Darkest before Dawn (The Kingdom of Mercia Book 2) (3 page)

She had observed the Mercian party closely as she
approached the high seat. Penda of Mercia was as she had imagined; cold, hard
and built like Thunor himself. The young man next to him – dark haired and
powerfully made – was definitely related to Penda, for he carried himself with
the same arrogance. However, it was the three men who stood with him that had intrigued
her: one dark, one blond, and the third red-haired.

One, in particular, had drawn her eye. Tall and lean,
with long dark hair and pale skin, the warrior was dressed, head to foot, in
dark leather armor. He exuded a restless, contained energy, but it was his face
that drew her in. She had never seen a man with such defined cheekbones. He had
dark finely drawn eyebrows, an angular chin and jaw, and crystalline blue eyes.
His face was, simply put, beautiful.

When their gazes met, it was as if someone had punched
her, just below the ribcage. Her breath had left her, and for a moment the
world stood still. Heart racing, she had torn her gaze away and forced herself
to keep walking.

Now that she was seated, Alchflaed allowed her gaze to
return, once more, to the mysterious dark-haired Mercian warrior. He stood two
paces behind his king, and he appeared to be deliberately avoiding her gaze.

Penda broke the weighty silence that had settled over the
hall.

“She will bend to our ways easily enough. What will your
answer be, Oswiu? Shall we weave peace between our kingdoms? Shall Paeda and
Alchflaed be betrothed on this day?”

Alchflaed’s attention jerked back to the Mercian King.

Betrothed.

For the first time, she looked properly at the young man
standing at Penda’s side. He was staring at her, a look of naked hunger upon
his face. Alchflaed’s stomach knotted as the reality of Penda of Mercia’s visit
took hold. She broke out into a cold sweat and tore her gaze from his, staring
down at the rush-strewn floor beneath the platform.

“I think not,” Oswiu’s response brought both relief and
dread rushing forth within Alchflaed. “I tire of the games you play.”

“And what games are they?”

“This mask of friendship you wear every time we meet. You
killed my brother. You butchered his corpse and hung his remains in a tree for
the crows to feed on. Yet, you come here and speak as if another wedding
between our families will mend things.”

“Oswald fell in battle,” Penda rumbled. “What my men
chose to do with his corpse was their business.”

“Do you think me a fool?” Oswiu snarled. “The last
marriage did nothing to ease your warmongering. You wish to rule these lands.
Wedding my daughter to your son is just a ruse.”

“So you will not agree to the match?”

Oswiu leaned forward and spat on the rushes at the foot
of the high seat. Alchflaed stared at her father, shocked. She had rarely seen
him so incensed. His face had gone white and pinched, his eyes were dark with
rage. His hatred for Penda was palpable.

“It is you who is the fool, Penda. You are no longer
welcome at Bebbanburg.”

“So you would make me your enemy?” Penda replied, his pale
eyes glittering.

“I am already your enemy,” Oswiu snarled back. “Your word
means nothing to me. Enough with the pretense. Be gone from my hall.”

Penda favored Oswiu with a long, dark look.

“Very well, you have made your choice. The next time we
meet, it will be in battle – and I will show you no mercy.”

With these words spoken, the King of Mercia turned, his
wolfskin-pelt cloak billowing behind him. His son hesitated, his gaze lingering
upon Alchflaed, before it shifted to Oswiu.

“Paeda,” Penda barked. “Come!”

Alchflaed watched the Mercians stride from the hall, her
insides churning. Then, she glanced over at her father. He was staring after
Penda, hate etched onto every line of his lean face.

With a sinking heart, she realized that despite years of
bloodshed, her people’s problems with Mercia were only just beginning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PART ONE

 

THE PRINCESS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two years later…

 

Chapter One
The Eve of Battle

 

River Winwaed, northern Britannia

Late autumn, 655 A.D.

 

 

 

The rain tore across the land in great, grey sheets,
flattening grass and churning earth to mud with its violence. Nature unleashed
its fury upon a windswept landscape of gorse-strewn moor and wild skies.

Dusk was settling, turning the world bleaker still. A shadow
in the gloaming, Maric made his way down the slippery bank toward the Mercian
encampment. His gaze swept over the army as it bedded down for the night; a sea
of goatskin tents, hemmed in by the roaring River Winwaed to the south, and
high moorland to the north.

Halfway down the bank, Maric paused, wiping water out of
his eyes. He surveyed the army, before his expression turned grim. Strategically,
they could not have been in a worse position. The rain felt as if it was coming
down harder than ever. By morning, the river would be a raging beast.

Maric pulled his hood down over his face, continuing his
way down the hill. He reached the encampment and waded through ankle-deep mud
toward the King’s Tent.

Pushing aside the tent flap, Maric stepped into another
world. He left behind mud, howling wind and slashing rain, and entered a luxurious
space warmed by braziers. Heavy tapestries kept the seeking wind at bay and
rushes covered the wet ground. However, despite that he was no longer braving
the elements, Maric had not found sanctuary here. Outside, the gods were
brawling, but inside a king was raging.

Penda slammed his fist onto the table that dominated the
wide space.

“Battle shirking son of a whore! When I am done here, I
will track that craven bastard down and feed him his own balls!”

Maric paused just inside the entrance to the tent and
pushed back his hood, taken aback by his king’s outburst. It was rare for Penda
to show his temper so openly; his fury was usually cold, quiet, and lethal. The
king’s ealdormen and thegns surrounded him; their expressions pinched, their
faces pale.

Penda’s gimlet stare shifted to Maric, barely registering
his presence, such was the depth of his fury.

“Cynfeddw of Gwynedd has abandoned us,” he growled. “He’s
taken his army with him.”

Osulf, who stood at his king’s right, met Maric’s gaze;
his friend’s expression was pained.

“Aethelwald of Deira has also withdrawn,” Osulf added
quietly.

This second piece of news did not come as any surprise to
Maric. Aethelwald was Oswiu of Bernicia’s nephew. Maric had long suspected the
young ruler of Deira lacked the stomach to meet his uncle in battle.

“We still outnumber them,” Maric reported. “I’ve just come
from their outer perimeter. We have at least three times their number.”

“We
had
,” Osulf corrected him.

In response, the king whirled away from the table,
flinging his cup of wine across the tent. Then he turned to Maric.

“Tell me, what else did you see out there?”

The malevolence in Penda’s voice caused some of his men
to draw back from him. He looked ready to draw his sword and cut down the next
man who said anything to displease him. Maric watched his lord with cool
detachment. He no longer feared Penda of Mercia’s rage, for the events of the
last two years had taught him that he was capable of the same killing fury. He too
had awoken the beast within and had been changed in the aftermath. Nonetheless,
he wisely let his king’s temper settle before he delivered his news.

“They have completely blocked off any chance of escape.
Oswiu has us between the high ground and the river.”

“The bastard was waiting for this,” Osulf spat on the
ground before glancing at where Elfhere stood at the other side of the table.
The fair-haired warrior looked grimmer than Maric had ever seen him.

“He wanted to trap us here,” Elfhere muttered.

Indeed, it appeared as if Penda had played straight into
the Northumbrian leader’s hands. With the onset of winter, the marshes to the
west – the quickest route back to Mercia – had become impassable. Penda had
been forced to push his armies east, onto higher ground. Here, the land
narrowed into a funnel for the northerly approach of the River Winwaed
crossing. The heavy rains had turned the usually calm tributary into a raging
torrent – Penda was now effectively hemmed in.

Maric watched as the king began to pace his tent, his
face thunderous.

“I brought thirty warlords north with me,” he snarled, “a
mighty fyrd that would have crushed Oswiu in the north, had I let them. I
should never have taken his treasure in return for not slaughtering him. He
planned to trap us from the beginning.”

Penda was referring to the chest of gold and jewels that
Oswiu had used to barter for peace, when it was clear Penda was close to
destroying him. However, instead of returning to Bebbanburg after the exchange,
Oswiu’s army had tracked the Mercian fyrd south, awaiting its chance.

“You still have the East Angles and Powys, M’lord,”
Elfhere eventually ventured. “They will not desert you.”

“And you have Paeda,” Osulf added. “We will not stand
alone at dawn.”

Penda stopped his pacing and turned back to the cluster
of battle-hardened men who stood around the table. His gaze swept over them,
and his face darkened. Osulf’s mention of Paeda had drawn his attention to the
fact that his first born was absent from his battle conference.

Misgiving stirred in Maric’s gut when he realized he had
not seen Paeda since they had stopped to make camp in the late afternoon. Then,
he saw the look that passed over Penda of Mercia’s face, and his worry turned
to foreboding.

Silence hung over the tent for a few moments, broken only
by the rhythmic pounding of rain on the hide canopy above their heads. When
Penda eventually spoke, his voice was rough, barely audible.

“Where is my son?”

 

***

 

Oswiu poured a large cup of wine and handed it to the man
before him.

“So, tell me again why I should trust you?”

The man, around twenty-five winters, with close-cropped
dark hair and a face that for all its youth was hard and uncompromising, took
the proffered cup and gave a cool smile. He was the same height as Oswiu, but
with twice his girth, broad-shouldered and with heavily corded muscle. Dressed
in a mail shirt with leather breeches and a thick woolen cloak, Paeda of Mercia
cut a formidable figure.

His eyes gleamed intently when he replied. “Because, I
wish to wed your daughter.”

King Oswiu took a sip of wine and regarded Paeda over the
rim of his cup. They stood in Oswiu’s tent, warming themselves next to a
glowing brazier, while the sides of the tent snapped and billowed in the wind.
Outside, they could hear the rumble of men’s voices and the rasp of blades
being sharpened. The odd burst of laughter also reached them; Oswiu’s fyrd had
maneuvered itself into a very strong position and morale was high this eve.

The King of Bernicia turned his attention back to his
guest. Paeda’s infatuation with Alchflaed did not surprise Oswiu, for he had
seen the prince’s reaction to his daughter two years earlier. Ever since she
blossomed into womanhood, slack-jawed young men had dogged Alchflaed’s heels;
not that she paid most of them any mind. However, Paeda’s decision to use his
desire for Alchflaed as a bargaining tool intrigued Oswiu.

“Is one woman worth betraying your father for?” he asked,
deliberately provoking. “I heard your father made you King of the Middle
Angles, an honor indeed.”

Surprisingly, Paeda did not rise to the bait.

“I do this for ambition, not just for your daughter,” he
replied, his face expressionless. “My father is a warlord. He would ride over
his own kin to victory. He made me King of the Middle Angles because it suited
his plans, for no other reason. His warmongering ways cost me your daughter’s
hand two years ago – this is my last chance to forge my own path.”

“You are no closer to having our trust, Paeda.”
Alchfrith, Prince of Bernicia, who had been silently observing the conversation
till now, spoke up. “Will you swear a blood oath to my father?”

Oswiu glanced across at his son, pleased by his comment.
Auburn haired and fair-skinned, Alchfrith – like his sister – was a constant
reminder of the woman who bore him.

Rhienmelth.

Both Alchfrith and Alchflaed had their mother’s fire, her
directness. Even now, years after her death, there were times when he missed
her. She had been his ‘Queen of Lightning’, as her name denoted; a royal
princess of Rheged, the Briton territory to the north-west of Bernicia. Rhienmelth
had not been his first consort – during his exile in Ireland as a young man, an
Irish princess named Fin had borne him a son – but she had been his first love.
Ten winters past, Rhienmelth had sickened of a terrible fever, from which she
never recovered. He had remarried shortly after but, although he was fond of Eanflaed,
she would never replace Rhienmelth in his heart.

Paeda held the Prince of Bernicia’s gaze for a moment, as
if taking his measure, before nodding.

“If we are victorious tomorrow, will you kneel to my
father? Will your loyalties remain with us once your father is defeated?”
Alchfrith pressed.

“They will.”

Oswiu studied Paeda of Mercia’s face and decided that he
would never put his trust in this man. Not that it mattered – it paid to keep
your enemies close. A match between Alchflaed and Paeda suited Oswiu’s plans.

Paeda broke the silence between them.

“Whatever oath you require of me, I will take it – as
long as you make me King of Mercia after the battle, and give Alchflaed to me.”

Oswiu raised an eyebrow. 

“Whatever oath? It’s unwise to make such a promise, for
you have no idea what I may ask of you.”

Paeda stared back at him, his pale gaze never wavering.

Your father brought you up in his image
.
A
dangerous enemy but an even more treacherous friend.

Oswiu stepped forward and raised his cup to the younger
man, allowing himself a cool smile.

 “Very well, Paeda. I accept your proposal.”

 

***

 

“Curse this rain, it will be the end of us if it
continues.”

Osulf hunched his shoulders against the deluge as he,
Elfhere and Maric slogged their way uphill to join the first watch of the
night.

Elfhere pushed wet hair out of his eyes and flicked it
off his face. “Aye, and it shows no sign of letting up.”

Maric glanced up at the sky. It was the fourteenth day of
Blod monath, Blood month. The eleventh month of the year and the last moon
cycle before winter and the coming of Yule. It was the month of sacrifice, when
folk would kill animals and offer them up to the gods. The sacrifices made this
month provided villagers with enough food to see them through the winter.

However, Blod monath was a bad time of year to travel,
for it was usually a month of heavy rains. After years of impeccable strategy, Penda
had pushed his luck too far and they were all about to pay the price.

The three men made their way up to the brow of the hill,
where other cloaked figures waited next to sputtering and smoking pitch
torches, mounted on poles and stuck in the mud. Like the three newcomers, the
other warriors wore oiled leather cloaks, their cowls pulled high, in an effort
to shield them from the drumming rain.

“It’s going to be a long watch,” Elfhere muttered as they
took their place in the line.

 Maric spoke for the first time since leaving Penda’s
tent.

“You wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway – no one will,
tonight.”

His gaze shifted to the edge of the torchlight, and he
squinted into the murk. He was just able to make out the faint light of the enemy
camp’s fires, nearly a furlong distant. A short while later, Osulf broke the
silence.

“It’s going to be ugly tomorrow.”

Maric
gave a grim smile. Osulf was ever given to stating the obvious. A huge portion
of Penda’s army had deserted, morale was at rock bottom, and the king’s son had
disappeared. The only advantage the Mercians had was that their army was bigger
than that of the Northumbrians. The rest was too desperate to dwell upon. As
things stood, it looked as if dawn would send them all to meet
Nithhogg
in the underworld.

Maric inhaled the wet air and let the realization wash
over him. Tomorrow he would die. He waited for dread to cramp his guts, but
felt nothing, only a faint sense of relief. Finally, it would be over.

“Every man’s got to go sometime,” Elfhere spoke up, as if
reading Maric’s thoughts, his voice uncharacteristically flat, “but I’d hoped
my time was far off.”

“A warrior doesn’t get to choose his end,” Osulf slapped
his friend on the shoulder. “Wyrd does.”

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