Book Corner: Faces of Darkness by Steven A. McKay

CROFTUN, ENGLAND AD 1328
Lady Isabella de Courcy is found alone in a room bolted from the inside, unconscious, and with a dagger brutally forced through her hand into the floorboards beneath, but this is just the latest in a line of similar, terrifying incidents. For months now she’s been stalked by some shadowy tormentor who leaves no trace of his movements and has never been clearly seen by anyone, even Lady Isabella.

Can the bailiff, John Little, along with his friend – the legendary friar, Robert Stafford – uncover the truth and, more importantly, will they be able to save the troubled victim before she ends up dead?

This new standalone tale from the author of The Druid sees the return of two much-loved characters from the Forest Lord series and is based on a shocking real-life case which remains, to this day, unsolved.

I have been a fan of Steven A McKay‘s writing for several years now. His Forest Lord series, retelling the story of Robin Hood in Barnsdale Forest, rather than Sherwood, was a refreshing new take on the outlaw’s legend. And the 2 books in his new series, Warrior Druid of Britain, the Druid and Song of the Centurion are among the finest books I have read in recent years. So Faces of Darkness had quite a lot to live up to.

And it did not disappoint.

Faces of Darkness is a novella featuring two of Robin Hood’s best friends, Friar Tuck and Little John, and is a detective novel-cum-psychological thriller of impressive quality. The story revolves around Lady Isabella de Courcy, who is being tormented by a mysterious stalker no one has seen. Friar Tuck and Little John are brought int o investigate the matter.

“Did you see him, Isabella?” the nobleman was demanding, in a hard tone of voice which Tuck felt inappropriate given the young woman’s ordeal. It wasn’t his place to interfere in the dynamic of their relationship though, and unbidden, he began to inspect the rooms for signs of what had taken place.

“No,” the lady sobbed. “Please, Adam, my hand is really hurting. Can you fetch me something for it?”

“Anne,” de Courcy said irritably. “Go and fetch some wine for the lady, hurry.”

“No,” broke in Isabella, eyes wide. “I can’t stay in this room another moment.” Tuck turned to look at her and realised there was a length of fabric tied around her neck, which also bore tell-tale red bruising. Clearly, she had suffered a most violent assault – no wonder she wanted away from the scene of the crime.

“John,” he said. “Could you help Lady Isabella to the room we came from? Would that be acceptable, Sir Adam? Aye? Good. Anne will make the place comfortable, with some unwatered wine to numb the pain a little and …” he stood next to the bed as the injured woman rose to her feet. “Fear nothing, my lady. If the person who did this to you is still around, Little John will deal with them.”

“You can be sure of that,” rumbled John who, at over six-and-a-half feet, had to stoop to avoid hitting his head on the doorframe. “You’re safe with me, my lady.”

Faces of Darkness is quite a departure for Steven A. McKay. A psychological thriller, it could be set in any era, but he has ingeniously set it in the world of his Forest Lord series, so that the astute Friar Tuck and redoubtable Little John can take the lead in solving the mystery, giving the reader the comfort of familiar characters in a story that is both emotional and evocative.

The novella keeps you guessing the true cause of Lady Isabella’s misery to the climactic end. There were several points where I thought I had solved the mystery, only to be disabused of my theory a few pages later, which, of course, makes the book even more riveting!

This is fabulous story that has only one downside – it is too short. I would have loved the book to be a full-length historical novel. It was enthralling! Here’s hoping that Faces of Darkness sparks a new career for Friar Tuck and Little John, solving medieval mysteries.

*

About the author:

Steven McKay was born in 1977 near Glasgow in Scotland. He live in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a historical novel.

He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.

You can check out his website here. Steven also has an Amazon Author page and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

*

My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

*

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Song of the Centurion by Steven A. McKay

Autumn, AD 430. After the Princess Catia’s disappearance, and Bellicus’s adventures trailing her Saxon abductors south to the fabled Hanging Stones, the giant warrior-druid is finally returning home. 

Battle-scarred, and mourning the loss of a loved one, Bellicus has learned from bitter experience that the gods rarely make things easy. Even if he can evade Horsa’s vengeful pursuit and get back to the North safely, his troubles may be far from over. In a land beset by the rivalries of petty warlords, Dun Breatann has stood solid and secure for untold generations. Trouble brews though as King Coroticus has cracked under the pressure of his daughter’s abduction. When the king’s rage finally boils over during a winter feast, Bellicus finds himself with two choices: accept exile, or complete another seemingly impossible undertaking. So much for the returning hero…

Accompanied by his massive war-dog, Cai, and the former centurion, Duro – who has his own painful issues to contend with – Bellicus must somehow survive a journey east into enemy-held lands. Folklore, superstition, the healing power of song, and even a wondrous white stag will all play a part in the companions’ continuing adventures, but armies are gathering and, when spring returns, the people of Dun Breatann will surely find themselves under siege once again. Will their legendary warrior-druid be there to help defend them this time, or will the new ways sweep away the old, once and for all? Find out in Song of the Centurion, the action-packed sequel to 2018’s The Druid!

Tracing the story of Bellicus’ mission to rescue the Princess Catia, The Druid was one of my Top 5 books of 2019 and so I have been eagerly awaiting the sequel with some trepidation; could author Steven A. McKay improve on this great story and the character who drives it?

But … Wow! What a book!

Song of the Centurion not only builds on the story started in The Druid, but takes it in a wholly unexpected direction. Sequels can often suffer by being ‘much of the same’. Not this time. Bellicus returns to his king as the hero rescuer of the princess, but comes home to petty jealousy and court intrigues which see the druid’s life take several unexpected turns.

Song of the Centurion works not only as a sequel, but as a standalone novel. Steven A. McKays’ skillful summary of the first book, interwoven into the story of Bellicus retracing his steps north with the rescued princess, serves to remind the reader of preceding events or act as a backstory if you haven’t read The Druid.

Set in a time of great turmoil in Britain, where the Romans have left and the Saxons are pushing further west and north, Bellicus’ ultimate task is to end the bitter infighting between the clans in Alt Clota and to unite them to fight against the Saxon invaders. Not an easy task.

“Duro isn’t to blame for what happened here today,” Bellicus said, voice low but powerful enough thanks to his years of specialist training that it penetrated even the grief-ravaged minds of the angry townsmen. “We all are.”

“What does that mean?” the blacksmith demanded, eyes fixed on the sobbing man in the centurion uniform. “It’s not my fault the Saxons came here looking for revenge.”

“Aye,” one of his companions agreed. “We just wanted to be left alone.”

“And that’s the problem,” the druid nodded, looking down at the ground sadly. “We all just want to be left alone.” He waited until there were murmurs of surprise agreement from the angry blacksmith and his friends then his head came up and his eyes blazed. “Left alone? That is why your town was targeted by the sea-wolves. They knew you people were an easy target after their last visit here, when only your fat baker was willing to stand against them.”

“Why would we stop them?” the blacksmith demanded. “That lass was nothing to us -“

“That lass was a Briton, and you knew that!” Bellicus roared, the rage in his voice making more than one of the men facing him step back warily as a crowd of soot-blackened locals began to form around them.” “If more of you were as brave as Duro there, the Saxons might have been cut down like the animals they have shown themselves to be here today. If you -” he pointed directly at the blacksmith whose eyes narrowed “- had used that hammer to help a little girl, well …” He trailed off shaking his head, looking around at the scattered bodies sorrowfully. “None of this would have happened.”

The men were either mollified by the druid’s words, or perhaps embarrassed. Shamed by his accusations maybe. Whatever it was, most of them just stood there, looking dumbly at the druid. One stepped forward threateningly, clealy hoping his companions would follow his lead, but none did and, when Cai bared his teeth and barked at him, he stopped instantly in his tracks.

As has come to be expected with books written by Steven A. McKay, from the earliest novels in his Forest Lord series, the story is fast-paced and energetic, leaving the reader little time to stop for breath. The frantic battle scenes contrast remarkably well with the political and personal actions of the characters, recreating the life-or-death existence of Britons in the post-Roman era.

The author has a knack of drawing the reader in, so that they are totally invested in Bellicus’s story and desperate for the druid to succeed. As Bellicus inspires loyalty in Song of the Centurion, so too does he inspire it in his readers! He is a wonderful, noble character, made wise for his years by his druidic training. That his training extended to the martial arts – his proficiency with both sword and staff a testament to this – make for a story that melds both war and diplomacy into the character of the hero.

Song of the Centurion is a unique story, melding the mystical world of the druids with the legends and history of post-Roman Britain. The story drives the hero, the book and the reader to a riveting climax. And the promise of more to come…

Song of the Centurion is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon UK.

About the author:

Steven McKay was born in 1977 near Glasgow in Scotland. He live in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a historical novel.

He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.

You can check out his website here. Steven also has an Amazon Author page and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

All images are courtesy of Steven A. McKay.

My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

*

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Guest Post: Song of the Centurion by Steven A. McKay

One of my favourite books of 2018 was The Druid by Steven A. McKay. Having completed his Robin Hood series, Steven had turned his hand to the Dark Ages with a new story set in the time of King Arthur and Merlin, but with characters of his own creation. Bellicus, the eponymous druid, journeyed the length of Britain to rescue a young princess from the clutches of her kidnappers, and return her to her desperate parents. This month, Steven is back with a much-anticipated second instalment in Bellicus’ story

Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite:

Northern Britain, Autumn, AD 430

“Get down! Their slingers are attacking!”

There was a horrific rattling as dozens of stones battered against the walls and the defending Damnonii soldiers crouched low to avoid being struck. A slinger’s missile could do severe damage if it hit someone in the right place, as a few of the men had discovered to their cost during the previous days.

“Now!” Gavo roared as the attack ended without injuring any of the defenders. “Give them some back!”

Instantly, his men stood up and launched a volley of their own fist-sized rocks down onto the enemy below. The captain grinned as cries of anger and pain filtered up to him. It was much easier to hit people when they were beneath you, especially when they didn’t have walls to hide behind.

Not all the enemy slingers were crouching under their shields though, and a sharp-edged, flat rock careered past Gavo, hammering into the neck of a young soldier at his side. The warrior reeled back, a terrible gurgling sound coming from his ruined, bloody throat as he dropped onto the wooden platform they were standing on and Gavo knew the lad would be dead within moments.

Thank the gods though, the enemy were taking casualties of their own beneath the hail of Damnonii missiles, and the besieging army pulled back now, out of range, heralding another in a long line of stand-offs.

“That’s it,” Gavo shouted in fury. “Run, you bastards!”

Dun Breatann, ancient capital of Alt Clota, was under siege, and had been for almost a week, the Picts from the far north led by King Drest having finally grown tired of the attacks on their raiding parties by King Coroticus’s soldiers.

For generations, livestock theft from neighbouring tribes was an accepted part of life – part of a young warrior’s coming-of-age. Unwritten rules made it clear that any captured during such an action could be beaten, but then sent on their way home, to try again another day.

Now, though, Coroticus, outraged by his daughter Catia’s recent abduction, was slaughtering every such raider he could find in his lands and displaying their severed heads as ghoulish trophies – warnings – on the towering rock of Dun Breatann. It wasn’t just Pictish thieves suffering such violence either – Dalriadans, Selgovae and Votadini tribesmen had all been killed by the Damnonii king’s forces. In response, Drest had formed an alliance with the other kings and led them here for vengeance.

To Queen Narina it was a ludicrous situation to be in – a war started over the execution of a few cattle thieves. Yet her husband had broken with tradition, despite her protestations, and now Alt Clota was paying the price. Standing high on the eastern peak of the fortress, she looked away from the guard captain, Gavo, commanding the defending warriors on the walls, and turned her attention to the tents, cooking-fires and massed, undisciplined, ranks of the enemy camping at the foot of her home.

Standing two hundred and forty feet high, and surrounded on three sides by the river Clota, Dun Breatann had never been taken by a besieging army. The queen shook her head sadly and turned to her maidservant, Enica, whose downcast expression mirrored her own.

“They’re wasting their time,” Enica muttered, shifting her gaze back to the tiny figures on the ground so far below them. “King Drest must have known that when he embarked on this foolish course.”

Narina didn’t answer for a while. She could see Drest’s tent, grander and more colourful than the others surrounding it, and she wondered what was going through his mind at that moment.

“I don’t think their siege is so foolish,” the queen finally said. “Coroticus pushed them all too far and they’re within their rights to strike back. Besides, they might say they’re here to avenge their dead warriors, but there’s more to it than that. Drest, and Loarn in particular, would like to make our lands their own. This is merely their first move towards that end.”

“They’ll never take this place though, my lady,” Enica said and her voice was full of conviction. “We have fresh water from the spring that comes up between the two peaks and enough men to rebuff any attempts to scale the gatehouses. Food is plentiful too, since your husband stockpiled it when he heard of the approaching army.”

Enica was correct in her assessment and Narina wondered if the woman surreptitiously listened at Coroticus’s door when he met with his advisors. It wouldn’t surprise her. Enica was a canny servant, which was why Narina liked her.

“They’ll need to leave soon enough,” the maid went on as if she’d spent many hours thinking this over.

“Their men will be needed at home to bring in the harvests and so on, yes, I know that,” Narina nodded. “But what of our people whose homes Drest’s soldiers destroyed? The people he killed on his way here, and those he’ll no doubt kill on his way back north again?”

“At least he didn’t destroy our crops,” Enica said and Narina peered at her thoughtfully. There was no way the servant could have known that unless she had truly spent a long time listening to Coroticus’s private councils or…Narina took in the woman’s unlined, pretty face, full lips, and firm, shapely figure and resolved to find out if Enica had taken a lover amongst the king’s advisors. That kind of information could come in very handy.

“No, he hasn’t destroyed our crops,” said the queen with a wave of her hand. “Yet. Probably because he hoped they would belong to him once he defeated us.” The queen turned away from the depressing sight on the ground far below and walked slowly back towards the royal chambers. They were located within the building in the very centre of the rock, flanked by birch trees and the rising twin peaks, one of which was gently rounded while the other, the higher one, was narrow and so steep that it was a challenge for many people to climb. Indeed, it was so narrow no proper buildings could be erected upon it and, other than a single sentry watching the Clota for invading ships, only a giant raven could be seen there most days, its strange cry—almost like the bark of some weird dog—heard pealing out across the ancient rock.

The thought of that majestic bird, black with a white tuft on its neck, brought Bellicus to mind. The druid had somehow trained the raven to speak—it could say ‘hello’ and cough like a person thanks to Bel’s tutelage—and she felt an ache in her heart just as she always did when the druid came to mind. Was he dead?

Was her beautiful, sweet daughter?

A feeling of anxiety swept through her and she almost stumbled like one of the many people who grew dizzy when looking down from the lofty summit of Dun Breatann. What if Bel returned today, with Catia? They would walk straight into Drest’s besieging army and be torn to pieces!

Enica noticed her lady’s discomfort and placed a steadying hand on her upper arm as Narina pulled herself together. Bellicus was no fool, and besides, he knew Drest well; there would be no danger there.

If only the giant warrior-druid would return. It had been such a long time since he left to hunt the princess’s kidnappers, with no word coming to them from any who had seen him on the road, and it was hard not to give up hope.

Or go mad, rather like Coroticus seemed to have done in starting this insane war that no-one could ever truly win.

Song of the Centurion comes out as an ebook on Thursday 12 September 2019 and is available from Amazon UK.

*

About the author:

Steven McKay was born in 1977 near Glasgow in Scotland. He live in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a historical novel.

He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.

You can check out his website here. Steven also has an Amazon Author page and can be found on Twitter and Facebook

*

My books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

*

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Steven A. McKay