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Concordia hurried across the deserted courtyard and headed towards the massive Keep that dominated King Alfred’s fortified city of Winchester. She kept within the shadows and was grateful for the cloud cover while running past the soldiers patrolling the wall-walk and avoiding the ever-present sentries that walked the familiar streets. She pulled her hood tighter around her face when a sudden gust of wind scattered the willowy clouds and moonbeams illuminated the darkened night. She looked atop the tower and quickened her pace when she noticed a solitary figure glancing in her direction.
Concordia waved excitedly as she approached the stairwell and was out of breath by the time she reached the top. Her eyes sparkled and her face was flushed as she removed her hood, her loose tresses caressing her face when touched by the whispering wind, her simple dress accentuating her curvaceous body while her cloak fluttered about her.
Thayer bowed ceremoniously, grasped her hand and kissed the tip of her fingers. He laughed inwardly since he was amused by her reticence as she quickly withdrew her hand, yet he looked questionably into her glowing eyes while brushing aside unruly strands of hair that billowed effortlessly in the wind.
Concordia glanced upon the exotic Moor whom she admired from the moment he had arrived at the court school. She had kept her distance because she feared the awakening emotions that consumed her thoughts whenever she came upon him, whether in the classroom or at the king’s table. She remembered her embarrassment each time he caught her staring at him during one of Brother Frederic’s lengthy discussions; however, she was genuinely pleased when he winked in acknowledgement, and how could she forget the sparkle in his eyes? His dark features added to his mystique, which fueled the budding fire within her soul. Concordia sensed his excitement when their hands touched briefly each time he handed her a book or helped her rise from a chair. She preferred sharing the evening meal at the king’s table where Thayer would be found sitting next to the queen, and she still had the flower petals he had given her when they first met. She tried to suppress her feelings, knowing her father would never permit such a match, even though Concordia and Thayer shared a passion for knowledge in a world shrouded in warfare.
“You are trembling,” Thayer whispered as he pulled her closer and held her tightly in a loving embrace.
Concordia did not shy away from his touch, but welcomed his protective arms as she tried to control her rising emotions while fearing the truth of his words. Her watery eyes glistened in the moonlight as she buried her head in his chest, taking deep breaths as her mind made sense of her chaotic thoughts while finding the courage to speak the words hidden within her heart.
“Do not be distressed,” Thayer said softly as he kissed the top of her head. “Our friendship is unrivaled and I shall cherish the memories.”
Concordia freed herself from his embrace and walked towards the wall while admonishing herself for her foolishness. He had spoken the truth, they were just friends, but because she was smitten, she believed he returned her love. She would have been humiliated by her confession and silently thanked the Lord that she had held her tongue.
“I beg forgiveness,” Concordia said as she glanced upon the darkened landscape. “I had grown accustomed to your presence in the classroom and will miss our debates. I meant no offense.”
“Ah, Concordia, never apologize for speaking your thoughts...that is why I find you so refreshing...I have enjoyed our differing opinions...you will be sorely missed.”
Concordia wrapped her cloak tightly around her as wind gusts chilled the night air. She smiled slightly when Thayer placed a velvet pouch in her hand, yet she was hesitant to accept the gift.
“Open it,” Thayer whispered in her ear.
Concordia gasped when she saw the gold bead necklace, but she could not curtain her excitement when she held the striking jewels against her chest. The gold beads were interspersed with turquoise and blue glass of various designs, and each bead was elegantly embellished by exquisitely engraved decorations.
“I have never seen such intricate work,” Concordia said excitedly as Thayer clasped the necklace around her neck. “There are no words...but I cannot accept such a costly gift.”
“You must, lest you offend my mother.”
“I do not understand...how am I known?”
“I had written my mother of our friendship...she sent this token so you may always remember the bond we share...it belonged to her mother...she insisted.”
“Tell her I am most pleased,” Concordia murmured as she held the beads gently between her fingers while averting his gaze. “Tell her I shall never forget her kindness.”
“Come, the hour grows late...you must be in your chambers before you are missed.”
Concordia followed Thayer down the stairs as the clouds once again covered the full moon. She walked silently beside the man who had captured her heart, etching his features into memory, to remember in the days ahead, when she grieved for a love that might have been.
Thayer stopped abruptly when they reached the king’s private quarters, grasped Concordia by the shoulders and kissed her gently upon her lips.
“Forgive my impertinence,” Thayer said softly. “I cannot leave without telling you...if only...you must go before words are spoken that cannot be taken back...go!”
“I do not understand,” Concordia tearfully replied. “Can you not see...”
“Hush,” Thayer interrupted as he placed his finger over her lips. “I know.”
“Will I ever see you again?” Concordia asked, her voice choked with emotion.
“If Allah wills it,” Thayer replied kindly before he disappeared into the night.
As the sun began its descent in a cloudless sky, the battle-weary Saxons cheered as the blazing dragonship sank in the windswept channel. The forceful gusts obscured the cries of drowning men as the remnants of Norse invaders embraced a watery grave. The stench of death intermingled with the sea mist as King Alfred’s warriors walked amongst the carnage, seeking their fallen brothers in arms while a healer tended to the wounded.
Women from a nearby village hurried towards the sandy battlefield, carrying baskets filled with an assortment of healing herbs while children carried much needed linen to bind the wounds. The healer was grateful for their assistance, barking orders as he bound the severed leg of a gravely injured warrior.
“We are skilled with the needle,” one of the women said as she pointed to a man whose arm had been slashed.
“Tend to him then!” The healer shouted while the rest of the women made themselves useful ministering to the mutilated men.
A stableboy drove a wagon down the sloping shoreline, reining his horse when he reached the blood-soaked beach. He jumped off his seat and calmed the frightened animal as he waited to load the wagon, thanking the Lord silently that the heathen assault had been thwarted.
Brantson walked amongst the wounded as his able-bodied men made the necessary preparations to bury the dead. He spoke with every man, assessing their wounds while providing comfort, but his demeanor was somber as he silently counted the number of warriors he had lost. Brantson gestured to the stableboy who hurried towards him, and he smiled slightly when the lad removed his hat and bowed.
“How are you called?”
“Alden, my lord.”
“Alden, I would have you bring the wounded men to the holy brothers at the abbey, but return quickly for the dead.”
“We will need more wagons,” Alden replied while pointing at the heathen bodies.
“Nay, we will alight a funeral fire as is their custom...I would not deny them their beliefs.”
“As you wish,” Alden mumbled before taking his leave.
“The boy seemed surprised by your honorable treatment of the enemy,” the first officer said quietly as he approached his commander.
“It is only fitting,” Brantson murmured as he gazed upon the lifeless bodies. “But you already know my thoughts in this regard, so why are you troubled?”
“One of the children said there were two dragonships.”
Brantson did not answer immediately but rather walked towards the rippling waves breaking softly upon the muddy beach. He glanced at the quiet coastline as the red and orange hues of twilight brightened the evening sky.
“Set up camp in the forest, near the abbey. If what the boy said is true, I would expect a raid when the moon sits high in the sky.”
Brantson remained at the water’s edge while his first officer carried out his orders. His thoughts returned to a battle at sea so many years past, when the man he called father had died while serving King Alfred in a fight of his own choosing. If the king had not been victorious, Rollo’s fate might never have been known. His eyes became moist as he remembered the pain the woman he called mother suffered once she learned the truth, and because he remembered, he took pity on the heathen women who lived across the North Sea since they would never learn the fate of their men.
The Saxon warriors rested in the darkened camp, eating dried meat but drinking sparsely as they awaited the enemy while scouting parties patrolled the shoreline in the warm night air. The men spoke in whispers, their soft words hidden beneath the screeching sound of dying animals as nocturnal predators ensnared their prey. A gentle breeze rustled the trees, the cool night air a welcome respite from the sweltering heat that lingered across the countryside. Faint flashes of lightning were seen on the horizon, casting an eerie whitish glow in the star-studded sky.
Brantson sat against a white birch, sharpening his sword while his thoughts wandered to happier days when cousins spent the summer months in Exeter, visiting Concordia’s Uncle Sidonius, her mother’s brother who had restored the familial estate to its former glory. A smile formed on his solemn face when he recalled Concordia running through a flowery meadow, her laughter echoing across the countryside as she playfully teased the younger children. He was not of their blood, but he was considered family, sharing a life once thought beyond his reach. The cousins sought his counsel because he was older and wise beyond his years, which formed a deepening bond that defied the passage of time.
Brantson did not remember when his feelings towards Concordia began to change. She was as a sister, a spirited little girl who never left his side whenever he visited Wareham. His hand sought the silver Cross he wore beneath his tunic, Concordia’s parting gift when he left to serve in King Alfred’s army. She had stayed atop the Keep until he was lost to her view, a mere child whom he would not see again for many years.
Brantson rose in the ranks of King Alfred’s army and became a respected officer, a gifted tactician who thwarted the Norsemen on numerous campaigns, but the heathen continued to threaten Britannia’s shores, keeping Brantson in the midst of battle and preventing him from returning to those he loved.
“My lord,” Bryce said softly as he approached his commander.
Brantson smiled at his first officer, beckoning him to sit while sheathing his sword. He handed the younger man a wineskin filled with water and waited as Bryce greedily drank his fill.
“The breeze does little to dispel this insufferable heat!” Bryce grinned as he wiped his mouth with the back of his gloved hand. “Rain would be most welcome.”
“Not until we win the battle!”
“That is what I meant,” Bryce chuckled, “but all is quiet still. It is possible the children were mistaken.”
“I pray that is so, but the night is young...and the abbey is known for its riches, but that is not why you seek me.”
“You speak the truth, as always. We have received word from the king,” Bryce replied as he handed Brantson a sealed parchment. “The messenger is being fed as we speak.”
Brantson broke the king’s seal and was surprised when he noticed that a second letter had been enclosed with the king’s communication. He recognized Concordia’s handwriting but controlled his desire to read her words before reading his king’s orders.
“We are to return to court once we finish here,” Brantson said, somewhat bemused. “I wonder what mischief is planned.”