The column of fur-clad warriors rode into Helsinge with Kukka at its head. She had easily spotted the Scartho ship from her vantage point above the bay, its snarling dragon’s head at the prow making it stand out from other vessels berthed in the harbour.
Leofric Da N’tan, waiting in the hall that served as the seat of Helsinge’s witan bowed respectfully as she entered. “Wassael Kukka, Lady of Soomi.”
Kukka removed her boots and stood before him wearing a simple white dress trimmed with blue. “Terve my former husband, you are well?” she inquired.
“I am well Kukka and you are as lovely as I remember, I understand you have a son now?”
“Jaa he is five, how is your bicce’s spawn?”
“I have a daughter too and they are both hale and hearty.” Leif ignored the insult to Mim as he could ill afford to alienate Kukka at the moment.
“So, two now?” muttered Kukka before asking loudly. “You are not here to discuss trifles Leofric, what is the purpose of your visit? I hope you do not expect me to help fight your war against Aethelflaed?”
“You know of this?” he asked.
“We may be at the edge of the world my rakas but we are not cut off from it, so what do you want of me?” retorted Kukka.
“You have become very powerful since last we met, Kukka. The D’an driven back across the water, the Kalla subdued and the Isle of Esto now occupied by Soomilek warriors.”
“The Estonings prefer to see us as liberators rather than conquerors,” she stated proudly.
It was time to put the needle in. “And yet Hamamaa is still under the sway of Sweorice?”
“You are trying to goad me, Leofric, that is hardly worthy of a Thegn’s son.”
“Wouldn’t you like to free Hamamaa from its yoke and make Soomi one nation again?” he continued. “I seem to recall it was your dream, your wyrd.”
“Are you offering to help me drive the Sweorlings from my western lands then?”
“No but it could be possible for the Soomilek to take it for themselves.” ventured Leif.
“Polho, Sweorice is the most powerful nation in Midgard we would be hard put to find the numbers for such a venture.”
“What if you withdrew your forces from the south?” he proposed.
“And leave the country open for the D’an to take back what they consider theirs, have you forgotten how they hate me, do you wish to see me a prisoner in a cage once more?”
“What if I told you they had sworn an oath to Scartho that they would not do this?”
“Even then a Sweorling counterattack would be hard to stand off, I think I prefer the state of neutrality that exists at the moment,” affirmed Kukka.
“Sweorice might be too preoccupied with its western border soon. Thegn Gotheburh is itching to stretch his influence into their land.”
“You know this?” she asked.
“I have discussed this with both him and Olav Snoresson who as you well know, overthrew Cyning Erik to take control of Da N’mark, Cwene Edythe has promised to recognise Snoresson as Thegn if he sends men to assist in her struggle against Aethelflaed but he fears the Sweorlings would attack if his army was in Aengland. If Soomi was to invade Hamamaa as Gotheburh assaults their western border Sweorice would be in no position to invade anywhere or come to that, stop you from taking Hamamaa” Leif finished his discourse. “What do you say Lady of Soomi?”
“It all seems too good to be true Leif, why should I prefer this Edythe over the Mercian Cwene, her father was a Hardrada and they were nej friends of my country?”
“Aethelflaed is the great-granddaughter of the Lady of Mercia and has united all Aengland against the last five Thegnwealds and she has plans for Midgard too, if Scartho and Jorvik were to fall then Da N’mark would surely follow, soon after that you could find troops loyal to Mercia upon your threshold in great numbers!”
Kukka thought on Leofric’s words. “If I pulled men from the south, the Kalla will fight for us now… Esto owes us a favour and they could help guard our coast against Frishan incursions. Aston has men aplenty in the north so he could harass the Hama and still keep watch for Northings, jaa I believe it could be done.”
Leofric noticed Kukka had mentioned his countryman for the first time. “How does it go with Aston?”
“He commands the Eaglefort in Upper Soomi, Kotilainen-linna is now a mighty town, second only to Helsinge and it well suits for us to be at opposite ends of the country. He has the cempestre Ebba warming his bed and there are plenty of men in Helsinge only too happy to please the Lady of Soomi. I have loved two Scarthlings, both of whom let me down,” she replied with a tinge of bitterness.
“I am sorry to hear that Kukka, I can only account for my failure not that of my countryman,” stated Leofric.
“Do not worry for me Leif, I am happy enough for I have my son and am betrothed to my nation. Truly though I have been cursed in my choice of men, I even had this done to please him.” she pulled up her dress to display her right thigh with its ink-mark of Mjolnir.
Leofric found himself admiring the exposed flesh as his former wife had lost none of her beauty in the years since they last met. “Ahem.” he pulled his gaze away. “What is your answer, Kukka?”
She narrowed her brown, almond-shaped eyes. “I will do as you request, but I have a price”
“What is your price, silver, gold?” he asked.
Kukka reached to unfasten the shoulder clasp of the white dress and it fell open to reveal her rounded bosom. “You betrayed me with that Brython bicce so now you will lay with me to betray her in turn, that will suffice for my payment,” she stood to let the garment fall to the floor.
Aethelflaed dismissed her Cempae to sit alone in her war tent and contemplate the coming conflict. Scartho’s clever manipulation had set each country of Midgard in place like pieces on a Tafl board allowing the D’an to land a mighty host in Anglia, giving Thegn Edmund, they always were called Edmund, right from when Jorvik’s forebears had used the first one as an archery target, the courage to take up arms against her. The lynchpin of the whole arrangement was the Lady of Soomi and her near legendary reputation, it was told that she led men into battle naked and was seemingly invulnerable, it was said that when she walked barefoot through the snow flowers would spring up in her footprints and that corn would ripen in her presence. It was nonsense of course, but Aethelflaed wished she had half the love of the people the Soomilek leader commanded. When Ailef Hardrada had been struck down on the borders of Scartho she had hoped that was the end of resistance to her claim for the throne but his defiled daughter had taken up his sword and half of Aengland, the most dangerous half in her eyes, had rallied to the bicce’s cause.
Tomorrow would come the battle to end all battles, better than nine thousand had mustered for Mercia while the usurper had in all probability little more than seven thousand at her call. The numbers were on her side and to her advantage she had Brython archers and heavy warriors and of course her mighty horse soldiers although Scartho had similar companies of skilled riders amongst its ranks. Aethelflaed idly stroked the Mjolnir ink-mark through the cloth of her skirts. Thor, guide my warriors this coming morn and help them take my enemies blood.
Edythe Hardrada dressed in golden mail rode out with her bodyguard to meet the gathered Thegn’s and their supporters.
“Do you intend to fight my lady?” asked Erik Boartusk Thegn of Jorvik, regarding the long spear in her grasp.
“Lord Thegn, I intend to seize back the land that Cyning Hrald, with his dying breath, saw fit to give my father and I am determined to rule in his stead. I would rather die fighting than be taken as a captive again,” she stated resolutely. “I will take my place with my loyal men alongside the ranks of my Thegns.
Leofric nodded approval. He had led the raid to retrieve her from the clutches of Cynewulf the Boneshaker where she had been used dreadfully, not only for his pleasure but also of his trusted men. “Lady Edythe I do not doubt your determination and will follow you into glory as will we all.
All present shouted their agreement then after discussing tactics the impromptu meeting broke up and they split off to join their respective forces, Jorvik and Scartho briefly rode the same way allowing Swein the son of Erik to converse with Leofric. “Do you remember when we besieged you at Danum and I foretold that one of us would not live to see the day out? Well, I am glad I was wrong Son of Scartho.”
“As am I, Swein Eriksson, when we become Thegns we must swear allegiance to support one another, come what may,” suggested Leofric.
“Agreed, Son of Scartho and it should also include all of the remaining Thegnwealds.” He answered.
“And we should pledge to support the line of Hardrada, for even the womenfolk have the hearts of warriors if Edythe is anything to go by.” asserted Leofric.
Swein’s face broke into a wide grin. “But let us hope we do not inherit too soon, for although my father has a very bad temper I have no great desire to see him dead.”
“I too have no great wish to be Thegn as yet.” said Leofric, “I fear it would be hard to live up to my father’s reputation, here are our lines so I must take leave of you Swein.”
“Fight hard, fight well Leofric Da N’tan for you are easily as good a man as your father!” shouted the Thegning as he rode off.
Da N’tan watched the Jorvings and their huscarl bodyguard trot towards their lines then turning to study the ranks of Aenglish troops he spotted curious scaffold-like structures set back from the enemy line, he would doubtless discover their purpose soon enough. Somewhere amongst the horde facing him would be those who he had once called friends including Osric Ironhelm and the Brythons Bran the Bullroarer and Owen of Llantys, how Aethelflaed had got Brythony on her side he could only guess. There were warriors here from all of Aengland except Wessex and Kernow who although loyal to Hardrada were besieged in the southwest by an East Saxon horde.
There were thousands on both sides, Aethelflaed had the numerical advantage but Scartho and Jorvik had the most disciplined forces on the field, the D’an and weaker Anglia faced Kenta, the southern shire wielded the largest force but it was mainly composed of fyrd, men obliged to fight in times of war but who usually worked the land. Da N’tan knew that they should not be underestimated as any man sufficiently motivated could fight fiercely if not skilfully and that alone could sway victory.
The Mercian, Brython and South Saxon forces were comprised of ferdrinc or seasoned warriors organised into three separate bodies of Here, an old term once used for invaders from Midgard but now used to describe a body of fighting men and it was these Here that Jorvik and Scartho were to face with their huscarls, warriors who had sworn a death-oath of loyalty to their Thegn. Edythe at the head of her loyal retinue, comprised of her father’s old ferdrinc, would fight where needed most in the coming fray.
“It will be a blood-red day!” said Leofric’s father as he rode to his side. “I truly hoped when Ailef became Cyning we could stop killing each other, it is very sad that it has come to this.”
“Many good ferdrinc will cross the rainbow bridge today, father!” replied Leofric.
“We all of us venerate the same gods, apart from the Celts and of course, Kenta who are all bloody Mithrans, do you think they enjoy sitting in Asgard watching their subjects slaughter each other?”
“Is it not the way father, our wyrd, our fate?” Leofric had never heard him talk like this before, questioning the very way things were.
Aethelward heard the surprise in his son’s voice. “Do I shock you Leofric? I am getting old and I am tired of battle, so when this day is done, whether I lie dead on the ground or sit alive on my horse, you will become Thegn.”
‘Lord… father, you are loved by the people I cannot simply take your place.”
“Leif you are my son and have fought bravely many times, well the people know this and they will love you equally.”
“And if I should fall today?”
“Don’t, but if you should, then the boy you whelped on the Brython will become Thegn when he is of age.”
“But?” started Leofric.
Aethelward held up his hand. “No more talk my son.” he pointed across the field of combat and said. “See how the enemy is forming their shield walls, the time for axe work is nigh.”
‘Shield wall!” the cry went up along the Scartho ranks, Leofric was in command of the vanguard comprising half their number, looking to his right he could see their Jorvik allies had organized their forces similarly. They had the Roman Fosse way at their backs and beyond that the Trent, if it went against them there was no easy retreat.
“Lord where is this place?” asked Cynrig, a young huscarl stood by his side.
“Last night we pitched before Sutton and by the end of this day, if the gods are willing the false-cwene’s camp at Oschinton will be in our hands.” Da N’tan informed him.
“The Cwene, the Cwene!” the shout came from the left, Edythe was riding along the shield-walls from the direction of the D’an contingent flanked by her men-at-arms.
She had removed her helm and as she trotted by, her loose hair streaming in the wind and spear held aloft, Da N’tan saw the look of wild-eyed exhilaration on the young woman’s face. “No-one here can doubt that the blood of Ailef Hardrada flows in your veins Lady!” he shouted.
Edythe grinned on hearing this and paused. “Lord Leofric, this day belongs to Hardrada, this day belongs to the Thegns, this day this belongs to us all!” she cried and the whole of the shield wall roared their approval. A few arrows from Aethelflaed’s lines fell well short and the true claimant to the throne spat towards them. “A few loose shafts do not frighten me false-cwene for I have suffered before from the shafts of many men!” she yelled and as all laughed at the joke she had made of her former plight Edythe rode past the cheering of the Jorvik warriors before making her way to the rear.
Horns sounded across the field as the enemy began to slowly advance, the ground being almost completely level there was no high point or marsh to give either side the advantage.
“Hold!” shouted Leofric. “Let them come to us.”
The tall structures spotted towards the rear of the Mercian line now revealed their purpose as bales of burning pitch soaked wood were hurled into the Scartho troops, the devices were a development of the Roman onager. Leofric could see a single arm that was pulled sharply down at one end making the scoop-like cage at the other fling its load forward. Their effect was more demoralizing than destructive, but if they should change their load to stone!
“Advance quickly and make towards the enemy with all haste,” yelled Da N’tan. “If we are up against their line they dare not use these engines for fear of hitting their own men.” The huscarls marched forward holding their shields up to deflect the arrows and fire falling from above. “Halt!” Da N’tan yelled when they were only a few spear lengths from the jeering enemy.
Where were the Brythons? He had been glad of the bowmen’s skill in the past but now he was at their mercy. Then a darkening in the sky warned of the many shafts flying towards them. ‘Shield wall! Make ready for arrows.” The Scartho troops formed a tight formation with the rear ranks holding shields above their heads, Da N’tan knew the ancients called the formation a testudo after an armoured reptile, Leofric had never encountered one but thought it must be a fearsome creature to behold.
Men were falling like flies. “Why did we not think to bring ballistae or onagers ourselves?” asked Cempa Te G’rath who had been at the siege of Danum with Da N’tan.
“It would help us but little, these dire engines have a greater range than anything Scartho can wield.” He replied.
“They come!” shouted a huscarl the enemy hurling insults were moving towards them.
“Slow down,” ordered Leofric as the Mercians closed.
“For Scartho!” yelled Te G’rath.
“Scartho, Scartho, Scartho!” The cry was taken up as the combatants engaged the first line. It was comprised of Mercian heremenn who did make for not an easy foe even when faced with Scartho’s iron-hard discipline.
After a brief skirmish, the enemy suddenly pulled back. “They flee!” the cry came.
“Hold the line, it may be a trick!” ordered Te G’rath, Leofric nodded in agreement.
As the Mercian shield wall broke apart Brython heavy infantry poured through the gaps screaming Celtic battle cries and upon seeing this Aethelward the Thegn of Scartho determined it was now time to move forward and reinforce his son.
Jorvik following Scartho’s example had formed several testudos to advance their entire army towards the foe but the Mercian horse had outflanked them from behind the South Saxon shield wall and was now harrying Erik’s forces close to the Fosse Way.
The Thegns having anticipated such an attack had stationed Scartho’s horse, led by the cempestre Hortense, beyond the Roman road. They now charged over the embankment to engage the Mercians, backed up by half of the Scartho bowmen, the other half followed Aethelward to lay down volley after volley into the Brython and Mercian forces.
Leofric was pushing forward, the blood singing in his veins, his axe bringing swift death to all who stood before him. His huscarls were now too far inside the range of the tall engines for them to be of any effect and ahead he could see several figures on horseback. One of them was a woman, it was Aethelflaed!
“The false-cwene is in our sights!” yelled Da N’tan. “We take her and the day is ours.”
Suddenly he was thrown sideways by a powerful blow that he had barely time to parry. “Aenglishman!” a voice yelled. “It gives me great sorrow to meet you here on this blood-soaked earth.” It was Bran the Bullroarer, champion of Brythony.
“We do not have to meet as enemies fine Brython, give up this struggle for we are now in striking distance of your leader.” The warrior was a head taller Da N’tan and built like an ox.
“I cannot, I have sworn to fight for Aethelflaed for is she not a descendant of Aelfred? Lay down your axe Son of Scartho for I have no urgent desire to kill you.
“Nor I, you, Bullroarer, but some things must be,” replied Da N’tan.
“Then look to your god, Aenglishman!” Bran charged swinging his axe to catch Leofric’s shield and knock it out of his hand then similarly caught Da N’tan’s battle axe to disarm him but as he swung back to take his head Leofric dropped to his knees and the weapon hissed over his helmet, swiftly drawing his seax he jabbed it upwards into the warrior’s groin. The Brython yelling in pain swung again but Da N’tan, rolling clear, snatched up his weapon to bury its blade in the Bullroarer’s chest.
Putting his foot on the dying man’s chest, Leofric dragged the axe out with a sucking noise. “Go to your gods, Bullroarer, they will welcome you as the great warrior you are.”
Owen of Llantys watching at distance saw Bran fall and realising the conflict no longer favoured Aethelflaed, gave word to his bowmen who quickly began withdrawing, Scartho had been a great ally to Brythony in the past and Owen did not have the heart for further pointless bloodshed against his friend and upon seeing the Brython retreat Da N’tan’s ferdrinc surged forward.
On the northern side of the battlefield, Osric’s Mercian horse was getting the better of their Easterling equivalent and Hortense, spotting the Ironhelm a short distance away realised drastic action was required and dropping her spear point galloped directly at him, the Mercian seeing her charge lowered his spear and spurred his horse to meet her headlong.
Some stared curiously to see the outcome as the pair collided, the tip of Hortense’s spear skated over Osric’s shield to pierce his helmet while she was thrown backwards by the impact of his point upon her shield, it smashed to splinters and both fell from their mounts to lay unmoving on the ground. The Mercians, demoralised at seeing their legendary leader downed, turned to flee pursued by the jubilant Scarthlings.
To the south Olav Snorreson’s contingent fighting with fire in their hearts were laying waste to the army of Kenta, years of fighting the fanatical Soomi had given the D’an an edge that was surpassed only by Jorvik and Scartho then the Anglians, who had been fighting reluctantly until now, suddenly went on the offensive, on their flank!
“Form a shield wall to our left, that bahstard Edmund has changed sides!” what he did not realise was that the Thegn was dead, cut down by his own men who upon seeing Edythe’s forces on the back foot decided to throw their lot in with Aethelflaed, the D’an, now fighting on two fronts were being forced slowly back when riders approached from the right to fall upon the Kentish, one of them wore gilded mail. Edythe Hardrada, upon seeing the D’an struggling, had ordered her bodyguard into the melee.
“Lady, it is over,” said Olav Snoresson, Edythe did not move but just stood wide-eyed over the body on the ground, her spear point buried in his chest. “Lady Edythe it is over, you can put down your weapon now.”
“I killed a man,” she whispered half in shock.
“It was a good kill Lady, worthy of any ferdrinc I know,” observed Olav, he had known men retreat into darkness after a battle and the land could ill afford this to happen to her. “Lady, please, it is over and you are needed, the people need you!”
Edythe snapped back to reality and took in the carnage around her. “Then we have won?”
“I believe so Aethelflaed wishes to sue for peace…”
As Da N’tan approached, Hortense was sitting up holding her side with one good arm while the left was being bound by a leech. “Wassael, cempestre, are you badly injured?”
‘Siobhan tells me I have a broken arm and some rib-bones cracked. Lord, I assure you I will be still able to fight when I am healed!” she replied anxiously, pain in her voice.
“Do not fear for your future, Hortense, I heard of your remarkable charge against the Ironhelm, I think with practice we could put this method to good use,” he then walked to where Osric lay, killed instantly by the warrior woman’s spear and commanded. “Place a sword in this warrior’s hand so that he may cross to Valhalla.”
Aethelflaed sat in her wooden chair before Edythe, still astride her mount and surrounded by victorious allies, the younger woman’s loose hair was matted, blood was upon her face and sitting behind her on the horse the old queen could spy a fair-haired girl aged about nine looking curiously at the proceedings. This was Edla, her daughter, born to no-one’s great surprise nine months after her rescue from the Boneshaker. Edythe had been so cruelly used while his prisoner that the father of the child was unknown even to her. “What are your terms Edythe the Defiled?”
“You are in no position to be uncivil, false-cwene!” the younger woman fixed her with steely blue eyes. “But because the blood of Aelfred flows in your veins I will allow that insult to go unpunished. My first condition is that you will be allowed to reign in Mercia until you cross Bifrost but after that, the land will be subject to Hardrada rule.”
“Thank you, Edythe, I am not certain I could be this merciful if it were the other way round” the older woman held her head proudly despite her circumstances and Edythe could see she had been beautiful in her youth.
“Your honesty serves you well” she regarded Aethelflaed’s only surviving son, a man of sullen disposition who at thirty was not betrothed and some suggested slyly that he did not favour women, it was of no matter to Edythe, he would suffice. “My second condition is that your son Sherard becomes my husband thus joining our two houses together and preventing any further bloodshed.”
Sherard started at this but his mother put up her hand. “This is a wise decision, Cwene Edythe.”
“Thenceforth you may call yourself Cwene-mother after our betrothal but my daughter Edla will remain Hardrada and shall succeed to the throne if there are no further male offspring from this match.” And that is going to be most likely!
“I see,” said Aethelflaed, well knowing her son’s tendencies. “And this is how you will ensure the succession of your bahstard!” You are a clever bicce I will have to convince the idiot to do his duty.
Edythe smiled, ignoring this latest insult. “Furthermore, since Edmund and his sons were killed by the treachery of his own people the position of Thegn is to be stripped from Anglia which will now simply become one of the shires,” she gestured the D’an leader to come forward. “Olav Snoresson, today on the field of combat you proved yourself worthy of the title of Thegn and as such and by my decree you are entitled to raise taxes and maintain a body of men provided you give an oath that you will support the livelihood of the D’an and come to the aid of your Cwene or fellow Thegns if it be needed.”
Thegn Snoresson swore he would do so and a cheer went up, more loudly on one side than the other, Aethelward begged to be heard then announced that he was passing the reins of Scartho to his son. Finally, the Cwene-mother rode with the remnants of her forces towards Tamworth her unhappy son in tow, this left one more act to perform, a sadder one.
The flames licked around the funeral pyre as Thegn Edmund’s remains were burned to ash and smoke which spiralled into the sky as his body travelled to Valhalla to reunite with his spirit already across Bifrost, in times past thralls and sometimes even the widow would have joined their leader on the pyre but Cyning Aelfred had forced this practice to stop during his reign.
“Edmund wasn’t worth all this trouble,” muttered Aethelward. “He couldn’t make his mind up about who to support, it was only Olav’s arrival that pushed him to our side.”
“Cwene Edythe is making a statement, Edmund died fighting for her and thus is worthy of honour.” asserted Erik Boartusk, all the combatants were present for the funeral feast including both the new queen and queen mother.
“Will they put you on a bonfire when it is your turn?” asked Mim at Leofric’s side. “I would gladly light it.”
Leofric looked aghast at his wife and her face broke into a grin. “Have you forgiven me yet?” he asked.
“No Leif, for it is still a great hurt.” Upon his return from Soomi, he had confessed what he had to do and Mim’s temper had boiled over calling him every name she could think of in Brythonic, she had accompanied him here only because it was required of her.
“I had no choice my love, Kukka made her demand very clear.”
She looked at him with slitted green eyes. “And, of course, you did not enjoy it?”
“I cannot lie to you Mim, she is still very comely.”
“Well at least you’re being truthful, that is a start.”
“My business with The Lady of Soomi is done and over with my lufestre.”
“Do you swear to it?” asked Mim looking into his eyes.
“I swear to Tiw that she will never cross our paths again,” he replied in all earnest.
In Helsinge the Lady of Soomi pulled her dress taut. “See this Aapo?” she said to the small boy sitting before her. “This is your baby suster or brothur” she smiled, you didn’t manage to give me an heir to Scartho while we were married Leif but you have now!