Book I of the Pagans Trilogy.
When the men of Burh, settlers from continental Europe, fall upon the sleeping nomad tribe in the depths of the forest amid the Downs of southern England, Tagart is the only survivor, escaping by sheer chance after his wife and young son have been massacred. Twenty-five and heir to the chiefdom of the roving hunters, he sees his only inheritance now to be an overwhelming urge for merciless revenge - of his family, his tribe and indeed of a way of life which in the England of 5,000 years ago is steadily being eroded by these tillers of the soil. (1978 Winner of the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize.)
Tagart came out of the woods and stood facing the broad downhill sweep of the cereal field. The feeling of openness seemed strange and sudden after the embrace of the trees; he sniffed at the smell of the evening, almost cloudless now after the storm, a soft wind coming off the sea, bending the stunted ears of barley, fluttering the leaves of hazel and whitebeam.
A hundred yards away the labourer stood upright and leaned on the handle of his mattock. He had only just become aware of another’s presence; yet Tagart had heard the man at work minutes ago, from the depths of the wood, whose floor he had traversed without so much as the snap of a twig.
Tagart, or Tugart, or Tergart, was twenty-five years of age, tall and fine in the face, with dark hair and watchful brown eyes that knew the value of patience. His skin – for it was now the height of summer – was well tanned, his frame hard-muscled and long-limbed, with an economy of movement that seemed like slowness to those who had never been with him in the woods and tried to keep up.
Chance had endowed him with a keen intelligence which the teachings of his elders had turned into solid skill and a command of the necessary knowledge. Of all the young men in his tribe, it was Tagart who had been regarded as successor to the leader, Tagart who had taken the most desirable bride, Tagart whose small son would in turn one day be chief; and Tagart whom the others were beginning to look upon with more and more respect and affection as each season passed.
But now, in the course of a single night, all that had changed.
Everything changed; everything r***d and defiled.
Not quite everything. Tagart was still alive. He was still alive, and behind the grief he was still himself.
It was time to begin.
“I come in friendship,” he called out, leaving the safety of the trees and starting across the field.
The labourer, a short, stumpy man, did not answer. He stood shielding his eyes against the west, his right hand taking a firmer grasp on the polished ashwood haft of his mattock. Tagart went on. In the edge of his vision he was making a second survey of the field, making certain that he and the labourer were alone. The farmers’ village, which he had studied the previous day, was a cluster of stone and timber buildings inside a wooden palisade, hidden from this field by the rise of the land. It was only a quarter of a mile away, too close, asking for trouble; but then he’d had no choice. He had been forced into the open by the shape of the forest and by the way the fields sloped. Without revealing himself there had been no way to be sure that the labourer was alone, and to have wasted such an opportunity would have been madness. So he had accepted the risk. But that did not stop the tingling between his shoulder-blades, nor an almost irresistible urge to check more overtly behind and to the sides.
He halted, just beyond the swing of the mattock, and forced a smile. “The soil needs more rain than this. After the drought she drinks it like a pigeon.”
The farmer said nothing. He stood impassive, expressionless. His broad shoulders filled a stained and streaked doeskin jacket; his beaver leggings were bound by thongs; mud caked his crudely carved clogs. A talisman of some sort hung round his neck, a flat stone striped with bands of cream and maroon, held by a cord that passed through a hole drilled off-centre. Greasy brown locks showed beneath a hare’s-skin cap and hung in a tangle at his neck. Years of weather had left his skin leathery and his eyes wrinkled almost shut; his was a face devoid of animation or humour, the kind of face under a low forehead that frowns blankly as the brain behind it struggles to assimilate something new. Clearly the man was low in the order of the village, sent out to the fields to do some trivial task on his own. He had been digging up stones and heaping them to one side. This was the kind of work reserved for those at the bottom of the village hierarchy.