Palmyrian Night #4

Palmyrian Night #4

Palmyra tower

“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” – Pearl Buck.

A breath of silence. The still tomb seemed to exhale, anticipating the reaction that would break centuries of peace. Bardisan was not going to wait for whatever came next. Balancing on the stone support beam high in the towering chamber, he snatched off his other sandal and hurled it down into the cavernous darkness.

In the blackness of the tomb, the men below couldn’t see what had fallen. Tattered leather and sharp iron sounded much the same when falling in the darkness. They retreated out into the bright moonlight, pulling their red cloaks up around them.

“Surround it.” The officer ordered. “Don’t let the thief escape.”

Four red cloaks snapped as the legionaries jogged to take up positions around the tomb. There was no way out, only the one low doorway. Standing in front of it, the legate drew his sword. He heard a whisper of wind easing out through the door, blown down from the small window overhead. Almost, he could smell the thief’s fear within. He was caught, like a rat in a trap.

A horse whinnied behind him. The legate turned and saw four legs pounding the desert sand, two pale feet gripping the horse’s rump, a flutter of rags and a bundle packed under the thief’s arm. A rope swayed and whispered against the smooth stone walls of the tomb, tugging at the window high above.

For something similar, and an excellent read, check out Emperor and Prophet on one of my favourite blogs (John’s Life and Travels)!

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Saxon Story #10

Saxon Story #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.

“Woman, don’t you put this on me.”

They were interrupted suddenly, 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.

“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!

Find Part 1 here.

Legacy

Legacy

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Alice stretched her small arms up to grasp the cupboard handle, her pink fingertips only just managing to brush the brass ring. She was standing on tiptoes, legs quivering. Her back was arched so that her new violet frock wouldn’t brush against the counter. Every surface in the house was covered by a film of dust and grime. Her ma would be furious if any stains appeared on the bright cloth of her skirt.

“Alice, what are you doing there?” Ma asked.

Falling back onto the heels of her feet, Alice lowered her gaze to stare at the mucky tiled floor of the pantry. Her shoulders hunched forwards, expecting a rebuke. “Grandma asked me to get her old sewing box down for her.” She said, pouting at the injustice of being caught red-handed trying to do a good deed.

To her surprise, Ma’s hand lighted on her shoulder in a gentle, reassuring grasp. When she spoke, her voice was soft as lamb’s wool and sweet as raspberry jam. “Sweetheart, you know your grandmother is…” She began, before seeming to think of a better way to express what she was thinking. “Grandma forgets things, Alice. She gets confused. You needn’t go around fetching her things.”

“But I want to see what’s inside.” Alice said, her voice rising to a high pitch and her lips closing in a stern pout. “She said I’d find it interesting.”

“Do you like ​sewing?”

“No… But maybe there’s treasure inside.”

Alice shuffled her feet. Her small toes brushed away grey must to reveal strips of ivory white tile. They looked like the stripes on a zebra’s hide and she had a sudden desire to visit the zoo. There wouldn’t be any zebras, but perhaps she would see a fierce lion stalking its enclosure. Alice always enjoyed watching the big, hairy apes swinging around their cages. If her parents agreed to leave grandma’s house early, she might persuade them to spend the rest of the afternoon at the zoo. Her round face lit up in an absent-minded smile.

“Alright, here you go. Take it to grandma.”

Ma chuckled as she handed Alice the faded mahogany box. From the sinking expression on her face and the way she slouched out of the room, Ma could tell that her daughter’s interest in sewing box treasures had fast faded. Had she been as fickle in her childhood? She tutted under her breath. Firm in the back of her mind was a memory from her eighth Christmas. She had begged for months to have a china doll in a baby blue dress. When it came, the ever-watching eyes and frozen, chilling face had haunted her dreams for months. It had likely found its way onto a rubbish heap somewhere, and good riddance.

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Battle

Battle

A lull fell between the opposing armies. It was an invisible hand that thrust them back and held the teeming masses apart. Pennant and flag still snapped in the whipping wind. Horses dived and reared, throwing their long manes into the riders’ faces. Burnished spears dipped and thrust into the sky, thousands dancing to an unheard tune.

But the two sides were held apart by silence. An unspoken weariness lay between them. Some wore plumes of dyed hair, others had stained their faces to please the gods of war and death. But all shared in a desire to be done with the slaughter.

Heavy silence lay between them, and then the drums began to sound.

Their beats rose at a steady pace. First, the warriors thought it was the sound of blood that they heard, roaring through their ears as it waited to be spilled on barbarian soil. Then the drums were thundering at their backs and they felt the press of thousands behind them. Soon, the rolling crash and din was enough to deafen them.

The silence was broken and the hordes stormed forwards through peace and silence, trampling them underfoot. Those at the back ran in their eagerness to bathe sharp steel in sweet victory. But those at the front were borne forwards like driftwood in a surging tide.

Tripping on the bodies of fallen men, pushing them back into the bosom of the earth with the soles of their feet, the armies came on. They met with a crash that woke men startled in lands unheard of. Enemies were pressed into unwitting embrace, danced together in the throes of battle and were dashed to the earth still entwined.

Hobnails and tanned boots churned the blood red ground into a clinging mire. Spears jostled to block out the sky, rattling together on all sides. Desperate eyes searched for friends and found only foes. Eager blades sought out enemies and met the backs of comrades.

A sharp note sounded and the armies lurched back, pushed apart by an unseen hand. Silence charged back into the breach, lingering over the wall of dead that lay between them.

Saxon Story #9

Saxon Story #9

Hastings

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 their 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. “They’re 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.

Find my historical novel Vikingr on Amazon Kindle.

Ripper #9 (finale)

Ripper #9 (finale)

Battersea bridge

Matthews wasn’t quite sure what had happened. He remembered the sharp glare of moonlight of the edge of thirty or more drawn razors. The taste of London smog, smoke and dust, had been 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.

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

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, he thought, 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.” Matthews thought as light shone blinding in his eyes.

Palmyrian Night #3

Palmyrian Night #3

Palmyra tower

“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” – Pearl Buck.

Four men entered the silent tomb with stamping feet and heavy, panting breaths. Bardisan knew one of their number from memory. It was the legate who had sought him out in the shadows of the Palmyrian slums. A tall crest of red-painted horsehair hung like a martial peacock’s tail from the top of his helmet. Behind him was a junior officer, thin and pale, and two cavalrymen whose imposing bulks seemed to fill the small, dark space.

There was a military swagger to how the larger three walked. It was a clap of hobnailed sandals against stone flagstones which seemed to threaten a sword’s point in the gut if a man stepped across their path. The legate peered into the sarcophagus in front of them, started back and bellowed. His shout was Latin, incomprehensible to Bardisan, but he took the general meaning of it. Raw anger and white-hot frustration echoed through the tomb.

Bardisan shuffled across the great stone beam and felt his foot snag against a sharp edge. The strap of his frayed sandal broke with a snap. As if time had slowed, Bardisan watched the ragged flaps of leather tumble down through the shadows and clatter to the stone floor. Four rough, pale faces caught the moonlight as they looked up towards him.

Read the latest Palmyra news here (BBC) and click here (Sacred Destinations) to find out more about the city’s fascinating history.

For something similar, and an excellent read, check out Emperor and Prophet on one of my favourite blogs (John’s Life and Travels)!

Palmyrian Night #2

Palmyrian Night #2

Palmyra tower

“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” – Pearl Buck.

Bardisan stood at the centre of the towering tomb’s black interior. The darkness swaddled thick and heavy around him, so dense that it felt as though his ears were humming with shadowed whispers. There was a chill in the night air, a cold wind sighing through the cavernous maw of the tomb’s doorway and pricking the hairs on his neck.

The master thief’s knees shook, but not from the chill of a desert eve. His eyes were transfixed by the large stone coffin in front of him. It was a dark stone, smooth as marble but infinitely finer. He could not place it, but knew it had to have been brought many thousands of leagues over shifting dunes and bleak mountains.

It would have been beautiful, he thought, if it hadn’t been broken. Someone had obliterated the sarcophagus’ lid in their desperation to get at what lay inside. Now the contents were gone and the black coffin seemed to know it had been emptied, its dark void calling out into the night with a voiceless yearning.

On tiptoes, Bardisan leaned forwards and peered into the bottom of the black stone bin. A hollow face stared back up at him. The master thief pressed a spool of thread into the cavity where eyes had once stared out from now withered sockets. He knew better than to take without giving in return.

Hoofs thundered on the dusty plain beyond the doorway and he heard leather harnesses creaking, saddle ornaments and spurs jangling against each other with a metallic ring. Bardisan let out a panting breath, a robber’s silent scream, and fell back into the shadows.

Read the latest Palmyra news here (BBC) and click here (Sacred Destinations) to find out more about the city’s fascinating history.

For something similar, and an excellent read, check out Emperor and Prophet on one of my favourite blogs (John’s Life and Travels)!

Palmyrian Night #1

Palmyra tower

“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” – Pearl Buck.

Bardisan woke up with a groggy haze filling his heavy head. His conscious mind struggled to find a sensible thought among the jumbled fog of sleep and bleary-eyed laziness. Meanwhile, his instincts seemed to be screaming inside his own skull.

“Someone knocks at the door!” The voice in the back of his head screeched. “It’s night, get up!”

Focusing his gaze with teeth-clenching effort on the oil lamp beside his bed and the sputtering, murky orange glow of its flame, Bard was able to clear some of the mist from his eyes. Now he clearly heard the hard knuckles rapping against the cracking wood of the door.

He leapt to his feet, snatched a sword from the headboard, drew the small blade and flew across the room in a great lunge. At least, that was what he intended to do. However, the room was barely larger than a slave’s cell. The door would only open halfway before it struck the edge of his bed.

Bardisan’s arms became tangled in the bedsheets, the sword tearing them to ribbons as he unsheathed it. His great leap sent his shoulder jarring into the far wall, his shins cracked against the cedar chest where his most prized possessions were kept and the tall man crumpled in a moaning heap on the floor.

The door creaked ajar and met his dazed head with a dull thud. An elderly woman’s voice called through the opening.

“Bard, you asked me to wake you at sundown. Where are you? He’s not here? Well, I shan’t be waking him again. Taking all the time forcing my weary bones up those stairs.” Her voice slowly faded into a soft mutter as the landlady shuffled away down the corridor.

As he was already up, or rather down, Bardisan decided he would head off without further ado. Kicking on a pair of tattered sandals, the straps hardly more than frayed leather threads, he hoisted his body up to the narrow window and slithered out into the cool night air.

He crept down dusty alleyways between tall sandstone walls, slunk along streets ranged with high marble columns, and finally arrived on the outskirts of the city. Behind him, Palmyra slept peacefully beneath an endless black sky picked out with tiny points of brilliant starlight. From a distance, it seemed like a sort of paradise, white-walled houses and brightly painted temples nestled in a broad green oasis at the desert’s fiery heart.

“Not now, Bard.” He whispered to himself, turning away from the city.

Ahead of him, a towering oblong structure rose like a jutting finger from the sand-whipped earth. Its sides were sheer and a single black doorway gaped at its wide base. It was a tomb.

Bardisan slithered closer on his belly, careful not to let his sword rattle in its scabbard. His keen eyes had already detected a man’s figure standing guard at the foot of the tower. The soldier’s cloak flapped around him in the nocturnal breeze and his thick armour gleamed dully in the starlight. But he was asleep, hanging on the shaft of his stout javelin like it was a crutch.

The master thief stood and tiptoed up to the slumbering sentry. He began to fish around inside his pockets, fumbling at a wooden button, a small amulet and a spool of thread. Finally, his fingertip brushed against something hard and cold. It was a small nub of iron, an ancient coin worn down to a pea-sized, misshapen lump by centuries of use.

He was so close to the other man’s face that he could feel hot breath on his cheeks. But he knew the Roman wouldn’t wake. Bardisan was more silent and subtle than a skulking adder when night had fallen. It was as if darkness embraced his being, enveloping him in its shadowy stillness.

Bardisan reached out a deft, steady hand and deposited the lumpen metal inside a fold of the soldier’s tunic. He was better than a common thief, knowing as he did that nothing was free and a price must always be paid, but he never passed up a bargain.

Over the Roman legionary’s shoulder, the cavernous blackness of the doorway seemed to yawn wider, drawing Bardisan towards it. He faltered, knowing that what lay inside had a value beyond counting, beyond imagining.

Its worth was greater than the imperial treasury, less than a grain of salt, truly priceless.

Read the latest Palmyra news here (BBC) and click here (Sacred Destinations) to find out more about the city’s fascinating history.

For something similar, and an excellent read, check out Emperor and Prophet on one of my favourite blogs (John’s Life and Travels)!

Odd’s Tale

Odd’s Tale

IMG_1958

Here’s a sequel to Vikingr where you get to decide what happens next. Read on to find out how.

Odd awoke in a daze, bringing his head up to take in his surroundings. At first, he wondered why the sleepy haze over his vision hadn’t dissipated yet. Then he realised that it was no product of sleep or dazedness.

Smoke, thick and black was billowing out from the untended fire in the central heart. A table had been overturned into it and now half of its carved timber body was charred black, glowing with scars of red ember.

“What happened last night?” Odd asked himself.

His eyes snapped open as he caught the familiar scent of freshly spilled blood. It was an earthy, putrid scent that reminded him of battle and fallen friends. There was no sign of his companions with whom he had sailed through hostile lands, murder and war.

A heavy mailed fist slammed down on the table in front of him, making him jolt backwards. The throbbing ache in his temples spoke of too much ale the night before. Odd looked up and saw a grim pair of flint grey eyes beneath a shining iron helm.

Does Odd…

a) hit the man.

b) run away.

c) ask the man his name.