Chapter 1: Northumbria
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.
Chapter 2: Colours
Blaeja was glad of the morning light, and even gladder of the meal to break her fast. The air was thick this morning; a light mist had rolled in and obscured the framing hills, it made Blaeja feel like she stood at the edge of the world. It did not however stop the commotion in its throes, as servants rushed to load the carts. Edmund’s party has travelled light, Bleaja noted as she emerged at the courtyard. His band of lord’s sat atop their steads; the stocky horses scuffed their hooves, as if eager to set out. Or perhaps they knew of a danger hidden in the mist.
It coated her face in a light stray of water, bringing her back to reality after the dream of the night before. She smiled to herself before carefully wiping the liquid from her face as to not draw attention to herself. She was sure Eofiric still had the little garden beside the patch of woods, so she wouldn’t be locked inside as usual at least. Mother was already stored safely inside the royal cart, draped not in the royal colours this time as to not draw attention. Father appeared from his hidden spot under the shade, his dark greying hair coated with water droplets like tiny pieces of glass had found their way into the mane that surrounded his face. Behind him, the servant held the reins of the two large grey hounds; they whined and patted their feet.
“Father?” Blaeja asked confused.
“I thought you’d like to take them with you, they’ll useless here. Maybe the brainless things will learn some courage with you.” Blaeja smiled bright, she wanted to jump at him, hug him, and show how much this meant to her. But she didn’t. Father won’t have wanted that, certainly not with his new allies circling in the courtyard. She instead settled instead to kiss his palms.
“Thank you father, I wish you victory in the war to come. May our lord protect and watch over you.” That got him to smile; his confidence gave her strength to hope. No matter how many faults were laid at her father’s feet, no one could doubt that King Aelle always got what he wanted in the end. With a departing kiss to her head, Blaeja was loaded into the cart as the last bit of cargo; mother was already inside, a thick woollen blanket wrapped around her legs, only her face and hands poked out from her furred coat. It looked like a huge wolf had swollen her whole but stopped at the neck, a queer thought, Bleaja said to herself.
She settled in for the long journey, gently she pulled back the little slits in the drapes that serviced as her only window to the outside world. She tied to remember the details of this place, the slopping roofs. The hanging red bolts of cloth that blew and snapped in the wind, the ever present delicious smell of warm bread that filled the air. She’d only lived here for a little while, the last one of her siblings left under the family’s roof-till now. Even in this short while, she had little memories that meant much to her. In truth she had spent most of her time wishing to return to the monastery.
She however still felt the need to store them in the back of her mind in case of need. The large grey mass of Wulfnod sat on her toes, his shaggy face placed into her lap with large yellow eyes looking up at her. While mother didn’t seem to be displeased with the presence of Wine nuzzling at her hand. Both women seemed thankful of their warmth and distraction for the long journey ahead, the commotion around them picked up as they departed. King Edmund was far in front flanked on all side with guards, Blaeja and her mother pulled up the rear with the baggage carts. Guards surrounded them, their chainmail clanking with each movement. Blaeja wondered how effective it would serve against hungry animals or any the wild men said to live in the woods. The large dog licked her hands; maybe the sight of them was enough to scare off any would be attackers.
Maybe the sight of you is enough to send the Northmen back to where they came, Blaeja thought as she held Wulfnod’s head in her hands, a whole army of hounds to send them running to their ships. He gave her his funny open smile. Maybe not, she laughed to herself. It felt like a sin to laugh at such a time, she noticed her mother giving her a strange look, does she think I’m mad? Maybe I am and I just don’t know it yet?
She intended to remain quiet for the rest of the journey, lest her mother get anymore suspicions. She subconsciously patted Wulfnod’s head as she lead back against the hard wood side, it was strangely comfortable against her tired body. She took too gazing out the little slit in the drapes, they were now a little from Bamburgh, small pockets of villages were starting to disappear behind them as the road took them through the tree line. The trees slowly strolled away from their party, their huge trunks stood like dark columns casting shadows on the forest floor. The carts moved into a thicket, the space between the trees became smaller, till there seemed to be more trees than space for them. Somewhere in the distance a bird squawked, it made her think back to her dream, wondering if the bird was giving its last call.
She turned back, startled slightly as Wulnod moved in his sleep. She pulled her thick cloak tighter around her; she wished she could remove her veil that had struck itself quite unpleasantly to the back of her neck. She couldn’t-she would never be allowed to remove it in public, high born wives didn’t remove their veils in front of the eyes of men. After a few welcomed stops they were finally on the last stretch, by this point mother had took up her needlework while Blaeja nibbled on her crab apple, too bored to think about her own needlework abandoned on the seat beside her.
“Don’t worry, we will arrive safety.” Her mother assured her, looking up from the finished shirt. “I have been thinking; do not tell your father. When this war is finished, I wish to visit Judith and her children.”
“If you allow, I would like to go with you. I miss Judith too; it has been a long time since I’ve seen them. How are the children doing?”
“Athelred is growing quickly.” Blaeja could hear the longing in her voice, she hid it so well yet now it flowed freely. “Judith says he takes very much after his father. In her last letter, she said he was coming along with his sword. Alfred is the more silent of the two, but surpasses his brother in his writing skill.”
“Poor Alfred, he will always be in his brother’s shadow it seems.” Outside the noises of the villages started to pick up, not long now.
“Are not all younger children. You have no excuse; I want full reports on your children when the time comes. The nuns taught you to write after all, I expect you to put it to good use.”
“As you command mother.”
The sun was starting it’s descend when they pulled under the ancient arches of Eofiric. The muddy streets were still awash with people, some paid them no attention. While others gave them annoyed looks as they huddled out of the way. The cart lumbered along the packed earth, the movement had roused the lazy dogs. Wine jumped on his hind legs to get a better lookout, tongue wangling. His loud bark scared the Queen from her half slumber state, Blaeja tried desperately to quiet him as the cart came to a halt. They were nowhere near the villa. Blaeja and her mother shared a confused looked, why had they stopped? The old steel face of Algar poked through the drapes, with him wafted in the smells of the street and sweat.
“Why have we stopped?” Mother asked rather sharply. “Forgive me my Queen, my Lady. An ass cart has broken down in our path, not to worry we will be on our way soon.” He spoke through broken teeth, he departed as quickly as he came, but the smells still remained. Blaeja could see her mother taking shallow breathes as now to take them in, she found herself doing the same. Movement caught her eyes as Wine jumped out of the cart. Without thinking Blaeja jumped down from the cart. The light of the sun blinded her momentarily as her feet began to shrink into the earth. Through squinted eyes she called to the hound, the loud bark from far in front gave her a clue. She was too embarrassed to run as she took off, grasping handfuls of fabric as she shuffled along on her leather shoes not designed for the ground under her.
“Sorry.” She apologized again and again to every person she bump into till it became a prayer on her lips. She was keenly aware someone was following her but still she pressed on. There he was, panting heavily in the doorway of a small house. “Wine, you stupid boy how you could run off like that.” She peppered his rough head with kisses and he returned a long wet lick at her cheek.
“You should be more careful my dear. Lost things don’t fare well in this world.” A croakily old voice spoke from above. Blaeja looked up and upon a wrinkled old crone, straight backed in holding Wine’s leash in her papery hands. How long had she been then? She thought to herself.
“Thank you for finding him, is there anything I can give you in return?” Blaeja whispered, this woman caused her to feel cold despite all the layers she was wearing. She grasped the leash as if it was her last rope to the ground below.
“I will call upon you one day child.” The sounds of swords drawing broke through the air like a crisp wind. Wine snarled and snapped at those behind. Blaeja turned to find King Edmund his handsome face turned into a scowl with blade held aloft, match in stance by six of his own men. Blaeja did not think she was worth such a display.
“Stay your weapons, this old women means you no harm. Edmund you must see that.” She pleaded, trying to meet her husband’s eyes. The world ceased to turn for a moment before Edmund gave the order; Blaeja exhaled a breath she didn’t know she was holding.
“We’re going back.” He ordered, not even looking at her, Wine still stood defensive at her legs. She pulled at him as she fell in behind Edmund, She had to use her body as a shield between the King and upset dog. “Osmund, take the hound away.” The tall man came from behind, he blocked out the orange sun as he wretched the leash from Blaeja’s pleading hands. Hands that were soon shoved into Edmund’s stronger one. She started to feel better, finally having him touch her. He pulled her against him. “Never speak to me like that again do you understand?”
“Yes.” She barely heard her own voice while she held back her tears. Around them the strangers who had once ignored them looked on intensely. Thankfully it wasn’t too far to the cart; Edmund almost threw her little body towards it as he strolled off in front of only four guards. If Osmund has Wine, where is the other one? Osmund made sure to give her an angry look with his twisted scarred face as he pulled Wulfnod from his slumber to join his brother. Blaeja hung her head as she made her way back to the cart, mother however didn’t look at her as she climbed back to her spot. Hidden behind the safe of the drapes she dried her fallen tears on her sleeve, she must have lost her piece of cloth reserved for the task on her search.
A short time later they stopped for the last time. Guards in Edmund’s colours helped them out; looking around Blaeja noticed they all wore his colours. What happened to the guards that left Bamburgh with us? She noted as she fixed her dress, they had been there at the last rest stop before entering Eofiric. Alger was still here, giving instructions to the villa’s own servants that had come to help with the cargo. Edmund gave her a warm smile as he approached her, Blaeja couldn’t help but smile back.
“Sweet mother, I hope the journey wasn’t too hard for you.” He said so sweetly to her and wordlessly took Blaeja’s hands, her smile feel as she straightened her back, trying to be as regal as she could muster. Up ahead the Ealdorman of Eofiric stood with his family to greet him, Blaeja hadn’t seen Ealdorman Leofric since she a girl of eight. Looking at him now she didn’t know if he had ground fatter, or maybe he was the same size, it was after all a long time ago and he was always so big when she was so little. She hoped he was still as kind as she remembered, she longed to have someone kind around after today.
“King Edmund of East Anglia welcome.” He bowed cautiously on his rickety legs in front of them, with the rest of his party “My most Gracious Queen, it brings light to my eyes to see you again.” He turned at last to Bleaja. “My Lady, my most wondrous congratulations on your marriage, May god grant you happiness in your new life.”
“Thank you Ealdorman. I wait impatiently for the day I can pledge myself in front of god.”
“As do I My Lady, do you remember my daughter, Mildred? You two were quite inseparable as children I remember.” He pointed to the pretty red haired woman to his left, who herself looked ready to burst. Blaeja nodded to be nice; she vaguely remembered the red haired child who was always loud and dragging her into situations Bleaja didn’t want to be in.
“The feast is almost ready and there will be time to wash up before, if you will follow me.” The warmth descended on them as they entered the villa. The soft crackling of the fire provided a comforting sound and warmed their bones; the food was even more welcome after the long journey. The hall was awash with noise, plates scratching and wine squashed as barrel after barrel was rolled out. Ealdorman Leofric knew how to throw a party, the gracious host sat beside mother at the head of the table, she politely listened as he prattled on.
Mildred had been seated beside Bleaja, fawning over the young children at her side. Godric was the shy red haired boy of seven, legs swinging in an effort of something. His four year old sister Elfrida babbled with her doll in her own childlike language, completely unaware of the drunkenness around her. Blaeja was aware she was staring at them; onlookers probably would think she was a young woman who wanted children of her own to dote on. Maybe deep down it was there, but mostly she missed the pressures of childhood. She would give anything to have Judith and Ecgherbt back together, she would happily hear her brother complain when she beat him-fairly at racing. To once again hear Judith brokenly read from the book she had helped 'borrow' from the monks.
“If it wasn’t for your father’s inane command I’d put one of those in you.” King Edmund slurred, a bit too loud that maybe even he intended. Blaeja could feel the heat rush up to her face. Mildred gave her hand a gentle pat.
“It will not be too long now; don’t worry, hopefully before too long our children can play together.” She cried happily. It was not hard to see why Mildred was placed beside her, to try and get a position at the East Anglia, maybe ever some land in both kingdoms. Blaeja didn’t dismiss the idea; it could be nice to have a friend in her new court even if such as friend was there for other reasons as well. But just as she was starting to warm to Mildred’s company, she left with her children. Around her the hall became a ruckus, loud laughter that she felt she was not entitled too filled her ears, as everyone paired off into conversations. Much like at her wedding feast the night before she felt like an outsider looking in, like an ever-present glass wall separated her from everything around her. Much like Godric, she was bored-and tired, she rose from her chair, though no one in the hall noticed.
“Wife.” Edmund called out when she had barely walked a few steps. “Sit down; you cannot think leave your husband alone.”
“I’m tired husband-please.” He have jumped out of his chair, the smirk on his face like a cat that had a mouse cornered.
“What about a little game to wake you up.” He made a gesture to the door. “Come old women, tell us god’s plan.” In she came, the old crone from the street. In this light her face had more lines that the pews of the church, that was where the guard had gone: entertainment. The old women barely looked at her as she took Edmund’s waiting hand.
“I see a great victory in your futures. The spoils of war will be yours and your reign will be long and prosperous, my king.” She croaked out, Edmund seemed smug with her prediction. The whole thing made her uncomfortable; she struggled to pull her hand away. Edmund had it in a vice grip that reminded her too much of the way her father use to grab onto it. The too familiar knot appeared in her chest and her eyes burned with tears.
“Come now wife, don’t be such a bore.” He laughed in her ear. She shook her head and continued to pull but it was no use, the old women gently took Blaeja’s hand into her own smooth one. Blaeja hadn’t expected how soft it was going to be. The old women’s dark eyes roll back in her head, it scared Blaeja-was she dying?
“I see a shadow within you. A darkness that will cause you great suffering.”
“Do not be dire old women, will she give me sons?”
“Both your sons will be kings of creatures of land and sea. Your descendants will grow and fall like the stars in the heavens.” She broke from her trance.
“What does that mean?” Blaeja asked but the women would not answer.
“You may all bow before my son when he is King of all England.” King Edmund pronounced confidently, Blaeja took this time to slip away. The villa was empty on her way to her room, most were at the feast or in their beds. Blaeja took the opportunity to hunt out the hidden book in her trunk, it was too rushed to bring her teacher Father Aelfstan with her. So by the dim candle light she brokenly read to herself much like Judith had done all those years ago.
The stars still shinned dimly against the morning sky when Blaeja awoke- at least she thought she was awake. The peacefully picture melted away with the blood that tickled down the walls, bright in the gathering sunlight. The small flow became heavier, staining the brick beneath in its bright sickening liquid. Droplets landed on her hands, warm and sticky as if it leaked from beyond the ceiling above. Maybe the stars themselves bled and fall upon her, would that have explained the burning smells that clung to the air?
Knock. Blaeja broke from her trance, surprised to find herself seated upright in bed, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees as if she was still a child terrified of the thunder. She turned both hands towards her, relived to see they were still clean and the brick walls were still dull and chalky. Knock. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and ordered the servant to enter, her flushed face poked around the door. “Forgive me my lady, the cook had an accident and breakfast will be a little longer than usual.”
“Do not trouble yourself, I will pray before I break my fast.” The servant scurried away as fast as she had arrived. Blaeja’s limps groaned as she stretched, how long had she been sitting like that? Her forehead throbbed with what seemed like every heartbeat, she rubbed at it in between dressing to no avail. She gently tucked her veil into her dress as she left the dark orangey light of the villa to the open cloudy courtyard. She had heard stories-the very few times she had been present at court, of lands were the ground was the same colour as the sun above. Had Ecgberht seen such lands on his pilgrimage? She wondered as she prayed in the deserted little chapel. She always prayed for him, the brother who left too early. Blaeja knew Judith had always been jealous of their brother’s fate; she was married off to Wessex while our brother was shipped to Frankia to be educated. Blaeja likewise was jealous of the adventures he had been blessed to experience. Not long ago he had spoken of the glory of the Roman Empire. She was sure was this little chapel in Eofiric could not hold a candle to the Hagia Sophia Cathedral. Maybe after the war she would be blessed to accompany Edmund on pilgrimage or perhaps when her children were grown and all earthly desire had left her. I should not think of such things, she told herself, it is not god’s plans that women should do such things.
Once outside the chapel, Blaeja noticed just how empty the courtyard was. Where were all the servants she had seen when she arrived? At this time the courtyard should be awash with them hurrying around doing jobs for their masters. It had been a few days since the feast so none could claim to still be ale sick. The only sounds she could hear came from the town beyond the walls, not even the ring of the villa’s own smithy’s hammer - strange weapons were a needed commodity in this time. None of it sat right within her. Maybe I could find answers in the town, she pondered.
She had barely walked two steps when mother cried after her. Mother stood, her red faced servant in tow wrapped in her usual furs. She looked paler than Blaeja had ever seen her, mother like father had never like this place, but Blaeja wasn’t sure if it was enough. “Where are you going?”
“I thought I would have a stroll in the market.”
“Is there anything you have need of?”
“Return to your room, come on. It’s time to break your fast.” Blaeja had forgot how hungry she was until her mother had said, her stomach rumbled in response. Everyone was laughing at Leofric’s story; Blaeja didn’t catch when they entered the hall. She noticed her husband was not amount them, where was he? After her meal Blaeja headed back towards her room, there was little else to do especially while mother’s little servant seemed to always be watching her. She stopped short outside her door, with a cautious look around she started heading towards Edmund’s rooms. His comment from the other night had got her thinking; maybe Edmund would be kinder to her if he had bedded her, perhaps it would soothe him when he cannot be at war.
She opened up the large door in front of her and froze; long red curls hid her husband from her. At first they did not seem to take notice continuing in their actions, Blaeja fully wasn’t sure she knew what was going on. She knew ‘what’ was happening, but why was it happening? Why was she watching it happen? She stood in her trance till Edmund looked her through his lashes, mouth still attached to the other’s body.
“Blaeja.” He had been the first time he had called her by her name. She bolted as fast as she could not sure if she closed the door behind her or not. Some part of her wanted to him call after her, for him to chase after her dishevelled and half dressed, to apologize. But he didn’t. It was foolish of Blaeja to think he would, he was a king after all. Everything a king has comes from God that included his wife and his women.
Blaeja found she could not sit still in her room, eyes flashing every so often at the door. What was she hoping for? She rubbed her face around her it felt like the walls were closing in-maybe they were, maybe the blood she had seen on the walls was her own. She scowled at herself, while the Northmen sat at our shores she was stupid to think any danger could come from inside. She would take precautions just in case. She paced around the room; she felt if she checked the walls she could prove to herself they weren’t closing in around her. Her hand was covered in the white crumbly substance as she dragged it along the wall; it made her look like she was preparing for a ritual. She reached a little hollow place. Blaeja grabbed the candle from beside her bed and felt for it again, the flame flicked and a small breeze caressed her face. She reached out with her other hand, when she heard clatter from outside her room.
She turned towards the door with only the candlestick in defence. Her door banged against the hinges and ice ran through her veins, is this what the blood on the walls meant. Her mind flashed to the red haired woman that had sat astride her husband like a man might sit a horse. Muffled voices were heard on the other side and shouts. Blaeja’s heart was pondering hard against her ribs and she could see the candlestick shake in her hands. Silence, just as quick as the noise had started it had stopped. She stayed in her spot for a few moments; it seemed to be what she did when she was afraid, like a rabbit cornered by hunters.
Finally she regained herself; her hand was shaking as she set down her weapon. She carefully opened the door and peeked at the hallway, all clear. She pulled her veil tight around her face, maybe so one will mistake her for a servant and leave her be and set out towards the stables. The hallways were quiet as Blaeja had almost come to expect from the day. Down in the stables Wine and Wulfnod almost jumped on her when they caught sight of her; the two grey masses licked and wagged their tails in happiness, like they could sense the new warm room awaiting them. Blaeja hope they would reward her by taking down anyone that intended to hurt her.
A cry peaked Blaeja’s attention. It was little Elfrida who used her mother’s skirts as protection from the giant beasts. Mildred was bowed low in front of her, but Blaeja could still see the bright smile that graced her fair features. “There’s nothing to fear Elfie.” Mildred laughed pulling the child from behind her. Certainly not much has changed, Bleaja thought, Mildred was still pushing people into situation they were afraid of. Mildred looked to Blaeja asking her permission, she confidently held out a hand, as if an Ealdorman may place a kiss upon it. Blaeja held back Wine and let Wulfnod press his nose into Mildred’s waiting hand, he was the gentler of the two. Mildred tried to push one of her daughter’s hands onto the hound’s shaggy fur; the little one instead was balling her eyes out terrified at the creature in front of her. It was a feeling Blaeja knew well. “Ssh, come now, you will have many of them when you are a Lady or maybe a Prince’s wife.” Mildred did not have subtly in her nature.
“Maybe we should try another day with her?” Blaeja whistled the hound back to her side.
“I think you’re right my lady.” Mildred admitted in her joyful tone of speaking. Blaeja awkwardly turned; she never knew what to say. “I am going to the market in town; I would be most honoured if you wished to join me?” The older girl added.
“I would like that.”
“Shall I meet you in the garden, in 30 minutes?” When Mildred smiled it was hard not to join in.
“I shall see you there.” A rare smile found itself on her face, maybe things were starting to turn in her favour. In her room a familiar figure sat in unused chair “Why are you here?” The grumpy now pink faced servant looked up from her needlework.
“My Lady, your mother sent me, she believes you could do well with some company.” Wine was getting restless at her feet. I am to watched, she took up her needlework and took her usual place in the window ledge. It was not having a servant that bothered her, nor did she have anything to hide. For all her life her parent had left her be, of course it was proper for her to be housed in the nunnery, after all the nunnery had saved her and her siblings lives. But for now why didn’t her mother spend time with her if the intent was to really provide company. Wulfnod took his usual place by her feet; Blaeja noticed the servant wasn’t as pleased with his presence as mother had been. Wine on the other hand was sniffing along the walls, she watched his curious behaviour.
“May you fetch me some water please?” The servant wordlessly did as she commanded. She seized back her candle stick she knelt down beside the hound who had found the hollow spot. The shallow wind danced along her face as she gently pushed Wine out of the way, Wulfnod characteristically didn’t seem bothered with his litter mate’s antics. She ran a finger along until she found a small groove, it was painful to squeeze two of her fingers into the groove and with a snap the little door opened. It was dark inside but the air current was beckoning, Wine poked his nose in, clearly smelling something she couldn’t. “ Stay.” She commanded him. She shouldn’t go down she knew, she told herself repeatedly but she climbed through the tiny entrance, barely big enough to fit her tiny frame. Blaeja’s halted for a few moments to allow her eyes to adjust to the dark, she could barely see very far in front of her. A little far in steps appeared, she barely had much room to move as she untangled her legs, her head hit off the ceiling causing dust and other things she didn’t want to think off to fall into her hair. Finally a foot touched a step and another. From further down the smell of the kitchens reached her- was that where the burning smell came from? Behind her the hounds barked, she must be on her way back. Hunching down as far as she could, Blaeja crawled back trying hard not to breathe in the dust.
She gave thanks for the clean air as she dusted herself off; wiping her hair as she was sure there was something in it- she hoped it was just her mind. Mildred! She remembered. Straighten the veil around her head she carefully closed the door behind her as to not let the dogs out. Luckily she didn’t spot her mother’s spy the whole journey, but in truth she was distracted by her discovery. Why did it lead to the kitchens? Was it a servant hatch? it doesn't seem likely anyone would want their food covered in dust and chalk? Moreover why is it still here?
It was a puzzlement that kept her company on her journey to the garden. The little garden of her childhood had been replaced by paths to connect the buildings with small bundles of greenery and blue Iris flowers adding some colour to the dull path. Blaeja bend to pick some, she would give them to Elfrida to cheer her up. In front of her a shadow blocked the sun. Edmund stood above her, looking very presentable. She dipped her head and waited for his permission to rise, she held the blue flowers close to her chest as he stood emotionless in front of her.
“I want her gone.” She blurted out, where did she get the courage to say that? She bit hard on her tongue.
“She has already left. You will not enter without permission again.” You should have guards posted at your doors, she wanted to say but instead she nodded. “You will also never speak of any of my women do you hear me? You will turn your cheek as Christ commands.” She raised the flowers towards her face so the perfume would fill her senses. Her husband berated her like Mother Superior Ainsley had when she was a child of eight. Catching sight of her Edmund ripped the flowers from her hands. “Once more you will listen to me when I talk to you. Is that understood?”
“As you command.” He stroded off, Blaeja bend to pick up the bright flowers, the wind had finally made an appearance and blew a few under the large lone tree. A fat droplet of water rolled off a dry leaf above her, landing on her cheek and looked like a tear, joined by another and another until the pathway began to turn a darken hue. A roll of thunder rung somewhere in the distance, signalling a great storm. Or was it the Great Heathen Army banging their round shields.
I promise it will not be all depressing. Please tell me what you think, are the characters going along good?
Chapter 4: The cold sets in
Warning: There is mention and depiction of suicide in this chapter, not too much in detail.
Seax- A type of blade, it was used for hunting as well in the kitchen and even in battle.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“It’ll be hard in the beginning, but after a while it’ll be easier.” Mildred had spoken that day under the large lone tree. She spoke from her own experience but Blaeja failed to connect with her words; of course she had expected such a thing when she would be big with child, but she had hoped not be overshadowed so early and barely a bride. Mildred’s words gave her hope for the future, especially in her current moment. The Queen and her shadow of a servant had joined her in her chambers, together crafting their embodied shirts-by the time they return to Bamburgh father would have enough to last him the year out. Blaeja wondered if Judith sewed her shirts for Aethelwulf, or did her needle belong to another?
Edmund had his place at the small table, a flagon and one goblet of wine reserved only for him upon it. A little serving boy scurried back and forth to refill his master’s refreshment, his little body was flushed under the heavy weight of the flagon and the steps from the kitchen to room. He would be quicker using the little hatch, Blaeja thought more than once in the silence. She tied to concentrate on her own shirt; mother had insisted she started to make one for her husband. They would be put to better use if the shirts were going to the soldiers.
Had the battle taken place? Blaeja wondered. Father had called his northern lords the night of her marriage, it wouldn’t have taken long for the men to arrive and the preparation had begun long before the Pagans had even arrived. Had father now broken through their ranks, rained down god’s justice on the pagans? Maybe tonight he would ride into Eofiric on his white warhorse, his shiny gold helmet like a halo around his holy head. The consecrated finger bones of their ancestor St Oswald would protect and guide his head just as he had done in the past.
Her own hand shook slightly from the cold that crept through the window, her hounds banished from her feet-they had barely spent the night by the fire till mother had turned them out. The cold spread through her back over the marks that criss-crossed, mother wanted to make sure that Blaeja knew her duty. She tied hard not to make a noise as the fabric of her dress rubbed against them; the tight coverings provided only mental reassurance. She made small movements, the cool air-despite the onset pain, gave her skin some comfort. Luckily it did not seem to draw any attention, her mother did not take her eyes from her beautiful embroidery, and the servant was on a mission to get some more cloth and thread. Edmund would not meet her eyes even in the company of her own mother, Blaeja wondered how she could be surrounded by people yet feel so alone. It was like she was watching someone’s life than living it herself.
“Ouch!” She cried aloud, blood wept from the site her needle had broken the skin. Blaeja had always been good at needlework, she prided herself on her ability to stitch fabric and flesh. But was that a skill to leave her now as well. Three times she had picked herself: the day the pagan died, the day of her marriage and today, it was a precedent she did not want to set. To her surprise Edmund handed her a square of cloth, she accepted it hoping her own smile would bring one to his; it did not. There was calmness about him, like a spring wind that brushed the heather high upon the hill.
Church bells rang throughout the town at an alarming rate, it brought with it doom and panic. A panting guard threw open the large oak door, breaking through the silent atmosphere. “My Lord.” It was Algar, he bowed to each in turn. “Forgive me for entering unannounced. The Great Heathen Army approaches.” Blaeja could feel the blood in her veins turn to ice, like she had been dropped head first into an icy river. Algar stood awkwardly at the doorway awaiting his orders, Blaeja vaguely noticed him giving her a concern, it was only then that she realized she was shaking slightly and not just from the cold. Her husband took his time in downing the contents of his goblet; he finally smiled very charmingly at the two royal women. The sight warmed Blaeja a small amount and made her heart skip a beat.
“I shall take to the battlements. We’ve been preparing for this, fear not my mother.” He place a comforting kiss on to the queen’s forehead, Blaeja had to admit she was a little jealous to be the only one not to receive his attention. “Wife I bend my knee and ask for your blessing.” Just as tradition demanded Blaeja laid her hands on his soft brown head.
“May our lord Jesus and all his saints protect you from harm.” “Fear not wife, I intend not to die this day.” This was a gleefully glint in his eye, Blaeja couldn’t place it but it made the soft hair on her arms stand on edge. Edmund and Algar quickly departed, off to put their armour on. In their absent it was as if they had took the heat with them, Blaeja moved towards the brazier begging for any heat it was willing to give her. It licked at her face as Wine would do often and dried the small tears on her cheeks, more ran down her warm cheeks to replace them. Outside the noise of the defence sounded in earnest, clanks of armoured men taking their position outside the room. I am now a prisoner for my own protection. Blaeja looked out the window, her view was obstructed by a high wall but she could still see a slice of the pale blue sky. The low afternoon sun was hidden by white fluffy clouds, like a herd of sheep had escape they shepherd and danced in the sky above. A large black raven landed on the wall, something long and stringy hanging from his mouth. His large blue eye stared at her, like his could see inside her soul.
She was so fixed on the sight she didn’t realize her mother’s servant had returned to the room mission completed. She heard a voice in the distance but she couldn’t make it out, the large bird in front of her took to spreading out its large onyx wings just like in her dream. “Blaeja.” Her mother’s voice roused her, her face was lined with confusion.
“I’m sorry, I was looking at-" But it had flown off, probably to patiently wait for its feast.
“Come here child.” Her mother led her from the warmth of the fire and dismissed the old servant. Blaeja could feel mother’s hands tremble around her, she only noticed now without the horrible wolf skin cloak how thin mother had become. Mother’s narrow hands left her arms to push a small blade into her hand, Blaeja looked at her in shock as she tied to push the seax back into her mother’s hand. “If it comes to it, we must. I’m sure you have heard too of what they do to captured foes, and especially the women.” Bleaja could feel her heart beat in her ears , it was pounding so fast Blaeja was worried it would burst out her chest.
“We can’t” She whispered.
“What do you think they’d do to us, the women of the man that slain their king and father. God will forgive our desperation.” Her mother pulled her into an embrace, but Blaeja remained frozen like stone. The blade between them pressed hard up against her heart, refusing to be forgotten.
“What will they do?” Her voice was so quiet, she wasn’t sure why she asked, but she had now.
“Avery says they sacrifice people to their blood thirsty gods for a good harvest, that they plough their fields with human blood. Their priests are said to bathe in blood themselves as they perform the rituals. She seen them burn women alive at the end of ‘certain acts’.” Her mother’s face twisted in disgust and horror, Blaeja was sure her own face matched, her hands sweated as she gripped tightly onto the seax.
The sounds of the siege were underway around them, in the distance shouts were heard in what language not one of the women could distinguish. They didn’t know if the battle had broken into the town yet, the packed earth would make an easy battle field. Surely it hadn’t got that far or maybe they were too high up or too far away for the echoes of spear and sword to reach her. Blaeja looked to the large door, it was very heavy it did take a strong guard after all to pry it open every time she wanted to enter or exit. She remembered back to the other day, how it rocked under the weight of ‘something’. Would it be so weak under the weight of weapons of their foes? Her mother was praying desperately in front of golden crucifix, it scared Blaeja. Surely god wouldn’t abandon them, she said to herself again and again but joined her mother all the same.
Was it minutes or hours that passed? They couldn’t be sure in their small makeshift chapel, their voices were hoarse as they pressed on, and Edmund had finished off all the wine before he left and not one servant stood on call. The flames in the brazier had long died and there was no more wood to revive it, they would die of thirst and chill before any pagan blade would harm them. Blaeja tried to put the thought out of her mind as her prayers left her in puffs of smoke, the twin blades sat on the alter in front of them bathe in the small glory of the candles like they were an ungodly idol. Had mother prepared blades for us the last time we were at war? She thought. She was so young at the time of the civil war, but now she was curious if a seax with their names had loomed over them in the safety of the nunnery. If Osberht had won would her mother rather have spilled their life blood then surrender to the usurper?
As if to interrupt and answer her questioning, the sound of footsteps thundered outside. One pair, two pairs, three pairs. Blaeja lost count of how many there were, they seemed to duplicate like a demon able to rip itself into multiple copies. Even from here Blaeja could hear the wooden boards groan under their weight. Again and Again the footsteps sounded also controlled and calm, like how she heard lions move before the pounced. Maybe it was their own men; maybe victorious Edmund was return back to free them? Both women seemed to have the same thought as they rose to their feet ready to greet him, blades left behind like a nightmare. Almost as soon as the feeling reached them it was dashed with the scraping of blades. Grunts and groans were the sound of their strong helpless protectors; all was lost.
It was here, it had come to ‘it’. There was no more time to think of the maybes, of what could be, the forces of East Anglia were not enough to stop the tide. Father was dead, Blaeja realized, for the Northmen would not be here if father had defeated them in the field. She let the tears fall now, heavy like rain down her pale cheeks. Even mother did not try to take them from her, above she could hear the raven squawking ready for its new meal. Blaeja joined her mother in unison, she struggled to keep the blade still against her breast. She stared at the gold crucifix, metal seemed to dance and bleed against the light of the candles. She could hear her breathe echo in her skull, her brain felt like it would melt from the blood that pulsed and throbbed behind her eyes. She didn’t want to look to her mother, didn’t want to see those eyes so similar to hers close for evermore. From the corner of her eyes she seen her mother fall, it was over quickly, and the sharp blade brought her to god. Blaeja tied to concentrate, she gripped the blade tighter, the leather bidding hurt against her palm and the guard poked uncomfortably into her hand. It will all be over just as it is for mother, she told herself. She tied to push the blade against her skin and she winced when it drew a few drops of blood. She could do no more than that. She fell to her knees beside her mother’s body, her life’s blood was still warm and it coated Blaeja’s hands to remind her how much of a failure she was. She wanted to stay there, weep and tell her how sorry she was until she joined her, but outside the final bodies of the guards fell.
Blaeja remembered the little hatch. They were at the door now, it shook on its hinges just as it had that day before. Through blurry vision she pried up the small stubborn door. Something smashed through the door, leaving shards of wood in its wake, she felt one hid her wet hands. She crawled in backwards into the tiny tomb like space, carefully not to get blood on the white walls, she wiped as much as she could on her dress, trying not to think of its owner. Quietly she closed the door behind her as the large door finally gave way. She remained inside her tomb haven, eyes focused on the little crack around the door that gave her a view to the room. She was too scared to move in case she would alert them to her presence. Screams, both of men and women followed them from the space where her door had been. What started as shadows formed into hulking meat of men, they wore blood as brazenly as a maiden would wear her jewels. In front they were seemly lead by a shorter younger man, not long out of boyhood. His hair may have been blond, Blaeja fully couldn’t tell from the light and blood that darkened it. They made quick work of her room, turning furniture and rummaging through her chests to find every last precious jewel. Her breathe stopped when the younger one looked her direction, this was her reward for her cowardice. She tied to move back in the tunnel to hide herself further from his gaze.
But they left, richer than they had entered but without her all the same. She slowly backed further into the hole until her feet came in contact with the steps, her foot almost slipped but luckily she found her place and then the second step and she finally had the room to move. She hadn’t realized before it opened up to be so huge, the ceiling was lost in the darkness above her somewhere. The light from the cracks in the hatch gave off enough light to find a wall to her side, it was rough against her hand, but she was grateful of it all the same. She did not have time to let her eyes adjust to the darkness, she slowly placed a foot one after another on the steps in front of her, using only the wall as her guide. At the bottom was the kitchens, it would not be long till dark and maybe she could escape out the well. She continued in her slowly and delicate pace, in the darkness an oil holder appeared and ripped her veil from her head, taking diadem and a few hairs from her scrap. It caused her eyes to water, she was passed the first curve of the steps now one could see her if they opened the hatch and she didn’t know how far the steps continued, this would be a good place to wait. She slowly sunk down the wall, using the step as an uncomfortable seat. Her hand was bloody and enflamed from the rough wall and her salty tears burned her cheeks. She bite hard against the heel of her hand to silence any sobs that escaped, she wept until there was no tears left in her to weep.
She could hear the scurry of rats in the tunnels above her, they would usually frighten her but now she was too drained to feel anything else but sadness. It wrapped around and squeezed her heart as if it would make this place her eternal home. She had no way of knowing how long she had been sitting here, was it now as dark outside as it was in here. I need to get out, the next village shouldn’t be too far I can buy a horse and go to Wessex. I can see Judith again and warn them. She finally smiled in the darkness. Her body ached as she straightened, she had to push forward. Her feet were wobbly and she had to remain silent through her trips, but soon she found her pace. She descended further and further, maybe she had slipped away without realizing, maybe now she was descended further into Hades. The stale air Blaeja had got use to now gave way to the open air of the kitchen mingled with blood and decay. The entrance to the tunnel was covered by a larger version of the same wooden door that lead her to this point, through the cracks she could see the lack of light. She pushed against it to no avail, the sweat rolled down the back of her neck in the exertion. She groped at the door in a hot panic in darkness. Was she to be trapped forever on the over side of the door? New tears clouded up her vision as she pushed and pulled at the door, finally it slide away.
The kitchen was a mess when she was freed, the Northmen had already ransacked it. She tiptoed around the broken pieces of pottery, trying to find the well. A movement outside drew her eye, she hid behind the table her hand brushed over a broken piece of plate or bowl, she gripped it carefully between her fingers. Her eyes watched the shadow walk together her, as he got nearer Blaeja recognized him. “Edmund.” She whispered in the dark spring forth from her hiding place. “I’m so glad you’re safe, come on we have to get out of here.” She grabbed at his hand but it dropped to his side limply.
“My condoles on your mother.” He spoke so plainly and with his usual emotionless voice. Over his shoulder Blaeja notice the horses, there were more, a great deal more than they had arrived with and all in his colours. Could he have called more men? She wondered, no the East Anglia forces were here already. Then who? The answer made her feel sick to her stomach.
“Edmund, please tell me you didn’t betray us.” He said nothing. “Edmund.”
“In the choice between your people and mine, I will always save mine.” His usual guards appeared behind him, Oswald in his most prominent place, his uncleaned one handed sword in hand. He almost looked like a Northmen himself from the blood that crusted on his bald head.
“How could you trust these pagans?” How could we have trusted you.
“We have an understanding. Come now we will leave for East Anglia tonight .” She stood where she was, for the first time not in fear. One of the guards came towards her, she smashed the pottery shard against his face. He screamed such a high scream as a piece found his eye, Blaeja hopped she could get away she tried to back away but Oswald was like a wall. She was on the ground before she knew from his blow, she could feel the bruise already budding under the skin. A swift kick to the gut stopped her world for several moments. Her brain screamed as she gasped for air. Was this how she was to die? She couldn’t feel anything save the burn of her lungs as she fought for air. Finally the world started to move again, by that time the well was a sight growing smaller and smaller. She was bound like cattle as Oswald pushed her along on reluctant feet, mud and stone made a home into her shoes.
The courtyard was a different sight, it was about to almost burst with warriors. A wave of noise, of beer and laughter accompanied them as the warriors paid her a little of their attention. She could see the shine of the metals and jewels being shared amount them. The bodies Blaeja had expected to be everywhere were piled high and on fire, the smell made her gag but there was nothing in her stomach to bring up. On the walls of the chapel father Almund and his fellow priest hung upside down, their throats sliced from ear to ear. Were they sacrifices to their gods? Would I join them on their walls? Blaeja didn’t want to look anymore, didn’t want to see what awaited her. She bowed her head and a small time later they came to a stop.
“Friends, I give you a gift. Aelle’s own daughter.” One of their own translated Edmund’s words. Blaeja was pushed to the ground, she hoped death would come quick. A large rough hand grabbed her chin and forced her bruised face up, maybe Blaeja was imaging or maybe she was numb from pain but he seemed gentle around her swelling cheek. She at last came face to face with the pagan, Ecgberht had once told her how funny they looked, they did not look funny now. His rough hand matched his sharp angular face and his hair was longer than hers wrapped in cord from root to tip, he at least had the decency to wash the blood from his face unlike Oswald. His clear blue eyes studied her face, pulling it one way and another and opening her mouth as if she were a horse for sale.
He spoke something to the men around him, each one in turn added their own opinion. At times it sounded like an argument. Blaeja felt her neck begin to cramp, her head still in the older one’s grasp. She noticed the youth who had stormed her room was among them, he certainly looked better without the blood, no doubt his hair was certainly blond. They still argued for the next few minutes until the one holding her barked at them, was he their new king? She wondered.
“We accept her.” The translator told Edmund. One war made her a princess, the other made her a thrall.
“My payment?” Edmund asked. One of the darker haired men was binding Blaeja to the long pole once used to tie up the horses. The elder one gave her amethyst earrings a pointed look, with a small tug she was free of them and he threw them to her husband. He was not as gentle when he snatched the crucifix from her neck. They all left her then, Edmund and his forces hurried to their horses and rode off into the night. Everything hit her like the cold air that rolled in, for her cowardice she was now sold off to do god only knew what in the camp of the Northmen. She wanted to scream, to cry, to go back and have followed mother in death. She heard crunching heading towards her, she closed her eyes as tight as she could. Was this the beginning of it? She was surprised when the heavy feeling of a cloak appeared around her shoulders, blocking out the cold slightly. When she opened her eyes the blond youth was in front of her, spoon in hand. She turned her head as it came closer to her, he tied again and when she refused he look to his lanky companion.
“It is not poisonous. I give you my word.” She could smell it under her nose, it made her mouth water and her stomach begged for it. Against her better judgement she accepted the food , and the strange boy giving it to her. She tied not to look at him, but his eyes scared her and intrigued her. His left eye looked like one of father’s snake had escaped and found a home there. Fed and watered she was warmed from the inside and when she was done she was sleepy. As quietly as he came to her the boy left her along with the lanky man, he unbound her from the post but not from her ropes.
“You have nothing to fear from me, you will not sleeping out here, come.” She pulled the cloak tighter around her, it was much heavier than any she had owned and the fur tickled her face. The friendly man led her back to one of the rooms. Only the bed was left and this room didn’t seem to have a hatch, anything that she could use to hurt herself was removed. Two women in armour appeared at the door, Alvis as her lanky helper introduced himself explained they were her guards, and she hoped they would fare better than her last ones. She was tied to bed and left in the dark room, why would god abandon her this way? She tried to reach for her crucifix but like the rest of her world it was gone.
Thank you so much to everyone who had read, comment and giving kudos, its means so much to me.
Chapter 5: Ravens
I'm so sorry its taking so long, here's the new chapter and not long the wait till the next one.
Everything hurt. Her legs cramped uncomfortably in her curled position, while her chest ached from a swift kick, every cough edged the pain deeper into her chest. Blaeja found herself in that tantalise place between asleep and awake. From her half closed eye lids she could see the crumbling white paint on the walls, the small shafts of light from the sun that laminated the swirling dust. Perhaps, she thought, she had been dreaming a terrible dream. When she would wake, the kitchens would be in one piece, the priests would be preparing for morning mass, their incense so thick it dried the throat. Mother would be sitting in her usual spot at the table; a warm smile that Blaeja hadn’t seen in so long would grace her lips. May per chance father had arrived during the night and was there to bring her home safe.
The smell of burning-the horrid smell of burning flesh that hung thick in the air reminded her it was not a dream. That the events of the day before had happened, Eofiric had fallen in a blaze of blades and blood and betrayal. Blaeja wasn’t sure how she’d slept but somehow she had, in a kinder world she wouldn’t have woken up. The stiffness in her arms made themselves known as she eyed the ropes holding her wrists secured to the bed post. She pulled at them, over and over but it only tightened them tighter around her. She shouldn’t have accepted the food from that boy, no matter how huger she was she shouldn’t have gave in. She would not succumb anymore, she couldn’t. She should have gone through it with her mother; instead she was left alone in the world. A world now owned by Northmen.
The heavy door pulled open and Alvis entered, Blaeja couldn’t fathom how such a creature could have so kind of a face, it reminded her of Father Aldred. That similar sincere face that in Father Aldred’s case, he always wore a hearty smile to complement his rosy cheeks. She would never believe the indecent gossip about him and the Mother Abbess. But now Alvis had that same warm smile and those same rosy cheeks, It made her feel safe, although that was a foolish feeling giving she was currently tried to a bed. In behind him followed a dark haired woman who looked to be her age-maybe a little older and she was beaming down at her with that smile so similar to the man beside her. Maybe she was trying to be friendly, but it scared Blaeja even more. She wanted to wrap her arms around her legs, but the restraints at her wrists prevented her that comforting habit.
“You are awake, this is my daughter Sigyn. She is a healer; she will check your wounds and insure you are good for work.” She did not like the sound of that, what was her work to be? But was she to expect much difference, she was no King’s daughter anymore, she had no worth. Sigyn was gentle around her swollen cheek, but her light presses on her chest caused Blaeja to suck in a sharp breath. Sigyn gave her a sad smile and went to whisper with her father, their language sounded gruff and hard to her ears. This was the language of her new masters, this language of death and sin. Not for very long, she told herself.
“My daughter tells me you injuries are not serious.” He strolled towards her, making quick work of the small room and skillfully unwound her restraints from the bed post. Her freedom was still in his hands, was her work to begin? “It is time to bathe, and then we will begin.” There was her answer and the thought of it brought tears to her eyes. They spilled down her sore cheek, mixing with the dirt and sweat from the day before. But no bath was brought forth, and Alvis didn’t let her wait around to see if one appeared. Where was he taking me? She wondered as he pulled his leashed princess into the cloudy day, she snuck a look to the courtyard below.
It was covered in ashes, both human and the precious holy texts; a few pages had escaped the flames and lay thick with mud underfoot. The large black ravens had gathered, perched along the walls like a king overseeing his castle. Blaeja sank from their squawks, but the men that awaited her in the courtyard were a sore sight. A scattering of them still remained from the night before, blood mix into their beards. Some clearly looked ale sick, while others sharped their blades, the ring of the metal put her teeth on edge. Blaeja tried to ignore their many glares and some even tried to follow in behind her guards. Was this to be her work when she was clean? She silently sung to herself, the tune from her childhood mother always sung when she was afraid.
The mud squelched under her fine leather shoes, she noticed Sigyn had a bag of something over her shoulder. The most logical option would be a new dress; her current was ripped and stained beyond use. The steam was a short distance outside the villa; the kitchens were built on top a part of it. Blaeja wondered did any of the staff manage to escape through the well or where they all captured. She had assumed the Ealdorman and his family had become fuel for the fire, those poor babes. May god have mercy upon them, she silently prayed.
Her gaolers stopped in front of the water, Blaeja was thankfully the followers had been scared off. Sigyn didn’t waste much time and started undoing the ties that had knotted in places. Her dress slumped around her, with little movement Blaeja allowed it to pool at her feet. She however would not allow Sigyn to remove her body shift; she didn’t want to lose all of her modesty this day. The water was cold and raised goose bumps along her exposed flesh; she hugged her chest and hid her body from her voyeurs under the cleansing water. The current was a gentle push against her; maybe just maybe it was enough to save her, she wondered as she lifted her feet from the bed. She hoped the river would take her away, to where she did not know but it could not be worse than this. Hopefully she would find a little village and sell her wedding band for a horse, it would take a great few months to arrive in Wessex, but hopefully she would reach them before the Northmen.
Instead she stayed where she was, bobbing up and down like a twig that refused to sink. It seemed that god himself would not take her from this place. Sigyn handed her a small pot of crushed red powder she guessed from the smells, maybe roses. Sigyn pointed to her head and body, she guessed it was some sort of cleanser. She noticed they looked at her intently when she dipped her head into the water, posed to pull her from the water if she stayed down too long. The rose concoction was quite pleasant against her skin and made light work of the cobwebs and dust from the hatch tangled in her dark hair, it even soothed the burn in her chest.
Sigyn held out a towel, signalling her time was up. Alvis was turned away from her as she emerged from the steam, heavy and slick with water. The towel served the dual purpose of a screen as Sigyn stripped her out of the shift and replaced it with a dry one and into an over sized plain and white dress. She was to have no more finery as a thrall, although it was probably her last bath in a long time. Sigyn provided her with stronger leather boots better to withstand the terrain, but within minute she could feel blisters on her dainty feet. Sigyn dried her hair so she wouldn’t get a chill and applied a strong smelling balm to her cheek and to the scars of her back. It was potent and smelled of smoke but Blaeja could smell the Maythen on her cheek, she knew it well the nuns would use it on the wounds of the soldiers brought to them.
The courtyard was more alive when they made their trip back; a small group huddled into a circle as two huge men twisted and slashed at each other. The clank of short swords and banging of shields could just about be heard over the loud guff shouts of the men around them. Some strange prayers to their gods no doubt, Blaeja thought as she mounted the stairs, and her ever silent guards following close behind. The two men below were equally match, both broad of shoulder and tall, incredibly tall.
“They are truly giants.” She said aloud, Sigyn gave a small rude laugh.
“Everyone is quite tall compared to you.” Alvis laughed with his daughter, pulling his captive up the wooden stairs. From the vantage point, Blaeja was able to see the fighters were two of the men from the night before. In the light of the day one looked identical to the man that had held her face-save for his darker braid that swung around with each turn. Every so often that dark hair gave way to bright blue tattoos running in strange patterns down the side of the head and onto his neck, it was something Blaeja had never seen before. The other looked only a little younger than his challenger and much more agile as he easily stepped out of the way of the advances. The elder however to his credit got some close hits on his younger opponent that could have finished him. It was hypnotic to watch, Blaeja had only a few times been allowed to watch the men practicing arms. It was quite a sight to behold; the raw strength of her father’s men was enough to get her flustered. But not today, she wouldn’t let that happen. The fight was over quite quickly with the first show of bright red blood on both sides. Nothing serious just a gaze on an arm, Blaeja thought, with some Maythen it’ll heal soon. Why am I wishing them well, I would be better serve if their arms rot and fall off.
On the last perch of the stairs, Blaeja noticed the other three overlooking the proceedings; one was only a head barely above the railing, his lazy hands held an axe that looked big for him, how could he possibly hold such a thing with ease? Blaeja asked herself; with a drop it would do quite a bit of damage to whoever it found underneath. The leader looked ever bigger than the night before wrapped in his pale furs; his thick hands looked like they could rip chunks from the railing below his fingertips and he had a face that could cause the world to burn with just a look. The younger blonde caught her staring; he was strange, while his long blonde hair and warrior physique clearly marked him out as other, he was not so different he wouldn’t have been too out of place at court. She oddly blushed as she looked away from him, while Alvis pulled her in to the dim room.
He tied her hands to the leg of the table. Are they scared I would run? Where would I go? She said to herself. “Why were they fighting?” For a second thought, she wondered if the army would kill itself before the Saxon army could reach it. A glimmer of hope sparked within her, a combined Saxon army was unheard of, but so had a pagan army. Maybe this was the force to bring the country united under one banner.
“To entertain the men, but also proves their strength, to ensure loyalty among their men. That and Hvitserk likes to show off how good of a warrior he has become.” He stroked his long moustache; his long legs rest under her stool, a little kick would send her to the ground.
“Which one is he?”
“The younger of the two. The elder is Ubbe, both are sons of Ragnar.” They were the sons of that old man, and her father had brought them to their shores when he had defeated the heathen. But now both men were dead, mother too, before long Judith would be dead and god willing her time would come soon. Her only wish was that Ecgberht remained in Frankia.
Sigyn entered with a bowl of steaming oats, the very smell made Blaeja’s mouth water and her stomach lunged. It was so inviting stilling there in front of her, the spoon slowly dipping further into its delicious mass. She tightened her lips, without food death would follow and an escape from this place, she must be strong if she was to join her lady mother. She pushed it away as best as she could with her bound hands, Alvis watched her with a raised eyebrow.
“You will eat child.” He pushed the spoon closer to her.
“I have no craving for it. What is this work I am to do?”
“I am to teach our language, so you may be able to do your master’s bidding.”
“Oh.” That was it, at least for now. The lessons stretched long into the day, the morning meal was cold and had grown a new skin. Blaeja tried hard to distract herself with her lessons, barely getting to grips even the easiest of words in this harsh tongue. Alvis was a surprisingly understanding task master, repeating the words again and again. She could however see the disapproving looks when the snacks and finally the evening meal joined the morning bowl.
“I will not ask of you again, eat.” She made no movement towards even though her stomach hurt from emptiness and her head banged from an ache, but still she must resist. Instead she drunk a tiny bit of milk and sounded out the last word Alvis had spent the last hour teaching her. Alvis and Sigyn shared some words before the latter scurried out quickly. Was she to get more food?
In barely any time, Sigyn returned, the blonde leader in tow, there was no mistaking the anger on his face. He barked at her in his language, she had no idea but it sounded quite terrifying. The snake in his eye bright with anger, maybe it was enough to run her through, she hoped. “Lord Sigurd demands why you will not eat.” Sigyn had told on her.
“I have no desire to eat.” She looked at the shining seax hanging from his hip, maybe it was time to right what she should have done the day before. She waited as Alvis translated, the anger did not wash from his face but nor did her make any movement towards her or the seax.
“Budlungr Sigyn says if you do not eat, you will be force fed and paraded naked around the camp till you willingly comply.” Blaeja grabbed pieces of cold meat, it didn’t taste as good as it should but her belly cried in joy for it.
Her first month followed in much the same pattern, wake, wash, eat, study, eat and bed. Surprising her captors was quite religious (if the word could apply) when it came to washing and keeping clean. Blaeja found she bathe more now than she had throughout her life. Alvis started to talk to her less and less in her native language forcing her to speak more and more in the harsh foreign tongue Ragnar had spoken his dying words. Sigurd would also sometimes sit in on mealtimes, to ensure she was eating. She could always feel his gaze on her, it made her feel very awkward especially with the added constraints made picking up food a more clumsily affair then it needed to be. A few times she had missed her mouth while eating her daily oats; Sigurd would always be quick to wipe them from her cheek, his anger long gone. Had she missed her chance?
To her relief she spent most time inside her room, away from the men that prowled the courtyard. Brunhild and Freydis stood in their watch outside while Sigyn would prattle well-meaning chit chat to her; she had even picked up a few words in the Saxon language. Sigyn was certainly having easier time learning from her than Blaeja did. She was however able to teach Sigyn to embroider, the older girl would have such a smile on her face when she had mastered those tricky beginning stitches at last, in no time she would have a chest full of clothes. Not that Blaeja had any problems with the girl, but she didn’t want to think of this as her life. She listened patiently, biding her time for the first opportunity to escape.
Thankfully her bounds have been removed and she could roam around the room, although the red marks still decorated her wrists. She took to curling up in her favourite spot on the window seat, when she was alone she cried for all she had lost, she would cry till she feel into an exhausted sleep. From her usual spot she could see that big old tree, Judith had made her climb it one day when she was little, and she was so scared she couldn’t get down again. Ealdorman Leofric had been the one to get her down, she remember, he had been in much better health then. The tree was on the edge of the woods, the trees were so tight in places they would only allow one man at a time through them, maybe that could give her a chance to escape.
Sigyn returned looking quite excited with bundle of cloth. Her father was at a meeting he said and so there was to be no lessons today, in his absence Sigyn took on the mantle of teacher. Alvis did say she was to be born here if the King had not destroyed their village. She knew of the villages, but that was only because the Northmen had cause great harm to their neighbours and after only a few years mounted a rebellion against not only the King of Wessex but also her father. Both Kings had destroyed the source of the rebellion and that had been the end of it. She never gave much though that the people were any more than troublemakers and thieves.
“Sigyn-em, tree…herbs…heal. I show.” She tried to speak; she certainly could understand the language better than speak it. Sigyn brows furrowed but then relaxed as she put the words together. She nodded but insisted to bind one of Blaeja’s wrists to her. She panicked internally, it was happening, what would she to do now? She kept her eyes down in the courtyard, when they reached the tree, Sigyn would be distracted with the herbs, and she could easily find a rock and knock her out and cut herself free, yes that’s what she would do.
But when they arrived the herbs were blocked by Sigurd playing some strange instrument. Her plan was ruined, I will never escaped, and she frowned to herself. He noticed the two of them and step down the wooden shaped instrument.
“Sorry to disturb you’re playing my Budlungr.” Sigyn said. He waved her off as he straighten himself.
“Is she eating?” Blaeja made out, Alvis explained to her the language between his people and the Northern people of her country was similar with few changes. The monks do write that our people came from lands just beyond the Frankish empire; Alvis said they are not too far away from his home. Once she got over the strangeness of the language she could understand some of it, some of it still baffled her.
“Yes, and in good health.” She was able to pick up; they talked like she wasn’t here. If he was to leave then she wouldn’t be for much longer, she could see the darkness of the trees, just beyond the small creek.
“Well done Sigyn, maybe fatten her up more; she will be worth her wait in Silver.” They laughed, was she to be force fed till she needed a cart to move.
“What use to fat, when no King will pay.” It didn’t come out quite as she had wanted, but what was the point in keeping her hostage. Her father was dead; Edmund had abandoned her, what would Ecbert want with a second Northumbrian princess, certainly not one to pay a kingdom ransom for. Was this their plan? To capture her and sell her to the highest bidder. Did they realise no one was left that wanted her?
Sigurd left the two alone; Blaeja was surprised how it was falling into place. Sigyn dropped the ropes as she busied herself with the herbs. Blaeja spied the rocks by the riverside; her heart was beating wildly in her chest. The moment had come, she didn’t believe it would but here it was. She quietly made her way towards the splashing water; Sigyn was quietly humbling not paying attention. She found the one, not too big or sharp but it should knock her out. She hid it in behind her back as she approached Sigyn like an animal cornering its prey. She held the rock aloft, her hand shaking around it, it was now or never. Sigyn feel to the ground hard, bright blood pooling from the wound.
The rock fell from Blaeja’s hand as the realisation hit her. “I’m sorry.” She whispered through blurred vision. There wasn’t much time if Alvis seen they were missing he would come looking, and he mustn’t find her. The water was freezing, and made her cloak heavy in the rushing water. Above her the big black raven squawked, was it following her, hadn’t it had enough of her misery? The end of her rope got caught on the rocks on the river bed, she had forgotten about it in her haste to leave. She pulled at it but it was wedged hard into the bed. Her eyes were frantic as they searched for a sharp stone, every so often she would look to Sigyn’s body, the gleam of her knife mockingly visible on the soft green grass.
She couldn’t go back the rope wouldn’t let her. The raven made a noise like he was laughing; his dark beak peaked at the branch above her. She blew the piece of hair out of her face as she searched the rocks, testing their edge for sharpness. The perfect one cut her finger in a sharp gasp like when one catches their fingers on a paper edge. She quickly began slicing at the rope, finally the braided fibres started to snap. She was free just as she heard noises coming towards her, picking up the remainder of the rope she sprinted for the trees.
The branches were sharp against her face and she could still the noise of the damned raven. Soon in the light was snuffed out, the trees twisted and writhing together it was hard to see where one began and another ended. She continued further in, hoping over long dead trunks now giving over to rot and insects. Further she continued, she needed to get a safe distance, but not far behind her she heard a crunch.
Chapter 6: Purgatory
She couldn’t look back; maybe it was just some innocent creature. Her mind was going crazy, what if it was a Barghest that will eat her up in his large bloodied fangs. Her skin felt warm despite the chill and that she would faint at any moment. Her heart was beating wildly against her chest as her brain seemed to scream inside her skull. Crunch, another one and it was closer. Crunch, something was after her. A branch scratched her face, so close to her eye she thought she might lose it. The ties of her cloaked pulled at her neck, cutting off her air. She ripped at the ties leaving it behind; she was far too warm for it.
She tripped over a fallen trunk, she meet the hard ground with a thud. She crawled behind the fallen tree, its bark wet and soft. Crunch, there it was again. It’s just leaves and branches nothing to be afraid of, she told herself, But what’s making them crunch? She didn’t want to look, didn’t want to give her position away. She pulled her legs in to lie flat against the underside of the tree, hoping it’d be harder to be seen. She didn’t know what was worse, some creature in the forest or the Northmen on the chase for their prize. Her lungs burned against her ribs from her run, and her legs wanted to rest. How far was it to the nearest town? Was there a nearby town, did this forest continue to the end of the kingdom? It occurred to Blaeja that she didn’t know very much of her kingdom.
Squawk, there it was, that bloody bird. It was following her, she knew she sounded mad. She didn’t care she pushed herself off and ran, she didn’t know what direction she was going in but she needed to get as far away from it as possible. She couldn’t place but that bird had something strange about it, it brought death with it, was it her death she brought. Death or escape they were the only two options. She felt it peck at her head, the sharp beak nipped at her scalp. She dived towards the lowing hanging branches, hoping it wouldn’t follow her. It didn’t, for good reason; the dead trees give way to a large mound. She looked up and down, could she climb it? She tried to grab onto the root, but they came away in her hands. The trees had her trapped either side, she could only go back. But back was where that crazed bird was, where that creature waited to devour her and beyond that hundreds of Northmen who would rip her to shreds. Not least Sigyn could easily make a potion to kill her slowly.
She tried again to make some holes, but the soil was too soft to hold her foot, every time she tried it slipped out just as she put it in. Maybe she should have followed the river, but she couldn’t go back, nor could she go forwards. It was like the trees themselves were twisting and tightening over her head. What do I do? She asked herself, blood and sweat running down her neck. The mound in front of her lit with a small orange light getting bigger and she could see her shadow against it. She didn’t turn around but could hear the rustle of the leaves being kicked out the way, apart from the beating of her heart everything else was silence. A hand grabbed her shoulder, not a Barghest then. She tried to push against them but they were able to pull her around, it was Sigurd under that orange light. Had he followed her into the forest? Maybe it was a Burghest after all, only Sigurd’s was the raven that never leaves her be. The soil was loose under her fingers as she search for something to use, maybe a root, even just a loose stone straight into that snaked eye would give her time. What if there were others following? She tried to look but the flames were too bright it made spots appear in her eyes.
“It just me.” He spoke, in Saxon. Blaeja mouth fell up, the confused etched onto her face. “Alvis.” As if to answer her unspoken question. She wasn’t sure if she believed him, a group could be waiting to do worse things to her just beyond the trees, would it be time to burn her alive to their gods? She found it, the rock felt sharp against her hand, it would do damage. She tried to put as much strength as she could into her swing, but Sigurd was able to catch her wrist in time. He didn’t hurt her, but he wouldn’t let her go, if it caused him any strain he didn’t show it. The rock fell to the ground between them; he just looked at her waiting for to make a move. He knew, she guessed, early he knew what she would do. It would explain how he got here that quickly.
“Come.” He let go of her but she didn’t move, it was death or escape and latter hadn’t worked. He looked at her confused; Blaeja wrapped her arms around herself, starting to feel the cold. “Come now,” He starting in Saxon. “No harm will come to you.” He finished in his native language. What did that even mean? How could she trust him? She looked back to the mould.
“I don’t have a choice.” She spoke to herself in Saxon just to spite him; she tried to make herself as unreadable as possible. She remembered something: “I parade.” She stopped she didn’t know the word for naked, not that she wanted to know, She gestured towards herself.
“Maybe.” She shuddered, from the chill or the thought, maybe both. Sigurd produced a second cloak, similar to the one he gave her that first night. It smelled of the forest and was covered in leaves, I lead him right to me, she though as she pulled it tighter around her small body. He made sure she went first, heading back to her doom. “Aelle’s daughter…name?”
“Blaeja.” The rest of the wall was in silence, what meet her on the other side she would fine way out, somehow. The bird circled above her like it sensed its feast, so Sigurd was no shift-shaper after all. The darkness soon gave light to the ending day, there they were Alvis stood now cold with men she didn’t recognize, axes at the ready like she would really do these men any damage. Sigyn wasn’t among them; hopefully she hadn’t hurt her so seriously. Two of the men roughly grabbed her arms, it reminded her of the way her father would sometimes squeeze her. They half carried her over the water and half carried her into camp. The men and women jeered and crowded around her, up above in their usual places the leaders looked down on her with stone faces.
She was rather surprised to find she had been locked in the dark stables. Once again she was tired to the pole, the rough ropes rubbed at her wrists. The smell of the horses was overwhelming, and one not far from her kicked violently at his stall. The door shock hard on the hinges, with a swift kick it could hit her. The familiar tightening knot formed in her chest, she wanted so much to rub it loose, for some release,-any release from its grip. The panic that accompanied it crept up her spine indistinguishable from the cold air that bit at her bones.
She pulled at her ropes this way and another, trying hard with the little movement they offered. She exhaled and let her head drop against the pole, it was no use, and whatever she did just tightened them more. Her eyes filled with hot tears of frustration, she could imagine the army gleefully building her pyre. Not only would she suffer in death but she would be denied a Christian burial; an eternity of darkness awaited her, an eternal with no one to pray for her soul locked in purgatory. Mother lived by the idea that God never dealt us things we weren’t strong enough to handle. She had always tried to live the same, although she had not faced many trails in her life from behind the protective walls of the nunnery.
Maybe if she hadn’t of left. She knew nunneries were not safe from the pagan’s wave, but maybe the leader would have spilt her in two with his great axe. Dressed in a nun’s habit she was of no value, and surely they did not take all women to bed before they killed them. Instead Father had commanded her back not a year past according to his will and God’s. Scathing and whimpering from further down caught her attention; it certainly wasn’t a horse but did not sound human either. It was only then she realised that it had started raining, the patter of the winter rain hummed like a lullaby off those old boards above her. Legends told that Eofiric was built by the Romans to protect against the native Britons, sanctified by God for the Emperors of the empire. The old serving women with them in the nunnery use to tell her of the Roman Lord of Eofiric, who fell in love with a Briton women. He loved her so much he turned away from god and started to worship the pagan gods of her tribe. In his villa he built a temple to those gods and scarified his prized bulls to them, even people when the moon was at its highest. In the old woman’s story was correct, she was tied up within that old temple like all those that had come before her. God was angered and sent an invading force to purify the land of the evil Roman Lord. Had God been as anger with Ragnar’s death as the Northmen?
A drop of water fell through the cracks in the roof to land of her head, above her see could see the black scorch marks from where the wicked lord had burned his victims. It was enough to chill her more deep than any wind, that was a fate that awaited her just beyond those ancient doors. The horse to her slammed at his stall door again, wanting freedom. It made her jump and tried to move from its desperate wails, Blaeja wished she could help it, but she was of no use tied the way she was. She settled on the wedding band on her finger, it was cold against her fingers. The token of his betrayal and the destruction of her people, her family that father paid for willingly. It weighed heavily in that circle of metal. Now that escape was no longer an option, it served no purpose; she twisted and fiddled until she was free from it. She threw it as far as her bound hands would allow, she heard no satisfying landing noise, and it was lost somewhere in the straw no doubt. Maybe so pagan could find that engraved piece of gold and be cursed with the misfortune it had brought her. Had he took his whore to wife? Blaeja thought bitterly. He could tell the world I’m dead, it would free him from his alliance and from making others against his pagan friends.
Those old rickety doors opened with a cracking noise, the horses around her roused, their ears picking up. She squinted at the bright touch light that invaded the darkness, they were silent as she reached her. She didn’t want to look at them, she wanted to trick herself for just a few moments that death had not come for her. Much like everything in her life, Blaeja wasn’t even allowed her fantasies. One of them grabbed her face, not as gently as the Leader had done the night her world came apart. Unlike the pagan she had expected, the man had no beard to speak of. His white hair was cut in the Saxon style and stuck to his wrinkled face. Osberht, she remembered. Was he to be her saviour in this time, when not too long ago he was her would be executioner.
The elder man turned her face other and other in his hand, not meeting her eyes, his own was watery and sad. He lightly pushed down her sleeve, clearly bashful at the whole experience to expose the large birthmark on her shoulder. He replaced the fabric and walked away from her, Blaeja canned herself as forward as she could away from the pole. It was only then she noticed Sigurd and Alvis.
“This women is not who you say she is.” The old man told Sigurd, his face didn’t change even after Alvis’ translation. Instead his hand reached for his Seax, Blaeja could see the panic on the Saxon’s face. “May perhaps I could have something as a token to show my master.” Blaeja’s eyes followed Sigurd as he approached her, eyes alight in the limited light. He bend down behind her and took her hands into his, they were rough from years of working with weapons. He brushed over her fingers, clearly looking for something.
“Where?” He whispered in his broken Saxon. Blaeja wanted to slap herself, the ring she hoped would buy her freedom was now the key she needed. She shook her head, Sigurd wasn’t angry; instead he crewed on his lip in thought.
“Please Lord, it is me. I swear of the blood of our holy Lord Jesus Christ I am who I say I am. I beg of you, tell my uncle. The King.” The man only looked at her with the same pained expression as before.
“You are very convincing lady.” He made to leave but Alvis stopped him.
“You will give your terms to your master or we will send him your head.” Sigurd spoke above her. He certainly wasn’t as tall or broad as his brothers, but looking at him now she found him intimating. The Saxon nodded upon hearing Alvis’ translation and scurried back into the rain. Would he return for me? Blaeja wondered as she watched him leave. Sigurd bent back down to her level, he softly moved a piece of hair from her face, it had long since out of the braid Sigyn had done this morning. “Erfidr.” He smiled at her but she could only look at him in confusion.
“Troublesome.” Alvis told her.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She was not sure why she was apologizing, she guessed years of habit. “My uncle will not pay for me.”
“If he does or no we will still defeat him.” He stated with a shrug. It would be true, how many men were left from her father’s defeat? How many Ealdormen remained in charge of their shires? Did any of the Witan survive to proclaim him King upon her father’s death? Did any escape to Ecgberht in Frankia?
“If you will fight him, what need of a ransom?” She waited while Alvis translated, she was now able to understand his translation, but his accent was so thick words sounded like noises.
“Winter isn’t far from us and the ransom will pay for food for the men.” Sigurd untried her from the post, and helped her to her feet. Her legs were sore and stiff and her stomach was empty.
“Am I to die?” She tied to stand firm, but it only served to lead her tried body against him.
“One day, but not today?”
The night was dark as he led her out; they kept to the shadows clearly not wanting to be seen. She was huddled close in between the two men as they shuffled up the wooden stairs to return to the room she once occupied again. The warmth of the brazier spread over her upon her entrance and made her sleepily. She practically inhaled the food placed in front of her, not paying any head to the men watching her. Sigurd told her she would be returning to her lessons comes the morning before bidding her night. She was so tired when she was allowed to go to bed, quickly and thankfully sleep came to her. She found herself lost in dreams and then she was on a battlefield, the ground stained with blood, warm and bright. She floated along, her feet never touching the bodies with faces she did not recognise. There on the plain in front of her was a sword plunge in the ground, the familiar raven perched on the pummel its black beak stained with blood. Beneath his talents was a strange necklace, it looked like a tiny hammer hung from it, clear from the river of blood that surrounded it.
Chapter 7: Water
I'm so sorry, its been so long!
For once her dream had gave her some resembles of hope when she awoke. Those tiny hammer looking pendants glistered in her mind as she sat at the small desk in her room. She had only ever seen them around the necks of the pagans, the tiny bits of silver that looked like perversion of the holy crucifix, Blaeja reached for her own absentmindedly; forgetting it was stolen from her. Outside her female guards sharpened their weapons almost at the same time daily, was it ritual or habit? Blaeja didn’t have the courage to ask. The men in the courtyard prepared for the incoming winter, the sky above was white as milk, sure sign of snow on the way.
She thought back to her dream, every time new details emerged. The orange of the sky, the gleam of the hammer, their strange silver carvings so tiny but spoke in their own alien language. Her old nurse had once said dreams were our ancestors talking to us. She recoiled at the thought. It was heresy to think such things, to think anyone had such power than the Lord. Blaeja wondered about the people of the city, had they fled upon the attacker’s arrival or had they been thrown to the flames. Had Edmund giving them any thought when he invited the pagans to their doors? Blaeja wondered if he had even hidden his new friends in the city ready for the attack. She didn’t want to think of him anymore, it was of no use to think about him, he had forfeited any right to her and she must do the same. She told herself it over and over, but the anger tore into her heart, in her darkest moments she wished he would know betrayal as sharp as her own.
But Blaeja was ever prone to let her mind wonder, surely her uncle would be God’s chosen King to protect his good faith. He would-must rescue her from this place, in the stories the princess was always saved from her tower. Maybe she could convince her uncle to let her return to the safety of the nunnery, tucked away from the trials and temptations of this life. By god may Ecgberht would rule after Osberht. She was not made to be a Queen that was always Judith’s role. But she was not a Queen, not anymore, but what was she? She didn’t want to admit it but she had been treated much nicer than a common slave. Slaves usually didn’t sleep in such grand beds with guards posted to their door. Would they protect her when the men grew tired of waiting? Sigurd had said he wanted to use her ransom, a pawn to destroy her country. He had not said those words, he didn’t need to. Ancient Kings of her own country had used the same tactic to devastating results; she knew it was selfish of her to wish for her own safety when the outcome would leave her with no home to return to.
In her musings, her quill slipped and spilled the thick black ink over the parchment. In the past it would have earned an unforgiving rod to the knuckles. She bit down on her tongue to stop any exclaim; her hands were slick with the ink as she tried to push the substance back into the jar. She couldn’t hope for anymore, by a stroke of luck she had found this one jar and a bundle of pages spared from the carnage of the sack, tucked away safety beneath the low bed. She had found a new joy in this writing, the nuns had taught her the Holy Roman Latin script and she could read a little of it too. She practiced over and over again, writing to Judith and Ecgberht, even if she had no way to send them; but still it gave her peace to empty the thoughts that swam in her head.
The rest of the pages were stacked in a neat pile tied with one of her hair ribbons protected from the spillage. Without warning, her door opened and Sigurd strolled in, Blaeja quickly hid her hands behind her back careful not to stain the fabric of her dress. Sigurd closed the difference between them, he was never one to leave much space, Blaeja had noted. No man would ever think to get this close to her in her father’s court. She tried to move back a step but was greeted by her stool, Sigurd didn’t follow her step. She looked away from his strange eyes, as much as they fascinated her she didn’t want to be caught staring at them.
“Are you afraid of me?” He asked.
“Should I be?” She still didn’t lift her eyes.
“No, I hope I don’t scare you?”
“It’s not you I’m afraid of.”
“No one will harm you while your under my protection,” she finally allowed himself to look at him; the corners of his mouth were curled in an easy grin she had seen many times before. She smiled trying to be reassuring, then she saw it dangling from his neck, that tiny little hammer, so similar and yet so different from her crucifix.
“Why do you wear that?”
“For protection-what is that?” He strolled to her small alter, without access to wood and blades, she embroidered a crucifix onto some cloth and lit by one solitary candle. Her brain went blank as she tried to search for the answer she needed, but had none. Who he be angry and destroy it? “You shouldn’t mention this to anyone.”
“You’re not angry?” She was taken aback, this strange pagan never seemed to act the way she expected of him.
“No, you god holds no power,” he shrugged.
“And yours does?”
“Yes, I’ve seen my gods.”
“No one can look upon the face of god and live,” She went to cross her arms, but remembered the ink on her hands and kept them firm behind her.
“Some do, the Allfather came to me when my father was slain,” an awkwardness feel between them, Blaeja’s stomach twisted like the snakes had twisted over Ragnar’s body in the pit. He was still staring at her little alter, his fingers hovered over the flame just to see if it would burn him. “Do you ever grow tired of being so Christian?”
It was a strange question, Blaeja thought and she could see the anger in his shoulders, at last he finally turned away from the alter. “No,” she answered, “I was almost about to take my vows as a nun.”
“That would have been a shame,” he ran his eyes over her body, that damned crooked smile on his face. Blaeja could feel the heat rush to her face, never had a man been so brazen in front of her.
“Did you come here for a reason?” She spat. He moved closer to her, ignoring her discomfort.
“I came to make sure you were okay after yesterday.”
“I’m well thank you. How is Sigyn?”
“She’s well, you gave her quite the knock but she’ll recover.”
“I’m sorry.” “Best saying that to her,” He laughed “you can see her in a few days.” His eyes turned to mess of ink and parchment littering the table. “What have you been up to Erfidr?”
“Nothing!” She tied to take the page from his hand but he held high above her reach. “So you can write,” he raised one questioning eyebrow.
“Only a little,” she tried her best to gather up the scraps together and tightened the lid of the ink.
“Maybe you could teach me?” He handed her parchment that she was carefully not to stain any further.
“Why would you want to do that?”
“Is a pagan unworthy of learning how to write?” He leaned his elbow against the table.
“That’s not what i meant, who would you write to?”
“Who are you writing to?”
“No one.” “Maybe I could write to ‘no one’ too,” He reached to grab her hand, his face scrunched a little when he felt the thick black liquid covering her little hands. He chuckled and led her to the basin filled with water, the clear liquid soon turned to black when he plunged their hands into the cold water.
“I can do this myself,” She protested as he ran his rough ones over hers.
“To be sure you could, but you haven’t had the best experience with water thus far.” Blaeja chewed on her lip trying to laugh and a bit annoyed with herself that she didn’t mind the touch of this heathen. She felt something strange as his palm slide against hers, she pulled his hand from the warm, glistening through the water was a long still pink scar ripped through his palm.
"How'd you do this?"
"I was holding a blade when Odin told me my father had died, I sliced my hand to the bone."
"You didn't, you couldn't move you fingers if you hit bone."
He looked at her for a moment in silence, "I like that version. Writing isn't you're only talent I see."
Chapter 8: Blood and Water
Sigyn Alvisdotter was awake when Blaeja arriaved, with a small red gash to decorate her plain face. Blaeja wanted to flinch at Sigyn’s narrowed eyes as she slipped into the room that smelled like burning camomile. “You came back, princess,” Sigyn croaked before clearing her throat.
“Sigyn, I’m sorry, I just-”
“I was just in the way,” Blaeja bite hard into her bottom lip.
“Is there anything I can do?”
“You mentioned you know somewhat of herbs, you can collect the ones I need and prepare them. When I am well you will be my apprentice, winter makes the men restless.”
“Of course, Sigyn thank you.” She followed Sigyn’s pointed finger to the list scribed with crude drawings of the plants, she could just about make out them out. Some she had never seen before, she looked from the page to the girl in the bed but her voice caught in her throat. Maybe she could figure it out when she was in the fields. Thora agreed to her request, over time Blaeja had came to prefer Thora to the other guard at her door. In truth Astrid’s silence still scared Blaeja as she focused on nothing but sharpening that long blade of hers. Blaeja was much happier to have just Thora with her, to Blaeja’s surprise her stony guard could make out some of the herbs on the list.
Winter birds flew low against the winter sun as Blaeja’s dress danced on the the crisp grass. She had to admit the Northmen’s choice of dress was much practical than her old dresses, she thought as she shoved her cold hands in the apron’s pocket. It reminded her of the apron’s she wore in the nunnery, the little roughspun outer robe she would hide any treats she could get her hands on, until one of the novices tattled on her and Mother Superior had shown her the blunt end of her birch stick. Now she filled her pockets with roots and flowers for Sigyn, using Thora’s seax to cut the most stubborn of roots. She occasionally pushed strands of hair from her face and tried to ignore the sweat rolling down her back. She tried to ignore the noises of the men that started at first in the woods but coming closer. Ivar was propped on his shield carried by a few of his men beneath him a tall man with black markings around his eyes bared his teeth as they passed.
Luckily for Blaeja, Sigyn was on her feet within a few days and put the princess straight to work, crushing the herbs and preparing potions for young and old. Blaeja hadn’t realised how many wives had joined their husbands on their raid. Elderly Gunnhild was her favourite, she didn’t act how Blaeja had been taught to think ‘the unnatural women of the North’ acted. Gunnhild instead seemed delighted someone was happy to listen to her stories, and Blaeja in turn happy to hear of the kind farmers. They had left their grown children in charge of their farm and Gunnhild had followed the elderly Erik, they had lived together so they would die together.
Sigyn gave her no time to rest or reflect on sweet words, not when there was much to be done. “Do you replenish the stores?”
“Good, talk of another fight between the brothers is lighting the camp like wildfire.”
“Hvitserk and Sigurd, let's hope they knock some sense into one another.” Sigyn huffed as she gathered the last of her items. Blaeja followed the older girl to the high ledge upon which stood the Sons of Ragnar, It was strange that all those months ago these men were just hollow threats from a dying man. The man with the black ringed eyes bared his teeth to her again as she passed.
“Ah Princess!” Ivar gleamed and did a mock bow from his stool his twisted legs lay limpless beneath him. “Which one of my brothers will you place you money on?” She awkwardly shifted her weight from one foot to another, the hands growing sweaty under his eyes.
“She has no money to bet with Ivar,” Bjorn grumbled, she wasn’t sure if he meant to silence Ivar or remind her of what she lost. It was silent between them until the fighter took their place on the packed earth below circled by a wall of men. Blaeja watched their play fight look so real as seax, axe and shield engaged in the ring of steel. Between them their skill was well matched, she could only tell Sigurd by his blonde hair that poked out of his helmet and the axe he whirled above his head, meeting everyone of his wild brother blows. Hvitserk jumped out of the way of his brother’s attack though he was the small build of his family he had no trouble matching his brothers in combat.
With a smack from his younger brother’s shield Hvitserk’s helmet fell to the ground, although he seemed to pay no attention to the blood that trickled down his face from a gash on his forehead. He seemed to come alive with the taste of his own blood and slashed Sigurd across the arm. Blaeja felt a chill run through her, if that was what Hvitserk would do to a friend how terrifying could he be to foe. As quick as it had started the fight came to an end in a roar from the circling men and goods looked to be changing hands as Blaeja followed to their workshop, taking turns to mush the herbs and leaves together until finally the celebrated brothers entered laughing in victory.
“Where would my lady have me?” Hvitserk boomed still undeterred by the blood on his face and the same splinters of wood that seemed to stick from it. Sigyn took him into the back room, mumbling under her breathe as she passed.
“I guess I am your patient,” Sigurd shrugged and pulled his dirt and blood stained from him. Blaeja averted her eyes at his brassness, she had seen the bare chest of men before but none that stirred such feeling inside her. She focused her attention on her wet cloth and the long thin red line and tried to stop her eyes from following the lines of the blue markings that covered his upper arm.
“I need to stitch your wound, it will hurt,” she steadied her hand and pieced the needle through the wound as if it were a piece of cloth.
“Where did you learn to do this?”
“The nuns would take in soldiers during the war. Mother Abbess had a vision from God that we should. Mother never approved of it for us but Mother Abbess would push us until we were use to the blood- sorry I’m. You don’t want to hear me babble on.”
“Happily you can ‘babble’ I would rather listen to you to distract me. What was this war you speak of?”
“For most of my life my uncle has fought my father for the throne. We knew very little peace over the years and now you you are here,” she tighten the final bandages around his arm, he closed his hand around hers causing her to meet his gaze. Blaeja felt the heat of his skin and a strange tension bubbled between them, she wasn’t sure if he had moved closer or she did but the space seemed to close between them. Noise and movement drew their attention as a bandaged Hvisterk strolled past.
“Don’t let me interrupt.” Blaeja’s face glowed a hot shade of red.
The thralls helped her from the cool stream, wrapping her tight against the chill air that raised goose pimples on her skin. Blaeja hugged her arms around her body, afaid the towel would fall, although she was well hidden behind the screen of towels and far from the camp, she still felt exposed this far outside. The older thrall pushed the shift over her head, forcing Blaeja to drop the towel, while another covered her chilled arms with a warmer cloak, this had become her usual routine but tonight it was more than a simple wash. Once back to her rooms, the women around her scented her neck with perfume and ran oils down her hair till it shrone in the torch light. She felt uncomfortable in the expensive dress the maids had brought, it was cut in an old fashion, but Northumbrian all the same one of the few things to survive the destruction. It hung tight against her body, the shelves were too short for her while she had to be mindful of her step that she didn’t trip on the fabric that pooled around her feet.
Her thralls walked her to the entrance of the Great Hall, her face felt strange buried under the cheek and lip stain, the feeling of her own circlet was strange against her own head. She walked through the hall trying to not make eye contact with anyone present, instead she focused her eyes above the high table where the carved crucifix use to mount the wall. She tried to steady her hands against the head flanket of wine in her hands, until she joined the other lesser dressed thralls at the high table. She felt stupid beside them in her finery, she hadn’t even wore the likes of this at her wedding to Edmund. She felt like all eyes were on her, but when she looked the men were too busy with their food and drink to give her any notice, even the leaders at the high table seemed to ignore her.
“A toast to Odin! The Allfather who gave us victory! And now we feast in his honour for Yule! skol!” Bjorn shouted to a warm welcome in the hall. Yule, she thought, her mind working over the dates in her mind, Christmastide, had she been here this long? The new year had come and gone without her notice. Last Christmastide she had dined her small feast with the nuns in celebration to god for a year of peace from the long civil war that gripped the kingdom. A goblet fell from the table beside Sigurd, with the other thralls serving the other tables, Blaeja realised it was for her to pick it up, she awkwardly bend to pick it up, the rich material of the dress getting in the way. She could feel his strange eyes on her, but didn’t look at him, she didn’t want to see that smile that sat so easily on his face.
The youngest brother barked at her for more wine, trying to be gracefully she poured the heavy liquid into his cup, a hand pinched at her bottom but she kept her face blank, it’ll be over soon, she whispered to herself.
“Did your husband please you well?” She felt her face grow hot at his words. She was shocked to silence under her pinched her again, harder.
“We did not lie together, Lord,” His devilish smile became wider.
“Why? Did you repulse him so?”
“My father forbid it.”
“What a shame,” his hand moved upwards towards her breast.
“Stop this folly brother, you can not please a women,” The blonde brother sneered with a hard set to his jaw.
“I heard in Christian marriage, pleasure isn’t always the desired outcome,” the heat didn’t leave her face. She wanted to say that his words were strictly true, but she found no words came to her dry mouth. However she noticed Ivar was too please with himself too, laughing with his middle brother and far too happy to bask in the laughter of his men to pay her any real attention.
“Such a shame for one so pretty, I think you deserve a good pounding from all here!” he shouted to much drunken reavely, Blaeja seen the small knife so close to the edge of the table, she gently and slowly hid it in her sleeve.
“No,” Siguard now stood, one hand on his small axe at his waist. Ivar’s hands tightened on her body, she reached for her missing crucifix.
“Don’t worry brother, we’ll warm her up for you.” Ivar downed his wine in one gulp.
“Leave her out of your games Ivar, she is my...thrall.” She gulped hard, that was all he seen her as.
“That was not our agreement, she is all of ours.”
“When did you claim her for yourself Sigurd? Ivar is right, she belongs to all of us.” Hvitserk said, slouched back in his chair.
“It was my idea to make the alliance with the east Anglian King-”
“And he promised us her for our revenge.” Ivar waved the empty goblet to make his point, his fingers finally left his body, more interested in his brother.
“Her dead body,”
“I’ll take her dead or alive no matter. But now that she’s alive you think you have a claim to her.”
“Enough, both of you. Alvis bring the princess back to her room.” Bjorn shouted, rubbing circles into his temple.
She was left alone in her room thankfully. But for how long, the little blade was heavy against her wrist. If Ivar wanted to send his men to her, she would end it before they had a chance to touch her. As if on cue the door started to rattle. She held the small blade to her throat, it was not as powerful as a seax but it woud have to do,Sigurd as usual was revealed when the door opened. “You are doing it wrong,” He simply said.
“What?” She watched him as he moved in behind her, her breathing increased the closer he came. She could feel his body at her back, his breathe on her neck as his hand closed around hers with the blade still inside.
“You’re holding it too low, if you wanted to get it right you have to raise it higher. If you want to use a weapon you had best now how to use it.” The feeling of cool steel made her delicate skin tingle and she was very aware of how close Sigurd was, closer than he had ever been before. Would he do it? She thought as she gulped loudy, after all he wanted her dead body to show off their alliance. Aelle’s own flesh and bone to leave rotting against the battlements. He removed the blade and took an awkward step back, Blaeja instinctly held her throat. “I brought you something.” He was so quiet his voice could of got lost in the wind.
It glowed in the fire light an orangey colour and the bottom had a piece missing but it was here; her crucifix. She felt tears pick her eyes at the tiny bit of kindness. “My thanks,” she whispered she had missed it presence around her neck, the familiar weight it provided.
“Keep it hidden.” The look he gave her was strange, content and curious. “Why?” He asked her.
“Why do you still want death, I had hoped that had passed?”
“Right now because I didn’t want to be passed from man to man like a rag. But sometimes I feel I failed my mother.”
“She brought you hear to live, did she not?” She looked to the crucifix safely store in her hand. Sigurd gently took from her, with the other hand he moved her long hair out of the way and tied the cord around her neck. She was filled with a warmth that lit inside her stomach.
“Yes, she thought it was safe here.”
“You’re safe here, you need not fear Ivar or his threats.” He pulled her softly to the stool.
“Because I’m your thrall.” She spat.
“I free you.”
“Can you do that? I thought I belonged to all of you.”
“You no longer do, you are a free women. Free women do need to kill themselves.”
“Do your kind not carve death and val-em?”
“Valhalla.” he laughed “Yes, but we want to live first. We have to come into the halls with stories to tell, or it would be quite dull.”
“What do you do there?” She shouldn’t have asked that question, but she was curious of the palace they always talked about.
“When a warrior dies against a foe and if Odin chosen him for his hall, he is gifted never ending mend and with the other warriors, they feast and fight until Ragnarok.”
“What is that?”
“The end of this world and the dawn of a new. We who dine with Odin will ride with the gods to fight to the end.”
“And do you win?”
“No, for the new world to be born, the old must die including the gods.”
She laughed a nervous laugh “You spend your life fighting to spread eternity fighting to die again.”
“Oh and your god is much better?”
“When you die-if you’ve lived your life in a pious way, you go to heaven and be happy for eternity.”
“That’s it? To be ‘happy’ forever, a bit dull.”
“It’s to reward a life of struggle,”
“Maybe I could convince you differently one day,” their fingers touched and slide over each other, she could feel herself move closer, she should be scared but she wasn’t.
“Or maybe you’ll decide to save your soul.”
“Perhaps, but for now I would like to kiss you?” She nodded and their their lips met in a small brush.
Chapter 9: Hounds of Destruction
The changing winds brought with it the beginning of spring. The Northern host seemed to be ever in a festive mood, drinking and eating their way through the stores of Eofiric. Blaeja was once again subjected to another such festival, she didn’t who which god was honoured this time, nor did she care very much for the false gods of the pagans.
Sigyn had pushed herself into Blaeja’s rooms, keen to try out some new hairstyle she had seen among the Saxon village people. It certainly promised to be more elaborate than the Saxon styles. Blaeja had never seen any Saxon maiden sport any of the fantastical styles she had seen on the women of this new people. The nuns had only taught her how to braid her own hair, and to wear it safely tucked away beneath her veil.
Blaeja tugged on a loose thread on her over dress as Sigyn pulled her half of hair into position, she winced when Sigyn pulled a little too hard. Although her friend was too focused to notice. After what felt like an hour on her stool, her hair was finally done. Blaeja was rather impressed with the winding labryn of braids that sat atop her crown.
Sigyn had a matching style that looked better on her lighter colour hair. The older girl led Blaeja down to the packed earth courtyard, the torches were lit just as they were every night but some braziers had been pulled outside to make the area brighter like a giant candle. The benches had been pull out from the great hall to save people from sitting on the cold ground.
“At home, there would be great bonfires to celebrate the coming of the warmer weather,” Sigyn explained. Blaeja noticed the sons of Ragnar sat close to the large brazer in the middle of the courtyard to ensure all eyes would be on them. She could see the bright flames dancing across their harsh faces as if in time with the music. Thankful none of them had tried to force her back in thralldom, in truth be told she hadn’t expected them-especially Ivar to respect her refound freedom. Only when she had run her eyes over each of them in turn, did she realise Sigurd was not among them.
“Over there,” Sigyn whispered in her ear. She followed her gaze to see him beside one of the braziers, that same strange instrument she had seen him play once before in his hands. He looked quite happy, Blaeja noted as he played in the middle of a large circle. It was strange to her to think of such savages haven’t any musical talent. God had designed it only for those that believed in him, father had told her again and again.
She tried not to watch him, but every so often her eyes would drift as would her mind back to the kiss they had shared. It would be a secret she would lock up inside her. If she ever got out of here, it would be a very damaging thing to get out. Despite only being a kiss, whatever was left of her family would certainly view her as a whore. A whore could never become an Abbess. Sigyn passed her a goblet of strong ale which Blaeja decided to sip dainty, lest she get too drunk, too quickly.
One goblet was replaced with another as the merriment stretched into the night. Blaeja could feel her head become tingly, like her brain was floating on top of a river. Sigyn had left her side to share many dances with a tall tree of a man with flaming red hair almost as bright as the flames glowing around them like fireflies. Blaeja hiccuped as she found an empty spot on one of the benches, that gave her a good view to watch the dancing couples. She blissfully ignored the nightly women that prowled the benches in search of coin and pleasure. Somewhere in her head she knew how sad the priests and her parents would be at the sight, but the alcohol stopped the thoughts right in their tracks.
She tapped her toes along with the foreign music, the lyrics were too fast for her to understand their meanings. She watched over the spinning couples, they looked so happy as they laughed and jigged in the firelight. She was vaguely aware of a presence sitting itself down to her right but she was too engrossed in the music to turn her head.
“Do you want to dance princess?” She no longer needed to turn her head to know it was Sigurd.
“I can’t dance,” her cheeks felt hot or maybe it was the ale.
“It’s easy, come on,” he was just a shadow in front of her, framed by the light of the flames behind him. Like a devil tempting her to join him. She bravely took his outstretched hand, the heat had yet to leave her cheeks.
“What to I do?” She asked, afraid everyone was now looking at them.
“You just spin,” she felt stupid as she spun under his arm, trying to copy the movements as she had seen the other couples do it. Her feet felt unsteady under her, and she hoped she wouldn’t fall flat on her face.
“Not too hard is it,” he laughed. His laugh was contagious and Blaeja as always laughed back, but maybe she was just drunk. In that moment she felt like a maiden in a travelling bard’s song. It was moments like these she could have lived in forever if given the choice. The silly dances her and Judith had practised together as girls seemed to pale in comparison to her clumsy spins in the fire light with a savage prince.
“I’m still waiting for you to teach me to write,” she hiccuped loudly in response before drunkenly erupting in a fit of giggles. If father could see her now he would have had her whipped till dawn.
“When ever you like, you know where I reside,” the spinning made her head hurt and she found her free spot on the bench. Sigurd followed her, it was a little colder now away from the heat of the fire.
“May I call tomorrow? It would be a welcome distraction from my brothers,” she followed his gaze to the intoxicated foursome each with a girl in their laps. Whether they were girls from the village or girls they had brought with them she didn’t care to know. Across the courtyard a glint caught her eye. There sparking in the orange light was a familiar sight dangling where it shouldn’t be. A blonde girl had wrapped her long limbs around Ivar. Around her neck, shining like a warning light was the sacred beads that Father Almund had once wore proudly while conducting mass. The sight made Blaeja’s blood boil, she hoped the girl was part of the Northmen camp. How shamefully it would be, if the girl knew how important they were and still prided herself in wearing them.
“It would be a welcome distraction to me also,” she smiled at him, feeling the tiredness start to wash over her.
“Your hair is nice that way,” he pulled back a stray piece of hair that had fallen to her face.
“Thank you,” she pulled back slightly, embarrassed about his very public display of affection. She absentmindedly padded the braids in her hair, she wasn’t entirely sure how she was going to undo them all before bed.
“You always seem sad. What will make you happy?” He sighed, taking another goblet of ale for both of them from the travelling thrall. Blaeja smiled a soft, sad smile at her, knowing what it was like to carry the heavy thing all night.
“I miss my hounds. They were a gift from my father before we left. Both Edmund commanded they be kept in the stables so they were probably killed in the raid,” she finished nursing the full goblet in her hand.
“They are yours!” Blaeja was surprised by his shocked tone. “Those monsters tore off a boys arm the first night here, no one will go near those cursed things.” Blaeja oddly felt proud, not about the poor boy but that they finally had gained some courage.
“They are no monsters. They are actually quite gentle,” Sigurd scoffed. “Take me to them and I will show you.” She shrugged confident in her challenge. Sigurd looked down at his drink, looking actually a little scared at her offer.
“Very well,” he finished off the last of his goblet. “In the morning though. I wouldn’t want you to be frightened,” she laughed in happiness, excited to finally have her pets back to her.
She was finally able to brave those cursed stables again. In the daylight, they looked less scary than they had in the night light. Even in the daylight however the rusty water still ozzed through the cracks in the bricks, despite the unseasonably spell of dry winter days they had been having. As if luck was on the pagan’s side, the snows did not come, while the stores of food lasted them through the patient winter.
Blaeja pulled her cloak closer to her body, the fur tickled her cold cheeks. The cold air helped to sober he up after a cup too much the night before. Although the cold did little to help her headache and the thought of food make her feel ill, she promised herself she wouldn’t drink that much again.
She still couldn’t get use to seeing the large yard-once the home of Christian Kings, now brimming with foreign pagans. Just beyond the stables the burnt ruins of the stony church was all that remained of the once glorious Christian church that had seen the baptism of generations of her family stretching back to the baptism of Edwin. Both her siblings were baptized in the same church, she was the only exception, being christened in the nunnery of her birth.
She could hear the horses even before she entered the stables, the stallion that still banged at his door in frustration. The far off whines and scratches of the hounds she now knew where hers. Sigurd had expressed over and over again his doubt that the dogs would submit to her. His words had started to grate on Blaeja when all she wanted was her pets back in her arms. She wanted to have Wulfnod once again asleep on her lap and wanted to laugh at Wine’s attics.
“Are you sure about this?” Sigurd asked her for maybe the hundredth time, in truth she had stopped courting.
“I’m sure. They will not harm me,” excitement bubbled inside her to have them back with her.
“They did so easier to the boy that tried to fed them, ripped his arm clean off,” he repeated from the night before. She had yet to find out if it was true or if he had made it up, just trying to scare her. The thrall inside the stables hastily jumped out of her way, she paid him little attention as she whistled low and long. From the far stall, two loud barks joustiled for her attention. She could hear them bounce around, and pat at the door to get to her. She pulled open the locked door, they vaulted themselves at her, showered her with joyous licks.
Sigurd stood with his hand firming gasped on his axe hidden under his cloak. Wine turned on him, standing his ground between his mistress and this stranger. He growled low, fangs bared. Blaeja whistled her low command, stroking his shaggy back. She however kept a firm grip on his rope just in case. Sigurd took out the chicken pieces Blaeja had given him. As soon as the dogs smelt the chicken, they were back to their old trusting selfs again. Wulfrod was the first to walk over to him, keen for the chicken in his hand. Wine followed his brother’s lead and soon both were enjoying the best meal they had since the fall of Eofiric.
“I told you they mean no harm. Keep feeding them they will come around to you,” Blaeja smiled at Sigurd with a massive hound on each hand. Though they weren’t fully grown they still stood at her hip. A sure way to make her look like a goddess with her hounds of destruction at her command.
The hounds enjoyed having a warm room again. Wulfrod almost immediately claimed the bed for his own, he loved curling up at the bottom next to the brazier. Blaeja didn’t mind much, his body kept the chill off her feet in the handful of nights since she had them finally back with her. Wine had always been more of a handful than his brother, wanting to jumped on things he was clearly too big for, his current goal was to land a jump on the tiny windstill her room had.
They provided her company when Sigurd would leave her lessons. She found him a very strange pagan, and he had horrible handwriting, even after their five lessons together. Some day she would make a scribe of him, she thought as she stroked Wulfrod’s sleepy head. She had never admitted, not even to herself that this was her new life now. The strange limbo of teacher and maybe something more to a Heathen Prince. She hoped the ghosts of her family didn’t look down at her disappointed.
She put aside her parchment, it had become part of her routine to prepare her lessons for Sigurd before breaking her fast. She dressed and turned her attention to the table, organising and reorganising the guills, ink, paper. She looked at it over again, they didn’t seem to sit right. She moved the objects again till she felt they were right. The familiar knot tightened in her chest, although she didn’t know why.
Outside her chambers were oddly quiet, too quiet. Over there months here, she had became use to the noise of her pagan captors. The ringing of the smithy at their anvil, the occasionally rumble of a drunken fight between the men that Sigyn and Blaeja would patch up the next day. Blaeja found a strange fuilment in her strange little life, one she certainly didn’t imagine for herself but was living anyway.
It helped her not too think of the future. Would this be her life till she was old and grey or would God smile on her Christian brethren? She was not so stupid to believe that Spring did not bring war. In the ancient halls of Deira Uncle would be gathering his men, lords and farmers once pledged to her father were now his to drive back the Northern threat. She didn’t what to think of what would happen to her, whether or not the Saxons won. Hopefully she could return back to her nunnery. If it was still in tact. Maybe it was one of the casualties of this war,she had seen how easily the church had burnt that first night. Had the bells she loved to hear in her girlhood fallen silent however?
Wine padded his paws at her door, eager to get out. She grabbed his rope from the chest beside her bed. The dog jumped in excitement, he was such a nuisance it took Blaeja a few attempts to get the leash secured around his large throat. He barked into the silence, his low noises echoed off the white, washed walls. She looked to Wulfrod but he had already fallen back to sleep, his long legs chasing after rabbits in his dreams.
She pulled her large cloak on and set off with her trusted companion. Once outside her chambers she could see down into the courtyard. It was empty. It sent a chill down her spine. She walked slowly down the wooden stairs, her steps echoed around her. Even Wine could tell there was something wrong, he was quiet apart from the odd whine that made her feel even more anxious. They’re gone, it dawned on her. The men she had got accustomed to had seemly vanished as if they had never been.
The courtyard felt bigger than it ever had. But they didn’t say goodbye, Blaeja thought mourning. Of course, she told herself she knew this was coming, but she didn’t think it would have came so soon. She was not sure if she was ready for it. If the pagans won she would lost all she had ever known and if her uncle won she would escape this fate. She didn’t know which won she feared most.
Chapter 10: The death of the King
The whole of Eofiric seemed to be at a standstill, as if collective holding its breath to see the outcome of the battle. Blaeja made her way to Sigyn’s rooms. The girl and Alvis had claimed the rooms used by the priests to grow herbs as medicine and garnishes, fitting for the healers. At her side, Wine kept looking out towards the forest as if able to sense something her eyes couldn’t see. Her nurse had told her tree spirits lived in the wild forests, were they here to stake their claim to the liberated Christian lands.
Sigyn was busy at grinding herbs when Blaeja arrived, across the table was a congregation of empty bottles and some filled with mushed up herbs to be applied on the go. Sachets of herbs, roots and flowers laid spread out over the table surface, waiting their turn to be turned into medicine. In the corner a cracked pot was discarded, having already been used to its limit. And in a big smoking pot over the fire bubbled ale to use as disinfectant. Blaeja knew very well what all of this was for.
Wine laid down dutifully as if under a spell. Around Blaeja’s head several talismans swung from the ceiling, each carved with various different symbols dedicated to a different god. Sigyn still hadn’t noticed Blaeja’s presence she was still grinding away, strange guttural words leaving her mouth in prayer.
“Sigyn,” Blaeja dared to get closer, although Wine wouldn’t move from his spot on the floor. The older girl finished her prayer and poured to contents carefully into an empty jar. When she looked up her eyes were swollen and red.
“What troubles you?” She didn’t stop he work and washed the clay pot in the basin of water before picking up another handful of bright flower petals.
“Did you know they were going?” Blaeja fingered the groves in the wood on the table. Occasionally her fingers would brush against a speck of the healing mixtures. The fresh smells of the different ingredients mixed together in her nose, it made her feel a little funny, like being drunk again. Outside the workshop and wood pigeon called and flapped its wings in a frantic way as if afraid, although Wine did not move a muscle in response.
“I did. I was tasked with making all of the necessary tonics and pastes. Some for the men to take with him and some to heal those injured just enough to still make it bad. They rather sprung it on me. Of course I of all people would need no sleep to make sure these are prepared correctly,” she complained.
“I can help you?” Blaeja offered, blowing the array of specks from her fingers. They danced around her face caught on the hot current that blew from the fireplace.
“You can’t,“ Sigyn snapped, Blaeja frowned, finding herself unsure what to do with herself.
“The mixtures have to be woven with spells to ensure they work. You simply don’t know them.” Sigyn explained with a little shrug of her shoulders.
“Do you need anymore herbs? I can run out and get them.” Blaeja ran her fingers over the discarded woven bag, ready to pick it up with just a word.
“I have all that I need. Beside it’s dangerous outside and we have no warriors to accomy you outside the palisade.” If uncle could only have know that bit of information, Blaeja thought, he would have send a force here to take back Eofiric in no time at all.
“What about the guards at my door? They could ascourt me and-”
“They are charged with keeping you inside the castle grounds,” Sigyn cut her off.
“Why didn’t you tell me? That they were leaving,” Blaeja stroked Wine’s head trying to rouse him from his slumber.
“I thought Sigurd would have told you. You two are quite close these days,” Blaeja blushed at Sigyn’s candid words. “Ah well they are gone now, it will not be long till they are returned.” She poured some ground herbs into the ale pot, it bubbled aggressively and looked like it threatened to spill over before settling down again. Maybe Sigyn is a witch, Blaeja thought, although she wouldn’t reveal it.
Although the heat in the room would be enough to convince even a scratch non believer to that fact. Sigyn sang around the pot, mixing it while the fire seemed to climb higher around the pot. Blaeja wondered if she should leave Sigyn be. Or would Sigyn find it even more the height of rudest to find her gone without a goodbye. If so, Wine was making no effort to move when she pulled on his leash.
“Have the men left us enough food?” Blaeja asked when Sigyn returned to the table, the heat of the fire seemed to radiate from Sigyn.
“Yes, we should have enough to last us till the time for planting begins. Why?” She raised one long eyebrow at her.
“We should gather all the women together in the Great Hall. If there is a siege it is the easiest place to defend. The doors were made to withstand attack from axes and greatswords. King Edwin when he built it coated it in some substance that protects the door and walls from flames. He even build hidden tunnels under the floors which we can use if we need to escape.” Blaeja rambled off.
She remembered the only time she had lived her before after her father’s second conanation following a much smaller Wine through those small tunnels. They were very dirty and the servants rarely used them in the same way the servants of Edwin had used them to deliver meals up through the floor broads as if by magic. One could not doubt King Edwin had a flare for the dramatics.
“How do you know all this?” Sigyn asked, crossing her arms. The look on her face was as Blaeja had grown a second head.
“Family secret,” Blaeja shrugged with a smug smile on her lips.
“Well in that case I agree with you. There should be some thralls in the kitchens, they can go and gather everyone together. I’ll be with you when I have this done.” Wine roused as if shock from a dream, he was suddenly back to normal, and barking very loudly it disturbed the delicate atmosphere of the small workshop.
He didn’t take much effort from Blaeja to leave the room as she crossed the courtyard towards the kitchens, on her way she past the wooden structure of the Great Hall, bellows of grey smoke poured up into the air from the holes in between the massive oak beams. She entered the kitchen again for the first time since the night of the raid. The place had been cleaned up as if it not been smashed in the pursuit of gold. Just as Sigyn had said, a gaggle of Saxon thralls were rushing around completing their various jobs.
“I’ll not have that animal in my kitchen,” a stout old woman bellowed, her eyes sending death glares to Blaeja and Wine. She brought Wine outside and tied him up so he wouldn’t chase after a bird. The thralls had all stopped to watch her as she entered the kitchen again. The warm smells of bread made her mouth water as she realised it was almost time for the mid-day meal.
“I would like to gather everyone that is left behind to gather in the great hall for their protection. If you could send some thralls to gather everyone on the grounds and another few to send into the village to bring them here. They will bring whatever food and blankets they have with them.” Blaeja tried to keep her voice steady and commanding as she had seen her mother do many times before. Although the stout kitchen thrall didn’t look happy, she sent forth some of the younger girls to carry out her task. She wasn’t sure who was in charge with the men gone. Although if no one was willing to step forward she guessed she might as well.
By late afternoon the Great hall was brimming with women and small children. Many people from the village declined her offer, voting instead to stay in their own warm houses. Those that did come brought baskets of food and many woolen blankets with them to scare off the cold night air. Blaeja has asked some of the stronger thralls to collect more branches for the firepit that ran in the middle of the room, ending just before the high table. She wanted to keep the fire going through the night to keep the hall as warm as possible.
The babes found the hounds scary with the elder ones liked to chased after Wine and he was just as happy to be chased by them. Wulfnod for once wasn’t a sleep, instead he walked around the hall, begging all the new people for a pet and a snack if they were willing to part with it. Despite the battle somewhere outside their walls, the women inside the hall spend their time laughing and sewing. The warriors would have a year worth of shirt to return to at this rate.
Blaeja watched them all from her spot at the high table. Sure they all were stayed together in their social groups but under the ancient roof, both saxon and pagan, slave and wife were all equal. True to her word, Sigyn had joined her with two woven bags filled to bursting with medicines of all kinds for every injury and situation. Blaeja looked out towards the small slits that served as windows, against the late afternoon sky she could see there was no wind to rock the trees. They stood still as if like statues. Blaeja tried to focus on her own sewing, trying to convince herself it was not a bad omen.
On the fall side of the hall the strong oak doors burst open causing a hush to cover the room. In its wake, two light haired giants stalked towards her. They were no doubt of the Northmen variety, their hands rested threateningly against their weapons and their eyes focused only on Blaeja. She left her needle and patchwork on the table in front of her, she couldn’t remember seeing their faces before.
They ignored the rest of the women as they approached the top table. Her female guards unsheathed their weapons, The men were double the size of each women and though the women warriors fought well, the determined men simply pushed them out of the way. They easily grabbed her from her chair as the women around her gasped in panic, but made no effort to help her. They cradled their children as she was dragged past.
Wine launched himself at one of the giants, snarling and biting. The other still pulled Blaeja along the length of the hall. She tried to see over his shoulder and call to Wine to stop. Wulfnod hurled himself at the this man’s legs. Having more time to prepare her captor hit the hound with the pommel of his sword, sending him flying. Blaeja screamed as he hit the ground, dazed but thankfully both looked unharmed. The other man had fought off the other dog, his face covered in small holes and tears. Blaeja could feel the blood in her veins run ice cold. Was this finally her death? She was shoved on one of the horses behind the first man. The second with his scary bloody face, made sure to bind her wrists to the saddle so she couldn’t escape. Lord Jesus receive my soul, she repeated again and again as the crucifix bounced around her neck.
“Where are you taking me?” She asked, her voice shaking. She wanted to hold her throat as if it would stop them cutting it. But her captors said nothing. “Are you going to kill me?” Again they said nothing.
The sky darkened around them as they made their way into the forest. Night came upon them quickly among the dark trees. The men stopped their horses in silent, as they had been the whole journey. They were silent like the trees around them that hadn’t moved all day. The first man pulled her from the horse and through the trees. This was where she was to die, she thought as she looked at the bleakness around her. She could hear screams echoing through the trees. It made her blood run cold and a loose chill rand own her spine. The squawks of ravens circled above her attracted by the promise of food. As they got closer the warm glow of the fire lit their path in the trees, at first it blinded her. She soon wished she could have stayed blinded when the figures before her took shape. The familiar shadows of Ragnar’s sons came into view, stood among men she did not know. Ivar was perched on a rock not far from her and in front of him was the outstretched screaming shape of King Aelle.
“Father,” she whispered. He looked haggard in the fire light, sweat glistered on his face and fear lit his dark eyes in a way Blaeja had never seen before. Blood trickled from his hands where two rusty nails held him to the fallen trunk.
“Ah I see our guest has finally arrived,” Ivar gleefully shouted. Many sets of hate filled eyes turned to her, she could see movement out of the corner of her vision, but her eyes couldn’t leave the sight of Aelle.
“Ivar, what are you doing!” She could hear Sigurd voice somewhere in the distant, like a whisper in the wind against her ears. “Take her from this place,” she was vaguely aware of an axe being drawn upon him but she was too frozen in fear to notice. She was so sure her father was already dead. He had to be. Or else how could the Northmen have enjoyed such a long time in Eofiric? Father would have drove his host to them and rained down a bloody vengeance on them, wouldn’t he? The thoughts waged battle for supremacy in her head. Had father known she was alive all this time?
“Blaeja,” Aelle wheezed, “I don’t want you to see this. I’m sorry.” She tried to step forward but the hulking guards grabbed hold of her, locking her in their iron grip. “I will give you my daughter and my crown if you spare me,” he croaked to Ivar, desperation a light in his eyes.
“We have both. Now we want your life.” Ivar’s young face looked like the devil himself as he turned to her. His eyes frighteningly blue against the dried blood on his face. “Do not look away little princess.”
The screams of Aelle rung louder to her than any church bell as Bjorn sliced the skin from his back with a white hot blade. She tried to turn her head, but one of the guards held her head and forced it back to look, her jaw ached under his fingers. Bjorn hacked repeatedly at the exposed insides of the man that had giving her life. She felt her eyes swim with tears as her stomach twisted. She couldn’t hear the screams anymore, they were distanced noises against the sound of her own heartbeat. Blood and spit ran down Aelle’s mouth as his eyes latched onto hers, for the briefest of seconds Blaeja thought, if only Osberht had of won all those years ago. She could see black spots form on the edge of her vision and inside her stomach pushed bile closer to her mouth.
She was harshly freed from the man’s grasp, she could see Alvis face in her confusion as he turned her away from the torturous fire light. The coldness of the trees felt like ice against her skin as she fell to her knees and emptied her stomach to the ground in front of her. Alvis offered her an ale skin and Blaeja gulped greedly before bring it back up. She could still hear the scream of her father- like the last cries of a dying animal, until they were silent forevermore. She dug her hands into the earth, balls of earth and stones came away in her hands. While her head spun, maybe if she kept digging she could cover the earth around her and join her family in death. The tears spilt over her cheeks, hot and painful on her cheeks as she gulped in the air that smelt like death and firewood.
She could not look back. Were the brothers sharpen their blades for her turn? She vomited again at the thought of it, the image of her father’s open back burned into her mind. She shuddered as Alvis laid a gentle hand on her back, he offered the skin again she took it slowly this time, hoping it would dull her body to their weapons. She jumped when a twig snap behind her. This was it. She shut her eyes as tight as they would go, trying to think of her family, the sun against her skin, the rain against the window, anything that wasn’t this.
“No Sigurd. Stay back. I’m taking her back.” She could feel his Sigurd’s presence behind her but she didn’t look up. She allowed Alvis to lead her to his horse. She felt weak in the saddle as she continued to weep all the way back to Eofiric. Her eyes were heavy and half closed when they pulled up through the gate, she could feel herself being lifted from the saddle into Alvis arms. “Get Sigyn now,” he barked. Blaeja was so close to letting her eyes closed, when she could see it again, the blood, the blades. She wept again, surprised she still had tears to shred.
She couldn’t take any of it in. Finally her soft bed came up to met her. Sigyn rushed to her side, a cup of thick sweet liquid in her hand. Blaeja took it gratefully, not caring to ask what was in it. She could just about make out the shapes of the two grey dogs in the darkness, they licked her hands trying to provide comfort. “You’re okay,” she whispered, as finally a dreamless sleep took over her.
Chapter 11: Spectres
The sunlight was harsh on her eyes when Blaeja opened her eyes. Her body was sore and she was covered in sweat and dirt. The images of the night before assaulted her again and she vomited into the bucket beside her bed. She had nothing but bile to bring up and it burned her throat. Wulfnod softly licked her hot cheek as she searched for something to wash her throat with. On top of her table she seen the little vial. She was really unsteady on her weak legs and had to use her bed to guide her along. The liquid in the jar tasted funny, but soothed her aching throat and made her feel sleepy again. She cradled the jar and brought it back with her to bed.
She didn’t know the hour or the day, but every time she awoke to images of her father’s corpse, she downed another large gulp of the liquid. Again and again until there was none left. She howled in her sleep, she was so loud the hounds joined her in her lament.
“Blaeja! Blaeja!” She thought it was her mother calling after her. Would her mother haunt her for not mourning her properly? She could see her there standing beside her father, the Seax protrucding from her dress, spilling blood over her white dress.
“Blaeja wake up!” A blurly shape formed in front of her. Sigyn’s concerned face came into view. “That tonic was suppose to last you two weeks,” she pried the empty bottle from Blaeja’s weak fingers.
“How long have I been asleep?” Her voice croaked.
“Four days” Sigyn stated, pulling aside the curtain to allow the sun to encroach in her dark space. It made her eyes sting, still stuck together with sleep.
“Can I have some more please Sigyn,” Blaeja begged, using her hands to shield her eyes.
“No, you’ve had too much already. I will prepare you a weaker batch, but you will have to get use to the way things are.” Sigyn stated more harshly. Blaeja pulled the blanket closer around her, she didn’t care that she smelt bad all she wanted was the pain to go away.
Blaeja drunk down the weaker liquid with the same need as she did the stronger one. It helped the keep the images at bay, the smells of that night that still clung around her. Sometimes in her dreams she could feel the hot blade slicing into her own back. She would always wake with a start when that happened. She would awake to the delicious liquid waiting for her, to give her comfort. She didn’t care much for Sigyn’s many chides.
“If you hadn’t of came here, this would never have happened,” she snapped at Sigyn as she snatched the new tonic from her hand. The days drifted in and out of existence. Judith and Ecgberht were there something too. Did that mean they were dead also? She pulled her knees up as the hunger pains in her stomach rattled through her.
“Blaeja,” her brothers voice whispered. “Get up,” he seemed the float somewhere by the window. He looked just as she remembered him when he left for Frankia on the cusp of manhood.
“I don’t want to,” she whined pulling the blankets to cover her face.
“What a disappointment.”
“I didn’t want any of this, now leave me.”
“You’ve got it now, so time to deal with it.” There came a knock on the door, when Blaeja peeled the blanket from her face her brother was gone. Sigyn came in with some food. Her stomach begged for, it was ready to jump out her body if she didn’t eat something. Sigyn helped her up and feed her gentle bite of the tasteless food.
After a few days of the dry, light food Blaeja finally decided it was time to bathe. Sigyn had to help her walk down to the stream, while the thralls ensured she was hidden from view. The water felt nice over her tense muscles as Sigyn helped to lower her slowly into the water. She kept an arm under her shoulders so she wouldn’t drown. Blaeja allowed the water to wash the dirt and sleep from her. It felt nice to have her hair washed again as she scrubbed at her itchy scalp and rubbed a layer of grim from her white skin. There on the shore bank a dark figure emerged from the trees, his crown covered in dirt and blood while his back was spread out behind him like the wings of a bird. She shivered in the water at the sight of him.
“Do you see him?” Her voice shook.
“Over there!” She pointed to her father on the bank, his blood ran down his face in long droplets like his crown was made of throns.
“There’s no one there,” Blaeja curled closer into Sigyn’s side.
“What did they do to my father’s body?” Sigyn turned her gaze away, biting hard on her lip.
“Blaeja they. Well they-”
“Did they bury him?”
“Of course not.”
“Did they burn him?”
“No, he’s still in the place you last saw him.”
“Oh no,” she shrieked. “We have to bury him in a Christian burial, it’s the only way to get him to leave.” She looked back to the spectre on the riverbank. Sigyn looked down at her shaking form, frightened of the thin air.
“Blaeja,” she whispered. “Let us go, I’ll get some light food prepared. I’ll get your father buried I promise.” Blaeja nodded and climbed out of the water by herself, she was still a little unsteady on her feet. The thralls helped dry her off and dressed her into a new dress and a new pair of boots. They kept a protective circle around her as she returned to her rooms under the close eye of Sigyn.
Once inside her room, Wine softy came to her, he didn’t have the same energy he once did. It was as if he could pick up on her feelings. Sigyn returned moments later with some warm food this time which Blaeja happily ate down like it was her last meal on earth.
A knock came to the door, Blaeja assumed it was Sigyn coming to check on her and bring her extra food. Both of the dogs lifted their head from the bed but none made any movement from their cosy spots. Blaeja carefully lifted herself up from her stool, she had still a bit to go before she was fully recovered. It was Sigurd on the other end of the door, Blaeja tried to close the door again but he prevented her.
“Can I come in?”
“If you must,” she allowed him to enter, sitting herself back on the stool.
“I’m sorry you had to see that. I didn’t know, if I had I would have prevented it.”
“Well it’s done now,” she grabbed back her sewing, hoping it would make him go away.
“It was just Ivar’s twisted game. Why are you sewing?”
“Because I don’t want to listen to your false apology,” in defiance she pulled the thread extra long. It was something she had seen Judith too when she was in a feud with mother.
“This isn’t false,” he said shocked.
“Are you sorry you murdered my father,” Blaeja put down her needlework, now interested in his answer.
“Of course not, he murdered my father. Gave him a coward's death with no hope for Valhalla. We gave your father a chance for an honourable death. More than he gave mine,” Sigurd spat his hands clenched over the corner of her table as if he would rip a chunk off.
“No it was not. If you wanted to only kill my father, you could have been smarter. Maybe just you and your brothers could have snuck into my father’s court posing as bards. He loved music, father even had it in his chambers. During the night you could have slit his throat instead of butchering him like an animal.”
“Blaeja-” he tried to cut in, but she continued.
“Don’t. Don’t talk to me of honour. All of this isn’t for honour or even to avenge Ragnar. Not really, you wanted a war that men would speak of for years to come. To cause as much destruction as you could so your gods would notice you. For what? Ragnar died screaming like a coward, He begged my father for death while the snakes squeezed his pathetic life from him.”
She stopped for a breath, it was a lie but it had its desired effect. The pain was writing plain on Sigurd’s face, now they both shared in each other’s pain. He was breathing heavy, the grip on his seax was so tight his knuckles looked ready to burst through his skin
“You don’t know how much your words can hurt,” he said through clenched teeth. He stormed from the room in such a fury the wind blew out a few candles. Blaeja could feel her own breaths come in quick, short blasts. She hadn’t mean to become so heated, it had just happened. It was something in her that stirred whenever he was near.
Sigyn entered looking surprised, Blaeja could tell from her expression she had seen Sigurd leaving her rooms. Blaeja shook her head in answer to any question Sigyn had.
“Did he tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“I was able to find a Christian priest willing to bury your father. It must be now and we can not tell anyone.”
Blaeja dutifully followed Sigyn down through the corridors of the castle. Outside of the palisade a short brown man dressed as a farmer waited for them outside the gates. He had a kindly face for one so young. Together they walked out into the forest, Blaeja could feel her fear return to her as the trees close in around her.
She kept her eyes down, hoping not to see the images again. Especially without Sigyn’s magic tonic that kept them at bay. All three of them stopped at the same place father had housed his snakes, it was a place of death for many traitors and now a King. She finally raised her eyes, at first it was just a shadow in the daylight, that could so easily be mistaken as a tree of a bird. Soon it became clear above her swinging on a rope was the father, his back spread apart like the bird she had seen in her dreams. The priest gently helped her and Sigyn to lower her father’s heavy mass to the ground. His skin was a shade of grey she had never seen before or knew it was possible for the body to turn that shade. The priest covered her father’s broken body with his cloak, hiding the cavernous would of his back from her. He blessed the dead king’s swelling body with oils smuggled out and kept safe during the raid.
“Lord God, please look down on your servant Aelle and bring him into your heavenly light. In Lord Jesus’ name we pray.” He made the sign of the cross while Sigyn dug a hole big enough to contain him. The priest poured a small amount of the oils into the grave to make it sacred. Blaeja prayed over and over again, over her father’s body, while the priest and Sigyn lowered her father’s body into his final resting place.
The spectres that haunted her had left her be in the coming days. Sigurd had also been keeping his distance from her. She wasn’t too surprised after what she had said to him but she still missed having him near here. She could tell something was not right, there was a tension in the air. Even though the merriment she could see the men holding back like they were waiting on something. For something to begin.
Even the hounds picked up on this change. They would only leave her chambers to do their call of nature, but out want to hurry back to the chamber. Blaeja couldn’t fault them, she could feel the harsher looks the men gave them, even her guards didn’t treat her with the same warmth they once had. In the courtyard the sons of Ragnar were hardly ever seen and the no fighting was permitted, real or overwise. She knew something was about to happen again, she just didn’t know what.
The thralls took her dinner pots back to the kitchens, there was very little food left on the plates, anything she didn’t eat the dogs happily lapped up. Blaeja removed the cloth hiding her alter, she lit the small melting candle. She prayed as she did every night and it seemed to keep the spirits at bay, maybe mother and father were finally at peace, she would think to herself often. She returned to her stool with a polish bronze mirror to help her see her reflection. She brushed through her hair, now free from its almost permanently braids that Sigyn enjoy styling on her head. Her door scraped open again, Blaeja expect to the thrall or even Sigyn again. When she looked up to see Sigurd standing in the doorway, with a queer look on his face.
“Quick. Get dressed in something warm,” he said, clearly on edge.
“Why?” The dogs on her bed stirred, looking between the two of them.
“Just trust me,” he said and blew out the candle on her alter and covered it again. She looked over to Wine and Wulfnod and made to grab their leashes. “They can’t go with you yet, but they will remain in this room and I’ll ensure they are looked over.”
“But-” she started.
“We don’t have much time, and there are ears everywhere,” he left the room closing the door behind him. She quickly pulled on a warm dress with the ties to the front and the thick cloak with the thick, fox fur fringe. Both dogs jumped off the bed and came to her.
“Stay here and be good,” she ordered kissing each of their scuffy heads. She softly backed to the door so they wouldn’t notice, they followed her however. She just about got the door closed with them still inside. She could hear them whine to her and their paws on the wood.
“Pull your hood up,” Sigurd said placing a hand on her shoulder. She did as he said, trying to put her two companions from her mind. If truth be told she was getting rather sick of saying goodbye to her old life. He gently took her hand in his and led her through the shadows. They stayed as close to the building as their bodies would allow. They were so close that they brushed little stones from their moorings. They snuck around the back of the stables and the crumbled chapel, hiding from the guards of watch. It was as if they were criminals escaping their goal cells.
Sigurd led her through a small gap in the Palisade and on to the hill not far from the steam. In the darkness she could here it splash not far from them. She could also hear the soft neighs of a horse, as as they got closer she could she it just one horse tied to the tree.
“Sigurd, what’s going on?” she stopped but he continued on and untied the horse from the old branches.
“Tomorrow we march to Wessex,” he paused. “This is your chance to warn them. If you’re not successful however, please get yourself out in time,” his rough hand softy touched her cheek and held it for a few brief moments. He stepped back and handed her his axe, “You’ll know how to use it. Just like a seax, go for the neck or the head if it’s exposed.” she nodded and tucked it into her belt, he helped her mount onto her saviour horse.
“Sigurd I- thank you,” she smiled down at him.
“Your welcome,” he pushed a little bag of gold into her hand. ”Now go before someone sees.”
She sped off, within a few moments the trees gave way to the old, crumbling, Roman road. She couldn’t believe it. In front of her was Judith, but behind her was-no she wouldn’t think about it. She pushed her horse forward, happy to feel the wind in her hair again. She slowed the sted to a walk to begin her journey, just wanted to feel her freedom again. She could feel eyes on her, was it real or just the months she had spent with the pagans had made her paranoid. She pressed on, but her horse threw his head back in panic, sensing another horse.
“You can come out Sigurd,” She called. “I should have know you would have followed me.”
Up ahead two horses appeared from the tree line. The closer they got, the clearer it became they were not Sigurd Ragnarsson. Their armour and the badge they wore were of her house. “Men of Northumbria. I am Blaeja, daughter of our late King Aelle. Let me pass.”
“Many a whore has been claiming that name around here for a while, some were prettier than you,” they laughed among themselves. They pulled their horses close to her, trapping her in between them.
“I command you to let me pass,” her hand fumbled inside her cloak but soon her fist tightened on the axe.
“Or what,” They both laughed. The first man reached for her while the other grabbed her reins. She held the axe close to her body, concealed under her cloak.
“Leave now or I will kill you,” she threatened, she had survived captivity with the savage Northmen, she wasn’t going to surrender her virtue now without a fight.
“I don’t think you know how to,” The bearded one sneered, he grabbed at her breasts. Blaeja tried to push him away with her one hand. The second man grabbed her around the waist and pulled her to the ground, still unaware of the axe in her hand. She back away but tripped over the other’s outstretched feet and fell to the ground with a thud. Both looked so similar in the moonlight she couldn’t tell them apart. They both approached at once like dogs on the hunt.
She tried to shuffle away but it only made them approach faster. One fell upon her, his legs pushing her knees apart while the other hung above her ready to grab her arms. The first moved in closer, the smell of ale was overpowering and stole the clean air from her. Her fist closer tighter around the axe. She closed her eyes and she swung.
Blood landed on her face as the blade made contact with his neck. He stumbled back, trying unsuccessfully to push the blood back in his neck. It rolled like a steam through his fingers. He collapsed on top of her. Heavy and sprundering in his death throes. Blaeja pushed him aside and tried to get up. She was a bit of shock but if she could just get to her horse. She slipped a little in the wet ground and got to her knees. The other recovered and came at her, grabbing her from behind. He twisted her other, the axe was gone from her hand in the moment.
“Oh I do like a fighter,” he cooed as he undid the ties of her dress. She fumbled around the leaves. She pushed the arm as far as it could go in her socket. Her fingertips just brushed the handle. She closed her eyes and drove the axe deep into his skull. His blood and brains burst from the wound, covering her face in it. She took a shuffle back as he collapsed in front of her. She picked herself up to her feet and froze. Her heart was beating quickly and her face felt warm. The bodies laid in front of her broken and bloody. Their soulless eyes watching her, unforgiving as God would be. She could hear screaming far off, the high cries of a women in horror and though she knew she should get on her horse and flee she instead fell to her knees. The axe slipped from her hands.
She heard her name in the void, but she couldn’t be sure. Blaeja, there it was again, but she didn’t know where it was coming from. All she could see what the carnage in front of her. Soon she seen the face to match the voice: Sigurd.
“Blaeja.” It was like she snapped out of the trance. It in fact was her that was screaming. She had screamed so much her throat felt raw, once again. She swept her wide, scared eyes from the bodies to his face. His hands gently held her blood covered face, her lips quivered.
“Sigurd, I-” she croaked through stained lips. Her bloodied hands met his against her face, hands that would never be fully clean again. She was like him now.
“I know. Everything will be alright,” he said softly. He held her against him and kissed the top of her head. She felt like they stayed their in each other’s embrace all night. But the darkness indicate it couldn’t have been for too long. “What do you want to do?” He whispered against her head. She looked to her own horse, still sandwich in between those of her would be rapers.
“I want to go home to Eofiric,” she admitted quietly.
He carefully help her from the ground, she was shaking slightly though not from the cold. He had brought a horse with him and she climbed back on her own one, holding the reins in her blood hands. He attached the two riderless horses to his own to take back as prizes. She was thankful of the silence between them, she worried if she had to talk her words would betray her. She made sure to keep her horse close to his in case of another attack, she didn’t want to do that again and beside the axe had been left somewhere behind them.
Once in her room, she was scared by the reflection of her own face. She looked just like any of them after a battle, her features hidden under a layer the drying blood. The hounds were fast asleep under the table for a change and didn’t notice her coming in. She went straight for the the basin of water on the table. The blood was harder to remove than she thought and took a scrub in places until her face was sore and newly pink. Wine awoke and sleepily licked at her hands, this awoke Wulfnod who sleep walked past them to stretch on her bed.
Sigurd had gone to get her some hot wine to ease her throat. So she used the opportunity to change into a clean nightdress with a night robe to keep her warm. She crawled into the bed, carefully no to disturb Wulfnod. Wine gave no such care as he climbed over his brother to lie his massive head in her lap. She sat straight against the headboard as she petted the large dog, use to his weight in her lap. She hummed to herself as she ran his fingers over his course neck, the other warmed her feet under his stomach.
Wine raised his sleepy head when Sigurd entered with the steaming wine, the dog jumped off her and returned to his blanket under the table. She was thankful for the hot liquid that heated her from the inside, this time she promised herself to sip it so she wouldn’t become drunk. Sigurd stood awkwardly at the edge of the bed, his unusual coloured, bold eyes downcast. She wasn’t sure if she was allowed to look at him and so just looked at Wulfnod.
“In the morning, I can have a ridder sent for you,” he spoke at last, shifting his weight from one food to another.
“Thank you,” she said, placing the goblet on the chest beside her bed.
“I will bid you goodnight,” he said awkwardly.
“Sigurd,” she said softy. He turned to her. “Will you stay with me tonight?” he smiled that cocky relaxed smile and removed his boots before crawling in bed beside her. Blaeja arranged herself gently in his waiting arms. “Am I hurting you?” she asked.
“No not at all,” he kissed the top of her head. Blaeja had to admit she liked that quite a lot, she smiled despite herself. Whether it was the wine or the events of the night she took comfort and felt safe. Soon she was able to fall asleep in those warm arms.
Chapter 12: Wessex
Blaeja awoke still in Sigurd’s arms. He was still fast asleep when she stirred, she rubbed the sleep from her eyes and noticed his seax was laid on the chest beside her bed in its sheath. She reached over for it. It gleamed in the early morning light as she pulled it from the shealth. She looked between the weapon and him, his head was turned away from her revealing the long stretch pulsing against his neck. He looked so vulnerable beneath her, he was the first time she had seen him so.
Growing up, she had heard night time stories of children avenging their murdered parents. Now here with one of the killers of her parents in her bed she wondered if she should do the same. She ran her finger down the patterned blade. Then again, the children always got a happy ending and a crown in the tales. No such glory would await her.
“I can get you you’re own if you’d like,” Sigurd said sleepily. She looked up from the weapon in her hand to him. His blonde hair was a mess in front of his tired eyes that looked strangely more blue in this light.
“I wouldn’t know how to use it,” she bit down on her lip and replaced it back in its sheath.
“You did well enough with the axe last night,” she looked away, not wanted to think of the night before.
“I can teach you if you’d like,” he offered. “If you teach me to write of course.”
“I guess so,” she nibbled on her bottom lip.
“Guess so? Are you not sure?”
“Would that make me a killer?”
“No. Just because you know how to defend yourself doesn’t make you a killer,” he took her little hand in his. “I wish I could take you to a world where you would never be in danger. Until then we have to know how to protect ourselves.”
She nodded still a little unsure of the whole thing. She had been taught it was unseemly for women to carry or know how to use weapons, but, she had to remind herself she was in a new world now and they did things very strangely.
“Are you coming back down? Or am I to take Wulfnod into my arms?” In response the dog snored loudly. She smiled and laid back down, wrapped back up in his heat. Even Edmund had not dared to share her bed in their false marriage. Of course, she had to remind herself, it was her that had invited the pagan in although he had acted more chaste than her.
“When do you mean to march on Wessex?” She followed the strange pattern stitched into his tunic.
“After breaking our fast. I’ll have to leave soon to join the others. It’ll take several days to get there, should be enough time for the rider to reach the king’s hall in time.”
“Will I be left here?” She looked up to him and he meet her dark eyes.
“Its safest yes, we have to set off down the rivers to reach there. It’ll be easier for you here. I’ll keep your guards with you,” he squeezed her gently. She didn’t know what to do, was he expecting her to lay with him before he went off to battle? She tried to not blush at the thought. Her fears were cooled when he got up off the bed, Blaeja immediately noticed the heat left with him. He poured the rest of the wine from the night before into the two goblets and handed her one.
“What will happen to me if you die?” She asked, nursing the wine.
“I do not sure. You were under my protection from my men while we tried to bargain you to your father.”
“Father knew I was alive.” She gulped down the wine now.
“That was one of his men who came to you in the stables,” he shrugged. The man lied, she convinced herself. It was the only way she could face it.
“If I die you will no longer be protected,” he took a nervous gulp of wine. “Unless you marry me.”
“What?” She nearly choked on her wine.
“As my widow you would be entitled to revenue from my lands. Bjorn would uphold your protection whether you decided to stay here or go back with them.”
“I have nothing to offer you as a dowry. You already have Northumbria.”
“I’ll take your poor self then.” She didn’t know what to say. She opened her mouth but a horn blast interrupted them.
“Time for me to leave,” he signed and belted his seax back to his body. “I can have your answer when I return, I don’t intend to die yet,.” He winked and was gone to join his men. She fell back down on the bed, head in a tailspin. What respectable woman would marry a pagan? She asked herself but those strange feeling bubbled back inside her confusing her even more. She couldn’t care for him, it wasn’t possible.
She watched the river from the battlements every day. Her eyes searching it’s long, winding banks for any sign of a dragon headed ship. The hounds wouldn’t follow her up the small, shallow steps to the high vantage point so she spent most of her time in silence with her ever silent guards.
The days turned to weeks as the breeze turned warmer around her. On that day a thrall came running up the wooden stairs to her. He was red faced and clearly out of breathe and in his hand was a crumbled rolled scroll. He wheezed loudly as he struggled to get his breathe back. She unroll the letter, careful not to rip it. It only had one word, written in a very bad hand: Wessex. With Sigurd’s seal pushed in the wax at the corner.
They had took Wessex and he was alive, she felt her heart quicken at the thought. And prayed to god that Judith and her family had got out in time. The thrall was still wheezing before daring to speak.
“There’s a ship waiting to take you to Wessex, My Lady.” he bowed and scurried off. She quickly followed after him without much thought. The dogs joined her at the bottom of the steps, tongues lolling in anticipation. She felt a bubbled of excitement brew within her, even if it wasn’t under the best circumstances she was finally able to see the rest of the country. Even if it was only from the side of a ship.
True to his word the ship bobbed in the river waiting for her, looking ferocious with its carved head. She could only imagine what it would look like full to the brim with pagan warriors. Blaeja stumbled in nervously as the water splashed along the sides. Her guards weren’t affected in the slightest as they cambered in behind her. The hounds however refused to follow her. She even asked the thrall to have a chicken brought to try and entice them in, but still they wouldn’t budge.
“I will stay with them if you like?” Val offered. Blaeja noodled gratefully as the boat pushed off from the shore, leaving behind Val and her two companions.
The narrow, winding banks of the North soon turned to the wide expanse of the Southern rivers framed by long reeds that stood as tall as a man. Blaeja had to nibble on a bit of staling bread to keep her water sickness at bay. It was a very calming journey just her, the captain and Ingrid, her only guard alone floating along. They were even treated to the sweet sing song of the birds that made their home along the water. In the distance the grey smoke was a reminder of what destruction would await her in the capital of the glorious Wessex.
Dark had already fallen when they docked. Alvis was already waiting for her, with his usual welcoming smile on his face. He looked quite respectful, Blaeja thought looking at his combed back hair and the lack of blood on his face. In fact, she noted. There was no sounds of slaughter or of celebration. The normal clatter of men was all she could hear.
“I’ve been appointed to welcome you to this great city of Winchester, my lady?” Alvis joked and did a mock bow. Part of her thought she should be offended but played along anyway.
“My thank to you sir. Does your lord await within?” She curtsied.
“I will deliver you safety through the shit stained streets to them.” Them? She thought, she didn’t think she would have to face them all.
“Lead on, good sir,” her guard flanked her as they set through, trying to keep to the safety of the wooden boards. Through the darkness she could see the far off smoke of a burning building, sometimes the winds would blow the smell her way. It smelt the same as the fire that raged that first night. A tear rolled down her face but she was happy the night shielded it from her companions.
The palace wasn’t far from the docks. It was untouched by the destruction that followed the Northmen like a bad spirit. The castle was a part wood construction, just like the other all over England. The internal corridors were the impressive red brick of the old Romans. More parts of the original structure survived in Winchester than they had in Eofiric. Alvis lead her through the corridors to the Great Hall of the Southern Kings.
She noticed an empty cage hanging from the ceiling and she felt a sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach. All five of them watched her enter, Ivar was reclined on the King’s throne. His usual twisted grin on his face. He was taking great pleasure in craving holes into the chair that had stood there for a thousand years.
“Welcome Princess,” Ubbe called, he had rarely said a word to her but now he sat on one of the tables for once with a smile on his face. Sigurd hung back and she was glad of it. Around here the hall had been stripped of the Christian iconography, no doubt as some food for the sacrificial fire.
“Prince Aethelwulf has eluded us. I want you to tell us where he is hiding.” Ivar looked at her with those cat eyes of his.
“How would I know that?”
“I’m sure you and your sister exchanged words, or maybe you heard rumors of any palace the Wessex King would run too.” Blaeja thought hard for a few minutes, if they were alive she couldn’t send their assassins to them. She could sense all of them watching her, Ivar twirled his blade deeper into the wood. The wounds of her father’s death were still raw to her.
“He would have gone to the Ealdorman of Kent’s manor. It’s here,” she lied pointing to the formidable place on the map. It was impregnantable, or so said the gossip. Ivar’s smile grew larger with excitement, he ran his tongue over his teeth ready for the battle in front of him. Ivar would surely find his match in Ealdorman Cuthbert. Every noble and peasant feared the wrath of the deadly man that locked himself deep inside his thick walls.
The brothers turned from her and poured over the map, talking so fast in their native tongue she couldn’t understand them. She left the hall, with Ingrid not fall behind her. The expensive coloured glass above set streams of blues, green and reds down over her. A small part of her hoped Sigurd would come following after her. But behind her was just silence.
Walking down the corridors she found the small garden in the middle of a courtyard. Large trees blocked the spring moonlight. The breeze blew the pieces that had fallen from her braid, she did enjoy no longer having to wear a veil, it felt freeing. The large trees blossomed unaffected by the carnage that surrounded them. Some of the flowers had been trampled underfoot, their withered petals littered the soil. Blaeja busied herself with fixing the flowers, tidying the loose leaves and petals onto the soil. She pulled out the string holding together the cuffs of her sleeves to tie up a weak little sap to the bigger tree behind it. In truth she was just waiting on Sigurd making his arrival. She had use to him coming to her, it provided a strange routine for her.
She stayed in the small garden until the moon stood high and proud in the sky and the cold night air blew in. She wrapped her arms around her goose-pimping skin, despite the cold, the South was notably warmth than than North. She was grateful for the heat back inside, she looked down towards the Great Hall. She hesitated before walking towards it, the noise of her guard in tow. The two guards at the door made no movements as she approached except to raise their spear over the door.
“They are not to be disturbed,” one thundered. Blaeja looked between them and then at the door, as if she could peer through it.
“Tell them I’ve come,” she tried to speak loud enough so those inside would hear.
“Like I said, they are not to be disturbed.” She waited for a moment her eyes still on the wood of the door, after a moment she left defeated.
She found it hard to sleep that night, Avaris had brought her up to a nicely prepared room. She didn’t want to find out whose room it had been as she ran her fingers over the carved wood of the bedposts. It was certainly for someone of a high rank. The precious gems and tapestries had been stripped, whether it was the former occupations or the pagans she did not know.
The bed felt cold without her dogs to warm her, she slept in her day dress for some extra heat. She got very little sleep that night, everytime she woke up she looked to her door waiting for it to open, although it never did. She was surprised that he didn’t come to her as he usually did, even when she didn’t want him he still came to her, but now that she wanted him he ignored her.
Even into the next few days, the guards still stood in front of the Great Hall. Had they been in there all night? She thought to herself every morning she looked upon them. She returned back to the garden to collect any herbs that could be so savable, they might come in use later. She enjoyed being in here, the smell of the flowers hid the smell of the death outside the palace walls.
She wanted to make herself useful to Sigyn, even if she didn’t need any more herbs. Every night Blaeja would pull the pink flowers from her hair and scrub the soil from her hands. The nuns had taught her a long time, that just because she was a King’s daughter it did not save her from getting dirty with the other girls. The dirt didn’t bother her so much as made her feel comfort, like a sense of control. Every night as she walked back to her room, she would be able to look down the corridor at the Great Hall. Still they had not emerged from the room, but something inside her grew cold every time she past, something wasn’t right.
By midday on her third day inside the ancient walls, she was hungry and dirty. The seedlings were starting to stabilize themselves again against their bigger cousins. Blaeja took the peace to write one of her letters to her brother: Northumbria is undefended, come home now. She wrote the words over and over again as if she could will them through the air to him. A frantic set of footsteps on stone caught her attention, running past her in the corridors was the blurred shape of a young soldier.
She hastily shoved the pen, ink and paper into her apron pocket, making sure not to spill the ink. She followed him into the corridor, trying to walk quickly to catch up with him. The guards at the door hadn’t notice her and she hoped she could just slip in undetected. Her hopes were dashed when the spears came down in front of her.
Why was she being excluded so? She thought and paced. Ingrid just stood there looking her usual stern self against the wall. Something felt wrong and it had to be in connection to the raid on Kent. She paced over and over as if she could forge a new path in the stones. Eventually the doors opened to her. She entered, not giving the guards at the door a glance. Once inside she was met with five pairs of eyes, but not Sigurds’. She looked around the room in case he was hidden in a corner she had previously overlooked.
“Come closer Princess,” Bjorn ordered. “Our scot has reported that in the raid on Kent, Sigurd was captured.” She felt the panic raise in her, she looked to all of them and caught Ivar’s sickening grin. It should have been you, she thought.
Chapter 13: The Holdfast
The hulks of men in front of her had already turned away from her, eyes poured over the maps. They spoke so fast she couldn’t understand half of the words they spoke. She twisted a loose string on her apron over her finger until the top started to turn purple, finally, something came to her. “Take me to Kent’s castle. He would not refuse me shelter. Then I will release Sigurd without any need for bloodshed.”
They didn’t react at first, had they not heard her, she thought. One by one the matching blue eyes lifted to hers. They didn’t look convinced by her words, in fact, they all looked desperate for war.
“Why should we do it? We could just besiege the castle and get our brother back ourselves.” Bjorn said, raising a cup of wine to his lips, the hall was littered with many such discarded cups.
“The holdfast is impregnable.” she bravely took a step closer to them, as if they were wolves ready to devour her. She wished she had her hounds beside her now.
“You said that once before, we believed you then why should we believe you now,” Hvitserk shot her a deadly look as he spoke.
“I did not lie about that, Kent has never been captured. Cuthbert in times of unrest has been known to kill his own peasants and burn his crops so the enemy can not benefit from them.”
“How do you know this,” Ubbe scowled at her, arms crossed.
“Everyone knows this. Even in the nunnery words had a way of creeping in.” She ordered herself not to crumble in front of them. They all viewed her with suspicious eyes.
“What is your plan once inside?”
“My brother and I visited the holdfast after Judith’s wedding. He found a way out carved into the hillside, we used to play in those tunnels and no one ever knew. If I can get in. I can get Sigurd out those same tunnels without any bloodshed.”
“Why don’t you want us to attack Kent,” Ivar asked cooly.
“Sigurd will die and when you can’t get in you will lay waste to the surrounding area. More people do not need to die because of what I did.”
“You think you know us so well,” Ivar smiled.
“Am I wrong?”
“How do you suppose to get in?” Bjorn asked, his eyes alight.
“No doubt the news of my capture has become common knowledge. Any Ealdorman would take in me in for hope of the ransom.”
“We tried already.”
“You did and you failed, it doesn’t mean others won’t make the same mistake. My brother is in the Frankish court, Cuthbert has control over the southern ports. He could easily sell and ship me to my brother before anyone else would know.” She didn’t know how much of it was true herself, maybe Ecghbert wouldn’t even have taken her in.
“I say we just attack it anyway, slaughter everyone.” Ivar stabbed the throne again, the wood was scared beyond recognition by this point.
“What about Sigurd.” Ubbe challenged.
“The gods have clearly turned their backs on him.”
“Please. Let me try,” her voice sounded far too quiet to her own ears.
Bjorn signed loudly and shared a look with Ubbe. “We will try your way princess, Ubbe will bring men with you. You have 3 days in the castle. If you fail, we will attack and I can’t promise your safety. You will leave at first light.”
A storm slowed them down. Blaeja looked out at the rain from the spilt in her tent, they were still a day away from Kent. She would have continued through the night but the rain had come down too heavy that they had to pull over for the night. She pulled the furs closer around her little body to block out the cold. Her stomach twisted into a knot again, of course, she should have known he would go, of course, he would, fate had an inconvenient habit of taking twisting the plans of mortals. She bit down on her lip, she just didn’t think it would be him alone. The Sons of Ragnar seemed to come as one group like they were tied together by a cord not easily broken.
A few random raindrops splashed on her face. She hoped her plan would work, she still couldn’t believe she had the courage to carry it out. Through the spilt in her tent, she could see some of the men going about the day. A group crowded round the fire, roasting a small kill above a flame. She had found it so strange of a custom that Ubbe had to hunt and cook his own food. Father had loved to hunt, but he never had to cook the meat after. She watched the men with curiosity. One looked to be explaining something with wild hand gestures while the men around him laughed in response. Behind them a new group of men appeared, one’s she had only seen a few times before: surrounding Ivar. Of course, that wolf would send his own men on this trip, she thought. She couldn’t forget the glee on his face at her face’s execution. The smile he would no doubt wear when he sent her to the grave as well. She heard wet footprints approach, a shiver of ice ran through her at the noise, would one of these men decide to kill her before she even reached Kent?
She had her back to the tent opening as it pulled back. She felt like she had faced death so many times over the last couple of months she somethings wished it would hurry up and take her. She focused on the rain, while she clutched the crucifix between her fingertips. The person made large strides into her tent but she heard no noise of a weapon being drawn.
“Princess,” Ubbe coughed, Blaeja reacted just a little. She turned towards him, he looked confident in his rain stained clothes and his thick braid was dripping raindrops. “The storm looks to be passing, we leave at first light.”
“Thank you Ubbe.”
“I hope you succeed.”
“I do too.”
“Although I can’t help but wonder, if it was any of the rest of us would you be risking yourself like you are for my brother.” She opened her mouth but there were no words to say, apart from: of course not. She didn’t say it, it was a cruel thing to say, but she knew in herself that it was the truth. Whatever her feelings towards the youngest son of Ragnar, they didn’t extend to his family.
“I thought as much,” Ubbe said as calm as ever, but there was something behind that she couldn’t place. She turned back to the rain, she didn’t want to think of what came after. All she wanted to focus on what getting to the holdfast at Kent, what would happen if there was an after, was a problem for another day.
She didn’t get much sleep that night, every time she closed her eyes, she was back in the forest where her father and Ragnar meet their ends. She was walking barefoot on the cold ground. Even in her dreams, she could feel the wet mud beneath her feet, the cold that seemed to climb up her legs like icy fingers. Around her snakes slithered out from their enclosure. They coiled around her legs, around her arms, nibbling her exposed flesh as the crawled up her body. Hanging from the tree above her was the black crow again, hot, red blood running from its wounds.
She could feel all those imaginary cuts every time she awoke. She touched her arms, expecting them to be covered in blood and holes, but there was nothing there. Finally, the morning light awoke her from the few hours of sleep. She jumped from her bed to quickly get changed, she only had the one travelling dress with her that wasn’t looking the best at this point. It would have to do, she already had a plan in her head of how best to present herself. She messed her hair as best as she could, pulling braids this way and that to make it look as dishevelled as possible. Outside her tent, the men were already started to rouse, it had only come to her now that she didn’t know which tent was Ubbe’s. She pulled her fur-trimmed cloak tighter around her as she ventured out into the cool morning air.
No one paid her much heed as they pulled the tents down. Just up the hill a little she saw a much larger tent still standing. She guessed that would be as good of a place as any to start. The leaves crunched satisfyingly under her boots as she climbed the hill. Ubbe’s men stood to guard as she approached and she knew she was in the right place.
“Please tell Ubbe I have come to see him.” One of them bowed and disappeared into the folds. After a few moments, he came out again and lifted the tent open for her. Ubbe was already dressed when she entered, his weapons safely strapped to his hip. He stood with his hands on his hips waiting for her to speak.
“I’m meant to have been held hostage and the plan is I have escaped. Well, I was thinking you should injure me to make it believable.”
“Are you sure?” he cocked his eyebrow at her. Blaeja knew she sounded just like a madwoman.
“Yes, although as gentle as you can.” He was chewing on his fingernails in contemplation. Suddenly his bright eyes met her dark ones. He exhaled and lowered his hand.
“Fine, but you should rip your dress as well,” he had his seax in his hand. She looked down at her dress, she realised it was in the Northmen style and not her native dress. She removed her cloak and the apron portion of her dress, it still didn’t look like a dress she should be wearing but it would have to do. She took Ubbe’s seax and made holes along the hem and pulled. The stitching came away in her hands and some splits came to above her knees. When she was done with her dress she looked to him, knowing what was to come. The slap cracked the air around them and Blaeja could already feel the blood oozing from her split lip, salt and iron melting on her tongue.
“Another, not as hard this time.” The back of Ubbe’s hand hit her cheekbones in what she guessed was his attempt at a soft blow. She massaged her burning cheek and could feel her eye already begin to swell.
“I’ll not do anymore, grab your cloak. We need to be on our way.” She did as she was told, her face felt twice the size but it would hopefully move Cuthbert to mercy.
She had some bread on the road, she now wished she had eaten something to break her fast before asking for Ubbe’s help. However, not long on the road the holdfast finally came into view. They held back in the trees as to hold blow their cover. It certainly was easier said than done, how would you hide a hundred men in the trees would be a tough task to pull off. Ubbe slide from his horse and Blaeja followed suit. The wet mud squished under her boot and stained her dress further, she bent and picked up more to smudge into her dress and along her face, making sure to miss her wounds.
Ubbe grabbed her arm gently pulling her close to him. “Are you sure about this?”
“I’ll take your cloak then.” she nodded and untied it from her neck, the cold air attacked her as soon as it was gone. “It’s time.” With a breath she stumbled through the trees, her heart beating wilding. She tried her best to make her foot have a limp. The trees gave way to a grey, dead clearing and there in front of her was the great, grey holdfast, she could see something on the walls but was too far away to make them out. She tried to run faster on her limp, playing up the escaped princess act as best she could. The men atop the wall spotted her.
“Help!” she called to them. “Help me, please. Get your master I am Blaeja of Northumbria.” The men were running around, but the gates remained closed. Her belly turned to ice, would it not work. “Help,” she screamed again, feeling the eyes of a hundred Northmen on her back. The air around her was cold against her fresh wounds and exposed legs. Did she not look the part enough? was the act too noticeable? She stumbled to a stop in front of the gates, her pretend lame left foot was now sore. At last above her, the greyed Cuthbert appeared on the walls.
“Who is at my gates?”
“Blaeja, daughter of Aelle, King of Northumbria.”
“King Aelle is dead.”
“Then I have nowhere left to go, my Lord, please on the grace of God I beg you.” She couldn’t see his face, he was just a dark shadow high atop the walls. Finally the gate in front of her was pulled up to her. “Thank you my lord.” She bowed. It was only beginning now, the first bit of the plan was done, now the hardest began.
It was eerie quiet inside. The men along the wall watched her like hawkes, their gaunt faces looked not far from death. The servants stopped to look at her, their miserable eyes spoke of something they could never say aloud. It didn’t look much different from her memories, the wooden courtyard was much the same weather beaten wood of old. The red banners swayed threadbared in the air. Her eyes travelled the length of the worm infested wood, it was a far cry from the brick holdfasts of Eofiric and Winchester. She gasped. A half peeled corpse hung from the battlements, flies decorated the rooting skin. What was left of the lips were turned upwards in a sickening grin. The long dark braid blew in the wind like a standard. Black holes were the eyes would have been bore down at her. She fell back a few steps but knocked into one of Cuthbert’s men, his hands grabbed her arms roughly.
“Not need to fret yourself Princess, some Northmen thought they could attack my home.” Cuthbert descended towards her. His smile was very joyful and welcoming, despite the corpses that Blaeja now feared lined the outside of his walls. She thought of Ubbe and the men in the trees having to see their fallen friends treated in such a manner. He opened his arms to her, the red of his cape matched his banners as a reminder of the blood he was willing to spill. Truly he reminded her of Ivar, they were both so fair it hid the darkness inside. Cuthbert pried her from his men at arms as if she were a small girl. “This one refused to scream, he only did after we took his eyes.”
“Was that their leader?” she didn’t need to pretend, the fear she had was real.
“Oh no, he still in the dungeons. We have something planned for him. Oh child you are pale. Maud take the Lady inside, pitch her a bath and find her some fresh clothes.” Maud gave her a look as she took her hand into her papperly one and signalled to some younger women. She knew Sigurd was alive but she couldn’t stop looking at the smiling corpse atop the battlements.
“Not to worry dear, your rooms will be far from the dungeons. No Northmen will be able to harm you anymore.” the old woman tried to comfort her, but she couldn’t stop thinking of the horde she had brought with her to tear this place apart if she didn’t succeed. The room she had was fittingly not as grand as a princess might expect. Even her room at the nunnery had more luxury than this. There were no trapesties on the walls, they had at one time been painted but that had long since flaked away, leaving only white patches here and there on the wood and mortar walls. It had a bath and that was the main thing, but the bed looked comfortable even from here. Three days, she told herself, just three days it’s all I have.
“Now dear, the girls will be up soon with your water and clothes. You take a seat and I’ll get the fire going.” There was only a stool that looked ready to break or the uncomfortable bed to sit on. She chose the bed, it was hard beneath her, even through her dress she could still feel it and some of the straw poked at her through it. The old woman bend over the brazier, skillfully lighting in after a few sparks.True to her word the younger girls, barely older than Blaeja herself entered with the steaming pot for her bath while another had a folded pile in her hand.
The heat of the bath felt like heaven on her skin after the long days of travel. It seemed to find every knot in her muscles and soothe it instantly. She splashed a handful in her face and hissed when the water made contact with the swollen bit of flesh on her check and the bleeding lip. The girls stood awkwardly by as Blaeja rubbed the oils over her skin, very much use to having to do it herself. She stopped mid flow and noticed their questioning faces, the old woman was sitting on the stool close to the bath. She reached her arms out the them and laid back letting them scrub at her sore skin. She kept her annoyance to herself, but the girls were too rough and not getting the mud off as quick as she liked. The two girls were not ones for conversation, in fact they barely looked at her face, only the body part they were concentrating on. They both wore the same bruised look to their eyes and their cheekbones pointed out a bit too far, but now that that they looked identical and had the same facial potions as Cuthbert.
“It was terrible what you went through.” The old woman said, taking a brush to the mangle of hair. It hurt when she pulled on the remaining braids, it felt like she was going to pull her scalp off.
“Thank you,” she said trying to sound nice but really she just wanted the woman to stop her savage pulling.
“All those savages, you must have been passed around, poor dear” She pulled harder on her hair, ripping a tangle from her hair.
“Excuse me!” Blaeja jumped in the warm, to try and get away from this woman and her filthy gossip.
“Forgive me Milady. It’s just that’s what we’ve heard.” Her black, sharp eyes lowered its gaze down Blaeja’s body.
“That I was sold.” Blaeja crossed her arms around her chest to protect her dignity from the horrible woman in front of her.
“That you were captured by the Northmen and well...everyone knows what they are like.” The woman pretended to be embarrassed by Blaeja could see through her act.
“I was not raped or corrupted in anyway you hear.”
“Finish up I can’t keep Lord Cuthbert waiting.” She turned back to the woman who continued her attack on Blaeja’ hair. When it was brushed out she looped it around itself in a simple style worn by the Southern ladies. All the while Blaeja tied to keep the tears from fallen, she splashed her face again to hide them in the dripping water.
The room was now silent apart from the ripples of water. She wanted to stay in the bath but before too long all the heat was gone. The younger girls helped her into her new, rough dress while Maud tied the back a bit too tight. None of them even tried to make eye contact with her again, instead Blaeja turned her attention to the small window that showed the dying light outside, it was almost the end of the first day.
“You are done Milady,” Maud’s voice broke the silence. “If you’ll follow me.” Blaeja raised her hand to the diadem that held her veil atop her head, it was so strange to have her head covered again after so many months without. In a weird way she wanted more than anything the Northern braids she had grown so accustomed to. Blaeja followed the eldery woman down the dark smokey corridors of the holdfast, she felt a draft hit her as they turned the corner. Following it she saw a door far down an offshoot of the main corridor.
“No need to bother yourself with that Milady.”
“What’s behind there,”
“The dungeons.” Her belly jumped, she was so close. “Come along Milady, can’t keep Milord Cuthbert waiting.” There was a sparkle in her old eye, like she liked turning people’s words back on them. She looked at the door one last time, trying to remember the amount of steps from her room to the dungeons. They had to walk past the corpse again to get to the Great Hall. Blaeja kept her eyes low to try and not meet those soulless eyes again, I’m sorry, she wished she could say.
She didn’t try to meet eyes with any of the servants and guards they passed but she could feel their dark hungry eyes follow her as she went. What was wrong with me, she wondered, I now feel more at home among the Northmen than my own people. Even though the veil caused her scalp to itch, it provided a shield for her from the damp walls around her, and there in front of her was the large oak doors of the Great Hall of the Kentish kings. The Great Hall was a long squat affair, the ceiling felt far too low for comfort while large drop of water occasionally oozed from the walls. The thick, smelly smoke from the fire pit caused her eyes to water, it smelled just as the Odin fires had the night Eofiric was captured. In this thick fog, sat Cuthbert below his red bare banners. Mother had once sneered that it was because Cuthbert was so matter of fact and bloody, no animal or plant on God’s green earth could possible represent him. She said the devil himself was a better emblem. His smile was a twisted welcome, more suited on a predator than a person. While the rest of his face looked oddly calm and no wrinkles crinkled his old face, in her head she knew he was older than her father but now in front of him he looked like he could both an old man of fifty and a young man in the spring of his life.
“My Lady,” he raised from his seat at the high table, his red cloak looked like bat wings. He held the chair beside him out for her. When her bottom had barely hit the seat the servants arrived with the food. A streamy stick of meat, it looked like a cow to Blaeja, was carried in by two of the stronger servants, while the others brought forth thick smoked onions and smaller meats all soaked in some sauce she had never seen before, but the smell made her mouth water in anticipation.
After days of travel food, it felt so good to have real food that was cooked over a proper flame. She greedily ate down the food as soon as the servants placed the cut slice on her plate. She felt like she was being unlady but she was too hungry to care as she filled her belly. The servant carefully filled her cup of wine, looking scared to stand too close to her. Cuthbert laughed at her over his raised cup.
“You’ve learned something from the heathens.”
“Sorry My Lord, I find myself quite hungry.”
“You are safe now Princess, you can eat all you want.” He took a huge bite from the meat on his plate. “Tell me, how did you escape from Eofiric?”
“One of the ladies felt sorry for me and took me out to bathe. I was able to find a rock and hit her over the head and I followed the river down to a nearby village. I sold my wedding ring to get a horse and headed south. I headed to East Anglia back to my husband but I was attacked on the road. By this point I was in your kingdom and came to you for help. I can rely on your help my Lord?”
“Of course,” His smiled a smile smeared with sauce that dripped into his beard.
“This meat is delicious my Lord. Where did you get the cows? I didn’t see any gazing on my way.” She finished the last bit of food on her plate, feeling her belly full.
“I had a recent income of meat.” He laughed. Her smile died as she looked from him to the meat on her plate. She could feel her full belly turned and she thought she was going to be sick. She held her month as if it would soothe her stomach. Cuthbert eyes sparkled with laughed as he looked at her. “Have a good night princess.” She bolted from the room as fast as she could. The cold air outside felt good on her hot, sickly skin. She dropped to her knees, the corpse in the courtyard twirled on his rope, she was sick of seeing corpses suspended above her. She felt tears sting her eyes when Maud came to her, the old woman didn’t wait for Blaeja instead she hauled her to her feet. They walked in silence back to Blaeja’s bare room. The young girl focused on trying not to be sick, she only snapped out of it when she heard the door bolt shut behind.
She twisted on the spot and ran back towards the door. She pulled on it as hard as she could, pulled until her hand was raw. She punched the door, she won’t be allowed out at night, at least not out the door. She crossed the room to the small window, barely bigger than an arrow slit. It was a sheer drop down to the moat below. She would have to wait until tomorrow to put her plan in motion. Maud would have to be back by morning to get her, then she could get the key. She repeated it to herself over and over again when she went to bed, praying to God above for the strength to do it. Praying she wouldn't be sick. Maybe he was lying, she thought. He could of just been playing a sick joke. She tied to assume herself but was failing with every second. She turned her thoughts from the food, instead she thought about what she knew for certain. Sigurd was in the dungeons and she only had two days left to free him from this place.
Chapter 14: Wife
Maud did come the next morning. Blaeja was awoken by the noise of the key in the lock, the long clang in the oak door that grew her anticipation. It was a new day, she only had till tomorrow to free Sigurd or else Ubbe will torch this place, it almost didn’t seem as bad of a prospect now that she was here. The old woman entered with a pointed smile on her face, enjoying the distraction of a princess in her care no doubt.
“Milady, you’re hair has become unbound. That will not do, come, we have an important guest arriving today you must look your best.” There was a sparkle in her eye she didn’t trust. Blaeja didn’t need any encouragement to get out of bed, she was happy to be free from the hard mattress. At one point she guessed it was comfortable, made of soft feathers and rich straw that in the years had turned flat and dry. Sharp points, straw or feather she could not tell had awoken her throughout the night, a thousand picks to her bruised and tender skin. The pain in her face didn’t bother her anymore, but her bottom lip felt twice the normal size.
“Who is coming?” She asked, in between Maud’s assaults on her hair. She was expecting to be half-bald by the time the woman was done. Somethings she pulled too hard and Blaeja had to struggle against falling off the only, rickety stool in the room.
“You will find out soon enough.” When she was done she took no time in pulling her nightclothes from the younger girl and left her exposed to the cold room air for a few minutes. Blaeja covered her chest with her arms, trying to steal any heat for herself, the fire in the brazier had been reduced to a few hot, glowing coals and Maud made no effort to restock it. Finally, Maud pulled the rough grey dress on over her goosepimple skin. It wasn’t much but it would protect her from the cold.
“This was Milady’s room.” the old grey lady revealed as she pinned the veil to her sore head.
“I’m very sorry. I remember Lady Aelfgifu. She was a very...Kind and godly woman.”
“Not her.” Maud spat. “Milord’s third wife. Sweet and stupid, Eadburh. She put Milord is a mood one day and that was the end of it. She was maybe your age. Such as shame she was so skinny that one.” The old woman licked at her pale crusty lips, her thoughts turned to the hanging rotting corpse collecting more flies than the day before.
“Did you eat the rest of the prisoners?” She swallowed the wave of nausea.
“Just the good ones, some were too tough they wouldn’t cook. Oh don’t have that look child, this is war. We have to do with what we got.” There was some sense in what the old woman was saying, but she couldn’t see how such a person could willingly do such a sin against God and man. Maud led her to the smokey Great Hall again. Cuthbert was in his high seat as if he hadn’t moved since the night before. A woman sat in front of him, her back towards Blaeja. The small parts of clothes see could see poking from the chair was made from rich material and cut in a southern style while her head was covered with a plain white veil. Cuthbert looked up to her, his smile became wider as he stood to greet her.
“Princess, welcome.” Cuthbert held out his hand to her but she wasn’t paying him much attention. Her focus instead was on the woman who had now turned towards her. Judith. Blaeja found herself froze on the spot looking at her older sister that had left so long ago. She hadn’t changed in all those years, save for getting older and more beautiful. She looked so much like their mother it made Blaeja hurt to look at her, to know what became of her.
“Sister?” Judith’s sweet voice rang through her ears, a ray of light in the gloom of the hall. Judith came to her, tears brimming in her eyes. “Look at you. It’s been so long.” Blaeja found herself eloped in her sister’s warm arms. Arms she did not think she would ever feel again. Judith pulled back and cupped Blaeja’s face between her hands, gently brushing away tears she didn’t know were there. She allowed herself to be lead back to the high table, all the time staring at her older sister. The servants brought out the first meal to break their long fasts, luckily there was no meat on the plates.
“I can’t believe you are here,” Blaeja said nibbling on a bit of roasted onion.
“Nor can I, when I got word from Ealdorman Cuthbert I couldn’t believe you were here. When word reached us of Eofiric I feared you were dead, I was sure of it when Father died.”
“You know of Father?”
“An honourable death on the battlefield. There is no better way to go.” She didn’t know if Judith knew or if that was the story she had decided upon. The two were aware of the prying eyes of Cuthbert, like a bold rat sneaking from its hiding place.
“I thank you, My Lord, for reuniting me with my sister.”
“The pleasure is mine My Lady. It brings me joy to see you happy.”
“How are your children? I have heard some things but tell me more.” Judith’s eyes lit up on her question.
“Aethelred is growing to be a fine warrior. Alfred is a joy and a wonder. He is growing to be very smart and is a capable King. You should see him, his mind would amaze even the wisest of monks.” There was always a change of tone in their parents voice when Alfred was mentioned, the youngest son of her sister and Athelwulf of Wessex, Blaeja had always found it strange that they would show the little boy they had never met such disdain.
“He will make quite the monk one day.” The servants busied around them to clear their now empty plates, in truth Blaeja had forgotten about them, forgotten where she was and why she was here. All was forgotten but that fact her sister had come back for her. How many times had young Blaeja looked out her window, hoping to see her sister ride over the hills and come home again.
“No Alfred will be King, I'm sure of it.” Cuthbert sat closer, his chair squeaked under the new weight.
“But surely Aethelred will come first, he is the heir after all.” Around them, ever the servants seemed to slow in their duties, as if Judith was about to tell an epic tale.
“He may, but Alfred will be the greatest King this land has seen. I feel it.” There was a look in her eye, so like father’s when he condemned men to the pit. A look that was full of such self-assurance it sent shivers down Blaeja’s spine. She was very aware of Cuthbert’s presence, his black eyes watching his guest with a careful guard look. It wasn’t something Judith had seen, instead, she seemed a woman happy in her fantasy.
“I kept telling Aethelwulf we should take him on a royal process, Alfred is dying to hold council with the lords and commons alike. He is such a sweet boy, he wants to hear the plight of the local farmers, have you ever heard of such a thing?” In her hands, she twisted a piece of cloth, like an old blanket. “I have arranged for him to be educated at the Great monastery. I don’t want him to leave me, he can get awfully sick at times you see. But its the best for him.”
“Will Athelred be going too? It’d be so wonderful for them both.”
“Oh no,” she wrinkled her nose as if she had suddenly smelled a bad smell. Not hard in this castle of horrors. “ Athelred will stay with his father.” It was heartless the way she said it, flat and uncaring as if he was another woman’s son. Cuthbert gently set down his now empty cup of wine, Blaeja looked to him. His pupils were so big in the dim light the blackness even seemed to bleed into the white of his eyes.
“My Lord, do you have a garden within your walls?” she asked as Judith played with the rag in her hand.
“I have a small one, Godwin will show you there.” One of the dead faced guards approached her and helped her from her seat. Barely a year ago she would have thought the Northmen were the creatures of the devil himself, now she would give anything to have Avaris be the one with his hand outstretched towards her, luckily her friend was back in the safety of Winchester. Thinking of Avaris reminded her of Sigurd and that it was her fault he was here, she couldn’t let him suffer anymore while her sister blabbed on about her treasonous ideas in front of the cruel Lord of Kent.
The garden was small indeed. It was a small circle of brown, dead, grass and one tree without leaves. Names looked to be carved into the flaking bark, maybe lovers that at one point lived in a place like this, maybe back then it was a place that love wasn’t suffocated before it had a chance to grow. Godwin left them be, but she was sure somewhere in the shadow were eyes looking at them. Judith took a seat on the small cracked bench beneath the dead tree, the wind blew the veil from her face, showing a bit of her dark hair underneath pinned so tightly around her ear.
“Have you gone quite mad? Blaeja chided her elder sister, still obsessed with this piece of cloth. She didn’t look up from it, favouring it to her sister leaning against the tree.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“You talked so openly about Alfred in front of Cuthbert, you can not be seen him above Athelred. You know Cuthbert will use the information against you.”
“Phew, Cuthbert is Wessex’s vessel. He will support the King of Wessex.”
“Which you will ensure is Alfred.”
“Of course. I will listen to this no more. You are in no position to tell me what will be done with my sons or our kingdom. Now have you heard from your husband?”
“Husband?” She said falling down the tree. Judith didn’t move from the spot of the bench, and it was too small to support both of them, she would have to hover above the cold, dead ground below.
“King Edmund of East Anglia.”
“I have not seen him since the night he sold me to the Sons of Ragnar,” she shrugged. “I doubt that even makes him my husband. Why?”
“Would you like to return to him?”
“No.” She did not need to think about it, the words left her almost on instinct.
“Then you will stay with me and we can arrange a nunnery for you like you always wanted.” That, however, gave her pause. It was all she had ever wanted. Now, without even realising she did not want it. She found herself wanting something else entirely.
“I would like that. But I no longer want to be a nun.”
“Because of what the heathens did to you. Sister, God will forgive you, it wasn’t your fault after all.”
“I was not raped, why have such vicious rumours spread so?”
“Edmund said as such.”
“And you would send me back to him.”
“He said he would have you. Honesty sister with such a rumour over your head no other man would.”
“So I am to be known as a Northern whore whether it is true or no.”
“Finding a husband may be difficult for you, You’re in your seventeen year, perhaps being a nun would be best. .”
“For me or you?”
“Don’t be so difficult, I’m trying to think of your future.”
“You believe me though.” Judith pulled a face as if someone had asked her a difficult question only a learner man could possibly know. “You don’t!”
“Hush. I mean, I’ve seen them, I know some of their ways. I mean look what they did to your face.” she stroked Blaeja’s pale cheek but it did not have the warmth that she was looking for. “You were in their company for almost a year and they did not touch you. I am not that stupid.”
She turned from her back to the cloth, an ‘A’ embodied on the once pristine white cloth. Blaeja felt the painful fat tears pick at her eyes and she let them fall. Judith didn’t seem to notice, not even when her younger sister struggled for breath beside her, instead she just hummed to herself, lost in a world of her own imagination.
Blaeja didn’t have the strength to hold herself up anymore and allowed her body to finally make contact with the ground below. The weeds at the bottom of the tree greeted her with as much warmth as her elder sister, she pulled at them, rippling them free from the soil. Their brown petals felt waxy under her fingertips and when she broke them apart they left a brown oily liquid on her hand. She knew what it was. The tears stopped falling as she pulled more of the plants free from beneath her. Her hand made contact with a small rock, it wasn’t very sharp and was only a little bigger than her palm but it would have to do. She wished she still had her apron to hide her new items in, so she hid them as best as she could behind her back, careful not to break any of the petals before it was the right time.
“Sister, with your permission I’m tired and would like to lie down.”
“Of course, I will see you at dinner.” With a small bow she was off, as she guessed Maud was waiting for her around the corner. Blaeja was thankfully the veil was so long it covered her hands and the items behind her back from the old woman.
“Anything I can help with you Milady?”
“Can I have a pitcher of wine sent to my room please.”
“Of course Milady.” The old woman sent one of the girls on the task and as Blaeja guessed she would, the maid accompanied her to her room, the old woman liked to walk beside her, not caring for the rules, but she was glad of it. “The girl will be up as soon as possible Milady,” Maud said holding the door open for her, the key already in hand. Blaeja nodded thanks as she entered back into her cold room. Everything about this place was cold, despite spring being in bloom. Once the door was locked, Blaeja hide the ingredients under her bed cover, keeping the rock safety under her pillow as to not arouse suspicion. True to her word, the young girl entered with a pitcher of wine, if that’s what you could call the stuff in the pitcher. It was near black and had bits floating in it but it would have to do.
She had been left stuff to sow. So she sent herself to work to sow a small pouch. The cloth was tough and took a few tries to thread the needle through, but eventually, she got it finished. It was a small simple affair big enough to cover her forehead. She placed it on her bed under the covers beside the weeds. She looked to the sky trying to tell the time of day. The sun was closer to the horizon, soon she would be called for dinner. It was time.
She retrieved the weeds from the bed cover, some had already broken but she had enough to serve the purpose. She brought them to a small table provided for her wine and broke them into the wine, making sure every drop landing in the liquid. The brown swirled and disappeared into the darkness and the wine was as it was before. She covered the top with the cloth again. She gently lifted the stool and walked with it to the side of her bed, keenly aware that Maud waited outside her room. She placed the wine on the stool for ease of access when the time was right. Taking the little pouch from her bed she went to the brazier, the coals had almost died but they would have to do, she used the pouch like a glove and grabbed a coal and stored it in the pouch.
She climbed back into the uncomfortable bed and placed the warm pouch on her forehead. At first, it wasn’t too bad but soon she felt beads of sweat started to form under her clothes. She reached for the rock beneath her pillow and held it in her hand. She heard Maud at the lock, she removed the pouch from her forehead and hid it beneath the covers, and did her best to pretend to be sick.
“Milady, it's time to… Milady? Milady?” The old woman rushed to her and felt her burned forehead. “What had happened Milady.”
“Water,” Blaeja croaked.
“Of course Milady.” When she turned her head Blaeja seen her chance and brought the rock to meet with the old woman’s skull. Not to kill her, just to knock her out. When she was sure the woman was out cold, Blaeja took the key from her belt and the pitcher from the stool. She carefully placed it on the floor as she locked her bedroom door. Night had fallen on the castle but the candles in the corridor had still yet to be lit. She kept to the shadows, balancing the pitcher in her hands. She tied to remember each of the steps from the night before. 1,2,3, she counted under her breathe. Finally, she came across the door down to the dungeons. The passageway reminded her so much of the passageway behind the hatch inside the holdfast at Eofiric. It was cramped, cold and large drops of water hit her from above. A few oil lamps burned on the wall, casting long, frightening shadows.Her heartbeat quickened inside her chest with each step she took. In her head she was waiting for the door above her to be pulled open and Cuthbert to drag her back to her room, kicking and screaming. A man like Cuthbert was unlikely to take heed of a Northman army at his gates for a second time. Would Ubbe join the smiling, swinging corpse that decorated the courtyard? she thought. Would Sigurd and I join him until we’re were nothing but bones or would Cuthbert roast us like a prized boar?
The long descent down the steps came to an end. She was met with another long corridor cloaked in the dim light of rush candles. Further down she heard men talking and so she followed that. Her stomach was doing flips with every step as the near black wine swished in her tiny hands. The cells to her left were empty, though she still checked every one of them, hoping for an easier night that anticipated. Getting to Sigurd was one thing, freeing him and escaping this place was another. She could just about remember where the tunnels were and prayed to God they were still there.
The men’s rough voices grew louder and peppered with drunk laugher. The wine would prove most welcome when she came. They looked to her as she came into the light, eyes like their master, keen and bird like, watching every move her body dared to take.
“Who goes there?” One of them called, unsheathing his seax from the hilt on the table.
“Compliments from Queen Judith of Wessex.” He relaxed and grinned deveiliously at her, eyes shining from the empty pitcher of wine on the table. His partner seemed to be in a worse state.
“Well can’t refuse a queen now can we. Bring it here love.” She kept her eyes down as she placed it on the table. Both of their empty cups were lying on their sides, the drunker of the two’s had fallen to the ground below. She bent carefully and picked it up before filling both with the poisoned black wine. The men drank long, loud gulps and took a second cup, then a third. Blaeja was all too happy to oblige them. With each drink she could see their eyes grow heavy, their laughs died and was replaced with snores. They would be out till morn, but by then she hoped not to be here.
She spied the key on the first man’s belt, she carefully reached for it and pulled the rusty set of keys along the belt. Pieces of red flakes came away in her hands. She freed it from the drunk leader’s belt, he snored loudly in response. She hadn’t realised she was holding her breath until she allowed herself to let it go. Her breath came in short, sharp bursts, but there was no time to waste. She grasped the keys tightly in her hands, and turned towards the cells. They lined the long corridor, once used to house animals by the look of the compact spaces. The only bit of the castle that actually seemed to be cared for was the cells, the bars looked new and shined in the rush candle light.
She moved from one cell to another, peering into each other searching the shadows for any sign of movement. Each cell she looked in was empty and as silent as the grave. She could feel the panic bubble inside her, what if they’d moved him? What if Cuthbert had already killed him before she’d arrived. The thoughts grew louder in her head with each cell she passed until there was only one left. The last cell was a little down the hall, sandwiched in between two walls of thick, grey stone. The long rush candles beside the entrance cloaked it in shadows, she could feel her heart beating wildly now as she approached. The bars were icy cold beneath her touch, there in the darkness she could see the wisps of blonde hair reflected in the orange light.
“Sigurd,” she whispered, but he did not respond. She fiddled with the keys in clumsy hands until at last the cell down was open to her. Against the far wall, he sat on the floor staring at the ground. As she got closer, she noticed the blood still custed to his hair and forehead, blood she didn’t know was his or a foe. His weapons were gone and his shirt was more holes than cloth now. She knelt before him and took his face in her hands. Only then did his eyes meet hers.
“Blaeja, what are you doing here?” he looked awful, pale and skinny.
“It’s a long story but I’ll explain it on the way.” She wished she had the foresight to have asked for a loaf of bread from the kitchens as well as the wine. Although she didn’t know what condition the bread would be in after seeing the wine.
“Your face?” he gently touched the swollen lump on her cheek.
“I asked Ubbe to do it.” his eyes raised, looking at her in confusion. “I’ll explain that too, can you walk alright?” He was looking at her funny, but Blaeja guessed it was because she looked funny dressed such a different image from the Northern lady she had been when they were together.
“Yes.” The snake burned in his eye as they rose from the straw covered floor of the cell. Now all she had to do was remember how to get to the tunnels they were not far from here, somewhere along these corridors. His hands held onto hers, they felt cold and shock slightly from the lack of food, but his face looked brighter or maybe it was the change in light. She smiled up at him in the silence, a part of her was certain it was a dream and she would awake on the hard straw bed again. His hand cupped her face, the side that wasn’t swollen. Her chest fluttered under his touch, but they didn’t have the time.
“We have to go,” she croaked with a dry voice. He nodded but made no effort to move, at first. She stepped back from him and took his hand in hers as they walked from the cell, from his days of capture Sigurd had to limp more so than walk. The corridor was darker now, some of the candles had already blow out, sending up trails of smoke into the air. She tried, but she couldn’t stop herself stealing glances to Sigurd. If this had been a tale mothers told their infant children, it was the part where they would run away together from the two worlds they came from. She would get him to Ubbe, but she couldn’t go back with him. She couldn’t leave Judith, not now after the death of their parents, with Ecghbert in Frankia, she was the only family she had left.
The guards were still fast asleep in their chairs, their blades abandoned on the table. They made a beeline to get them, but someone else was in the corridor. Judith stood in front of the stairs, her face was pure disappointment and with a flick of her wrist the two huge guards beside her came for them. They reached for the weapons at the table, but they came at them too fast and they fell to the floor on the opposite side of the table, still not waking the guards. One of the bulky men ripped the keys from her hands, as if it caused him no effort at all. They grabbed Sigurd roughly by the shoulders, the once proud warrior was now too weak from lack of food to be able to fight against his new captors.
“Take him back to his cell.” Judith ordered, her eyes were cold in the orange light.
“No. Judith please,” her sister simply turned from her and walked backed up the corridor. Blaeja followed, panicking. “Judith please. There’s an army outside.” Her sister stopped and looked at her queerly.
“What are you talking about?”
“The Sons of Ragnar are outside with an army.” A little lie may get her to listen. “If I don’t deliver Sigurd to them, they will burn this holdfast down with us inside it. They will not spare any man, woman or child until their blood lust is quenched. Judith let me do this.”
“Cuthbert defeated them before he will do so again.”
“This army is much bigger than before. No one needs to know, let us go and Cuthbert doesn’t need to know, no know ever needs to know about this. I can deliver him to them and come back before the morrow.” There was a look to Judith’s face, the shadows twisted over her face but her eyes were bright with thought.
“You care about him.”
“You care about him, I can see it written plainly on your face. And he cares about you. Just look at him, he can’t stop staring at you. This is what this is really all about. The daring rescue, in truth I didn’t think you so brave.” Judith turned away from her and walked up the stairs. Blaeja looked back, he was staring at her. Like an animal in a cage the guard held him still as another secured his wrists with heavy iron manacles. She followed her sister up the stairs, her long dress proving to be a bit of a nuisance.
“Judith, help me.” She did not face her again, instead her sister just continued up the dark stairs.
“I will, but first there is to be a wedding.”
“A wedding?” The cold of the corridor blew around them, but Blaeja didn’t notice.
“And a baptism I suppose before.”
“Wait, what are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about your marriage to the son of Ragnar in our keeping.”
“Don’t be so shocked.”
“But why would you do such a thing.”
“You talk of a large army, he must command a number of men in that army. Now imagine what use they would do on our side.”
“You talk of madness. Those men would never fight for us.”
“They would, if their master was married to the good sister of the King of Wessex.” Judith ordered of a passing servant girl to gather the priest and ready a bath of water. This plan of hers was really happening. Blaeja didn’t know what to think, what to feel. Feelings she wouldn’t even admit to herself bubbled inside her like air escaping from water. But at the same time, the way her sister was acting scared her, the look in her eyes. The tone of her voice, she truly could not think this was a good idea.
“What will happen after?” Blaeja asked once they were inside her sister’s rooms. They were much more luxurious than her own. Though no tapestries hung on the walls, the paint was in a better state and the bed looked far more comfortable. She guessed this was once the Lady Aelfgifu’s rooms all those years ago. Judith ignored her for a minute, busying herself with pouring herself a cup of wine. She handed one to her sister, it was very different to the other one, more red than black and no bits floated on the top, but she dared not drink it all the same.
“You will both come with me, you will turn your new husband to our cause and then you will return and he will order his men to capture Winchester from the inside and give it to us. I want my son to have his home back, he should not have to live in exile like a prisoner.” she spat the last part with a venom stronger than any snake.
“And the army outside, they will not let us escape.”
“When will they attack.” Judith watched her from the high chair, she looked so much like the mother they had both lost. Blaeja sheepishly took at seat on the stool beside her sister, looking just as they had as children.
“Tomorrow night. Once the moon is at its highest they will attack and nothing can stop them apart from Sigurd’s return, I have their word.”
“You think that’s a word you can trust?”
“I have no reason to doubt Bjorn, he has shown kindness to me.”
“And this Sigurd?”
“What about him?”
“Has he showed you a certain kindness?” She didn’t like the tone in her sister's voice, she was determined not to let this go.
“No, but he has been kind to me in other ways. He made sure I was cared for and fed. I don’t want to see him harm is all.”
“Is that all, you don’t long to be with him.”
“Judith.” Her face was so hot she worried it would catch ablaze. A servant knocked at the door and entered upon Judith’s command, a pleased smile on the Queen’s full lips. The serving girl looked like all the others, almost identical to every other servant that walked these halls.
“The bath is ready and Father Bow has arrived, he is in the Great Hall with my Lord Cuthbert.” The servant said flatly.
“Good, you may leave.” she bowed and left. “Come now don’t look so sad, by tonight you will be a wedded woman.”
“To a man that doesn’t know it.”
“I’m sure he won’t mind.” she took Blaeja’s hand into hers. “We’ll have to get him cleaned up before the bedding ceremony,” she laughed like she had heard a good joke. Judith floated down the halls, each step radiated happiness. Blaeja on the other hand struggled to keep up with her sister, but the guards at her back stopped her from escaping down to the dungeons. She was far from unhappy, being married to Sigurd wasn’t the worst outcome in the world, but mingled with the joy was fear.
Ealdorman Cuthbert didn’t look happy or sad when they entered, his face was as calm and cool as a frozen river. The priest, on the other hand wore a look of utter distaste. He was a short man, balding around the ears save an island of hair on the top of his head, he reminded her of the monks save their hair was in the opposite style. Where Cuthbert’s face was smooth like a babes, his face seemed to have a wrinkle for each year of his life, especially around the eyes as a man that read much by candlelight.
“Most Gracious Lady, why do you summon us when the hour of bed is near at hand.” Cuthbert bowed before them. What time was it, Blaeja thought. It was almost time for the late meal when she left her room, and no more than an hour could have past, although she doubted neither men sleep much.
“My Lord, most welcomed blessed Father. Your prisoner has expressed a wish to become Christian. As is our holy commands we can not deny him that.” Cuthbert looked disappointed at the news. He will be more disappointed in a moment, she thought.
“No we can not. Very well have the preparations been made.” The priests voice was harsh, not like the priests of Eofiric. Since returning from the monastery, it had given her joy to hear them sing during the mass. She wished they could have sung at her wedding, but father had commanded the shortened version and now they were no longer here because of her soon to be second husband, how strange of a world she found herself in.
“They have indeed Father. Once more upon his baptism I will marry him to my sister.” She could feel their eyes on, the looks of disapproval she knew would be on their faces, but she looked at them anyway. Who cares for their disapprove, she thought to herself. I will marry a man I cared for whether the whole world liked it or not. Arguing was only going to show they down, they will get married and then they will escape.
“I do not have the stores to feet a suitable wedding feast.”
“I understand it is sudden. Do not trouble, I will not have you deplating your stores on our account. A normal meal to feed ourselves is all we need. Will your officiate the ceremony Father?” Blaeja spoke up, Judith narrowed her eyes at her, but looked proud all the same.
“If that is your wish child?”
“It is. It is my sister’s command and hopefully what God wishes. If I can play any part in converting the heathen I will.”
“I still don’t see why you would lower your sister with such a savage.”
“My Lord, you didn’t know? The prisoner is a son of Ragnar Lodbrok. The Scourge of Paris.” Judith said, a most regal of smiles on the lips. At last Cuthbert had an emotion. His thick eyebrows shot up and at last a lone wrinkle appeared alone his forehead.
“If I had known I would have sent him to you in chains, missing a few body parts.”
“I’m sorry to rob you of such an opportunity.” He gave Blaeja a harsh look at her comment. The act of the gracious host was running thin. The priest, on the other hand sucked on his cheek, clearly wanting to get the whole thing over.
“Shall we proceed. My Highest of Ladies where is the font prepared?”
“If you will follow me.” Judith lead them down to a room off the courtyard. The bath was much bigger than the one she had in her rooms. However the corpse still hung on its rope above them, looking down at them like a martyr on a cross. The priest blessed the cold water with his oils. The large heavy crucifix swung on his thin neck,at points coming cross to being submerged into the water. The servants around the courtyard had stopped their duties to watch, they didn’t know what was going on but it had to be something big to require the four of them. From behind them the guards pulled him along, the chains still clasped around his wrists. She wanted to go to him, but she knew she couldn’t, it would ruin things things if she did. Sigurd looked confused at the huge tub in front of him and then he saw the corpse, he spoke the prayer to the dead that Blaeja didn’t even know the meaning of.
“Come forth son of Ragnar, come to Christ.” The priest called from the side of the bath. At last he sensed their presence, she could see the fear painly on his face, it was the first time she had ever seen him afraid. Finally his eyes found hers.
“It’s okay,” she spoke in his language. The others looked at her as the strange words left her tongue. But she kept her eyes on him alone. The guards removed his chains and marched him to the bathtub, he looked from it to the old priest and then to her. She made to move but Judith grabbed her arm with a surprising strength. “You have to get in it, its okay they will not harm you. He will hold you under water for only a few seconds, no more. Don’t fight it.” He did as she said, his legs still wobbled like a newborn calf. The water covered him up to the waist.
“May these oils bless and help you find god's grace,” the priest spoke taking the oils on his thumb, Sigurd recoiled from his touch, the old priest almost fell head first into the tub with him but managed to steady himself. Sigurd moved back in the tub as best as he could to escape him but one of the guards held his head in place and the oils touched his forehead, lips and defined chest.
“May these water cleanse you of your sins and make you worthy to serve God.” The priest grabbed the back of the blonde’s head while the soldiers took a hold of his shoulder and they dunked him in the water. It crossed her mind then, how easy it would be for the priest to hold him under for a bit too long, it's probably been done more times in the past than it ought to. Before she could finish the thought, he broke through the water, blood, gore and grim slipping into the depths below. The priest was surprisingly gentle as he helped him from the bath and handed him a towel.
“He’s quite handsome without the blood,” Judith whispered down to her, her elbow gently knocked at her ribs.
“Come forth child, it is time.” The priest called. Blaeja felt like someone had released a jar of butterflies in her stomach. Judith came with her, holding her arm just like father had done a year ago. Although back then the ceremony took place in the warm halls of the holdfast at Bamburgh, now the cool spring air danced around them, apart from Cuthbert none of them had thought to bring cloaks with them.
“What’s going on?” he asked her in his language when she was in front of him. Judith reached out for his hand but he hid it behind his back.
“My sister desires us to wed.” she answered back in the tongue they shared, not wanting those gathered to hear what she was saying.
“Really?” the cocky smile of many a day appeared back on his lips.
“Is that what you want?” He allowed Judith his hand now and her sister joined them together.
“Yes,” the water still dripped down his face but it couldn’t hide his smile from her.
“May I proceed?” the priest asked.
“Please lead on Father.” She bowed her head, but no matter how hard she couldn’t stop her eyes looking to his, trying to find any repulsion there.
“Lord above bless these two that have came here today. Keep them in your grace that they may better serve you.” He draped his robes over their intertwined hands and them onninted them with his strong smelling oils. Their smiles mirrored each other and kiss he placed upon her lips was gentle. “Amen.” With that she was now a wife to a heathen.
Chapter 15: Flames
They were placed at the high table, squeezed in between Lord Cuthbert on Sigurd’s right and Judith on her left. The priest looked to almost falling asleep at his spot, his wrinkled head hung heavy and his eyes looked to be closed, but they instantly spun to life as the servants brought out the food. Steamy plates of meat were brought forth crammed with gravy covered onions and whole lettuces that had been smoked in the flames. Finally, the servants brought the large stack of meat, cruelly shaped into the shape of a boat but Blaeja now knew better. Sigurd strained forward in his seat, desperately waiting for the slow servants to place the food on the table, his wife grabbed his arm below the table.
“Don’t eat the meat,” she whispered.
“Why?” His pupils were wide with hunger.
“It’s not animal.” She could feel the veins in his arm grow taut like cords of rope ready to strange those responsibly. His face however he was able to keep calm but the snake in his eye glowed with pure anger. They both only ate the vegetables that tasted more like ash in Blaeja’s mouth than anything resembling food, but she still gulped down another heavy lump of lettuce. Sigurd hadn’t seemed to notice the bad taste, grateful for some food after the days with the tasteless crumbs the guards had given him in seldom moments. She noticed his empty plates and spoon some of her vegs onto his, he smiled at her, cheeks full of food like a red squirrel in autumn. But between the two of them, they left the meat to rot on their plates.
“Do you not eat meat, Son of Ragnar?” Cuthbert teased, his eyes lit over his goblet of wine, waiting on his former captive’s reaction.
“He has taken a vow against it My Lord, to better prepare his body to receive Christ.”
Cuthbert guffed at her answer and turned back to his food. No one else talked during the meal nor lifted their eyes from the clay plates in front of them. When they had all barely finished their last bites, Judith called for the bedding ceremony. Blaeja’s face was a colour closer to beetroot than a young girl at that moment. The servants pulled sharply on their chair, signalling for the married couple to get up. All was silent as they followed her sister from the Great Hall, it would cause too much of a scene to protest in front of the Lord and the priest who already seemed quite on edge.
The guards walked threateningly at their backs, blocking any exit until the pair were safely escorted to Judith’s chambers. The two identical maids made themselves look busy as they entered, straightening out the already well-made bed. Another stoking the warm fire. Judith was in too good of a mood to tell them off, instead, she immediately went to the small table and poured three large goblets of wine. She smiled as she pushed the heavy cups in their hands.
“You drink wine don’t you Son of Ragnar, unfortunately, I don’t have any spare blood of virgins for you,” Judith laughed. Sigurd laughed in confusion despite not understanding a word she said. Blaeja just looked around the room, trying to find a way out; the door could not be an option with those two large guards outside. The window was too high up, depending on what would meet them at the bottom it could be a death sentence. Her eyes searched the walls trying to see any cracks in the walls that could reveal a-
“Sister.” Judith’s voice snapped her out of her search and to her impatient face. “Are you bored already? Tut, you should not be so rude to your new husband.”
“Sorry I didn’t mean to be,” she said flatly drinking a gulp of the rich red wine. The sweet taste reminded her of home, in fact, if she wasn’t mistaken this was the same wine from Father’s own vaults. Judith swished past them to take her seat in her high seat, leaving the two to awkwardly stood beside the bed, eyes occasionally melting resulting in matching blushes. Blaeja had hoped her sister would have left them be, left them to plan their escape. But it was not to be.
“It’s time,” Judith ordered. The two maids approached the two of them, Sigurd stiffened up and reached for the weapons no longer at his hip. One of the girls took the half-full cup of wine from her hands while the other removed the diadem and veil from her head. The simple twist had fallen out from the day’s activities, only a small loop remained at the back of her head. She reached up and pulled out the ribbon, freeing her hair that curled around her shoulders. One of the maids pulled at the ties at her back, within seconds the rough cloth pooled at her feet, leaving her in just her chemise. Even though he didn’t understand the language, Sigurd understood the gesture and pulled his new shirt over his head.
The serving girls giggled at the strange patterns climbing up his battle-hardened arms. They soon ceased with a hard look from Judith. She was expecting them to leave but instead, Judith leaned back into her chair.
“Don’t just stand there,” she chided her under sister whose body felt like it could warm the room better than any candle. While her heart was beating wildly she worried if it was visible through her chemise. She took Sigurd’s man and lead him to sit on the bed. Thankfully this one was comfier than the one provided to her by Cuthbert.
“Is this a tradition among your people?” he asked, cupping her face and forcing her to look at him.
“No, just my sister’s.” The way he looked at her made her almost forget the other people in the room. He shifted closer to her, his hands were gentle on hers. He was stalling just as she was, but with every breath, she took the fire in her belly grew. She slowly placed her lips to his, as if too much pressure would shatter them into a million pieces. For a moment the world was poised on a knife-edge and then he pulled her closer to him, and the kiss became more urgent while the fire burned hotter inside her.
Crash. At first, they didn’t hear it, but the second crash was louder this time. The two broke apart and looked to the door. Blaeja looked to Judith, the words what was that scrawled on her face. Judith returned her look and with a huff raised from her high chair. The two girls followed their Queen from the room as they left the room, the bolt locked behind them with a loud bang. They looked at each other for a long moment, silent sparks of thoughts flown in their minds despite the distracting thoughts that had still not faded away. The crash came again, louder and now mixed with the screams of men further down in the courtyard.
“They’re early,” she whispered, terror peppered her tone.
“Who?” He jumped up from the bed and immediately turned to the window.
“Ubbe has come with a third of his army. He escorted me here from Winchester, I was meant to have three days to get you out of here. It was all Bjorn would allow me. I guess they couldn’t wait any longer.” The floor was cold beneath her bare feet as she searched for her boots and shoved them on, she pulled the rough grey dress back up her body. The ties were tricky and several times fell from her fingers.
“That doesn’t seem like something Ubbe would do. Do you need a hand?” he laughed as the dress fell down one shoulder. He left the mess he was making on the table and crossed to her, the stupid half-smirk dancing along his lips. Within seconds she was secured in the dress, though she chose not to think too hard on how little time that took.
“Especially is Bjorn gave him orders. Is it just Ubbe’s men out there?” he continued back to his quest for a weapon of some description. Still not bothering to put his shirt back on.
“I don’t believe so, I noticed a group of Ivar’s in the camp, maybe only ten no more.” Parchments flew to the floor as he pulled drawers free, following him Blaeja attacked the chest beside the bed. Combing through the never-ending river of cloth inside.
“What did they look like?” he said, turning the stool over and looking at the legs.
“No different to any of the rest of your people, but each had a mark above their left eye.” She pulled forth only cloth and jewels but noting that would protect them.
“Surprised he let them leave his side. Any luck in the chest?”
“No, it isn’t our custom for a woman to have weapons. I doubt Judith would even know what end to use if she had one.”
“I have a plan,” he motioned for her to come closer and whispered in her ear, he was so close his breath tickled her neck. She wasn’t sure if it would work but it was the best shot they had.
“Help! Someone help me! Help! Please!” she screamed at the door, Sigurd stood just beside the door with a chamber pot poised. “Help!” she shouted again and was rewarded with the clang of the bolt moving in its hinge. One clueless guard breathless pushed open the door, he looked at her confused but before he could do anything else the chamber pot cracked over his head. They paused, waiting on the other guard. He did not come. Sigurd defying pulled the polished iron seax free of its blinding. The guard was cold on the floor but still breathing.
The noises from the courtyard were louder now, they pierced the air like arrows through the night. Breaking through their small slice of silence, he held out a hand to her. She hesitated for a second, remembering the discarded shirt off the ground. She scooped it up handing him the cold material with a small smile on her thin lips. He chuckled and pulled it on, seax still in hand and finally, they emerged into the dark corridor beyond their room.
It was chaos. Down in the courtyard was a mess of soldiers in gambeson of different colours all stained in bright red spots. She moved closer to him in the shadows, hoping for any warmth he was willing to give her. The serving girls were running along the corridor in panic, the starved men in the courtyard were being quickly overcome by the northern invaders. Blaeja scanned the courtyard, she couldn’t see her sister anywhere in the mass of mounting bodies, nor any of her ladies. They scurried further down the corridor, the fighting had yet to spill onto the higher levels.
Movement took her eye as the bloodied body of the priest was hoisted above them in place of the Northman’s. The priest’s belly hung open for all to see as it dripped the last of its lifeblood down on friend and foe below. She tripped. It was only a small rock that had caused it but the rock was in front of the entrance to the dungeons. She pulled him towards the darkness that lead below, but he wouldn’t move.
“I have to get to Ubbe.” she hadn’t seen the second son of Ragnar among the fighting men. A clash came again and the heat of flames roared. The Northmen cried in victory as the flames licked at the ancient wood, rising in tunnels of large black smoke. Sigurd pulled her along with him as he ran into the courtyard. A lone English soldier jumped at them from the shadows but Sigurd opened his throat before he even had a chance to touch them. It happened so quick she didn’t have a chance to scream as the soldiers' dead eyes followed their departure.
Black raindrops of ash fell around them. The men were butchering the last of the castle. Still, she looked for her sister, looking for her dark eyes in the lifeless sea with flames in their eyes. Across the courtyard, she could see the servants of Ivar, faces stained with the blood of her countrymen. The largest made a beeline to them, standing over the bodies with an ease that didn’t seem to match his size. The Northern seax in his hand wept with each step.
“Give thanks to Odin you are unharmed my Budlungr. Your brothers were worried about you.” the large man smiled with a mouthful of red teeth.
“I’m glad of your concern.”
“Leif, gather the men and move out before this place falls down around us.” The large grumbled away as Ubbe embraced his younger brother. By now the timbers were starting to crackle and twist and the heat was starting to become unbearable. From the high balcony beside the body of the priest, Blaeja could have sworn she saw a man stare down at them, it wasn’t Cuthbert that much she knew for certain. Whoever they were they didn’t seem bothered by the flames eating away at the wood and bodies in its path. The made it safely back to the clearing as the ancient seat of the Southern kings crumbled to dust before their eyes. The men cheered and called prayers to their gods, Instead Blaeja prayed to her own god, praying desperately that Judith escaped the ruin she had brought with her.
Chapter 16: Water
A little short chapter today, sorry life has been so busy this last little while and I wanted to upload something for you. Hold you enjoy.
The lingering smell of smoke woke Blaeja from her slumber. For a brief moment, she had forgotten the events of the night before, but with each new breath, they burned at her like the flames had burned down the holdfast around her. Somewhere in the ash and charred wood, she prayed Judith’s body could not be found. It gnawed at her, she didn’t feel that Judith could be dead but she could only pray to God above that she escaped.
A movement from Sigurd beneath her drew her attention. He looked so peacefully in his sleep, she gently moved a dirty piece of flaxen hair from his face, still smudged with soot from the night before. They had been too tired to bathe, too tired to do anything over than sleep. Though she could still feel the heat in her lower belly that had been kindled within her before the attack. She covered her hot face with her hands and could feel the grime still stuck to her skin, soot and mud carved messy patterns into her veins. She slowly tiptoed from the bed and slipped on the little leather slippers she had received in the holdfast.
The camp was still asleep in the dim spring light. Only a few souls were keeping watch in the farthest corners. As quiet as she could she crept to the following river, the very noise of it lifted her mood. With a last glance to check all was clear she pulled the ties at the back of her itchy grey dress loose, she hooked it up on a nearby tree branch beside a towel with the shoes below. In just her chemise she stepped into the clear, relaxing waters. She stayed for a moment, allowing the water to flow around her sore feet. The leather slippers served well when walking around the flat wooden walkways inside, but among the uneven terrain of the woods, they were well equipped. She stepped further in, adjusting to the cold that snaked up her legs, leaving goosebumps in their wake. She pushed further in until the water lapped at her shoulders and hid her chest from view. Almost immediately the dirt and knots left her with each ebb and flow of the river. Small fish speeded past her legs uninterested in the intruder to their home.
When her body was clean, she allowed herself to dip below the surface, gently rubbing the grime from her face and scrubbed at her hair. When she emerged, she could hear a small splash just over the water in her ears, she thought nothing of it and rubbed the water from her eyes. She jumped at the feel of something at her waist, she turned as fast as she could against the pull of the water. Sigurd stood before her with not a stitch on him. She blushed so hotly she could not feel the chill of the river and covered her breasts with her arms, although a part of her told her it was too late for that.
“Do you want me to leave wife?” he smirked at the word, enjoying the feel of it on his tongue.
“No,” she said unsurely. He took a daring step towards her and she didn’t move away nor lower her hands from her chest.
“Are you sure?” The water glistened off the blue marking on his arm, droplets ran down his bare freckled chest, working their way lower at a snail's pace. Blaeja realized she was following them. Her eyes snapped up to his embarrassment covered her like a cloak while the fire inside her belly grew to an uncomfortable level. He chuckled as he closed the gap between them. Despite the ever cold water around them, it felt more like a hot spring between them. She shuddered as he ran his fingers up her back, at last, she lowered her arms, grabbing onto his to steady herself. He pushed a piece of wet hair from her face, spending raindrops down her face but he didn’t move his hand, instead cupped her face in it. It was a nice feeling, feeling his warmth on her skin, having him this close, even if it was so improper she simply didn’t care.
She certainly didn’t mind when he pulled her in for a kiss, sweet and gentle at first that turned needy. He kissed her jaw, her neck, the spot behind her ear that cause an expected noise from her lips. She covered them with her hand in shock, Sigurd looked to her concern curled around the snake eye. She giggled behind her hand, clear, welcoming and encouraging and so he kissed her again in the same spot of the opposite side. Despite neither of them had broken their fast yet, Sigurd was much happier where he was devouring the little moans his wife gave to his touch. One hand remained at her waist while the other pulled up the soaking piece of cloth that separated their bodies. It all felt so good to her, but there at first sounding far off in the distance but growing louder the camp started to wake around them.
“Not here,” she whispered into his ear, he nodded a frown pulling down the corner of his lips. She untangled herself from his long limbs and waded to the branch with the towel. She tried to move as quickly as she could from the water to the tree and wrap the towel around her, the chemise now fully see-through. She had hoped to sit on the dry bank and let the sun dry her, but alas Sigurd had ruined her plans. She dabbed herself dry and wrung the water from her hair, but they didn’t help cool the fire in her belly, especially with the knowledge that Sigurd was barely a few feet from her in nothing at all.
“I talked to Ubbe about having a joining ceremony when we arrive back at Winchester.”
“A what?” She pushed her still damp feet into the leather shoes and sat on the bank, hoping to quickly dry off.
“What we call a wedding,” he called from the water, dipping his head under the water to rinse the dirt until it shone gold again.
“Oh, but we already had on.”
“Yes but our way is much more fun.”
“Really?” she balanced the towel around her best as she could and pulled the dress up her body.
“Yes, feast-proper feasting and music and dancing. Our one last night was a dull affair.”
“I’ll agree with you there. You didn’t mind the baptism?”She roughly pulled at the ties until the dress held so what tight to her body.
“The what?” He emerged from the water, not caring as the water dripped down the contours of his body, still skinny in places from a lack of food, but it certainly hadn’t took his muscles from him.
“When the priest washed you in water.” Blaeja threw her towel at him and turned around him realising she was staring again.
“Oh, no not at all, in fact, it was quite nice after being in that cell for a few days.”
“But you don’t feel different?”
“No, why would I be.” he stood in front of her fully dressed again. Both of their clothes were still dirty but they would have to do for the time being.
“Father Athel washed your sins away, blessed you with the Holy Spirit. You don’t feel anything?”
“It’ll take a lot more than water and words to serve my tie to the gods of my homeland,” he shrugged, wet hair dripping into his shirt.
“So you’re not mad?” The smells of first meal wafted in the air, meals of different hunts all boiled in the big pot. They made their way towards it, the warming air slowly drying their hair for them.
“Why would I be?”
“I don’t know, I was worried you would be.”
“I’m not and certainly not with you.” They sat on a log of a fallen tree, fresh from the lack of decay and she tried not the think of the insects burying below them. “ Anyway, why did your sister marry us?”
“She thought you would bring your men to her side.” she pushed her stew around her bowl before taking a small bite.
“She wanted me to fight against my brothers,” he laughed “That would never happen.”
“I told her as such but she wouldn’t listen, this Judith wasn’t the one I grew up with.”
“I’m sure she got out, she wasn’t among the bodies.” she squeezed his hand and tried to master a small smile that was sadder than she wanted it to be.
“I hope so.”
“Oh,” he spoke through a mouthful of stew. “Why did Ubbe do that to your face?”
“I asked him to.”
“It's my fault you were captured. I knew what type of person Cuthbert was and the rumours of what he did. In truth, I was hoping it was Ivar and not you that went. Not that I want Ivar to die, I was just angry. About my father.” She talked so fast, it took him a minute to process.
“I’m sorry you had to see that, I didn’t want you too. Ivar however- Ivar never does what you expect of him.”