What I’m writing about this week, No3: Viking mayhem
Sorry I haven’t blogged in a while – it’s mainly because I’ve started an engrossing new project while I’m waiting for the notes on Blood’s Campaign (out in November) to come back from the editor.
I spent a lot of time thinking about what I’d really like to write next – another Robin Hood? A new Victorian crime series? – and in the end I decided to try my hand at some Viking stuff. I have several good friends who write this kind of thing, and do it brilliantly – Giles Kristian, Robert Low, Matthew Harffy. So I know I will be up against some stiff competition. Also I don’t have a publisher for this yet, so it may come to nothing. But I’m really enjoying it – and I think that’s the main thing with writing.
Actually, what am I saying? The main thing is paying the mortgage, feeding the kids and so on. But I am having fun and, with a bit of luck, this project could help me earn a crust too.
So I’m posting here the Prologue to the book – which is called The Last Berserker – and I’m hoping you will tell me whether you think it is something you might buy. Feel free to say no, it’s a piece of junk. Or that market is too over crowded. It’s also still a bit rough. But, whatever, here it is . . .
The Last Berserker
The Valdr shambled towards the village, the butt of his gore-clotted long axe dragging a furrow in the sandy soil as it dangled from his bandaged hand. He hummed to himself as he approached the village’s rickety gate, a rhythmic four-note tune, repetitive, hypnotic, suppressing the frailty of his wounded body and coaxing the Beast to come forth from its internal lair.
He was a huge man, his face as ugly as a toad under a hacked fringe of dark greasy hair; his heavy shoulders made bulkier under the thick fur cloak that was draped over his broad back. Boiled leather and matted fur vambraces made his forearms appear absurdly large, even by comparison to the lumped bulge of muscles between his shoulder and elbow. Greaves of hard leather sewn with strips of iron were strapped over his thick boots.
Fifty yards from the frail gate, he hefted the axe on to his shoulder and broke into a lumbering trot, increasing the the full charge as he neared the fence. The humming noise was now replaced by a keening screech, rising in volume and pitch, until it was a full-throated blood-curdling scream. At full sprint, he threw his massive body against the collection of sun-faded sticks held together by thongs and hemp-twine, crunching through the gate and bursting out the other side, into the village itself in a shower of debris.
The two gate guards, village men armed with no more than reed fishing spears and wicker-shields, were already running by the time he had brushed the splinters from his shoulder fur. The Valdr threw back his head, lifted the axe in the air in both hands and roared with anger and triumph.
Then he began to kill.
He strode over to the nearest house, a mean hovel of wattle and daub, with a turf roof. He ripped the leather curtain aside and sank his axe into the groin of a man who lunged out at him with a bait knife in his hand. He booted the collapsing body back inside the little house and followed it in.
The air was ripped apart by screaming. Then a woman’s voice begging, pleading and a newborn bawling – both suddenly cut short. The Valdr emerged, bloodier than a slaughter-man, and laughing like a loon. He shook the axe free of the slick coating of blood, droplets scattering, and shambled on into the village. A dog, a big mongrel with a good deal of wolf hound in her, barked at him, and circled growling, sensing his evil. Too close. The Valdr leapt, fast as a snake, and the bitch was swatted away with an axe blow, her ribs crushed, pierced. She staggered away, collapsed.
A shield wall had formed, half way up the only street in the village. A dozen men, all the males of fighting age within the small settlement. They huddled together, pitifully, behind three big round shields. A few wavering spears pointed in the Valdr’s direction and five or six extended swords or long knives. He loped towards them, chuckling at little, swinging the axe.
The shield wall fared no better than the gate. The Valdr smashed straight through it, hacking left and right, killing with practised ease. He took a sword thrust to the left side, the steel scraping over his naked ribs, but he paid it not the slightest heed – the Beast possessed him and he knew no pain. The long axe hissed through the air and thunked into living flesh. Again and again. Three or four unwounded men ran for their lives, and he let them. There were eight on the bloody earth, coughing, bleeding, dying. He stamped on one fellow’s dying head, crushing the skull like an egg under his iron-shod boot. Then the Valdr picked up the man’s sword, an old one, well-made by a craftsman, and gave it a few trial swishes.
Then the Valdr set to work on the houses, zig-zagging across the street to make sure he did not overlook any potential victims. In each house, he kicked open the door, pushed inside and killed, sword in one hand axe in the other. He slew old men, young women and children, infants and babies. He murdered pets, livestock. He destroyed anything that breathed.
Slathered in gore, like a man who has been dipped in a cauldron of blood, he approached the last and biggest house in the place, a mead hall.
The bear fur of his cloak was matted and dripping; his vambraces soggy and glistening red; of the heavy features of his blood-caked face, only his glowing blue eyes could be distinguished and a glimpse of yellow teeth in his mad, jubilant grin. The survivors, no more than two dozen mostly women and children, had gathered in the gable-ended building and barricaded the heavy oak door. The Valdr went in through the wall, hacking through wattle-and-daub and thin inner planks with the axe. His fury and stamina were relentless, he battered a man-size hole in a matter of moments, and burst through, skewering a doddering greybeard through the belly with the sword and, with the axe in his other hand, hewing the head clean off a doughy matron who tried to stab him with a iron roasting spit.
The rest of the inhabitants cowered by the rectangular central hearth, resigned to their fate, all except a young boy, who charged at the Valdr from the shadows, yelling, a little eating knife in his hand. The monster killed him with a neat sideways flick of the axe, almost a casual, friendly blow, that smashed the boy’s right cheekbone, driving it far into his skull.
The Valdr loomed over the last few huddled folk by the hearth, his gory blades raised in both hands, panting a little from his exertions. He fixed one of the girls, a slim and pretty blonde, with his terrible blue gaze.
“Freya . . . my dear,” he said – the words were clogged, as if they were jagged and too large for his throat. “I have . . . come . . . for you.”