Category Archives: Literature

You Have 1 New Friend Request


Okay folks, here’s the second idea I had for a novel.

It’s called, ‘You Have 1 New Friend Request’.

Here’s the basic premise:

Social media romance, or elaborate Facebook phishing scam?

What begins as an innocent correspondence between an English hack and a French-Canadian furniture restorer, soon descends into the seedy underworld of the French sex industry and people trafficking.

Will Ted and his daughter be able to save Natalie before she disappears into the murky French underworld? Or is she just a ruse to lure in his daughter?

So, same as yesterday, really. If you have the time to have a read, I’d appreciate your feedback. And, whether you think it has potential. Also, whether you prefer this idea to the one I posted yesterday. Don’t ask for much, do I?

Your help is greatly appreciated.

You Have 1 New Friend Request.

nm

By David Milligan-Croft.

CHAPTER 1.
COUCOU!

Ted was scrolling through his Facebook news feed when he heard the ping of a notification and a little red number ‘1’ appear over the ‘friends’ icon. He clicked the silhouetted couple and saw the tiny profile picture of what looked like a beautiful woman with a name he didn’t recognise. He immediately felt curiosity and suspicion in equal measure. He clicked on the profile of Natalie Marceau, and when he saw an enlarged image his heart did a double beat.

She was stunning. Model stunning. Movie star stunning. So why was she ‘friending’ Ted Miller – an average looking 40-something? He looked on her profile page and she appeared to have about half a dozen friends, all of whom seemed roughly the same age as him if not a little older.

‘Probably phishing for old pervs,’ he thought to himself. ‘Then plead some sob story to extort money.’

She was 25 years old, living in Brittany, France. Originally from Montreal, Canada. He clicked on the photos header and was aghast. Her auburn hair cascaded over her slender shoulders. Her blue eyes shone with a light emanating from her vivacity and her smile was luminescent with joy. Whilst she was sensationally attractive, she had a natural air about her, as though she was almost unaware of the fact – or didn’t care. Ted’s finger slid up the track-pad of his MacBook, the cursor hovering over the ‘accept or decline’ button. Deep down, he knew this was a mistake. A scam. But the romantic in him could not resist. He clicked – Accept.

No sooner had he accepted Natalie’s friend request, a message appeared in the chat icon. Tentatively, he clicked the button.

Natalie Marceau: Coucou!

Ted opened up two pages of Google translate in his browser. One to translate from French to English, the other from English to French. He cut and pasted the word into the text panel for translation: Coucou = Cuckoo or hello.

Not being up on French colloquialisms, Ted opted for a more formal reply.

Ted Miller: Bonjour.

He remembered a little French from school and from various holidays in the South of France but not enough to hold a conversation. He could get by ordering things in restaurants and hotels, but the problems began when anyone replied in French. They’d usually speak much too quickly for him to comprehend any of the key verbs.

The three dots made a wave to signify that she was typing. If, in fact, this was a ‘she’ at all. Ted had visions of a twenty-stone Russian spot-welder sitting in his vest and underpants in front of a laptop with the stump of a cigar hanging out of the corner of his mouth tapping away at his keyboard. That, or a Nigerian banker in Lagos promising to deposit $10 million dollars into his bank account for a paltry administration fee of two hundred dollars.

Natalie Marceau: Are you good?

‘That depends.’ Ted thought. ‘On whether you mean, ‘am I a good person’ or ‘am I feeling okay?’ He opted for a response to the latter.

Ted Miller: I am very well, thank you for asking. How are you in sunny France?

‘I bet she’s impressed with my French.’

Natalie Marceau: I do not understand. You want to know if France has sun?

‘Shit,’ Ted clicked the ‘suggest alternative translation’ tab.

Ted Miller: Sorry, Google translate. Probably didn’t come out too well. Do you speak English?

Natalie Marceau: Not much.

Ted Miller: Don’t you speak English in Canada?

Natalie Marceau: Not in Montreal. Is French. Not British.

‘That’s me told, then.’ He walked to the fridge and opened a bottle of San Miguel then sat back down at his laptop. He glanced out of the window, ship lights were shimmering off the blue-black water of the harbour basin. ‘C’mon, Miller. Think of something interesting to say. It’s what you’re supposed to do for a living, for God’s sake.’

Ted Miller: Yes, you did indeed win that particular skirmish. But we kicked your arse at the Battle of Waterloo! (Winky face.)

‘Stick that in votre pipe, Ivan!’

The circular green dot that indicates that a person is online to chat disappeared.

Ted leaned back in his swivel chair and took a swig from his beer. ‘Maybe not a Russki after all.’

He scrolled through some of Natalie’s other photos. She looked like she had a stylish apartment. In some photos she wore her hair piled on top in a bun, in others it flowed in waves about her cheeks and shoulders. Her clothes were elegant and chic. In some, a blouse button opened provocatively. In others she wore large, black-rimmed spectacles. He wondered if they were for show. They certainly gave her that librarian look. Most of them were selfies, so there weren’t many full length shots. Although, she did look tall and slender, but it was difficult to tell. Ted began to wonder if he had been a bit quick to be cynical. Surely, not everyone on the internet was a potential fraudster. Perhaps he should try and make amends. Or, perhaps, this was exactly the tactic they use to lure you in. He was just about to type a conciliatory message when the chat box suddenly read: This message has been temporarily removed because the sender’s account requires verification.

‘Oh well,’ he mused. ‘It was fun while it lasted.’ He pulled the computer onto his lap and swivelled the chair to put his feet on the window ledge. His reflection blurred with the orange and yellow neon of Media City beyond. He downloaded a photo of Natalie to his desktop then dragged it into Google images to check the source of the photograph.

‘Nothing unusual there.’ He tried with another, then another. All the photos of Natalie seemed above board. No links to other identities or spurious sites.

Ping! Another friend request. ‘Wow, I am popular tonight.’ He clicked on the button and it was Natalie again. Ted’s brow furrowed in consternation. How could he not? He clicked accept and immediately began typing.

Ted Miller: Where did you go?

Waving green buttons.

Natalie Marceau: Sorry. I think someone was hacking my account.

Ted perused her FB page. This time, he was her only friend. ‘Ah, so I’m the only one that took the bait, am I? Or did one of the other old pervs report you to Facebook?’

Ted Miller: Really? That’s a shame. Glad you’re back. (Smiley face.)

Ted Miller: Sorry about my Waterloo comment. I was only joking.

Natalie Marceau: Really? Never mind.

Ted swallowed hard. ‘I think a lot of this is going to get lost in translation.’

Ted Miller: If you don’t mind me asking, how come you wanted to be friends? It’s not as if we have any friends in common.

Natalie Marceau: Don’t you want to be my friend?

Ted Miller: Of course I do. I was just wondering, that’s all. It’s not often a 42-year-old man gets befriended by a young French goddess who could arrest a heart with a flash of her smile.

‘Bit soon for that kind of talk, Ted,’ he took a swig. He was feeling the buzz from the beer. But she didn’t take the compliment bait.

Natalie Marceau: Twenty five is not that young. Besides, age is unimportant.

‘Couldn’t agree more, my dear.’ Ted drained the last of his beer and got another from the fridge.

Ted Miller: So, Natalie, what do you do for a living all the way over there in France?

Natalie Marceau: Nothing special, or good. I restore the old furniture.

Ted Miller: That sounds great. A very noble craft – bringing something old and decrepit back to its former glory.

He resisted the temptation to make a self-deprecating joke.

Natalie Marceau: Your words write nice. You are also a romantic, no?

Ted Miller: Well, it’s been some time since I was romantic.

Natalie Marceau: You do not have a wife?

Ted Miller: I have an ex-wife. Five years now.

Natalie Marceau: So you have not had a lover in five years?

Ted almost spat his beer out over the computer screen. ‘Get to the point, why don’t you, Natalie.’

Ted Miller: I also have a daughter. Who lives with her mother.

He wondered whether the green light would flick off at this last revelation, as it seemed to be taking an eternity for Natalie to reply. He looked at the clock in the top right of the screen. It was 21:45. Quarter to eleven her time.

Natalie Marceau: Give her a big kiss from me. Well, it’s getting late. I must lie down for a while. Good night.

Ted Miller: Yes, I will. Goodnight. Sweet dreams. You too. Nice to be friends.

Everything came out in a scramble as he attempted to say everything before she switched off. Then silence. Her green light disappeared and he was left looking at her smiling face. She looked as though someone she loved had just made her laugh. He even felt a pang of jealousy. Whoever took the photograph must know her intimately enough to illicit such an animated response. A lover? A best friend?

He read her final comment again – “Give her a big kiss from me.” ‘Why on Earth would I do that? She doesn’t even know you. You don’t know her. Odd thing to say.’

There was a photo of Natalie lying on a bed holding the camera above her face. The pillow and duvet were crisp white cotton. There was a hint of wooden floorboards to the right hand side. Her ochre arms extended diagonally out of shot. Her eyes were doleful, yet she was still smiling. She was lying on top of the duvet wearing a white vest top with a simple, graphic illustration of a cat on the front. Ted thought about lying next to her, smelling her hair, touching her gossamer skin. The light was bright, as though it had been taken in the daytime, or summer.

‘Get a grip, Ted,’ he thought. ‘You’ve got about as much chance of that happening as Donald Trump being the next American president.’ He clicked the ‘shut down’ button and gently closed the lid of the laptop. He looked down at the canal basin where houseboats glowed eerily against the blackness of the water.

CHAPTER 2.
LA FILLE.

Natalie Marceau: Coucou!

The ping on his iPhone woke Ted. He unlocked his phone and read the message from Natalie, then looked at the clock at the top of the screen: 07.30. ‘Well, I guess it is half eight over there.’

Ping.

Natalie Marceau: Good morning, Cheri. Have a good day! (Smiley face, smiley face winking, face blowing a kiss.)

‘That’s a pleasant way to start the day.’ He tossed back the duvet and padded into the living room in his t-shirt and boxers to start up his computer. ‘I’ll have to download translate to my phone as well.’ He logged onto Facebook and opened the translation tabs.

Ted Miller: Bonjour Natalie. Thank you. Have a great day also.

‘Ask her a question before she disappears,’ he thought.

Ted Miller: What are you doing today?

Natalie Marceau: I told you. I am restoring the furniture.

Ted Miller: Sorry, yes, you said. But it’s the weekend.

Natalie Marceau: I work on my own so I must work all the time.

‘Jeez, tough crowd.’

Ted Miller: Yes, I should have known. Do you have any plans for tonight?

Natalie Marceau: No. I make ratatouille for me and my cat and watch a movie.

Ted Miller: Your cat eats ratatouille?

Natalie Marceau: No. That would kill him. I watch the movie with my cat.

Ted Miller: What kind of movies does he like? The Cat in the Hat?

Natalie Marceau: That is a stupid movie.

‘I thought it was quite funny,’ he thought, stretching a yawn and scratching the cotton fabric of his t-shirt under his arm.

Ted Miller: How come you’re not going out on a Saturday night?

Natalie Marceau: I have no friends.

‘I find that hard to believe, young lady.’

Natalie Marceau: It’s complicated. I tell you later. I have to go to work now. Gros bisous.

And, with that, the green dot disappeared.

He cut and pasted ‘gros bisous’ into translate, even though he was fairly certain he knew what it meant.

‘Big kisses.’

‘Big kisses to you too, Natalie,’ he thought, allowing himself the warm glow of affection that it might all possibly be real. Then, cynicism returned. ‘You really are an idiot, Ted.’ He jumped up out of the chair and headed to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. Then, realising what he was doing, ‘Wait, what the fuck? I’m going back to bed.’

Ted awoke after a restless two hours bathed in sweat. He went to the kitchen and filled a large glass of water and took his medication to slow his heartbeat down. It was a condition he’d only recently discovered he had. Tachycardia, as it was known is when the heart beats excessively quickly. Often times, it would beat so fast that he could ‘hear’ it through his pillow, preventing him from sleeping.

It was 09.35. He was due to pick up his daughter from his ex-wife’s in an hour. Before he showered he opened up his laptop to see if Natalie had sent anymore messages. Nothing. A thought occurred to him – he searched her name on Twitter. Nothing. ‘Not unusual. Most Twitter users have daft names anyway.’ He tried Linked In. Also nothing. There was no trace of Natalie Marceau on Pinterest, Tumblr, Tinder, Instagram or Snapchat either. He even tried eBay. The only place she existed was on Facebook. And only to him. He closed the lid. ‘Fuck it, what’s the worst thing that can happen?’

He pulled up outside his ex-wife’s house. Or rather, their old house. It was a grand Victorian semi-detached over three floors in the leafy Manchester suburb of West Didsbury. He had barely got out of the car when the front door of the house opened and the sturdy frame of his ex-wife filled the doorway at the top of the stone steps.

‘Still driving that heap of junk?’ Morag said, arms folded.

‘Hello to you too,’ he said, smiling. ‘This beauty? It’s a classic.’

‘Daddy!’ Audrey said, pushing past her mother’s hips and bolting down the steps.

‘Not so fast!’ rebuked her mum, then sighed at the futility of her request.

Audrey jumped into her father’s arms and he swung her around on the pavement.

‘Hello, sweet pea,’ he said. ‘Got me any presents?’

‘Hey!’ she said, thumping him on the arm. ‘That’s my line!’

‘What time you bringing her back tomorrow?’ Morag asked.

‘Usual time,’ he replied. ‘About six-ish.’

Just then, Kevin emerged from the shadows behind her, placed his arms around her waist and rested his chin on her shoulder. Ted cast his eyes down toward the pavement and opened the passenger door for Audrey.

‘Hey Ted,’ Kevin said.

‘Hi,’ Ted replied, but doubted it was audible enough for it to have reached the top of the steps. ‘Are you going to the recital tomorrow?’ He directed his question to his ex-wife.

‘Oh, we can’t, can we, darling?’ she craned her neck and planted a kiss on Kevin’s cheek.

Audrey gave a look of disgust. ‘We’re going to London this afternoon. You know… gotta make the most of a free night. Can’t wait. Won’t be back till late.’

‘How late’s late? Audrey can always stay with me tomorrow night as well. Save you busting a gut to get back.’

‘No, no. We should be back in time.’

‘Suit yourself,’ Ted said, walking round to the driver’s side. ‘See you…’ But when he looked up they had already gone inside and closed the door. He sat down and slammed the door.

‘So, little lady, where to?’

‘Anywhere away from here,’ Audrey folded her arms and pouted. ‘You should have called him egg head. And no, not because he’s clever!’

Ted smiled, patted his daughter on the knee and pulled off down the road.

‘And just so you know,’ she said, staring out of the passenger window. ‘I think your car’s cool. Better than his poncey Beemer.’

‘He treats you well though, doesn’t he?’

Audrey huffed. ‘S’pose so.’

‘I mean, that’s all I care about is that he’s good to you.’

‘Yeah, I guess.’

‘Look honey, I know it’s hard, but try not to be a hard-ass to him all the time. It’ll only come back on you.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, if you keep knocking him back he’ll probably stop trying to care. And neither of us wants that.’

‘You and mum could always…’

‘That’s never going to happen though, is it, love? That ship has sailed, hit an iceberg, got torpedoed, then hit by a kamikaze pilot and sank without a trace. And, by the looks of things, old Kevin’s got his feet firmly under the table. Has he moved in yet?

‘Might as well have. He’s never out of the place. Spends more time in the bathroom than mum. And that’s saying something.’

Ted laughed. ‘You know, we could always go to the cinema if you like. They have a Studio Ghibli film on.’

‘Really! Which one?’

‘My Neighbour Totoro.’

‘Cool! I’d love that.’

After the movie, they went to Pizza Express for a late lunch. Audrey was perusing the menu while Ted was checking his phone to see if he’d had a message from Natalie.

‘Expecting an important phone call?’

‘No, why do you ask?’

‘You keep checking your phone.’

‘No, I don’t,’ he said defensively.

‘You so do! You’ve checked it about twenty times since we left the cinema.’

Ted raised his eyebrows and placed the phone on the table and picked up the menu. As he was studying it, his phone beeped. Before he could drop the menu and pick it up Audrey had already grabbed it.

‘Whoa! Who is she?’

‘Give it back, Audrey.’ Ted reached out for his phone but Audrey slid her chair backwards slightly making the legs screech across the tiled floor.

‘Wow. She is hot. Who is she?’

‘I don’t know, do I?’ Ted said tartly. ‘Because somebody has my phone.’

‘Natalie Mar-ceau, it says.

‘She’s just a friend on Facebook,’ he said, pretending not to mind and looked at the menu again.

‘Please tell m you’re not dating her, are you?’

‘Of course I’m not! Now give it back,’ he said irritated.

Audrey pulled the phone close to her chest. ‘Good. I’d hate to have a step-mother who was younger than me,’ she laughed.

‘She is not younger than you!’ Ted was getting angry. ‘You are 12. She is 25.’

Audrey did a quick calculation in her head. ‘She’s still closer to my age than she is to yours,’ she said cheekily.

Ted sighed as the waiter arrived. ‘Large glass of house red, please.’

Audrey sensed her father’s irritation and slid the phone back across the table. He picked it up, glanced at the screen then placed it back down.

‘What does it say?’ Audrey asked?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t speak French,’ he said flatly.

‘So how do you guys communicate?’

‘There is such a thing as Google translate, you know.’

‘Excuse me for asking.’ Audrey folded her arms.

Just then, the waiter arrived. ‘I’ll have the Quattro Stagioni, please,’ Ted said. ‘But, can I have it mixed up?’

The waiter scribbled on his order pad and nodded.

‘Pizza Diavlo and a Coke, please.’

‘Try again,’ Ted said.

‘Sheesh, sparkling elderflower, please,’ she handed the menu back to the waiter. ‘Kevin lets me have Coke.’

Ted smiled as he handed back the menu. ‘Good for him. But I’m not Kevin. See, he’s not all bad. You never know, you might end up preferring him to me.’

Audrey gave her father a kick on the shin. Ted burst out laughing.

‘Aren’t you cross that he lets me have Coke?’

‘I don’t make the rules in your mother’s house,’ he said. ‘But she knows how I feel about it.’

‘Why did you split up?’

‘Audrey! We’ve been through this a thousand times.’

‘No we haven’t! You say we have, but we never do. You just fudge around the subject.’

The waiter arrived with the drinks. Ted took a large gulp of red wine. ‘Your mother misread the marriage vows; she thought they said, “In health and in wealth”.’

‘See! There you go again! What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘It means I’m not as well off as I used to be when I worked for The Guardian,’ he said.

‘You still work for a paper though,’ she said.

‘Not a national. It’s just a local rag.’

‘How come you can afford to live in Media City then?’

‘It’s a friend’s. He’s on secondment in Beijing for two years so he said I could flat-sit for him. He gave me a really good rate. The rent would normally be double what I’m paying.’

‘That was kind of him. What you going to do when he gets back?’

‘Move out, I guess. Let’s not think about that, it’s a long way off. Tell me about school.’

After the meal they drove back to his apartment in Media City overlooking the canal harbour. Audrey sat at the kitchen table drawing Manga cartoons while Ted checked Facebook for news from Natalie. There were four messages.

Natalie Marceau: Coucou!

Natalie Marceau: Bonjour!

Natalie Marceau: Bon soir!

Natalie Marceau: You are obviously busy.

Ted Miller: Hi Natalie! I’m here now. I’ve been out all day with my daughter. Sorry. How was your day?

Natalie Marceau: I want you to know I am ordered, but not obsessive. I do not like the mess and I like things to be in their place.

I am loving, very affectionate, not stuffy. I’m not possessive or jealous. I am not excessively envious or pathological. I demand you to be faithful. That is not my fault because I was born under a sign of love.

I am calm and quiet, polite, discreet, very reserved, but when I have something to say, I say it to the face. I am courageous but nonviolent. I am extremely patient, (e.g. I can stay to wait hours anywhere).

I am not vindictive, I let the wheel turn, even if it takes time to turn, because I know it will turn one day or another, and when I have said what I had to say everything is over.
I am faithful in friendship as in love. I am fair and just. I hate when one is attacking the weakest (oppressed). I am able to lead the fight against injustice and racism.

I’m looking for a loving man, funny, generous, caring, faithful and sincere who will respect me and love me for who I am. A man that will teach me to love him with all my heart. If you are that person!!!!!

‘You’re also a fruitcake,’ Ted thought.

Natalie Marceau: All I look for is a man who will support me, that will not make me suffer and who will love me for what I am, nothing more. I’m not materialistic nor bad. I am just a little heart to take. A generous woman, sincere and kind who wants to live a beautiful story.

‘Bloody hell, that escalated quickly,’ he said aloud.

‘What did?’ Audrey asked, looking up from her drawing.

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The Insurrection – sample chapter


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Hello again.

Happy New Year and all that.

It’s been a while. A very long while.

Anyhoo, last year I started four novels. (Writing, that is. Not reading.)

And I finished exactly none of them.

I’ve already posted one of them last year, a Viking saga, called Gods’ Cauldron.

I thought I’d share another one with you.

It was inspired by the Brexit vote and the deep division it created across the country.

It’s a comedy-drama set in a dystopian near future where certain northern city-states are at war with the south. A sort of accidental revolution born out of protest.

The initial raison d’etre for the North was for a fairer society.

However, it soon becomes apparent that some northern leaders want full independence.

This will not stand for a salacious orange-faced president of the UK. And he will stop at nothing to exterminate the rebels’ ever-decreasing strongholds.

Will they succeed in creating their utopia? Or will globilisation prevail?

If you have the time, and inclination, have a peruse and let me know if you think it’s something worth pursuing.

I’ll be posting extracts from the other two novels in the next week or so.

Oh, and please share far and wide on the old social media, if it pleases you.

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The Insurrection.

By David Milligan-Croft

Chapter 1
Northern England, sometime in the not-too-distant future.

The country was in a state of chaos after The Insurrection. You could practically draw a line between the mouth of the River Dee in Chester to the Humber estuary in the east, to mark the boundary.

A north-south-divide if you will. With the exception of Cornwall and large swathes of Wales, who had always considered themselves Celtic and unconquered by London. Because that’s what the United Kingdom ultimately was – London. That’s where the seat of power had been for a brace of millennia. And after it had run out of land to conquer in Britain it decided to build some boats and go in search of territories overseas which to ‘liberate’ from their present rulers.

The lands south of our new ‘virtual’ border had decided to stay where the money was. They knew a good thing when they saw it. And that’s pretty much what it all boils down to – money. If you have it – you have power. If you have power – you have friends. Lots of friends. Sycophants who’ll do your bidding regardless of how questionable it is. Until the next highest bidder comes along that is.

The Insurrection wasn’t contained to the United Kingdom. Of course, it ultimately dragged the Republic of Ireland into the mix. While Belfast remained loyal to the capital, Derry and Armagh tried to slip back over the border to rejoin with the south. This brought fierce resistance both from London and the Unionists, the latter of whom had had control over the six counties since Home Rule in 1923.

Unionist atrocities in Derry had compelled militias from Donegal to come to the walled city’s aid. Which ultimately lead to Northern Ireland annexing Donegal. Outcries from Dublin brought the United Nations to the door. But, seeing as though the UK was one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council the chances of sending UN Peacekeepers into the region were zero.

‘Hellions’, as we were dubbed, also had enemies north of the border. Edinburgh had willingly stayed within the Union whilst Aberdeen and Inverness had to be coherced due to the North Sea oil and gas reserves. Glasgow too had to be subdued, presumably due to the proximity of the UK’s only nuclear submarine facility.

It’s not as though we started out wanting independence from the UK. It’s just that we were fed up of poverty. Of the unfair redistribution of wealth. The age old redistribution south. It’s not as though we had much to lose. The north of England had been economically razed to the ground for decades. Mass unemployment, decrepit infrastructure, foodbanks, clothesbanks, shoebanks, furniturebanks. In fact, the only banks we didn’t have were the ones with any money in them.

The Insurrection had largely been contained within the major urban areas of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Newcastle and Sunderland. Areas starved of investment since the government’s withdrawal from the European Union. You see, the reason for our protest against the government wasn’t because we were parochial northerners wanting to unburden ourselves from the shackles of our southern overlords. (In fact, a lot of Londoners who shared our beliefs came up to join our cause.) It was because we wanted to embrace multiculturalism and diversity.

It was this last aspect that gave us a lifeline, as we were supplied with medical aid and weapons by our European allies from both the east and the west. We were pretty self-sufficient on the food front, except when government forces poisoned the farm land with chemical sprays and sank our fishing fleet with their gunboats. Food and fuel became currency. Money was worthless. The only thing we didn’t lack for was weapons. There always seems to be enough weapons in the world with which to wage war.

We didn’t have tanks, fighter jets or helicopter gunships like the government, but we did have something they didn’t have – an idea. An idea of a fairer society. An idea that all the country’s wealth should not be held by the top 1% of the population. And that idea was growing like an interminable cancer south of the border as well. Rebellions and protests sprang up in the Midlands – Birmingham, Stoke, Derby and Leicester all had to be brought to heel.

We didn’t want to fight. We wanted to talk. To come to some accord. But, like William the Conqueror’s ‘Harrying of the North’ in the 11th century, London didn’t. It wanted to subdue and subjugate. Because of The Insurrection, Marshall Law was declared, so all elections were suspended until order had been restored, which effectively made the United Kingdom a right wing dictatorship.

The North’s problem was that it was too fragmented. There was no central leadership. No common goal. The Insurrection had almost happened organically in several cities at the same time. Each with their own agendas and mistrust of each other. And the government wanted to keep it that way so that they didn’t have to talk to anyone. We were just little bands of hellions, anarchists, terrorists, that needed irradicating from the good people of the United Kingdom. But we weren’t terrorists, we were accountants and builders, factory workers and farmers.

We knew that to make the government listen we had to unite. Unite with the idea of the fairer society. And that was what the meeting of the Five Regions was about today. It was being held in secret in Cumbria. If London spies knew that all five regions’ leaders were in one place, The Insurrection could be put to rest in a heartbeat. Or, lack, thereof.
The Five Regions comprised of: the North East; Yorkshire; Greater Manchester; Liverpool, Wirral and Chester and finally; Lancashire and Cumbria.

I am military commander of Greater Manchester, and my name is General Alexander Jefferson Carmichael. But people usually just call me Jeff. I’m not a general in the proper sense of the word as I have no military training, unless you count a spell in the army cadets and several games of paintball in my youth. I am lecturer by trade. If lecturing can be defined as a trade. I taught history of art at Manchester Metropolitan University before The Insurrection. Before I swapped a paintbrush for a Kalashnikov. Before I swapped Guernica for Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

I am accompanying our political leader, Christina Gambretti, a second generation Anglo-Italian, former human rights lawyer. Of all the regional leaders, I admire her the most. She has the most international experience, having previously worked for the UN, Amnesty International and the Refugee Council. If anyone can galvanise the Five Regions to get behind our one goal it is her.

We are travelling at night, by road as all commercial aircraft have been grounded by London. Any private planes or helicopters detected by radar over the no-fly-zone will be intercepted and shot down by RAF interceptors. However, this doesn’t make travelling by road risk free, as the skies are continually patrolled by Apache helicopter gunships bristling with rockets and machine guns and aided by night-vision. So we are travelling by ‘tour bus’. If stopped by enemy forces, we are tourists on our way to the Lake District.

Whilst we do control the large areas from Hadrian’s Wall in the north to the southern border, it is not unheard of for London to land Special Forces units by chopper to intercept any vehicles they deem suspicious. Or, indeed, to carry out covert strikes on valuable assets, such as reservoirs and energy facilities. Or even kidnappings. SK4 security services, a private company that took over from the police force, are believed to be responsible for abductions of prominent politicians, activists and dissidents who are never seen or heard from again.

Our areas of influence are dwindling by the week. Only yesterday, Crewe defected back over the Cheshire border to rejoin the UK. The government makes a song and dance about it on the media, but you never see what has become of the political leaders or the Hellion Militia. Just lots of images of the public with shiny happy faces being embraced by our orange-faced El Presidente.

The rendezvous was arranged in the Lake District because of in-fighting between the various regions. Manchester would not meet in Liverpool, Newcastle would not go to Sunderland, Leeds wouldn’t entertain the idea of going to Manchester. And, Yorkshire as a whole, would tend not to want to go anywhere outside of its borders. Most of these objections originated from old sporting rivalries rather than political differences, which made it all the more frustrating getting all the factions to be taken seriously.

We had booked a conference room in a Kendal hotel under the pretext of a sales conference. We were on pretty safe ground up there with a partisan crowd. Though we would have to sweep for listening devices and the like. And my security detail would have to keep a low profile. I had deliberately chosen three men and three women so that they could easily pass as couples wandering the grounds.

Each of the Five Regions was bringing two delegates, one political, one military. In the hope of us thrashing out a cohesive and unified plan militarily and politically.

‘You know,’ Christina said, as we wound through the dark, winding roads. ‘I don’t think it’s enough to demand a fairer society.’

Christina was very good at this. She would go along with a particular plan or suggestion, then take people aside individually and propose something else. Perhaps an amendment or two. Or, even something completely different.

‘What? You want an unfair society instead?’

She smirked. ‘No, we have that already. I was thinking that it’s not really about us coming together to share common ground. It’s the fact we’re completely different types of peoples, with different values. We don’t like what they represent and they certainly don’t like what we represent.’

‘You’re suggesting full independence for the North of England?’

She shrugged her slender shoulders and tucked a slither of auburn hair behind her ear.

‘Why not? If Scotland can, why can’t we?’

I frowned, ‘You know I don’t need to answer that.’

‘Okay, okay,’ she whispered. ‘What about Sudan and South Sudan?’

‘Yeah?’ I raised my eyebrows. ‘’Cause that turned out brilliantly for everyone, didn’t it?’

Christina eyed me contemptuously. ‘You get my point,’ she said flatly. ‘Besides, isn’t that what we’ve really wanted all along?’

I looked out of the coach window as rain streaked diagonally. Was that what we really wanted? I wondered. When I’d worked abroad in my youth, I had often found that when I told people I was from Britain, or England, they eyed me with caution, or even suspicion. But when I told people I was from Manchester they immediately brightened and opened with, ‘Ah, Manchester United!’

Northerners were certainly treated differently in some countries. Almost as though we were as oppressed as some of Britain’s former colonies. I particularly found this in Ireland and Australia.

‘What about the NHS and the welfare state?’ I asked.

‘We’d still have those,’ she said.

‘How’d we pay for it?’

‘Same as we do now, through taxes.’

‘How’d we pay to rebuild the infrastructure?’ Our cities had become fortresses and our infrastructure had largely been pulverised by the enemy.

‘EU subsidies,’ she smiled.

‘Army and airforce bases?’

‘Negotiation.’

When we had rebelled against the appalling atrocities and brutal overuse of force by SK4 Security, the army had been called in and had disobeyed direct orders to open fire on their own citizens. Local army units were subsequently confined to barracks. Then, when national regiments were drafted in, and they also refused. The army left it up to the government and local law enforcement, which was primarily owned by members of the government anyway. The police force had been outsourced to SK4 Security Services five years previously.

You could easily see why the generals, (the proper ones, that is), wanted nothing to do with instigating a civil war. After all, they swore allegiance to the Queen, not a despotic, orange dictator with a penchant for underage girls.

Chapter 2.

EL PRESIDENTE

Please feel free to point out any typos, punctuation and grammatical errors. It’s a first draft and these things happen no matter how many times I proofread it. I won’t be offended.In fact, I’ll be pleased!

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Gods’ Cauldron – A Viking Saga


For anyone who is familiar with my writing, (and, if you’re not, bloody well get yourself over to Amazon and familiarise yourself with it!), you will know that I normally write contemporary fiction. Here though, is a departure from the norm, as I have had a stab at writing historical fiction. A viking saga set in the 9th century when Danes and Norse controlled vast swathes of north eastern England.

So, anyone not remotely interested in that kind of story should back away now.

The story centres around karl Ulf, a freeman, and Asta, a shaman priestess as they go in search of Ulf’s wife and children who have been kidnapped and held hostage by Jarl Vidar for Ulf’s failure on a mission. Things get spicy on the bargaining front because Asta is also Jarl Vidar’s woman, who he believes is dead and Ulf is responsible.

The reason for posting this first chapter is because I’d be interested to hear from people who do like reading this genre, whether a) it is convincing in style (historical accuracy), b) whether you liked it, and c) whether you know of publishers who accept this type of work.

So, have a goosey, if it tickles your fancy and let me know what you think.

Oh, and by the way, as you can probably imagine, it contains grisly violence from the beginning.

 

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 GODS’ CAULDRON

By DMC

CHAPTER ONE

Asta’s long, white gown dragged in the mud. Her hair was as black as the tar pits and clung to her cheeks as it lay lank in the drizzle. Her hands were bound with rope at the front. I knew her feet were naked, but they were hidden beneath the hem of her coarse hessian frock, toes squelching in the filth and cattle dung.

The Christians were taking Asta to meet her maker. Or, rather, their maker, as they had the pomposity to presume. The Christians didn’t believe there was room in the heavens for any other gods but their own. Whereas, we pagans, have lots of gods. All fighting and drinking and singing battle songs in the great hall of Valhalla. Asta’s crime was that she was a witch. Which she isn’t. She is a völva, a wand carrier. She is a shaman and a seer. She also uses the ancient pagan art of crafting the ingredients Mother Earth provides to heal people. The Christians said this was sorcery. If they’d had any sense they would’ve asked Asta to teach them her medicinal magic. But they preferred to put all their faith in their one god. Who, as far as I could tell, didn’t actually do anything to heal or protect them at all.

The priests sloped in front and behind Asta, their long brown robes, tied with thick braid around their waists, also dragging in the mud. They were swinging brass orbs on golden chains, filling the air with their foul-smelling incense, all the while droning incessant incantations. The priests were flanked by spearmen. Six in total. Two either side of Asta, two fore and rear. Their long ash shafts with gleaming silver spear tips stabbing the dark grey clouds. A few villagers had gathered to jeer and throw rotten vegetables at her. She remained impassive as they cajoled her. She had healed most of them of one ailment or another at some point during their miserable existence. In fact, the only people who didn’t enjoy a miserable existence were the priests and bishop who lived in the palace, as they liked to call it, at the top of Girig Rygg.

They were leading Asta to a pyre they had constructed the previous day just outside of the village’s palisade. The priests had insisted the pyre be constructed outside of the village so that the smoke from the witch’s flesh would not contaminate its inhabitants. The pyre stood in a meadow, its dark wood gleaming with the slick rain.

The procession trudged through the long grass, beyond which was a line of trees – the edge of Lyre forest, where I sat with one hand on the pommel of my saddle, the other on the hilt of my sword. I watched from behind the closed cheek-plates of my helmet. When closed, they restricted my vision, but they also afforded me disguise and protection from spear thrusts. The distance between the tree line and the pyre was about two hundred paces. No distance at all for a stallion built for war like mine. But once I broke cover it would allow the spearmen enough time to slay Asta before I had time to get there.

That’s why I closed my cheek-plates and had tucked my long blonde hair beneath my helmet. My mail coat gleamed over a burgundy leather jerkin over which I wore a tunic emblazoned with the crest of a Christian lord that I had taken from a warrior I had slain. From close up, one could see the bloodstained gash in the fabric where I had thrust my sword under the man’s ribcage up into his lungs and out through his shoulder blade. But from this distance, I would look like one of the lord’s messengers on official business. I left my shield hidden by an oak tree. The round shield bound with an iron rim and boss was too much of a giveaway that I was a Dane. The ash boards painted with a snarling wolf’s head was my talisman. So, instead of galloping from beneath the shelter of tall oak branches, I calmly walked my stallion out towards the congregation.

A spearman pointed towards me in alarm, but seeing that I appeared to pose no threat, carried on with his duty. The livery of a red eagle clutching a cross beneath its talons on my tunic told him I was friend rather than foe. They had reached the pyre now and I needed to cover the ground before they tied Asta to the giant centre stake. Fighting six spearmen whilst trying to untie her would prove troublesome, but my horse, Alsakr, was taking our ruse a little to heart and was plodding about as languidly as a warhorse could go without actually stopping to chew the grass. I dug my heels into his flanks to hurry him up and he responded immediately.

The priests looked up from their task of man-handling Asta toward the pyre when one of them slipped on a greasy timber and clattered into the logs sending several of them falling to the ground. He was a skinny looking fellow with a pate and pallid complexion. Another priest hooked him by his elbow to help him to his feet. The priest seemed shaky and clutched a grubby hand to a gash on his forehead where blood seeped through his fingers. This accident had worked fortuitously in my favour, as they had now let go of Asta and were unsure whether to turn their attention to the embarrassed clergyman, or to me.

I drew my long sword that I had aptly named Spirit Slayer and drew it down onto the head of the first spearman who had his back to me. My sword split his helmet and skull in two sending a spray of blood down Asta’s white gown. I slipped my short sword from its scabbard and handed it, handle first, into her outstretched fingers. I swiftly drew my sword over Alsakr’s neck and stabbed its pointed tip into the face of a second spearman. He screamed in agony, clutching his bloodied face, falling to the ground. I pulled the reins of my great war horse sharply to the left and he barged into two spearmen sending them sprawling in the mud. I parried a spear thrust, then chopped down savagely into his shoulder. His spear fell to the ground as he wailed like a banshee. The final spearman, seeing that he was the last man standing edged away whilst keeping his spear angled toward the chest of my horse. He was joined by his two comrades who Alsakr had bundled over, but seeing me in my finest armour, they knew I was battle-hardened, coupled with the knowledge that I had swiftly dispatched three of their companions, they turned and fled back to the safety of their palisade.

Asta had cut the ropes that bound her wrists and was pointing my seax menacingly towards the priests who were still staring in shock at what they had just witnessed. The seax was a Saxon short sword, ideal for fighting in a shield wall where a long sword would be too cumbersome to wield. It was about the length of a man’s forearm with a doubled edged blade and sharp, stabbing tip. Asta was concentrating her rage on one particular priest – a tall, straggly man with brooding black eyes and a sloped mouth.

“Is he the one?” I asked her.

She didn’t turn around to acknowledge me, but simply nodded.

“Then make it quick,” I said, craning my neck toward the village to make sure the spearmen hadn’t summoned reinforcements.

Asta stabbed the seax into the priest’s chest just beneath the sternum and sliced downward towards his cock. Blood spewed from the man’s lips as his gown fell open and his intestines spilled out into a steaming pile in the mud. The other priests gasped and crossed themselves. One even passed out. Asta stepped to one side to avoid the flailing priest landing on top of her.

The ground was red with blood. It had been a good morning, despite the rain. I had killed one and wounded two other warriors. And Asta had taken revenge on the man who raped her.

I reached down and pulled Asta on to the back of Alsakr and pointed my sword at the remaining priests. Two of them dropped to their knees in the mud, clasping their fingers before themselves whilst mumbling prayers to their one god. “Your god tells you to ‘turn the other cheek’. Instead you rape and burn women…”

“She’s a witch!” One of the priests said.

“Silence!” I bellowed at him. “She is a healer!” I could feel Asta’s slender arms around my waist gripping me tightly.

“I am Ulf,” I said. “Know what that means, priest?”

Despite me pointing Spirit Slayer at one particular priest they both shook their heads.

“It means ‘wolf’!” I said. “And if I have to come back to this god-forsaken shit-hole again I shall rip your entrails out with my teeth!”

The priests bowed their heads, I sheathed my sword, turned Alsakr and we galloped into the forest.

 

We rode hard till midday, until I was sure that we were far enough away from the village for a search party to follow us. Then, I let Alsakr pick his own path between the dense woods. I trusted him to choose his own footing. I had named him after Sol’s horses that drove her sun chariot across the sky: Arvakr was very strong, and Alsvin was very quick. As my horse was both fast, and quick, I decided to combine the two.

The rain had eased, so we rested by a beck and I gave Asta some dried bread and salted fish from my saddlebag. She had not said a word since I had rescued her. She sat with her back against an oak tree, knees drawn tight to her chest as she chewed on the hard bread. I had no ale in my flask so I took a chance on the water from the beck not being poisoned by a dead animal upstream as is often the case. It tasted fresh, like a blue sky on a winter’s day, so I filled my flask and offered it to Asta. She shook her head, her cheek bulging with bread. I lifted her chin and her brilliant cobalt eyes looked forlorn. I gave her a small smile to show that I understood. I pulled my coarse woolen blanket from Alsakr and draped it around her shoulders. She pulled it tight under her chin.

I decided it was safe to light a fire as we would not be followed and it was at least a day’s ride to the nearest fortified Saxon burh. That would mean two, two and a half days before a war band would be assembled and on our heels. The wood I collected was all sodden, so I stripped down the bark with my seax, Wolf Fang. I set the pile of kindling in front of the still-huddled Asta and lit it with tinder and flint. A warrior always carries a pouch of dry tinder for the very conditions we found ourselves in. It took a while for the flames to take hold because of the still damp kindling, but eventually I succeeded and I could see that it pleased Asta who stared into a space beyond the flames, probably seeing messages from the gods.

I stripped Alsakr of his saddle and bridle and let him drink his fill by the water’s edge and chew on the rich, long grass on the low bank. I had no need to tie him to a tree, as he would not venture far.

Asta Käredottir was Jarl Ulvkilsson’s woman. Her name means ‘divine beauty’. And indeed, she was both divine and beautiful. She spoke to the gods. She read the runes. She could foretell the future. She could heal the sick with her potions. And, by Thor’s hammer, she was beautiful. She was slight for a Norse woman. Some might even say frail. But she was swift and strong, as her skill with my seax had proved. Her raven hair framed her slender face and pointed chin. I was convinced the reason she walked and sat with her head bowed slightly was so that men would not glimpse her paralysing blues eyes. It was almost as if they glowed.

After she had eaten, she curled up beside the fire and closed her eyes. I wanted to say something to comfort her but I knew it was not my place. I was merely here to protect her. And I had failed miserably in that task. And, I would probably pay for that failure with my life.

I began to ruminate about my fate and how the three Norns had wound their threads and brought us together. Asta had not come with us on the voyage over from Daneland. Jarl Vidar Ulvkilsson had deemed it too dangerous for her. But after we had victory after victory, and felt safe enough to shelter behind the great walls of Jorvik, he sent for her. Vidar had dispatched me with five men to escort her from the harbour on the Humber estuary back to him. Everything went as planned and we didn’t encounter any war bands along the way. We had to be as wary of Norsemen as we did from Saxons or Angles. Norsemen are mercenaries. They just want gold, silver and slaves, and they don’t care who they get them from, especially if they haven’t committed an oath to a jarl.

We had happened upon the village of Girig Rygg about halfway through our return journey, when Asta had witnessed a sickly looking woman and child. She had insisted that we stop so that she may help them with her magic ways. When other villagers had seen her administer her special kind of medicine, they had queued – much to the displeasure of the priests – for her help. So she demanded that we stay for a few more days so that she could help more of them. This made me nervous. Christians make me nervous. They hate pagans. And if they couldn’t convert us, they wanted us gone. Or dead. Whichever was easiest.

By the third day, I was becoming increasingly anxious. The priests were becoming progressively interested in Asta’s pagan ‘ways’. And I was concerned that Jarl Vidar would think we had been ambushed and send out a search party for us.

I had been patrolling the ramparts of the palisade when I spotted two riders in the distance by the tree line. They were wearing burgundy uniforms of some kind. Whose, it was impossible to tell at this distance. They were heading south and had me curious as to where they were headed. Were they going to, or from a fortified burh? If any of the local farmers happened to mention that there were Vikings in Girig Rygg we would find ourselves easily outnumbered by professional soldiers. As battle-hardened as my warriors were, six would be no match for a phalanx of thirty or forty. So, I decided that I would follow them from a safe distance to see how far they were going. At first, Asta protested. As did Ragnar Mortensson, who felt it would be better if I sent someone else. Failing that, for someone to accompany me. I was becoming agitated at being cooped up for so long. Danes aren’t used to staying in one spot. Even Alsakr was becoming restless in the stable. So, it was my own selfishness that refused to listen to the wise counsel I was receiving.

Although the village had a twenty-strong garrison of Saxon soldiers, I did not worry for Asta’s safety. I knew that five Dane warriors would be more than a match for twenty farmers, blacksmiths and butchers who had happened to don a helmet and pick up a spear. Most of the Saxon burhs and villages were protected by the fyrd – a militia made up from freemen who worked in the village and surrounding area. My men were battle-hardened warriors who had learned sword craft. They knew how to cleave a man’s skull with an axe, how to rip his shield from his hand or parry his inexperienced spear jabs.

So I set off in pursuit of the two horsemen, safe in the knowledge that my charge would be safe. In hindsight, as Alsakr weaved his way through the forest, I realised I should have sent one of my men on the errand instead of undertaking it myself. I was, after all, the leader of the group. But I needed to occupy myself whilst Asta worked her magic. With nothing to do at the village I was becoming concerned that if we did not return soon, that Vidar would vent his fury on my wife and children because of my failure to deliver his woman. Not that I had ever failed Jarl Vidar before. I had sworn an oath to him. To fight in his army, to share in his plunder. We had sailed from the flat lands of the Danes to seek wealth, slaves and glory on the rich western islands where the Saxons, Angles and Jutes had settled after the Romans had left.

I had fought in his shield walls and acquitted myself well. Many Saxons had died at the edge of my sword, Spirit Slayer. I had plundered towns in Northumbria, Mercia and Anglia. We had amassed wealth, slaves and I had many silver arm rings to show my prowess in battle and prove my loyalty. No lord gives arm rings to a man unless he has proved himself. I am a karl – a freeman.

Perhaps it was because my mind was elsewhere that I failed to spot the obvious signs of a Saxon raiding party lurking in the underbrush. Before I knew it, half a dozen spearmen had surrounded Alsakr, who bridled at the silver points. I knew there was no point drawing Spirit Slayer as either I, or my horse, would be dead before I could unsheathe it. These were not the men I had been following as there were no horses that I could see.

They dragged me from my horse, stripped me of my weapons and bound my hands with rope. As we marched through the forest on a well-worn path, I noticed that my captors all wore the same red tunics over their mail coats. Each one had an embroidered symbol of an eagle carrying a cross in its talons.

“Who is your jarl? Your lord?” I asked.

“Shut it, pagan!” I felt the butt of a spear shaft between my shoulder blades.

The light had almost gone and we had still not left the forest. The sergeant-at-arms told his men that they would make camp for the night. They tied me to the foot of a fir tree as they readied a campfire and went about making a supper of rye bread and barley porridge heated over the flames. They swigged watery ale from their flasks which made me salivate. They spoke in hushed tones as they sat around the fire, occasionally glancing over at me. I had hoped that my hosts would share whatever scraps were left in their wooden bowls, to no avail. My stomach howled with hunger, which made the soldiers laugh.

The sergeant left a sentry while the rest of his men slept around the fire with blankets gripped tight to their throats. I asked if they’d throw my own blanket over me that was tied to the back of my saddle, which only elicited a boot in the ribs.

The heavy forest canopy meant that the night was pitch black except for the orange glow from the embers of the fire. The moonlight, if there was any, was blocked by the great oaks that loomed all around. The sentry was on edge, flinching at every wolf howl or owl hoot. The forest would be home to at least one pack of wolves if not more. Wolves liked to roam a large territory and they weren’t too keen on sharing. They tended to avoid humans if at all possible, even if their pack was as large as eight or nine adults. Humans don’t split off when they are being circled – they stick together. And if anyone should know that there’s safety in numbers, it’s a wolf pack. Wolves attack herds that splinter, singling out the weakest and the slowest. Humans huddle together and bristle with spear tips and sword blades. There would be much easier prey for them than us. Not that this sentry knew this.

I stayed awake all night waiting for my chance, as each soldier took his turn as sentry. I was hoping that one of them would fall asleep. It was only when Mani carried the moon in his chariot into the dawn did the gods look favourably upon me. The sentry had fallen asleep standing up! He was leaning against a tree, gently snoring. I drew the single-edge knifr from the inside of my left boot and sawed at the ropes that bound my wrists and at the one which coiled around my waist and bound me to the tree. I had seen the sergeant wrap Spirit Slayer and Wolf Fang in a blanket and bind it with string. The package was leaning against the tree nearest him. I walked as softly as I could trying to avoid twigs and fallen branches in the near blackness. I cut the string and unsheathed my weapons. I had to try and even the odds before any of them awoke. The most ready to respond would be the sentry. I knew they had discarded their mail for sleep. Mail coats are heavy, even when you’re not moving they sap your strength. Not only that, they attracted the cold and made for a miserable night’s sleep. I crept up behind the sentry, quickly stifled his mouth with my forearm and drove Wolf Fang through his back and up into his heart. His body went limp in a heartbeat. I lowered him gently to the ground and moved back toward the group of soldiers. The next man I would take out was their leader – the sergeant-at-arms. Without a leader, men soon panic and chaos ensues. I put my boot on his mouth and pushed Spirit Slayer down through his chest bone into his heart. The crack of bone made the soldier next to him shift restlessly. I carefully lifted his seax scabbard and moved it out of an arm’s reach, knelt beside him, clasped my hand over his mouth and nose, and sliced Wolf Fang across his throat. This was a mistake. His eyes burst open wide and he kicked and struggled as I knelt on his chest waiting for life to escape him. Blood was bubbling up from the gaping wound while his hands pulled at my forearm. I thrust my blade under his ribcage and twisted. He was still. Wolf Fang made a sucking noise as I withdrew her from his chest. A soldier across the fire stirred, yawned and opened his eyes, which widened in terror when he saw me with Wolf Fang and Spirit Slayer dripping with his friends’ blood. I lunged across the glowing embers and thrust my long sword into his face just above the bridge of his nose. His skull crunched as Spirit Slayer slipped through his soft brain and out the other side. The two remaining men scrambled to their feet, drawing their swords. They moved apart so I had one on either side of me. These weren’t fyrd troops gathered from the barley fields. These were professional soldiers who were trained in the craft of war.

They took it in turns to probe my defences. I parried their thrusts as I edged backwards. Up until now they had lunged separately, but to drive home their advantage they would have to attack simultaneously and force me to choose to defend one or the other. So I didn’t give them the choice. I kicked red-hot embers up into the crotch of the soldier on my left – panicked, he stumbled backwards. I lunged to my right, my sword thrust was parried by the other man, but as he had no shield, it allowed me to swing Wolf Fang around and down into the man’s neck. I heard him scream as I spun around to face my final foe. He was a grizzly brute with a red beard and a square face. He stabbed, I parried. I moved backwards leading him to his fate. He swung his long sword down in an arc, I raised my short sword high to block him then ducked beneath his sword to thrust Spirit Slayer up under his ribcage diagonally until it burst through his collarbone. He coughed blood into my face. I could smell the stale ale on his breath. I twisted the blade and thrust up as hard as I could. He dropped to his knees then slumped onto his face. My sword had gone so far inside the man I had difficulty freeing her from his body and had to press my boot onto his sternum to prise it out.

The soldier I had stabbed in the neck was crawling through the dew-covered leaves, leaving a trail of blood behind him. I used the toe of my boot to roll him over onto his back. He was pale with blood loss. His straggly blonde hair matted to his skin with sweat. “Who has your oath?” I pointed Spirit Slayer down at him. He seemed confused so I pointed to the emblem on his tunic. “Whose banner is this?”

Now he understood. “Lord Godwine,” he choked.

“How far?”

One hand clutched the wound at his neck while the other pointed south down the track we’d been following the day before. “Half a day.”

“A burh?” I asked. “Or stone walls?”

“Burh.” He was becoming weaker. His spirit was escaping his body with every breath.

“What’s it called?”

“Doncastre,” he whispered.

“How many men garrisoned there?”

He mouthed something inaudible.

“How many men?” I shouted. But he had spoken his last. I would have stripped him of his tunic as it hadn’t been pierced by my sword. Unfortunately, the man was not my build. The only person who seemed a similar match to me was red beard, so I took it from his corpse. I thought it might be useful if we ever attacked this Doncastre place and I needed a disguise to gain entry to the town.

I gathered up as many weapons as I thought Alsakr could carry and wrapped them in a blanket and tied them tight. Normally, I would have stripped them of their mail coats too as they were expensive to make and would fetch a handsome price at market or to other warriors needing a replacement. But I knew it would be asking too much of Alsakr to carry me, weapons and mail coats too.

As I rode back toward Girig Rygg I was tormented by my failure to have reached Jorvik on time. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was. Or where Doncastre was. We had headed west along the banks of the Humber with Asta and should have turned north at Selerby before we were waylaid at Girig Rygg. I was guessing that I was due south of both Selerby and Jorvik. I dug my heels into Alsakr and galloped toward Asta. I hoped to reach her before nightfall. Before another day had slipped by and Jarl Vidar Ulvkilsson looked upon my children, not as being under his protection, but as hostages. With luck, he would be happy with my news of Doncastre and the potential riches on offer there.

Although I had made good time on the Saxon track, by the time I reached the edge of the forest where Girig Rygg lay beyond in the open pastures, night had almost fallen and Mani was dragging the moon back into the sky in his chariot pulled along by his faithful horse, Alsvinder. I could see the faint orange glow from homesteads and the thin palls of smoke were just visible in the darkening sky. The Christian church atop the hill in the centre of the village was silhouetted against the blue-black heavens. I reined Alsakr in at the edge of the tree line to catch our breaths and survey the village before entering. It was dangerous to approach a palisade in the dark just in case one of the sentries skewered you with his spear or tip a basket of rubble on your head.

I heard it before I saw it. A horse’s hooves. Galloping fast in my direction. Shouts from the village. I couldn’t see the horse or the rider at this distance, he was camouflaged by the black land. Then I saw the horse’s breath rise into the night sky like palls of smoke. I had a bearing on him now so I edged Alsakr along the tree line to head the rider off. When he reached the horizon I could see his silhouette lolling in the saddle. I spurred the pace to try and cut him off. Whoever it was was approaching the tree line too fast. Entering thick woods at such a pace would dismount the rider. I was almost adjacent the horseman when he crashed into the branches and toppled from his mount. We were far enough away from the village for them not to have heard the commotion. I dismounted and drew Spirit Slayer from the scabbard slung over my shoulder and crept towards the fallen rider. The horse was neighing, scrambling away between the sharp branches. I could hear a gargling noise coming from the prone figure. I was almost on top of the man when I realised by his clothes that it was one of my own men. I rushed to kneel beside him. It was Thorsson, one of the youngest and fairest in our party. He was barely alive, his throat cut from ear to ear.

“Who did this!” I whispered.

Thorsson clutched both his hands around his throat and mouthed words, but only blood came out. He had terror in his eyes. I unsheathed his seax and prised his right hand from his throat. For someone so close to death he put up quite a resistance. But no matter how much he thought holding his throat might prolong his life, I knew that he was approaching the great hall of Valhalla. And if he didn’t go there with a sword in his hand the Valkyries would not take him. I forced the hilt into his hand and closed his fingers around the leather grip and squeezed mine around his. His body trembled as he continued to mouth unspoken words. Until, at his last, before he drew his final breath, I heard the name, “Asta.” Then, “raped”.

I knew the village would be on high alert and the palisade would be brimming with spear tips. So I decided to wait until morning before working out how to get Asta back. If, indeed, she was still alive.

 

“Are you afraid Jarl Vidar will kill you?” Asta said from across the flames.

I had been unaware that she had been watching me. I looked down at my hands. I’d been absentmindedly carving a piece of wood with my knifr. “I’m not afraid of anything,” I said defensively, knowing that I was afraid of what might have befallen my wife and children.

“It’s very pretty,” she said.

I looked at the wood as though seeing it for the first time. I had carved something resembling a doe.

“Is it for your children?” she smiled serenely, hardly lifting her gaze to meet mine.

I guess it was for my children. Although, I had hardly been aware of making it. My mind wandering about the recent turn of events and how the three Norns had spun their threads of fate. A wolf howled in the distance. Was that fate too? They were tricksters, the gods.

“It’s a good omen, Ulf,” she said, staring into the flames. “A wolf for a wolf.”

“Tell me,” I said. “How did a bunch of farmers managed to slaughter five Dane warriors?”

“It was the priests’ doing.”

“I thought as much.”

“They got them drunk on honey mead then slit their throats while they snored,” she said.

I wanted to be angry toward the priests for sneaking up in the dead of night like assassins to butcher my men, but I had done the exact same thing the previous night to the Saxon soldiers.

“They came for me,” she continued, “in the middle of the night and took me to the bishop’s quarters.”

“Where he…” I couldn’t say the words.

“Raped me,” she finished my sentence.

I twirled the doe in my fingers. “I’m sorry. I should have stayed.”

She rose like a spectre and came and sat beside me on the log. “You mustn’t blame yourself, Ulf.” She placed her pale, elongated fingers on my forearm. Her touch was almost imperceptible through my jerkin. “The Norns will have their way whatever we think we might do.”

And she was right, of course. The three Norns sit at the foot of the Yggdrasil tree in Asgard. The great Ash tree spans all nine worlds and the Norns are goddesses of the past, present and future. Urd, Verdani and Skuld spin their threads of life deciding the fate of every human, animal and even the gods themselves.

“Try and get some sleep,” I said. “Tomorrow, we ride for Jorvik.”

 

Glossary:

Karl – Freeman

Jarl – Lord

Burh – fortified town or village

Jorvik – York

Selerby – Selby

Doncastre – take a wild guess

Seax – short sword

Knifr – small knife

Fyrd – local militia

 

 

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The gift of the notebook


If you’ve read my previous post you’ll be aware that I’m going through a period of ‘writer’s block’, so I’ve been dabbling with a paintbrush instead.

Another thing I’ve been doing is going through some old notebooks. I have scores (if not hundreds) strewn around the house in various boxes, on bookshelves, in bags and suitcases, cupboards and wardrobes.

I always have a notebook on the go to jot down ideas or do a little sketch in. The problem is, I hardly ever look back on them. I guess the thinking is, that if the idea didn’t present itself at the time, then it was probably a rubbish idea. For the most part, this is true. But, occasionally, a little gem pokes its head to the surface. (And, wasn’t that the point of the notebook in the first place?)

I came across a poem I wrote in 2000. I can see why I didn’t take it any further at the time, but with a bit of jiggery-pokery I think I’ve got something quite nice. (See below the photo.)

So, the moral of the story is:

  1. Always carry a notebook.
  2. Don’t leave it 16 years to revisit them.
  3. Good ideas will present themselves in the end.

0f2c9d9c32f5969868a7cce192cc90c5

DENIAL

By David Milligan-Croft

 

I inhale your words as you exhale them.

And I place them into separate categories:

Those that I wish to retain,

And those which I do not.

 

Words such as ‘terminate’ and ‘over’,

I place into the carbon dioxide pile,

To be expelled into the universe

As quickly as possible.

 

But the words of love and affection

I send directly into my bloodstream,

To feed my heart and my brain,

Keeping my soul sane, for a few moments longer.

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50% off Peripheral Vision


Yes, you’re reading that right. And no, you don’t need to go to Specsavers.

Actually, it’s 51% off. But let’s not quibble.

From tomorrow, (Tuesday 24th May), my second novel, Peripheral Vision will be available for only 99p!

I know, I know, I’m practically giving it away. What can you get for 99p these days, eh?

I’ll tell you what – fuck all. (Well, apart from my book, of course.) Actually, you could probably get a bag of Monster Munch and a Sherbert Dip-Dab, but I digress…

Here’s the blurby bit:

After being blinded in one eye by his abusive father, Peripheral Vision tells the story of 11-year-old Danny Kane growing up in 1970s northern England. His violent upbringing results in his descent into a life of drugs and crime. As he reaches adulthood he realises that the only way out of his spiralling slide into perdition is to find the one thing that he treasured most – his childhood friend, Sally, who was taken into care after the death of her mother. Can the search for his long-lost love lead to Danny’s redemption?

Peripheral Vision explores themes such as child abuse, domestic violence, drug abuse and gang crime. It’s a gritty coming-of-age drama that pulls no punches. It’s even been compared to Donna Tartt – which is a huge honour, as I’m a big fan of her work.

But, it’s only half price for 7 days, so get thee skates on.

American cousins can get their discounted copies here.

TOS26

 

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Get your FREE copy of Peripheral Vision.


 

TOS26

Only kidding, you cheapskates. It’s £1.99.

April Fools’.

Now then, look down the back of the sofa for a bit of loose change and get yourself over to Amazon, as it’ll be £10.99 tomorrow.

 

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Get 43,415 words FREE!


That’s right, my collection of short stories, Ten Orbits of the Sun is F.R.E.E. for a limited time only.

Not only do you get 13 tantalising tall tales for gratis, you also get a sample chapter of my latest novel, Peripheral Vision, thrown in for good measure.

Simply click on the cover image below for your free copy.

All I ask in return is that if you like it, you’d be so kind as to leave a review on Amazon. (Indie authors live and die by their reviews.) Obviously, if you don’t like it, I’ll thank you to keep your opinions to yourself!

But it’s only free for 5 days so you’d best get your skates on.

TOS

Offer starts Friday 15th January, ends Tuesday 19th January 2016. (Although, I think this might be US ESB time.) Hey-ho, I’m sure you’ll manage.

Front cover photography courtesy of Mike O’Toole.

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