Chapter One, Isle of Thorney, Lundenceaster, July 975
“You don’t really wish to be King, do you, Ned?”
“Just leave me be for once, eh?”
Edward pushed past his infuriating younger half-brother and did not turn back, not even when Aethelred called after him, goading him that his long deceased birth-mother: Aethelflaed, was a good-for-nothing slut who’d never held their recently dead father: Edgar’s love.
What did Aethelred know of love anyway?
Hissing behind his teeth, Edward almost sent manservants flying as he stormed through Thorney Island’s smoky mead-hall, Aethelred still on the dais and glaring after the elder boy. Feeling the spoilt brat’s eyes on him, Edward hastened his speed and soon emerged into the main courtyard, shielding his eyes from the sun that was a huge ball of golden wonder embedded in an endless stretch of milk-blue sky.
It was late July, and only a few weeks ago, he’d been wrested from his home in Exeter and all he’d ever known had turned topsy-turvy. His da: Edgar, had died suddenly, and he’d been forced here by his stepmother, Aelfthryth.
Squeezing away tears, knowing how both Aethelred and Aelfthryth would scoff and laugh if they saw him weeping, he arranged his face when spotting archbishop Dunstan of Contwaraburg astride a pony out of an eye corner. He’d vaguely heard his stepmother conversing with a staller yester eve: of how the man of God would be paying a visit in regards to the successor of Edgar, but had skulked away after she’d accused him of eavesdropping.
Now, though, he advanced towards the archbishop and the travel-stained party and waved away any grooms who’d begun to materialise from a higgledy-piggledy line of stables, flashed a smile to Dunstan who was one of the few loyal councillors at court.
The archbishop, garbed in an alb that had once been white, readily returned it, teeth appearing in a row of yellowish stumps behind thin lips “ah, tis the aetheling,” he said, observing the taffeta that lined a red silk tunic, sleeves that were edged with gold thread “shall I address you as ‘sire’ now, or is that conceited bitch of a Queen prowling about within?”
Edward only just refrained from bursting out laughing, instead felt heat creep over his face and swallowed “do you really think she’ll allow me to be consecrated as King of Englalond?”
It was a fear he’d often had when his da had still been alive, but he’d never expressed it aloud to a soul, especially not to the leading churchman in the realm. It seemed folly that a woman such as Aelfthryth could prevent him from wielding sceptre and sword, especially as the woman in Dunstan’s opinion had been in an adulterous relationship with Edgar as the man’s second wife: Wulfthyrth was still alive...
Swallowing again, it was an effort to keep his gaze on Dunstan who was now dismounting without any assistance, and when he made to help, the archbishop barked that he was not so elderly and holy that he could not swing from a saddle unaided, laughing “jesu, are you that uncertain of your royal blood, sire, and yes I’ll address you as sire as that what you’ll soon become. And for the nonce I’m as able-bodied as any in this yard,”
In stunned silence, all watched as the archbishop then strode towards the long hall that was Thorney Island, and Edward smirked at an image that suddenly flashed in his mind like a lightning staff. Dunstan was right, he did emulate royalty, did have the blood of the Saxon King Cerdic running through his veins. Why should he not be hallowed as King?
Suffering from a clear-cut realisation, the twelve year old soon-to-be King hurried after Dunstan, loudly calling over his shoulder that the grooms could now see to the archbishop’s saddle-sore party.
Aelfthryth was baking in a dress of light silk, wished with all her heart she could escape the mouldy Thorney that was built atop an eyot and surrounded by a melange of brambles and bracken. It was her least favourite residence, stank as it rose out of the Tyburn River, and she wrinkled her nose at the stench that was wafting in from gaping shutters within the audience chamber. Knowing it would be futile to close them as she’d soon feel like a burnt, griddle cake, she made a face and shifted in a high-backed chair that’d once flanked her late husband’s throne. Heart beginning to lurch at a distant memory, of pledging her troth to Edgar, she made the sign of the cross. What was she to do with her late love’s firstborn: Edward? He was on the cusp of manhood, would soon grow and wield more strength than her, and her beautiful boy Aethelred was only a child of nine summers. The Witangemot would not back a nine year old, especially when there was an older brother who was Edgar’s identikit...
Marshalling her myriad of thoughts, abruptly rising when the arched doors to the chamber burst wide-open, the Queen found herself staring at her nemesis and rudely dismissed those stallers who’d failed in warning her of Dunstan’s arrival. She had meant to keep him waiting in the hall, without the pleasures of ale and bread, and it had caused a lazy smile to play about her lips when imagining it yestereen.
Dunstan sunk into a bow so low that Aelfthryth was gifted the sight of his tonsure, and she croakily confirmed he could rise, loathing how the tension was already beginning to crackle. If Edgar were still here they’d be no such.
Despite knowing the reason for his sojourn, she then asked as to the tale behind it anyway, even faking a gasp when the archbishop rudely chastised her for having no affection for Edward the aetheling. Digging her nails into the chair arm, she widened her eyes so they were like two sapphire moons “how dare you, eminence? How dare you speak ill of me when I’ve been so kind so as to promise to house you, to feed you?”
“You had no choice in the matter, your Grace, for I would’ve come anyway as I serve the aetheling,”
“He is not yet ordained King, eminence,”
Fury rattled about her bones, coiled around her throat. The man deserved not the chain of office that was sat a thicket neck, the pallium from Pope Benedict in faraway Rome, was but a cruel spider hell-bent on ruining her life. She should’ve placed sentries at the palace’s palisade, barred the entrance-gate, that way he would not be standing afore her now causing even the manservants to gawp from their positions at the side-lines.
“Rest assured he will be hallowed as King, your Grace, and when he is, I’ll make it my mission to ensure you do not control him. You committed adultery with the late King, and in God’s eyes the Lady Wulfthyrth is still by law wed to him. Not even Gunnar of Northumbria can help you now,”
Dunstan had moved to the gaping shutters so now stood with his back to the fuming Queen, and the latter couldn’t help but envision a seax severing his head from his neck. She would administer the deed herself if necessary, and would hush it up by tossing the body into the black-foamed Thames so there’d be no hue and cry. A smile tripped over her face, and she replied cordially to the archbishop, thoroughly used to exercising her acting abilities within the Curia Regis “we all know, eminence, that my late husband bore no love for the woman. Why do you continue to spout nonsense? Is it to spite me, to cause distress to befall little Ned?”
She had not called Edward ‘little Ned’ for a while, and her grin broadened when Dunstan turned and visibly flinched. Of course the foolish old dolt would respond to such an affectionate, old nickname, he was sentimental, like all soft, men of later years.
“The aetheling is distressed?” Dunstan moved away from the sun’s rays that were spilling in, blotting a brow that was slicked with sweat “he didn’t seem so when I saw him just now, in fact…,” a smirk flitted about his face, in but a second moving towards the door and dragging a bemused Edward in by a skinny wrist.
A pang of horror rendered Aelfthryth breathless for a moment as she drank in the boy’s appearance, as she recognised the same glimmering liquid-gold hair that had graced Edgar’s head, the high colour that had so oft mottled Edgar’s cheekbones when excited. Jesu. If she squinted, he could be her Edgar.
“I had the pleasure of running into little Ned here as my party were admitted into the grounds, your Grace,” said Dunstan, watching her reaction carefully “he seemed anxious of course, as he is set to be consecrated, but is not distressed by the fact that your honour is in tatters,” trailing off silkily, he spread his hands then barked a laugh “he’s the spitting image of his father, don’t you think?”
Thankful for her acting talent, Aelfthryth recovered quickly and called forth for the archbishop of Contwaraburg and his weary riding party to be seated in the hall post-haste, only realising she was weeping and alone long after the door had closed.
Edward allowed himself to be steered towards the hall by Dunstan and tried to ignore how his tunic was sticking to his back. As it was candle-hot for July, the entirety of shutters had been thrown-open in the long-space, and an overriding smell of human sweat clung to both lime-washed walls and the servants who were milling about: erecting trestles for the visitors and shooing away rats with besoms.
“Jesu, lad, I’m getting too old for this,” Dunstan growled, straddling the bench that was just below the dais “I know your da didn’t name you as his legitimate heir, but you’re far more throne-worthy than that lick-spit of a boy: Aethelred,”
“Don’t let him hear you say that, eminence,” Edward muttered through the side of his mouth, glancing around to check the boy wasn’t in earshot “I caught him pulling the wings off a sparrow the other day, and one of the stallers reckons that Hilde’s puppies haven’t gone missing, reckons that Aethelred drowned them,”
Hilde, had been their late brother Edmund’s dog, and Edward had become attached to the bitch after Edmund’s death four summers ago – she even being allowed to accompany Edward everywhere as the royal court moved about the realm, joining the family in the royal wagon that rolled over Watling Street, over mud-tracks that in winter would turn to ice. She had sat on his lap, he in-betwixt the King and Aelfthryth, and he had silently cheered on the one occasion when the Queen had travelled behind in a different litter with Aethelred.
“You believe the staller?” Dunstan frowned, leaning forwards to help himself to ale and a loaf that had been placed afore him “that kind of temperament needs addressing. The Queen, she does not know of this?”
Edward shrugged, made to reply but was drowned out by the archbishop’s party trampling in, not looking as tired as when they’d drawn rein and immediately making a beeline for the row of benches. Knowing privacy for the moment had been evaded; Edward tapped his nose and murmured that they should speak further later “meet me in the courtyard before matins, eminence. Aethelred oft sneaks out and goes on night-walks about the palace. After today, he’s likely to take his frustrations out on something helpless,”
Chest wound tight, thoughts moving to the notion of a dead Hilde, Edward then crossed himself, Dunstan seeming to take the hint and doing likewise.
From his position behind one of the many screens in the hall, Aethelred watched Edward and Dunstan together; hating how the man of God slapped Edward’s back playfully, loathing how much his brother looked like their late da. In his childish mind, he was convinced that the elder boy was trying to replace Edgar; that once King, Edward would enjoy taking him and the Queen to task.
Moving aside for a staller to pass, he failed to notice a look of suspicion on the man’s face, only noting that it was an adult and likely not interested in a little boy of nine. Contemplating on sticking his foot out for the next person to pass, he decided against it when observing that Edward was leaving the hall alone, that Dunstan stared after the boy for a second before returning to the meal of bread and ale.
Was his brother going to check on Hilde; that the dog was still attempting to chase its tail in one of the outbuildings? Smirking, Aethelred turned, returned to the warren of passageways that connected Thorney Island’s numerous timber thatched buildings together. Puffing his chest out as he moved his skinny legs down the walkway leading to the Queen’s audience chamber, he wondered how she had received the archbishop. He was old enough to realise they were locked in an ongoing feud that involved his da’s second wife, but could not understand why. His mother had been hallowed alongside Edgar so surely that made her above Wulfthyrth?
Flushing with pleasure when the stallers on either side of the door bowed, he then knocked on the carved oak, pushing on it when the Queen confirmed entry.
“Forgive me, mother, but I had to see you…,” trailing off when picking out Aelfthryth’s red-rimmed eyes, how her cheeks were mottled red, Aethelred nervously approached the chair “you have been crying, mother?”
“Of course I have, foolish boy. That old spider is in the hall as we speak, plotting. He doesn’t want you to be King, and still seems to think that my marriage to your father does not count,” she rose from the chair and made for the ale-trestle, poured out a horn and downed it to the dregs “your father should’ve named you as his successor, that way we would not be in this mess,”
Remaining where he was, Aethelred watched his mother, how her hands shook as she poured out another measure, how her full-wimple quivered likewise. She was dressed in silk, an elegant fabric, and it suited her willowy body. When Edgar had been alive he had loved to see her in silk, often japing that she was too beautiful for him, and Aethelred had silently agreed. To Edgar’s golden sheaf of hair, Aelfthryth had hair as dark as night when it was not covered with the wimple, and it was only at night that she removed said bleached linen head covering.
“Well, son, what did you disturb me for?”
Her question threw him for a moment and he halted his thoughts, moved them back to what he’d witnessed in the hall “Ned and the archbishop were laughing and joking in the hall, mother, and I feared it was at our expense,”
“Of course it was,” Aelfthryth discarded the horn and returned to her throne-like chair, skirts outlining the length of lean legs as she strode “keep an eye on them, son. Do whatever it takes to cause mischief. I want the old spider gone by the morrow,”
“I’d do anything for you, mother,”
Flourishing a bow to the woman he loved with all his heart, Aethelred then bade her adieu, grinning at an image of Edward weeping over Hilde’s lifeless body.
Later that night, Edward found slumber difficult to come by, could not refrain from tossing and turning. All through the evening meal he had been uneasy, disliking how Aethelred every so often had burst into muffled giggles, and he had soon lost his appetite, the steaming aroma of roast herring and onion frumenty unable to cause his stomach to rumble, along with the apple flans and fritters that’d duly followed.
Now, sitting bolt upright on his mattress that was stuffed with straw, he squinted into the chamber he unfortunately had to share with Aethelred, was met with the dim glow of a quartered candle that highlighted the silhouette of his brother’s bed that sat across from his. It contained a lump, which signalled that Aethelred was still beneath the thin linen covering, and Edward sighed. Mayhap he had been too harsh on the boy, assumed the worst when it could not be proved. The boy was only nine after all, and even though Aethelred had not been close with Edgar, he likely missed the man and this was his way of grieving.
Settling back down, remembering his promise to Dunstan – to meet before matins, Edward focused on the lone candle in the room. It had been lit after compline, which meant it was still far off from matins. If he could not sleep, what should he do to keep himself busy? About to contemplate seeking out the archbishop, to see the man now, he jerked at a sudden movement from Aethelred’s pallet. Narrowing his eyes, he watched Aethelred sit up, swing twig-like legs from the bed, and discard a nightshirt. Glancing towards Edward, the boy then crossed the rushes to the clothing peg and dressed himself, Edward all the while wondering if he should stop the boy now, or just follow him. Deciding on the latter, he waited as still as death as Aethelred again glanced over, and closed his eyes as the boy passed his bed in order to slide the lintel across. At the click of the door, Edward more or less vaulted from his bed, sought out a robe and boots in an instant, and was on Aethelred’s heels.
Glad of the soft rushes, he followed the boy through dim sconce light, mindful to stop in the shadows whenever Aethelred looked back, and cursed the child when he realised they were heading for the kitchens. Hilde often bedded down in there, liking how scullions and the cook: Ulf, made a fuss of her and fed her scraps, and he felt his breath catch. Was Aethelred really intent on killing the dog? Did the little boy really have so much hatred in him?
Feeling sorry for his brother, the poor boy likely doing this at Aelfthryth’s bidding, Edward called out and was by Aethelred’s side in five strides “a night-walk, Aeth? You should’ve said, I could’ve joined you,”
“I want to be alone, Ned,”
“That’s funny, usually it’s me telling you to begone,” Edward chuckled, making to drape an arm around Aethelred’s shoulder “what was the joke at supper, eh? Were you planning to prank his eminence, archbishop Dunstan?”
“I told you, leave me alone!” Shrugging off Edward, Aethelred sped off, bypassing the screened hall where the servants were all abed, and Edward groaned. Peering into the burnt-orange glow ahead, he made again to follow the boy, reaching the smoky kitchens to view Aethelred standing over the curled-up mastiff by a cauldron suspended with chains.
“Please, Aeth. She was Edmund’s dog; he wouldn’t want you to do this,”
Inside he was shaking, any love for his brother being replaced whippet-quick by hatred. Advancing beneath the door arch and into the room, Edward tried again at diplomacy “please, Aeth. What do you hope to achieve from this? Did the Queen put you up to it?”
“Leave mother out of it,” Aethelred snarled, producing a child-like knife from a belt and pointing it at Hilde who had just yawned, sharp teeth flashing white “I am the legitimate heir of Wessex, not you. Your mother was nothing,”
The words stung and Edward flinched, swallowing and counting to ten. He had been taught the trick by his tutor: bishop Sideman of Devonshire, after he had lost his temper whilst learning the Latin tongue, and he often had to do this when in his brother’s company. He would not allow Aethelred’s goading to push him over the edge, not now, not when he was to be ordained King soon. He’d get his revenge once he was King and only then “fine, kill her then,” he sneered “but you do know this would greatly upset the Queen. She was Edmund’s birth-mother too, remember? Hilde is all she has to remember him by,”
Aethelred appeared to hesitate, bright blue eyes widening, weak jaw trembling “she would be upset?”
“Of course, Aeth. And you don’t want to have your penance set by the archbishop. He’d order you to be whipped,” marvelling at his quick-thinking, Edward forced his lips not to twitch, held his hand out for the little boy to take “come on, Aeth. We both really will be whipped if we’re caught down here,”
“I don’t like seeing mother cry,” Aethelred sheathed the knife, slipping a small hand into Edward’s “I didn’t mean what I said about your birth-mother, Ned, father must’ve loved her at some point,”
Wondering what the little boy meant about not liking to see the Queen cry, Edward didn’t voice his thoughts and instead squeezed the hot palm in his, glad they’d made their peace for the moment.