Sunday, 10 March 2013

Lindsay Townsend - Prehistoric Romance and a Sacred Site

Photo of Avebury by Jim Champion (from Wikimedia Commons)
TV series about the early pre-history of Britain always bring back memories for me of stone circles. Not of Stonehenge, however, but of Avebury, where my husband and I spent some time when I was writing Bronze Lightning. I took my heroine Sarmatia to Avebury and used the powerful setting for important scenes in the story.

As a place Avebury remains impressive and intriguing, despite the ravages of time and the deliberate vandalism of some of the huge stones. It’s older than Stonehenge and much bigger, incorporating several circles, avenues and barrows. The ditch was dug by red deer antler picks and was 30 feet deep. Its proximity to the West Kennet long barrow and Silbury Hill, the largest man-made mound in Europe, has led some archaeologists to speculate that this is a vast ritual site.

I've noticed, though, that the star status of Stonehenge has tended to put Avebury a bit in the shade. Is it because the massive stones don't have lintels? Or because the tiny village of Avebury has grown up within the site and so it doesn't appear as broodingly untouched?

Anyway, when we were there, it seems ages ago now, there was a white pheasant squawking in the village, a flight of old Lancaster bombers flew over to mark a wartime anniversary and the chimney of the cottage had a birds' nest in it. I have a soft spot for Avebury.

Here is an excerpt from Bronze Lightning, my historical romance set in prehistory in Bronze Age Britain and Europe. In it, my heroine Sarmatia, a Kretan bull leaper, has been captured by the evil ruler Carvin and prevented from joining her betrothed, Fearn, who is now king of  the Atterians to the north. Sarmatia sees and walks amidst the stones of Avebury. To her and the people who live there it is a sacred site, a fertility site they call the Making Way. The other two places mentioned are the Hill of Earth (my name for Silbury Hill) and the Hag Mound (my name for the West Kennet long barrow.)


Sarmatia poured the frothy beer from the jug, an evil suspicion growing in her mind. She did not look at Carvin as she handed him the first beaker.
'When can you leave?'
'Today, Lord, if you wish.'
'You know what to say?'
'I remember.'
'Tell me again, to be sure.' Carvin sucked in a mouthful of beer, motioned for more.
Sarmatia refilled his beaker, slopping the dark liquid into the cup as she heard her own name. The rider was quickly-spoken and his speech was formal, but the phrases that she did catch increased her alarm. For something to do, she started to pour the rider a beer, dashing the lip of the jug onto the tall drinking vessel with a clash.
Carvin smiled. 'Let us drink now to a fruitful conclusion of our work. And to your safe journey. It's a long ride to the Atterians!'
Sarmatia clenched her teeth, willing herself to be silent. Pleading would do no good here. Better to remain quiet and try to remember that the rider was taking nothing north but words. No proof. She moved and steadily filled the second beaker to its brim, but when she offered the rider the cup Carvin grabbed her wrist, pulling her down onto her knees.
'Give that shepherd-boy king back his trash, too,' he said harshly. 'No bitch of mine wears another man's token!' And though Sarmatia tried to stop him, Carvin ripped the leather thong from her throat in one searing tear, tossing Fearn's ring to the booted messenger. 'Here.'
Sarmatia started up, but the rider had been waved away and Carvin had his hands in her hair. 'I'll take these, too!' He wrenched the seal stone which had belonged to Sarmatia's mother from her wrist and dragged the Egyptian crocodile torc from her neck. 'No—' Carvin laughed as Sarmatia grabbed for the seal stone and struck her across the face with the torc. 'You have them back only when you've pleased me.'
Sarmatia fell against the bed, clutching her bloodied mouth. Carvin's face hung above hers. 'You're mine! I spun your shepherd-boy a pretty tale: said you'd fallen into my bed for the price of an earring. What do you think he'll make of that?
'That foul ring would convince any man,' he muttered tonelessly, lashless eyes widening, 'And even if the fool guesses you're my slave, what can he do? There are more sheep than men in his patch of dirt!' Carvin's voice grew shrill. 'His kind were eating grass when mine were ruling!'
Carvin rasped on and Sarmatia buried her head in the bearskin covering the bed and tried to shut him out. This was the end. Fearn would see the ring and perhaps even believe the messenger's story. He would despise and then forget her—forever. She would grow old as the slave of Carvin.
Sarmatia choked and pushed away from the bed, but as she tried to rise, Carvin caught her hair again. 'No tears?' He yanked her cold face into the light from the door. 'No touching scene? Don't you want me to recall that rider? No, it's too late now!' The man laughed and stifled Sarmatia's plea with a perfumed hand. 'Guard!'
A bronze-covered soldier strode into the hut and stopped at the other side of the hanging, staining the cloth black with his shadow.
'Lift back the covering!' Carvin ordered.
Momentarily, Sarmatia was aware of daylight again, but then was blinded by cold, green sparks of fresh pain when Carvin's fingers slithered round her jaw and squeezed. He spoke to the guard without taking his eyes from her.
'I wish to prepare for the feast, tonight,' he said. 'This piece can earn her bread by cooking it. See to it!' Carvin released Sarmatia with a spiteful push that sent her skidding along the chalk floor. Then, as though he had forgotten her existence with his dismissal, the man absently thrust out his tongue and licked the blood from his fingers. Her blood.
Revolted, Sarmatia found she could not stop looking until he had swallowed, then she lurched to her feet and stumbled outside with the guard.
Gradually, the relief of her temporary escape pared some of Carvin's misery away, and Sarmatia became aware of a world outside herself. This older guard, Riard, was one of the better ones. He might even allow her to visit Bride.
'Riard, I'll need some rowan berries for the sauce.' This was a lie. She would do no more than was demanded of her, but rowan trees grew close to the lean-to forge.
'Right. Let's get off this hill then.'
Relieved it had been so easy, Sarmatia picked up an earthen crock. Clutching it close, she drew a comforting warmth from its sun-glazed sides. Whether Riard saw the gesture or whether he too breathed freer away from Carvin, Sarmatia never knew, but the guard began to talk to her as they tramped away from the hill-fort.
'People might call me daft, but I always think this place is the oldest in the whole of the world.' Pointing out across the open countryside, Riard traced the long line of the horizon with his spear. 'Everywhere you look is holy. The Hill of Earth and the Hag Mound and the Making Way, where my wife and I walked to get our second child.'
Where Fearn and I will never walk, thought Sarmatia, her eyes picking out the granite sarsens of the Making Way that ran through the small oak wood of the valley and up and over the gently sloping meadows. She sighed and rubbed as much of her arms as she could without dropping the basin. Whenever she had dealings with Carvin, it set her skin on edge. Taking a chance on the guard's good humor, she asked, 'Where's the stud field, Riard? Can we go there?' It was important that she see Gorri, make certain the horse was safe. Up in the hill fort with Carvin, there was not so much as a shrew. Carvin kept no pets. Except her.



Gwen Kirkwood said...

I enjoyed learning about Avebury as I had never heard of it. It seems strange that some historical sites are so much more famous than others for no apparent reason.

The excerpt from Bronze Lightening is intriguing and makes me want to read the rest so that is a marketing job well done, as well as an interesting blog Lindsay.

Jenny Twist said...

One of the nicest things about Avebury is that you can actually walk amongst the stones, something you can no longer do at Stonehenge. I do think Stonehenge is more imposing and sort of sinister, but Avebury seems more friendly and approachable, perhaps because there is a village in the middle of it. It is still a living place. I've never been there at night, however. Maybe it's more spooky then.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

It was so interesting to find out about Avebury. It sounds impressive and inspirational. My sister and great-niece are going to Europe this coming summer and I must tell my sister to check out Avebury while she's in England.
I've read several of your books and love them, for your remarkably humble and noble heroes and your descriptive scenery. I wish you continued success.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Thanks so much, Gwen! 'Bronze Lightning' is my very first novel, in a way the book of my heart. I do hope you enjoy it.

Thanks, Sarah - I hope your relatives really enjoy England and Avebury - I'm sure they will!

Jenny, I'd love to walk through those grand stones at twilight or at night, Really wonderful!

Paul McDermott said...

Fascinating, Lindsey, and well researched.
While visiting Ireland for 'research purposes' (any excuse!! LOL) I accidentally found a stone circle which has been excavated and turned into a well-run and interesting tourist attraction near the ancient Hill of Tara (border of Co. Meath/Co. Roscommon).
I didn't have to work TOO hard to find a connection with the family ancestry research I was doing at the time, and from there it was easy enough to work some details into the story I was writing ...

Paul McDermott said...

PS. Looking at the above dates, I have no idea why this blog post turned up in my Inbox for the first time TODAY????

Lindsay Townsend said...

Hi Paul, It may be it turned up today because I've been 're-issuing' my earlier blog posts on twitter.

Fascinating about your research in Ireland. (Which of course has wonderful prehistorica sites such as New Grange)