The Vultures Feast
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The Vultures Feast

The blood of Ethandun waters growing discontent.

The second battle on the field of Ethandun had raged on for a day, and on the same field where his brother died, King Alfred had secured victory.

The Danes and the Norsemen were scattered, broken- Ubba had gone back to his ships, Halfdan to his kingdom. As he broke the will of the heathen forces, Alfred pushed his army forward to chase them, never stopping to take the spoils of battle on the corpse-strewn field they had left behind.

Yet little did Alfred know of the consequences that this small decision would lead to, for some of the trinkets on the heathens that died on that field carried much value- and as the vultures came to descend to feast on the dead, they would find those trinkets very delicious indeed.

Brother Eadweard, A History of the Great Heathen Invasions, 890

The smell of hundreds of dead men hung heavy over the sodden field of Ethandun, as Dane, Norseman and Saxon alike lay dead or dying on the battlefield. The armies of both King Alfred and Halfdan Whiteshirt had left a day ago, but the corpses they left stayed where they had died on that fateful morning- much to the benefit of Edith.

Clad in a simple peasant dress and with a white cloth tied around her brown hair, the young woman was not one of great beauty, but of great wit- though her father and brothers worked as tanners and her mother and sisters worked as seamstresses and launderers, Edith had seen opportunity in the spoils of war left over from the dead bodies of soldiers and heathen warriors. There was always a trinket left among the sea of corpses, a pristine steel sword or axe scattered among the rusted spears and pitchforks of the rotting dead.

Luckily for her and for other “vultures” like her, the soldiers who defeated the heathens on the field of battle- those of the force belonging to the newly crowned King Alfred of Wessex- had been forced to move on early, leaving a treasure trove of steel, gold, and silver to find in the pockets of the dead.

She found it hard to ignore the smell, however- though after her first “vulturing” on the field of Ethandun half a year before, she had almost grown used to the fetid stench of rotting carcasses on a battlefield.

The first trinket that she found that early morning was a beautiful ring- one taken from a particularly rotted Dane. It was a small gold band with a particularly luminous stone placed on top, shimmering with light as she held it up to the sun. She smiled as she took the ring and put it on her ring finger, the fresh find promising her more loot to take and sell as she wished.

The next hour fulfilled that promise, and more: She found necklaces, more rings, amulets, silver daggers, and even the golden tooth of a particularly well-armored Norseman, which she pried from the disgusting mouth of the heathen warrior and tucked under her dress.

Then, as she bent to search another soldier’s carcass for trinkets, she heard the sound of an earthshaking rumbling from the distant treeline- one that she hadn’t heard in all of her life.

Her eyes moved skyward, to where a far-off giant in the figure of a man walked north, away from the battlefield. It seemed to shine a radiant energy from its body, its bronze body shimmering in the dawn light as it walked across the forest, its feet thundering as it passed.

Instantly, a thought came to Edith’s mind as she looked upon the gigantic radiant construct, forced into it as bright and vivid images flashed into her mind.

A tall and inspiring monk preached to the masses, reciting Latin phrases and drawing his hands up into the air as he converted a crowd of people in his mission for God.

That same monk giving alms to the poor, becoming a symbol of Christian charity and generosity as he gave up his earthly wealth to follow the divine way.

Then, finally, the monk’s body appearing to King Alfred in Wessex’s darkest hour, becoming the harbinger of Christian retaliation against the heathen menace.

As her eyes shimmered at the radiance of the titan, her mind soon came to know its name: Saint Cuthbert, patron of all Saxons. She smiled as the bronze giant passed, taking his holy visage with it, its beautifully sculpted face surveying the world around it with intelligence and holiness that could’ve only been bestowed by the divine.

Then, slowly, it retreated into the far-off distance, leaving Edith with a story and a memory to share with her family for years to come.

“Mighty thing, isn’t he?” said a voice behind her, masculine in tone.

Edith turned to regard the stranger behind her, reflexively hiding the heavy knapsack fastened to her dress as she looked at the man before her.

A young man in a fine green garb greeted her, his long hair course around his forehead as he raised his hand in a gesture of peace. Edith could not help but look upon the bow and arrow clinging to the stranger’s back, telling her all that she could know at a glance.

This was a well-to-do man, hunting for pleasure in the woods near Ethandun- a noble.

And no noble may see a corpse thief and let her live- at least, without taking a finger or two.

But the nobleman showed no signs of being a threat, and so Edith turned to greet him, bowing down as her hands covered the knapsack at her side.

“M-mornin’, m’lord,” She said, as she bowed down, her grey eyes still locked on the stranger before her as her light brown hair fell past her head. “What brings you to the battlefield of Ethandun?”

The nobleman grinned, looking at Edith with nothing but kindness as he slowly stepped closer. “I have been hunting in these woods for deer, though our pickings have been slim with the battle driving the game away.” He looked past her, gesturing to the corpses at her feet. “You have been hunting too, I assume?”

“Uh…” She said, stalling for time as her brain racked itself for a response. “Yes, m’lord. I’m looking for my…” She coughed, discreetly stepping away from the nobleman. “My father’s corpse.”

“Your father’s corpse?” The young nobleman said, cocking his head to the side as he looked upon Edith. “He was a soldier, I suppose? Another peasant called up by Alfred to fight in his war against heathens?”

Her legs began shaking beneath her skirt, though she forced them to stop quivering as she looked up at the nobleman. “Y-yes, m’lord.” She bit her lip, making sure she looked as small as possible before the nobleman. “M-my father hasn’t come back home yet… ever since he was called up by Ealdorman Aethelwulf with the rest of the peasant fyrd.”

The nobleman turned his head to look around, scanning the field full of the dead.

Then he looked back at her, his expression frighteningly neutral. “I am truly sorry for your loss…” He said, looking up at her expectantly for a name.

Edith’s heart raced in pure fear as she mumbled out a name, bowing her head again as her hands started shaking. “It’s… Aethelflaed, m’lord.”

“Ah, Aethelflaed.” The noble noted, putting his hands on his waist as he hewed closer to her. “I’m sure my father will pay just recompense to your family.”

She looked up, her grey eyes plainly expressing the terror in her eyes. “Your… your father, m’lord?”

The noble grinned slightly as he unexpectedly took her hands. “Yes, my father- Lord Aethelwulf, ealdorman of these lands.” His eyes strayed to the ring on her hand, where the beautiful stone remained perched.

He smiled even wider. “Where did you get this ring from?” he said, hewing closer and closer as he spoke.

Edith stayed silent as a meek lamb as she stared into the nobleman’s eyes, frightened now beyond measure.

The nobleman turned her hand on its palm, examining the stone on top of her ring. “This…” he said, his tone marking a point of recognition. “I know this stone from the monks' books.”

Then his expression turned almost manic, obsessive. Dangerous.

Now terrified beyond measure, Edith clamped her fingers of her other hand over the ring, as she pulled it out from the nobleman’s reach.

The nobleman’s eyes widened in surprise and recognition, then slowly… to glee.

“That’s the ring of Eluned, Aethelflaed.” He said, his voice low as his smile changed from joyful to sinister. “Do you know it? The legendary ring from your pagan folk tales?”

Realization dawned on Edith as her eyes widened and she began to step back, her foot slowly landing on the corpse of a Saxon peasant.

He stepped forward, smiling. "It is said that when you cover it with your hand, the wearer turns invisible to the eye…" He slowly licked his lips, his sinister smile growing wider and wider as he spoke. "Do you even realize that you are invisible right now, girl?"

The nobleman’s eyes met with hers as he looked at where he knew she would still be, reaching his hand out as he stepped forward. “Give it to me, corpse thief…” he said, his voice now sing-song and malicious. “Give it to me.”

Edith looked at the nobleman in fear as her hand stayed firmly clamped over the ring. Her legs were frozen in place as she looked on, her heart turning to ice as the young nobleman’s arm reached out towards her.

Then, she heard a voice. “Lord Aelfric!” a distant voice said, as a man on a horse came out from the treeline, holding a bow at the ready in his hands. “We thought we lost you!”

The nobleman they called Aelfric shook his head, then reached his other arm out. “I’ve found a relic, Ecgberht!” He shouted, his voice loud as it echoed off the trees. “This peasant woman has it!”

Then, Aelfric leaped straight at Edith, causing her to fall back with a scream as her body landed on a mutilated corpse with a sick squilch. As she did, her right hand fell from her left hand, causing her to become visible once more in an instant.

Aelfric turned to look at her from only a meter away as he landed, looking back at her with a hunger in his eyes as he lunged forward towards her with a growl.

Edith dodged his hand as she lifted herself on her arm, placing her hands on the dead bodies around her as she started to scramble away from the nobleman in front of her.

“GIVE IT TO ME, AETHELFLAED!” The nobleman shouted as he lunged again, his arm almost grabbing hold of her skirt as she came to her feet and began to run across the corpse-strewn battlefield.

“She has the relic, Ecgberht!” Aelfric shouted from behind her. “Use that Godforsaken horse and chase her down!”

Edith turned her head as she ran across the battlefield, seeing the man on horseback immediately heed his lord’s order. With a cry, he spurred his horse forward, moving to intercept her as she ran towards the end of the battlefield.

Behind her, Aelfric had come to his feet as well, running towards her with the frenzied speed of a starved wolf as his boots crushed the bodies below him. “AETHELFLAED!” He shouted again as he steadily gained on her. “GIVE ME THE RING!”

I’m not going to make it, she thought as her legs carried across the field. I’m not going to make it. I’m not going to make it!

Her knapsack full of trinkets jangled at her side as she ran ever further, her feet landing in the spaces between corpses as she ran for her life. She looked to her right and saw that the man on the horse, Ecgberht, was rapidly moving towards her. She looked behind and saw the same with Aelfric, as he loped off after her with victory in his eyes and hunger in her smile.

I’m not going to make it. She thought again. I’m not going to make it.

She combed her mind for a way out, one that could ensure her safety, one that could-

Edith looked down at the ring on her finger, and made a split second decision as her hand moved again to clamp over it. In the same moment, she threw herself to the ground, joining the other corpses on the field as she hid among the dead.

An eternity of a few moments passed, as Aelfric ran past her and Ecgberht came to the edge of the field of corpses.

“Do you see her?!” Aelfric shouted from afar, as Edith closed her eyes and hoped they wouldn’t find her.

“No, my lord.” Came Ecgberht’s answer, which was followed by the loud, frustrated cry of Aelfric as he kicked something soft in anger.

“Fuck!” He shouted, the swear passing through his lips almost naturally. “My father will have my fucking head for this, Goddamnit!”

“So long as we do not tell him-“

“He will know, Ecgberht! He always does!”

This was followed by a silence, then a barely audible “Yes, lord.” from Ecgberht.

Aelfric let out a snort of frustration, then a sigh. “Get me my horse, Ecgberht. We ride back to my father.”

“We can only hope that he is in a good mood after bedding that Dane whore of his, lord.”

Aelfric let out a nervous laugh. “I hope to be in a good mood soon once I get back home to my own damned wife.”

Ecgberht grunted his assent, then spurred his horse away from Edith as he presumably went to fetch his master’s horse.

Edith lay there for a few minutes, waiting.

And waiting.

Her heart raced in her chest as she waited, her eyes tightly closed as she kept her hand clamped on the ring. Eternities passed as she slowly waited for the right time, her mind filled only with the primal feeling of pure unceasing terror.

She thought of her father, already exhausted from a few hours of tanning, the smell of animal dung permeating the air in front of their house as he expertly practiced his trade.

She thought of her brothers, the twins Osbert and Uhtred, going out to the fields to gather the dung needed for their father to tan. She could remember laughing at them as they complained of smelling like shit, and complaining even harder when the time came for them to help their father.

She thought of her mother, washing their smallclothes in a nearby lake, her belly already large again as she carried their youngest sibling. She remembered her easy smile, her soothing voice, how she'd always embrace her when she'd cry and scold her when she was up to no good.

Lastly, she thought of her sisters. Mildred and Hilda were both still young, five and six years her junior, but their bond as sisters were as strong as blood could be. They used to play on the fields when they were younger, chasing each other past the fields of wheat as they ran down the path to the village where their parents made their living.

Her heart swelled as she thought of them, living simply in their little hovel near the forest. She thought of Aelfric coming down on them in the dead of night, accompanied by his men as they searched for her. She thought of her sisters huddling together as a man stood over them, his axe held high in the air. She could almost imagine the smell of her mother's blood as Uhtred sought to staunch the bleeding from her chest as the house burnt around them and the scorching thatch roof buckled and fell.

In that stretching eternity in the field of corpses, Edith silently cried.

Then a few minutes later, she slowly rose to her feet, taking her hand off of her ring for a moment as she gasped in relief.

As she began to step away from the corpses that she lied beside, she took the time to catch her breath, her heart slowing as she felt her blood settle.

Then, she heard a far-off twang! in the distance, as an arrow cut straight through her chest, sending her falling to the ground.

As her head meet the damp soil, she coughed as blood began to fill her mouth. She struggled to breathe as she crawled slowly forward over the corpses she fell upon, trying to get away from the noblemen that would most certainly be on her soon.

Then, she heard the heavy footfalls of Aelfric as he walked to where Edith was, crouching down beside her with a smile on his face as she looked up at him.

“Give me the ring, Aethelflaed.” He said, his voice now gentle and kind. “Please.”

She was struggling harder to breathe now as the sharp pain in her chest grew ever more agonizing and the taste of iron in her mouth grew ever stronger.

In a last act of defiance, she tightened her fist as the nobleman reached toward her hand to pry it from her fingers, his pulls forceful as he cried out in anger and frustration.

But Edith still held her fists tightly shut, even as the nobleman grunted in anger as he pulled and tugged on her arm.

“Fine,” he said, out of breath. “Let’s have it your way.”

He put his hand to the sheath attached to his belt, pulling out a large hunting knife.

Then, he pulled her hand closer to him, eliciting a long cry of pain from Edith as he slowly cut her ring finger off with the hunting knife in his right hand.

“There,” Aelfric said, holding her severed ring finger with his thumb and forefinger. He took it the ring from it with his other hand, licking his lips as he felt the ring hit his palm.

He patted her head gently, a wicked smile on his face as he did so. “Didn’t need to be so hard,” he said, gleefully.

Aelfric then stood up, dusting off his shorts as he looked upon Edith’s dying body with disgust. Then he turned away from her and left, his heavy footfalls sounding ever more distant as he moved to join Ecgberht.

“Are we good, my lord?” Ecgberht said, holding the reins of Aelfric’s horse.

Aelfric took the reins and saddled on the horse, looking at Eadith’s dying body in the far distance as he smiled once again. “Yes, Ecgberht. We most certainly are.”

“Do you think that we will we be ready to take on Alfred when the time comes?”

Aelfric laughed. “With three relics now under our fellowship? I have no doubt.”

Ecgberht looked past him at Edith's dying form. "How about the woman, lord?"

Aelfric let out a snort of dismissal. "Leave her to her fellow vultures. They'll know what to do with her."

As the two men galloped away on their horses, Edith cried with despair, the wound on her chest and the stub of her finger bleeding profusely as she looked vacantly in the distance, her expression blank.

As the darkness fell upon her, she could still hear the rumbling in the distance as she died, vibrating down deep into the ground.

Edith was long dead when the vultures came to make their feast an hour later.

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