In an epic tale of courage and ferocity, the kingdom of Mercia is born.
More than a year has passed since the English crossed the German Sea to settle the island of Britain.
Secure now in their Anglian fastness, their gaze turns to the West.
But other kingdoms also covet the middle lands.
Sweeping down from the western hills Cynlas Goch and his army of Powys lay waste the valley of the River Trenta, burning, killing and enslaving as they go.
Heavily outnumbered but trusting to their valour, can Eofer king’s bane and his war band slow the onslaught until the English and their allies wrest a final victory from the ashes of defeat?
The Scathing is the third book in the Bestselling King’s Bane series, the genesis of England.
Read chapter one, below:
‘So, this is it then Huwel. Your last days of freedom.’
The rider shared a look and a smirk with his companions as the horses walked on. The harsh screech of a badger call floated across the lea, away to the east the moon had risen to sheen the southern hills. Owain added his voice to that of his friend. ‘It sounds like even old Broch is telling you to keep riding, boy. Sensible animal the badger. Not given to hasty decisions.’
Huwel snorted, turning his head to flash them a grin. ‘That must be why they live in a dampish hole and eat slugs and the like. Where is the sense in that?’ He chuckled along with the rest as a ripple of laughter rolled around the group. Their hearts were as light as the mood as the long journey neared its end, the metallic thrum of horse shoes unnaturally loud in the still airs of the evening. The Briton shook his head in wonder, his voice trailing away as his thoughts turned to home. ‘She’s the one,’ he said as his companions exchanged knowing smiles. ‘Always has been: sturdy, she is. You know,’ he continued with a dreamy smile. ‘My Branwen can carry two sheep up the hillside, one under each arm, and come straight back down for more.’
‘I seen that,’ a voice piped up from the gloom. ‘So, you are telling me now that all that hair I saw sprouting from her armpits was not her own?’
Huwel ignored the jibe. The men were his friends and neighbours, they knew the bond between the pair was stronger than iron, always had been, ever since the days not so long ago when they had all romped together defending the old hill fort atop Mam Tor from imaginary invaders. The carefree days of childhood were behind them now and the spearmen of Powys were pressing down on the little kingdom of The Peaks for real. Now they had the bodies of men and the responsibilities which went with them. Still they had been heady days, the best he now realised, and the memory caused a flutter of happiness within him as his mind drifted back over the years.
Ahead the long grey line of irregular sets, polished smooth by the footfalls of centuries, rose slightly as it neared the dark outline of the earthwork they had sweated to repair last summer as the first attacks had harrowed the land. The moon had risen enough now to pick out the place where the old Roman roadway, storm grey and arrow straight, cut through the dyke on its way to the head of the valley and the fort which was to be their home for the next few weeks. Huwel allowed himself a smile of satisfaction as the good natured banter swirled around him. Handfast men were excused from militia duties unless the kingdom came under serious attack. The raids of late, both here in the south and in the north along the border with the kingdom of Elmet were little more than pinpricks. Let the others freeze their balls off staring into the dark, night after night. Be the last man to laugh and you laugh the longest, his old da used to say.
The column passed through the great earthwork, and spirits lifted as they entered the final few miles of their journey. Within the hour the walls of the fort came into view, the lime washed ramparts shining in their nighttime brilliance.
Cair Luit Coyt stood perched on its bluff above the river, the brooding sentinel straddling Watling Street as it had ever since the walls had echoed to the hobnailed sandals of the Empire’s legions, and conversations trailed away as thoughts turned to a hot meal and a warm bed. High above ragged clouds moved away to the east, the torn edges haloed silver as the moon cast its wan light upon the earth. The end of their trek in plain sight, the little war troop instinctively put back their heels and increased the pace.
The tumbledown walls of the old Roman town of Letocetum stood off to one side, the timeworn remains testament to the years of strife which had plagued the borderlands over the course of the previous centuries, and Huwel saw to his surprise that men were moving among them. At the head of the column Cadwr had seen it too, and Huwel snorted at his leader’s caution as he raised an arm, slowing his mount to a walk as he ran his eyes over the strangers. A voice carried from the rear as the men there peered ahead to see the cause of the sudden drop in pace. ‘The boys we are relieving are coming out to meet us, all friendly like, Cadwr. Anyone would think that they were eager to be away.’
To Huwel’s surprise the big warrior, usually so jovial despite the militiamen’s unsoldierly ways ignored the comment, and he sensed the first feelings of unease spreading through the group at the change in their leader’s demeanour. As the horses slowed the riders instinctively bunched together, hands moving from rein to spear shaft as they exchanged worried glances. With a squeeze of his knees Huwel urged his mount alongside the tough veteran.
‘Who do you think they are, Cadwr?’
The big man raised his chin and pointed along the valley. ‘That may well be a welcoming party lad, but not the kind we were expecting.’
Huwel looked up ahead. Horsemen were beginning to emerge onto the roadway, the pale moonlight reflecting dully from helm and spear blade as they came. He cast a look at his leader as the others caught the mood and moved forward to fill the width of the track. ‘Men of Powys?’
Cadwr gave a curt nod. ‘That is my guess.’ As shields were hefted and spears couched, he raised his voice to carry. ‘It looks like we are going to have to fight our way through, boys. Keep together, hit them hard and keep riding. If you break through, don’t stop. Take the road east and make your way back home as best you can.’
Owain looked along the line, all the earlier mirth driven from the shepherd as the seriousness of their situation became obvious. ‘What about the men in the fort? They will see us approaching, won’t they make a sally to help us through?’
Cadwr cast a look at Huwel as he answered for him. ‘Dead men can’t mount attacks, Owain.’
‘What about moving back to the Grey Bank? We can hold them at the earthwork, that’s what we laboured all last summer for. There’s a ditch in front and a palisade on top. All we would have to do is throw a line of shields across and block the roadway.’
Cadwr shook his head sadly. ‘It’s too late for that, Owain. There are horsemen behind us already.’
The men in the group craned their necks as one, peering back along the ancient stones before turning back with sullen expressions as they saw that their leader was right.
‘Remember,’ he said as the Powys’ horsemen began to fan out into a skirmish line to bar the road ahead. ‘Go in full tilt. Stick to the road if you can and form a wedge on me. Hit hard and ride hard.’ He gave them a final smile of encouragement as the horses picked up the change in mood, tossing their heads and skittering excitedly.
‘Time is against us boys,’ he cried, ‘and there will be none left over for rescues. If a man goes down, leave him; he will be as good as dead already. Hit them hard,’ he smiled savagely, ‘and you will live to see your loved ones again.’
Lupine howls cut the night air as the men of The Peaks dug in their heels, urged their mounts forward and hunkered down into their shields. Huwel kept pace with his leader as the group picked up speed, raising his eyes to search the gloom as the tide of horseflesh thundered on. A hundred yards to go and the Powys’ horsemen were still hurrying to form their wall, and Huwel felt the first surge of hope build within him as he realised that Cadwr’s plan could work. If they could hit the enemy before their defences were complete their own horses would find a way through, barging horsemen and spearmen aside in an irresistible tide. The enemy quickly grew to fill the youth’s vision, and a heartbeat later the peace of the valley was shattered as men and animals came together in a bone jarring crash. Cadwr’s horse was bred and trained for battle and it knew its work; snaking this way and that it carved a path through the Powys’ barricade as Huwel clung on in its wake. Pale columns flashed by, as white as old bones in the moonlight, and Huwel knew that they had broken through to the ruined walls of the old Roman mansio and bath-houses.
Several spearmen were gathered at the entrance to the old stone bridge, craning their necks to see the cause of the commotion which had drawn them from their watch fires, but the pair were past them and clattering across before the guards had time to react. As they gained the eastern bank the men of The Peaks could see for the first time that the meadow on the far side of the stream was a field of light, a hundred campfires mirroring the star speckled sky above. Made overconfident by their numbers the invaders had left the way clear, and Cadwr led Huwel eastwards along the old stone sets of Watling Street itself as they plunged back into darkness.
Out beyond the campfires the dome of Oak Hill dominated the skyline, the crown of trees which had lent the mound its name painted white by the ascendant moon, and soon they were leaving the ancient road behind them as Cadwr took a dusty track towards the lower slopes. Within a mile they had breasted a grassy knoll and Cadwr drew rein, hauling his mount around as he peered back to the west. Breathless after the ride Huwel came up, but all sense of elation at their escape was driven from him as he saw the concern still etched on the big man’s face.
Cadwr spat in disgust. ‘There are riders following, that’s why we left the road. I had hoped to give them the slip but it would seem that they are determined to nab us.’
Huwel’s face lit up as a thought came to him. ‘They could be our boys? They may have got through!’
‘No,’ Cadwr replied with a sour look which crushed the younger man’s hopes, ‘they are not. Come on lad,’ he said sadly. ‘There is only one thing for it.’
Before Huwel could question him further Cadwr had hauled the head of his mount back to the east, the big warrior urging the horse onwards as the clatter of hoofbeats carried to them on the wind. A mile further on a spur of land came down to pinch the path and Cadwr raised a hand to slow his friend as he slid to the ground. Huwel curbed his own mount, looking across in surprise as the great ribcage of his horse moved like bellows beneath him. The warrior recognised the militiaman’s confusion and explained. ‘We can’t outrun them, our horses have been travelling all day, theirs are fresh. Our only hope was that they would prefer the delights of the fireside to puncturing our sorry hides. Take yourself off,’ he said with a jerk of his head as he unhooked his shield from the crupper. ‘Follow the valley of the River Mease northwards and tell Sawyl Penuchel what you have seen. You saw the size of the army of Powys, the people in The Peaks need to know what is happening down here as soon as they can if they are to stand any chance of surviving the onslaught.’
Huwel made to argue, but the worries of the ride finally caught up with the man and Cadwr cut him dead. ‘Get away boy and do as I say.’ Huwel’s face fell, and Cadwr regretted his tone instantly, throwing the youth a paternal smile as he explained his reasoning. ‘God gave us all a task to perform in life and the means to do it. He made me a warrior, to bring light where before there was only darkness,’ he said as a look of pride came into his features. ‘And I was good at it, He will be pleased. He had other plans for you Huwel, plans involving a strong woman and a hut knee deep in little ones I am thinking. Now, get yourself away from here and let me do God’s work. Powys’ horsemen hold no fear for me, lovelorn shepherdesses scare me shitless!’
Huwel smiled despite the grimness of the moment, and a nod came as he saw the sense in the big man’s decision. He hauled at his reins as the clatter of hooves grew louder in their ears, turning to fix the warrior’s face in his memory. ‘I will name a son in your honour, Cadwr,’ he said proudly as the warrior bestrode the track and drew his sword. ‘May the good Lord receive your soul.’
‘Good hit!’ A covey of rooks rose into the cool spring air, the shrill clamour building as they gave voice to their outrage at the act. Wihta laughed, clapping his son on the shoulder as the dog bounded away. Swinna beamed at the praise as he fished inside the bag for another pebble. ‘It’s just a matter of practice, father,’ he said with a self depreciating shrug. ‘You could have done just as well.’
Withta laughed again. Modesty was the least of the boy’s virtues. Fourteen winters had passed by in a flash, he would have to give more thought to a wife for the lad. ‘You know full well that I would have been lucky to hit the tree from this distance. I never could master the sling. How many is that now: three?’
Swinna slid his foot across, lifting the edge of the leather sack with the toe of his boot to reveal the broken bodies within. ‘Five, including that one.’
‘That’s enough, then. Take them back to your mother and sister when the dog gets back, I am going up to the top field to check on your brother. That ploughing needs to be completed today, one of Gwynfor’s boys will be here in the morning to take the ox away.’
Giving his son an affectionate pat on the shoulder, the Engle started back up the slope as the air about him echoed to the cawing of angry birds. Wihta’s mind wandered as he paced the hillside. The spring sunshine fell upon his face as he left the shadow of the trees, and he allowed himself a smile of contentment as he found that the warmth reflected his mood. Treading the dewy grass he considered his life and found that it was good. The gods had blessed him with two strong sons and a daughter of elfin beauty, a sturdy wife and a smallholding which served to fill their bellies more often than not. True, he mused, he had had to hack the fields from the ancient greenwood and build a hall where none had ever stood before, but he had been a young man then, newlywed, and his own father, neighbours and friends had pitched in to help set the couple on their way.
Wihta paused as he gained the track, turning back to survey his land. The wildwood still crowded in on all sides, but he had three fields now, enough to rotate the crops. Roots, swede and turnip in one, barley in the next and a third left fallow, perfect for the half dozen sheep which produced milk and cheese all year round with a gods-given bonus of woollen fleece each spring and dung to feed the soil. The surrounding woodland, oak, hazel and wych elm were perfect mast for the swine which he shared with his neighbour, the meadow yonder a short flight for the bees which filled his hive.
Gwynfor was more than a neighbour, he was a good friend, and it had been the Briton’s idea that they pool their resources to invest in the shared ownership of an ox. Thræls, the more usual form of labour at plough time, were often more trouble than they were worth on the fringes of the English settlements, the slaves prone to make a break for freedom, stealing hard to replace items and sometimes killing their owners. He had seen with his own eyes what had happened to one family, down in the vale, and although a hue and cry had been quickly raised and the culprit tracked down and drowned in the mere like all murderers, with the trackless backwoods of Canoc and Brunes Wald within a few days walk it had still not put off the most determined among them.
He was about to turn away when another note carried to him on the breeze, higher in tone, and Wihta felt a kick of anxiety in his guts as he recognised the shrill war horn for what it was. His eyes were fixed now on the point where the track from the south exited the tree line and within moments a horse, its flanks heaving and foam lathered, clattered into view. Wihta was walking towards the red faced rider before he realised that he had moved, and the man he now recognised as Edwin from past musters hauled at the reins and brought the horse to a halt before him.
‘There are raiders in the vale,’ he blurted out as Wihta held out a hand to calm the mount. ‘Everyone is to arm and gather at the oak as soon as they can.’
‘How many are there?’
Edwin pulled a pained smile as he began to turn the head of his mount back towards the track. ‘More than enough to spoil your day, Wihta. Join the fyrd at the thunder oak, but leave a few spears for your boys, they may have need of them soon.’
As the rider put back his heels and cantered away to spread the alarm Wihta started back to the hall, forcing down the almost overwhelming desire to run. The situation seemed bad, desperate maybe, but the eyes of his family would be upon him and he knew that he had to set an example to them.
Ebba was already at the doorway as he crossed the yard, the knife which she had been using held forgotten in her hand as she watched his approach. Wihta threw his wife what he hoped was a reassuring smile as he grew near, but he could see from her expression that she was not to be so easily fooled. Anyone who had spent their entire life on the frontier knew what the war horn signalled, and he allowed himself a snort of pride as he saw that his daughter was already fixing the bridle to Arthur. His share of the spoils from a previous raid and named after the old British warlord, everyone had thought that the choice was amusing at the time, and a small part of him hoped that they would still be laughing when the sun dipped that evening.
‘The Powys’ are in the vale,’ he offered as he reached the doorway. ‘Fetch my spears.’
Wihta ducked into the hall, throwing off his work clothes as he began to rummage in the settle. Slipping into his best blue breeks, he was wriggling into his leather war shirt as Swinna reached the hall and held him with his gaze. ‘I am coming too, father. I am ready and we will need all the spearmen we have.’ His thoughts whirled as he used his busyness to mask his indecision. The boy had been training at the moot hall for a year or more now. Spear work, shield work, he had learnt quickly how to act in the wall and obey orders without question. He had a right to go, but who would protect the family with both men away?
The reply had left his mouth before he really had time to think, but the look on his son’s face told him that it was the right one. ‘Dress and arm, quickly.’
As the boy scurried away he looked up with a frown. ‘Where are my winingas, the gold ones?’
Ebba was there, and she shook her head as she replied. ‘They are in your hand. Here,’ she said as she moved forward. ‘Let me tie them.’
Wihta sat back and drew a breath, collecting his thoughts as she knelt before him and began to wind the leg ties around his calves. He watched her as she worked, crisscrossing the golden tapes before tying them off just below the knee. She was a good wife, strong and open handed, popular within the valley and a faultless mother. Her body had filled out a little since the children came, but the strands of silver which lined her hair matched his own and he realised that the shared triumphs and tragedies of the years had almost made them one. Of all the hard earned trappings of wealth which surrounded him, Ebba and the children were the most precious of all.
A shadow fell across him and he looked up to see that Swinna stood ready, spear and shield in hand, his chin raised proudly as his younger siblings looked on. Wihta stood and took his own great war board down from its place upon the wall. ‘Ready?’
Without waiting for a reply, the Engle strode purposefully away, past the smouldering hearth which had witnessed so many happy moments and out into the weak spring sunshine. Arthur stood ready, and he hooked his toughened leather war cap and shield into place on the crupper as he hauled himself up into the saddle. Swinna was alongside him, and Wihta held out a hand to help the boy leap up onto the horse’s rump.
Ebba had gained the yard and she led the younger children across as Wihta took up the reins and bent low. ‘Take yourselves off into the woods until we return.’ She made to argue but the words were stillborn as she saw the look on his face and it became plain that this was no ordinary raid, a few young hotheads out to drive away a handful of sheep and cows to prove their manhood and impress the girls back home. She placed a hand upon his thigh as the seriousness of the situation which faced them sunk in, and Wihta moved his own down to give it a small squeeze. The younger children had recognised the action for what it was, and Wihta flashed them a smile of reassurance, tousling the boy’s hair and throwing his daughter a wink. ‘Look after your mother,’ he said. ‘We will be back before you all know it.’
With a click of his tongue they were away, the horse quickly exiting the yard to clatter onto the roadway. Guiding the mount southwards the sunny clearing which contained all that he held dear was soon behind him, and the horse increased its pace to a canter as it plunged into the shadows. It was a little shy of three miles to the lightning ravaged oak, and he had already covered half the distance before the horse could break sweat.
Lost in his thoughts, the horsemen were almost upon him before he had time to react.
The red dragon of Powys snaked above the pair and he felt Swinna throw a steadying arm around him as he snatched at the reins and desperately turned back. All things being equal he still had enough of a head start to regain the farm before he was overtaken, but he soon realised to his consternation that things were far from that. His horse was bred for plough and cart, no war horse, and the chasing riders were gaining with every step taken.
They had only travelled half the distance back to the farm when he felt his son slide from the back of the horse as the foemen came up and he prepared to sell his life dearly. A moment of indecision and Wihta was at his side, father and son exchanging a last look as their shields came together with a clatter.