Darkest before Dawn (The Kingdom of Mercia Book 2) (8 page)

Chapter Nine
Arrival at Pons Aelius

 

 

After a night attempting to sleep upon the damp ground,
with roots and stones digging into her side, Alchflaed faced the following
morning with ill humor. Perched upon a leather pack, while men packed up around
her, she chewed on a crust of bread and sipped a cup of broth. Her limbs ached
from the damp, and her clothes stuck uncomfortably to her skin.

Dawn was just beginning to stain the eastern sky,
breaking through a curtain of grey, as the Mercian company prepared to ride
south. Mercifully, the rain had stopped some time during the night. Stifling a
yawn, Alchflaed rose to her feet and crossed to where one of Maric’s men had
just finished saddling her pony. The warrior handed her the reins with a curt
nod, before heading off to prepare his own horse for the day’s journey.
Alchflaed stroked her pony’s fury neck.

“Another day, eh Briosa?”

At least her father had let her keep the pony. She was
grateful that Briosa – Breeze – had come with her on this journey; it was like
having a friend with her.

Maric strode past her then. He cast an eye over her
crumpled clothing and tired face, as he went.

“Ready, Princess?”

There was no mistaking the coolness in his voice. Alchflaed
gave him a surly look and busied herself with tightening the girth to her
pony’s saddle. After such an uncomfortable night, in which she had lain awake
worrying about what awaited her in Tamworth, she did not feel kindly disposed
toward her escort.

They moved out a short while later. Although she could
not see it, Alchflaed knew they still rode close to the coast. The salty tang
in the air mingled with the scent of wet grass and foliage. Soon, they would
reach the river Tinanmuðe, where there was a bridge spanning the waterway and a
small village. It was all that remained of Pons Aelius, the Roman settlement,
which had once thrived on the northern bank of the Tinanmuðe. Alchflaed had not
travelled any farther south than this, although she knew that after the river,
they would join the Roman Way that would lead them south-west to Eoforwic.

Her stomach cramped at the thought. With every furlong,
they drew farther and farther from Bebbanburg and her old life. Despite her
father’s assurance that she would be welcomed back into his hall once Paeda was
dead, Alchflaed knew there would be no going home. The knowledge was a
sickening weight in the pit of her stomach.

I will never see Bebbanburg again.

Alchflaed’s gaze shifted to the head of the column, where
Paeda’s emissary rode. Maric had strapped his shield across his back, his
stance one of coiled energy this morning. Although he appeared relaxed, his
left hand holding the reins while the right rested upon his thigh, Alchflaed
could see that Maric constantly surveyed their surroundings; he did not let his
guard down for a moment.

The day drew out, grey and damp with not the breath of a
breeze. The silence unnerved Alchflaed, for it left her alone with her thoughts.
She returned many times to the look upon her father’s face as he instructed her
to kill her new husband, the hardness in his eyes when he told her she must not
fail. She remembered the coldness on her brother’s face when he had seen her
off; only Cyneburh had shown her any kindness. A lifetime at Bebbanburg had
concluded in a solitary farewell, almost as if she had already gone, banished
from her father’s hall.

Despite her resolution not to cry, her eyes filled with
tears many times on the road south. Betrayal burned into her soul like an iron
brand and resentment formed a hard knot in her breast. By the time they reached
the northern banks of the Tinanmuðe
,
her mood was bleak.

 

The village of Pons was little more than a scattering of
wattle and daub huts around a grassy square. The folk here made their living
off fishing the tidal waters of the great river; a few of them ventured out of
their homes as the riders approached, curious to see the newcomers.

Beyond the thatched roofs of Pons, the stone bridge
stretched across the glittering water. It sat upon vast pillars, with a great arch
at its halfway point. To the west of the village, upon a hill, Alchflaed caught
sight of the ruined walls of the Roman fort.

The sun showed its face for the first time when they
reached the river. Alchflaed tilted her face to it, welcoming the warmth on her
chilled skin. She followed the column to the hill under the fort, where the
Mercians had decided to camp for the night. As she unsaddled Briosa and rubbed
her down, Alchflaed noted the young warrior next to her cast curious glances
her way. He was of around her age, with dark blond hair and a sparse beard to
match.

“You are good with horses, M’lady,” he observed.

“I prefer animals to people,” she replied with a grin.
“They’re easier to understand.”

“Aye,” the warrior’s face split into a wide smile. “That’s
true enough.”

“What’s your name?” Alchflaed asked, welcoming the chance
to befriend one of her escort. The others were proving standoffish and it was a
relief to know that at least one man here did not resent her.

“Bryni,” he replied. To her surprise, the young man
flushed slightly. He may have been able to stare down enemies in battle but it
appeared that Alchflaed’s direct gaze disarmed him.

To cover up his embarrassment, Bryni quickly turned back
to tend to his horse. Still smiling, Alchflaed returned to rubbing down Briosa,
her mood lightened.

 

Maric warmed his hands over the flames of the fire and
sighed as the heat seeped into his chilled fingers. His clothes and skin still
felt damp from yesterday’s deluge. He stood at the center of a circle of tents,
erected in the shadow of the ruined fort. On the northern banks of the river
below, he could see the glow of hearths in Pons. The scent of wood smoke lay
heavy on the chill night air.

Maric stood amongst a group of his men skinning and
gutting rabbits. They had just returned from the village with a few braces of
conies. Tonight, they would feast on roast rabbit. With the chill taken out of
his hands, Maric picked up a rabbit, ripping the skin from its carcass in one
deft movement. Then he handed it to Edgard, who sat beside him, for gutting.

“Fat conies these,” the warrior noted. “We’ll eat well
tonight.”

Maric smiled in response before reaching for another
rabbit to skin. He liked these men; they were straightforward, honest warriors
whom he instinctively trusted. Despite his dislike for Paeda, Maric had to
admit he had chosen a good band of men to escort his betrothed safely home.

On the other side of the fire, Maric saw that Alchflaed had
sat down. The firelight danced across her skin, darkening her eyes. Tendrils of
auburn hair had come free of the braid down her back, and curled about her
face.

Then, she glanced up, her gaze meeting his.

 

Alchflaed watched Maric tear his gaze from hers and turn
his attention back to the rabbit he was skinning. Her pulse beat fast at the
base of her throat and the sudden warmth in her body had nothing to do with the
fire flickering before her.

They had barely exchanged more than two terse words all
day but she was constantly aware of Maric. During the day, she found her gaze
returning to him, almost against her will. She watched him now, laughing at
something the man next to him had just said. The expression lit up his face and
softened its usual seriousness.

Abashed, Alchflaed remained by the fire and watched the
men mount the rabbit carcasses upon sticks before roasting them over the
embers. Shortly afterward, the aroma of cooking meat filled the air, causing
her belly to rumble. She spotted Bryni then, returning to the camp with an
armload of wood for the fire.

She flashed him a warm smile, hoping he would not ignore
her like the others. Bryni returned her smile before dumping his firewood next
to the fire and holding his hands out over the flames.

“It’s damp tonight,” he told her. “More rain is on its
way.”

“It’s not a good season to be travelling,” Alchflaed
agreed. “Will the marshes still be passable?”

Bryni shook his head. “I doubt it, M’lady. If this
weather continues we’ll be forced to circle east after Eoforwic.”

He stopped there, his expression clouding. “That road
will take us back to the River Winwaed.”

“Will we be able to cross it?”

Bryni shrugged. “If the water isn’t too high.”

Alchflaed saw that the mention of Winwaed had darkened
Bryni’s mood, and she was sorry for it. She had never seen a battle, or been
anywhere near one, and could not imagine the horror Bryni had seen.

“Was it your first shield wall?” she asked him gently.

Bryni’s gaze flicked over at where the other warriors
were making themselves comfortable around the fire. They were all older, harder
men than him and it was clear he respected them all deeply. “Aye,” he said
grimly, “and it will not be my last.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Ten
The
Ealdorman’s Welcome

 

 

Five days later, they rode into Eoforwic under a helmet
of grey, with a light rain upon their faces.

Maric rode at the head of the company, as they made their
way along the eastern bank of the River Foss. The town, ringed by a high wooden
palisade, sat on the edge of marshland, where two rivers – the Ouse and the
Foss – intersected.

 The company crossed the river and entered the town
through a wide gate. They rode up an incline past wattle and daub hovels with
neatly thatched roofs. Eoforwic was a prosperous town that thrived on trade
from boats travelling up and down the River Ouse. Maric spied the mead hall, a
long bow-shaped building with light streaming from its open doorway. He caught
the raucous sound of drunken laughter as they passed by.

Edgard rode up next to Maric, and flashed him a grim
smile.

“Ready to greet the ealdorman?”

Maric answered with a humorless grin of his own.

“If we weren’t escorting a Northumbrian princess, he
would have us stoned out of Eoforwic.”

“It will stick in his craw, to host a party of Mercian
warriors in his hall,” Edgard agreed, “but at least we shall be sleeping under
a roof tonight, out of the rain and cold.”

Maric offered no protest there. Since leaving Pons
Aelius, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. There had been a few hard
frosts and the air had grown raw with the promise of worse weather to come; an
early snowfall seemed likely. It would be a relief to be out of the cold for
one night.

They rode up the incline toward the ealdorman’s hall. The
folk of Eoforwic, many of whom had just finished their work for the day,
watched the party pass, curiosity upon their faces. Maric had wisely told his
men not to bear their blue and gold Mercian standards until they neared
Tamworth – and certainly not in Eoforwic. The town was a Northumbrian
stronghold, and the locals would not take kindly to Mercian visitors, even
those who came in peace.

They passed Eoforwic’s church, and despite that Maric
worshipped the old gods, he could not help but be impressed by its imposing
stone façade. Ten yards farther, they drew up before Eadweard of Eoforwic’s
hall.

It was a typical ealdorman’s hall – timbered with a
straw-thatch roof – although it appeared a rustic barn after the grand, stone
church. Maric dismounted and glanced over his shoulder. The rest of his party
assembled at the foot of the wooden steps leading up to the doors of the hall.

Among them, he spotted Alchflaed. She appeared pale and
drawn, the fur-lined hood of her cloak pulled about her face to protect her
from the cold.

“Wes hāl, travelers!”

Maric glanced back at the hall, to see a huge man emerge
into the gloaming. The ealdorman’s size was made even greater by the squirrel fur
cloak draped across his broad shoulders. Silver laced the man’s long brown hair
and tangled beard, although this was the only evidence of his middling years.
He had a heavy-featured, weather-beaten face and a penetrating gaze.

“Wes hāl, Ealdorman,” Maric called back. “I thank
you for your welcome and call upon your hospitality. We are escorting Lady
Alchflaed of Bebbanburg south to Tamworth and would stay in your hall tonight.”

The friendliness vanished from Eadweard of Eoforwic’s
face, his heavy brow creasing.

“You’re Mercians,” he accused, his tone hostile.

“Aye,” Maric replied. “As you know, Mercia now bends the
knee to Northumbria. We travel here with the King of Bernicia’s blessing.”

The ealdorman’s mouth drew in, as if he had just supped
on sour milk.

“I care not, if Mercia has finally bent the knee to us. I
will not break bread with Penda of Mercia’s curs.”

Maric inhaled deeply. Beside him, he sensed Edgard’s
simmering rage. The warrior was on the verge of losing his temper, and although
Maric did not blame him – this man’s rudeness also incensed him – he could not
let the situation deteriorate.

“You are not welcome in Eoforwic,” Eadweard sneered.
“Continue on your way before I have my men chase you out.”

Maric opened his mouth to answer, but was forestalled by
a figure stepping up next to him. Alchflaed was tall – she stood only a couple
of inches shorter than him – and her posture was even straighter than usual in
her displeasure. She pushed back her cowl and regarded the ealdorman
imperiously, tilting her chin to meet his gaze. Watching her, Maric’s breath
caught in his throat.

Woden, she’s lovely.

“I am Princess Alchflaed, daughter of Oswiu of
Northumbria,” she addressed the ealdorman imperiously. “How dare you speak to his
servants thus.”

Servants.
Maric’s admiration
dissolved in an instant.

Heedless, Alchflaed continued. “If you refuse us welcome
under your roof this night, my father shall hear of it.”

Silence stretched out between the ealdorman and the
princess; the tension between them was palpable. Eventually, Alchflaed broke
the silence. Her voice was calm and firm, betraying no nervousness at all.

“What shall it be Eadweard of Eoforwic?”

The ealdorman held her gaze for a few moments before his
rugged face split into a fierce grin.

“You’ve grown into a fiery beauty, Lady Alchflaed,” he
replied, folding his beefy arms across his broad chest. “It’s a pity your
father has chosen you to peace-weave, for I am recently widowed and would welcome
you into my furs.”

Alchflaed held his gaze, although Maric noted that her cheekbones
had flushed slightly; the only sign that the ealdorman’s comment bothered her.
When she did not reply, Eadweard’s grin turned sly.

“Aye, you may stay in my hall tonight, Milady, but your
rabble will have to find other lodgings.”

Alchflaed did not hesitate before responding. “No,
ealdorman. They will warm themselves by your fire pit, fill their bellies at
your table and sleep upon your rushes. These men are my escorts, my protection.
I will not enter your hall without them.”

Eadweard’s lip curled. “Your
protection
? They are
Mercians. I don’t know what Oswiu was thinking, sending his precious daughter
south with the enemy. They will surely rape and murder you before you reach
your destination.”

“Your concern for my welfare is touching,” Alchflaed
replied, her tone sharpening, “but misplaced. I ask you one last time. Will you
host me, and my escort, in your hall this eve?”

Eadweard of Eoforwic scowled, his gaze shifting from
Alchflaed, to where Maric stood silently beside her. When he spoke, his voice
was a growl.

“One night only – and you leave at the first light of
dawn.”

 

The fire pit spat and hissed from the pork spit roasting
over the hot coals. A pall of oily smoke hung over the hall, so thick it caught
at the back of Alchflaed’s throat and made her cough. The fire cast the hall in
flickering golden light. Cressets, filled with oil, upon the outer walls also
threw long shadows across the space.

Alchflaed crossed the hall, rushes crunching beneath her
fur boots. Behind her, she was aware that Maric, Edgard and the other Mercians
of their party followed. Unfriendly gazes tracked the newcomers, from all
corners of the shadowy hall, but Alchflaed ignored them. It was bitterly cold
outside, unseasonably so for this time of year. She welcomed the smoky heat
within the ealdorman’s hall, despite the price it came at.

Eadweard of Eoforwic awaited them. He had cast off his
fur cloak, but still appeared a huge man without it; clad as he was in a
long-sleeved quilted shirt and leather jerkin. He sat upon a carved chair at
the head of a long table to the right of the fire pit, leaning back in his
chair as he sipped from a bronze cup. His gaze followed her across the floor.

Alchflaed did not like the way Eadweard of Eoforwic
looked at her, for it was a predator’s gaze, as if he wished to shame her with
his stare.

“Are you certain you wish to stay here, Lady Alchflaed?”

Maric had stepped up at her shoulder. She started
slightly, before realizing that he too had seen the vulturine look on the
ealdorman’s face.

“I don’t trust him,” Maric continued, his voice low so
that only she could hear him. “We don’t have to remain here, if you don’t wish
to.”

“This man serves my father,” Alchflaed replied, her tone
more confident than she actually felt. “It is his duty to host us in his hall,
and I will see it done.”

She glanced then at Maric and their gazes met fully. Heat
flooded through her body, from her neck downwards. He was close enough that she
saw his pupils dilate in the firelight, signaling that she had affected him
similarly.

Maric dropped his gaze then, and slowed his step,
allowing her to draw ahead.

“As you wish, princess.”

Alchflaed stopped before the table and removed her cloak,
taking a moment to collect herself. Why did meeting Maric’s gaze affect her so?
She did not welcome her body’s swift reaction every time the Mercian looked her
way – it was starting to embarrass her.

She moved to take a seat on the low bench before the
table, and felt the ealdorman’s gaze rake over her figure. Alchflaed gritted
her teeth in annoyance. She was warmly dressed in a thick woolen travelling
dress with two layers of tunics underneath, but Eadweard of Eoforwic’s gaze
attempted to strip her of her clothing.

“A winsome wench indeed,” he murmured.

Opposite Alchflaed, a younger man of a similar look to
the ealdorman took a seat. He too cast a bold gaze over Alchflaed. A young
woman with light brown hair, tightly braided around her head sat down next to
him.

“My nephew, Wassa, and his wife, Lora,” Eadweard
introduced them, his voice cold and flat. “My own son died at Winwaed, along
with my brother – these two are the only kin I have left.”

Alchflaed nodded to them, realizing then why the
ealdorman had been so hostile toward Maric and his men. Such bitterness would
not be easily forgotten and Alchflaed had a sudden pang of misgiving. Perhaps
Maric had spoken true; better to brave the cold than break bread with a man who
nursed such resentment.

The Mercians, including Maric, had taken their seats at
the far end of the table, below the salt, leaving Alchflaed to take her supper
with the ealdorman, his family and ceorls. They ate coarse bread with roast
pork and braised onions. Hungry, after a long, cold day in the saddle,
Alchflaed was glad of the hot, tasty fare. She had just started on her meal,
when Lora addressed her.

“Has your journey been pleasant so far, Milady?”

The young woman, of about Alchflaed’s own age, had a
mousy, diffident appearance that was made even more evident by her quiet, timid
voice. However, her gaze was kind when it met Alchflaed’s.

“Pleasant enough, thank you,” Alchflaed replied.
“Unfortunately, the weather is against us.”

“Mother Night approaches,” Lora said with a gentle smile.
“Most folk do not travel this close to Yule.”

“Aye,” Alchflaed answered with a shake of her head. “It
was not my choice, either.”

“Do you…?” Lora began to ask another question, only to be
cut off by the ealdorman.

“Silence, woman,” he growled. “Spare us your brainless
chatter.”

Lora dropped her gaze to the table, her pale cheeks
flaming. Alchflaed watched her, sorry to see the young woman humiliated so;
although judging from the smirk on her husband’s face this was nothing new.

At the head of the table, Eadweard of Eoforwic poured
himself more mead and took a deep draught from his bronze cup. Then, he fixed
Alchflaed in a stare that made her skin prickle in warning.

“Did you know that I asked your father for your hand?”

Alchflaed swallowed the mouthful of bread and pork she
had been chewing. “No, he did not tell me that.”

“It was on the way to Winwaed,” the ealdorman replied. “However,
once we made camp at the river, he gave you to Penda’s whelp instead.”

Alchflaed went still, watching Eadweard’s face darken at
the memory.

“Paeda asked for your hand, in return for betraying his
father. It was too tempting for Oswiu, it seems. Despite my years of loyalty,
despite my sacrifice, he gave my prize to a lesser man.”

Alchflaed resisted the urge to glance toward the opposite
end of the table, where she sensed Maric was observing them. She was sure he
had heard the ealdorman; everyone at the table must have. She should tell
Eadweard she was sorry to hear her father had refused him, but the words would
not come. Although she had no wish to wed Paeda of Mercia, the thought of being
handfasted to this brute was no more appealing.

As if sensing her mood, the ealdorman slammed his cup
down on the table before him, and leaned forward, his expression turning darker
still.

“Do you think yourself above me, girl?”

The words escaped, before Alchflaed could stop them.

Other books

Drury Lane’s Last Case by Ellery Queen
Double Vision by Tia Mowry
The Trials of Nikki Hill by Christopher Darden, Dick Lochte
Sweet Dream Baby by Sterling Watson
Between Dreams by Cynthia Austin
The Pantheon by Amy Leigh Strickland
The Neighbors Are Watching by Debra Ginsberg