TALES OF THE AEKHARTAIN
~ Dark Rebellion 1 ~
A shadow lies over the marshes of Dumnonia.
A man moves in the darkness. He is a whisper, a legend. He is the Dark Dumnonii… and he’s looking for revenge.
In the year 814 AD Egbert, King of Wessex, ravaged and conquered Dumnonia, but there were some who resisted. Eleven years on and the Britons refuse to be subdued. Now the king has returned and the rebels are waiting.
Amongst them is Caligo, a man of darkness, a shadow in the marsh, and he is determined to take back that which was stolen.
Dark Rebel in Brief
What’s in it?: An 80,000 word novel broken into three sections
When is it set?: 825-838 AD
Where is it set?: Anglo-Saxon England on the disputed borderland between Dumnonia and Wessex (modern day Devon and Cornwall), on an AU Earth.
What kind of story is it?: One that starts with revenge, pays a visit to the Shadow Garden, before striving for revenge again.
What’s the genre?: Historical Fantasy.
Any age restrictions?: Not really. There’s some mild language, a bit of violence and some warfare.
Behind the Story
This story became much bigger than I intended. Nawaquí/Caligo’s original awakening tale, Crusades of Darkness (2004), mixed the Crusades with the Romans and ended with a big battle. Then there were a few follow up tales about what Caligo did next. I had hoped to salvage at least some of that for this version, but couldn’t save a word. I already knew I had to change the setting, but Caligo and Maskai’s relationship has changed somewhat too over the years – mostly for the good, but it meant throwing out all the original material and starting afresh.
Which is why this is only the first part of his story, as I realised when I was writing this that I’d hit 70,000 words and I wasn’t even halfway yet. The end of Dark Rebel seemed like a good place to stop, but expect to see Caligo back again soon in The Rebel Returns.
Read on for a sneak-peek at the Prologue and Chapter One of Dark Rebel.
THE CITY WAS old, even for this ancient kingdom, its foundations lost in the shadows of time. Red walls, patched in places, crumbling in others, had been laid out by the Romans when once their empire stretched this far north. Now they encircled a city that had fallen almost empty for centuries, only to be reborn in an age of markets and new blood.
The traveller stared up at the weathered walls squatting on the hill and smiled. Then he thanked the boatman who had brought him so far up the river, pulled his pack upon his back and set off for the strange cobbled streets.
Two men stood before the gates, clad in mail and helms, a golden dragon banner flying above their heads. They crossed their spears over the traveller’s path and demanded to know his business.
“I am seeking the king. I have heard he is here.”
The guardsmen betrayed nothing, not even a glance at each other. Their spears stayed locked, their faces remained unfriendly. “What business do you have with the King of the West Saxons?” the one on the left demanded.
The traveller pushed back the hood of his cloak to reveal a fine head of pure white hair and smiled. “Tell your king that Steorra has arrived. I bring news of the shadow in the marshes and Cornish who plague him.”
The spears parted, the guardsmen stepped aside and the traveller entered the gates of the city.
THE SHADOWS OF twilight swathed the land in a cloak ten times thicker than sunlight, leaving heavy frosts in its wake. Ice cracked and groaned beneath the careful hooves of the pony as it picked its way beneath the empty trees. On its back, Caligo stared at the darkness surrounding him and pondered the nature of concealment.
Hitting a patch of slick ground, the pony slid sideways, one hoof slipping unexpectedly away from the others and causing its rider to lurch forward in the saddle. “Steady,” Caligo murmured, sitting back as the beast threw up its head. “Steady now.”
He shortened the reins as the pony gathered its haunches and leapt forward a couple of paces onto firmer ground. Thanks to Caligo’s tight grip, however, the beast didn’t bolt. It simply stood, four-square, puffing heavy white clouds into the mingled shadows, breathing quickly with the remnants of its panic.
Content that he had control, Caligo leant forward and stroked a soothing hand down the animal’s neck, all the while aware that daylight was fast approaching. “Good.”
After a brief pause the pony calmed, and with a squeeze of his legs Caligo urged it on once more. Tattered branches reached out from the gloom, snatching at his cloak. He ducked and weaved around them, while the pony pattered across the root-rumpled ground. Ice and cold and uneven earth; God above, but Caligo hated woods.
A wall of darkness rose ahead and with a last slide down a short slope, the pony broke from the trees. Man and beast breathed into the predawn world, filling their view with soft clouds.
“Well done,” Caligo murmured, patting the pony’s neck as he swung off its back. Ice cracked beneath his boots and he took a moment to resettle his burdens before leaving the pony free to graze. Bow stave in one hand, an arrow in the other, he crackled and crunched his way forward to the edge of the shadows.
There, at the top of the ridge, he faced a grey sky, gradually paling with dawn’s approach. Below his feet the world was dark, save for a watch fire over a wooden gate and the bobbing torches of people moving along the riverside. Smiling to himself, Caligo pulled a fresh bow string from his belt pouch, prepared his weapon and stood unmoving in the ice and the shadows. Dawn was coming.
The sun was slow and sluggish this deep into winter, taking its time to throw off the shackles of sleep, but Caligo didn’t mind. He was used to long watches and the darkness soothed him. He had heard from others how the night unsettled them, concealing things which they could not see but could too easily imagine, bringing forth demons and phantoms from the mind into the breathing world. Such fear meant nothing to Caligo; to him the dark was home. Yes, it could hide many things from his sight, but likewise it kept his secrets as he moved across the land. The darkness had always been his friend.
Now he waited for it to lift, while the people below began their day in perfect ignorance.
Stretching his fingers and rotating his wrists, Caligo gradually encouraged warmth back into the length of his arms, then picked up his arrow. Light was creeping into the sky now, glinting off the frost and shining along the river, yet the town at his feet remained in shadow. As did he.
The pony at his back stomped an impatient hoof, pawing at the frozen ground and stunted grasses. Caligo hummed softly, encouraging stillness, and the beast settled with a grumpy shake of its mane.
“Not long now,” he promised.
The pony let out a long, whuffling snort, indicative of its own thoughts on the matter and wandered a little further away in search of grass.
Caligo smiled and stroked the soft fletching, watching light pour into the valley below. The marshes held many secrets, ones brought in on the whisper of the river, catching on the reeds that grew from its dark depths. Few escaped and fewer secrets were better guarded than this one. This village, this home, this settlement of Britons, here in the heart of the Wessex expansion. King Egbert believed the border of his lands now stretched almost to the Tamar many miles to the west, but this little secret spoke differently.
Stroking his arrow onto his bowstring, Caligo breathed softly as the shadows lifted below. There was the gate and beside it dozed a foolish sentry. Clicking his tongue, Caligo allowed himself one shake of the head, then pulled back his arm and let fly.
The arrow sped true and, with a satisfying thunk, buried itself in the wood right beside the sentry’s head.
The young man woke with a yelp and a cry, drawing shouts from inside the gate. Torches were lit, weapons were grabbed and the alarm was raised as the settlement raced towards the startled sentry.
Up on the ridge, Caligo snorted with amusement, whistled for his pony to draw its attention away from the frozen ground and tucked his bow away behind the saddle. Taking hold of the reins, he opted to lead his mount rather than ride the last stretch. It took time to wend their way down the steep track in the icy shadows, but Caligo had been there many times before. Some might have been concerned about the mob gathering around the settlement gates, but Caligo stuck to pockets of darkness and listened intently.
Then, just as he reached the base of the ridge, someone must have at last pried the arrow loose. “Dark feathers,” a voice murmured, settling silence over the warlike group. “Black shaft.”
“Is it the night arrow?” someone else called.
Caligo paused on the track, just beyond sight of the gate.
“The Dark Dumnonii.” The name rippled through the gathering as the arrow and its meaning sank in. “Caligo. It’s him. He’s back.”
“The Dark Dumnonii has returned!” Up went the shout, followed by a gratifying cheer.
Patting his trusty pony on the shoulder, Caligo stepped out of the shadows and onto the main path, right into the weak light of the rising sun. “Good morning, everyone.”
There was a whoop and a cheer and laughter broke out, followed by a round of ribbing for the sentry who’d fallen asleep. Drawing closer Caligo spotted the young man before he could escape. But even as he made his way towards the lad to share his thoughts about sleeping sentries, the cheerful gathering fell silent. Men and women stepped aside until a narrow path opened up between them.
Borlewen walked out to meet him. She was a small woman, with strong features hardened by a life of loss and sorrow, yet lightened by the smile lines around her mouth and eyes. She looked him up and down with her dark brown gaze and folded her hands against her waist.
“Some folk would ride up and knock,” she said into the sudden hush.
He raised his eyebrows. “And miss such a warm welcome?” He indicated the crowd. “Besides, a little morning practise never did anyone any harm.”
Her lips twitched before she could contain them and she gave a put-upon sigh. “Still the same old Caligo, I see.”
“As if you’d have me any other way.” He smiled and swept her into a crushing hug.
Arms closing around his neck, she squeezed him back just as tightly. “Welcome home, brother mine,” she murmured. “Oh, welcome home.”
* * *
AFTER THE FIRST round of greetings was over, Borlewen led him in through the gate towards a cluster of ramshackle buildings. There were no cosy family homes here, no families either, and the only children were displaced orphans they’d gathered on their travels. This settlement was not a place where people were intended to stay for long. It was a war camp, a hidden base from which Caligo and his fellow Britons could launch attacks against the Saxon invaders.
Yet despite knowing all that, when he walked past the store shacks, temporary forge and animal pens – all largely made from wood as if to underline their short lifespans – he still felt a quiet feeling of home. Three years they’d been here now. Three whole years of raids and attacks, of hiding and watching, waiting, always waiting for a chance to repay the Saxon king for all the harm he’d caused, to take back what was rightfully theirs.
Even though this glorified camp was a sign of everything that was currently wrong in the once great kingdom of Dumnonia – its proud people reduced to skulking in the sodden marshes, building from wood, stealing what little food they could to survive – Caligo loved this place. It was wild, it was damp, it was half-rotten, but it was free. It was home.
“Was that another pony I saw you bring in?” Borlewen asked as they approached the main hall, which provided sleeping and eating spaces for everyone, though calling it a hall was to give it more credit than it was strictly due.
“Just doing my bit to further our cause,” Caligo replied meekly.
His sister raised a doubtful eyebrow. “You’re going to get caught one of these days. Ponies are valuable.”
“Not so much as horses,” he reminded her with a faint grumble. What he wouldn’t give for just ten of the Wessex king’s horses. Ponies were all well and good for marsh and moor work, but horses were swifter in covering open ground. Their enemy would never outrun them then.
Borlewen made a scornful noise in her throat. “Where would we keep horses? What would we feed them on?”
It was an old argument, so Caligo gave a sullen shrug. He had no better answers now than at any other time they’d discussed it, but still, a man could dream.
“Besides, if you start stealing horses they will come and find you, which in turn will mean they’ll find us. Then what would we do?”
“Run to the reeds,” he said, smiling at childhood memories of such games, innocent and carefree though they’d been, long before they were forced to turn them into a way of life. “We’re good at that.”
“Shadows in the marsh.” Laughing softly, she shook her head, then nodded at a bird perched on the roof of the hall. “Looks like someone beat you home.”
Checking that his arm wrapping was secure, Caligo held up his hand and clicked his tongue. The buzzard, whose mottled-brown plumage was so dark it was almost black, mewed in welcome and flapped to his wrist.
“How now, Noctis,” he greeted softly, pinching his fingers around the buzzard’s beak as the bird of prey gently nibbled at his thumb. “I wondered where you’d got to.”
“He must have heard the fuss you raised and come straight here,” Borlewen said, stepping through the door into the wide hall. A large fire burned in the centre, over which hung the well-roasted carcass of a stolen pig. Caligo stopped to cut off a slice for his buzzard, then another piece for himself. Though most of the camp’s food came from hunting, somehow the stolen meats tasted so much sweeter.
As Borlewen led him on down the length of the open room, he nodded at the clustered adults working at various chores: repairing kit, sharpening weapons, preparing yet more food. There seemed to be more children underfoot than the last time he’d been here too. He mentioned it to his sister as a giggling pair of red-haired girls dashed right in front of him, causing Noctis to flare his wings in disapproval.
“Yes. Piran keeps bringing them in.”
“Tell him to stop,” Caligo grumbled, wincing as a toddler started shrieking across the room. “We’re supposed to be a secret settlement.”
His sister snorted. “He’ll stop as soon as you stop rustling ponies.”
“I do what’s needful for the good of our people.”
She looked at him, eyebrows raised. “As does Piran. Not all of us think purely of revenge, brother dear. Some of us spare a thought for the future.”
Sensing he was being judged in some way, yet unsure quite why, Caligo scowled as a small boy appeared to take away his bag and bow. “I suppose they have their uses,” he admitted, surrendering his things until the child’s face was all but hidden beneath the pile. He watched in bemusement as the little rebel staggered away to do God-knew-what with it all.
“That they do,” Borlewen agreed, urging him to take a seat at the table in the corner, one she had long ago claimed as her own. Everyone called it the command post, after the Romans of old, and she was the Shadow Commander who took care of them all. “Don’t fret too hard, Cal. Piran and some others will be heading west to the Tamar in a few days. They’ll take most of them along then.”
Only most? Caligo wanted to ask, but bit his tongue instead. It wasn’t that he was unfeeling, it was just that he didn’t see the point of keeping the brats around. Of course they had their uses, but they didn’t do a thing the adults couldn’t do just as well – if not better.
“They help keep the peace,” Borlewen said, as if she’d heard his thoughts. “And remind us all why we’re really here. It’s not for revenge.” If her pointed look was meant to chastise him, it missed by a Roman league. “We’re here to regain Dumnonia.”
“To take back what is rightfully ours,” he agreed, knowing that their reasons had always been different. For him this fight was all about paying back the harm that had been done and teaching the arrogant Saxons a well-deserved lesson. For his sister, however…
“For future generations.” Borlewen nodded. “So that they too can breathe the air of our ancestors. Kernow is a good land and just as important, of course, but we need both.”
“We need both,” he agreed, because it was true. Both lands were rich in rocky coastline and desolate moorland, but Dumnonia was also blessed with beautiful green fields and fertile soil. Kernow was smaller, its fields less rich, its land harsher. It was enough to keep some folk alive, especially now when so many had passed south over the sea, but it wasn’t home. Not for him. These fields, valleys, rivers and moors were his. He had no wish to retreat to the west or pass over the sea. He would stay here, to live and die on the lands of his ancestors, and no amount of Saxon invaders could stop him.
“It’s not about revenge, Callo,” his sister said, calling him by the affectionate nickname that only his siblings had ever used. He heard it so rarely, yet it always went straight to the heart of him.
Reaching across the table, he placed his hand over hers. “This is our home, Bobo. We belong here.”
She smiled, apparently relieved and reassured at hearing the name she’d also been given by her siblings. One that had started as a tease yet turned kinder as the years passed. It was the same word it had always been, but the meaning was entirely different. Much like his own words, Caligo mused. His sister had heard a promise for the future, but to him it was all about the past, blood-soaked and war-wracked as it was.
The Saxons had not just taken away his home with their invasion, not just stolen the land of his ancestors – they had killed his brother, driven his father to his death and taken so many of his people’s lives. They continued to do so even now, while planting their own cursed folk on lands they had no right to.
This fight might be all about the future for Borlewen – and he admired his sister for her goodness and hope, her quest to find the light – but for him it had always been about darkness. About blood and suffering and pain, and he didn’t much care who he crushed to achieve it.
So when the young boy returned with his bow freshly oiled, the string neatly coiled and the quiver restocked with his preferred black arrows, Caligo only scowled. The child scuttled fearfully away, but he didn’t care. He wanted no children dogging his heels, wanted no one to sing of his great deeds. He had no friends and didn’t wish for them, because they would only make him weak. They would only make him care. Alone, he was free to do everything that was necessary. Alone, he could make all manner of difficult choices without the merest flinch. Alone, he was strong.
Noctis shifted his weight along Caligo’s arm, flexing his talons and shuffling his wings, reminding the man that he wasn’t entirely alone. Caligo saw a reflection of himself in the dark buzzard; the efficient hunter, the lone traveller who rode silently on the wind. Alone but never lonely. Noctis was fierce, certain, sure, and killed without remorse: everything Caligo strove to be.
“I will never understand what goes on in that head of yours.” The soft murmur of his sister’s voice dragged him from his thoughts. “You have the coldest expression on your face. Your eyes are full of shadows. But you’ll never tell me, will you? You’ll never let me in.”
Though he heard the sadness, felt her sorrow, Caligo could only shake his head. “It’s better this way, Bobo. You have a future to build, so many lives to care for. Don’t add me to your burdens. You have enough to worry about.”
Her look suggested that she would always worry, no matter what, but he chose to ignore it. Instead he shifted Noctis to his shoulder and leant forward over the table. “You haven’t asked yet. Aren’t you curious?”
Though her eyes were still dark with unhappy thoughts, Borlewen’s lips twitched. She tried to hide her amusement with a sigh. “Go on then. Tell me what you’ve seen on your travels, brother mine. Tell me what the Dark Dumnonii has learned this time.”
He smiled. “The king has come to Caer Uisc. Dear Egbert has returned.”
And despite all her talk of building a future and letting all thoughts of revenge go, his sister’s smile was every bit as dark as his own. “Then we shall have to prepare a fine welcome for him. Fortunately, I have just the thing in mind.”
is out now!