Where Ravens Circle

Award Category
Golden Writer
Book Cover Image
Logline or Premise
In 991, Vikings sail up the Blackwater Estuary and attack Maldon in Essex. Inside the church of St Mary the Virgin, Esme and a group of women fearfully await the outcome of the battle.
In 1979, Dr Emma Stuart, a genealogist in London, is asked by a Danish client to trace a Viking ancestor who may have taken part in the invasion. An eleventh century whetstone found on his farm has a puzzling inscription. She is intrigued and decides to help him.
When her mother inherits a sixteenth century house in Norwich from an unknown relative, Emma’s research suggests unbelievable links to her own past, links that began with the Battle of Maldon.

First 10 Pages


Maeldun, Essex, England 991

Wood splintered as vibrations rocked the Saxon church of St Mary the Virgin to its core.

“Can it hold?” said Esme, hardly able to breathe.

Father Aidan stood beside her with lips pursed in grim finality. “Not under this barrage.”

Behind them, a handful of frightened women crowded into the narrow chancel in the vain expectation of greater safety. A bemused girl stood alone, separated from her mother, swinging her tiny frame. A tatty rag-doll flapped beneath her elbow. The priest scooped up the child in the crook of his arm. She nestled her head in the folds of the brown wool encircling his neck.

Esme swallowed hard. Her heart hammered. Perspiration crawled across her clammy flesh, sapping her strength. A cloud of lime-washed plaster floated onto the colourful tapestry that she had painstakingly repaired. Carved, ornamental angels juddered. Candle-holders rattled. At last the pounding ceased; an uncanny silence descended; then, the deafening crack of a final blow confirmed an awful realization: their men had lost the battle, slaughtered by the Wolves of the North.

The door jerked open, demolishing a makeshift barricade. Torchlight emblazoned clouds of fine particles with an eerie glow. Gradually, the suffocating dust thinned, unveiling a diabolical silhouette. Behind this unholy vision three more grotesque figures jostled for a place, eager to weigh the spoils of their labours. The battering ram – a water trough – lay discarded at their feet.

Esme tried to recite the Lord’s Prayer, but the phrases became muddled in her head. Energy drained down her legs, settling in the soles of her feet like lumps of clay. She stood transfixed as a broad-shouldered beast ducked to avoid the lintel, kicking wreckage from his path. A winged monster gilded his helmet. Congealed blood spread across his silver chain-mail and smeared the blade of his axe. He scanned the scene, weapon poised. Muffled murmurings penetrated the silent fear.

Sensing no threat, the brute relaxed his weapon and removed his iron mask. Esme shuddered as the force of his unwelcome gaze settled upon her. For several seconds he appraised her; then spoke using the Saxon language, his voice resonant. “Where are the others?”

The confrontation startled her. She looked to Father Aidan for guidance, but the grizzled chin was bowed in a spiritual communion that appeared to render him insensible to the situation.

“Well? Will you give me an answer?”

Although terror was paramount, Esme was conscious of her indignation growing stronger. The heathen had defiled the sanctuary of Christ. She summoned a deep-rooted reserve of courage. “There’s no one else here. They’ve all escaped.”

The corners of his mouth twitched. “Bravely spoken! I regret to disabuse you of your comforting belief, but no one has escaped, nor will they.”

His focus lingered on the untidy tresses of her hair. She baulked at the insufferable arrogance and tried to marshal her thoughts: keep talking; ask questions; use any tactic to divert his deadly intent. In a voice as determined as she could muster she said, “Our militia held the causeway and slew many of you dogs before the tide came in. We were winning.”

The Viking’s reply pierced deep. “And now, it seems you have lost.”

Anxiety clawed at her stomach. “How could that happen?”

“Your leader, Byrhtnoth, invited us to fight face-to-face on the mainland knowing he was outnumbered.”

Esme clenched her fists. “The Ealdorman would never throw away lives needlessly.”

The Viking shrugged. “He succumbed to flattery.” There was no hint of condemnation.

Taking a deep breath, the pitch of her voice rose. “He was an English lord. You mistake pride for dignity.” Then, unable to stop herself, she said, “Something you pagans would know nothing about.”

The Viking’s jaw tensed. She regretted the outburst and took a step back. He moved towards her. “It’s an unwise leader who allows his sensibilities to overcome good strategy.”

Heat emanated from his broad hauberk. Shoulder to shoulder the iron links bore witness to the death throes of those who fought to protect Maeldun. She longed for a knife and the strength to be rid of this condescending victor. In truth, the only weapon she had was her tongue.

Cheers sounded from the porch as a fair-haired youth leapt over the ruined barricade. “Lord Eirik, the men await your orders. They won’t take any from Olaf Tryggvason.” He examined the motley group wrinkling his nose. “Is this all we got for our trouble? It was hardly worth the effort.” He fixed his eyes on Esme. “Except for her,” he said, with a wolfish grin. Brandishing a knife, he swaggered over to Father Aidan. “Shall I kill the old priest? We don’t need him.”

Anguished cries arose from the chancel. Esme’s concern for Father Aidan and the child in his arms emboldened her. Flinging herself in front of them, she shouted at the newcomer. “Leave him alone.”

The young man wrapped an arm around her waist and lifted her off the ground. “Out of my way, girl.”

She brought back the heel of her shoe and kicked him hard on the shins. Her flailing knuckles caught him full on the nose, and her nails dug into his cheek. He yelped. Leif threw Esme to the floor, smearing blood across his face with the back of his hand. “She’s a wild cat.”

Father Aidan had finished his prayers and set the small girl on her feet. Without warning, he looped his arm under the shoulder of his youthful opponent. Twisting his body, he levered the younger man up and over. Leif lay stunned. His dagger clattered on the flagstones. Esme grabbed it, scrambling to her feet. “Lay down your weapon or your boy will feel his own blade.”

The Viking’s next gesture was a blur. He seized her wrist, squeezing so hard that a searing burn forced her to let go. “Enough,” said Eirik. “Leif, get up. You’ve been soundly beaten.”

Leif scowled. “I only meant to scare them.”

“And they were only defending themselves.” The Viking cast a curious glance at Father Aidan; then he turned to Esme. “So, woman, you would have me cast into the next world.” There was no rancour in his tone.

“You murdered our men.”

He released her and wiped sweat from his brow. “True, I have killed many men, but murdered none – not yet.”

She hissed through her teeth. “And women and children, do you kill them, too?”

“Not while they behave,” he said in mild amusement.

Esme’s fury rose; her breath came fast and shallow. She stared into his eyes, expecting to see the hard light of one without compassion. Instead, what she saw unnerved her. Their blueness suggested life – life in its fullness.

Leif was in petulant mood. “Lord Eirik, do we sail tonight or on the morning tide?”

The Viking continued to look at her as he answered. “Neither. We wait for Sweyn Forkbeard.”

“Shall I report to the men?”

Eirik swung round to face the young man. “No. I have a task for them which they’ll find distasteful. Persuasion will be necessary.” The Viking donned his helmet. “Stay on guard. Pull the door closed. Keep out Olaf’s thugs. Don’t let anyone touch these people. There are enough to serve us well.”

Esme’s guts churned. So his intent was to make them slaves.

Eirik flicked his fingers towards her. “Watch this one! She has enough barbs to kill a man. And no more attacks on the priest. I have a use for him.” He marched off, flanked by his supporters.

Leif growled, “You’re surrounded. Don’t move – if you want to live.” He shoved debris away from the door and tugged it shut.


London 1979

A thunderous roar and blast of warm air herald the approach of the tube train at Notting Hill Gate. Departing passengers surge forward, reluctantly making room for those arriving. Emma grabs a pole, one hand among many, as they lurch into the next black hole. She alights at Victoria.

News-stands everywhere are sporting the headline: Margaret Thatcher Wins Election. The air is filled with an unusual buzz of excitement. People who would otherwise race by are pausing to comment on this historical event: the country has a lady Prime Minister. “She’s as strong as any man,” one woman says.

Josie, Emma’s flatmate, raised a fist on hearing the announcement earlier, declaring, “That’s one up for Women’s Lib.” Emma never has been a supporter of the burn-your-bra brigade, but wonders whether behaving like a man is the answer to equal rights. She appreciates how blessed she is to have had an education and, more important, to have male colleagues who respect her.

Crossing Vauxhall Bridge, she briefly watches the boats bringing life to the river; then hurries towards a high-rise building on Albert Embankment. Stepping into the lift, she presses the button indicating Bailey, Shawcross and Stuart, and enters her office. The spectacular view from her window of the Thames, with the Houses of Parliament on the north bank, is always a delight. On her desk is a memo written on the firm’s headed notepaper. It’s from Ben Shawcross.

To: Dr E. Stuart BSc, MD, PhD

Jens Bjorn Erikson telephoned to say he will be half an hour late. He sends his apologies for the inconvenience.

She sighs, thinking how very Scandinavian this is. Generally it’s a bonus if clients even turn up within the appointed hour. Ben, one of the partners, is a genealogist. He chases records back through time. However, improvements in carbon dating and chemical analysis mean that investigations probe increasingly so far into the past that archaeological input is needed. This is Emma’s role.

A middle-aged woman in blue overalls knocks and sticks her head round the door. “I’ve made coffee – freshly percolated.”

“Thanks, Brenda. I can smell it. I’d love some.”

Emma opens a filing cabinet, pulls out the relevant folder under the letter ‘E’, and throws it onto her desk. Hanging her jacket over the back of her chair, she re-reads the letter received from Jens Bjorn Erikson.

Dear Dr Stuart,

As Scandinavia is one of your areas of expertise, I would be grateful for your help. I have a whetstone, dated from the early eleventh century, found on our family farm. A runic inscription etched onto its surface reads: Magnus, son of Edgar, son of Eirik. Our family saga, which may be fanciful, says Eirik was a leader of the legendary Jomsvikings, a band of warrior monks said to be present at the Battle of Maldon of 991 in your county of Essex. Since Edgar is an English name, I hope to discover more.

She scans the notes of her preliminary inquiries: the enduring three hundred lines of a poem entitled ‘The Battle of Maldon’ from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles; quotes from the less reliable Icelandic Jomskinga Saga; a conversation with the curator of the National Museum of Denmark. When Brenda announces the arrival of the visitor, Emma is absorbed in an article on bio-archaeology. Grabbing her jacket, she steps forward to greet Mr Erikson. He is not unlike her image of a modern-day Viking and quite handsome too. About forty is her guess. His eyes twinkle as he smiles. She hopes her unbidden reaction is indiscernible.

“Good morning, Dr Stuart. Many apologies for my lateness.” His speech is rhythmical and accented as he grasps her outstretched hand. There is no hint of disdain for her gender.

Emma wishes she had checked her appearance instead of delving into the latest version of Current Archaeology. She clears her throat. “Please take a seat. Would you like coffee?”

“Thank you. Black. No sugar.”

Brenda is hovering in the corridor and raises her eyebrows with a smirk. Emma frowns to discourage her from whispering an embarrassing comment about the newcomer. She orders the coffee then settles back into her green leather chair. “Have you had a good journey?”

“I had to meet a flight from Heathrow, which is why I’m late.”

Emma’s imagination is in overdrive. She envisages him greeting a sophisticated Danish wife with two good-looking children. “Is your hotel comfortable?”

“Actually, we’re in an apartment – a flat, I believe you call it. I come to London quite often.”

So, he’s a businessman who brings his family with him occasionally.

Brenda delivers the drinks in the best blue mugs from Harrods, and discreetly closes the door. Mr Erikson picks up his coffee and stares out of the window. “What a magnificent sight. Is that why you sit with your back to it, to avoid distraction?”

She nods. “I found your letter most interesting, Mr Erikson.”

“Please, my name is Jens, although most people call me Bjorn. May I call you Emma?” Then he adds, “Forgive me. I saw it on your nameplate.”

She is slightly taken aback. The American-style usage of first names has not yet reached London. “Yes, of course . . . Bjorn,” she says, with uncertain emphasis.

She shuffles her notes. “What is it you’re hoping to achieve?”

“Let me show you this.” He opens a leather satchel and hands her a package wrapped in linen. “This is the whetstone I mentioned.”

Emma parts the cloth and examines the weighty lump in her palm. “The inscriptions are quite clear considering its age. Have you had it carbon dated?”

“Yes. I have authentication to prove it.” He reaches inside the bag. “It definitely fits the time span. We are said to be descended from Magnus. But who was Edgar? Did he and Eirik ever live in England?”

She returns the whetstone and watches as Bjorn carefully covers it once again. “I’ve done a little research already. I’ll go to Maldon and see what I can find out.”

“Do you mind if I come with you?”

She hesitates. “It’s not our usual practice, but, in this case, yes, you are most welcome.”

“Good. Please allow me to drive us there when you are free.”


Maeldun 991

Esme spoke urgently. “Father, is there any way out? I must get help.”

Aidan scrunched up his face. “No, it’s too dangerous.”

One of the women took issue. “Who else is there, Father? Esme is younger and faster than the rest of us and has no children.”

“You know what will happen to her if she’s caught.”

“The same as will happen to all of us if we’re left here.”

“Please, Father,” said Esme.

The priest pinched his lower lip between thumb and forefinger. “There’s a grate in the crypt. It’s loose, roughly two-feet square. You could clamber out, but it’s risky.”

“I’m willing to take the chance.”

A dark-haired woman, a few years older than herself, who was grasping a small child in each hand, spoke up. “I would go with you, Esme, you know that, but I have the children.”

“Rowena, bless you, I wouldn’t expect you to come.”

“I have no children,” said a voice. A woman, whose laughter lines traced down weather-beaten cheeks, stepped forward. “I’ll come.”

Esme took her hand, “Thank you, Astrid. But it is best I go alone and find Lord Edmund. He’s a friend of the king.” The thought of Edmund stabbed Esme’s conscience. He had been her guardian – now, they were betrothed. “He doesn’t know I’m in Maeldun and will be displeased, but I’ll have to deal with that. He’s the only one who can save us.”

Rummaging in her basket, Esme fetched out a pair of scissors – two blades joined together with a single twist of metal. She tucked them in a pocket specially sewn into her cuff to keep the tool within reach while embroidering.

Aidan waggled his finger. “Promise me you’ll only use those in self-defence.”

“Of course, Father. But they could give me a moment’s advantage.”

Esme followed him into the crypt by light of a candle. Aidan indicated the grille. “Forgive me. That was a ruse to deceive the women. It is best they don’t know in case they’re questioned. I’ll remove it so it looks as though you went out that way, but you must use the tunnel. It was built for priests in case of attack. Be careful. Some of the wooden staves might be rotten.”

“Where does it lead?”

“To the woods, but men will be combing the area.”

“Kizzy, my mare, is grazing up there.”

In the middle of the crypt, a small baptismal font was positioned on a dais. Bending his knees, Aidan grunted, heaving it aside to reveal a trap door. Curling his hand around an iron ring, he yanked it up, exposing a dark hole wide enough for a body to squeeze through. “It hasn’t been used for years.”

Esme gazed into the gloomy abyss. “You’re putting yourself at great risk, Father, when they know you helped me.”

“Don’t worry about me, child. Besides, you heard the Viking – he has a job for me. I’ll pray for your safety.” Aidan knelt down, placing his hand beneath her arm as she descended the rungs. When she reached the bottom, he leaned over and handed her the candle. “God speed.”

The candle guttered and she cupped her hand around the flame, stooping to avoid clouting her head on the roof beams. The air was thin and progress was slow. She forced herself to concentrate, counting the strides, reciting poetry, imagining the safety of the wood and, above all, freedom.

At last, a faint chink of light appeared in the distance. With it came a shaft of air. The sun was nestling on the horizon as she pulled herself onto a bank of dried moss and dead leaves. The pithy smell of matured ferns filled her nostrils while she waited for her pulse to steady. She crouched and set off, creeping along the line of trees bordering the fields, listening for signs of a patrol. Every cracking twig, rustling leaf and agonized squawk of a bird made her heart leap in alarm, filling her limbs with the impulse for flight.