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Why I Wrote ...

The Silent Fort                          

                      I grew up in Lympstone on the Exe estuary. As a teenager, much of my spare time was spent going for long walks with my dog. The furthest limit of these excursions was Woodbury Common, with the earthworks of Woodbury Castle, and the pine-clad burial mound nearby.
   I was brought up to believe that Woodbury Castle was a Roman camp. In those days, every achievement of the distant past was said to be Roman. We were given the impression that the Ancient Britons were barbarians running around in skins and woad, and living in caves.

 It was a revelation to me to learn in adulthood of the glories of Celtic culture. Their metalwork surpassed anything the Romans could do. They made beautiful spiral artwork. They were poets and musicians.
   I felt I had been cheated of my heritage. I had been told the myths of classical Greece and Rome, but not the myths of my own people. One of the driving forces of my own writing is now to redress that balance, to celebrate my British inheritance.
   And so for The Silent Fort I have gone back to Woodbury Common. The Castle is the Silent Fort. I have tried to imagine what it would be like to be a Celt, living in a hilltop stronghold, and learning that an invading Roman legion has crossed into my tribal territory. Is resistance possible? Is it wise? And what will happen to my ancient culture if Rome conquers Devon?
   It is not a simple goodies-and-baddies story. Some of the Celts in it are barbaric. And one, at least, of the Roman legion is not a brutal conqueror.
   I wrote the core of this story many years ago, before I was published. It was then a children’s novel, with a boy as the central character. But there was always another story running under the surface, about his older sister and her love for the chief’s rebellious son. This time, I have foregrounded her too, making this a richer and more complex book for adults.

 

Read an extract...

  The crashing ceased, though Melwas hardly noticed it. He could hear Crab still barking furiously in the silence. Suddenly he was on the edge of a clearing. The whippet stood stock-still on the grass, yapping defiance at a high wicker fence.

  For a while, it meant nothing to him. Across a level clearing, the fence that encircled a grove of oak trees, yet kept the rest of the wood at bay. The open gateway. The sharp smell of wood-smoke lingering under the boughs. Then, all at once, a great wave of thankfulness swept over Melwas and he felt he had found safety. He summoned Crab to heel with a flick of his hand, and walked through the gateway.

  Around the great oaks the grass grew green and sweet. At the foot of one were the pigs, now munching quietly at the fallen acorns. Three huts stood to one side of the enclosure, and from one of them a thin smoke stole upwards. But it was to the very centre of the grove that Melwas's eyes were drawn, and, having once seen what stood there, he could not look away.

  A tall wooden pillar reared up towards the first pale stars of evening. Its wood was black, and there were things shaped out of its surface. Melwas drew slowly nearer. His footsteps made no sound on the soft grass. The grove was still. Nearer and nearer. Now the pillar towered over him and he lifted his face to look.

  Where the blade had bitten fiercely into the wood, the gashes were filled with blackness. As he peered at them, these shapes in the dark wood emerged as human heads. Long shadowed slits of eyes stared down at him. They had no mouths.

  He was afraid. His eyes were hurrying. He was scared to gaze at them now, yet he dared not look away. His eye slid downwards. One. Two. Three. Now the heads were clustering more thickly. Six . . . nine . . . eleven . . . and . . . His heart stopped. At the base of the pillar hung the twelfth head, upside down. Below it, a deep hole gaped in the ground.

  Melwas stood gazing down at it while the world rocked about him. He could not begin to understand its meaning. But he felt the power of it cold upon his heart. He knew tha it had a meaning, dark and deep and dangerous to know.

  'Welcome, Melwas Mighty-Heart! What does Idwal Goldenshield's young foxcub come seeking at the Oaks of Seiriol?'

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