Read Hereward 02 - The Devil's Army Online
Authors: James Wilde
‘I worry for you,’ she began, choosing her words. ‘It means—’
‘It means that in these End-Times, if that is what they be, I risk destroying what I try to save.’ He knew what her vision foretold and it was something he had always feared since he had first sensed he was not like other men: that if he released that devil he knew lurked deep in the darkest parts of him, he would become like the Devil, bringing hell to Earth. A cure worse than any sickness. Worse than William the Bastard. He drained the cup and turned back to her. ‘I can only do what I believe is true. Let God decide how it falls.’ He smiled with affection when he saw the concern etched in her face. More than anything he wanted to soothe her worries. ‘No harm can come to me when I have you to watch over me, and Alric and Redwald,’ he added, softening his voice. He wanted to say,
I can do no harm
She seemed pleased by his words for she smiled and climbed
off the bed to wash herself. ‘Then all will be well for I will always watch over you.’
‘Let us talk no more of End-Times and fire and bones. We shall raise our cups and sing our songs. And if I hear one whinge from Alric I will kick his arse. That monk can find sourness in even the sweetest mead.’
When Turfrida laughed, Hereward felt pleased that he had lightened her mood. He ensured their conversation was light as he dressed in a clean tunic and breeches, and he was content that she had other things on her mind.
‘The monks told Brictiva of the new laws the Normans are bringing from their home,’ she said, setting her jaw. ‘A woman will marry and serve, that is to be our place in William’s England. Serve! Love will matter no more. A father will give his daughter as a token with the land he gifts and the husband will own all. There will be no sharing, Hereward.’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘And we are to be silent when among folk, and submit to the will of our husbands and fathers, as Eve was less than Adam, so says that Christian book.’
Hereward hid his smile. He felt pleased that his wife’s fire had not been dimmed by the hardships she had been forced to endure in his company.
‘Are women then not to be free?’ she pressed. ‘Are we to be slaves? Is this right?’
‘It is not right, wife, but it is the Norman way, and another sign of how grim life will be if we bow our heads to the Bastard.’
Turfrida clenched one small fist and glared. ‘If you do not bring him low, know that the wives of Ely will rise up in your stead and make the heavens shake.’
‘That cowardly king would quake if he could hear you,’ Hereward said, and they laughed and discussed what celebrations would be made once the Normans fled back across the whale road, and how many new babies would be born nine months later.
Then he held her face in his hands and kissed her before stepping back out into the hot sun. But as he made his way
along the track towards the throb of life, he glimpsed a figure skulking in the shadows behind one of the homes. Instinctively, he dropped his hand to his sword hilt. But then Acha eased into the glaring light, her eyes darting around.
‘You should not be here,’ he said.
‘Your words were not so harsh when we lay together in Eoferwic,’ she replied, her implacable eyes as black as her hair.
‘Those days lie far behind us and I am not the same man now.’ Unbidden, his thoughts swept back to their hungry love-making while the snow blanketed the Northumbrian city, and he felt a pang of guilt. He pushed the vision from his mind, but he noted she had not lost any of her beauty in the intervening years.
‘Your heart is the same. I know it.’ She stepped closer to him, so that her breasts almost brushed his arm.
‘You have a man. Kraki. He will protect you—’
She waved a hand as if swatting a fly, her nose wrinkling. ‘He stinks, he snores in an ale-sleep every night, and his moods are as dark as the winter sea—’
‘And he will not take you back to your home, or show you the life you would have had if you had stayed in the Cymri court.’
She would not meet his gaze. ‘You and I are of a kind. You know that. We should share our days and nights.’
‘I say again, I have a wife.’
‘And I say again, take another. One that befits a leader of men.’ Her eyes gleamed with defiance and her lips curled back from her teeth. ‘With me beside you, crushing the king will only be the first of the great tales they will tell about you in days to come. Who knows what heights you could reach?’
‘I know what it is you want, and I know you will go to any lengths to get it. Once—’ He caught the words in his throat and shook his head. ‘No matter. This is done. I will be gone from Ely for a while. When I return, let us not speak of this again.’
He pushed past her, though he could feel her cold eyes upon his back as he moved along the track. Yet barely had he gone four spear-lengths when he glimpsed a hulking figure beside
the well. It was Kraki, his expression unreadable. Hereward wondered if the Viking had overheard any of the conversation, but when he glanced back, the other man was gone. The rivalry and suspicion that had once lain between them was still close to the surface, and it would be an ill thing for it to rise again.
THE HOODED MAN
pushed his way through the crowded street. A beggar, he seemed, shoulders hunched from the burdens of his life. His gait was weak and shambling, his cloak, tunic and breeches filthy with the mud of the road and reeking of sweat and loam. He leaned on a tall willow staff to help him over the sun-baked ruts.
Wincestre throbbed with life. Since the new king had set to building a new world in which to live, many had come from nearby towns to seek a living, the beggar saw as he looked around. In the smithies, the hammers never stilled. The rattling of looms sounded from a hundred doors. Men shouldered bales and dragged sacks, and carpenters sang as they stripped oak logs for new house beams. In the marketplace, merchants competed for attention with ever louder cries while their boys fought with each other in the dust. The earth-walker’s head rang with the din of hens squawking in their crates and droves of grunting pigs herded towards Butchers’ Row where the blood ran in the street and clouds of black flies droned. Never had he seen so much food, or such wealth.
The beggar wandered the winding streets. Past the remnants of the old stone buildings left by the Roman conquerors he
staggered, and up to the gates of the new conqueror’s palace. He watched and he listened, missing nothing. What a strange place this was, he thought. Bought with the blood of Englishmen and built on the bones of generations. And now Wincestre filled with folk picking over the remains for their own selfish needs.
In the shade of an apple tree opposite the palace gates, he sat and waited. Every time the gate opened, he lowered his head and watched from under hooded eyes. Finally two men sauntered out. The beggar recognized the Mercian brothers Edwin and Morcar, heads raised as if they still held power over all they saw. Once they had passed, he forced himself up on his staff and limped after them. The two men and their shadow weaved through the crowds. The brothers dawdled in the market, examining the fine Frankish jewellery, delicate glassware from the Rhineland and gleaming Flemish swords, all fresh from the ships on the south coast. Their heads dipped close together in conversation. They deigned to speak to no other.
As the pair sheltered from the heat of the midday sun in the shade between two workshops, the beggar stepped up. ‘Alms, sirs?’ he enquired, holding out filthy fingers. When Edwin shook his head and held up a stately hand to urge the stranger away, the beggar raised his head and whispered, ‘No words of comfort for an old friend?’
The two men jerked, frowning. Hereward eased his hood back a little so they could see his face. ‘You will have us all killed!’ Edwin hissed, glancing around.
‘True. No words of denial will save you from the king’s wrath if you are found with such an enemy of the crown,’ Hereward whispered with a shrug.
This seemed to drive Morcar to a rage. His cheeks flushed red, but he was forced to stifle his fury for fear of drawing attention. Gritting his teeth, he muttered, ‘Do not put us at risk.’
‘Not after you have worked so hard to worm your way into the king’s favour, or at least keep your heads upon your shoulders.’
‘Why are you here?’ Edwin demanded. ‘No place is more dangerous for you.’
From the depths of his hood, the warrior searched the passing throng. The king’s men were everywhere in that town. ‘A matter of import. But you are right, this is not the place to talk. The tavern.’
Their faces hardened, but he knew they would not risk a confrontation. Along winding tracks among the houses the brothers forged, casting furtive glances as they went. At that time of day, the alehouse was all but empty. They paid for their drinks and huddled at the back of the long, low hall amid the reek of stale beer and woodsmoke.
Turning up his nose, Edwin nodded at Hereward’s beggar’s clothes. ‘These masks served you well when you were a youth, troubling your neighbours in Barholme. Your true face was always a sign of coming strife. As now.’
Hereward grinned. ‘I have travelled from Ely into these dangerous waters because you are needed.’
Edwin and Morcar exchanged a look. ‘By you?’
The warrior leaned forward, lowering his voice until it was barely a whisper. ‘By the English. You each have many loyal men. Two armies. Bring them together with my own in the east and we will have the numbers to drive the treacherous Normans out.’
Edwin snorted and shook his head. ‘And who would lead this army? You? A man made outlaw by his own father? A thief and murderer who cannot contain his own burning anger? You were always as much a threat to those around you as to those you faced.’
Hereward’s eyes narrowed. ‘I am not the man I was.’
Morcar lowered his head over his ale-cup. ‘No matter how big your army, the king can never be defeated.’
‘Yes, he defeated you once, in the north—’
‘And we were lucky to escape with our lives,’ Edwin interjected, eyes blazing.
Hereward leaned forward, hands outstretched. ‘You think
you are safe here? The king keeps you close where he can watch you. He keeps you well fed and drunk on mead, but a time will come when he will take away your land, and then your heads.’
‘Aye, that may well be,’ Morcar said, nodding slowly. ‘And we will be ready for him to make his move—’
‘You will not see it coming,’ the warrior insisted. ‘I have many plans in place, most of them hidden like serpents in the grass, ready to rise up and bite when the time is right. Only one thing holds me back – too few men. And we can change that here.’
‘I have no faith in you,’ Edwin said with a shake of his head. He glanced towards the door where two men were arguing in loud voices. ‘The north will rise up again soon. Were I to send my men to fight, it would be there. But I have done that once and almost paid the greatest price. No more. Let someone else fight the king. My brother and I will eat his food and enjoy the comforts of his court—’
‘While England burns and folk die?’ Hereward snapped.
‘Folk always die,’ Edwin said, rising. He beckoned to Morcar to follow. ‘This is not my worry.’ As the two nobles made to leave, Edwin turned back and said, ‘I have shown you a kindness here for your father’s sake. He was always a loyal thegn. But if I see your face here again, I will have you dragged before the king and your miserable life ended.’
Hereward watched the brothers stride out into the bright sunlight. He refused to be perturbed. His army needed to be built into a force that would make the king quake, and nothing – not even two haughty earls – would stand in his way.
BUBBLES BROKE THE
surface of the filthy marsh-water. A moment later the young man burst from the stinking surface, gasping and flailing and crying out in panic. Black mud streaked his face and hair and soaked his tunic. Laughter echoed across the wetlands from the slopes of Ely where the callow youths who wished to be warriors waited with their spears and their shields still smelling of fresh paint.
A cloud of flies droned away as Hereward grasped the man’s tunic and hauled him out of the stagnant pool. He was still exhausted from the long journey back from Wincestre, but there was work to be done. With a shake of his head, he tossed the man on to the bank where he wheezed and sputtered and coughed up the foul stew. ‘Here is your lesson,’ he called to the watching group. ‘A man is not a fish.’
‘You should see Penda kiss a girl,’ someone called, making loud popping noises and flapping his arms.
‘That’s how he fucks,’ someone else shouted.
The others all fell about laughing. Hereward offered a hand to the unfortunate recruit, who glowered at his fellows. He wiped the mud from his scowling face and stalked back to his place at the end of a line.
‘This is a world of water,’ Hereward said as he walked along the front of his audience. He studied the faces, young and not so young, all of them untutored in the ways of battle. Some would not see out the winter, their blood draining into the fenland bogs. But there was no doubting their determination to do whatever they could to repel the invaders. ‘If you treat it like the world of solid land that most of you are used to, it will claim your wretched lives.’ He plucked up the hollow reed that Penda had dropped, tipped his head back and placed it to his lips. Pointing at the sodden young man, he said, ‘This time use those shells on the side of your head. This reed will let you breathe while you lie beneath the water. You will all be eels, waiting to bite the unwary earth-traveller who steps into your home.’
He strode back to the edge of the black water and swept one arm towards the glassy wetlands. Barbs of golden light glinted from the morning sun. ‘Now it is hot and bright, but soon the mists and the rains will come. They will be our cloaks, as the night is now. The Normans are used to fields of battle and shield walls and horsemen. Not a place that shifts around them even as they watch. They do not understand this world. But we do. We will be like ghosts. Our foes will not be able to touch us. And they will fear us, as they fear ghosts, as they fear the judgement of God.’ He clapped his hands. ‘Now come. Show me some of what I said today has entered your thick skulls.’