I worked like crazy before Christmas to get a couple of projects finished, including a return to my fantasy word of Unison which is based on Viking Age Iceland, but tomorrow I must immerse myself back into writing historical fiction. I’m really excited about it but as always a little worried. I try to make my historical fiction as realistic as possible and abide by the known facts but sometimes I find it a challenge to know what must happen as sometimes it goes against the natural character progression.
With Brunanburh I knew who would live and who would die at the battle, and with the Earls of Mercia I know when people die far more often than I know when they’re born and sometimes that makes the stories quite sad for me to write, especially when I really connect with my characters. And tomorrow is one of those days when I’ll have to embrace the reality that some of the characters from Brunanburh won’t make it into Of Kings and Half Kings, and almost worse, some of them won’t make it through the entire sequel. I don’t relish killing off characters if only because I remember the trauma of my favourite characters dying in books I’ve read (I still HATE the end to Tess of the D’Urbervilles – I had to reread it at the time and can’t even consider reading it again).
Yet I do relish a return to the world of Brunanburh – I have the novel in my head and now I need to get it out and onto paper with all the little quirks and side stories that end up in it.
But enough of that. I can’t give a sneak peek of Of Kings and Half Kings because it will spoil the surprise so instead I’m going to share the last chapter of Brunanburh, which I love (even though I wrote it!) Enjoy.
(This may contain spoilers – read on with care if you’ve not yet read Brunanburh)
Brunanburh – Athelstan – 937
Exhausted, bloodied and broken, I watch with pride as my men continue to chase the enemy from our land. There are few enough of them left and fewer yet will reach their ships.
The field is a sea of broken and bloodied bodies, horrifying in its contrasts of bright red, dead white and dying grey, but a necessary evil. As soon as the enemy are confirmed as gone, I will allow my priests to walk amongst the dead men and offer prayers for their souls.
Edmund is gone, chasing the enemy. My ealdormen are gone, chasing the enemy but I remain looking at the triumph we’ve earned today. If I wasn’t so convinced that I laboured with God on my side I’d be in peril for my soul. The destruction of so many men in one place has placed a heavy burden on me. When I return to my Court I will arrange for grants of land to my favourite monasteries and I’ll amend my will. More men will be needed to pray for my soul when I’m gone and I must ensure they have funds enough to continually do so. Without their intervention I may not make it into God’s Heaven. Not now.
The day has become quiet and calm, the gentle breeze caressing my skin as the sunlight slowly begins to bleed from the sky. At my side young Alfred is handing me a horn of mead and a lump of bread and cheese. I swallow hastily and eat as quickly as possible. I am starving and thirsty in equal measure. War mongering is a hungry profession.
In the distance I discern the noise of a troop of men advancing and I look frantically around me, pulled abruptly from my reverie. My men are all dispersed either back to their tents to tend to their own injuries, or gone to ensure no more of the enemy reach their ships. I stand alone ruminating on my victory, all apart from young Alfred leaving me to my thoughts.
For a long moment, fear stills my heart. I’d thought my enemy run away back towards their ships. Only then I discern the man at the front of the rapidly approaching force and my body relaxes, all tension draining instantly away. I’ll not have to fight for my survival again today, thank goodness. My arms ache and my head is ringing with the cries of dying men.
Before me sits Hywel on a magnificent horse, deepest black with no hint of another colour, a smirk across his uncovered face, lined and coloured by the sun as his gaze takes in the same scene I’ve been considering.
“I see I come too late, my Lord Athelstan,” he calls jauntily as soon as he’s within earshot.
“Yes you do, the enemy are vanquished. Hundreds, if not thousands lie dead before us. See.”
I hide my surprise at seeing Hywel come to fight for me and point towards the field of death. I watch with some satisfaction as he gulps around the all too visible scene of my greatest success.
“Athelstan, this is a great victory for you, and now I’m even more aggrieved that I didn’t arrive sooner,” he says with all seriousness.
“Is that why you’re here? To join the battle?” I ask with interest, but hopefully, not too keenly. It would be wonderful to know that he’d changed his mind about supporting me before the victory was won.
“Yes my Lord, of course,” he quickly assures me, his voice still serious. “I realized the error of my judgement. Our island has grown quiet under your guardianship and I shouldn’t have turned ambivalent at the thought of proving my loyalty to you.”
I’m too tired to mask my surprise at the words and Hywel starts to laugh quietly, his serious expression evaporating in the face of my obvious joy at his words.
“I mean no disrespect my Lord, but it’s the first time I’ve ever truly seen you speechless.”
“I won’t deny that you’ve surprised me, in a good way. And you have my thanks for making the journey.”
Hywel sobers at that, looking out at the field carpeted in bodies.
“You had an overwhelming victory?” he queries, more statement than actual question.
“It was a hard won victory. We must count the total number of dead and reckon up those we’ve lost on our own side.”
“I imagine that will take some time,” Hywel mutters cynically and I smile a small sad smile that spreads across my face, turning it from winter’s day to summer’s at the thought of those I’ve lost on the battlefield. They all died for me, but they wanted to, and they had good deaths. All of them.
“It will, and there will of course be many graves to dig.” The reminder of that unhappy task turns me even more somber.
“My men are good at digging graves, and looting a little as they go, I can’t deny that and so I won’t. If you’ll allow us, my Lord, we’ll still set up camp and help with the cleanup operation.”
“That would be most welcome. I imagine my own men will not look with joy upon the task of preparing the dead for burial, not when they might fear who they’ll discover next and whether they’re kin or enemy.”
Hywel bows low at the acceptance of his request.
“You have my thanks my Lord.”
“And you have mine. I’ve missed your company.”
A commotion behind him and Hywel’s impetuous grin is back on his face.
“I almost forgot,” he says, his head turning to where a ragged man is being lead forward between two of his men. He is a little beaten, although not too much, dried blood streaks his nose and his clothes are muddy from where he’s been forced to march whilst Hywel and his men have ridden, but his eyes are clear and his face clean other than for the blood.
“I found something for you,” he says, and I narrow my eyes and look at the man a little more closely. I’m wondering if my guess as to who he is will prove to be correct.
“This, my Lord Athelstan is your little skald, the source of much of the discontent within the Welsh lands. And we were right, he’s told me everything. His most famous poem was constructed on the orders of Constantin, a little something to worm it’s way into the minds of all those clever enough to interpret it.”
I was right, and I’m overjoyed that Hywel has gone to all the trouble of finding the source of much of the discontent that has erupted from the Welsh lands, that, when combined with the honeyed words of Olaf of Dublin has forced all my allies to remain at home during this fight for York. I am equally relieved to know that my assumptions have proven to be correct, and ecstatic that Hywel has returned to me. Hopefully the other men of the Welsh kingdoms will follow suit in the coming months.
Hywel reaches out then and grasps my arm firmly. I return the greeting wholeheartedly. After the day I’ve had, it feels good to have this further evidence of the righteousness of my Kingship and overlordship.
“Come my Lord, I’ll get my men to set their camp and then we’ll begin our grisly work.”
I look bleakly out at the field of destruction and death, the blood churned bodies, the early evening sun dully shining on discarded swords and shields, the scraps of bright clothes that catch my eye, the occasional glimpse of a pale upturned face, eyes now forever staring, and I notice for the first time the black crowd of birds who’ve come to feast, their harsh ca-caring to each other belatedly penetrating my hearing.
“Tomorrow will be soon enough. There’s no need to rush.”
And with that, I resolutely turn my back on the battle site.
The name fills me with pride and disquiet in equal measure.
I know it will be remembered for a thousand years to come.