Before dawn the following morning, we led our warriors out of the camp and down to the banks of the River Ouse. The night was dark with only the toenail of a moon to show the way. Once we had reached the river we each took hold of the cloak of the man in front and stumbled like a string of blind beggars towards the walls of the northern castle. I had never tried to travel so far by night and was astonished at how difficult it was. It took us four hours to travel a distance we would have managed in one by day.
Finally we reached our allotted position and slid down on our weary haunches. After a while we heard the quiet call of an owl, repeated three times. It was the signal of the Danes. Within minutes they had slithered close to us.
In the east the first faint sheen of day began to dispel the night and I gradually discerned the shapes of the Danes. Cnut and Esbjorn were at the fore and behind them I could make out the figure of the Worm shivering in the cold. Her bonds were still upon her and a filthy rag was bound tight around her mouth. Esbjorn slid out his dagger and pressed it to her throat.
‘Now Earthworm,’ he whispered. ‘There is the path you are to climb. Once in the castle hurry down to the gate and throw it open.’
‘What about the sentries?’ asked Merleswein.
In answer Esbjorn pulled the gag from the Worm’s mouth and replaced it with the naked blade. ‘She can sting as well as climb,’ he grunted.
He grasped her head in his huge hands and held her in his gaze.
‘No thought of treachery, little one,’ he said. ‘For you know that if you fail me I shall hunt you down and watch as my dogs tear you to shreds.’
I was astonished by his words but her quick intake of breath showed that for the girl this was a threat more potent than any nightmare. She nodded once and then scrambled along the castle wall to the mouth of the chute.
She swung her arms up, felt for a hand-hold and slithered into the hole. I turned to look at Godwin, my gorge rising at the thought of what she would have to climb through.
‘She’ll never make it,’ he whispered.
I nodded bleakly.
But the Danes had no such doubt and, moving like ghosts, made their silent way to the gate. We followed and waited with them, blades drawn and trying not to breath.
The minutes crept past. Above us the sky was growing grey and to the east a faint smudge of red stained the horizon. I tried to calm my fears. Soon the day would be so bright the Normans could not fail to see us.
I glanced around and guessed that there were about fifty Danes waiting at the gate. Swift Norman arrows could put paid to every one of us in minutes. I clenched my jaw to try to keep hold of my nerves. In the castle a cockerel crowed, piercing the silence.
Wasteland is the second in The Lost King series about Edgar Atheling, the last man proclaimed by the English as their king.
It is available world-wide from all e-book outlets for £1.92 $2.97 or €2.68.
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