we are a little different this year:
some contributions are exclusive stories, others are excerpts
from the authors' novels,
but all have our traditional format of...
Read the Story - Guess the Song
Here's a clue to the song title
An excerpt from To Be A Queen, the story of the life of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Daughter of Alfred the Great, she was sent to Mercia to be wed to the Lord Ethelred, a marriage which did not get off to the best of starts, he being older than her, and she having been in love with another (Lord Alhelm).
In this scene, Lord Ethelred has been away fighting, and his young wife (known as Teasel) has had to confront her enemy. Viking hostages have been sent into her care and she has had to face these invaders for the first time. Gradually she is learning what she needs to do to become accepted in her adoptive land, and she is also beginning to appreciate her husband and his fine qualities. Many misunderstandings must be corrected; can a moment’s peace be found, and cherished?
The fear had long since left. She could look out at an approaching army without feeling compelled to turn and run. Standing on the hall steps, waiting to welcome her lord, her husband, she had a moment now to consider what it meant to her. Not the leaping stomach that used to await Alhelm, but a comforting, soft relief that all were home and well and that there would be an end to loneliness and cold sheets. She hoped that she did not look as worry-worn as Alhelm’s wife, brought to Gloucester when the hordes came too close to her lands, but growing paler by the day since her arrival.
The Mercians rode into the yard, their vibrantly painted shields grubby, top-coated with browned blood and ready-to-crumble black mud. The banners flapped their tattered edges, one displaying the perfect outline of a boot print. Spears appeared twice their normal weight and even the horses walked with their heads low, barely picking their hooves up above the fallen leaves. Yet as the men filed into the enclosure and spotted their loved ones in the welcoming throng, they stood taller, smiles breaking across the mud-lined, sweat-streaked faces.
The ealdormen had thegns to attend to their horses and they walked to the steps where their ladies awaited them. Frith, blond hair hanging long and dirty, said nothing, but took his youngest child from Alyth’s arms, kissed the boy’s head and reached over the infant to kiss his wife, wrapping his free arm around her waist and leading her away. Alhelm had nothing more than a perfunctory, “My lady,” for his wife, before he began his enthusiastic retelling of the siege of Buttington, still at loyal pains to point out the brilliance of his lord’s manoeuvring. “We had begun to give up hope, but my lord Ethelred came to us, with stirring words…”
Ethelred stood in front of Teasel. He, like Frith, had nothing to say. He looked at her, his irises seeming to quiver as if he expected her to turn to look at Alhelm, but she could not take her gaze from his face, which looked so desperately fatigued. His cheekbones stood in sharp relief, above the hollows where once there had been well-fed flesh. He smiled at her, but his eyebrows did not shift down towards the rising mouth, so that his eyes hardly moved, remaining vacant and watery below heavily blinking lids. She put her arm out, and brushed a fall of hair from his brow, sweeping her hand down to stroke his earlobe. If it felt odd to him that she gave him the touch usually reserved for her beloved brother, he did not show surprise, and the movement felt natural to her. She took a step towards him. “Welcome home.”
She held her arm out to him and flicked a glance at the assembled noblemen. Wulf stood amongst his brethren, and all the old guard smiled benevolently, as if, in that one gesture, she had erased all their memories of her disloyal heart, and earned, at last, their approval.
Ethelred had yet to step into her embrace and he was looking down at her belly. She shook her head quickly and he nodded. Coming forward in response to her outstretched arm, he slid his hand around her waist and led her to her bower. His grip was gentle, and the warmth of his hand radiated through her woollen kirtle and warmed her still-chilled bones. She was used to his touch, neither welcoming nor rejecting it, at ease with the familiar. But today she felt the urge to respond to him, today she wanted to tell him how she beat the Viking woman at the gaming table, how she was happy and proud to fight, in whatever tiny way she could, in his name.
|Æthelflæd's Statue at Tamworth|
Standing beside her bed, she helped him to remove his sword and belt and knelt to pull his grimy boots off.
Childlike impatience willed him to notice, but she knew that a man would never see the detail in a room. So she pointed to the travelling-blanket, laid out neatly on top of the bed. “I have unpacked. My home is here with you. I had faith that you would win.”
His eyes registered surprise, his brows lifting for a second. He smiled.
Feeling stupid in his silence, she said, “You did? You won?”
He sat down on the bed and swung his legs round onto the covers. Leaning back, he put his hands behind his head. “Yes, we won. This time.”
She sat down beside him and dared to touch him, stroking his thigh. He did not move. Her cheeks warming, she said, “Do you not want to?”
“I am tired. You do not have to.”
The disappointed child, silenced once, now returned to have its little whine. He had not noticed the significance of her unpacked chest, was blind to her freshly combed hair, and had not noticed her scent, bought all those years ago in London and saved for special occasions. His first homecoming since their wedding and all her efforts to be a good wife had gone unnoticed. She had been wrong. He was as indifferent to her as he had been on their wedding night and now she felt a fool. “Have to? From duty, you mean? My lord, only duty would make me come to you now, for you have shown that you do not want me willing.” The devil-child within was in full, sulky attack. She stood up, came round to his side of the bed and folded her arms across her chest. “I wonder if you would even know who it was beneath you, so little do you look at me.”
He leaped up to stand before her and she flinched. He took hold of her wrist, forcing her arms away from her body. “Do you want it? Do you want me?”
Beneath the dirt, penetrating the layers of worry and weariness, his expression showed. She had seen the look enough times now to recognise it; whenever Alhelm was nearby, when Anarawd spoke to her. Now, she understood what it meant. “Yes,” she said, “I do.”
She flung her arms wide and he stepped nearer. Hugging him tight she reached up to kiss his neck. He pushed her back to arm’s length and took her hand, pulling her back towards the bed. But she resisted. Putting a hand to his face, she stroked his cheek and said, “But I would know. Do you want me? Always you seem unmoved by me, our time together.”
“I was waiting,” he said. He looked around the room. “And now I see that there are no shadows here.”
Puzzled but content, she shook her head and raised her face to his. He bent to kiss her, gently as always. But then he gripped her more tightly and the kiss became something deeper. He stepped his body against hers and they tumbled onto the bed. She raised her pelvis to his and wrapped one leg around his calf. He kissed her earlobe and said, “My God, how I have waited for this. For you to want this.”
Her stomach lurched and the sensation slid all the way down to the tops of her thighs. The child within was banished, neither to be seen nor heard.
~ ~ ~
He was lying with his arm under her neck, his hand dangling but just able to reach to stroke her arm. A trickle of sweat still held its line down his breastbone and she wriggled closer to him, blissful to be warm again. And what a way to be warm. She smiled at the memory and looked up at his face. He was staring at the ceiling. “Tell me now,” she said.
“The scop* has it all for you. You will hear it tonight.”
She propped herself up on her elbow. “You are weary; you must sleep.”
“I will sleep when I am done, for it will be the sleep of the dead.” He turned onto his side and looked into her eyes. “For now, I only want it to stop. For a little while, so I can believe it is all finished. With you lying here with me, I can believe that the world has gone and it is all over. But not if I sleep.”
She stroked his eyebrow smooth with her little finger. “I wish you had spoken to me before of your worries.”
He shrugged. “It was not the right time. I was mourning. You were young.”
She moved her hand to the other eyebrow. “And I was part of your worries; the Wessex woman who did not belong. A token of a friendship that none believed in.” Perhaps now, after his victory at Buttington, the doubters would believe. And if he would make use of her as a haven from the battlefield, from the reality of the heathen incursions, then she would do that for him and with pleasure, for she had need of him too. Then she remembered that she had the gift of a tale for him. She explained to him how she had beaten Gunnhildr at the tables. He laughed.
“Good girl. I must release them and send them back to Hasteinn. What?”
She had forgotten how a genuine laugh transformed his face. “Naught, my lord. I am a little, that is to say, I have a need, too.”
“Tell me, then.”
Lying on her back with her head resting on his chest, she told him of her fears and horrors when the hostages arrived. “At first, I was frightened. Then I was eaten up by feelings of wrath, that this woman could stand at my hearth as if she owned it. I heard her speak of our land as if she owned that too and I watched as she bewitched Brihtsige. It was as if she were all the ghosts that stalked me in dreams, the seed of all my hatred and fear and I knew I had to belittle her, somehow. That is when I hatched my plan to beat her. She taught me her way of playing Hefntafl and I won. It felt good.”
Her head wobbled as he chuckled. “So, what is your need?”
“To share the feeling. It was frightening; as if I walked along the edge of the world, all alone. I could stand it for so long, but then I had a need of warmth, a need to speak of what I had done.” For someone to put their hand on the small of my back and tell me that all will be well. As you did, today.
He pulled away from underneath her, sliding her so that she was fully on her back, and leaned over her. “Then give yourself to me, and I will shield you with my life.”
“I will. I have. I do.”
Song: Chasing Cars
by: Snow Patrol
To Be A Queen
One family, two kingdoms, one common enemy ...
This is the true story of Æthelflæd, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, daughter of Alfred the Great. She was the only female leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
Born into the royal house of Wessex at the height of the Viking wars, she is sent to her aunt in Mercia as a foster-child, only to return home when the Vikings overrun Mercia. In Wessex, she witnesses another Viking attack and this compounds her fear of the enemy.
She falls in love with a Mercian lord but is heartbroken to be given as bride to the ruler of Mercia to seal the alliance between the two Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
She must learn to subjugate her feelings for her first love, overcome her indifference to her husband and win the hearts of the Mercians who despise her as a foreigner and twice make an attempt on her life.
When her husband falls ill and is incapacitated, she has to learn to rule and lead an army in his stead. Eventually she must fight to save her adopted Mercia from the Vikings and, ultimately, her own brother.
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