Tag Archives: Extract

A Window Breaks by C.M. Ewan – a review and extract

Pan | 2019 (31 October) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the bookA Window Breaks by CM Ewan

Tom and Rachel are grieving for the loss of their teenage son, Michael, who crashed his father’s car into a tree some months ago, killing himself and his girlfriend. Tom and Rachel aren’t coping with it well and now their younger daughter Holly has been hurt in a violent mugging in London. They need to get away and look after each other, maybe Tom and Rachel will even be able to patch their marriage back together. Tom’s boss offers them the use of his luxury lodge in a secluded part of Scotland. It’s just what they need. Until the first night. They hear a noise downstairs. Men have broken in and they have much more than robbery on their minds. What will Tom do to keep his family alive?

A Window Breaks has such a thrilling premise and it fully delivers on it. This is a thoroughly exciting book, mostly set over just a few hours, and we spend every minute of it with this terrified family. It’s told in Tom’s words, which makes the tension even more immediate and real as we scramble over walls, along roofs, in confined spaces, through woods, in water, over every inch of this remote estate where there are no phone signals, no internet, just a gate that doesn’t open, a car that doesn’t go. It’s breathless. And the men who hunt them are relentless.

The location, both inside the lodge and outside, is excellent. Tom and Rachel are strangers here. They don’t know where to go. They have to try anything they can. It’s also mostly set at night. They can hide in the darkness but it also hides traps.

There is another story that threads its way through the novel, that of the son Michael and the crash that killed him and his girlfriend. It doesn’t take up much of the novel, which I did appreciate because I don’t think it’s as successful as the rest of the thriller. It moves back and forward, it’s confused. It does have significance for the novel’s story but fortunately it doesn’t disrupt it too much.

Otherwise, A Window Breaks is a hugely successful thriller and one that I had a great deal of trouble putting down. There’s a deceptively slow start but then it explodes! And it keeps on exploding all the way to its clever conclusion. Excellent!

To help celebrate the publication of A Window Breaks on 31 October, I’m delighted to post an extract from the novel below – and it’s a goodie…..

Extract

CHAPTER 12

‘Tom?’

Rachel shook my shoulder.

‘Tom, wake up.’ She  whispered, close to my  ear: ‘I think I heard something.’

I groaned and mashed my face into my pillow.

‘Tom, it sounded like a window breaking. I think there’s someone downstairs.’

I groaned some more. Rachel is a light sleeper. She hears bumps in the night. And I’m the one she’s turned to – again and again – to get out of bed and creep downstairs to investigate.

‘Tom?’

It was warm and fuggy under the covers – my legs were tangled in Rachel’s legs – and I could so easily drift off again. I could hear the hitch of fear in  Rachel’s voice but it wasn’t quite enough to tug me back to full consciousness.

Then a vague distant noise made me stir. It could have been the sound of glass crunching underfoot.

My heart clenched as Rachel yanked on my upper arm. ‘Tom? Wake up. Please.’

Eyes open, listening hard.

The room was black. The only light was the faint glow of my wristwatch. It was just after 2 a.m.

Another slight crunching sound.

Oh God.

I blinked and stared into the pulsing darkness as a great sucking fear invaded my  chest. In my mind I was watching a kind of home movie rendered in fuzzy greyscale. I was picturing a long, uninterrupted tracking shot – the visual equivalent of the auditory hunt I was carrying out with my ears. The camera in my mind’s eye went snuffling across the carpet and out of the bedroom door. It sped low along the unlit hallway, sweeping left and right in small, tight arcs, like a bloodhound following a scent. When the camera reached the mezzanine it pitched up and then down over the polished steel banister rail overlooking the vaulted space below. It dropped on a wire, spinning and sweeping, sniffing out the source of the gritty crunching I had heard.

‘I’m scared, Tom.’ ‘Shh.’

Was that the whisper of the sliding glass door on to the deck being pulled back? And now the dull thud of the door hitting the rubber buffer?

Rachel clutched my arm again. I didn’t have any clothes on under the covers. And all right, it shouldn’t have been a big deal right then, but it’s amazing how being naked can make you feel more vulnerable.

Silence. I waited.

My heart jackhammered in my chest, pushing me up off the mattress. Rachel’s fingers dug into my flesh.

The silence persisted, but this was no natural hush. It felt loaded. Felt forced. Like somebody was holding their breath downstairs.

I was listening so intensely it was as if I could hear the throbbing of the very air itself – the sound of millions of tiny molecules rubbing and vibrating against one another.   It was a sound like no other. The sound of pure fear in the middle of the night.

Fleet of Knives by Gareth L. Powell – an extract (and it’s one of my favourite bits!)

Fleet of Knives by Gareth L PowellEmbers of War by Gareth L. Powell was one of the science fiction highlights of 2018 and the good news is that Fleet of Knives, the follow up, was published by Titan Books earlier this month. I’ve read it and it is fantastic – spaceships as much dog as they are machine, aliens (some of whom are the stuff of nightmares), battles, crew members we care about fighting to stay alive, and an enigmatic lethal force in the Galaxy that threatens billions. All this and more and I couldn’t read it fast enough. My review will follow shortly but, in the meantime, I’m delighted to post here an extract from early on in Fleet of Knives. And it’s one of my favourite bits! Sal Konstanz, Captain of the Trouble Dog, has discovered that she has more crew members than she might have thought, thanks to her multi-legged engineer Nod.

Extract

“What the hell was that?”
“What was what?” The Trouble Dog spoke via the bead in my ear. “Are you all right, Captain? Your pulse and respiration are spiking.”
“You’re damn right they’re spiking!” My mouth was dry. I could almost hear my pulse. I took a couple of wary steps back towards the exit, keeping my attention rigidly fixed on the hole into which the creature had disappeared. “There’s something loose down here.”
“Could you be more specific?”
“I only caught a glimpse.” I paused and swallowed, wishing I had some sort of weapon. “But it looked kind of like a spider.”
“Ah.”
“A big spider. Tarantula-sized.”
The ship was silent for a moment.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have told you they were aboard.”
At her words, I felt a cold prickle run the length of my spine. “They? There’s more than one of those things down here?”
“There are eleven of them in your immediate vicinity. Two more elsewhere on that deck.”
I heard skittering footsteps and whirled around, just in time to see another of the creatures dart through the door, into the access way beyond. Now, if I wanted to retreat, I’d have to do so knowing there was at least one of them blocking my path.
“What are they? Where did they come from?”
“I think you should speak to Nod.”
“It brought them aboard?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes. I’ve signalled it, and it should be here momentarily.”
I was trying to look in every direction at once, hands raised defensively in case one of the critters leapt at my face.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Nod should be the one to explain.”
“But—”
A limb appeared over the wiry rim of Nod’s nest, and I swallowed back a surge of panic. I’d never been particularly susceptible to arachnophobia—but then, I’d never previously been stuck in a hot, noisy and cramped engine room with eleven tarantulas.
“Ship…”
“It’s all right. It’s nearly with you.”
“But there’s one climbing out of the nest. It’s—” I stopped speaking as the little creature heaved itself up onto the lip, and I got my first proper look at it.
The thing stood on five limbs. A sixth was raised in my direction, the fingers splayed like the petals of a flower. Leaning close, I could just about make out tiny, coal-black eyes regarding me from the centre of the palm. A little slit of a mouth opened and closed soundlessly.
“It’s a baby Druff!”
The youngster flinched at the sound of my voice. Its scales glistened like oil on water. It looked me up and down several times, as if trying to decide whether to investigate further or flee.
I spoke quietly, so as not to startle it. “Where did we get thirteen baby Druff?”
When she replied, the Trouble Dog managed to sound both amused and embarrassed. “Nod gave birth last night.”
“Gave birth?” I shook my head, feeling absurd. “You’re telling me our engineer got itself knocked up, and popped out thirteen little copies of itself?”
“I believe it happened the last time we were on Camrose.”
A grating swung aside on well-oiled hinges, and Nod slunk into the room. At the sight of it, the little one squeaked, and ran over to wrap four of its arms around one of its parent’s ankles.
“Captain.” Keeping its head low, it looked up at me.
I crossed my arms. “I think you’ve got some explaining to do.”

Other posts
Embers of War – a review
The recent boom in space opera – a guest post by Gareth L. Powell

I’m delighted to post this extract as part of the blog tour. For more stops on the tour, please do take a look at the poster below.

The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom – a review and extract

Zaffre | 2018 | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Hour by Harry SidebottomBallista runs for his life through the spiraling tunnels of Hadrian’s Mausoleum in the centre of Rome. As he climbs on to its roof top and stares down at the Tiber flowing many feet below him, his options are limited. The stakes, though, couldn’t be higher. At the last hour of daylight tomorrow, after a day of games and spectacle, the Emperor Gallienus will be murdered as he leaves the Colosseum. Ballista knew Gallienus when they were boys growing up together. He may be the only man allowed to get close enough to the emperor to save him. But before Ballista can save the emperor, he must first save himself.

It is the second half of the 3rd century AD. Gallienus is Emperor. The Empire is on the verge of being torn apart from within. And only one man stands in his way…. The Last Hour is a long awaited Ballista Warrior of Rome novel from the master Harry Sidebottom but it’s a Ballista book with a great deal of difference. This isn’t an adventure that sees Ballista fight for his life and those of his men in the empire’s most remote arenas of war – instead, he is placed in the heart of Rome and his high military rank is irrelevant. Ballista has just one task – to save the emperor, on his own, and to escape the conspirators who are intent on ensnaring Ballista in their trap.

The action takes place over just one day and it never lets up. This is a Roman thriller. There aren’t many of these and if an author can be trusted to do it right it’s Harry Sidebottom. The author brings an awful lot to it more than action and swordfights. As a lecturer in ancient history at the University of Oxford, Harry Sidebottom knows his stuff and he always makes sure that his novels are enriched by that knowledge and understanding, but at no expense to their pace and merit as works of fiction. I always learn things from a Harry Sidebottom novel and The Last Hour is no different.

Throughout we’re given little pieces about Roman history and society – whether it be about the place of slaves and women in that world, or its religion and philosophy, its gladiatorial games or arena punishments, or its streets, tenements, temples, villas and inns. This book provides a fantastic tour of Rome. We move right across the city and, despite the pace, we’re given time to take it all in. And we’re taken to places that are evoked so strongly we can almost smell their stench. There are also references to the previous Ballista novels – we meet people we’ve met before and that adds something rather special. But, on the whole, this is a novel in which Ballista must survive, endure and win on his own and its edge of seat stuff, it really is.

The best historical fiction entertains while also informing. The Last Hour succeeds in this perfectly, injecting so much accessible information and detail into a novel that is intensely exciting, all packed into a 24-hour period. Harry Sidebottom’s recent and superb Throne of the Caesars trilogy looked at a year that shook the Roman empire to its core. The Last Hour evokes ancient Rome in an entirely different way, focusing on just a few hours in such a narrow space, as it affects such a small group of people. And yet it informs every bit as much. Life in ancient Rome comes alive in The Last Hour and I loved every page of it.

Other reviews
Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East
Iron and Rust: Throne of the Caesars I
Blood and Steel: Throne of the Caesars II
Fire and Sword: Throne of the Caesars III

I’m delighted to post below a taster from The Last Hour to celebrate the novel’s publication this week.

Extract

Another scream echoed up the long passageway, then ended abruptly.

Every breath hurt. Sweat was running off Ballista. Would the stairs ever end? It was like some infernal punishment in myth.

A final corner, and there was the door. All the gods let it be unlocked.

The door opened outwards. Ballista closed it behind him, and leant against it as he fought to regain his breath. Forty-three winters on Middle Earth; too long for this exertion.

The roof garden was gently domed, like a low hill. It rose to where a plinth supported a more than life-sized statue of the Emperor Hadrian in a triumphal chariot drawn by four horses. The terrible storms of the last several days had passed, but the air smelt of rain. The stones underfoot were still wet.

There had to be another way down. Ballista pushed himself off the door, set off up the path to the top.

The sun was dipping towards the horizon. It cast long shadows from the cypress trees, dappled where they were festooned with vines or ivy. Less than an hour until darkness.

Ballista circled the base of the statuary. No door, no trapdoor. Nothing. There had to be another way down. A passageway for gardeners, plants, servants. He looked around wildly.

Under the cypresses the garden was thickly planted with fruit trees and flower beds. Paths radiated out. There were hedges, potted plants, heavy garden furniture, small fountains, more statues. The service access would be carefully hidden. The elite did not want to see slaves when they were enjoying the views. There was no time to search.

Ballista thought of the light wells. No, even if he could find one of them, it would be too narrow, offer no handholds. Another thought came to him. He took the path down to the east.

There was a thin wooden rail above a delicate and ornamental screen along the edge of the garden, with yet more statues at intervals. Ballista did not look at the city spread out beyond the river, barely glanced at the swollen waters of the Tiber at the foot of the monument. He gripped the sculpted marble leg of Antinous, the doomed boy, loved by Hadrian. A Roman might have been troubled by the association. As heir to the different world view of the north, such omens did not bother Ballista. He had a head for heights, and leaned out as far as he dared over the rail.

The cladding of the Mausoleum was white marble. The blocks were so artfully fitted together that there was barely a discernible line where they joined. No hope of a finger hold. Seventy foot or more of smooth, sheer wall down to the base, after that ledge perhaps another forty foot down to the narrow embankment and the river. No way to climb down.

Ballista ran back to the head of the stairs, opened the door. The men were nearing the top.

Kin of Cain by Matthew Harffy – an extract

kin-of-cain-by-matthe-harrfyOn 1 March, Aria published Kin of Cain, a novella in Matthew Harffey’s Bernicia series set in Anglo-Saxon Britain during the first half of the 7th century. I’m delighted to take part in the celebratory blog tour. You’ll find an extract below but first here’s a little about what this Bernicia Tale is all about.

630 Ad. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical tale set in the world of The Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell. Winter grips the land in its icy fist. Terror stalks the hills, moors and marshes of Bernicia. Livestock and men have been found ripped asunder, their bones gnawed, flesh gorged upon. People cower in their halls in fear of the monster that prowls the night. King Edwin sends his champions, Bassus, Octa and band of trusted thegns, to hunt down the beast and to rid his people of this evil. Bassus leads the warriors into the chill wastes of the northern winter, and they soon question whether they are the hunters or the prey. Death follows them as they head deeper into the ice-rimed marshes, and there is ever only one ending for the mission: a welter of blood that will sow the seeds of a tale that will echo down through the ages.

Reviews
The Serpent Sword
Blood and Blade

Extract

The scream silenced the mead hall like a slap to the face of a noisy child.

A chill ran through the throng. The brittle laughter died on lips that quickly twisted from smiles to scowls. The warm hubbub of moments before was shattered as easily as the thin skin of ice that formed on the puddles in the courtyard outside.

One of the hounds looked up from where it gnawed a bone by the hearth fire and whimpered.

Ælfhere, the scop, lowered his lyre, the last, interrupted notes, jangling in the air.

Octa set aside the mead horn he had been drinking from. His senses were dulled by the drink, but not enough that the small hairs on the back of his neck did not prickle with the sound of anguish that came from outside the hall. He turned to his friend, Bassus, who sat on his left. The huge warrior’s brow furrowed. Bassus met his gaze and opened his mouth, but before he could speak, another scream rent the chill night that smothered the great hall.

There were words in that scream.

“The night-walker! The sceadugenga brings death!”

Night-walker. Shadow-goer.

Octa felt bony fingers of terror scratch down his spine. He shuddered, hoping none of the other king’s warriors would notice. He had not long before joined the king’s gesithas and some of the men were wary of him, he knew.

They had feasted; eating, drinking and boasting. Trying to ignore the one who haunted the dark winter paths. They had prayed, some to the old gods, others to the king’s new Christ god, in the hope that the night devil would prove to be nothing more than a wild animal. A man could hunt an animal. Arrows would pierce a wolf or a bear’s flesh. But deep down they had all been expecting more screams in the night. More death stalking the shadows. Few of those in the hall had seen the remains of the people who had been slain by the beast, but the tales of the corpses, ripped and raw, bones smashed, limbs removed, had reached them all. This was not the work of any animal. This was something else.

Something evil.

At the head of the hall, the imposing figure of the king surged to his feet. Edwin, King of Deira and Bernicia, pointed to the end of the hall where the door wardens stood.

“Open the doors,” he said, his tone commanding.

The shorter of the two warriors who guarded the door hesitated. There was a murmur in the great hall. There were many present who did not wish to see the stout wooden doors opened to the night. For who knew what horrors dwelt there in the darkness?

“Lord?”

“You heard my words clearly,” Edwin said. “Open the doors.”

Another scream, closer now.

“I am king of the folk of these lands. I will not leave them outside in the dark while we feast in the fire-glow and warmth of my hall. Now, open the doors.”

“Wait, lord king,” Bassus’ rumbling voice stilled the door ward’s hand before he had lifted the bar. Edwin looked to his champion, arching an eyebrow at the interruption.

“You are right, of course,” said Bassus, “but let us arm ourselves first. We know nothing of what awaits us beyond the walls of Gefrin’s hall.”

Edwin nodded. The door wards quickly distributed the weapons that had been left in their care. A hall crammed with drunken warriors carrying swords and seaxes was not wise, hence the precaution, but now protection of the king and the hall was more important.

Octa retrieved his seax. The weapon had been a gift from his uncle Selwyn and the smooth antler handle was comforting. For an instant his mind was filled with memories of his home in Cantware. Edita and Rheda. His mother. Beobrand. Would he ever see them again? As usual when he thought of them, he felt a pang of regret, a twist of guilt at having abandoned them. But Bernicia was his home now. Edwin his king, and the men around him, his sword-brothers.

He readied himself with the rest of the men near the doors of the great hall of Gefrin. Women and children huddled at the far end of the room, with the priests and the queen.

The reek of fear-sweat filled the air as another wail came from just outside.

“Open the doors!” roared Edwin.

The door wardens lifted the bar and swung the doors open.

Cold night air cut into the hall’s muggy warmth like an icicle plunged into pliant flesh.

For a moment, nobody breathed. The hall was silent, all eyes staring into the utter blackness of the night.

Then, stepping out of the dark and into the frame of the doorway, came a vision from nightmare. Blood-slick and steaming, staggered a figure into the hall. The men stepped back, without thinking, wishing to be distanced from this ghoul. The women gasped. The dark-robed priest, Paulinus, raised the amulet he wore at his neck and recited words of magic in the secret tongue of the Christ followers.

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For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

kin-of-cain-blog-tour

The Follower by Koethi Zan – an extract

The Follower by Koethi ZanOn 23 February Harvill Secker published the ebook edition of The Follower by Koethi Zan, with the paperback due to follow on 18 May. To mark the occasion, I’m delighted to post an extract here as part of the Blog Tour. But first here’s some information abut what the novel is all about…

She’d do anything for her husband.

Julie has the perfect life. A kind boyfriend, loving parents and good grades. She has everything ahead of her.

Cora’s life is a nightmare. A psychopath for a husband, a violent father and a terrible secret. There’s no way out.

But one night, their worlds collide. Locked in an isolated house together, they must work out what has happened – and who they can trust to set them free.

From the bestselling author of The Never List, this is a breath-taking new thriller about the wife of a kidnapper and her relationship with his last victim.

Extract

She crouched in the corner, clutching her pen, her heart pounding in her chest. She was as ready as she could be, but her breathing was too loud in her ears. It was impossible
to concentrate. Impossible to keep the panic from taking over.

It was a long time before anything else happened. Hours sitting in that truck, imagining every possible scenario that could occur when that door was raised up. Hours trying to focus her jumbled thoughts, to sort out the shock from the anger and fear, to force herself to accept that she had to face this horror utterly alone.‘I want my mommy,’ she whimpered to herself. ‘I want Mark. I want to go back in time and make Ryan wait with me. I’m such an idiot. No, I can’t think like that. No crying. ‘Come on, Julie. Come on. No one will realize you’re missing until tomorrow and tomorrow might be too late. You have to get out of here as soon as he stops. Come on, you can do it, buck the fuck up.’

Then without warning, her body was thrown again hard to one side. They were turning. It must have been a tight one because the truck struggled to make it, lurching back and forth as the driver changed gears to get it up the hill. Eventually it reached level ground and then slowed to a stop. Julie stood up and ran her hands along the side of the trailer until she reached the end. She hugged the right wall, hoping he wouldn’t see her at first and she could jump out, get past him, and make a break for it.

As he hoisted the door open, she saw his form in shadow, a bright light shining from behind as his outline was revealed to her inch by horrible inch. His face was familiar, but she had no time to puzzle it out. She screwed up her courage, hunched over, and launched herself out of the truck bed. She bolted sideways, determined to slip around the side of the truck and back down that hill. He’d anticipated that, of course, and he was fast. She never had a chance. He grabbed her by the arm and yanked her around to face him. Her eyes met his – his squinting, terrifying, pale eyes, full of suppressed rage. She went for them, jabbing at his face with her pen but he pried it effortlessly from her hand. She tried to twist out of his grip, to kick him in the groin. He shook her so hard her feet came off the ground and her head whipped back and forth. He pushed a pistol to her face. She froze, staring at the barrel, at his hands clutching it. ‘Please,’ was all she could muster up to say. She’d never seen one this close up, didn’t even know anyone who owned a gun. She stood there, in the cold, in the dark, shivering with fear and blinking back tears. Her mind had gone entirely blank when she saw that hunk of metal. No one had ever prepared her for this. ‘Please let me go. I know it was just a mistake. I won’t tell anyone. I’ll tell them I ran away. I swear I won’t tell them if you’ll just let me go right now.’

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For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

the-follower-blog-tour-poster-2

Viper’s Blood by David Gilman – An extract for the Blog Tour

Viper's BloodLast month, Head of Zeus published Viper’s Blood, the fourth novel in David Gilman’s fine Master of War chronicle of the Hundred Years War. I’m delighted to be part of the Blog Tour to celebrate the publication and you’ll find below an extract from the novel in which Sir Thomas Blackstone and his loyal bowmen and swordsmen carry war into the streets of a besieged French town in the 1360s.

You can read my review of Viper’s Blood here.

Extract

Hundreds of fireflies shimmered from the dark alleys. Burning torches. And what had been silence a few heartbeats before was now overtaken by a rising roar of men’s voices as from the streets and alleys men and women advanced in a surging line, torches held high. Fear and anger mingled in their throats. They carried pitchforks and scythes, falchions and iron bars. Women held kitchen knives ready to stab, their voices an eerie pitch that could raise the dead. Anger and fear drove them against the English invaders. And the French troops who pushed their swords into their backs. The garrison were using them as shields against the Englishmen.

Blackstone saw the threat. They would be overwhelmed. A greater fear needed to be inflicted. He raised his sword arm towards Longdon and his archers on the walls. ‘Kill them!’

Without hesitation Will Longdon’s archers turned their bows towards the snarling faces in the shimmering torchlight and as Blackstone raced for the steps screams echoed against the walls. The bowmen were slaughtering the townspeople, but, shields held high against the arrows, the French soldiers came on, trampling their bodies underfoot. To French eyes, this was to be an easy victory. Fewer than fifty men appeared to have breached the walls. They looked to be routiers and they were now trapped in the confines of the square. Crossbowmen sheltered behind the advancing soldiers and four of Longdon’s archers died on the walls.

Blackstone reached the windlass. He jammed in the turning pole. Normally it took two men to turn the drum but, letting Wolf Sword dangle from its blood knot, he grasped the handle and heaved his weight against it. The chain bit and the great door creaked. Meulon was suddenly at his side and lent his weight. The door was barely halfway up. ‘Enough!’ Blackstone said and Meulon jammed the holding rod into position.

They turned for the square. A hay cart blazed; shadows loomed high on the walls. They hurled themselves into the fray. Renfred, Perinne and John Jacob were shoulder to shoulder holding ground; Killbere was to one side and it looked as though he had been separated by a mixed group of troops and townsmen. The townsmen’s fury and terror made a heady mix as the torches illuminated a scene from the underworld. Dogs howled and barked; some driven mad by the smell of blood panicked, snapping and snarling at both attackers and defenders. Both sides slew them. Will Longdon ordered some of his men to keep shooting at the surging crowd as Jack Halfpenny and Thurgood ran further along the wall with three other bowmen and loosed arrows into the Frenchmen’s flanks.

Blackstone glanced over his shoulder. Where was Chandos? He turned around and saw the flames illuminating the throng of men and women who were still surging forward. Their weight of numbers might push Blackstone’s few men back through the very gate they had raised. Killbere had cut down four of the attackers but he was overwhelmed and fell beneath repeated blows. Blackstone turned again, Meulon at his shoulder.

‘John! Perinne!’ Blackstone yelled. They saw him move towards Killbere and within a few strides joined him. Thirty paces away Gaillard and his men had raised a shield wall and that had slowed the French advance; his men were thrusting beneath the wall into those who pressed against them, making no distinction between those they struck, turning the square into a charnel house more terrifying than any priest’s threat of purgatory. Women writhed, screaming from their wounds; soldiers fell to their knees, hands grasping at entrails spilling from pierced bellies.

‘Get him back,’ Blackstone shouted to the men-at-arms who had manoeuvred themselves to join him. Two men grabbed Killbere and dragged him into an abandoned building. ‘Stay with him!’

Several men were now at Blackstone’s shoulder and with a skill borne from years of efficient killing they moved forward in a wedge like a broadhead arrow, forcing the French back yard by yard in a grunting, sweating trial of arms that few could match. Blackstone reached Gaillard, saw the arrows still cutting into the French. Panic was claiming the enemy.

As John Chandos and his men stormed through the half-raised gate the looming shadows of Blackstone’s men methodically killing anyone who challenged them almost made the veteran knight falter. He had never seen so many being slaughtered by so few.

And then he brought his men to bear and the surge forced the French to turn and run.

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If you want to read more, you can find Viper’s Blood here or in all good bookshops.

For other stops on the Blog Tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Viper's Blood blog tour

Blog Tour: Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent – the opening chapter

lying-in-wait-pbLying in Wait by Liz Nugent was one of the best psychological thrillers I read last year, perhaps no surprise considering how superb its predecessor, Unravelling Oliver, was. One of the attractions of Lying in Wait that was most commented upon at the time of its first release in the summer was the hook of its opening lines. This is a book that grabs you by the neck and insists you read it. Penguin is celebrating the paperback’s publication at the end of 2016 with a Blog Tour throughout January. I am so pleased to be a part of it and I have the perfect post for it – that wonderful, attention-grabbing opening chapter. Put your feet up, pour a glass or cup of something lovely and journey into the lives of Lydia, Andrew and their son Laurence – if you dare.

My review of Lying in Wait
Buy the paperback

Part 1
1980

1. Lydia

My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it. After we had overcome the initial shock, I tried to stop him speaking of her. I did not allow it unless to confirm alibis or to discuss covering up any possible evidence. It upset him too much and I thought it best to move on as if nothing had happened. Even though we did not talk about it, I couldn’t help going over the events of the night in my mind, each time wishing that some aspect, some detail, could be different, but facts are facts and we must get used to them.

It was the 14th of November 1980. It had all been arranged. Not her death, just the meeting to see if she was genuine, and if not, to get our money back. I walked the strand for twenty minutes to ensure that there was nobody around, but I needn’t have worried. The beach was deserted on that particularly bitter night. When I was satisfied that I was alone, I went to the bench and waited. A cruel wind rushed in with the waves and I pulled my cashmere coat around me and turned up the collar. Andrew arrived promptly and parked not far from where I was seated, as instructed. I watched from thirty yards away. I had told him to confront her. And I wanted to see her for myself, to assess her suitability. They were supposed to get out of the car and walk past me. But they didn’t. After waiting ten minutes, I got up and walked towards the car, wondering what was taking so long. As I got closer, I could hear raised voices. And then I saw them fighting. The passenger door swung open and she tried to get out. But he pulled her back towards him. I could see his hands around her throat. I watched her struggle, mesmerized momentarily, wondering if I could be imagining things, and then I came back to myself, snapped out of my confusion and ran to the car.

‘Stop! Andrew! What are you doing?’ My voice was shrill to my own ears, and her eyes swivelled towards me in shock and terror before they rolled back upwards into her head.

He released her immediately and she fell backwards, gurgling. She was almost but not quite dead, so I grabbed the crook lock from the footwell at her feet and smashed it down on to her skull, just once. There was blood and a little twitching and then absolute stillness.

I’m not sure why I did that. Instinct?

She looked younger than her twenty-two years. I could see past the lurid make‑up, the dyed black hair, almost navy. There was a jagged white scar running from a deformed top lip to the septum of her nose. I wondered that Andrew had never thought to mention that. Her jacket had been pulled off one arm during the struggle and I saw bloodied scabs in the crook of her elbow. There was a sarcastic expression on her face, a smirk that death could not erase. I like to think I did the girl a kindness, like putting an injured bird out of its misery. She did not deserve such consideration.

Andrew has always had a short fuse, blowing up at small, insignificant things and then, almost immediately, remorseful and calm. This time, however, he was hysterical, crying and screaming fit to wake the dead.

‘Oh Christ! Oh Jesus!’ he kept saying, as if the Son of God could fix anything. ‘What have we done?’

‘We?’ I was aghast. ‘You killed her!’

‘She laughed at me! You were right about her. She said I was an easy touch. That she’d go to the press. She was going to blackmail me. I lost my temper. But you . . . you finished it, she might have been all right . . .’

‘Don’t even . . . don’t say that, you fool, you idiot!’

His face was wretched, tormented. I felt sympathy for him. I told him to pull himself together. We needed to get home before Laurence. I ordered him to help me get the body into the boot. Through his tears, he carried out my instructions. Infuriatingly, his golf clubs were in there, unused for the last year, taking up most of the space, but luckily the corpse was as slight and slim as I had suspected, and still flexible, so we managed to stuff her in.

‘What are we going to do with her?’

‘I don’t know. We have to calm down. We’ll figure it out tomorrow. We need to go home now. What do you know about her? Does she have family? Who will be looking for her?’

‘I don’t know . . . she . . . I think she might have mentioned a sister?’

‘Right now, nobody knows she is dead. Nobody knows she is missing. We need to keep it like that.’

When we got home to Avalon at quarter past midnight, I could see by the shadow from his window that the bedside light was on in Laurence’s bedroom. I had really wanted to be there when he got home, to hear how his evening had been. I told Andrew to pour us a brandy while I went to check on our son. He was sprawled across the bed and didn’t stir when I ruffled his hair and kissed his forehead. ‘Goodnight, Laurence,’ I whispered, but he was fast asleep. I turned out his lamp, closed his bedroom door and went to the bathroom cabinet for a Valium before I went downstairs. I needed to be calm.

Andrew was trembling all over. ‘Jesus, Lydia, we’re in serious trouble. Maybe we should call the guards.’

I topped up his glass and drained the bottle into my own. He was in shock.

‘And ruin Laurence’s life for ever? Tomorrow is a new day. We’ll deal with it then, but we must remember Laurence, whatever happens. He mustn’t know anything.’

‘Laurence? What has it to do with him? What about Annie? Oh God, we killed her, we murdered her. We’re going to prison.’

I was not going to prison. Who would look after Laurence? I stroked Andrew’s arm in an effort to comfort him. ‘We will figure it out tomorrow. Nobody saw us. Nobody can connect us with the girl. She would have been too ashamed to tell anyone what she was up to. We just have to figure out where to put her body.’

‘You’re sure nobody saw us?’

‘There wasn’t a soul on the strand. I walked the length of it to make sure. Go to bed, love. Things will be better tomorrow.’

He looked at me as if I were insane.

I stared him down. ‘I’m not the one who strangled her.’

Tears poured from his cheeks. ‘But maybe if you hadn’t hit her . . .’

‘What? She would have died more slowly? Or been permanently brain-damaged?’

‘We could have said that we’d found her like that!’

‘Do you want to drive back there now and dump her, ring an ambulance from the phone box and explain what you are doing there on the strand at one o’clock in the morning?’

He looked into the bottom of his glass.

‘But what are we going to do?’

‘Go to bed.’

As we ascended the stairs, I heard the whirr of the washing machine. I wondered why Laurence had decided to do laundry on a Friday night. It was most unlike him. But it reminded me that my clothes and Andrew’s really needed to be washed too. We both stripped and I set aside the pile of laundry for the morning. I washed the sand off our shoes and swept the floors we had passed over. I deposited the sand from the dustpan in the back garden, on the raised patch of lawn beyond the kitchen window. I studied the ground for a moment. I had always thought of having a flower bed planted there.

When I slipped into bed later, I put my arms around Andrew’s trembling form, and he turned to me and we made love, clawing at and clinging to each other like survivors of a terrible calamity.

Andrew had been a very good husband until just a year previously. For twenty-one years, our marriage had been solid. Daddy had been very impressed with him. On his deathbed, Daddy had said he was relieved to be leaving me in good hands. Andrew had been Daddy’s apprentice in Hyland & Goldblatt. He had taken Andrew under his wing and made him his protégé. One day, when I was about twenty-six, Daddy had telephoned me at home and told me that we were having a special guest for dinner and that I should cook something nice and get my hair done. ‘No lipstick,’ he said. Daddy had a thing about make‑up. ‘I can’t stand those painted trollops!’ he would say about American film stars. Daddy’s views could be extreme. ‘You are my beautiful daughter. No point in gilding a lily.’

I was curious about this visitor and why I should dress up for him. I should have guessed, of course, that Daddy was intent on matchmaking. He needn’t have worried. Andrew adored me right away. He went to enormous lengths to charm me. He said that he would do anything for me. ‘I can’t stop looking at you,’ he said. And indeed, his eyes followed me everywhere. He always called me his prize, his precious jewel. I loved him too. My father always knew what was best for me.

Our courtship was short and very sweet. Andrew came from a good family. His late father had been a consultant paediatrician, and though I found his mother a little contrary, she raised no objections to our relationship. After all, when Andrew married me, he would get Avalon too – a six-bedroom detached Georgian house on an acre of land in Cabinteely, south County Dublin. Andrew wanted us to get a house of our own when we got married, but Daddy put his foot down. ‘You’ll move in here. This is Lydia’s home. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.’

So Andrew moved in with us, and Daddy gave up the master bedroom and moved to the large bedroom on the other side of the corridor. Andrew grumbled a little to me. ‘But, darling, don’t you see how awkward it is? I’m living with my boss!’ And I admit that Daddy did order Andrew around quite a lot, but Andrew got used to it quickly. I think he knew how lucky he was.

Andrew did not mind that I did not want to host parties or socialize with other couples. He said he was quite happy to keep me to himself. He was kind and generous and considerate. He usually backed away from confrontation, so we did not have many arguments. In a heated moment, he might kick or throw inanimate objects, but I think everyone does that from time to time. And he was always terribly contrite afterwards.

Andrew worked his way up through the ranks until finally all his time on the golf course paid off and three years ago he was appointed as a judge in the Criminal Courts. He was a respected member of society. People listened to him when he spoke, and quoted him in the newspapers. He was widely regarded as having the voice of reason on matters legal and judicial.

But last year, Paddy Carey, his old pal, accountant and golfing partner, had left the country with our money. I thought that, at the very least, Andrew would be careful with our finances. That was the husband’s job, to be a provider and to look after the economic well-being of the household. But he had trusted Paddy Carey with everything and Paddy had fooled us all. We were left with nothing but debts and liabilities, and Andrew’s generous salary barely covered our expenditure.

Had I married badly after all? My role was to be presentable, beautiful, charming – a homemaker, a companion, a good cook, lover and a mother. A mother.

Andrew suggested selling some land to developers to raise capital. I was horrified at the suggestion. Nobody of our status would do such a thing. I had spent my whole life in Avalon. My father had inherited it from his father, and it was the house in which I was born. And the house in which my sister died. I was not going to compromise on selling any part of Avalon. Nor was I going to compromise on the money we needed to pay the girl.

But we had to take Laurence out of the hideously expensive Carmichael Abbey and send him to St Martin’s instead. It broke my heart. I knew he was unhappy there. I knew he was victimized because of his class and accent, but the money simply wasn’t there. Andrew quietly sold some of the family silver to pay our debts, and we kept the wolf at bay. He could not risk being declared bankrupt, as he would have been forced to resign from the bench. We had never lived extravagantly, but the few luxuries that were normal to us began to disappear. He gave up his golf club membership but insisted that he could still pay my store account at Switzers and Brown Thomas. He always hated to disappoint me.

But now, this? A dead girl in the boot of the car in the garage. I was sorry she was dead, but I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t or couldn’t have strangled her myself under the circumstances. We just wanted our money back. I couldn’t stop thinking about the scars on the girl’s inner arm. I had seen a documentary about heroin addicts on the BBC, and reports of a heroin epidemic were in our newspapers. It seemed obvious that she had injected our money into her bloodstream, as if our needs and wants hadn’t mattered.

As Andrew slept fitfully, whimpering and crying out occasionally, I made plans.

The next morning, a Saturday, Laurence slept late. I warned Andrew to say as little as possible. He readily agreed. He was hollow-eyed, and there was a tremor in his voice that never quite went away after that night. He and Laurence had always had a fraught relationship, so they were not inclined to be conversational. I planned to get Laurence out of the house for the day, send him into town on some errand or other while Andrew buried the girl in our garden. Andrew was shocked that we would bury her here, but I made him see that, this way, she could not be discovered. We were in control of our own property. Nobody had access without our permission. Our large rear garden was not overlooked. I knew exactly the spot where she could be buried. In my childhood there had been an ornamental pond under the plane tree beyond the kitchen window, but Daddy had filled it in after my sister’s death. Its stone borders, which had lain under the soil for almost forty years, were conveniently grave-like.

After Andrew had buried the body, he could clean out and hoover the car until there would be no trace of fibres or fingerprints. I was determined to take all precautions. Andrew knew from his job the kind of thing that could incriminate a person. Nobody had seen us on the strand, but one can never be too sure of anything.

************

When Laurence arrived at the breakfast table, he had a noticeable limp. I tried to be cheerful. ‘So how are you today, sweetie?’ Andrew stayed behind his Irish Times, but I could see his knuckles gripped it tightly to stop it from shaking.

‘My ankle hurts. I tripped going upstairs last night.’

I examined his ankle quickly. It was very swollen and probably sprained. This scuppered my plans to send him into town. But I could still contain my boy, confine him to quarters so to speak. I strapped his ankle and instructed him to stay on the sofa all day. That way, I could keep an eye on him, keep him away from the rear of the house where the burial was to take place. Laurence was not an active boy, so lying on the sofa watching television all day and having food delivered to him on a tray was no hardship to him at all.

As dusk fell, when everything had been done, Andrew lit a bonfire. I don’t know what he was burning, but I had impressed upon him the need to get rid of all evidence. ‘Think of it as one of your court cases – what kind of things betray the lie? Be thorough!’ To give him his due, he was thorough.

However, Laurence is a smart boy. He is intuitive, like me, and he noted his father’s dark mood. Andrew was snappy about wanting to see the television news, terrified, I suppose, that the girl would feature. She did not. He claimed he had the flu and went to bed early. When I went upstairs later, he was throwing things into a suitcase.

‘What are you doing?’

‘I can’t bear it. I have to get away.’

‘Where? Where are you going to go? We can’t change anything now. It’s too late.’

He turned on me then for the first time, spitting with anger.

‘It’s all your fault! I’d never have met her if it wasn’t for you. I should never have started this. It was a crazy idea to begin with, but you wouldn’t stop, you were obsessed! You put too much pressure on me. I’m not the type of man to . . .’ He trailed off because he was exactly the type of man to strangle a girl, as it happens. He just didn’t know it until now. Also, my plan had been perfect. He was the one who ruined it.

‘I told you to pick a healthy girl. Didn’t you see the marks on her arms? She was a heroin addict. Don’t you remember that documentary? You must have noticed her arms.’

He broke down into sobs and collapsed on the bed, and I cradled his head to muffle the sound. Laurence mustn’t hear. When the heaving of his shoulders had subsided, I upended the contents of the suitcase and put it back on top of the wardrobe.

‘Put your things away. We are not going anywhere. We will carry on as normal. This is our home and we are a family. Laurence, you and I.’

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The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth Norton – ‘Of Babies and Bellies’

The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth NortonThe Tudor period continues to fascinate – a period dominated by so many larger-than-life, charismatic, powerful, fearful, proud and dangerous personalities, male and female. But what was life like for a Tudor woman away from the public eye, in those major life-changing moments, such as marriage, giving birth, widowhood, but also in her daily life? In The Lives of Tudor Women, Elizabeth Norton presents the seven ages of the Tudor woman from childhood to old age, from the first years of the Tudor period to its end in 1603, through the examples of a number of very different women, ranging from the royal to the merchant’s wife to the peasant and servant. Their stories highlight many aspects of the Tudor age, including the intimate and homely as well as the religious and the unconventional.

To celebrate the publication of The Lives of Tudor Women this month by Head of Zeus, I’m delighted to host a special post. Below you’ll find an extract from Chapter 1 – of Babies and Bellies – in which Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen, faces the anxiety of pregnancy and childbirth.

The Lives of Tudor Women – Book Extract from Chapter 1: Of Babies and Bellies

Towards the end of January or early February 1492, Queen Elizabeth of York, felt a familiar fluttering in her womb – a fluttering that provided proof that she had conceived for the fourth time.

Henry VII’s queen was, by then, close to the midway point of her pregnancy. But in the first months of pregnancy, the condition was notoriously difficult to diagnose. Could her symptoms merely be ‘her natural sickness or store of water’? Alternatively, could her increase in girth be due to ‘some windy matter’ rather than an expected baby? There were signs, of course, which could indicate pregnancy; but few physicians were prepared to confirm their diagnosis until the child actually began to stir in the womb. A mistake could be highly embarrassing for all concerned, and so for months women were left on tenterhooks.

The first gentle movements, when they came, were testament to the fact that a new life had begun. For as far as most Tudors were concerned, life did not begin at conception. The man’s seed entered ‘the woman’s privitie’ as one physician coyly called the neck of the womb, there to be met by a matching seed, released by the woman. To contemporaries, these were the raw materials for a child.

Even before conception, most Tudor parents had a preference for boys. They were then anxious for some hint that their wish had been gratified. It was theoretically possible, asserted some physicians, to tell the sex, since boys occupied a right chamber to a sub-divided womb and girls the left. This segregation was, of course, a myth (‘but dreams and fond fantasies’), as others rightly realized. Life itself was deemed to begin when the soul entered the fully formed foetus, which occurred at 46 days for a boy and 90 days for a girl. A Tudor girl was thus nearly three months in the womb before her contemporaries considered her to be a living person.

The question of gender still gnawed at the minds of many Tudor parents as the mother’s sickness subsided and her stomach began to swell; and most Tudor mothers wanted a son. The wealthier sort of parents could interrogate their physicians on the sex, their questioning filling the doctors with despair. ‘It is very hard to know at the first whether the woman be with child or no,’ complained the French royal physician, Dr Guillimeau, towards the end of the sixteenth century, and ‘so by great reason must it needs be far more difficult to discern and distinguish the difference of the sex, and to determine whether it will be a boy or a wench’. They were not miracle workers. But even Dr Guillimeau believed there were certain signs a mother could look for. Everyone knew that men were hotter than women, which gave them strength, intelligence and vigour. It stood to reason then that younger women, who became hotter than their seniors, would bear boys.

There were, it was thought, some helpful things prospective parents could do to better their chances of conceiving the right gender. Those most anxious for a boy should refrain from sexual intercourse when the wind blew southwards, since this was almost sure to result in a girl. The pregnant woman could also scrutinize her reflection – was her complexion clear? If so, it could be a boy. Carrying a girl was harder work, and so the mother would have ‘a pale, heavy, and swarth countenance, a melancholic eye’. Boys reputedly lay higher in the wombs than girls – again due to their heat – while a girl would lie ‘at the bottom of the belly, because of her coldness and weight’. Carrying a girl was even believed to affect a mother’s health more adversely than carrying a boy.

In early 1492, at least Queen Elizabeth of York could content herself that she had already fulfilled her dynastic duty, with the births of two fine sons – even though death could strike down seemingly healthy children at any moment.

Once pregnancy was established, it behoved a mother to ensure the health of both herself and her child. Spending her time in ‘good tempered air’ was particularly important, as was a good diet. Pregnant women also had to think about clothing, since few women owned an extensive wardrobe. Even queens adapted their existing clothes, with extra panels added to their dresses. They could supplement them with more-specific maternity wear, such as ‘self grow’ waistcoats, kirtles and gowns, which could be let out as the wearer’s pregnancy advanced. To begin with, gowns could first be unlaced to make them roomier, before more drastic changes were required. Women would also think about clothes for the birth itself. It was common for Tudor women to wear a hood with a shoulder cape in which to give birth.

Elizabeth of York may initially have had concerns over her fourth pregnancy, because she had conceived only three months after the birth of her second son, Henry, on 28 June 1491. Her husband, heir to the House of Lancaster, had won his crown on the field at Bosworth in August 1485 – inaugurating the Tudor dynasty. His marriage to Elizabeth, who was the eldest daughter of the Yorkist King Edward IV, had helped cement his position by unifying the houses that had fought for decades. To the royal couple, who were frequently surrounded by proud demonstrations of the new dynasty, each of their ‘issue lawfully born’ helped to symbolize their union and their hold on the throne. Nonetheless, such a rapid new pregnancy in 1492 – almost certainly an accident – was a cause for concern, given the very real dangers that threatened women in pregnancy and childbirth.

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier – Blog Tour Extract

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy ChevalierNext week, Tracy Chevalier’s new novel At the Edge of the Orchard is published by HarperFiction. I’m delighted to post an extract from the novel as part of a Blog Tour to celebrate its release into the world. Here is a description of At the Edge of the World:

Ohio, 1838. James and Sadie Goodenough have settled in the Black Swamp, planting apple trees to claim the land as their own. Life there is harsh, and as swamp fever picks off their children, husband and wife take solace in separate comforts. James patiently grows his sweet-tasting ‘eaters’ while Sadie gets drunk on applejack made fresh from ‘spitters.’ This fight over apples takes its toll on all of the Goodenoughs – a battle that will resonate over the years and all the way across America.

California, 1853. Fifteen years later their youngest son, Robert, is drifting through Goldrush California. Haunted by the broken family he fled years earlier, memories stick to him where mud once did. When he finds steady work for a plant collector, peace seems finally to be within reach. But the past is never really past, and one day Robert is forced to confront the reasons he left behind everything he loved.

The extract comes from chapter one of the novel and the first part of it is told from the point of view of Sadie Goodenough.

Extract

Black Swamp, Ohio
Spring 1838

I was used to his slaps. Didnt bother me none. Fightin over apples was jest what we did. Funny, I didnt think much about apples fore we came to the Black Swamp. When I was growin up we had an orchard like everybody else but I didnt pay it no attention cept when the blossom was out in May. Then Id go and lie there smellin some sweet perfume and listenin to the bees hum so happy cause they had flowers to play with. That was where James and I lay our first time together. I shouldve known then he wasnt for me. He was so busy inspectin my familys trees and askin how old each was—like I would know—and what the fruit was like ( Juicy like me, I said) that finally I had to unbutton my dress myself. That shut him up a while.

I never was a good picker. Ma said I was too quick, let too many drop and pulled off the stems of the rest. I was quick cause I wanted to get it done. I used two hands to twist and pull two apples and then the third would drop and bruise and wed have to gather all the bruised ones separate and cook em up right away into apple butter. Beginnin of each season Ma and Pa would get me pickin till they remembered about that third apple always droppin. So they put me on to gatherin the windfalls that were bruised and damaged from fallin off the tree. Windfalls werent all bad apples. They could still be stewed or made into cider. Or theyd have me cookin or slicin rings to dry. I liked the slicin. If you cut an apple across the core rather than along it you get the seeds makin flowers or stars in the middle of the circle. I told John Chapman once and he smiled at me. Gods ways, he said. Youre smart to see that, Sadie. Only time anyone ever called me smart.

James wouldnt let me touch the apples on his trees either. His precious thirty-eight trees. (Oh I knew how many he had. He thought I wasnt listenin when he was rattlin through his numbers but drunk or not I heard him cause he repeated himself so much.)

When we was married back in Connecticut he learned real quick how many apples I spoiled. So in the Black Swamp he got some of the children to pick em—Martha and Robert and Sal. He wouldnt let Caleb or Nathan pick, said we were all too rough.

He was like a little old woman with his trees. Drove me crazy.

***************

James headed out behind the cabin, past the garden they’d begun turning over now the ground was no longer frozen, and out to the orchard. Upon settling in the Black Swamp, the first thing the Goodenoughs had done after building a rough cabin close to the Portage River was to clear land for the orchard so as to plant John Chapman’s apple saplings. Every oak, every hickory, every elm he cut down was an agony of effort. It was hard enough to chop up and haul the trunk and branches to set aside for firewood, or for making bed frames or chairs or wheels or coffins. But extracting the stumps and roots almost killed him each time he hacked and dug and pulled and ground. Prying out a stump reminded him of how deeply a tree clung to the ground, how tenacious a hold it had on a place. Though he was not a senti- mental man—he did not cry when his children died, he simply dug the graves and buried them—James was silent each time he killed a tree, thinking of its time spent in that spot. He never did this with the animals he hunted—they were food, and transient, passing through this world and out again, as people did. But trees felt permanent—until you had to cut them down.

He stood in the melting March dusk and surveyed his orchard—five rows of trees, with a small nursery of seedlings in one corner. It was rare to see space around individual trees in the Black Swamp; normally there was either open water or dense woods. The Goodenough orchard was not spectacular, but it was proof to James that he could tame one small patch of land, make the trees do what he wanted. Beyond them, wilderness waited in the tangled undergrowth and sudden bogs; you had to take each step with care or find yourself up to your thighs in black stagnant water. After going into the swamp, to hunt or cut wood or visit a neighbor, James was always relieved to step back into the safe order of his orchard.

Now he counted his apple trees, even though he already knew that he had thirty-eight. He had expected the requirement for settling in Ohio of fifty viable fruit trees in three years would be easy to achieve, but he had been assuming apple trees would grow in the swamp as they had done on his father’s farm in Connecticut, where the ground was fertile and well drained. But swampland was different: waterlogged and brackish, it rotted roots, encouraged mildew, attracted blackfly. It was surprising that apple trees could survive there at all. There were plenty of other trees: maple was abundant, also ash and elm and hickory and several kinds of oak. But apple trees needed light and dry soil or they could easily not produce fruit. And if they did not produce, the Goodenoughs must go without. The Black Swamp was not like Connecticut, where if your trees had blight or scab or mildew and grew no apples, you could barter or buy from neighbors. Their neighbors here were few and scattered—only the Days two miles away had been there almost as long, though lately others had begun to settle nearby—and had no apples to spare.

James Goodenough was a sensible man, but apples were his weakness. They had been since he was a child and his mother had given him sweet apples as a special treat. Sweetness was a rare taste, for sugar cost dear; but an apple’s tart sweetness was almost free since, once planted, apple trees took little work. He recalled with a shudder their first years in the Black Swamp without apples. He hadn’t realized till he had to go without for over three years how large a part apples had played in his life, how he craved them more than whiskey or tobacco or coffee or sex. That first autumn when, after a lifetime of taking them for granted, James finally understood that there would be no apples to pick and store and eat, he went into a kind of mourning that surprised him. His desperation even drove him to pick the tiny fruit from a wild apple tree he came across along one of the Indian trails; it must have grown from a settler’s discarded apple core. He could only manage three before the sourness forced him to stop, and his stomach ached afterwards. Later, over near Perrysburg, he shamed himself by stealing from a stranger’s orchard, though he took only one apple, and it turned out to be a spitter rather than an eater. He ate it anyway.

In subsequent years he bought more trees from John Chapman—seedlings this time—and grew his own from seeds as well. Trees grown from seeds usually produced sour apples but, as James liked to point out to whoever would listen, one in ten tended to turn out sweet. Like growing anything in the Black Swamp, it took time for the apple trees to thrive, and even those that seemed healthy could easily die over the winter. While the Goodenoughs did have apples within three years of their arrival, they could not be relied on. Sometimes the crop was heavy; other times the apples were scarce and tiny. Sometimes disease killed the trees. For several years James struggled to get thirty trees to grow, much less fifty. More recently he’d had more success, and the previous fall had picked apples from forty-seven trees. Over the winter, however, it appeared nine had died, like a punishment for his hubris.

Luckily no one ever came around to count how many trees they had, as it was too hard to get in and out of the Black Swamp for law officials to bother. None of his few neighbors seemed concerned about the fifty-trees rule. Sadie was amused by the number, and enjoyed taunting her husband with it. Sometimes she would whisper “fifty” to him as she passed. But James fretted over it, always expecting someone to show up on the river or along one of the Indian trails that crisscrossed the Black Swamp and inform him that his farm was no longer his.

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