Beobrand has land, men and riches. He should be content. And yet he cannot find peace until his enemies are food for the ravens. But before Beobrand can embark on his bloodfeud, King Oswald orders him southward, to escort holy men bearing sacred relics.
When Penda of Mercia marches a warhost into the southern kingdoms, Beobrand and his men are thrown into the midst of the conflict. Beobrand soon finds himself fighting for his life and his honour.
In the chaos that grips the south, dark secrets are exposed, bringing into question much that Beobrand had believed true. Can he unearth the answers and exact the vengeance he craves? Or will the blood-price prove too high, even for a warrior of his battle-fame and skill?
It is a pleasure to welcome Matthew Harffy to the blog today. Matthew’s Bernicia Chronicles are some of the best stories of the Dark Ages that you will ever read. To celebrate the paperback release of Killer of Kings, Matthew has stopped by History … the Interesting Bits with a taster of this fabulous story….
FRANKIA, AD 635
“Be careful there, you two!”
The cry came from old Halig. He worried like a maid.
Wuscfrea ignored him, leaping up to the next branch of the gnarled oak. The bark was damp and cold, but the sun was warm on his face as he looked for the next handhold. They had been enclosed in the hall for endless days of storms. Great gusts of wind had made the hall creak and moan as if it would collapse and when they had peered through the windows, the world had been hidden beneath the sheeting rain.
After so long inside it felt wonderful to be able to run free in the open air.
A crow cawed angrily at Wuscfrea from a perch high in the canopy of the trees. The boy laughed, echoing the bird’s call.
“Away with you,” Wuscfrea shouted at the creature. “You have wings, so use them. The sun is shining and the world is warm.” The crow gazed at him with its beady eyes, but did not leave its branch. Wuscfrea looked down. Fair-haired Yffi was some way below, but was grinning up at him.
“Wait for me,” Yffi shouted, his voice high and excited.
“Wait for me, uncle,” Wuscfrea corrected him, smiling. He knew how it angered Yffi to be reminded that Wuscfrea was the son of Edwin, the king, while he was only the son of the atheling, Osfrid. The son of the king’s son.
“I’ll get you,” yelled Yffi and renewed his exertions, reaching for a thick branch and pulling himself up.
Wuscfrea saw a perfect path between the next few branches that would take him to the uppermost limbs of the oak. Beyond that he was not sure the branches would hold his weight. He scrambled up, his seven-year-old muscles strong and his body lithe.
The crow croaked again and lazily flapped into the sky. It seemed to observe him with a cold fury at being disturbed, but Wuscfrea merely spat at the bird. Today was a day to enjoy the fresh air and the warmth of the sun, not to worry about silly birds. For a moment, he frowned. He hoped Yffi had not seen the crow. Crows were the birds of war. Whenever he saw them Yffi recalled the tales of the battle of Elmet, and how the corpse-strewn bog had been covered by great clouds of the birds. The boys had frightened themselves by imagining how the birds had eaten so much man-flesh that they could barely fly. It was a black thought. As black as the wings of the crows. To think of the death of their fathers brought them nothing but grief. Wuscfrea shook the thoughts away. He would not allow himself to be made sad on such a bright day.
Glancing down, he saw that Yffi was struggling to reach a branch. He was a year younger than Wuscfrea, and shorter.
“Come on, nephew,” Wuscfrea goaded him. “Are you too small to join me up here? The views are fit for a king.” Wuscfrea laughed at the frustrated roar that came from Yffi. Yet there was no malice in his words. Despite being uncle and nephew, the two boys were more like brothers, and the best of friends. Still, it was good to be the superior climber. Yffi, even though younger, was better at most things. The long storm-riven days had seen the younger boy beat Wuscfrea ceaselessly at tafl and Yffi had joked that someone with turnips for brains would only be good to rule over pigs. The words had stung and Wuscfrea had sulked for a while until Yffi had brought him some of Berit’s cheese as an offering of truce. Wuscfrea loved the salty tang of the cheese and the insult was quickly put aside.
Now, as he pulled his head and shoulders above the thick leaves of the oak, Wuscfrea wondered whether he would ever be king of anything. Certainly not of this land, rich and lush as it was. This was Uncle Dagobert’s kingdom. Far to the south of Bernicia and Deira, the kingdoms his father had forged into the single realm of Northumbria. Far away and over the sea. A safe distance from the new king.
Wuscfrea breathed in deeply of the cool, crisp air. The treetops on the rolling hills all around swayed in the gentle breeze. The leaves sparkled and glistened in the sunlight. High in the sky to the north, wisps of white clouds floated like half-remembered dreams.
One day, he would travel north with a great warband, with Yffi at his side. They would have ships built from the wood of this great forest and they would ride the Whale Road to Northumbria. They would avenge their fathers’ slaying and take back the kingdom that should have been theirs. Wuscfrea’s chest swelled at the thought.
“Vengeance is a potent brew,” Halig had said to him when they had spoken of the battle of Elmet one night over a year before. “Drink of it and let it ferment in your belly. And one day you will wreak your revenge on the usurper, Oswald,” the old warrior had touched the iron cross at his neck. Wuscfrea had thought of how Jesu told his followers to turn the other cheek when struck and wondered what the Christ would think of the lust for revenge that burnt and bubbled inside him. But then Wuscfrea was the son of a great king, descended from the old gods themselves so they said, so why should he care what one god thought?
Glancing to the south, a smear of smoke told of the cooking fires of the great hall. They had walked far and would need to return soon. Suddenly hungry, Wuscfrea’s stomach grumbled. Several woodpigeons flew into the bright sunshine. Where was Yffi?
Wuscfrea peered down into the dappled darkness beneath him, but there was no sign of his younger nephew now. Had he gone too far with the jibes? He sighed. He would ask for Yffi’s pardon and let him beat him at a running race. He did not want the day spoilt by Yffi’s pouting.
“Yffi!” he called. “Come on. I’ll help you up so that you too can see the kingly view.” He couldn’t help himself from continuing the jest. “Yffi!”
No answer came. The crow flew close and cawed. The pigeons circled in the air above the wood, but did not settle.
“Yffi!” he shouted again. Silence.
Letting out a long sigh, Wuscfrea began to climb down. It seemed Yffi was not in a forgiving mood. Perhaps they should return to the hall and find something to eat. When hungry, Yffi was impossible.
Carefully picking his way back down from branch to branch, Wuscfrea shivered at the shift in temperature. It was much cooler in the shade of the trees and he would have liked to have spent a while longer basking in the warm sun-glow.
Dropping down to the leaf mould of the forest floor, Wuscfrea scanned around for signs of Yffi. Surely he had not run back to the hall without him. Halig would not have allowed him even if he had wanted to. The grizzled warrior was as protective of them as a she-wolf of her cubs. But where was Halig? All Wuscfrea could see were the boles of oak and elm.
“Come on, Yffi,” he said in a loud voice that he hoped veiled the beginning whispers of unease he felt. “I’m sorry. Let’s go back and get some of Berit’s honey-cakes.”
No answer came and Wuscfrea strained to hear any indication of movement. But there was no sound save for the wind-rustle of the trees.
Cold fingers of dread clawed at his back.
“Yffi! Halig!” He didn’t care now if they heard the fear in his voice.
What was that noise? Relief rushed through him. He had heard a stifled sound, choked off as one of them tried to remain silent. Perhaps Yffi suppressed his giggles from where he hid with Halig to teach Wuscfrea a lesson in humility.
He had them now.
Wuscfrea ran in the direction of the sound. Did they seek to make a fool of him? He would show them. His soft leather shoes slipped in the loamy soil as he skidded around the gnarly oak trunk. His face was flushed with excitement.
He passed the massive tree, laughter ready to burst forth from his lips. But the laughter never came. Instead, a whimpering moan issued from him. He skidded to a halt, his feet throwing up leaves and twigs. He lost his footing and landed on his behind. Hard.
Yffi and Halig were both there, but there were others behind the tree too. Strangers. Wuscfrea’s gaze first fell on a giant of a man, with a great, flame-red beard and hard eyes. In the man’s meaty grip was a huge axe, the head dripping with fresh blood. The corpse of old Halig lay propped against the tree, sword un-blooded in his hand, a great gash in his chest. The old warrior’s lifeless eyes stared up at the light shining down from the warm sun above the trees.
Some movement pulled his attention to another man. He was broad-shouldered, dark and scowling, his black hair in stark contrast to his fine blue warrior-jacket with its rich woven hem of yellow and red. In his left hand, this second stranger held the small figure of Yffi by the hair. Wuscfrea’s eyes met those of his nephew. He saw his own terror reflected there a hundredfold. The stranger’s right hand was moving. There was a knife in his hand. With a hideous sucking sound the knife sawed across Yffi’s throat and bit deeply. Yffi’s eyes widened and a gurgled scream keened from him. Hot blood spouted in the forest gloom. The knife cut through flesh and arteries and with each beat of the boy’s heart, his lifeblood gushed out and over Wuscfrea in a crimson arc.
Wuscfrea felt the hot wetness of the slaughter-dew soak him. His nephew’s blood covered his face, his chest, his outstretched legs. Wuscfrea could not move. He wanted to scream. He knew he should bellow his defiance of this dark-haired warrior and the red-bearded giant who had given him more deaths to avenge. A king would leap up from the cold leaf-strewn ground and launch himself at these strangers. He would scoop up the sword from his fallen gesith and slay the man’s murderers.
But Wuscfrea just stared. His breath came in short panting gasps as he watched the dark-haired man casually throw Yffi’s twitching body onto Halig’s corpse. Halig slid to one side, his dead hand finally losing its grip on the sword.
Wuscfrea knew he should do something. Anything. To die lying here was not the death of a great man. Not the death of a king for scops to sing of in mead halls.
Hot tears streamed down his face, smearing and mingling with Yffi’s blood. But he was yet a boy. He was no man. No king.
And, as the death-bringing stranger stepped towards him, an almost apologetic smile on his face and the gore-slick knife held tight in his grip, Wuscfrea knew he would never rule Northumbria.
From the fungus-encrusted trunk of a fallen elm the crow looked on with its cold black eyes as the bloody knife blade fell again and again.
About the author
Matthew grew up in Northumberland where the rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline had a huge impact on him. He now lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.
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