Publication Date: 15th October 2020
Publisher: Madder Press
Series: The Byrhtnoth Chronicles
Genre: Historical Fiction
Separated by anger and unanswered questions, Byrhtnoth and Saewynn are brought together by a tragic death.
Re-united, they set out on an epic voyage to discover the final truth about his father.
The journey takes them far to the north, to Orkney, swathed in the mists of treachery, and to Dublin’s slave markets where Byrhtnoth faces a fateful decision.
How far will he go, to save those he cares for?
I recognised it as soon as I lifted it from the table. There were other helmets, but this was the one for which I had been searching.
The rounded dome mirrored the shape of a skull. Some would say a conical shape was better and that argument occupied many a night around the hearth. Despite its apparent age, someone had cared for it, the scrapes of old battles smoothed and polished to an echo of the original blow. I stroked the burnished metal, the surface never breached. It had been assembled from eight pieces, shaped and riveted together. Some of the rivets were missing, or the heads sheared off. It would be an easy job to replace them. A golden band of brass encircled the helmet, and another ran from side to side, forming a cross with the one running from front to back and leading down to a decorative nasal. It was this that had attracted my attention with its intricate pattern of interlaced animals. Other animals decorated the brows.
One of the brass edged cheek guards had become detached> Thurstan handed me the missing piece. It would be easy to replace it. Around the back of the helmet were fittings for mail to protect the neck, a few links still clung to the edge.
“Does it fit?” asked Thurstan.
I lifted it. There were the remains of a cap lining the inside, smelling faintly of ancient sweat. It settled on my head as if made for me. I moved my head from side to side, forward and back.
“It could do with more padding, and the strap needs replacing.”
“It looks good,” said Thurstan. I could see the admiration in his eyes.
“It feels good,” I replied, and it did. This was the helmet that I had always wanted.
I remembered now where I had found it, a small farm on the edge of the hills. Not far from Ripon, I supposed. We had nearly overlooked it as hardly worth pillaging, but by then, I had begun my search for horses. I rode up the hill on Smoca, out of the pall of soot and ash from farms we had raided earlier in the day. There was a pink glow behind the hills, another day nearly over. A small stream tumbled down rocks beside the cluster of buildings. Perhaps it would make a suitable place to spend the night.
A woman waited, a large knife clutched in her hand. There were a few servants, the presence of a shepherd suggested there must be sheep we could kill for food, perhaps hidden sheepskins or woven cloth. The woman was not young, but still an attractive target to men in the mood for rape. I warned my followers she was not to be harmed.
“We require food and accommodation for the night. You and your people will not be hurt, but we have instructions to burn this place before we leave unless you have anything of value that will cause us to change our minds.”
The woman stared at me as if judging my words, then slowly lowered the knife and nodded. “There is room in the barn for your men; you may join me in the hall for a meal.” She turned and disappeared into the darkness.
I organised the men and saw to the horses. I set a guard. We had previous experience of seeming acquiescence that had turned to an attack in the dark of the night. Then I returned to the hall with Thurstan and Coelwulf. The darkness was held at bay by a few rushlights and a glowing hearth. The helmet was the first thing I saw; thinking it a warrior waiting to kill me before I realised my mistake. It was perched high on a shelf, staring down over the room.
“You can take it when you go. I have no need for it.” The woman directed me to a sheepskin close to the hearth and spooned pottage into a bowl and handed it to me. It was good, as was the strong ale she poured from a glazed jug.
“You live here alone?” I asked her, wiping the foam from my mouth.
“In case you were wondering, I have no man hiding in the heather until you have departed. I am a widow, my husband died long ago. We had no children, there is no son to avenge whatever you might do to me.” She gave me a level stare.
“You will suffer no harm from my men or me.”
“I know. I have seen the fires, listened to the rumours. Why are you here?”
“King Eadred told us to come. I could not refuse. Erik Haraldsson broke his oaths and must suffer punishment.”
“The usual story, the great men argue and the little people suffer.”
“I am sorry,” I said, and she shrugged.
“It is as it is. Would you like more pottage?”
“If you can spare it.”
“It all belongs to you anyway,” she said with a thin smile.
“Indeed.” I offered her my empty bowl.
“You are interested in the helmet.”
“It is old,” I said.
“It belonged to my grandfather. He travelled across the sea with what you Saxons called the Great Heathen Army. He fought, but he was not a warrior. He was given the helmet as a reward for some deed long forgotten. He settled this land and fought for it. My father and uncles did the same. Some died in their beds, others not. My husband was born over the hill. I knew him from when we were children. He was called to fight some invader. He never returned. Perhaps he should have worn the helmet. It is supposed to be lucky, but he thought it old fashioned.”
I stood up. My head brushed the beams of the roof. I lifted down the helmet, thinking that it would have been beyond the reach of other, smaller men. The woman smiled and nodded.
“It is done. You must be tired. There is plenty of room.” She pointed to a platform heaped with sheepskins and other hides. “Or perhaps you want to share my bed?”
“That won’t be necessary,” I said with embarrassment.
“As you wish.” She retired to the bed in the other corner and drew a curtain across.
“She was a strange woman, wasn’t she?”
“What?” I removed the helmet and stared at Thurstan.
“The woman at the farm where you found this.” He picked up the helmet and inspected it. I itched to snatch it back. “Bit of work and it’ll be as good as new. That night I got the best sleep I’d had for a long time.”
“I wonder if she survived?” We had left her enough supplies to see her through the winter and fired a shed to show we had passed that way.
“I hope so,” said Thurstan. “Perhaps I’ll go back one day and find out.”
Christine Hancock was born in Essex and moved to Rugby, Warwickshire when she married. She a husband, two sons and two lovely grandchildren.
She is a long term family historian, leader of the local history group and town guide. Christine had never thought of becoming an author - She just wanted to write about some her ancestors. In 2013 she joined a writing class. The class turned out to be about writing fiction. Before she knew it, she was writing a novel.
Byrhtnoth was a real warrior who died in the 991 Battle of Maldon, made famous by the Anglo-Saxon poem of that name. Growing up in Essex, Christine visited Maldon often, and attended the 1000 year anniversary of the battle in 1991. She wanted to find out what made Byrhtnoth such a famous warrior. She finished the book but discovered it had become a series - how long, she has yet to find out.
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