A Servant to Greater Men
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A Servant to Greater Men

Ecgberht remembers.

A good servant serves at the pleasure of his master, always at his side like a loyal man should. He is privy to his master's will, his master's actions, and his master's words, yet does nothing to act on what he knows. He is always close, trusted, a loyal man to follow those that he serves to the grave.

With this implicit trust, this deep closeness, a servant privy to all of one's troubles is a useful friend to have should a man need him- yet when pushed too far, he could also become a man's greatest enemy.

Unknown, Philosophies of the Mind, 1547

The monastery burned to the ground before him, the screams of the monks and priests caught inside filling the air of the cold winter night.

Tonight, he had killed seven men- three with his bow and four with his sword. Blood rolled down his pale cheek, gore caking his boots- yet as the abode collapsed and burned in front of him, he stood unmoving and unfazed.

Right outside the monastery, five of his guards were still throwing kindling and firewood at the inferno that had enveloped the humble wooden cabin, drawing the flames higher and higher as the people within burned and died.

Ecgberht breathed in the cold air as he looked on at the sight- after years of the same bloody tasks, the same death and slaughter, he had grown used to the smells, the sights and the sounds of dying men. Every murder was a practiced ritual, every mindless slaughter another drop in the endless sea.

He felt the small, and seemingly inconsequential container hidden deep within the pocket of his coat and took it out. He held it within the large palm of his hand as the polished bone shimmered in the light of the fire. It was still smeared with blood, yet the beautiful sheen of its surface still reflected the sanctity that it held as a piece of a saint’s body.

This was a bone from the holy hand of Saint Peter, the holy relic that his lord sought- once in the possession of the monks of the monastery, now taken for the purposes of the ealdorman of Tamworth.

Ecgberht smiled sadly to himself as he held it, before looking up at the raging inferno that had become of the place which once kept it hidden. It didn’t have to be this way, he thought as he watched the flames lick higher and higher, it never had to be.

As the fire crackled and the screams began to die down, Ecgberht was reminded of a sight much like this, in a time that had been gone so long ago.

He could still hear their screams echoing within his mind as the house burned with them inside.

He remembered the scent of blood in the air. The taste of copper in his mouth as he was pulled away.

Ecgberht bit his lip as the old memory came flooding back to his mind, trying to remember more as he combed his mind for answers.

But he could find none- except for the old stone road down the woods.

Ecgberht turned away from the fire in front of him, calling out to his men as he climbed unto his horse to make his way back to Tamworth.

He has had enough of fire.

Dawn had started to peek through the clouds when Ecgberht and his men arrived back in Tamworth. They had rode hard all night to hasten their long journey from the edge of Mercia back to the king’s lands, their bodies growing weary with every second that passsed. Exhaustion had begun to take many of them at the end of their eight-hour long journey. Yet at their head, Ecgberht still remained as steadfast and determined as he had before.

He had other things on his mind.

Tamworth’s stone walls were large even from afar, dominating the land as the party of men trotted into sight of the gate.

As the guards turned to open the portcullis, Ecgberht and his horsemen made their entrance back into the embrace of the city’s walls, dismounting at the stables. As they did, Ecgberht began to make his way up the steps into Tamworth’s keep.

Aelfric, the atheling and the King's son, came to greet him on the stairway with a welcoming smile.

“Did your task go well, Ecgberht?” Aelfric said, his hands tucked into his simple tunic.

Ecgberht solemnly bowed his head, then spoke. “It did, lord. The relic is now in my possession.”

He looked up. “Is the King awake to receive it?”

Aelfric moved forward to meet him down the steps, a grin still present on his face. “He is not. Busy with the Dane woman, I think.” He laughed. “Was your journey safe?”

Ecgberht nodded stiffly. “It was, lord.”

Aelfric chuckled again. “You seem to not be like yourself, Ecgberht. Is something on your mind?”

Ecgberht raised his head to meet his lord’s gaze. “No, lord.”

“Good.” Aelfric straightened up, regarding Ecgberht with a gesture. “Will you be resting in your quarters? It is not exactly in the best shape, but…”

Ecgberht smiled weakly. “I have other matters to attend to. Would you mind taking the holy relic to the ealdorman when he’s less indisposed?”

Aelfric stretched out his hand, smiling. “Anything for my little brother. I’ll make sure to give it to him.”

Ecgberht almost imperceptibly shook at the mention of the word brother, before controlling himself and producing the small container from his coat pocket.

He bowed again. “Thank you, lord.”

Aelfric dismissed him with another nod, turning to leave. “I’ll be going back to my own wife soon enough. Have fun with your escapade, Ecgberht.”

“You too, lord.” He replied.

Then, as Aelfric left, Ecgberht turned to move down the steps yet again, making for the stables to retrieve his horse.

The old stone path awaited.

The ruins were old and overgrown after twenty years of neglect, yet when Ecgberht came down from his horse to visit them, it seemed as if he had come back home once again.

The soles of his boots hit the stone as he walked down the old path. As he did, he looked around in quiet wonder as he made his way down to where his home used to be.

He passed a little broken down fence with a henhouse lost in overgrowth at its center, and turned to look at it as he walked. The chickens had long gone, yet the coop was still there. He sadly smiled to himself as he walked by, making sure to run his thumb along the thatch as he passed.

A long rusted iron helmet rested on the path as he walked- it was his Father’s old helmet, the one he used to wear when they practiced outside the house. He bent down to take a look at it, inspecting the broken nose guard and the crack along the side which led his Father to give it to him instead. A flood of memories greeted him as he held it, though he pushed them away as he put it back down on the ground.

The destroyed servants’ lodging was right beside where his house used to be- the roof now collapsed and the walls overgrown with vines and weeds. He grinned slightly as he remembered the storm that set it alight, and how Father and Mother and old Leofwine who lived in it tried to save it as the thatch roof smoldered and burnt.

He bit his lip at the memory, walking past the servant’s lodging to ascend the broken stone steps of his home.

A heaviness suddenly burdened his chest as he stepped in front of where the doorway used to be, the stone that made up much of the front walls now fallen and scattered after the fire.

He moved through the doorway, finding scorched planks and a large heaping of ash as he went back inside what had been his home. The stone of the fireplace and the chimney still rose high into the sky, yet all of the roof and much of the walls had already fallen in with the ravages of time.

He bit his lip as he bent down to where he knew they would be, pulling away the singed thatch and planks and throwing them aside. Dust and ash caked his hair and his coat, yet his pace remained steady and impetuous.

When he was done, the dark color of old and dried blood greeted him, next to the bones of two people: a man and a woman, forever dying in each other’s arms.

His hands tightened into fists, fingers curling into his palm as he knelt in the ruins of what used to be his home.

Tears ran down his face as he screamed into the morning, throwing boards and thatch as he let out twenty years of rage and anger as it all came flooding back to him in an instant.

Then, he collapsed in a heap beside his parents’ bones, his face and clothes smeared with ash and dust.

Then, the words of Aethelwulf crept into his mind as he lay there, still and silent.

This is why you must know your place, boy. Do what your betters tell you to do. Kill who your lord commands you to kill.

He had done as he was bid, killed who he had been told to kill. Blood stained his hands- the blood of men, women, and children all, slaughtered with a single swing of his sword.

He hated it. He hated every second of it- riding out to kill more and more for the sake of Aelfric and Aethelwulf, destroying lives for the sake of his masters’ gain.

He hated the screams, the moans, the pleading for mercy and the fear that he saw in their eyes.

It reminded him of them, no matter how much he tried to keep them back.

Then suddenly, new memories rushed back into his mind, the scent of burning wood and thatch suddenly starting to lie heavy in the air.

In that instant, he began to remember.

Before him, his old family home burned to the ground, the screams of his mother and father lost in the inferno that was now consuming them.

A large man stood at his right, watching on coldly with a heavy hand on his shoulder as he gripped the hilt of a large longsword sheathed within his belt.

“Look on, boy.” Lord Aethelwulf said, his voice hard as steel. “Do you know why your whore mother and your traitor father deserved this fate?”

The little boy made no move to answer. His voice had been lost, though he had not wished it to, and his lips grew colder and colder as he looked on.

Aethelwulf continued. “Loyalty is paramount, boy. Break the trust of your lord, and his fury will burn you to a crisp.” The man's grip suddenly grew tighter, nearly crushing his shoulder as the lord bent down to look into his eyes.

“Your father apparently did not know of this, and he ran off with your mother at the first chance he saw. Never mind that he was my most trusted man, and your mother my wife- his treason had no end."

"And that treason was you."

As he spoke, he slowly drew the sword from his side, turning to kill the boy as he raised it above his head-

Until the boy turned his eyes to him, the warm brown eyes of his mother meeting his.

Aethelwulf sighed as he held the blade overhead, closing his eyes as he clenched his teeth in exasperation.

Then, he dropped the blade, the sword falling to the grass beside him.

The little boy’s warm eyes stayed wide open and unblinking, his mind still transfixed by the fire that still raged in front of him. He could only smell the scent of burning flesh and wood in the winter breeze, the choking stench of ash and smoke mixing with it.

Aethelwulf stared coldly into the boy’s eyes for a moment that stretched into forever, his gaze piercing into the child’s as his jaw hardened with restrained anger. His voice was level, yet unyielding, the combined pain of a lifetime tenuously held back as he spoke.

"This is why you must serve me. This is why you must follow me. Follow my every command…" He turned his head to the burning house. "And you will not have to become what they have."

“Do you understand, boy?”

A moment passed as the child’s eyes looked into his, before he gave a near imperceptible nod to acknowledge the lord’s words.

“Good,” The ealdorman said, standing up as he wiped the blood from his face. “Do you have a name, boy?”

The child nodded, his eyes still drawn up to meet the lord’s.

Aethelwulf’s voice grew softer. “Can you say what it is?”

The boy slowly moved his eyes from the lord’s face, taking the time to look back at the fire in front of him as the small house finally collapsed under its weight.

Then, the child’s fragile voice spoke out. “Ecgberht, lord,” he said simply.

A momentary expression of pain passed the lord’s face, before it hardened once again.

“Then Ecgberht it shall be.”

“Where are you taking me?” Ecgberht asked as he slowly walked forward.

Aethelwulf bent down to retrieve his sword, then turned to make for his horse. “I’m taking you to meet your brother.”

“Will we be going away?”

The lord saddled his mount, looking at him from an impossibly tall height. “Yes.”

The boy looked up at the lord as he spoke, his voice soft and innocent. “Will we be coming back?”

“No,” Aethelwulf answered, his eyes hard and uncompromising, his voice cold.

“You never will.”

Ecgberht returned with his horse at sunset, riding into Tamworth’s open gates.

He ascended the steps of the keep once again, his coat billowing behind him.

To his surprise, the King was there to greet him, standing in front of the heavy iron doors much like his son did earlier.

“How was your journey?” He asked, moving forward as towards Ecgberht.

“Good, lord.” Ecgberht answered curtly, bowing his head. “I’ve retrieved the relic like you requested."

The King turned his head to regard him, his cold blue eyes still holding the hardness that he remembered all those years ago. "Very good, Ecgberht." He said, unmoving. "I take it that your own personal journey went well?"

The servant looked up, meeting his king's eyes as he did. "Yes, Lord. Very well."

Aethelwulf held his gaze for a moment, his jaw hardening. "Where did you go?"

Ecgberht met the king's gaze. A silence permeated the air between them as they stared at each other, before he bowed his head and stood, unmoving.

Aethelwulf stepped forward, the silence telling him all that you needed to know.

"Boy." The King said, his voice the same as it was when they first met. "You remember… don't you?"

He brought his hand out, moving Ecgberht's chin up so that his eyes could meet his.

Ecgberht saw pain in those blue eyes, churning and moving like the waves of the restless sea. Then, they retreated, freezing over cold and hard.

"I told you to forget, did I not?"

At that moment, Ecgberht felt as small as the boy he had once been, so far below the man on the horse that had taken the life that he had once had.

He was nothing before this man- and so, he spoke.

"I could not forget, Lord."

Aethelwulf took a step forward, closing the distance between master and servant as he moved in close. "Then do you remember why I did what I had to do?"

His voice came out soft and broken. "My mother was a traitor, and so was my father."

"And that made you a traitor as well, does it not?"

Ecgberht bit his lip until it drew blood, then turned to answer.

"It did, Lord. I had to die."

At this, Aethelwulf drew in even closer, their noses close to touching as his gaze bore into his.

A tense silence permeated the air between them, as the King and his most trusted servant faced each other on the steps of Tamworth's keep.

"Then why didn't I?" Aethelwulf paused, his blue eyes being tinged with a warmth that had long been gone.

Then, he uttered in a soft whisper, "Why didn't I kill you?"

"Because you had use for me, Lord."

At this, the King's face suddenly grew with fury, causing him to seize the servant's collar with his hand as he pinned him to the wall.

"God knows it isn't!" Aethelwulf growled, his voice tinged with old pains now uncovered for all to see. "I had no use for you, boy. You were nothing to me but a reminder of my failure, a reminder of what I had done.

"So why didn't I kill you? Answer me that, boy. You damned well know it."

Ecgberht's eyes were wide open, his mind coming with nothing. "Because, Lord…" He muttered, gasping as the King pinned him against the wall.

Then Aethelwulf let him go, causing Ecgberht to slump to the ground as all hint of emotion in the King's face retreated.

"Forget it, boy. You were my mistake," Aethelwulf said, his voice now level and relaxed as he breathed in deeply. "You were a traitor, an ill-considered child, and I made you better than what Aedgar could ever manage."

"Do not speak of this, boy. Not to Aelfric, not to Wynnflaed, and not to Inga. This was an error of judgment, and I will not make another like it." His eyes bore into Ecgberht. "Understand?"

"Perfectly, lord." Ecgberht said, his voice soft and hoarse. "You will not hear of it again."

The King stood above him for a moment more, his chest heaving as he calmed himself.


Then, he turned back to the entrance of the keep, leaving Ecgberht gasping on the floor as his heart raced in his chest.

The house burnt to the ground before him, his sword arm dripping with fresh blood.

They had been a family of three, no more than a young Dane man and woman along with their newborn child. The relic's visions had called to them in the night, and had caused them to fight to make it theirs as Ecgberht's men tried to take it away.

It didn't have to be like this, but it did.

The servant closed his eyes again as he breathed in the freezing winter air, mixed with the scent of burning wood and thatch.

He had smelled this a long time ago, and he would smell it again.

"Leave them to the wolves," He called out to his men, bending down to take the bloodied relic on the ground. "Our work here is done."

The blade shined an unnatural blue in the fiery light, a sign of its bloody and tragic history. Its hilt was a sign of master craftsmanship, engraved with both pagan runes and holy symbols.

This was Clarent, the coward's blade, and the first relic that Ecgberht had sought out to find. Quietly, he took it in hand, admiring the power by which it exuded even in the cold winter night. It was the blade of a kingslayer, the sword in the stone, and it was stained with the blood of a thousand men.

Ecgberht smiled to himself as he held it, smelling the scent of power coming from it as he took the first step in his quest for revenge.

For the servant was a servant no more, and Clarent shall taste the blood of a king once again.

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