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In the Shadow of Mercia

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"Do you hear them?"

"Hear who?"

"The crows. The crows are calling. They're saying your words."  

She woke with a gasp. Air caught in her throat, forcing a ragged cough as she sat up from the bed. There was sweat running down her chest and, from the sudden chill on her back, a damp imprint against the bed. She groaned, calling out for some water as she swung shaky legs over one side of the bed. Dawn was not yet breaking the horizon and she had only a few hours of sleep under her sweaty belt. She rubbed her face, jolting when her lady touched her shoulder and proffered the requested water. Taking it into her hand, she could feel the concern radiating off her lady's face. 

"T'was the dream again?" she asked.

"If you can call it such," Aliana replied, "I do not know what you call a voice from the nothingness of sleep." 

"She said the same thing?"

"Always, Erilla. Always the crows. Always my words." Aliana took another sip of water, coughed and stood from bed.

"Know your words, my lady. Know them and the crows can never have them," Erilla said, soothing a cool palm against Aliana's cheek. "Whether by dream or light, it's good you're awake."

Aliana eyed her lady in the darkness, searching. "Why is that?"

"A letter's come," she answered. Aliana groaned as she continued, "The king has written and requested your presence."

"That marks... how many times now?" 

"Only three in the last six months. Lord Pius hasn't allowed any of the others. But this. Seems he was awakened from his sleep and cannot ignore this request," Urilla said as she guided her lady away from the bed, to the window.

Aliana could make out vague shapes below in the courtyard. Lamplight from inside gave them rough definition, but no specifics. She has ideas of who they were and felt her stomach tighten. "My uncle's men or...?" 

"No. Dumnonia would not allow that. This kingdom is no friend of your uncle’s. But he won't let you go alone. Unaccompanied is not allowed." 

That reminder eased the knot in her stomach a fraction. "When do I leave?"

"If the king had it his way, you'd already be gone. Your uncle must oblige two different lords in this matter, however: an unfriendly king and a Black-eyed boy. The former refuses to acknowledge your uncle and the latter refuses to dress for the occasion until he's had his breakfast at a pace that is amiable for him. He can't accompany you to the border of Wessex until it is convenient for him and he's sent word to his brother to meet you all at the border." 

"This is all become very taxing."

"Aye, my lady. Dawn is not far off. Shall you bathe?"

Aliana blinked as her lady stoked the dying fire back to life, enough the light the candles in the room. The tacky remnants of sweat made her want to crawl out of her skin, shed and become anew. Aliana nodded, eyes drifting back to the window as Erilla move out of the periphery of her sight and into an adjacent room to ready the bathwater.

This is not the first Hunter house her uncle has attempted to send men to. There was the tolerance and patience of two other Lich Lords her uncle encroached upon when demanding her presence at court. This tedious drama reminds Aliana how she does not belong on this stage or in this house. She is immersed in the world of Death’s doings not by happenstance. No one would volunteer becoming a steward of a Black-Eyed Boy. Had she a say, she would rather have been fostered by her grandmother, or go to the isle with her mother. Aliana did not have a voice in the matter, however. Beings far above her head made choices that stripped her of her home, family and title and placed her in the care – if she could call it that – of the Dormaeus. All because of war…

She is three when civil war erupts and fragments Mercia. Her grandfather’s tomb is not occupied ninety days when the kingdom is halved into camps raising the standards of her aunt, Æthelfled, and uncle, Edwin. Haphazard lines are drawn across the kingdom as duchies, counties and townships sprout either the gilded eagle of her aunt – emblazoned upon a field of royal blue, gripping its arrows and spear and crowned in splendor – or her uncle’s griffin, nestled in red and taloned paw possessing the golden knot that binds.

Æthelfled was the eldest, rightful heir to the throne, favored of the people. Edwin was no popular candidate but he had a swinging appendage between his legs, an appetite for battle and support of half the nobility behind his desire for the throne. Aliana’s father, Alfred, found himself triangulated by his older siblings – fear of his brother and allegiance to his sister rending his mind and heart. Fear tipped the scales – always does. Especially when it breaks down your front gates, ransacks your home and kidnaps your children.

Æthelfled becomes an afterthought for her father when her uncle takes Aliana and her younger sister, Adelaide, for ransom. Despite him changing allegiances, she and Adelaide are “maintained” at Tamworth “for their safety” nearly the entire, bloody affair. Five years of shoving to and fro between her aunt and uncle. One month she has the victory, the next he has the upper hand. This persists until Edwin’s forces surge his sister’s garrison to butt against the border of East Anglia and Æthelfled is forced to flee into Newmarket… without her youngest son.

Aliana and Adelaide are then accompanied by their elder cousin, Æthelwulf.

Æthelfled manages to rescue them all, a gesture Aliana will forever be grateful for. Her aunt’s blitz attack by night, her coins clinking in the pockets of those easily turned by greed, throws Edwin’s house into chaos. Abandoning his kinsman prisoners and wife, he flees into the darkness with his oldest son and few allies. Tamworth taken, Æthelfled declares herself queen. For a time.

After five years the war is over.

Do not be fooled! The war does not end because Edric’s eldest scared her brother away and placed a fancy, metal hat on her head. It does not end with the white flag of surrender from Edwin. If either had it their way, the other would have been beheaded, the survivor coronated and the matter settled once and for all.

The war ends because Death says so. He halted her aunt and uncle’s costly skirmish and not for any care of those dying. Death is in the business of corpses and the mutilated mass graves of battle. He is also in the habit of collecting his tribute. And funny fact about wars… they are expensive! So, when Æthelfled and Edwin reallocated funds, reserved to pay their existential fee to the Dormaeus, to their own campaigns year after year… Death had his fill of their contempt for his authority.

She did not know then, but does now, what evened the debt between Death and family Offangian of the Iclingas.

Because it isn’t as though Death compounds interest. He is Death, not a bank.

Æthelfled and Edwin used Death’s tribute to their own, fruitless, selfish ends and won nothing but expedited positions to the top of Death’s list of those whose time had run their course. But that was not satisfactory enough. Death determined poetic justice suited her family. He determined that not only would they pay double for their misappropriation of his money, but pay in blood the senseless violence they created – violence, he said, that tipped the balance of life and death to Edwin or Æthelfled’s whims and favor, instead of his own. As such, each would pay in the blood of their eldest child and know the great and immeasurable sorrow so many of their people endured.

These are the memories Aliana ruminates on in her bath. They are not her only memories, but they are why she has the nightmares. They are why – she is convinced! – she is haunted by a disembodied voice in the black of her sleep. They are her ghosts, her shadows…

She could still feel the cold hunger of Durias’ double-edge at her nape. Her arm held the memory of a rough, black glove grabbing her bicep and hauling her from the skirts of her nurse. There is a burn in the back of her throat that will never go away. Where else to the screams of the terrified live the rest of their days? The anguished cries of a frightened child? What are the pleadings of a young girl to the black snarl of Death’s blade? They are nothing. And they have nowhere to retreat but the back of the throat. They are the fingers that choke the life from a person before the teeth of a sword ever does. Aliana knows this. This and the smell of earth and lightning and blood. So much blood! Blood on the grass. Blood on her hands and skirt. Blood dipping from the edge of a Dormaeus sword, plunking and forming a viscous pool on the back of her neck that spills its glut down either side. The fact that it is blood made her ill… knowing it had been donated by the decapitations of both her cousins made it worse.

When Aliana sits in the water, men and carriage waiting to depart at their lord’s leisure, she remembers. When wet strands of honey hair fall in lazy strokes down that sensitive skin, Aliana thinks she might vomit. Her hands wipe furious strokes at her neck, pulling in front of her to remind herself there was no blood on them. Not anymore. Not ever.

She does not linger longer than necessary to clean herself once she is jarred back to the present. Erilla has her clothes ready, though she must make the diplomatic choice in what color dress she wears. Aliana knows her uncle has sent for her, but not the mood he is in.

“Grey or blue, my lady,” Erilla says while tying off her stay.

Aliana snorts, “I live in shades of grey and blue. I would ask whether it really makes a difference, but I know it does. Wear grey and show how penitent and humble I am. Blue…”

“Is pure. The color of their virgin,” Erilla replies.

In truth, the ‘blue’ dress is something more akin to steel than Mary’s finery. The fabric is a storm cloud ready to burst. She chooses it in the hopes her eyes will match. “Virginal it is.”

Pius Dormaeus is bombastic, charismatic and terrifying. Just as easily as one realizes they could enjoy a drink and frivolity with his person, do they also realize the honed edge of his sickle can press against their neck and with one, skilled, circuitous motion, sunder the skin, spill the blood and relieve that person’s life from their body. Pius is also lecherous as the day is long, and it will be a marvel is Aliana left his stewardship with her reputation fully intact. He is tempting. A sly, honeycomb tongue dripping all the words a young girl wants to hear. A tongue capable of more than words, too…

“My dove!” he coos when Aliana enters the dining room. “I would apologize for waking you so early, but then again, it is not I who harken you.”

Aliana sits and waits to be served. “No apologies necessary, my lord. I was awake.”

Pius studies her and Aliana has learned not to fidget beneath the multi-faceted intent behind those black eyes. He then tilts his head and frowns. “Should I send word to my brother for more of his sleep concoction?”

“No. I sleep. Sleeping is not the issue,” Aliana says before scooping eggs into her mouth in the hopes he will let the issue die.

He does not.

Pius is dogged. He is a hound… in many ways. But he is not sniffing her blood to catch her by the throat, which is a little comfort. He asks because he believes it is his right to know everything about his charge. Everything.

“Forsaken gods, girl,” Pius sighs, a touch of drama to his voice, “If sleep is not the issue, then what is? Have the nightmares returned? I thought you told me they left you long ago.”

“And they have not returned since coming to your home, my lord.”

“Are you unwell? Ought I send for a healer? Perhaps…. One of your mother’s own kind?”

“No!” Aliana snaps at him. The response doesn’t anger him. On the contrary. Pius smirks and she grinds her back teeth together. “I’m just weary of my uncle. He is an ever present -”

“Prick,” Pius interrupted. He bit into a plump sausage after that and maintained his smirk, chewing thoughtfully before motioning her to her own meal. He waits to speak again once he has swallowed. “Your uncle is a boil that should have been lanced before birth. But! Your uncle and king he is, daughter of Mercia. And to his abode I must release you. For now.” His final words are ominous, full of warning to a person absent the room.

“So my maid has told me. She said we would make haste after breakfast.”

“Indeed! Mercia may make demand of you, but not of me or my morning meal.” He bit and chewed again. “I sent word ahead to my brother, Elias. Should he receive it in time, then he will meet us not too far inside Wessex. I do apologize,” Pius said, feeling the need to reach out and cover her hand with his, “Alas, I cannot carry you all the way. I have my duties to attend to here.”

Aliana slid her hand out from beneath his to blot at her mouth with her napkin. “Think nothing of it, my lord. I trust in your brother’s ability to keep me safe.”