The gathering clouds outside turned a harsh shade of grey-a storm was brewing; dense puffs as thick as the froth of ale. Nothing far from the usual, autumn had arrived and storms were normal occurrences. Still Blaeja though they looked different, like a simply rain storm wouldn’t quench them. She jumped as the needle pricked her, a few droplets of blood staining her now useless piece of needlework. Why is the storm making me so nervous? She thought as she brought her wounded finger to her lips, the taste of the iron caused her mouth to water. She pushed away her needlework and curled up in her ledge, the familiar knot clamped down deep inside her chest, her hand gently rubbed below her throat, trying desperately to ease it with no avail. Settling instead to fidget with the crucifix around her neck, below her the sound of horse’s hoofs rumbled as the sentry returned. He went so quickly Blaeja couldn’t distinguish the meaning was it a good thing or ill.
The knot tightened within her chest, in truth it started with that damned Northman. Blaeja had felt a bit queer watching him die, she had seen dead men, their wounds washed and covered and she had seen those whom survived although some disfigured permanently by the civil war. The act of dying she had been shielded from, especially when it included her father’s snake pit. The crafty creatures designed by god to writhe and squeeze until the soul finally left the body. It made Blaeja’s skin crawl to think of it, she could almost feel their wet slimy scales crush around her chest, her neck. May perhaps one of dammed creatures escaped and took its home around her heart.
She shrivelled at the thought, stop or you’ll give yourself nightmares, she told herself. The king of the frozen North hadn’t looked as she would have expected. She had heard tales of a giant beast more bear than man; some of the younger servant girls had even called him the last of the dragons. Blaeja didn’t expect him to breathe tunnels of fire but she certainly didn’t think he’d look so…old. Of course it had been many a year since the raid of Lindisfarne but the stories from the Kingdom of Wessex and Paris would make him seem like age couldn’t touch him. His body had been slumped in his cage, his face covered in blood as he spoke his strange words that Blaeja failed to understand. As he dropped she felt pity for me, such a strange feeling, to feel pity for a demon returning to Hades.
Before she could ponder anymore, she was summoned to her father’s chambers. It was bad news; why else would father call me? Fixing back a few loose hairs she followed the young servant on the familiar path. Inside King Aelle paced like a captive lion in his cage, it was said King Penda of Mercia had an army of lions. She recalled, the lions didn’t save the pagan king with good king Oswiu came for him. The dim day light cast through the window made his face look grey and sullen. Mother sat very still at the table, her face unreadable but her hands wringing.
“Northmen ships have been spotted off the coast of East Anglia. My sentry believes they’re could be over a hundred ships.” Mother blessed herself while Blaeja froze in her spot. Judith was right.
“Father perhaps we should write to King Ecbert and reinstate the alliance.” The fury in her father’s eyes blazed. Blaeja wanted to hide from those eyes and the body connected. She wanted to run, run into her mother’s embrace like a child. But she couldn’t move, her legs felted like they were chained to the floor.
“How can you speak of such matters you stupid girl.” She hissed as she felt his warm breathe so close to her face, her eyes scrunched shut, her chin grasped between his sweaty fingers. “There is no alliance with Wessex and not of my doing.” He noticed her pain and released her, taking to lead over table. Blaeja gently sat down, trying to blink the tears from her eyes.
“Father forgive me, I didn’t mean to disobey you, I’m frightened, maybe we should send a message to Judith, her husband could-” The words stopped in her throat, Aelle’s meaty hands wrapped painfully around her wrist, under the pressure her fingers started to feel numb.
“If you speak against me again, I will have your tongue. Do you understand?” She could only nod, new hot tears in her eyes. He finally released the now bright red wrist; Blaeja gently cradled it against her body as the blood rushed back to the fingers, little pin picks covering her hand. Quickly moving to a seat beside her mother, every movement caused the pain to flame up. “I do not need the armies of Wessex to fight the pagans. I have prepared my own army that will defeat them. Daughter they have arrived sooner than I thought and so tonight you will marry King Edmund of East Anglia. I have been in negotiations with him for some times and will arrive to our kingdom tonight.”
“But East Anglia is our natural enemy, you said yourself father they cannot be trusted. They are dishonest and-”
“I know what I said daughter. That is why your marriage will remain unconsummated. When we win against this foreign threat you will have a proper Christian wedding to cement our new alliance. If he does not support us you will be free to marry another prince. Go prepare yourself.”
I am to be married? Blaeja questioned it over and over in her head. She knew it would happen someday. She was told it repeatedly as a child, as children Judith would always play the bride, focusing Ecgberht to play her groom and Blaeja had to walk behind her, carrying her long glittering (imaginary) robes. As she got older, the monastery became so familiar and homely to her. Following Judith’s own wedding to Prince Aethelwulf, Blaeja thought she might be allowed to take her vows. That dream fell around her with each scrub of her body. When they were done the servants had her smelling like roses, Blaeja instead felt heavy. Is my sister to become my enemy? And I am to marry our enemy. She surrendered herself to it, allowed her servants to dress her in her best blue dress, Far from the splendour of Judith’s wedding. The memory was so dim in her mind; she was so young then- barely in her fifth year. She remembered everyone being so happy and how her elder sister had looked like an angel in white. She was older now than Judith had been at her wedding, Judith had passed into her fourteenth year when she left for Wessex. Blaeja had at least been saved from that ordeal-till now. Even at sixteen, she still felt unprepared to be wife and queen both.
Blaeja gently jumped as her mother wiped tears off her cheeks. “Hush now. It is only a wedding. The consummation comes later.”
“I hadn’t thought that far. Mother please. I don’t want this.” She begged. She was no so stupid to think she would have married someone she cared for-after all she was a princess not some common fish wife. She had hoped when-if- her time came she would at least know what he would look like.
“We must do what is best. God has chosen you for this task and you must be strong enough to carry it out.” She gently pinched her daughter’s cheeks till the colour returned. “Beside I hear Kind Edmund is very handsome and brave. I think you will like him well.” Blaeja gave a small smile.
“Will I be in the midst of the battle?” If these Northmen had landed off East Anglia, surely father wouldn’t send her there.
“No, we will be going to Eofiric on the morn, we will be safe.” She attached the white veil in place. “Do you remember when you were little in the monastery? You were so scared of the thunder, do you remember the song I use to sing you?” Her mother stoked her arms softy as she sung “When you get scared sing it to yourself. Come on now, it’s time.”
She held her mother’s hand tight as she was lead to the holy alter like a lamb. She could feel her heart beat fast in her ears and she felt unbearable warm in the cold chapel. She sneaked a peek at her husband to be through her veil. He was tall, a good head taller than her. Dark hair combed back and hanging against his strong jaw with an even stronger nose. Handsome indeed, Blaeja thought when their equally dark eyes meet, maybe this marriage will not be all that bad. Blaeja delivered her vows with a quiet shaky breath, distracted by the rattle of soldiers outside the church. It would be silly for Blaeja to think her morning gift was hers, some women received money or land, she was gifted her country’s future. She should feel grateful, and she did. But the knot in her chest told her otherwise, told her of a future they all feared.
She swallowed hard as their lips joined in the lightest of brushes. It had not been her first kiss that honour lay with a boy at the monastery; in truth that had been rather wet for her liking. The wedding feast was a small affair, no doubt that the quests that travelled with King Edmund grumbled. With such limited time to prepare the fat pigs were slaughtered, although Blaeja overheard Edmund complaining to his men about the lack of wild boar. She choose to ignore it focusing instead on her parents happy faces, it was the first time she’d seen her father smile in months. It was most welcomed sight even with the threat that loomed above their heads.
“My lord husband, can you tell me of your kingdom of East Anglia. I am keen to know my new home.” He ignored her at first, had I spoke wrong? She wondered, did I not appear dutiful? Finally he turned his face warm and inviting in the candle light. His smile lit up his handsome face and Blaeja let her eyes fall briefly to his lips, why did we have to wait? Her scars told her why, they reminded her of her sinful ways. Forgive me oh mighty Lord for my wicked thoughts, she prayed.
“You will find out soon enough, however I am sure you will find it most pleasing.” His voice was deep and thick with the southern accent.
“I hope to be a good queen by your side. My mother told me your mother has opened her own hospital.”
“And your mother failed to teach you to remain silent.” That was the final nail of the conversation, Blaeja wanted to pull her veil across her face to hide the redness covering it. I have failed on my first day. She sat alone praying with the golden band on her finger. The laughter of her husband still rang around her almost as if in a world she was not allowed to enter. She wanted to run, to hide behind the cloister walls again away from everything.
But instead it was it was time for bed, Blaeja tied to keep from looking back as she left the hall. The ramble however followed her to her rooms as she was stripped to her night clothes. She crossed her arms across her chest embarrassed with all the eyes on her. Father, mother and a few men of King Edmund’s sat on stools a little from her bed as Bishop Edmund blessed the bed. The holy smells caught Blaeja in the throat, it hurt as she held back her cough, and failing. She climbed into the bed, the covers left at her feet, a small chill worked up her exposed body. Her chest rose and fell in quick succession, her eyes focused on a point at the ceiling. One day she will have to do this all over again, but for real when that day comes.
Stray salty tears fell down her face, into her ears as her husband strolled into the room, stumbling in intoxication. He placed a knee in between her open legs, a little too close to certain areas. She could see in his eyes he was as unhappy about this as she was, but didn’t stay any longer than needed. It was done she was now Princess of Northumbria and Queen of East Anglia.
Thankfully everyone left her alone, her parents didn’t even meet her eyes as they left. Blaeja pulled the blankets tight around her to block out the cold air. Her room seemed emptier now that her belongings were packed away for their journey tomorrow. Blaeja had been a child the last time she had lived in Eofiric, she remembered very little about the city. It wasn’t much different from Bamburgh she was sure, both ancient capitals her ancestors enjoyed. Father however was too afraid to live there, he feared it was still loyal to her half-uncle Osberht. She hadn’t thought of Osberht in a long time, or her sister for that matter. Aethelthryn-begotten from father’s first wife, had died long before Blaeja was even born, married off to of Osberht and sent to the cold fort in Din Eidyn. In the hopes he could not raise an army, for a time that was true. Blaeja had heard the whispers, ever now some like to claim it was Aethlthryn’s fault for the civil war. She shuffled in the bed grateful when sleep finally came for her.
The coldness was the first thing she notice as the branches picking and scratched at her fingers tips. Pat. Pat. Pat. Little droplets of rain hit her head, again and again. Pat. Pat. Pat. Where was she? A forest it seemed, the thick trunks of the trees like a shield. There were several round her, in this old ancient forest. Pat. Pat. Pat. The irritating rain continued against the top of her head, like a bee around a flower patch. It felt like a cage all these trees. Blaeja looked between them, trying to find her way out, each gap was filled with another tress, and another and another. A gleam of shooting light above her caught her attention. Pat. Pat. Pat. She looked up, and screamed. Above her a big black bird hung unaided between the tress, wings spread like Christ on the cross. Guts hanging like string from its open belly. Pat. Pat. Pat. The blood landed on her face.
She lunched up so hard, she feared she might fall from the bed. The knot in her chest clamped down so hard she couldn’t breathe, her breath came out in short difficult gasps she felt this was her end. It was just a nightmare, no more, just a nightmare, she repeated to herself. But a voice somewhere in the deep pit of her mind didn’t believe her.