The Saxon Wolf extract: Chapter One

The second book in my new Fire Born series about the Viking Age adventures of warriors Bjarki Bloodhand and Tor Hildarsdottir is coming out in January 2022. (And you can pre-order a copy of The Saxon Wolf – Fire Born 2 by clicking on the link.) But to whet your appetites, this is a brief extract from part of the first chapter of the new book. Hope you enjoy it and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my readers!

A joyful reunion

When in doubt, go north. Bjarki Bloodhand lifted his heavy arms into the air and stretched out the knuckles of his aching spine. He pondered this maxim of his dead father – one of the few shreds of wisdom that the battle-crazed old brute had passed on to his only son during their short acquaintance. 

When in doubt, go north. That was what the old man had said. So Bjarki duly stared out at the bruise-coloured, breeze-riffled surface of the harbour of Rerik, and beyond its wide bay, to the Austmarr, the Eastern Lake. He watched the half-dozen fishing craft – tiny at this distance – as they scudded across the horizon. Out there, somewhere, perhaps a hundred grey miles across the ocean, north and a little west, was his home – or rather the muddy flyspeck of an isle he had lived on for his first handful of years.

If Bjarki went north, as his father’s ghost might have counselled, he’d be going towards Bago Island, and if not actually to his home, certainly into the Dane-Mark, the realm of King Siegfried. If he went back there, he would most likely be returning to the grinding tedium of life as a bondi, a free man but still a poor one, a drudge; and if not to the very same the fish-stinking hamlet of his miserable upbringing, then somewhere similar. But worse than that, if Bjarki did go north, he would be admitting defeat; he would be conceding that his bright and shining dream was dead. 

And Bjarki wasn’t quite ready to do that. Not yet.  

Rerik was a grubby, polyglot port on the north coast of one of the Wendish territories, east and north of the River Elbe, which was controlled by Prince Witzlaus, the lord of a local tribe known as the Obodrites. Ships from across the Austmarr – from as far east as the lands of the Svears, Estonians and Finns – stopped at Rerik to trade in thick furs, in sun-filled amber, bars of cold iron, hardy slaves and resin-scented pine trunks – destined to become timbers for the dragon-ships that local wrights worked on along the shore. 

The traders came, as well, to buy up the huge hemp sacks of precious salt produced here, and bundles of woollen cloth and barrels of salted herring and the several types of grain produced by Wendish husbandmen further inland. The man Bjarki had laboured so long for on this chill day at the tail end of winter – a rotund fellow called Burik, a cousin of the local lord – had an enormous estate under the plough to the south of Rerik where hundreds of his thralls grew barley, rye and oats in vast quantities to feed the ships. 

Bjarki bent down and hefted the last of the huge barley sacks; he jerked it up on to his shoulder with a soft grunt of pain, turned and began to plod under its immense weight into the gloom of the warehouse, a dozen yards from the slop of the harbour water. Each sack weighed as much as a small, limp man – a corpse, perhaps – and Bjarki had been doing this same lifting action, time after time, since before the first pinks of dawn. Now, as evening thickened the salty air, his gargantuan task was very nearly accomplished. 

As he entered the huge space of the warehouse, he heard the familiar scurry and squeak of rats in the lurk of the shadows, an inescapable part of any place of stored grain. He staggered a little then, his knees buckling under the grind of this dull, endless day, his breath coming in faster. Slowly, painfully, he began to climb the sagging steps made from piled sacks to the top of the barley mountain, where he dumped the last one in its place at the summit.

He rested for a moment, sitting on the bulging hemp, his head swimming with the effort, his breath coming in soft pants. That was the last of them. The harbour jetty was cleared. He was done for today. Tomorrow, the punishing labour would begin again: a merchant ship, of the type called a knarr, was expected from Gottland, his master had said, which must be unloaded of its cargo of oats. That was tomorrow. This day was over. Thank the gods.

Drudgery. Hard labour. Dull repetitive tasks. Day after day. He had been doing this work since the first frosts of autumn. All winter long, month after month, save for a few weeks just after Jul when the harbour had been locked tight by sea ice. Then all work had been suspended and he had taken shelter in the harbour ale-house owned by his master Burik. He’d slept whole days at a time, wrapped in his fur cloak in a shed in the back of the establishment.

A brown scurrying form ran over his right boot. He was too tired to kick it away. He stared dully into the deepening, dusty gloom of the warehouse, at the fine filaments of golden light that pierced the shingle roof and speared the huge hillocks of barley. These last gleams also painted a triangle on the threshold of the warehouse, a bold splash of reddish yellow. Perhaps he would just sleep here tonight. No need to go back to the foetid ale-house. He’d just lie here and close his eyes for a while. Just a little while.

His belly moaned. It was no use. That gnawing hollow space urgently demanded his attention. He must eat a little something before he slept. He levered his large body painfully to its feet and began, slowly, carefully, more like an old cripple than a young man of only twenty-one summers, to descend the stair of sacks. 

Whether he went north, to resume the life of a fisherman, or stayed here on this unfeeling foreign shore, being worked like a mule, day after day, it seemed that he was doomed to drudgery. 

But there was an alternative, a voice whispered right inside his head, a girlish, whining voice. There was something he could do that no other living man could. He was blessed with a gift, a talent that endowed him with the most extraordinary strength and power.

He quickly shut down the horribly familiar voice. No. He was done with that. He had sworn it to himself: no more of that blood-madness. No more wading through other men’s gore. He would stay in Rerik. Remain in this dismal port, doing his mule’s work. He’d earn his money with honest sweat, and save every penny. And when he had finally gathered enough, he would resume his search. He would not give up his dream. He would find the long-haired man, the easy-talking easterner who called himself Goran, he would find the man somehow and do what was required to earn the prize he yearned for – the patch of free land Goran had offered him, the little house by the sea, the well-tilled barley fields, and the fishing boat drawn up on the strand; the neat rows of leeks and cabbages planted; the fat pig tethered nearby. He wanted that with the whole of his tired heart. He would never give up his quest. 

You can pre-order or buy a copy of The Saxon Wolf (Fire Born 2) here. The first book in the series The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1) is available here. The third book in the series The Loki Sword will be out in August 2022.

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