Well, my friends, the day is getting closer. My debut novel, NORTHMAN, will be released in November. (Update: Now released – see links below) As I promised, you, my blog followers will be the first to get a glimpse. So today I’m posting a few sample chapters so you can have a flavour of the book and see if you might like to read it.
NORTHMAN is a contemporary, supernatural thriller. It’s pretty long at around 140,000 words, but it’s been professionally edited by my lovely editor, Juliet McHugh and it’s as long as it has to be for a densely textured story that involves berserker Vikings, time travel, an ancient horror, an enduring romance and the future of the world – to name just a few elements!
Here’s a short description:
843 AD. A Viking raid on an Anglo-Saxon village in England sets into motion a train of events that results, 1200 years later, in the release of an ancient evil into the lives of two unsuspecting and damaged people: Kate and Michael. Then the descent into terror begins. Ultimate conflict. Ultimate sacrifice. But more is at stake than their lives, or their love.
The first chapter is told in a style similar to that which would have been used by the skalds or storytellers, in the Norse society of the European “Dark Ages”. Viking culture didn’t have a tradition of written history, so tribal tales were passed on to each generation by the skalds. Our Viking raiders are intent on returning home with tales of heroism to increase their standing in their communities. Of course, gold, horses and women are also required, but like ‘Star Trek’ Klingons, they are quite prepared to die, as long as death occurs honourably in battle.
Their leader, Thorkild, has a different agenda. But then Thorkild is no ordinary Viking.
Anyway, less explanation. Here are the first few chapters of NORTHMAN. The paragraphs are properly indented in the original, but I can’t get them to behave on WordPress and there are spaces between paragraphs. Comments are, as always, welcome. I may post another free chapter in a few days, or so. I hope you like it.
NORTHMAN contains adult content.
October, England, 843 AD
Thorkild stood in the prow of the boat and faced the west wind with a feeling of exhilaration. Hoar frost hung in his beard and from the jutting, beaten iron helmet that covered his braided blonde hair. The boat surged forward, impelled by forty oars, smashing against the outgoing tide, driving for the mouth of the river and safety.
Hard hand resting on dragon’s head prow, Thorkild looked down into the water, seeing the curved beak of the longboat slice through the mad white foam, feeling the thrust as if into a woman, the lurch of withdrawal, the next unstoppable thrust. He smiled to himself at the thought: soon Saxon gold, fresh Saxon meat and warm Saxon women.
They would fight as Saxons always fought with traps and guile, not like men, face to face, blood to blood. They would die like Saxons always died: screaming for mercy, clutching their wounds like women in childbirth. His lip twitched in derision. Not like a Northman, dying with the name of the enemy a curse on the lips, hands warm with bowel or brain, axe red, sword wet. Thorkild felt the hilt of his sword, Fjaal, raised bronze runes crusted with salt, knowing the story woven into it, dreaming the next deed, feeling the power of the sword flow through his arm, screaming to his manhood, lusting for the souls of soft flesh.
Then they were in the river, and calm – the longboat gliding through cracking bulrushes, salt slick scarring silent water. The men were quiet, only the dip and creak of oars in water betraying their passage.
And silently came the Saxon arrows, as the last breath of a dying man. Egil died with an arrow in his brain. Ottar fell with five in him, reaching for his sword although dead. Ragnar took two arrows in the throat, spat blood and smiled. Thorkild stood on the prow of the boat and laughed loud, eager for the blood, eating arrows with his eyes.
Then the arrows stopped and the sea-salt marsh was quiet, but for the laughter of Thorkild falling through the air like an axe.
The first village was easy. Fisher folk. They died like cows, children spitted, women split asunder, old men left to cry. No gold. No food. No horses.
The second too, was easy. Young men with plough-scarred hands ran onto swords, leapt for axes biting deep in bone, died in tears. There was food and there were women, and for two days the Northmen ate and fucked. Then they left.
Along the river and deeper into the flatlands the third village was empty.
The fourth was full of dark-haired, hard-eyed warriors, blood rage in their hearts, blue in their beards, gold on their breasts. Not Saxons but Celts. The battle was hard. Thorkild fought a man whose face resembled that of a wet goat and hacked that face off with his sword, taking the gold, claiming the soul to his greedy blade. The ground was thick with blood; air gorged with the smell of it… and as if ice cracked, it was finished.
Thorkild looked at the village, at the gold, at the women, at the dead, and he laughed, his laughter running across frosted grass down to the river red.
His second woman that night was good: Hilla, daughter of the slain chieftain, Cenric, whose head now roasted on the spit, along with that of his wife, Godwif. The wife had fought with all her might, but to no avail. Thorkild felt the pleasure course through him as her tongue was stilled by the sweep of his sword through her neck.
Hilla was unlike her mother. She accepted him as a cow the bull; made no murmur as his thrusts threatened to tear her apart, cried not as he twisted her face to him and bit her lip almost in two, but stared at him, her eyes pools of jet as he came, and slid the point of Fjaal in under her chin, in and up behind the black eyes and into the brain.
Her infant cried in its crib, and Thorkild, his sex slack, climbed from the dead woman to look at it. He picked it up with one hand, stroked its face with the flat of his bloodied sword and smiled, remembering Gokstad, home, Thorfinna and the boy. He paused and glanced into the baby’s black eyes.
The eyes stared back at him: the eyes of the Celt, Hilla, foreign and hostile. He trembled slightly and dropped the infant back into its crib, starting back from it with an oath. Then he laughed, picked up the child by a leg, smashed its head against the oak centre post and strode out of the hut, naked and still laughing.
Thorkild was buried two days later.
The old man in grey robes had come into the village whilst they were asleep, found Thorkild and covered the warrior’s hands in beech ash. No one else did he touch. But at dawn around the bed of Thorkild there were strange signs – like runes but making no sense – and the ashes.
When Thorkild awoke covered in the wood ash he was annoyed by it and the runes, but mightily angered by the presence of the old man who had not left, but had slept in a corner of the hut. The old man was not angry, though his arms cradled the dead baby of Hilla and his tears had cleansed the baby’s face of blood.
Thorkild stood, naked, as he had slept and reached for his sword, still hard with the blood of Hilla. But the old man did not move. His black eyes just stared at the Northman without hate.
Thorkild raised his arms to strike, Fjaal singing in his hands, but could not. The eyes of the old man bored into him like the hard prow of a longboat, pushing, driving, relentless with mercy, with compassion, forgiveness. Nervously, Thorkild tried to shift his grip on the sword and even this thing he could not do. He glared at his hands clasped around the sword’s hilt. Where his hands had been now was sword. There was no join between forearm and sword, only a continuation flowing from flesh into bronze into hard iron.
He shook his hands to rid himself of the sword, like a dog with fleas, but as he moved the sword moved with him, part of him, forever. He bellowed without pain, but with the father of all angers.
His cry brought running Fálki, brother to his wife, who, believing that Thorkild was under attack, beheaded the old man with a single axe blow and kicked the corpse of the baby out of the door.
The old man’s head lay on the floor, eyes open and mouth working to speak, but soon freezing in the smile of the dead.
Thorkild died at sunset, veins stiff with cold iron and dark bronze. They could not bury him in his boat, or burn the boat to send the warrior onward to Valhalla – it was needed for the journey home – though a construction of wood with many similarities to a boat was soon erected and inside it laid the iron-heavy body of Thorkild, together with his axe, shield, a personal amulet of the god, Thor, an intricate, silver Celtic ring that had once belonged to Hilla and the sword Fjaal, from which he would never be separated.
Sentimentally, Fálki laid to rest beside Thorkild the dead body of the infant Celt, explaining his deviation from accepted burial practice with the unlikely reason that the baby was similar to one of Thorkild’s own and that it would be comfort for him on the journey to Valhalla. The truth was that Fálki felt uneasy about the death of the old man, who was obviously some kind of seidhr or shaman, and he did not want the spirit of the dead baby to accompany him on the journey home.
The warrior chieftain was left in the midst of a grassy plain between two low hills. The mound could be seen for five leagues. Fálki was proud. His sister would be happy. The Northmen left, trekking back to the river, elated at the death of a great warrior.
Soon, the earth mound became covered in grass, as the land reclaimed the disturbed soil; oak and beech grew, thin and straggly at first, then stronger, where the soft earth accepted them. Thorkild slept, and beside him the son of Hilla, their bodies growing together in the dissolution of death.
October, England, 1940 AD
The bomber slid upwards in an ecstatic surge of lightness as the Satan dropped away into blackness from the Heinkel He111.
Lieutenant Karl Maier watched the sky-blue steel casing twinkle once as the fins began to twist the bomb to a vertical position and then it was lost to the night. Another fiery angel to destroy the arrogant British working below in the Rolls-Royce aero engine factory, Karl thought with satisfaction. Derby would soon know how big a hole 1800 kilograms of high explosive could make.
Staring into the darkness he felt a momentary regret for the women and possibly children who would die when the Satan struck. The thought was tempered when he remembered his elder sister Marta and the bomb dropped by an RAF Vickers Wellington that had blown her to nothingness inside her lovely house in Wilhelmshaven.
He forced his mind back to the task in hand. All bombs spent and now home. He glanced down the Zeiss Lotfernrohr 7 bombsight once more and noticed for the first time that the sight seemed to be out of alignment. Puzzled, he opened the catch and saw that the sighting mirror had partially detached itself from its mounting, rendering the sighting graticules useless.
With a rising sense of anxiety, Karl mentally kicked himself for taking the bomb release off automatic in direct defiance of orders. It was pride, stupid pride, no more, no less. He had done the same in the last four raids and each time – he boasted to Lotte, his wife – he had hit the target in a tighter pattern than all the mechanical excellence of the mighty Zeiss Company could accomplish. But not with a Satan, he acknowledged. He glanced to his right where Captain Hartmann appeared to be unaware that anything was wrong.
So where in hell was the bomb? God in heaven.
Karl did a quick calculation: it would miss the Rolls-Royce factory by four miles. According to the map it would land in a field by the River Trent. No doubt some farmer would have a rude awakening. He peered into the blackness below, imagining the Satan screaming to earth, waiting for the impact, but there was nothing, no explosion, no flash and no sudden blossom of light that would vindicate and eliminate his mistake. Somewhere, down below, a thirteen feet long by two feet diameter steel tube packed with high explosive hurtled to earth, to greet someone’s sister, mother, child, and when it reached the earth it would disassemble all living flesh within a crater over ninety feet in diameter. More importantly Oberst Schumacher would want to know why the Rolls-Royce factory was not rubble. And it might come out that Karl’s great-grandfather was not exactly an Aryan.
“Fucker was a dud”. Hartmann’s voice on the intercom was impatient. “Let’s go home”.
Karl breathed a sigh of relief. Thank God for Heidelburg graduates: all inbred genes and no brains.
Captain Hartmann swung the nose of the Heinkel around pointing East to Germany and Karl thought of Marta’s little house, with its grey and red shingle and how their mother had cried at the sight of the flattened ruins.
Of Marta there was little remaining: a scrap of flower print cotton brown with blood and a section of a female torso that might have been her or that of Mrs Fischer from next door. Nothing had been the same since. It was impossible to understand how the little girl with hair the colour of fresh straw and a smile that lit up his young life with joy and confidence could be reduced to such insignificance. They buried the fabric, but it was not enough.
Karl felt the tears return and not for the first time his soul fell with the dead bomb into the night.
One minute later it was followed by his burning body, as the South Derby anti-aircraft battery got lucky – due in the main to a new, mechanical computer, the Kerrison Predictor, which tracked aircraft effectively, and much less to the aged three-man crew of plumbers – pumping two 40mm Bofors rounds into the Heinkel’s fuel tanks and blowing Karl and Captain Hartmann through the glazed dome into the unfriendly English air.
He was sure he heard Hartmann say: “Alles hat ein end; nur die wurst hat zwei.” Everything has an end; only the sausage has two.
As he fell, incandescent, more beautiful than he could ever have imagined, there was no pain, rather a feeling of freedom and for some reason he was flying like an eagle or an angel, and there were others with him, laughing and smiling, strange faces he did not know, but knew he had always known.
I am the fiery angel. I am the eagle.
He spread his flaming wings to the rushing air with joy.
Ah. So this is it. Not so bad after all.
In his bed, six-year-old Jacob Cottle heard the sound of the enemy bomber but knew there was nothing to be frightened of; the Germans were after Derby, his dad said and were not interested in the farm.
Listening to the drone, his mind turned to the promised ride – tomorrow morning – on his dad’s brand new Massey Ferguson tractor. His dad said they would Dig For Vicky or something. Maybe Vicky was that old woman who called sometimes with rabbit and potato pies, now that Mum had gone to live in Essex with Grandma. If it was, she didn’t look as if she needed any more potatoes.
He vaguely heard the whistle of the bomb, and at first thought it was the kettle downstairs, but it faded away, and an owl, ghosting past his window hooted, as he drifted off into a deep dream about brown soil and red tractors.
A pall of darkness hung over the sun. Grey-black nimbus: a shroud of smog fighting the spears of light.
On a distant small hill, black, angular shapes like monstrous spiders crawled towards their prey. In the river valley of the Trent, only the creak of old machinery disturbed the copse and its rounded mound of earth. Desiccated oak and beech ringed it: a circle of ancient warriors bent double by the wind, glossy and hard.
Occasionally, ramblers, ignoring the warning signs, would find the copse, pausing to eat sandwiches or drink smoky tea from aluminium flasks, but they did not stay long. Even in summer, oak and beech filtering the burning light, there was a coldness, the sense of a caught breath, a pause in time which killed speech, hollowed it to a whisper, beside the mound, in the copse.
And when they departed – their chatter increasing as their stride lengthened – the coldness remained, but it was not yet for them, the brown, cold earth. Not yet for them.
The soldier on the hill knew the target well. One thousand metres, right flank forty degrees, elevation thirty-six degrees.
Even without the antique sight he could have destroyed it in his sleep. The laptop computer – circa 2012 – in his 1942 Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausführung E tank could do it nearly as well, but it was hot inside the Tiger and the exercise was lost to ‘the French’: three shrimp fishermen from St. Ives, with a 1944 American Sherman. The promised parting that evening of the legs of an ancient but willing red-haired Sainsbury’s cashier named Siobhan held more potential for on-the-job fulfilment than that offered by pretending to blow the crap out of a plywood and hardboard Froggie command post.
The only other tank in the Midlands Ironclads Re-enactment Society was a rickety Russian T26, which had last seen action at Stalingrad in World War Two, and was currently sitting, inactive, on top of an adjacent hill, as three elderly men wrestled with the impossibility of replacing a thrown track before nightfall.
As usual, the soldier overrode the tank battle software on his laptop and went for the manual sight. It was against ‘standing orders’, but the Old Harrovian who was in ostensible command of the Tiger had failed to notice. Anyway, stuffing the regulations was common practice amongst the elite of the Queen’s Royal Lancers, men proud of their skills: the gunnery sergeants, one of which he had once been. The regiment was reorganised in 2005 into a reconnaissance role and he, with others, was invited to become another useless ex-serviceman by a grateful government.
The command post stood on a mound of hardened compost representing an anonymous hill outside Berlin. In front of the mound, in direct line of sight, the copse sifted sunlight into its coldness.
The sergeant thought of Siobhan’s long legs and felt a minor stirring.
The voice of Commander Blanshard warbled through his headset. “Target sighted…bearing?”
“Forty, thirty-six, sir.”
The sergeant adjusted the primitive sight, ignoring the failsafe light flashing red on his laptop. Thirty-six degrees elevation. He watched the eighty-eight millimetre steel barrel crawl upwards. Should be able to manage substantially more elevation with Siobhan. She was in for a right seeing to, lucky little lady. The Mullins porker – renowned in Barnsley, Benidorm and Munchen-Gladbach as prime meat of a superior order. He smiled without regret. Maybe back in 1974.
He adjusted for the right flank and Robbo, his loader, gave him the thumbs-up.
You can buy NORTHMAN here: