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Authors: Diana L. Paxson

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BOOK: The Hallowed Isle Book Two
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Once more King Eadguth came forth and sat in his carven chair, gazing at his people with hooded eyes. Once more the people gathered around the great tree.

“Men of the Myrgings,” said Geflaf when they were quiet. “The sun has finished her course and it is time to choose our own. Are you ready to decide?”

“Aye,” came the response from many voices.

“Then let the leaders of your clans and families stand forth and say your will.”

Hæsta was first to step out from the crowd.

“I speak for the Jutes who dwell along the Fifeldor. For a generation we have guarded your northern border. We do not fear fighting. But the fields will not bear for us. We vote to seek the new lands across the sea.”

There was a murmur at that, for the Jutes made up a sizable portion of their fighting men. A Myrging thane came forward next, and said that he would stay by his king. One by one others followed and spoke the will of their clans. And though there were some who swore to stay in the Myrging homeland, it became clear that those who had been convinced by Octha's words were in the majority.

“I would stay, but I see the choice being made for me,” said one farmer, whose rich fields lay inland, away from the sea. “We cannot stop those who decide to leave us, and how can we defend ourselves against our enemies if only a tithe remain?”

A mutter of agreement swept through the people, and after that most of the men who stepped forward said that they would follow Octha. Now, only a few chieftains from the oldest families spoke for staying, and Eadguth's sworn sword-thanes, who said that while he lived, they would remain by their king.

Geflaf turned to his lord with troubled gaze.

“My king, the will of the moot is clear. Will you not change your mind and agree to lead us to the new land?”

Eadguth rose from his chair and set his hand against the rough bark of the great tree.

“Will you uproot this oak and carry it over the sea?” His voice grated painfully. “It is too old, too deeply rooted, and so am I. Go if you will—I cannot prevent you. I will remain with my land.”

Oesc looked at his grandfather and felt a tremor beneath his heart as if someone had struck him there.
He looks like a dead man.
Suddenly he wanted to run to the old man as he had when he was little, before he understood why Eadguth hated him. But his father's hand was on his shoulder, and he did not move.

Once more Eadguth's dark gaze passed over his people, then he turned and started back toward his hall. His house-thanes fell in behind him, but their faces were grim.

But those who had voted to go with Octha pressed around him, clamoring with questions about the new land.

Oesc woke from a nightmare, fighting for breath. The bed-clothes were strangling him—he fought free and lay gasping. In the hall, his own harsh breaths were the only sound, but outside he could hear birdsong. It must be dawn, he thought, blinking. Through the parted curtains of his bed-closet he glimpsed a faint glow from the long hearth and beyond it a colder light. He pulled back the curtains and looked out into the hall.

Along the hearth he could see the humped shapes of sleeping men. But beyond them, the little side door stood open. What clumsy thrall, he wondered, had left it so? Æbbe, who always rose early to supervise the thralls as they got breakfast, would have a thing or two to say about that when she knew.

But now he was curious. Who had gone out so early? He pulled his tunic over his head and tied on his shoes, and then, because the air was brisk, took his cloak from its peg as well. Silently he made his way between the sleeping men and sought the door.

Beyond the threshold the muddy ground showed many footprints, dusted by a light frost that was already melting in the growing light. But across that sparkling veil two sets of tracks showed clearly, and the larger prints were punctuated by the round mark of a staff. For a long moment Oesc stared, a cold feeling growing in his belly.

“Close the door, boy,” came Æbbe's voice behind him. “You are letting in the cold.”

“Æbbe—” he said, turning, “why has the king gone out so early?”

“What do you mean, child? Old men sleep late—he is in his bed still!”

“Look, are not those his footprints? Where did he go?”

For a moment she stared over his shoulder at the marked ground, and then, without a word, hurried back into the hall. Oesc sank down on a bench, shivering, but it was not from the cold. In a few moments the old woman returned with Byrhtwold and Æthelhere behind her. When they started out across the yard, Oesc followed.

The trail led toward Hæthwæge's hut, and when they picked it up again, there were three sets of footprints, one of them a woman's. Near the side gate they lost the trace, but the young warrior who guarded it, confronted with his king's senior thanes, confessed that his lord had passed through just as the first pallor that precedes the dawn was brightening the sky. The thrall Cubba was with him, and the wisewoman.

“I thought they were going out to make some offering to the gods. He told me to keep silence and stay at my post,” said the warrior, “but my shift is almost over, and surely I do not break my oath to tell
you
. . . .”

“No doubt that is it,” said Æbbe with a sigh. “I will go back to the kitchen—the king will be wanting his breakfast when he returns.”

“I will go out to meet him,” said Æthelhere. “It is not right for the lord of the Myrgings to go about without an escort.”

Byrhtwold nodded, and when they passed through the gate, Oesc followed the two thanes down the hill.

Here and there a scar upon the frosted grass marked the trail. It led toward the Law Oak. As they came around the edge of the woods they stopped short, staring, for an untimely fruit was dangling from the oak tree's limbs.

It was King Eadguth's body that was hanging there. Blood from a rent beneath his breast had stained his tunic, and the thrall Cubba lay below him, a knife in his hand and blood from his slashed throat soaking the ground.
“An ætheling can look on anything, even his doom,”
Eadguth had once told him, but after Oesc had taken one look at his grandfather's purpled face and staring eyes, he fixed his gaze firmly upon the ground.

“Ah, my dear lord,” said Æthelhere, shaking his head. “This is ill done, to go before me with only this thrall to escort you. Still I think your start is not so great I cannot overtake you.”

“Why did he do this?” asked Byrhtwold. “We would have stood by him to his life's end.”

“And so you have done—” came another voice. They turned, and saw that Hæthwæge was standing there, leaning on a staff whose top was swathed in a blue cloth. “Do you not understand? He had no son to follow him, and those who vowed to stay here are too few to defend the land. By his death Eadguth has freed them from their oaths and made offering to Woden for their protection. This was a noble sacrifice.”

“By the knife of a thrall?” asked Byrhtwold.

Hæthwæge shook her head. “Cubba took his own life, but Eadguth's blood was shed by Woden's own spear.” She lifted her staff, and Oesc's skin pebbled as he recognized the rune-carved shaft beneath the wrappings.

“This is the last and greatest act of a king,” said Æthelhere, “to give his breath to the god and his blood to the land that his people may live.”

II
VERULAMIUM
A.D.
473

A
DEAD HORSE LAY STIFF BESIDE THE ROAD
. T
HE RAVENS, BUSY
at their feasting, waited until the approaching riders were upon them before fluttering aside, cawing their mockery. Beyond them the Roman road ran straight southwards, where a thin haze of smoke stained the pale morning sky.


We move from before your feet
,” they seemed to say, “
but one day you will be our meat
!”

Oesc suppressed a shiver; then his mare, scenting the carrion, tossed her head, and the boy reined her sharply in. His grandfather in the old country had not had the wealth to give him a pony, and in any case it was not the tradition of his people to fight mounted. But Britannia was a large island, and in the three years since Octha had brought him across the sea it seemed to Oesc they had ridden over most of the eastern half that the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes and tag ends of other tribes were making their own. Through necessity, he had become an adequate horseman. He lifted his chin and straightened his shoulders in unconscious imitation of his father, sitting his big grey easily at the head of the column.

Most of the Myrgings had been settled in Cantuware, along with the Jutes and Frisians and others who had answered Hengest's call. But the best of the warriors had left the rich fields of the south coast, settled for a generation already by men of the tribes, to ride north with Octha, where there were new and perhaps even richer lands to be won.

Hengest had wanted the boy to stay with him in Cantuware, but there had been no question, really, what Oesc would choose. He had spent most of his short life mewed up with one grandfather, and the other was past eighty, so ancient that many assumed he must be dead by now. No boy could resist the chance to ride with the men and share their glory. It was only sometimes in the night that he regretted the well-built hall and the peaceful fields of his homeland, and the gulls soaring over a sea that glittered with a golden treasure no Roman hoard could match in the light of the setting sun.

Oesc wondered now if he had made the right decision. Men of the German tongue held half the south and the fenlands on the eastern shore, and three years of campaigning had made the beginnings of an Anglian realm south of Eboracum. Only the valley of the Tamesis still separated the English lands. But Leudonus of Alba, having married the British king's daughter, had thrown all his strength into the reconquest of the north, and six days since, had brought the Saxons to battle on the banks of the Abus, and won.

Oesc kicked the mare's stout sides and drew up beside Colgrin, an Anglian who with the Jutish Baldulf was second only to his father in the band.

“Have the scouts come in? Is Leudonus following?” He glanced back, where the Saxon column, dissolving into its own dust, seemed to extend all the way back to Eboracum. Hæthwæge was back there somewhere, in the wagons with the wounded. Beyond them storm-clouds hung heavy in the sky.

Colgrin shook his head, the grey hair hacked short where they had bandaged a slash from a British sword. “Nay, lad, he will not catch us—we gave him too sound a savaging.”

“But he is following . . .” Oesc repeated.

“Not yet . . .” the older man admitted. “There's no need to fret. By the time his men can march, we'll be safe behind Verulamium's stout walls.”

“How long till we get there?”

Colgrin pointed to blue smudge that lay across the road on the horizon. “Verulamium lies just beyond those hills.”

Oesc squinted ahead, and then, as a breath of cool air touched his cheek, looked back again. The curdled clouds were rolling after them, a visible expression of Leudonus' wrath. If the storm hit before they reached shelter the wounded would suffer. He looked at his father's straight back, frowning.

Colgrin, following his glance, sighed. “Not even the greatest of leaders can make the best decision always. And sometimes all choices are flawed. Octha thinks like a warrior, and takes a warrior's chances. Woden loves a brave man, and will give him victory.”

“I know. . . .” Oesc nodded, but for the first time it occurred to him to wonder in what way the choices of a warleader might differ from those of a king. The wind blew once more, ruffling his pale hair, and with it came the first spatterings of rain.

The gates of Verulamium were open. Oesc, watching from the walkway atop the old Roman wall, gazed past the tower of the gatehouse to the British army encamped outside. But it was not Leudonus and his blood-stained veterans who were beseiging them. The forces outside the gate—dark-haired Romans in their grandfathers' breastplates or bright-haired British with checkered mantles over their mail, were men of the south and west, under the command of their dying king.

Octha's face had darkened when he heard that Uthir had come against him. He remembered his captivity in the Tower. And then he had told them to unbar and open the great gates that guarded the western route into the town.

“Why not just send Uthir an invitation to charge through?” Baldulf had exclaimed when Octha gave the order.

“That is what I am doing,” answered Octha, grinning through his mustaches. “Or did you fancy spending the winter starving behind these walls? Inside the town they will not be able to use their horses, and we can overwhelm them.”

“If they come—” said Colgrin.

“If they do not, it will not matter whether the gates are open or closed!”

And Oesc had heard the sharp silence, and then Colgrin's explosive laugh. But the British army, nestled in tent and brush shelter around the city, neither attacked nor lifted the seige.

As he had every day since the British came, Oesc watched them from the guard tower, curious, after all the stories he had heard, about this enemy. Sometimes the wind carried the swift, lilting gabble of the British speech, or the more sonorous cadences of Latin, but mostly he learned by watching. He had become accustomed to the diversity of the Saxon forces, composed of men from all the tribes of the north. But these Britons were more varied still, and in their faces he saw the mosaic, in miniature, that was the Empire.

To the Saxons, they were an accustomed and worthy enemy, but from time to time Oesc, seeing the British king being carried through the camp, would remember how his other grandfather had clung to his land, and feel ashamed. But when he saw his father again the feeling passed. Octha, his skin ripened to bronze by the weather and his body honed to muscle and sinew by the summer's campaigning, was now at the height of his powers, as great a hero as Sigfrid Fafnarsbane, of whom the shopes liked to sing.

BOOK: The Hallowed Isle Book Two
12.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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