My new project: King Arthur in fifteen episodes

I’m trying a new way of writing a novel. Actually, it’s not a new way, it’s an old way done on new technology. I’m writing a long, epic adventure series about King Arthur set in post-Roman Britain, but with dragons and a bit of magic. Someone described it in a review as Low Fantasy. I’m expecting (although this might change a bit) to write fifteen episodes in total to tell a story that would ordinarily occur in three novels. That’s the idea, anyway. Five episodes per novel, three novels in the series. The first novel of the Wormkind Chronicles is called The Broken Kingdom, the first episode in The Broken Kingdom is called Arthur’s Bane (see cover below) and it is about 20,000 words long – or 70 pages.

The idea is to write this series around the other projects I already have on my plate. I have a Viking series on the go (the Fire Born series, kicks off, in both senses, with The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1)) and I also have a new Mongol series waiting in the wings. I’m going to be writing full-length novels in these two series over the next few years. But I have a bit of spare capacity, so I’m going to do the Arthur story in-between these other projects. For example, I am just about to finish writing Episode 2, Arthur’s Escape, and then, after Christmas, I will finish writing Blood of the Bear (Fire Born 5); then I will write Episode 3 of the Arthur story before spending the early summer writing another Mongol novel. Yep, I know, busy-busy.

Anyway, I hope you will support me in this new project by buying the episodes as they come out, rather than waiting for the whole series to be written. Frankly, if you would all do that it would be very helpful to me. They are not very expensive – 99p or equivalent each – and I will be putting them out every couple of months. The idea is not new – Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens both wrote episodic books which were published in magazines. So these short sections of the Arthur story are my version of a Victorian magazine serial. Here is an extract to give you the flavour of Arthur’s Bane. Hope you enjoy it!

The woman screamed. A high note that rose steadily in pitch before gradually fading, ending in an almost inaudible birdlike shriek of agony. She crouched on a mound of seal furs, hunched over her swollen belly, her eyes tightly closed, her face flushed, legs straddled wide, the sweat slick on her brow. 

She gripped the hand of her husband, who knelt behind her, his weight propped reassuringly against her back, and squeezed hard, grinding his knuckles agonisingly against their neighbours. They had been thus, locked in the struggle to bring forth life, for many hours now, yet time had no meaning here. To the man it seemed an eternally anxious present; to the woman a vast red swamp of near-bursting fullness. 

Outside the cabin the snow fell, the flakes as thick as goose down. Inside, a fire blazed high in the stone hearth, the only illumination apart from a stone lamp of whale oil in the far corner of the low room. The air was hot, smoky and reeked of human waste, old sweat, piss, and a sour, fishy tang from the piles of damp nets.

“She will be here soon,” the man mumbled into her lank, greasy hair. “The wise woman must be here very soon. It must be several hours since I sent word.” Then louder: “Breathe hard, my dear one, blow away the hurt. It will be done in no time.” 

He shifted his position, to ease the cramping of his back and thighs, and reached up to mop at the running sweat on her cheeks and neck with a pad of cloth scraps.

The woman heard him through her pain-haze, opened her mouth and began to pant like a hound after a long chase. Huh. Huh. Huh. The man reached his free hand between her legs and felt the moist opening between the wisps of hair. He knew little of these womanly matters, having no sisters, no family at all, now that his mother and father were dead, but to his questing fingers the opening still seemed far too small to permit the passage of the baby. The woman broke off her panting to scream again, an animal wail that rang out like a war cry in that foetid space.

The wooden door of the cabin banged open, admitting a gust of fresh snowy air, a blast of shocking cold and a huge figure, bundled in furs.

The man looked up in alarm, his features slowly relaxing in recognition. Above the furs was a broad flat face, a wedge of nose and two lamp-bright eyes. And there were other snow-decked figures crowding into the doorway behind the first intruder. 

The lead figure stood in silence for a dozen heartbeats, staring down almost hungrily at the man and his wife huddled in their birthing pain. It was a woman of middle years with long, iron-grey hair and a vast shapeless bosom. But she was as tall as a man, with something masculine about the set of her wide shoulders, thick limbs and the grim line of her mouth. She carried a long black wooden staff with a shining obsidian disc at its head. The husband could just make out a small red circle, like a ring of fresh blood, stamped into the centre of the disc. 

A strange headdress fashioned from a pair of black curling ram’s horns set into a steel skull-cap added to the impression of her towering bulk. She leaned the staff carefully against the nearest wall, untied the leather thong that kept the headdress in place and set it gently at the staff’s foot; then she shed the cloak of furs, tossing it on to a pile of fishing nets in the corner of the cabin, to reveal a black woollen gown that covered her huge body to the ankles. Turning to the people behind her, she growled: “Get some water heating – now – I want it hot and hot, and close that gaping door.” She spoke in the local tongue of the settlers but her accent was odd, like a foreigner.

They were men, five of them, and all warriors by their looks, wrapped in fur and leather with long swords at their waists. The pale skin of their faces was marked with black ink in intricate patterns, swirls and shapes, lines and dots, giving them a savage, almost demonic air. To the husband’s surprise they all rushed meekly to obey the older woman’s commands, tumbling over each other in their eagerness to find an iron pot, fill it with snow and set it on the hook that hung by a chain above the hearth-fire. 

In the commotion, the tall woman knelt down beside the husband and his fast-panting wife. “You carry a precious cargo, my dear,” she said looking into the woman’s blotched and sweaty face. “But do not fear, I am here now, and it will be my task to guide you thorough this present place of pain, all the way to the other side.”

The husband and the wise woman between them laid the mother-to-be back down on the furs, spread her knees and both peered between them.

“My lady,” said the man, “what may I do to aid you . . .”

“I am no lady,” the woman said sharply. “I am a servant of the W . . .” she stopped. “Folk in these parts call me the Soothsayer – for I can foretell the future.”

“I beg your pardon . . . Soothsayer. But what can I do to make the birth easier?”

The wise woman stared at the haggard younger man kneeling beside her. Even in the dim light of the cabin, he noticed that one of her eyes was parti-coloured, split in a jagged tear down the middle, one side light blue, the other brown. The other was plain blue but both blazed with a savage intensity that forced him to look away.

“What you can do is take yourself out of here. She is in my hands now. Take my guards with you. If you have ale, bread or meat, give it to them. If not, it is no matter. But leave us in peace, leave it to we women to bring a precious life into the world.”

The six men stood in the empty cow byre, a dozen yards away from the cabin, in a loose ring and chewed stale hunks of rye bread and ate dried, tiny, salted fish in silence. Outside the doorless opening of the byre, the snow-filled wind howled through the darkness, but the husband could hear the sounds of his wife wailing even above that din. He wordlessly passed a half-full skin of ale to the nearest of the Soothsayer’s men, apparently their leader – a gnarled fellow in a leather jerkin named Kevel, scarred by war about the hands and neck, his cheeks tattooed to give him the impression of a pair of curling boar’s tusks rising out of his black beard either side of his mouth. He had a sword at his waist and a short-handled axe stuffed in his belt.

“How long have you lived in these northern parts?” Kevel said to the husband.

“We came up with the other settlers, less than a year ago. My wife met your mistress – the Soothsayer – in the south; she consulted her about some womanly matters when we were trying to make a baby. The Soothsayer promised she would help us. We are Suomi folk, like the others hereabouts, and your mistress told us of the rich fishing and hunting grounds to be found up here in these Uncovered Lands.”

Kevel grunted his understanding. “From the sounds of that snow storm outside, they are quickly being covered all over again.”

“The storm will not last. And it is winter. My neighbour Pekka planted a field of white cabbages this summer and even brought in a crop before the frosts returned.”

But it seemed Kevel had lost interest. He drank again and passed the ale skin to his comrade, muttering something to him in a language the man did not understand.

They spoke no more, standing quietly in a circle in the light of a horn-lantern.

The woman’s shrieks were again audible now. And they had acquired a bumping rhythm, and over them the husband could hear the deeper, harsher cries of the Soothsayer, exhorting her in her labours, though he could not clearly make out the words. The screaming reached its climax – one prolonged bellow from his wife.

Then silence. A long, long silence – broken only by the wailing of the cruel wind.

The men looked at each other. One of the guards, a man called Fegor whose face was weirdly tattooed with the markings of a leopard, shrugged. “It is done,” he said.

The husband was already striding towards the entrance of the byre.

“Hold fast, man!” said Kevel. “Stop there, I say.” And the husband turned at the doorway, frowning impatiently at the black-bearded leader and his four warriors.

Kevel’s arm was already drawn back. It came forward in one swift, smooth line, and the axe flashed as it spun through the air and smacked into the forehead of the man, the wedge-shaped blade thudding into bone, splitting his skull as neatly as a nut.

The Soothsayer held the still, bloody form of the baby in her long hands. She scraped the filth and mucus from his mouth, pressed her own lips to the infant’s and blew a stream of air into its lungs. Nothing. She massaged its tiny, blood-streaked chest, a few hard turns of her long fingers, then blew air once more into its slack mouth. At her feet on the bed of seal furs, the woman’s body lay lifeless. Her loose loins in a black, drying puddle of her own fluids, her eyes half-open and staring upwards. And extra bloody mouth gaped under her blueish chin, where the blade had sliced into her.

The Soothsayer dangled the baby by one leg, and struck it hard on his wrinkled red buttocks with an open palm. The girl-child swayed in her grasp, silent. The Soothsayer smacked it again, harder this time. A tiny gasp. The breath of life. The huge woman held the child up to her face and looked at its wizened countenance. The baby’s eyes cracked open a fraction, the merest glint of blue. It began to bawl lustily. 

Kevel poked his head around the Soothsayer’s shoulder. He stared impassively at the child as if he had never seen one before. “Will the infant live?” he said.

“She will,” said the Soothsayer. “She will thrive. I have seen it all in the Fire.”

Then, briskly: “Come, we must hurry, the hour draws near. Gather kindling, wood and food. Ale, if they have it. Blankets. Hand me my cloak. We must go now.”

Six laden figures trudged through the snow, heading north, ever northwards. The tall woman led the way, Kevel, with the babe stuffed in his fur-wrapped bosom, and the four warriors following behind. The head of the Soothsayer’s staff was a ball of dark red light that cast long shadows over the snow. Her ram’s horns headdress seeming even more monstrous as twin, black curling shapes on the white blanket to their left. 

The wind had fallen away, the snow has ceased and high above them the Aurora Borealis flickered and shuddered, strands of pink and purple, rippling and dancing, wave upon wave of pale eldritch colours. They marched onwards, north and north. Not a man spoke, neither did they slacken their pace. Their breath steamed in the frigid air, plumes of white, the beards of the men soon glinting with sharp crystals of frost. On they marched through a flat white wilderness, their boots crunching through the thick crust of snow almost up to their knees. It was an empty landscape save for the five men and one tall woman, led ever onward by the blood-red ball of light.

They marched for half the night, never pausing, never speaking, on and on in single file through the white wilderness. The baby made no sound at all, and Kevel feared that it must have died against his skin from cold or lack of a mother’s milk. 

At last they began to climb, a low slope that began to rise to a long crest a hundred foot high, a lofty horizon that seemed to mark the end of the world. Up and up, the men panting heavily now with exertion, labouring in the soft snow, until they reached a flat area of land, a plateau just below the crest of the ridge. There the tall woman stopped and planted her staff in the snow like a flag, a symbol of possession.

Kevel looked around him, to the north was the crest of the ridge, a line of knobbly, snow-covered humps, to the south, east and west, there was nothing to be seen, no feature, not a hut or house, not a tree or a hill. The spine of the ridge stretched away to the west, but to the east it stopped abruptly, with a small, man-high cliff falling away beneath that end to the endless plain below. To the south, the chain of their footmarks, punched into the snow, stretched away into the limitless darkness, and even though he knew that a mere dozen miles away there were the new habitations of men, warm hearths with crackling fires, women making fish soup, children playing with their dolls, with a part of his mind he could not truly believe it. 

Ten years ago, had he come north to this desolate land hunting the white bear for its fur. Then there had been nothing but ice, vast creaking fields of blue-white ice. No men, no women, no settlers at all. They now called these the Uncovered Lands – new lands now hosting a small, scattered population near the top of the world, with the snow no more than a foot thick in winter. The ice sheets had retreated slowly over the intervening years, melting away in the ever-warmer summers, and black frozen earth had been revealed beneath. White cabbages, he thought, now grow here, in what was once a wasteland. “My neighbour brought in a crop,” he had heard the settler boast.

The Soothsayer was busy; with her long bare hands she was scraping the packed snow from an oblong boulder, just below the cliff face, burrowing through the white crust like a terrier. She was singing to herself, some weird, rhythmic, atonal witch-dirge, laced through with her dark magic. Kevel felt all the hairs on his neck rise at the sound. In a hundred heartbeats she had uncovered a patch of bare black rock. He summoned Kevel and his men to help and soon they had cleared a space in the snow the size of a child’s cot, walled on all sides by packed ice. Kevel saw that the rock’s surface was covered in yellow lichen, then one of his men dumped an armload of sticks and oil soaked rags on the rock, and another began striking flint and steel. The Soothsayer added a pinch of grey-ish powder from a leather pouch to the pile. In a short while a fire blazed below the cliff, and the men surrounded its warmth eagerly.

“Give me the child,” said the Soothsayer.

Kevel pulled the baby out of his fur-lined woollen robe, and as the cold air hit its wrinkled naked body the infant gave a weak cough of protest. Just for an instant, Kevel hesitated. He felt the fragile life wriggle in his hands and fought the urge to wrap this tiny creature safely, warmly in his strong arms. To protect her. The mad moment passed and he shoved the naked thing into the Soothsayer’s grasping claws.

“Make the circle now,” she said, and the five men shuffled around her in the snow, around the cleared space on the black rock. They linked their arms and stood, awkwardly, watching the Soothsayer as she held the baby in one outstretched hand over the centre of the rock. She pulled a long obsidian knife from her robe, flourished it next to the whimpering child and said in a loud, clear voice: “Hear us, O mighty Cythraul! Hear our summons! Return in triumph to the realms of men once more.”

All together, the men standing in the circle growled: “Hear us, hear us!”

“Blood calls to blood,” intoned the Soothsayer, “bone to bone, kin to kin. Return to the realms of men, O mighty Cythraul, come. By blood and flame I summon you!”

As the men chanted: “Come, O mighty Cythraul, join us in this realm of men,” the Soothsayer held the child out over the flames, pressed the obsidian blade to the baby’s upper back and drew a line of bright blood across its shoulder blades. The child gave a cry of pain, began to bawl, and drops of her blood trickled into the fire below. They sizzled as they burnt and a flash of green erupted from the fire’s heart. 

“Blood calls to blood,” intoned the Soothsayer. “Bone to bone, kin to kin. This is your kin, O mighty Cythraul – see her, smell her, taste her blood in the Sacred Fire! This is your kin – forged by my Art on the anvil of a woman’s womb, with the blood and bones of your ancestors as my hammer. Your essence flows in her veins, Worm.”

The tall woman held the baby high in the air and cried out: “Behold your child, Cythraul! Behold the first of your line born of frail human flesh. Acknowledge her!”

The Soothsayer handed the knife to Kevel and opening her robe she held the whimpering child to her own flaccid breast, its face pressed against her long nipple.

“There,” she said, “it is done. All that remains is to wait.” And she settled down in the snow, with the sucking infant tucked warmly inside her robe. “Pass me that ale sack, I am fair parched. Is there any bread and meat left?”

Kevel fetched the ale, and a hunk of rye bread and cheese, and a blanket for his mistress. He threw some more wood on the fire. He looked around him again at the empty white wilderness. Nothing stirred except his four men, who were settling down beside the Soothsayer, wrapped in their blankets. Would mighty Cythraul heed their summons? Would the Worm appear? Or had all the blood and struggle been in vain?

Kevel found no rest inside himself, despite his weary limbs. The Soothsayer was nodding by the fire with the babe in her arms. He stamped his cold feet, the boots thudding on the snow-covered rock. He took a few paces from the fire and climbed up on top of a small knoll a few feet above the camp. He looked north beyond the ridge and gazed at the wild lights gyrating in the black night sky. The colours had changed, darker hues now, blood reds and purples and browns, and their rippling dance seemed forced and jerky, with a wrongness that was almost painful to the eye.

He turned back to look at his companions. Most were dozing around the fire, which was burning low again, but the Soothsayer was watching him with a bright and baleful eye. She reached out a thin arm and beckoned. He hurried down to join her, and took his place beside the Sacred Fire. She fixed him with her split-eyed glare.

“He will come, Kevel; he must come when summoned by the power of my Art,” she said, and nodded once, to herself, as if she had definitively proved her point.

The stars moved serenely though their paths, the temperature dropped, an icy wind sprang up, and the fire burned lower and lower on the lichen-stained rock. Kevel kept his watch while his men breathed noisily around him. The Soothsayer got to her feet. She stood, staring at the night, looking this way and that, almost wildly. 

Then he felt it too. Kevel felt the ground shake beneath his arse bones.

A tremble, nothing more. Kevel almost thought that he had imagined it.

He looked up at the Soothsayer, still standing, now pointing north with one skinny bare hand, the baby clutched to her bosom with the other. She was looking down at him now, a look of mixed triumph and ecstasy on her face. “He is coming!”

Kevel looked beyond her, to the long line of the distant ridge. The hillside itself seemed to be quaking, shivering, scabs of snow were falling from the boulders that made up the ridge and revealing glimpses of a rich, shiny black beneath. The air grew warmer, he felt his numb cheeks begin to glow. A vast deep humming noise, like a gigantic swarm of bees, seemed to be vibrating his lungs, his belly, rippling the skin on his body. He was seized with a terror the like of which he had never felt before. 

A movement caught his eye. He saw, far away, at the western end of the rise, the very ground flicked sideways and back, like the tail of a huge lizard half-buried and lashing itself out of the snow. Now, a black mist was rising, seemingly from beneath his feet, seeping up through the white crust, thickening, growing, filling the air with a sulphury, choking miasma that smelled of things long gone bad. The humming noise increased, swelling into a vast all-encompassing roar. A bank of snow at the side of the oblong rock at the end of the ridge slid away suddenly to reveal a huge eye, sea-green at the edges, with a long, black vertical pupil and a round iris as red as blood.

“We greet you, Cythraul the Mighty, Father of Worms, Lord of the Sacred Fire!” The Soothsayer was holding out the naked baby in both hands, which was now a little blue in colour from the exposure. The huge black and shiny head gave a little shake, dislodging a last cap of snow to reveal two sharply pointed ears the size of fir trees.

“Behold your child, Cythraul! Behold the first of your line born of a woman’s womb. Behold her! Acknowledge her!” the Soothsayer said, in a commanding voice. 

The Worm opened its red mouth a crack, a greenish-grey tongue slithered out.

A gust of the thick black mist came with the tongue, the foul dead smell as well. 

My child?” rumbled a voice, a deep, dark voice that tolled like a demonic bell.

“She is yours,” said the Soothsayer, still holding the baby towards the Worm.

The great grey-green tongue snaked out, drops of translucent glue-like saliva dripping on the snow as it advanced towards the Soothsayer. The tongue stopped a foot short of the naked baby. The tip of the tongue, a paler, pinkish hue, slender as a man’s arm, licked at the infant, exploring the feet, limbs and belly, tasting them, then curling round the back of the child to probe the knife-slash across her spine. Kevel could see the fat drops of saliva glistening on the wound like some loathsome dew.

“Yesss,” rumbled Cythraul. “She is mine! She is my kin. She is . . . Wormkind.”

You can buy the rest of Episode 1 of The Broken Kingdom – Arthur’s Bane – for 99p by clicking here. Episode 2, Arthur’s Escape, will be out in a week or so – when I have finished writing it!

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Richard Shaw
Richard Shaw
5 months ago

Angus – please don’t give up on the Outlaw books. They’ve given me so much pleasure.