Authors: Matthew Harffy
Tags: #Bernicia Chronicles #2
Oswald stood unmoving for a moment. For an instant his face was consumed with rage. Cormán took a step back.
"Blood! The king is splashed in blood!" A voice called out from the rear of the hall. Many voices joined in the clamour.
Oswald gained control of his ire and the situation rapidly. He held out his hands.
"It is not blood. It is merely wine, as I have told you."
"But you said it signified the blood of the Christ god," one thegn said.
"I did," replied Oswald. "If you wish to see any omen in this, see that I have once more been anointed by the one true God. As I was baptised in water, now I am baptised in the wine of the Eucharist."
There were murmurs, but no more cries or shouts.
"I think we have had enough excitement for now." He cast Cormán a dark glance. "We will leave this blessing for another moment."
With that, he swept from the hall, through the partition and into his sleeping chambers.
The hall was instantly abuzz with the voices of the throng as they filed out into the daylight.
Cormán, as pale as lamb's wool, sat heavily.
Coenred felt sorry for him. He knelt and retrieved the bread. Then he righted the chalice.
"Thank you, Coenred," Cormán said, in a small voice. Coenred was still reeling from what had just occurred, but this startled him further.
Cormán had never before offered him his thanks. And it was the first time the bishop had seen fit to use Coenred's native tongue.
Beobrand walked beside the wide expanse of the Tuidi. The day was still, the sky clear. A light breeze rustled the new leaves of the trees on top of the slope on the north side of the valley. But no wind reached him. The rushes and grasses that grew thick on the bank of the river did not move.
On the hill above Ubbanford his men were working on the new hall. The sounds of their labour were too muted by distance to impinge on his restful mood. He was alone. He welcomed these moments of peace when he could walk by himself. It seemed that as lord and husband he had precious little time for his own company. His own thoughts.
A movement on the river brought him to a halt. Unmoving, he watched. He had seen something, but now all was still again. The river's waters flowed lazily past. He scanned the dark undergrowth that overhung the opposite bank. Then he saw it and smiled.
Standing on a branch of a fallen tree that jutted over the river was the ghostlike form of a heron. As he watched it shifted its head slowly, searching the water for fish, and also seeming to survey Beobrand. It was a huge bird. Its snakelike neck topped with tufted head and deadly beak.
"Good to see you, my friend," Beobrand said, keeping his tone calm and quiet.
He often saw the bird. It was always in this area of the river. Once he had startled it on the bank where he walked, and it had lifted languidly into the air with a creak of wings that appeared large enough to carry a man. Ever since that day, when he had spotted the heron, it was in the shadows of the northern bank.
He marvelled now at how still it could stand. It seemed content to allow the river to flow, sure in the knowledge that fish would swim below its vantage point.
As if it had heard Beobrand's thoughts, its beak, savage as a seax, speared into the water. It made barely a ripple. It came up with a flicker of silver flapping in its maw. The fish disappeared quickly. The heron's explosive speed was replaced by stillness once more, as it resumed its vigil.
Beobrand had only spied the bird catching prey once before and just as he had then, he was awed at how effortless the kill had been. He wondered how it was that animals had such skills. Were they taught by their parents? Or did they learn from other birds? Did the gods speak to them, guiding them? Or was it just their way, with no training?
His own father had taught him many things. He grudgingly acknowledged to himself that he knew about livestock and crops from listening to his father's words. Grimgundi had also taught him about fear. Beobrand unwittingly clenched his fists. Yes, fear was a lesson he had taught well. The power of the man had been terrifying for his children. And their mother.
Beobrand stared into the eddying waters of the Tuidi, but his mind was far away.
Muscles in his forearms knotted and bunched. He did not wish to think of his father. The man was dead. He could hurt nobody now. But it seemed to Beobrand that his spirit was unquiet. Distance and time did little to dim the memories of the beatings. Beobrand flinched, as if expecting a blow. Yet the movement that had startled him was merely the heron taking flight. He shook his head to clear it of the fog of a past that was best forgotten. Would death itself not keep his father from his thoughts?
Soon he would be a father himself. Would Sunniva bear him a son, as he had said back in Bebbanburg? Or a maiden child? Would the child resemble one of his siblings? Strong, brave, dependable like Octa perhaps? Or, if a girl, would she have the impish features and giggling personality of Edita? Or caring, quiet and always eager to please, like his beloved Rheda?
Whether son or daughter, Beobrand vowed silently to all the gods that he would never treat his own offspring as his father had treated them. But was it possible that he too would find it easier to talk with his fists than words? Violence came easily to him, it was true. A natural killer.
Beobrand shuddered. He recalled then his mother's dying words. "You are not your father's son." He had never fully understood her meaning. Had she meant that he did not need to become like Grimgundi? Or did her words reveal something else? Something more profoundly unsettling?
He would never know her true meaning. And yet her words drove him. He was not his father's son. He would not become that which brought terror to his childhood. He was strong and gifted at sword-play. And strength should be used to defend children. He cursed himself that he had not had the strength to stop his father years before.
He closed his eyes. Breathed deep of the cool air.
Grimgundi was gone. He could not torment him now.
He took another breath. The stillness washed over him.
His eyes flicked open. What had startled the heron? His presence had never been enough to set the bird to flight in the past. Where were the sounds of other birds? The river flowed stealthily between the banks. Beobrand scoured the far bank. He saw nothing to provoke alarm.
Was that a movement? A flash of pale skin between the trees?
He peered into the gloom of the woods across the river. Uneasy now, he began to move back towards the houses of Ubbanford. He was all too aware that he was alone and unarmoured. The trees were separated by close to fifty paces of deep water. Surely he was safe. But a sudden movement caught his eye and he realised in a heartbeat that the distance of the far bank did not provide him with sanctuary.
A flicker of motion blurred his vision. Without fully knowing why, he threw himself to the ground. He heard the thrum of the bowstring at the same instant as an arrow thudded into the turf behind him. A second arrow followed.
It flew true, but skittered off a branch near his head. It whipped up and away.
The archer was skilled. Beobrand could not stay where he lay. The next arrow would find its mark.
He leapt to his feet and sprinted along the riverbank. His supple leather shoes slipped on the moist grass. He felt something tug at his cloak. He kept running.
The archer would be impeded by the heavy foliage on the north side of the river. He would be unable to match Beobrand's pace. Each shot would be more difficult. Especially with a fast moving target. Yet it was possible there was more than one bowman.
Reaching the first houses, Beobrand decided it was safe to revert to a walk. His lungs burned. He drew in great gulps of air.
Acennan sat before the hall. A comely young woman carried buckets of milk past him. She walked slowly to avoid spilling the precious liquid. Acennan seemed content to watch the sway of her hips.
He spotted Beobrand and said, "You have returned sooner than I thought."
Beobrand's breathing was still ragged. "I tired of my own company."
Acennan raised an eyebrow. "I am not surprised. It can be tedious to spend time alone with you." He snorted. Acennan then reached behind Beobrand and plucked something from his cloak. "Though judging by your new jewellery," he held up a goose feather fletched arrow with a vicious iron head, "I would imagine you were not as alone as you would have liked."
Sunniva felt the quickening in her belly. It frightened her. But the strange bubbling sensation of her child moving within her brought a smile to her lips, despite her fears. She often thought of her mother. She missed her advice. Her tender affection. She even missed her scoldings. Yet now, as her time approached, she missed her more than ever.
Rowena was kind and supportive, but she was not her mother. There was a distance, an aloofness, to her that left Sunniva feeling lonely.
Odelyna had come to see her the day before. The woman was grey-haired and wizened, her manner terse, abrupt. But she had assisted the women of Ubbanford to bring their babies into the light for decades.
"The woman knows more about giving birth than the goddess Frige," Rowena had said. She wished to lighten Sunniva's mood, but her words made the mother-to-be frown. The pain in Sunniva's head had been constant for some time and she felt giddy if she attempted walking more than a few steps. The last thing she wished for now was for the goddess of fertility to take offence at Rowena's words.
Odelyna had prodded Sunniva and asked her many questions. At last, she had declared that Sunniva's child was well, and would be born in Eostremonath. The mother, she said, had headaches caused by the baby's warrior-like nature. "He'll be a great thegn, just like his father," she'd said. "But you know what happens with strong men, they always give their women headaches." The old woman prescribed an unctuous concoction of mandrake, mugwort, betony and honey and said she would return daily to check on Sunniva.
From where she lay in the dark, Sunniva heard the arrival of men into the hall. Footsteps approached. The partition to the bedchamber opened. Beobrand entered. She smiled to see him. She worried what might happen, now that the weather was improved. The village seemed tranquil. Safe. But it was an illusion.
"How do you fare, my love?" he said, kneeling beside the bed. The sombre aspect of his face told her all she needed to know about her own appearance. His fear for her was etched in his features.
"My head is a little better." She pushed herself into a sitting position, being careful not to show her discomfort. "I believe the rest, and Odelyna's ointments are working. What did you find?"
Beobrand shook his head. "We made our way quickly to the place where the bowman hid, but whoever it was had not waited for us. From the look of the place it was only one man. Two at most."
"The men from these parts say that his eldest son, Torran, is a skilled hunter. By all accounts he has a keen eye with a bow."
"What will you do?" She could see no escape from the threat of attack that loomed over Beobrand now. He would not be safe while Aengus' brothers sought vengeance.
Beobrand sat still for a long while. His eyes were shadowed.
"I will talk with Nathair once more."
"Will that work?"
"I do not know. I would avert more blood. And I believe Nathair would not seek open feud with me. But I fear the old wolf cannot control his pups."
Sunniva's face suddenly lit up, as if a ray of light had fallen upon her from an open shutter.
"You talk of pups. Give me your hand and feel your own move inside me."
She took his hand and placed it on her swollen belly. Beobrand kept his palm lightly touching the linen garment there, but she pushed it more firmly onto her.
"You will not break me. You should see the way Odelyna prods and pushes!"
Beobrand grimaced at the thought.
"What you womenfolk do when your husbands are not present is best left a secret," he said.
"Hush now, and wait."
After a moment, it came again. A burbling sensation of movement inside her and she saw Beobrand's face change. Gone was the concern and worry. Replacing it was joy and awe. And love.
"Our son is strong," he said.
She was too tired to play the game and ask him how he knew it would be a boy child. The throbbing in her temples increased. She did not have the strength to worry any further about anything. Her man was with her. Their child kicked. Her headache was sure to abate after she took some rest.
"Yes," she said, closing her eyes. "Our son is strong. Like his father."
"And his mother's father," said Beobrand.
"Yes," her voice was blurring, sleep tugging at the sounds, "with such forebears how could he not be as strong as a boar?"
She felt Beobrand's strong fingers brush her hair from her forehead. He placed a soft kiss upon her brow. The rasp of his beard brought to her mind the ghost sensation of her father.
Now was not the time for concerns and fears. There would be time enough for problems another day, when this damn headache had gone away. She allowed the calm of slumber to drift over her.