The Needle in the Blood

The Needle in the Blood

by Sarah Bower

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781402265921
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 03/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 544
Sales rank: 943,104
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Sarah Bower is a literature development officer for Creative Arts East. She teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia. She was UK editor of the Historical Novels Review for two years until the beginning of 2006, when she stepped down to make more time for her own writing. She is the author of the forthcoming novel The Needle in the Blood.

Read an Excerpt


14th October 1066

The voice doesn't sound like his, though he can feel its vibrations in his throat. It sobs and growls, bellows and screeches like a cacophony of demons. My name is Legion for we are many. Odo is afraid he's lost his reason, but if the rumours are true, and William is dead, it might be better to be out of his mind. If Godwinson finds him.

"You said this couldn't happen," he yells, in this voice like a cracked bell. The air is thick with smoke where fire-tipped arrows have set the grass smouldering. "You were the Wrath of God. How could you die?"

He has let the reins go, one hand trails the borrowed sword, the other is clasped around the amulet he wears, the Tear of the Virgin, William's gift. He has lost his shield. Fool. Lost his shield? What sort of soldier is he? God's soldier, he is God's soldier.

His horse plunges down the ridge, shouldering its way past crowds of men on foot, stumbling over corpses and hummocks of maram grass, slipping on churned earth, slimy with blood and spilt guts. Disorientated in the pall of dust and smoke, the animal rears to avoid a kneeling peasant trying to prise a severed hand from the hilt of a sword. Norman? Saxon? Which side of the line is he? Doesn't matter. The main thing is to stay in the saddle, clear of the melee of men on foot hacking and pulping one another. Heels down, weight forward, squeeze with the thighs, at one with the animal.

Perhaps he is dead, not William, and the din battering his hearing, the sting of tar and horse sweat and burning fat in his nostrils, the eerie sense of being both in the thick of it yet watching himself from somewhere else, perhaps this is hell. He is a prince of the Church, which is inclined to make a man assume he is immune from hell, but he knows now that he has never truly believed it. Nothing is certain but uncertainty.

His eyes smart, full of tears, or sweat, or blood, he cannot tell. His helmet is a vice, branding the rings of the chain mail hood beneath it into his temples and the tonsured crown of his head. It's possible he has been wounded, he can't remember, but there is such a pain in his heart. Yet it is still beating. He can hear it, feel its rhythmic rush and suck. Arrows drumming against leather shields. Silence. Reload. The whistle of quarrels from bowstrings. Instinctively he turns the horse broadside to the archers, to shield himself and ducks behind its neck. Screams of fallen men and horses. Other men and horses. So he is still alive. A voice in his head taunts him: Which is more than this horse will be if you don't move. Horse, shield, what next?

Over to his right he can hear the Saxon war cry: Goddemite, God Almighty. The men in the front line on top of the ridge shake their shields in time with the chanting. The sun is out now, burnishing blood and weapons, gilding the smoke pall. The iron rims and bosses of Saxon shields flash in the corner of his eye. To the left the Norman response, William's motto: Dex aie, God aid us.

Except that God is not helping them. God has taken William from them.

"Why?" he shouts, raising his eyes heavenward. "Tell me, I'm Your anointed priest. Make me understand."

His horse stumbles to a halt among a group of young knights whose armour is as pristine as their white, beardless cheeks. He can measure their inexperience by the shock in their eyes as they look at him. Look to him, identifying him by the hauberk of woven leather he wears over his mail. Courting disaster, William had snorted. Being myself, he had thought.

"Is it true, my lord?" asks one, scarcely audible above the din. "That the Saxons have broken through and Duke William is dead?"

He blinks away the tears, the blood, whatever it is, brings his gaze into focus on the boy's pleading face. He removes his helmet, pushes back his hood, and runs his hand through his hair, matted with sweat. He finds the odour of his own body reassuring as he raises his arms, familiar, human. Not the perfume of a soul mounting to heaven nor the reedy scent of a ghost. He smiles, he hopes, his parched lips cracking, his jaw aching. He only knows he has succeeded when he registers the effect of his smile on the young knights. It is a well-rehearsed smile, companionable, disarming. It usually serves him well. The young knights look relieved. They can trust him; he is the duke's brother, his confidant: he will know what to do.

He looks around the battlefield, seeing it suddenly as though he were a bird flying overhead, mapped out below him like a diagram in a text on military strategy. He sees foot soldiers from Harold Godwinson's right flank pouring down the ridge like water from a broken dam. They are in pursuit of the panicking Bretons who were supposed to hold the Norman left. Fucking Bretons, maids and milksops the lot of them; they'll pay for this. A low hillock rises some way to the west. Gathering the reins and coaxing his horse into the center of the group of boys, he beckons them closer, so they will be able to hear him above the noise of the battle. The horses stamp and snort and jostle one another, fighting for space. One thing they never tell you is how crowded a battlefield is.

"Look." He points at the Bretons and the pursuing Saxon fyrd, hoping the boys cannot see their faces from here. "See the Bretons over there, the ones who look as though they're retreating. They're not. They don't listen to rumours. They're leading Godwinson's men right into a trap. They're going to drive them up that rise and surround them. You men go to their aid. Quick as you can."

The young knights look where he points. They pause, nerving themselves for the fray, then one of them shouts, "Bishop Odo," his voice lurching up the scale from adolescent croak to childish falsetto, "it's the duke!"

Odo looks. The sun glances off swords, shields, armour, harness, arrowheads. Blinded by gold and iron, he raises one hand to shield his eyes. The gesture seems to take forever, as though the gulf between will and action is unbridgeable.

Then he sees a knight on a black war horse, bareheaded, his hair glowing like a firebrand as the wind catches it. William. And behind him, the Frenchman, Eustace of Boulogne, flamboyantly moustached, bearing the Papal standard. Odo catches his breath, realising as he does so that he has been holding it for several seconds. The sudden rush of air makes him dizzy.

William laughs as he draws rein and leans forward in the saddle to punch his brother's shoulder. Odo prays he will not feel him shaking. He clenches his hands, one over the other around the pommel of his saddle, to steady them, afraid he might revive the demons if he tries to speak. That if he does not cling to his saddle, he will find himself on his knees in the mud, clutching at William's stirrup, whimpering like a child unable to throw off a nightmare.

"You've a face like curds, little brother. Did you think I was dead too? They shot my horse out from under me, that's all. They can't touch me. I told you, God won't allow it." William pauses. The smile vanishes, and his mouth forms an obstinate line. The gaze he fixes on Odo is as blue and unstoppable as a glacier. "I am His Vengeance. Never forget it."

"No, Your Grace. I thank God you are unhurt."

"Time enough for that later, Odo. Shall we get on? I should like to put an end to this business before nightfall."

And he is the no-nonsense general again, a bulky, reassuring figure on his tall horse, trusting God but reliant on no one but himself.

The young knights ride after the Saxon fyrd, whose pursuit of the Bretons is already unravelling as Odo has predicted. Dex aie, they chant, Dex aie, Dex aie, Dex aie. Watching them, Odo has an idea. To begin with it seems too simple so he says nothing, but tests it in his mind for weaknesses. And finds none.

William and Eustace gallop on down the Norman line. The gold cross on the Papal banner glitters as the flag snaps in their wake. William waves his helmet in the air as though he has already won a famous victory. When he reaches a spot directly opposite the apple tree up on the ridge where Godwinson's personal standard flutters, the Fighting Man looking more like a dancer, he draws rein and bows. The unmistakable red hair falls over his forehead, catching the autumn sunlight.

For a measure of time that might be a second or might be forever, there is neither sound nor movement among the Saxons on the ridge. Their shield wall traces the contours of the high ground and behind it they are invisible. Then a single javelin thuds into the churned earth, yards short of William but close enough to unsteady his horse. The spell is broken. William crams his helmet back on his head, raises his sword and begins the charge up the hill, Eustace at his shoulder.

Odo gives certain puzzling instructions to units of cavalry under his command, but all are men who have been promised much in exchange for their support and they do not question him. Twice during the remainder of the day, they feign retreat as he has ordered, drawing off troops from the Saxon side and then surrounding them and so crucially weakening their force.

Odo himself fights beside his brothers, as he has been taught, with the club that is the weapon of priests, having no cutting edge. He stands in his stirrups to make best use of his height and lays about him, twisting his upper body this way and that, throwing its weight behind the blows. He is aware of nothing but the working of his body, the linkage of muscles from groin to waist to shoulders and arms, the flexing of joints in wrists and elbows, sweat running between his shoulder blades, the flow of the horse between his thighs. He splits skulls, cracks open breastbones, splinters vertebrae. A fragment of memory comes to him later, a strange and shaming impression that he was thinking, not of the lives of the men he killed and maimed, nor even of his own life, but of Tacitus' Agricola: "...atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant."

He is everywhere in the battle, yet he is off the field, changing horses behind the lines, when news reaches him of the death of Godwinson.

"Shot in the eye, my lord," says the page with relish, eyes shining in his grubby face. What is he? Ten, eleven maybe? Shortly to become a squire, dying to be a knight.

"In the eye, eh?" Good, fitting, though surprising it should be fatal. Blinding is how poachers are punished. Odo winks at the boy. "Thank you for your news, boy. Go safely. No, wait." He wants to give the boy something, out of gratitude for his good tidings. He feels he has not shown sufficient elation. The fact is, he is worn out. All he feels is relief, and a desire to sleep.

"My lord," says the boy. Odo fishes inside his hauberk and unclasps the brooch fastening the neck of his shirt. It is silver and amethyst, Celtic workmanship. He hands it to the boy, noting how warm it is to the touch. The boy beams as he takes the bishop's gift, a little too quickly perhaps, afraid that it might be withdrawn.

"For your pains, boy. Now off you go with your news."

The boy runs off, grinning, and is soon lost to view among the tents.

Odo mounts, takes helmet and shield from his squire and a mouthful of gritty water from the skin the young man offers him, and rides off westward at an easy canter. It is almost sunset, and the dead cast long shadows on the trampled ground. The last residue of fighting has moved away from the Norman lines to the far side of the ridge so the shouting, the clash of arms, are muffled by distance. Crows flap lazily into the air as he passes. Camp fires are beginning to flare, their glow competing with the bloody remains of the sun pushing between the horizon and the canopy of cloud stretched above it. The homely scent of woodsmoke overlays the stench of carrion.

It's over, he thinks. We've won. William and Robert and I have won. I've won. I've won. He tries to savour the moment, but his mind runs on. This is only the beginning. There will be so much to be done. Roads must be laid, fortifications built. There must be churches and abbeys, laws and inventories. Forests must be cleared and wildernesses claimed. The might of Christ will drive out wood sprites and water nymphs; His light will shine in the darkness. There will be order. Today they have dug a foundation only.

And now he is thinking of home, of his palace in Bayeux, of the plans for his great new cathedral of Notre Dame spread on the table in his dark, empty hall, weighted down with an assortment of plates and goblets, and a mottled pink stone Adeliza found on the seashore, years ago. Now he will be able to complete it, once William has kept his promises.

He finds William, together with Robert and several other lords, close to the tree where Godwinson had raised his standard at the beginning of the day. How long ago? Six, seven hours at least, to judge by the sun. Feels like more, feels like less. The men are staring at the ground, contemplating something. A corpse, naked, recently mutilated. Only now does he notice the shockingly intimate, meaty smell of butchered men. His gorge rises as he approaches. Sweat breaks on his top lip, and saliva floods his mouth. He removes his helmet, pushes back the hood beneath it, and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, noting he needs a shave, hoping he isn't going to throw up.

"Shot in the eye, I was told," he says, drawing rein. His horse, unnerved by the stench, tosses its head and dances beneath him. He pulls its ears and talks nonsense to it until it settles.

"Might have been. We haven't found the head yet," says William.

"How do we know it's him, then?"

"She says it is." William nods toward the tree. Now he notices the women standing in the shade of its gnarled branches. There are four of them, Saxons, two ladies of high rank from their dress, and two others he supposes to be ladies in waiting.


"Godwinson's whore. The young one. You know her, don't you? The other's his mother for God's sake."

Odo gives a grim laugh. "How does she know? The part she's most familiar with is missing, as far as I can see."

William shakes his head. "Marks on the body known only to her, she says. How would I know? But that's his standard lying beside him. That'll do for me. The women want him for burial."

"Will you let them?"



The head is found. Some joker has stuffed the penis into its mouth, but the eyes are intact. Darkness has fallen when William gives orders for the remains to be taken to the beach and buried. Odo does not accompany the burial party. Godwinson has no need of a priest, William tells him, and Odo does not argue with him. Godwinson swore to uphold William's claim to the English throne, swore on holy relics from Odo's own church, fought alongside William against Conan of Brittany, and then grabbed the Confessor's crown before the old man was cold in his grave. The thought of his oath, his raw boned hands resting on the delicate reliquary shrines, makes Odo feel defiled. Of course Godwinson has forfeited his right to Christian burial.

Odo sleeps soundly in his tent pitched on the battlefield beside those of his brothers. When his servant removes the mail shirt that shields his body from neck to knee, he feels as though he is floating on a cushion of air as he slips into unconsciousness. The moans of the wounded and dying do not disturb him, nor the cold seeping into his bones. The blood dries on his face and beneath his fingernails. Corn gold stubble grows along the sweep of his jaw. He does not remember his dreams.

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Needle in the Blood 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In reading other reviews, a common theme of "frustration" is expressed & after finishing this historical novel, I feel the same. Consider this an "Historic Lite" novel. It hovers around various figures in history: William of Normandy, his half-brother Odo, the Bayeux Tapestry. The plot centers on a forbidden romance between Bishop Odo and one of the tapestry embroiderers. It is enjoyable and well written, in comparison to the average romance novel. It does inspire curiosity in the reader to learn more about the Bayeux Tapestry. Where it can be frustrating is in the lack of information you are provided to sort out characters. A simple List of Characters (Norman & Saxon) would have been so helpful and a geneaology chart for the main historic figures. These would have made things more understandable, especially in the beginning were there are two Ediths, two Gythas...and you're left struggling to decipher which one is which. While the device of writing already in the middle of the situation can bring about a sense of suspense, the author's writing style became tiresomely confusing, killing any intrigue that might stem from characters suddenly talking about something or someone without any explanatory text of dialogue beforehand. Luckily, this only occurred in the first half of the book. For these minor frustrations, the author does inspire a compassionate regard for her main characters; it is not a book that you give up reading because of a few challenges along the way. While it starts out bumpy, the road smoothes out & you're left with a touching love story.
AngieJG More than 1 year ago
This novel was long. I disliked the characters in the beginning and grew to like them as the story progressed. However, I made the mistake of looking into this time period and the characters written in the book mid-way through reading. Once I found out that one of the main characters didn't exist, I shut down a bit. Yes, I know many historical fiction novels are fiction, some more than others. I personally enjoy historical novels that are as close to the history as possible. There are many out there that nearly spot on. I found the final 1/3 of the book a bit predictable and unbelievable. The ending fell flat for me. That all being said, I still give the novel a 4 star rating. It was well-written, kept my attention, and had me asking for more at the end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Though to the timid the violence and sex in this book may seem gratuitous, in reality this was what life was like to many during this time period. There was not a sheltered damsel in need of convenient rescuing by a cleft chinned knight in shing armor on a valiant steed. Things were harsh but they were the way they are and there is no changing them. I think the author did a great job of capturing the time period. If you like your historical fiction with a touch of gritty realism, then this is the book for you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Historical reads are my absolute favorite, whether fiction or non; therefore I couldn’t wait to read this book due to the high star review.  I, however, I found this book very disappointing.  Most times it was difficult to stay with  - very long and tedious, and at other times, it seemed to rush through, in my opinion, an important part so quickly I was left wondering what did I miss???   It was as if this book had two very different authors.  I struggled to finish, honestly wishing I didn’t bother. 
Melisan More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower and will look for other books she's written.   This seemed to me to be an accurate portrayal of the time period, and incorporated an engaging cast of characters to bring events to life.   The Bayeux Tapestry is the perfect device to tell the story of this time period.
nellista on LibraryThing 20 days ago
Some nice period details. I wished for more of an ending to the story. Some bits felt a little disjointed - as though I had missed part of the story or it had been edited out.
Kasthu on LibraryThing 20 days ago
The Needle in the Blood is the story of Bishop Odo of Bayeux and his mysterious mistress, Aethelgytha. One of the mysteries of the Bayeux Tapestry is a certain panel in which there is a cleric striking (or touching) a woman¿s face, with the caption ¿here is a cleric and Aelfgifu.¿ The speculation is that the scene refers to a well-known scandal of the day; maybe that of Odo and his mistress? This is where Bower fills in the gaps, and she does an admirable job with it. In the novel, Gytha is a Saxon woman, brought low after the Norman conquest, when she is brought in to assist in the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry, commissioned by Odo and designed by his sister. Although Gytha hates Odo at first, she is nonetheless attracted to the Bishop, holy orders notwithstanding. The novel covers a ten-year period, from the Battle of Hastings to 1077. Although William the Conquror never makes an appearance in the novel, he¿s always at the center of attention, because he controls Odo¿s life so much.The story is very well told. Although the technical process of embroidering the tapestry is only discussed in any detail at the beginning of the book, it was fascinating for me to learn that the events depicted on it were comprised of the experiences of the many people who created it¿and that those people had different perspectives on what happened during the Conquest. There are a number of other mysteries surrounding the figures on the tapestry, and Bower fills in the missing pieces very neatly. For example, was Harold really shot in the eye with an arrow? In part, a lot of historical texts are revisionist, and the Bayeux Tapestry is proof positive of that, so I think the author did a good job with discerning fact from fiction.The love story is very strong, though the sex scenes were a little over-the-top. In real life, Odo was later accused of defrauding the Crown and his diocese, and then planning a military expedition to Italy, ostensibly to make himself pope. It was believed that his wealth was gained through extortion and robbery. It was interesting to me to see how the author tackled Odo¿s prickly reputation, and I think she did it admirably.
gypsysmom on LibraryThing 20 days ago
Prior to reading this book I knew very little about the Bayeux tapestry. When I was in high school the school librarian would show us the slides taken of her trip to France and what I remembered most was her account of the Bayeux tapestry. However, I have never had the privilege of seeing it in person and I never read very much about it. Sarah Bower has done a good job of filling in the back story of the tapestry (which isn't strictly speaking a tapestry but a work of embroidery). William the Conqueror's half-brother, Bishop Odo, saw a tapestry in England and envisioned something similar but on a grander scale to grace his new cathedral in Rouen. He springs his sister Agatha from the convent and commissions her to design the embroidery and find women to do the work. One of the women she chooses is Gytha, a Saxon who served in the household of Edith Swan Neck, the mistress of Harold Godwinson. Gytha was present when Edith went to ask William for the body of King Harold, killed at the Battle of Hastings. William refused to let her have the body and later Odo pillaged Edith's house and sent all the women packing. Gytha was on an errand for Edith and missed being included. When Agatha asked Gytha to become an embroiderer she agrees because she wants the opportunity to kill Odo.Of course, instead of killing him Gytha and Odo fall into bed and begin a passionate love affair. Being a bishop does not stop Odo from keeping a mistress nor does it keep him from acquiring jewels and lavish belongings. As William's staunchest ally he has to attend all the conferences and battles. The time comes when Odo has to choose between Gytha and William. Try as he might to resist William, blood is thicker than water (and other bodily excretions).I found the reading of this book exhilirating but also hard to follow at times. I'm still not sure how Odo and Sebastian first came to meet. The occasional lapse into Latin also confused me because it seemed like it would occur in the book when I was in bed and unable to check for a translation.
BrokenTeepee on LibraryThing 22 days ago
There is nothing like a historical re-imagining in the hands of a talented author. In The Needle in the Blood Sarah Bower gives the reader her imagination's take on the creation of what has come to be called the Bayeux Tapestry. It's not a true tapestry as it is not woven but embroidered but it is a magnificent piece of art. In this tale Bishop Odo, also known as the Earl of Kent is William the Conqueror's half brother (he did exist and he was William's half brother in fact). After the Battle of Hastings Odo decides to commemorate the battle and William's victory with an artistic rendering. He calls upon his sister Agatha, a nun with some talent to gather the greatest embroiderers to mimic a hanging he has seen. (In reality it is not completely known how the Bayeux Tapestry came to be or who made it.)One of the women that Agatha recruits, Gytha was in the household of King Harold's common law wife, Edith and was present when William and Odo rode into Winchester in triumph. Gytha watched as Edith was sent away with nothing and she saw Odo's arrogance. She lost everything and was forced into prostitution to survive. It was only her talent with a needle and Agatha searching her out that saves her but her hatred for Odo is what makes her take the job.But there is a fine line between hate and love and Odo and Gytha end up falling in love in spite of his being a bishop. The story that follows shows their love and how it distracts Odo from worshiping William.While the bulk of this book was pure imagination it was a fascinating read. I only got bored during the long, wordy sex scenes when Odo and Gytha first start their relationship. I know! One would think these would be, well, exciting but they just weren't. Too much talking, a bit too much vulgarity of all things and not enough of a scene that read true. But beyond that I found myself involved in a story that I did truly enjoy. (I was reading an advanced copy and this might have been changed for the final version. I have no idea....)The details of the how the tapestry came into being from the drawings to its being pieced together was very fascinating. Ms. Bower's chosen explanations for various scenes that appear in the real tapestry have me now wanting to research further and find a book on the piece. THAT to me is a good book.So pick up The Needle in the Blood for a good love story (when they are out of bed), a wonderful lesson on embroidery prior to machines and post Battle of Hastings England.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I liked the details about the tapestry and how the women took care of each other.
MsDollie More than 1 year ago
I don't often give 5 stars but Needle in the Blood was that good. Characters were well developed and easy to empathize with. The story line captured my imagination ... the underlying love story was breath taking. The descriptions of scenes from the tapestry made me look into the actual tapestry further and enjoy the artwork more than I might have otherwise. Sarah Bower did herself proud with this novel: I hope there are more to come in this vein.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book was enjoyable,but not so riveting I could not put it down. I felt like the characters lacked the developement to make this a really great read. With such a fascinating premise, the author could have done so much more. The ending was a cop out.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A the beginning, but picked up with good characters and story. The ending didn't go the way I wanted it to go, and a bit abrupt. I would consider another book by this author.
addictedreaderSK More than 1 year ago
Good story, but sometimes inconsistent and the writing style could get cumbersome sometimes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought the book was a little slow. I could not get into it. Had to skip around to finish it.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting story about the beginning of England during the time of the Saxons and the Normans. The author has a talent for colorful descriptive writing. I couldn't put it down. Highly recommend this if you like historical fiction!
SuiteMary More than 1 year ago
I actually read this book a couple of years ago and thought it was amazing. I will warn, though, that there is some sexuality in the story. I am a needleworker myself which is what originally sparked my interest in the book. But the story is so much more!! Many layers, rich characters. Fantastic!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Waste of a 3 day weekend