The Du Lac Chronicles is now available on Kindle. Yay! To celebrate this I am sharing with you, my readers, Chapter 1. Enjoy!
“An evocative, timeless saga of love and betrayal”
Tony Riches, author of The Tudor Trilogy
AD 495 Wessex, Briton.
Alden du Lac drew in a ragged breath. The cold night air hurt his lungs, and the rough wooden post that he was tied to rubbed the wounds on his back. He had prayed for the welcomed relief of unconsciousness; alas, it was not to be. It seemed even God wanted him to suffer for his failings.
He had lost count how many times he had been lashed. All he knew was that each lash represented every Wessex soldier that had been killed by his men. Cerniw’s losses had been far higher, but no one paid for their deaths. Life was never fair, though; he did not need a lost battle and hundreds dead to tell him that much.
The year had been horrendous. Cerniw, with its rugged moorlands, its vast forests and beautiful coasts, had been struck with one pestilence after another. The people started to talk about moving, and some already had. Those who had stayed loyal to the land and, of course, to him, no doubt now wished they had not, for when Cerdic’s Saxons came, they purged the kingdom, making it look like the hell the bishop preached of in his Sunday sermon. Alden, unlike God, had been powerless to do anything about it. Oh yes, he had fought, but the numbers he fought against had overwhelmed his army, for who could fight the devil, without God on their side, and think to win?
Alden hung his head in shame, his shoulder-length dark hair falling into his face. He cursed his naivety and worse still, his arrogance. His younger brother had warned him, but he had not heeded the warning; instead, he believed the useless treaty that Cerdic of Wessex had offered him only months before. He should have seen where Cerdic was going with it then, only he had been blinded by grief, by guilt. The responsibility for what happened, therefore, was his and his alone. He knew that, and he took the blame. He deserved to be tied to a post waiting for death.
Alden closed his pain-filled grey eyes as the image of his homeland in flames scorched his mind. He could hear the screams, the begging for mercy, and the cries for help. He could taste the terror in the air and feel the heat of the flames. Dear God, what had he done?
He had been left with no alternative. Even now, with the clarity of hindsight, he could see no other choice. He had ridden towards the enemy, carrying the white flag of truce and hoping — sweet Lord, how he had hoped — for clemency, not for himself, but for his people.
Instead, Cerdic’s soldiers had pulled him unceremoniously from his horse and taken him prisoner along with at least eighty of his kinsmen. Of their fate he was uncertain, but his was assured. If he did not die tonight from exposure then an axe awaited him at dawn. It was a terrifying thought, and he prayed to God for courage. He felt no warm, welcoming presence and he feared what all men secretly feared, that on the morrow, he would not die well.
Snow began to fall softly from the night sky, not enough to settle, just enough to plummet the temperature further. He began to shiver. He tried thinking of a warm fire and his large bed covered in thick furs. It did not help. After all, when last he saw his fort it was in flames.
“Are you still alive, du Lac?”
Alden kept his head down, pretending to be unconscious, and hoped the bastard would leave him alone to die in peace. Draca, the guard in charge of the prisoners, was not fooled. He lived for terror and he had no intention of allowing the former ruler of Cerniw an easy death. He grabbed Alden’s chin roughly and forced his head up.
Alden opened his eyes and stared with contempt at the soldier in front of him. Draca was a huge man, with a shiny bald head, tiny eyes and a big fist, whose breath stank of stale beer and his body of gone-off fish mixed horribly with the smell of fresh blood — not his own, but someone else’s.
“Not quite dead yet, are you? Won’t be long, though.” Draca chuckled deep in his throat. “I’ve never killed a King before. I’m looking forward to it. Try and stay alive till morning, won’t you, for I want to be the one who takes your last breath.”
Alden stared past him, trying for indifference, refusing to give the man any satisfaction by showing fear at his words. Damn him to hell, he would die well, he would. He had to.
Draca continued to mock him; he tried to pay him no heed, for Draca could not make him feel any worse than he already did. He had thought himself a good and fair King, but no matter what he had done in the past, he had lost the kingdom and that made everything good he had done inconsequential.
Maybe it was a good thing that Cerdic had ordered his death. When his eldest brother found out about his failings he would be far less generous. Still, what he would give for his brother’s army to be marching on Wessex now. Not that that was going to happen, for Budic was safely tucked away in Brittany, oblivious to all that had transpired. And Alden knew he would be long gone from this world when Budic found out.
A shadow caught his eye. It was there for a moment and then gone. A ghost no doubt, and fear struck him, not for the supernatural and their haunting, but for his own fate. Dear God, please don’t let me stay all eternity locked inside these four walls, forever looking for a way out. Draca dropped his hand, satisfied when he saw the fear in his prisoner’s eyes. They all felt fear in the end; he made sure of it. What he needed now was a woman. He always needed a woman before and after a kill. There was a new serving girl, a petite little thing from the village, that he had not had the pleasure of introducing himself to yet. His Lord’s orders were very specific: not to leave the former King of Cerniw alone, but it wasn’t as if du Lac was going anywhere and what he was planning would not take long.
Alden closed his eyes and hung his head. A sennight ago nothing would have induced him to humble himself in such a way, but that was then. Anyway, it hurt too much to keep his head upright, and he didn’t want to see his future coming. He would rather be blind. He heard Draca march away, whistling a merry tune that seemed out of place amongst so much suffering.
An owl hooted overhead and Alden could not help himself, he shivered, for owls brought out the superstitious nature in him, and he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Something else was in the yard. He could sense it. Something dangerous and unworldly and it was coming for him.
He forced his eyes to open and raised his head slowly. A figure dressed in black approached him through the falling snow. He could not see the figure’s face to ascertain if it was human, for it was hidden by a hood. Perhaps it did not even have a face. Perhaps it was a demon. He caught a glimpse of a silver blade and braced himself, closing his eyes, holding his breath, for he realised that death had come to claim him.
Annis of Wessex brought the knife down hard on the thick rope. It made a small, pathetic fray. Shocked, she touched the tip of the blade with her finger. It was almost blunt, the edges ragged. The knife belonged to her brother, and she hated it almost as much as she hated him, but it was unusual for him not to keep his instruments of torture sharp. She resisted the urge to throw the knife away from her, because through its pommel, she fancied she could feel the countless souls that had died by this weapon. Alas, the knife was all she had; she could not risk going back and getting another.
She felt sweat trickle down the back of her neck, despite the cold, as she stepped in closer towards her father’s enemy. The former King of Cerniw’s eyes had closed again and he did not appear to be breathing. Fearing she was too late, she gently touched his cheek with her fingertips and he flinched, as if she had struck him. Mortified, she quickly withdrew her hand.
Alden took another ragged breath. “If you are here to kill me, just do it and get it over with.”
He spoke in the strange language of his own people and she could not understand him. Think, Annis. She looked at the knife and then looked at the rope and set to work. If the knife refused to cut then it would saw.
It seemed to take an agonisingly long time to saw through the rope. Annis kept glancing up at the battlements, but nobody came. They were strangely deserted and she fancied the gods had decided to freeze this moment in time, to give her a fighting chance. How they liked to toy with her.
The twines of rope grudgingly began to fray and snap. A dash of white sliced through the sky and a panicked squeal echoed around the courtyard as the owl flew away with his prey clutched tightly in his talons. Death was all around them.
Alden du Lac was free, yet he did not move, and she wondered if he could. Her brother had boasted that Draca could break a man’s spirit better than any other man he had ever known. But the rebellious part of her nature, so carefully hidden until now, refused to believe that the larger than life King of Cerniw would be thus defeated by a lowlife such as Draca. If he were not going to save himself, then she would do it for him. Hastily, she pulled at the ropes that held him to the post, not caring if she hurt him or inflicted more injuries. He deserved to be in pain if he had given up. She hadn’t. Every day of her life, she had had to fight. She had thought he would have had the courtesy of staying alive while she risked her own neck trying to save his pitiful existence.
Without the support, Alden crumpled to the hard, bloodstained, frost-covered cobbled ground. The breath whooshed out of him and he kept his eyes tightly closed, wondering what evil intent this beast had planned for him now. Die well, he reminded himself, think of something, anything. Take your mind away from here. He tried to think of the sea, the surf hitting the white sands of his home, but the image was blurred and his tormenter was tugging at his arm, trying to make him stand.
He wasn’t responding. She should leave…now. At least she had tried. She had underestimated the extent that he had been tortured. He was as good as dead. She tugged pathetically on his arm one more time, not expecting him to respond, so she was surprised when she felt him stir beneath her fingers. Encouraged, she tugged hard and at last, he began to move. He crawled to his knees, muttering something under his breath that Annis did not understand, and she wished she could speak Cerniw.
Whatever he said, it seemed to give him strength, for he reached for the post with his other hand. Using the post and Annis, he managed to heave himself up to his feet.
The world spun and his legs felt like they belonged to someone else, but death was pulling at his arm, silently asking him to move. And who was he to argue with death?
Annis wedged her shoulder under Alden’s arm. He leant heavily on her and she staggered under his weight, although thankfully, she managed to remain on her feet. She glanced up at the battlements, where a torch light flickered. The gods had started to play.
“Come on,” she whispered. “We have to move. We don’t have much time.”
Death had a woman’s voice? Of course, it would. Why had he ever thought death would be a man? Shame she spoke with the Saxon tongue, for he understood not a word.
Annis gave a quick prayer to her favourite goddess Frige. “Alden, move!” she demanded again.
The voice knew his name and the voice sounded panicked. Would death panic? It did not make sense. His head banged in time with his heart and his legs were not cooperating, but somehow he managed to make his feet move. Death continued to whisper words of what he thought must be encouragement. She was in a hurry to leave this place and he for one could not blame her.
She led him towards an old embossed oak door. He could not focus on the door. The image in front of him was blurry and he wondered if he was dreaming. It had to be a dream for there was no other explanation. He watched, trying to focus on his surroundings, as death produced a key. Death was in such a hurry to place the key in the lock that she dropped it on the cobblestones with a soft clang. She fell to her knees to search for it and Alden reached for the courtyard’s rough wooden wall with his hand to stop himself from falling.
Annis rammed the key into the lock and prayed the door would open. A woman’s scream pierced the night, followed by the sound of men’s laughter. She ignored the scream, for there was nothing she could do. She glanced over her shoulder as she turned the key and saw more torchlight. The door creaked dreadfully as it swung open. But still, no one came. Quickly, she wedged her shoulder under Alden’s arm, helping him down the first few steep steps.
Leaving Alden leaning against the cold, cobweb-covered stonework of the corridor’s wall, she quickly crept back outside. There were men on the battlements now and a woman, her dress in tatters, hanging from her thin body in strips. Annis paused for a moment, shocked. If she were a man she would have — but she wasn’t a man and she had just crossed the border from being the protected daughter of the King of Wessex to an outcast and a traitor.
Holding her breath, she stood on tiptoes and stretched, her fingers brushing the wood of a flaming torch. Cursing her lack of height, she just managed to lift the torch from its rusty sconce on the courtyard wall. Frowning, she glanced back up at the battlements, but her father’s men were too interested in the woman to notice what was going on down below. She smiled grimly, knowing that the soldiers would be repaid in kind. Her father would have their heads when he found his prisoner gone. She tore her gaze away from the frightful scene above and hurried back down the steps. Alden had sat down on the floor, his head bowed, his skin a deathly white and covered in blood. Quickly she closed the door, locked it and then leant her back against it, taking a few precious seconds to catch her breath and slow her pounding heart.
The alarm bell was shrill and echoed all around them. Alden, his head already pounding, wanted to cover his ears with his hands, sink to the floor, curl up in a ball and die. Death didn’t seem to be an option, however, much as he might desire it, for the woman by his side kept him on his feet. The floor was cold and hard on his bare feet and exhaustion pulled at all his senses.
“Almost there.” Annis spoke, more to herself than the man at her side. Every muscle in her body hurt and burnt with the exertion she was placing on herself. She began to question herself. Who was she to think she could save a man’s life? She clenched her teeth together until she felt the ache in her cheeks and willed herself to relax. She had chosen this path. She had known it was going to be difficult. But knowledge is only as good as the experience that goes with it. And nothing had prepared her for this.
The flaming torch was dimming and would soon extinguish, leaving them in total darkness and she did not know this part of the castle very well, for it was one of the forbidden places. The previous owner, a Celtic warlord who went by the name of Arthur, had built this castle decades ago. He was long dead now. Her father had killed him.
She glanced across at the man by her side. His head was bent low and his breathing came in frightening gasps. The last time she had seen Alden du Lac he had kissed the palm of her hand, closing her fingers on the kiss as if to keep it safe. His grey eyes had sparkled with amusement when he had looked at her, and his whole face shone with life. With that one teasing kiss, she had fallen. Her days had been filled with dreams of him. Impossible dreams, for he was another woman’s husband. She had no right to think of him in that way and she had tried hard to forget all about him, but no matter what she told herself, she could not stop herself from dreaming.
She watched with panicked fascination as the torch glowed brightly, flickered, then extinguished and the cold darkness engulfed them both.
“I hope you know where you are going?” His voice came out as a hoarse whisper, but at least he had the clarity to speak in Latin, the language of the nobility and a language they both shared.
“I think so,” Annis replied honestly, as she let the now-useless torch slip from her fingers and clatter to the floor.
“I feel so reassured,” he said, trying to bite back the sarcasm, but she had heard it.
“I can always take you back.” Annis stated, a touch of anger in her soft voice, adding under her breath, “I am doing the best I can.”
“Will they stop ringing that bloody bell if you do?”
Annis snorted on a laugh and then blushed at her unladylike manner and she was glad for the dark. “We can but hope. I’ll say I apprehended you. I might get away with my life!” She began to walk forward, forcing him to move with her.
“Who are you? Where are you taking me?” Alden gasped, as another wave of pain robbed him of his breath momentarily.
“The last place they would expect to find you,” Annis stated. “The very last place,” she added bitterly. Her father thought her worthless. What use was a daughter? She had been a disappointment to him in all her seventeen years of life. But he had not forgotten her completely. She was a bargaining tool now that she had come of age, sold as easily as one would sell a horse. King Natanleod of Sussex was reportedly on his way to claim her. But she had promised herself she would be long gone from here before he did, for Natanleod had a terrible reputation when it came to women and she would be wife number six What had befallen the other five did not bear thinking about, except they were all dead and buried. She had tried to argue with her father, reason with him, but one did not reason with Cerdic of Wessex.
“Are you taking me to Cerdic’s bedroom? He will be surprised!” Alden jested, although where he found the strength to jest at a time like this even he did not know.
Annis felt a small sense of relief, for she feared the torture he had suffered had addled his mind. He still had his sense of humour, even if it was hanging on by a thread and for that, she was thankful. “No. Mine. Now save your breath,” she quickly added, “we still have a long way to go.”
Copyright © Mary Anne Yarde.