One woman’s quest to defend her culture: Read an extract of Songwoman by Ilka Tampke

By Sam Bradbury

Posted on October 4, 2018 in Uncategorized with tags

Love Outlander and Game of Thrones? Well, we have a treat for you today! To celebrate the publication of Songwoman by Ilka Tampke, we have an exclusive extract to satisfy your cravings.

The standalone sequel to Skin, Songwoman follows Ailia as she leaves the forests where she has been living in order to help Caradog, the charismatic war leader, defend their country.  Set in Iron-Age Britain, Songwoman is a powerful exploration of the ties between people and their land and what happens when they are broken. With rich and beautiful prose, and unforgettable characters who are both fascinating and flawed, this novel is a beautiful and unmissable addition to historical fantasy.

Here’s the description:

One woman’s quest to defend her culture.

Haunted by the Roman attack that destroyed her home, Ailia flees to the remote Welsh mountains in search of the charismatic war king, Caradog, who is leading a guerrilla campaign against the encroaching army.
Ailia proves herself an indispensable advisor to the war king, but as the bond between them deepens, she realises the terrible role she must play to save the soul of her country.

 

 

Memory

All of the earth is made by a song.

Each river, each stone, a different note.

Those who sing are the Mothers and we worship them.

The Singing was before time, before seasons,

but in every generation, there is one woman who can remember it.

I am that woman.

I am the one who carries creation.

 

The mother’s whiskers quivered. Her ears flicked forward then back, though neither Neha nor I made the slightest rustle as we crouched behind the cover of sedge.

She was a mountain hare, tough and fatless, but would give our sunken bellies something to suck on. If we could catch her. She loped one length closer to the three leverets grazing near their nest. They were only days old. But what little meat covered their bones would at least be tender.

Neha whimpered as she stared at our prey. I knew how she felt. Slowly I raised my weapon. I was no trained slingswoman but a year’s hungry practice had given me fair confidence I would make this mark. Neha took her silent command. I sensed her haunches tighten as she readied to strike.

I drew a plum-sized stone back into the plaited gut, stretched it taut, aimed, then released. It hit the hare’s shoulder, stunning her just long enough for Neha to pounce and break her neck with one swift crunch. The leverets scattered. I did not pursue them. The mother would be meat enough for several days, accompanied by ground elder shoots if the weather was still kind enough to coax them up.

The carcass flopped against my thigh as we walked back to our cavern, my mouth flooding at the thought of meat juices sizzling over the fire. I paused at a branch in the trackway that I did not immediately recognise. The turns and dips of the mountainside were less familiar since autumn had begun to strip the forest of leaves. But where my senses became unsure, Neha’s never did, and we soon reached the crag of mossy rock set in the hillside that was our home, our doorway a fissure in the stone, hidden between ferns.

Inside, I dropped the hare on the ground and squatted at the hearth to kindle the embers cooled by the chill morning. Neha watched me, eager for the spoils of our hunt.

The flames surged, brightening the walls of folded limestone that had sheltered us through every season, puckered and pale, unmarked by human hand, except for the row of grooves I had scratched near the head of our sleeping place to mark the setting of each day.

Our dwelling place was not without comfort. There was height enough to clear the smoke, yet it was not so cavernous that I could not seal most of the crevices with clumps of moss against the drafts. Our bed was dried grasses covered with the pelt of a sow that wolves had killed and abandoned half eaten, leaving me with a bristly bedskin. The short sword beside it and the sling and knife at my waist were my only possessions.

The grooves above my bed numbered almost five hundred.

Five hundred nights slept in this Mothers’ place, this wild place.

Five hundred days since I had seen another human face. Or perhaps I should say another face of living flesh, for there were always faces in the knots of the oak trunks and the crags of the cliffs; ghosts of my tribe that had followed me, asking why I had abandoned them. Why I had not kept them safe.

I grabbed the hare and stood up, lurching with the light-headedness of hunger. I was thin, but my limbs were roped with muscle from the daily descent to the river. There was food enough for one who had learned to distinguish the edible from the poisonous of the forest fruits. We had fed on small quarry, berries and roots that lay dormant beneath the snow, but, in truth, I had chosen to eat little. For I was full to sickening with what I had seen, with what I had done.

Once I had been frightened to sleep alone. Now I could scarcely remember the shape or smell of another body, let alone imagine one lying beside me. Now I would rejoice to know only that fear.

I stepped back out through the cave’s opening. An autumn shower had left droplets on every twig and blade. A wind stirred, loosening leaves to the ground. The forest was in flux.

I breathed the wet air. This was my place now. I had been condemned to it. It had not forgiven me, but it had chosen to let me live. There was no one I could harm here and nothing that could harm me. My breath was the howling winds and my skin was the mist that held to the mountainside. I was this forest place.

I walked a short distance, then pulled my knife from my belt, lifted the hare, and sliced its underside from throat to anus, holding it at arm’s length while the innards splashed to the ground. Neha looked to me, cocking her head, and I nodded my permission for her to eat. The meat would strengthen us both and we would need it.

With the coming of winter, it was time to come down from the mountain. It was time to rejoin my kind. I was strong enough now, I hoped. I had eaten directly of the Mothers’ meat and drunk of their rivers’ water. I knew this country as a woman knows her own body, her own skin.

I needed to know it thus, because I was its protector.

I knew that when I returned to the world of the tribes, the hounds of change would be feasting on their own hunt spoils, threatening new laws, new knowledge, new language that called this land their own. I had been one year in a place where the soldiers could not touch me. Now I had to return to see what they had done.

Crouching on my haunches, I slit the hare’s neck and began working the pelt free from its shoulders. As well as the innards, Neha would eat the skin, the feet and the head. The muscles were mine. I hooked a thick hank of hair behind my shoulder. My curls were now so matted and strewn with grass seeds that no combing or washing would ever release them. I wore my hair thus because I was in mourning.

But my grief could continue no longer.

I had a title to bear. I had a war to win.

***

My calves ached from walking. It had taken four days to be free of the mountains, and another three to convince those I’d met on the farm roads that I was not a scout for Plautius, the Roman Governor who also sought the war chief Caradog.

It was an iron miner, his clothing as frayed as my own, who told me, in an accent so broad I could barely understand it, that I was very near to the township of Llanmelin, but that the war chief had not been seen there for nine parts of the year.

Nine parts. The time our poets said it took to travel to the hidden world, Annwyn, and back. I smiled my thanks. In western Albion, as yet unclaimed by Rome, the ways of the tribes were unchanged. I knew these ways, I had trained in them, and I reminded myself, as I walked towards Llanmelin, that I could expect to find much that was bound in riddles.

Through dense woodland, I heard the settlement before I saw it: lowing cattle, striking hammers, children screeching in play. Beyond the next turn it stood before me: Llanmelin, tribal centre of the mighty Silures, one of the last free tribes. If this was where Caradog had taken refuge, he had chosen cleverly, for I had not seen the hill town until I stood almost at its gates. Two human heads stared blankly from wooden stakes, flanking the entrance path. Their ash grey faces were clean-shaven, belonging to Rome or her fighters and not long dead. Neha sniffed at the dried blood that had dribbled down the stakes. I called her back. They were not worthy even to feed our animals.

I passed between them and began the ascent to the gate. Builders were at work on the ramparts, digging a second ditch, their picks ringing as they hit the limestone bed. Llanmelin was strengthening its defences.

‘Halt there!’ A gate guard dropped from his platform to block my path. He was taller and fairer-skinned than the dark, compact men working the walls, and he questioned me with a gaze so direct I could scarcely meet it. ‘What is your purpose?’ he asked. ‘We have scant spare grain for beggars here.’

I knew I looked like a fringe-woman. I had washed my dress in the river stones, but the fabric was in rags, and my cloak was spattered with mud from my journey. ‘I am no wanderer. My home was Caer Cad of the Durotriges and I come seeking Caradog of the Catuvellauni.’

The guard looked suspicious. ‘He commands many more than the Catuvellauni now.’

‘Is he within?’

‘Why do you seek him?’

‘I would speak to him directly—’

‘Speak to me or you will not pass a step closer.’

Who was this tribesman to command a knowledge-bearer, albeit one who stank of bat piss? ‘Do you threaten a high journeywoman?’ I said, drawing back my shoulders. There had been no time before the attack for my teachers to pierce my forehead with the dark patterns that would mark me as a journeywoman, a woman of learning. But the sword that hung at my belt spoke of my position. I put my hand to its hilt.

He frowned as he read the shapes carved into the bone. Then I startled as he broke into laughter.

‘What amuses you, tribesman?’ This guard was beginning to grind at my patience.

‘The Mothers’ mischief,’ he said, smiling. ‘They give me a priestess wrapped as a fringe-wretch.’

‘They give you nothing,’ I said. ‘Who is chieftain here?’

‘Hefin commands Llanmelin—’ the guard leaned towards me ‘—but he, in turn, is commanded by Caradog.’ He straightened back to his full height as I stared at him, galled by his loose tongue. ‘Be sure to bathe before you see him,’ he added. ‘He prefers his visitors more sweetly scented.’

‘I will bathe,’ I said, furious. ‘And you can be sure that I will speak to Caradog of his guard’s disrespect.’

With this he laughed even harder and stepped aside for me to pass. ‘He will be delighted to hear it.’

***

Inside the gate, a surge of sorrow and relief broke my stride at the sight of the township spread before me — the first I had entered since I left Caer Cad.

My wild-fed limbs, so tireless in the forest, began to shake as Neha and I walked past the grain stores, the clustered roundhouses, the goat pens, and ale huts with their rich odours of rotting barley. Everywhere there were people, tending, crafting, kneeling at querns. Conscious of my dishevelment, I passed them quickly.

‘Behind the forge huts,’ answered one of the women when I asked where I would find the chieftain’s hall.

Only when I saw the vast building—more than a hundred paces in circumference, its walls as thick as an oak trunk, its roof a mighty cone of silver thatch reaching almost to the ground—did I truly know I was returned to a place of the tribes.

Hefin’s stable yards were crowded with ponies. Caradog must have been persuasive to have gained the alliance of such a prosperous king. I knew he had ridden the breadth of Albion since the Romans came, gathering fighters to join his war band, enticing those who opposed Empire rule wherever their leaders did not. It was said that his warriors wore tartans from every clan of Albion. But the Silures were the first whole tribe who had knelt at his sword.

To the east of the chieftain’s hall was the cook hut, marked by a white hide nailed over the doorway. I glanced at my blackened nails and turned towards it. The guard was right; I could not stand before a man such as Caradog until I had bathed.

I struck the bell and a servant appeared through the doorskins, her face falling in disgust at the sight of me. ‘I am no dirt-dweller,’ I said quickly, emotion rising in my chest. ‘I come from deer country, though I am skin to the dog.’ The words tumbled out as the servant’s frown blurred before me. ‘I am a high journeywoman but I have wilddwelled for fifteen moons. And—’ my legs swayed, ‘—my tribe are all dead.’ I fell to my knees.

***

I do not know for how many hours they tended me in the cook hut. I was washed then given a linen under-robe and a dress of rust-coloured wool, simple clothing that was soft and clean against my skin. I ate a porridge of wheat and sheep’s milk as a servant rubbed fat into my blistered feet. Another took up a bone comb and began running it through the ends of my hair, but I bade her stop. I was not yet ready to relinquish my loss. So she bound the tangled mats into one thick clump at the nape of my neck and picked out what burrs she could loosen without combing.

When I was almost ready, a noblewoman came through the doorskins and sat beside me at the fire. Her shawl was the hue of the sky and her hair was spirit pale, bound in intricate braids. ‘You seek Caradog?’ she asked in an eastern accent.

‘Ay.’

‘With what purpose?’

I looked at her. ‘To win this war.’

‘How?’ She sat perfectly still. Her eyes were as blue as her shawl.

‘I don’t yet know.’ She frowned.

‘But I bear a knowledge possessed by no other.’

‘Of what?’

I paused. Had my story been so easily forgotten? Had it even reached these tribelands? ‘Of the Mothers.’

She stared, appraising me, then nodded. ‘War has tested our bonds to the Mothers,’ she said. ‘If you can rekindle them, then I, for one, will welcome you. But know this—’ Her voice was soft. ‘Caradog is a man of many weathers. He could deliver us or destroy us. Learn to predict him and you will bring us to firm ground.’

‘Why are you telling me this?’

‘Because I want my home to be safe again.’

I gazed at her as she spoke. An excess of silver ringed her wrists and swung from her earlobes. She was as luminous as the moon. ‘I have lived under sky for more than a year,’ I said. ‘There is no storm that can frighten me.’

‘Good then.’ She smiled. I had not seen a woman more gracious.

‘Are you journey-trained?’ I asked, though she bore no mark.

‘No.’ She laughed. ‘My name is Euvrain. I am Caradog’s wife.’ I was mute with surprise.

She pulled one of the bands from her wrist and held it forth in her palm. ‘You should wear some metal when you meet him.’

***

I walked through the late-day sun to the chieftain’s hall, where Hefin and Caradog awaited me.

With their servant’s announcement, I stepped through the inner doorskins. A fire smouldered at the centre of the hall, surrounded by several rings of benches carved with patterns of oak sprigs. Facing the doorway, in the strong place, sat a warrior. He was silver-bearded, though solid as a bull. ‘Come forward,’ he called. He could only be Hefin, for Caradog was surely a younger man. A bald-headed journeyman sat at his west, tracking my entrance with hooded eyes. He wore the bone-hued robe of an elder and clutched a staff, despite not being in ceremony.

Only when I neared the fire, did I notice another figure at the hall’s periphery. He had his back to the room, pouring ale into a bronze cup. Was it him? There was something I recognised in the span of his shoulders, the height. As he turned, I stifled a yelp. It was the guard who had stopped me at the gate.

‘Welcome, journeywoman,’ he said, walking into the firelight. ‘I am Caradog, son of Belinus.’ He handed me the tribal cup with the same proud smile with which he had met me. Only now, at least, it accorded with his true position. Resistance leader. War Chief. The man whom Rome could not defeat.

I watched him above the rim of the cup as I drank. His eyes were shaped as if he had just heard a joke or was brewing to make one. A silver neck-ring marked him as royal, yet otherwise he wore no embellishment over the warrior’s shirt I had met him in. He needed none. ‘I have slain one hundred Roman soldiers at the Medway and many hundreds since,’ he continued. ‘I am enemy of Claudius, once prince of the Catuvellauni, now defender of all free tribes.’

‘I call him Horse-end,’ cut in Hefin, ‘because of the amount of shit that comes out of his mouth.’

Caradog laughed. ‘This is my faithful host, Hefin, and his journeyman, Prydd.’

I bowed, swallowing a smile. All warriors proclaimed themselves, but this man was as sure as the sun. ‘I am Ailia of the Durotriges, skin to the dog, and enemy of Rome.’

‘Fret not about Rome,’ said Caradog. ‘They will be gone by next spring.’

I half-laughed. ‘How?’

‘Because I will remove them. With the help of this war god, Hefin, of course. These are our tribelands. They will remain with us.’

He spoke as if there were truly no doubt. As if over fifteen kings had not already submitted to Claudius, by will or force. As if he were not the only man from eastern Albion who still fought them. ‘How can you be so certain?’ I asked.

‘Because the Mothers will it. Because I will not rest until it is done.’

It was dazzling. I had never seen such self-belief, a spirit so sound, so impermeable, that it shone like polished metal. Silently, I praised the Mothers. They had given us someone who could protect us. I could swear allegiance to this man. I could commit to him my knowledge.

I felt the heat of his appraisal as he took back the cup.

‘Ailia?’ said Prydd the journeyman. ‘Did you say this was your name?’ His voice was unusually high-pitched.

‘Yes.’

‘Is your township Caer Cad?’ Though I was of his kind, a knowledge-bearer, Prydd offered no kinship in his tone.

‘Ay, though it now lies as ash.’ I paused, suddenly hesitant to confess my status. ‘I am thought to be—’

‘I know who you are.’ Prydd turned to Caradog. ‘She is no mere journeywoman,’ he said. ‘Her story has travelled to the edges of Albion, although the journeymen have kept it well-hidden, lest it fall onto Roman ears.’ His mouth twitched beneath a sparse moustache. ‘She is Kendra of Albion.’

No one had yet bade me sit. I stood, unmoving, wondering what configuration of my story had survived and spread. Did it condemn me?

‘This bud?’ said Hefin. ‘She is scarcely ripe!’

‘Years do not determine it,’ said Prydd.

Caradog stared at me. ‘Why was I not told of her?’

‘Why were none of us told of her?’ said Hefin.

‘We believed her dead. Slaughtered with Caer Cad,’ said Prydd. ‘She has been unseen for more than a year.’ He looked at me. ‘Where did you hide the Kendra’s torch when it was so needed?’

I had not expected the accusation, as pointed as a whittled stick. ‘I…I have lived wild in the mountains, and sat in solitude, in contemplation…’

It was common for journeypeople to take seclusion in untouched places. It had been my retribution, my strengthening. It had never occurred to me to see cowardice in it. I glanced at Caradog. What would he see?

‘You lived a year alone in the forest?’ asked Caradog. ‘And hunted alone?’

‘I had my dogess.’ I wished Neha were beside me now, but she had not been permitted to enter the hall.

His brows lifted. ‘Would that I had one warrior so skilled.’

‘Would that I had a spear to show you one,’ said Hefin and both men laughed.

‘The Kendra is Mother-chosen,’ said Prydd over their laughter. ‘None may withhold her, not even the earthly woman who bears her title.’ He looked at me. ‘Your knowledge belongs not to you, but to the tribes.’

‘And so here she is, wiseman!’ said Caradog, before I could answer the reprimand. ‘Are we not honoured to receive her in these tribelands?’

Something altered in Prydd’s expression, as if he had turned a tarnished coin and found its other side gleaming. ‘Indeed we are honoured,’ he said.

‘Why have you come to Tir Silures?’ asked Hefin. ‘We can scarcely keep our own journeymen here. They are always trotting off to Môn on the smallest spin of the stars…’

‘To offer my aid to Caradog’s war.’

Horse-end’s war?’ said Hefin. ‘Who do you think provides the men? And the weapons?’

‘What aid do you propose?’ asked Caradog, ignoring him. ‘With respect, journeywoman, the Kendra is a figurehead, albeit a powerful one. I would be honoured to fight in your name, but this does not require you to stand at my side.’

I frowned. ‘I bear the voice of the Mothers—’

‘A long-grown oak bears the voice of the Mothers,’ said Caradog,

‘Yet is of little use in crafting battle strategy.’

I flinched at the rudeness. Yet his question was valid. ‘I can augur…and I have visioned for battle…’ My answer wavered. I had been prepared to defend my actions. I had not been prepared to defend the Kendra’s purpose. This had never been questioned.

Caradog shrugged. ‘I have augurers already, but another would do no harm…’

‘I think not,’ said Prydd. ‘That you are returned will hearten our warriors. But you will need to be taken to Môn and held in sanctuary.’ I met his stare. Most of our learning places had been destroyed by the Romans. The island of Môn was the last training place for the journeypeople. I had long hoped to go there. But not now. ‘I have no wish to go to Môn—’

‘You cannot stay here with the man the Romans pursue above all others,’ said Prydd.

‘Let her stay,’ said Caradog. ‘I am curious to learn of her talents.’

Prydd frowned. ‘It invites danger, War Chief. To her and to yourself. She will serve us best from the safety of the Isle.’

I bristled. They were speaking of me as if I were a prize mare at market. As if I were not the Kendra of Albion. In Caer Cad I had been acknowledged as the voice of the Mothers, Albion’s highest knowledge-bearer. Perhaps they knew, after all, what I had done, how utterly I had betrayed my tribe. Was this why they dishonoured me? But nothing had been spoken, no questions asked. ‘I do not wish to be held in safety,’ I told Prydd. ‘I do not wish to be sheltered from this war. I am ready to stand in danger.’

‘Then you shall.’ Caradog was fastening his cloak. ‘I like you,’ he said. ‘There’s a place for you here.’ Hefin chuckled.

Prydd was silent.

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