Authors: Matthew Harffy
Tags: #Bernicia Chronicles #2
Oswald ordered the host to halt while the people were given a burial in the way of the Christ followers. One of the dark-robed monks who travelled with Oswald spoke magic words over the graves. Oswald looked imperiously on. Many of the warriors touched amulets and charms. Some made the sign of the cross. Beobrand touched Hrunting's hilt and spat.
"We won't get very far if we stop to bury everyone we find on the way," said Acennan, shaking his head. "All Cadwallon has to do is kill a few ceorls and leave them in our path if he wants to get away."
"Maybe he doesn't want to get away," said Beobrand.
Yet they made good progress. There were more ruins, stark reminders of their enemies' movements with impunity throughout the land, but they found few bodies. The weather too, seemed to smile on them, as if the gods themselves wished them to reach their destination and confront the Waelisc.
Beobrand studied this new Christ-following king and the host that marched behind him. Oswald sat stiffly on a large white horse. He looked neither comfortable nor at ease, but he did look as if he belonged at the head of a mass of men. He led them with quiet self-belief and none of the bluster of some war chiefs. And the men followed.
There were men who had been in exile with Oswald in Dál Riata. Some were old, like Scand, others were younger, perhaps the sons of those who had served Oswald's father and accompanied the athelings Eanfrith, Oswald and Oswiu into exile in the west. There was a small contingent of Hibernians, allies from that western isle. Beobrand had heard that the athelings had fought on the island, and apparently they had attracted some followers there too. Then there were some Waelisc, natives of Dál Riata. They dressed in the way of their people with colourful, decorated braughts over their tunics and armour. The brighter and more richly-tassled the braught, the more proud and haughty the wearer.
Lastly, there was the group of Picts, sent by Gartnait. These men looked formidable with their long lances and clutches of short throwing spears. They wore simple tunics and cloaks, but the flash of silver torcs and fine brooches spoke of their standing amongst their people. They strode bare-legged and apart from the rest of the host and did not engage in conversation if approached.
On the second day, word came to them of the whereabouts of Cadwallon and his host.
There had been a constant trickle of people travelling in the opposite direction to them, heading north, away from Cadwallon. These refugees had come in small groups. Families, or a handful of travellers who had joined forces on the road.
Then a glut of people approached them from the south. Several dozen men, women and children pushed before the Waelisc warbands as game is driven before the beaters in a hunt. Exhaustion and despair were etched on the dirt-streaked faces of those hapless survivors of Cadwallon's desire to destroy the Angelfolc.
The column halted. King Oswald and his most trusted thegns gathered to talk with those leading the refugees.
Beobrand unslung his shield and massaged his neck where the strap had rubbed his skin raw. He dropped the sack of provisions he carried and slumped to the ground. Beside him Acennan flopped down and began untying his leg bindings.
"I have a blister the size of a fist, I'm sure of it," he said. He cast a glance at the head of the host, where Oswald and the others were deep in conversation. Oswald had dismounted and stood straight as a spear while all those around him appeared hunched. "Let the nobles stand to talk. They've ridden all the way here. I would sell my left ball to have a soft bed and a warm woman right now."
All around them, Scand's gesithas were making themselves comfortable. Hopeful of a respite from the gruelling pace.
"A woman and a bed would be pleasant," sighed Beobrand. "But right now, I'd be happy just for the bed. This byrnie is as heavy as a dead horse." Before this he had not travelled any real distance wearing the iron-knit shirt he had taken from a body at the ford of Gefrin, and his back ached from the weight of it.
"It is hard work being a warrior of legend, Beobrand." Acennan slapped him on the back. Attor, a slender warrior with a thin, straw-like beard, laughed, the scratching sound mimicking the rasp of the whetstone that he dragged along the edge of a vicious-looking seax.
"It looks like you may get the woman sooner than you'd like," Acennan continued, "though I wouldn't leave Sunniva for that wizened old hag. But I suppose it is as they say, and any furrow is good to sow when the sapling is ready to plant!" More laughter.
But Beobrand did not join in the mirth. He looked at the object of Acennan's comment. A woman, old enough to be his mother, head covered and stooped, walked towards him. Recognition gleamed in her eyes.
She was followed by a young man, who glared at Beobrand, menace evident in his every move.
They stopped in front of the reclining warriors, their shadows falling over Beobrand.
"Beobrand, son of Grimgundi, are you hale?"
Beobrand stood, and to Acennan's surprise, he reached for the woman and pulled her into an embrace. The young man at her side tensed and Acennan sensed violence in his posture. He pulled himself quickly to his feet, one foot bare, ready to defend his friend should it come to that.
But the man did no more than stare with open hatred at Beobrand.
Beobrand pushed the woman back gently and held her shoulders. His eyes glistened, wet with unshed tears.
"Wilda, goodwife of Alric, it is good to see you. But I fear the news you bring is not good."
"Never mind my story, Beobrand," Wilda said. "That is sad enough, but tell me: where is my elder son? Where is Leofwine?"
The men around them shifted uncomfortably. They had stood in the shieldwall at Gefrin with Leofwine the scop. He had been a fine bard. His fingers could pluck beauty from the strings of his lyre and his voice was like golden honey, sweet, smooth and healing. He was brave; had taken up shield and spear in defence of the land. Yet the bravery of the blond, youthful teller of tales outmatched his skill in battle. His wyrd had ended his tale on the blood-soaked bank of the river at Gefrin. Many more had fallen that long hot day, but none was a sadder loss.
The warriors looked down. They could not look upon the mother of the valiant singer of songs.
Beobrand did not meet Wilda's gaze.
She needed no more. Her fears were confirmed and she let out a howl of utter dismay. "God has forsaken us!" she screamed. She pulled away from Beobrand and collapsed into the arms of her other son, Wybert, the man standing at her side.
Wybert held her close. She shuddered and raged against his chest. All the while, he glowered at Beobrand.
"This is your doing," he said. "You have brought nothing but death and sorrow to us all, Beobrand."
Beobrand recalled the last time he had seen Wilda and Wybert. Alric, Leofwine and Wybert's father, had told him to protect his son.
His failure burnt his eyes and throat as he choked back tears. Acennan placed a hand on his shoulder, but he shrugged it off.
Beobrand learnt the story of the end of Engelmynster as Oswald and his retinue plotted and schemed. The king thought up strategies to counter the Waelisc threat while Beobrand heard of the death and destruction that had been wrought on the defenceless.
Beobrand, Acennan and several other warriors sat, listening raptly as Wilda told the tale.
She began: "That day had dawned like any other. There was nothing of note about it to presage the death, darkness and despair it would bring."
Those who had listened to Leofwine recounting tales recognised the same spell in the words of his mother. She too had the gift of story-telling and they were enthralled.
She told of the warning sounds of the horns, echoing around the clearing, shattering the peace of a late summer's morning. The men had quickly gathered together, ready to defend their settlement from one of the bands of brigands who roamed the land. But they had not been prepared for the thicket of spears and armour that descended on the small monastery. This was no small group of miscreants. This was a warhost. Light glinted from shield bosses and helms like the scales of a monstrous dragon. There was nothing they could do to prevent the destruction of Engelmynster.
Wilda's eyes misted as she spoke of how Alric, her husband and head man of the village, had told the women, monks and children to flee.
"Alric turned quickly to his brave son, Wybert," Wilda placed a hand lightly on her son's arm. " 'Wybert, you must take your mother, the other women and the monks and head north. To Bernicia. To King Oswald.' "
The men, entranced at the tale, leaned forward. There was strong magic in the honour of sacrifice for loved ones. They did not know Alric, but they felt proud of his actions.
"Wybert protested. He wished to stand and fight along with his father, but he saw the finality in Alric's eyes. Heard the stony resolve in his voice. He must do his duty and protect those entrusted to his care." Wilda looked at Beobrand, her eyes full of sorrow.
The listeners nodded their approval. A son should do his duty and obey his father. Beobrand squirmed inwardly.
"Father and son shared a brief embrace. Each certain they would never meet again in this world. There was no time for long farewells or speeches. Wybert led us from our home, while Alric stood with the other men, holding back the Waelisc to allow us time to escape."
There was silence at the ending of Wilda's tale. Not a few of the men had tears in their eyes or on their cheeks. Many more had gathered around during the telling and now Wilda sat at the centre of a throng of avid listeners.
"Goodwife, your story is the same as that heard throughout the land," a voice spoke out into the silence, clear and assured.
All eyes turned to look upon Oswald. He stood, serious and sad, yet emanating strength.
"I am Oswald, king of this land of Bernicia, and I offer you and the others who come with you succour in my kingdom." Wybert, Wilda and the other refugees bowed their heads.
Oswald continued: "I have heard tell of how Cadwallon's host has continued north, harrying the land of Deira to the south and is now close to the borders of our lands. We will hurry south, to the Great Wall and there we will defeat this Cadwallon and bring slaughter to his host. This we will do in the glorious name of our Father in heaven."
For a moment, Beobrand imagined his own father in the heaven of the Christ. You had to lead a good life to go to heaven, so surely Grimgundi would not be there. Alric had been more of a father to him in the weeks he had known him. He would surely be in his Christ's heaven.
Oswald continued to talk to the crowd. He raised his voice to reach the members of the fyrd who had joined his host in the last days, his retinue and the gesithas of his closest thegns and the newly-arrived, displaced inhabitants of Deira and Bernicia.
"We will head off Cadwallon's host before they can cause further harm to our land or our people. We will crush them against the Wall and Christ will bring us a victory to be sung of for generations to come."
A voice spoke close to Beobrand's ear. "Well, it is good to see you following a good Christian king, Beo."
Beobrand spun round. Next to him was the smiling face of Coenred, the young monk he had befriended at Engelmynster. Coenred had grown in the months since they had last met. His face was more angular, his shoulders wider. He would never be broad and strong like Beobrand, but he was no longer a boy. He had grown into a young man.
Despite the painful memories of Leofwine's death and hearing of Alric's sacrifice, Beobrand could not help but grin. Coenred had saved his life after finding him in the forest, wounded and feverish. Like him, Coenred was alone in the world, an orphan. His sister had died while Coenred had been protecting Beobrand. Coenred had never blamed him for her death, but Beobrand was acutely aware of what the novice monk's aid had cost him.
"Oswald looks to be the perfect king for us," said Beobrand. "A Christ follower to keep you happy, but one who wishes to wage war and destroy his enemies in battle. What more could we ask for?"
Coenred looked into his eyes for a long while before eventually smiling a sorrow-filled smile. "It is good to see you, Beobrand. You look well." Coenred looked him up and down, taking in his fine helm, metal byrnie, sword and shield. "And prosperous. War suits you."
Beobrand winced. He should not have made light of battle and death. Coenred was not one of the men who had stood with him in the chaos of the shieldwall. Coenred despised violence. He could not begin to understand what drove Beobrand to fight. To seek revenge for crimes. To right wrongs at the point of a sword.
Beobrand could no more understand Coenred's devotion to the forgiving Christ god than Coenred could fathom Beobrand's belief in the old ways of strength and blood to confront obstacles.
But one thing Beobrand knew for certain. The threads of their wyrd were intertwined.
Coenred was a true friend. And he was pleased to see him.
They rested long enough to eat, but they did not light fires and set up camp. They were close to the Wall now and Wilda's story spurred the men on. Her sincere, poignant account of the demise of all she held dear moved them all.
The Waelisc were coming and the Waelisc would pay.