Death birds darkened the skies over Durham. They converged
on the eminence of the Sceir Naid and before the sun had reached its zenith,
they covered the battlements, rooftops and spires overlooking the palace yard.
There, scattered across the blood-darkened cobblestones, a grisly feast awaited
The dead and dying
littered the marble steps, and sprawled together in a tangle of torn flesh
beneath the gateway arch. Slaughter stained the polished floors of the Great
Hall and spread throughout the palace corridors. Even in the cathedral, among
the sacred symbols of the One True God and His Risen Son, a horror of blood gave
mute testimony to the terrible battle that had raged for control of the
kingdom. But the treachery of Moloch’s priests and influential Glenmaran nobles
had been thwarted for the moment, and in the aftermath, High King Osric
Murchadha met with his retainers. They were few.
The young, ambitious Duke Morleigh Dunroon, the older, more cautious Duke
Eiolowen, and the truly aged Duke Fardoragh, made up the higher nobility in
Osric’s camp. An oddment of dignitaries and merchants joined an assortment of
Barons and a collection of knights and men-at-arms. The remnant of the Red
Guard and the Palace Watch made up the balance of the five hundred souls loyal
to their king. Beyond the high
crenellated walls that separated the fortress from the town, the soldiers of Duke
Robert Fitzwarren took control of the city with an efficiency that contrasted
their failure to seize the palace. Together with Duke Broderick Laighan, the
would-be usurpers commanded a force that outnumbered Osric’s own by more than
five to one. But for the time being, they couldn’t get into the palace.
Osric pushed his
unkempt brown hair from his weary brown eyes. Exhaustion etched harsh lines
across his face, battering his spirit in kind with his body. Not an hour before
he had been bound to the cathedral altar as a sacrifice to the dark power of
Moloch. Then in a miracle that defied any explanation but the intervention of
Almighty God, his brother, Evan MacKeth, crippled and ill, drove the priests
and soldiers from the church and saved Osric’s life. From that moment until
this, there had been no time for reflection, and there was precious little time
for it now, but he had just received news every bit as dire and disturbing as
anything that had already occurred. Aine Ceallaigh, the sister of his Queen and
Evan’s intended, had been taken. The details were
wrung from the unfortunate Guthrum Fitzwarren. “What was your
part in this?” demanded Osric of the cringing, wounded prisoner.
“I had no part
in anything, Majesty! I followed my brothers, that’s all. I didn’t know what
they were doing!” “Very well.
Strap him to the table.”
pulled Guthrum from his chair and dragged him across the room.
Sweet mercy, don’t! We were only supposed to open the gate. I didn’t want to
harm anyone. My brothers attacked Lord Halfdane, not I.”
isn’t in question. Now tell me of Aine Ceallaigh. Where is she? Be quick.”
“She stabbed me
with an arrow!” Guthrum protested, but when Osric stepped closer he quickly
added, “Eowulf took her. He was following Claranides and those priests. They’re
going to the Hinnom Valley. That’s all I know. I swear!” “How many men
does your father have? Who else is part of this treason? Give me numbers and
names, or upon my oath I’ll strip the flesh from your bones!”
poured out in a trembling torrent.
Now that the
interrogation was over, Osric considered the paradox of the man who had
thwarted the plans of Aelfric, Eowulf and Guthrum: Anwend Halfdane. From the
fjords of Varangia across half a continent he had come to this desperate
moment. He stood at the window now, slumped shoulders further diminishing his
slight stature until he looked tired and old. His coarse grey hair, partially
hidden by an untidy, blood soaked bandage added to the impression of weakness
and infirmity, but without his valiant defense of the palace gate, the kingdom
would have been lost.
you have some knowledge of fortifications,” Osric offered.
Anwend turned a
battered face toward the king. “It is true, majesty,” he replied.
might suggest where the enemy will attack.”
approached the table and pointed with a callused finger. “Unless they’re
complete fools, they’ll concentrate here,” he said, indicating the main gate.
“It’s the weakest point.” Duke Dunroon
snorted and rolled his steel-grey eyes. “Gates usually are.” “Especially this
one,” returned the Varangian with equal sarcasm. “I’ve seen better gates
protecting vegetable gardens.” “What’s wrong
with the gate?” asked Osric. “It’s falling
apart. The drawbridge can’t be raised without the whole thing coming down, and
it won’t take them long to realize it. But there’s a solution if your majesty
would care to hear it.” Heated discussion followed. “They’ll come
through the tunnel in the church,” argued Dunroon.
“It’s too easily
defended. They’ll go for the gate.”
“If they set a
fire in that tunnel they’ll collapse the whole fortress wall.” Anwend shook his
head and stamped his foot on the marble floor. “There’s solid rock beneath us.
You’d never crack this hill. But I think I know where that tunnel begins.” “Indeed?”
“Just beyond the
wall is a house with a copper roof. There were a great many people going into
that house last night, and none of them came back out.” “You amaze me,”
marveled Osric. “Sit with us Lord Halfdane.”
continued. In the corner of
the room, Evan MacKeth muttered through clenched teeth, his green eyes swollen
and red from tears. Rust-brown patches of dried blood dulled his armor, matted
his auburn hair and spotted his beardless face. Though his heart still beat,
and he yet drew breath, it was as though he had died the moment he discovered
Aine was lost. He had nearly thrown himself into the river in a suicidal
attempt to rescue her, but his companions had prevented him. Yet death in the
river couldn’t have been worse than the helplessness he was drowning in now. He
began pacing the room, certain the despair in his heart would crush him if he
didn’t move. Nearby, Martin Reamon, a slight servant boy of fifteen, matched
his master step for step. Across the
chamber, Brian Beollan, Aine’s protector since she had been a young girl, sat
alone and wept. He found neither power in his arms nor courage in his heart. He
had failed, and now Aine was gone.
Shadow crowded the room despite the sunlight flooding
through the high windows. At length the king went out to the wall beside the