Eadwaerd limped deeper into the forest, cursing the thrice damned Nordmen. How they managed to gain ground despite the mud and rain was beyond him at the moment. All he could focus on in that moment was to put as much distance between himself and the mainlanders, trying and failing to not leave a track as he avoided stepping on anything as he trudged through the foilage. By the sound of clamouring men and the clang of metal on earth meant that Eadwaerd was doing a piss-poor job of retreating to regroup with his father’s men.
If his father was inclined to welcome him with open arms despite his crushing defeat in East Anglia.
By the gods, Eadwaerd II could already imagine his humiliation at the hands of Eadwaerd I. Even if Eadwaerd himself told the current Earl of Wessex that fighting in the storm after their men had marched for two days and two nights from Northumbria wearing heavy armour through softened soil would yield them a horrible defeat, none of the Housearls listened. Now, Eadwaerd lost more men to fever and the cold than Nordmen sword, hunger and thirst and fatigue wearying over tens of thousands of men until they were all left with a meagre thousand. By the time the battle was over, only three dozen men were left. Eadwaerd refused to surrender then, and managed to take a dozen Nordmen with him before a dagger grazed his side.
The heavy thuds of furred boots grew louder, and Eadwaerd tried to increase his pace to no avail.
His head spun in and out of control, could not distinguish the muted green-grey of the forest, every step sinking on the loamy earth as he fled. The torrent overhead made navigating difficult, and Eadwaerd had long lost his sense of direction. He tried to rein in his ragged breathing, chest burning with effort as he staunched his bleeding side. The cold that accompanied him for the last two days grew even more bitter, seeping into his bones and dragging his limbs into deadweight.
Eadwaerd cursed as he burst through the trees and into a clearing, shivering against a powerful gust that nearly knocked him over his feet, the clamour of men following close behind. The raiders laughed and jeered in their dialect, and Eadwaerd’s hackles rose as the Nordmen left through the path he took.
Snarling, Eadwaerd turned to face five men, shield arm on his side as he brandished his sword. The rain already washed the blood and gore away, the blade glinting threateningly as lightning struck far away, light exploding in a sudden flash before disappearing.
“Odin pity you,” a dark-haired raider jeered, hefting his enormous axe. None of the raiders looked to be in pristine condition either, sporting new wounds that will soon fade into their collection of scars. “Surrender or die.”
“Never!” Eadwaerd charged with a desperate cry, a sudden strength giving him the ability to raise his sword above his head and ignore the pain on his side. The raiders all surged at once in reply, spears and swords and axes all aimed towards the blonde’s body.
Lightning flashed once more, a deafening clap of thunder shook the earth, and Eadwaerd can only freeze in fascination as the very ground beneath the raider’s feet opened to swallow them whole. The grass shifted and rolled, something like laughter emanating from the newly-formed pit before the ground closed like water filling out an empty space, leaving no trace behind that raiders of the north once stood there.
“Rude.” A voice flitted through the roar of the storm. “First the Romans, then Angles and Jutes and Frisians—and now, Nordmen.”
The voices was as clear as day, light and young with just a hint of something… more . Eadwaerd spun on his heel, the pain returning tenfold now that his pursuers were gone, and shook his hard at the sight.
The boy could not be older than fifteen winters, with rich-brown hair mussed by leaves, feathers, and twigs stuck in his locks. The boy wore what looked to be straps of leather interwoven around his skin, leaving little to the imagination. Circling the boy’s torso and limbs were ivy, the vines hugging every bit of skin snugly as if it had been growing there along with the boy.
Black linen wove around the boy’s shoulders as a mantle, pinned together by an onyx brooch with raven feathers lining the edges. It was the darkest shade of black Eadwaerd laid his eyes on, feeding off the surrounding light the longer he stared at it.
Intricate lines of bright blue traced patterns over pale arms and grass-stained bare feet, swirling like waves, glowing like sunlight bouncing off saltwater. In his hands was a staff taller than the boy himself, made of swirling wood engraved with the same runes on his skin, branches clutching a rough blue stone streaked with white.
“How are you faring, Llogyrwys ?” Eadwaerd’s breath stuck inside his throat as he met the boy’s eyes.
They burned gold under what looked like breathing shadows casted over the boy’s face, twin suns glinting like the most precious of metals, bright and serene against the raging storm behind him.
“Ælfe,” Eadwaerd managed to breath out.
The beginnings of an amused smile curved at the corner of the ælfe’s lips, and Eadwaerd would have loved to ask what was funny the growing light-headedness that came with bleeding endlessly. A word of gratitude was just at the edge of Eadwaerd’s tongue, the syllables stuck in his throat and his voice fading with the red leaking from his gut.
Alarm filled the boy’s face and that was when Eadwaerd’s body pitched forward, sprawling into the ground in a mess of limbs and leather, sword discarded a few feet away. Earth filled his nostrils, the terrible taste of mud snaking past his lips and touched the tip of his tongue. Long fingers prodded and poked at Eadwaerd, and he was horribly reminded of spiders skittering across his skin, yet did not remove them.
‘Misfortune follows those that harm spiders,’ he could remember his mother whispering under the warm glow of a hearth many winters ago, huddled together with the rest of the servants, watching the long-legged creatures spin their silk in forgotten corners and places beyond their reach. Her hair shone like spun gold, orange-red casting comforting light on her weathered face and freckled cheeks.
Bitter regret filled Eadwaerd then. He could barely remember his mother’s voice, despite that.
He could hear the boy speaking in a language Eadwaerd barely recognized, almost musical with each syllable rolling off the ælfe’s tongue into a melodious string of sentences that reminded Eadwaerd of the barely there memories of the nights spent sleeping in furs and dried grass—of days where he worked alongside his mother to clean out his father’s stables, the sun a sweltering heat behind his back. The ælfe turned him over his back, and sharp pain radiated from his wound, but it quickly turned into a dull sort of ache that came with lacerations left out for too long without receiving treatment.
Eadwaerd didn’t realize his eyes were closed until he opened them, now face to face with the ælfe boy. Up close, he could see the smattering of freckles across a straight nose, shadows gathering beneath golden eyes. A frown marred those young features and Eadwaerd was about to comment that such an expression will be stuck on the ælfe’s face had he not remembered that they were as eternal as the land beneath their feet. Curious, Eadwaerd reached up to see if those brown locks were as soft as the feathers decorating them, but the same spider-like fingers held Eadwaerd’s wrist in a powerful grip.
There were more foreign words escaping from the ælfe’s lips, but before Eadwaerd can ask the boy to speak in a language Eadwaerd understood, darkness fully engulfed his vision and knew no more.