Annotate Excerpt: THE SHADOW OF THE GODS by John Gwynne (Orbit Books)

GwynneJ-B1-ShadowOfTheGodsUSThanks so much for the invite onto Civilian Reader, I’m chuffed to be here and have this opportunity to share with you a chapter from my latest release, The Shadow of the Gods, book 1 of the Bloodsworn Saga.

This book is set in a world called Vigrið, the Battle-Plain, and is heavily influenced by my love for Norse mythology.

I grew up on tales of mythology – when I was a child I fell in love with the stories Arthur and his quest for the Grail, of Troy and dark lairs and minotaur’s, and tales of those enigmatic and fickle Norse gods. Amongst my favourites were the legends Beowulf and his band of monster-hunting shield men, and of Ragnarök, that end-of-days battle amongst the Norse gods, and to my mind this book and series is my love-letter both to Norse mythology and Viking-era history, merging the blood and grit of shield walls with the terror and thrill of monster hunting.

I hope that it feels markedly different from my previous books in its tone and world-setting, but there are also similarities. Family and friendship are themes that I will always write about, and you will find them here, although I’ve come at them from different angles than you find in my previous works.

Other things you should expect are: shield walls, longships, betrayal and vengeance, and a lot of monsters.

The extract I’ve chosen is chapter five, which is the first chapter with Elvar, a young warrior sailing with a mercenary band called the Battle-Grim.

*

CHAPTER FIVE

ELVAR

‘ROW, you niðing bunch of gutless troll-turds!’ Sighvat bellowed as he beat time on a barrel with a knotted lump of rope.

With this series I’ve used a lot of Norse terminology in the world building. Some of the time when I throw in one of these terms, I will supply a brief explanation, sometimes I’ll leave it for the reader to figure out for themselves. I enjoy reading books that do this, not spoon-feeding or info-dumping, and I find it part of the fun of getting to know a new world. It’s also a common feature of historical novels, and I wanted this book and series to feel historical as well as fantastical.

Niðing is an old Norse term meaning ‘nothing,’ or ‘without honour.’ It was an insult, and is used here as a kind of banter amongst warriors.

Elvar gritted her teeth and dragged on her oar, the muscles in her back and shoulders screaming. A swell lifted their drakkar high, her dragon-prow pointing at the slate-grey sky and Elvar’s oar breached the water. She felt a weightlessness in the pit of her stomach as she lost her balance and almost slipped from her sea-chest, then the prow was surging down, cutting into the ice-flecked waves. An explosion of sea spray crashed over the bows, the wind whipping it across Elvar’s back like hailstones. She cuffed sleet and a strand of her blonde hair from her face, corrected her oar, found her rhythm and bent back to the rowing, losing herself in the motion, muscles contracting, extending, a burning deep in every fibre. In front of her Grend’s broad back filled her vision, the grey streaks in his hair made dark with sweat and salt-spray. Beyond him, glimpsed through the rhythm of Grend’s lean and pull, was fat-bellied Sighvat beating time, and behind him in the stern stood Agnar, her chief. He was laughing like it was his name-day with a belly full of mead, his blond braid of hair whipped by the wind. His hands gripped around the tiller, wrestling the steering oar as he fought to guide the Wave-Jarl between the arms of two curving promontories, the open sea and glowering clouds behind him.

I often start a chapter with a bit of ‘scene-setting,’ and here we have Elvar rowing on a Norse longship (the word drakkar was used for longships, meaning something like ‘dragon-prow,’ which has been explained in earlier chapters). It’s an introduction to the world, basically saying that it’s cold and harsh, and that rowing is hard. Also, we meet some of the key characters in Elvar’s thread. Grend, Agnar and Sighvat.

Also, Elvar is a young woman, about twenty years old. Female warriors play a large part in this world, and I made that decision for a number of reasons. First of all, female warriors are something of a theme in Norse mythology, just think of the winged Valkyrie, or the goddess Freya. Shieldmaidens are mentioned in old Norse texts, such as the account of the Battle of Bravoll (found in the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok). Also, there have been recent historical finds that greatly support the argument that women fought as warriors during the Viking period – foremost of these is a grave at Birka (a prominent trading town in Sweden of the Viking era) where a grave was found with all of the funerary and burial accoutrements of an elite warrior – sword, spear, seax, mail, shield – and after the bones have been genetically examined the skeleton is irrefutably female. Also, whilst I don’t use my writing as a platform to preach, I do think it is important to challenge social inequalities in our own society, such as our views on gender, race and class. You will find those themes appearing in my books.

‘ROW!’ Sighvat yelled again and fifty oars dipped into the white-frothed sea, backs bending, straining as the Wave-Jarl carved her way through the waves.

Jarl is a Norse term for lord or earl, so these guys have called their longship ‘lord of the waves,’ which felt suitably Viking.

‘BEACH!’ a voice cried from the drakkar’s bow, and Elvar felt a burst of new strength at that cry, a hope that the toil and muscle-burning would end. They had found Iskalt Island easily enough, marked by the red veins of fire that glowed within the mountain that dominated the island, but finding a beach to land upon had been harder going. She bent and pulled, bent and pulled.

A volcano island, ooh, why would they want to go there?

Somewhere behind her torn fragments of Kráka’s chanting drifted back to her, the Tainted thrall singing her dark magic to keep the serpents and other sea vaesen from their drakkar’s hull.

The Tainted are those that carry the bloodlines of the dead gods, and so harbour a remnant of those gods abilities. This is something that has been explained in previous chapters. Vaesen is a term for a collection of monsters created by one of the dead gods. Also explained earlier.

A black-granite spur of rock appeared to her left, seals and puffins upon it regarding the dragon-prowed ship as it slipped past them. Elvar felt the sea calm about the Wave-Jarl, as if obeying some rune-cast spell. The rowing became easier as they swept into a natural harbour, waves gentling, a white-flecked wake rippling wide behind them. Agnar barked a command at Sighvat.

I made a definite decision with the prose in this book to try and reflect the saga tales of Scandinavia, so I’ve drawn upon some of the language-devices you’ll find in texts such as the Icelandic Sagas and the Poetic Edda, hence you will find many kennings/phrases like ‘dragon-prowed, rune-cast,’ and ‘white-flecked,’ throughout the book.

‘HALF-TIME!’ Sighvat bellowed and decreased the rhythm of his barrel thumping.

Elvar slowed her strokes and felt excitement bubbling, melting her exhaustion.

We are here.

Another shouted word from Agnar.

‘OARS IN!’ Sighvat yelled. He ceased his beating on the barrel and strode along the deck, passing Elvar and heading to the prow. Elvar dragged her oar back through the hole, hearing the clatter of wood as oars were laid in their racks, and swivelled the oar-hole plug into place. There was the crunch of timber as the Wave-Jarl ground along a wooden pier and then Agnar was tying the tiller and striding along the deck, yelling orders.

Elvar stood, stretched, hearing bones click in her neck and back, then threw open her sea-chest. She unrolled a strip of sheepskin, pulled out her brynja, the riveted mail glistening with oils from the sheepskin that protected her precious mail from rust. With long- practised ease she lifted the coat of mail, threaded her arms through it, then heaved it up over her head. A wriggle and shake and it slipped over her shoulders and down her torso. A thin belt buckled tight to take the weight of mail from her shoulders, and then she was reaching for her weapons belt, sword, seax and axe suspended from it. She drew her sword a handspan to check it hadn’t snared, then let it drop back down: a habit she had learned from Grend since the first day she had laid her hands around the hilt of a sword. Last of all she reached into her chest for a nålbinding cap of coarse wool, pulled it over her head and then lifted her helm, polished plates of banded iron, a curtain of riveted mail to protect her neck, adjusted it so that her vision was good through the spectacled eye-holes, then buckled it tight. She flashed a grin at Grend as he went through the same process, the warrior rolling his shoulders to settle his brynja. He gave her a flat stare, his face creased and dour, which only helped to broaden her own smile, then she was reaching for her shield that stood wedged into a rack along the top-rail, tugging it free and slipping her hand around the wooden grip, fist settling into the boss. She moved to a rack of spears, took hers and waited for Agnar’s orders, eager to disembark.

I’ve tried to ground this book in the details of a warrior culture, so spend some time talking about the specifics of Norse weapons, armour and kit. Being a Viking reenactor has acquainted me a little with how it feels to wear this type of kit, and I hope that the details will give a sense of authenticity and Norseness.

Nålbinding is an early form of knitting wool, used with just one needle and employed for mittens, socks and caps, amongst other things.

The word brynja means a coat of mail, which has been explained in previous chapters.

Agnar was calling out names, ten or twelve, those ordered to stay with the ship and guard it, then he was shouting for the rest to disembark and they leaped from the top-rail on to the wooden pier Sighvat had moored them to, Elvar and Grend among them.

Flecks of snow drifted on the wind among the sleet, the clouds above swollen and bloated. Elvar looked around and saw that the pier led on to a shingle beach. Nets were hanging upon poles, drying or ready for repair, crab-catching willow-baskets piled together, sat before a cluster of smokehouses. An old, rotted hull lay abandoned, terns and herring gulls perched upon it, eyeing these newcomers. The beach rose sharply, shingle shifting to earth and, upon a ridge overlooking the beach, a few dozen buildings huddled close together, lines of thin smoke rising, disappearing into the snow-laden sky. Beyond the buildings there was a treeline of aspen and birch, more buildings squatting beneath boughs. The land rose into foothills, turning quickly into towering, granite-faced cliffs as sharp as jagged teeth that rose towards the peak of the island’s mountain of flame. Thin, red tendrils dissected the cliffs, glowing within the dark rock like forge-fire.

There was movement in the village, fur-draped people emerging from doors, staring. Some running, others clutching spears and hunting bows.

I usually see a scene in my head before or as I’m writing it, and so this is a paragraph of description to help visualise what is about to happen.

I hate bows, Elvar thought and spat on the pier, curling her lip. A coward’s weapon. How can a warrior earn their battle-fame killing at a distance?

Battle-fame. That is one of the key themes in this series. It’s something that is found running through warrior cultures, that idea of your fame living on in stories and tales long after you are dead, and you can find it echoed in Greek mythology, Celtic, Norse and many others. I suppose the best way to understand it in our contemporary culture is as a kind of celebrity status, which is considered SUCCESS.

Elvar is focused on winning her battle-fame; she is young and determined, and perhaps a little obsessed and narrow-minded about that goal. Through the course of the book and series, you will see her re-evaluating her position in regard to her quest for battle-fame.

She hefted her shield, painted red with a sword, axe and spear crossed upon it, the weapons lined in swirling knotwork.

‘By the dead gods, but it’s cold,’ Biórr muttered. He smiled at her as he said it, shield slung across his back, stamping his feet and blowing a cloud of misted breath into his palms.

Elvar just looked at him, saw the interest in his eyes and looked away.

Viking-flirting.

‘It’s a fine day,’ she said. In truth she was feeling the corpse-cold seeping into her, now her muscles were cooling, silent as death. Beside them the Wave-Jarl creaked, rising and falling on the swell, the blue-black sea glistening and sluggish with ice. Spring was just a distant word, this far north.

‘Elvar, Grend, with me!’ Agnar shouted and warriors parted to let her through. Elvar held her head high, knowing the honour Agnar was showing her, youngest of his warband.

Youngest, and fiercest, she thought, and that was no easy claim, looking at the grim-eyed warriors she passed, all of them battle-scarred and heavy with sharp iron. She glanced over at the deck of the Wave-Jarl, saw the warriors left to guard it staring at her, and Kráka slumped across the prow, her sweat and sea-drenched black hair plastered to her head, like the collapsed wings of a crow. She shifted as Elvar passed her, turning to look at the young warrior, her thrall-collar and chain rattling. One of the ship-guards gave her a kick and she flinched, raising her hands. Elvar looked away.

Thralls are slaves, and wherever the Tainted are found they are enslaved, as their god-powers are valuable. This has been mentioned earlier.

Agnar stood waiting. A black bearskin cloak was cast over his mail, silver torc around his neck and rings thick upon his arms, shield in one fist, his other hand resting upon a sword at his hip.

Norse warriors often wore their wealth upon their arms, melted down into rings, because it was easier to carry that way. A pragmatic people.

At his belt hung a tattered, blood-crusted strip of wool. A thick band of his blond hair ran down the middle of his head, tied into a warrior-braid, the rest of his head shaved to stubble. He pulled on and buckled his helm as Elvar approached him.

Sighvat glowered at Agnar’s shoulder, mail stretched tight across his bulk, a bearded axe hanging at his belt. He held a hemp sack flung over one shoulder, and in his other fist he gripped a chain. At the chain’s end a man squatted, shivering and cowering, hair long and lank, eyes sunken to black pits, a tattered sealskin cloak wrapped around him.

You’ll see the importance of the sack and the slave soon.

‘With me,’ Agnar said to Elvar as she reached him, then he turned and strode along the pier, Sighvat dragging the chained thrall, Elvar and Grend striding behind them. The pier shook as the rest of the warband thumped along after them.

Agnar lifted a horn to his lips and blew, the sound dragged by the wind, ringing mournfully across the beach.

Shingle crunched beneath Elvar’s boots as they stepped from the pier and strode up the beach, a crowd forming before them.

‘We are the Battle-Grim,’ Sighvat bellowed in his deep-bellied voice. ‘We are the slayers of the vaesen, hunters of the Tainted, the reapers of souls. If you have not heard of our battle-fame, then we will gladly teach it to you.’

These guys are essentially mercenaries, a warrior-band-for-hire, and they are here on a job. They also like to do a bit of boasting, which again was often a theme before conflict in the Viking and Anglo-Saxon world. A war of words, or flyting, before weapons were drawn and the blood started to flow.

Grunts and laughter among the warriors at Elvar’s back.

The crowd before them milled, muttered among themselves, maybe sixty or seventy villagers wrapped in sealskin and fur, some children clinging to legs, others peering from doorways. Among the crowd spears were held ready, some levelled. Elvar saw arrows nocked. She could see the question in their eyes. Saw them hovering on that knife’s edge of violence. They outnumbered the Battle-Grim and were lean and hard-looking. Elvar knew only the strong could survive this far north, where the world seemed to unite against the living and the vaesen were bolder. But as tough as these villagers were, they were not the Battle-Grim, steeped and honed in war and blood, and among those facing them Elvar could only see a handful holding shields, and none wore mail.

Shields and mail are lifesavers in Norse combat. Mail could turn a blow that would kill you into a blow that would bruise you, or maybe break a bone instead of severing a limb.

‘Watch them with your hawk eyes,’ Agnar muttered to Elvar as he halted on the beach, Elvar, Grend and Sighvat behind him, the rest of the warband spreading wide.

‘SHIELDS!’ Agnar called out and behind her Elvar heard the crunch of linden-wood slamming together, the shuffle and grate of boots on shingle as the line tightened.

‘There is a man among you,’ Agnar shouted. ‘Berak is his name. Tall, wide as a barn. Scars down one side of his face. A woman and child are with him. He would have arrived here maybe two or three days gone. Give him over to us, and your blood will not stain this beach.’

So, finding this Berak is ‘the job.’

Elvar watched faces, saw fear in some, saw pride, animosity, anger in others.

Agnar pulled the tattered strip of wool from his belt and lifted it high.

‘I will find him with or without your help. My Hundur-thrall has his scent. He will not escape me.’ Agnar dropped the blood- crusted rag to the man at the end of Sighvat’s chain, who looked at the rag as if it were a poison.

Hundur was one of the gods, dead now. He was a shapeshifter who could take on the form of a giant hound. People descended from his bloodline have the gift of exceptional scent, amongst other things, and so are frequently used as trackers. They are a valuable commodity. Agnar has a Hundur-blood as a slave and is using him to track someone called Berak.

Sighvat yanked on the chain around the thrall’s throat.

Hlýða,’ Agnar growled and a ripple of red veins tremored through the thrall’s collar.

Tainted slaves are forced to serve through the collars put around their necks. These collars are imbued with rune-magic and this one obeys Agnar’s words of power.

Hlýða,’ is an Icelandic word that means ‘obey.’ I use Icelandic as my ‘magic language,’ because I am not as clever as Tolkien so do not try to make up my own languages. You don’t need to understand Icelandic, really it is there to give a sense of Norse flavour, and when you do need to know what is said then I will give a translation by someone.

The thrall whimpered, then picked up the rag and buried his face in it, snuffling and snorting.

As mentioned earlier, this man has been enslaved for his tracking abilities.

‘Your choice is to help or hinder,’ Agnar continued. He looked at them all, pulled a pouch heavy with coin from his belt and cast it on the beach in front of him.

‘Your choice is to prosper or die.’ Agnar shrugged, as if he cared not which of those choices they made.

A tall man stepped forwards, wrapped in fur and sealskin, a spear in his fist, a long knife at his belt, the hilt carved from walrus ivory. His beard was braided many times and bound with bone rings.

‘I am Hrut, Jarl of Iskalt,’ the man said.

Jarl! Elvar thought, looking him up and down. Where is your gold or silver? Where is your sword, your mail? You would not be allowed in a jarl’s outhouse on the mainland.

Wealth and success were generally worn in the Norse world. Swords and coats of mail were incredibly expensive and so only a jarl would own them, or a warrior who had been gifted them by their jarl or chief, or a warrior who had slain a wealthy foe and taken their mail and sword from their dead body.

‘And I know of no Berak living upon my island,’ Hrut said.

‘You do know him,’ Agnar said. ‘But you may not know that he is TAINTED!’ He bellowed that last word, spittle flying. ‘He is gods-touched and will bring only blood and slaughter upon you. Do not protect such as he.’

The dead gods are hated for the destruction they brought upon the world, and so their offspring are hated, too.

Elvar saw movement towards the back of the crowd. A tall man with a spear and a cloak of stitched white-fox pelts draped across his shoulders was stooping to speak to a young girl at his side, surely little more than seven or eight winters. She nodded and scurried away across the beach, threading between the huts.

‘There,’ Elvar said to Agnar, pointing with her spear at the speeding child.

Agnar strode forwards, stepping around Hrut, but the jarl took a step to his right, placing himself in front of Agnar.

Agnar stopped, looking over his shoulder at Elvar.

‘Follow the girl,’ he said, then drew his sword and there was blood in the air. It was a move Elvar practised every day, turning the draw into a diagonal strike, from left to right. Agnar disguised the manoeuvre behind his shield, realisation dawning in Hrut’s eyes only as he saw the glint of steel. He had a moment to move his spear and stumble away, but Agnar’s sword sheared through the spear haft and on, the sword tip cutting into Hrut’s beard, slicing through his chin and lower lip. Blood sprayed, teeth flying.

Agnar is straight down to business. No posturing or fair play; he is all about the winning, and the surviving.

Hrut bellowed with pain and rage and Agnar stepped in, his shield raised, sword stabbing.

The crowd behind Hrut yelled their outrage, many of them lowering spears and leaping forwards. Arrows hissed and whistled through the air.

Elvar burst into motion, bounding around Agnar and Hrut even as the Battle-Grim behind her yelled a war cry and advanced, weapons thumping on shields. There was a crunch of gravel behind, booted feet following her, and Elvar didn’t need to look to know it was Grend. She sprinted around the fringe of the crowd, all of them focused on Agnar and Hrut, rushing to defend their jarl. A man with a nocked bow curled around the flank of his kinsmen, drew and loosed at the Battle-Grim. A scream from the beach. Elvar swerved, the villager seeing her only a fraction before she slammed into him. Her shield boss crunched into the side of his head and he dropped like a cut sail.

Elvar stood over him, searched for the girl, saw where she had disappeared among the huts on the beach. She ran on.

There was a movement to her right and instinctively she ducked and swayed, twisting to bring her shield around.

A spear blade grated across her brynja, a spark of steel, then Elvar’s shield rim was slamming into the spear shaft, sending the woman wielding it stumbling away. Elvar chopped with her sword, cut deep across her attacker’s shoulder and back, slicing through fur and leather. Blood spurted and the woman yelled, staggering forwards, dropping to one knee. She swung her spear, the intent to hamstring Elvar, and then her head exploded, Grend’s axe crunching into it. The spear dropped with a clatter to the shingle. Grend snarled, ripped his blade free, blood and brains spattering his face. A shared look, then Elvar was running on. She glimpsed Sighvat and the thrall following behind Grend, and also Biórr.

Combat in the Viking era had no rules and there was no ‘chivalrous code’ that appeared further down the historical line. It was brutal, bloody and employed a wholistic approach to combat. That means anything goes, including eye-gouging, biting, kicking, head-butting, wrestling and anything else that could help you walk away still breathing with your enemy dead on the ground.

Of course, weapons-craft played a large part – the more skilled and familiar you were with the range of Norse weapons (spear, seax, axe, sword, shield) the more likely you were to survive.

Elvar and Grend are a bit of a team.

Then Elvar was among the buildings, searching for any sign of the girl who had run from the beach. She stopped, holding her breath to listen. Screams drifted on the wind from behind her, the clang of iron. She shut it out, heard whispered voices, one deep, almost a growl, and she ran on. Twisting through a snarl of buildings, swerving around fishing nets hanging for repairs, she came to a door swinging on a hinge. A timber-framed hut to the rear of the village, the walls caked with clay and wattle and daub. It looked like it was only big enough for one room. Elvar slowed, hefted her shield, peered through the open door into shadowed darkness, glimpsed the soft glow of a fire. Grend skidded up next to her and Elvar gestured for him to circle around the back of the hut. A silent nod and then she was moving, kicking the door hard, to slam into anyone standing behind it as she burst into the room, shield raised, spear high, twisting to defend against any lurking attacker.

A little detail here to show that Elvar and Grend are familiar with working together, and that Elvar takes the lead.

The hut was empty.

A fire pit had been scraped into hard earth in the centre of the hut, flames flickering. A pot hung over it, suspended from an iron chain. Fish stew bubbled. A table, three chairs, two straw beds. Elvar stabbed into the straw, then saw light leaking into the hut. A hole, low in the back wall, wide enough for a large man to crawl through.

Grend’s booted feet and grey-wool leg-wraps appeared.

Elvar kicked the wall, wattle and daub crumbling loose. Kicked again, more hard-packed clay falling, revealing the hazel rod wattle core. Grend’s axe swung and a section of the wall crumbled.

Again, trying to ground what’s happening in the authentic detail of how these kinds of buildings were constructed in the Viking age.

They stood there, staring at one another.

She heard heavy breathing and the clank of chains behind her. Sighvat and the thrall appeared, Sighvat pushing through the doorway, his bulk blocking out the light. The thrall dropped into a crawling squat, nose to the ground, snorting.

Biórr appeared, face flushed with battle and the sprint up the beach.

‘Is it him?’ Sighvat grunted at the thrall. The man on the end of the chain crawled over to the cot and buried his face in the straw, sniffing deeply. He looked up at Sighvat and nodded.

Footsteps. Agnar appeared in the doorway, his sword red to the hilt, warriors thick as smoke behind him.

He looked from Sighvat to the thrall.
‘Where is he?’ Agnar grunted.
Elvar pointed through the hole in the wall. Grend was searching the ground for tracks.
‘That way,’ the dour warrior said, straightening and pointing with his bloodied axe, towards the treeline and shadowed woods, Iskalt’s mountain of fire dark and brooding.

‘After them,’ Agnar said.

And the chase is on. 

*

John Gwynne’s The Shadow of the Gods is published this week by Orbit Books in North America and in the UK. Here’s the full synopsis:

An epic of wild lands and wilder magic, where not all monsters fight with tooth and claw…and the treasures of the gods come at a price.

This is the age of storm and murder.

After the old gods warred and drove themselves to extinction, the cataclysm of their fall shattered the land of Vigrio.

Now, power-hungry jarls carve out petty kingdoms, and monsters stalk the shadow-haunted woods and mountains. A world where the bones of the dead gods still hold great power, promising fame and fortune for those brave – or desperate – enough to seek them out.

As whispers of war echo over the plains and across the fjords, fate follows the footsteps of three people: a huntress searching for her missing son, a jarl’s daughter who has rejected privilege in pursuit of battle fame, and a thrall who has cast off his chains and now fights alongside the famed mercenaries known as the Bloodsworn.

All three will shape the fate of the world, as it once more teeters on the edge of chaos.

Gwynne is also the author of the Faith and the Fallen and Blood and Bone series.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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