Darkest before Dawn (The Kingdom of Mercia Book 2) (18 page)

“He asks the impossible,” she hissed. “If I kill Paeda, I
too will die. Doesn’t fæder care?”

“Of course he does,” Alchfrith countered. “That is why I
will leave two of his ealdormen, and their warriors, here. They will protect
you once the deed is done.”

Alchflaed stared at her brother’s handsome face.
Illuminated by the hoary light of the moon it appeared carved out of white marble.
His eyes glittered with anger as they meet hers.

“You must have it done by Ēostre. Northumbria needs
you, Alchflaed. Set the fyrdraca free.”

 

Chapter Twenty-seven
Loss

 

 

“Eadweard of Eoforwic’s family demand a wergild of
six-hundred thrymsas for his death. How will you pay it?”

Paeda of Mercia’s pronouncement brought gasps from the
watching crowd of retainers and their families. Men muttered oaths under their
breaths; some even spat on the floor. The wergild was the compensation a
murderer had to pay to his victim’s family – although six hundred gold pieces
was more money than ten families would see in their lifetimes.

Maric stood at the foot of the high seat and held Paeda’s
gaze.

“I cannot pay it, Milord. I own a house and my sword,
nothing else.”

Paeda, who sat upon the high seat next to his wife,
frowned.

“Then, we have a problem, don’t we?”

The king glanced across at where Alchfrith of Deira sat
to his right.

“You will have to pay the wergild yourself,” Alchfrith
told him, “and punish this man as you see fit.”

Paeda’s mouth compressed at this. Even for a king the
compensation that Wassa of Eoforwic, the ealdorman’s nephew, demanded was hefty.
When he turned back to Maric, Paeda was scowling.

Maric met his gaze squarely, expecting the worst. Wyrd
had taken a cruel twist in allowing the king to discover their mishap in
Eoforwic. In hindsight, it would have been wiser to tell Paeda what had
happened as soon as they arrived in Tamworth. However, with the passing of
days, it had ceased to matter. Only now did Maric realized the gravity of his
mistake.

“You served my father well, Maric,” Paeda began,
measuring each word as he spoke, “or I would have your head cut off without a
second thought. He often named you one of his bravest warriors, a bringer of
death upon the field of battle. You have also served me well – although I know
you made an oath, which bound you to my family forever.”

“I did, Milord,” Maric agreed, dipping his head. He did
not need reminding of the oath he had sworn; it was branded upon his soul.

“Give me your sword.”

Maric unbuckled
Nightbringer
from around his hips.
He removed his sword with reluctance. Penda had gifted him
Nightbringer
when he had just eighteen winters, and he felt naked without it.

Wordlessly, Maric stepped forward and placed the sword,
still in its scabbard, across the king’s knees.

“And your arm rings.”

Maric hesitated a moment, before removing the bronze,
silver and gold rings, which adorned his arms. Penda had also given him these,
after he had shown valor in battle. Not that these rings mattered now.

“Your house, and all the possessions you hold within it,
are now mine,” Paeda continued. You are no longer my thegn, but my theow. As
punishment, you will wear an iron collar for the next three years, or until I
see fit to release you. Every night, you will sleep on the floor of this hall,
near the doors, where the draughts are the greatest. You will continue to
protect my wife, but for the rest of your duties, you will be a slave in my
hall. You will empty privies, shovel dung and fight for scraps with the dogs.”

A terrible hush settled over the hall. Maric stared down
at the rushes beneath his feet and felt despair crash over him. Anger swiftly
followed on its heels. Paeda had completely stripped him of honor; he had taken
away his dignity and freedom.

“Please husband,” Alchflaed spoke up then. “Don’t punish
this man for what is my fault!”

Maric looked up, focusing upon the queen for the first
time since his sentencing had begun. Tears ran down Alchflaed’s cheeks and the
look of anguish on her face made something twist deep within Maric. He suddenly
wished he had done as she had asked months earlier, and taken her away to a
place her father, and Paeda, would never find her. Coming to live at Tamworth
had only brought misery upon her.

Paeda turned to his wife, incredulous that she had the
gall to intervene on a king’s matter.

“My word is law here,” he growled. “Let this man’s
punishment be a lesson to all that cross me.”

 

***

 

Alchfrith and Cyneburh stayed for five nights at
Tamworth, before departing for the north on the sixth day. They left on a
bright, breezy morning and Alchflaed went outside to watch them go. Standing
upon the top step in front of the doors to the Great Hall, she lifted her hand,
answering Cyneburh’s wave.

The scent of sun-warmed earth reached Alchflaed,
reminding her that Ēostre was just over a month away. Her stomach cramped
at the thought. She and Alchfrith had not spoken alone again after that night
upon the ramparts, although she saw her father’s command, unspoken, every time
their gazes met.

It had been good to see Cyneburh again, but Alchflaed was
glad her brother was leaving. He had assured her that her father’s stewards
would protect her after she murdered Paeda, but his promise did nothing to ease
her fears.

Her brother’s party disappeared beyond the high gate and
Alchflaed was about to turn and make her way back inside, when she caught sight
of Maric in the stable yard below.

Dressed in a sleeveless tunic and breeches, stripped of
his arm rings, he shoveled steaming straw and horse manure into a cart. Around
his neck, he now wore an iron collar, which marked him as the king’s theow.
Watching him, Alchflaed’s throat constricted.

This is my doing.

She remembered Maric’s anger with her after Eoforwic. He
had known then the consequences her temper would bring upon them, but at the
time, she had not cared. Now, she bitterly regretted her impulsive behavior.

Fortunately, Maric did not look her way. He worked hard,
intent upon his task; although even at this distance, Alchflaed could see the tightly
coiled anger in his lean frame. Maric would not wear a slave collar easily; he
was too proud to suffer such a life.

Alchflaed went back inside and took her place beside a
large loom, where she was weaving a tapestry. As she bent down to pick up her
tapestry beater – a wooden comb that she used to push down the woven threads –
a sharp twinge in her lower belly made her gasp. She had not been feeling
herself all morning, but had put her exhaustion and nausea down to her
brother’s departure and her upset at Maric’s punishment.

She took a deep breath and the pain subsided. Shakily,
she resumed weaving, moving slowly lest the cramp return. Around her, slaves moved
busily about the hall, preparing mutton stew for the noon meal. The king was
nowhere to be seen and nor was his brother.

Grateful for a moment of peace, Alchflaed concentrated
upon her weaving. The tapestry was large; depicting a hunting scene in a green
forest, it would take her a full year to complete. She did not mind the task
though, for weaving took her mind off her unhappiness.

The aroma of mutton stew hung heavily in the air when the
king and his brother entered the hall. Paeda was scowling, as he often did
these days. Watching him, Alchflaed wondered if he ever regretted his choice.
Had betraying his father been worth the effort? He had wanted to rule, but his
decision to bargain with Oswiu had come at a great cost.

Alchflaed left her loom and crossed to the barrel in the
corner of the hall. She helped herself to a ladle of cool water before making
her way over to the nearest fire pit. There, she oversaw the final preparations
for the mutton stew.

Bringing a large jug of mead and a stack of cups with
her, she climbed up on to the high seat and joined her husband, and his
brother. Seaxwulf was also there, for the monk often dined with the king.
Seaxwulf flashed Alchflaed a warm smile, whereas Aethelred greeted her with a
smirk.

“Your champion wears his new collar well. Don’t you
think, Lady Alchflaed?”

“Not at all, Aethelred,” she responded tartly, “but if
you think a slave collar is decorative, why not don one yourself?”

Aethelred’s smirk faded at that, although Paeda gave a
bark of laughter. As always, he enjoyed seeing his younger brother humiliated.

“You have a sharp tongue, Milady,” Aethelred observed,
taking the cup of mead she passed him.

Alchflaed did not reply. Instead, she sat down at the
king’s side and waited while slaves brought a large tureen of stew to their
table, along with wheels of freshly baked griddle bread.

Paeda took a mouthful of stew and glanced sideways at
Alchflaed.

“Your brother becomes a thorn in my side,” he growled.
“I’m glad to see the back of him.”

Alchflaed glanced to the end of the table where Wada and
Alfwald were tucking into their stew.

“You still have my father’s stewards,” she reminded him.

“Aye, but not for long,” Paeda muttered, stabbing the
wooden spoon he held into his stew.

Alchflaed’s gaze narrowed. She could see that Seaxwulf
was also watching Paeda closely. Her husband seemed to forget that the monk was
also Northumbrian.

“If those men come to any harm, your life will be
forfeit,” Alchflaed warned him.

Paeda went still. “What did you say, wife?”

Alchflaed took a deep breath, her heart fluttering
against her ribs like a caged bird.

“Just that you should proceed carefully… Milord.”

“When I need the advice of a witless woman, I will ask
for it,” Paeda growled. “Go up to our bed and wait for me. You have caused me
no end of trouble of late. It’s time I put that mouth of yours to a better use.”

Alchflaed stared at him, her cheeks flushing hot with
anger and humiliation.

“No.”

Paeda started slightly, as if he could not believe his
ears.

“Alchflaed,” Seaxwulf interrupted. The monk’s voice was low
and urgent, his eyes wide. “It’s best to obey him.”

Paeda ignored the monk, his gaze fixed upon Alchflaed. “I
gave you a command, woman.”

“And I refuse.”

Paeda grabbed Alchflaed by the arm and hauled her to her
feet.

“You will do my bidding.”

Alchflaed struggled against him, rage flowering within
her. She was tired of his bullying, of the constant humiliation. She struck out
at him, but he caught her arm and twisted it behind her back.

Around them, the hall fell silent.

“Upstairs,” Paeda growled, shoving her away from him.
“Now.”

A sharp pain, far stronger than the one she had
experienced earlier, lanced through Alchflaed’s lower belly. She stumbled and
fell to her knees, crying out as agony seized her.

“Bitch!” Paeda seized her by the hair and tried to pull
her to her feet. “You have defied me for the last time.”

“Lord Paeda!” Seaxwulf cried out, rising to his feet.

“What?” Paeda snarled.

“Something’s wrong. She’s in pain.”

Alchflaed felt Paeda release her hair. She slumped to the
ground, tears of agony welling in her eyes. The cramping in her belly came in
waves now.

 

***

 

Maric put down the pitchfork and squinted up at the sky.
It had been a sweltering day for this early in spring and after a day shoveling
filth, he reeked like the muckheap.

There were few men in the stable yard this afternoon, so
Maric decided no one would notice his absence. He left the inner palisade and
made his way down through Tamworth to the low gate. He passed the mead hall,
which was already full of drinking men, and wondered if his friends were there.
As a theow, he could no longer join the thegns and ceorls drinking within. His
old life was lost to him.

Not that Osulf, Elfhere, Bryni and Edgard had shunned him
– they had been furious to learn of Paeda’s punishment. Osulf had roared with
rage, shouting that Paeda would pay for dishonoring a warrior who had dedicated
his life to serving the Mercian royal family.

For Maric’s part, he could hardly believe it had
happened. He felt as if he had strayed into a dark dream, and that he would
wake to find
Nightbringer
at his side and the house he had built still
his.

Maric left the town by the low gate and walked to the
banks of the River Tame. The river flowed wide, glittering in the late
afternoon sun. Maric waded into the water, through the rushes on its bank, and
dove fully clothed into the chill water.

The Tame had a lazy flow and the water felt like the
finest cloth upon Maric’s heated and dirty skin as he dove and swam like an
otter. Then, laying upon his back, Maric floated, letting the slow current
carry him downstream a little. The sun was warm on his face and Maric felt his
anger, the tension that had driven him all day, slowly flow from him.

The unthinkable had happened. The king had stripped from
him the thing Maric had been most proud of – his identity as a king’s warrior.
After Gytha left, his duty to Penda had been the only thing that kept him
living. Many years earlier, his father had told Maric that his sense of duty to
his lord made him blind to all else. At the time, Maric had scoffed, but now he
realized the truth of his father’s words. With his identity stripped away, he
felt as if he were floating lost on a wild sea.

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