Darkest before Dawn (The Kingdom of Mercia Book 2) (4 page)

“Aye, and those battle-shirking bastards who have left us
to stand alone,” Elfhere replied bitterly.

Maric cast Elfhere a glance, trying to gauge his
thoughts, but the warrior’s face was hidden by his cowl. They had known each
other since they were boys, getting up to mischief in Tamworth’s back streets. He
did not want to think about either Elfhere or Osulf falling tomorrow. His life
had ceased to matter to him, but theirs did.

“Nothing sorts out loyalty like the eve of battle,” he
murmured.

They lapsed into silence then, their gazes surveying the
murky darkness to the north. Conversation was gloomy anyway, and each man
withdrew into his private thoughts.

Maric inclined his head to the night sky, letting his
cowl fall back. The rain peppered his skin like hundreds of icy bone needles.

Blod monath
. How fitting his end
would come now, during the month that was a constant reminder of the blood on
his hands. Blood that would never wash clean.

It had been raining two years ago, on the day he returned
to Tamworth, after Penda’s failed peace-weaving in Bebbanburg. They had arrived
home earlier than anticipated, for Penda had been in a foul mood and had driven
his men hard.

Maric had shared his lord’s impatience to return home;
during the entire journey, he had longed for Tamworth. He remembered his last
view of Gytha, standing framed by the doorway of their home, waving to him as
he rode away to join Penda on his mission north. He ached to see her again.

The rain had been driving almost horizontally when
Penda’s company rode into Tamworth. Folk cowered indoors, warming themselves
around smoking fire pits and waiting for the storm to pass. Maric had
accompanied the others to the stables, but after seeing to his horse, he begged
off the others’ requests he join them at the mead hall, and headed home.

The thatch-roofed, timbered dwelling he had built for himself
and Gytha sat near the walls encircling the Great Tower of Tamworth. It had
taken him a whole summer, two years earlier, to build it; but with the help of
his friends, he had finished the house before Winterfyllth, in time for his
handfasting with the fair Gytha.

Maric had run the last few steps, and thrown open the
wattle and daub door, eager to surprise his wife. He imagined she would be
sitting near the fire pit spinning, or at the kitchen table preparing bread for
the next day. In fact, she was not doing either of these things.

The scene that had greeted him had torn his world apart.

Maric shook his head, jerking himself back to the present
and shoving the knife blade of grief to the back of his mind. He wanted to
remain numb – to return to that day would shatter him.

Some memories would break a man.

 

Chapter Two
Oswiu’s Reckoning

 

 

Maric watched the lad fasten the leather brace around his
left forearm. Outside, the wind clawed at the exterior of his tent. The gods
were definitely against them this morning. The rain appeared to be coming down
harder than ever. At this rate, they would be fighting knee-deep in mud.

Beyond the roar of the wind, Maric heard the shouts of
men readying themselves for battle and the squelching of their boots as they
hurried past his tent. There was fear in the air this morning, he could taste
it. He could hear the edge of desperation in the men’s voices and wondered how
they would react when it came to facing the Northumbrian shield wall.

There was still no sign of Paeda this morning; one look
at the king’s face earlier had confirmed that Penda’s son had not returned
overnight.

Yet,
Penda did not rage. Instead, his fury at the apparent betrayal lay still and
cold within him like a deep, frozen lake. Maric pitied any man who crossed Penda
of Mercia’s path in battle today.

“Off you go,” Maric nodded to the boy. “I can finish the
rest myself.”

Wide-eyed, his face taut and pale, the lad gave a brave
smile and ducked out of the tent, hurrying to help the other warriors don their
armor for battle.

Maric glanced down at the mail shirt he wore over a quilted
tunic. He was better protected than most; many warriors would only have leather
jerkins to protect their torsos, some even less than that. This armor had been
a gift from Penda after a successful campaign against the East Angles a year
earlier.

Buckling his sword about his waist, Maric glanced around
the tent he shared with Elfhere and Osulf. They had already readied themselves
for battle, and had joined the warriors gathering on the slope above the
encampment. He had only a few moments alone before he too would form the ranks
of Penda’s fyrd.

Maric savored them. A warrior’s life meant he spent
little time on his own; something he had been grateful for. His thoughts were
poisonous these days. Still, this battle was to be different to any other he had
fought. He could feel it in his bones, and he wished for a moment of solitude.

His shield lay on its side, at his feet. His gaze
travelled over its battle-scarred surface. Lime wood, with an iron boss, he had
painted it blue and gold, the colors of Mercia. Maric’s mouth tasted bitter as
he picked it up, feeling the shield’s reassuring weight in his hand.

The shield symbolized his allegiance to Mercia. He had
always been loyal. His father had once warned him that although there was
nothing wrong with loyalty, too much turned a man into a fool. Maric had devoted
himself to the glory of Mercia, to his lord. He had also been unfailingly faithful
to his friends, his kin, and to his wife – and paid for it.

Maric’s fist tightened around the shield’s iron grip.

It’s time.

 

A grey dawn cast its dull light over the world. Maric
stood, shoulder to shoulder with Elfhere and Osulf, and helped form the first
line of the shield wall. The thumping of wooden shields overlapping, one by
one, echoed through the wet morning air.

Penda, resplendent in leather, mail and a gleaming bronze
and iron helmet, rode astride a magnificent white stallion before the shield
wall. The beast was up to its hocks in thick, wet clay, but its rider urged it
on mercilessly.

At the top of the hill, Maric made out the bristling line
of spears of the enemy, protruding through the mist. The Northumbrians were
ready.

Penda’s powerful voice cut through the driving rain.

“Destroy them!” he roared. “From the highest to the
lowest – I want every last one of Oswiu’s people dead!”

Maric had never heard his lord’s voice like this – so raw.
Paeda’s betrayal had unleashed the beast within. No man who came within range
of Penda’s lethal sword,
Æthelfrith’s Bane
, would live to see the dusk.

A ripple of unease went through Penda’s men, as the men
forming the shield wall jostled each other, shoulder to shoulder. Maric drew
his sword from its scabbard; a two-edged broad blade with an iron pommel and
bone grip.
Nightbringer
, she was called, and she had served Maric well
through countless battles. She was a reassuring weight in his hand, an old
friend.

He glanced left, at where Osulf stood at his shoulder. A
dark scowl creased his friend’s heavy-featured face. Osulf’s gaze was riveted
upon the enemy line at the top of the hill. He had tied his thick auburn hair
back for battle and his grey eyes gleamed. Maric glanced right, at Elfhere. An
iron helmet hid his friend’s face. Leather armor encased his tall, muscular
form. Like Maric and Osulf, Elfhere had drawn his sword, his shield locked into
place before him.

Ahead, the enemy line trembled, and the world drew
breath. The sounds of nature’s fury filled their ears: the howling wind, the
roar of the river at their backs and the splattering of rain on leather and
mud.

“May Tiw guide your blades my brothers,” Maric murmured.

“See you both on the other side,” Osulf grinned, showing
his teeth.

“Not likely,” Elfhere grunted. “Where you’re going, a
fire-breathing serpent will roast your arse.”

Osulf snorted. “And what awaits you?”

“A hundred beautiful maidens and a land of eternal
summer.”

Maric listened to his friends’ banter and smiled despite
himself.

A heartbeat later, the Northumbrian shield wall raced
down the hill toward them.

A great roar split the air and the Mercian fyrd surged
forward to meet the enemy. Shields collided with an almighty crunch and the
ground shook from the force of thundering feet. The two lines battered each
other. Spears thrust, hammers flew and seaxes – lethal single-edged knives –
stabbed through the gaps between the interlocked shields.

The Northumbrians had the higher ground, and pressed
their advantage from the first moments of battle. They leaned into their
adversaries, and pushed the Mercian shields back toward the river, causing the Mercian
fyrd to spread out along the banks of the Winwaed.

Suddenly, the Mercian shield wall buckled and gave way.
Men fell and were trampled underfoot as enemy warriors poured through the
breach. The Mercian warriors wielding swords and axes charged forward to meet
them.

Bleakness filled Maric the moment the shield wall
crumpled. Ever since that fateful day two years earlier, he had lost his taste
for battle. This change worried him; for the fire that set a man’s veins alight
as he faced his enemy was the only thing that kept him alive.

Maric gripped his sword with his right hand and his
shield with his left, and whispered a prayer to Tiw, god of battle. He had to
fight, to bring down as many men as possible before darkness took him.

Roaring the name of his king, Maric rushed forward and
threw himself into the oblivion of battle.

 
Nightbringer
sang and blood flowed thick. Initially,
he was barely aware of the wet clay that sucked down at his legs as he fought.
However, after a short while, it began to hinder his movements. The roar of
battle around him was deafening: the rise and fall of men’s shouts and screams,
the thud of shields, the clang of iron against iron and the wet sounds of axes,
spears and swords finding their mark.

Elfhere and Osulf disappeared from his field of vision,
shortly after the Northumbrians breached the shield wall, but Maric knew they
would be close by. There was no time to look out for his friends, no time to
scan the battle-field for his king. Maric’s survival depended on focusing
entirely on the fight.

A Northumbrian axe-man came for him, bellowing a war cry.
Maric ducked, feeling the whisper of the blade, perilously close to his left
cheek, and cut his opponent down from below. He wrenched the blade free from
just below the Northumbrian’s ribs and staggered back under the onslaught of a
new tide of enemy spearmen that surged through the disintegrated shield wall.

It did not take long before the Northumbrians had pushed
their enemy back into the river itself. The cries of men falling into the raging
water reached Maric and he glanced over his shoulder to see that many warriors fought
at the water’s edge, while others flailed, chest-deep in the torrent. Others
disappeared under the swirling surface, not to reappear.

Maric glanced back at the fray, and found himself
surrounded by Northumbrian spearmen. With a roar, he swung his blade in an arc
and fell upon them; the knowledge he was doomed turning him recklessly savage.
Men fell upon his blade, but they were quickly replaced by others. Yet, step by
step, they pushed him back to the water’s edge. Knee-deep in icy water, he continued
to fight them. A spear tip ripped across his right bicep, leaving a trail of
fire in its wake, but he fought on, ignoring the pain.

They forced him farther back into the river, where he was
suddenly flailing, waist deep, fighting the strong current. A Northumbrian warrior
bearing a seax waded in, heedless of his own safety, and launched himself at
Maric.

Maric sheathed his sword and reached for the seax at his
waist, which was better for fighting at close quarters. Then, he staggered as
the river floor gave way under him, and lost his balance. Something heavy
collided with Maric’s temple – and he fell backward, into the Winwaed’s watery
embrace.

 

***

 

Maric awoke on the riverbank, with a splitting headache
and a mouthful of mud.

The sun warmed his cheek, a soothing balm in contrast to
the pain hammering his skull. His eyes felt glued shut, his body leaden and
useless, as if it did not belong to him. He could hear the dull roar of the
river and felt chill water lapping against his ankles.

It’s stopped raining,
he
realized dully.

The chilling croak of crows roused him, and his eyes
snapped open. The carrion birds would be feasting upon the dead; and they would
soon come for him if he continued to lie here, prone.

There’s life left in me after all.

Maric raised his head and blinked, attempting to clear
the fog from his vision so he could focus upon his surroundings. The current
had carried him a short way down river, and had washed him up against a growth
of stunted willows. Maric attempted to push himself upright and spat a curse.
He had forgotten the injury he had sustained to his right bicep. His entire arm
was coated in blood and the arm had no strength in it.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, Maric dragged
himself up the bank, using his uninjured arm to haul himself forward. Panting
from the effort, he reached the top of the bank and looked out upon a sea of
bodies.

Standards and spears stuck up from the carpet of broken,
twisted and bloodied corpses that covered the windswept hillside from the
river’s edge to the pale horizon.

Despair twisted his gut and bitterness soured his mouth.

I should be among the dead.

The end had come for the Mercians, but wyrd had spared him
– again.

Maric watched the Northumbrians comb the battlefield. They
were checking for survivors and helping themselves to choice weapons and
trinkets from those they had slain. One of them was in the process of wresting
gold rings off the hand of a dead Mercian when he spotted Maric watching him.

“We’ve got a live one here!” the warrior grinned at the
man next to him.

His friend looked up, his gaze travelling to where Maric
lay, glaring defiantly at them.

“Looks like the river washed him up.”

The first warrior dropped the corpse’s hand; the gold
rings forgotten.

“He’ll soon wish it hadn’t.”

 

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