27 February 2014
Excerpt Thursday: Year of the Celt by Rob Godfrey
Year of the Celt is a four-part series; each part covers a quarter of the Celtic year. Betrayals, violence, hope and love will touch the life of everyone before this year is through. Imbolc is the first book, beginning just after at the Celtic New Year (Samhain) and leading up to the night of the Imbolc festival. New love will offer hope to some, while the hidebound perish.
Step back in time to the winter of 499BC. The location is a tiny settlement nestling under the dark Scefin ridge in a remote valley in Brigantia, Northern Britain. The Scefinge have lived on their crannog* by the river Warf for so long, only half-remembered tales recount when their forebears first hacked living space out of the surrounding densely wooded valley.
The previous winter was the harshest that anyone can remember; unknown to the Scefinge, the climate is about to enter a rapid cooling that will last for at least a hundred years. The traditions and practices that have guided the Scefinge through the cycles of sowing and harvesting for generations no longer work; already their stores of food and fuel are much reduced and the worst of the winter is still ahead.
The far north of Britain is already blanketed under ever-thickening layers of snow and ice, driving many displaced tribes south in increasing numbers. Young Rab is on his first solo hunt; stalking deer to provide for his mother whilst his father is away in the north. He is about to meet a group of near-starving, exhausted refugees whom he will invite onto the crannog; unwittingly precipitating a crisis that will have unseen and far-reaching consequences for himself and the whole Scefinge.
As the Elders begin to lose control of their world, it falls on Rab to take on their role and point the way in an uncertain future. Some people can change and adapt but inevitably there are those who cannot; those clinging onto the past and fearful of the future will sometimes resort to violence and even murder in their desperation.
**An Excerpt from Year of the Celt: Imbolc**
1. Dawn Scevin Ridge: “ A clean Kill?
The arrow flew with the faintest swish. The aim was true, straight into the group of deer, sinking deep into the lead buck's flesh; a short thud confirming the impact. As if every deer was energised with a sudden bolt of pure energy, as one they leapt into the air, scattering in an instant. Rab breathed out, took a breath and rushed from his hiding place in the holly, oblivious to the leaf spines scratching his face and hands. He stopped in the middle of the snow-covered glade and looked all around, but he was alone. Only the strengthening wind through the trees above broke the silence, that and his heaving lungs. Shaking his head he recovered his thoughts and went crashing into the hazel brake opposite, in pursuit of his quarry. He was certain it was a good shot, but where was his buck? He threw himself into the narrow rocky defile behind the hazels, bouncing off the rough gritstone walls, feeling a rising panic that somehow it had all gone wrong.
Squeezing between two large boulders and turning a corner he saw his quarry, lying on the ground, limbs thrashing, abandoned by its family and terror showing in its eyes. Already snowflakes were settling on its back. Even as Rab ran up to it the eyes closed and with a shudder the body became still. Steam rose up in the icy air as its bowels relaxed and faeces leaked out, staining the surrounding snow. Rab was transfixed, appalled by the results of his actions. He had killed it! That's my arrow buried half way into the chest. A trickle of blood dripped onto the snow from the pierced flesh. Kneeling over his quarry and grasping the arrow shaft in his left hand he pulled hard to remove it, but the body suddenly convulsed, the mouth opened as if the animal was attempting to scream. The shock sent Rab reeling backwards with a cry.
His legs began to shake and his clothes felt cold and clammy. But it looked like it was dead. Do I have to cut its throat with my knife? Sucking in air he held his breath to steady himself. Finally stirred with pity for the wounded animal he bent down and grasped the deer round its neck, pulling it to him and hugging it, he stroked the soft fur on its face as tears ran down his own; the antlers surprisingly soft to his touch. As his eyes ran over its back the sight of the beautiful patterns on the soft skin deepened his shame. He felt sick inside. This
Isn't heroic. I'm just a brutal, cruel, ignorant killer. He could feel the heat from the deer, seeping into his own cold limbs, as if he was draining its life. The shudders racking the buck's body slowly subsided and at the last it turned its head to look him in the eye. It was an imploring look, but no longer fearful. Rab could not look away. He watched until the eyes lost focus, a final shudder and its life was gone.
The evening before Rab had trekked the 4 leagues from his village to this spot, confident that it would be a good place to catch some deer browsing the hazels. He'd thought it all out; he'd just the right amount of food, re-strung his bow, picked out a handful of true arrows, found the best place to hide and to make sure he'd be downwind of his quarry. It was going to be a long night but he was determined to see it through no matter how cold or scared he felt. All through the night he dare not close his eyes, worried that he might sleep past dawn and miss his chance.
Squatting silently on his coarse blanket and wrapped in his cloak, he looked out from his hiding place inside the dense holly covered bank as dawn approached. Over 2 strides tall he'd struggled to stay low for so long; he longed to stand straight and stretch out his cramped muscles. The air was crisp and the ground iron hard after the night frost. Hardly a sound broke the stillness, except the rising wind through the surrounding trees; sounding like waves breaking on a nearby shore. The frosted ground twinkled in the first weak light of the sun, rising over his shoulder as it lit up the glade in front of him. Opposite, less than 20 strides away, the hazels marked the western edge and concealing the only way into the clearing. The flurry of snowflakes wafting through was the only indication of the hidden entrance. The hazel stems held only shrivelled leaves now but the bark held the promise of a meal for the grazing deer, should they come. No one else knew about this place, at least, not for hunting deer. If his luck held, the grazing deer would come into the glade to feed in the early dawn. He felt the breath of cold wind on his face and smiled. With this wind blowing towards him, anything entering the glade would not pick up his scent. So far, so good.
Gently flexing his arms and breathing slowly out, Rab moved his weight from one foot to the other to ease away the cramp. The soft hide shoes did little to keep out the cold, even stuffed with dry grass. He'd sat there all night, determined to stay out until he could go back with a decent kill to show the villagers that he could do a mans job. He looked around the cramped hiding place. His arrows and his bow close by. Hope I'm not wasting my time. I will look pathetic going back empty handed.
A passing low cloud blocked out the early dawn light and the clearing faded into grey, then pitch black. He was alone with his thoughts. If he were to make a kill there would be good food to eat tonight and maybe a warm jerkin from the hide. Keep still, and remember: "Immerse yourself in the land. Smell it. Feel it, be part of it." These, his father's words, spoken every time they hunted together.
Well, he was alone here now; it was up to him to bring back the deer to feed himself and his mother. He knew she was a better hunter than he was, but everyone expected that he, the remaining elder male in the household, should provide the food.
The cloud passed and a weak light filled the glade again. But now he was no longer alone. In front of the hazels stood a small family of Roe Deer. The elder buck with his crown of antlers alert and ready to warn the others and send them diving back into hiding at any uncertainty. The buck strutted back and forth, head up sniffing the air for the slightest scent of danger. It was not long before the younger does and bucks were reassured enough and started to tease at the bark of the hazels.
Rab blinked to make sure he was really awake and not imagining. This could really be my chance. As the wind wafted more snowflakes towards him, it brought with it the rich, sweet smell of their musk-scented bodies. He raised his head slightly to focus on the stag, so close to him he could see the muscles rippling under the skin.
Easing his right hand out of his tunic, he unhooked his upright bow from where he'd carefully positioned it, ready strung, on a nearby holly branch. Flexing his fingers round the familiar padding in the centre of the bow and raising it up to shoulder level a shiver ran down his back. This was the moment when the awareness of what he was doing caused him to gasp. If he could do this he could look the other men in the village in the eye at last. Lifting one of his arrows from the ground with his left hand he slid it over the fingers of his right hand. Raising the bow higher, he could focus down the arrow shaft, through the holly and across the glade. Just a small gap between the leaves was all he needed. The deer were now absorbed in stripping the bark. Taking a breath, he steadied his right arm, knocked the arrow into the gut cord and pulled it back with his left. As the bow tensioned, the cord creaked as he pulled harder. His left arm quivered with the strain, but over the arrowhead he could see the back of a young buck's head. Lowering the bow a fraction he just had to wait until it turned. A sudden bird cry in the distance and the buck turned, raising its head. He could clearly see the buck's chest and at that moment let go the arrow.
Learn more about author Rob Godfrey, his novels and Iron Age Wharfedale at:
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