Read an Excerpt
8 June 793Lindisfarne, Northumbria
Annis pressed her lips together, trying to keep her head from moving as her maid plaited her hair. What had she really hoped for? That her uncle, the Abbot of St Cuthbert's Priory, would give her money to fight her stepfather? His only suggested alternative had been the church. She could have a good position as long as she brought her dowry with her.
'My lady, it will take less time if you bend your head slightly this way.'
Annis regarded the wall of the guesthouse at St Cuthbert's, with its mural of Mary kneeling at the base of the cross, and concentrated harder.
It had been a mistake to come. Last night's conversation still rang in her ears. Her uncle refused to listen to her arguments. Why had she ever thought otherwise?
She'd leave the monastery and the island tomorrow at low tide when the causeway was passable, Annis decided. She would have to return home to Birdoswald on the River Irthing in the west of Northumbria. And face the future her way.
'Is this suitable, my lady?'
Her new maidservant, Mildreth, finished plaiting her hair and handed her a small mirror. Annis took a brief glance at herself. Her wayward tumble of brown curls had been tamed into two neat plaits on either side of her head. Annis considered her hair to be her best feature, perhaps her only noteworthy feature, but something with a will of its own. Mildreth knew what she was doing, she'd allow, but Annis refused to trust her.
Mildreth was her stepfather's creature. Had to be. Her stepfather had forced all her maids and retainers to be changed after her husband had died and she had returned to the family lands. There had been no excuse for her to stay with Selwyn's family. She had no child and her sister-in-law had always resented her. So she had returned, hoping for a better reception, and discovered her stepfather firmly in control of the family lands.
'Soon we will be preparing for your betrothal.'
'If God wills ' Annis placed the mirror back on the dressing table and forced her face to remain bland. She had no intention of marrying her stepfather's son, the odious Eadgar, with his damp hands and even damper manner. Neither did she intend on retiring to a convent as her uncle had suggested. There had to be another way.
'You will have to marry sometime. Eadgar is a fine' Mildreth stopped and her face grew distressed. 'Mistress, I cannot lie. I have grown fond of you. Eadgar is a terror. All the maidservants fear him if they are caught alone with him. Please say nothing.'
Annis caught Mildreth's hand. A faint pink tinged the maid's cheeks, making her almost pretty. Annis felt happier than she had been in weeks. Her journey to Lindisfarne had not been in vain. She had discovered an ally of sorts.
'We share the same view of Eadgar.'
'They said you were kind, my lady, and you are.'
'It is far too soon to speak of remarriage in any case.'Annis straightened the neck of her gown. 'My husband is barely cold in his grave. There will be time enough to speak of marriage after I have finished mourning him. I came here seeking my uncle's advice and, having received it, I will return to my home.'
'As you say, my lady.'
A sudden fierce tolling of the bells resounded in the room, crowding out all thought or speech. Every fibre of Annis's being tensed.
'We are going to be attacked!' Mildreth wrung her hands. 'Murdered in our beds!'
Annis forced a breath from her lips. Despite the increasing shrillness of the bells, she had to stay calm. It could be anything. Blind panic would not serve.
'Attack? Really, Mildreth, you must not let your fears take hold. Who would dare attack this place?'She forced her voice to sound normal. Annis wasn't quite sure whom she was trying to convince, her maid or herself. 'The bells will be ringing for another reason. A pilgrim misjudged the tide and is stuck on the causeway.'
Mildreth gave a tremulous smile and ducked her head as the bells continued to peal. Annis offered up a small prayer that her words were correct. They had to be. Who would risk eternal damnation by attacking one of the most holy and learned sites in Northumbria, if not Europe?
The protection it offered was the reason her family chose to store the bulk of their coin with the monks rather than keeping it in locked chests on their estates. The vast majority of landowners in Northumbria used this simple but effective way of ensuring their coin was truly safe.
Then, as suddenly as the bells started, they stopped. The silence became deafening.
'It will be nothing.'Annis's voice sounded loud, echoing off the wooden walls. 'A ship might have been stranded and a monk panicked. My uncle says some of the newer monks can be excitable. Whatever it was, it is sure to have been solved.'
'As you say, my lady.'
Mildreth gave another nod, but her thin face bore a distinctly unhappy look to it. Annis reached out and touched her hand.
'All will be well, Mildreth. We are in God's place. He will look after us.'
'There have been portents,'Mildreth said and then dropped her voice to a whisper. 'One of the monks said he saw dragons flying across the moon. And strange fires in the night. Whirlwinds in the skies. Something to punish us for our wicked, sinful ways. They were speaking of it in the Abbot's scullery only yesterday.'
'Tales to frighten young maidservants, without a doubt.' Annis gave an uneasy laugh. 'By Michaelmas, after the harvest, no one will remember. It is the way of things.'
Annis rose and crossed quickly to the small window that overlooked the sea. Yesterday, she had admired the view of clear yellow sand and bright sparkling water, empty save for a few fishing boats. Today, an entirely different sight lay before her.
'I may have been wrong, Mildreth. The monastery has company.'Annis fought to keep the sound of rising panic out of her voice. She must not jump to conclusions. She was too impatient, her imagination too active, or so her uncle had told her several times this visit.
The early morning sunshine threw sparkles on the water but the sea was no longer empty. Three boats with serpents on their prows, round shields on their sides and red-and-white striped sails were in the shallow bay. One had drawn up on shore while the others followed closely behind.
As Annis watched, warriors disembarked from the first serpent ship, wading through the surf. They were dressed in trousers and chain mail, carrying their helmets and round shields. An air of wildness hung about them. No two were dressed alike. Heathens. Pagans. Raiders.
Annis leant out the window to get a better look. The leader had dark hair that touched his shoulders and several days' growth on his beard. An intricate design of a serpent and beast fighting covered his shield. The warriors behind him ranged from a wild man with flowing hair and beard to a slim, blonder version of the leader. The leader glanced up towards the window. His startling blue gaze held hers for a heartbeat. A brief smile touched his lips as he turned to greet the group hurrying from the monastery. Annis put her hand to her throat.
Had he seen her?
Her uncle stood at the front of the group in his white habit, taller than the rest, but not as tall as the barbarian leader, with an air of confidence and command. Annis gave a half-smile. She had been wrong to worry. Her uncle's skill as a politician was renowned throughout Northumbria and Mercia. She was certain he would have the measure of these heathen warriors in no time.
Her uncle held out his hand to be kissed in the traditional manner. The pagan warlord ignored it, and inclined his head before he handed her uncle a tablet.
The colour drained from her uncle's face and his hand shook.
What did these barbarians want?
Haakon Haroldson stared in disbelief at the fine-featured Abbot. He had shown the elderly man the tablet and the tablet was quite specific. He had made certain of that, taking the trouble to read it after Oeric the Scot's scribe had written the demand out. And he personally placed Oeric's seal on it.
The felag had come for gold coin lawfully owed them. If they could trade or provide some measure of protection while they were here, so much the better. But no one cheated them.
This summer's sea voyage was proving reasonably profitable. The new design for the boats had worked, skimming the ocean's surface, increasing their speed. The Scots desired the Vikens' thick fur pelts and amber beads.
There was simply this business to conclude. Then they sailed back home with honour.
'We have come here for the money Oeric the Scot owes us.'
The Abbot raised a brow. 'I am surprised at a Norseman speaking Latin.'
'We are traders. We learn the languages as they are needed.' Haakon kept his eyes fixed somewhere over the Abbot's shoulder. There was no need to give his life's history, not yet. Later, perhaps when their business dealings were complete and they were enjoying a cup of mead together. He held out his hands, palms upwards. 'We come in peace. We only want what is promised us.'
'How can I tell this tablet is genuine?'
'We would have hardly come here if it wasn't.'
'I have heard of raids by your sort against defenceless farms.'
'Other traders. Not us. We come to do business, not to make war.' Haakon permitted a smile to cross his features. 'Although we have been known to provide protection, should it be required.'
'This is God's chosen place. We have no need of protection here.'
Haakon was pleased neither his half-brother, Thrand, or, more importantly, his leading oarsman, Bjorn, understood Latin. It had been hard enough arguing with Bjorn that they should try for peaceful negotiations. There was much potential for good trading with Northumbria, but equally there were dangers. The Northumbrians were known to be skilful fighters. Haakon glanced at the large berserker standing next to him. There were many who might say that Bjorn's place was back on the boat, but he wanted him here, in case of trouble.
Beside him Bjorn stiffened and his nostrils flared. What did his old friend sense? Were there Valkyries in the light breeze? Haakon dismissed the thought as fanciful.
'We have come in peace,' Haakon said again, keeping his voice steady.
The monks might look feeble, but he felt certain the monastery would be well guarded. How could it be otherwise? He had heard tales of its fabulous wealth and learning. Surely he and his men were not the first to have been tempted, but the Viken did not have enough men for a sustained assault. They had lost several to storms and sickness earlier in the summer. They would need each one to get the boats safely back home. It would be too risky a venture. They would settle this dispute diplomatically.
'If you have come in peace, then perhaps we should discuss this.' The Abbot bowed his silver head. 'No doubt once I have weighed the merits of the case, I can make a better assessment. May I?'
'There are few merits to weigh.'
'But I fear you have been sent here on a fool's errand. I do not know offhand if we store any money for Oeric the Scot.'
'That is not my problem. The Scot showed me the tablet in your hand, with your seal, saying you did.'
A monk with a pockmarked face, standing at the Abbot's side, tugged on his robe and then whispered in his ear. Haakon watched a frown appear on the Abbot's face.
'And you have this tablet?' The Abbot held out his hand, and then let it drop to his side. 'I thought not. Still, I will investigate it. It will take some time. You and your men are welcome to take on water and supplies.'
'I do have his mark.' Haakon gritted his teeth and crossed his arms. 'Oeric assured me that would be sufficient. We do not intend to be cheated out of our rightful gold.'
'You scum, you raiding scum. My uncle Oeric never cheated anyone!' the pockmarked monk shouted out. 'You cannot foul this holy place with your poisonous heathen lies.'
'You are right, cousin!' another shouted. 'These are the raiders who destroyed my father's farm last year.'
'We never' Haakon began.
Before he could finish the sentence, the second monk rushed forward with an outstretched dagger, reaching Erik and stabbing him in the stomach before he could react. A red stain spread out over his leather jerkin.
'To me! To me!' Haakon shouted. 'We have been attacked!'
Annis leant out as far as she dared and tried to hear the exchange of words between her uncle and the handsome barbarian.
Her uncle, head held high, turned his back and began to walk away. Someone called out sharply in a foreign tongue. Her uncle stopped. A monk rushed forward, punched one of the barbarians in the stomach. How would her uncle punish the insubordination? Her uncle's guards rushed forward to protect the monk as the raiders drew their swords.
Annis felt as if she was watching underwater. Time slowed and each movement seemed to take an age. The guards charged, but were engaged immediately.
The wild man lifted his axe aloft, shouting in a barbaric tongue. The dark-haired man put out his hand to check him, but the man shrugged him off as he advanced towards her uncle, axe gleaming in the morning sun.
Her uncle did not move. There was a questioning look on his face. He held up his handsin blessing or as a plea.
The barbarian paid no attention. He brought his axe down with a single savage blow.
Annis stifled a cry and turned her face from the horror, but the image of the axe falling, and blood spurting, staining the golden sand with its deep red as her uncle's head rolled, was imprinted on her brain. She did not dare look back as the noise from the beach swelled around her, screams and pleas for mercy combined with furious barbaric chanting.
The bells began pealing furiously again.
Her body became numb. Her hand covered her mouth and her insides churned. Her brain kept protesting that this could not be real. It had to be a nightmare. Such things did not happen here.
Annis wanted to sink to her knees and cry, but above all she wanted to wake up. She bit her lip, tasted blood and then she knew everything was real, horribly, terribly real. But her feet remained frozen. Annis knew if she glanced back, the golden sands would be stained red with blood.
'What is it, my lady? What has happened? Your face has gone pale. Tell mewhat did you see?' Mildreth's voice cut through her paralysis.
'We need to hide. Quickly.' Annis clasped her hands together. 'Something terrible has happened on the beach. We are not safe. No one is safe.'
Annis swept the contents of her dressing table into a satchel as she tried to think clearly. There had been rumours of such creatures for several years, attacking farms and demanding tribute from towns near the coast, but she had never imagined any barbarian would attack here. The stories her uncle told were about robbery, rape and worse. He had considered them exaggerated, but she now knew they were too mild. This heathen horde was capable of anything. They had to leave. Now, before they were discovered.
'Hide?' Mildreth squeaked, her eyes growing round in her thin face. 'Hide where? Shall we go to the church? St Cuthbert in his tomb will protect us.'
'No.' The image of the axe falling on her uncle's head flashed before Annis. 'They did not respect God's representative. Why should they respect his holy place?'
Mildreth crossed herself and fell to her knees. 'Then we are doomed.'
'Never say that.' Annis grabbed Mildreth's arm and tried to right her, but the maid was having none of it. She kept to the ground and started to mutter her rosary. Annis passed a hand over her eyes. She had no desire to curl up into a ball. She wanted to live. There had to be a way to escape. 'We need to make it to the mainland. Raise the alarm.'