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The Birth of a Novel - Proverbs and Destiny 7 - Labour pains

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 The Birth of a Novel – Proverbs and Destiny book blog 7 – Labour pains

No nation is rich enough to pay for both war and civilization. We must make our choice; we cannot have both. – Abraham Flexner

I’ve been thinking about Alaric, the warlike character I envisage as a Viking type, and getting his background and character straight in my head. He’s an important character, and to understand the way he will evolve throughout the story, I need to understand his background. This is how I see him. He is born into a culture that glorifies war. For this culture to be understood, I need also to make a whole backstory about why this is so. What makes a nation this way? Fear, is the usual reason. Greed, after all, is only fear of not having enough. In the case of the Northmen, as will become clear in the story, they had to defend what they had from all comers, or perish. Once this culture of war is established, it becomes ingrained and doesn’t lessen the fear, and isn’t attack the best form of defence? I think we could apply this to wars throughout the ages.

But the cost of war is not just in financial terms: as Abraham Flexner observed, it comes at the cost of civilisation. I often think of the waste of war, in lives lost, lives ruined, and the loss of achievements that might have happened had mankind devoted themselves to mutual benefit, not mutual detriment.

In Alaric’s case, the high priestdom rules, like many religious causes that cause more wars than they prevent. Young boys are taken from their parents to be trained. Family ceases to be what most of us think of as family. The warrior status becomes all that these boys have, their duty to the high priest alone. They are brainwashed, radicalised, just as the Hitler Youth were, and young Muslims are today. Nothing really changes, does it?

This has left Alaric with no concept of family life, love or friendship – only duty and a place in which to perform it, and when he is chosen for an important task, and taken out the natural order of his society, it is bound to go to his head. His ego is inflated, he becomes self-important, and that will prove to be very dangerous for him and the high priest, though perhaps not quite how they might expect: it leaves him open to other, quite alien emotions.

Excerpt 7

Next morning, Kiya woke to the sound of shouting. She leapt from her bed, grabbing her travelling clothes and doubled as the pain in her hand, and the agony inside tore through her. The memory of the day before crushed her. She felt for her knife but couldn’t grip it with her right hand. It felt unwieldy in her left, but she moved carefully to the door, aware of the pull of dried blood caking her thighs. A sliver of light shone through the narrow gap between the part-open door and the frame, bringing with it the taste of smoldering ash.

She put an eye to the gap. Only now, seeing the Northmen en-masse, did she realize how many and how huge they really were, how little chance any of the men had had to fight them off. The bodies of the dead had been thrown in heaps, the Northmen’s dumped with the same lack of respect they had for their enemies. The dead didn’t look so many as she’d feared, this morning: maybe some had been only injured and had escaped in the night. She fingered her cäle. ‘Please, Great Goddess Atete, goddess of fate, who has the power of life, let Raphel and Jalene be alive. Let Genet and Mother be safe.’

Alaric detached himself from the body of men and strode towards the door. She shrank back against the wall.

The door flung open and, as Alaric stooped to enter, she raised her knife and lunged at him. He caught her wrist with a swift, effortless movement and twisted the knife from her grip. ‘You think me so stupid?’ He gestured his impatience. ‘Quickly, girl. Get dressed. Come.’

She shrugged clumsily into clean clothes, tears of frustration brimming. She turned her back on him and fetched a box. In it were sturdy, finely-wrought pins, brought years ago by Abe from across the mountains, which she would use to fasten her cloak.

‘Hurry, girl.’

‘My name is Kiya.’

‘Yes, I remember. Kiya the Herbalist. Come, I need you.’ He looked at the pin in her hand. ‘If you attempt my life again, or attempt escape, I shall pick out both your eyes with that pin.’

She raised her chin. ‘When I attempt your life again, Alaric, I shall have no need to fear my own pins.’

 ‘You have courage, herbalist. Now come, before I’m tempted to prick you again with my pin.’ He laughed at his own joke but he fetched a piece of twine from a hook on the wall and bound her wrists.

She smiled inwardly, though her broken fingers throbbed and her wrist burned. This big man feared her. He was a coward.

Alaric led her across the ruins of the village. ‘The men are searching for hiding places. We’re skilled trackers, taught from youth. We’ll find these women you’ve hidden.’

She spat at him. ‘Only a coward seeks to dominate the weak.’

He looked at her for a long moment. ‘The strong dominate the weak. It’s the way of the world… why we survive. Don’t we kill the weakling calf and rear the strong?’

‘In our culture we help the weak. There are other virtues than breadth of back.’

He tilted his head to one side and considered her words. ‘This may be true in your world. It’s not our way. Come.’ He yanked at her tether and forced her onwards, past the burning ruins, past the heap of dead. She craned her neck, searching the tangled limbs and lifeless faces. Her heart lurched. Raphel? She was certain it was Raphel.

Enemy soldiers scanned the ground and moved off towards the hillside. She stumbled after them, blind with tears, averting her face from the rock that marked the trail to the caverns. She could do nothing for Raphel, but she must stay strong for Jalene. Please, Goddess, Jalene was there safe. Please, Goddess, they had left no tracks in their haste.

‘Over here.’ A man gestured and pointed upwards where a thin cleft in the rock, the entrance to the caverns, painted a line of narrow shadow on the mountainside.

They climbed and reached the cleft. Alaric pulled her closer, watching her expression intently. ‘Is this the hideout?’

She shrugged, brushing aside tears with the backs of her hands. ‘It’s a place we played as children. It’s a small cave, that’s all. I think wildcats use it. Or maybe cheetahs. The children are forbidden to play here, now.’ She moved closer and sniffed. ‘Definitely cheetah. Unpredictable animals, but go in and check if you want.’

‘My shoulders won’t fit through. ‘Anson… you’re thin as a streak of piss. Check if this is a cheetah lair.’

‘Check it yourself, Alaric. Or send the girl in.’

Her heart leapt at the chance of safety, but Alaric wouldn’t give up on his Gift and the orders he’d been charged to fulfil. He’d search until he found her again, or found the fissure through which they’d lowered the milk cow. She raised an eyebrow. ‘And if the cheetah eats me, you’ll be no wiser. There could be a back entrance and you’d never know I escaped. You Northmen aren’t very bright, are you, Alaric?’

‘Silence, girl.’ He yanked her to her knees and gestured to the men. ‘Keep searching.’

She scrambled to her feet and followed him, her eyes scanning the rocky ground to hide her relief. The sun was sinking over the western peaks before they gave up the search. Her relief was more than the safety of Jalene, and those she loved: as the only dark-eyed woman he’d captured, she seemed to have value to Alaric, alive.

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