Authors: Matthew Harffy
Tags: #Bernicia Chronicles #2
She nodded. It was the truth. She loved him because of who he was, not in spite of it.
"Then swear an oath to me that you will return and wed me," she said.
Beobrand grinned in the darkness. His teeth gleamed in the dim light. "Nothing would please me more. I promise you this, I swear by Thunor's hammer," he gripped the carved, whale tooth amulet that hung on a thong at his neck, "that I will fight to come back to you with all my strength and when I return, I will marry you. And you will give me a fine son!"
He reached for her and pulled her to him in a strong embrace. In doing so, his arm caught the fragile cloak partition, unseating it from its precarious position. It fell over the two of them. The rush light sputtered out.
Sunniva's joy at his words and his touch curdled into woe. The gods had heard Beobrand's oath and had answered by blowing out the light. A bad omen.
"What have you done?" she shrieked, panic welling up from where it had been lurking just beneath the surface of her feelings.
Others in the building stirred from their slumber. Someone hissed, "Shut that wench up, by all that is holy!"
"It is nothing, just the cloak," said Beobrand, trying to placate Sunniva. He picked up the rush light in its holder and stepped carefully over the prostrate forms, towards a large tallow candle that burnt at one end. He re-lit the taper.
In silence they replaced the partition. All the while tears streamed down Sunniva's face.
He would never return to her. He would die. The gods had spoken and it must be so.
He reached for her, tenderly now. She clutched at his kirtle and crushed herself to his muscular form, as if she could prevent him leaving by using her own sinewy strength to hold him close.
He smoothed her hair and kissed her neck. Slowly, her sobbing subsided. They lay down together, warm and close.
"It was nothing," he whispered. "Just my clumsiness."
She could hear the forced smile in his words. Perhaps they were both cursed.
"I should not have asked you to swear an oath," she replied, her voice hollow and desolate. "You should not tempt the gods."
"Nonsense," he kissed her. "Thunor will watch over me and I will return to you. And we will be wed."
She snuggled into his chest.
She had behaved like a frightened child. Overreacting. Whatever their wyrd, time would tell. Surely a falling cloak and an extinguished flame signified nothing.
Beobrand caressed her back. Sunniva felt herself relaxing.
"We will be wed," she murmured. "And I will give you a fine son."
Beobrand's lips brushed hers as he shifted his position and blew out the light once more.
The next morning dawned blustery and cold. The sky spat spitefully at the men who gathered on the beach below Bebbanburg to train. King Oswald had tasked each of the thegns to prepare for the battle. To that end, Scand took the survivors of Gefrin down to the moist sand to spar. The men knew each other, they had stood shield to shield at the ford of Gefrin and had lived. There was not one among them who was untempered by the fires of battle. They were grim. The elements and the certainty of battle weighing on them. But soon, after a while of shoving in the shieldwall, sweat loosened their muscles and their tongues. The jests began and laughter drifted on the wind to those who stood watching on the ramparts of the fortress.
Beobrand joined in with the others, but his mind was clearly elsewhere. They had all seen him fight. He was formidable in combat and none could easily stand against him. Yet today, he lost half of the bouts he fought, many quickly and to vastly inferior fighters.
Scand raised an eyebrow at Acennan after Beobrand suffered a particularly vexing defeat at the hands of a man twice his age. Tobrytan, a squat, sombre man, was torpid and his style was blunt, all his attacks clearly signalled. Normally, Beobrand would have dispatched him in a blink. Today he let Tobrytan get under his guard and deal a bruising blow to his ribs. Beobrand clutched his side, nodded to the man and trudged away, shoulders drooping in defeat.
Acennan followed him to where he sat in the shelter of a dune. The marram grass whipped and whispered in the wind.
"What ails you?" Acennan asked, seating himself next to his young Cantware friend.
Beobrand raised his mutilated left hand. He clenched it into a fist and shook his head.
"Nothing. It is just this hand. I cannot hold the shield boss as I should. My grip is weak."
"Is that all?" Acennan grinned. "You are a fine warrior and we cannot have you feeling sorry for yourself just because of a couple of fingers. Think of them as sacrifices. One to Woden and half for Thunor!" The stocky warrior laughed at his own wit. Beobrand did not smile.
"We'll get some leather and strap your shield to your arm. It will mean you'll need to practise some more. It will make punching with the boss tricky, but a natural like you will manage." Acennan clapped Beobrand on the shoulder. "And Woden and Thunor will not allow the man who gives them fingers to die!"
"Do not talk lightly of such things," snapped Beobrand. "I swore an oath on Thunor's hammer that I would return from the battle and wed Sunniva. But the light blew out and now she is sure I will die and I am cursed. Perhaps I am."
Beobrand had slept fitfully after the incident, his dreams full of his father's violence. In the dream he had been a small child again, but his brother, Octa, had not been there to protect him. Their father had rained down blows on Beobrand, clubbing him with his fists and when he fell, kicking him in the face and ribs. Finally, the dark shade of his father had stepped close and stamped on his left hand, making him cry out loud. He had awoken with a start. He was lying on his hand, and the scabs had opened again.
How could it be that his father still frightened him from beyond the grave? Would he never be free of the man? He had thought his father's death would end the man's power over him. His mother, sisters and brother had already left this world. He hoped that their father was not tormenting them in the afterlife. No, it could not be so. Octa had gone before him, perhaps to protect them from Grimgundi's violence as he had in life.
Beobrand shivered. They were close to Octa's grave. He was buried in a sacred place just beyond the dunes. Last time he was here he had vowed to avenge Octa's death. He should return to tell him he had kept his word.
"Cursed, lad? You?" Acennan shook his head at Beobrand's foolishness. "I do not jest when I say you are blessed by the gods. You have battled against Hengist, one of the meanest sons of a whore to ever walk middle earth and all you lost were a couple of fingers. You survived the elf-shot fever. You have a sword fit for a king and a woman men would kill for. Not to mention wonderful friends." He winked.
"So you have promised you'll marry, Sunniva. That will hardly prove a hardship now, will it? And if you do not return? Well, you'll have more important things to concern you than that broken oath. Perhaps Thunor blew out the light to show you he had heard your oath. Who knows?" Acennan shrugged.
Beobrand nodded. Acennan was right. He should not think such dark thoughts. Wyrd would take him where it would. He stood and reached a hand out to Acennan, pulling him to his feet.
"Thank you, my friend," Beobrand said. "I was forgetting myself. I have been blessed, as you say." He thought of all those he had lost in the last year and struggled to keep his smile. He pushed the memories away. Squared his shoulders.
"Come, show me what you have in mind for my shield," he said.
Together they returned to the warriors on the beach.
Beobrand said his farewells and tried to believe they were not final; that he would not die in the battle. But the omen of the snuffed out flame had unsettled him. Do what he might, he could not shake the nagging feeling of doom that clung to him. Sunniva seemed to sense that he would not fight well with this cloud over him, for she did not mention it again. Perhaps Acennan had said something to her. Beobrand had caught them whispering and looking in his direction as they broke their fast with the rest of Scand's retinue, his gesithas and their womenfolk. When they had seen Beobrand staring at them with his cool glare, they pretended to be engaged in conversation of no consequence. Beobrand knew them both too well.
Before taking his leave of Sunniva, Beobrand decided to visit Octa. He was not eager to go to the place of the dead, but he wished to set his brother's spirit at ease. He could not bear to think that his murder had left Octa unable to move on from this world of the living.
He rose early and made his way south. It was not far and he knew the way. The morning air was cool and still. It would be warm once the sun was up high. But in the shade of the dunes it was still cold. Trudging through the sand and marram grass, his mind turned to Bassus, his brother's friend, who had brought him first to his brother's resting place. He wondered whether he would ever see the giant warrior again. When they had parted company, Bassus had been setting off to return to Cantware. To Beobrand's homeland. Yet it was somewhere he could not return. His father's shade loomed too large there.
He shivered on reaching the place of canted marker stones and raised barrows. The dead had been laid to rest here for many generations. It was silent. Peaceful. The stillness of those who breathe no more.
He picked his way between the graves to where he remembered Octa lay. In the year since he had stood here last, everything had changed. And yet, here he was, once more on the verge of heading to battle. And again talking to his dead kin.
The ground had settled somewhat in the intervening months. Grass and a few flowers had seeded in the turned earth. Beobrand's shadow fell over the grave, dimming the glistening beads of dew.
"Well, I promised I would avenge you," Beobrand said. He felt uncomfortable breaking the silence. He did not wish to wake those who slumbered here. Still, he knew he must ensure that Octa could rest.
He spoke in hushed tones. "I killed Hengist. And I took back Hrunting from him." He slid the sword from its wooden scabbard. The sun caught on the fine, shimmering patterned blade. It shone like a lake in winter sunlight. Brilliant, yet cold. As always, Beobrand was moved by the beauty of the weapon.
"It is the most noble of blades and I will do my best to honour it and your memory." He paused, unsure of what else to say. His feet were cold, his leg bindings and shoes soaked through from the dew on the long grass.
"Be at peace, brother. Watch over mother, Rheda and Edita." He waited. There was no sign. No omen. No answer. What had he imagined? Octa would be nothing more than rotting flesh and bones now. Beobrand suppressed a shudder.
He stood there for a few moments more, the morning sun warming the back of his neck. He nodded once at the grave and returned to Bebbanburg. To the living.
Beobrand was surprised to note that he felt a lightening of spirit after his visit to Octa's grave. His step was less heavy. When Sunniva cleaved to him in a tremulous embrace, tears flowing down her cheeks, he was able to summon up a smile.
"Pay no heed to what happened in the dark," he said, stroking her hair. All around them others were bidding their loved ones farewell. Many goodwives kept their faces blank, expressionless. But not a few of the younger women joined Sunniva in shedding tears. The fortress was a-bustle with preparations.
Oswald's host would march before the sun reached its zenith.
"The nighttime is a place for fear," Beobrand continued, "but the day is warm and bright. I am strong. I have Hrunting, a good helm and iron-knit shirt. My new shield will protect me now. Thanks to you." Acennan had told her what was needed and Sunniva had flung herself into the task of fashioning leather straps that would aid Beobrand to hold the linden board in place, rather than having to rely on his damaged hand to hold all of the shield's weight by the iron boss.
"And Acennan will stand at my side. I will return to you. I swear it."
Sunniva stifled her sobs. Beobrand could feel her weeping moistening his kirtle. She mumbled something. He could not make out the words, so he pushed her away from him gently, to see her face. It was tear-streaked, blotchy. But she was still lovely; her hair radiant in the bright daylight.
"What?" he asked.
"Then we will wed and I will give you a fine son," she said.
Late summer was a time for collecting the harvest and preparing the fields for winter. As they marched south, Oswald's warhost passed ceorls and thralls working the land. They saw a great flock of birds, fluttering in the wake of an oxen-drawn plough. The birds tumbled and dived, plucking insects from the freshly turned soil. The ploughman stared at them with blank eyes.
It was a reminder to the marching men that their own fields were untended. If they did not return to their homes soon, they would not be able to sow their winter barley. A victory in the shieldwall could still lead to a lingering death from hunger in the months that followed.
As they moved south many homesteads and settlements were deserted. Whether the people had fled at the approach of the column of warriors, or fearing attacks from the bands of Waelisc who had ravaged the land, they could not tell. Some homes had been destroyed, consumed by fire. At one such place, a large farmstead on a hill overlooking the straight Roman road, the hall and the outbuildings were charred husks. The beams jutting in silhouette against the bright sky like the skeleton of some huge beast. Oswald sent a group of mounted thegns up to the buildings to investigate. They returned grim-faced and sombre. They had found human bones amongst the ashes.