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For Evening Shadows Darken

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Somehow, they had retaken the city.

Sihtric was still shocked, as he had hardly dared to believe that they could succeed. Seeing Uhtred’s sword placed on the table by Edward made Sihtric feel completely hopeless, and it had been years since he had felt like that.

Finan was still tending to Eadith, and Osferth was trying to help others out within the palace. Everyone had been affected but the siege. Not one person was left untouched by it.

He was sitting in the courtyard, cutting bandages for Osferth to use. His feet were tired and his right shoulder was incredibly sore. It had always bugged him, but had gotten worse over the past few years. It reminded him of how old he was getting, and he did not appreciate it.

Sihtric looked up as Uhtred came out into the courtyard, talking in hushed whispers to King Edward. They were glancing towards Aethelstan, who was sitting on the stone wall reading his book.

After a moment, Uhtred sighed and nodded his head shortly. Edward was clearly worried, as he kept biting his lip and glancing back into the palace. “I must go tend to her,” Sihtric heard him say.

Uhtred nodded again, and bowed slightly as the King left. Uhtred took a deep breath, wincing as the wound in his side pulled.

“Let me help you, Lord,” Sihtric called Uhtred over. Osferth was good with illnesses, but battle wounds were more of Sihtric’s specialty. Uhtred sat down heavily beside him, and Sihtric motioned for him to lift up his tunic.

Sure enough, the bandage was bleeding through already. Sihtric unwound it and sighed inwardly at Osferth’s poor bandaging. This wound clearly needed stitching, but Osferth struggled with it and Uhtred obviously was not patient enough to wait for him to come and do it. “I’ll need to stitch it, Lord.”

Uhtred grunted, but allowed Sihtric to clean the wound again and prepare the needle and thick cording he carried with him. It thankfully was not terribly deep, as Uhtred’s leather cuirass had stopped most of the blade from going through. It still looked incredibly painful, though.

Sihtric pulled the needle through the skin and Uhtred clenched his fists from the pain. “What is happening to Aethelstan?” Sihtric asked, trying to take his lord’s mind off of the pain.

“He will be coming with us.”

Sihtric stopped at that. “Will the Lady Aelswith agree?” Surely she would not let him go without a fight. Uhtred sounded very resigned to the statement, almost like it was guaranteed.

Uhtred sighed. “She has taken ill, Sihtric,” he said. “They do not know if she will survive.”

“Oh.” Sihtric pulled the needle again. “it would be hard at her age to live the way she did for so long.”

Uhtred shook his head. “That’s the thing,” he said. “I think it was more than that.”

Sihtric cut the cord and tied it off. “You think someone poisoned her?” He asked, wrapping the bandages around Uhtred’s stomach.

“It’s a possibility,” Uhtred admitted. “Aethelhelm would stop at nothing to secure Aelfweard’s path to the throne. I just don’t know how.”

“He probably used the nightshade from the courtyard,” said Sihtric, tucking the bandages in neatly.

“The what?

Sihtric looked up, confusion running through him. “The nightshade,” he said, gesturing to the beautiful purple flower. “It’s quite deadly.”

Uhtred just sat there, aghast. “What kind of turd do you have to be to grow a poisonous plant in the courtyard?”

Sihtric smiled quickly, but the seriousness of the situation was still looming over them. “I’ve seen it take many lives,” he admitted. “It is a slow, brutal death.”

Uhtred pulled down his tunic, but stayed sitting next to Sihtric. “Do you know how to treat it?” He asked.

Sihtric hesitated. “I do not know of a cure,” he said, thinking quickly. “But I might be able to ease the pain and give her strength to fight it.”

Uhtred stood immediately. “Then you will help,” he commanded, and Sihtric blinked, startled. “Aelswith needs to live.”

 

*****

 

Edward begrudgingly allowed Uhtred and Sihtric into his mother’s chambers. The Lady Aethelflaed was sitting by Aelswith’s bedside, dabbing a cool cloth over her mother’s forehead.

Sihtric grimaced at Lady Aelswith’s complexion: She was pale and clammy, her lips turning a horrible blue colour and her breathing shallow.

“Aethelflaed, give him room,” Edward said, motioning for his sister to stand up. “Lord Uhtred and his man are going to do what they can for mother.”

“Like what?” Aethelflaed looked between Sihtric and Uhtred, but Uhtred pointedly ignored her. Sihtric supposed he was still angry at how easily she had agreed to let Stiorra go with Sigtryggr. “She’s ill and she needs rest.”

It was clear Aethelflaed did not believe that Aelswith had been poisoned. “I will see what I can do to assist, lady,” Sihtric explained.

“She just needs rest-“

“Let him help her, Lady.” Uhtred finally interrupted. “It is clear she sickens with something more than improper treatment.” Aethelflaed opened her mouth, still ready to argue, but at Uhtred’s intense look, she nodded and let Sihtric continue.

Aelswith shuddered under the blankets, her hair matted to her forehead with sweat. He could only imagine her indignation if she realized that he and Uhtred were seeing her in this state. He remembered how much she hated having to get ready in the mornings on their way to Bedwyn. More than once had he seen her scurry back into her tent when he would come around the corner with fresh wood for her fire.

Sihtric tenderly felt the temperature of her skin; it was burning hot. He moved his hand down to feel the pulse at her neck, and he grimaced at how fast it was going.

“Has she been having convulsions?” He asked the room. No one answered. He glared at the priest. “Has she?”

He clenched his jaw, unhappy, but nodded shortly. “They will not continue. We have prayed and blessed her with holy water.”

Sihtric barely was able to keep his eyes from rolling, but Uhtred was not as successful. “What do you need, Sihtric?” He asked.

“Mistletoe,” he said. “As much as possible. Steeped into a tea and cooled slightly. Bring a clean cloth as well.” Th priest didn’t move. “Go!”

After confirming with Edward that he was okay to leave, the priest ducked out of the room.

“What will mistletoe do?” Uhtred asked, coming around to lean on the end table.

Sihtric checked her pulse again. “The convulsions are dangerous,” he explained. “I don’t want them to continue. The mistletoe should help with that.”

Edward was pacing nervously near the door of the chamber, and Aethelflaed was wiping down Aelswith’s forehead with a damp cloth. “Is there anything else?” She asked Sihtric.

He shrugged slightly. “The fight is up to her,” he said quietly. “We can only help.”

 

*****

 

The priest returned shortly, carrying a cup of the tea carefully. In his other hand was a clean cloth.

“Just set it down,” Sihtric said, and ignored the priests displeased look. Sihtric could at least be thankful that he actually listened. He took the cloth from the priest.

“Lord,” the priest said, straightening up and giving Sihtric a piercing glance. “The bishop would like to speak with you.”

Edward nodded and followed the priest out of the door. Frowning, Aethelflaed hurried after him and Uhtred was not far behind.

It was just Sihtric and the Lady Aelswith now.

He dipped the cloth in the tea and wrung it out slightly, placing it over her pale lips. She stirred at the touch of the cloth, but continued to breath shallowly.

He continued to gently dip the cloth into the tea and let the tea drip into her mouth. Even if the mistletoe didn’t work, at least she had some water.

He had just dipped the cloth in the cup when a hand scrambled at his thigh. Jumping a little, he looked over to find Aelswith awake and clutching at his breeches.

“My lady,” Sihtric breathed, relieved that she was awake. “How are you feeling?”

She swallowed thickly, and he helped her swallow some of the tea to wet her parched lips. “What are you doing?” She asked, once she had wet her tongue.

Sihtric placed the cloth back in the cup. “I was asked to try and assist you,” he explained quietly. “You have been poisoned. Nightshade.”

She clenched her jaw. “Aethelhelm.” She muttered.

“What?”

She coughed and shook her head. He waited for her to finish. “It is my own stupidity.”

Sihtric raised an eyebrow at her words. Never would he have imagined that something like that would come from the Lady Aelswith.

She started coughing again, and so Sihtric handed her the tea and helped her sip it a few times. She studied him as he set it back down on the table beside the bed.

“Why?”

“Hmm?” He thought he had misheard her.

“Why are you helping me?”

Sihtric frowned in confusion. “Why wouldn’t I be helping you?”

Her face softened, and Sihtric could see fear behind her eyes. She swallowed nervously. “Because I am unsure if I would be helping you.”

Sihtric chuckled at her honesty. “I am not surprised by that, my lady.” The silence hung over them for a moment, but it was not uncomfortable.

She cleared her throat again. “I never got to thank you,” she started, carefully. “For caring for my grandchildren.” She met his gaze. “I was told that Aelfwynn might not have been reunited with my daughter if it was not for you.”

Warmth spread through Sihtric. “It was no trouble,” he said honestly. “Aethelstan and Aelfwynn are good children.”

It was her turn to laugh. “I doubt you think they learned that from me.”

“I did not say that,” Sihtric said, handing her the cup of tea again. “I think you taught them other things that were just as important.”

She squinted at him, confused. “When I first met Aethelstan, he did not share anything about his life,” he said. “He would shut himself away whenever we would ask. But you had found him again, and given him something to be proud of.” Sihtric shrugged. “He just hadn’t figured out what to do with it, until the day the Sigtryggr released him and Aelfweard.”

“You know about that?”

Sihtric smiled. “Aethelstan told us all about it when he made it back to the camp.” He remembered how proud he had been of the boy, offering himself to save the half-brother he had never met before. “You gave him a purpose, and that is greater than any other gift he could have ever received.”

Aelswith blinked, and Sihtric saw a tear slide down her cheek. “Thank you,” she whispered, and a knock at the door interrupted them.

It was the Lady Aethelflaed and King Edward. “I will leave you to your rest,” he said, and stood. Nodding his head curtly at the King and the Lady, he ducked out of the door.

It was definitely one of the more curious exchanges he had ever had with a person. The woman on the road to Bedwynn and the woman he had just spoken to were very different. Sihtric found himself praying to the gods that she would be okay. It surprised him, to say the least.

But he had done what he could. It was up to the gods, pagan or not. Taking a deep breath, Sihtric went to find the others as well as a mug of ale.