This is the second part of my new novel Blood of Ironside.
We rowed the boats for a mile through slicing seas. Freezing water surged over the laden keel and we baled it out with our cupped hands. Finally, just as our hopes faltered, we saw before us a finger of land with a deep inlet to one side.
‘Let’s make for there,’ Athelstan yelled.
We had little strength for the task but fortunately the tide and the growing wind from the sea began to drive us towards land. After what seemed like an age we heard the keel crunch upon gravel. Siward Barn and Merleswein leapt into the water and dragged the two boats up the beach.
I jumped onto the shore and looked round. The inlet was deserted apart from a group of seals lying on the beach watching us with placid eyes.
Above our heads the ground rose to a saddle of land which promised a good view of the surrounding countryside. I told the others to wait and started to clamber up its slippery slope. As I neared the top I eased my dagger out of its sheath.
I turned and stared across the bay. I could just make out the headland where we had almost met our end. It was farther than I imagined and for that I gave thanks.
I knew that my enemy was there; possibly he was staring out across the bay to me. His soldiers would have done their work now and I doubted that any of my followers were left alive.
The fierce seagulls skimmed across the water, making the air shrill with their cries.
Despite my command Godwin had followed me up the slope.
‘Can you see them?’ he called. ‘Can you see the Normans?’
I shook my head. ‘The sky’s full of storm clouds. I can’t see much.’
Godwin stood beside me and followed my gaze, holding his hand above his eyes, shielding them from the rain. ‘Do you think William will follow?’
‘What do you think?’ I asked.
Godwin nodded and gripped my shoulder. ‘I think we’d better get a move on.’
We hurried down to the beach. Willard and his outlaws were guarding the three fishermen. They stank of fish and of fear. They stared at Willard, terrified that they would soon suffer the fate of their friend.
Athelstan and Merleswein stood by the boats in anxious debate.
‘Did you see anything?’ Athelstan asked as I joined them.
‘It’s too far. I could only just see the headland.’
Merleswein turned to the west as if his eyes could pierce the mists of distance.
‘We were a long time rowing’ he said. ‘Fast horsemen might make it here at anytime.’
‘Then we must go at once,’ said Siward Barn.
Athelstan glanced at the women, as if weighing up their strength.
I gazed south towards the distant headland where we had formed the shield-wall and Thegn Uhtred had delayed the Norman horsemen long enough for us to escape. I shook my head. Another brave man who had sacrificed himself and his men for me.
‘That headland was by the mouth of a large river,’ I said. ‘I wonder if it is wide enough to delay any pursuit.’
‘Let’s find out,’ said Willard, sweeping out a knife and holding it against the throat of one of the fishermen. ‘The river where we found you,’ he said. ‘How wide is it?’
The fisherman’s eyes grew wide in terror. ‘It’s the Tees,’ he said. ‘It’s the biggest river in the world.’
Willard pressed the blade harder against the man’s throat. ‘But how wide is it? Could horsemen cross it?’
‘Not below Yarm, not at this time of year. The river’s too wide and too fast.’
‘How far is Yarm from the headland?’ He pressed the blade further into the man’s neck.
‘A winter’s day walk.’
‘And how far is Yarm from here?’
The fisherman looked around. ‘I don’t know. I never been to here before.’
‘I have,’ said one of the other fishermen. ‘Yarm must be as distant from here as it is from the headland.’
‘A winter’s day walk?’ said Willard.
‘I think so.’
‘I know so. I walked it once when I was a lad.’
Willard sheathed his knife and turned to me with a satisfied grin.
‘So we’ve got a day and a half,’ I said. ‘That’s how long it will take heavily armed horsemen.’
Athelstan’s eyes strayed once again to the women.
‘Freya and I are fine, Athelstan,’ Anna said. ‘We can leave immediately.’
Athelstan stared at her for a moment and then nodded.
‘What about them?’ Willard asked, indicating the fishermen.
I gazed upon the fishermen. They turned from Willard to me, seemingly bemused that he had asked a youth for instructions.
‘Let them go,’ I said finally.
‘They’ll tell the Normans about us,’ Willard said. His hand edged towards his knife. ‘It’s too risky.’
He was right but I was sick of blood and death. I strode up to the fishermen.
‘My name is Edgar Atheling,’ I said. ‘I am your king. The blood of Alfred and Ironside runs in my veins.’
The men looked at me, their eyes full of doubt and suspicion.
‘I am sorry that I killed your friend,’ I said. I opened my purse and gave them six silver pennies. ‘That is his weregeld.’
The men looked astonished at so much wealth but took it nonetheless.
‘You could get far more by telling the Normans who I am,’ I continued. ‘But if you do you’ll be a traitor to your kin and the curses of all Englishmen will harry you to hell.’
The men threw themselves to their knees.
‘We will not betray you, Lord,’ one mumbled.
I placed my hand upon their heads, one after the other, like a priest blesses the sick.
‘I hold you to this,’ I said. ‘Now go and keep silent.’
The men raced off to their boats and pushed them into the waves.
‘I hope that wasn’t a mistake,’ Willard said.
Blood of Ironside is available on Kindle for $3.08 or equivalent. It will be available for other readers shortly.
Amazon US link is: http://t.co/X4nLHHXnQX
Amazon UK link is: http://t.co/KRNth65wNY
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- Blood of Ironside (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)