Siege

by Alistair Tosh
Edge of Empire: Book I

Edge of Empire – and the edge of my seat. I had the privilege of reading Siege during its development, and I loved every page – and that’s saying something, because books that focus on battles don’t usually hold my interest. Yet this one did, because of the humanity of the characters that are involved in the fighting.  Here’s its author, to tell us more about the history behind this spectacular debut novel.

 
The ancient battle of Burnswark
A guest post by Alistair Tosh


 Walter Baxter. CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Burnswark Iron Age hillfort, near Lockerbie in the southwest of Scotland, is a unique site.

In part because of its isolated location and suitability only as pastureland, the archaeology below its turf has remained largely intact. It is a beautiful place, overlooking the silver waters of the Solway Firth and the fells of the English Lake District beyond and the heather-covered mountain of Criffel dominating the Scottish side.

It is a changeable location. When standing on its distinct flat-top summit, one moment you can be in brilliant sunshine with a cooling breeze, enjoying the 360 degree views. The next instant a hard wind blows in off the Irish Sea, cloudcover lowers, shrouding all before you. It is then that the hill takes on a more forbidding character.

I visited it many times in my childhood, often cycling there with friends during the long summer holidays. I saw the mounds of the Three Brethren, that my school history teacher told me had been platforms for Roman ballistas. But it was not until I started research for my first book ‘Siege’ that I truly began to understand the site and the ferocious battle that had taken place on its ramparts between the legions and the local tribe. 

The hill is held in a vice-like grip by two siege forts. The one to the north is unusually elongated, clearly designed to prevent the escape of the defenders as final defeat beckoned. To the south the true siege fort, or more accurately assault fort, lies hard against the hill’s base, only a mere 130 metres from the hillfort’s main entrances. Three huge gateways, ten men wide, cut through its deep north facing ditches to enable rapid deployment of troops.

The three ballista platforms sit to the fore of each of the gateways. Fist sized, carved stone balls have been found on the hillforts summit. This ammunition was not designed to shatter walls, but rather to shatter bodies. Metal detectors identified and aided recovery of hundreds of lead sling ‘bullets’, lemon shaped and heavy. Under test conditions it was established that they had roughly the same kinetic energy as a modern handgun.

A second and unique type of sling ball was uncovered. This one was smaller and capable of being slung in groups of 3 or 4, like an early form of grapeshot. But what was most startling was the 5mm holes drilled in its side. When ‘fired’ it emitted a sound like an angry wasp. You can imagine the racket that a barrage of these, shot by experts, would make. Certainly an early form of psychological warfare akin to the terrifying effect inspired by the screaming of diving Ju-87 Stukas during the Blitzkrieg in early World War II.

Additionally multiple arrowheads were located, of the type used by the renowned archers of the Hamian auxiliary regiments, from modern day Syria. This topped off by the finding of several scorpion bolts. A century of a legion had one or two allocated to them and  when fired by practised hands were both accurate and devastating, especially on unarmoured bodies.

It is hard not to pity the warriors of the local tribe, possibly the Novantae, who had gathered on its summit. Exposed and forced to take cover, faces pressed into the earth as they were assailed by wave after wave of thousands of missiles, their screams of fear and agony filling the air, accompanied by the sound of a swarm of angry wasps.

Finally, when the Roman commander, possibly the veteran Quintus Lollius Urbicus fresh from the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Judea, was satisfied, he would have sent in his legions, through the three 10-man wide gates, in testudo formation. In the battle’s aftermath, it is hard to imagine there were any survivors left for the slave markets.

                                                                         
 
 Alistair grew up in the Dumfriesshire countryside for most of his childhood. A region of southern Scotland filled with ancient place names such as Thorthorwald and Caerlaverock. But it was his visits as a boy to the site of Burnswark hill and hearing the tale of the Roman siege of the Iron Age fort that fired his love of Roman and Dark Ages history. From there the kernel of the stories for the Edge of Empire took root.

On leaving school he began a 35-year communications career. Firstly with the Royal Navy, that included covert riverine and seaborne operations during the height of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, before moving into the corporate world. Military life is unique, and Alistair aims to reflect an authentic view of that experience and its language in his stories. When not writing or spending time with family, Alistair, his wife Jenny and Hurley the cockerpoo love to walk in the hills of both the UK and Andalucia.

Fifteen Memorable Books of 2021

In no order, here are the fifteen books out of all I’ve read this year that have truly stuck in my mind, one way or another.

Fiction

Karen Heenan:  A Wider World. Tudor historical fiction, but not about the royals. A nuanced portrait of a man caught up in the politics and intrigues of the Tudor Court.

Gregory Norminton. The Devil’s Highway. One landscape. Past, present, future. Spare and challenging.

Jonathan Nevair:  The Wind Tide trilogy.  Space opera at its finest: three interconnected books, with underlying ancient themes of ethics and morality and belonging.

Julie Bozza: Writ in Blood. A retelling of the story of the Earps, Doc Holliday, and Johnny Ringo – but above all about loneliness, love and acceptance.

Laury Silvers:  The Jealous.  The second of Silvers’ trilogy of Sufi mysteries, this – and the first (The Lover) as well – brought 12th C Baghdad, and the lives of working men and women, alive.

Anne Louise Avery:  Reynard the Fox.  Beautifully written retelling of the medieval western European story cycle.

Non-fiction read for pleasure:

Helen MacDonald, Vesper Flights. A collection of observational and philosophical essays on nature, with an underlying sense of both wonder and sorrow.

Charles Foster, The Screaming Sky.  Science and philosophy, once again, this time centred around swifts and their place in the world – and what the way we see them says about us.

Tom Chivers: London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City. Investigations into the lost landscapes of London. Layers of history and ecology and meaning. An urban, non-fiction companion to The Devil’s Highway.

Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris:  The Lost Spells. Beautifully illustrated collection of – poems? incantations? – about the natural world.

Non-fiction read for research and pleasure:

Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry: The Bright Ages:  A New History of Medieval Europe. A survey of early-medieval Europe, discussing change, connection, and continuity, and the contributions of often historically marginalized individuals and events.

Guy de la Bédoyère:  Praetorian, Gladius, and Domina.  All three books have been highly readable yet still scholarly works informing me about the Praetorian guard, the Roman army, and the women who helped shape Rome and Roman politics.

L.J. Trafford: Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome.  How could I not include this?  Both funny and informative, it’s a great resource for writers looking to accurately reflect Roman attitudes, or for anyone who just wants to know what Cicero had to say about sex.

Spotlight on Aaron Hodges and Untamed Isles: The Path Awakens

I’m pleased to be shining a spotlight on Aaron Hodges today, with an exciting new book – but not just a book! Aaron’s new release, Untamed Isles: The Path Awakens, is linked to an MMO game, also called Untamed Isles, releasing soon.

On a still and peaceful night, the world shook, and light split the sky asunder.

The seas parted, an island rose.

And beneath the earth, an ancient power stirred.

Zachary Sicario thought he’d finally turned his back on the underworld. For ten years he was content with his cottage in the highlands of Riogachd. But a master thief never truly retires. When Zach is struck down by a wasting illness, he is left with two options: accept his fate, or return to his criminal past in search of a cure.

It isn’t a difficult decision.

With rumours of a mysterious island circulating the kingdom, Zach goes in search of old contacts. They speak of strange lights and disappearing ships, of treasure and riches promised for the first to reach its distant shores. Zach has little interest in trinkets—but there’s another tale, one that whispers of the power to change a man’s fate.

With a secret expedition departing in the coming days, Zach decides to roll the dice. But he’s not the only one interested in magic. His competition are warriors and thieves, noblemen and assassins, all in their prime. And Zach is far from the man he once was.

Can a master thief beat the odds one more time?

Here’s an excerpt from Untamed Isle: The Path Awakens

The deck rocked beneath Garret’s feet as the ship rose on a swell, then plunged back down. Water crashed over the stern as men screamed, helpless before the storm’s wrath. Garret clung to the tiller as lightning flashed, darkness giving way momentarily to a brilliant light. Sailors stumbled in its glow, grasping at ropes and loose cargo, anything that might save them from an icy plunge.
Another surge broke across the hull and swept the deck, collecting broken rigging and men alike in its wake. Garret watched, helpless, as his people were dragged through the broken gunwales and disappeared into the dark waters of the Northern Sea.
Silhouettes of their desperate faces danced before Garret’s eyes as the lightning faded, returning the ship to darkness. And still the ocean roared, still the thunder boomed, still the men screamed.
The storm had come upon them suddenly, appearing on the distant horizon and surging across the Northern Sea, turning calm waters to whitecapped waves before they could flee. The rains had struck first, drenching every soul aboard the Blackbird. It hadn’t been long before the winds followed, carrying such power that their sails had lasted only heartbeats before they had torn loose. The waves had arrived last, crashing upon the hull of the Blackbird, smashing oars from sailors’ hands and hurling men from their feet.
Now, caught in the grips of the storm, there was nothing the crew of the Blackbird could do but cling to their ropes and pray to the Old Gods of Riogachd for salvation.
And yet Garret struggled on, hands locked to the tiller, desperate to see his crew to safety. Above, the remnants of the sails still flapped from the mast, gifting the Blackbird just enough momentum for him to steer. Miles from shore, there would be no escaping to a shallow cove, no safe birth in which to shelter. Instead, Garret watched the darkness, seeking the next rolling behemoth.
And again and again, he directed their ship into the maw of those beasts, sending the Blackbird climbing over the great mountains of water. His arms ached and the icy air burned his lungs, but still he fought, struggling to save those he could—even as he washed yet another loyal sailor washed to their doom.
He stumbled as the ship crashed down from the crest of another wave. Spray whipped across his face, stinging like a thousand tiny lead bullets. Garret gritted his teeth as the boom of lightning illuminated the next wave. It rolled towards them, white waters breaking at the peak, threatening to come crashing down upon the fragile vessel.
The Blackbird rocked as Garret through himself against the tiller, and slowly, ponderously, they turned towards the mass of water. Holding them steady, Garret closed his eyes, sucking in fresh lungfuls of air. This was it, the end of his strength. The icy power of the storm had drained his energies, leaving him empty, listless, all but spent. How much longer must be hold on, pitting wit alone against the endless fury of the ocean?


You can download the first six chapters of Untamed Isles: The Path Awakens here, or purchase from Amazon.

Aaron Hodges was born in 1989 in the small town of Whakatane, New Zealand. He studied for five years at the University of Auckland, completing a Bachelors of Science in Biology and Geography, and a Masters of Environmental Engineering. After working as an environmental consultant for two years, he grew tired of office work and decided to quit his job in 2014 and see the world. One year later, he published his first novel – Stormwielder – while in Guatemala. Since then, he has honed his skills while travelling through parts of SE Asia, India, North and South America, Turkey and Europe, and now has over a dozen works to his name. Today, his adventures continue…

Spotlight on: The Sins of the Father, by Annie Whitehead

The Sins of the Father: Tales of the Iclingas Book 2 by [Annie Whitehead]

The Sins of the Father is out today, September 15th!                                        

Here’s the author to tell us a little about this long-awaited sequel to Cometh the Hour.

The Sins of the Father is the follow-up to my novel Cometh the Hour, about Penda, the last pagan king of Mercia, his struggles to achieve and maintain independence from the aggressive kingdom of Northumbria, and his quest to avenge his kin, especially his womenfolk.

Now, his sons have come of age, as have the children of Penda’s nemesis in Northumbria. All of them are affected by their fathers’ antipathy. The new novel tells the stories of the members of this next generation, and how they try either to emulate their fathers, or plough their own paths, and how this leads to tension and, ultimately, war.

Matters have been complicated by the fact that some of these children have married into the other family, thus blurring the lines of loyalty.

From this tangled web Ethelred, the youngest of Penda’s children, a boy when all the major battles of the first book occurred, feels he has less investment in the feud, but this leads to massive guilt on his part that he might let his kin down by his lack of ambition. He sees his warrior brother wearing their father’s mantle, feels cold in that large shadow, and all he really wants to do is live quietly with his Welsh love.

Fate intervenes when, just as in his father’s day, the womenfolk of Mercia must be avenged. Now Ethelred’s task is to end the feud, once and for all. Can he honour his father’s memory yet keep his conscience clear, and find his way back to his Welsh love?

What few have realised is that wars are not always fought by men on the battlefield, and the daughter of the Northumbrian king has been given a deadly task of her own. Will she become the murderer that her father and brother wish her to be, or can she turn away from her heritage? For all involved, the stakes are high and even victory demands a heavy price.

Available from Amazon