|James Hockey, Author|
Books, to me, are a source of joy. One of the most wonderful emotions that a reader can experience is the feeling that comes when they have in their hands (or on their e-reader) a book by someone whose writing they love, whose tale-telling abilities they respect, and whose prior work sits on their shelves, sources of periodic reading and enjoyment. And if the new book happens to be the latest in a series, so much the better.
With those pleasures in mind, I am celebrating, today, the release of James M. Hockey’s newest book, Edith, Fair as a Swan. A masterpiece by a master storyteller, the third in a series of stories that trace the origin of England in a most remarkable way.
But first, Edith:
England is Conquered
The King lies dead and mutilated. Edith, the Queen, and her daughter, Gytha, have fled for their lives just ahead of their pursuers. They can expect no mercy if they are captured. By command of the victor, the Queen will be tortured and then burned at the stake and her daughter strangled in the public square. It is 1066, and the cruel enemy hot on their heels is William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, whom history now knows as ‘The Conqueror.’ Edith’s path lies from ravaged England to Kiev, from defeat and despair through peril to hope and healing.
The story itself is gripping, and it is a true story in most of its particulars (for writers of historical fiction do know that sometimes they have to fill in the gaps or, as Hockey says, ‘Connect the dots’) We know that Edith was here; we know William sought her life…and we know some other important things about her story. But how did they come about? Characters cross the pages, scoundrels, villains, heroes, knights, peasants – all play their parts in Edith’s story. And then there is Edith, herself, a queen – and a woman of courage and resolve.
In this sample, Edith and her daughter, accompanied by the narrator, are stopped by men with something less than honor in their hearts. It is a deadly plight, until Edith steps forward:
The hill stretched away to the east ahead of us. As we neared the top of the long, steady climb we stopped to catch our breath and rest our legs, for the walk uphill had tired us. It was a bad place to linger and we were foolish, but Asgar, the wisest of us was also the oldest and still weakened by his newly healed wounds. He was thus the most drained by the long climb and needed to rest.
I say foolish because as we topped the hill the road became flat, but also curved around a copse of trees standing out from the thick woods to our left. We were unsighted and could not see down the road ahead. If we could have seen what was around the curve we would have hidden off the road. But we could not see and thus did not hide, and what then happened happened and from that our journey was entirely changed.
As we moved on at a snail’s pace, still gathering our breath, so around the curve came a trio of Norman horsemen. From their arms and the shield of one I took them to be a miles and two serjeants-at-arms. They reined in when they saw us and stood watching us as we limped and shuffled along the road. Then at a word from the leader they spurred towards us.
They halted two horse lengths away. I grasped my quarterstaff, ready to fight, but a growl from Asgar told me to hold.
The horsemen leaned forward on their mounts’ necks to get a better look at us. There was a speedy passing of speech between them in their outlandish tongue. I did not need to understand their meaning. It was all too plain as they gazed steadily at Edith and Gytha.
Edith also understood only too well. To my horror she walked up to the leader and smiled at him, laying her hand on his thigh.
He exchanged a look with his serjeants and laughed then swinging his leg over his horse’s back dropped to the ground, walked around the beast’s head and stood grinning at Edith. The two serjeants, their harness and saddles creaking, also dismounted and stood holding the horses whilst their master sauntered towards the woman and her child. He stopped by Gytha and placed his hand under her chin, lifting her face and smiling down at her. As he put his arm around her shoulder and drew her to him he turned, spoke to the two serjeants and waved towards Asgar and me. They laughed and drew their swords.
Asgar was shuffling forward towards the serjeants, whining, ‘Please sirs, they are my son’s wife and daughter, have pity I beg you,’ edging closer to them all the while.
Edith was the entire mistress of the occasion. She placed her hand on the shoulder of the miles, drawing his attention away from the child. Sinking to her knees in front of him, causing his serjeants to pause, watching and smirking, she lifted the hem of his mail coat with her left hand. He thrust his hips at her and leered a look of pride and scorn.
Everything that followed happened so quickly I barely remember it. As Edith bent forward to perform her shameful task so her mantle caught beneath her knees. With an apologetic smile she reached behind her to free it and tugged at the mantle. Then, faster than I had ever seen a hand move, her right hand shot up under the mail coat with the speed and spite of a striking viper. The miles gave a shriek of pain as the bodkin dagger she had concealed in the waist of her mantle bit deep into his groin. His legs folded and he fell, to lie screaming, legs twitching and trembling, blood pooling under him. She leapt to her feet the dagger poised to strike at the serjeants.
The three novels are tied together by their narrator, a Gleeman, or Storyteller, named Bowdyn, who lives in the 1600’s during a time of upheaval. He came to the village battered, wounded, a victim of ruffians. Bowdyn is descended from an unbroken line of Gleemen, akin to the Seannachies or the Bards, those who kept the old, true stories, and told them in truth and with skill.
It is a time of hardship, upheaval and poverty. On a fine, misty morning, a young man sees a small, horse-drawn cart making its slow way along the road, apparently without guidance. What did it contain? Treasure? Possibly. The young man hurries to the cart, looks inside and finds – not gold, but a man.
`This story,’ he said, `is old. It begins in a country east across the sea, nigh on five hundred years after the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ. To Africa it goes and back, and crossing the sea, ends up close by here. It begins with Creoda’s grim tale’
And then something startling happened. The Gleeman sank back in his chair and by some cunning art of positioning, as he did so his face disappeared into the shadow. From the dark a voice spoke and I, for my part, felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck, for it was not the voice of Bowdyn that we heard, but that of a young boy, younger than I, for his voice had not yet deepened into manhood.
In the second book, Bowdyn again tells the tale of Creoda’s people:
The Axe, the Shield, and The Halig Rood
Bowdyn the Gleeman holds court before the townsfolk. He speaks again of Creoda and the arrival of his people in Britain. In Creoda’s calm voice, he moves through legend and history and tells of the forging of a strong people that steps into familiar legend.
Because the ford was narrow, Gewis shortened our line and put more of the doughties on the right flank. The century of the Second held our left. The Belgics were so slow in forming that he had the time to do this. And so we waited while our enemy formed up.
…They halted perhaps a man length away. We had brought no drum but showed our discipline with the unity of the beat of our spears and our billhooks against our shields, the measured rat-tat-tat we had used at Moridunum. More than that, our women did something that even now to think of it makes my blood run cold and goose bumps rise on my flesh. It was a trick they said they had learned from Sefu, using their voices and their tongues, which gave out a high-pitched warbling note from one hundred throats. It was a note like that of some great wyrm, of such godlike triumph that I could see the Belgics flinching and their eyes widening with fear. At that point, following Lothar, we took two quick paces forward and our shields clashed as our spears flashed. For a while the lines locked, but we had the advantage: the billhooks arced overhead and their pointed blades sliced into faces, arms and shoulders, drawing attention and guard away from our flashing spears.
I have spent a longer time with this post than I usually do. It is a mark of my enjoyment of these stories. They have substance, wisdom, adventure and truth to them. They are, truly, historical fiction that keeps its ties to history.
I am pasting links to James Hockey’s website. There is more there to read and enjoy, including information about the Master Mariner, himself. Not a dull paragraph there: