In her dreams, the much talked-of Vikings appeared as monsters. They were twice as tall as a grown man, their heads were made of metal and green flames burned in the eye sockets. Venomous serpents coiled around the axe blades, where blood congealed and then dripped in sticky blobs to the ground. No-one ever told her whether these vile fiends came by foot, but at night behind her shut eyelids, they rode dragons whose black, pointed teeth parted in a terrifying smile as the creatures belched flames that curled out to caress the edges of thatched, vulnerable roofs. Then kiss would turn to bite and the burning wood would spread as fire consumed whole villages. The people did not scream, but ran from their houses, arms out in supplication, wide-eyed faces atop bodies that looked like the spit-turned meat served at feasts. Charred, walking lumps lunged towards her, bare-bone fingers reaching out to her, clawing, snatching.
She sat up in bed and gasped. “I am the daughter of a king.”
The serving-woman was standing by the linen chest. She held a half-folded kirtle in mid-air. “Yes you are, my proud chick. And so you will fare well.” She lowered the dress and flipped it over her forearm to fold it once more before placing it into a smaller travel chest and tucking a bunch of dried herbs between the top two layers of material.
The little girl watched her. The woman had misunderstood. There had been no pride behind her words; it only felt that if she reminded herself often enough who she was, then she would no longer be afraid. The woman continued with her packing, moving back and forth across the candlelight, casting fluid shadows on the wall as she emptied all the jewel boxes and hid the contents between piles of sheets. The little girl pulled the blankets up around her shoulders and slid back down again, lying with her nose just poking out beyond the covers. Soon, Brada would finish her chores and settle down in the bed next to her charge and then it would really be bedtime and the snoring woman’s presence would act as sentinel, keeping nightmare demons away. And yet…
Æthelflæd sat up. “Brada, why are you putting all my belongings into cart boxes?”
She found her aunt, the queen, in the hall. She was pulling all the tableware from the trestles and throwing the metal plate into large brown sacks.
Raising her voice above the rhythmic clang and thud, the girl said, “Why are we leaving?”
Her aunt span round and put the candlesticks back down on the table, where they wobbled back and forth and clattered down, rolling across the table and clanking on the floor. Crouching down, she hugged the child to her, squeezed tight, let go and stood up. She retrieved the candlesticks and, as she continued to reduce her life into sacks, chests and saddlebags, she spoke all in a rush, as if there was not time to tell a whole tale.
The child stood politely and listened, as she had been taught to do, but she barely understood one word in three. Her bare feet were beginning to soak up the chill from the floor, and she curled her toes against the under-draught, trying to slide her right foot away from the gap between the boards. She concentrated, trying to focus and hold on to the parts of her aunt’s diatribe that she could comprehend.
“So now the Vikings are at Repton and soon will overrun us. The whoreson Ceolwulf came to terms with them and your uncle is king no more. He has had the king-helm knocked from his head and we must flee.”
The little girl nodded. Repton was to the north, and the only north she knew was the wood beyond another of her aunt’s houses, where she had played last summer, running through the delicate flowers on the woodland floor. So the Vikings were on their way and would trample through the bluebell wood. Uncle Burgred had been hit on the head and his crown had fallen onto the floor, and ‘Ceolwulf’ was a rude word.
With a whirl of sleeves, her aunt flung the remaining gold plate into the largest wooden chest and raised her arms. “This is what it has come to. My brother wed me to Burgred so that the fellowship between the two kingdoms would hold fast. Where is my brother Alfred now; where are the men at arms?
Æthelflæd had been asked a question, so she should answer. “They must be busy stopping them from squashing the bluebells.”
“What?” The queen looked as if she were cross, but her mouth snapped shut and she knelt down, clasping the child by the shoulders. “What can I tell a five-year-old who will grow up to forget that I ever lived?” She sighed and glanced down at the floor before looking up to meet her niece’s barely blinking gaze. “Your father, my brother, sent me to Mercia as a bride. Then he sent you, his eldest, his firstling, for me to foster. You have been as my own child and I have loved you dearly. But you must hold that love safe in your heart as you go now, home to Wessex, free from harm.”
The girl gasped as her aunt’s hug squeezed the breath from her. She smelled the queen’s delicate rosewater perfume and then she took a deep breath, aware now that this would be the last time and she must savour the feel of the soft cheek against her own. “My father is a king.”
“Yes, Sweeting, as was mine. May your standing in this world hold fast. Whatever your fate, always keep a sad heart hidden and show gladness to the world, even when you feel only sorrow.” She released her ward and stood up, smoothing her skirts.
“One day I will be a queen like you.”
“Not in Wessex, for they do not call any king’s wife by that name. But you are a daughter of kings and your best hope lies there, not with Burgred and me over the sea. It breaks my heart to leave you, but you must understand.” The queen peered at her, lines furrowing her forehead. “Do you?”
The girl nodded. She understood. The Viking monsters had killed all the flowers, her aunt was sending her away, and she would never be a queen.
Chippenham, Wiltshire, Wessex
Only at night now did she hear the screams. Behind eyelids held tight shut she saw the death-bringers, spitting their heathen Viking oaths and screaming their curses as the swords wrought in hell’s furnace came crashing down, cleaving skulls and spilling brains onto the bloody ground. She had seen her brother and cousin wielding their wooden practice swords and heard the older thegns telling the boys how to make the most effective cuts and slashes; down through the top of the head, sideways into the shoulder or neck, upwards into the leg unprotected by a shield held too high. But what of those who had no shields, no blades, of wood or iron? The old hag down by the water told tales every day of the wounds inflicted on helpless women and children. The crone told the women by the river about other hurts done to the mothers and older girls but while the women crossed themselves and shuddered, Æthelflæd did not understand. In her dreams all she could think of to do was to throw whatever she was holding in order to frighten them away. The menacing horde came closer, reaching horned hands out to her, but always she awoke before they touched her.
This evening she had stayed up for the celebration of Twelfth Night. Her tummy was taut, overstuffed with boiled mutton, roast beef, and bread made from finely sifted wheat that was softer to chew and did not stick so much in the teeth. She had been permitted to drink wine instead of buttermilk and at very nearly nine years old, she felt most grown-up. Bowls of hazelnuts, overflowing at the start of the meal, now held a small remainder, tempting the younger children who began to throw them into each others’ mouths. Her parents had been in unusually high spirits. Alfred, her father, was wearing a splendid red silk tunic and his beard, as always, was neatly trimmed. Her mother was dressed in her favourite blue kirtle, and had fixed a big garnet at her neck, and she looked to her daughter every inch the Mercian princess, daughter of the chief of the Gaini folk. Sometimes, her mother smiled. Not a teeth-baring, blithe grin, but her lips lifted enough to suggest a promise that tonight there would not be an incident; no muffled sobs and muttered oaths when the children were thought to be sleeping. Uncle Wulf of the Gaini was telling his usual awful jokes. Her father was laughing; a rare sight. She watched, amazed, as his jaw moved like a rusty hinge recently greased. Even the sombre-faced lord of Somerset managed to break a smile through his usually tight jowls. His hearth-friend and fighting companion, the lord of Wiltshire, was sitting beside him, an indulgent grin softening the skin around his eyes into creases. She liked it when these two men sat together; Somerset, dark-featured, with close-cropped hair and square jowls, and Wiltshire, with bristly grey-tipped hair, pale eyebrows and blond moustache. So dissimilar yet nearly always seen side by side, these two men of her father’s inner chamber always made her think of salt and black pepper. The only others present were men of the hall, Alfred’s close deputies. The fighting-men of the fyrd, having served their days in the army shadowing the enemy along the border, sometimes as hawk, sometimes as hare, had been sent home to their families. The company around Alfred’s hearth this special evening was family, friend; familiar. Æthelflæd yawned, the wine in her belly seeming to exert an unnatural pull on her eyelids and jaw. Uncle Wulf spotted her and beckoned her to him. “Come, Little Teasel, sit on my lap and I will tell you some new tales.”
She lay with her head on his huge chest, listening to his voice rumbling up from deep within him, as he told his wild stories of wood-sprites, beautiful women who were really witches, and of a pet elf whom he sent into battle to remove Viking belts, so that the invaders’ breeches fell down when they raised their sword arms. She giggled and ran her fingers rhythmically through his soft beard as he talked, delighting, as always, in the silky feel of the long hair that grew from such initially sharp bristles. They played out their ritual; he, like a hound being scratched, paused every now and again to direct her hand to another tangle in need of freeing. At least once, she knew, he would tell his audience that she could tame a wolf’s fur with her diligent combing. Afterwards, happy and sleepy, she settled down on her bed feeling safe and snug.
But the nightmare came again. The bony fingers of the marauders reached across the remnants of yet another burning village, stretching towards her, always closer. She sat up in her bed, eyes staring until darkness melted a little and allowed her vision to detect recognisable shapes, familiar outlines bringing awareness of reality. Sweat cooling rapidly on her brow, she left the ladies’ sleeping bower and sought safety by the great hearth in the main hall. Among the jumble of bodies there, she saw the bright blond hair of her brother, its wild spikes sticking up like scythed wheat stalks above the edge of his blanket. He opened one eye, the movement flowing on until his brow rose up, questioning.
“I was cold. It’s begun to snow.”
Edward smiled, the expression on his face a cross between a tease and affectionate indulgence. He reached out in a stretch, nudging the person next to him, showing his sister that even though he would only be eight next birthday, he was sleeping with the older youths. And here, amongst the warmth of sleeping warriors and burly servants, she smiled too, for the nightmare was left behind in the dark and seemed silly and impotent in the fire light. She snuggled down, butting her head against the soft belly of a hound, lulled by the thrum of the beast’s gently wagging tail.
A scream from outside perforated the silence within. She held her breath but did not open her eyes. It had not been the high-pitched shriek of a woman being goosed by a drunken reveller, but the last gasp of a fighting man caught in mortal combat. More shouts and bangs mingled with the scrapes and clattering inside as the slumbering hall awoke and came to. Æthelflæd opened her eyes, but the nightmare vision did not fade. Her father, Uncle Wulf, Somerset and Wiltshire were on their feet, swords in their hands. A guard, sweating and bloody, crashed into the hall. “Vikings!”
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