This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
Wessex, 584 A.D.
A whip lashed across Telor’s face, jolting him back to consciousness. Blinking into the dank cell, he noticed a bucket: he had actually been doused in icy water. He was also aware of rope coiled around his wrists and ankles. As his dripping hair matted to his bruised cheeks, a voice sneered.
“Awake, Celtic dog!”
He winced at the alien words: English. Water soaked into his rags, stinging numerous cuts, then a boot materialised from the shadows and stamped his side. Hissing in agony, he doubled up. A heel connected with the bridge of his nose, the crack magnifying in the darkness. Blood seeped into a sticky necklace. He braced himself when the feet approached, only this time his antagonist grunted and hauled Telor by his ponytail onto his trembling feet. He was shoved towards a doorway.
“Quicker, you fat bastard, quicker!” Had he been able to understand, the taunt might have smarted. Telor was a bard, his stoutness testament to years of long winter evenings entertaining his clan with mead-fuelled songs and sagas. During his manhandling he was aware of other dejected Celts pleading for mercy in varying accents: Atrebates from the forests to the north, Durotriges from beyond the Mendip Hills. Telor could only guess at their current location: when the raiders took slaves rather than heads they often transported their human booty for miles. A fist smashed into his jaw. “Hurry!”
Telor glimpsed malevolent eyes, obscured by a helm’s nose-guard then fingers tightened in his scalp. He was dragged over pulverised earth and scattered straw to a point where flames curled from a large log fire. In the background many eyes twinkled against the glare.
“Bow before your masters, Celts,” the guard spat, and before Telor had time to comply he was shoved forwards, his knees impacting the ground. Rocking unsteadily, his glance wavered towards beams high above the long hut’s floor. There was a brief commotion as another prisoner was forced into position. Telor dared not turn towards him but noticed the man was white-haired and also corpulent. When the English enslaved Celtic males it was invariably for manual roles: miners, foresters, or soldiers. Did their barbarism allow for the modest indulgence of sparing entertainers? Further captives were heaved into line, all bulky. Telor counted they now numbered five. There were possibilities of harmonies to delight this audience who would be more familiar with Germanic dirges.
Silence descended. Telor listened to the crackling flames. Outside, horses whinnied, then some beast bellowed, giving the impression of monstrous lungs emptying. An ox? He had heard fanciful tales of the livestock the English tribes had brought with them from Germania and his imagination conjured a colossal bull. A heavy-set warrior separating himself from the gathering distracted him.
As Telor returned to full consciousness, tears welled. He blinked them away, determined not to give this barbarian the satisfaction of gloating at his despair. Glowering at the one who approached, he observed scars along muscular forearms, mementos of many brutal skirmishes. A Celtic torc gleamed at his neck, undoubtedly wrenched from a decapitated victim during those battles. Sinister of all was a patch obscuring his left eye.
The warrior snorted, his expression growing with disdain as he studied each captive in turn. After the scornful gaze had dismissed him, Telor recalled the events that had led him to this hell. He had been gathering blackberries, had dropped the basket in order to mop his sweating brow again. Shrill peals carried from the sentry post. Short blasts meant a Norse longship on the horizon; those elongated tones warned of a Saxon warband. Waddling towards the village he halted: smoke was already billowing from thatched roofs, people were scattering, and soldiers were lunging with bloodied swords and axes. Turning back into the trees, he roared as branches tore at him: more to mask the screams of his kin being slaughtered. His frantic breathing obscured the jeers of the hunting men until they were almost upon him. Betrayed by the undergrowth, his feet caught in weeds and he crashed to the forest floor. Beyond his dazed vision a young Saxon loomed; a crimson birthmark on the boy’s neck was shaped like a skull. A raised sword had glinted in the sunlight before its hilt crashed into his skull, opening a trapdoor into a void.
“I am Modig, a thane of the West Saxons. You Celts are guests at my son Oxa’s wedding,” boomed the one-eyed warrior. Telor detected a mocking tone, but when the Saxon clapped his hands together, he instigated a curious procession that begun winding through the congregation towards a table. Women were carrying plates laden with roasted game, the succulent aroma mouth-watering to captive and captor alike. Behind, two guards dragged another shackled man, mottled with bruises yet defiant. The food was positioned on the table, then the serving wenches bowed to Modig and stepped aside. The prisoner was hauled before the thane, cursing in a tongue that reminded Telor of English, but courser. Telor observed his forked beard and tattoos swirling over his lacerated torso and arms; not the random blue patterns favoured by the Celts, but designs intricately etched: wolf heads, a serpentine dragon, an eagle plunging at prey. A Norseman, crazed as a cornered wildcat. When he cursed Modig, the Saxon kicked him squarely in the balls.
Modig glared at the man writhing, his wrath reduced to whimpers. His features softening, he returned his attention to the five. “These fucking Vikings are the only Germanic people more savage than we English. They drink weird brews that send most of them mad. Lucky for all of us in these islands, they live at the edge of the world, and restrict their visits to one or two longships every other month. But this Norse dog is going to help me provide some sport before the ceremony. Actually, more of a lesson, especially for all the children gathered here … the next generation of our brave warriors. Before this lesson begins, you Celts must fill your bellies. You’ve been fed nought but scraps since you were each brought here. And all of you look as if you enjoy your food. You must be starving. Now you will gorge yourselves. Anyone who does not clear his plate will lose his fucking head.”
The captives gawked at him. Modig resorted to miming the action. Glancing hesitantly at one another, Telor and the others were prodded towards the table by spear shafts, before sitting at a long bench. Nodding to one of his men, Modig murmured a command. The soldier drew a knife and hacked through each wrist bind. Having endured days of beatings and meagre rations, the prisoners needed no further prompting. Each fell upon the feast like wolves around a deer.
Telor spotted a furtive youth stepping beside Modig, his features a less-haggard version. He also scrutinised the attractive maiden standing submissively by the young man’s side, her shoulders draped in flowers, as were many of the others he could now distinguish. He felt a weight lifting. The partridge was roasted to perfection. Despite their initial rough treatment, the Celts had apparently been hauled here, not to lose their heads, but to sing at a marriage.
“Enjoy your feast. The game was trapped on moors you natives could once call your hunting ground. It is ours now, and the animals we chase there speak Celtic.” He paused while the Saxons watching in the background cackled. “Eat well, in honour of Oxa and Mildgyd. You must clear all those plates and bowls.” Turning to the lone prisoner, still squirming before him, Modig grinned. “As for you? I want your help in a demonstration to my wedding guests. Many are the Saxon thanes – chieftains – present this day. I wish you to put on a fine show for them, before the ceremony and the hard drinking to follow.” Hearty roars reverberated. Modig joined in their cheering before his expression darkened. “Weddings are such a special occasion. As well as looking to the future, we celebrate our past, our achievements. I want everyone here to see the fate of this island.”
Telor balked when Modig unsheathed his sword. The chieftain dug its tip into the compacted earth at his feet, working it into what the bard eventually deciphered to be a map. Those watching from the rear craned for a better view. Although rudimentary, Telor recognised the jutting Cornish peninsula with Cymru looming over it. The blade traced a jagged south coast, adding a small circle for the Isle of Wight, before heading eastwards to Kent, carving the rump of Anglia, then proceeding in a line up the eastern seaboard that stopped short of Caledonia. To the left a simple circle denoted Hibernia, a larger one the European mainland.
Modig gestured to part of his handiwork. “Children … the Romans once called these lands Britannia. The native Celtic tribes, the Britons, bowed down before the Romans, bowed until their miserable bellies crawled along the ground, like fucking slugs. The British became lazy. They stopped sharpening their swords … stopped tattooing their skins. They got a taste for Roman food and Roman wine. The Brits became fat, like these five greedy pigs … and started wearing fine Roman clothes … their menfolk would wear togas and sandals and soak in scented baths.”
Between mouthfuls, Telor noticed many of the audience casting disdainful looks in his direction. Puzzled, he continued chewing into a bird breast, juices roving into his beard.
“All of this was the price they were happy to pay for their loss of freedom. The Brits have spent generations learning how to be servile. The Romans never colonised Germania. Never. Germania was soaked with the blood of too many legionnaires.” The remark provoked gruff approval. “To be fair, some of the natives fought harder than others.” Modig thrust his sword into Anglia. “Here, the Iceni, ruled by their warrior queen, Boudica, allied with other tribes. Their army of one hundred thousand sacked Roman cities. Camulodunum, Verulamium and Londinium. Such was the scale of destruction, Emperor Nero even considered abandoning Britannia. But his general, Suetonius, regrouped the remnants of the garrisons, before attacking Boudica on the Roman road, Wattling Street. Despite being outnumbered ten to one, the Romans chose their battleground carefully, at the head of a valley. The stupid blueskins simply charged at them in one mass, not realising they were being funnelled into a narrow point. Their army became a rabble that could not move, soldiers advancing from the rear merely adding to the crush. Then the Romans launched volley after volley of javelins and arrows until men were knee deep in blood. The British retreated in panic. The legionnaires harried the fleeing warriors, whose escape was blocked by wagons. There followed a massacre. None were spared, not even the women and children among the camp followers, not even the pack animals.
Unlike these southern lap dogs, the tribes in Caledonia - the Dalriati, the Caledonii, the Picts - were so hostile the Romans were forced to build a vast wall to keep them at bay, all the way from the German Sea to the Solway Firth.” Modig sliced a line between the rugged coasts. “But two hundred years ago, the mighty Roman Empire fell. Their colony of Britannia was abandoned. All the Celts enjoyed freedom. That did not last.”
Modig hacked a mouthful of phlegm from his throat and dropped it into the channel between Britannia and Europe. Spitting again, his globule splattered by the east coast. “The fucking Norse,” he gibed, forcibly smacking the tattooed captive across the back of his head. “The pirates from the frozen wastelands were next to show an interest in these islands. Their longships continue plundering the shores and estuaries, sacking villages at will, whether English or British.”
He dragged his sword back to the portion of ground far to the right. “Germania. Jutland.” He hacked several lines towards Britannia. “We cast our greedy eyes on this fertile island to the west, its inhabitants mostly farmers now, rather than fighters. Fleets of warships were launched by Saxons, Angles and Jutes.”
Modig grasped the Norseman’s right arm and held it towards the map. “Behold, how our English nation was forged in our enemy’s blood!” The chieftain’s blade severed the right hand. While the prisoner shrieked, Modig maintained a tight grasp of his hair and tugged the stump, directing the spurting blood over his crude map. “The land once occupied by the Iceni was conquered by the Angles. They settled here, where they became known as the North Folk and the South Folk, and gave birth to a new English kingdom, East Anglia.”
Modig seized the wounded man and dragged him until he was above the centre of the map. While the Norseman whimpered, Modig dug his sword into his left thigh, aiming the fountaining blood. “The heartlands of Britannia became awash with dead Celts … so much blood staining the earth … red for the territories now ruled by the Middle English and the Mercians, whose kingdoms now stretch up to the River Humber.” His blade struck another tremendous blow, removing the Viking’s right leg from below the knee. The Saxon ensured the blood seeped towards the north of his gory montage.
“Above the Humber, more Angle tribes, Bernicians, Deirans … their territories now form the kingdom of North Humberland.” Peering over his enthralled audience, he leered when Oxa caught his eye. “But I am far from finished. There is so much more land where the spilling of enemy blood has given birth to our new England.” The thane ensured blood splattered over Kent, then the Isle of Wight. “The Jutes now rule these parts of the south coast.” Modig kept the man suspended, the gruesome stains welling into a puddle that crept towards the south and west. “From the fringes of Kent to the borders of Cymru, all is ours, all is Saxon land.” This was acknowledged with thunderous acclaim, sword hilts crashing against shields. “Where the Thames meets the German Sea is Essex, kingdom of the East Saxons. Westwards to the kingdoms of the Middle Saxons and South Saxons.” Thrusting his sword deep into the lurid quagmire, he left it embedded there. “And right here, the greatest realm in England … Wessex.” A roar boomed from the onlookers. “Home of the proud tribes of West Saxons: Dorseatas, Hwiccas, Wilseatas, and my own people, the Somorsaetas. Our sworn aim is to drive the blueskins into the sea.”
Telor nibbled at the moist meat around a leg. While he felt guilty sating his hunger during all this, it perturbed him more to notice the Saxon children poking their way through the forest of adult legs for a better view of the torture. They were ogling the horrid crimson pools that twisted and merged, but with a terrible pride rather than the disgust he felt.
Modig merely gloated at his handiwork. “Those areas of bare soil you see … Cornwall … Cymru … Cumbria … Caledonia … the English are driving the British ever westwards, ever northwards, into those far corners of this island, until they will have nowhere else to run. Soon all the land will be stained red with the blood of the blueskins, and the blood of any of these Viking vermin daring to raid our shores.” That statement was the cue to extract his sword and hack it across the Norseman’s neck. The body splashed onto the floor, spraying the five diners. “Oxa. It is time for the ceremony.”
The younger warrior elbowed his way to the front of the throng of Saxons, leading his intended bride by the hand. When he stepped into the firelight, Telor recognised the skull birthmark.
Oxa stepped over to the five Celts. “You oafs have filled your bellies enough. Now drink.”
His words were met with blank expressions. Oxa snapped his fingers and a woman approached, clutching ox horns brimming with mead. Thrusting one into each of the captives’ grips, he smashed a fist onto the table to provoke them all into generous gulping. When Telor had drained his horn, he belched. Oxa seized his tunic. “With me, you British dogs. With me.” The force he applied hauling Telor to his feet was ample translation.
The bard’s eyes locked on the grisly map as he was shoved across it, his bare feet swishing through the swill. The foul picture symbolised the extent to which the English tribes had conquered the east and south of the country. He glanced at the small patch of exposed ground at the frontier of the Cornish peninsula, his own realm, Dumnonia, languishing next to the deep red of Wessex. Symbolically, maroon tendrils were already weaving deep inside his tribe’s ancient territories.
He accepted the torture of the Norseman had also served as intimidation. If the Celts were literally singing for their lives, the melodies were bound to be particularly acute. He was aware of the Saxons laughing as all the captives were bundled by, the women casting flowers towards them, their children giggling. Telor caught the eye of twin Saxon toddlers and he exchanged smiles with them. Breathing harshly, he realised he was seeing double, the hastily downed mead having gone straight to his head. The sensation became dreamlike and for an instant he indulged the notion that he was about to awake from this nightmare.
The unlikely wedding guests were escorted from Modig’s chambers into a courtyard. While the bemused Celts blinked at the sunlight and shuffled onwards, encouraging cries echoed from Saxon villagers clustered on all sides of the open space. More flowers cascaded over the prisoners, the fragrant petals of pansies and roses sweetening the breeze. Oxa stalked alongside the five men, then raised his right hand aloft. At this signal the crowds parted. The chieftain’s son paced forward, beckoning his captives to follow. Telor glanced around as more villagers gathered in the background, jostling closer to the action.
Assuming the wedding party would follow to take advantage of the glorious summer afternoon, Telor cleared his throat. Obviously none present would appreciate the lyrics to the celebratory songs these five men might chose to entertain them with, but the melodies would transcend ethnic division.
Oxa jabbed a finger at a point just beyond where he was standing. Only when Telor and the others stepped towards this did they identify the obstacle before them: the ground plunged into the maw of a cave. The stench emanating from its shadows was a vile meld of blood, rotting meat, shit and piss. One of the other captives vomited and Telor heard the splatter seconds later.
Closing his eyes, he sang the introductory bars of a Dumnonii marriage aria. Oxa fired an inquisitive look at him before cupping his free hand to his mouth and giving a piercing whistle. A moment later a growling seemed to reverberate from the very bowels of the earth. The surrounding Saxons cheered in delight. Still singing, Telor stared downwards. As his eyes accustomed to this fissure, he could make out numerous clusters of bones, partially stripped of flesh. He gaped back over his shoulder.
Modig had joined his son by the cavern. He bellowed to his audience: “Behold the fate of the native Brits. Our new English kingdoms are being forged in their blood. Their women make fine slaves for our warriors. Their men are but meat. And these five blueskins, spared death when we sacked their villages due to their generous girths, will make an excellent sacrifice to our god of war, Tiw … and fine entertainment for the wedding of Oxa and Mildgyd.”
Oxa grasped his father’s proffered fist. “Thank you, my thane. Bee-Wolf will welcome these fat oafs.”
Without further ceremony, the young Saxon warrior lunged at the captives, one by one, tipping them over the edge of the pit. Telor landed heavily, crumpling to the rubble-strewn ground, limbs snapping, his fingers clawing into stinking sludge. High above, torches were brandished, casting fitful glares over the charnel house, shining against pools of congealing blood and glistening mounds of tissue and body fat. He saw another prisoner attempting to stand, his overweight body dyed crimson from head to foot. Telor focused on him reaching to the cave wall to steady his faltering steps. A vast shape disengaged from the shadows with a horrifying roar. Excitable gasps sounded above, and children squealed with glee. A gargantuan bear fell on the hapless man. Telor was riveted to its jaws grinding into flesh, its haunches heaving from side to side, tearing the head from the shoulders. Transfixed by the brutal killing through his woozy vision, he tried squirming backwards but his arms and legs were molten with agony. He had been fattened for this monster and now his shattered bones were presenting his body on a platter. The beast chewed at a trailing ribbon of intestines. Telor gasped. The tiny sound was enough to draw the bear’s attention. Still masticating, it bounded through the viscera, its snorting breath hot and putrid. The bard thought of transforming his last lungfuls of air into a song for all the loved ones he had lost but what else could he do but scream?
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