David Wood, Alan Baxter
Leather-armored men with bloodstained hands forced Aella to his knees, raised his arms wide and high, and tied his hands to posts of weathered wood. They used knives to strip away his remaining clothes, and left him shivering and naked, kneeling on the wet grass. Aella lifted his head to stare into the face of Ivar the Boneless as the huge, muscled son of Ragnar Lodbrok approached, and poured all his hate out through that steely blue gaze. Fear knotted Aella’s stomach, made his veins run with ice, but he would be damned before he would let Ivar see that terror.
“I am a king!” he roared.
Ivar bared his straight, white teeth and shook his head slowly. His long braid hissed against his leather armor with the movement, audible despite the crackling fires all around. “Not for much longer.”
The Northman’s breath steamed in the cold autumn air, the night sky a vault of glittering stars without a single cloud to mask them. Sparks and smoke spiraled up into the night, twisting in the frozen breeze, the fire-glow competing with silvery moonlight that bathed the grass all around.
Aella’s hair hung unbound, disheveled and filthy as it lay draped around his bruised face, his beard matted with blood and dirt from the beating he had sustained. But his pride remained intact.
Men and women stood scattered about. Aella’s own people were on their knees, in the custody of Ivar’s men, or dead at the hands of those same warriors. Aella smiled crookedly, proud of his own forces, who had stood and fought and died, and now stood before the gates of heaven, their sins washed in the blood of their noble sacrifice against the pagan invaders. But he was beaten, he knew that, his land wrested from his grasp. His people would be released soon enough, to carry on serving under a new king, but Aella himself would not live to see it. All that remained for him was how he died. And he would die a warrior’s death — strong and defiant.
“You have two choices,
The crowd of warriors closed in, leather and mail glistening with blood and sweat in the firelight, blades of swords and axes glinting. Their mutterings and conversations faded to silence, enthralled now to watch a king beg for his life.
Aella’s smile deepened, despite the terror twisting his heart and gut. He would not give them that pleasure.
Ivar tipped his head back and laughed. “You face your death stoically, I’ll give you that. But it can be swift.”
“Make it as slow as you like,” Aella growled. “I. Am. A. King!” He gritted his teeth, against the fear more than the cold, hoping his trembling could not be seen.
Ivar’s face twisted in rage. “You murdered my father!” he roared. “You threw the mighty Ragnar Lodbrok into a pit of snakes to die in writhing agony, denying him the glory of a death in battle. You will die slower and be equally denied! While you’ve squabbled with Osberht over this land, my Great Heathen Army, as you call us, has only grown stronger. While you’ve lounged in that great city of York, growing fat and lazy with the blood of Ragnar Lodbrok on your hands, I have marched. My father’s revenge will finally be found. You are no longer a king, Aella.”
Aella swallowed the rising bile of terror. He had no fear of death, but was not ready to go yet. Life became suddenly the most precious thing in the world and he despised this Ivar who stood about to take it from him. Not to mention the method, which was truly frightening. “Your father knew the risks of his actions. Ragnar Lodbrok was twice the man you’ll ever be.”
“And yet here you are on your knees before me.” Ivar smiled again, controlling his anger. “But like I said, this can go one of two ways. You know the blood eagle torture, Aella? I will open your back with knives and lay aside the flesh. I will use an ax to separate your ribs from your spine and pull your lungs out to lie upon your shoulders like an eagle’s wings. And you will live through it all to die in slow agony and suffocation. I would warn you that if you cry out even once you will be denied entry to Valhalla, but you are no Northman. Your Christian god died his own pitiful death, so perhaps your screams will be pleasing to him.” Ivar leaned in close, his sour, ale-soaked breath hot on Aella’s cheek. “And you will scream, Aella. You
Aella met the other man’s gaze and bared his teeth in a wordless snarl, not trusting his voice to be strong if he spoke.
Ivar stood straight again. “But there is another option. Just tell me where it is and your death will be swift. Valhalla’s doors will stand open for you, welcoming.”
Temptation rippled through Aella, the thought that all this could be over with one swift stroke of an ax and his soul set free. But he could never possibly let Ivar find what he sought. He only hoped God would forgive him for being tempted by the power. In the end, he had given it up. That had to count for something, didn’t it? He found his voice and was pleased it came out strong. “You can do your worst, Ivar, you fetid dog. I will never tell you where it is and I will never scream.”
Ivar’s eyebrows rose. “Truly, little king? You
Aella gathered saliva and blood in his mouth and drew all his breath to spit it full into Ivar’s face. Ivar roared again and dragged the back of his hand across his nose and mouth. He pulled a long, gleaming knife from his belt and strode around behind Aella.
The deposed king gritted his teeth as cold steel bit into the flesh of his back. Hot fire lanced down his spine and the pagan horde inched closer, eager to watch the bloody spectacle.
“Tell me where it is and this ends quickly.” This time, a touch of urgency tinged Ivar’s words — one final chance to get the information he wanted.
Aella forced a laugh. “Take your sorry time, son of Lodbrok!”
With a hiss of rage, Ivar drew the knife point down. Aella ground his teeth together and promised himself he would not scream.
Danny Bedford walked with
Tiredness clawed at him, hung heavy off his eyelids. He appreciated the extra income from double shifts at Great Ormond Street Hospital, but the work of an orderly was physically demanding, and wearing him down. Still, he had two full days off coming up and he planned to spend them on the couch mainlining seasons of television shows he’d got stacking up on the hard drive.
He turned off the main street into an alleyway that stank of stale urine and rotting garbage. A streetlamp at the far end illuminated the wet cobblestones underfoot, made them glisten like eyes staring up from the dark road. Clouds had closed over the night and Danny smelled more rain in the air. He didn’t mind that; the city of London needed to be washed regularly, in his opinion.
The thought brought to mind his tub and the idea of a hot bath. His aching muscles would appreciate that. Footsteps echoed off the building walls either side of him. Danny stopped, glanced back. No one there. It was late, the streets mostly deserted on his walk home as they often were when he finished a late shift in the early hours of the morning. He pulled the ear bud free to listen with all his hearing, looked up and down the alley again. Nothing. With a shake of his head he continued on, but his ears were alert, the tiredness pushed away by a slight surge of adrenaline that made him suddenly jittery. He had nearly reached the end of the alley when the footsteps came again, perfectly matching his own tread.
Danny spun quickly around, mouth already opening to issue a challenge. No one. He swallowed, licked strangely dry lips, looked up and down the narrow gap between the tall buildings. He was completely alone.
“Hello?” His voice sounded childish, fearful. He felt five years old and that in turn made him angry. “Who’s there?”
Of course no answer came, and Danny huffed a short grunt of annoyance and carried on along his way home, walking at a determined pace. He stepped out of the claustrophobic alley and turned left along Southampton Row, heading for the bus stop and the night bus that would take him slowly through the brightly lit city toward his home in Shepherd’s Bush. Traffic moved along the busier road, the comforting signs of life altogether more obvious, and the quiet pursuit in the alley became an instant memory, some strange dream moment trapped between the waking hours of Danny’s life.
He shook his head, put the earbud back in and began nodding to the opening strains of “Heaven Beside You”. As he passed Catton Street o ...