Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Petty Kings, Part 2

The arrow came from a shadow between buildings on his right hand side and pierced the skin between the king's chest and shoulder. Æthelstan's yell of pain and the shift in his weight caused his horse to rear and dance. The heavy longsword slipped from the king's grasp, clattering to the floor, and only sheer willpower kept him in his saddle. Weaponless, his arm hanging limply by his side, the king clung on with his one usable hand and forced his horse in the direction of the second archer, who was frantically trying to pull a shortsword from a leather scabbard.

In desperation, Æthelstan dived off his horse, hitting his assailant in the midriff and knocking him to the ground. Before the Mercian could react, the king smashed the gloved fist from his good arm again and again into the man's face. Æthelstan waited until two full blows after the man had gone limp before he finally rolled away and stood upright. As the anger and excitement subsided, the pain in his shoulder spread rapidly through his body, settling eventually in his knees and shins. He began to shake violently, and only remained on his feet at all because he was able to lean against a nearby hovel. He cursed Leoric with his next ragged breath, knowing as he did so that he was actually cursing his own failure to notice the second archer. When he was done swearing, the King reached down to the arrow still protruding from his flesh and snapped it off halfway down the shaft.

When the darkness left his vision, the king stepped back out into the square, where his horse stood quietly, awaiting his return. He glanced around, fearful of further ambush, but when he saw no-one else, he quickly retrieved his sword and pulled at his horse's saddle to bring it back towards him. The beast looked huge from below, and the leather loop attached to the saddle to help him mount sat as high as his chest. With no small difficulty, Æthelstan eventually managed to regain his seat and fell exhausted across the beast's back.

The king had no way of knowing whether his bannermen had entered the village, or stayed upon the ridge to await his return. They would have seen Leoric head off into the smoke before him and perhaps assumed that they were intending to scout ahead and return – though Simon was unheralded for his sharp mind, being more clever than many would suspect, and Æthelstan felt sure that his most cautious captain would have at least sent some troops to provide support. If only he could know for sure.

In the distance, the smoke was drifting, like heavy curtains opening and closing upon the sky. The screams he had heard while travelling had died away. The burning smell that he had found so prevalent atop the ridge he barely noticed now. The wind seemed to be carrying him, rather than fighting against him. Even the pain seemed to be lessening, and the king felt his mind wandering, as if all of this were happening to someone else, far away. He resisted the desire to close his eyes, even for a moment, knowing that to do so might very well mean the end for him. When the desire got too great, he tapped the remains of the wooden splinter in his chest, and the pain woke him up again instantly.

The stallion trotted through the village, and without the presence of mind to direct him in any way, Æthelstan allowed him to dictate the route. He glanced around as he went, hoping for a glimpse of Leoric or one of his bannermen, but there was no-one in sight. To his right, there was a deep drainage ditch filled with reeds. Their willowy heads bowed in the breeze, reminding the king of the monks from Elmham, who came out in the winter snows to offer alms to the poor. The king fully embraced the idea of a Holy Father, but the bishops themselves troubled him; their silence was deathly, their eyes always watching, and no man escaped the all-seeing gaze of heaven.

Thoughts of heaven raised Æthelstan again. He may have been wounded, but he was not ready for the grave yet. He gritted his teeth and rode onward, and as he did so, he began to see shapes forming in the mist. Men on horses, carrying banners. Men with swords. Other men, falling before them. He recognised the banners. They were his own sigil, the red lion atop a shield split twixt yellow and black. The sounds of war came to him again, and then his heart leapt as he saw Simon, leading the column, stabbing at a fleeing Mercian soldier with his longsword. The battle was surely won.

Reinvigorated, the king kicked at the sides of his horse, wrenched at the reins and galloped towards his troops. When he was within range, he opened his mouth and called for his captain, only for his mouth to suddenly fill with blood.

He felt as if an arm had reached down and plucked him from the saddle at the same time as a great crushing weight fell upon his chest. He was thrown from his horse, tumbling end over end until he came to rest in the water at the bottom of the ditch, only the upper half of his torso protruding from the reeds. Æthelstan tried to look down, but his eyes weren't able to focus, and so he reached down with his left hand, and found the broken shaft of the pike that pierced him cleanly through the chest.

The king's head rested on the mossy turf next to the water, and his fading vision registered a man looking down into the dyke. His eyes were dark, and he was wearing black quilted armour that stretched as far as his knees. The two exchanged gazes briefly, and then the man tossed the remains of the broken pike down into the ditch. He turned as if to walk away, but then his eyes rested on something by his feet, and he knelt down, seeming to stop briefly and study something. He laughed, and kicked the object, which also ended up in the ditch with Æthelstan, though behind his head, where he couldn't see it. Then the man turned away, took the reins of the king's own horse, vaulted into the saddle in a single easy movement and made his escape along the path to the west.

The king lay there for a while, waiting for a friendly face to call down or for death to take him. Instead, time passed and left nothing in its stead. The ditch muffled all sounds and Æthelstan had no voice to call out or strength in his arms to pull himself clear. He knew better than most that a king was just a man, albeit one who oft grew stronger in order to carry the burden of his responsibilities. He did not fear death, but to lie here unheralded, to eventually be finished off by cold or wild animals or to drown in the dirty water running off the fields was more than he could bear. Tears collected in the corners of his eyes, and to stave them off, he thought of his magnificent wife, already too many years gone from the world, lost bringing the final boy into it. He thought of his daughter, Beca, who had acquired her mother's soft features and womanly figure, and how he had hoped to see her married soon. Finally, he thought of his eldest son Feralaed, and whether he would have the strength to be a king.

'Well,' a familiar voice said out of nowhere. 'Well, well.'

'Who's there?' called the king, though his voice barely registered.

 'Father, you seem to have lost something.' The crown of reeds from Æthelstan's head dropped in front of his eyes, and the king realised that this had been what the black-armoured stranger had kicked into the ditch after he had fallen.

'Leoric,' the king croaked, 'is that you?'

'Ironic,' Leoric said, sitting down on the bank next to the king with his knees pulled up to his chest. 'You wait behind so you can avoid the fight, and still end up lying in a ditch with a pike through your chest.'

The king tried to look up at Leoric. His son took off his helmet and the flaxen coils of his hair spilled out beneath, the colour of burnished copper. That, Æthelstan thought, was definitely a gift from his mother. He wondered if his long-dead wife would come to collect him when his time was done, and whether he would have to wait long. When he breathed, his chest rattled horribly, and he had to spit out another mouthful of blood.

'That does look like a nasty wound,' Leoric observed.

'Listen to me, Leoric,' the king said. 'You must... must return home. Take the crown to him...swear fealty...hold the kingdom together.'

 'Ah yes, gentle Feralaed,' Leoric said, picking a flower that was growing nearby and holding it up close to his face for inspection. 'Feralaed, who is the answer to all our problems, and who will rule us magnanimously from his bedchamber at the top of our tallest tower.'

'Boy, you must do this. It's important. The men...need someone to follow. Blood is blood.'

'And blood will out,' Leoric said, echoing the phrase the king had used a hundred times before. He crushed the flower between his fingers and cast it aside.

'You can a part,' the king wheezed, his strength failing. 'You are still a prince. Lead his his general.'

'But my ways are unbecoming of a prince, are they not?'

The king gritted his teeth as a wave of pain swept over him. 'Be the dagger at his side. Do the things that he cannot.'

'There are many things sweet Feralaed can't do,' Leoric observed. 'Have the courage to follow his convictions, for one.'

' you mean?'

'Feralaed will learn to respect power,' Leoric spat. 'You know that power can never truly be given, it has to be taken. His blood is no more righteous than mine, and I will rule this land in his stead.'

'The Mercians are clever,' the king cried despairingly. 'They will exploit you...your weaknesses, if you turn on one another like dogs.'

'Don't worry,' Leoric said. 'My brother has never had the balls for a fight. I'm sure he'll see reason quickly, and I'll make sure that his dungeon is suitably accommodating.'

'Beca...' the king said.

'Will have her husband,' Leoric retorted. 'Someone of little influence, far away, who will never darken my door with his shadow. And as for 'Weard, if I ever see him again, I'll hang the little shit from my ramparts. I know that that at least will make you happy.'

The king's eyes closed, and he lay his head upon the ground, defeated.

'And now, father, I must away. There is much to be established, in my new kingdom. You'll forgive me for this, but if the men find you they'll take you to the druids, and the druids can do some very strange things. You should be a grave man, but your strength is true, and I can't take any chances.'

The king looked past Leoric as his son placed a hand on his head, pushing him down and holding him under the water. Æthelstan forgave him, even as the filthy water seeped into his weakened lungs. As the bubbles ceased, the last thing he saw was the eyes of his faithful captain, Simon, as he reached the edge of the ditch high above.

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