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.

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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

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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.

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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

Book Corner: The Druid by Steven A. McKay

Northern Britain, AD430

A land in turmoil. A village ablaze. A king’s daughter abducted.

In the aftermath of a surprise attack Dun Buic lies in smoking ruins and many innocent villagers are dead. As the survivors try to make sense of the night’s events the giant warrior-druid, Bellicus, is tasked with hunting down the raiders and thwarting their dark purpose.

With years of training in the old ways, two war-dogs at his side, and unsurpassed skill with a longsword, Bellicus’s quest will take him on a perilous journey through lands still struggling to cope with the departure of the Roman legions.

Meanwhile, amongst her brutal captors the little princess Catia finds an unlikely ally, but even he may not be able to avert the terrible fate King Hengist has in store for her.

This, the first volume in a stunning new series from the bestselling author of Wolf’s Head, explores the rich folklore and culture of post-Roman Britain, where blood-sacrifice, superstition and warfare were as much a part of everyday life as love, laughter and song.

As Saxon invaders and the new Christian religion seek to mould the country for their own ends one man will change the course of Britain’s history forever. . .

. . . THE DRUID.

“Steven A. McKay’s archetypal villains and heroes step vividly onto the page from a mist-veiled past of legend to battle for the life of a princess and the fate of Britain.
Dark age adventure at its gripping best.” – MATTHEW HARFFY, author of The Bernicia Chronicles

 

I have to say that the first thing that attracted me to this book was the awesome cover – it is one of the best and most original that I have seen in a long time. It offers the promise of an amazing story and does not disappoint.

Steven A. McKay is an excellent storyteller, who brings the legends of the past to life, with a new and unique perspective. His Robin Hood series was one of the best I’ve read, moving the events into Barnsdale Forest, he gave a refreshing revamp to the age-old tales and made them his own. He has now gone further back in time, to the dawn of the Anglo-Saxon occupation of Britain, when the departure of the Roman legions was still within living memory and the Britons were trying to resist the incursions of the Angles Saxons and Jutes, who had established bridgeheads on the Saxon shore – the east and south coasts of Britain.

The author sets the scene wonderfully for the events that will take the reader on a breathtaking journey from Scotland to the most sacred site in England, following the druid Bellicus as he hunts the Saxon raiders who had kidnapped a young princess, Catia. A vision of the landscape is beautifully woven into the reader’s mind, with the challenges the moutainous terrain, and the security offered to the northern tribes by Hadrian’s wall all making their own impact on the story. The distances walked or ridden lend credence to  the length of the journey undertaken by the Saxons in their journey back to their master, and by Bellicus in his dogged pursuit of the little princess’s kidnappers.

Yet here they were, with a settlement ravaged by fire and Alt Clota’s princess abducted by Saxon raiders.

“Sometimes I wish the Romans had never left,” Coroticus growled, then nodded his thanks as Nectovelius’s wife placed a steaming bowl of broth on the table before him, closely followed by three more for the other men.

Bellicus understood his king’s feelings at that moment but he couldn’t share them. The Romans might have put a stop to the raids by the people that surrounded Alt Clota, but they’d also tried to destroy the native way of life, including their religion.

The druids had been almost wiped out in the lands south of the Antonine Wall although the “civilising” influence of the Roman overlords had not penetrated much further north. The harsh land there offered sanctuary to those druids who managed to evade their persecutors and Bellicus had learned at the feet of some of them.

No, the giant druid was glad the Romans had gone. Now that they’d finally returned to their own lands the old ways were making a resurgence in Britain and the gods were once again enjoying the reverence they deserved. News had even reached Bellicus of a warlord in the south who aimed to unite the native peoples against the invading Saxon hordes. His closest advisor was a druid steeped in the old traditions, highest of their brotherhood and known as the Merlin.

“What are we going to do?” Gavo’s blunt question broke Bellicus’s reverie.

“We must go after them,” Coroticus responded, his tone making it clear there would be no argument.

Bellicus was always one to speak his mind though, even if kings didn’t like what they heard.

“Aye, certainly we must follow them and rescue the princess,” he agreed. “But you, my lord king, must remain here in Alt Clota.”

He held up a hand, forestalling the expected outburst.

….

As anyone who has read Steven A. MacKay’s work before has come to expect, the large-as-life characters make this story. Bellicus is a truly tenacious and singular druid, he exudes the mystery and magic of his people, confident in his knowledge of the old ways, and in his fighting abilities, the man is not just a giant in height, but also in his power and personality. He instills fear, trust and dedication in those he comes into contact with, and his own dedication to duty is an inspiration to those he comes into contact with.

Bellicus is human, however, and proves susceptible to the odd misdirection, but manages to overcome such setbacks with admirable courage and tenacity. He is a hero it is easy to like, and to whom the reader can easily relate. The supporting characters in the tale demonstrate clearly the conflict which England is about to be torn by, the Britons fighting for survival against the invading German tribes. The lines are drawn, but not always clear.

There are some wonderfully surprising elements to the story, and some cameo appearances that will bring a smile to the reader’s face. The adventure is fun and edge-of-the-seat stuff, from the pursuit to the frequent clashes of arms, the reader barely gets a moment to take a breath before the next part of the action unfolds.

The Druid tells a story as stunning as the cover art suggests and, as the first of a new series, promises drama and excitement for many books to come.

About the author:

Steven A. McKay was born in Scotland in 1977. His first book, “Wolf’s Head”, came out in 2013 and was an Amazon UK top 20 bestseller. “Blood of the Wolf” is the fourth and final book in the Forest Lord series which has over 100,000 sales so far.

Steven’s next book, “The Druid” is the first in a brand new series set in post-Roman Britain and will be published on November 1st 2018.

He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up (which isn’t often these days to be honest).

Check out his website at https://stevenamckay.com/ and sign up for the email list – in return we’ll send you a FREE short story which is not available anywhere else, as well as offering chances to win signed books and other goodies!

The Druid goes on sale on 1st November 2018 and can be found on Steven A. McKay’s Amazon page.

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Coming in November!

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing and Book Depository. It is scheduled for release in the US on 1 March 2019 and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.


Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

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

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

 

Book Corner: Blood of the Wolf by Steven A. MacKay

14527440_1508064235887286_1454685879_nMy latest book review, of Steven A. McKay’s latest novel, Blood of the Wolf, the final novel of his stunning Forest Lord series, a wonderful new reworking the legend of Robin Hood has gone live over at The Review today!

With Blood of the Wolf, Steven A McKay has definitely saved the best to last! The fourth and concluding part of his fabulous Forest Lord series sees Robin and his band of Merry Men reunited and embarking on one final adventure together, facing a most formidable foe; a new and particularly vicious band of outlaws. This book has everything: suspense, action and enduring friendships that are tested to their limits. Old and new enemies make the reader eager to see Robin win through, and a few surprises along the way make this a thoroughly entertaining and gripping novel.
It leads you on a desperate chase through  the forests, in the halls of the Sheriff’s castles and into the villages of England …

To read the full review of this fantastic novel – and to enter the prize draw and be in with a chance of winning a paperback copy in the giveaway, simply visit The Review and leave a comment. Good luck!

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

Be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2016

Book Corner: Steven A. McKay’s ‘The Forest Lord’ Series

CX0jE-zWcAEQNWnSteven A. McKay‘s The Forest Lord series of books is a wonderful, refreshing new take in the Robin Hood Legend. All the usual heroes are there, including Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet and Maid Marian, battling against their old enemies, the Sheriff of Nottingham and the despicable Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

However, what has changed is the time and location. Instead of the wilds of Sherwood Forest, The Forest Lord books are set in Barnsdale Forest in what is now West Yorkshire, while young Robin’s family lives in the nearby village of Wakefield. Gone also is the vile Prince John – and you won’t see King Richard the Lionheart either. The story is set in the time of Edward II, the rebellion of his cousin, Thomas of Lancaster providing the back-story to the first book; while the aftermath of Thomas’s defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge is still being felt in the second book, The Wolf and the Raven, as the surviving rebels are hunted down.

1stWolf’s Head introduces you Robin as a newly outlawed teenager, finding refuge in a gang of outlaws in Barnsdale Forest. We follow Robin as the youth learns how to fight, how to deal with loss and how to lead men, while making mistakes and enemies along the way. As Robin and his companions, including a grieving Templar and his sergeant, become embroiled in the rebellion; they must find a way through the politics and the fighting to survive.

In The Wolf and the Raven, in the aftermath of a violent rebellion Robin Hood and his men must fight for survival with an enemy deadlier than any they’ve faced before. Sir Guy of Gisbourne, the king’s own bounty hunter, stalks the greenwood, bringing bloody justice to the outlaws and rebels who hide there.

While new friends, shattered loyalties, and a hate-fuelled hunter that threatens to wipe out not only Robin’s companions but his entire family all play a part in the Rise of the Wolf.

2Steven A. McKay has woven together a wonderful story of love, war, loyalty, hatred and a fight for survival set in one of the greatest periods of greed and unrest in English history. As a Yorkshire lass I can testify to the veracity of the author’s vivid depiction of the county and its people; although the landscape may have changed in 700 years, the Yorkshire spirit hasn’t.

The stories combine the fight for survival with the camaraderie of men who trust their lives to each other. There are tender moments, when Robin’s men put Marian’s freedom above their own desire for release from outlawry. There are moments of humour; such as when, in a bizarre twist, Edward II asks Robin and Little John to join his rowing team. And there are ‘yucky’ moments involving a castle toilet …. but I will not give away any more spoilers and ruin your enjoyment of a great story.

The characters are wonderfully vivid. While Robin is young and vulnerable, but develops into a strong, considerate leader, his nemesis Sir Guy of Gisbourne is suitably despicable and only gets worse. I have to say I like the Sheriff of Nottingham a little more than I have done in past depictions; the poor chap seems to have as many troubles on the right side of the law, as Robin has on the wrong side of it.

1Steven A. McKay has taken the Robin Hood legend expanded and enhanced it and made it his own. In case you were wondering, the traditional Robin Hood is still alive throughout the books, rescuing children and damsels and stealing from the rich; teaching them a lesson on the way.

The action is thrilling and you find yourself on the edge of your seat – or reading until the early hours – just hoping for it all to turn out right for our brave hero.

With the final instalment of the story still to come, the stage is set for one exciting, final fight for survival and victory in the green woods.

Will the boys finally get their one, over-riding desire – the chance to go home to their families and live as normal men? Will they all come through it alive? And does Gisbourne finally get  his comeuppance?

I can’t wait to find out.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

Be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly