Aldhelm lies back. His strength has carried him here, but no more, and the chill and weakness are growing on him. That as much as the warm, seeping wetness under his cold hand tells him that his case is desperate.
I should not have come here. I have placed her in danger.
But he does not know where else to go. In truth, he fears that the wound Æthelred has given him is a fatal one, and a part of his soul wishes beyond anything to see her for one more time before the Judgement. So he has made his slow, difficult way to her rooms and contrived to enter unseen; and here he lies, with no company save the soft flutter of the flames in the hearth and no thoughts but the dread of death with his last wish unfulfilled.
To keep it at bay as best he may, his thoughts wander, taking him back to the first occasion he had declared himself her liegeman. That, too, had been a cold winter night...
He had dismounted in the raw, early-winter dark, and pulled a blanket from his saddlebag to throw over his tired horse. He was unsure how long it would take him to work his way unseen into Saltwic, and they had both travelled since dawn over hard terrain, keeping away from the roads; the summer’s mud had given way to broken turf that thawed briefly during the thin sunshine of day only to harden again overnight. The roads themselves were rutted and treacherous, almost worse than the deer-tracks he mostly followed, but he kept away from them more to avoid notice than because of the difficulty of travel they presented.
Having been born in these parts he knew them well, and had been able to find his way without difficulty. He knew that the village was snuggled down in the fold of the land beyond the forest, and that the manor where the Lady Æthelflaed resided stood on a patch of open ground beside it.
The road – such as it was – led directly towards the village. It was late, and most folk would be inside their houses, but even so he had no wish to risk being seen by any chance wayfarer. So having left his mount secured in a copse and snug enough to wait for an hour or so without taking harm, he began to work his circuitous way around to come at the manor from the back, where the trees crowded closer than they should have been allowed to.
The forest was a good source of revenue for the manor and the village. It was coppiced, and the undergrowth was kept cleared so that pigs could rootle daylong among the mast. The bare boughs above let through the cold light of a waning moon, illuminating his way clearly enough, though he still trod slowly, more slowly than could be accounted for by a man unsure of his footing in the half-dark among the trees.
I have my orders.
He had a good living as Æthelred’s military adviser, troop commander and right-hand man. He knew there were plenty who envied him his place, though as the son of a thegn himself he was entitled to one of respect and responsibility; the younger of two sons, he had originally been intended for the service of Holy Church, but had known instinctively that his intelligence and above all his strategic mindset would have been utterly wasted behind the walls of a monastery. He had seized the opportunity to become one of Æthelred’s household instead and had risen rapidly to his present station, but of late it had weighed on him more and more heavily how unworthy the Lord of Mercia was of loyal service. Without vanity, he knew that he himself was more a master of statecraft than Æthelred would ever be; knew that without his sage advice over the past few years his master would have stepped into any one of the dozen quagmires awaiting the unwary and unwise who wield power, and more than likely lost his life in it.
To be sure, it was not so great a shock that Ceolwulf should have died when he did – the old thegn was of a great age and had borne many trials, and the journey to Wintanceaster had been one tax too many for his strength – but for Mercia it was beyond a tragedy that the Witan should have chosen Æthelred to succeed him.
In fairness, there were not many of Ceolwulf’s progeny left whole to choose among, for though he had sired quite a number of sons most of them had been fighters like their father; many had been killed, and others debarred from the succession by the injuries they had sustained. Æthelred, though prompt enough in obeying orders to lead men-at-arms into battle, had never shown himself eager to join them in the thickest actual fighting, and so remained whole of limb – apparently indifferent to the fact that his careful self-preservation did not make him much admired among his men. His father, preoccupied with advancing age, advancing infirmity and the relentlessly advancing Danes, had neither the time nor the wit to probe too closely into the reports of success, confining himself mostly to growled curses on the fact that his foppish heir-apparent seemed to care more for the set of his clothing than for the sharpness of his sword.
Æthelred, however, although not particularly intelligent, had a bully’s shrewd grasp of the realities of achieving power. With his father often bed-ridden of late, he had systematically bribed or intimidated the members of the Witan, so that he was automatically presented as a suitable suitor for Æthelflaed and his acceptance as Mercia’s lord on Ceolwulf’s death had been merely a formality.
At the thought of Æthelflaed, Aldhelm had stopped and rested his head against the cool trunk of a beech tree. It was with difficulty that he restrained himself from groaning aloud.
The hand of the daughter of Alfred of Wessex would have been a prize, even had the owner thereof been as bovine as a heifer with a wit to match. But the owner was not only a beauty in face and figure, she had been reared by her father to wield an intelligence that was as keen as his own. Anyone but a knave and a fool would have thanked God for an alliance that not only advanced the safety and security of both Mercia and Wessex but brought a princess who was as bright as she was beautiful to his bed.
Anyone but a knave and a fool...
Unheard prayers moved Aldhelm’s lips.
He had believed that the responsibility of lordship would work on Æthelred’s mind and the influence of his bride on his character. Working together, the two of them had the capability to become hugely powerful. True, his master was a rough and selfish lover with servant girls and slaves, but surely he would realise that a wife – a princess of Wessex – was of different metal. Surely he would understand that in the interests of marital harmony he would need to temper his approach, to cultivate gentleness and patience, and of course kindness, in order to win his bride’s affections. It was a marriage of political convenience, but that did not mean that it needs must be one of merely tolerance. Who could resist falling in love with Æthelflaed’s warm sweet smile?
But it had not happened. As a senior member of the household, Aldhelm naturally had his own servants. These, finding him a fair master if an exacting one, had become his eyes and ears about the place; information was valuable. At first he had been unable to believe that Æthelred had taken his beautiful new wife in dislike – surely this could be no more than garbled gossip, a misunderstanding of careless or hasty words half heard and only partly understood. But time and more reports confirmed it. On more than one occasion he had seen for himself that the Lady Æthelflaed had made some attempt to conceal bruises on her face or her arms, and there was no mistaking the glacial dislike and distrust with which she regarded her husband at those times when she was unable to keep her gaze from him altogether.
Worse still, unfettered power had gone further and further to Æthelred’s weak head. He was less and less receptive to counsel, however wise it might be, and each time his liegeman ventured to offer it, it was met with more and more hostility. Of late, it had seemed that more than mere resentment of inconvenient truths lay behind that hostility; he believed himself strong and wise enough to rule without any voice of caution whispering in his ear. Soon now it could well become literally dangerous to question his commands.
With a sigh that seemed fetched up from his lungs, Aldhelm had pushed off from the tree. The cold was gnawing through his boots, and he huddled closer into his thick woollen cloak. His riding gauntlets were lined with fur, but though his hands were warm enough it felt as though a lump of frozen snow sat inside his breast. Very far off, a wolf howled.
I have my orders.
‘Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft’. Holy Church was harsh on disobedience, preached the right of the mighty to give orders and have them obeyed. But what if the action ordered was itself a sin and, worse, a crime against hope for the country you loved?
What if the action was murder?
What if the murder was of a woman?
What if the woman was...?
He trudged onwards like a felon walking to execution, his head low, his mind churning.
I have my orders.
He had sworn fealty to Æthelred. Although capable of deviousness, and callousness when it was necessary, his word had value to him. Likewise, his station in life was good. He could look among the minor gentry when his time came to marry...
On that thought his mind had swerved away like a skittish horse, as it always did of late.
I have my orders.
Orders to sin. Orders to carry out the will of a spiteful lack-wit born to a power for which he was utterly unsuited, who knew himself daily eclipsed and outshone by the woman he had married.
The edge of the forest had come almost before he was ready for it. He found himself a little to the left of the place he had in mind, and skirted the open space between woods and wall carefully lest anyone be looking out. In these days of danger, certainly guards should be posted; Alfred’s daughter would be aware of the dangers posed by marauding bands of men answering to some lord or to none. Whether she would dream that her own lord husband presented the most immediate danger of all, he prayed she did not suspect. Would not, until it was too late.
The night was still. After listening and looking for what felt like hours, he had flitted across the open space, his heart in his mouth.
No alarm came.
The manor was fortified, but there had never been enough money to keep its external defences in good condition. The wall had been stout enough in the beginning, though not especially high – more of a deterrent than an impenetrable barrier – but here and there it was beginning to crumble. It offered little problem to a man who already knew it well enough, and was nimble enough even in the darkness to find and use the foot- and hand-holds.
He had let himself down onto the top of a packed wagon backed up against it, and from thence it was child’s play to slip to the ground among the shadows.
There was, indeed, a guard on duty before the manor-house door. Aldhelm had contemplated killing or stunning him, but could not be sure that he could do either and escape discovery; so he had retreated to the back of the house, where the servants’ quarters were, and sure enough had found a door unlocked. It had been the work of moments to slip inside and make his stealthy way to where the Lady of Mercia sat late about the task of governing her estates.
Until the moment when he crouched in the shadows, watching her, he had continued to believe that he had come to kill her. However reluctant he was, however it might have pained him, he was Æthelred’s sworn man; it was not his to choose what orders to obey or to disobey. Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.
It was her smile that did it. That enchanting smile he had seen all too rarely. The smile that opened his heart to her worth, her courage, her value to the world; and to the folly and waste of destroying all on the orders of a man without the wit to value any of it.
A deep throb of pain recalls Aldhelm to the present. His mouth is dry, but even if there was wine or ale to hand he knows that drink should not be given to a man with a belly wound. Still, it would have been good to have even a sip of water to ease his immediate thirst...
He shifts, trying vainly to find a position where the pain will be less. Already he feels colder, and forces his mind back among the memories.
In fairness, she could not be blamed for thinking her last hour had come when he pounced on her, wrapping his hand across her mouth so that she should not scream and raise the house. He had been shaking, desperate, appalled by the risk he was taking even while driven by the need to make her trust him.
At first, of course, she had not. He was, as she declared, her husband’s hound. Till this night, a faithful one, if increasingly a misprized and slighted one...
Her reactions to his revelation of her danger were instinctive, desperate. Almost as desperate as she, but to find some safe path for both of them as well as Mercia itself through the treachery that surrounded them, he had dared to argue with her.
Her husband would have bidden him to hold his tongue. Æthelflaed listened, and knew sense when she heard it, even from her husband’s hound. At the end, she had even thanked him – the man who had stolen into her house to kill her.
She had fled, and lived. And he had returned to Æthelred, who had raged for most of a day at the news that the fox had run for cover before his hound had arrived.
But afterwards ... afterwards, though the pretence must be kept up that she had no idea of the peril she had been in, still he was aware of her regard when they met. And aware of it as he was, he had made too poor a hand of keeping his own for her completely secret from his lord, who lost no opportunity of taunting him with it.
‘You are to make her like you, Aldhelm.’ The words play in his memory, the sweet, mocking smile behind them still sickening. ‘Hump her, if you like.’
He remembers that evening, the three of them together: Æthelflaed warily disdainful, Æthelred half drunk and wholly malicious, goading her on the subject of the child – the child who was supposedly his, but who had come into the world in so surprisingly short a time after her captivity among the barbarian Danes. He has wondered, more than once, if there was any truth in the slur; though he has had little experience with infants, certainly no resemblance to the supposed father can yet be discerned on the face of the babe Æthelflaed defends with such ferocity. Still, if the princess of Wessex had been raped during her captivity, surely she would have rejected the child rather than caring for it?
His own sparing mouthfuls of wine had made him a little reckless too, that night. ‘Well I was briefly thinking, Lord, that you too look like a Dane’...Æthelred had not relished the risky jest. Still, he had been sober enough to take advantage of his lord’s brief absence shortly afterwards to give his lady all the warning he dared, in case she might possibly have forgotten it: ‘He is more dangerous than you know.’
Almost from the day of the wedding he had been a house divided against itself. Now he had found himself in fellowship with the Lady of Mercia, with his lord’s despised wife. He had made her smile, and warmed himself for hours afterward with the memory of it.
‘I am beginning to believe you are a good man, Lord Aldhelm.’
‘Not quite, Lady.’
He shifts again, stifling a moan, while more crippling memories stalk among the shadows of his mind.
‘Do not fall under her spell. Bed her, yes, and give me the satisfaction of divorce, but do not dare–’
Love her, love her, love her, the sound of his own pulse in his ears pounds out the words he dares not utter, even to himself.
‘I want her dead.’
I had my orders.
‘Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.’ Will God be more merciful than Holy Church, if the reasons behind the rebellion were good?
‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ Holy Writ itself has said it, and so his doom has been ordained from the beginning.
But Æthelflaed... is she too doomed? He tried to protect her, as best his very little influence allowed; now he fears even that is to be taken from her, and he greatly fears Æthelred’s malice.
But even as he tries to fight off despair, he remembers that she will not be unprotected. Her cousin by marriage takes an interest in her wellbeing, and Uhtred of Bebbanburg sees her husband very clearly for what he is. Æthelred may be brave enough to raise his fist to his wife, but his courage melts like snow in the summer before a real warrior. Aldhelm can only pray that the dread of Uhtred’s anger will rein in the fool from inflicting more than bruises.
Æthelflaed ... go to Uhtred. Tell him you are in danger. He will protect you...
She does not know he is here. She will not come, at least not in time; though maybe she will guess who killed him, she will have no proof.
But even as he tries to stiffen himself for disappointment and death, the door opens, and there she is. As beautiful as the dawn. He berates himself for printing the look of horror on her face, but his need is desperate and he is friendless. And worse than that, her husband plots treachery, and she is needed now more than ever to be the Lady of Mercia.
He submits to her swift, practical care, as she presses a cloth against his still bleeding wound and tries to reassure him he will survive, but for the sake of the Mercia they both love he cannot detain her. Still, he cannot pass up the only opportunity he may ever have; while she is here, and while he still lives, he must give her the tribute of his love.
His confession startles her a little, his talk of dying frightens her; she is still very young. Still, she tells him he is not dying, and he would like to believe her. When she takes her leave of him and hurries from the room he lies back again, still pressing the cloth against his wound – it is warm with her warmth, and a little hope has stolen into his heart.
He may not live to see it, but the dawn will come.