The Serpent Sword

Matthew Harffy

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Prologue

The man stood in the shadows preparing for murder. He pulled his cloak about him, stretching muscles that had grown stiff from inactivity. It was cold and his breath steamed in the autumn night air. It was uncomfortable, but he would wait. His mind was made up.

His suspicions had been aroused before, but now he knew the truth of it. He had followed them here, had seen them go inside together.

Soft sounds of a woman’s laughter drifted from the stable. His jaw clenched. His hand gripped the antler hilt of his seax. Holding the knife reassured him. But he would not use it tonight. No. There would be no fight. No clash of metal. No battle-glory.

No deeds for the scops to sing of.

Warriors’ acts were recounted by the bards in the flickering light of mead hall fires. There was no light here. It would be a secret death. In the darkness.

What he must do was clear. But none could ever know of what happened here tonight. His life would be forfeit should he be discovered.

Somewhere, off to the land-facing, westward side of the fortress, a dog barked, then all was still again. From the east, he could hear the distant rumble of waves hitting rocks far below.

On the palisade, some distance away, he could just make out the silhouette of a guard.

A cloud scudded in front of the moon. The all-seeing eye of Woden, father of the gods, was closed. On such a night the gods slept and a man’s actions could bend his wyrd to his own ends. A great man could seize what was rightfully his. His mother had once told him he would be a man to dethrone kings and topple kingdoms. Great men were not governed by common laws.

Clinging to that thought, he girded himself for what he was about to do.

He shivered and convinced himself it was because of the chill. He moved further into the shadows.

From the building came a new sound. The rhythmic gasps and cries of coupling. He recognised the sound of Elda in those guttural moans.

How could she be so fickle? He had offered her everything. By Woden, he would have made her his wife! To think she had spurned him and then opened her legs to that young upstart. The anger he felt at her rejection bubbled up inside him like bile.

And him! Octa. The man Elda was rutting with inside the stable. Octa had all a warrior could want. A ring-giving lord who looked upon him with favour. He had land and treasures. And of course, the sword. The sword that should never have been his. The blade was named Hrunting and had been a gift from their lord, King Edwin. He had bestowed it on the man he thought had saved his life in battle. But he had given it to the wrong man. The battle had been confused, the shieldwall had broken and the king had been surrounded by enemies. It appeared all was lost until one of the king’s warriors, one of his thegns, had rallied the men and turned the tide of the battle.

Afterwards, Edwin had given Hrunting to Octa. It was a sword fit for a king. The blade forged from twisted rods of iron. The metal shone with the pattern of rippling water, or the slick skin of a snake. The hilt was inlaid with fine bone and intricate carvings. All who had seen the weapon coveted it.

But the man who waited in the shadows knew it should have been his. It was he who had smitten the leader of their enemies. He who had led the men in the charge that brought victory.

He who was destined for greatness.

It was with disbelief that he had seen the fabulous sword given to his rival. It was as if the king was bewitched. Ever since Octa had arrived in Bernicia, he could do no wrong.

His rage at Elda was nothing when compared to the ire he felt at his enemy’s rise to prominence.

He fingered the hammer amulet of Thunor that hung on a leather thong round his neck. The priest of the soft new god, the Christ, preached forgiveness. The old gods would not expect forgiveness. They called for vengeance. Swift and terrible. The old gods would have their tribute of blood soon.

The door to the stable opened slowly and the object of his hate stepped into the night. The watcher held his breath. Starlight shone on Octa’s golden hair, making it shimmer like burnished iron. He was broad and tall and moved with effortless grace. He looked like a hero from legend. Loathing and jealousy washed over the man who lurked in the gloom.

The blond giant moved between two storehouses, where the darkness was absolute. The shadowy figure followed him. He wore only kirtle and breeches underneath his cloak, nothing that would give away the noise of his movements. His hand gripped a stout stave of oak.

Stealthily, he moved close behind Octa. They could not be seen here from any of the palisades or the open ground between the buildings. He raised the club and took the last quick steps. Some instinct alerted his prey, who paused, turning back.

But the sense of danger had come too late to Octa. There should have been nothing to fear here. He was safe behind stout walls in the fortress. The warm passion of Elda was still fresh in his mind and body and he was languid with the glow of remembered pleasures.

Thus it was that Octa turned too slowly. He hardly glimpsed the dark figure surging towards him from the night. The club landed a solid blow on his temple with a sickening thud. He staggered back, hands flailing. He tried to pull Hrunting free of its scabbard, but he was dazed and his hand refused to grip.

The dark shape leapt in close to him and delivered another stunning blow to his head. Octa strove valiantly to defend himself, but his vision was blurred and he wasn’t sure what had happened. He was in danger, but his body wouldn’t obey him. Light flashed in his mind as another thundering strike hit his skull. He let out a grunt and sagged onto one knee.

Octa tried to rise, to face his foe on his feet. He struggled to stand but a frenzy of blows hammered his face and shoulders and he collapsed, unable to do any more to defend himself.

Soon, he lay still. His face a slick, glistening blackness. His attacker, panting from the exertion, breathed through his mouth and listened. If anyone had heard the struggle, he would be as good as dead. He waited until his breathing slowed. Nobody came running. No alarm was sounded.

He quickly pulled Hrunting from its wool-lined scabbard. The blade gleamed, lambent and deadly in the dim light of stars and moon. For a moment he turned the sword this way and that, marvelling at its balance, rejoicing in its heft. It was truly a thing of wonder. A great weapon for a great man. He wanted to gaze at the blade, but he must act quickly. There would be time for admiration later. He found a hiding place for it in the rubbish and weeds growing at the base of one of the buildings.

Once he was satisfied it was well-hidden, he turned his attention to the prostrate form of his adversary. Octa was a tall man, muscular and heavy, but so was he. It would not be easy, but he would be able to lift him. He bent down and gripped Octa’s wrist. The hand flopped limply, as if beckoning. He shuddered, but told himself the man’s spirit had already fled. He pulled him into a sitting position and then, using a mixture of brute strength and his own body weight, he wrestled the corpse onto his shoulder. He heaved himself upright. By the gods, but the whoreson was heavy!

He had planned the route he must now take. He could get all the way to the southernmost part of the eastern palisade without being seen. If the Wyrd sisters, who spun the threads of destiny, smiled on him.

Cautiously, but with haste, he moved between stables and storehouses, past the kitchens and the alehouse, where the ever-present scent of brewing hung in the air. His path kept him far from sentries and torches, but should anyone step from a building to relieve themselves of tonight’s mead and ale, he would be undone.

Reaching the foot of the ladder to the palisade, he cast a look along the wall and saw the guard at the far end. The wall ward was standing by a brazier, the light of which would make it difficult to see clearly into the darkness. Octa’s slayer grasped the rung of the ladder and made his way up, one laborious step after another. Despite the cool air, he was drenched in sweat and his back and arms ached with the effort of carrying his grisly burden. He could feel his strength waning. He would need to be rid of the body soon, or he would drop him.

A grim smile played over his lips at the thought. He reached the palisade’s platform. Below, waves crashed against rocks. White foam glowed in the darkness, like ghosts. Without pausing, keen to be rid of the heavy burden and the evidence of his crime, he hoisted the body from his shoulder and let it drop over the wall to the sea below. He watched as Octa fell, a dark shape against the swirling of the waves. He leaned against the palisade and drew in deep breaths. His pounding heart slowed and his sweat cooled. The guard at the end of the palisade was still hunched over his small fire.

 In the morning, the body would be found, if the sea did not drag it away into its murky embrace. People would ask why a warrior who had everything would take his own life in this way, for surely he must have jumped to his death.

The clouds parted and the light from the moon gilded the fortress once more. Woden looked down again. Did he search for Octa? Or was he already in the All-Father’s hall, feted and loved as he had been by King Edwin? Octa’s murderer shuddered. This was the night in which he took control of his wyrd, but he did not wish to be judged by the gods. He turned his face from the moon.

Edwin should have recognised who amongst his thegns was most worthy. Instead he had chosen to elevate Octa. His blindness would lead to his downfall. Events were in motion that would see his destruction. Edwin would be dethroned and his kingdom would fall.

The killer smiled in the darkness. Before he fulfilled his mother’s prophecy there was something else he must do. He descended the ladder and retraced his steps back towards the stable.

He hoped Elda was still there. She would soon regret her betrayal.

 

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