First of all, apologies. I’ve been quiet for a little while. Physically well, thankfully, but preoccupied with this and that. Writing the new Tom Harper, of course, but I was also asked to take part in another project called Street Stories, which will take place on Quarry Hill in Leeds. It’s the brainchild of Leeds City College and put together by #foundfiction. Small pieces of writing will be displayed as street art around various parts of Quarry Hill, and I’m one of four writers creating work for it. Mine will cover aspects of the area as it was: Quarry Hill flats, of course, but also the 1645 plague cabins, St. Peter’s Well, the death of Tom Maguire and more. It’s something different, every piece is very compressed, and it’s an interesting challenge.
Some of you will be wondering exactly when The Anchoress of Chesterfield is likely to appear, or even if it will appear. The initial publication date of June 1 is now a memory, and another date of the end of June isn’t going to happen. But it’s at the printer, and I’m told that it will be available in paperback and as an ebook from the end of July. Not exact date, I’m afraid, but this appears concrete. Thank you for being patient, but these have been very different times, as well all know.
I showed you a little of my Civil War period novella, The Cloth Searcher. Before I began work on that, I revisited and picked up the threads and completed another story I began a few years ago, this one set in Norman-era Leeds, called Norman Blood. I’m now going back over it, slowly. Another novella. Here’s how it begins:
Note: Ledes was the name given to modern-day Leeds.
He rarely dreamed now. In the beginning the night mare had ridden every time he closed his eyes, slipping through the blackness like a cutthroat and gripping him so close he could smell its graveyard stench. Then, slowly, almost without him knowing, it had faded and become a fearful memory.
But last night it had returned, more powerful for having been away so long. Screaming, growing louder and louder before dropping into a single moment of dead, empty silence.
Then a welter of noise filled the space. Sounds he hadn’t noticed before. Shouting, hooves. The metal rasp of weapons drawn. The crackle as a thatched roof caught fire and the night flamed.
He was hobbling through the darkness, desperate to keep out of sight. But even when he was a mile away and more, he could still hear the soldiers shouting in their foreign tongue; no doubting the meaning and their hatred. Killing, rape, the devils in hell let loose to roam, all the order and the law gone from the earth. Blades hacking at flesh and tearing at souls.
Somewhere, someone must be alive. They must be, or all the world would be blood.
When he woke, he was breathing so hard that his chest hurt, hands clenched tight into fists, the t tears tumbling down his cheeks.
Trembling, Erik had to ease himself out of the bed, careful not to wake Inga, then paced up and down on the earth floor of the house, letting its cold hardness, its realness, into his body, until the demons danced away. Hours later, in full daylight, he could still taste the smoke and death on his tongue, a poison no gulp of ale could take away.
For the dream to come back after all this time…it had to mean something.
The villagers always closed their doors as the soldiers passed. It was safer, like a cantrip to keep evil at bay. There were only ten men this time, churning up the mud as they marched rapidly along the road. Beyond the houses and the church, their feet clattered as they crossed the bridge over the beck until the hard beat of marching softened into the distance.
Every week it was the same, a patrol sent out, as if the Normans were fearful that people might flare up and oppose them again. But who was left to fight or forge the weapons? Who had the will? The army had conquered, it had destroyed the land far and wide. The soldiers had used their iron and steel to choke away hope.
The Harrying. That was what they called it.
Death was the word he used. That was the truth of it.
All across Yorkshire, manors had burned. Animals butchered in the fields and left to rot. Not only the stock: people were killed, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, unshriven and unburied. Those still alive fled, praying for safety, begging for deliverance. But God had turned His face away, unhearing, unforgiving. No food, no shelter. No hope. No life. They died beyond counting during the winter, children and parents withered to sacks of bone and heart and flesh until they barely made a meal for the wolves.
But Ledes…Ledes was spared. A miracle, that was what the people here believed. God’s blessing. But he knew that the reality spoke far less of heaven and much more of power. It was a military decision, nothing more than that. A finger stabbed down on a rough-drawn map. Keep this place with the ford over the river. We can station our men there.
Erik brushed the wood shavings from his lap and put the knife back in his belt. He’d whittled the end of the post to a sharp point that would go easily into the ground. Since Sunday, his wife had been reminding him that the gate between their toft and the pasture needed repair.
The job was there in his head, but every hour of daylight had been filled. He was the reeve, elected by the others when the manor became property of the monks in York. Each dispute about the size of a villager’s planting strips, who should do what, when they should do it, ended with him.
Erik sighed. Since the spring ploughing and planting began, it had been one task after another. Decide this, measure that, give an order, settle an argument. Finally, last night, the procession of people hammering on the door stopped.
Then the night mare visited. But it had ridden on again, thank God. No one had needed him this morning. And now he finally had time to do something for himself. He hoisted the post on to his shoulder and limped to the end of the garden. When he was young he’d jumped from a tree and broken a bone on his thigh. It was never set properly, leaving him to walk like this.
On the horizon, ravens swooped down on something, then scattered high into the air as a buzzard dived. The first fingers of spring and the ground was beginning to soften after the long winter. Pray for a warm summer and a good harvest.
The scents of life drifted on the air. Off in the distance he could see lambs, newborn and tentative, discovering the astonishment of movement. Every year it was the same, and every year it enchanted him and made his heart soar.
He loved this ville. It was home, it was comfort. He cherished the people here, even when their voices and demand and questions wearied him. Erik had been surprised when they put him forward as reeve, grateful when they voted for him.
In return he took all his responsibilities seriously, sitting and making his judgements at the manor court, tallying harvests, making sure the priest received his tithe and the monks had all they were owed.
He’d been on God’s Earth for almost forty years, as close as he could guess; an old man now, with all the pains and failings of age. But he tried to do his duty by everyone.
And he put them all in front of himself. That was his wife’s complaint. Inga was right. But what could he do? He could hardly turn them away or make them wait. So jobs like this were tucked into odd, quiet hours when the chance arose.
Erik dug into the soil with the tip of his knife and set with post in place. He’d set a rock aside, heavy enough to need two hands. The dull sound of stone on wood, over and over and over, until it was seated straight and secure. Now the gate would close properly; no animals would wander into the garden and eat what his wife grew. Inga would be happy.
The manor had improved since it became the property of the monks. They paid rents every quarter day now instead of giving their labour, and what man wouldn’t work harder for himself than for a lord? But the monks had also taken the best pasture to graze their sheep. The best pasture, of course, and the villagers had to tend them. Less ground for fallow or farming.
His eyes followed the line of low trees that grew along the stream that marked the northern boundary of the manor. The villagers were busy with ploughing and sowing and digging. At least if they were occupied, he’d have some time. And he still needed to plant early seeds in his own strips.
He stretched, an ache of satisfaction in his arms, then turned towards the house. For a moment the clouds parted and the sun shone, the glimpse of colour and brightness welcome against the grey. Erik smiled, then caught a glint of metal from the corner of his eye. Two of the soldiers were running back along the road to their palisade.
Suddenly every sense of pleasure vanished. He was alert, a prickle of fear running down his back.