drawn back to the enemy as they began their advance. Feet tramped down the street in an uneven rhythm. With the dust kicked up around them I could see nothing more than the flash of sunlight on polished bronze shields, a thicket of spears held overhand above their heads.

A cry rang out and the feet pounded louder and closer. My hand shook around the spear and my shield lowered. As surely as I knew my own name, I was certain we would die.

Faces writhing in anger and fear charged out from the swirling cloud of dust. The shields hammered together with a crash which threatened to topple the buildings around us and then the spears lunged out and down.

Sharp iron stabbed through soft flesh. Men fell to the ground and were trampled underfoot. I could not see what was happening on either side, but the men closest to me were being pushed back. The Spartans could not hold their line. Even a blind man could have seen it. We were ruined, condemned to death by the conspiring hand of fate.

Part 1

Read about the real Lycurgus on Encyclopaedia Britannica!

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