This story focuses on Alchflaed, a Northumbrian princess, and Maric, a Mercian warrior. It's a tale of forbidden life - and the price blind duty can have on us all.
I have based Alchflaed's character around an actual historical figure (although I'll leave the details off here or it will ruin the story!). Details about female historical figures in Anglo-Saxon England are sketchy at best - but there was something about Alchflaed's story that sparked my imagination.
You can find out more about the story, and read sample chapters on Amazon, but - as part of the launch - I thought I'd share one of my favorite chapters from the novel with you.
They rode out of Eoforwic as if pursued by Nithhogg himself.
Maric and Edgard led the way, holding torches aloft, with the rest of the company thundering at their heels. They had all made it out of the ealdorman’s hall alive, although Bryni had received a nasty wound to his thigh in the scuffle that ensued.
It was a dark night, for heavy clouds cast a veil over the stars and a half moon. If not for the torches, they would have been travelling blind. The cold stung Alchflaed’s face and it was not long before her fingers turned numb. Guilt needled her as she rode and she felt sick when she remembered how close she had come to getting her escort into terrible trouble.
They travelled a long while, eventually leaving the road and riding west, deep into woodland. Branches brushed against Alchflaed, snatching at her clothing, but she pressed on, following the Mercians farther into the trees. She imagined Maric had led them here to ensure that Eadweard of Eoforwic would not easily catch up with them.
When he awoke, the ealdorman’s rage would be terrible.
Eventually, they halted in a clearing surrounded by beeches. Alchflaed dismounted, her limbs stiff and cold.
“No fires tonight,” Maric commanded his men. “Not this close to Eoforwic.”
Maric received no complaints, for all of them knew they had been fortunate to extricate themselves from the ealdorman’s hall. He drove the end of his sputtering torch into the ground and Edgard did the same, so that they had some light to see by. Maric turned to the warrior who had sustained an injury during the scuffle.
“Bryni, how is your leg?”
“Hard to tell,” the warrior replied, although his voice was tight with pain.
“Alchflaed will you take a look at it?” Maric asked. He had not yet looked her way, although Alchflaed could sense his anger.
Bryni’s face, illuminated by the guttering torchlight, was hollowed with pain. He sat down upon a log while Alchflaed knelt next to him and examined the wound to his thigh.
She, like all the women at Bebbanburg, had learned the art of healing. Over the years, she had tended men with worse wounds than this one, although the knife wound had cut deep into the flesh of Bryni’s thigh.
“It has stopped bleeding,” she told him, “although I will need to cleanse the wound and put a few stitches in, for it is deep.”
Bryni groaned at this, but did not offer complaint. Next to her, Edgard unstoppered a skin of mead and passed it to Alchflaed. She poured it over the wound, making sure it washed deep inside the flesh. The young man cursed, his body stiffening in pain.
“I know it hurts, but it will stop the wound from festering,” Alchflaed told him. She rose then, and retrieved a leather satchel from her pony. Squinting in the torchlight, which was not ideal, she extracted a bone needle and woolen thread, before turning to where Edgard and Maric looked on.
“You’ll need to hold him still while I do this.”
Wordlessly, the two warriors moved to obey her. Edgard sat behind Bryni, placed an arm around his shoulders, and passed him a knife to bite down on. Meanwhile, Maric held his leg still. Alchflaed worked quickly, although it was difficult in such bad light, puncturing the skin and neatly tying four stitches. All the while, Bryni did not utter a sound. However, Alchflaed heard his teeth grinding against the knife blade as she worked. When she finished, he was as pale as milk and sweating, his breathing labored.
“Thank you, Lady Alchflaed,” he managed.
Alchflaed shook her head and smiled. “There’s no need.”
She tucked away her needle and thread before leaving the young man to recover. She crossed to her pony and was buckling her satchel back onto the saddle, when Maric approached her.
Alchflaed’s mouth went dry. Ever since leaving Eoforwic, she had been dreading this moment.
“I know what you are going to say,” she said quickly, forestalling him.
His voice was deceptively quiet when he replied.
“And what’s that?”
“That was all my fault. I should never have baited him.”
“So you’re sorry for it?”
Alchflaed finished tying the satchel closed and turned to him. His face, partly in shadow, was the most stern she had seen it. Still, there was something in his tone that made her own anger rise.
“His rudeness was not to be borne,” she replied stiffly. “He had no right to insult me.”
“We were guests under his roof, Alchflaed.”
“The man is a pig!”
Maric’s gaze narrowed, his lips compressing. “I’m not disputing that, but what you did was arrogant and foolish.”
Alchflaed glared at him, heat flaming in her cheeks. “Arrogant? How dare you!”
Maric did not answer her. The others moved around them, unsaddling their horses and unpacking what necessities they would need to see them through the night. Alchflaed knew they were listening to their argument, but were pretending otherwise.
Wordlessly, his mouth now a thin, angry line, Maric took her by the arm and led her away from the rest of the party. Alchflaed tried to twist away from his grip, but although he was not rough with her, his hold on her was iron and she could not break free.
Alone in the trees, he rounded on her. Alchflaed took a hurried step backwards and found a tree trunk blocking her escape.
“I shall address you how I choose,” he growled. “I am not your servant.”
“When I am Queen of Mercia you will be,” she reminded him, anger descending in a red veil, and making her reckless.
“I am a king’s thegn,” he replied coldly, “not your theow.”
“When we arrive in Tamworth, I will make sure Paeda learns of your lack of respect,” she shot back. “You are supposed to escort me south, not insult me.”
Maric shoved her up against the tree trunk and pinned her there. His face was just inches from hers, although she could barely make out the outlines of his features in the darkness.
“Every insult I give you is warranted,” his breath fanned her cheek as he spoke. “You are a spoiled wench.”
“Do you think being high born gives you an entitlement the rest of folk don’t deserve?”
Tears stung Alchflaed’s eyes, although she was glad the darkness hid her distress from him. His words cut like a seax-blade.
Is that how he sees me?
“Cur – let me go,” she whispered. The words lacked force; they sounded like pleading to her ears and she hated herself for it.
“Not until I hear an apology from you,” he replied. “You risked my life, and that of my warriors, tonight. I need to hear you will not do that again.”
Silence stretched between them. Alchflaed’s heart pounded, her breathing coming in ragged gasps. His nearness confused her, the heat of his body an unwelcome distraction from her hurt and wounded pride.
“I am waiting,” he said finally.
“I… I am sorry,” Alchflaed choked out the words, realizing as she did so that it was the first time she had ever apologized to anyone other than her father. “I should have let him speak to me as he wished, for I was his guest.”
“You could have got yourself killed,” Maric replied, his voice roughening before he added. “You could have got us all killed.”
Alchflaed stared at him, surprised by his words.
Does he actually care what happens to me?
“You have a quick temper, Alchflaed,” Maric continued his tone gentling for the first time. “Learn to control it, or you will have no end of trouble in Tamworth.”
He released her then, and stepped back. The night’s chill replaced his heat and Alchflaed shivered. Without another word, he turned and strode back in the direction of the clearing.
Buy a copy of DARKEST BEFORE DAWN Amazon (Kindle and paperback editions available)
Sign up to Jayne's monthly newsletter and receive a FREE copy of NIGHT SHADOWS (PDF format). Newsletter subscribers will also get sneak previews of upcoming novels, behind the scenes 'extras', snippets about Anglo-Saxon England, from Jayne!