Darkest before Dawn (The Kingdom of Mercia Book 2) (7 page)

Chapter Seven
The Reluctant Assassin

 

 

It was late at night, a time of deep silence. Alchflaed
lay upon her furs, staring up at the darkness and listening to the quiet. She
could not sleep, and would not sleep this night – her last at Bebbanburg.

The feasting had gone on a long while, and no one had
sought her company; something she was glad of. She had half-expected her father
to pay her a visit, and to punish her for her behavior, but as the evening wore
on she had realized that he would not.

She had not wept upon returning to her bower; the time
for tears was over. Anger replaced her grief. Even now, the sight of her stepmother’s
gloating face made Alchflaed grind her teeth. Dry-eyed, Alchflaed stared
sightlessly into the night. Her father’s betrayal hurt far more than Eanflaed’s
spite.

He is throwing me to the wolves.

The truth was that he did not care. Anger knotted in the
pit of Alchflaed’s stomach, so intense that it pained her. The man she
worshipped, of whom she had been so proud, knew exactly what he was doing to
his daughter.

The realization made Alchflaed feel sick. She broke into
a cold sweat and curled into a ball amongst the furs.

Since marrying Eanflaed, a deeply religious woman, Oswiu
had also converted to Christianity. These days, he wore an iron cross around
his neck, welcomed missionaries to his kingdom, and had even overseen the
building of a monastery at Lindisfarena, one of the islands just off the coast.
Yet, all his piety was in name only.

Breathing heavily, Alchflaed sat up and tried to quell her
panic. Sensing his mistress’s distress, Hraefn gave a low whine. The hound
shuffled over to her, nuzzling Alchflaed’s shoulder.

“Be still, boy,” she whispered, stroking the grizzled fur
on his neck.

Grief twisted inside her as she realized that Hraefn and
Hafoc would not be coming south with her. They were rangy beasts with shaggy
coats. Hraefn’s coat was pitch-black, whereas Hafoc’s was a mottled brown,
hence their names: Raven and Hawk.

The King of Mercia would not wish to welcome his
betrothed with two wolfish hounds trailing at her heels. It would be a wrench
to leave her dogs behind. They had been her closest friends here; she would
feel lonely without them. However, where she was going, her dogs could not
follow.

 

***

 

Her father visited her at dawn.

Alchflaed was already up, dressed and ready to go. The
dogs, sensing their mistress was about to depart, sat watching her, tails
thumping against the rushes, their soft brown eyes gleaming with expectation.

King Oswiu stepped into his daughter’s bower and let the
tapestry fall behind him, shielding them from the rest of the hall. Oswiu was
not a big man – tall and lean rather than broad – yet his presence filled her
bower. This was the first time he had ever set foot in here, and Alchflaed
watched his gaze sweep dismissively over the cramped space. He ignored the
dogs, although they both gave an excited whine at the sight of him.

“Are you packed?” he rumbled.

Alchflaed nodded. She kept her eyes downcast, afraid that
if she met her father’s gaze, he would see her despair.

“Alchflaed,” he spoke quietly although his voice
reverberated in the stillness of the early morning. “I have an important task
for you.

Alchflaed frowned and glanced up at him. What else could
he possibly want from her? Oswiu’s gaze trapped her, holding her fast in its
intensity.

“Once you’re settled in at Tamworth, once your new
husband believes you a devoted and submissive wife, I want you to do something
for me – something for us all,” Oswiu said, his gaze never leaving hers. “I
want you to kill him.”

Alchflaed stared at her father, stunned. Long, heavy
moments passed before she managed to respond. Her voice came out in a croak,
for her mouth and throat had suddenly gone dry.

“Kill him?”

“Aye,” the king’s mouth thinned into a hard line.

“B… but, I thought you wanted an alliance with him. You
wanted him to rule as your puppet.”

“For the meantime, yes. While it suits me,” her father
replied. “At this very moment, Paeda is back in Tamworth, spreading the news of
his father’s defeat at Winwaed. By the time you arrive, his people will have
accepted the new order. However, I trust Paeda not. Once he has his pretty new
wife, he is likely to betray our alliance.”

Alchflaed continued to stare at her father. The veil had
lifted; it was as if she were seeing him properly for the first time. Now, she
realized he was capable of doing anything to secure his own power, his legacy.
She was expendable.

The thundering of her heart rose to a deafening roar in
her ears. The heat of slow kindling rage replaced the chill that had deadened
her limbs. She pressed her fists against her sides to prevent herself from
flinging herself at her father and striking him, an act she would most surely
regret.

“If I kill Paeda, my own life will be forfeit,” she
eventually managed. “Had you thought of that, fæder?”

“Not if no one knows it was you,” her father replied, not
remotely bothered by her acerbity. “There are many who would wish the new King
of Mercia dead, none the least, one of his own family. You will have to be
cunning and quick, to complete the deed without drawing attention to yourself,
but I know you are capable of it.”

Alchflaed gritted her teeth so hard her jaw ached,
sadness welling within her. His backhanded compliment was also an insult. She
had thought he admired her independence, her fire; yet now she saw that he
viewed her lack of feminine delicacy as a weapon.

“You will use a tincture of fresh hemlock root,” he
continued, oblivious to her dismay. “It smells like dog piss so you should only
add it to his mead if he is already drunk.”

“And what if Paeda is not the type of man to drink
heavily?” she asked, anger turning her voice icy. “What then?”

“You will have to resort to other methods,” Oswiu replied.
Alchflaed watched her father draw out a knife from within his robes. Sheathed
in an ornately stitched leather scabbard, the dagger was designed to hang
horizontally from its owner’s belt. Wordlessly, Oswiu handed the weapon to her.

Stunned, Alchflaed took it without comment and unsheathed
the blade. There was no doubt about it, this seax was finely made. Its handle
was ornately carved wood, the single-edge exquisitely sharp. She could wield
such a weapon to defend her life, but the thought of using it to kill someone
in cold blood sickened her.

“Keep it secret and safe,” Oswiu told her, “and if you do
not have the opportunity to use the hemlock tincture, you must kill him with
this.”

Alchflaed took a deep, steadying breath and resheathed
the seax. Then, she met her father’s eye.

“I’m not capable of murdering a man,” she told him,
“whatever method I choose.”

“Don’t think of it as murder,” her father countered. “See
it as justice. Mercia has committed innumerable atrocities against our people,
and the death of Penda is not nearly enough to make amends.”

Alchflaed swallowed bile. Unsurprisingly, her legs felt
weak and she had to press her knees together to keep them steady.

“So it is reckoning then?” she asked, struggling to keep
the panic out of her voice.

“Aye, daughter.” Oswiu pinned her with a hard stare,
silence lengthening between them, before he spoke once more. “Put the seax on
now.”

Silently, Alchflaed obeyed. She belted the scabbard
around her waist – the seax lay horizontally across her front, its hilt facing
right so its wearer could draw it quickly.

“Keep it close to you at all times, once you reach
Tamworth,” he replied, his voice low and firm. “You never know when an
opportunity may present itself.”

He then drew something else from inside the fur cloak he
wore about his shoulders. It was a small stone mortar, with a smooth wooden
pestle. Wordlessly, he handed them to his daughter. Inside the mortar, there
was a small clay vial.

“Should you choose hemlock as your method, then it will
need to be used fresh,” Oswiu continued, his tone conversational as if he were
discussing something mundane, and not murder. “You will need to make a smooth
paste, mixed with water before pouring the liquid into the vial.”

Alchflaed did not reply. She did not trust herself to
speak.

“Alchflaed, look at me,” he commanded.

She did so, steeling herself.

“Do you understand the importance of this?” he demanded,
his tone sharpening.

“I do,” Alchflaed replied, her voice husky. “I must kill
Paeda of Mercia.”

Her father nodded, his mouth thinning in satisfaction,
although his gaze remained shadowed.

“Good, daughter. See it done and I will welcome you back
into my hall.”

“But the queen does not want me here.” The words slipped
out before Alchflaed could stop them. Last night’s betrayal still stung.

“Her opinion is not my concern,” Oswiu replied. “A daughter
who serves her father loyally will be welcomed back to Bebbanburg with the
honor she deserves. I promise you that, should you succeed at this task, you
shall be able to choose your own husband. I will also permit you to remain
unwed, if that is your wish.”

Alchflaed stared at him, shocked by the offer. He was
clever, her father. Perhaps he sensed her reluctance to obey him and thought he
would offer his daughter a bribe to ensure her obedience. Part of Alchflaed
wanted to believe that he felt guilty about his treatment of her, but she was
shrewd enough to understand the truth of things.

If she attempted to assassinate Paeda of Mercia, there
would be no returning to Bebbanburg. They both knew that.

“Thank you, fæder,” she replied, although the words
tasted like vinegar.

 

 

Chapter Eight
The Road South

 

 

Maric led his horse from the byre and pulled the fur
collar of his cloak about his neck. A freezing wind blew in from the North Sea
this morning, and it had teeth.

Dawn had just edged over the brim of the sea to the east,
although there was no sun to warm the chilled earth. Heavy skies hung overhead,
threatening rain, and Maric frowned. It was not ideal weather to begin a
journey.

He led his horse, a heavy-set bay with feathery fetlocks,
away from the stables and across the wide yard. The group of men Paeda had
selected, awaited him. Elfhere and Osulf were not among them; his friends had
been too badly injured to join him on his mission north. Instead, they had
followed the new king south to Tamworth.

Paeda had chosen the escort carefully, and had made it
clear that all their lives were forfeit if any harm should come to his
betrothed. Maric did not know any of these men well, but they followed him
unquestioningly. They had all sustained injuries during the Battle of Winwaed, but
none that impeded their ability to ride, or defend Princess Alchflaed, if
necessary. Maric raised a hand in greeting as he approached the group of around
twenty men in all.

“Ready to ride out?”

“Aye,” Edgard, a tall, bald man with a craggy face and
sharp blue eyes stepped forward. “As soon as the princess deigns to join us.”

Maric sensed that the men were not happy. Some had nodded
their agreement with Edgard, while others muttered under their breaths.

“I like this no better than you,” he told them. “But this
is the order of our new king and we must swallow it.”

His gaze shifted then to the pony, another heavy-set,
hardy-looking beast the northerners favored. It stood next to Edgard’s mount,
awaiting its rider.

Maric’s gaze narrowed and he glanced over at the entrance
to Bebbanburg’s Great Tower. He had no wish to stride indoors and hurry the
princess up, but if she delayed any longer he would have to. They had a long
ride ahead, and much distance to cover before the bitter weather arrived. Yule
was inching ever closer and Paeda had insisted they arrive before Mother Night.

Maric was just about to toss his reins to Edgard and go
inside to fetch the princess when a cloaked figure emerged from the Great
Tower. At first, he thought it was a servant, for the individual appeared to be
unescorted. Then, he noted the fine wool of the cloak, the fur edging of the
hood and the proud stance of its wearer.

Princess Alchflaed had joined them.

She walked slowly, as if every step weighed upon her. It
was clear she was no more eager to join her Mercian escorts than they were to
receive her. Moments later, two others emerged from the Great Tower and
followed the princess toward the knot of horsemen. Maric recognized Alchfrith
and his wife, and his gaze shifted behind them to the entrance, awaiting the
king’s arrival. However, there was no sign of Oswiu this morning.

Maric took the pony from Edgard and led it toward the
princess. As she neared him, he glimpsed her face, shadowed by her hood but
still visible.

“Milady,” he nodded. “I am Maric of Tamworth, Lord
Paeda’s emissary. I have been charged with ensuring your safety during the ride
south.”

Her mouth thinned slightly, an expression that reminded
Maric of King Oswiu, and her eyes glinted within the shadow of her cowl.

“Wes h
ā
l, Maric” she
replied. Her voice was low and soft, although Maric could hear the simmering
anger there. “I am sure my father and betrothed will be most grateful.”

Her sarcasm was not lost on Maric but he did not comment
on it. Instead, he stepped back and let her mount her pony, which she did with
ease. He saw then that she was dressed as she had been the first time he had
seen her, in a long tunic, split at the sides. Underneath, she wore supple
leather leggings and thick fur boots that reached mid-calf.

Trying not to stare at her shapely legs, Maric moved to
his own horse, and swung up onto the saddle. He and his men waited a short
while longer while Alchflaed said her goodbyes to her brother and his wife.

“Look after Hraefn and Hafoc for me, Alchfrith?” she
spoke to her brother, her tone suddenly imploring. “They are good dogs. They
will serve you well, as they have done me.”

Alchfrith looked up at his sister, his features
illuminated by the rising sun, which had just broken through the cloud cap. His
expression was unreadable, his gaze hooded.

“I shall, sister. Do not worry, your dogs will be cared
for.”

“Travel safely,” Cyneburh spoke up. “I will miss you.”

Alchflaed turned her gaze to the blonde woman at
Alchfrith’s side. Unlike her husband, the new Queen of Deira’s face revealed
sadness at seeing Alchflaed depart.

“Thank you, Cyneburh,” Alchflaed replied softly, “and I…
will miss you.”

“Princess Alchflaed,” Maric interrupted them. The sun had
now cleared the edge of the sea; they should have been one furlong distant of
Bebbanburg by now. “We must go.”

The princess nodded curtly and reined her pony toward
him.

“Lead the way then, Maric of Tamworth.”

 

***

 

The rain began mid-morning. At first, the occasional fat
drop landed on Alchflaed’s face as she rode. Moments later the drizzle
increased to a steady patter. She looked up at the ominous clouds and frowned.

They travelled across exposed country, barely a furlong
in from the coast. She rode in the midst of the company as they made their way
south over rolling hills and through shallow valleys. There was little in the
way of cover here, apart from the occasional copse of oak and beech.

We’re about to get soaked.

No sooner had that thought occurred to her, when thunder
rumbled behind the company of riders. Thunor was angry, and was striking his
anvil with a huge hammer. Her father may have no longer worshipped the old
gods, but Alchflaed liked to believe that his actions had angered them.

I hope they make him pay
, she
thought with a burst of rage.

The shock of the task her father had thrust upon her was
just beginning to sink in.

My life is over.

The realization settled, dull and cold, deep in her gut.

It was strange how quickly life could change. She
remembered feeling something similar when her mother died, many years earlier.
Her entire world had shifted, teaching her that joy could turn to despair in an
instant, with no reason or purpose behind it. At twenty winters, she felt as if
she were decades older.

It was bad enough that she was to wed a man who was
capable of betraying his own father, but to demand she also murder him in cold
blood was unthinkable. The knowledge of what lay before her drained all color
from the world, turning it into a chill, hostile place.

The skies opened and rain swept across the land in great
sheets. Alchflaed hurriedly pulled up her hood and braced herself for the
onslaught. The rain was icy, peppering her skin like rock shards, and soon her
fur cloak was sodden. However, the storm did not stop their inexorable progress
south.

The company’s leader, Maric of Tamworth led the column,
and despite her misery, Alchflaed found her gaze drawn to him. There was a
wildness about him, a brooding intensity. Although the rain still pelted down,
Maric had pushed back his hood. The rain sluiced down his shoulder length dark
hair, plastering it to his skull, but he paid it no mind.

Alchflaed watched him silently, wondering at who this man
was, and why he captivated her attention so. Then, thoughts of what lay ahead
returned to torment her and her gaze turned inward.

 

***

 

Maric swung down from his horse and peered up at the sky.
The rain had stopped for the moment, although from the look of those dark
clouds to the north, more would be on its way. They could have travelled
farther today, but Maric did not want to make camp in the rain.

“Let us make camp, before the next storm,” he called out
to his men.

Next to Maric, Edgard also dismounted, his gaze following
his captain’s toward the approaching thunderclouds.

“Aye, Thunor is not finished with us yet.”

They had stopped at the edge of woodland, at the top of a
gentle rise. There was a meandering stream in the valley below but it was best
to make camp on higher ground, just in case it continued to rain through the
night.

Maric began unsaddling his horse, his attention shifting
to the tall, proud figure of Princess Alchflaed nearby. Even soaked, her fiery
hair darkened by the rain and plastered against her head and neck, she was
lovely.

She was unsaddling her pony with practiced ease. He had
noted that she rode well and looked no more tired by the journey than his men. Despite
that this task irked him as much as it did the other Mercians, her toughness
pleased him. It was a long, uncomfortable journey south and if the princess did
not slow them down, they would be back in Tamworth all the sooner.

Not that he had any reason to hurry back. This time,
there was no one awaiting his safe return. He would not even come back to a
king he respected. Paeda ruled southern Mercia now, and Maric struggled with the
idea of serving Penda’s treacherous son.

Maric turned back to his horse and concentrated on
rubbing it down. He felt weary, body and soul, this evening. The Mercian defeat
at Winwaed had stripped him of much more than his honor – it had robbed him of
the pride he had felt at serving a lord he respected.

Penda had been ruthless but he had known what honor and
duty were. His son did not.

 

Night drew in and the rain returned. Only this time, the
travelers could take shelter under a wide awning made of weather-stained hide,
which Maric’s men had stretched out under the trees. There was no dry wood for
a fire, so the company had to make do with the warmth of their fur cloaks as
they sat upon the damp ground and ate bread, cheese and apples.

Alchflaed perched upon the edge of a wood stump. She ate
quickly, her appetite returning for the first time since her father had
delivered his devastating orders. A day away from Bebbanburg, riding through
the wind and rain had made her ravenous. As she finished her meal, Alchflaed
observed the conversations taking place around her. She had barely spoken to
any of her escorts all day, and they had shown no interest in conversing with
her.

The Mercians kept their distance from their charge. Some,
like their leader, were merely aloof, while others exuded hostility and
resentment. Alchflaed could not bring herself to blame them. However, if it
continued, the trip south would be a long and lonely one. She did not want to
be alone with her thoughts, to give rein to the dread that shadowed her from
dawn to dusk.

Oblivious to her concerns, the men continued to ignore
her, talking quietly amongst themselves. The drumming rain on the hide canopy
above their heads made it impossible for Alchflaed to listen to their
conversations.

Instead, her gaze alighted upon Maric. His handsome face
was shuttered, his clear blue gaze focused on the mid-distance as if he were
lost in memory. She had never before thought of a man as beautiful – but this
one was. The fine, sculpted lines of his cheekbones and chin, and the
sensitivity of his mouth mesmerized her.

Sensing that someone was looking at him, the enigmatic
Mercian looked up. For a moment, their gazes met.

Alchflaed’s cheeks flamed and, embarrassed at being
caught so blatantly staring, she looked away.

 

 

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