Aldhelm’s gaze was lost in the fire. His weapons, discarded in the floor, were laying beside him, near his cape and his belongings, but his mind was too far from there. Although he had throughly wiped the blood out of his hands and chest, a dry drop marked his temple. The battle of Tettenhall had left him exhausted but he was incapable of closing his mind to memories.
He had done a lot of things in his life for which he was not proud. He had justified the majority of them by telling himself he was doing it for Mercia, to save the land he loved so dearly. With time, he had realised he had been making excuses. That they were acts he would not commit again, not even for Mercia, for now he knew there were always alternatives. He had the choice to save his land without losing himself in the process. But he had made peace with his past. He knew himself to be a different man, a changed man, a man who had realised his mistakes and had worked hard to mend them.
Those errors had made him the man he was today and to acknowledge them would help him to not make them again. However, he had never felt such despair as he felt today. The same scene was repeating over and over again in his mind. The moment when Aethelflaed had begged him to kill her, and he had failed. He had failed her. That fact didn’t sit right with him and his face darken with the thought and his chest was tight with it. He threw a stick to the flames who crackled in the cold of the night.
At last, after so many time, he had finally felt that he was doing things rights. The man he was deep inside him approved how he was conducing himself and the decisiones he was making. For him, for Mercia and for the people of that land. And yet he could not stop thinking about what could have happened if Edward would have not show up in that moment, when he wasn’t capable to kill Aethelflaed. That thought alone gripped his soul and made his stomach chugged violently, the same way it has during the battle, when he felt Aethelflaed’s back against his chest and he could feel the knife against her neck, but he couldn’t push it. Aldhelm knew himself capable of too many things but, apparently, killing Aethelflaed, even if it was to protect her from something worst, wasn’t amongst them.
He could have think that if he had kill her, barely seconds before Edward arrived, he couldn’t have ever forgiven himself. But the night after a battle was always difficult, always raw. The muscles were tight and the souls were almost in pieces. It wasn't an easy night to forgive oneself.
At the other side of the camp, Finan and Sihtric were picking wood at the forest edge, watching the dense of trees and controlling that everything remained calm. Uhtred had went missing somewhere and Osferth was probably praying before bed, with young Uhtred and father Pyrlig.
Sihtric had been watching Aldhelm for a while now. The time he had share with him hadn’t allowed him to know him deeply, but one thing was sure when you met him, and you didn’t have to be such a good character judge as Sihtric was: that man was for Mercia and for Aethelflaed. His loyalties laid there. Sihtric could respect that. The man had been crestfallen for a while, without knowing very well what to do with himself in that camp, where the majority of men were Uhtred’s men, because his own mercian guard had been severely harmed at the battle and the rest of the army were in the other camp, with Aethelred. Sihtric did not remember watching Aethelflaed going to sleep, which could also explain Uhtred’s absence and perhaps Aldhelm’s grimace.
It wasn’t good for a man to be alone with his thoughts the night after a battle. Sihtric had not known that as a child but he had learned it with his brothers. He looked at Finan, who was already looking at him. He gestured towards Aldhelm with his head and Finan nodded. Sihtric was tempted just for a second to smile, warmed by the easy way in which they could communicate with each other, but Finan’s face was serious and the events of the day were draining him too. His muscles were sore and his blood was still running hot in his body, reminding him he was alive. Steapa had fallen and Sihtric knew to recognize a great loss, the loss of a warrior and a good man. Finan was more affected by it, even though he had said nothing, Sihtric knew how to read him. And he knew that, beyond the teasing and the jokes, Finan had respected and admired the warrior.
He turned again to Finan, before starting walking towards Aldhelm, both with his hands full of wood. Finan was tense and even though the battle was a great battle, he couldn’t stop thinking about the fallen. He too had realised Aldhelm’s face, his presence there amongst them so strange that it would’ve been impossible to forget about him. They had shared food and ale the night before the battle and they knew he was a good man, but his position and his way of behaving betrayed his intents to be like them. Finan didn’t blame him for that, even if he would’ve been a man from the common, straightforward but brave, he would’ve been a stranger and he would’ve felt out of place with them. They were men that had endured so many years together, fighting and living together. Even young Uhtred was starting to become one of them, but that made so much sense, given he was the son of who he was. Nevertheless, they had welcomed Aldhelm that night, offered him a jug of ale and talked with him about the upcoming battle and what was going to happen next. None of them talked about the night after it.
When they arrived to the fire, Aldhelm raised his head, acknowledging their presence, before Finan put a jug of ale between his hands and sat right next to him.
“With your permission, Lord.” Aldhelm tried to smile and gestured with his hand for them to sit. Sihtric sat next to his other side, with another jug of ale between his hands. “Thank you, it is a bad thing to drink alone. Tonight we have to celebrate and remember the fallen” Finan extended his jug. The three of them clashed the jugs before drinking, Aldhelm still lost in his mind. The silence was growing uncomfortable and Finan and Sihtric shared a look. For them the silence wasn’t uncomfortable, both used to it, but not so much when there was a lord of Mercia amongst them.
“You fought well today, Lord.” Sihtric said, his calm voice resounded in the silence of the night. Aldhelm wasn’t the type of lord who would feel offended if someone inferior to him admired his sword skill honestly. He nodded but chuckled dryly.
“For what? I had only one task, and I could not do it.” He said, looking to the floor, lost in a memory Sihtric and Finan knew nothing about. “I could not kill her when she asked me too.”
None of the men said nothing, knowing in that moment what was Aldhelm talking about. Everyone knew that he was Aethelflaed’s most loyal man. Uhtred’s men also knew it wasn’t just out of love for Mercia that he was that loyal to her, but that kind of remarks were made only between them, where there were trust. They could picture Aethelflaed not wanting to be taken again by the danes and preferring an honorable death.
“There was no need for that, Lord” Sihtric answered, trying to offer the mercian some comfort. Aldhelm chuckled again and smiled to him, silently thanking for his vain attempt.
“There was no need for it, in the end,” he said “but she trusted me to do it. I broke that trust.”
“Aldhelm” Finan intervened, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Lady Aethelflaed knows there is no man she could trust more.”
“Have you ever failed Uhtred?” The question took both men in surprise and none of them answered “Then don’t try to act like you know what it feels like. I was weak. That’s all.” He took a long sip of ale and it tasted bitter.
”Believe me, there’s nothing harder than to hurt someone to protect them. Even when you know you could undone it if you succeed.” Sihtric’s eyes searched for Finan’s and they both knew what the dane was talking about. Sihtric had had to lie to Finan and Osferth so they could take Skade out of the dane camp. And none of them, not even Uhtred, had known how much it has costed him to leave that night under the impression he was abandoning them. “I can’t imagine promising what you did. Not being able to kill someone you care about doesn’t make you weak. Is that bond who makes you strong, Lord. It is for bonds like that for what we fight.”
Aldhelm held his gaze for a moment, thinking about his words. Finally, he smiled, shaking his head. Uhtred’s men were odd. The bond that bound them was tighter than many things Aldhelm had known in his life. Not a lot of people could understand Uhtred and he realised the same happened with his men. But they get it each other, he guessed. They understand each other and fight for each other. And that’s why they were so powerful. Despite of what Sihtric had said, he didn’t think they dwelt too much on failure. They trusted each other and they knew they could make mistakes. But they were honest mistakes, born from loyalty, from trying to do the right thing. Those were forgivable.
He knew that the battle would be repeating in his mind for a while and the bitter thought of having failed Aethelflaed would accompany him a bit longer, but the relief of not having kill her would end up imposing itself to the other thoughts. And he could continue working to protect her, to protect Mercia. He picked his jug from the floor.
“You are a good man, Sihtric. Both of you.” He said and paused, thinking about his next words. “For the bonds we make along the way” he lifted the jug with a smiled and the two men lifted them and chanted with him.
For the bonds we make along the way.