Authors: Michael O'Neill
Book 4 (of 4) in “The Casere” series
Copyright © 2016 by Michael O’Neill
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Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
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Cover art by Darko Tomic. All rights reserved
The Bretwalda (Book 4 of the Casere)/ Michael O’Neill – 1st Ed.
To Di and Hollie, with all my love
“The way is to avoid what is strong
and to strike at what is weak.”
The feeling of impotence as he stood on the deck doing nothing except watch the waves crash into the side of the schooner made Conn extremely irritable. But there was nothing to be done except wait, and the schooner was travelling almost at capacity. If anything it was travelling too fast, and he feared that an unexpected gust might tear a sail or something worse.
‘It’s not your fault.’ They kept telling him. Derryth liked to remind him that he had over twenty children – he couldn’t watch them all, all the time, forever. Although he agreed in part, the events to this tragedy played out in his mind like a bad movie plot. He should have seen it coming. He knew that Ashtoreth and her folgere wanted one of his children as a sacrifice – and he knew that there were lots of folgere in Pontia. What he hadn’t anticipated was that they were as organized as the abduction of his daughter proved them to be. He arrogantly underestimated them.
When Wilric finally surfaced from below deck after two days of rest and sleep, he apologized profusely, saying that she was his responsibility and that he had failed her and Conn. Conn hugged him and told that it wasn’t his fault.
‘But you told me to protect her – and I didn’t. She was stolen and there was nothing I could do.’
‘As Derryth likes to remind me all the time, we are but leaves in a storm. We can’t determine the outcome of everything. Fate is fate. Maybe I sent you not to protect her, but to be able to tell me that she had been taken. No one but someone riding an Elfina would have travelled as far and as fast as you did. Because of that, we have a chance of rescuing her. Do not despair.’
When he was consoled, Conn asked him what had happened.
‘We were fine in Kashi. The Eaorl welcomed us warmly. I have to say that he was surprised, but that was to be expected. He gave us horses and we rode north to the demesne of Beortan’s uncle, He is a Thane. We also received word from the Eaorl of Kashi that the Marquis of Kucha was just days away from arriving in Kashi. The Eaorl also said that he would join with Kucha and ride east. Beortan’s uncle was also convinced of the merit in joining the rebellion and he joined us as we travelled towards Kotan. By the time we arrived, the Eaorls of Kashi and Kucha – as well as the Aebeling of Sytha were there, waiting. It was a standoff; despite his numbers, the Eaorl of Kucha had not attacked. I presume that Eadhart had instructions not to attack?’
‘He was – I wanted to give Beortan a chance.’
‘Well, it worked as you probably hoped it would. Soon after we arrived, the nobori of the device of the Eaorl of Kotan filled the fields and there appeared to be much confusion in town. Envoys arrived in the middle of the night and when they discovered that Beortan was in fact still alive, his usurping uncle soon after developed a heart problem and died, and Beortan was welcomed back the next morning as the rightful Eaorl.’
‘Yes – the one you get when someone sticks a knife in it.’
Conn laughed. Vengeance could sometime be swift. ‘So that left Kyme.’
Wilric nodded. ‘The Eaorl of Kyme has bedda who is sister to the Healdend and had Ancuman wiga but not enough to counter the power of the Sythans and your Kerchian wiga from Patria in Kucha. The first charge of their wiga was cut apart by the pikemen and bowmen and when we counter attacked, they folded quickly. More died than should have, but less than could.’
‘That is something. I was informed that Eomon and the Sythan wiga went home soon after?’
‘Yes. He had done his job. The Bear standard was everywhere to be seen. Everything was going well and then…’
‘Alana and Beortan got separated? The Kerchians were there to provide her with additional security.’
‘No. Beortan was attacked as well.’ He took a deep breath. ‘After the defeat of the Kyme forces, and the death of the Eaorl of Kyme, Longurl, and his two eldest sons, there was some confusion about who has the strongest claim to be Eaorl. One of his sons, Benstan is his name, came to Eadhart and vowed his loyalty to him as Healdend, if he would support him in his claim to be Eaorl. He then asked Eadhart to help him secure the town and we all went into Kyme with several hundred wiga.’
‘That wasn’t the plan.’
‘No; but it would appear that there are several claimants to be ––Eaorl, and Benstan is a cousin of both Eadhart and Beortan...’
‘And Alana and Beortan went into Kyme as well?’
‘Yes. We were in the centre of the town. It is a mess of buildings, small streets, and alleys – as well as mud and stench. Alana was out of my sight for just moments – people were crowding in around us as we rode in, thanking us, shaking our hands. We were on horses, but they stopped moving with so many people in front of us. I moved from her side just slightly to push a way through – Beortan was behind her and then people appeared who grabbed her and pulled her from her horse. Beortan tried to help her – he leapt from his horse after her but he was attacked. I tried to reach her as well, but I couldn’t turn my horse around fast enough. They had very quickly taken her up an alley and out of sight. By the time Eadhart was informed and every available wiga put to the task of looking for her, it seemed that hours had passed but it probably wasn’t that long. He even shut down the harbour at my suggestion.’
‘When did you find that they had escaped the town?’
‘Lunchtime the next day. A fisherman’s family had been murdered, the daughter brutalized but she lived and she told us they had arrived in the middle of the night and taken a small boat from them. They used it to hug the coastline. We later found a small cove where there were signs of a larger vessel having been beached. The small boat was there, and they had gotten away. I’m so sorry.’
‘Wilric, you did more than ten men. Do not despair. Anyway, this has been carefully planned. Someone in Kotan found out about Alana and told the folgere. They then set everything up. The cog was not hidden by accident. They knew that Kyme was going to be defeated. They planned everything. Amid the defeats, their goal was to take Alana.’ Conn took a deep breath. ‘And Beortan?’
‘He survived. Very battered and bruised but he will live.’
‘They won’t harm her.’ Derryth offered. He had been listening to the story. ‘There is no power to be gained by having her impure and damaged. Her sacrifice has to be total.’
‘But why? I don’t understand.’
‘It is the same reason why the folgere want to fornicate with you – to “know you” better. That is how they learn. Ashtoreth will have the strength to defeat you once she understands the reason why she cannot now – she will see inside you through Alana. Alana has your blood but not your strength. She will use her to study you.’
‘Over my dead body.’
‘That my friend, is the objective.’
With the cog travelling at just over half the top speed of the schooner, Njil had worked out that if the current weather conditions continued, they should arrive in Aeaea within a few days of the folgere – and if the folgere stayed a few days, as was usual, to resupply, they would be there in good time. If the cog had bad weather conditions, they would arrive about the same time as the folgere.
‘If their cog was using these winds as well as we are, it would break apart; the winds are too strong.’ Njil advised. ‘They would only be using half their sails.’
The schooner was cutting through the waves at an unseemly speed of over 12 knots – leaving most of the passengers terrified.
‘It is hard to be sure,’ Njil added, ‘because I’ve seen a lot of unusual weather conditions recently, but something about this wind doesn’t seem normal to me.’
Derryth nodded. ‘There is something about this wind that is definitely unusual.’
Asbera il Nobatia
After twenty days at sea, the wind suddenly died down to a breeze, and as the sun rose, it silhouetted land in the distance.
‘Land ahoy’ was the call, and they all gathered on deck to see for themselves. Most had never been to sea, and being so far from shore had proven to be a struggle for some of them. It was clear that many were looking forward to putting their feet on firm ground, and to walk between the trees.
Kutidi had a broad smile. ‘I told you my bearings would be right.’
Njil nodded in appreciation. ‘Indeed you did, and indeed you are. You can be my navigator any time you like. So where do you want me to go now.’
‘As you can see, Aeaea is small; just a set of islands in the middle of the ocean. There is very little farming land but lots of trees. Around the island are many small fishing ports, but most are in the southern part of the island, where the largest island is Aeaea itself. The main port is half a day south of here by road. That is the main port used by ships travelling from Kishdah. Most go there. There is one other here in the north.’ She demonstrated on the maps that the ship’s cartographer had prepared for her. ‘There is a small, very discrete port here on the northern side. Everyone who lives there are those that do not wish to be noticed by the Axum – nearly all are from the Southern Isles. If we go there, we should be able to land without too much difficulty – except that this boat is very noticeable.’
‘We are not going straight in on this one,’ Conn agreed, ‘we will take the whaleboats in first and make sure we can dock without people telling others. Can we get the schooner much closer without being noticed?’
Kutidi directed them to sheltered coves behind a few islands just off the mainland. Anchored, two of the whaleboats were lowered down into the water and with six in each, they rowed to shore.
As they walked from the water onto the beach and then into the trees, it took them considerable time to find a road or path.
‘You are right – there is no evidence that people live around here at all. So how many people live in the main port?’ Conn asked as they followed the half created path through the forest.
‘Less than five thousand I would say; the main purpose of the town is to catch and salt fish to sell to passing ships – as well as wine. Grapes grow very well here. They also have a tree oil crop. We have been using it as a base to investigate the oceans for many generations. From here it is possible to reach Meshech and Sytha, and on return, this is where theow trading occurs. It has the usual taverns and food markets as well.’
‘Minimal – I think there is a single company of wiga here to serve the Jarl. He is reportedly very wealthy.’
‘Those that the Priecuman would call Eaorl, the Ancuman would call Jarl.’
They walked along the path for about two miles before they encountered housing; longhouses in the Ancuman design. Scouting the area, it was obvious that the Jarl did not have a presence here, and Conn spread his men out to watch for the untoward. Conn quickly lit a small fire that soon generated a ball of black smoke from the special chemicals he added. That was the signal for Njil and they waited secluded until the schooner was sighted coming towards the dock.
Its arrival generated a fair bit of interest, and a couple of people raced to their horses, though they didn’t make it out of the town. One fell off his horse as he passed by a tree because of a carelessly placed piece of rope while another was barrelled off his horse by someone who jumped him as he rode past. No-one tried to prevent the ship from docking – being all seamen, they stood in awe and watched the magnificent vessel tie up, and before they knew it, Conn’s fifty Twacuman had secured the town. The sight of the Twacuman did cause a stir but all trouble was soon extinguished after some cleverly aimed arrows clearly hinted that opposition was futile.
Conn walked from behind the houses to the wharf. His presence turned a surreal moment into a bizarre one for the locals.
‘What the heck is the Marquis doing here?’ someone called; someone who had obviously been in Pontia.
Conn turned and answered the rhetorical. ‘Looking for someone. If you stay out of my way, you live – if you don’t, then all bets are off.’
He then walked into the inn followed by Kutidi, Derryth and Hallvi; she had removed her cloak so everyone could see what she was – an Ancuman. The inn was suddenly totally silent. Conn walked up to the bar.
‘I hear you have good wine?’
‘Umm … well… I guess…’ the barman stammered. The large innkeeper was clearly stunned at the sight of a Priecuman and Twacuman walking up to his counter. Conn thought it could be a good joke if he could work out a decent punchline.
‘Well, give us some – before we die of thirst – or you die for providing bad service.’ Conn tossed over the ten ryals requested. ‘It had better be good – it is very expensive.’
Conn took a swig of the wine – it was good. Much better than he had expected, and he was downing his next when he heard his name called out.
‘Conn il Taransay; it is you! I’ll be damned – wait, I already am. What in the name of the Gyden are you doing here? Here! In the middle of nowhere.’
Conn looked around and saw a face he recognized immediately. It was Volund il Alwa, master of an Ancuman warship that he had encouraged to take Dagrun, the usurper Healdend of Samaria, away for him – in secret. It was the alternative to killing him.
‘Volund – I always wondered what happened to you. Is this as far as you got?’
‘It was – with my desertion and all the gold I had and the temptations that are here – too good to pass up.’ Volund continued to walk towards Conn, but his eyes never left Kutidi. ‘Is this who I think it is?’
Conn did the introductions. ‘Yes, this is Kutidi il Alwa.’
Volund did an unexpected thing; he bowed to one knee, and made a formal introduction. ‘It is my pleasure to meet you, Jarl, my family has always served yours, and I hope I can again – even if there are so few left.’
Kutidi was embarrassed. “I cannot accept your greeting, Volund, I have dishonoured my house; I am theow. But thank you.’
Conn was confused. ‘Jarl? I thought Jarl was like Eaorl?’
‘All members of the nobility in the Southern Isles are given the title of Jarl when they are born – even if they lack demesne. The title is only acknowledged by the Axum if they have a demesne.’
‘I see. Anyway, Volund, perhaps you can help. I seek information of a vessel that might have arrived from Sytha during the last few days. It would have had folgere on board.’
Everyone in the room spat on the ground. This was obviously not an Axum hideout. Volund nodded. ‘One such vessel did arrive a few days ago, maybe six – and they have been causing all sorts of trouble since then. It seems that they lost a member of their crew and can’t find her – I think I heard mention that they were looking for a girl …’ Volund stopped and then looked confused. ‘They are not so stupid, are they – surely they didn’t kidnap a member of your family?’
‘They did – and I’d like her back. Do you know any more of what happened?’
Volund continued to shake his head. He looked around. ‘The folgere are not so welcome here – everyone here has a sister or mother that has been defiled by those bastards. The story is that when the boat was coming in, the girl dived overboard – and swam for shore. As the folgere can’t swim, by the time they reached shore and started looking for her, she was gone. It is said that she swam like a fish. They are calling her the “fish girl”.’
Conn smiled. ‘Good girl. All my children can swim.’
‘What is really strange,’ Volund continued thoughtfully, ‘is that she was able to disappear so easily. This is a hard place to get lost in because it is small – and the folgere have their methods. You have trained her well.’
‘That surprises me because Alana lacks those skills. Could someone else have captured her and have her in hiding somewhere?’
‘I doubt it. No one would do such a thing against the folgere. And the reward offered is huge. Anyone who has her is protecting her against the folgere in my opinion.’
Conn considered for a moment. ‘Well for that I am very grateful. Now I don’t need to kill everyone.’
Volund started to laugh and then stopped. ‘You are not kidding are you?’
‘Not in the slightest. I promised the folgere that if they touched any of my daughters they would die. All of them.’
Shocked at Conn’s controlled rage, Volund simply nodded. ‘So what are you going to do?’
‘Well, we can’t go to them so they have to come to us. Are you able to get someone to spread a rumour for me in the port?’
‘Is it going to be to the detriment of only the folgere?’
‘That is my intention. I prefer not to have collateral damage.’
‘Then I will. What do you want whispered around the town?’
Conn had finished his message when a young man walked through the door of the inn. Conn recognized him instantly – though he looked healthier and fitter. He was still loud.
‘What is that big ship doing leaving my port? I didn’t say it could leave! I didn’t even approve it docking.’
Volund looked at Conn, shaking his head. ‘He has visions of grandeur – and we can’t seem to knock it out of him; believe me, we’ve tried.’
Conn turned to address Dagrun, the usurped usurper Healdend of Samaria.
‘Hello Dagrun, nice to see you again.’
When he recognized who it was, Dagrun took an involuntary step backwards. ‘Gyden, what are you doing here? How did you even find me? And haven’t you already done enough to me?’
Volund shook his head sadly. ‘See what I mean.’
‘Dagrun, it has nothing to do with you. This is just coincidence.’
‘Really? How strange. So why are you here?’
‘The Axum folgere have stolen one of my daughters. I’ve come to get her back.’
‘The fish girl is your daughter?’ He paused to contemplate the information. ‘Wow, something tells me that they are set for a very bad time – I did nothing to you, and look what happened to me.’
Dagrun walked over and joined their table.
Conn apologized. ‘I do feel sorry that I separated you from your bedda, Dagrun, if anything I would have changed that.’
Dagrun laughed. ‘Do not feel sorry on that account – it was the only good thing that happened. They were witches – “do this, do that, kill this person, kill that one”. It was never ending. I was able to get a couple of theow here – never been happier. Be happier if they put me in charge though – but they won’t listen to me. The Jarl has even banned me from the castle.’
‘I am surprised he hasn’t had you killed.’
He smiled. ‘He would if he could, but he can’t. My mother’s grandfather is the Bretwalda, so that would end badly for him. I don’t think it is personal on the Bretwalda’s part – just on principle.’
Conn had to laugh. ‘That must infuriate him.’ He then looked around the room. ‘There are over fifty wiga in this room and outside. Why haven’t you stormed the castle?’
Dagrun sighed. ‘It is true we have enough men – but we are short in other things – gold to grease a few palms and more importantly bows and swords. The only people with real weapons on this island are the Jarl’s wiga. There is no chainmail allowed either – and we don’t have any horses because numbers are limited. Everything we had was confiscated when we arrived and indicated our intention to stay – we can only get it back when we leave.’
Conn leaned forward, ‘So if you got some gold and some equipment, how possible would it be to arrange a revolt?’ He looked at Volund when he asked the question. He didn’t trust Dagrun’s judgement.
Volund answered honestly. ‘Easy enough to storm the castle; but much harder to maintain control after that. The Jarl is Axum, as are his wiga, and whilst Dagrun is partly Axum, the part that isn’t will not get the Axum behind him. To survive he would need the support of everyone else – mainly from the Southern Isles – and he isn’t going to get that because he is mostly Axum.’ He glanced at Kutidi who stood, as she usually did, behind Conn. ‘I’m sure the Jarl would agree that my words are true.’
Conn sat back in his chair. ‘Well, it was a thought. Nothing is ever simple.’ He felt Kutidi’s hand on his shoulder and he looked up.
‘Can I speak to you, outside, please?’ she asked.
Conn stood up and followed her. It was getting late, and the forest trees cast long shadows over the waves as they washed into shore.
‘There is a way.’ she said.
Conn waited for her to continue.
‘You could sell me to Dagrun. As his bedda, I can unite the Alwa and we can control this island. The rest of the Southern Isles will unite behind Alwa.’
The suggestion was not one that Conn was expecting. ‘Do you really want to stay here? What about Sarun?’
‘Sarun needs to stay with you – he will need his father and his kin at his side when his destiny is revealed. I don’t know why but I knew that I wasn’t going back when I left.’ She was fiddling with her necklace as she spoke. Despite everything it was still black. ‘I will be doing this for him – Aeaea is part of him achieving his destiny – I feel that. There is so much I can do from here, so that one day, Alwa will take back what is rightly theirs.’