Next week, Head of Zeus is due to published A Time for Swords, a new historical thriller by Matthew Harffy. The publisher was kind enough to provide us with an excerpt to share with CR readers. First, though, here’s the synopsis:
When the Vikings attack, a novice monk’s life is changed forever in Matthew Harffy’s new historical adventure.
There had been portents – famine, whirlwinds, lightning from clear skies, serpents seen flying through the air. But when the raiders came, no one was prepared.
They came from the North, their dragon-prowed longships gliding out of the dawn mist as they descended on the kingdom’s most sacred site.
It is 8th June AD 793, and with the pillage of the monastery on Lindisfarne, the Viking Age has begun.
While his fellow monks flee before the Norse onslaught, one young novice stands his ground. He has been taught to turn the other cheek, but faced with the slaughter of his brothers and the pagan desecration of his church, forgiveness is impossible.
Hunlaf soon learns that there is a time for faith and prayer… and there is a time for swords.
And now, on with the excerpt…
I can still recall the wonder of walking northward towards the holy isle of Lindisfarnae. The mule, cantankerous at times, but biddable enough, plodded along beside me. Brother Leof- stan, long-legged and slender, strode ahead of us, as if he was keen to be away from my chatter. I walked with a spring to my step, tugging the laden beast to greater speed, more often using a softly spoken word of encouragement than a stroke of the hazel switch I carried. My heart soared at the feeling of freedom from being outside the minster of Werceworthe after so many months of inclement weather through the winter and spring.
I could still barely believe that Leofstan had chosen me, above all of the other novice monks, to accompany him. He was to bring a stack of freshly dried, stretched and scraped lamb skins to be used by the brothers at Lindisfarnae’s scriptorium. When I had heard, I begged to be taken with him.
“You would do better to apply yourself to your studies than trudging north with me,” he said.
“I have already finished committing to memory chapters eight to nineteen of the Regula,” I told him.
Leofstan raised an eyebrow.
“What about the Latin exercises?” he asked, squinting down his thin nose at me.
“I copied out all of the declensions and I have learnt those pronouns that deviate from the normal order.”
I proffered a wax-covered boxwood tablet to him. He took it, glancing down at my scratched letters in the thin veneer of beeswax. I have always had a natural ability with the learning of languages, both written and spoken, and I knew my Latin was all correct. His thin fingers traced the words as he read and he grunted, whether with approval or annoyance, I could not tell.
He stared at me for a long while.
“What is it that so draws you to Lindisfarnae?” he asked.
I longed to be free of the oppression of the minster, to travel further than the boundaries of the small parcel of land around Werceworthe. But I chose a different reply for Leofstan.
“You often tell us that the scribes of Lindisfarnae are the best in the whole of Christendom,” I said. “Now that I have begun to learn the finer arts of writing, I would like to see the finest writing in the world.” He stared at me, his thin, wrinkled face expressionless. Was there a slight creasing of his brows? I pressed on regardless, forcing myself to stare into his eyes with what I hoped was an open and eager mien. “I think I would learn much from watching the scribes at Lindisfarnae work and,” I said, adding what I hoped would be the winning argument to my cause, “I would also welcome the chance to see the head of Saint Oswald and the bones of Saint Cuthbert; to offer up a prayer to that splendorous king and to the most sacred of holy men. I would pray for my dear mother’s immortal soul. May she rest in the eternal peace of the Almighty’s bosom.”
I felt a pang of guilt at using my mother’s memory to get my way. She had died when I was but a small boy, and my recollection of her was nebulous. And yet my words were not a lie. I would pray for her soul to the saints of Lindisfarnae, if Leofstan took me with him.
My teacher frowned and was silent. I was often as lazy as I was talented at languages and scribing and he clearly had his doubts as to my sincerity. For several heartbeats I was certain that he would reject my request, but after a time, he nodded.
“Very well,” he said. “You will attend me on the journey. You might learn much from the brothers at Lindisfarnae. The mule will be your responsibility. Do not make me regret my decision.”
I am quite sure he regretted his decision more than once as we headed north on the old crumbling road of Deira Stræt. I was poor company and the closer we got to our goal the harder I found it to suppress my excitement. I pointed out a tiny tan-coloured warbler, flitting in and out of a tangle of gorse. Leofstan glanced at the small bird, nodding absently. Free of the rule of silence imposed in the minster, I talked incessantly and, looking back, I see that Leofstan was indulgent to my whims. I thought nothing of it then. I was genuinely excited to see the monks’ work in the scriptorium that supplied Gospels, missals and psalters to bishops and kings all across the world, from distant Roma in the south, to far-away Duiblinn in the west. I was already fascinated with the art of creating books and I was sure that I would indeed learn from the masters of the craft; the best scribes in the land. I was also intrigued about what the head of Saint Oswald would look like. And what about the remains of the saintly Cuthbert, the bishop whose name was now forever intertwined with Lindisfarnae? Would I feel the power resonating from his tomb? Would I sense the holy energy throbbing from the reliquary that held Oswald’s wizened skull?
These were exciting questions for a young man who had not yet lived twenty summers. Little did I know then, as we walked north through the long warm summer days, that I would soon lay eyes on something of such exquisite beauty and dark mystery that my life would never be the same again. Leofstan had wanted me to learn from the trip, but I cannot believe he had any idea of how deep and vast that learning would prove, or what an impact that journey would have on both of our lives.