The Butcher Bird, by S.D.Sykes

The Butcher Bird, by S.D.Sykes

Thursday is publication day, and one of the books to be making its way into the world tomorrow will be The Butcher Bird, S.D.Sykes’ second novel about Oswald de Lacey, the hapless Lord of Somershill Manor. And to celebrate, I have a proper treat: read on to get a taste of the opening prologue, plus a Q&A with the author. You’re welcome!

The threat of the Black Death has receded, but its toll on the village has left Oswald short-handed in the farms and fields, with those left clamouring for a better wage. Then rumours of a huge creature in the sky begin to spread, and the village begins to whisper of the Butcher Bird… Read on to see how the story begins:

 

Prologue

 

Somershill Manor, September 1351

 

It was the tail-end of the morning when the charges were laid before me and I would tell you I was tempted to laugh at first, for the story was nonsense. Or, at least, that is how it sounded to me. Instead I suppressed a smile and carried on. ‘Shouldn’t Father Luke deal with this?’ I said, turning to my reeve, Featherby. ‘It seems a more…ecclesiastical matter.’ This was the first manorial court of 1351 and I had spent the last three hours imposing fines on my villagers for neglecting to plough a field, or for allowing their goats to trespass upon a neighbour’s garden. After such banality, you might expect me to have been pleased for some variety in my caseload. But I have learnt to be wary of excitement. It causes trouble.

 

Featherby leant towards me and made a show of whispering. ‘Father Luke thought you should know about this crime, sire.’ He then raised his substantial eyebrows and mouthed a word to me that I think was affray, though his lips moved with such exaggeration, it was impossible to know for certain.

 

‘Tell me the story again,’ I said loudly, trying to disguise my rumbling stomach. It was late morning and the rich scent of roasting duck drifted across the great hall from the kitchens. We should have finished by now.

 

Featherby stepped away from me to pull a trembling figure from the crowd. It was John Barrow – a man I recognised immediately, despite his torn clothes and filthy skin. Barrow was often brought before the manorial court, though not because his rents were unpaid, or because he had failed to perform some duty or other about the estate. Instead, the usual complaint against the man concerned his refusal to cease his shrill and piteous grieving. In my opinion his neighbours should have treated him with more sympathy, for he had lost his wife and three children to the Plague – but given the sneers and glowers of those about him, it seemed he had once again tried the village’s patience.

 

Featherby shook the miserable man. ‘Tell Lord Somershill what you’ve done now. Go on. He wants to hear it from your own lips.’ Barrow’s response was merely the emission of a strange swallowing noise that both began and ended in his throat.

 

A woman with the sharp face of a weasel pushed her way through the crowd. ‘He opened his wife’s grave, sire. That’s what he did.’

 

I looked to the man she accused. His skin was pale and moist with sweat. His eyes as veined and red as a blood orange. ‘Is this true?’ I said, but he didn’t answer. Instead he began to pant like an overheated dog – a condition not assisted by the crowd that drew ever closer about him.

 

‘Stand back,’ I told them. The morning was cold and damp, but their bodies exuded a nervous heat that hung in a low fug across the chamber. They drew back with some reluctance.

 

I leant in close to Barrow’s ear, so that the others might not hear me. ‘Did you open your wife’s grave?’ I asked him. ‘You must tell me the truth.’

 

He nodded but didn’t speak, only continuing to make the curious gulping sounds in his throat.

 

‘Why?’ I said. ‘Why would you do such a thing?’

 

‘It’s the second time he’s done it,’ said the weasel-faced woman. ‘We might have forgiven his sins once. But we shouldn’t forgive them twice. Oh no.’

 

I folded my arms and glared in her direction – as fiercely as a boy of nineteen might. ‘Are you the judge here?’ I asked her.

 

She looked to the floor. ‘No, sire.’

 

‘Then keep your opinions to yourself.’

 

I turned once again to John Barrow. Now that the surging mob had backed away, he stood alone in the reeds of the floor seeming as unsteady as a newly born calf. ‘I ask you again, Master Barrow. Why did you open the grave of your dead wife?’

 

He wiped a ball of spittle from his mouth. ‘I wanted to hold poor Margery again.’

 

‘That wasn’t all you did,’ came a voice from the crowd. I couldn’t see its owner, but knew it to be the same busybody as before. At her words the hall erupted, with angry calls to punish the sinner.

 

I shouted for them to be silent, but they ignored me. And then, as I looked upon their agitated faces, I remembered an earlier time, not twelve months before, when I had witnessed another frenzied crowd burn a boy to death.

 

With this memory soldering my nerve, I raised my voice to a new level. ‘Enough,’ I bellowed. ‘Or I’ll fine you for disorder.’ For a while they were subdued, allowing me to turn my attentions back to Barrow. I took his hand, hoping that some kindness might calm him. ‘Please, Barrow. Just tell me the truth.’

 

His fingers were hard to the touch and as cold as the icy stream. His voice a thin, rasping trickle. ‘I had a dream. There was a fiend. A demon. It told me to return to my wife’s grave.’

 

‘And did you?’ The faces were once again drawing in about me.

 

He nodded. ‘Yes.’

 

My stomach sank. ‘But why?’

 

‘The demon told me I had begot a child upon my wife.’

 

I dropped his hand sharply. ‘You cannot beget a child upon a corpse, you fool!’ I said.

 

Barrow caught my arm, his fingers now claws. ‘But it wasn’t a child, sire.’ He pulled me closer – close enough for me to catch his sour, feverish stink. ‘I heard a scratching from within the coffin.’

 

‘Don’t lie,’ I said.

 

‘I lifted the lid,’ he whispered, digging his nails into my sleeve. ‘But I should have left it shut. I should have left the creature in there.’

 

‘What creature?’

 

‘It was a monstrous bird. With great talons and a huge hooked beak.’

 

‘This is nonsense.’ I said, pushing the man away.

 

Barrow covered his face, his words now seeping through tear-stained hands. ‘I saw the creature fly away into the night.’ He collapsed into the reeds, weeping pitifully. The crowd drew back, calling him both a sinner and a devil. But as I watched Barrow shudder and convulse upon the floor, my disgust at his story slowly turned to sympathy. It was not sin that had spawned this delusion. It was madness.

 

Featherby coughed. ‘What should we do with him, sire?’

 

I didn’t answer.

 

‘Shall I bolt him into the pillory?’ he whispered. Loudly. ‘I’m sure a night in the cage would sort him out.’

 

I took a deep breath. ‘No.’

 

Featherby sighed with disappointment. ‘Are you sure?’

 

I looked my reeve squarely in the eye. ‘I said so, didn’t I?’

 

‘But he sired a monstrous bird,’ came weasel-face’s voice. ‘You can’t let such a thing live.’

 

‘I told you to be quiet before,’ I said. ‘I won’t tell you again.’

 

But still she didn’t listen. ‘You should torture Barrow, sire. Make him tell us where the bird is!’ This idea caught hold, and once again the fever erupted. How easily reason is destroyed by fear. They shouted and waved at me, hopping up and down as if the floor was a skillet of boiling resin.

 

‘He wants the bird to take our children, because his own are dead,’ came one voice.

 

‘It’s a butcher bird,’ said another.

 

‘Hang the man,’ said a third.

 

Now I roared with such force they could do nothing but fall silent. ‘Go home!’ I told them. ‘The manorial court is closed.’

 

Slowly they dispersed, but not Featherby. He sidled up beside me. ‘What of John Barrow?’

 

‘Lock him in the gaol house for the night. Let his madness wane.’ Then I pointed at weasel-face. ‘And put her in there with him.’

 

S.D.Sykes

 

Thanks so much for coming along to the blog! Tell me, is The Butcher Bird based on actual events, or is it purely fictional?

It is entirely fictional, but I’ve set the story against a background that is factual – the aftermath of the Black Death of 1348-50. The book itself is set in 1351 and the aspect of these post-Plague years that most piqued my interest was the way that society changed after such an apocalypse. With so many dead, the poorest people in society suddenly gained the confidence to demand higher wages for their labour. The response of the ruling class to this insubordination was to introduce laws to peg wages back to the 1346 levels. The peasants needed to know their place! The laws didn’t work, and feudalism – the way that England had been governed since the Norman invasion – was dealt a significant blow.

 

 

Have you always wanted to write about this period in time? And are there other eras you’d like to explore in the future?

 

I’ve always been drawn to the medieval age. I can’t quite explain why – it might even go back to my childhood, and my love of fairy tales. Such tales are always set in a make-believe but still recognizably medieval, gothic world, complete with castles, moats, princesses, witches, and assorted monsters and dragons. I also love the architecture of those years – particularly the vernacular cottages and timber-framed halls. With their twisting beams and thatched roofs, it seems to me as if they’ve almost grown out of the soil itself. I don’t find that any other age calls to me with the same potency, but if I did write in a different time period, then it would probably be in a contemporary setting.

 

Give us a brief character analysis of your main character.

 

Oswald is still a young man in The Butcher Bird. Only nineteen years old. He’s something of a reluctant hero. A shy and self-conscious introvert. He often worries about doing the right thing and not looking stupid – a typical teenage boy I suppose. For me, he represents that experience that many of us have had in our lives – being out of our depth, but having to galvanise ourselves and get on with the task in hand.  Sometimes he can be a little arrogant, naïve and immature. But at his core is a strength. Though courage doesn’t come easily to him – he will stand up for what’s right. He often finds a mettle within himself that he almost doesn’t expect to find. I want people to like him – even if he can be a little frustrating at times!

 

Why the butcher bird?

 

The people of this age had something of an obsession with monsters and fantastical creatures. The medieval mind was bombarded with the macabre. Particularly in the churches of the times  – with their fire and brimstone doom paintings and constant warnings about the vats of boiling oil waiting for sinners in Hell. I wanted to invent my own medieval monster, and when I read about a genuine bird, the ‘Red-backed Shrike’, I couldn’t resist working with this image. Commonly known as the Butcher Bird, this small creature impales its prey, usually the nestlings of other birds, onto the thorns of bushes – using these barbs as a type of larder. It was just too good not to use!

 

Like I say, I can’t wait to read this. You can get your hands on a copy here and find out more about S.D.Sykes here.

And there’s a blog tour going on for the rest of the week! Check out the other stops:

sd sykes blogtour

 

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