Darkest before Dawn (The Kingdom of Mercia Book 2) (5 page)

Chapter Three
A New Allegiance

 

 

The warriors dragged Maric into the Northumbrian
encampment, to a clearing at the heart of it. He tried to walk, but his limbs
refused to cooperate; his captors were forced to carry him when his legs gave
way.

“Sit down cripple!” one of the warriors mocked. “Look at
you – weak as a maid!”

They shoved him into the center of the clearing where a
knot of bloodied, wounded captives sullenly awaited their fate. Maric snarled a
curse at the Northumbrians, before crumpling in a heap. His head was now
pounding, and his legs still refused to cooperate.

He had insulted both the warriors earlier, when they had
tried to haul him up from the riverbank. When that did not anger them, he had
fought them with his fists, hoping that the scuffle would end badly for him. However,
they had been intent on taking him alive.

“Maric!” a croaky, pain-laced voice roused him, and he
turned to see Osulf; one side of his face covered in blood, his left eye a
swollen bloodied mess. Next to Osulf sat Elfhere. He was slumped against his
friend, his face ashen. Maric’s gaze travelled down Elfhere’s mud-caked body to
the nasty gash on his thigh; if he survived the wound, his friend would never
walk properly again.

Osulf grimaced. “Avoided nithhogg for a little longer,
eh?” he rasped.

Maric gave a mute nod. He saw the doom on Osulf’s face
and he too felt a cloak of hopelessness settle over him. There was only one
thing worse than dying in battle – and that was being a survivor on the losing
side.

There were at least two dozen other survivors, some of
them so grievously wounded that death would be a relief. Maric sat in the mud,
looking about him, and awaited his fate. He watched men trudge past, hauling
the bodies of the dead or injured. Presently, his gaze rested upon a grisly
spectacle at the edge of the clearing.

A head on a pike. A fine sword sat next to it, its blade
embedded in the mud.

Penda of Mercia glared at him. His features, twisted in a
snarl, showed defiance even in death. The enemy had mounted his head next to
the largest of the tents.

As Maric’s stared at the death mask of the man he had
followed for the last decade, a group of men emerged from the tent. He
recognized the men instantly: Oswiu, his son Alchfrith, and Paeda of Mercia. The
fourth warrior was Aethelwald of Deira, Oswiu’s nephew. He had sided with Penda
during his campaign north, only to desert him the night before battle.

“Treacherous maggot,” Osulf hissed from behind Maric, glaring
at Paeda. “Give me a blade.”

Maric did not reply, although Osulf had voiced his own sentiments.
The sight of Paeda, dressed in leather and fur, without a scratch upon him,
filled him with a fury so cold that he started to shiver from it. Not only had
Paeda betrayed his father, but he had not even joined the Northumbrians in
battle. Instead, he had waited at the sidelines for the slaughter to be over.

The men stopped outside the tent. They looked on as the
Northumbrian king strode over to Penda’s decapitated head. Oswiu pulled the
sword out of the mud, before holding it aloft.

“How fitting,” his voice was triumphant. “
Æthelfrith’s
Bane
– the sword that has slain so many of my people is now mine.”

Even coated in mud, the sword was magnificent. Maric had
heard that Penda had claimed it many years earlier, at the Battle of Barrow
Fields, where it had belonged to the co-ruler of the East Angles, Ecgric of
Exning. This sword had not slain Oswiu’s father, Æthelfrith – for it had been
King Raedwald of the East Angles who had done so – yet, it had shed a lake of
Northumbrian blood over the years. Maric saw the greed upon the Northumbrian
ruler’s face as he admired the blade; it was a worthy prize that would grace
the wall of his hall at Bebbanburg.

Oswiu sheathed the sword and turned to Paeda, who stood a
few feet away, silently regarding him, his face impassive.

“Not so fearsome now, is he?” Oswiu motioned to the
severed head beside him. Paeda’s gaze shifted to his father’s face, where it
stayed for several heartbeats. Looking on, Maric wondered what it must feel
like to look upon your father’s dead face and know you helped bring about his
end.

Around them, the rise and fall of men’s voices, the
whimpering of the dying and the lonely whisper of the wind broke the heavy
silence that always fell after a battle.

When Paeda finally replied, his voice was emotionless. “No,
decapitation tends to render a man so.”

Oswiu’s gaze narrowed shrewdly. Watching the Northumbrian
ruler, Maric noted that although he lacked Penda’s physical strength and presence,
the King of Bernicia possessed a calculating intelligence – a sharpness – that
made him just as dangerous.

“Do you regret changing sides then?”

 Paeda raised a dark eyebrow. “Would I be standing here
if I did?”

Oswiu’s mouth quirked into a half-smile before he turned
his attention to the blond warrior standing beside Prince Alchfrith.

Aethelwald was a tall, heavy-set man with a thick beard
and startling blue eyes. The warrior had an aura of arrogance, the kind of
self-confidence that made a man a leader.

“Do
you
regret it, Aethelwald?” Oswiu asked.

Aethelwald cocked his head and met Oswiu’s eye calmly.

“No, uncle. Penda miscalculated.”

Oswiu regarded the younger man for a moment.

“You went against your own kin. How can I trust you?”

Maric watched uncertainty flicker across Aethelwald’s
bluff face, a crack appearing in his confidence.

“I will swear an oath of allegiance, uncle, should you
ask it.”

“Swear it then. Kneel before me, kiss my ring, and
promise me you shall never again turn against your own people.”

Aethelwald appeared to hesitate, his gaze flicking to Oswiu’s
son, Alchfrith, who stood silently beside him. The prince returned his look but
did not speak. After a few long moments, Aethelwald crossed the space between
him and Oswiu and knelt before the king. When he spoke, his voice was low and
sincere.

“I swear allegiance to Oswiu, King of Bernicia and Deira,
ruler of Northumbria. I will never again change loyalty.”

Then, he leaned forward and kissed the large garnet on
Oswiu’s left hand. Silence stretched between them, before the king finally
spoke.

“No, you will never again betray me... I will make sure
of that.”

Moving with lightening swiftness, Oswiu grabbed
Aethelwald by the hair with his left hand, using his right to draw the seax at
his waist and slash his nephew across the throat. He struck so fast that
Aethelwald had no time to defend himself.

The crowd of warriors, who had gathered to watch the
scene, grew still. Oswiu stepped back and looked on dispassionately. Aethelwald
collapsed onto the muddy ground, where he lay choking and clutching the gaping
wound at his throat.

“No one betrays me,” Oswiu told the dying man, his voice
soft although laced with quiet menace. “Especially my own kin.”

The heavy silence returned, and Maric found his gaze
shifting back to Paeda. To his credit, the Mercian prince showed no sign of
fear. He stood, his gaze calmly upon Oswiu, waiting for the Northumbrian ruler
to speak. A wise choice, for in Oswiu’s current mood, it would be foolish to interrupt
him. The king watched, till his nephew finally lay still. Then, he motioned to
the two warriors who had dragged Maric into the encampment.

“Take this filth away and burn it with the Mercian dead.”

The warriors did as bid, and it was only when Aethelwald’s
corpse had been carted from sight, that Oswiu turned his attention back to
Paeda.

“What say you, Paeda? Was I harsh?”

The Mercian’s gaze narrowed. Oswiu was clearly playing
with him, and Paeda was, understandably, wary of saying something that would
condemn him.

Paeda shook his head. “My father would have dealt with me
in the same fashion. We must choose our allegiances carefully, for there is no
going back on them.”

Oswiu nodded, satisfied by his response.

“So you are ready to pledge yourself to my family?”

“I am.”

“Very well. As agreed, you have rule over southern
Mercia, where you will be my overlord. Send an escort of your men north with my
army. They will accompany my daughter back to Tamworth.”

Paeda’s face grew serious. “I would prefer to collect
Alchflaed myself.”

Oswiu favored Paeda with a look of disdain.

“Stop thinking with your cock, man. Have you forgotten
that Mercia no longer has a leader? I cannot risk one of your brothers taking
the Mercian throne once they discover your father is dead. You must return to
Tamworth immediately. I will give you a company of my men for your return home.”

The Northumbrian king turned away from Paeda then, his
gaze flicking over to the knot of bloodied Mercian warriors.

“Now you can take your pick from the Mercian survivors.
Choose those you trust to escort my daughter – the rest of them can accompany
you back to Tamworth.”

Two yards away, Maric’s gaze met Osulf’s, and they shared
a look of mute shock. Maric’s gaze then shifted to Elfhere. His friend did not
appear to have heard Oswiu, for he was barely conscious. His head lolled on
Osulf’s shoulder; he was in need of urgent help from a healer.

Paeda did not look best pleased with Oswiu’s insistence
that he return to Tamworth, yet he wisely did not quibble. Instead, he strode
over to the group of Mercian survivors, his cool gaze surveying them. When he
got to Maric, Osulf and Elfhere, his gaze paused.

“Woden,” he murmured, his eyebrows lifting. “My father’s personal
guard. All
three
of you survived?”

Osulf said nothing, although his glare spoke volumes.

“Aye, we survived,” Maric replied, his voice sharp with
pain. His head felt twice its usual size and pounded in time with his heartbeat.
It made him ill tempered and reckless. “Although it was not by choice.”

Paeda’s mouth compressed, making him look astoundingly
like his late father, and he fixed Maric in a hard stare.

“Maric, your wounds will heal quickly enough. You will
lead the escort.”

Maric returned his stare, his stomach twisting.

How dare this dog command me.

Of course, he should have known that Paeda would choose
him; they had fought alongside each other in the past and Paeda had seen Maric
lead men and follow his lord’s commands without question.

He knows I’m loyal.

Maric choked back his anger and looked away. Paeda moved on
and had already begun to choose the men that would accompany Maric north.
Exhaustion and despair pulled Maric down into its chill embrace. He looked
across the clearing at where Penda’s gruesome visage glared at him, accusing.

He could have refused to obey Paeda. It had been on the
tip of his tongue to do so, yet something had stopped him. It was not fear of
execution, for Maric had long ceased fearing death. Instead, it was his sense
of duty and honor. Try as he might, he could not cast it aside. He had ended up
on the losing side of battle, and as such his life was the property of the
victor.

Maric’s fate was not his own to decide.

Chapter Four
Return to Bebbanburg

 

Bebbanburg, the Kingdom of
Northumbria,

Britannia

 

Ten days later...

 

 

 

Alchflaed placed the last handful of walnuts into her
wicker basket and straightened up. Pushing aside a lock of auburn hair, which
had come free of its long braid, she glanced up at the pale sky.

It was a damp, sunless afternoon and cold enough to numb
fingers and toes.
There will be a frost tonight
, she thought, drawing
her woolen shawl about her shoulders. Blod monath was nearly over, and soon
Yule, and the winter snow, would be upon them.

The time had passed so fast since her father’s departure
from Bebbanburg, nearly a moon’s cycle earlier. He had marched off to war
against a fyrd nearly three times the size of his own king’s army. Alchflaed
worried for him.

Deep in thought, she left the walnut trees behind and
began the climb back up the steep causeway toward Bebbanburg’s low gate. She
had plenty of walnuts for the cake she planned to bake that evening. Ahead, two
guards flanked the entrance to the fort, spears at the ready. Alchflaed had almost
reached them, when she saw one of the men stiffen, his gaze fastening on
something behind her.

“Horses!” he shouted.

Alchflaed whipped around, her own gaze shifting across
the patchwork of arable land that stretched around the base of Bebbanburg. There,
to the south, she saw a dark patch moving slowly toward them. Dust boiled up
around the army as it moved, making it appear like a great beast coming to
devour them all.

She froze, her breathing momentarily stilling.

The Mercians… they’ve come for us.

Yet, as she watched, the army drew closer, and standards
bearing the familiar red and black of Northumbria became visible. The horsemen
held the standards high, a clear sign of victory.

Alchflaed exhaled, lightheaded with relief. Grinning, she
turned to the guards.

“My father returns! Mercia has been defeated!”

Alchflaed picked up her skirts with her left hand, still clutching
her basket of walnuts with her right, and sprinted through the gates. She
crossed the outer enclosure, and ran along the wide dirt road that led to the high
gate. To the right of the way, was another road that led north along the length
of the ‘Dragon’s Back’ – so named, for the rock on which Bebbanburg perched
resembled a sleeping lizard.

Low-slung wattle and daub structures with thatched roofs
spread out across the wide expanse; the dwellings of ceorls – free men – who
resided here. A large byre – which housed Bebbanburg’s livestock – an ironmonger,
armorer, and a goldsmith all lined the way to the inner palisade. The clang of
iron and its metallic stench, mingled with the bleating of goats and the odor
of animals.

The spiked wooden ramparts of the inner palisade rose
before Alchflaed, and the Great Tower cast a long shadow despite the dull day. She
sprinted through the high gate, past the gawking guards, shouting as she ran.

 “The king returns!”

Beyond the gate, she streaked across the stable yard
toward a wide, grassy area, dotted with apple and plum trees. Ahead, she
glimpsed the red, pitted stone of her father’s hall. Alchflaed bolted across
the grass and up the steps leading into the tower. She flung aside the door –
only to collide with someone who was in the process of exiting the hall.

Walnuts flew in all directions. Alchflaed pitched forward
and fell onto the rushes. Hands stinging, she sat up to find herself
face-to-face with her steopm
ō
dor.

“Senseless wench!” Eanflaed snarled, her round face
reddening. “Watch where you’re going!”

For once, Alchflaed chose to ignore her stepmother’s sharp
tongue.

“Father returns!”

The anger on the queen’s face dissolved and her lips
parted. Alchflaed saw joy flare in her eyes, before they brimmed with tears.

“They won?” she asked, her voice quavering.

“The army carries its standards high,” Alchflaed replied,
grinning.

Eanflaed whirled away from Alchflaed, her trying
stepdaughter forgotten, and hurried back across the rushes toward the high
seat. Her shrill voice carried across the hall.

“Northumbria has defeated Mercia. Bring me my children.
They must greet their victorious father!”

Alchflaed crossed the rush-strewn floor, avoiding servants,
children and dogs as she went. The hall was in chaos, and Eanflaed’s piercing
commands were beginning to put her nerves on edge. A young male slave, who was
not moving quickly enough for the queen’s liking had just received a
tongue-lashing.

“Lack-wit! Don’t just stand there gawking. Clear the
floor! Move the tables – quickly. Now!”

Alchflaed quickened her stride, wishing she was still
outside and free of her stepmother’s panic and scolding. Eanflaed worshipped
her husband, and strove to please him in all things. When Oswiu was present,
the queen was simpering and sweet; however, she became controlling and critical
in his absence.

Alchflaed had just stepped up onto the high seat when
hunting horns echoed across the hall. They were shortly followed by the raucous
cheering of men.

Her skin prickled.

They’re here.

She took her seat next to her sister by marriage,
Cyneburh. The princess sat, composed and demure as usual, as she awaited the
king’s return – and that of her husband. Alchflaed caught her eye, and smiled
encouragingly.

“You must be looking forward to seeing Alchfrith?”

“Aye,” Cyneburh smiled, although her manner was reserved,
as always. “It has been a long wait.”

Alchfrith studied Cyneburh’s face, wondering at what she
really thought. Even after nearly six years at Bebbanburg, the Mercian princess
maintained a distance from those she lived with. Despite that they had spoken
on many occasions, and worked at their distaffs together on many an afternoon
by the fire pit, Alchflaed barely knew Cyneburh. She had no idea how she felt
about her life at Bebbanburg. It appeared that Cyneburh and Alchfrith’s union
was a happy one. Although, after years of marriage, they had still not produced
a child – something that Queen Eanflaed never failed to remind Cyneburh of.

Horns boomed through the hall once more, signaling the
king’s arrival. Alchflaed’s gaze swiveled away from Cyneburh, across the sea of
expectant faces to where King Oswiu entered the Great Hall.

Tall and spare, but with a strength that belied his
gauntness, her father strode across the floor, the crowd parting before him. He
looked daunting in his victory. His fine cloak, made of the pelt of a great
grey wolf he had slain on a hunting trip a decade earlier, billowed behind him
– his battle cloak. His face was serious, although his eyes gleamed. Two steps
behind him walked Alchfrith. Her brother had never looked so proud; he walked
tall, his long auburn hair tied back in a thong at the nape of his neck, his
bare arms gleaming with golden, silver and bronze arm rings. However, his gaze
was riveted upon his wife, who sat, unmoving, upon the high seat.

Alchflaed stole a glance at Cyneburh and saw that her
breathing had stilled, her smooth cheeks flushing pink. Alchflaed’s gaze
returned to her brother. He was smiling at his wife.

At the front of the high seat, Eanflaed had risen to her
feet, her round face flushed with joy, her eyes glittering with tears.

“Welcome home, My Lord Oswiu!” she cried. Throwing
ceremony aside, the queen stepped down from the high seat, flew across the
floor and launched herself into her husband’s arms.

 

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