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) (9 page)

Anhaga stiffened.

"Aye, that would be best," he said. "Watch your step on the ladder." He turned his back on her and did not offer his hand again.

Sunniva was at once relieved and saddened by his lack of attention.

She made her way quickly back to the hall. There she removed her wet cloak, wrapping herself in everything she had available. It took a long while for warmth to return to her body.

She clutched Beobrand's kirtle, breathed of his redolence and prayed for his return to any god that would listen.

 

Scand gritted his teeth against the pain. His back throbbed and the tingling in his right leg had transformed into a jabbing sensation in his knee. Every step was agony.

The warhost ran headlong towards the Waelisc camp. The rain fought their progress, but they pushed through it. Towards their prey. Just enough light spilt out from the dampened campfires for the Bernicians to guide themselves.

Scand hobbled along as best he could. He drew his sword, revelling in the perfect balance of it, despite the discomfort he felt in his back and leg. The blade was a gift from King Oswald, as recognition for his oath-swearing. It replaced the sword that had shattered in Gefrin. That had been a great blade. It had slain many men and even in its moment of destruction it had served him well. A shard from the broken blade had injured Cadwallon, causing the Waelisc to retreat. Scand hoped this new sword would serve him as well.

The front ranks reached the encampment. Shouts and screams. That was the king's own retinue, his most trusted thegns. Like a pack of wolves loose in an enclosure of sheep, they were wreaking havoc.

Scand slipped on an uneven stone, almost losing his balance. His ankle was close to turning, but he righted himself with a grunt. Stumbling, he moved on. He could not see the look of unease on the faces of the men who ran with him. But he imagined it. They would be concerned that their lord was no longer the warlord he had been in his prime. Gods, he was as concerned as anyone!

These were his men. Trusted. Battle-hardened. He was proud of them and they had once been proud of him.

He vowed they would be proud again. This night he would show them who they followed.

He was Scand, son of Scaend. Mighty in battle. Bringer of death to his foes. Songs were sung of his exploits in Albion and over the sea in Hibernia.

He may be old, but this wolf still had teeth.

Raising his sword in the air with a flourish he screamed in his battle voice, "Onward, my gesithas! Remember the ford at Gefrin. Remember the faces of those who fell. They were our brothers and these are their slayers." His voice was potent and it pierced the clamour of the battle easily.

"For Bernicia and Oswald!" Scand sprinted forward into the fray, aiming for one of the camp fires that lay some way off to the left. His men cheered in the dark and followed him.

He was dimly aware of the pain in his knee, the ache in his back, but he pushed the sensations away. Now was the time for swords to sing, not to whimper and moan of cramps like a gum-sucking longbeard.

His retinue formed up to his right and left. A moving, pointed shieldwall, with Scand at its apex. He smiled, savagely pleased at his men's training paying off. They moved as one.

Around them all was chaos. The rain still fell heavily. Shadows moved, silhouetted before the fires. A flicker of lightning lit the scene. Men were stumbling from shelters into the night. Some were armed, but Scand could see no armour.

A small group of men sensed the danger, or perhaps spotted Scand's shieldwall approaching by the flash of light in the sky. They turned to face them, trying to form their own wall.

Too late. Scand crashed into them, all his bulk behind his shield boss, the men beside and behind him driving him on. He shoved one man aside to the left while lashing out to the right with his sword. He felt the blade connect, and black blood splattered his arm. Its warmth a sudden contrast to the cold rain.

They surged forwards. Scand trampled the men who had fallen before their wedge of shields. A hand gripped his cloak, slowing Scand. He yanked his cloak trying to free it from the clutch of the fallen man. But he would not let go.

There was no room to swing his sword at the man, without a good chance of hitting his comrade to the right. So Scand hammered his sword's heavy bronze pommel into the man's knuckles. He crushed the fingers against the anvil of his byrnie-clad thigh. Scand hammered twice, thrice, before the grip loosened and the ruined hand fell away.

They moved on, but the shieldwall had lost its momentum.

"Halt!" shouted Scand. His men obeyed him instantly.

"Form up. Shieldwall. Three deep." His gesithas moved into positions they had practised all that long hot summer. They formed a square of warriors. Those at the front held their spears forward. Scand stood in the leading rank, his bloody sword dark and deadly in the gloom.

The rain was easing. Another burst of lightning, this time further away it seemed. It shone its light on the battlefield for the merest instant. Scand saw that Oswald's host had been scattered. The smells of death — piss, blood and shit — rose from the wet mud. It was strewn with corpses. But Cadwallon had many more men than Oswald, and they were now beginning to react.

The moment of brilliant light had shown where the Waelisc were forming on their leader's standard. They were some way off, and in numbers that Scand could not hope to beat. He needed to reunite with Oswald and the rest of the fyrd.

"Turn to the right and keep an eye out for Waelisc creeping up on us," he said. The shieldwall shuffled and turned until they were heading in the direction Scand hope would lead them to Oswald.

The footing was treacherous. Some of the fires had been kicked out. Others had been doused by the torrential rain. There was almost no light.

Scand's foot caught on a fallen spear. He stumbled, a jolt of pain lanced up his leg. He grunted, steadied his shield and walked on.

The rain stopped. The sounds of battle seemed suddenly louder. Screams and the clash of metal on metal indicated where the fiercest of the fighting was underway. Scand adjusted their course.

The embers of a campfire gave just enough light for Scand to pick out the slumped body of a warrior. It was good that he had not tripped over the corpse. He was not sure he could stand another jarring of his knee. Scand stepped over the fallen warrior.

He shifted his attention to their destination. They would reach the fighting soon.

A sudden searing pain seized him. He cried out in anguish. Looking down at the source of his agony, he saw that the warrior was not dead. In his hand he held a long knife which he had buried up to the hilt in Scand's groin, beneath his byrnie.

Scand hacked down onto the man's head, splitting it with a wet sound. The man's hand fell away from the knife handle, flopping to the mud.

Scand reached down and pulled the blade from his body. Blood gushed. He let out a groaning gasp, and collapsed to his knees.

His men formed around him protectively. One warrior, a bearded man, named Derian, flung himself to the earth beside his lord. Scand fell back and Derian cradled his head in his lap. He removed Scand's helmet.

"Derian?" Scand asked, his voice unnervingly frail.

"I am here, my lord. As I have always been."

"Yes," Scand gripped Derian's hand.

For a fleeting moment Scand wondered at how peaceful everything had become. The sounds of battle subsided. The pain in his back vanished and then, he understood the truth of it. The chill of death was already upon him. He hoped that he would see his beautiful Morna again in the afterlife. He had missed her so all these long years.

"I am killed, my friend," said Scand, clutching Derian's hand firmly one last time. "I always told you to watch for the knife under the shieldwall. Stupid..." His voice trailed off.

Derian had no words for the man who had always provided for him. His hlaford. His lord. Scand's grasp on his hand was loosening by the moment.

Derian could see the dim light from the cloud-cloaked moon glimmering in Scand's eyes. After a time, he saw that Scand's eyes were unblinking and Derian knew that after all the years, all the mead halls, all the stories, all the gifts, all the shieldwalls and all the killing, Scand, son of Scaend had left him.

 

The rain thrummed against Beobrand's iron helmet. The cheek guards, each topped with a bronze boar emblem, obscured his side vision. But in this darkness it was of little matter.

The night and the rain rendered him as good as blind and deaf.

He could sense the weight of warriors behind him. They had kept pace with Oswald, screaming straight into the camp towards the centre, where the largest fire burnt. Acennan was at Beobrand's left with Athelstan to his right. The king was positioned on the other side of Athelstan.

Beobrand would have preferred to have his friend on his right. He did not relish relying on Athelstan's shield for protection in the shieldwall.

A flare of lightning picked out figures moving towards them. They looked confused, unprepared for the sudden attack. Beobrand fixed the position of one of them in his mind and threw himself forward. An instant later his shield collided with a flailing assailant. In the darkness the man swung an axe blindly. The axe head glanced off Beobrand's helm with a clangour that merged with the crash of Thunor's ire in the sky.

Dazed and unbalanced, Beobrand fell. His shield boss caught the man in the chest and they both crashed to the muddy earth. The straps holding the shield in place encumbered Beobrand. Laden with armour and sodden clothes he struggled to right himself. He could feel the man beneath him squirming in the mire.

Beobrand rolled his body to the left, removing his own weight from atop the shield, then, lying on his back in the mire, beside the man, he lifted his shield and slammed it down with all his strength onto the axeman. He felt the boss connect. His fingers hurt where the scabs split.

He raised the board again, glad now of the straps that allowed him to use the strength of his whole arm, and smashed it down. Bones crunched under the boss. Over and over he battered the iron boss and linden board into the man.

Was it the Waelisc's screams or his own he could hear through the roar of the rain?

At last his foe lay still. Beobrand sat. Another sudden flash of light revealed Acennan grinning before him. He was reaching out, offering his hand.

Beobrand grasped it and Acennan pulled him to his feet.

"There will be time enough for resting after the battle," shouted Acennan with laughter in his voice.

"We must rejoin Oswald. Do you know the way?"

"Follow me, and try to keep up," replied Acennan and ran into the night.

Beobrand sprinted after him, keen not to be lost on this battlefield that was like no other he had seen. All battle was a confusion of sound and smells. Fear of death weakened some men and emboldened others. But in this rain-soaked gloom, it was hard to tell friend from enemy. Attack could come from any quarter. It was impossible to gauge the progress of the conflict. Was the attack successful in breaking Cadwallon's force, or were the Waelisc now regrouping, forming up to repel the Bernician host?

And should they all die in the screaming maelstrom of the stormy night, Beobrand knew that he would be to blame.

He ran on, barely able to make out Acennan's bulk before him. He stumbled over the dead. A flicker of light burnt images into his mind, where they stayed, like the carvings on some gift-stool of nightmare. The steaming, uncoiled entrails of a young man, kneeling alone, an expression of surprise on his face. The ruined mess of a smashed skull, ichorous ooze dripping into open, sightless eyes.

Sunniva had been right to fear the omen. It was madness to attack at night. And it was a madness that Beobrand had passed on to Oswald. What had possessed him? Was it his wyrd to die here and to be the downfall of Bernicia?

Acennan drew to a halt. There was more light here. Beobrand could make out Oswald's helm. His brother Oswiu and the massive Athelstan in the middle of a shieldwall. Their backs were turned from Acennan and him. The light came from a large fire. It smoked and steamed in the rain, but threw a fitful light over the attackers and the Waelisc defenders.

Those of Cadwallon's warriors who had not fled into the night or been killed by the initial Bernician onslaught were in the process of forming lines. It appeared that Oswald's host had faltered, failing to push home the advantage.

"Where are Scand and the others?" asked Beobrand.

"I cannot see our lord," replied Acennan. "They must have been separated from the main host. But we'll never find them in this. Not till morning. He has a better chance of finding us here."

"Come then, let us join the shieldwall."

Moving close behind the ranks of warriors, Beobrand shouted, "For Oswald and Bernicia!" Some men spun around, their faces shadowed. Anxious. "Friends. We are friends," said Beobrand in a strong voice.

The men sized them up and then parted to allow Acennan and Beobrand to step into their ranks.

"We need all the friends we can get," said the man to Beobrand's right. "Whoever talked the king into attacking at night should have his neck wrung."

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