Read The Cross and the Curse (Bernicia Chronicles Book 2) Online

Authors: Matthew Harffy

Tags: #Bernicia Chronicles #2

The Cross and the Curse (Bernicia Chronicles Book 2) (10 page)

Beobrand swallowed. His throat was dry. "He had a dream of a holy man, didn't he?"

"Holy dream or not, those damned Waelisc still outnumber us, and we can barely see." The man spat. "I think the gods enjoy watching men die and this is just a new way for us to do it. In the dark and the rain."

Beobrand grunted. He did not wish to talk more on the subject. He feared the man was right. Perhaps he was the gods' instrument in this.

The Waelisc had coalesced into a strong line of men. They began to crash weapons on shields. A chanting rose from them. Beobrand felt the back of his neck prickle. The confidence of them was unnerving. They had been awoken by enemies in their camp in the heart of the night. Lightning, rain and thunder battered them. Confusion had reigned and many had died, cut down in the dark. Yet they had rallied around their leader. And they still believed they were invincible.

At the centre of the Waelisc line lofted the standard of Cadwallon. Beobrand had seen it at Elmet and Gefrin. From it hung skulls and scalps. Its most recent totem was the erstwhile king of Bernicia, Eanfrith. The scant light from the fire was insufficient to show the emblems of the standard clearly. The objects were just shadowy shapes, but Beobrand could not suppress a shudder.

As if sensing his rising state of panic, Acennan said, "Do not fear, Beobrand. There is light here now. And what we can see, we can kill."

The two shieldwalls stood for some time, staring at each other over a spear's-throw of muddy scrub land. The Waelisc continued to chant. Beobrand did not understand the words, but the sound was eerie. The smoke from the fire hazed and blurred the shadows of the enemy warriors. He knew they were only men. Flesh and bone. But his mind screamed at him to flee from this host of night creatures.

One of the holy men who travelled with Oswald began to recite his own spell. Beobrand recognised the language as that used by Coenred and the Christ followers in their rites. The holy man's voice was weak. Lost against the soaring chants of the Waelisc. Beobrand could sense the strength sapping from the Bernicians. A warband's mettle is a fragile thing. It is bound up in each man, but must be forged with a common purpose. The Christ man's words were meaningless to most. Perhaps there was power in his magic that would aid them, but the men needed more. They needed to remember why they fought. Who they fought for.

Beobrand began to shout, "Oswald! Oswald!" Acennan picked up the call. Then others. And with the speed of a fire in dry grass, all of the men - Angelfolc, Hibernians, Picts - were screaming their own chant. The holy man's prayers were drowned out.

The name of the Bernician king resounded across that field and gave the Waelisc pause.

"Oswald! Oswald! Oswald!"

The chant built to a climax. Then a flash of lightning rent the clouds and lit the scene in a harsh white light.

Thunor's hammer-blow of thunder seemed to signal the attack, for both shieldwalls charged forward at the same moment. They met with their own thunder. The bone-crunching crash of shield on shield.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

 

Coenred pulled his coarse woollen robe about his shoulders against the cool night air. Another flash of lightning flickered in the south. A storm was raging over the Wall. The wind picked up, tugging at the hem of his robe. The boulder-grind of thunder rolled over the land. Rain would follow soon.

Others stirred in the camp behind him. He was not the only one who could not sleep. A child cried out. A woman hushed it.

His slumber had been tormented by shades. The spirits of dead loved ones.

He had seen Tata, as she had been in life. Bright, full of mischief and happiness. She had skipped away from him, giggling. Beckoning over her shoulder she had run through a dark doorway into a building.

In the dream, Coenred had been eager to follow his sister. And yet somehow he'd known that he did not want to see what was inside. With a start he'd recognised the chapel at Engelmynster. He had stepped forward, unable to stop. The doorway loomed, dark and foreboding. He did not want to enter. Yet his legs carried him on.

"I don't want to see," he sobbed. "Don't make me look." But nobody answered and his body refused to obey him.

Trembling he stepped into the cool dark of the interior. For a heartbeat he could see nothing. Then, with a crash the scene had been lit with a brilliant light.

Tata was naked. She was sprawled on the altar at the end of the small chapel. Her knees were raised, the firm young flesh of her thighs was white. In her hand she held an object, which she was savagely thrusting between her legs. With each push she lifted her hips and gasped. Whether in pleasure or pain Coenred could not tell.

She pushed harder, more frantically. Grunting like an animal. Blood splattered her thighs, ran in rivulets from her crotch down her milky buttocks. He could not drag his eyes from the object in her hand. Then, in a moment of exquisite disgust he realised what it was. It was a golden rood. A gem-encrusted likeness of the tree on which the Christ had been slain.

The wrongness of the scene hit him with a physical force.

Tata turned her face to him and smiled.

Coenred screamed.

He could not shake the images of the dream from his mind. He had dreamt about Tata before since her murder, but never like this. He shuddered.

Abbot Fearghas said that dreams of women were sent by the devil. Thoughts of lust, he said, were trials for young monks. Coenred sometimes had woken aroused after seeing visions in his sleep of women. He always felt hollow and lost after such dreams. Dirty. Sordid.

But this dream of Tata was worse. It was not a temptation for a young man. It was evil. Dark. Sinister. Horrific.

Another stab of light in the sky. A grumble of thunder. Perhaps the devil rode on the storm.

Beobrand was down there in that storm. Had they already joined in battle with the Waelisc? Was Beobrand alive or had he fallen; struck down by a warrior certain of the righteousness of his own actions? Just as Beobrand was of his?

Coenred knew that Beobrand was a man of honour. But the ease with which he killed filled him with dismay. Seeing him again had brought back the loneliness he had thought gone. The horrors of the last weeks filled his mind. Death stalked him it seemed. So many he had known and loved were dead. He yearned for the closeness of the friendship he had felt with Beobrand for a time the previous winter. While he recovered from his wounds, Beobrand had been happy to sit and talk to Coenred. They had talked of all manner of things. Gods, life and death, family. Those days had been good. But as Beobrand grew stronger, his mind had turned once again to war. To vengeance. To killing.

Coenred wondered if they would ever know that closeness again. It seemed that wherever Beobrand trod, death followed.

The wind picked up and rain began to fall in roaring sheets. The sleepers were woken by the sudden downpour. Their shrieks and yells could easily be mistaken for the screams of the dying in a shieldwall. Or of those they had left behind in Engelmynster.

Coenred drew his robe about him and hurried to find shelter.

 

The rain had stopped. Light seeped into the eastern horizon and still they fought.

This was no nighttime skirmish that would snuff out Cadwallon's hopes of conquest. After the initial Bernician rampage through the camp, his host, battle-skilled and organised, had mounted a staunch defence.

If the Waelisc resolve was intact, the same could not be said for their numbers. Oswald's first desperate charge had slain many. The odds were evened. Yet the battle raged for longer than any would have imagined possible in that hellish night.

Beobrand's sword arm ached. Each swing was difficult. His shield dropped low on his left side. He allowed the straps to hold the weight of the linden board, only pulling it back up when needed. It was a dangerous tactic but he was too exhausted to care. How many men had he killed? He had lost count.

The man he had talked to before the fight had fallen in the first moments after the shieldwalls met. A spear had pierced him just below his collar bone. He had screamed out and Beobrand had seen him no more.

Beobrand had splintered the spear with his sword, then slid his blade along the ash haft until it had met with the fingers of its owner, a wild-eyed Waelisc warrior, looming in the darkness. Hrunting was sharp and severed much of the man's hand instantly. He screeched, letting go of the spear. He tried to cover his body with his small circular shield, but Beobrand feinted at his face, then, effortlessly gutted him. The Waelisc wore no armour, and Hrunting's patterned blade cut through him as easily as if he had been made of smoke.

After that first clash, with the weakest and unluckiest dead, the battle became long and bloody. Acennan shifted round behind Beobrand to take up his position on his right. As at the battle of Gefrin, where they had stood for the first time together, they made a formidable union. They slashed, parried, blocked, charged and retreated, as if they were of the same mind. It was uncanny to watch. Those from the Bernician ranks who managed to step back and draw breath watched in admiration as the tall Cantware warrior and the stocky gesith enacted the deadly battle-play. They slew all who stood before them.

Those who watched from the Waelisc lines saw two mighty warriors stepped out of legend. Their blades glimmered in the firelight. Their battle-knit shirts, shield bosses and fine helms shone. All along the line men shoved and heaved. Hacking, battering with shield, axe, sword and seax.

These two alone seemed elevated to a higher form of combat. The shieldwall could not contain them. Their music was the sword song. And it played to their tune. To approach them was to die. But to falter or retreat was to be marked a craven. So on they came.

And fell in the gore-drenched mud.

Screams, whimpers, curses.

Dying men are not eloquent. They tremble and puke. Soiled by the fear-shit of their impending doom. They will grasp to anything that might hold them for another moment on to this fragile world we call middle earth. And they will lash out and strike anyone who comes close enough.

Death is a lonely voyage and a fallen warrior will always seek to take someone along with him if he can.

Which is why Beobrand and Acennan killed those who stood before them as efficiently as those ceorls they had seen scything barley in the sun. If their foes were not dead soon after they fell, they sent them on their way with a savage thrust of blade, or downward smashing blow of shield edge.

And so it had gone on. Until everyone was spent. Panting and gasping for breath and all wishing they had never come to this place. Battles are glorious in the mead-hall tales. Gold spun from the lyrical kennings of scops. But in that muck-splattered night, there was no glory. Just death, fear and above all else, tiredness.

 

Battles rarely end with one side wholly defeated, killed to the last man. What ends each battle is always different. Sometimes it is the death of a leader; with the head severed, the serpent can fight no more. Other times it is exhaustion; men simply throw down their weapons in apathy. They can see their end is in sight and they cannot find the strength to rail against their doom any longer.

In some confrontations, there is an unspoken communication that seems to flow between the men. First one, then another, and soon the whole host turns and flees in a flood like a breaking beaver dam. The reason for this is often hard to understand, with no apparent weakness on the side that crumbles.

In the dawn light that morning, after the long, bloody night of death, it was the routing of the horses that pulled the first pebble from the dyke that shored up the Waelisc's will.

Following the death of his lord, Derian had been leading Scand's men towards the large fire and the heat of the battle when one of his men caught the sound of whinnying on the wind. Knowing that the Waelisc favoured mounted raids, and fearing Cadwallon would use his mounts to flee should the battle go badly for him, Derian quickly decided to chase off the Waelisc's steeds.

The horses were corralled to the south of the encampment, but Derian's band found no resistance as they cautiously picked their way past empty shelters and over corpses. As they edged further into the camp, they saw no more bodies. Oswald's force had not penetrated that far south. They skirted around those few dead they did see. They were all keen not to make the same mistake as Scand.

A fenced enclosure had been built to hold the horses in place, but the storm and the fighting was driving them mad. The horses huddled in a seething mass of muscled terror. Their eyes rolled white. Their ears pressed flat against long skulls. They shone and steamed in the darkness. The handful of thralls and warriors who had been left to guard them had been forced to turn to the animals. Calming them was clearly impossible. All they could do was use sticks and spears to prod them back from the fences. All this did was enrage and terrify them more.

Derian saw all of this in the dim light from nearby spitting fires. The horses would break free soon, that much was clear. But he could help them on their way.

"For Scand!" he screamed, and the warband surged forward, hungry for vengeance for their lord.

There was no fight there at the horse enclosure. The thralls and guards were slaughtered in moments.

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