When the thick fog descends on a school group, two children from the year 2000 find themselves transported back to what looks like the year AD75. And nothing is the same. Dan finds that survival depends on brilliant fighting skills and a fearless ability to fight to the death. Ursula discovers that she has magical abilities worthy of the most accomplished priestess. Soon these two become involved in the greatest struggles of their lives, as they realise that survival depends on skills that they never imagined they possessed.
A brilliant, riveting novel full of passion, action and drama.
Warriors of Alavna was my first novel. It was an easy book to write – I don’t know why – and I enjoyed more or less every moment I spent writing it. There is something special about ‘firsts’ and a first novel is no exception. I set out to write the kind of story I would have really enjoyed when I was a child – one with lots of action, heroism and a certain amount of strangeness too and I think I succeeded in that at least – I would have liked it!
When I wrote Warriors of Alavna I didn’t think it was about anything beyond the story itself but now, looking back on it, I think the fact that Ursula has to become a man to succeed in Macsen’s world is connected to the feeling that I had as a teenager that to be a successful woman you had to adopt ‘male’ behaviours and attitudes.
I don’t think that is true today, at least not in Britain , but it felt true in the seventies and early eighties.
I also notice reading it now, some years after I finished it, that Ursula’s status as an outsider is important and the very things that made it difficult for her to fit in at home- her size and sullen obstinacy help her to survive in Macsen’s world. I think I identify with the ‘odd one out’ and the misfit, because, like many people and most writers, that’s how I felt as a teenager (though I’m not very tall or very blonde!).
The Call of the Warrior’s Veil
Dan watched with horror as Ursula was swallowed by the yellow mist. He tried to call her name, but she didn’t stop. He had no choice but to follow her.
It was obvious close to that it wasn’t a mist at all in the ordinary sense. He could see moving shapes through it, but they were distorted as if through rippled glass or water. He could not see Ursula. He didn’t like it. He took a step forward. The mist enveloped him, colder than ice and oily. It had a surprising solidity. He entered it and it surrounded him; a mass of oily droplets that held him like a fly in a web. No ordinary mist. He shut his eyes instinctively to protect them and took another difficult step. The mist clung to him, resisted his movement. He struggled forward the mist released him with an inaudible pop into some other place. There was no sign of Ursula. He was standing in deserted marshland. It was warm and bright sunlight forced him to squint. Here was no sound apart from the twittering of birds. No movement apart from the ruffling of the tussocky clumps of wild grass in the breeze. He looked back; the yellow mist impeded his view of the frozen field he’d just left. Where was Ursula? She had left him at an angry run but even so she only left an instant before him. Why couldn’t he see her?
He replayed their conversation in his mind. He hadn’t meant to upset her. They had been paired up for the history field trip around Hastings. Miss Smith thought girls kept boys out of trouble – she was an older teacher and must have been due for retirement soon. Dan had never had much to do with Ursula; she hung around with the other misfits in the year group. They were all lumped together in his mind, plain girls, fat boys, the non-starters. Ursula was one of those different ones – she enormous, over six feet tall, fifteen years old and not just tall but heavy with it. She was solidly built, verging on the very fat. Road shouldered and long limbed, she disguised her bulk in baggy tops and loose trousers. The effect was unflattering. He towered above her classmates, a massive cylinder of black sweatshirt and pale flesh. She wore her fine blond hair very short at the sides and back but hid her cool, blue-grey eyes under a long fringe. Her impassive face was almost sullen. She rarely spoke. He’d been telling her about his training regime. She hadn’t volunteered anything, and scarcely answered his questions so he’d set up a steady stream of near meaningless chatter to pass the time. He’d got a trial for the local football club and was a county runner. He’d been showing off, in a half-hearted way and suggested that Ursula tried weight training. He hadn’t meant anything by it, but she’d run away from him. The mist had come down whilst he was talking. He was just about to comment on it because it had merely appeared. To the south everything was unchanged; to the north he could see nothing but the odd yellowness. She had run north. And this was what she had run into…except that it wasn’t. She wasn’t here. The marshland offered little cover and Ursula had been wearing a bright red anorak.
It never occurred to Dan go back without her, any more than it had occurred to him not to follow her. There was a small hill, more of a ridge really, to his right. Perhaps if she had really moved fast she could be behind that hill. She would have had to be a surprisingly good runner, though. Dan began to run too, but carefully, because the ground was uneven and soggy – ankle-breaking conditions. It was strange. The sky was blue here and it was warm. He took off his jacket and tied it around his waist. It was suddenly a beautiful day.
It was not a beautiful day for Ursula. She had run from Dan because she was in no mood for anymore jokes about her weight and height. She coped well, mostly, but it had been a bad day. There had been a letter from her father that morning telling her that it wouldn’t be convenient for her to visit as planned this weekend because his new baby was sick. This had produced the usual hysterical outburst from Ursula’s mother and the usual stoic response from Ursula. She sometimes wished he would give up the pretence of loving her all together. An wasn’t really the problem, though she had enjoyed listening to him talk and show off a bit like he did for more normal sized girls. It was everything really. The Richard twins giggling at the bus stop and some stupid stranger asking her what the weather was like up there. Everything. The mist was a surprise. She hadn’t been paying much attention to her surroundings but the mist she couldn’t ignore. The colour was sickly, like smog, or like smoke from a witch’s cauldron. It clung to her like a fine net, like a cold shroud, freezing the marrow in her bones with its oily touch. She shut her eyes as if she was underwater. Determinedly she strode through it. She wanted to wipe it away, he face felt slick with it and sick with the feel of it. It was not natural, not natural at all. She began to panic. As a toddler she has once got stuck in the small gap under her father’s shed. She felt the same fear bubbling now. Then, abruptly she was through it and somewhere else. She heard a pop, like the sound you hear in your ear when the altitude changes on a plane. She was trembling all over and dizzy. Everything was wrong. She opened her eyes. Everything was wrong.
She was in the middle of a stone circle, surrounded by people. There must have been six men, and a woman, dressed in some historical costume: cloaks, breastplates, strange hairstyles. She didn’t really take that in. All but the woman were armed with swords. All of the swords were pointing at her. It could not be real. Her mind rebelled at the evidence of her own eyes. She didn’t want to be there. This is not what happened when you were on a history field trip! Ursula was not a coward. Her brain didn’t really accept what her eyes told her but her heart did. It began to pump adrenalin at a fearsome rate. She stood up a bit straighter and squared her considerable shoulders. Trying to control her shakiness, she adopted her ‘If-you-mess-with-me-you’ll-be-sorry’ look, perfected at bus stops and in dinner queues over many years. They were all staring at her so she stared back. She looked at them one by one. Boys often backed down when she did that. These men did not. There was not one of them that didn’t have the cold dark eyes of a psychopath.
‘Oh God!’ she whispered in her mind and it was a true prayer.
The woman threw back her head and howled. The sound shifted every hair on the back of Ursula’s neck and she shuddered. It was not a sound she would have thought a human throat could make. The men looked discomforted and she noticed one or two grasp their swords a little tighter. The woman began to chant. It was like the sound monks made. In contrast to the unearthly howling, her voice was deep and melodious. It reverberated around the standing stones until the air seemed to thrum with it. It was very beautiful but utterly alien. Ursula felt her body tingling and even her heart seemed to slow to beat time to the woman’s chant. It was something more than music, the notes had a force to them that seemed to do something to the air. It was as still as the moment before a storm breaks but the very atmosphere felt charged with power. The air crackled as the woman raised her arms and Ursula felt a jolt like an electric shock on the skin of her own arms. What was going on? She strained to hear the woman’s words. They were in no language that she recognised.
The woman’s voice was becoming more insistent, the rhythm faster, the pitch higher. Then the woman looked at Ursula. It was a very direct look. The woman’s eyes were an extraordinary emerald green, intense and searching. They were more frightening than the swords in the hands of the men. But Ursula was used to being afraid and of pretending not to be. She would not give this woman power over her by showing her fear. Ursula stared back implacably, her own eyes as hard as she could make them. The woman gave a little cry of surprise and crumpled to the ground in a graceful and dramatic swoon that Ursula would have been proud of.
The rite, if that was what it was, was clearly over. With the woman’s fall into unconsciousness the charged quality of the air ceased at once, almost as if someone had thrown a switch and shut off the current. There was a strange noise, a kind of implosion almost out of her hearing range, that Ursula sensed rather than heard. A couple of the men muttered to each other and pointed. Ursula, swinging round to follow their gaze, half expected what she saw. The mist was gone. Not a wisp of it remained. There was nothing unusual in the view. Beyond the stones there was only flat and marshy land stretching as far as the eye could see. There was nothing unusual about it, except it bore no relationship at all to where Ursula should have been. There was no sign of Dan or any of her classmates. There was no sign of the car park where the coach should have been parked. There was nothing but the marsh and standing stones and no one but the men with their swords still drawn.