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This is an excerpt from a 'lost chapter' for Heroes of the Valley. It was written quite late on, and was going to appear in the fourth section of the book. Halli has heard that the Hakonssons are coming to destroy his House, but his people have no swords. He decides to break into the mound where his ancestor Svein is buried and steal the hero's sword. According to the beliefs of his people, this is an almost sacrilegious act and the chapter is meant to be filled with supernatural menace.

I ditched the whole chapter in the end for a variety of reasons: it made the book too slow; there was no very good reason for Halli to climb up the hill again (he's just been up there with Aud); he wouldn't be able to do much with the sword once he got it; lastly, I realised I didn't want to bring Svein into the story in this way. In the final book nothing is left of this sequence except for a reference in chapter 23, when Halli briefly flirts with the idea of nicking the sword, only to be told off by Aud.

In this excerpt Halli has just broken through a hole and squeezed through into the pitch-black grave mound.


. . . The air in the cairn was still, dry and cool, neither as cold as the wind on the open moor, nor as warm as the faint spring sun. Dust did not rise when Halli stood carefully, adjusting his footing; it remained thick upon the floor and caked upon his boots, dense with accumulated years.

A tall man's head would have brushed the ceiling of the cavity. Halli was able to stand upright with room to spare.

The torch was smoking more than ever, swallowing its own light. Halli felt a strong desire to cough, but held it in, as one would when someone nearby was sleeping. He held the torch low to the ground and, sweeping it from side to side, stole forwards into Svein's mound. With each swirling, smoking loop of the torch a new detail leapt out of the darkness, sudden, stark and orange-black, then vanished as if it had never been. He saw a pot, two carved wooden bedposts; next a pile of wooden staves, evidently pieces of dismantled furniture; then three spears, one snapped near the head; then –

Right in front of him – a rearing serpent, mouth agape.

Halli's heart juddered so that his chest hurt; he stepped back, knocking against the spears. The sound of their collapse was loud in the blackness of the cairn.

Sweat dripped from Halli's nose. He cursed his cowardice. Fighting his fear down, he held the torch out once again.

It was the back of a great black chair, wooden, carved with delicate, intertwining serpents. The struts at its corners almost touched the ceiling, but in between them the back-rest was a little lower, and here, where the wood curved low, the top of someone's head could just be seen.

It occurred to Halli as he stood, weak-kneed, that had the person in the chair been standing – had they been able to stand – they would have been significantly taller than the ceiling of the cairn.

The torch leaped and danced; black shadows swung around him. The chair back was a dark black slab.

From beyond the right-hand side of the chair, something protruded. It caught the torch-light: a long, thin strip, glimmering.

Halli stole closer, edging out to the right, so that more and more of the object became visible. He did not go too far, too quickly, for he was suddenly aware that he very much did not want to see that person sitting in the chair.

He saw the shining thing more clearly now. A sword.

A little further. He was close enough to have touched the chair-back with his left hand, had he wished. He didn't. Now he could see the chair's arm-rest. On it, unmistakable even in the gloom, an arm was resting.


At the end of the arm a great fist, encased within a glove of tiny metal links, still clasped the sword. Perhaps, over time, as the sinews had snapped and rotted, as the flesh had fallen away, the fingers' grip had loosened just a little, allowing the sword to slip, tilt outwards. But it was still securely clasped.

In doubt and hesitation Halli rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. But he had come too far to shrink back now.

He did not hesitate; his movements were swift, decisive, almost hasty. Holding the torch far to his right so that just the tip of its radiance brushed the arm-rest of the chair, he pattered forwards, along the length of the great arm. Orange light glinted in metal ringlets; shadows moved on the mailed fist. Halli's left hand snaked out to where the sword hilt protruded above the great still fingers. He grasped the metal – how cold it was! – and pulled.

Nothing happened. The sword did not budge. It was as if hand and weapon were joined solid, soldered to the chair.

Halli's face puckered with mingled annoyance and fear. He tugged again. This time both sword and chain glove moved. From inside the glove came the sound of something brittle cracking.

Sweat trickled along the side of Halli's face. He was acutely conscious of the presence in the chair, that silent thing sitting in darkness at his shoulder. A worm of perversity moved in his mind: if he turned and thrust out the light – he would see it, see the face …

In a sudden spasm of panic he heaved furiously at the sword hilt.

The crack this time was terrible, like a dry branch being snapped across a knee. The sword lifted easily in his hand, but still the glove came with it, fingers tightly clasped about the hilt. Lips drawn back in a grin of terror, Halli thrashed the sword from side to side, hearing countless little snaps and crackles from within the mailed fist, until the hand fell away. It dropped back to the arm-rest of the chair, and slid a little outwards, fingers lolling randomly, like a great black spider crushed and dead.

As the weight dropped off the sword, Halli almost over-balanced. Sobbing, righting himself even as he ran, he stumbled away, heedless of the grave goods lying in the darkness. Pottery shattered, metal clanged, wood knocked against wood with a hollow clapping sound, as Halli drove through it all regardless, towards the ragged square of pale white light.

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