My new novel, Wolves of War, will be published next week. It’s set in the time of Alfred the Great but from the point of view of his enemies, the Vikings. Here’s the cover, designed by Jenny Quinlan of Historical Fiction covers and the opening of the book.
Leif worked the bellows furiously and watched the fire blaze stronger with each gush of air. Sparks from the flames leapt into the air, burnt bright for an instant and then died. Sigurd watched the fire intently, and the sword burning within it. Then he lifted the blade and turned it in the light of the forge.
‘It’s the finest sword I’ve ever made,’ he said.
‘Then it’s wasted on that scoundrel, Eohric,’ Leif said. ‘He has an ill-favoured look.’
Sigurd shrugged. ‘Eohric has given two thirds down-payment and that’s enough for me. I don’t care how a man looks as long as he pays.’
‘It is no wonder you don’t care about appearances, brother,’ Leif said. ‘You don’t have to look at yourself as I have to every day.’
Sigurd grunted, his form of laugh.
Ever since they were children, people had commented on how different the brothers looked. If they had received a cup of ale every time they’d heard it they would have spent their days drunk.
Sigurd looked like his father. He was tall, broad-chested, round-faced and had a mass of golden yellow hair. Leif sometimes called him ox. He did not mind. He admired oxen for their stolid strength. He admired them for their endurance.
He followed his father’s trade as well. But where Orm had been an accomplished smith, his son was more. Sigurd could work metal like a baker works bread. His swords were masterpieces of death and miracles of beauty. He was sought out by many to make their weapons.
Leif could not have been more different. He took after his mother who was a Moor from Seville. She claimed she was a princess but one of Orm’s friends said she was the daughter of a spice merchant so incompetent he lost his money, his home and his pride and had to sell his only daughter to the Vikings. She was dark as a damson, small and lithe as a cat.
And she could tell tales to keep men enthralled. Leif learned every one of them, then added more from his own imagination. His friends called him a poet, his enemies a liar. He acted as story-teller, a Skald to Klack, the head of the village though, in truth, Klack did nothing worthy of note, the village forever slept like an old dog and all Leif’s tales were woven in his head.
Leif continued to pump, intently watching the flames darken as Sigurd plunged the blade back into the fire.
‘What name does Eohric want for his sword?’ Sigurd asked.
Leif shook his head. ‘I couldn’t find him this morning.’
‘Then find him now. You might as well do something useful. You’re pumping as feebly as a little girl.’
Leif grinned and headed out of the smithy.
He took a deep breath. It was a bright, cold morning but the air was heavy with the promise of spring. Sea birds cried loudly in the sky, vying for territory, boars snuffled amongst the huts, scenting females in heat, young men glanced swiftly at young women, hoping to see some sign of interest in return.
‘Is the sword finished?’ said a voice.
Leif turned towards it.
The stranger did, indeed, have an ill-favoured look. He was a young man, skinny as a ferret and had neither beard nor moustache. His face was narrow as if from a life-time of sneering. Now he stared at Leif with a hungry look.
‘Almost,’ Leif said. ‘We need to know the name you wish to call it.’
Eohric glanced around, as if fearful his words would be overheard. ‘It shall be called Havoc.’
Leif just managed to hide his grin. ‘You choose an awe-inspiring name.’
‘It is not my choice. It is not my sword.’
Leif stared at him intently then shrugged. ‘It matters not. You have paid.’ He paused. ‘The final payment?’
Eohric untied a heavy purse from his belt.
Leif held out his hand and Eohric poured out half a dozen gold coins.
‘Byzants,’ Leif said in surprise. He weighed the coins in his hand. ‘We agreed twenty.’
‘You get the rest when the sword is finished.’
Leif nodded, reluctantly. He decided to ask friends to be close by when the exchange was made, in case Eohric chose to flee with both sword and purse.
‘It is a fine sword,’ he said. ‘The best my brother’s made. The weapon of a mighty warrior. I have to say that you do not look such a man.’
‘The sword is not for me,’ Eohric said. ‘I was commanded to come here to see it made. By a very mighty warrior.’
‘Who is he?’ Leif asked, intrigued. ‘Who will wield the sword? I must know this for the naming.’
Eohric shook his head. ‘I cannot tell you.’ He crossed his arms in a belligerent manner.
Leif sighed. ‘As you wish. Though this will not help in the naming.’
He returned to the darkness of the smithy. Sigurd was pumping at the bellows, more strongly than Leif could ever hope to do.
‘Well?’ he asked. ‘What’s it to be called?’
Sigurd whistled. ‘Eohric must think himself a famous warrior.’
‘It’s not Eohric’s sword. He wouldn’t tell me who will own it.’
Sigurd picked up his hammer. ‘A shame. Do what you can.’
He pulled out the sword and began to beat upon the glowing metal, sharp blows running up and down the blade to give it the final tempering.
Leif watched for a little while, taking the rhythm of Sigurd’s blows into himself, watching the sparks fly and die in the darkness.
And then he began to chant. ‘All-Father Odin, you have given my brother Sigurd the power and skill to make mighty weapons. You have loaned him the strength of your son Thor to hammer out the steel and make it strong. Lend now the fierce valour of the war god, Tyr, that the sword may deal terror to the enemies of its lord.’
He fell silent, watching Sigurd beat the metal with ever more careful blows.
‘All-Father Odin,’ he continued. ‘This weapon will be named Havoc and shall, if you will it, unleash havoc upon its adversaries. The wielder of the blade, whose name we don’t unfortunately know…’
Sigurd glanced at him in surprise, pausing for an instant before continuing with his hammering.
‘The wielder of this blade,’ Leif continued, ‘whose name is unknown to us but known, of course, to you, All-Father, this warrior will cleave to this sword as a brother and the sword will cleave unto him likewise. And so it will prove a stupendous sword, a blade of rumour and of legend. A blade worthy of Odin, Thor and Tyr.’
Sigurd gave the sword three final taps, gentle now, to seal the words of the spell within its heart. Then he plunged the blade into the water-trough.
The water crackled like a sea struck by lightning and steam surged up, a fierce mist which dimmed their sight.
But as Leif watched he thought he saw a shape within the mist. His heart almost failed him. He knew it to be the god Loki, lord of cunning and mischief. But a moment later Loki veiled himself as if he had not been.
‘It is done,’ Sigurd said.
He held the sword in front of him, eyeing it carefully. It was long, beautifully tapered, and the delicate tracery which ran down the blade glittered from the fusion of fire and steel.
‘What do you think of it?’ Sigurd asked.
Leif shook the image of the falsest god from his mind and bent closer to examine the sword. ‘I’m glad it doesn’t belong to Eohric,’ he said. ‘The man’s not worthy of it.’
‘But he’s paid for it,’ Sigurd said. ‘So let’s give it to him.’
He held the sword carefully as he walked towards the entrance of his forge, as if it were a new born child.
Eohric took a step towards them. ‘I cannot take it from you,’ he said. ‘You must give it to the man who will wield it.’
‘Then where is he?’ Leif asked, irritably. ‘My brother cannot hold it all day. Who is this mysterious man?’
‘The man who commands those ships,’ Eohric said, pointing towards the sea.
Leif gasped. A vast fleet of ships was heading towards the shore. They filled the sea, like a huge flock of seabirds, three score or more.