The Waiting Usurper

I wanted to showcase an exert of my first novel, particularly the two leads meeting. I’m a sucker for that first moment when the would-be lovers lock eyes and connect. Call me a hopeless romantic but I’m convinced our bodies recognise our match long before our heads realise it.

Hope you enjoy this first meeting between Niah and Raen. You need to know that Aelius, her first love, has recently died. He was the King’s son and heir. They are attending his funeral. Raen is the king’s firstborn but disowned son.

 THE VILLAGERS HAVE GATHERED by the statue for the funeral procession: stunted children with snotty noses and chapped lips, women with sleeves black as burnt fields, and men bent from defeat. The groans of hungry bellies add an underlying dirge to their chatter. Nessia and I huddle together, our dresses still damp from her trying to dye them last night. The wool hasn’t fully taken the colour and so they’re as patchy as the winter sky.
   ‘You’ve some nerve coming here, you hedge-born heathen,’ a woman snarls at me, yanking her gangly daughter away.
   ‘You not dead yet?’ a stringy man snipes. His wife kicks me in the shin with her bare and muddy foot. A laugh turns into a hacking cough. Their gaunt son jostles me and Nessia, pushing us to the edge of the gathering. ‘Here. Here’s another one of them fire-fuckers,’ he calls out.
   I hiss my grandmother’s words at him. His face blanches, and he barges his way into the thick of the crowd to hide. I straighten my shoulders, lift my chin, and focus on the procession. At the front is Aelius’s coffin, his momentary chance to lead at last. The surface has been buffed and shined to show off the golden threads in the laburnum. Surely, it’s far too small to contain his body? The white horses bearing his weight are eager to move, churning up dust and dirtying their legs as they fidget. Onnachild is next, proud and corpulent on a black stallion. He’s bulked out in dark fur the same colour as his hair and eyes. He doesn’t appear weak or overcome by grief as he stares out, ignoring the villagers’ awe-filled gapes. 
   ‘A real ruler wouldn’t keep sending men to their death,’ Nessia moans.
   Onnachild is flanked by two grey men who are as watchful and thin as starved wolves. The castle people are behind, each one blond and white-skinned. The weak sun tries to glint off them and the jewels displayed against black clothes, but the people don’t need its help to dazzle. Vill is amongst them, poised and perfect. He turns his head left, right, and left again, searching the crowd until he spots me. There’s no recognition in his face when our eyes meet. Hopefully, that’s a sign he won’t seek me out and try to change my mind.
   ‘That him?’ Nessia asks. It’s not Vill she’s pointing at though; it’s the man next to him. One who is stockier and taller than the castle men surrounding him. Compared to them he’s an ancient oak in a forest of saplings. His colours are vivid against their paleness: honey-coloured skin, dark hair with mahogany tones loose around his broad shoulders, and eyes a deep brown. He doesn’t belong with the castle people, bred for beauty and dancing, but down here with us who toil and feel the mud between our toes.
   ‘Raen,’ Nessia mumbles in my ear.
   ‘Must be.’
   The young women are whispering, appreciatively, about the size of his thighs encased in breeches instead of baggy hose like the village men wear. His hair sweeps across his wide shoulders as he surveys the square, the people gathered, and then raises his head to peer up at the statue. What he sees makes him frown. The wind blows a lock of hair over his face but he doesn’t brush it away.
   At the command of the wolfish men, the procession moves and, like an afterthought, the villagers tag along. Together, Nessia and I struggle through the crowd, pushing and ducking to get nearer to Aelius. The village men have a desire for revenge set in the lines of their faces, forgetting the fear that made them run.
   Sons grumble insults: ‘Thieving cross-eyed limp-dicked pig-riding Aralltirs.’
   Shuffling footsteps are in time with the steady boom of the castle drums but they have none of the power. The village women clutch at their clothes as they groan death songs that are drowned out by the crisp voices of the official mourners. Nessia sings along with tears in her eyes. I’ve already sung my song.
   The procession leads us to the church where it’s as misty as the battlefield was, giving the place a nightmarish echo. The air is thick and damp, carrying a sickly blend of decaying leaves and out-of-season flowers. As I enter the gates, Nessia’s fingers slip from mine.
Fresh humps dot the graveyard like the shells of beetles. The castle people are dismounting their horses and merging into a blur of black and white. I elbow my way through them, startled when they tut because I feel as insubstantial as a spirit. I’m not sure I’m even breathing. Deeper I go amongst the shafts of light and shadow their bodies create, pushing against their satin, their furs, their silk, until … until …
   Before me is a gaping hole in the ground, a headstone new and pale. My stomach lurches and my heart hurts as I read Aelius’s name, the date of his birth, and the date of his death. But he doesn’t belong there, not in the mud, not in the dark. He’s as golden as the sun. A wailing cuts through the harmony of the mourners’ song.
   It’s me. I try to stop but I can’t. Onto my knees I fall. Onto the mud, churned up by horses just as the battlefield was. A woman gasps. The taste of Aelius’s blood is in my mouth. Rain starts, thin, quick drops. The sky has darkened and thunder rumbles as though it’s competing with me. I can’t stop my body from heaving as I claw at the mud, needing to clasp something solid, but it oozes through my fingers. Snot and tears mix with the rain on my face. I’m gasping, head turned skywards as if I can call him back.
   ‘For the love of God, help her.’ Has the voice come from the earth? It’s deep enough, gruff like it’s made of stones. Lightning brightens the sky; the gods are angry because Aelius’s body should be given to them in fire. An arm goes around my waist and sweeps me up into the air. My legs kick out. I must stay close to the earth, to where my love is going. Another arm reaches around me, and I’m pulled under the shelter of the last yew, the branches scraping across my skin.
The man holding me curses when his back jolts against the trunk and he almost drops me. He sits and settles me in his lap like I’m a child, then he takes off his cloak and covers my head with it to keep me dry. ‘Shhh … shhh … shhh.’ The sound mimics the whisper of a tree. He rocks me. He strokes my back with sweeps as languid as those shhhs. His scent is soothing: fresh sap, autumn forests, and castle life. I take deep gulps of it as I cling to him; he’s solid and broad, everything the mud wasn’t. Warmth emanates from him like a well-established hearth fire. I yawn onto his chest.
   He hums a song my grandmother used to sing, one I’ve not heard since childhood, and it piques my curiosity so I ease the cloak off my head. Rain drops onto my forehead as I lean back and its chill tingles. His arms tense to bear my weight but his eyes remain fixed over my head, staring off into the distance as though he’s lost in a daydream. Under his left eye is a scar shaped like a drop of rain and I almost try brushing it away. His gaze lowers, first to my hand hovering near his cheek and then to meet mine. Raen.
   His parents have left their marks in the colours of his eyes: conker brown with three green dots in both. The same green as mine. The same green as his mother’s, only the colour shouldn’t pass from mother to son. I crane my neck up, lean in to take a better look. He seems as bewildered as I am, with his forehead furrowing as he hunches closer. The shape of his eyes is so similar to Aelius’s, but that is the only similarity because Raen’s lashes are darker and thicker, the eyebrows heavier, and his eyes deeper set. There’s pain in them, an uncertainty. He blinks and his emotions vanish.
   ‘What’s your name?’ His accent is strange: a hint of the village, the castle, and somewhere else, somewhere I can’t place.
   ‘Ah, so you’re Niah. It makes sense now.’ He shifts beneath me. ‘I’m sure your little display will have been noted.’
   He shoves me from his lap and I bump onto the damp ground, dragging his cloak with me.
   ‘Yes, display.’
   ‘I love him.’
   ‘Of course you do. They all do. Look at them there.’ He points towards the castle people but his scowl remains fixed on me. ‘And now, they must pretend to love me. You know who I am?’
   I nod, words lost at his sudden change from kindness to disgust.
   ‘Good. With the way things have turned out I bet Onnachild’s glad he didn’t kill me, but I doubt you’d agree. It would make things easier for you if I was dead, wouldn’t it?’ The green in his eyes is vibrant. His breath is hot on my nose. ‘Well, I’m back, the second-best son … the forgotten son … the disowned son, take your pick. I won’t be those things for long. Trust me, I mean to have everything that was Aelius’s.’
‘   He promised it to me,’ I manage to spit out.
   ‘I’m sure he did, but it wasn’t his to promise.’ Then he’s standing, looming over me. A sardonic smile is on his face. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll leave you something for your pains.’ He chucks his purse at me.
   ‘I don’t care about coins,’ I say, though I know I’ll snatch up that purse the moment he’s gone.
   ‘We’ll see. It’s a hard life for a dead prince’s whore, even if she is with child.’
Whore. The word prickles like a thistle in the foot, and I go to defend myself, throw his cloak back at him, only he seems to want that reaction, and so instead I stifle it, swallow his insult. After all, it’s no different to those the villagers throw my way. Inwardly though, I curse him in both the languages I know.
   As he marches away, I hear a village man warn him, ‘You want to be careful of that one, suck your soul out she will.’

Copyright 2019 A Head

Like this extract? You can show your support by buying me a coffee @ or by purchasing one of my books (The Waiting Usurper, Asphodel Meadows, The Family Care). They can also be borrowed via Kindle Unlimited.

Extracts of all my novels are available on my website


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: