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Twenty of them moving over a dull winter beach of muddy, rusty brown. A few men - two or three village greybeards and half-a-dozen monks in hoicked-up robes - and the rest women and children. Two monks pushed a handcart, bent double by weariness and hunger.
Above, against the empty white sky, crows wheeled. Inland, plumes of smoke hung black above the land. A bitter wind blew in from the sea.
A horse nickered, and hooves drummed. Out of the woodlands that lay up ahead broke a dozen horsemen; they spurred their mounts along the flat beach towards the procession.
Foam flew up in short-lived crystal white webs from where the horses tore through the grey-brown surf.
The group stopped. One of the younger monks stumbled forward and drew himself up, arms outspread to make himself a futile shield for the rest. One of the horsemen brayed a laugh; it echoed briefly, metallic and cruel, above the clamour of the hooves.
Then there were only the hoofbeats, and the brittle crash of the waves upon the strand. The line of men and women didn't move; the two who'd been pushing the handcart leant on the handles, heads bowed, as if taking pleasure in a rest that would soon become eternal. They'd all been marching a long dark time, seen friends and family slaughtered, homes burning, fields sown with salt. All that, and worse: it seemed a time of beasts and devils, from which death could only be a release.
The monk who'd moved in front of the group let his arms fall to his sides and closed his eyes as the horsemen thundered in.
A whipping and whistling sound cut the air; then there was a flurry of noises like axes hitting wood, and screams. The monk opened his eyes to see that three horsemen had fallen from their mounts, and several others were wounded, with thin wooden shafts sticking from them.
A bellowing went up and three riders charged over the dunes that ran parallel to the shore, a line of footsoldiers with pikes and axes at their heels.
As they charged the horsemen, the monk heard the whip and whistle sound again, and for a moment he thought a flock of birds had taken wing from behind the dunes. Thin, gaunt, black birds. But no bird had ever been so thin - and even if it had, the few birds that still flew in the North were so fat with carrion they could barely take to the air. And these were wingless. Long thin shafts. They flew upwards, slowed as they reached the zenith of their climb, then plunged back down towards the beach, hailing down among the horsemen amid screams and more of those grim wood-chopping sounds.
The horsemen were still reeling from that assault when the three riders from the dunes drove into them, hacking and slashing with sword and axe. Caught off-guard, the horsemen stood no chance, especially when the footsoldiers reached them, stabbing and hacking at their horses' limbs and bellies. The horsemen's great advantage was being mounted: take that away and when they crashed into the surf their mail and armour weighed them down and they were quickly gaffed with pikes, or cut apart with axes. No mercy was shown, or even asked.
The last of the horsemen - their leader, the monk believed - managed to get to his feet, rocked as he was by the waves. He laid about him with a heavy longsword, wounding one pikeman and driving the others back. He shouted something, although the monk didn't know what: he spoke French, but not Breton, which was the tongue this particular warrior had called out in.
One of the riders from the dunes approached; the Breton lunged at him, but the rider knocked the longsword aside and made a single thrust with his own, shorter blade. The Breton staggered back, gagging: blood gushed from his throat in a scarlet slick over the front of his armour. He flailed about with the longsword as he fought for balance, as if trying to ward off the Reaper Himself, blundering backward through the waves, then pitched over. The grey-brown water reddened; the Breton briefly broke the surface, trying to gulp air, then sank again. The water grew redder, the stain widening; then it ceased to do so, thinning and washing away in the tide.
At a barked command from the rider, the pikemen began dragging the dead horsemen from the water and stripping them of their weapons. The arrows too were pulled from the bodies and laid out in the sands. Twenty or thirty bowmen appeared over the dunes and tramped towards the shore.
The lead rider turned his horse and rode towards the monk. He was a tall man, fair-haired and moustached, in the helm, cloak and armour of a Saxon thegn. He hadn't sheathed his sword, and the blade was still red, dripping into the sand.
He halted before the monk and looked down at him in silence for a time as the waves broke and crashed. And then at last he spoke.
"You're a hard man to find, monk."
The monk looked up at the thegn. "You have my thanks, sir - for my own life, and that of these others. But I don't believe we know one another."
The thegn grinned. His teeth were jagged and yellow, and when he smiled a deep crease ran across his face, marking out a scar that had otherwise healed well. "Not in person, no. But in your case, by reputation."
"Reputation?" The monk looked around him: nothing in particular had caught his attention, but events had left him somewhat dazed. His flock were still standing - or in a few cases now, sitting - on the beach, while the thegn's men were still at work robbing the slain horsemen. Three pikemen dragged a dead horse onto the beach. "I wasn't aware I had one."
The thegn's smile faded. "The monastery of St Bede's, monk. That was your place, was it not?"
The monk shrugged. It hardly seemed fitting to be so wary of a man to whom he owed his life, but something about the thegn didn't inspire trust. "There are few monasteries in this part of the Danelaw."
"None, in fact. So I expected finding you to be easier than it was."
"Unhappily the Franks found us before you."
The thegn nodded and spat. "We do what we can, but you've seen how they fight."
"I have. We all have. They burn villages and crops, they kill any living thing they see. They are devils."
"No." The thegn scowled. "Only men. Guillaume the Bastard's patience reached an end. Whenever the Northern Lords rebelled, and he would move north to quell them. And no sooner had he left, they would rise up again. And then there were other risings, too - in the south, the west, the midlands. He's out to make an example."
"That had not escaped my attention, sir."
The thegn laughed. "Good. I was starting to think you were another of these bloodless, ball-less priests." The smile faded again. "My name is Wulfstan, and I serve Earl Morcar."
The monk waited.
"I was sent to find St Bede's - or rather, something that only the monks of St Bede's know of."
The monk closed his eyes. "I thought you might be."
"I cannot tell you."
Wulfstan lifted his sword, and studied the red on the blade. "You mean you won't. Let's not mince our words, monk - fuck it, haven't you a name?"
"My name is Godric, lord."
"Godric, then. You refuse to tell me?"
"I know what Earl Morcar intends, and I will not help."
"Have you no love for your land, Brother Godric? Are you just going to let the Franks run riot over it? Butcher your flock? Christ's blood, you've seen the slaughter they've done here." Wulfstan leant forward in the saddle. "You've been lucky, you and your flock. Others have had a harder winter. Shall I tell you what we found not ten miles from here? Human bones, Brother Godric. The bones of men, of women - the bones of children. They were gnawed, and they'd been cracked open for their marrow."
"Wolves must feed, my lord."
"Wolves? Wolves? Who said anything about wolves? Do wolves build fires, Brother Godric? Do wolves roast the prey they kill?"
The monk didn't go pale exactly: he was a small, slender man, dark-haired, and pale to begin with. But something seemed to go out of him.
"This is our last fight against the Franks," said Wulfstan. "If they win, England's theirs. And we're losing, Brother Godric. We need a miracle, and that's what Morcar's sent me to find."
"Miracles come from God," said the monk. "What you're seeking doesn't."
The thegn's nostrils flared. "You refuse to help?"
There was no answer.
"Do you not serve the King?"
"Hasn't the Bastard proclaimed himself King?"
"Edgar Aetheling is the true King."
"I serve God, my lord. And there are some things I cannot do. Even for my King."
"Is that so? A Christian martyr, are you? Then I'll make things simple, Brother Godric." Wulfstan extended his sword till the point of the blade hovered before Godric's face. "You have one last chance to help. If you refuse, then my men will finish what these Franks were about with your flock. But I'll spare you from the sword. Instead, I'll have them fell a pair of trees and build a cross. If you want to imitate Christ, we'll oblige you." He let the words sink in. "Well?"
Godric finally looked away, towards the handful of survivors behind him. At last he turned back to Wulfstan. "May God forgive you. And me."
"We'll worry about that later."
"I want my people escorted to safety."
"And you'll come with us and show us to the tomb?"
"Then I give you my word."
"Are you a man of your word, Wulfstan?"
"Yes. Are you?"
"I am. You have my word I'll guide you."
"Good. Be of better cheer, Brother Godric! You're going to help save England from the Franks."
The monk made no answer. Instead he tightly clasped the cross that hung around his throat, and his lips moved in prayer.
Having agreed, however reluctantly, to aid Wulfstan, Godric refused to discuss the matter further until his brethren and their 'flock' were seen off safely. Wulfstan scowled at this, but agreed, and divided his forces: half of his soldiers and archers marched northward along the beach with the handful of survivors that had followed Godric. Some of his axemen commandeered the slain Franks' horses and rode on them; the two riders who'd followed Wulfstan remained with him, along with a horse for Godric and three others that were being used to carry provisions. "You can ride?" Wulfstan asked, and Godric nodded. "Good."
At a gesture from the thegn, two archers helped Godric into the tall war-horse's saddle. Nothing else was said for a time; monk and thegn and all the others watched the procession disappear into the distance, hopefully into the safety of the unravaged parts of the North, and Godric didn't doubt they all wished that they too were going that way. Even Wulfstan: perhaps Wulfstan most of all.
Finally the others were lost to sight and they were alone on the beach but for the breaking waves and scattered dead, and the crows flapping down to batten on them. "I take it our way lies to the south?" Wulfstan said.
"Good. Then let's ride. It'll be dark soon, and I'd rather put distance between us and this spot."
Shortly before dusk, they found a spot where a narrow stream bled out across the beach into the sea, and at Wulfstan's order they followed it until they reached a woodland, the trees stripped bare by the cruel winter.
Sentries were posted, and fires set. The horses killed in the earlier fight had been crudely butchered and their shanks and haunches brought with them. One of the haunches was put on a spit to roast; the others were hung up to smoke overnight.
Godric couldn't remember the last time he'd been so hungry. The men all skewered a chunk of the roast on their seaxes, the knives every Saxon man carried at all times. Godric was about to bite off a chunk of his own portion when he realised the men around the fire were all looking to him. The flames crackled, but after a few moments he realised what they were waiting for.
"Heavenly Father," he said; his mouth watered and he swallowed hard. "For what we are about to receive, make us truly thankful. Amen."
The men ate in silence, other than grunts of pain as they burnt their fingers on the hot, greasy flesh. Godric tore at his ravenously, almost choking on a piece until one of the axemen thumped him on the back, chuckling.
"You look like you need a good meal, Brother Godric," Wulfstan said, when they were done.
"I do," he admitted. "I thank you for it."
"Good. Walk with me."
They left the circle of firelight and went among the trees. The air was bitter.
"A grim Christmastide," said Wulfstan. "You'll agree?"
"And the coming year seems no better."
"I know. You're still set on your course, then? I can't change your mind?"
"It would take more than a hot dinner to do that, Brother Godric."
"I thought as much." They walked in silence a few steps. "Your horses..."
"They are Frankish?"
"They are. The Franks call them destriers. They're bred to fight, and to bear armour. One of the great advantages they had as Hastings. You know what they call the hill where the battle was fought?"
"Sanguelac," said Godric. "The Lake of Blood. You were there?"
"One of Harold Godwinson's housecarls. Perhaps the only one to live the day."
"And now you're Earl Morcar's man?"
"I am. I've seen how they fight. We only used horses to get us to the battle, and fought on foot. They rode straight into the fray. And their archers! They rained hell down on us," Wulfstan was silent, brooding. "They cut Harold to pieces in front of us. A dozen horseback knights against one man. He was a brave one, but it did him no good."
"And now you want vengeance."
"I want them gone, priest." Wulfstan turned towards him, face fury-white. "You understand?"
"I've learned their methods, and adopted them. It's given my men the best chance of defeating them when we cross their path. It's why Morcar chose me for this."
"How like them do you wish to become?"
"As much as is required to destroy them. And give me no talk about vengeance being the Lord's to repay."
"I've no love for the Franks either," Godric said. "You spoke of a grim Christmastide. It was that, all right. The Franks came to us on Christmas Day itself, when we were at prayer. They burned and slew like Satan's very own. I wish I could forgive, but I can't. Perhaps when they are dead and gone."
"Then we should have no argument."
"But we do. I'm a man of God. Do you truly expect me to countenance consorting with demons?"
"Needs must when the Devil drives, priest, and he's truly driving us all this winter. Besides, you gave your word."
"Yes, I did."
"So, where are we bound?"
Godric held Wulfstan's gaze for a time, then finally bowed his head. "Holderness," he said at last.
"Where in Holderness?"
"A few miles from Myton, near the mouth of the Hull River."
"That's a long march," said Wulfstan sourly. "You wouldn't, by chance, be trying to put me off the attempt?"
"No," Godric half-lied.
"Good. It will take much more than that as well. We set off at first light, Brother Godric. I'd sleep now, if I were you. Tomorrow will be a long, hard day."
Morning was bitter, with low mists drifting through the woods at ground level, hiding the tangled tree-roots so that the Saxons, stiff from sleep, tripped and stumbled on their way.
Godric had to be helped up onto his destrier once again; he was barely awake, having been shaken from uneasy sleep only bare minutes before. Wulfstan rode beside him, and twice had to reach across to grab and pull him upright in the saddle before he fell off.
"Here. Eat," he said, pushing a chunk of smoked horsemeat into Godric's hands. Godric gnawed at it, eyes barely open.
"Apologies for the rude awakening," Wulfstan said after a moment. "But it pays to keep on the move. Especially when the Franks find their dead friends back there."
They rode inland. The land was silent and empty of life, bare with the winter; the only living things but for themselves were the crows perched, watchful, on the skeleton trees. Wulfstan looked up and saw more crows wheeling in the sky overhead. They were following his party. Hardly comforting.
No-one spoke. Godric still seemed barely conscious, chewing slowly at the horsemeat till it was gone at last and then sitting there holding the reins. At times Wulfstan wasn't sure if the priest had fallen asleep in the saddle.
About an hour after they left the woods, Wulfstan saw a column of black smoke rising over the top of a hill, and raised a hand to halt the group. He reached out and caught the reins of Godric's mount; the monk grunted and sat up straighter, blinking.
"Edward," he told one of the other riders, "scout ahead."
Edward nodded. He was a big man, with a scarred and craggy face, a broken nose, and curly black hair streaked with grey. He spurred his horse and the destrier cantered forward.
"What?" said Godric, still dazed.
Wulfstan pointed to the smoke. "Franks," he said simply. "They've been there, and recently. I want to know if they're still close by."
Godric nodded. "The Franks are the least of what you'll have to face."
Godric pointed, first to his left and then to his right. Wulfstan looked where the monk indicated, and saw a small stand of bare trees to the left, and a tall, lone, crooked oak to the right. It wasn't the trees, however, that Godric was trying to call his attention to, but their occupants. Crows perched in all the branches; some of the trees were bowing 'neath their weight. None called, but in the stillness Wulfstan was sure they were watching him. He looked again and saw the crows he'd seen before were still present overhead.
"They're watching us," said Godric. "They know we're coming."
Godric sighed. "You didn't really think that the tomb wouldn't be guarded, did you?"
"Guarded by who?"
"What you might call an unholy alliance," said the monk.
"What?" But Godric pressed his lips together and said no more of that. Wulfstan chose not to press the point; there were other matters to clarify. "But, they're Saxons, aren't they?"
"You might call them so."
"Well, then - we're their countrymen, not invaders like these Franks."
"It doesn't matter," said Godric. "I did try to tell you. What's in that tomb is beyond Saxon or Welshman or Frank. It's an enemy to us all."
"But it can be made to serve - isn't that what the manuscripts say?"
"A sorcerer can have devils do his bidding, but only at the cost of his soul. The tomb's defenders don't care what blood we are or tongue we speak; they only care that we want to make use of it. They're sworn to prevent that, no matter the cost."
Wulfstan had no idea what to say to that, and for the first time the faintest glimmer of uncertainty about his mission appeared, quickly snuffed out and suppressed. His lord had given him his orders. As it turned out, he was spared having to make any reply, because that was the moment that Edward came riding back.
"Well?" said Wulfstan.
"No sign of the Franks. They've been and gone."
"And the fire?"
"There was a village."
"We should go there," said Godric.
"For what?" demanded Wulfstan. "There'll be nothing to see."
"Some may have survived. They may need help, or the Last Rites at least."
"I am not here on a mission of mercy, priest."
"But I am. Here on Earth, at least." Godric sighed. "Besides, there may be supplies that the Franks missed."
"I doubt it. They're very thorough." Wulfstan shrugged. "But very well. I may as well keep you happy, Father, assuming that's possible. And it can do no harm."
Godric made no answer to that, but gripped his crucifix tightly and raised it to his lips.
The smell of burning grew stronger as they neared the village, and not only smells of burning wood and thatch; there was a smell very like that of the meat that had roasted over last night's fire, and Godric felt sick at it. He'd encountered it before, and knew what it meant.
A few of the villagers had escaped a short distance, only to be ridden down: two men and a woman, heads split by sword blows. The woman's hands had been severed, probably as she'd tried to shield herself from the blow.
The village itself hadn't been of any great size - a dozen low, thatched houses arranged along a dirt track, with a pond at one end. A slaughtered pig floated in it; it had been cut open and gutted in order to putrefy and poison the water. The body of a child lay beside the pond, its head submerged.
The houses had been torched, though the fires by now were close to burning out due to lack of fuel. So too were the pyres that had been started in the street; among them were the remains of axe-hafts, the shafts of hoes, plough-blades. Grain was scattered about too; from time to time it popped and crackled in the dwindling flames. There were the remains of animal carcasses too. Charred flesh and bone.
The human bodies had been left where they'd fallen, to rot. All the men started at the sudden clatter of sound from above - but it was only the crows that had been hanging over them like a banner, diving down to feast. A couple of the men tried to shoo them away from the dead, without success.
It was clear soon enough that no-one had been left alive, and it had been a forlorn hope ever to hope there might have have been. Godric found himself wondering why he'd persuaded Wulfstan to come here. To convince one of them of something, perhaps - perhaps to try and persuade himself that the thegn might be right, that it wouldn't be an act of cowardice to help him in exchange for survival?
If that was the case, he must be vigilant. Now more than ever, he'd require his faith. There were worse things even than the Franks. He must keep the promise he'd made to himself: one way or the other he must prevent Wulfstan from completing his mission. He'd try to do it by persuasion, but if not - if not, he'd do what had to be done and pray God's forgiveness for the act.
"No-one here in need of your services, priest," said Wulfstan at last. Edward gave a short laugh.
"No," said Godric quietly. Edward's laughter ceased, and he rode ahead.
"So?" said the thegn. "Happy now?"
Godric didn't bother answering.
"I said, are you happy now, priest? Can we carry on? Have we your permission for that?"
Godric turned, angered at last, and opened his mouth to say something, but that was when the howling began.
It was a single howl at first, the cry echoing across the landscape. Then another answered it, and then another, and another. The cries multiplied and multiplied, each new howl seeming to be answered by three more. And they were coming from everywhere - west and south, east and north. Wulfstan's destrier reared and turned about, this way and that, and the thegn had to fight to control it. Godric's own horse seemed to have been struck still with fright, which at least spared him the battle to stay mounted.
"What?" said Wulfstan. "What in Christ's name...?"
"Not in His," said Godric. "Not in His at all."
Or perhaps it was; after all, didn't all things serve God? And Godric knew what work this was - aye, and whose.
The howls grew louder, and closer.
"Wolves," said one of the footsoldiers. "Wolves!"
"Quiet," snapped Edward. "Wolves come at night, man. You know that."
"Not always," Godric said.
Wulfstan twisted round in his saddle, glaring, having finally brought his horse under control. "What do you know, priest? What is this?"
"I tried to warn you," said the monk. "The tomb's guarded, and the guardians don't care who tries to reach it."
The crows scattered from the dead, back up to wheel in the sky. Godric pointed. "As I said, they knew we were coming."
"Be quiet," said Wulfstan. "Men, stand ready!"
He gripped the hilt of his sword. The howling of the wolves grew ever closer. And then came the sound of terrible hooves, battering on the ground as they approached.
Godric raised his crucifix to his lips, murmuring prayers.
"Enough of that," snapped Wulfstan, and reached down to the saddle of his horse, pulling a long-hafted fighting axe out from a pannier. "Take this, and don't tell me you can't because you're a man of God. You fight or you die."
"No point," Godric said, "there's no chance for us now." But he took the axe nonetheless.
"Talk to us, priest, and quickly," shouted Edward. "What are these?"
"Wolves," said Godric, "just as it sounds. But it isn't hunger that drives them. It's the Horseman."
"Can't you hear him?"
They could, of course; even over the growing, rising chorus of wolf-howls, the thunder of hooves was clearly audible. Wulfstan's destrier snorted and shifted uncomfortably; he patted its mane to calm it, but there was no denying the unease he felt. The hoofbeats weren't those of an ordinary horse: they thundered and echoed as if the beast was a giant.
"Who is he? What is he?"
"They've called him, and he's raised up the wolves."
"Who's called him?"
"The White Queen - the Hedge-Rider and the White Queen."
"Blood of Christ, will you talk sense, man?" Wulfstan had to marshal all his willpower to avoid aiming a blow at Godric, either with fist and sword. The priest seemed lost in a trance, "Enough of this. Leofric -" He addressed the second of the two riders who'd fought with him at the beach "- I want a shield wall around us, right away. Edward - ride out and see if you can see what's coming."
Edward licked his lips, looking uncertain.
"Do it, man! And be quick. Don't dawdle. Just be long enough to tell us something, then get back here. Priest! Priest!" In his anger, Wulfstan struck Godric across the buttocks with the flat of his sword. The monk grunted and nearly fell out of the saddle. "I'm talking to you, monk."
Godric glared at him, steadying himself on horseback. His lips were white with anger; white, too, were his knuckles on the axe. "That's more like it," said Wulfstan. "Ever been inside of a shield wall before, priest?"
Godric shook his head.
"Well, normally I'd as soon not be on horseback in the middle of one," said Wulfstan. "But by the sound it, arrows aren't likely to be a problem. Now I want some answers from you - the kind a plain man can understand. What's happening, exactly?"
Godric breathed deep, till some of the anger went out of him. When he spoke, his voice was dull and calm. "Have you heard of the Wild Hunt?"
Wulfstan stared at him. "Are you mocking me?"
"The Wild Hunt? It's a child's tale."
"I only wish it were. Wait! Listen."
"What am I -"
Wulfstan did as he was bid, and realised what Godric meant. The howling was still present - louder than ever, in fact - but he could no longer hear the sound of the approaching horse.
Godric breathed out again. "Praise the Lord," he said. "We might have a chance after all."
"It's not easy to call the Wild Hunt to your aid, or even one of them. So instead they've had the Horseman raise the wolves only. He won't be striking at us directly."
"I suppose that's some comfort," said Wulfstan, although he was still uncertain whether Godric was serious, or indeed sane. That would be some luck of his, having to trust a madman to guide him to the tomb -
Fresh hooves cantered and Wulfstan twisted in the saddle, sword half-raised, but it was only Edward, charging down the street towards them. He was wild-eyed and shouting now, but Wulfstan could hear nothing; his voice was drowned out by the now-deafening howling of the pack of wolves - a seemingly endless stream of lean, grey-furred, yellow-eyed bodies - pouring down the street in his wake, jumping and snapping at his heels.
"Shield wall!" bellowed Leofric and the fyrd-men moved quickly and as one, the outer row interlocking their shields to form a barrier against assault and the row behind them forming a second, horizontal barrier to protect their heads. It was protection of sorts for him, Wulfstan and Godric, even if, being mounted on horseback, they were still somewhat exposed. But for Edward, still outside his perimeter, it was no defence.
One of the wolves caught one of the horse's fetlocks in its jaws, and Wulfstan heard the crack of bone. The destrier crashed to the ground, hurling Edward from the saddle.
"Run!" shouted Wulfstan.
Edward already was; behind him the horse let out a terrible cry, one that Wulfstan had never heard from a horse before, as the wolves tore into it. The beasts were very thin, ribs showing under their coats - like as not, they were as starved as the men in these parts. They ripped the horse's belly open and tore at the guts that bulged out. One seemed to be trying to force its way inside the injured mount's body. The horse kicked and thrashed, its eye a-bulge, mouth latered in foam. Then it was still, moving only as its carcass was jerked to and fro by the wolves as they tore at it.
The horse occupied many of the wolves, but by no means all, and more came streaming past it, after Edward. He ran quickly, but they were faster. One leapt, and its jaws clashed shut around his wrist. It crashed to the ground and Edward went down with him. He was up on his knees at once, trying to wrench his hand free, clutching for a knife, but then the others swarmed over him like rats, and the weight of them bore him down. There were screams, and blood sprayed out through gaps in the writhing mass of increasingly sodden grey fur.
"Down off the horse, priest," Wulfstan shouted. "We need to -"
But one of the wolves was already leaping, and it landed on the 'roof' of the shield wall. Spears and sword-blade thrust up through the gaps at it, but without success, and it bounded forward to leap again, howling as it flew through the air towards the thegn.
Time slowed, running thickly, as if a river had become mud. The wolf's jaws stretched wider - impossibly wide, thought Wulfstan as he tried to raise his sword to meet it. Like the wolf in legend that swallowed the sun to bring night. And this would bring the forever night to him. Even if his sword struck it - and he knew even as he tried that it wouldn't be raised in time - and ran the wolf through, it would still be on him, those jaws closing his throat. He'd failed his Lord, and his King, and without him it was almost certain that the monk would find a way to turn his men back -
And then the wolf was gone, leaving only the after-image of a blur of movement and the echo of a sound in the air; a muffled, almost piteous yelp.
"Get down," a voice shouted, and Wulfstan looked down to see Godric running past him. The monk crouched beside the wolf, which lay whining and jerking from the ground, and wrenched at the axe buried in its side.
"Well thrown," said Leofric, who'd also dismounted by now. He was bigger even than poor Edward and even more badly scarred, with half his teeth missing - and yet, despite having a face like that of some mythical ogre, children loved him. Wulfstan had seen them climb up on his knee and beg to be told stories countless times, and Leofric would always oblige. He was a fearsome warrior beyond doubt, but also genuinely amiable and gentle-hearted off the battlefield. Now he grabbed the axe and pulled it free of the wolf's body. the animal whined and pawed feebly at his foot. Sad-faced, Leofric swept his own axe down in a single killing blow.
"Look out," shouted Godric, and swung another blow with his axe at a second wolf trying to leap over the top of the shield wall. More by luck than judgement, he hit it, and Wulfstan finished the beast with a blow from his sword.
"Heads down," yelled Leofric. "Close ranks." He caught each of the horses, and eased them to the ground. To Godric, spattered with blood and still dazed by what he'd just done, it seemed to take little real force; Leofric seemed to just murmur in the horses' ears, and they quietened and allowed themselves to be laid down. That done, Leofric split another wolf almost casually in two and then crouched, enabling the Saxon fyrd-men to close up the top of the shield wall.
Godric crouched, axe in hand. Leofric and Wulfstan moved so that the three of them were back to back, ready for anything that forced its way through the shield wall.
The shield wall, of course, was more usually employed in battle against a human foe whose weapons included sword, axe, spear and arrow, rather than an army of wolves. But a wolf's muzzle was narrow enough to be forced between two shields, and then the beast would use all its strength and weight to widen the gap and drive the rest of it through. Swords struck and stabbed wherever any such attempt took place, and beasts fell back wounded or dying. But still they came. Godric wondered wildly if every wolf in Northumbria had answered the Horseman's call.
The shields creaked with the weight of both living dead wolves; the wall shifted and the men stumbled sideways as a group to stop it giving way. A stench of blood and opened bodies, of sweat and piss, shit and fear, filled the hot, confined space within the shields. Men cursed and grunted, groaned and prayed, and the wolves snarled and howled. A fyrd-man screamed as a wolf sank its teeth into his hand; Leofric lunged forward to hack through the wolf's muzzle with his axe, then snatched the soldier's sword and propped him up to keep the wall together.
But even Leofric could take only one man's place, and minutes later another man fell. The wolves attacked him, going for his throat and groin, and as he screamed more of the beasts tried to swarm through the gap. Godric struck one down with his axe, then another; beside him, Wulfstan hacked and stabbed with his sword; then thankfully the shield wall closed ranks again and the barrier was strong once more, only with several more dead and dying wolves trapped in the space. The fallen soldier could be heard screaming outside. But not for long.
The fight went on, and two more men died. The wall was shrinking, the men crushed closer together; the horses nickered and one kicked out, missing Godric's leg by inches. If either horse panicked, tried to bolt - if another man was wounded and his shield fell - if the wall broke anywhere, they were done. And there was nothing he could do, save pray and keep his axe ready.
The shields above were bowing under the weight laid on them. Godric could hear the wood crack, and gripped his axe-haft tighter. There could only be minutes left, before the wolves broke through for the last time.
But then there was a sound - a low, mournful note that rang across the land - and even as it rang out, the wolves' snarling died away. No sooner had it faded than it sounded again, and when it did the weight pressing down on the men eased. Claws scratched across the wood, and the wolves barked; then, as the horn sounded for the third time, Godric heard them running away.
Finally, there was a thunderous noise of cantering hooves, and then silence, but for the caw of crows.
At last, Wulfstan gave the command to break up the shield wall, and the surviving fyrd-men stood swaying in the middle of a mire of excrement, innards and blood. Dead wolves lay everywhere. Along with tattered things of bone and hide and broken steel that had been men.
Along with Edward, they'd lost four fyrd-men in the attack. Dead wolves were scattered around the village, along with dying and wounded ones, some of whom were still trying to drag themselves away after their fellows. The remaining fyrd-men moved through the village with spear, sword and axe, despatching the beasts with savage enthusiasm. Godric understood it, and even felt some of it himself, following on the heels of the gut-twisting fear he'd known during the attack, but he turned away from the sight all the same.
"Surprised you're still so tender, priest," called Wulfstan, then turned back to surveying his men at their work.
Leofric's hand settled on Godric's soldier. "You're all right, Brother Godric?"
Godric managed to give the big man, who was leading a pair of the Norman destriers by the reins, a wan smile. "Yes. My thanks."
"You did well," rumbled the warrior. "You've used the axe before, I think."
"My father was house-carl to the Confessor," said Godric quietly. "He had me learn. It was his wish that I follow him."
"But you didn't."
Godric shook his head. "God called, and I answered."
Leofric nodded, in the manner of one who doesn't fully understand but tries nonetheless. "Our thegn owes you his life now. That will likely make him even surlier towards you. He hates to stand in another man's debt."
"Surely that happens often enough if you're a fighting man."
"True. But usually only with other fighting men."
Godric nodded, conceding the point.
"So," called Wulfstan, striding over, "so much for the hedge-rider, eh? She called the Wild Hunt itself to her aid, and we're still here?"
"We're alive because she allowed it," said Godric.
"Christ's blood, priest, what vomit is this now?"
"The wolves left because they were called," Godric said. "You heard the Horseman blow his horn. If he hadn't, they'd have continued the attack until the shield wall broke entirely. And it would have - indeed, it was about to."
Wulfstan glared and chewed at one end of his moustache, his breath smoking in the bitter air. "We drove them off," he said at last.
"We held out," said Godric, "but we would have fallen. Perhaps the White Queen interceded for us -"
"Hedge-riders, White Queens," snarled Wulfstan. "What shit you talk, priest."
"My lord -" began Leofric, but Wulfstan silenced him with a glare. "Yes?" said the thegn. "You had something to say? No? Good." He turned his attention back to Godric. "Answers, priest. This White Queen, who is she?"
"I don't know for sure," Godric said. "Nobody was. The Abbot knew, and perhaps one or two of the senior monks, but they were all killed by the Franks."
"Priest..." said Wulfstan, stabbing his sword into the ground. Godric flinched, but drew himself up.
"She's a nun," he said, "or perhaps a divine of higher station."
"A nun? And a hedge-rider? You can come up with a better tale than that, priest -"
"It's no tale," said Godric, angry now. "Only the truth. I told you, it's an unholy alliance that guards the tomb. Hedge-riders kept watch on it long before word of Our Lord came here. Their duty was to ensure that what was in it didn't escape, and they discharged that duty for centuries, and did it well. When the Christians found them at last, they tried to kill the hedge-riders, and in so doing they almost let the thing in the tomb loose. It took the combined efforts of both hedge-riders and priests to seal it up again. Since then, a holy woman of each faith has guarded it. It is a deep a secret of the Church, the one instance in which the Old Faith has been tolerated."
Neither Wulfstan nor Leofric said anything in reply; the monk had never spoken at such length or with such passion before.
"This?" said Godric, motioning around them. "This was a warning, my Lord Wulfstan. They let us live. This was a mercy from them. If we press on, they won't show it again."
"There is no if, priest," said Wulfstan. "I have a task, and I'll accomplish it. You'll help me or you'll die the worst death I can devise. Now gather yourself. I have men to bury and there are words to be said over them. You can still do that, can't you?"
"Good. And after that, we continue on our way."
The thegn wheeled about and strode off.
Godric turned to Leofric. "Surely you can make him see?"
"No." It was as though a shutter had come down behind the big man's eyes. "I'm sorry, priest. I can't go against Lord Wulfstan. You'd better ready yourself for the burials. He'll want to get this done quickly."
He turned and led the horses away, leaving Godric alone among the deaths upon deaths that strewed the village. The monk looked up above, to where the crows continued to wheel, watching, in the sky.
They buried only their own dead; the slaughtered villagers were left where they lay to rot. To do so appalled Godric, but at the same time he understood. Anyone who sought to bury every corpse they encountered in Northumbria now would be here an eternity and driven mad to boot; the monk had to content himself with murmuring a general prayer for the souls of the murdered before they set off on the next leg of their journey.
The next day passed without incident, and the one after that, although the crows continued to track the party. After a time, Godric became used to them, although he wasn't sure to what extent the others did. In any case, they encountered no threats, human, beast or otherwise.
"Could they have changed their minds?" Leofric murmered from the side of his mouth at one point as they rode alongside one another. Wulfstan was just ahead, and the big man clearly didn't wish to be overheard by the thegn.
"The hedge-rider and the Queen."
Godric shook his head, then glanced sidelong at Leofric to see the other man was gazing fixedly ahead of him as they rode. "No," he said simply. "As I said before, this is not a question of Saxon or Frank or Welshman for that matter. No-one must enter the barrow or release what's inside."
"And what is inside?"
"Something terrible," said Godric. "That's all we know."
Leofric finally looked at him, frowning, then remembered himself and looked straight ahead again.
"Men have thought in the past to control it," said Godric. "It's let them think they can, but they can't. Once it's let out..." He gestured around them. "Imagine a world like this, only worse."
"Worse?" Leofric was plainly struggling with that concept.
"More terrible cruelty, more terrible tortures - and it would continue, world without end. Think - a Christian nun and a pagan priestess stand guard together. Oh, I know that there are churches built on pagan holy places, and Christian holy days that fall now on what were pagan feasts, but that's a different thing. When did you hear of a witch being suffered openly to practice her arts without facing death for it? In this if nothing else, she's an ally to us. So consider how terrible the threat that unites us with her."
"War's like that," said Leofric. "You can't pick and choose your allies."
"But some alliances must not be made. This would be an alliance with the Devil Himself."
"The Devil?" Leofric chuckled. "No disrespect, Father, but I lose count of the things that you priests you say come from the Devil. Hedge-riders and pagans not least of them."
Godric had to smile; the big man did have a point. "Again, though, when did you hear of priests joining forces with such folk?"
"I'll say it again. That thing the thegn wants to use - it mustn't be. it must be left in the ground. At any cost. How can I convince you, Leofric?"
"You can't." Once more it was as though shutters had come down behind Leofric's eyes. "I'm sorry, Father. I've seen what these Frankish bastards have done. I had family in the North - all gone, in this. I'll see the Franks beaten first - when that's done, I'll concern myself with things that live in tombs."
He spurred his horse and it trotted on ahead, drawing alongside Wulfstan. The thegn looked back at Godric once, and a smile of sorts hovered briefly on his lips before he turned his gaze ahead again.
The dead littered their path, gaunt with killing hunger, little more than skin and bone. There were gnawed bare bones and cracked skulls too, and bodies left half-eaten or with great chunks and pieces of flesh cut from them. In the distance, smoke plumes rose. The Franks had been here. Part of Godric dreaded meeting them. And another part of him hoped for it.
They continued southward without further incident. They passed through more villages that had been massacred and razed, saw the crows pecking at more corpses than any of them would ever want to see again, and found, too, their share of wolves feeding off the dead - though for the most part the predators scattered at their approach. Only once or twice had the wolves grown sufficiently bold to attack, and they were quickly disposed of. There was no attack in anything like the force they'd encountered at that first village.
Wulfstan told the men that they'd defeated the sorcery employed against them, and that all that faced them now was a straightforward trek overland. Whether he genuinely thought the hedge-rider and the White Queen had shot their bolt or was only saying it to keep his men's spirits up Godric couldn't tell, but the monk knew the battle with the tomb's guardians wasn't over yet. The hedge-rider was simply gathering her strength for a second attack. And while he was relieved at every day - every hour - that passed without danger, his sense of dread grew with it too. Because the longer it took for her attack again, the longer the period of preparation, the more devastating it would be when it finally came.
There was no danger from the hedge-rider or White Queen, and none, really, from the Franks, because Wulfstan was going out of his way to avoid them. They might be able to destroy a war-band here or there - indeed, they'd shown they could. But it would be a drop in the ocean, and would do nothing to stop the holocaust Guillaume the Bastard had already unleashed. As far as the thegn was concerned, Godric knew, he could best serve or avenge the Franks' victims by completing his mission.
The biggest threat, however, came from neither witch nor Frank, but a more prosaic source altogether. Provisions had begun to run low. The fyrd-men and riders could only carry so much, and with the countryside devastated there was no way to replenish them from the land. It would be hard to make them last long enough to reach their destination, and even then, what came after? They could cross the Humber into Mercia, perhaps, but that was held by the Normans. Steal a boat, perhaps, and sail up the coast? Or did Wulfstan hope to unleash the tomb's contents against the Franks then and there?
When they made camp again, Godric sat apart from the rest beside a small fire of his own, chewing one of the last remaining pieces of horsemeat while trying to pray. He'd intended to pray first, then eat, but cold and hunger made it impossible.
"Priest," said Wulfstan, and came to sit by him. Leofric sat down too. The big man was silent, and looked unhappy.
"I want words with you," the thegn said.
"Say what you have to say."
"I want to know about the tomb."
"What can I tell you?"
"You can tell me what you know."
"I know very little, my lord. Next to nothing, in fact."
"Bollocks," said Wulfstan. "I know who you are, Godric. I was given your name in particular. If the Abbot and the other senior monks were dead, you'd know." Wulfstan bared his crooked yellow teeth again. "I know the Abbot was grooming you to succeed him. You knew his secrets."
"They are secrets," said Godric. "Not for sharing."
"I don't care," said Wulfstan. "I want to know. In fact, I need to. So you're going to tell me, priest. One way or the other." He nodded to Leofric. "Leofric here can be a very persuasive man. I've seen him render Frank prisoners I'd thought were mute talkative. He can do the same to you if I order it. And I will, if you don't tell me."
Leofric met Godric's eyes, looking unhappier than ever.
"I advise you not to test my patience further, priest," said Wulfstan. "Well?"
Godric thought. He had no doubt that Wulfstan would make good on his threat. And Leofric? It would trouble the giant's conscience - but then he'd be surprised if it didn't at the best of times, as Leofric, despite his ferocity in battle, struck Godric as one of the gentlest of men. But in its way, that might make him a deadlier torturer, because he acted not out of cruelty but necessity, learning the shortest and most intense means of inflicting pain. And Godric knew the limits of his own courage and endurance. He would talk, sooner or later - probably sooner.
Of course, he should be able to bear the pain, at least for a time. Hadn't the early martyrs endured worse? But perhaps there was wisdom in speaking now. He could choose his words with care, try to impress on Wulfstan the true nature of what he was trying to free. He had small hopes that the thegn would listen, especially after his fight with the wolves: the greater the cost, the more of his men died, the greater the determination to ensure he bought something with their deaths.
"Well?" said Wulfstan again.
After a long pause, during which Godric once told himself he was acting out of wisdom rather than cowardice, the monk nodded.
"Good!" Wulfstan elbowed Leofric in the ribs. "See?" Leofric smiled weakly. Wulfstan turned back to Godric. "Go on, then," he said.
Godric nodded and ran his fingers through his hair, then rubbed them together in an effort to chafe some warmth back into them, trying to choose where to begin.
At last, having done so, he nodded again, then looked up at the others.
"Have you ever heard," he said, "of a place called Chorazin?"
Neither Leofric nor Wulfstan showed any sign of recognition at the name. Leofric shrugged and shook his head; the thegn gave an impatient snort. "The name means nothing," he said, "as well you know. "
"Chorazin is spoken of in the Bible," said Godric, and Wulfstan fell silent. "It was a town cursed by Jesus, along with Capernaum and Bethsaida. There's a prophecy that the Antichrist will be born there. The Devil's Bethlehem, if you like."
"That's where the thing you're looking for comes from."
"From the Holy Land?" And now Wulfstan laughed, although still with an edge of anger. "You're telling fairy tales, priest -"
"The tomb was built by a Roman officer," said Godric. "Judea was a part of the Roman Empire in those days. And so was England. They had the Roman centurion's testimony at the monastery. They'd transcribed it onto parchment, but the Franks burned it with the rest of St Bede's. I have it, though, almost by heart."
He waited for a moment.
"All right," Wulfstan said. "Go on."
Godric nodded, and began the story he'd been told.
Centurion Corvinus was an experienced officer, a veteran of numerous campaigns. His particular aptitude was for putting down bandits, insurgents and such-like disturbers of the Pax Romana, which, by the time we're talking of here, he'd earned a reputation for doing, with often ruthless efficiency.
During the reign of the Emperor Nerva, Corvinus was posted to the Tenth Legion of the Strait, which controlled Judea. There, the centurion's reputation was brought to the attention of the legion's legate, Campanus. The legion had taken control of Judea after the Revolt of the Zealots, and the region was largely pacified at the time, except a group of bandits who were operating to the north of the Sea of Galilee. They attacked not only travellers, but had razed and massacred a number of small settlements, disappearing as quickly as they had come.
Campanus commanded Corvinus to track the bandits down and destroy them. Taking a century of well-armed legionaries with them, he set off for Galilee.
It soon became clear that these were no ordinary bandits. They killed without mercy, but in battle they only sought to maim their victims, in order to kill them at leisure. And always by the same method: cutting out their hearts.
Corvinus searched for the bandits, even disguising a number of his men as travelling merchants in the hope of drawing them out, but with out success. In the end, however, he was approached by a thin old man in a dirty robe, who revealed himself as a Christian holy man.
The old man told Corvinus that the killers were not bandits, but devotees of an ancient cult that practised human sacrifice, which the old man called the Followers of the Wind. While relations between the Christians and Rome were not the easiest, the old man saw it as a solemn duty to encompass the Followers' destruction by whatever means, and Rome as by far the lesser evil. The Followers' holy shrine, he told Corvinus, was hidden from plain sight in a system of caves near Chorazin. This was where Corvinus could find the Followers. But, the old man warned, he would also find the creatures that the Followers worshipped. "And for that," he said, "you will need more than sword or bow, but the power of the Lord God of Hosts."
Corvinus set little store by any of this talk, but believed the old man at least insofar as he talked of the cult. Taking the old Christian with him as a guide, he rode to Chorazin.
The old Christian guided them to a small, desolate plateau, which loomed above an empty desert plain and showed no sign of any life, not even bush or scrub. Nonetheless, he insisted, the Followers of the Wind were to be found here. Corvinus was skeptical, but having come so far he could hardly turn back. He ordered his men to climb the plateau, although he noted with some misgivings that the only means of doing so was by a narrow, winding path. But, all seemed still.
And it remained still, until the legionaries were all some distance along the path, at which point the Followers of the Wind revealed themselves. As the old man had told Corvinus, they hid themselves away on the plateau, and had obviously seen the legionaries approaching. They opened fire with a devastating hail of arrows and slingshots; Corvinus and his men battled on up the path, but by the time they reached the plateau, nearly a third of their number had been killed or injured.
But now matters changed, because the legionaries were now fighting the cult hand to hand, where their superior training had the advantage. It was soon clear that the Followers couldn't win, but they refused to yield. Of course, they knew they only had death, probably by crucifixion, to look forward to, but even so it seemed clear they would rather die than willingly allow entrance to their shrine, which they fell back to defend.
Those who hadn't been killed in the fighting seemed simply to vanish into thin air, but the old Christian showed Corvinus the cunningly-concealed entrances to the caves that led under the plateau.
The old man warned Corvinus that the cult's survivors must be stopped at any cost, as they would now seek to awake that which they worshipped. Corvinus hesitated to enter the Followers' labyrinthine home, but at last decided to pursue them, motivated both by the desire to destroy the cult and by the impression the old man's words had made. And so, lighting bands, the legionaries entered the caves, following the cultists down into the dark.
Corvinus' Story (continued)
The baking dry heat of the open desert changed first into a closer, muggier warmth as the soldiers entered the tunnels, and then a deep chill as they went further underground.
The caves that honeycombed the plateau were a warren - some were natural, while others appeared to have been carved out by hand - and Corvinus feared they would be lost in them, perhaps never to see the sun again, even without any further attacks frtom the Followers. But Antony, the old Christian showed them the way through the tunnels, with complete confidence and unerring accuracy. (He claimed subsequently to have been inspired by his God, of course, but Corvinus suspected that he had either been captured by the cult and escaped, or that he was a former, repentant member.)
At first the caves seemed deserted, and Corvinus wondered if the Followers had committed suicide en masse, like the Zealots at Masada, but it didn't take long for him to be disabused of the notion. The way that the caves interwove with one another made them a perfect location for an ambush, and once the legionaries were deep in the caves the Followers sprang the first of their attacks. More than once it seemed that the legionaries were doomed, but each time they survived. Corvinus ordered his most trusted men to guard Antony, because it became clear the Followers were trying particularly to reach and kill him, as without him they had no hope of finding a way out. The attempts on Antony's life reinforced Corvinus' suspicions that the old man was known to the Followers, perhaps as one of their former number.
Both sides suffered grievous losses in the fighting - the Followers weren't as well-trained or disciplined, but they had the advantages both of fanaticism and of knowing the territory intimately. Nonetheless, they were at least beaten and driven back before Corvinus' remaining men. Under Antony's direction, the remaining legionaries moved deeper through the caves, towards the Follower's shrine and altar.
Apart from a handful of their highest priests, the surviving Followers had fallen back to defend their sanctum sanctorum, but there were no side-tunnels to launch ambushes from, so that the fight was now a straightforward contest of arms, in which the legionaries held the advantage. Nonetheless the Followers fought to the last, but finally the last of them was cut down and the legionaries burst into the chamber.
Throughout the fight, Antony had been frantically urging them on to defeat the Followers quickly to prevent the priests completing their rituals. Up until this point Corvinus hadn't regarded this as being of any concern, but what he saw in the chamber changed his mind.
The innermost chamber was a huge cavern, from which which other large caves branched off. None of these offered potential escape routes for the cultists, however, because they were all filled, from floor to ceiling, with stacked stone sarcophagi. One sarcophagus had been removed and positioned on the altar in the centre of the chamber. The Followers' priests knelt around it, chanting.
The bodies of men, women and children were scattered around the chamber, and their blood soaked the floor. They had been kidnapped by the Followers, and held till they were needed. None of them had been left alive: the priests had cut their hearts out.
Corvinus ordered his men to lay hands on the priests, but even as he did the chanting stopped and a grinding, scraping sound filled the chamber. The lid of the sarcophagus was sliding back. None of the priests were touching it; it was being moved from the inside.
The sarcophagus was large, twelve feet in length and three across, and stencilled with symbols Corvinus didn't recognise. Nor did anyone else who examined it later; it was in no language known to the Empire. The priests leapt back as the lid slid clear and fell to the ground with a terrible crash. And then they grovelled and abased themselves on the floor, as the thing that had slept inside the sarcophagus began groping its way out into the light.
Corvinus' Story (continued)
The hand that crept over the edge of the sarcophagus was long and thin, black and covered with bristling hairs. Corvinus described it less as resembling an animal as it did a huge spider trying to to clamber free of the casket. But the long thin digits gripped the edge of the sarcophagus, and slowly a long, bone-thin arm rose into view, bent at the joint, before it began to bear down and raise the rest of the thing into view.
The cult priests had now begun to chant against, and Antony shouted at Corvinus to kill them quickly. The centurion snapped out commands: javelins flew threw the air with deadly accuracy, and the last of the priests fell dead.
"Too late," said Antony. "Too late, too late."
The creature was rising out of its coffin. It appeared vaguely man-shaped, but impossibly thin, and with its entire body like that of some horrible insect, composed of overlapping sections of a hard black leathery substance and bristling black fur.
Its body seemed to unfold, section by section. It became clear as the creature emerged from the sarcophagus that it was far taller than the casket, but that its body had been bent and limbs folded to compress it into place. It had been bent at the neck and the hips as well, to fit, just, into the twelve-foot stone box. When folded double, the legs and arms were of roughly the same length, so as it climbed free of the sarcophagus and stood, its head - a oddly small, crumpled-looking blackened globe atop a long thin neck - almost brushed the ceiling of the cavern. It spread its arms out to their widest extent, threw back its shrivelled head, and laughed.
Javelins and arrows were flung at it, but the few that found a mark in that narrow body had no effect other than to anger the monster, which pulled the arrows and javelin heads out and flung them away before striding towards the Romans. Despite its thinness, it was frighteningly strong; ot snatched one unlucky legionary up into the air, then casually tore him in half, with no more effort than it might take a child to tear rotten cloth, and flung the pieces aside.
At Corvinus' command, the remaining legionaries formed the 'tortoise' - a formation not unlike the Saxons' shield wall - to defend against the thing's clawing hands, but the metal of the shields began to crumple under the pressure of the thing's hands. The legionaries stabbed up at the creature through the gaps in the shields, but with no effect other than to anger it, and a gibbering screech it tore several of the shields away, then reached down to rend and tear at the soldiers.
Within seconds, it had killed five more men, and Corvinus knew the rest of what remained of his command would stand no chance. But even as he thought this, the monster bellowed again, but this time not in rage but agony, and the centurion looked up to see it retreat, roaring in pain and flailing at the empty air.
Below it stood the old man, Antony. In his hand he held a cross, a little longer and wider than his hand. It was nothing more nor less than a crudely carved piece of stone, but nonetheless a ray of cold, silvery light shone out of it, and the creature recoiled from it. Antony was shouting at the creature, and although Corvinus couldn't make out the words they seemed to cause it distress as well. Before this combined assault it could only retreat, and at last it was at bay.
"Centurion!" shouted Antony, and Corvinus ran to the old man's side. The Christian was fumbling in a leather pouch that hung at his side. "Go back - out of the caves - and blow this. It will bring help. Quickly!"
The object he handed was a musical horn, made from the horn of an animal of some kind - what the Jews refer to as a shofar. Corvinus took the horn and ran from the chamber with his men at his heels; despite his earlier fears or becoming lost in the caves, they found their way back to the surface in a matter of minutes.
Once back atop the plateau, Corvinus looked about him. The position offered him a commanding of all that lay around him; he could see the Sea of Galilee gleaming in the distance. But wherever he looked, there was no sign of life. Not even a bird in the sky, or an insect crawling on a rock. It was though every living thing for miles around had sensed what had occurred and hidden from it.
Even so, Corvinus, being a soldier, was used to following instructions - he'd made, indeed, a career of if. So he did as Antony had told him, put the horn to his lips and blew.
He had no idea what note to sound, but there was no need: the sound that the horn made was unlike any other he had ever heard, and rang surprisingly loud. It would be heard far away, without a doubt, and could never be mistaken, once heard, for any other sound.
At first there was no sign of any response, but Corvinus continued to blow. Just as he was close to giving up all hope, he saw a cloud of dust rise out to the west, and another to the east. They were men on horseback, riding towards the plateau.
Corvinus called over the youngest of the legionaries and thrust the shofar into his hands. "Keep blowing this," he ordered, "until they come. The rest of you, with me." And he led the rest of his men down into the dark beneath the earth, to do battle with the thing from the sarcophagus.
Corvinus’ Story (concluded)
Once again, Corvinus and his men found their way through the caves and tunnels without difficulty, to the huge cavern at the heart of the Followers’ blood-soaked domain. The scene was as they’d left it: the bodies of sacrificial victims, legionaries and cultists alike scattered around the chamber, united in death, the caverns branching off from the main one filled with countless sarcophagi, the one opened sarcophagus upon the altar – and, standing over it, the towering, insect-like shape of the thing it had contained, held fast in the ray of withering light that emanated from Antony’s stone cross.
The light was clearly taking its toll of the creature, which recoiled from its touch and seemed, to Corvinus at least, not quite as large as it had been – although, the centurion knew, that might merely be due to its being at bay. However, the struggle had also taken a toll of Antony, as well: the old man was on his knees, which Corvinus initially took to be out of religious devotion but which he realised, as the Christian steadied himself with his free hand to avoid falling to the ground, was in fact due to exhaustion.
He motioned his men forward, but stopped as the creature, catching sight of them, seemed to rally and straighten up. At this, Antony became aware of their presence and threw up his arm, almost overbalancing and collapsing in the process.
“Stay where you are!” he ordered. “You can do nothing – not yet. It is still too strong. Wait – wait for the help to arrive. We must stop it here. If we do not, it will lay waste to all Judea – perhaps even to Rome itself.”
Corvinus later reported that he had never in his entire military career felt such helplessness in the face of danger. He had seen what the thing from the sarcophagus had done, and besides, by now trusted he had come to trust in Antony’s guidance. But this meant he could only stand and wait and watch the old man’s unequal battle with the monster.
The ray of light from the crucifix had begun to flicker and weaken. Perhaps the power of the Christian God was operating through His servant, or through His servant’s faith, but the effort seemed to be draining, perhaps even destroying, Antony himself. Doubtless it was a sacrifice the old man was willing to make – these Christians, in Corvinus’ experience, could be positively enthusiastic at the prospect of dying for their deity – but it would do little good if he gave out before the aid he’d summoned could arrive.
Corvinus knew that neither he nor his men would stand a chance of survival against the creature if it overcame the old man, but he knew also that they would have do attempt at least to delay it. He had no doubt that the Christian was speaking the truth about what the beast might be capable of.
Antony had now collapsed almost completely: he lay prostrate before the thing, almost as if abasing himself before it as the Followers had. But his head was lifted, and his right hand. And that hand held his crucifix aloft, pouring the little light left in him into the face of the creature. It snarled and screeched, but now stood straight, knowing that at any moment this obstacle would be overcome.
Corvinus ordered his men to stand ready and raised his sword, but doubted even the discipline of the Roman Legions would hold firm against such a terror. He suspected many of his men might break and run when the creature attacked again. Nonetheless, he resolved that he at least would stand firm, although death was certain.
But just as it seemed the last of old Antony’s strength must give out, there came a thunder of footsteps from the caves behind him, and a score of men – and indeed, several women – burst into the cave. They ran ahead of the soldiers, and formed themselves into a crescent before the creature. It raised its claws to hurl itself upon them, but one of the men shouted a command and each held aloft an object of some kind. There were crucifixes and there were parchment scrolls, and there were other objects Corvinus did not recognise, tokens of faiths older than any he knew. And from each object burst a ray of the same silvery light as had come from Antony’s crucifix.
With an abominable screech, the creature fell back from this renewed assault. It curled up upon itself, cringing, but the others kept their light focused on it, and the centurion saw it begin to dwindle and shrink.
Two of the new arrivals helped Antony to his feet, and now he stumbled over to Corvinus. “It’s weakening,” he said. “When I give the word, attack.”
“How do we kill it?” asked Corvinus – a soldier to the last.
“You cannot,” said Antony. “It cannot be killed, or sent back to where it came from. It can only be imprisoned.”
Godric paused here in his narrative, and looked up at his small fire at Wulfstan and Leofric. “Antony instructed them in how the creature must be dealt with,” he went on. “And on his orders they advanced when the creature had withered to the height of a normal man and fell upon it with their swords. It killed two legionaries, even in its weakened state, before they brought it down. As Antony had told them, they hacked it limb from limb, cut its head at its shoulders, cut it in half at the waist. Then they carried the separated fragments out of that place, and before returning to make his report to Campanus, Corvinus had the tunnels and the cavern beneath the plateau filled in. Even so, the region of Chorazin has a foul reputation, and there is a thing called the Black Pilgrimage that certain men are said to have made to the Holy Land – to Chorazin, where it’s said they can obtain a servant – a demonic familiar, in other words – who will ensure them riches, long life, and vengeance on those who’ve wronged them.”
“Tempting,” said Wulfstan.
“Is that what the thing here is, then?” said Leofric. “A familiar?”
“No.” Godric shook his head. “This is the creature Corvinus fought. The familiars, I think, are similar, but they’ve been made subservient – insofar as such creatures can be made subservient. They can be bargained with, after a fashion, but they’re treacherous, cunning and deceitful.”
“Well, I’m nobody’s fool,” said Wulfstan.
“I would disagree, Lord Wulfstan, if you plan to bargain with such a creature. But the thing Corvinus and his men dismembered at Chorazin was untamed. The only thing restraining it is that it’s been cut to pieces and the pieces buried separately.”
“Buried here?” said Leofric. “Why?”
“Originally they were buried in Judea, but certain people tried to obtain the pieces. And when the Empire itself began to fall apart, there were those in high places in Rome itself who considered attempting to enlist its help – just as you’re doing now, my Lord. So the fragments were disinterred and taken to a province at the outer edges of the Empire, and buried there. And now, here we are.”
"Here we are indeed," said Wulfstan. "And that's a pretty little fireside tale, priest. But if you think it'll stop me finishing this work, you're mistaken." He leant forward, eyes burning in the firelight. "And you're mistaken if you plan to mislead me. You'll take me there, Brother Godric, or suffer in ways you can't imagine. And I don't believe you're the stuff of which martyrs are made."
Godric bowed his head. "No, I'm not. God forgive me for it."
"It isn't His goodwill and favour you need concern yourself with now." Wulfstan rose to his feet with a grunt. "This fire's pathetic. I'm going to warm my bones beside a better one."
He stomped off, leaving Godric and Leofric alone. Godric looked up to see that Leofric was studying him, and that the big man's face showed uncertainty for the first time.
"Tell me honestly now," said Leofric, "was a word of that true? Or were you just trying to scare him into giving up?"
"Every word of it was true."
Leofric sighed. "I was afraid of that."
In the morning they set off anew, marching south with the last of their provisions. Around them stretched the wolds and moor, all desolate and bleak. The only food now would be the crows and wolves. Or one another.
They passed two more destroyed villages, and glimpsed a few gaunt survivors who fled into the nearby woods at their approach. One of them dropped something that lay in the grass; as Godric rode past it, he saw that it was a human leg.
The vastness of the empty landscape engendered a chill that sank for deeper than anything the winter wind could make, but perversely it warmed Godric with a little hope. He was watching the faces of the men and saw their expressions: fear and foreboding, hunger and dread. Once their supplies were exhausted, there'd be little to choose between their lot and that of any other survivor trapped within the ambit of the Frankish raiders. If they turned tail and rode north they might reach comparative safety, though whether they'd have food even then was another question. Even that, though, would be better than continuing to ride south on a mission whose very premise - assuming they knew it - sounded like the stuff of madness.
Surely it couldn't be long before Wulfstan faced open revolt. And what would happen then? Godric had no doubt he'd seek the life of anyone who interfered with the objective. And if the band fell to fighting among themselves, what chance would they have of surviving? Although, of course, it was better to die with your soul safe than to live and be hellbound.
Godric wasn't sure if Wulfstan had seen this, but Leofric certainly had, and the big man spurred his horse to walk close alongside the thegn's. Godric brought his own mount quietly forward, so that it walked parallel to them at a distance, enabling the monk to observe.
Leofric was talking, and as he did Wulfstan's face darkened and his hand actually stole towards the hilt of his sword. The thegn was determined to find the tomb, and God help any who stood in his way. There was, though, a trace of uncertainty on his face now, too, although Godric suspected it was out of practical rather than moral considerations. It was harder to get starving men to fight for you.
For an instant, Godric thought there might be a chance, but then the thegn looked up, past Leofric, and a smile spread on his face. Godric turned, following his gaze, only to see fresh black smoke rising skyward, less than a mile to the east. He looked back and saw Wulfstan was smiling.
"Frank raiders, priest," he called. "Always good to give the lads a proper fight, something to put themselves against. And of course, they'll have food on them." He turned his gaze back on to Leofric. "Spread the word. We're off to get them."
Leofric nodded, sneaking a quick, unhappy glance at the priest as he rode away. At least he might finally have an ally, Godric thought, but for now that was outweighed by the grimness of the present moment.
Moments later, the fyrd-men were marching east. Godric watched them veering off, wishing he could ride away, find some place of safety and wait there, but he couldn't. He spurred his horse and rode east too.
The Franks were easy meat.
The village they'd fallen on - one of the few remaining to have escaped them so far - hadn't stood a chance against them. Farmers against trained warriors on their destriers. The dead littered the green and the central street. A woman was being raped by a Frank raider with a shaved, scarred head and a forked black beard, who held a dagger to her throat; three women and girls - one, Godric thought, barely ten - lay alongside her, throats cut, clothes torn. Almost against his will, he felt his hand fumble by the saddle of his mount for the haft of the axe sheathed there. If they were quick, they might save that woman at least.
"Starting to hate them finally, priest?" called Wulfstan. Before Godric could answer, the Frank rapist slashed the throat of his victim. The priest gripped the axe.
"Leave that alone before you hurt yourself," said the thegn. Below, the Franks were setting the thatched roofs of the cottages alike, smashing earthenware jars of gruel, emptying sacks of grain into the fires they'd set. Pigs squealed in terror and agony, then were silent. "All right. Now."
Leofric put a horn to his lips and blew, and the fyrd-men broke cover: they'd slipped down from the overlooking hill to the village outskirts, and now they attacked. They went for the horses first, hacking at the legs to bring them down; most of the Frank riders, having fallen, never got up again. One or two still remained mounted, slashing at their attackers.
"Let's end this!" shouted Wulfstan, and rode with Leofric down the hill. Godric spurred his horse after them, pulling the axe free. May God forgive him for his wrath, but Wulfstan was right: this latest atrocity had somehow tipped a balance in him, one that all the other massacres he'd witnessed, or even the slaughter of his brethren and the burning of St Bede's, had failed to do. Forgive me my sin of anger, Lord, and strengthen my arm to punish the wicked.
By the time he reached the village, only one horse remained upright, and it belonged to neither Wulfstan nor Leofric, but to the fork-bearded rapist, who'd somehow regained his mount. A half-dozen surviving Franks were gathered around him, cut and bleeding. Dead fyrd-men lay among the dead of the village, and Leofric was pulling a cursing Wulfstan out from under his fallen mount. Forkbeard was grinning.
It was the grin that made Godric bellow with rage and spur his horse forward, axe in hand. Forkbeard looked up, startled, then laughed out loud - doubtless because he'd recognised this new attacker as a hopeless amateur. One of the Franks flung a spear: Godric ducked, but it hadn't flown high enough to hit him. Instead his horse screamed, and fell, spilling him to the ground.
Winded, Godric coughed and groaned, looking up through blurry eyes to see Forkbeard riding towards him, longsword raised high in one hand. The destrier's hooves pounded at the ground. In a moment, even if the Frank's sword didn't cut him open, those hooves would smash his skull.
Godric's hand scrabbled over the hard-packed earth and found the axe. He swung blindly, a clumsy, flailing blow, but Forkbeard's horse screamed, louder and higher than Godric's hard, and the monk rolled to the side as the destrier came crashing down. The Frank went flying forward, crashing to the ground, but hauled himself to his feet, still gripping the longsword. He wasn't laughing any longer, at least, as he ran at Godric.
Godric was barely aware of flinging the axe; once again it seemed more a clumsy, flailing festure, a helpless warding-off motion. But the haft slipped from his hand and then Forkbead fell to his knees with a look of dumb astonishment on his face, which changed to an expression of horror as he stared at the bloody ruin of his right shoulder and the blood spurting where his arm had been.
As though in a trance, Godric walked to the severed arm and pried the sword from its grip. It took both his hands and all his strength, but he staggered towards Forkbeard with it. The big Frank was fumbling at his belt for a dagger, but as he drew it the monk screamed and swung at him with the sword. It was a wild, clumsy blow, but didn't require any greater accuracy: Forkbeard was in no condition to avoid it.
As the rapist fell, writhing, Godric stood over him and raised the sword again. Forkbeard screamed - a plea for mercy in French - but Godric hacked at him with the sword, and then did so again. He was unsure of how long he continued to do so, but then realised that Leofric was pulling him away and wresting the sword from his group. "Take it easy, Father," the warrior said. "You can only kill a man once."
Godric looked down once, then turned away and vomited at the sight of what he'd done. When he looked up, the remaining fyrd-men - the few who were still alive - were staring at him in something between horror and awe. Wulfstan was looking at him and chuckling; Godric looked down at himself to see his hands and robes stained scarlet. The Franks were all dead, as were the horses on both sides.
The only sound was the crackle of the flames.
They couldn't stay long; they plundered the dead for weapons and food, and butchered the horses for meat to carry, then set off at a march. Wulfstan led, back straight with anger, daring anyone, Godric suspected, to take issue with him. The monk supposed Wulfstan had been right - they'd badly needed whatever food they could find, after all - but nonetheless they were without horses and moving ever deeper into the territory the Franks had laid waste.
The fyrd-men weren't warriors by trade for the most part; most would be missing their farms and homesteads, always assuming theirs hadn't been burned by the Franks. Wulfstan had the look of a man fighting a holy war - even if Godric was uncertain how much God had, or ever had had, to do with it - and willing to sacrifice anything and anyone for victory. A mutiny might not be far off. That, at least, might end the quest. There was a chance Leofric might come round to Godric's view. Might even be doing so now. They'd still be in the heart of the harrowed North, of course, but at least they might not have to fear the hedge-rider, or the White Queen.
Which, at present, they still did. As they marched on south, Godric looked skyward, and saw the crows wheeling overhead, still following them as they had from the start. The hedge-rider still saw them coming, and was waiting, ready.
As dusk approached, Wulfstan ordered the remnants of his forces up a hill to make camp. It offered a commanding view of the terrain, and an easily defensible position; there was a spring to drink from, and wood to build a fire. As it grew dark, the crows disappeared from view, but Godric heard wolves begin to howl out in the night.
They marched out again at dawn. Godric still wore his monk's robes, though they were stained a reddish-brown with blood. It had crusted 'neath his fingernails, too. In a way he was glad of it: the taking of life, even a Frank rapist's, should not so easily be washed away. If only there was another priest here, to hear his confession and shrive his sins. But there was not. He could only hope he might live long enough to do so, or that God would understand and forgive.
Cold mists began to gather as they marched southward, and soon the ground became damp underfoot. And then water gleamed through the pale fogs, and the thin clustering spindles of reeds.
"The marshes of Holderness," said Wulfstan aloud. It was the first time he'd spoken all day; all the commands had been relayed through Leofric. "Which way now, priest?"
"Lord Wulfstan, I'm asking you again to abandon this. Can't you see that -"
Wulfstan grabbed Godric's throat with one hand, drew his seax with the other. "You gave your word, priest. And I've had enough of your whining. Which. Way?"
Godric knew he should refuse, and let Wulfstan cut his throat. But Wulfstan had been right: he was no martyr. "There's a village to the west, if the Franks haven't burned it. They have boats. We'll need them. And then..." He nodded into the mist. "We should be there by dark."
"Good." The thegn nodded. "West, then."
Crows were cawing as they neared the village, so Godric knew the Franks had already been. It was the same story as ever: burned buildings and corpses, although these had been almost picked clean by now, the birds quarrelling only over the last scraps of rotten meat. There was a smell of charred, wet wood; the fires were long extinguished.
The Franks, however, had missed the boats. There was a staithe near the village, at the edge of the stagnant water, and the boats were stacked on it. They were small and light, but sturdy, able to hold two or three men at a time. There were more than enough to hold what remained of Wulfstan's company, along with their supplies.
The boats were lowered into the water, and the men climbed aboard, As they did, a scream rang out. In the chill damp mist, it seemed to echo everywhere, coming from all directions at once. It wasn't a human scream - Godric didn't think so, at least - but he wasn't sure what animal he knew of that could unleash such a terrible, raging cry, so full of fury and hate.
Leofric clambered into the boat with him. "What was that?" the big man murmured.
Godric shook his head. "Some creature of the hedge-rider's, I think. Only God knows what."
"Quiet," said Wulfstan. "Enough of your children's tales, priest. We'll soon be there, men!" he shouted aloud. "Within the day! And then we'll show the Franks whose land this is! Well?"
At least, a few week cheers rose from the other boats. Wulfstan scowled, but seemed to accept that they were all he'd get. "Let's go, then," he snapped, and pushed the boat away from the staithe with his pole.
The others followed, and one by one they were swallowed by the grey and clinging mists, into the marshes of Holderness and all that awaited them there.
END OF BOOK ONE.
READ BOOK TWO.
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