Eadwine sprinted up the crumbling steps and ran round the ramparts to a point
where he could see the southward road.
It was empty.
So sure had he been that he would see it filled by his brother's approaching army that at first he thought his eyesight must have failed. With an impatient gesture he rubbed the stinging sweat out of his eyes with his torn and bloodstained sleeve and looked again.
The road was still empty.
His stomach knotted into the hollow pain of fear. He had no need to look over the northern rampart to see the smear of dust on the horizon that marked the position of the invading army he had been harrying for the last two days and nights of ambush, snare and murder. He had delayed them. He had left half of them dead. He had made the survivors curse the day they came to Deira. He had made their leader, one Black Dudda, into a bitter personal enemy who had sworn to see him dead. And it had all been for nothing, if Eadric was not here with the main army.
The old fort was half derelict and wholly indefensible. There was no garrison of any kind. The local population would be no help in any fighting, accustomed as they were to an easy and peaceful life here on the rich plain of Derwent Vale. The warden of the northern march was supposed to protect them from border raids, and no enemy had got this far in Eadwine's three years of tenure.
The smear of dust on the northern horizon was perceptibly closer. An hour away, Eadwine estimated, or a little more. A hundred warriors with fallen comrades to avenge, thirsting for blood. And nothing stood between them and the heart of Deira, except Eadwine and the battered handful of weary survivors with him.
Snatches of talk floated up to him, as men shoved to slake their thirst at
the fort well.
"- I told him his high and mighty brother wouldn't bother coming, too busy chasing skirt in Eboracum, I said -"
"And you know he won't hear a word against his brother, so you might as well save your breath -"
"Reckon he's going to fight them here?"
"What, in this dump? Piss on these walls and they'd fall down."
"There's nowhere better, not til you get all the way to Eboracum. He'll have to fight here."
"A dozen of us, against a hundred of them?"
"We fight bravely and make an end worthy of a song!"
"A bloody short song -"
"You got a better idea? If he runs home they'll call him a coward. Could you face that?"
"I'd rather be dead!"
"No problem there. Sup up, lads, we'll all dine in Woden's hall tonight."
"First one there gets the beer in -"
"Last one gets the pick of the girls -"
Eadwine stopped listening. Icy sweat prickled down his spine. There was no
more scope for hit-and-run fighting now they were out of the moors and marshes
and onto the plain. If he did not fight here, he would have to flee ahead
of the invaders and bear the shame of being called a coward. If he made a
stand here, outnumbered many times over and with no useful defences, he and
the men with him would die. A stark choice, shame or death. Yet he could not
see it as simply as that. Already men had died at his command, men he had
known and counted as friends, men who had families who would mourn their loss
and perhaps curse him for it. If he was going to order men to die, he wanted
to have something practical to show for it. What could a stand against overwhelming
odds achieve? At best, they could hope to take a dozen of the enemy with them
and delay the rest for an hour or two. If Eadric was on his way with the army,
that hour or two would give Eadric time to get here and crush the invaders
before they could plunder Deira. That would be worth the cost. Eadric would
be proud of him.
He peered over the wall again. Still no sign of movement on the broad pale ribbon of the southward road. Eadric was not coming.
"Why?" Eadwine muttered. "Why, why, why? Eadric, where are you?"
To which, of course, there was no answer but a nameless, gnawing fear. Surely nothing but some terrible disaster could have prevented Eadric from answering his urgent summons? Eadric, the golden hero of Deira, would not have abandoned even the insignificant youngest brother to fight outnumbered ten to one, except in some dire need. What was that need? What was happening? What would Eadric want him to do?
Eadwine whipped round, startled out of his thoughts. Lilla, the youngest warrior in the warband and the closest to a friend, had come noiselessly up the steps and was holding out a pitcher. Clear water dripped down the sides, and Eadwine was suddenly aware that his throat was parched dry as the dusty road. He drank in greedy gulps, spilling water over his face and chest, forgetting to breathe until he choked on it. How long since he had last drunk? This morning at least. Twelve hours of fighting on a hot day, wearing metal armour. With the partial slaking of his thirst came more unwelcome physical sensations, ignored until then. Hunger, aching fatigue, the crushing weight of his mail shirt, the small pains of minor wounds, a dull throb behind his eyes. And over it all the sick dread of anxiety. Why had Eadric not come? What to do for the best?
"Wulfgar says it's just a raid," Lilla said, sounding doubtful. "He says they'll loot the hall here, burn a few unimportant villages and go home."
Eadwine winced. That was typical of Wulfgar, who was good at fights and better at starting them. Talking of 'burning unimportant villages' in front of Lilla, who had joined the warband after his family and home were destroyed in a raid, was tactless even by Wulfgar's clodhopping standards.
Lilla grinned, and pushed his mop of chestnut hair back from his face. "I didn't fight him. I thought you wouldn't thank me for it. Anyway, it's boring. I always win."
"Almost always," Eadwine said dryly. Lilla was small and lithe and fast, like a stoat to Wulfgar's bullock, but brawn had been known to triumph over speed. "And in answer to your next question, of course he's wrong. A raiding party is a dozen or a score. Two hundred is an army."
"They look in a hurry to get somewhere, too," Lilla added. "Where?"
"It can only be Eboracum." Eadwine gestured at the southward road. "That's where that army-path goes. It's the heart of Deira. If they take Eboracum they take the kingdom."
"But -" Lilla began, and broke off uneasily.
"Well - I've never seen Eboracum. But you say it's a great city. A fortress. Bigger than my whole village and all the fields around. Even if they still had the two hundred they started with, that wouldn't go far against Eboracum, would it?"
Eadwine sighed. He had been puzzling over that himself for two days without mentioning his doubts to anyone, but he should have known Lilla would be bright enough to work out the problem for himself. "They might as well try to fell a tree with a spoon," he agreed.
"So what are they really after?"
"If I knew that," Eadwine said wearily, dragging his hand through his filthy dark hair, "I'd know how best to stop them getting it."
Movement below forestalled Lilla's reply. A stocky fair-haired warrior was shepherding a fussy little man in through one of the cart-sized breaches in the fort wall.
"Ah!" Eadwine exclaimed. "Ashhere's found the steward. About time!"
In theory he should stand on his dignity as the king's son and wait for the steward to come to him, but he had never cared much for protocol. He raced down the steps two at a time, careless of the loose stonework. Lilla paused to retrieve the pitcher and followed at a rather more sensible pace.
"Message? What message?" said the steward blankly, when he was
finally convinced that the smoke-blackened and bloodstained scarecrow in front
of him was indeed the king's youngest son. "No, Garulf never came here.
Know him anywhere, I would. Was it important?"
"You're about to be invaded by Black Dudda and a Bernician army," Lilla informed him. "In about an hour, I'd say."
The steward paled. Evidently Black Dudda's reputation was known even this far south. "The Butcher of Eden Vale?" He flapped his hands as if trying to swat a wasp. "Why aren't you fighting them? You're supposed to guard the border! You're supposed to protect us!"
Deornoth, headman of the village at Beacon Bay and leader of what was left of its militia, spat. "A bit of help wouldn't go amiss," he said, with a sour glance at the steward's immaculate clothes and comfortable paunch. "Where are you when we get raided, eh?"
"Oh, well, if you can't put up with raids you shouldn't live on the border," said the steward, with a shrug.
"Leave it, Deornoth," Eadwine warned. "And you too, Fulla." He swung round to confront a bearded barrel of a man in malodorous sheepskins who subsided with a sulky muttering, then turned back to the steward. "You're certain Garulf never passed here? So Eadric would never have got my message?"
"Looks that way," agreed the steward. "Any road, Lord Eadric's got his hands full already. Rumour says he's fighting Aethelferth of Bernicia way out west." A complacent wave of the hand indicated somewhere comfortably far off. "Eboracum or Dere Street or somewhere."
The news struck Eadwine like a blow to the stomach. Eadric under attack! His instinctive reaction was to race to his brother's side with all possible speed and give his own life to save him. Then, hard on its heels, came rational thought. Black Dudda's purpose became clear in flash of insight, like sunshine breaking through fog. A surprise double attack, worthy of the clever and deceitful Aethelferth. One army to march down Dere Street on the traditional invasion route from the north and draw Eadric into battle on the plain. A second, under Black Dudda, to appear on this back route out of the moors and stab Eadric in the back.
So Eadric needed Black Dudda's army stopped. For a moment the prospect of making a stand here and dying gloriously in the attempt beckoned to Eadwine as sweetly as a girl in a summer hayfield. No-one could scorn him as a coward if he did that. It was the warrior's way, the hero's way. But the glory would be empty. A few deaths here, however noble, would not stop Black Dudda and would not help Eadric. A warning might save his life. Put like that, it was no choice at all.
Eadwine looked round wildly. "Get me a horse!"
The steward spread his hands. "We don't keep any horses here -"
"Then we march," Eadwine said grimly. "Now. We're an hour ahead of them. If we march all night we might yet warn Eadric in time. Tell your folk here to scatter and take their animals with them. Black Dudda is very angry and he'll take it out on this estate, but he's in a hurry. He won't go far from the road."
The steward gaped. "What? But you can't -"
Eadwine turned to Deornoth and Fulla and the other men of the militia. "You'd best go home now. Look after your folk and your families. You've done your duty and more besides."
Deornoth hesitated, looking half relieved and half disappointed, then offered, "We'll stay if you ask us to."
"Just take note I've already done my seven days for this month," rumbled Fulla. "I know my rights."
"Believe me, I know you do," Eadwine said dryly. His stern face softened. "I thank you for your offer, but your families need you more than I do now. Someone needs to keep order on the March until I return."
"Aye," Deornoth agreed, unhappily. "You'll come back?"
"I am still the Warden of the March, until the king says otherwise or until I die. Don't fear. Aethelferth and Black Dudda will break on Eboracum's walls like a ship on your cliffs. Unless the Three Ladies choose otherwise, I will be back before winter." He looked round for the five remaining warriors of his warband, who were already picking up weapons and filling water skins. "Got everything? Come on then -"
"Well!" declared the steward to the world in general. "I never thought I'd see the day when a king's son ran away like a coward without a blow struck, leaving us defenceless in the path of an army -"
Eadwine turned on him like a stooping falcon. "Half an army. Thanks to us! Don't tell me you didn't see the beacons summoning men to fight. And what did you do? Nothing! You left the Marchmen to do the fighting while you dozed behind our shields. You in the south think because you never see a raider that means there aren't any. Well, you're about to find out what it's like, and it's your responsibility to get the people of this estate through it with the least possible harm. So get off your lazy arse and herd your sheep out of danger. Earn your keep." He turned on his heel without waiting for a response and strode back to his weary companions. "Come on. One more march. You can rest in Eboracum."
On and on, mile after mile, the pale ribbon of the army-path unrolled through
field and copse and pasture. Following it in the faint starlight made few
demands on weary minds and bodies. None of them spoke. No-one had the energy
for the marching songs or ribald banter that would normally pass the time.
Half-stupefied with fatigue, Eadwine seemed to see the ghosts of all the other soldiers who had marched this road in the past and would march it in times yet to come, striding out to conquer new lands, or fleeing in shame from bloody defeat, or hastening to the aid of comrades in some beleaguered outpost. He thought with gratitude of the men who made the road, so long ago that no-one now remembered who they were, or even whether they were men or giants or gods. The builders were gone now, but their roads and their fortresses still remained, still guarding the rich plains of Deira, if only men had the wit and the courage to use them.
"Open up!" Eadwine hammered again on Eboracum's north gate. "Open
A pale worried face appeared on the ramparts above the gatehouse. "Who's there? Stand back so I can see you."
"I am Eadwine son of Aelle," Eadwine shouted up, stepping back onto the causeway so that the morning light would shine on his face and armour. "Open up!"
The sentry was still wary. "Give the password."
"I've been away for half a year, how would I know today's password?" Eadwine snapped back, losing patience. "But I know you, Ceolred. You hold land from Aldhere of Eoforwic, your ginger sow got into your storeroom last Yule and drank all the beer you'd brewed for your sister's wedding, your children are called Eadgyth and Ceolferth and your wife was expecting another this Midsummer just gone. Now get down here and open this gate!"
Running footsteps pattered in the gatehouse, the locking bar rattled in its socket, and the gate creaked open to reveal two suspicious spearmen.
"Can't be too careful," mumbled the older of the two, reluctantly standing aside. "Raiders and thieves all over the place, they've already burned the wharves and all the boats on the river, and folk say there's an army coming -"
"Two armies," Eadwine corrected grimly. "Or rather, one and a half. Where can I find my brother?"
"Lord Cynewulf's with the King -"
"No, no, my brother. Lord Eadric. The heir to Deira. Where is he?"
The guards exchanged awkward glances. Eadwine's voice grew sharp with anxiety. "What's happened? Tell me!"
The older sentry put a hand on his arm with rough kindness. "Easy, lad."
Eadwine went very still. What little colour was left in his face drained away and his voice dropped to a whisper. "Is he hurt?"
The sentry swallowed, shuffled, and finally spoke.
"Lord Eadric is dead."
Eadwine stumbled to his knees beside the remains of the pyre. So it was true.
Eadric was dead, and it seemed the sun had fallen out of the sky.
He found he was clutching a handful of ashes, as if trying to reach out to his beloved brother. Sighing, he opened his hand and let the grey fragments drift away on the wind. He should have formed a shield-wall and offered battle at Derwentcaster fort after all. A world without Eadric in it was a world not worth living in.
A slight sound penetrated his misery. He looked up, and for a moment his heart leaped in wild joy. Some mistake! Eadric was here, alive and well -!
He reached out and the illusion faded. Not Eadric. Eadric's son, Hereric. The boy had his father's blond colouring and muscular build, and the deceiving eye of hope had done the rest. Hereric's face was puffy from crying, his blue eyes bewildered. He recognised his young uncle and crept out from the willows fringing the river.
"My father's dead," he said, in a flat, dead tone that failed to stop his voice from quivering..
Eadwine's heart went out to him. Here was someone in greater need than himself.
"Yes," he answered, not trusting himself to say more.
"He died in battle." Hereric sniffed, unable to stop himself, and paused until he thought he had his voice under control again. "He was very brave -"
The sentence terminated in something between a snort and a sob, and the boy turned round hastily to hide his face.
"We'll avenge him, Hereric," Eadwine said quietly. "All those who killed him will die."
"But it won't bring him back!" That was a howl of pure misery, as Hereric gave way to his grief. "He's dead! Oh, he's dead, he's dead, and I'll never see him again -!"
The tears came in a scalding flood, and Eadwine put his arms around the boy and held him until the storm passed and Hereric's racking sobs died away into a series of sniffles and gulps and long shaking breaths. He said nothing, because he knew that if he spoke he would break down himself.
After a while, Hereric pulled away, averting his face and scrubbing at his eyes. Eadwine looked tactfully in the opposite direction until a tug at his sleeve indicated that Hereric considered himself presentable again.
"Don't tell anyone I was crying," he said, in a small and shaky voice, and then began to cry again, quietly and hopelessly. "I don't want to leave him," he wept, "it's all cold and grey and lonely here -"
"But he isn't here any more," Eadwine said softly, striving for something that might ease the boy's grief. "He isn't lying in the cold ashes. His spirit has flown away on the smoke and gone straight to the gods. So you and I are here missing a father and a brother, and your mother is missing her husband, but Eadric isn't missing us. Tonight is his great night. Tonight he enters Woden's hall. Don't think of him as he was when he was laid on the pyre, but as he is now. The limp that troubled him since his fall two winters ago has gone. The wounds that killed him have all vanished. His hair is thick and gold and gleaming, even where he was going bald on top. He is as strong and handsome and merry as when he was a young man and carried you around on his shoulders, but he has the wisdom and the experience of his years. He is dressed in his best clothes - green trousers, a blue tunic, a scarlet cloak. A slave girl is arraying him for war. She settles his mail shirt on his shoulders. Girds his sword at his waist. Standing on a stool - for he was a tall man - she sets his boar-crested helmet on his head. In his left hand he takes his shield. In his right he grips his spear."
A quick glance sideways confirmed that he had Hereric's rapt attention.
"Now see him entering Woden's hall. It is a magnificent building, a hundred times bigger than the palace at Eboracum, built not from stone but from massive timbers hewn by the giants at Thunor's command. Tapestries worked by Frija and her maidens adorn the walls, showing how Woden hung upon the World Tree to win the mead of poetry, how Thunor fought the serpent and defeated the giants. All are so richly ablaze with gold and colours that the pictures seem alive. A great fire burns in the centre, built from whole trees, and the light of it flows over the land for miles around. Over it hangs a huge cauldron, big enough to cook two whole oxen at once. Woden's handmaids, each as fair as the fairest princess, carry mead and meat and bread to the warriors. A skald sings the Lay of Beowulf. All the great warriors are there, at feast after a day in the field. Look along the mead-benches at all the famous faces. There is Offa, who was king in Angeln over the sea. Osferth, who first brought the men of Deira across the sea to serve the Emperors in Britannia. Westerfalca, who kept faith with the kings of Eboracum when the Jutes rebelled and was recognised as the first king of Deira in consequence - your great-great-great-great grandfather, Hereric. And at his side sits Eadhelm, your uncle who fell at the battle of Caer Greu and who your father avenged on the field. Every man there is a king or an atheling.
"Now the door swings wide. The flames flicker and out of the swirling smoke strides your father. His mail coat glitters. The grey blade of the spear in his hand glints. The red eyes of the boar upon his helmet glow as if alive, defying anyone to harm the man under its protection. On his shield the fire-drakes writhe, blue and red and green. The hilt of his sword, gold and jewelled, flashes in the firelight so that it hurts the eye to look upon it. At his shoulder the brooch on his cloak sparkles. Beside him the slave girl, though a strapping lass, can barely stagger under the weight of gold and silver plate in her arms.
"The skald ceases in his song. All along the mead-benches the warriors stop their talk, fall silent and turn to gaze. Woden's handmaids pause in their serving and stare, nudge one another and whisper. There are great names among the drinkers in that hall, men who were kings here on earth, yet none came there more richly provisioned, nor more noble in his bearing. All eyes follow him as he strides through the hall. Who is he, this tall and handsome man, bearing gifts of such splendour? Surely a king, king of the greatest kingdom on earth.
"He approaches the top table where the gods sit at meat, the three sons of Tiw Allfather who rule the world of the gods. Woden in the centre, an awesome figure more than man-high, his face shrouded, his one eye burning like a coal. Lord Frey on the left, the foster-son, his golden hair bright as the sun. Thunor on the right, his shoulders three times broader than a big man, his red beard flowing over his mighty chest. On the table before him lies his hammer, that forged the earth and has shattered many a giant's skull, and in his hand he holds the whetstone that makes the lightning flash in the skies. You and I, Hereric, would fall in fear before them, but your father has passed the dread gates of death and they hold no terror for him. He stands before Woden as a thane before his king, respectful, admiring, but not servile, a free man among his equals. At his gesture, the slave girl spreads her burden on the table before the gods. They are pleased with the gifts, for though they have many rare and beautiful things, they have nothing finer.
"Woden rises, cloaked in shadow. He is tall, taller than the tallest man, and his head brushes the rafters of that lofty hall. His voice is like the roar of flame in a forest, like the thunder of waves upon a shore. Woden speaks."
Eadwine pitched his own voice as deep as it would go. "Welcome to my hall, Eadric son of Aelle, Atheling of Deira. Long you have been in the coming. There is one here who has waited for you."
He reverted to his normal tones with a certain amount of relief. "And from the mead-benches rises his brother Eadhelm who fell alongside the kings of Eboracum at Caer Greu more than twenty years ago. They embrace, for they were close here on earth and long kept one another's backs against the foe, and it was to avenge Eadhelm that Eadric slew the Bernician prince. He takes his place on the mead-benches, between Eadhelm and Westerfalca. Mead is brought to him, and boiled meat, and fine white bread. And at a word from Woden the skald sings again, but this time it is a new lay, the Lay of Eadric of Deira, the scourge of Bernicia, the helmet of his people.
"And at the end of the evening, when men are beginning to think not of talk and song but of sleep, Lady Frija, Queen of the gods, enters the hall. More lovely is she than any human lady, adorned with gold and jewels of rare beauty. She bears a great golden cup filled with rich red wine, and after Woden and Thunor and Frey have drunk she carries the cup to your father, first among all Woden's thanes. Her eyes are bright like the stars at evening, and her voice is like the sparkling of clear water."
He considered trying to imitate a goddess' falsetto and decided against it. If he succeeded he would never hear the last of it. "She welcomes your father to her lord's hall, and says that she will never again fear the attacks of the giants. And so your father enters Woden's service, not the least among his housecarls, and there he will fight for Woden and Thunor against the giants until you go to join him and are welcomed to Woden's hall in your turn."
Hereric sniffed again, but his face had relaxed and when he spoke his voice was more normal. "I wish somebody had told me all that before."
"Surely you knew about Woden's hall?"
"Sort of," agreed Hereric, wiping his nose on his sleeve. "But nobody tells it like you do. I missed you when you went up north." He peered up at the sky. "Is Dad really up there somewhere looking down on us?"
"Yes," Eadwine said firmly. Consoling the boy had brought him some comfort too. "So we have to make him proud of us. You'll grow into a fine young man in a few years, and people will look at you and see your father in you. You're his immortality, Hereric, as much as any of the poetry his skalds will sing about him. As long as men remember him as the great hero he was, he will never really die." He took Hereric's arm. "Come along. The sun is well into the west and we ought to be getting back to the city before they bar the gates. This is no time to be outside the walls. Look at the smoke in the north! The Bernicians can't be more than a few miles away."
"Why aren't you fighting them?"
Eadwine managed not to flinch at the question. "I have been."
"Did you win?"
Hereric looked doubtful, not being aware that the question could have any answer other than yes or no. He liked his young uncle, who was undeniably odd and whose interest in Brittonic poetry and devotion to his betrothed made him a frequent target of mockery, but who was kind and funny and always had time for him. Hereric did not want to think Eadwine was a coward and have to despise him. He swallowed. "You didn't -" he hesitated over the shameful words "- you didn't run away?"
Hereric swallowed again. "Did you kill lots of Bernicians?"
Hereric looked a little happier with that answer, though still puzzled.
"Why aren't you pleased about it?"
Eadwine ran his free hand wearily through his hair. "Because it doesn't seem important any more."
"Why are they attacking us? King Aethelferth's supposed to be our ally, isn't he? Since Aunt Acha went to Bernicia to marry him. It's not fair!"
"Because Aethelferth never keeps his promises," Eadwine said bitterly. "His Brittonic nickname is Aethelferth Flesaurs, which means Aethelferth the Twister in our language. You know his banner is a double-headed serpent? Think of it as a two-faced snake. It suits him."
"Why -" Hereric began, and broke off, shrinking close to Eadwine's side in sudden fear. The riverside path was barred by a huge warrior, towering half a head taller than Eadwine (who was himself a tall man), broad in proportion, and bristling with red hair and red beard. He could have been the god Thunor come to earth, except that instead of a whetstone and a hammer he carried a wicked-looking spear and a small round shield of unmistakable design.
Hereric planted himself shoulder-to-shoulder with his uncle and drew his small eating knife from his belt, determined to sell their lives dearly.
"It's all right, Hereric," Eadwine said, "this is Drust. He belongs to my warband."
Hereric's eyes were as round as the shield. "But he - he - he's -" his voice dropped to a shocked whisper "- he's a Pict!"
"Son of the Goddess," chorused Eadwine and Drust in unison.
Drust grinned. "Ye're learning." He looked down on Hereric like a kindly giant. "Ye can put the knife away, laddie. Ye're safe enough. We only eat boys at the full moon."
Hereric gulped, and then realised he was being teased. His expression changed from one of terror to one of fascination.
"I keep my tail in my trews and my cloven hooves in my boots," remarked Drust, after some minutes under Hereric's unblinking stare.
Hereric blushed and stammered an apology.
"Och, dinna fret, laddie. Ye're no the first to look at me like that here."
"You ought not to be wandering around on your own down here," Eadwine said. "Didn't I tell you to go to the King's hall for food and rest? Big square stone building in the middle of the city, go through the courtyard and the hall's opposite the main gate, you can't miss it." He ran a hand through his hair in a distracted gesture. "I meant to -"
"Ye did, and I didna mind ye. I dinna care tae leave my lord outwith the walls, and with the enemy so close. Yon guard tried tae stop me, but I can take care of myself."
Eadwine sighed. "I'm sure you can, but I don't want you beating up all our soldiers. Here." He unfastened the brooch from his cloak, turning it so the incised bull design caught the light. "My word doesn't count for much here, but the badge of my father's house does. Wear that and no-one will challenge you."
"How come you're working for Uncle Eadwine?" Hereric interrupted, his curiosity overcoming his alarm.
"We agreed -" Eadwine began.
"He beat me," said Drust, admitting the disgrace with the air of one who won't shirk an unpleasant duty but wants to get it over with as soon as possible.
Hereric looked at his uncle with new respect. He had beaten this mighty warrior?
"So you're his slave? But you've got weapons and everything -"
"I swore to serve him if he let my men go free. Ye could call me a hostage."
Hereric frowned. "So your men left you and ran away? That's disgusting! They should have died for you!"
"Aye, weel. And they would ha' done, in a fair fight, if they thought it would ha' saved me. But as it was -" he cast Eadwine a glance of grudging admiration "- as it was, none of us was going to get home alive. So I made a bargain."
"They should still have died for you! You had a right to expect them to!"
Drust fixed him with a disconcerting stare. "Ye think so, laddie? Ye dinna think they had a right tae expect me tae spot the trap? I was the fool. 'Tis right I should pay the price. 'Tis a cruel thing tae have other men die for ye, laddie. Ye mind that, when ye're old enough tae lead."
"But - you're the important one - they don't matter -"
"Hereric, I'm surprised at you," Eadwine said, a sharp edge in his tone. "Where did you get that idea from? Everything works both ways. You expect your men to obey you, and that means you have to take as much care of their lives and their honour as you do of your own. More, if anything. You expect the people of your lands to feed and clothe and maintain you and your warband, so they expect you to protect them. Rights on both sides. That's what makes it fair." He looked at the smoke smearing the northern horizon and his hands clenched and unclenched like a man in pain. "And the Twister is burning Eboracum Vale, and I can't stop him! I couldn't even keep Black Dudda out of my own March -!"
"Och, they'll be away home soon," Drust said comfortably. "The Twister canna take yon city. Ye could hold it with a parcel of weans and women. I'm thinking yon auld Romans canna ha' been much for fighting, or they wouldna ha' needed tae build such a thing."
"Cynewulf says that," Hereric put in, excited to be discussing warfare with this exotic new acquaintance. "He says walls are for cowards and we should march out and fight on the honest earth like men!"
"Cynewulf is the biggest fool on the Council, and that's a hotly contested title," Eadwine said. "All mouth and prick, as - as -"
He broke off. That had been Eadric's epithet for his illegitimate rival, and the sudden reminder of his loss took his breath away.
"But lots of people say the same," argued Hereric. "Treowin agrees with him." He only just refrained from adding "So there!" Treowin was Eadwine's oldest and closest friend, so Hereric expected Eadwine to concede the point immediately. Instead, Eadwine merely shook his head and sighed.
Drust grinned. "Och, 'tis all true that ye Sassenach sheep havena the sense of a babe. Aethelferth canna take yon city, but on the field he'll eat ye, laddie. He's thrashed every king in the North who's ever fought him."
"But they were only Brittonic, or Irish, or something," Hereric protested. "Not proper warriors like us. Everyone says we'll beat him in battle easy enough."
Drust's grin turned into incredulous laughter. "Och, if I'd ha' known, I'd ha' led my men down Dere Street and never bothered with yon cliffy coast, and I'd be King of the North in Eboracum now. Ye seem determined tae lose." He sobered up, and turned to Eadwine. "'Twould be funnier if I wasna in the middle of it. Can ye make them see sense?"
"I never have yet," Eadwine said wearily, "but I can try."
Hereric looked uncertainly from one to the other. He was looking forward to the excitement of a battle that would avenge his beloved father. The prevailing wisdom at court considered Eadwine a dreamer with a head full of moonshine, and as Drust had lost to him he must be even less of a warrior, so therefore their opinions should be of little account. But they sounded very certain. And his father's death had shaken his belief in Deiran invincibility.
"So what do you think we should do, then?"
"Stand a siege," Eadwine answered instantly. "Look at the walls, Hereric! Imagine you're an enemy soldier trying to attack. Could you climb them? No. Could you batter them down? No. Could you break open the gates? Not with us on the towers and the gallery hurling stones and spears and arrows at you. So you sit down outside and try to starve us out. But you're a long way from home, you've no shelter, it's past the end of summer and in a few weeks it's going to be wet and cold, you've burnt all the harvest on your way here, and after a few weeks of bad food and bad water and sleeping in the mud your soldiers start falling sick with camp fever. And then we sally out from the city, where we've been warm and dry all this time, and Aethelferth will think himself lucky if he gets home alive. That's what cities are for. That's why Coel the Old made the giants build Eboracum for him, a long, long time ago."
They hurried in through the river gate, almost a short tunnel since the walls were so thick, and Hereric felt almost sorry for the attackers.
"Can I -?" he began, but was interrupted by a disapproving voice.
"Eadwine! I was just about to send a search party! Where have you been?"
"Visiting my brother's grave," Eadwine said sharply. "By the Hammer, Treowin, why so many people? It looks as if you've come to arrest me!"
"Don't joke about it!" Treowin exclaimed. He was about Eadwine's age, the son of Deira's most aristocratic family, a thin, dark young man with an intense manner. He jerked his head in the direction of the smoke in the north. "I hope you've got a good reason for that."
An attractive dark-haired woman, no longer quite young, pushed her way through the crowd, calling Hereric's name in a strong Brittonic accent. Hereric scowled, recognising her as Rhonwen, one of his mother's ladies, and tried to hide behind Drust. But he was too late. Rhonwen had seen him, and swept down as inexorably as the incoming tide.
"Hereric! You bad boy! Your mother was so worried - Why, Eadwine! They told me you were back." She stood on tiptoe, put her arms round Eadwine's neck, kissed him very deliberately, whispered something in his ear that made him start and stare at her, and then took Hereric's reluctant hand and led the boy away, throwing a suggestive smile over her shoulder.
"Old flame still burning for you, eh?" Treowin smirked, joining in the ribald laughter. "Nice-looking piece. You take her up on it. No call for you to be faithful to your wife after you're married, never mind before."
Eadwine was still gazing after the woman, not listening, his mind in a whirl. Those whispered words had not been an amorous invitation after all. Rhonwen had said, Princess Heledd fears for the boy's life. Come to her chambers after dark.
Treowin shook him by the shoulder. "You've work to do first." He looked at his friend sympathetically. "You look terrible. I'm sorry, I'd make excuses for you if I could, but the Council said now and they said it more than an hour ago. I hope your story's a good one. They're not pleased with you."
"And what the hell have you been doing?" Aethelferth of Bernicia slammed his fist into his palm and every man within earshot jumped. "You got here in twice the time with half the men. What are you, an old woman?"
Black Dudda stumbled through his sorry tale. The harbour mouth blocked by a burning ship so he had to land on the wrong side of the river. The ford spiked with Roman thorns, turning it into a killing ground of crippled and floundering men under a stinging rain of arrows. The deliberately set moorland wildfire that engulfed his camp and roasted those who could not run. The scouts and forage parties who set out and never returned. The sudden assault from forest or reed-bed that came without warning and vanished without trace, save for the wounded and dead.
The scar on Aethelferth's face stood out livid against his tanned skin as he listened, never a good sign, and the other captains and warlords exchanged wry glances. Black Dudda had been the subject of much envy when Aethelferth selected him for command, but now it looked like a very short straw indeed. More than one put a hand to an amulet or good-luck charm and offered silent thanks to their favourite god or saint.
"I told you they'd got a competent marchwarden for once," commented one of the captains, speaking Anglian but with the lilting accent that betrayed a Brittonic origin. "There's a reason why I've given up raiding that coast."
Aethelferth gave him a level stare. "You know him? Who is he?"
"Eadwine son of Aelle. Your new wife's youngest brother. Half-brother, I should say. Lord King," he remembered, as an afterthought.
Aethelferth frowned. "Acha doesn't think much of him. He's a stripling."
"He's a weasel bastard and I'm going to break his neck!" snarled Black Dudda, who did not take defeat well.
The Brittonic captain eyed him with dislike and not a little satisfaction. Even in the fierce company of Aethelferth's captains Black Dudda was regarded with a mixture of disgust and fear. He turned back to Aethelferth.
"Eadwine is young, yes, but he's sharp. And he's his mother's son. Or perhaps I should say his grandfather's grandson. Your fathers slew Peredur King of Eboracum and his brother over twenty years ago at Caer Greu, and Peredur's son ran away, yes. But Peredur left a daughter too, and she married Aelle and made herself Queen of both Eboracum and Deira. This Eadwine is the result. He is the heir of Coel the Old, King of all the North, and this is Coel's city. Blood like that tells, Lord King."
An uneasy muttering broke out, and the captains looked unhappily across the newly-deserted fields to Eboracum, glowing gold in the setting sun. The ancient fortress was rectangular and immensely strong, sitting on a natural defensive site between two rivers. The broad River Ouse flowed past the south-west walls, spanned by a single imposing stone bridge that linked the fortress with the civilian city on the opposite bank. On the east side of the fortress was the River Foss, smaller but still a notable barrier, and the two rivers joined at an oblique angle some half a mile south of the fortress, protecting that flank. If any enemy made it across the natural defences, he was faced with a deep ditch to cross, full of clinging brambles. Then an earth rampart topped by thirty feet of vertical limestone walls jointed without ledge or crack. The massive gates in each wall were flanked by projecting towers and topped by a fighting gallery, from which the defenders could rain missiles down onto the attackers. Two huge many-angled towers on the corners fronting the Ouse, and more towers at the other two corners and at intervals round the rest of the circuit, completed the picture.
Aethelferth's captains, hardened fighters to a man, paled. The emperor who had rebuilt the city's forbidding defences three centuries before had intended it to overawe barbarian warriors. It was still working.
Aethelferth spat. His original intention had been thoroughly wrecked, partly by Black Dudda's delay and partly because the Deirans had bolted into their city like mice into a hole at his approach, rather than marching out to stop the burning of Eboracum Vale as they were supposed to. But he was rarely at a loss for long. He already had a new plan for the impregnable city.
"Remember, lads," he said, "it ain't the walls that fight. You think Aethelferth the Twister can't outwit Aelle Ox-brains?" He drew his sword and held it up, the blade glowing red in the dying light. "Hear me, Woden! Hear me, O Masked One, Lord of Hosts, Master of the Gallows, Giver of Victory! Put fear into the hearts of our enemies, shackle them in the war-fetters, drive them witless and terrified before us! Give us victory, and I will give to you Aelle and his son Eadwine, King and Atheling, as a gift to your power! This I swear on my sword and call all the gods as witness! Hear me, O Terrible One! Hear me!"
A large black crow, startled by the shouting, flapped out of the trees and flew away looking for a more peaceful place to roost.
"A raven!" someone cried. "The bird of Woden! See, it flies over the city! An omen! He has given them into our hands!"
Paths of Exile is available to buy from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, and bookshops should be able to order copies. It is also available from the Book Depository (free worldwide shipping).
Paths of Exile is published by Trifolium Books UK.