Authors: Matthew Harffy
Tags: #Bernicia Chronicles #2
A hush fell on the warhost. The gods were speaking. But who could understand their signs?
"Perhaps that is Thunor reminding you that he'll watch out for you in the battle," whispered Acennan. Even he was subdued by the portents in the sky.
Beobrand thought back to the darkness of the room in Bebbanburg. His oath. The fallen cloak. The snuffed out rush light. Sunniva's fears. He closed his eyes, remembering the sudden gloom.
What if it hadn't been an omen after all? Perhaps it had been a message.
Beobrand leapt up and started up the hill.
"Where are you going?" called Acennan. "You've got nothing on your feet."
"Never mind my feet," replied Beobrand. "I must speak with the king."
"What is the commotion there?" Oswald looked up from where he sat. Where the canopy had protected them from the heat of the sun, now it gave them shelter from the light, yet soaking, rain.
Scand stood. "It is one of my men. Beobrand is his name." He rose and made his way down the slope to where two of Oswald's gesithas remonstrated with the young man from Cantware. They clearly had no intention of letting Beobrand pass and the headstrong warrior was getting increasingly frustrated. Scand shook his head. The man needed to learn to control his temper. He would get himself killed one day.
"Beobrand, be still," Scand commanded, using the tone that served him so well in battle. All three men desisted in their arguing and turned to face him.
"Now, what seems to be the matter?" Scand asked. "I hope it is important. The king is discussing plans for the battle tomorrow." There was an edge of ice in his tone. A caution.
"It is about the battle that I wish to talk. I was telling these two fools that I needed to speak with the king, but they would not listen." The two men bridled. One of them dropped his hand to the hilt of the large seax that hung from his belt. They were all allies here, but men of pride and honour could not be insulted and let it pass unanswered.
"Enough, Beobrand! You are my man and you bring dishonour to me with your insults. Now, apologise to these men."
Beobrand burnt with the light of the ideas in his head. He had to tell the king. He was sure of it. But he looked at the stern face of Scand and saw the disapproval there. Scand had given his life meaning. He had believed in him when no other would. He was a good man. Wise and just. And he was his lord.
Beobrand dropped his gaze. He swallowed.
"I am sorry for my outburst. I meant nothing by it. I merely need to speak with the king. It is urgent."
The tension eased and Scand stepped close to Beobrand. He placed a hand on his shoulder.
"So, what is it that you so urgently need to speak with your king about?" said a voice from behind them.
They turned quickly, and saw that Oswald, apparently intrigued, had walked down the hill to where they were talking.
"I apologise, my king," said Scand. "It is one of my men. He never seems to know his place." Beobrand felt Scand squeeze his shoulder painfully. A clear warning.
Oswald looked Beobrand up and down. "Ah, the mighty Beobrand." Was there a hint of sarcasm in his tone? "I have heard tell of your exploits. So tell me," Oswald glanced down, "what is so important that you approach your king uninvited and barefoot, like a thrall?"
Beobrand was trapped in the calm gaze of the king. He could feel the cool grass on his bare feet. The rain, dripped from his eyebrows into his eyes, like tears. His mouth was suddenly dry.
"I..." Why was it so hard to speak? He coughed and swallowed the lump in his throat.
Oswald waited patiently.
Beobrand was afraid that his thoughts would sound ridiculous to this man of power who stood resplendent in purple cloak. The bejewelled scabbard at his side glimmered. The golden brooch at his shoulder shone.
Beobrand felt shabby. Dirty. He was acutely aware of his bare feet and dusty britches.
He forced the words past his lips.
"I think I know how we can defeat Cadwallon," he said at last.
The rain still fell and the sun fought to show itself through the heavy clouds when Oswald addressed the men.
He stood before a rough cross, made from the large tree he had ordered felled earlier in the afternoon. It was three times the height of a tall man. The crossbeam was fashioned from some of the thicker branches lashed to the vertical with braided leather ropes. A deep hole had been dug at the top of the hill and the king himself had held it in place, embracing the wood while it had been raised and secured. It had taken the strength and ingenuity of several men to pull it into place.
Silhouetted against the crimson sky-glow of the setting sun, it reminded Beobrand of the yew tree where he had hanged Dreng, Artair and Tondberct. It was a dark memory. At that moment, the corpses twitching at the end of a creaking frayed rope, he had understood what it was to bring justice. Tondberct had been his friend, but in the end, Beobrand had given the order to kill him along with the others. His crimes were unforgivable. Such were the decisions a leader must make. Watching the king standing in the shadow of the wooden edifice, Beobrand wondered what hard choices he had made to bring him to this place. And what decisions he was yet to take that would affect all of their lives.
The warriors jumbled on the slope of the hill, shuffling to get a glimpse of the king. They could all see the cross. It dominated the horizon.
Oswald raised his hands as Beobrand had seen him do before in the great hall at Bebbanburg. A hush fell on the men gathered there.
"My friends. Bernicians. Angelfolc, Hibernian and Pict. I am Oswald, son of Æthelfrith, known by the Hibernians as Lamnguin, Whiteblade. By right of blood, I am king of Bernicia. You all know what we have come to do." Oswald raised his voice in order for it to reach all those who listened on that damp afternoon. Beobrand realised it was the first time he had heard Oswald speak in anything but a quiet tone.
"We have come to rid this land of the scourge of Cadwallon and his accursed pack of Waelisc defilers. Perhaps some of you have heard already of the size of the host we are to face. It is true that they are greater in number." This was news to none of the listeners. Word had spread around the camp quickly after Attor and the other scouts returned.
"But it is also true that we have the power of the Almighty Christ on our side. You have all seen the sign of his power in the sky. The rainbow is his promise to his followers.
"Last night I had a dream. I had been wondering about the battle to come. Like all men, I know doubt and I was questioning. How could we defeat Cadwallon and his host?" Oswald paused. Letting it sink in that he too was vulnerable. Beobrand wondered at the wisdom of it. Surely the men would prefer to believe that their king was infallible, god-like in his abilities. He looked around him and was surprised to see many men nodding. Solemn understanding on their faces. It seemed Oswald understood his audience better than Beobrand.
The king continued: "In my dream, the holiest of men, Colm Cille himself, founder and abbot of the island of Hii came to me. He was bathed in light and he spoke to me.
"He told me to construct a rood; a tree like that on which the Christ sacrificed himself for all men, so that we might live forever. He said that all who followed me into battle should bow before the rood and be blessed. 'The power of the blood of Christ will be upon them all', he said.
" 'Be strong and act manfully. Behold, I will be with you. This coming night go out from your camp into battle, for the Lord has granted me that at this time your foes shall be put to flight and Cadwallon your enemy shall be delivered into your hands and you shall return victorious after battle and reign happily.'
"And so it will be as he foretold. You will all be blessed in the shadow of the rood, and then, in the darkest, deepest tract of the night, we will go forth. We will march with stealth and we will smite Cadwallon at his camp. We will destroy him there and peace will be ours thereafter."
There was a murmur of dissent amongst the warriors. They were strong, doughty in battle and brave in the face of spear and shield. But the night held fear of a different nature. At night shadow creatures crept and slithered. Elves and goblins lurked ready to pounce on the unsuspecting traveller. Fires could keep those things at bay, but stealth would not be possible if they carried brands. They would need to walk in the raven-wing blackness of the night. Towards armed foes and surrounded by unseen enemies from the otherworld.
Some of the men spat. Others touched amulets or the iron of their weapons. Those who already followed the Christ God, made the sign of the rood over their chests.
The light in the sky was dwindling to a dim afterglow behind Oswald. He raised his hands again. The host quietened.
"Be not afraid of the things that haunt the night. Darkness and death are no match for Christ. He was hanged upon a rood such as this and then, on the third day, He rose from the dead. Never to allow death to defeat man again. After you are blessed here this day, you will not die. Everlasting life in the halls of God awaits us all."
Oswald seemed to sense that he was close to losing the audience. If the plan was to work, he would need all the men there to march into the night. To fight to the death before the rising of the sun.
This was the plan Beobrand had told to the king. Or was it an omen? A message from the gods? Or the Christ, as Oswald said? The idea for the night attack had come to Beobrand fully-formed. The snuffing of the rush light had not been an omen of doom. It had been a signal for triumph.
Beobrand cared not whether the tale of the king's dream was true. He believed that attacking in the dark would provide them with the best chance of success and he had told Oswald as much. Oswald had listened intently before dismissing him.
Now the king caught Beobrand's eye. He stared straight at him for a moment and then, in a loud ringing voice, he said, "Who will kneel with their king and pray under the cross? Who will take the fight to the heathen in the darkness? Who is with me this night?"
Silence fell over the camp. The crackle of damp wood burning on the fires could clearly be heard.
Oswald looked out over the men. Beobrand sensed the nervous anxiety in the air. The men were willing to stand and fight in the shieldwall, but this was more. Oswald asked them to trust in him and the Christ. To march into the darkness against far superior numbers.
Somewhere a man coughed. A horse snickered.
Beobrand took a step forward and spoke into the silence. "I am with you, Oswald King. I will kneel with you, and march into the night at your side." His voice rang out. He was surprised at the assurance there. But even as he spoke, he relaxed. He was not sure of the power of the Christ, but he believed in this plan.
And more importantly, he believed in Oswald.
A warhost, bedecked with the trappings of battle, cannot move with stealth.
The chink of armour, the rattle of spear against shield, the whispers of nervous men, all seemed to be amplified by the silence of the night. Even the footfalls of hundreds of warriors in battle-harness created a slow, rhythmic thrum that reverberated in the darkness.
"Are you still pleased you stepped forward?" Acennan whispered. "The Waelisc will hear us long before we reach their camp. A herd of horses would make less noise than this rabble."
Beobrand couldn't help but agree with his friend. He knew he was largely responsible for this night raid. He had given the idea to Oswald and it was only after he had spoken up in support of the king that the others had followed. In his mind, the plan had been simple. They would march quietly to where the enemy slumbered and there they would cut them down like so much barley being harvested. Now, with the terrifying blackness of the night pushing around them, and the men traipsing along the old paved road, jostling and jingling like a train of merchants on their way to sell their wares, he was less assured of success.
hear our approach if you keep yammering on," he hissed. The unease gnawed at him. The tension of the men was palpable. They had waited until after midnight. Huddled around the fires that hissed and cracked in the rain. Weapons had been sharpened. Armour had been donned. The men grumbled at the rain. It would rust their blades. Those who wore metal-knit byrnies cursed. If they survived the night, they knew that much toil would be needed to rid the chain links of rust. First they would toss the armour in sacks filled with sand to rub the ochre-coloured patina from the iron. After that, when their arms burnt from the effort, they would rub in fat, coating the riveted links to fend off moisture. None of them welcomed the thought of this work, but the alternative — that someone would clean the armour after stripping it from your corpse — was less appealing, so they gritted their teeth and prayed for the night to be dry.
Shortly before they set out southward, the rain had stopped. The men's hearts had been gladdened. They'd grinned at each other, flashing teeth in the gloom, pleased to be marching without the added discomfort of being drenched.
Now though, Beobrand wondered if rain would not be a good thing. It would keep any watchers sheltering. Wet guards were not the most observant. Rainfall would also cover much of the noise they were making.