Jarrow, Northumbria 794 A.D. (Northeast Coast of England)
Attack on St. Paul’s Church in Jarrow
Annoure tightened her grip on Bertran’s reins and peered into the dark forest, uneasy to enter it alone. She knew this might be her only opportunity to explore the ancient oak grove and drew a deep breath of late summer air, inhaling the scent of dry leaves. Resolved, she kicked her heels into the horse’s flanks and the brown palfrey trotted forward. Predawn light barely penetrated the thick canopy of leaves, making it hard to see as he wove his way through elms, Scots pines and silver birch.
An owl swooped by, startling Annoure, and wind moaned through the trees. She glanced around uneasily, missing her guardian’s solid presence, though she’d purposely slipped out of the castle before he awakened. He’d never allow her to come here.
Before long she found the grove, a stand of massive oaks. She’d discovered it when riding with her brother Cedric. They both recognized it as an ancient place of worship for the now nearly-extinct Druids. Cedric said the place was evil and they should leave, but she’d felt drawn to it and decided to come back on her own.
Annoure slipped off Bertran, and clutched her jeweled Celtic cross. A guilty feeling tightened her stomach. Her father and the priests wouldn’t approve of her fascination with the Druids. Her discomfort gradually disappeared as her attention became absorbed in her surroundings.
Enormous oaks towered overhead. Moss, twisted twigs, acorns and leaves covered the ground. An arcane power pulsed in the air. What ceremonies were performed here? She poured water from her flask onto the ground to honor the Celtic gods, half-expecting them to appear.
A trickling sound of running water led her to a brook that emptied into a pool. Energy swirled around the water. She knelt and gazed into its still surface.
At first she saw only her own reflection, but as she slid deeper into a trance-like state, the image of her grandmother appeared. The Druidess sat by a fire, wearing a blue gown trimmed in gold. Her black hair, highlighted by silver streaks, hung to her waist. She paused in her spinning and sat poised with her head cocked. Then her dark, intelligent eyes focused on Annoure.
“Be careful, Granddaughter.”
“Of what?” Annoure whispered.
Wind blew across the water, rippling its surface and the image disappeared.
“Grandmother, come back! What do you mean by the dragon?”
The fine hairs on the nape of Annoure’s neck rose. She remembered her dreams of a man with flaxen-colored hair and vivid sea-blue eyes. Dragon tattoos wound around his powerful arms.
The wind increased in intensity and Annoure wrapped her cape more tightly around her slender body. She knew her grandmother’s image wouldn’t reappear in the now rough water.
Annoure spotted a vine-covered cave opening. She peered into its ink-black interior, wondering if Druids used it. When she stepped inside, a spider web stuck to her face. She grimaced and brushed it away, then took another step inside.
A chill rippled through Annoure as an invisible dark power beat against her. Then a small creature flew past her head. More creatures flapped by. Shrieking, she ran toward the entrance, realizing the creatures must be bats.
Her toe struck a hard object that rolled out of the cave. She followed it outside and discovered it was a human skull! She made the sign of the cross. Was the skull the remains of a sacrificed Druid enemy?
Lightning lit the sky, followed by a rumble of thunder. She lifted her skirts and ran to Bertran. When she tried to mount him, the horse jerked away.
“You feel the magic too, don’t you, Bertran.” She scratched the horse behind the ears. “We need to get home before the storm breaks.” Annoure mounted the palfrey, made a clicking sound and the horse started forward.
The sky darkened rapidly as the clouds thickened. She shivered in the cool, damp air and pulled her wimple over her head as the horse trotted through the forest. A fallen tree lay in the path. Annoure guided him around it with the unsettled feeling she was being watched.
A fox ran in front of the palfrey, startling him and he reared. Annoure squeezed her knees against the horse’s sides and tightened her grip on the reins as she struggled to stay on. The horse’s hooves thundered back to the ground and she quickly brought him under control. She gave a short laugh, pleased that she was able to handle her brother’s horse, even though he insisted Bertran was far too spirited for her to ride.
The horse cantered through the trees and soon reached the trail. Relieved to be out of the woods, Annoure guided Bertran along the path. She came to a hill overlooking the small River Don where it emptied into the much larger River Tyne. Movement on the Tyne caught her attention.
She gasped as the head of a dragon emerged from the heavy fog. When it drew closer, she realized it was just a carving on the prow of a ship. She recognized the design as a dragon ship. It was raised at the bow and stern, rode high on the water, and had a red-and-white sail that billowed in the wind. Four more ships soon appeared.
Annoure uneasily watched the ships sailing toward her. They must be coming to trade at the village of Jarrow, but why come so early while most villagers still slept?
The crew lowered the sail and began rowing. When they passed below her, she saw they wore helmets and armor. One warrior spotted her. He swung up his bow and fired an arrow. She ducked as it whistled over her back and struck the tree behind her.
Terrified, she kicked the horse’s flanks and yelled, “Go, Bertran!” The horse stretched its long legs and raced down the path. I must warn the villagers! she thought.
When the village of Jarrow came into view, Annoure slowed the horse. Wattle-and-daub houses with thatched roofs perched along the shoreline of the River Don. Twisted stick fences enclosed gardens and farm animals. A rooster crowed, setting off a chorus of roosters. No one appeared to be up yet, so she urged the horse on and galloped toward the farthest edge of the village where St. Paul’s church was located.
She crouched low on Bertran’s back, clinging frantically as the wind blew her wimple onto her shoulders and whipped her hair out of its fastenings. The horse’s hooves thundered along the ground and houses flew by in a blur. The horse galloped faster and faster, its muscular body heaving and sweating beneath her.
Soon the hundred-year-old stone church appeared, with its twin monasteries and the guesthouse, which had colored glass windows. She sailed through the herb and vegetable gardens on the south slope facing the Don. A few monks working in the terraced gardens glanced up with astonishment as she hurtled past, her horse’s hooves kicking up dust. She rode straight to the Jarrow monastery and reined in Bertran. Sliding off, she rushed inside.
“Father Eian!” she called, bursting into the scriptorium, panting for breath.
Startled, Father Eian splashed ink on the elaborate page he laboriously worked on. He scowled in disapproval. “Look what you caused me to do, child!” he said in Frankish, the language of the nobility.
“Father, there are—”
“Calm down, Annoure. You’re fifteen—a woman now—too old to be rushing around like a peasant child and why—”
She interrupted him. “Five dragon ships are rowing down the Don toward the village and church!”
His wrinkled face paled. “Have they come to trade?”
“No. One of the men shot an arrow at me. They could be the same men who ransacked Lindisfarne last winter. We need to ring the bell and warn the villagers.”
Father Eian rose stiffly, a frown deepening the grooves of his forehead. He ran a hand through his white hair and stood hunched over, frail under his monk’s robe.
Annoure wanted to urge him to move faster. The Norsemen would be upon them shortly!
A monk stepped into the room. “Excuse me for bothering you, Father Eian, but we were alarmed when we saw Lady Annoure galloping to the monastery.”
“Ring the warning bell,” Father Eian replied. “Norsemen are attacking. Gather everything of value and instruct the monks to carry what they can to safety.”
The monk turned toward the doorway.
“Don’t forget the books. The heathens will burn them or steal them for their jewels.”
The priest lifted the large Bible from his desk. “Come, Lady Annoure, we’ll save what we can.”
They left the monastery as the warning bell began ringing. Once inside the church, Father Eian shuffled to the altar. He put the Bible, a wine chalice, silver candlesticks and other valuables into a soft leather bag and handed it to Annoure. He reverently lifted the chiseled-stone cross from the altar and hoisted it over his shoulder.
Loud male voices roared in the courtyard, accompanied by a horrendous banging sound. “Odin! Odin! Odin!”
Filled with dread, Annoure gazed out the window, transfixed by the horde of Norsemen who ran toward the monasteries, hammering swords against their shields.
“Hurry!” Father Eian exclaimed. “This way!” He slid through a narrow hidden passage near the altar.
Footsteps pounded up to the entrance of the nave. Annoure spun around and saw a ferocious Norseman at the door. His tall form darkened the chapel and his cape swirled around him, as if Satan himself had entered the church. A leather helmet covered his hair and he clutched a large broadsword and shield.
When their eyes locked, Annoure couldn’t breathe and her legs wobbled. She felt like a rabbit cornered by a large dog.
He strode into the room followed by two more Norsemen. One swung a battle-axe and the other carried a bow nearly as tall as the length of his body. Annoure felt their bloodlust like a strong wind ripping into the quiet church.
She fled through the altar door, following the priest to the back of the church. They reached an outside door and together pushed it open. Footsteps pounded on the wooden floor behind her and Annoure glanced back. The tall Norseman was a mere four feet away! She leapt through the doorway and the heavy bag slammed against her legs.
Outside cool rainwater beat on her face and hair. She pursued the priest along the slippery cobblestone pathway leading through the church courtyard. The air was thick with smoke. Flames rose from burning buildings around her and the sound of shouts and weapons clanging against each other rang out.
Annoure sensed the Norseman behind her pressing close, then was jerked backward. She whipped her bag at him, breaking his hold. He lunged again and she tried to dodge him, but lost her balance and fell face forward with him on top of her. The wet ground soaked the front of her dress. She rolled onto her back and pounded her fists against his chest.
Father Eian hurried back and grabbed the Norseman’s arm. The warrior’s shorter comrade whipped out a knife and attacked the priest.
“No!” Annoure cried in horror as the Norseman plunged the blade into the priest’s heart. The old man collapsed to the ground beside her. The warrior grabbed the cross and triumphantly held it over his head, a savage grin spreading across his face. His helmet formed a sinister mask with an iron strip over his nose and holes for his eyes.
A townsman rushed to Annoure’s defense, swinging a rake. Her captor sprung to his feet and sliced his sword through the man’s wooden rake handle and into his chest. The farmer backed away, screaming in agony. The warrior heaved the bag of relics over his shoulder and pulled Annoure upright. Around them, other Norsemen battled soldiers armed with swords and villagers armed with farm tools.
Annoure stumbled along beside her captor, numb with shock. As they passed the monastery of Wearmouth, butchered monks lay dead or dying, their spilt blood blending with the rain-soaked earth. A few feet away, a wounded boy moaned for water. His torso was slit from neck to waist. A wave of nausea swept through Annoure. She was sure the Norsemen were inhuman demons.
When they began torching farm sheds, Annoure breathed in the smoke and started coughing. Brother Daniel ran out of a burning hut covered in flames. A warrior fired an arrow and it pierced the monk’s chest. Brother Daniel’s eyes widened in shock and he collapsed to the ground.
“Brother Daniel!” Annoure cried. Screaming hysterically, she dug her feet into the ground and tried to pull her arm from the warrior’s grip. The Norseman clamped a hand over her mouth—she felt trapped in a horrible nightmare.
Annoure’s heart raced as she was pulled down an embankment to the dragon ships anchored on the shore of the River Don. He’s taking me with him! she thought. I have to escape! The warrior pulled her across a gangplank and onto the ship. He brought her to the middle of the ship and said in Anglo-Saxon, “Stay.”
After thrusting the leather bag of church relics into a trunk, he began helping other Norsemen load stolen goods onto the ship. The warriors pressed in around her as they stashed their booty.
Rain continued to beat down on Annoure. She looked around, desperate for a means to get away before the ship left land. A warrior hauled a boy to where she stood and dumped him on the floor. The child’s body splashed in the rainwater that was collecting on the bottom of the ship and he began moaning. Blood flowed from a gash on his forehead.
“You’re hurt!” Annoure exclaimed, squatting beside him. She put an arm under his thin shoulders and helped him sit, then used the hem of her skirt to wipe off the blood.
“The wound isn’t too deep,” she said to reassure him. “But you’re going to have a bump the size of a goose egg. What’s your name?”
“Cearl. Are they going to kill us?” he asked, shaking with fear.
“No, they already would have if they wanted us dead.”
Another Norseman hauled Brother Tondbent over and left him with them. She’d always liked Brother Tondbent, a young monk with a gentle disposition, and was sad to see he was captured.
On shore, Norse comrades loaded the last two ships while fighting off townsmen and soldiers. A Northumbrian farmer leapt onto one of the ships and repeatedly swung his axe into the steeringoar. A Norsemen thrust his sword into the man’s back.
Annoure’s stomach churned at the sight. Nauseated, she rushed to the side of the ship and retched into the water.
“Annoure, are you all right?” Brother Tondbent asked. He addressed the young boy. “Cearl, untie me so I can help Lady Annoure.”
Annoure shoved her hair away from her face and raised her aching head to look at the monk. “I’m fine, but Cearl’s hurt.” She moved to the monk and worked at the knots that bound his hands behind his back. Her fingers shook. How many people were captured or killed? she wondered. Will I ever see my family again?
An iron-helmeted warrior with a bushy rust-colored beard shouted orders. Galvanized into action, the warriors sat on trunks lining both sides of the ship and began rowing. Annoure counted more than a dozen rowers on each side and her heart sank as she realized her chance for freedom was rapidly slipping away. Their ship followed two others down the Don, heading toward the wide, storm-roughened River Tyne.
The sky grew darker overhead and the rain increased its intensity. Waves splashed over the side of the ship and water sloshed from port to starboard on the deck.
“What will they do to us?” Annoure asked Brother Tondbent in a strangled whisper. She shuddered as dread descended over her like a heavy shroud.
The monk put a comforting hand on her arm, his eyes filled with anguish. “We’ll probably be sold as slaves. Let us pray to Christ our Lord for the strength to endure our fates.” He knelt in the water with his head lowered and raised his hands in prayer.
“Slaves! Won’t we be ransomed?”
“No one was ransomed from the raid on Lindisfarne.”
Their ship was still being rowed, but the two ships further downriver had raised their sails. Annoure knew their ship would soon do the same. She stood, braced her legs for balance, then tugged off her wimple and cape. She placed the cape over the monk’s shoulders and said, “May Christ protect you.”
The ship was moving quickly away from land, but Annoure was sure she could still reach shore if she jumped off now. None of the Norsemen were paying attention to her. She sprung onto a trunk just behind a rower and vaulted over the side of the ship. A man shouted and grabbed for her skirt. The fabric slipped out of his hand as she fell toward the water.
Her body tingled when the cold, churning water closed in around her and she sank into its embrace. Her waterlogged wool dress dragged her down as she desperately paddled her way upwards. Upon reaching the surface, Annoure gasped for air. Water sprayed into her mouth and she choked and coughed.
The ship kept moving away. Bobbing up and down with the waves, she yanked off her water-soaked dress so it wouldn’t drag her to a watery grave, then swam for shore in her shift.
Large waves tossed her about in the turbulent water and her arms and legs soon ached from the effort of swimming. Overcome with exhaustion and shaking with cold, she rolled onto her back and floated for a few moments. Then she started swimming again.
The shore was farther away than she realized and before long her strength began to ebb. A large wave engulfed her, pulling her under.
Don’t let me die, Mother Mary! she thought in anguish as she fought her way to the surface.
Your Christian god can’t help you, Grandmother whispered inwardly. Draw on the power of the Druids.
I don’t know how. Help me, Grandmother!
Still caught deep in the dark, churning water, Annoure’s ears ached and her lungs burned. Images came to mind of the blue-eyed young man from her dreams. He told her to fight for her life. She felt him reaching out to her.
Annoure clawed her way to the surface again, desperate for air.
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