Darkest before Dawn (The Kingdom of Mercia Book 2) (10 page)

Chapter Thirteen
Closer

 

 

The race was Alchflaed’s idea.

Briosa was impatient this morning, jogging and champing
at her bit, eager for a gallop. They had set off in the early dawn, for Maric
was eager to make up for lost time now that they had left the snow two days
behind them. An open expanse of gently rolling hills stretched south for as far
as the eye could see.

Alchflaed rode up to the front of the column, and joined
Maric.

“Morning,” she greeted him.

He responded with a slow smile, his gaze meeting hers.

“Hello, princess. You’re bright this morning.”

“Aye, I enjoy travelling.”

“Such a journey exhausts most men but you appear to be
enjoying yourself.”

Alchflaed shrugged. “I love the freedom of the outdoors.
Would that my kin had been hunters, not rulers.”

“I can imagine you in that life,” his mouth quirked as he
spoke. “Can you use a bow?”

“As well as any man.”

The corners of his eyes crinkled and he grinned. “I’d
believe it too.”

“And I can ride as well as any man,” she continued. “I
reckon I can beat you.”

His eyebrows raised. “On that stumpy-legged creature?”

“Briosa may not look much, but she’s as fleet as the
North Wind.”

He laughed, and the sound made Alchflaed’s breathing
constrict.

“I doubt she can outrun Isærnfōt,” he boasted.

‘Iron-foot’ – it was an apt name for such a massive bay
gelding.

She gathered her reins and glanced once more at him,
grinning.

“Let’s find out shall we? Race you to the top of the next
hill!”

With that, she dug her heels into the pony’s furry sides.
The mare shot forward, throwing out clods of dirt behind her, down the slope.
The chill morning air whistled past, causing Alchflaed’s eyes to water.
Suddenly she was back home, galloping along hard-packed sand and listening to
the roar of the surf, with her dogs racing behind her.

Joy surged within Alchflaed and, sensing her rider’s
excitement, the stocky mare lengthened her stride. Alchflaed heard the thunder
of hooves behind her. Maric had given chase.

There was a narrow stream at the bottom of the hill, but
Briosa cleared it easily. Alchflaed leaned forward, urging the mare on and
loosening the reins so that the pony could have her head. The mare charged up
the hill. They were half-way up the incline when she caught a flash of movement
to her left. Maric, astride his bay gelding
,
was gaining on her.

Alchflaed dug her heels into Briosa’s sides, and the mare
increased her speed even further. Still, it was not enough.

Maric drew level with her, and they approached the brow
of the hill neck and neck before Isærnfōt shot forward and won by a nose.

Breathing hard, Alchflaed drew up. Next to her, Maric did
the same. His gelding, fire still in its veins from the chase, danced as he
reined it in. Maric was laughing, his face the most alive she had seen it.

“Breeze she may be,” he grinned, “but she’s not swift
enough to outrun Isærnfōt.”

Their gazes met then and held. Maric’s laughter faded,
and the teasing response Alchflaed had been about to make died on her lips. They
stared at each other.

At that moment, the others crested the brow of the hill.
The moment shattered and Alchflaed tore her gaze from his.

 

***

 

Maric sat by the glowing embers of the fire and sharpened
his blade on a whetstone. Outside, a strong wind had sprung up, causing the
sides of the tent to billow and snap with each gust.

On the far side of the fire, Alchflaed was looking at the
wound on Bryni’s thigh. Like the others inside the tent, she still wore her fur
mantle about her shoulders; for despite their best efforts to keep the icy wind
at bay, it still managed to enter the tent.

She had tied her long auburn hair back in a thick braid,
but tendrils had escaped and curled around her cheeks.

Watching her, Maric remembered the expression on her face
this morning, just before she dug her heels into her pony’s flanks and took off
at break-neck speed down the hill. Wild and free, she belonged out here, away
from the great halls of men who sought to tame her. For a few moments, as he
raced her, Maric had forgotten his own troubles; his dark past, and his bleak
future. Just for a short time, he too had been free.

The young warrior appeared to be enjoying Alchflaed’s
attention. Unlike the others, Bryni did not seem to resent the Northumbrian
princess. He had gone pink in the face as she examined the injury. Fortunately,
Alchflaed did not appear to notice.

“It’s healing well,” she told Bryni. “It will need at
least another five days and then I shall remove the stitches.”

“Thank you, M’lady,” Bryni replied, “although it’s
starting to itch – is there something amiss?”

Alchflaed smiled and shook her head.

“It’s healing, there’s nothing to worry about.”

She rose to her feet and left Bryni to don his breeches.
Maric was aware that she was walking toward him and he looked away, focusing
upon the sword he was sharpening. Nonetheless, Alchflaed approached and sat
down next to him.

“That’s a fine sword,” she said lightly. “Does it have a
name?”

“Aye,” he replied, “all good swords do.”

Silence stretched between them, and when Maric did not
speak further, Alchflaed prompted him.

“So what’s it called?”

Maric’s gaze met hers. “
Nightbringer
.”

Another silence fell before Alchflaed eventually broke
it.

“Has it slain many Northumbrians then?”

Maric nodded. He glanced up and saw that Alchflaed was
frowning. It was not a glare of disapproval, which he had expected, but the
weary expression of a woman who had grown up amongst war. She knew that battle
was a way of life but did not like it nonetheless. The princess’ gaze returned
to
Nightbringer
, travelling along its iron, double-edged blade to its
leather pommel.

“In my father’s hall, only his best warriors fight with
swords,” she observed. “Is it so at Tamworth?”

“Yes, Penda gifted this sword to me after a successful
campaign in the north. Few of Penda’s thegns fight with swords as fine as this
one.”

He uttered these words without the slightest boast; if
anything, they depressed him. At the time, when Penda gifted him the sword, he
had never been prouder. Then, he had felt as if wyrd, fate, shone upon him. He had
enjoyed his lord’s favor, the love of a beautiful woman, and his family’s pride.
Now, all that remained was cold iron, and as fine as it was,
Nightbringer
brought him no solace. It was merely a reminder of everything he had lost.

“Is something wrong?” Alchflaed asked. Maric was tempted
to conclude their conversation, but upon seeing the genuine concern on her
face, he swallowed his bitterness.

“It’s only that this sword reminds me of my old life… “

He watched Alchflaed’s frown deepen, and sensed her
curiosity to know more. However, wisely, she did not press him further. In an
effort to shift the conversation away from himself, Maric motioned to the
scabbard that lay flat across her waist.

“That is a fine weapon also.”

Alchflaed’s gaze dropped to her seax and her expression
tightened.

“A gift, from my father,” she replied, her voice subdued.

“It’s a kingly gift indeed, may I look at it?”

She hesitated a moment, before drawing the blade from its
intricately stitched leather scabbard and handing it to him. Maric held it up,
admiring the shimmering single-edged blade and ornately carved wooden handle.

“You were fortunate with the ealdorman,” Maric said
finally. “You struck at him blindly, and it was only luck that your blade
actually cut him.”

He saw her bristle at that, but continued nonetheless.
“If you carry such a finely made seax, you should know how to use it.”

“Fæder gave it to me just before my departure from
Bebbanburg,” she explained stiffly. “I did not have time to learn how to use
it.”

Maric smiled. “Shall I teach you then?”

He watched her mouth thin. She was a proud young woman
and did not take kindly to being bested at anything. Maric watched the
princess, awaiting her response.

“You’re wasting your time there,” A heavy-set man with
shaggy brown hair jeered. His name was Baldwine and he was one of the most
vocal in his resentment toward their Northumbrian charge. "You can’t teach
a woman to fight.”

Alchflaed threw the warrior a venomous look and rose to
her feet.

“Very well,” she said, facing Marc. “Show me.”

Maric set
Nightbringer
aside and stood up. He then
passed Alchflaed’s seax back to her.

“Put this away, it’s too sharp to practice with.”

Alchflaed complied, while Maric retrieved a piece of
wood, around the same length as the seax, from the fireside.

“The most important thing to remember about a seax – both
its strength and its weakness – is that it is short,” he began. “Unlike with a
sword, you have no reach.”

Maric stepped forward so that he and Alchflaed now stood
very close. He was aware that the conversation had died around the fire, as the
other Mercians looked on.

Edgard was frowning, while Bryni grinned. Scowling, Baldwine
rose to his feet, spat in the fire and exited the tent. A few others followed
him making it clear they did not approve.

Maric ignored them. His gaze met Alchflaed’s, which was
easy for she was a tall woman and stood barely a hand’s span shorter than him.

“You have to be willing to get close to your opponent,”
he continued. “Far closer than you want to. Once there, you must be aggressive.
Speed is everything with a seax.”

Maric brought the stick up sharply so its tip rested just
below Alchflaed’s rib cage. He had moved so fast, she had not anticipated him.
Her eyes widened in shock.

“Woden!”

“A sword is unwieldy,” Maric grinned, “but a seax is
agile. If a man carries a spear, he cannot use his weapon at close quarters.”

Alchflaed nodded, her expression wary.

“Very well. Stand with your legs apart and knees bent and
lean forward slightly,” he instructed. She obeyed, although he could sense her
discomfort.

“Take this.”

Maric handed the stick to her, which she then held in her
right hand.

“Keep your hands low,” he told her. “You will not be
carrying a shield, so you must not use your free hand to block the blade – or
you’ll lose it. Instead, you must use your shield-hand to parry; hit your
opponent’s hand out of the way, or grab it and take control.”

“And how do I do that?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.

“I’ll show you. Attack me. Step toward me with your right
foot and strike fast.”

No sooner had the words left his lips, than Alchflaed
leaped toward him and thrust the stick at his ribs. Maric reached out with his
left hand and grabbed her wrist, holding it fast. He cocked an eyebrow, more
impressed than he revealed.

“Very good – you’re fast.”

Her lips thinned. “Not fast enough it seems.”

“I’d be wary of you in a knife fight, M’lady,” Bryni
spoke up from the other side of the fire, clearly impressed by the princess’
speed.

“Perhaps, but most men wouldn’t be,” she replied with a
wince.

“Then use their arrogance to your advantage,” Maric said,
taking the stick from her. “A knife to the ribs harms, whether a man or a woman
wields the blade.”

 

Chapter Fourteen
Meeting at
Winwaed

 

 

Alchflaed watched a hawk glide overhead, a dark silhouette
against a rare blue sky. She admired the bird’s regal beauty. Her father kept
hawks for hunting and she had loved birds of prey since she was old enough to
don a leather hawking glove and hold one of these majestic creatures upon her
wrist.

The northern stronghold of her people felt a world away.

She seemed to have been travelling forever. After riding
south-west since Eoforwic, Maric had led them east. At this rate, they would
reach Tamworth just in time for Yule. This was the longest journey Alchflaed had
ever been on; even her trips to her mother’s kin in Rheged had been no longer
than five days’ ride from Bebbanburg.

The company now skirted the marshes, which were
impassable at this time of year. It was a necessary detour; they would be able
to turn west once more after crossing the River Winwaed.

Alchflaed’s gaze travelled up the column of riders to
where Maric led the company. It had been nearly three days since he had taught
her how to wield a seax, and things had been easier between them since that
evening. They often spoke together in the evenings and Alchflaed found Maric
good company. Intelligent and soft-spoken, his conversation fascinated her.

Still, she felt no nearer to knowing the enigmatic
Mercian. He kept their talk light, and skirted around any topic that required
him to reveal any details of himself. Likewise, Alchflaed spoke little of her
own thoughts, or what awaited her farther south.

She had enjoyed learning how to wield a seax but the
experience had also reminded her of why her father had gifted it to her. Maric
had unwittingly taught her how to kill his own king. No doubt, the skill would
come in useful if she did not resort to poisoning as her method of
assassination.

Fæder would be pleased
, she
thought bitterly.
How would Maric react, if he knew the truth?

She had no answer for that, just a dull ache in the
center of her chest.

They rode on higher ground this morning, upon
gorse-strewn moorland. The sun had almost reached its zenith, when the party
reached the brow of a hill. Here, Maric halted. Alchflaed urged Briosa forward
and rode up so that she drew level with him.

“Why are we stopping?”

“The Winwaed is before us,” he replied.

His gaze, fixed upon where a wide river in the valley
below glittered in the noon sun, was hard.

“Is this where the battle took place?” she asked quietly.

Maric nodded.

Edgard drew up next to them, his face stony. “Your folk
made camp behind us,” he told her, his tone faintly accusing, “while we camped
down there, near the banks of the river.”

“The Winwaed looks a lot calmer today,” Maric observed.
“Doesn’t seem like the same river.”

“Aye,” Edgard’s expression softened slightly. “Safe
enough to cross on horseback?”

“I’d say so.”

Alchflaed looked down the hillside. Strangely, she could
see no sign of the terrible battle, which had taken place barely a moon cycle
earlier. It was only when she glanced right that she noticed a wide, charred
stretch of ground.

Maric saw the direction of her gaze.

“That’s where they burned the dead.”

Alchflaed did not reply. Edgard broke the uncomfortable
silence.

 “I have no wish to linger in this place,” he growled. “Let’s
press on and take our rest once we’re south of the Winwaed.”

“You’ll have no argument from me,” Baldwine muttered
behind them. “The ground here is soaked with Mercian blood.”

The mood was tense and Alchflaed, the only Northumbrian
among them, wisely kept silent. All the men here had fought at Winwaed, and had
tasted the bitterness of defeat. They had seen their friends – and perhaps even
their brothers, fathers and uncles – die. Alchflaed understood their eagerness
to be gone from this place.

Maric urged his gelding down the slope and led the way
into the river. The water came to just below his horse’s belly and it flowed
swiftly. Edgard followed and then Alchflaed. She deliberately loosened Briosa’s
reins, letting the mare pick her way across. The pony snorted, nervous in the
swirling water, but she gamely followed the others. The water came up higher on
the pony, lapping around Alchflaed’s feet and soaking her fur boots. Behind
her, she heard splashes as the rest of her escort entered the river.

The Winwaed was a wide river, at least thirty paces
across. Alchflaed had heard that the armies had faced each other in torrential
rain and many men had drowned in the swollen river. The thought chilled her.

Maric reached the other side and reined in his gelding,
waiting till the others were safely across. Briosa leaped up the bank, snorting
in her eagerness to be free of the river’s chill. They followed Maric up the
slope beyond the southern bank, weaving in between clumps of gorse.

At the top, Maric brought his horse to a sudden halt. His
action was so abrupt that Edgard almost rode into the back of him. Edgard
started to protest, but Maric put up a hand to silence him. His gaze fixed upon
something beyond the rise, Maric beckoned his companions forward.

Reaching the crest of the hill, Alchflaed followed
Maric’s gaze across the scrubby landscape before them. An oakwood, a riot of autumnal
leaves, began to their right. However, directly in their path – around fifty
yards distant – stood a company of warriors, their shields raised.

Alchflaed stifled a gasp.

At this distance, it was difficult to judge their number,
although she would have guessed there were around twenty of them. They were
dressed for battle in mail shirts or boiled leather, and some of them wore iron
helms.

Alchflaed did not need to ask – she knew who blocked
their way. She broke out in a cold sweat and her fingers clenched around the
reins. She glanced across at Maric, and saw his face had gone stony. Alchflaed then
looked at Edgard and Bryni. Even the young warrior’s face had changed, turned
into a killer’s mask. Her father had once told her that women had no place on a
battlefield. For the first time, she understood him.

Alchflaed swallowed and nervously licked her lips.

“Maric,” she murmured. “You were right… he has followed
us.”

Maric did not look at her. Instead, he swung down off his
horse and unsheathed
Nightbringer
. He unslung his limewood shield from
where it rested on his back and brought it up before him. Around him, the
others followed suit.

“Ride back across the river, Alchflaed,” he told her, his
voice cold. “Wait there till this is over.”

“What if you fall?” she asked, panic rising in her breast.

He looked at her then, his crystalline gaze belonging to
a stranger. “If the ealdorman comes, flee and pray he does not catch you.”

His words did little to calm her. She watched Maric turn
his back on her and stride forward to meet Eadweard of Eoforwic and his warriors.
Edgard flanked Maric’s left and Bryni his right.

Alchflaed watched them go. Despite Maric’s order to ride
back over the river, she found herself rooted to the spot. The Mercians’ horses
milled around her, abandoned by their riders as the warriors moved to fight on
foot. Briosa, sensing her rider’s panic, tossed her head and danced. Alchflaed
barely noticed. She stared at Maric’s back as he walked away from her.

When they were around ten yards away from the men
blocking their path, the Mercians halted. Then, Maric’s voice rang out.

“Eadweard of Eoforwic, why do you block our way?”

The shields before him parted and a huge man stepped
forward. The ealdorman was even bigger and more frightening than Alchflaed
remembered. He wore a wolf-skin mantle and a mail shirt covered his broad
chest.

“You know why, Mercian.”

“Stand aside and let us continue south. We have no
quarrel with you.”

“No, but I have one with you,” the ealdorman rumbled.

“You would betray your king?”

The ealdorman spat on the ground, his gaze shifting
behind Maric to where Alchflaed hung back at the top of the rise.

“My loyalty has earned me nothing. It’s time I took what
is rightfully mine. Give me Alchflaed.”

“We were charged with Lady Alchflaed’s protection,” Maric
replied coolly. “I will not abandon her to you.”

“Then prepare to die.”

The ealdorman stepped back to the line and raised his
shield.

The Mercians shuffled together, wood thumping against
wood, as they formed a shield wall of their own. A moment later, the two groups
of warriors rushed at each other.

The crunch of shields colliding split the air.

Briosa squealed and reared. The pony sensed danger and
wished to run from it. Alchflaed stroked the mare’s quivering neck, her gaze
riveted upon the backs of the Mercians as they locked shields with the
ealdormen’s warriors. 

Men’s shouts reached her. She watched the shield walls
break apart, and then the warriors were fighting face-to-face. She saw Edgard
knock his first opponent to the ground and slam a spear through his throat.
Blood spurted and then Edgard was whirling away, raising his shield to ward off
a blow from a warrior wielding an axe. Next to him, Maric wielded
Nightbringer
like an executioner. Blood sprayed in the sword’s wake, as he cut down every
man who came at him.

Amongst the fray, Alchflaed spied Eadweard of Eoforwic.
He too wielded a sword, and thrust and slashed like a butcher. The ealdorman stabbed
Baldwine. He smashed him in the face with his fist as the Mercian struggled
upon his sword, before kicking him to the ground.

Then, Bryni went down, skewered upon the ealdorman’s
blade.

Alchflaed cried out, her scream lost amongst the roar of
battle. Without thinking, she jumped off Briosa’s back and drew her seax.

Around Eadweard of Eoforwic, the battle was turning
against the Northumbrians. However, the ealdorman did not appear to notice or
care. Fighting with a savage rage, he now clashed with Maric. The Mercian met
him blow for blow. Maric did not have the ealdorman’s bulk and strength, but he
moved with the agility of a dancer, letting the bigger man expend his energy on
the offensive.

Alchflaed’s gaze shifted to Bryni’s prone form. The young
man struggled to rise, his face twisted in agony.

She had to help him.

With the seax gripped in her right hand, and held low, as
Maric had shown her, Alchflaed ran into the fray. She dodged sword-blades,
spears and axes, reaching Bryni in the center of it all.

Alchflaed had just knelt next to him, when she realized
that Maric and the ealdorman were still fighting, no more than three yards
away.

Eadweard of Eoforwic roared like a stag. He struck out at
his opponent, and the blade glanced off Maric’s shield, catching the top of his
arm. The Mercian leaped backwards, and parried the ealdorman’s next blow. Blood
streamed down Maric’s injured bicep but he ignored it. His next thrust slashed
Eadweard across the thigh. The ealdorman grunted in response. Then, he did
something unexpected.

The ealdorman threw himself forward.

His entire weight crashed down upon Maric, pinning him to
the ground. With their shields between them, the two men struggled to draw
their seaxes. Eadweard pressed down upon Maric, using his knee to hold the
shield still, so that his opponent could not reach his dagger.

Alchflaed watched the ealdorman fumble for his own seax,
which lay flat across his belly. Rage twisted Maric’s face as he struggled
against him.

Alchflaed watched the scene unfold and realized Maric was
close to dying.

Leaving Bryni’s side, she covered the distance to the two
men in just three strides. Not hesitating, acting only upon instinct, she sunk
her seax blade into the ealdorman’s side, just below the armpit of his
shield-arm.

Eadweard of Eoforwic gave a mighty roar, twisted around
and clubbed Alchflaed across the face with his right fist. She flew backwards
into the mud. Dazed, she looked up to see that she had given Maric the moment
of distraction he needed. In the moment the ealdorman had turned to hit her, he
had lifted his weight off the shield that pinned Maric to the ground, allowing
his opponent to get his sword arm free.

Maric whipped out his seax and plunged it into the base
of the ealdorman’s neck. Then, pulling his dagger free, he shoved the bigger
man off him. The ealdorman choked, his fingers clutching at his throat. His
eyes bulged and his mouth moved in wordless curses.

Maric stood over his opponent and watched him die.

Around them, the battle was ending. Edgard had just slain
the last of the ealdorman’s men. The clearing before the oakwood fell ominously
silent. Blood had stained the earth dark.

Maric leaned down and pulled free Alchflaed’s seax,
buried to the hilt under the ealdorman’s arm. Blood dripped from the blade and
Maric wiped it clean on Eadweard’s wolf skin mantle before he crossed to her.

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