The Saxon Wolves
Britain 455AD. The Roman Empire has fallen. As the daughter of a king and a priestess of the sacred grove, Anya’s life in Germania is one of wealth and privilege – until she dares to speak out against the high priest’s barbaric human sacrifices. Her punishment is exile. Forced to leave her homeland, she sails to Britannia, to an island that is sliding into chaos and war, as rival kingdoms vie for power. Alone and far from home, Anya must learn to survive amidst the bloodshed, treachery and intrigue of fifth century Britain. Can she find a place to belong – a home, a hearth, a welcome?
I’m very lucky today to not only feature an extract from The Saxon Wolves, but also a fascinating piece by the author on why they were always destined to write historical fiction.
Britain 455AD. The Roman Empire has fallen. As the daughter of a king and a priestess of the sacred grove, Anya’s life in Germania is one of wealth and privilege – until she dares to speak out against the high priest’s barbaric human sacrifices. Her punishment is exile. She sails to Britannia with her brothers Hengist and Horsa, who are to act as mercenaries for the British warlord Vortigern. But fate leads her to the clifftop fortress of Tintagel, and to Silvanus, heir to the throne of Dumnonia…
Bemused, Taliesin shook his head. He leant against a rock and caught his breath whilst Anya gathered driftwood, and then they sprinkled their fire with crushed dried rhizome and root of valerian until the flames were blue, and the air was bitter on their tongues. Taliesin raised his hands towards the black arch of the cave roof and called upon the gods of the sky, the earth, and the underworld, the sacred power of three.
Anya knelt in the wet sand, unaware of the cold sea water soaking into her cloak. The blue flames were licking at her fingers, stripping her skin and melting her bones until she was no longer solid flesh but spirit and air. She was floating above the flames, soaring far beyond the dark cave, flying over flat plains of stubble fields, majestic, slow moving rivers and high mountains growing towards the sun.
She saw Horsa, the blood-lust of battle upon him, and death, a grey ghoul, stood close by. She saw Vortigern marching on Dumnonia, slaughter and famine following in his wake, but Lucan and Mairi rode at his side, and their son bore the crown of Dumnonia. She saw Silvanus and felt a sudden flare of longing. She pushed his image away, and slipped further into her dream paths.
She saw the village in the shadow of the mountains. She heard the stream as it raced over its rocky bed, and the bleating of sheep as dusk fell. It was peaceful, safe, and the pull was stronger than ever before, a siren call that reached out and touched her soul.
Her mother’s home. Her kin.
The dream path darkened.
The land was steeped in blood. It stained the dark mountains and soured the fast-flowing rivers. It dripped from the mouldy thatch of the deserted round-houses, and it ran in deep rivulets through silent villages. Britannia was drowning in blood.
The dream twisted, as if the wind had changed direction.
The sword was ancient. Its blade had seen much slaughter, for its sharp edges bore marks of violent use. The land was drowning, but the surging blood slipped harmlessly off the blade, and left the sword unscathed.
As the smoke cleared, and the world of the gods receded, Taliesin looked keenly at her.
‘What did you see?’ he asked. His face was haggard with the intense effort required to walk with the gods.
Anya’s head was throbbing painfully and she did not reply.
‘Anya!’ Taliesin urged. ‘Did you see the sword?’
She looked at him then. ‘Yes, I saw the sword.’
Taliesin stood up. He was swaying and she hurried to his side.
‘Rest a while,’ she said, settling him on a low rock. She sat down beside him, rubbed her stinging eyes and looked about the dark, damp cave. Outside, the rain was still beating down. The sacred cave had raised more questions than it had answered, but for the first time in many months, she had felt close to her gods.
‘Thank you, Taliesin,’ she said softly.
He smiled. ‘All will be well.’
Anya laughed helplessly. She had fallen in love with the heir to the throne of Dumnonia, and yet she was promised to another. Her heart yearned to stay in Dumnonia, yet her dream paths were drawing her towards a village in the far mountains of Britannia.
She glanced sadly at Taliesin. She knew how much he wanted her to stay in Dumnonia and fulfil an ancient prophecy, yet she also knew she had no choice but to sail away with Lucius to the far corners of the known world, and the thought filled her with a profound sense of loss.
‘Silvanus needs you,’ Taliesin said suddenly. ‘In more ways than you can begin to imagine.’
Anya felt tears prick her eyes. ‘I have known him forever,’ she whispered. ‘Through all the ages of men.’
‘I know,’ Taliesin replied.
‘Our paths have crossed a hundred times, but there has never been a happy ending.’
‘The gods sent you to Britannia for a purpose,’ Taliesin repeated firmly. ‘You must have faith.’
Writing historical novels
I think it was always inevitable I was going to write historical fiction. My father was a writer, and he instilled me with a love of history from an early age. Every year my parents would hitch up the caravan and off we’d go, exploring the historic sites of the British Isles. I vividly remember one trip to Maiden Castle, the vast Iron Age hillfort in Dorset. I was about 8 years old at the time. Dusk was falling as my father led an expedition up through the banks and ditches of the fort. He has a way with words, and he was painting a terrific picture of the Roman army’s attack, and the valiant defence by the local British tribe. My cousin and I could almost hear the battle cries and smell the blood. And then, in the growing darkness, we caught sight of row upon row of ghostly white figures coming at us out of the gloom. My cousin and I screamed, and we kept on screaming! And then one of the Roman legionaries called out: “baa!” At which point, we realised we had wandered into a flock of sheep!
It was Ernest Hemingway who once said, ‘there is nothing to writing. You just sit at a typewriter, and bleed.’ If you don’t mind the idea of a little metaphorical blood-letting, I thought I might share with you a few tips I have found helpful over the years.
Historical novels are often inspired by actual events – a useful foundation to build your plot upon, but it is how your characters react to these events that will bring your story alive. The Saxon Wolves is set in fifth century Britain, a time of great upheaval, of invasion, of clashing cultures. In The Saxon Wolves, my fictional protagonist, Anya, is exiled from Germania by the decree of the high priest. She sails to Britain where she is racked by feelings of alienation and homesickness. Nevertheless, she accepts the high priest’s decision. In her mind, her sentence is irrevocable. Human emotions haven’t changed over the millennia, but our beliefs, our culture, our moral code, certainly have. Perhaps it is this contrast between the familiar and the unfamiliar which makes historical novels so enduringly popular.
Getting a feel for the language of your chosen period, its nuances, its slang, can add a vivid sense of realism to your story. If your novel is set in a distant past where the language would be incomprehensible today, aim instead to convey an illusion of authenticity. Anachronisms can jolt the reader out of the world you have carefully created, so avoid ‘modern’ words or expressions, including contemporary slang. See a scene through a character’s eyes and give them an individual voice: a warrior will spy a city and immediately assess its defences, whilst a healer will notice the yarrow plant growing by its walls. A warrior will speak bluntly, plainly; a healer with more empathy and finesse.
To conclude – a few words about research. I think historical fiction is popular because it’s like time travel, but from the comfort and safety of your armchair. You are transported to another world, be it a warm and smoky Saxon long house, a Roman villa or bloody battlefield. I think readers want to be entertained but also to feel as if they’ve learnt something about the period. So with that in mind, I feel I have a real responsibility to get my facts right. I read everything I can get my hands on, and I keep on reading until I feel comfortable in the period, until I can walk through its city streets or stroll through its country lanes, and see and hear and smell everything clearly in my mind’s eye. Having said that, including details about dress or food or herbal remedies can add realism, too much of it can come across as heavy handed. Include it if you think it adds something to your narrative, but make sure to blend it in organically.
About the author
Penny’s father, a journalist, instilled her with a love of history from an early age. Family holidays invariably included an invigorating walk up an Iron Age hill-fort whilst listening to his stirring stories of the Roman attack and the valiant defence by the Britons. Consequently, Penny has a degree in Classics and a passion for history and archaeology. She has enjoyed a varied career, including BBC production assistant, theatre PR and journalism, but her ambition was always to write historical fiction. Her first novel, The King’s Daughter, was awarded Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society. Penny has worked on many archaeological excavations, and these ‘digs’ and their evocative finds often provide the inspiration for her books. Penny’s research also takes her to the many spectacular historical sites featured in this novel, including Hadrian’s Wall and Tintagel.”