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

Cast of characters
    

Alchflaed
(pronounced Alkfled) – Princess of Bernicia (Northumbria)/Queen of Mercia.

Maric
– Mercian
warrior

Oswiu

King of Bernicia (Northumbria)

Eanflaed
(pronounced
Anfled) – Queen of Bernicia

Alchfrith
– Prince
of Bernicia/King of Deira

Cyneburh
(pronounced Sinber) Penda’s daughter, married to Alchfrith

Penda

King of Mercia

Cyneswide
(pronounced
Sinesweed) – Queen of Mercia/Queen Mother

Paeda
(pronounced Peda) – Prince/King of Mercia

Wulfhere
and
Aethelred
– Penda’s sons, princes of Mercia

Glaedwine
– cunning
man (healer)

Wada
and
Alfwald
– King Oswiu’s stewards

Seaxwulf
– monk

Elfhere,
Osulf, Edgard
and
Bryni
– Mercian warriors

Eadweard
of Eoforwic
– ealdorman of Eoforwic (York)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The nearer the dawn, the darker the night.”

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

 

 

“Lif sceal wið deaþe, leoht sceal wið
þystrum!”

“Life must be against death, light against
darkness!”

-Maxims II

Prologue
Peace-weaving

 

Bebbanburg, the Kingdom of Northumbria,

Britannia

 

Late autumn, 653 A.D.

 

 

 

Alchflaed was riding on the beach when she saw the horsemen
approach from the south.

She had taken a long ride that morning, enjoying the
chill wind in her face and the clean, salt-laced air in her lungs. On the last
stretch of shoreline toward home, she urged her pony into a brisk canter. Her
two dogs ran alongside her, tongues lolling. She rode close to the water,
accompanied by the roar of the surf and the hollow drum of her pony’s hooves on
the hard silver sand.

The wind whipped tendrils of hair in her face but Alchflaed
paid it no mind. Her gaze travelled across the smooth beach, over the
reed-covered dunes, to the rocky promontory ahead, on which the fort of
Bebbanburg perched. She could see the wooden palisades that ringed the flat top
of the outcrop, and the great tower, made of dark red stone that stood out
against the pale sky. The Northumbrian flag – eight yellow rectangles on a
blood-red field – snapped in the breeze.

Alchflaed looked away from her home and was about to
glance east to where the North Sea shimmered, when something caught her eye.

The horsemen thundered along the road leading to the base
of the fortress. It was a sizeable company, the warriors’ spears and standards
bristling above their heads.

Seized by curiosity, Alchflaed kicked her mare into a
flat gallop. Behind her, the dogs barked excitedly and gave chase. As she drew
closer, Alchflaed could make out the colors of the standards that the warriors
bore: blue and gold.

Mercians.

 

***

 

“Thunor’s hammer, it’s cold up here!”

“That’s just the sea breeze, Elfhere. It’s like the
finest ale – drink it in.”

Maric loosened his horse’s girth, grinning at the blond
warrior next to him. They had just followed the king into Bebbanburg’s stable
complex, which lay beyond the high gate within the inner palisade, and were in
the process of unsaddling their horses.

“I grew up amongst hills and forests,” Elfhere grumbled.
“What use do I have for the sea?”

“Surely, you admired the view on the way up?”

“Listen to you,” Osulf, a heavy-set warrior with a thick
mane of chestnut hair and beard to match, jeered. “It sounds like you’ve had
your head in a barrel of ale all morning.”

“Can’t a man be happy about life?”

Osulf snorted. “Aye, but ever since your handfasting
you’ve been in repulsively good spirits.”

Maric’s grin widened. “I’ll not deny it – Gytha was the
best thing to ever happen to me.”

“So you managed to wed the fairest maid in Tamworth. You
don’t have to crow about it.”

“Come now. Don’t begrudge a man a bit of happiness.”

Osulf favored him with a scowl. “Some of us can do no
better than a mead-hall whore.”

Nearby, Elfhere choked on a laugh, while Maric turned away
from Osulf to hide a smirk. As he did so, he spotted the king heading their
way. The king’s eldest son, Paeda, strode at his heels. Maric’s smile abruptly
faded. His banter with his friends forgotten, he stepped forward to greet the
King of Mercia.

“Milord?”

As always, the king’s face appeared hewn from stone. He
had passed at least fifty five winters, and his face now bore every one of his
years. His long hair, tied back in a thong at his neck, once blond, was snowy
white; yet his physique was still one of a battle-hardened warrior. Beside him,
Prince Paeda, although strongly built like his father, was as dark as Penda was
pale.

“Leave your horses with the slaves,” Penda ordered. “I
need the three of you to attend us. King Oswiu awaits.”

Wordlessly, they did as he bid. The three warriors fell
in behind their king and prince, following them out of the stable yard. Beyond,
they crossed a wide grassy space and climbed the steps into Bebbanburg’s Great
Tower.

Inside, Maric’s first impression of the Great Hall of
Bebbanburg was that the seat of the King of Bernicia was a much more welcoming
space then Penda’s grey, austere hall. The red stone gave off a warmth in the
light of four enormous fire pits burning in each corner. Fresh rushes covered
the ground and the air smelt of smoke, roasting mutton and rosemary.

The Mercians strode across the center of the vast space.
As he walked, Maric was aware that the gazes of all present had swiveled to the
small party. The King of Mercia barely seemed to notice, although his son’s
shoulders stiffened under their inspection.

Upon the high seat, King Oswiu watched them approach. Flanked
by his kin on both sides, Oswiu sat upon a magnificent carved oaken chair. He
was at least a decade younger than the Mercian king; a tall, sinewy man with
high-cheekbones and deep-set green eyes. Long sandy hair, flecked through with
grey, was brushed out across his shoulders, and a neatly trimmed beard covered
a strong jaw. He wore a splendid, rich green tunic, edged with red silk. A
plush grey squirrel cloak hung from his shoulders, fastened by gold and amber brooches.

Oswiu favored Penda with a wintry smile.

“Lord Penda. For what do we owe the pleasure of this
unexpected visit?”

The thinly veiled hostility in the King of Bernicia’s
voice came as no surprise. Penda’s reputation as a ruthless warmonger preceded
him. He had arranged for his daughter’s marriage to Oswiu’s son, in a gesture
of peace, but had broken the alliance shortly after. Oswiu had every reason not
to trust his warlord neighbor.

“Greetings, Lord Oswiu. How fares Bebbanburg?”

“It still stands, as you can see?”

“And how fares my daughter?”

Oswiu’s gaze narrowed and shifted to where a golden
haired beauty sat demurely on the high seat next to a young man with short
auburn hair.

“Ask her yourself.”

The young woman, as regal and fair as Maric remembered,
favored her father with a tight smile.

“Greetings, fæder.”

Penda’s gaze moved down his daughter’s lithe figure, coldly
assessing.

“No sons yet, Cyneburh?”

The princess blanched, her gaze dropping to her feet,
while the young man seated beside her stiffened, his expression hardening.

Maric shifted uncomfortably, his gaze briefly meeting
Elfhere’s. They had left their weapons outside, as was customary, but should
Penda cause a brawl in Oswiu’s hall they would have only their bare hands to
defend him with. Maric readied himself for that possibility.

“Penda,” Oswiu cut in, his voice even colder than before.
“I take it you did not travel all this way to enquire after your daughter.”

Penda inclined his head, letting a few moments pass
before he replied.

“Indeed… I come to make a pledge of peace.”

Oswiu’s mouth twisted.

“Really? Will it be as enduring as your last one?”

To his credit, Penda appeared not remotely disturbed by
the Northumbrian ruler’s chill welcome, or his sarcasm.

“The alliance between us is not yet complete,” he rumbled.
“I have played my part, by wedding my first-born daughter to your son. Now, it
is time for you to pledge one of your kin to my house.”

“Is raiding our borders also part of this alliance?”
Oswiu asked, his mouth twisting.

Ignoring Oswiu’s hostility once more, Penda motioned to
the silent young man who stood, ramrod straight, next to him.

“My eldest son, Paeda, is first in line to the throne. I
propose a match between him and your daughter, Alchflaed.”

Silence fell, broken only by the snapping of the logs in
the fire pits. Penda eventually broke it.

“She is of age, is she not?”

Oswiu leaned back in his chair and regarded Penda under
hooded lids.

“Aye… and more trouble than she’s worth.”

Penda stiffened. “Is she still a maid?”

Oswiu nodded, before glancing to his left, where his
wife, Queen Eanflaed, sat observing the proceedings. In her arms, she carried a
swaddled babe. Eanflaed was a plump woman with a pretty, if slightly pugnacious,
face. She wore her dark hair in elaborate braids. The queen met her husband’s
gaze and they shared a smile. Oswiu then turned back to address Penda.

“Alchflaed is indeed a maid, but she is a little… wild.”

“My son will tame her,” Penda’s voice held a sneer, “if
her father has not already had the backbone to do so.”

His pale gaze shifted behind Oswiu, to where his kin sat.

“Where is the princess?”

“She went out riding this morning,” the queen spoke, her
voice high-pitched and oddly girlish. “She has not yet returned.”

Oswiu spoke next, his voice even colder and more
unwelcoming than earlier.

“Do you really think this pathetic attempt to peace-weave
will fool me, Penda? It made no difference before. I have even less reason to
trust you now.”

Penda gave a low laugh, a humorless sound.

“As I said, our alliance is not yet complete. Betrothe
your daughter to my son, and I will leave your borders in peace.”

Oswiu’s face darkened.

“You dare issue threats? You stand alone in my hall, with
only your son and three of your men to protect you.”

“Now who is issuing threats, Oswiu?” Penda rumbled.

Maric recognized the tone of his lord’s voice well. It
was the calm before the storm; Penda was about to unleash his wintry rage.
Oswiu was a dolt if he thought being outnumbered and unarmed was any hindrance
to Penda of Mercia. Not only that, but his son was almost as lethal as he was. Penda
had not chosen Maric, Elfhere and Osulf by chance either. Each of them had
earned their place as trusted warriors at their king’s side.

However, the Northumbrian lord’s response was forestalled
by his son. Seated next to Oswiu, the young man leaned forward, his voice low.

“Fæder
,
she’s here.”

Oswiu’s sharp gaze shifted from Penda, travelling over
his shoulder to the hall’s entrance behind him. Likewise, the Mercian King and
his escort turned, their gazes swiveling to the young woman who strode into
their midst.

Maric found himself staring.

When Oswiu described his daughter as ‘wild’, he had not
been exaggerating. Alchflaed swept into the hall like a storm. She resembled a
warrior maid, rather than a princess. Two shaggy, long-legged hounds – one
black and the other brown – trailed at her heels, staying close to their
mistress as she crossed the floor.

Her auburn hair was unbound and tumbled over her
shoulders in unruly waves. She was tall and statuesque with milky skin, and dressed
in a long tunic, belted at the waist. The tunic was split at the sides, to
allow for riding astride. Underneath, Maric glimpsed shapely legs clad in soft
leather leggings and fur-lined boots. She moved like a huntress, with long
purposeful strides. Unlike her sister by marriage, Cyneburh, there was nothing
demure or subservient about her.

Sharp, moss-green eyes focused on the party before the
high seat, travelling over their faces. Then, unexpectedly, her gaze paused
upon Maric.

Their eyes locked for a heart-beat.

Woden.

Maric considered himself happily married. He could not
wait to be reunited with Gytha, the raven-haired beauty awaiting him in
Tamworth. Even so, this woman’s vibrancy and raw sensuality disarmed him.

A heartbeat passed before he tore his gaze from her, and
noted that he had not been the only one captivated by Princess Alchflaed. Both
Elfhere and Osulf were gawking at her, while Paeda looked pole-axed. The prince
stared at the princess, open-mouthed, as if he gazed upon a goddess.

Only Penda appeared immune. He turned back to the
Northumbrian king and raised a pale eyebrow.

“So this is your daughter?”

“Alchflaed. Greet Lord Penda of Mercia,” Oswiu growled.

The young woman dropped into a neat curtsy, a gesture
that was at odds with her untamed appearance.

“Lord Penda.”

Unlike the queen, the princess’s voice was low-pitched,
with a slight husky edge. The sound of it caused Maric’s pulse to quicken.

Get a hold of yourself, man.

Oblivious to the furor she had caused, Alchflaed crossed
the space to the high seat and took her place on the far right of the raised
platform, next to her sister by marriage. The dogs sat obediently at her feet,
tails wagging.

 

Alchflaed cast a glance at Cyneburh and received a look
of cool censure in response. She had sensed the tension as soon as she entered
the hall, and the vexed look upon her father’s face now only confirmed it. Her
entrance had interrupted a brewing argument.

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