Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Banners of Alba

Posted by Jen Black, 25th August, 2010
The first book I published was The Banners of Alba, and I'm still very fond of it even though there are places where I long for an editing pencil! I console myself with the thought that at least it proves I'm learning as I go on writing. Banners is the story of two young men engaged in the struggle for the crown of Alba, their women, and how they marry, each believing they love someone else. The setting is the rich, exciting world of Viking Scotland in the century before the first millenium. In the extract below, the first couple, Finlay and Ratagan (Rada), have been married scarcely an hour. The spelling is US English, since it was published in America.
The hall had been decorated, there was laughter and harp music and the smell of food jostled comfortably with that of rush lights, seal oil, smoke, ale, wet fur and leather. Finlay escorted his new wife to the place of honor while everyone else scrambled for a seat.
The feast had meant raiding closely guarded stores of food at a time of year when food was less than plentiful, but Ratagan was confident that the Steading would not go hungry because of it. Seated so close she could feel the warmth of Finlay’s thigh, Rada was aware of a constraint between them. Given the circumstances, it was not unexpected. He had dressed correctly, at least, in fine linen and a crimson tunic that set off his dark good looks. The heavy leather belt that gripped his waist was embellished with snakeheads, and even the money pouch at his belt was enameled and studded with garnets.
She sipped her mead, cracked hazelnuts and watched him from the corner of her eye. He drank little, ate sparingly and seemed cut off from the great good humor around him. He toasted his wife only when courtesy demanded, barely spoke, and was careful not to touch her.
Thorfinn watched, and thought of ways to force the young man into behavior more suited to a bridegroom, but abandoned it; he could only do so much. Ratagan would have to solve the problem herself.
She knew, better than anyone present, Finlay’s feeling of being trapped, and was prepared to make allowances. She sat at her bridal feast, her back straight, her hair adorned with gold, and smiled, and nodded, and longed for it to be over.
Thorfinn’s harpist had sailed from Birsay for the occasion, and the crowd simmered and seethed and squashed itself down to hear his latest musical tribute to Thorfinn. The man felt challenged by the presence of a wandering harpist, and as soon as the tribute was delivered and received Thorfinn’s approval, he moved onto songs known to them all and the mood of the hall changed. Ratagan’s attention wandered as voices mingled with the music.
Gille mac Malbride sat in animated discussion with the travelling harpist while Thora stared at Gille like a child at a feast.Thorfinn had his head in the lap of a buxom slave, and toyed with the girl’s long golden hair. He might be dreaming of his wife, but Ratagan doubted it. Erik whispered softly in Frida’s ear while she giggled and her husband glared at them both. Ross was fast asleep in a corner, his mouth open, oblivious to everyone and everything.
Ratagan’s lips twitched, and, forgetful, she turned to Finlay. The rush light flashed off the gold wheel brooch at his shoulder as he straightened and glared at someone across the width of the room. Ratagan glanced around, saw nothing of note and frowned. The harpist’s song burst upon her awareness; an old tale of a young man forced to give up his true love to an older, more powerful lord.
She turned at once and looked for Hundi. She found him in the hazy, smoky light at the back of the hall and he was glaring at her husband with a mixture of challenge and contempt in his face. Ratagan made to rise from the board. Finlay trapped her wrist without taking his eyes off Hundi, who turned and headed for the door. Finlay spoke to his wife for the first time that evening. “Sit. Smile. You should not leave without me.”

She hesitated. No one had ever spoken to her like this; but he could physically stop her leaving or he could choose to leave with her. If he suspected her of wishing to meet Hundi, then she had better stay. “This once, perhaps, I shall stay.”
His eyes widened and his brows lifted. “What makes you think you have a choice?”

Her heart sank. She had no stomach for another argument, but sarcastic words slipped out before she could stop them. “Shall I address you as your Grace now, or will my Lord suffice?”

Finlay’s jaw muscles flexed and he stared at her down the length of his splendid nose. “There is no need to be caustic, Rada. This marriage was more your idea than mine, and you’ve got what you wanted. It may take me longer to adjust, but adjust I shall, given time. If you are wise, you will not try and engage me in argument tonight.”
So he did not want to argue either. Reflectively, head on one side, she regarded him. “I think it was Thorfinn’s idea more than mine, so please place the blame where it is due.”

There was no response. He did not even blink. “Silence always makes me defensive,” she said.
“And you’ll prod away until you get a response, I suppose?” He sighed, and glanced round. “You’re right; we should be seen to talk to each other at our wedding feast.”
Ratagan smiled. “Sulking is so childish, don’t you think? I grew out of it years ago.”
His gaze rose from the low neck of her gown and came to rest on her mouth. “I have always thought public displays of temper to be ill-bred.” He lifted his goblet and drank for the first time that evening.
“Are you calling me ill-bred?”
“No. I merely said that to—”
“I ought to have guessed.” She leaned towards him. “You’re filled with pride! What’s so wonderful, I’d like to know, about your bloodlines?”

“Descended from kings on both sides.” His smile was mockingly inviting. “What about you?”
“Not from kings, but Sigurd was a man to be honored and my grandfather an Irish chieftain of repute—not a king who murdered to get his crown!”
Finlay drained his goblet in one long swallow. “I thought all Irish kings murdered to get a crown,” he said mildly. “I suppose, then, that you inherited your temper from your grandfather.”
Her eye had lingered on the line of his throat as he drank, but her face altered at his words. “Don’t you dare!” Hastily she lowered her voice and leaned closer as nearby heads turned. “Just because your mother was jealous of mine, there’s no need for you to insult my grandfather!”

Finlay stared at her. “Are you nervous?” he asked at last. “Is that why you are driving us closer to an argument?”
She stiffened but before she could reply he said quickly, “Here’s a thought for you: I can supply the bloodlines you lack for any child we make tonight.” He rose to his feet and held out his palm. “That’s what we’re supposed to do, isn’t it? Should we not complete the contract in private?”

His hand closed about her fingers like a vice. Conscious of the many watching eyes, she accompanied him gracefully from the hall and tried to ignore the rising chorus of growls, yelps and explicit instructions from the rabble.
Publishing details: The Banners of Alba is available as e- and POD from , and ISBN: 1 59431 326 1


Anna Louise Lucia said...

Oooh, I love that, Jen. So much going on, on the surface and beneath.

A J Hawke said...

An enticing except, Jen.

A J Hawke

Lindsay Townsend said...

Intriguing, Jen! They are a nicely-matched couple and I could 'see' them very clearly.

Jen Black said...

Thanks, people! It's always interesting to revisit a work after some time has passed because though the early mistakes makes us cringe, it's almost always a mark of how much improvement has taken place.