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) (6 page)

Oswald had sent out word for fyrd men to meet to the north of the Wall. On a hill known to all as Hefenfelth. There they would congregate and form ranks, stopping Cadwallon's force from passing the Wall and gaining access to Bernicia.

The pace was exhausting. A renewed urgency had fallen on them all. The day was warm and they sweated and panted their way along the furrowed and cracked road built by men who had left these lands in a time beyond memory. It might be crumbling and uneven, but it was still the best route to follow for a large group of men marching apace to battle.

"Cadwallon will be travelling up Deira Stræt towards us," Acennan panted from Beobrand's side. "It is the only way he can move a host of that size. If God is smiling on us, we'll arrive at the Wall before him. Then we'll be in with a chance. Not much of one, I grant you, but a chance all the same." He punched Beobrand's arm and let out a laugh.

How Acennan could be so happy when they were heading towards almost certain doom was beyond Beobrand's ken. He could not imagine ever being happy going into battle. Yet deep within him he did feel the first quickenings of excitement. A spark deep within a forge blown into life by a gust from the bellows. The shieldwall was terrifying. A place of sickening fear and pain. But also of exhilaration. He could not deny it. He was not content to be battle-bound, but part of him was eager for the thrill of it.

That is what separated him from Coenred. The young monk was truly perplexed that Beobrand welcomed the chance to test himself once more against the foes he had faced already three times in the last year.

Beobrand had tried to explain it to him before they had parted ways once again, Coenred heading north to the safety of Bebbanburg, Beobrand continuing south with Oswald and the fyrd of Bernicia.

"These are the men who killed Tata. I will avenge her death," Beobrand said.

If he had thought by mentioning Coenred's sister that he would gain his approval, he was sorely mistaken.

Coenred turned pale and screamed at Beobrand, "Do not speak her name! More death and killing will not bring her back to me. She..." Coenred's eyes brimmed. "She..." His words caught in his throat. "She is dead. I want no more death on my soul." He rubbed his hands over his face, scrubbing at his eyes. Men who had turned to stare at the monk's outburst turned away. Coenred continued in a calmer tone. "Defend the land, Beobrand. That is noble. Do not use Tata's murder to justify your own lust for blood."

His words had stung Beobrand. Is that how Coenred thought of him? Craving violence and death the way bears crave honey? Once they have the scent of a hive they can think of nothing else and no number of stings will stop them. Beobrand looked down at his left hand. At the stumps of his two last fingers. He pictured Leofwine's face as it had been in death. Pallid and muck-spattered. Could it be that he sought battle, whatever the cost?

Wybert certainly blamed Beobrand for his brother's death. Wybert had always disliked him, but now, without Alric's calming influence, his hatred bubbled freely. Beobrand had approached him as the warriors prepared to march on.

"I am sorry for Leofwine's death," he said. It was the simple truth. "He died bravely."

"Bravely?" Wybert spat. "He was no warrior. He would not have been at Gefrin if not for you. Your dreams of glory spoke to the poet in Leofwine. He went north because of you. You might as well have struck him down with that fine blade of yours."

Beobrand reeled under the heat of Wybert's fury. He could offer no defence. Leofwine was dead and he had failed to protect him. Nothing could change that now.

"I am sorry," Beobrand swallowed the lump in his throat and took his place among Scand's gesithas, next to Acennan.

The warriors allowed Beobrand to join their ranks without the usual jesting and jostling. If he had just received a beating at the hands of another warrior, they would have teased him without mercy. But they had seen the encounters with Coenred and Wybert. They had heard Wilda's tale too. They were subdued and sombre.

Beobrand's pain was no matter for laughter.

Some wounds were more easily dealt with than others.










Scand ached. He placed his hands in the small of his back and stretched. The throbbing pain subsided slightly but was replaced by a tingling, numb sensation in his right leg. Gods, he was old. His body had barely recovered from the gruelling battle at Gefrin and the punishing march to Bebbanburg. His torso still bore the marks. The bruises from blows he'd received had faded, but were still visible. At the time, in the heat of the action, he had not felt anything. It had always been so in combat. He would lay about him with his sword and shield, allowing his metal shirt to soak up any strikes he could not deflect.

His frame was not what it had once been. Years ago, before his hair had turned the colour of hoar frost, the bruises and aches would disappear within a couple of days of a fight. Now, weeks passed and he still suffered. He was no longer young, it was true. He wondered how many battles he had left in him. Well, he could not sit by the fireside telling tales of his exploits just yet. He had sworn his oath to Oswald, and his oath was iron.

He looked over at the young king. Oswald looked like his father, Æthelfrith. He had the same intensity in his gaze. The same clarity of vision. Æthelfrith had been a brilliant leader of men. Oswald had inherited his father's charisma. Scand had known Oswald since he was a mere youth, fleeing in exile into the west, with his brothers and their mother. Scand had been sworn then to Oswald's older half-brother, Eanfrith. Eanfrith had also had charm and a keen mind. Men had flocked to serve him like carrion crows clouding the corpses after battle. But despite Eanfrith's ability to have men follow where he led and his undoubted prowess in battle, his blind ambition was tinged with a recklessness that saw his demise only months after his triumphant return from exile.

During the long years in exile, Scand had often wondered whether it would be Oswald who would succeed in reclaiming Bernicia. Even as a child he had always carried himself with a calm assurance. There was a cunning behind his cool eyes. And a ruthlessness too.

He would be a good king. If he could secure his place with a defeat over Cadwallon here, at the Great Wall.

The massive structure, built by long-dead rulers of this land from grey slabs of stone, stretched to the horizon to the east and west. One of the fortified gates, that stood at intervals along its length, loomed near. The rocks that formed the edifice had been cunningly fashioned and placed together. None living knew how to build such things. Whenever he saw the Wall, or any of the tile-roofed buildings or stone bridges that yet stood throughout Albion, Scand felt a sense of awe and unease. People talked of giants having wrought these things, but Scand was no fool. The doorways and stone-hewn steps of the buildings were made for men, not giants. But how could men who ruled the land so absolutely have taken their leave of these lush shores? Had they all died? It was a quandary he would never solve, so he pushed it from his thoughts.

Scand turned his attention instead to the young man at Oswald's right. Oswiu, the youngest of the sons of Æthelfrith. He'd been only four years of age when they had fled to Dál Riata. Now he stood, straight-backed and proud, but always in the shadow of his brother. He had the same chestnut hair and thoughtful eyes as Oswald, but he was more solid somehow; broader and shorter, closer to the earth. Oswald was like a strong oak, looking down on all as the winds of his wyrd moved him. Oswiu was more akin to a boulder, unmoving and unyielding. Scand disliked the boy. He was unsure why that was. Too young, most likely. He was too full of anger for his liking. Still, he was a fine swordsman and would stand strong when the time came to face the Waelisc.

Oswald broke the silence that had fallen on the small group of thegns who were gathered in the shade of an awning made from cloth stretched over a wooden frame and secured with cords.

"You say we are outnumbered. Give us news we do not already know. Where is Cadwallon? What number of men does he have with him? Do they have horse guards? Are they on the move, or camped?" Oswald spoke to the scout in a soft voice, which made all of the listeners strain to hear over the background hubbub of the several hundred-strong fyrd amassed on the hill around them.

The scout had just ridden into the camp and was covered in dust and sweat. The day was still hot, but muggy and heavy with pent up rain. He beat some of the dust out of his clothes and wiped his face and straggly beard with the inside of his cloak. He accepted a flask of water from Scand and drank thirstily before answering the king.

Oswald remained still and outwardly patient, but Scand knew that he would be furious with the small affront to his authority. The scout, Attor, was Scand's man, and Scand would not have him bullied after he had bravely volunteered to ride close to the enemy force.

Attor nodded his thanks to Scand and spoke at last. "They are camped a short march to the south of the Wall. The force is more than double our number." A sharp intake of breath from the listeners. "I recognised the banner from Gefrin's ford." Scand grimly acknowledged Attor's effort to remind the king and others that he was one of the few who had stood before the mighty warlord Cadwallon and survived. "The banner still bears the skulls of fallen foes. King Eanfrith's head is there still." Attor looked down, unable to face Eanfrith's brothers with this gruesome fact.

"If the murderous heathen believes he can cow me with skulls on a pole, he will be sorry. He has yet to fight a true Christ follower." Scand decided it best not to mention that Edwin, had converted to follow the Christ and had ordered all his men baptised, before being defeated by the alliance of Cadwallon and Penda of Mercia.

"We should not be scared of his standard, but he has double our number of warriors," said Scand. The other thegns nodded. Such odds were inconceivable. They could not hope to triumph.

"That is true. But I tell you again, we will destroy the Waelisc. We will march under the rood of our Lord Jesu and we will bring destruction on our enemy." Oswald surveyed the men on the hill, lounging close to the crumbling Wall. He furrowed his brow, as if trying to understand something, then his face lit up.

"Let me tell you how we will crush Cadwallon and his rabble." Oswald smiled, confident and relaxed.

Scand and the others listened intently to their king. Their faces showed the anxiety they all felt.

Oswiu's expression was unreadable. Perhaps he had an idea of what his brother planned. Perhaps he didn't care.


Beobrand clumsily unwound the wraps from his legs. He was still not used to the lack of the best part of two fingers on his left hand. His feet hurt from the march and he wanted to let some air onto them. He was sure he had blisters. Perhaps he could pop them and then they wouldn't hurt so much.

"My feet are killing me too," said Acennan, from the prostrate position he had slumped into after it became clear they would be setting up camp on this hill by the Wall. "It's the worst thing about war. The aching feet."

The men around them groaned their consent.

"My feet are paining me more than my hand. I'd quite happily cut them off."

"Be careful what you wish for," said Attor, as he flopped to the ground beside them.

"Welcome back, Attor," said Acennan. "What news? Are they close?"

"Too close for my liking. We will fight on the morrow." Attor repeated what he had told Oswald.

"Just as we suspected then," said Acennan. "Outnumbered with our backs to the Wall."

"The king has a plan to use the land and the Wall to help us. He will assemble the men at sunset to tell them to prepare for battle."

"If we can get Cadwallon to attack into the gap between the Wall and the hill, it is not a bad plan," said Beobrand. "But it relies on Cadwallon attacking where we wish him to."

A light drizzle began to fall. The moistness in the air cooled the weary warriors. The sun was still bright, shafts of light streaming through breaks in the clouds.

Beobrand leaned back and turned his face to the sky. The welcome smirr of rain soothed his hot face. He opened his eyes and looked at the men around them. On the brow of the hill, under the canopy shelter, stood Oswald, Oswiu, Scand and some others. They were deep in conversation. Below them, on the hill's skirts, were scattered groups of men. Some had lit fires already, and smoke was rising lazily into the damp, warm afternoon haze of rain and sunlight.

A couple of men were busily chopping at an ash tree that grew half-way down the slope. The sound of their axe blows reached Beobrand a moment after he saw them connect.

On the Wall itself, wardens had been posted. They stood with their backs to Beobrand, looking out over Deira Stræt to the south.

Light and dark dappled the clouds in the sky above them. Beams of light pierced the leaden clouds and then, like a sign from the gods themselves, shone a perfect arc of colour. The rainbow stood out in brilliant glory before the gloom of the rain-laden clouds.

Some men pointed. A ripple of comments and gestures rolled across the resting warriors.

A sign, some said. An omen.

A distant rumble of thunder filled the sky. A flock of birds flew overhead.

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