The Story So Far ...

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Excerpt from "To Be a Queen"

She slept, but only in short bursts. She would turn, and wake, remember that Wulfnoth stood guard outside her tent, and lie down on her right side to drift off for a while, only to wriggle onto her left and wake up again. The noise from the walls was ever present, like bird song. For weeks she had lived with the shouting, hammering, scraping and banging. Shouts to muster were common-place, as were the yelled curses in the foreign tongue from within the walls. As with the dawn chorus, it would wake her once in a while, she would acknowledge it for what it was, and sleep on again through the disturbance. She had lain on top of the bed, too hot to sink under the covers, and now, having slept for a while, she woke up feeling chilly. Grabbing at a blanket, she settled down again, not yet refreshed enough to consider rising. She lay down and closed her eyes once more. Then it came to her. There was no battle noise, no sound of machinery. Trundling cart wheels, digging spades and thudding boulders; all had stopped moving. 

She sat up, pulled on her boots and left the tent. Wulfnoth had disappeared. She was not concerned; he would not have left her unless he knew it was safe to do so. With a growing sense of hope, she walked through a camp which was now near deserted. Dear God, they must have breached the walls, or the gates, or both. Coming to the edge of the encampment she saw the gates of the town hanging open, one almost off its great hinges. Beyond the open gateway, the Danes, surrendered and surrounded, had been herded together. A Mercian banner fluttered from the watchtower. A thegn on the tower pointed his sword at her and began a victory chant. It was taken up by those below, who all joined in, shouting their triumph in the name of their lady. But Æthelflæd was looking at Frith, who walked towards her with his sword still in his hand, hanging low, dragging. He had blood on his face and his long hair was matted. He had his mail-coat on and she gave thanks for his innate tendency to be sensible at such times. But he walked like a wounded man, though she could see that he was whole. 

He bowed on one knee before her. “Lady, Derby is yours.” 

She put a hand on his shoulder. “Tell me. Who do we mourn?”

His blond brows came together to form a single line above his eyes. Beneath those blue-grey eyes, dark shadows of exhaustion robbed him of his beauty. Careworn, fatigued, speaking carefully through a cut lip, he could give her no more than a list of names. “Helmstan, Ælfric, Eadwine, Wulfwine.” 

The rest of her personal guard. 

“Eadric.” 

She opened her mouth but stood, gaping. What did she think to say? No? You are wrong? I misheard you? Of course he was not wrong; he would not break his own heart with lies. 

He struggled to his feet and she squeezed his arm. Nodding towards the inner courtyard she said, “Do what needs to be done here. I will speak to Elfwen.” 

She found her daughter in her tent. She wished that she could be like Frith, and give Elfwen a moment more of the world when it was right, before she plunged her into a deep lake where there was no light, only despair. But she knew that her face told Elfwen all that she needed to know. “Daughter, the town is ours. But many men died in the taking of it. Among them was Eadric.” 

Elfwen gasped but shook her head, believing as her mother had not, that the news was false. “No, that cannot be.” But as she spoke, the words, having hit her ears as lies, must have come into her mind as truth, and she fell face down onto her bed and wept. 

Æthelflæd stood still and let her cry out the initial pain, knowing that there would be more, for days, weeks, mayhap even months to come. 

When the first waves had left her body and the sobbing subsided, Elfwen sat up. 

“How can you stand there like that? Do you not care?” 

Æthelflæd flinched. She thinks I do not care because I do not weep. Once, many years ago, I would have thought the same thing. Oh, Dear Lord, I have loved and lost so often that I have forgot what the first time feels like. She took a step forward. 

Elfwen put out her hand. “No. Do not come near me. You are heartless.” 

Æthelflæd lifted her chin and let her head fall back. Her mouth opened and a strange animal cry came forth from her. It rose from within her core, and shocked her with its force. She looked her daughter in the eye and said, “Oh God, if I had opened my heart upon every death and let out the part of me that died with them, it would not have the strength left to carry on beating.” 

She left Elfwen alone with her tears. The girl would have to learn the hard way. There was no other.

4 comments:

  1. I like it. Poor Elfwen, on the first step of the road of sorrow so many women walk in wartime.

    My own blog is focussed on history, though I consider reopening an older writing blog once I have some good bits to share. Here's a little something from Forged at the Fighting, the first part of the Sichelstein saga, for you. :-)

    Takhol, War Prince of the Redarians, watched the cruelly bound prisoner his men dragged forward with hard grips on his upper arms. Karyl and Makar had not been gentle in the treatment of the man; blood from a cut in his temple trickled down his cheek, and he stumbled along with a limp. The man was tall though, tall and so slender one could call him emaciated.

    The men jerked the prisoner to an abrupt halt in front of Takhol and pushed him to his knees by a savage kick against his leg. The man looked expressionlessly at Takhol. Stringy auburn hair framed a gaunt, stubble-bearded face to go with the body; the man seemed to have missed more than one meal the last weeks. But it was the eyes that caught Takhol. Green, with a golden ring around the iris; the eyes of a wild creature in a trap. Haunted eyes. That man rode with Chernobog in his dreams, the shaman would say. A dangerous captive.

    He grasped for some Saxon words half buried in his brain. "What is your name?"

    "Athalard," the prisoner replied.

    A strange man indeed. He gave no father's name, no place he came from, no skill, nothing. "A man with no ties," Takhol said.

    "A warrior."

    "A warrior with no sword."

    A shadow darkened the man's eyes. "I will get a sword again."

    He may have lost much, but not his pride and courage, Takhol thought. "Let him stand," he told the men. And losen his bonds so the blood will flow again; I don't want him a cripple. Find some chains instead."

    Makar helped Athalard up, but the leg gave way under him and he sank to the ground again. "Get the healer," Takhol said. "Radegast's boar, what have you done to him?"

    "He fought hard," Makar said. "Wounded two ouf our men. So we had to hit him."

    "Who is wounded?"

    "Obak and Pachamil. Obak only got a cut in his arm, but Pachamil took a dagger thrust into his shoulder."

    Takhol noticed that Pachamil was slumping on the back of a horse, favouring his right shoulder which was wrapped in a bloody bandage. The healer would have to see to those men first. Again, Takhol wondered what to do with so dangerous a prisoner. He took a closer look. The man was dressed in a tunic and cloak of good wool, dyed blue, though the colour had faded a bit and there were tears and stains, and the leg of his russet breeches was stained with a dark patch, likely blood. A leather jerkin and shoes laced around the lower legs in typical Saxon fashion completed the garments. A nobleman, though not a rich one. Not worth any ransom, and the lack of a sword, the traces of exhaustion pointed at an outlawed man. Outlawed for what, Takhol wondered.

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    1. Great - I like this a lot. Little touches, such as the image of his being brought to his knees by a kick, bring the passage alive and paint a vivid picture :)

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  2. Thank you.

    Yes, Athalard doesn't have the best time of his life right now. ;-)

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