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Pony ran her hands through her white-blond hair. She would
lose what she most valued if she did not do the one thing she
most feared. It was not fair of the Great Mother to ask it.
After the child would she fade in other ways, as her mother
had, until she disappeared entirely?
Pony shuddered as though to shake away her thoughts. She
shaded her eyes with her hand from the burning blue sky.
Ahead, her own greenhill jutted squarely into the sky,
branded with the outline of a giant horse cut into the chalk
soil. Its white beacon was visible for miles down the Vale. To
her left, the mounded earth of Waylan's Barrow hulked over
that worthy's ancient bones. She was almost home. Only one
obstacle remained. Perhaps the shepherds had taken their flock
east. She stopped to adjust the packs over First Mare's dark
bay withers. The horse nosed her up and down, breathing on her
to exchange the scent of Herd that they might know they
belonged together. She resettled the pack of wool and bowls
and seeds, a new metal spade and tanned leather, a welcome
exchange for the partnership of Young Dapple.
As she and her horse turned toward home, Pony's fear nipped at
her heels. The way to save the Gift was perilous. Her mother
had told her a thousand times that she must not let the tumult
of letting a man plant his seed disturb her calm. Peace was
required to use the Gift.
"Find a man you do not lust after, Epona, good stock, strong
seed, not simple-minded," she could hear her mother say. "Lie
with him, then send him away. Don't let him cut up your calm.
Get his seed. That is his only use." Where would she find such
Pony sensed the sheep before she heard them. That much of her
Gift was left. She resigned herself to running the final
gauntlet. The black faces and huge wool coats of a river of
sheep swirled across the path below, between her and her home.
Hunds yapped at their heels. Carnivores. The three coarse
shepherds whistled and pointed directions to the dogs.
"Look, brothers," one called "Our neighbor, Epona. Is it
"It doesn't look female," another called. "Where is your
Just keep your peace, Pony admonished herself, even as her
mother would have done. The eldest brother pushed his way
through the eddying sheep. The brothers' clothes were torn and
dirty. Their father had kept them in line as long as he had
been alive. Now, six months after his death, mead and sheep
made up their lives.
"It has a full pack on that devil horse's back," the eldest
called to his brethren.
"Do we want that pack?" The youngest was less coarsely made
but wilder than the others.
"What say we see if it is female while we're at it?" the
eldest grinned. He sent the hunds out around Pony and her
companion. First Mare sidled nervously as the hunds penned her
in with their stares. The hunds would be upon them in an
instant if they tried to run, ripping and tearing with their
evil, carnivorous jaws
A shiver of fear cycled up Pony's spine. "Out of my way," she
They laughed. It was a jarring sound, unconnected to the
rightness of the world. The eldest stepped forward until he
towered over her. He breathed rancid butter and onions and
mead. He grabbed her arm. She wanted to shriek her distaste,
to struggle against that iron grip. Instead, she breathed in
once and closed her eyes, willing calm into her center,
requiring clarity, begging her Gift to gather its waning
strength. She put her heartbeat away, the better to hear.
When she opened her eyes, all was clear. The brothers'
laughter provided only the bass profundo of a chorus of
sounds. Sheep bleated, hunds barked, a jay called somewhere.
Insects hummed and clicked, wool rasped against wool, cloven
hooves thudded in the turf, water slid by stones in the
distant stream. First Mare breathed. The hairs of her tail
swished through the air. The world sang and Pony listened. Her
soul vibrated in tune with the Great Mother.
Into this quivering tension that stretched between her and her
surroundings, she sent a suggestion. Eddying swirls of wool
and black faces engulfed the brothers, shoving, bleating.
The eldest craned around, shouting. "What? Damned sheep!" He
lost his balance and went down. Pony could hear his grunts as
cloven hooves found his softer parts. She was the still center
of the pushing beasts, untouched. The river of sheep shoved
the other brothers to the side of the path and then parted,
revealing the little trail just like that story about the Red
Sea the priest had told her once. The hunds barked and circled
to no avail. Her thoughts could not reach them, they were
carnivores, but the sheep could hear her.
Pony and First Mare walked up the trail, as another brother
went down among the hooves. "Ill-begotten bitch!" the eldest
The tension of alignment dissipated into the air, leaving her
feeling small and alone as she always did when the Gift was
put away for use another day. She hoped there would be other
days. The old dread and depression sucked the blue out of the
sky. Pony didn't look back. She and First Mare were still two
miles from home.
* * *
"And are we to trust one such as he with the honor of holding
lands for the Danes?" The words snapped into the sparks that
rose from the fire around which the jarls squatted.
Val, known as Valgar the Beast, raised his chin. The challenge
was inevitable from the moment he decided to return from the
exile he had chosen on the banks of the Volga. It came from a
hot-headed youth, Harald, his the lightest beard among the
leaders of the Danelaw. Val's fingers ached for the handle of
Blood-Letter, but the Danes wore no swords when they sat in
council. He carried only his bone flute stuck in his boot.
That was not like to convince his fellows of his worthiness.
The fact that a warrior was known to play like a scald was yet
another sign that he was unfit to lead the fierce Danes. He
turned his face to the signposts he had followed across half
the world. The stars wheeled above, uncaring, in their black
Guthrum, konungr of all land under Danish law-the Danelaw-was
silent. Now that rule of law held all the eastern half of the
great isle, but that was not enough for Guthrum. His beard was
gray, his eyes old with experience as well as with years. He
could not speak for Valgar. His choice was made. He would
appear weak if he defended it.
Val glanced around the circle at faces hardened by battle and
sea winds, made harder still by the flicker of flames that
lighted them, and pressed his own lips together. Their
knowledge of his shame was written in their eyes. His own
words could not be raised in his defense. He understood their
distrust. Why should they feel differently about him than he
Guthrum's eldest son, Ragnor, second in command, was left to
say, "Has he not fought beside us these many days? Is his
sword not strong for the Danelaw?" No one would mention the
tales of his prowess or his nerveless cruelty, filtering back
from the east. Those deeds were not inspired by loyalty for
his countrymen, but sold to the czars of Garthariki.
Did Ragnor not know the reason why Guthrum had chosen Val? It
was not for his sword-arm. Around the circle, eyes narrowed,
considering Harald's challenge. Val knew why he had been
chosen. Pushing the borders of the Danelaw into Wessex was not
a matter for the sword alone. The Saxon thegns had seen the
way it would go. Alfred, the young king of Wessex could not
protect them. The Danes had defeated Saxon armies many times
in the last year, pushing inexorably westward. If the Saxon
eorls had Frankish lands, they decamped across the narrow sea
channel. If not, they bowed to the inevitable. Now the Danes
had a task much harder than fighting their way across the
island. As their numbers stretched and thinned, they must
control what they had won with organization and with
leadership. They must bring the law of the Danes to barbarians
who did not understand the way of it.
"He speaks their language better than any of us," the one
called Egill said. "He could speak almost from the first. And
he has ruled in Barbary, where he was foreign to the people
but must bend them yet to his will. He knows our way ahead."
Egill understood. The jarl's hard blue eyes examined Val. A
scar running down the line of his jaw gleamed white in the
light of the fire. Egill was practical. His men fought for him
like demons. Guthrum, wily fox that he was, trusted him as
much as one like Guthrum could trust any man. Egill pressed
Ragnor from behind for his position as second to Guthrum, even
though Ragnor claimed an advantage as Guthrum's son.
"Ja, how is that?" Harald jabbed his question into the warm
night air. "How does he know the words of our enemies? And he
wears his hair long in back, as they do, like women."
"The better to seem their natural leader," Egill said. "He is
crafty, that one."
Ah, Val thought, Egill did not yet trust him, though he saw
his fitness for the job ahead. And he was right. Val had not
shaved the nape of his neck when he returned from the steppes,
as other Danes did. Nor did he braid plaits as they did in the
longer locks that hung around their faces. His hair waved down
his back and around his face, free, longer than the Saxons
wore theirs, but not so much as to seem strange. He had worked
to learn their language from the day he landed. He had planned
exactly how he would make himself indispensable to Guthrum. He
had counted on Guthrum to see his value, even if the others
Val followed Guthrum's gaze around the circle. The others laid
their lot not yet with Harald. But they did not share
Guthrum's faith in Val. Guthrum was silent. He did not command
their agreement. He would wait until most had consented or
rejected Val. His rule was based on loyalty, not fear. That
was the way of the Danelaw.
And that love of loyalty was just Val's problem. How could
these jarls trust one who had committed the ultimate betrayal?
Val twisted the leather strips that wrapped his wrists. Val's
gut twisted like the leather. He should never have left
Garthariki. On the shores of the Volga, it was natural to be
hated and feared for the mercenary he was. But now he found
that his own people distrusted him even more.
"First Jarl," he barked into the crackling of the fire and the
pointed silence around the circle. He stood. "Test me." He
would prove his worthiness with blood. Who would Guthrum send
against him in the honored tradition? Not Harald. Harald
didn't have a chance. It would honor Val too much to send
Ragnor. Val wagered it would be Egill. They were both strong
in battle. Egill was rangier, his shoulders and arms not quite
so thickly muscled as Val's, but he was taller, well over six
feet. He would have the advantage of reach.
The silence stretched. Val was left to stand awkwardly in the
circle, his offer unaccepted. He clenched his fists, refusing
to look at Guthrum. Would Guthrum humiliate him by refusing a
test, when Val was his own choice to hold the Down-land?
Finally, Guthrum eased himself to standing, feet apart. He
nodded his grizzled head slowly. "I will test you, Valgar, son
of Thorvald." He bent to pick a brand from the fire.
Val blinked against the pain that flickered somewhere inside
him every time his lineage was named. Why did Guthrum remind
every jarl around the circle of Val's shame?
"Let me test his worth," Harald shouted, leaping to his feet.
Guthrum nodded, arms folded. "You shall be the one."
Val jerked his gaze to Guthrum's face. Muttering broke out
around the circle. What? It was no honor to cleave a
stripling. Guthrum signaled the jarls to widen their circle
and beckoned to Val and Harald. Val set his jaw. This would
win him no acceptance. Was he reduced to returning to the
shores of the Volga? His life had been empty there. Would it
be worth living in some other exile? Perhaps he would press
from island to island across the great North Sea until he lost
himself in new lands. Bleak ice landscapes echoed the vacancy
in his heart.
Val and Harald moved to stand before their konungr. He could
smell nervous sweat on the younger man, feel his excitement.
This was, no doubt, his first test of honor. And his last.
Harald had the same hair as Val's youngest brother, Gilli,
like yellow silk from lands east of the steppes. Val realized
he might fail this test from his own cowardice. He had never
had the stomach for killing the weak, though he was known as
"the Beast." Not that Harald was weak, he told himself
sternly. Val would not let it be like the other times.
Ragnor went to get their swords.
"Ho, Ragnor," Guthrum called. "We have all we need."
Val eyed Guthrum warily. Guthrum swung up the burning brand
between the adversaries. "Roll up the sleeve on your shield
arm, Valgar," he commanded.
Val and Harald both stared at the brand, blazing into the
night, an echoing corona around the flame. Val's eyes flicked
to Guthrum's impassive face. So it was not a test of combat.
Guthrum handed the brand to Harald as Val bared his right
"This may test courage," Ragnor protested. "But not loyalty."
"As much as trial by battle," Guthrum grunted. "We ask, is
Valgar capable of betrayal?" Guthrum challenged the circle.
"If Valgar passes the test, he is loyal. If he does not, then
Harald is right, and Valgar is capable of betrayal."
The jarls nodded, murmuring assent, but surprise flashed
across some faces. Testing through pain had been replaced by
trials of combat long ago.
Val's stomach clenched. Harald grasped the torch held out to
him in a hand that shook slightly. His eyes would not meet
Val's. Val held out his right fist. At least it would not be
his sword arm charred to a stump. Would any follow a Dane with
one hand? The light curling hairs on his thick forearm gleamed
in the torchlight over the taut cords of muscle.
Guthrum clasped both their wrists. "You hold the torch,
Harald. Press your arm into the flame, Valgar. He who flinches
first, will tell us the truth of the matter."
Val's breath came hard. It should be the leader who called
halt and declared the test over, not the one who held the
torch. What cared Harald to stop the test? Val's arm was
forfeit, sure. If the burn festered, he was a dead man. If he
lived, he was a cripple. He jerked his hand up, his biceps
bunching. The jarls were intent, masking their surprise at
Guthrum's rules. The circle thickened with other men, even
with serving women, all drawn to the drama of pain and
Harald's eyes were big. Beads of sweat stood among the sparse
hairs of his upper lip as he thrust out the burning brand, its
flame licking upward.
Val steadied his breathing, willing himself to the courage
demanded here. He thought of the time he was wounded and left
for dead in the snows above Novograd. He must go away from
himself now, just as he had then, to hoard strength. He laid
his forearm slowly into the flame.
Excerpted from Danelaw
by Susan Squires
Copyright © 2003 by Susan Squires.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted January 31, 2003
Susan Squires is a puzzler to try and shoebox. Her first novel was a grabber. Danegeld dealt with a period in Britain's history, generally ignored (last one I can recall was Johanna Lynsay in her Medieval Trilogy and that was a long time ago!). It was grimly realistic, provoking - possibly too grim and too provoking for more timid readers. But there was a rare, fresh voice in the work that was so rich in history often sadly neglected in today's lighter romance market. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE fast paced, whimsical romances, but feel there is room - and need - for both styles. Variety is what keeps the market fresh. The trend is to get the history of out historicals for this slows the pace of the romance. I love romance, but I also love history, the pageantry, the drama, so Danegeld was something I was glad to see published. In her second, Sacrament, Squires gave us a thinking woman's vampire tale. Not dwelling on the vampire aspect of it, she provoked (I often wonder if provoke is not Squires middle name) you into looking at good and evil - not of the vampire, but of the desires of individuals, those acted upon and those repressed, and the choices those desire can drive one to make. Many bemoaned this was not a traditional (aka stereotypical) vampire tale, to which Squires quite blithely thanked you and agreed. Her third work, Body Electric, pushed the boundaries and was a brilliantly conceive bit of Michael Crichton techno thriller. Sometimes you might not like what Squires is doing in her books, but she never fails to provoke you. All three works were of strong merit, well researched, and with interesting characters, even too a walk on the wild side...but she just missed bull's-eye. Squires comes full circle, returning to that dark period in British History - and WOW - her fourth novel, Danelaw hits the target...in fact she blows it away. This is not a sequel to Danegeld, so do not buy it with that impression. Danelaw stands on it on and it is Squires' best work. Rich in period lore of the British Isles and the Dane invaders during the period of Alfred, Squires delivers a powerful tale of Epona "Pony" the last of her kind, the woman who speaks to horses and lives below the great chalk horse on the Downs. She little knows she is a priestess to the Cult of Epona, the Scots Horse Goddess of War, but the fame of Epona was spread far and wide. Called 'Mare' (MAH-ray) by the Irish of Dalriada, she was the bringer of dreams good and bad. The English word nightmare is derived from her Irish name. The Goddess was even adopted by the conquering Romans whose cavalry called upon her to aid them before a charge. She was the only Celtic deity enshrined and worshipped in Rome, where they saw her as the Triple Goddess Eponae. To the Saxon Alfred, the man who would unite Britain after the Roman withdrawal, reclaim Danelaw (nearly a 1/3 of England) from the Danes, Epona was called Horsa, but whatever the name, he saw the power and potential of using Pony to achieve his destiny. Her mother had taught Pony that she must bear a girl child to continue the line from the dawn of time, the keeper of the faith of Epona. Only, she warns Pony not to care for a man else he destroy her through her heart. Pony is a smart lass, though often naive, and sees her role a simple one...to fulfil her destiny to produce the next girl child to live under the chalk horse on the Downs, to continue the line. Though naive, she realised when Alfred appears on her doorstep that he means to use her, but in her shrewdness, she uses him. This is a fine man, a man to give her the girl child to continue the line, a man she will not care for so she will not die of a broken heart. Alfred beds her, getting his "seal" of approval from the Goddess Epona, with the intent of using that to rally the Saxons to push the Danes from Britain. When he leaves, Pony is secure her heart is safe. Only, the Viking plunders come to Pony's door and Pony's finds there is moreWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
Epona knows that the times are turning darker at least to followers of the Goddess as Christianity begins to sweep away the old religion that she still practices. She also realizes that her ¿gift¿ is beginning to fade and she must quickly mate with the right man to pass on her gift to her daughter just like her mother did to her. However, Pony as she is known, fears she will evanesce just like her mom so has delayed the inevitable for a decade, but the catastrophe her mother predicted seems imminent and time has run out for Pony. When Pony meets Saxon King Alfred she thinks this noble liege must be the one, but then she encounters Viking Valgar the Beast and wonders if he is the chosen. As Pony struggles to make up her mind by choosing one and leaving the other behind, her selection will impact England. She knows that even with her full of loving for one of the men, her choice must be what is best for her people and not necessarily her heart. Fans of Dark Ages mystical romances will appreciate Susan Squires¿ latest magical tale. The key to the exhilarating plot is the lead female character that seems so believable whether she talks with the animals or struggles with her fears, doubts, and uncertainties. As the author did with the delightful DANEGELD, Ms. Squires provides a strong historical romance that adds to her growing reputation for enchanting, unique stories. Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.