Darkest before Dawn (The Kingdom of Mercia Book 2) (6 page)

Chapter Five
A Daughter’s Duty

 

 

The roar inside the Great Hall of Bebbanburg was so loud
it numbed the senses. A group of musicians, playing a bone flute, a lyre and a
drum, belted out a jaunty tune that was only just audible above the roar of the
excited voices that echoed high in the rafters.

Cider, mead and ale flowed, and an impromptu feast had
been laid on to celebrate the king’s safe and victorious return home. The queen
had emptied out the stores. The long tables where ealdormen, thegns and their
kin sat, groaned under the weight of cured and smoked eel, fish and fowl, huge
wheels of cheese, roast parsnips, onions and carrots, and fresh bread. As
lavish as this feast appeared, Queen Eanflaed had already started preparing for
the real victory feast in three days time – a celebration that would put the
spread this eve to shame.

Grinning with excitement, Alchflaed took a sip of cider.
She enjoyed the warmth and tang of fermented apple and the way it warmed her
belly. Then, she glanced over at where her brother had just fed his wife a
morsel of cheese. After the initial excitement of seeing her husband’s safe
return, Cyneburh had retreated behind a mask of stoic self-possession; one that
did not even slip when she learned that her father was dead. She had merely
nodded, before bowing her head for a moment. No one had asked her how she felt;
no one had offered her their condolences.

Alchflaed had never really understood Cyneburh; they were
as different as the sun and the moon. Her gaze searched her sister by
marriage’s face now, for any sign of grief. But, the shock of learning that the
mighty Penda of Mercia had fallen had now passed. She gave her husband a demure
smile and allowed him to feed her another piece of cheese.

Oswiu and his queen sat at the end of the table. Baby
Elflaeda suckled at her mother’s breast, while her older sister, Osthryth, who
was entering her third winter, perched on her father’s knee. Alchflaed’s
half-brother, Ecgfrith, sat next to Alchfrith and Cyneburh. Ten winters old,
the boy was slim and sandy-haired with watchful hazel eyes.

Watching her father with Osthryth, Alchflaed felt a
twinge of jealousy. The smile she had worn on her face since the king’s return
faded. She had once been the apple of her father’s eye, but her half-sisters
had long since taken her place. She now had twenty winters, and by right should
have been wedded with her own children. Her continued presence in her father’s
hall galled the queen, and provided a constant reminder of the flame-haired woman
Oswiu had once loved.

Little Osthryth giggled when her father ruffled her blonde
hair. He smiled down at his daughter, his eyes shining. Alchflaed looked away,
suddenly feeling like an outsider. She had hardly spoken a word to her father
since his arrival home – and, since sitting down at the table, he had not
looked her way once.

“So pensive, sister,” Alchfrith’s voice interrupted her
brooding. “That’s unlike you.”

Alchflaed met her brother’s gaze – green like hers – and
gave a wry smile. “Aye, I was just reflecting on how things are changing. Life
never stays as it was, even if I wish it would.”

Her brother raised an eyebrow. “Really, why?”

“We used to be the ones seated next to father at a feast,
the ones who shared his victories.”

Now it was Alchfrith’s turn to smile. “We all have to
grow up. Fæder has to let you go.”

“Let me go?” Alchflaed stiffened. “I’m not going
anywhere.”

Alchfrith’s smile turned enigmatic before he took a sip
of mead from his cup.

“Our victory over Mercia alters many things,” he told
her. “Change is afoot, and it will affect us all.”

 

Alchflaed rose from the table and yawned. The feasting,
drinking and reveling had gone on late into the night and she was exhausted.
Her eyes stung from the fire pit smoke, and her mind was befuddled by too much
cider. Many of the women had already retired for the night, and a number of
folk had wrapped themselves in their cloaks and lain down upon the rushes.

A few folk were still up; a handful of men sat at the
tables, drinking and talking, while servants and slaves busily tidied up after
the feasting. Queen Eanflaed was sitting with some women, ealdormen’s wives,
next to one of the fire pits, although the king was nowhere in sight. It also
appeared that her brother and Cyneburh had retired for the night, and Alchflaed
decided that she would do the same.

Alchflaed stifled another yawn and crossed the floor toward
her family’s sleeping quarters. She had almost reached her bower, when her
brother stepped out from behind the tapestry that hid her parents’ private chamber
from view.

“Alchfrith,” she greeted him with a weary smile. “I
thought you’d gone to bed.”

“Cyneburh retired a while ago,” he replied, not returning
the smile. “I’ve been talking to father in private. He wishes to have a word
with you.”

Alchflaed, who had been about to draw back the tapestry
to her bower, paused.

“Now?”

“Yes – it’s important. Come.”

A king’s summons was not to be ignored, especially not
her father’s, no matter how tired she was. Alchfrith’s serious expression
worried her. She followed her brother back into the king and queen’s quarters. At
least four times the size of Alchflaed’s tiny bower, this space was much more
richly decorated. Thick furs covered the ground and gold-threaded tapestries
hung from the walls. A small fire pit lay at the center of the space, and her
father sat next to it. He had long since removed his magnificent wolf pelt
cloak and finery, and was dressed simply in doeskin breeches and a sleeveless
tunic. The firelight played on the sinewy lines of his arms and the sharp
angles of his face. Alchflaed crossed the furs toward him.

“You wished to speak with me, fæder?”

“Aye – take a seat, daughter.”

Alchflaed cast a questioning look in her brother’s
direction before complying. However, Alchfrith was not looking at her. She sat
down upon a stool next to the fire pit and waited for her father to speak –
yet, all the while, apprehension fluttered in the pit of her stomach. Had she
angered him? He seemed so distant.

“Our victory over Mercia was a great day for Northumbria,”
the king began, staring into the glowing embers of the fire pit. “Finally, we
are rid of the Mercian yoke. Once more this kingdom is a force to be reckoned
with in Britannia.”

Alchflaed nodded. This, she knew.

Her father looked up then, and fixed her with a cool,
assessing gaze.

“Aethelwald is dead. He returned to the fold, on the eve
of battle, thinking that I would forgive and forget but I killed him for his
treachery. Your brother is now King of Deira.”

It did not surprise Alchflaed to hear that her cousin was
dead; she had heard he sided with Penda months ago, and that was enough to
condemn him. To think her blond, forthright cousin had once pursued her made
Alchflaed glad she had refused him. Still, her father’s cold admission that he
had killed him, unnerved her. She glanced then over her shoulder at Alchfrith,
who was watching the proceedings with a hooded gaze.

“Congratulations, brother.”

“There is more,” Oswiu’s voice, sharp now, brought her
attention back to him. “Aethelwald was not the only one to shift allegiance
upon the eve of battle. Penda’s own son changed sides.”

This news did come as a surprise. She knew that among the
high born, blood ties meant little if they stood in the way of power, but for a
son to betray his own father was treacherous indeed.

“Did you accept his allegiance?” she asked.

“I did.”

“You bargained with him?”

Oswiu smiled, although his eyes were hard.

“Paeda of Mercia is now my puppet, ruling Southern Mercia
only in name. He will do my bidding now that I have agreed to let him wed the
woman he desires.”

Alchflaed felt as if she had just plunged head first into
the icy North Sea.

“I beg you, tell me it isn’t so,” she whispered. “Please
tell me you did not…”

Her father said nothing, confirming her worst fears.
Alchflaed sat still on the stool, struggling to keep calm although inside she
was screaming. She had only ever set eyes on Paeda of Mercia once, and then
only briefly. They had not even exchanged a word. He had reminded her of his
father, cold and ruthless.

“You made quite an impression upon him,” the king finally
spoke. “It appears he wishes to tame you, to make you his queen.”

“But I do not wish to marry him,” Alchflaed croaked out
the words, her throat suddenly dry.

Her father shrugged. “That matters not. You will marry
whom I say.”

Alchflaed reeled back. She knew other fathers forced
their daughters to marry against their will, it was commonplace amongst the
high born, but she had always thought her father different. Ever since her
mother’s death, he had favored her, indulged her. Over the years, a number of
men had sought her hand, and she had refused them all. Her defiance had enraged
her stepmother, but not her father. He had merely laughed at Eanflaed’s anger,
and told her that, clearly, the latest rejected suitor was not worthy of his
wild daughter.

“But, you always said you’d let me choose.”

“I indulged you only because it suited me to do so,”
Oswiu replied. “That time has passed. Paeda’s betrayal of his father tipped the
balance at Winwaed in our favor. I intend to press our advantage.”

Panic surged through Alchflaed, making it difficult for
her to remain seated. Fatigue and a slight headache from the cider vanished,
replaced with ice-cold dread. She swiveled on her stool, fixing her brother in
a pleading stare. He was her last ally, the one person she could depend upon.

“Please, Alchfrith, don’t let him do this.”

“It is already done,” her brother replied. His tone was
emotionless, although Alchflaed thought she saw pity flare in his eyes.

Suddenly, the enigmatic comment her brother had made
during the feast made sense.

Change is afoot, and it will affect us all.

He had been trying to warn her. Heart racing, she turned
back to her father.

“Is he here?”

Mercifully, Oswiu shook his head. “Urgent business drew
Paeda back to Tamworth. He has sent a group of his men to escort you to Mercia.
You will leave at dawn, the day after my victory feast. As soon as you arrive
in Tamworth, you and Paeda shall be handfasted.”

Alchflaed gripped the sides of the stool, in an effort to
stop herself from leaping to her feet and fleeing her father’s quarters.

Her world had suddenly shattered into tiny fragments. She
had foolishly believed she would spend her life at Bebbanburg but, instead, her
father had given her to the enemy.

 

 

 

Chapter Six
The Victory Feast

 

 

Alchflaed was winding wool onto her distaff, and staring
sightlessly into the flames of the fire, when Cyneburh took a seat upon the
stool opposite.

It was getting late in the afternoon, and Alchflaed had
been sitting alone at the fire pit for a long while. Around her, the hall
bustled with activity as servants and slaves prepared a mutton stew for the
evening meal. Yet, she had been deaf to them all.

“Greetings,” Cyneburh greeted her timidly.

Alchflaed emerged from her brooding and forced a smile,
although it hurt her face to do so.

“Hello, Cyneburh.”

Her sister by marriage picked up the tunic she had been
embroidering, and was about to resume her intricate work, when she paused.

“You are so pale today, Alchflaed. Are you unwell?”

“I think I drank too much cider at the feasting,”
Alchflaed lied, although she was unable to summon the energy to do so
convincingly. She continued the rhythmic motion of winding wool onto the
distaff, readying it for spinning, and hoped Cyneburh would lapse back into
silence. The Mercian Princess was mercifully not given to prattle. There were
times when the pair of them would sit for an entire afternoon at their work and
barely a word would pass between them. However, when she saw out of the corner
of her eye that Cyneburh had not yet resumed sewing, she realized that today
would be different.

Cyneburh spoke, her voice gentle and laced with concern.

“Alchfrith told me that you will marry my brother.”

Alchflaed nodded, and swallowed to ease the sudden
tightness in her throat. She did not trust herself to reply.

“He said that Paeda demanded the marriage, as payment for
betraying our father.”

Alchflaed glanced up, her gaze meeting Cyneburh’s.

“Does his treachery surprise you?”

Cyneburh sighed.

“My father brought his daughters up to be like their
mother. But, he schooled his sons to mirror him.”

Cyneburh’s pretty mouth compressed into a thin line
before she continued.

“But this time he took it too far.”

“It takes a rare man to betray his own father.” Alchflaed
replied, struggling to keep her voice even.

“Aye,” Cyneburh’s expression hardened further. “As a boy,
Paeda was ever eager to win his father’s approval, even more so than our
younger brothers, Wulfhere and Aethelred. At some point though, his adoration
turned to resentment. It had begun, long before I left Tamworth, but my father
was blind to it.”

Alchflaed glanced away, her gaze returning to the flames
dancing in the fire pit. Cyneburh’s words were making her feel worse, not
better.

Unexpectedly, Cyneburh reached out and placed her hand
over Alchflaed’s. Surprised, for it was unlike her brother’s wife to be
demonstrative, Alchflaed looked up. Cyneburh’s gaze was fierce.

“You are strong,” she whispered, “but in my father’s
hall, women are seen and not heard. Don’t let my brother break you.”

 

***

 

Maric took a seat at the long feasting table and reached
for a cup of mead. The sooner he took the edge off this evening the better. He
would have preferred to sit next to the other warriors, at one of the tables at
the far end of the hall, but Oswiu had insisted that he join the king’s table.

You are Paeda’s representative in my hall so
you will dine with me.

Still, Maric had made sure he took a seat near the
farthest end from the king – the last thing he wanted was to be drawn into
conversation.

As it was, he barely suffered sitting amongst the people
who had defeated his. It took all his willpower not to leave the hall and dine
on stale bread in the stables. He had no stomach for the rich dishes the
servants placed before him: roast boar, venison stew and braised mutton,
accompanied by platters of buttered roasted carrot, onions and turnips. An
enormous swan, stuffed with chestnuts and apples dominated the king’s table as
a centerpiece.

It was, indeed, a feast to celebrate victory. Fighting
discomfort, Maric took a long draught of mead and watched the royal family take
their seats.

Oswiu sat down upon his carved chair, and picked up a
golden cup, studded with amber. A servant appeared at the king’s elbow and
poured him some mead.

Alchfrith, the newly made King of Deira took a seat at
his father’s right, joined by his winsome Mercian wife. To their right sat a
boy who bore a startling resemblance to Oswiu. Maric assumed this was the
king’s second son, Ecgfrith. Next to Oswiu, the queen took her seat. She
carried a swaddled babe in her arms, and wore a plush ermine stole about her
neck. To the queen’s left sat Princess Alchflaed. A little girl, of around
three winters in age, perched upon Alchflaed’s knee.

Maric’s gaze rested upon the princess. Two years had
passed since he had seen her last, but Alchflaed was even more striking than he
remembered. Truthfully, he had thought little of her after taking his leave of
Bebbanburg, for other matters had taken his attention. Watching her now, he had
to admit she possessed a wild beauty that drew a man’s eye.

Alchflaed appeared pale and tense this evening, although
it added to, rather than detracted from, her loveliness. Her eyes were a warm green
against milky skin. Her hair was unbound; a russet mane that tumbled around her
shoulders.

Unlike the last time Maric had seen her, the princess was
dressed in more feminine clothing this evening; in a green sleeveless tunic,
made of fine wool. A single bronze arm-ring adorned the bicep of her left arm but
she wore no other jewelry.

Sensing that someone was looking at her, the princess
looked up, and her gaze fused with Maric’s. Like the last time they had locked
eyes, Maric’s reaction to this woman had surprised him.

Captivated, he stared at her for a moment longer, drawn
in. The heat in her eyes set his veins alight, and when he eventually looked away,
he found he was sweating.

 

Alchflaed stared at the dark haired warrior seated at the
far end of the table. She recognized him – his dark hair was a little longer,
his expression harder, but his eyes were that same crystalline blue.

He was the same warrior who had accompanied Penda to
Bebbanburg two years earlier. Just like that brief moment when their gazes had
met then, her senses reeled now. The sensation was like a physical blow, just
below her sternum. Light headed, her misery temporarily forgotten, Alchflaed returned
his stare, transfixed.

A sense of loss washed over her when he looked away.

Heart hammering, Alchflaed looked down at the trencher of
venison stew, which a servant had just set before her. Unhappiness had robbed
her of any appetite today, and now her stomach had closed completely.

“Alchflaed?”

She looked up to find the queen frowning at her.

“Are you ill?”

“No,” she replied, slightly breathless. “Just weary.”

On her lap, Osthryth started to wriggle. Her chubby hands
reached forward, grasping for the trencher.

“Are you ready for the journey tomorrow?” Eanflaed asked,
not bothering to hide the note of vindictive pleasure in her voice. Clearly,
she had seen her stepdaughter’s pallor and sought to twist the knife. “I hear
you will leave at first light.”

Alchflaed nodded. She was now struggling to prevent her
sister from planting herself headfirst in the trencher, and heartily wished she
could hand her back to the queen. However, Eanflaed was nursing Elflaeda; the
infant girl clung to her mother’s breast like a suckling wolf cub.

“This marriage will be good for you,” Eanflaed continued.
“It is time you wed. You need calming down.”

Alchflaed glowered at her stepmother. She did not
appreciate being spoken of as if she was an unbroken filly.

“Even to our people’s enemy?” she replied, biting out the
words.

“You will weave peace, as many women have done before
you,” Eanflaed sniffed. “It is an honor and you should be grateful for it.”

Anger kindled in the pit of Alchflaed’s belly. This woman
was unbearably smug. She had Oswiu’s love, and would continue to reside at
Bebbanburg while Alchflaed was being sent away from the only home she had ever
known.

Alchflaed drew herself up, her gaze narrowing.

“I’m not grateful to be promised to a man who betrayed
his own father.”

“That is because you are selfish and spoiled,” the queen
hit back, her voice growing shrill.

“And you are a vain, arrogant woman who knows my father
will never love you like he did my mother.”

Around them, conversation died away and Alchflaed felt
everyone turn to stare at her. Now that anger had caught fire in her veins, she
found herself not caring if they had an audience. Her father could make her do
his bidding; he could sacrifice her without a moment’s regret to the glory of
Northumbria, but that did not mean she had to pretend to like it.

“That is why you are so willing to see me gone,”
Alchflaed continued, incensed now. “You would not be reminded of Rhieinmelth
and what she and my father shared.”

Eanflaed struck out, the flat of her hand connecting with
Alchflaed’s cheek.

“Your mother was a heathen slut!”

Alchflaed’s reaction was instantaneous and unplanned. She
lashed out in response, her fist striking the queen square in the eye.

Eanflaed screeched and fell back in her seat. In her
arms, Elflaeda let out a squawk as she was wrenched from her mother’s teat,
while upon Alchflaed’s lap, Osthryth started to cry.

Oswiu’s voice cut off his young daughter’s whimpering. “Alchflaed!”

She turned her gaze to her father and felt her temper
cool. His eyes blazed. His face was taut with barely suppressed rage.

“You disgrace yourself – and me. Return to your bower for
the rest of the evening,” he commanded.

“But fæder, she called my mother a…”

“Enough!” Oswiu roared. “Get to your bower, or I will
give you the back of my hand!”

Alchflaed glared at her father, at that moment hating him
with a force that scared her. Their gazes remained locked for a heartbeat,
before she dislodged Osthryth from her lap and rose to her feet. Then, without
another word, she quit her father’s hall.

 

Maric watched the flame-haired princess stalk,
stiff-backed, across the hall, before she disappeared behind a tapestry.

That had been quite a display.

Around him, he could hear shocked whispers of
disapproval, while at the head of the table the king attempted to soothe his
hysterical wife. Queen Eanflaed clutched the eye the princess had struck, her
voice shrill.

“You must have her whipped for this, Oswiu. You cannot
let such behavior go unpunished.”

“Hush my love, she is leaving tomorrow,” the king
soothed, “that is punishment enough.”

“No, it is not!” Eanflaed choked out between sobbing
gasps. “She struck me.”

“And you also hit her.”

“I am the queen – she had no right to speak to me thus.”

“That is true.” Oswiu pulled little Osthryth onto his
lap, and mopped away the little girl’s tears with his thumb. “But having
Alchflaed whipped will not change things. I promise you will not need to see
her again before her departure tomorrow.”

Although the king spoke in appeasing tones, his voice
gentle, Maric noted the harsh set of his face, the anger that still glittered
in his eyes. It seemed that Alchflaed had made an enemy of her father this day.

Maric thought of Penda then, and the days when both his daughters
had resided at Tamworth. He imagined how Penda would have reacted had Cyneburh
made such a scene upon learning that she was to marry a northern prince. Such
defiance amongst the Mercian royal family was unthinkable. It was clear that
till now, Oswiu had indulged and spoiled his eldest daughter. He was now paying
the price, for Alchflaed had grown into a willful, hot-tempered young woman.

Maric shook his head and looked down at his half-eaten
trencher.

Princess Alchflaed’s spirit would not be welcomed at
Tamworth. Her father had done her no favors in letting her have so much freedom,
only to use her to weave peace with his enemy. Paeda was cut from the same
cloth as his father; a woman was to be decorative and biddable. Defiance of any
kind would not be tolerated.

Maric took a sip from his cup. He felt little these days,
pity neither for himself nor others, just a hollow numbness that whistled
through him like the North Wind. Yet, he could see that the Northumbrian
princess would be miserable in her new life, and he was sorry for that.

 

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