Authors: Matthew Harffy
Tags: #Bernicia Chronicles #2
The clouds churned black and terrible above them. Nelda's smile broadened. The gods were furious.
But Nelda's expression changed to a look of anguish as she saw where the lightning had struck.
To one side of the valley stood the sacred ash tree. This was the symbol of Woden, All-Father. The tree where the rites to the gods were performed. Where sacrifices were made.
The tree had been split asunder. Part of the massive canopy came crashing to the earth in a jumble of broken branches and wind-whipped leaves. The remaining section of the tree's bole was aflame. Great sheets of fire leapt into the sky, fanned by the wind.
No more lightning came and no rain fell, but the wind continued to scream down the valley, and the sacred ash burnt.
People began to recover from the sudden shock of the lightning. They cowered in tight groups, as if by proximity they could protect themselves from the wrath of the gods.
Agiefan spoke then, his voice loud and hard.
"This new god has shown himself. Look, the sacred tree is shattered. The old gods' power has waned. And what have they brought us but death and pain?"
Nelda's face was pale as frost. None there had ever seen her thus.
Gods had been pitched against each other, and Nelda's had lost.
"No!" she said. "You do not understand the signs of the gods. I have been there to guide you all for years, I have helped you bring your babes into the world, I have —"
Her words were cut short when a gaunt woman, sallow skin stretched over sharp cheekbones, stepped in close to Nelda and punched the witch solidly in the mouth. Nelda staggered, but did not fall. She spun to face the woman, raising her hands, ready to fight her, but the villagers crowded in. Nelda held herself in check.
"Do not speak of bringing babes into the world, Nelda," spat the woman. Her eyes were dark and sunken, as one who has witnessed horrors that can never be scoured from memory. The woman seemed set to strike again, strong in her rage. But then her shoulders sagged, and she said in a thin voice, "Never speak of helping us, witch."
The villagers knew of the woman's pain; the darkness that had consumed her since the coldest days of winter. They shared some of that pain. And they knew that they were partly to blame for it. They remembered the blackest night of Geola, when they had turned to the cunning woman. Nelda had promised them an end to famine, and they had listened, accepting in their desperation the sacrifice she had demanded.
They had accepted her price. Yet the cost of it weighed heavily on them all.
And now the witch's gods had deserted her.
As a fire will burst suddenly into life when a tiny flame is blown upon in just the right way, so the anger, resentment, and shame of the villagers sprung into life.
Another woman stepped forward and slapped Nelda hard, splitting her lip. A man shoved the witch. She tripped and fell to the earth. The villagers swarmed around her, kicking and spitting in their sudden-found ire.
Hengist let out a roar that stilled the crowd. He surged forward, pushing men and women aside. He was strong and his fury lent him power. More than one man fell from the onslaught of the boy's rage.
"Get back from my mother," he screamed, standing over Nelda's huddled form.
Agiefan took a step forward. Without thought, Hengist lashed out, striking the older man squarely on the nose. Blood sprayed and Agiefan staggered back, caught in the arms of other villagers.
"Hengist," Agiefan spoke from behind the hand that sought to staunch the blood-flow from his nose. "We have no fight with you. But your mother is not wanted here." He spat blood onto the gravel of the path. "She must leave this place." Agiefan flicked a glance to his own son, Hengist's best friend, who stood looking on aghast. "You are welcome to stay here, Hengist. But she must go."
Hengist looked at the people gathered around them. Folk he had known all his life. Friends and enemies. Old and young. Agiefan's son, looked on with pleading eyes. Hengist's gaze fell on the glowing beauty of the girl, Othili. She was as pallid as the rest, but there was no hate in her eyes. There was something else. Excitement?
Then Hengist met the stare of the strange man, Paulinus, the priest who had come from a faraway land. The priest's eyes were dark and hard, like caves hewn of granite. For a moment, Hengist felt his rage screaming to be unleashed. He could leap at Paulinus. Rip out his throat or snap his neck like an autumn twig.
His mother's hand on his leg stayed him.
To kill Paulinus would serve no purpose. Hengist would be struck down by the warriors who protected him. But Hengist scowled at the priest. He would have vengeance over this man and his king.
He pulled his mother to her feet.
"Help me to pack my things," she whispered to him.
He swallowed, unable to speak for a moment. He would not weep before these people.
They walked away from the crowd. The scent of woodsmoke was pungent in the air. The snapping sounds of the burning ash followed them.
"I will come with you," Hengist said.
"No," Nelda turned to him, a savage glint in her eye. Blood trickled from her lip and her face was bruised, but Hengist did not believe he had ever seen a more beautiful woman. "No, my son, you will stay here and you will be great! You will serve kings, like your father did. And you will bring them down, Hengist." She clutched at his arm so tightly that it hurt. "Stay and topple these worshippers of the soft Christ god."
He was ashamed at the rush of relief that washed over him. The thought of fleeing their home terrified him.
"Your father was a thegn of renown," she continued. "You will be greater. You will serve kings, feeding the wolves with the gifts of your slaughter. Oh my son, you will cast terror into the spirits of your enemies. You have been touched by Woden, who goes by many names and guises. But the name that suits you best is Frenzy."
She pulled his face close to her own, smoothing his dark hair back from his forehead with her lithe fingers. Her touch both thrilled and unnerved him. Her breath was metallic.
"Remember," she said, spitting blood into his face from her bleeding mouth, "you are Frenzy. Woden-touched."
Hengist stared back at the dark Christ priest. Behind Paulinus stood the sacred ash that was now a towering torch of flame and smoke.
Yes, he would stay. But he would never forget the day the new Christ god came to the village. Hengist would never forget and he would see to it that Paulinus and his king, Edwin, would remember him when their time came.
Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi
In the Year of Our Lord Jesus Christ
"Get your hands off of my woman, you whoreson!"
Beobrand felt his ire rising at the sight of the grizzled warrior pawing at Sunniva. The older man looked up, but kept a firm grip on Sunniva's slim waist. She struggled, her golden hair spilling from its plaits in a shimmering wave, but the man's arms were gnarly and strong. The rings on those arms attested to his prowess as a warrior. Years of training with shield and spear had made them as unyielding as tree branches.
The hubbub of the hall died down the way a fire will when doused with water. There were hisses and whispers as the men on the mead benches jostled for a better view. A fight was always a thing of excitement.
Beobrand spoke again, this time in a quieter voice. "I said get your hands off of her." His words carried around the hall, the promise of violence clear.
"What are you going to do about it, half-hand?" The warrior squeezed Sunniva again. She squirmed, but did not give him the pleasure of making a sound.
Beobrand looked down at his left hand. His shield hand. The smallest finger had been severed only weeks before, along with a large part of the next finger. The wounds were still red and raw. He clenched his disfigured hand into a fist. The recently-healed skin stretched and cracked. Blood oozed from the wound and the pain washed up his arm in waves. But he did not flinch. The wound had almost proved fatal. Fever had set in and he had been close to passing on beyond this middle earth. And yet Beobrand's spirit had clung to life and he had not followed the rest of his kin into the vale of death.
"The mighty warrior Hengist took my fingers, yet I still live and he feeds the ravens," Beobrand said. "I only need half a hand to kill the likes of you, you bag of piss."
The mood in the hall changed. Talk of killing reminded them all how serious such minor disputes could become. They were not allowed to bring weapons into the great hall, but eating knives could kill as well as a seax or sword.
"Kill me, would you? I am Athelstan, son of Ethelstan, and I have killed more men than I can remember." Athelstan pushed Sunniva away and stood, jaw jutting and frost-tinged beard bristling. He was a large man, broad-shouldered and imposing, but Beobrand still needed to look down to stare him in the eye.
"It is a sad thing to see when the memory departs in grey-beards," said Beobrand, the slight smirk on his face not reaching his cool blue eyes. "Perhaps you were once a warrior of renown. Now you are just old. Sit back down before you get hurt."
A ripple went through the hall. Men were both impressed with the bravado of the younger man and wary of the reaction from Athelstan. He was known to many as a man quick to take offence and slow to back down from a confrontation. He was also famed as a deadly fighter.
"Old, am I? We'll see about that! I'll rip your heart out and then pleasure myself with your girl before you're cold!"
Athelstan lunged towards Beobrand, swinging his huge fist at the young man's face. There was terrific force behind that punch. Athelstan's bulk and strength made the blow a terrible thing; a crushing hammer that would fell Beobrand.
If it connected.
But Beobrand had the speed of youth. He was not yet fully recovered from the injuries he had sustained in the shieldwall in the shadow of Bebbanburg, but he was a natural warrior. The cold of battle had descended upon him now and Athelstan seemed to move like a man wading through a bog, slow and clumsy.
Beobrand deflected the brunt of the attack on his left forearm and stepped in close to Athelstan. In the same motion, using his forward momentum and that of Athelstan combined, he raised his right knee and dealt the older man a crippling blow to the groin. Such was the force that Athelstan was lifted from the rush-strewn floor.
A collective wince ran through the hall. All the fight and breath rushed out of Athelstan in a sighing groan. He crumpled over, clutching himself.
"I'll... I'll..." he gasped.
"You'll what?" said Beobrand. "Bleed on me?"
Laughter in the hall.
Athelstan fought to regain composure and control. "I'll kill you!" he croaked, his face red with rage. He pulled a small knife from his belt, brandishing it before him.
Silence fell on the hall again. Death was in the air.
"There'll be no killing here today." The voice of Scand, Beobrand's lord, rang across the hush of the room like a slap.
All eyes turned to stare at Scand. He stood at the head of the hall. He had been seated at the high table, but now he towered over the room. The light from the torches and the fire in the central hearth lit his silver beard with flickering gold. His lined face was craggy and dour in the gloom.
"We are all sworn to the service of King Oswald. Do not forget yourselves. There will be time enough to fight soon. The Waelisc are violating our lands and Cadwallon's forces amass near the Wall. Beobrand, you will be glad of Athelstan's strength when we stand in the shieldwall again. And you, Athelstan. You are old enough to know better than to touch a young man's woman. Especially if that young man fights as well as Beobrand, son of Grimgundi."
Beobrand glanced at Scand, then back to Athelstan. He could feel the danger drifting out of the air, but his fury was still pumping round his body, making him tremble.
Athelstan straightened and looked Beobrand in the eye. He lowered the knife.
"Put the knife away, Athelstan," Scand said. "And apologise."
Athelstan hesitated, but then seemed to see no alternative. He sheathed his knife and lowered his gaze.
"I seek your pardon," he mumbled.
Beobrand quivered with pent up rage. He loathed men who used their strength to bully others, especially women. His fists were still clenched and it was all he could do not to pummel Athelstan's drink-slack face into a bloody pulp. Behind Athelstan, Sunniva was gazing at Beobrand, her eyes shining in the firelight. She was without question the most beautiful thing in the hall. Her hair was like molten bronze and her face seemed to glow with an inner light. Amongst the warriors in the hall she was like a single fine flower in a field of rocks and mud.
And she was his.
Neither Beobrand nor Sunniva had any living family, and they each filled that gap in the other's life.