Finally, Spring has remembered us.
Though the morning was grey, in the afternoon the sun came out. Suddenly colour returned to the world, and with it warmth, so that finally I wearied of lying in bed and made my slow and careful way downstairs, whence I walked to the terrace. There are stone benches there that were (so my lady says) carved by the Romans before they left, and I now sit on one, turning my face up gratefully to the last flickering dazzle of the sunlight through the branches of the tree that grows in the middle of the square. It is an apple tree, and already the blossoms are thick along the boughs; somewhere in the wind-tossed upper part of it a thrush is singing, and his song becomes a part of the shining and the promise.
My recovery has been a long, slow process. My wound became infected, and I took the fever. But for the skill and care of the monks at Hanbury, whither I was carried when I became so ill that my life was despaired of, I would surely have died – just as my former master Lord Æthelred had intended I should. Nevertheless, under the care of their infirmarer I finally threw off the fever and – a rather longer process – my wound healed. It is still tender; an unwary movement warns me that the recovery is nowhere near complete. But my Lady ordered that as soon as I was fit to travel I was to be brought back here, to her manor of Saltwic, where she is surrounded by loyal followers. Despite its proximity, Hanbury sees many visitors and monks are notorious gossips; if Æthelred learned that I had survived despite his best efforts to deal me a lingering and painful end, he might well take steps to make a more thorough job of it.
In the meantime, I have been ordered to rest in order to regain my strength, and to refrain from worrying. This latter is the more difficult of the two. The peace of the early evening is deceptive, for even though the household have doubtless been ordered to keep from me anything that might cause me concern, I know that Mercia still lies under siege and that its fool of a lord still sees too little of the danger and too much of his own importance.
Fortunately for Mercia, my Lady was well schooled by her father the King in statecraft and strategy. Now aware of the danger from her own husband as well as from the marauding Danes, she keeps her person well guarded, but that does not prevent her from risking it in battle. Already she is gaining a reputation as a warrior, still further eclipsing that of her husband. Men talk of her courage, her foresight, her capacity to inspire. Already they say that she will take her place in history, that her name will be sung when the scops bring out their harps.
She is not here today. She has travelled to Wintanceaster, to take counsel with her brother Edward. Along the way she is to meet with Lord Uhtred, and I am glad of that, because if anyone can keep her safe it is the Saxon with the heart of a Dane.
It is not my province to feel jealous. She is the daughter of a king, the sister of a king, and the wife of the Lord of Mercia.
The scops sing that the heart goes where it will, and a man may not say it nay. It was not in me to give mine hastily, as I have seen other men do, but give it I have done, and it comes not back to me.
On my infrequent visits home, my father has told me I should marry. I may look high now that I am in the service of the royal family, and further enhance the standing of our family; I may even look higher than my brother did – his bride Merewina came of good family, but her dowry was not large. My Lady will see to it that I am well provided for. Her providence even in these dangerous times has seen her treasury slowly but steadily filling, unlike that of her husband whose profligacy would have shocked his father Ceolwulf to the bone, and I know that her generosity will see me furnished as though I had been her loyal follower all my life.
As though I deserved it.
I have not always been her well-wisher. It shames me when I recall how I listened to her husband’s plans to be rid of her, and said no word in better counsel. I made no remonstrance when he brought her with him to the attack on Lundene, and so exposed her to capture by the Northmen. Not that he would have listened to me – he was consumed by envy of his cousin Uhtred, and grudged every kind word that he and Æthelflaed had for one another. Nothing would suffice but that he brought her along even on campaign, the better to assure himself that she was kept firmly under control. But even so, I should at least have tried...
Annis her housekeeper has taken me in charge. She fancies herself a hand at strengthening broths, and having tasted them I have more fellow-feeling for our late King Alfred, who sat at board spooning the stuff into his mouth with the grimmest looks of endurance I have ever witnessed on a human face. Still, she has a kind heart, and here she is now, prompt to her time, bearing a supper of yet more broth that she bids me eat so that our Lady will find me in better form when she returns; and I do not wish to disappoint the Lady of Mercia in any fashion, and so I eat.
Fortunately for me, Annis is far better at baking bread than she is at preparing broths, and the hunk of new bread and yellow butter she has also charged me to eat tastes better by far than the pap that is supposed to do me so much good. Between determination and desperation I get the whole bowl emptied, and set it by confident that whatever good its contents were supposed to do me, will be done. Though I can but spare a wistful thought for a hot bowl of mutton stew, with apple and onion...
The day has been unseasonably warm, and the square is sheltered. I lean back against the wall, which still holds something of the heat of the sun’s rays. For all that the meal was not mutton stew, still I have a full belly, and I link my hands across it and only shift them a little to spare pressure on the site of my wound. I will bear the scar for the rest of my days, but Brother Infirmarer says it is the mercy of God that the blade went in where it did, for it missed some vital place that would have seen me dead before any help could reach me.
The broth and the warmth and the sense of shelter must have combined to overpower me. I blink into wakefulness suddenly, convinced I am not alone; and Æthelflaed is there, in front of me, with her baby daughter Ælfwynn in her arms.
Although she is smiling, I am mortified at being caught sleeping. I start to scramble to my feet, but the sudden movement wakes my wound, and my Lady sees the sudden twist of my expression and bids me stay where I am – an order I am thankful enough to obey.
“Was your brother King Edward well, My Lady?” I ask almost at random.
“He was. His confidence grows.” She sits down on the bench beside me, careless of this breach in protocol. Whether she knows it or no, this is one of the things that endears her to those who follow her; though she does not forget for a moment who she is and what she is, she knows by instinct how to deal with men and women of any estate. From where she acquired this I know not, for neither her father nor her mother had the trick of making themselves beloved; Alfred (though a good man and a great king) was stiff and awkward in his dealings with others, and Ælswith his wife was – and still is – too high in her own esteem to spare any for lesser beings.
The baby, too, is growing fast. Though I seldom see her, she seems healthy and strong. She is awake, and gurgles contentedly within the lambswool wrap, seemingly bemused by the gently waving boughs of the tree above us.
“You have a fine daughter, My Lady.”
Æthelflaed slants another smile at me. The colour in her cheeks is exactly that of the faint flush in the apple blossom petals above us. “She thrives, thank God. Her father would be proud.”
“I am sure he is.” Though I reply with the appropriate diplomacy, I have noticed her wording. Maybe she simply means that Lord Æthelred would be proud of his daughter if he saw her (which he does seldom), and maybe she does not.
She does not correct me, but drops a kiss onto Ælfwynn’s forehead.
I know little of babes, but it seems to me still that there is not the faintest resemblance to my lord in the small face. And I think again of his conviction that her ‘early birth’ was no such thing, and that she is in truth a Danish cuckoo in the royal nest of Mercia.
Surely, though, if my Lady had been ... forced ... during her captivity, she would have taken measures to be rid of its shameful fruit. For all that it is frowned on by Holy Church, every village has its Wise Woman. Who would have blamed her for that?
Instead, she protects the child like a she-wolf guarding her cub, steadfastly defying her husband’s anger and suspicion, and claiming him as the father. Now, as she sits rocking her, and the thread of a little song wanders out on the air like a fainter echo of the thrush’s earlier on (though the bird has flown away by now), it seems to me that I have never seen anything more fair. She is like the Blessed Virgin in the wall painting of the Nativity at Hanbury.
“Have you never longed for a wife and family, Lord Aldhelm?” she asks lightly.
“I suppose every man must do so, Lady,” I answer a little evasively. I have not forgotten – and I am sure she has not – that when I thought myself dying I confessed to her that she had captured my heart. Still, marriages are not made for love, though if those concerned in it treat one another with affection and respect, love can sometimes grow within it. Other men younger than I have already sired their heirs, as my father never tires of reminding me whenever I see him; and no family can neglect the opportunity to increase its wealth and influence and build alliances through marrying its sons and daughters to suitable partners.
“Then we must look about for a suitable bride for you.”
“I – pray you will not, my Lady.”
There is a small silence. Somewhere in the pale evening sky high overhead a buzzard mews, and I look up to see if I can catch sight of it, but the boughs of the apple tree spread too thickly.
“Though as always, I am grateful for your care for my welfare,” I add, when the silence has gone beyond comfortable. I would not have her think me otherwise, but by the grace of God I have years yet in which to think of a wife; and maybe by then things will be otherwise...
I feel the light touch of her hand on my arm, and I cannot help it: I turn to look at her. I am afraid to see pity in her face, but I see compassion and understanding.
“We cannot help where we love, my Lord. But there is much we can do and be in the world, even when God decides that the way we would have chosen for ourselves is closed.”
I know that she is trying to be kind, offering me hope where there is none. I also know that she is telling me something about herself, and that the sudden bridge of understanding between us is frailer than a chain of snowflakes, so frail that I hardly dare even to breathe upon it.
“When you were captured by the Northmen, all of Mercia and Wessex was in terror for you,” I say slowly, feeling my way through a maze of pit-traps. “Your name was spoken at every Mass, entreating God to preserve you safe among the heathen.”
If she glanced downwards at the child in her arms, then I would know. Instead she looks up towards the sky, where the first pale shadow of the moon gleams low over the stable block.
“They were right to be afraid.” Her voice is very low, but steady. “I was afraid for myself, and for what my captivity might mean for Wessex and my father’s dream.”
She does not speak of her husband. I was not among the party who travelled to Beamfleot to negotiate the ransom for her release, and Æthelred spoke so little of it on his return that I knew things had not gone well for him there; I could only be thankful that Lord Uhtred had had command of it, for if my lord had been other than a token presence he would doubtless have ruined all.
“But I have found that nothing in life is as we expect it to be,” she continues, still gazing at the moon. “I discovered that as there are barbarians in Mercia, so there are princes among the barbarians.”
It is as much as she will ever say. I know that. And if I dared I would touch her hand, just once, to say that I am sorry. But she is a princess and I am but the younger son of a thane, and there is no stepping across the gulf that separates us.
She gives me a sweet, sad smile, and I know that this is as close as we will ever be. Each of us must live with our regrets, and make the best of what remains – even if it is not what this would be, if the world were different.
“I am your bedesman, Lady,” I say suddenly, as she rises. “If I may be of service, lifelong, call me and I will come.”
She inclines her head, and without more words carries Ælfwynn inside.
And I am left to listen to the whisper of the wind in the apple tree boughs, and the smile of the moon.