On the day I was born my father saw the fylgia. Our family’s guardian-spirit appeared holding a distaff in one hand and a sword in the other. He thought it meant twins, a girl and a boy. Then he was called into the hall and presented with me, his first daughter. He already had sons so there was no disappointment. I like to think that he smiled as he put me in his helmet to show that he accepted me as his own. Later, when he thought about the fylgia again, he wondered about her message. This is the way with gods and spirits. They show you signs but you have to interpret their meaning for yourself.
I had seen eight summers when my father realised it was not his sons but his daughter who had an aptitude for sword-play. He called me to him and handed me a short scabbard. My heart beat like thunder as I drew a blade from the fleece-lined bed. I turned it to catch the sunlight. The grip had a pattern of trefoils. The top of the hilt had broken off and in its place our blacksmith had forged a disc with an eye on each side. My father pointed to it.
‘She can see in both directions and your enemies won’t take you by surprise,’ he said. I nodded. It made sense.
‘Is it really mine? To keep?’ He smiled and I knew I had my very own sword. No more playing with sharpened sticks or pestering my brothers to let me use their blades. I swung it a couple of times from side to side. It lay smooth and balanced in my hand. It was a wonderful feeling.
‘What’s she called?’
‘That’s for you to decide.’
‘I shall call her Snakebite.’
‘That’s a good name. Remember you will be judged by how you use her so think before you act and make sure you bring honour to both your names.’
I grew up on historical fiction but felt frustrated at the limited roles allocated to women. Boys seemed to have all the fun! The exception seemed to be the Viking era. I was taught at school that Viking girls as well as boys were taught to ride, swim, use a bow and arrow, and defend themselves against attack. Later I read about Viking women going on raids in their own ships and being in charge of their own crews. Then I had a seminal dream, where an old woman reminisced about her life as a shieldmaiden, a woman warrior. Sigrid was such a strong character. I just had to write her story.
When I mention Vikings in England the common response is ‘rape and pillage’. One of my reasons for writing about Vikings is to give people here a more balanced picture of our common ancestors who contributed so much to the development of our laws, trade, towns and cities as well as the language we speak and write.
Sigrid is a warrior but she is also a farmer, mother and lover. Her life is shaped by the violent times she lives in. Her father is killed as a traitor, her home is burnt to the ground and the rest of her family disappears. She is faced with a life in servitude unless she clears her father’s name. The book is the story of her quest to do that.
Research is both a necessity and a distraction. The historical setting must be as accurate as possible but must not overshadow or steer the events in the story. I can spend hours immersed in fascinating research only to find that it doesn’t add anything to the narrative and so must be discarded.
Shieldmaiden, Matador, 2012
Excerpt from The Last Shieldmaiden, Making a Mark, Leicester Writers’ Club Anthology, 2008
A Climbing Guide for Women, The Coffee House, issue 23, and Shieldmaiden, long-listed for the International Rubery Book Award 2013.
Rhythm and Blues, Peace & Freedom, Vol. 18, no 1, 2003.
Alone in Base Camp, Candelabrum, Vol. XI, no 4, 2003
Quest, Psychopoetica 42, 1998
Through the Horizon, Saying it Louder, anthology by Mostly Poetry, 1998
The Girl in the Yellow Hat, 1st Prize in Affairs of the Heart, Poetry Today, Penhaligon Page, 1997
Delusions of a Schizophrenic Body, Beyond the Horizon, Poetry Today, Penhaligon Page, 1997
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