Darkest before Dawn (The Kingdom of Mercia Book 2) (9 page)

“I am above you – I am a king’s daughter.”

Eadweard of Eoforwic’s answer rang across the hall.

“You may be a high born wench, but you’re still a woman,
and that makes me your better.”

Alchflaed stared back at the ealdorman, her anger rising.

It was clear he thought that any man, even a theow – a
slave with no status or freedom – was of higher rank than any woman. It was the
one insult she could not abide, even if it was an attitude she had encountered
repeatedly amongst her father’s thegns.

“I disagree,” she replied, rage sweeping over her in a
chill wave. “I have met a number of women – Lora for one – who are superior to
you in every way.”

“Mouthy bitch,” the ealdorman growled, his heavy-featured
face coloring. “Mind your tongue under my roof.”

Alchflaed leaned forward, mimicking his own threatening
posture.

“A pig wallowing in its own muck is above you, Eadweard
of Eoforwic.”

 

Chapter Eleven
Insults

 

 

Alchflaed’s comment brought mixed reactions from around
the table – from gasps of shock and outrage, to sniggers of mirth.

“Hōre!”

The ealdorman swept away the food before him, and lunged
for her.

Alchflaed sprang to her feet and staggered back from the
table. Then, she fumbled for her father’s seax and slashed blindly at her
attacker. The blade caught Eadweard across the forearm, slicing through his
quilted jacket and drawing blood.

The ealdorman hissed a curse, his eyes widening. A
deathly hush fell across the table, before Eadweard grabbed a carving knife
from the table.

Alchflaed backed away from him. Her heart thundered
against her ribs as she watched the ealdorman come for her. He was a big man,
but he moved like a wolf on the hunt.

Fool
, she chided herself.
This time your temper will get you killed.

“You like knives, girl?” Eadweard of Eoforwic grinned.
“Let’s see how what color your blood runs, shall we?”

Maric stepped up then, between Alchflaed and the
ealdorman. He carried a poker, which he had retrieved from the fire pit on his
way round the table. Like the other Mercians, he had left his weapons outside
upon entering the ealdorman’s hall, as was customary for visitors.

“We want no trouble ealdorman,” Maric spoke gently.

 “This is my hall, Mercian,” Eadweard sneered, “and no
one, not even a high born bitch from Bebbanburg insults me in it.”

“I apologize for Lady Alchflaed’s disrespect,” Maric
replied, “but we shall take our leave now all the same.”

“Too late for that,” the ealdorman replied with a fierce
grin. “None of you will be leaving here.”

With that, the ealdorman’s nephew and the dozen or so ceorls
seated at the long table rose to their feet. From behind Maric, Alchflaed saw
that the Mercian’s posture appeared remarkably relaxed. He hardly seemed
bothered that a knife-wielding warrior twice his width was threatening him. He
held the poker loosely by his side, waiting for the ealdorman to make the first
move.

Edgard stepped up next to Alchflaed. Their gazes met, and
he cast her a look of exasperation. She answered with a pleading look of her own
and wordlessly handed him her seax. Since he was unarmed, and she had gotten
them into this mess, it was the least she could do.

What happened next was a blur. The ealdorman came at
Maric with frightening speed, but the Mercian moved with equal swiftness. He
blocked his attacker’s knife thrust with the poker, before disarming him with a
kick. The knife fell into the rushes and the ealdorman lashed out at Maric, his
meaty fist grazing his opponent’s cheek.

Maric’s own fist lashed out, striking under the ealdorman’s
jaw in an uppercut.

Eadweard’s head snapped back and he dropped to the
rushes, where he lay, senseless. Men’s shouts and women’s cries suddenly filled
the hall, echoing amongst the rafters.

Alchflaed gasped. “Is he dead?”

Maric shook his head, his face unreadable. “Just
unconscious – for a short while, at least. We need to be far from here when he
awakes.”

He retrieved Alchflaed’s mantle from the bench and shoved
it into her arms. Then, his gaze shifted to Edgard. “Get her out of here and
saddle the horses ready for us.”

 

***

 

They rode out of Eoforwic as if pursued by Nithhogg
himself.

Maric and Edgard led the way, holding torches aloft, with
the rest of the company thundering at their heels. They had all made it out of
the ealdorman’s hall alive, although Bryni had received a nasty wound to his
thigh in the scuffle that ensued.

It was a dark night, for heavy clouds cast a veil over
the stars and a half moon. If not for the torches, they would have been
travelling blind. The cold stung Alchflaed’s face and it was not long before
her fingers turned numb. Guilt needled her as she rode and she felt sick when
she remembered how close she had come to getting her escort into terrible
trouble.

They travelled a long while, eventually leaving the road
and riding west, deep into woodland. Branches brushed against Alchflaed,
snatching at her clothing, but she pressed on, following the Mercians farther
into the trees. She imagined Maric had led them here to ensure that Eadweard of
Eoforwic would not easily catch up with them.

When he awoke, the ealdorman’s rage would be terrible.

Eventually, they halted in a clearing surrounded by
beeches. Alchflaed dismounted, her limbs stiff and cold.

“No fires tonight,” Maric commanded his men. “Not this
close to Eoforwic.”

Maric received no complaints, for all of them knew they
had been fortunate to extricate themselves from the ealdorman’s hall. He drove
the end of his sputtering torch into the ground and Edgard did the same, so
that they had some light to see by. Maric turned to the warrior who had
sustained an injury during the scuffle.

“Bryni, how is your leg?”

“Hard to tell,” the warrior replied, although his voice
was tight with pain.

“Alchflaed will you take a look at it?” Maric asked. He
had not yet looked her way, although Alchflaed could sense his anger.

Bryni’s face, illuminated by the guttering torchlight,
was hollowed with pain. He sat down upon a log while Alchflaed knelt next to
him and examined the wound to his thigh.

She, like all the women at Bebbanburg, had learned the
art of healing. Over the years, she had tended men with worse wounds than this
one, although the knife wound had cut deep into the flesh of Bryni’s thigh.

“It has stopped bleeding,” she told him, “although I will
need to cleanse the wound and put a few stitches in, for it is deep.”

Bryni groaned at this, but did not offer complaint. Next
to her, Edgard unstoppered a skin of mead and passed it to Alchflaed. She
poured it over the wound, making sure it washed deep inside the flesh. The young
man cursed, his body stiffening in pain.

“I know it hurts, but it will stop the wound from
festering,” Alchflaed told him. She rose then, and retrieved a leather satchel
from her pony. Squinting in the torchlight, which was not ideal, she extracted
a bone needle and woolen thread, before turning to where Edgard and Maric
looked on.

“You’ll need to hold him still while I do this.”

Wordlessly, the two warriors moved to obey her. Edgard
sat behind Bryni, placed an arm around his shoulders, and passed him a knife to
bite down on. Meanwhile, Maric held his leg still. Alchflaed worked quickly,
although it was difficult in such bad light, puncturing the skin and neatly
tying four stitches. All the while, Bryni did not utter a sound. However, Alchflaed
heard his teeth grinding against the knife blade as she worked. When she
finished, he was as pale as milk and sweating, his breathing labored.

“Thank you, Lady Alchflaed,” he managed.

Alchflaed shook her head and smiled. “There’s no need.”

She tucked away her needle and thread before leaving the
young man to recover. She crossed to her pony and was buckling her satchel back
onto the saddle, when Maric approached her.

Alchflaed’s mouth went dry. Ever since leaving Eoforwic,
she had been dreading this moment.

“I know what you are going to say,” she said quickly,
forestalling him.

His voice was deceptively quiet when he replied.

“And what’s that?”

“That was all my fault. I should never have baited him.”

“So you’re sorry for it?”

Alchflaed finished tying the satchel closed and turned to
him. His face, partly in shadow, was the most stern she had seen it. Still,
there was something in his tone that made her own anger rise.

“His rudeness was not to be borne,” she replied stiffly.
“He had no right to insult me.”

“We were guests under his roof, Alchflaed.”

“The man is a pig!”

Maric’s gaze narrowed, his lips compressing.  “I’m not
disputing that, but what you did was arrogant and foolish.”

Alchflaed glared at him, heat flaming in her cheeks. “
Arrogant
?
How dare you!”

Maric did not answer her. The others moved around them,
unsaddling their horses and unpacking what necessities they would need to see
them through the night. Alchflaed knew they were listening to their argument,
but were pretending otherwise.

Wordlessly, his mouth now a thin, angry line, Maric took
her by the arm and led her away from the rest of the party. Alchflaed tried to
twist away from his grip, but although he was not rough with her, his hold on
her was iron and she could not break free.

Alone in the trees, he rounded on her. Alchflaed took a
hurried step backwards and found a tree trunk blocking her escape.

“I shall address you how I choose,” he growled. “I am not
your servant.”

“When I am Queen of Mercia you will be,” she reminded
him, anger descending in a red veil, and making her reckless.

“I am a king’s thegn,” he replied coldly, “not your
theow.”

“When we arrive in Tamworth, I will make sure Paeda
learns of your lack of respect,” she shot back. “You are supposed to escort me
south, not insult me.”

Maric shoved her up against the tree trunk and pinned her
there. His face was just inches from hers, although she could barely make out
the outlines of his features in the darkness.

“Every insult I give you is warranted,” his breath fanned
her cheek as he spoke. “You are a spoiled wench.”

“Release me!”

“Do you think being high born gives you an entitlement
the rest of us folk don’t deserve?”

Tears stung Alchflaed’s eyes. She was glad the darkness
hid her distress from him; his words cut like a seax-blade.

Is that how he sees me?

“Cur – let me go,” she whispered. The words lacked force;
they sounded like pleading to her ears and she hated herself for it.

“Not until I hear an apology from you,” he replied. “You
risked my life, and that of my warriors, tonight. I need to hear you will not
do that again.”

Silence stretched between them. Alchflaed’s heart
pounded, her breathing coming in ragged gasps. His nearness confused her, the
heat of his body an unwelcome distraction from her hurt and wounded pride.

“I am waiting,” he said finally.

“I… I am sorry,” Alchflaed choked out the words,
realizing as she did so that it was the first time she had ever apologized to
anyone other than her father. “I should have let him speak to me as he wished,
for I was his guest.”

“You could have got yourself killed,” Maric replied, his
voice roughening before he added. “You could have got us
all
killed.”

Alchflaed stared at him, surprised by his words.

Does he actually care what happens to me?

“You have a quick temper, Alchflaed,” Maric continued his
tone gentling for the first time. “Learn to control it, or you will have no end
of trouble in Tamworth.”

He released her then, and stepped back. The night’s chill
replaced his heat and Alchflaed shivered. Without another word, he turned and
strode back in the direction of the clearing.

Chapter Twelve
The Snows
Come

 

 

They rode south-west with the dawn. Maric chose to
abandon the road, and continue through the woodland. Shortly after noon, the
company reached a landscape of wild, windswept hills, intersected by thickets
and trickling brooks. Beyond the sheltering trees, the wind was biting, the sky
brooding and dark.

After a brief meal of stale bread and cheese, they
pressed on. Maric set a hard pace across country. Snow was in the air; he recognized
the dank smell of it. They needed to put as much distance as possible between
them and Eoforwic, before it arrived.

Maric’s eyes stung with fatigue as he rode, for he had
slept little the night before. Even now, the events of the previous evening unsettled
him. Things had gone awry from the moment they had arrived in Eoforwic. Maric
knew the ealdorman’s type; he had fought many such men in battle. Such a man
never forgot a grievance.

Yet, what most disturbed him about the night before was
his own reaction. In daylight, with a bitter wind on his face, Maric regretted dragging
Alchflaed from the campsite to argue with her alone in the darkness. Being so
close to her physically made him say things he should not have. The ache to
pull the girl hard against him and kiss her had nearly overwhelmed him.

The last two years had passed in numbness, broken only by
the rage of battle – but the willful Northumbrian princess had succeeded in
puncturing his detachment. Her temper, quick and hot as a Winterfyllth fire,
had forced his own out of hibernation.

He could never let his anger get the better of him again
– for recklessness was its close cousin.

 

It was mid-afternoon when the first snowflakes drifted
from the sky. Fat and white, like fresh spring blossom, the flakes settled on
Alchflaed’s fur cloak, and frosted Briosa’s bristling mane. Although she had
been expecting a change in the weather, Alchflaed’s already bleak mood worsened
at the sight of it. Snow was the last thing they needed. She was not in any hurry
to reach Tamworth, yet she did not want this journey lengthened either.

Eoforwic was behind them, but the events of the night
before continued to torment her: the ealdorman’s rudeness; her fury; Maric’s
anger; and the things he said, which stung more than she would ever care to
admit.

To make matters worse, flashes of the dizzying hunger she
had felt when he pinned her up against the tree trunk still haunted her. She
had kept her distance from him since dawn, riding as far back in the column as
she dared, but still her thoughts returned to the way her body responded to his
nearness. Even now, the memory of it made her short of breath.

Stop it
, she chided herself,
brushing snowflakes off her hands.

She had enough to worry about without sighing over a Mercian
warrior who had grossly insulted her. Still, he had spoken true all the same;
last night was her fault and she had the sinking feeling she had yet to pay the
full price for her rash anger.

 

***

 

Alchflaed was sitting next to the fire watching two spits
of waterfowl roasting over smoking embers, when Edgard approached her.

Outside, it was snowing heavily. Inside, smoke hung thick
in the air, despite the slit at the top of the tent that was letting most of it
out. Alchflaed’s eyes were starting to smart but she was so relieved to be out
of the cold that she paid the acrid smoke no mind.

Edgard crossed the tent and held out her seax,
hilt-first.

“You should have this back,” he said gruffly.

Alchflaed kept her face expressionless as she took the
seax from him and slipped it back into the empty scabbard at her waist. She
wished that the Mercian had kept the knife for it was a chilling reminder of
her father’s command.

“Thank you, Edgard.”

The warrior grunted in response and returned to his side
of the fire. Alchflaed observed him. He was a big man, and his rugged face and
bald head gave him a threatening appearance – yet, despite his taciturn manner,
she sensed good in him.

 “How long will the snow last?” she asked him.

Edgard shrugged. “Snow this early rarely lies long.
However, if it keeps snowing tonight, we won’t be travelling far tomorrow.”

“Is it much farther till Tamworth?”

“Many more days yet,” Edgard rumbled. “We still ride
through Deira, your brother’s territory.”

At that moment, the tent flap drew aside and Maric
entered. Snow dusted the shoulders of his fur mantle, hair and eyelashes. He
shrugged off his cloak and hung it on a peg at the far side of the tent.
Underneath his cloak, he wore a leather jerkin with a long, woolen tunic
beneath that. Like many of the other warriors, his arms were bare, save for
leather bracers covering his forearms. His arms were finely muscled, not with
Edgard’s brawn, but lither; silver and gold-plated béagas – arm-rings – adorned
his biceps. Alchflaed had seen her father give out such rings to his prized
warriors for their valor in battle. After watching Maric handle himself in the
ealdorman’s hall yesterday, she knew that Maric had indeed earned his.

He looked her way and Alchflaed hurriedly averted her
gaze, developing a fascination with the glowing embers in the fire pit before
her. She was glad they were not alone; ever since Maric’s arrival, the tent
felt smaller, more confined. She continued to ignore him, and was aware that he
was talking to Edgard on the other side of the tent. She could not hear their
conversation, but sensed from their lowered voices that they were discussing
something they did not wish her to hear.

Alchflaed was suddenly weary, the excitement of the night
before catching up with her now that she relaxed. Now that Eoforwic lay behind
them, her thoughts returned to what lay ahead.

Relief had flooded through her when Edgard informed her
that their destination still lay far off. Not a day passed when she did not
think about the future. This journey represented her last days of freedom.

Presently, the fowl were ready. Edgard took some out to
the other men, while Maric shared what was left with the small group inside the
tent. His fingers accidently brushed Alchflaed’s hand when he handed her a portion
of meat upon an oiled cloth.

The sensation sent a jolt of fire up Alchflaed’s arm.
Maric jerked his arm away, as if he had been scorched, nearly dropping her
supper into the fire. Alchflaed took the cloth from him and pretended she had
not seen.

“Thank you.”

Maric said nothing, but moved away to the opposite side
of the fire to take his own meal. After last night’s exchange, he appeared as
uncomfortable in her presence, as she felt in his.

Alchflaed turned her attention to her supper; the fowl
was delicious, the flesh juicy and the skin crispy. She ate with relish,
momentarily forgetting her tension and unhappiness. The rumble of men’s voices,
as Maric’s men talked around the fire, soothed her. Once she had finished her
meal she sipped slowly at a cup of ale, but her eyelids soon began to droop.

“You look worn out,” Maric observed, loudly enough to
make Alchflaed awake with a start.

 “It’s been a long day, that’s all,” she answered,
frowning at him. Yet, her eyelids suddenly felt as if they had sand in them.

Maric rose to his feet and retrieved a pile of furs from
behind him. He carried them over to the far side of the tent.

“Come, Alchflaed. You must sleep.”

Bristling at his command, Alchflaed stood up and followed
him to her makeshift bed. He piled some of their packs between the furs and the
fire, in order to afford her some privacy. Usually, she did this herself at
night; this was the first time he had done it for her.

“I’m not a child,” she muttered, “I can do this.”

His mouth quirked slightly and he met her gaze. Alchflaed
raised her chin and gave him her most regal look.

“Get some rest,” he said with infuriating calm, before he
turned, and made his way back to the fire.

Alchflaed glared at his retreating back before shrugging off
her fur mantle and hanging it over the packs to dry-out. Then, she climbed into
the furs. Contrary to her earlier assertion, she was bone-tired – in fact, she
could not remember ever feeling more exhausted. She lay there for a few
moments, listening to the conversation resume round the fireside. Then, she
closed her eyes and sleep claimed her.

 

***

 

A white world greeted Alchflaed when she pulled aside the
tent flap. Dawn was just breaking over the edge of the ashwood to the east, but
it would be a while until the sun would be warm enough to melt the snow. She
blinked, for the snow-covered landscape was dazzling after the dim interior of
the tent, and stepped outside. Immediately, her fur boots sank, ankle-deep in
the ermine powder.

She crunched through the snow toward the horses. They
were all dusted in white, but appeared content enough. She had just reached her
pony when she spotted Maric emerge from the trees behind their encampment. His
face was serious, and he had not yet seen her. Standing next to her pony,
Alchflaed watched him trudge through the snow. When he spotted her, the stern
look on his face softened slightly.

“Morning, princess.”

Alchflaed gestured to the snow surrounding them. “I don’t
imagine we shall be travelling far in this…”

“We won’t,” he admitted, “but then, no one else will be
either.”

Alchflaed frowned, alarmed as his meaning sunk in.

“Do you think Eadweard of Eoforwic will follow us?”

“It’s likely,” Maric replied. “We insulted him as guests
at his table. He will not forget that.”

Alchflaed felt slightly queasy at the thought of the
ealdorman tracking her south.

“You didn’t. It was me who insulted him.”

“I knocked him senseless,” Maric reminded her, “and my
men left his ceorls nursing cuts, bruises and broken teeth. He will want
vengeance.”

The stale bread and broth Alchflaed had just consumed to
break her fast churned in her belly.

“What should we do?”

“Ride south,” Maric replied, before he turned from her,
“and hope Eadweard of Eoforwic’s horses are slower than ours.”

Alchflaed watched him go before she turned back to her
pony. The mare nuzzled her, looking for oats, but Alchflaed gently pushed her
away. Her gaze shifted then to the pristine wilderness around them. Moments
ago, she had been at ease in her surroundings, now a shadow of foreboding lay
over the snowy morning.

 

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