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) (8 page)

Beobrand looked up at the sky. He could not make out the moon, just a slight silvering in the thick clouds. Little light reached the rain-slick ground.

They had been walking for what seemed a long time.

Some time before, they had crossed the wide river using the huge bridge that had been left by the same people who built the Wall. Even with the anxiety of impending battle, Beobrand could not stop himself from marvelling at the construction. It was made of massive blocks of stone that, using some cunning or magic, were placed together to form giant arches carrying the road high over the dark water. One of the arches had collapsed at some time in the past, and was now bridged by stout wooden planks. The men had crossed this slowly, unsure it would take their weight after the solidity of the stone. But it had held, the sound of the men's passing loud over the quiet flow of the river.

Beobrand hoped he could return in daylight to see the bridge. He smiled grimly in the darkness. For that, he would need to survive the night.

Surely they would be upon the Waelisc soon. They must have fires that they would see long before reaching the enemy encampment. Peering into the night Beobrand only saw shadows and darkness. He could barely make out the shapes of the men in the rank in front of him. Could it be that the Waelisc had moved their camp? Or perhaps they had decided against lighting fires. Were they expecting a night attack?

Beobrand's stomach clenched. He had been unable to eat much that evening. His bowels were in turmoil. He recognised the feeling of dread that always settled on him before battle. His mouth was dry. His throat rasped. He wished he could stop to drink, but that was out of the question. Oswald's host continued south along the Deira Stræt. Now that the decision had been taken to march at night, nobody else seemed especially concerned.

A needle of doubt pricked at Beobrand. Could his idea be flawed? Had he misread the signs that the gods had placed before him? He was not even sure they were signs. The events that led up to this moment could have been nothing more than coincidence. Or perhaps the gods were once again laughing.

Was that a flash of light in the sky? He could not be sure. A deep, slow rumble roiled over the warriors, like mead benches overturned in a brawl in a distant hall.

Thunder.

Thunor. Beobrand pulled on the leather thong at his neck to free the whale tooth hammer amulet that hung there. He gripped it tightly.

The gods were there in the dark. He had sworn his oath to Thunor and now Woden's son was talking.

Another flicker of lightning lit all of the men for an instant. For several heartbeats the image was burnt into his vision. Helms, shields, a forest of spears, frozen in the eye-blink quickening light of Thunor's fire.

The road sloped down before them. In the distance, the red glow of campfires became visible.

As if driven on by the thunder, or perhaps by the sight of their enemies' camp, the warhost surged forward. Beobrand stumbled, his footing unsure on the cracked, slippery stones of the road. He trotted forward, pushed on by the pace of those around him.

If they rushed down like this, they were sure to be heard by sentries who would alert the camp. Another flash of lightning could show any watchers the approaching mass of warriors.

The afterimage from the lightning faded. Sunniva's face came to his mind. Her lustrous hair. The curve of her neck. Her scent. He had sworn he would return to her. He prayed to Thunor not to have him go to his death as an oath breaker.

Then the skies opened.

Torrents of water fell from clouds as swollen as gravid mares. With the rain came a cacophonous roar. In an instant every man was soaked. Clothes and armour were no protection from the vicious force of it. The clouds spewed rain in a tumult. The ditches at either side of the road flooded in moments.

The men slowed. Stunned by the vehemence of the elements.

But Beobrand urged them forward. This is what they had been waiting for. The gods had provided them with the cover they needed. There would be no watching warden who would detect them in this. They could move right up to the camp, as invisible to the Waelisc as spirits.

If the rain held.

The host came to a halt.

Beobrand pushed past men. He could not see who, but he elbowed and shoved his way through the lines. He was dimly aware that Acennan was keeping pace with him.

Another stuttering flash of lightning lit up the host before him. He had almost barrelled into Oswald in his eagerness. The king had stopped, perhaps unclear how to proceed. Thunder boomed.

Beobrand clutched at Oswald's arm. It was covered in chain armour, cold and hard. Oswald spun round. It was difficult to make anything out in the water-filled blackness.

Strong hands shoved Beobrand back. He slammed into Acennan, who pushed him upright.

"Get your hands off of your king," said the man who had interposed himself between Beobrand and Oswald.

Beobrand could not see his face, but he recognised the voice. Athelstan. He could feel his anger suddenly coursing through him. He held it in check. Now was not the time for fighting. That would come all too soon.

"Don't be a fool, Athelstan," he said. "I mean no harm."

Athelstan placed both his hands on Beobrand's chest and pushed. Hard. Beobrand was forced back, but Acennan stood strong and held him in place.

"Go back to your lord. You have no right to fight at your king's side. You have not earned it."

"Enough of this," Oswald stepped forward and placed his hand on Athelstan's arm. His words were almost lost under the roar of the rain. "Is that you again, young Beobrand? What troubles you? The enemy is in sight... but this rain..."

"My lord." Beobrand stepped in close, ignoring Athelstan. He placed his face close to the king's so that his voice would be heard. Their helms almost touched. "We must attack them now. While the rain lasts."

More lightning. Recognition on Oswald's features. Yet still indecision.

They had to take advantage of this downpour. Of that Beobrand was certain.

A crash of thunder.

He had to make the king understand.

"The Christ has sent the rain to provide us cover," Beobrand said.

At last Oswald moved, shaken from his inaction at the mention of his god. "Bless you, Beobrand," he said, though it was hard to hear the words. "You are right. With this God-given rain we will purge the land, as in the time of the great flood of Noah."

Oswald's words meant nothing to Beobrand, but he nodded. "Yes. We must strike now."

"Athelstan, pass word through the ranks. We will run to the camp and attack on the agreed signal. Speed is of the essence now." The huge warrior nodded stiffly, his features hidden in the night. Then he was gone, pushing Beobrand to the side.

"Godspeed, Beobrand," said Oswald, and Beobrand could not be sure, but it appeared as if the king was smiling.

Athelstan did his king's bidding and word spread through the host.

The sky flared again. Acennan grinned at Beobrand's side.

"By Woden, Beobrand," he said, "you really know how to pick a good fight." Thunor's hammer echoed over them again with a resounding smash. "This is going to be like a battle in the underworld. But never fear. Stick close to me and I'll see you safe!" He punched Beobrand on the arm and then unslung his shield.

Beobrand smiled in the darkness. He was glad of Acennan's presence at his side. He pulled his own linden board from where it hung on his shoulder and fitted his left hand into the leather straps Sunniva had fashioned for him. It felt heavy and unbalanced on his arm, but he would not drop it.

Perhaps the gods had given him signs to follow after all. He prayed he would live to see the sunrise. And Sunniva.

But death and darkness lay before them that night. Before the broadening light of morning.

With a shout, shredded by the roar of the rain, Oswald broke into a run.

The men surged behind him. They charged, slipping and sliding towards the Waelisc camp.

Beobrand pulled Hrunting from his scabbard. The heft of it reassured him. He let his ire at Athelstan loose. The men in the camp had killed Leofwine, Alric and countless more. Now they would pay.

The campfires were clearer now, shining through the sheets of rain.

Then the long note of a horn sounded. It cut through the noise of men and the elements.

Like dogs who had been held, straining at the leash with the scent of a stag on the wind, King Oswald's Bernician warhost let out a deafening roar and rushed screaming into Cadwallon's camp.

 

The thunder had woken Sunniva.

For a time she had lain in the dark listening to the breathing of the women, children and old folk who had not marched south with Oswald. She found Beobrand's kirtle in the darkness and brought it to her face. She breathed deeply. The smell of him lingered. She had given him her father's kirtle to wear, saying it was less threadbare. She had not told him the truth: that she wanted something with his scent. At night she was so alone. So frightened. It helped to have a part of him to hold. Once she was warm under her cloak, she could close her eyes and almost imagine he was with her.

She was not sure what had made her stir, but then she heard it again. The distant rumble of thunder.

Would they have already joined in battle?

Thunder again. Long, deep and distant. Was Thunor speaking? Was this the omen playing itself out?

Was Beobrand alive?

Someone giggled in the darkness of the room. It was an eerie sound in the black of night. Sunniva shivered.

She did not want to be here in the gloom. Alone, but surrounded by others each feeling their own fear as their husbands, fathers, brothers were with the fyrd.

She stood, moved the partition to the side and picked her way over the sleeping forms.

The cold outside shocked her. Wind buffeted her. Her cloak slapped about her. The smell of rain was in the air and the ground was wet beneath her bare feet.

She shuddered. She should have dressed. She would not be able to stay out for long in this chill.

A wall-ward recognised her as she stepped up onto the southernmost palisade. His name was Anhaga and she had often seen him watching her while she went about her chores. He was young and polite. Not like that old goat Athelstan, or some of the other warriors. Despite his youth he had not travelled south with the warriors of the fyrd. He had a deformed leg. His right foot was twisted which left him only able to walk slowly with a pronounced limp. He would never walk with warriors into battle. Never stand in the shieldwall. She knew not what had caused his affliction. Perhaps a childhood illness. Or an accident. Whatever the cause, part of her felt for him. Unable to fight, he must feel less of a man.

She knew she had to be careful without her father or Beobrand there to protect her. She had decided many days before that Anhaga was not a threat.

But now, in the windy night, Thunor's wrath lighting up the sky with flashes to the south, she felt vulnerable. Again, she cursed her own stupidity for not dressing before leaving the hall. She was all too aware of her bare feet.

Anhaga stepped close to her, clumsy on his twisted leg. He offered his hand. His gaze flicked down to the pale curve of her ankles. The light from the brazier on the palisade glinted in his eyes.

She didn't take his hand.

"Couldn't you sleep?" he asked.

"The thunder woke me." She wrapped her cloak tightly about herself, against the cold and to prevent the wind blowing it aside. She did not wish to give Anhaga's eager eyes anything to fix onto.

"It is a cold night," he said. "Step close to the fire here. It's not so bad then."

She didn't move.

"Do you think they have already fought the Waelisc?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Only the gods can know. We have heard no word." He looked out into the night. Lightning flickered. For a moment his face was white, stark against the black sky.

Sunniva followed his gaze. Had Beobrand already been taken from her? Were the gods laughing? Or rejoicing? Were the flashes in the sky the souls of men feasting in Woden's corpse hall? Or angels of the Christ god?

"Perhaps the gods are angry."

"Perhaps," Anhaga said, his voice distracted.

Sunniva turned back to him. His eyes were roving over her. Lingering on her legs. The curves of her form beneath her cloak. Their eyes met.

Anhaga quickly looked away.

Sunniva felt a wave of loneliness. Beobrand had sworn he would return to her. He would not break his word to her. He would not.

But what if his wyrd had a different path?

A few drops of rain fell, sizzling into the embers of the brazier. Sunniva looked up and felt drops on her face. Like tears.

She stood for a moment like that, face uplifted with the rain washing down her cheeks, then she turned abruptly. She would not stand here fearful for a future she did not know. Beobrand would return to her. He would.

"I had best get in, out of the rain," she said. Her voice sounded harsh and jagged to her own ears.

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