All Saints day was exactly what its name implied, the day when every God fearing Christian gave thanks to all of the saints in heaven. Every year, as for every other major festival, the Archbishop led a special service at York Minster. Usually he was joined by the royal family, the monks and brothers of the church, the rich and poor of York as well as hundreds of pilgrims from all over the Kingdom. They would all cram the aisles to be nearer to God and his forgiveness as well as to be in the presence of the holy relics.
Aethelwin remembered the services they had for All Saints’ Day in Gedbury, when she would help her mother give out gifts of food for the poor. There would be a market with colourful stalls filled with so many different things to buy as well as musicians, bards and travellers with their strange tales of far off lands. People would come from all over to Gedbury, just as they did at York and many other centres around the Kingdom.
It should have been a time for happiness.
Throughout the early morning, none of the prisoners said a word to each other, nor did their jailers. They sat in their huddled positions about the room, lost in their own morbid thoughts as the hours ticked away.
“What’s that noise?”
No one answered Ailith at first. No one cared.
“It’s the church bell. Mass must be finished.” Bryni muttered eventually.
Ailith was concentrating hard on the sound, her brows furrowing in the middle.
“No, not just that.” She replied, then after a moment she added. “There, that sound. Someone is yelling.”
Ebor started to moan. “They are coming. They are coming for us.”
Aethelwin strained to hear the shouting, it was hard to hear much past the ringing of the bell.
“That’s not the church bell.” Rowena gasped. “That’s the warning bell. We’re being attacked.”
Everyone except Acha rushed to a wall, hoping to see more than just sunlight through the cracks. Bryni banged on the door, shouting out to the guards but no one came.
Then Aethelwin heard the distant scream of a woman.
“Be quiet, all of you.” She commanded.
They all froze, and listened.
There was another scream, and yelling. It was coming closer. The sound of people running into the fortress.
“Is that smoke? I can smell smoke.”
Ailith started whimpering.
“It’s going to be alright.” Rowena soothed, embracing the girl tightly.
Aethelwin went over to Bryni. He seemed to be a level headed sort of person, more so than Ebor who looked as though he were about to break out into hysterics at any moment.
“What do you think is happening? Could it be my uncle?”
“I don’t think so. He wouldn’t burn York, it’s not his style. Aelle maybe, but your uncle would prefer having it out on the battlefield.”
“Well someone is attacking us. We heard that the Norse attacked the Picts last winter. Perhaps it is Olaf the White?”
Bryni shrugged. He had begun searching the room listlessly as they spoke.
“Could be. I also heard a group of Danes had attacked the East Anglians, it’s just as likely them. It could even be the Mercians across the Humber, they have wanted our lands since time began. With Northumbria so weak after the wars it would be the perfect time for anyone to attack. It could be anyone, but I don’t intend on staying in here to find out. Whoever it is, they are burning buildings and they’re not likely to care who is in them.”
Striding away from her, Bryni continued inspecting the perimeter of the room. They all watched him kicking at the walls, testing their strength until at last something snapped. Aethelwin ran to his side with Ebor close behind her and all three started kicking at the wattle and daub walls. The old plaster flaked away easily but the hazel rods within the wall were strong. Aethelwin fell to her knees and started clearing away the straw padding of the walls, wrenching at the rods with all her might. Eventually a few of the thinner rods started snapping, weakening the rest of the structure and within a few minutes they had made a decent hole.
Bryni stuck his head through the hole first, scouting around outside before scrabbling back into the room.
“What is happening? Is it Prince Edric and the fyrd?” Rowena cried desperately.
Bryni was out of breath and trying to help Ebor through the hole. He glanced at Aethelwin before replying to his mother.
“I don’t think it is, mother. I don’t think the fyrd would burn York.”
He held out his hand to her, but Rowena hesitated. The sounds of people yelling and screaming for help were sounding more distinct. They could hear footsteps running all around the building. The smell of smoke was now more recognisable.
“Mother, we have to go.” Bryni pleaded. He helped to steady Ailith as she crawled through the hole in the wall, before he turned once more to take his mother’s hand.
“You go next. Keep Ailith company until Aethelwin and I come out.”
Rowena nodded and was about to do as she was told, until a sudden thought hit her. She stopped and turned around.
“What about Acha?”
“For the love of God, Acha is coming too. Just go mother, we have to escape.”
“Acha!” Rowena called, ignoring her son’s exasperation. “Acha! We are leaving this place, come with us. You must come with us.”
The mute girl who had not moved from her corner in all the time they had been there, turned her face away towards the wall. She looked so scared and pitiful, like a caged dog. Rowena took her hand and tried to pull her away but the girl brushed her off and curled up tightly into her corner.
Aethelwin couldn’t make any sense of it but she knew it was something that she couldn’t worry about now. She had to get outside to make sure Ailith was OK. She shimmied through the dirt and plaster and came out the other side to see Ailith standing all by herself, her face as pale as snow.
“Where is Ebor?” Aethelwin demanded.
“I don’t know. He said he was going to see what was happening.”
Aethelwin grabbed her hand and they ran along the side of the building towards the road. There was a surge of people yelling and screaming from the direction of the river. They were the people who lived outside the fortress walls where the smoke was now billowing thick and black into the air. Ash rained down on them like snow.
Ailith clung fearfully to her arm. “What are they screaming?”
“It sounds like… it sounds like they are saying the Danes?”
She pulled Ailith along beside her as they ran towards the Minster.
“What about Bryni?” Ailith screamed, yanking painfully on her sister’s arm to stop. Aethelwin continued unperturbed.
“Bryni can look after himself, and Rowena. We have to find somewhere safe, Ailith. We have to move.”
Ailith seemed too shocked to disagree, letting Aethelwin lead her towards the safety of the Minster. There were people everywhere, clutching their loved ones to their sides, running with pots and pans, knives and swords, anything to defend themselves with. People tripped over the remains of the market as they fled. There were upturned stalls everywhere, banners and signs tattered and torn underfoot amongst their wares.
From the street the girls could see that York Minster, the church dedicated in stone to Saint Peter, was far too over crowded. Its isles and transepts were tight with bodies and all those who could not reach its hallowed interior clung to the doorway and steps, hoping the heathen hoard would not trespass on God’s sacred ground. There were even people crammed into the tower, watching and screaming in horror at the confusion below.
Those who could not push their way into the church were running past the priest’s quarters and the Archbishop’s Palace for the northern gates. Beyond those, Aethelwin could see the slight dip of the land as it formed the Foss bank in the distance. She knew that beyond that would be a bridge where the road north would carry them through the fields and towns until they reached Gedbury.
The girls moved with the crowd, edging closer and closer to freedom. Even the sound of yelling and screaming at the gates did not deter the group’s impetus. People were trying to move back into the fortress, pushing against each other like fish against the current. They were yelling for everyone to go back, go back, but no one listened.
Suddenly above the chaos there appeared horsemen. They were swinging their axes and swords into the screaming crowd, slicing at anything that moved. They were not part of the Northumbrian fyrd as Rowena had hoped. These men were definitely Danish.
Excerpt taken from The Northumbrian Saga by A H Gray
Copyright © 2013 by A H Gray.
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